B ERNARD RANG THE DOORBELL at ten o’clock sharp. He wore faded blue shorts and a T-shirt several sizes too small; in his hands was a bald orange basketball, held out like an offering.
“Ready?” he asked.
“Almost. Give me a second to put on my shoes.”
He followed me into the apartment and stepped over to the desk where I had been working. “You’ve been reading again, Barry,” he said, shaking his head. “Your woman will get bored with you, always spending time with books.”
I sat down to tie my sneakers. “I’ve been told.”
He tossed the ball into the air. “Me, I’m not so interested in books. I’m a man of action. Like Rambo.”
I smiled. “Okay, Rambo,” I said, standing up and opening the door. “Let’s see how you do running down to the courts.”
Bernard looked at me doubtfully. “The courts are far away. Where’s the car?”
“Auma took it to work.” I went out onto the veranda and started stretching. “Anyway, she told me it’s just a mile. Good for warming up those young legs of yours.”
He followed me halfheartedly through a few stretching exercises before we started up the graveled driveway onto the main road. It was a perfect day, the sun cut with a steady breeze, the road empty except for a distant woman, walking with a basket of kindling on top of her head. After less than a quarter of a mile, Bernard stopped dead in his tracks, beads of sweat forming on his high, smooth forehead.
“I’m warmed up, Barry,” he said, gulping for air. “I think now we should walk.”
The University of Nairobi campus took up a couple of acres near the center of town. The courts were above the athletic field on a slight rise, their pebbled asphalt cracked with weeds. I watched Bernard as we took turns shooting, and thought about what a generous and easy companion he’d been these last few days, taking it upon himself to guide me through the city while Auma was busy grading exams. He would clutch my hand protectively as we made our way through the crowded streets, infinitely patient whenever I stopped to look at a building or read a sign that he passed by every day, amused by my odd ways but with none of the elaborate gestures of boredom or resistance that I would have shown at his age.
That sweetness, the lack of guile, made him seem much younger than his seventeen years. But he was seventeen, I reminded myself, an age where a little more independence, a sharper edge to his character, wouldn’t be such a bad thing. I realized that he had time for me partly because he had nothing better to do. He was patient because he had no particular place he wanted to go. I needed to talk to him about that, as I’d promised Auma I would-a man-to-man talk….
“You have seen Magic Johnson play?” Bernard asked me now, gathering himself for a shot. The ball went through the netless rim, and I passed the ball back out to him.
“Just on TV.”
Bernard nodded. “Everybody has a car in America. And a telephone.” They were more statements than questions.
“Most people. Not everybody.”
He shot again and the ball clanged noisily off the rim. “I think it is better there,” he said. “Maybe I will come to America. I can help you with your business.”
“I don’t have a business right now. Maybe after I finish law school-”
“It must be easy to find work.”
“Not for everybody. Actually, lots of people have a tough time in the States. Black people especially.” He held the ball. “Not as bad as here.”
We looked at each other, and I tried to picture the basketball courts back in the States. The sound of gunshots nearby, a guy peddling nickel hits in the stairwell-that was one picture. The laughter of boys playing in their suburban backyard, their mother calling them in for lunch. That was true, too. The two pictures collided, leaving me tongue-tied. Satisfied with my silence, Bernard returned to his dribbling.
When the sun became too strong, we walked to an ice-cream parlor a few blocks from the university. Bernard ordered a chocolate sundae and began eating methodically, measuring out the ice cream half a teaspoon at a time. I lit a cigarette and leaned back in my chair.
“Auma tells me that you’re thinking about trade school,” I said.
He nodded, his expression noncommittal.
“What kind of courses are you interested in?”
“I don’t know.” He dipped his spoon in his sundae and thought for a moment. “Maybe auto mechanics.
Yes…I think auto mechanics is good.”
“Have you tried to get into some sort of program?”
“No. Not really.” He stopped to take another bite. “You must pay fees.” “How old are you now, Bernard?” “Seventeen,” he said cautiously.
“Seventeen.” I nodded, blowing smoke at the ceiling. “You know what that means, don’t you? It means you’re almost a man. Somebody with responsibilities. To your family. To yourself. What I’m trying to say is, it’s time you decided on something that interested you. Could be auto mechanics. Could be something else. But whatever it is, you’re gonna have to set some goals and follow through. Auma and I can help you with school fees, but we can’t live your life for you. You’ve got to put in some effort. You understand?” Bernard nodded. “I understand.”
We both sat in silence for a while, watching Bernard’s spoon twirl through the now-liquid mess. I began to imagine how hollow my words must be sounding to this brother of mine, whose only fault was having been born on the wrong side of our father’s cloven world. He didn’t resent me for this, it seemed. Not yet. Only he must have been wondering why I was pretending that my rules somehow applied to him. All he wanted was a few tokens of our relationship-Bob Marley cassettes, maybe my basketball shoes once I was gone. So little to ask for, and yet anything else that I offered-advice, scoldings, my ambitions for him-would seem even less.
I stamped out my cigarette and suggested we get going. As we stepped into the street, Bernard draped his arm over my shoulder.
“It’s good to have a big brother around,” he said before waving good-bye and vanishing into the crowd.
What is a family? Is it just a genetic chain, parents and offspring, people like me? Or is it a social construct, an economic unit, optimal for child rearing and divisions of labor? Or is it something else entirely: a store of shared memories, say? An ambit of love? A reach across the void?
I could list various possibilities. But I’d never arrived at a definite answer, aware early on that, given my circumstances, such an effort was bound to fail. Instead, I drew a series of circles around myself, with borders that shifted as time passed and faces changed but that nevertheless offered the illusion of control. An inner circle, where love was constant and claims unquestioned. Then a second circle, a realm of negotiated love, commitments freely chosen. And then a circle for colleagues, acquaintances; the cheerful gray-haired lady who rang up my groceries back in Chicago. Until the circle finally widened to embrace a nation or a race, or a particular moral course, and the commitments were no longer tied to a face or a name but were actually commitments I’d made to myself.
In Africa, this astronomy of mine almost immediately collapsed. For family seemed to be everywhere: in stores, at the post office, on streets and in the parks, all of them fussing and fretting over Obama’s longlost son. If I mentioned in passing that I needed a notebook or shaving cream, I could count on one of my aunts to insist that she take me to some far-off corner of Nairobi to find the best bargains, no matter how long the trip took or how much it might inconvenience her.
“Ah, Barry…what is more important than helping my brother’s son?”
If a cousin discovered, much to his distress, that Auma had left me to fend for myself, he might walk the two miles to Auma’s apartment on the off chance that I was there and needed company.
“Ah, Barry, why didn’t you call on me? Come, I will take you to meet some of my friends.”
And in the evenings, well, Auma and I simply surrendered ourselves to the endless invitations that came our way from uncles, nephews, second cousins or cousins once removed, all of whom demanded, at the risk of insult, that we sit down for a meal, no matter what time it happened to be or how many meals we had already eaten.
“Ah, Barry…we may not have much in Kenya-but so long as you are here, you will always have something to eat!”
At first I reacted to all this attention like a child to its mother’s bosom, full of simple, unquestioning gratitude. It conformed to my idea of Africa and Africans, an obvious contrast to the growing isolation of American life, a contrast I understood, not in racial, but in cultural terms. A measure of what we sacrificed for technology and mobility, but that here-as in the kampongs outside Djakarta or in the country villages of Ireland or Greece-remained essentially intact: the insistent pleasure of other people’s company, the joy of human warmth.
As the days wore on, though, my joy became tempered with tension and doubt. Some of it had to do with what Auma had talked about that night in the car-an acute awareness of my relative good fortune, and the troublesome questions such good fortune implied. Not that our relatives were suffering, exactly. Both Jane and Zeituni had steady jobs; Kezia made do selling cloth in the markets. If cash got too short, the children could be sent upcountry for a time; that’s where another brother, Abo, was staying, I was told, with an uncle in Kendu Bay, where there were always chores to perform, food on the table and a roof over one’s head.
Still, the situation in Nairobi was tough and getting tougher. Clothes were mostly secondhand, a doctor’s visit reserved for the direst emergency. Almost all the family’s younger members were unemployed, including the two or three who had managed, against stiff competition, to graduate from one of Kenya’s universities. If Jane or Zeituni ever fell ill, if their companies ever closed or laid them off, there was no government safety net. There was only family, next of kin; people burdened by similar hardship.
Now I was family, I reminded myself; now I had responsibilities. But what did that mean exactly? Back in the States, I’d been able to translate such feelings into politics, organizing, a certain self-denial. In Kenya, these strategies seemed hopelessly abstract, even self-indulgent. A commitment to black empowerment couldn’t help find Bernard a job. A faith in participatory democracy couldn’t buy Jane a new set of sheets. For the first time in my life, I found myself thinking deeply about money: my own lack of it, the pursuit of it, the crude but undeniable peace it could buy. A part of me wished I could live up to the image that my new relatives imagined for me: a corporate lawyer, an American businessman, my hand poised on the spigot, ready to rain down like manna the largesse of the Western world.
But of course I wasn’t either of those things. Even in the States, wealth involved trade-offs for those who weren’t born to it, the same sorts of trade-offs that I could see Auma now making as she tried, in her own way, to fulfill the family’s expectations. She was working two jobs that summer, teaching German classes to Kenyan businessmen along with her job at the university. With the money she saved, she wanted not only to fix up Granny’s house in Alego but also to buy a bit of land around Nairobi, something that would appreciate in value, a base from which to build. She had plans, schedules, budgets, and deadlines-all the things she’d learned were required to negotiate a modern world. The problem was that her schedules also meant begging off from family affairs; her budgets meant saying no to the constant requests for money that came her way. And when this happened-when she insisted on going home before Jane served dinner because things had started two hours late, or when she refused to let eight people pile into her VW because it was designed for four and they would tear up the seats-the looks of unspoken hurt, barely distinguishable from resentment, would flash across the room. Her restlessness, her independence, her constant willingness to project into the future-all of this struck the family as unnatural somehow. Unnatural…and unAfrican.
It was the same dilemma that old Frank had posed to me the year I left Hawaii, the same tensions that certain children in Altgeld might suffer if they took too much pleasure in doing their schoolwork, the same perverse survivor’s guilt that I could expect to experience if I ever did try to make money and had to pass the throngs of young black men on the corner as I made my way to a downtown office. Without power for the group, a group larger, even, than an extended family, our success always threatened to leave others behind. And perhaps it was that fact that left me so unsettled-the fact that even here, in Africa, the same maddening patterns still held sway; that no one here could tell me what my blood ties demanded or how those demands could be reconciled with some larger idea of human association. It was as if we-Auma, Roy, Bernard, and I-were all making it up as we went along. As if the map that might have once measured the direction and force of our love, the code that would unlock our blessings, had been lost long ago, buried with the ancestors beneath a silent earth.
Toward the end of my first week in Nairobi, Zeituni took me to visit our other aunt, Sarah. Auma had remained unwilling to go, but because it turned out that her mechanic lived near Sarah, she offered to give us a ride to her garage; from there, she said, we could travel by foot. On Saturday morning, Auma and I picked up Zeituni and headed east, past cinder-block apartments and dry, garbage-strewn lots, until we finally came to the rim of a wide valley known as Mathare. Auma pulled off to the shoulder and I looked out the window to see the shantytown below, miles and miles of corrugated rooftops shimmering under the sun like wet lily pads, buckling and dipping in an unbroken sequence across the valley floor.
“How many people live there?” I asked.
Auma shrugged and turned to our aunt. “What would you say, Auntie? Half a million, maybe?”
Zeituni shook her head. “That was last week. This week, it must be one million.”
Auma started the car back up. “Nobody knows for sure, Barack. The place is growing all the time. People come in from the countryside looking for work and end up staying permanently. For a while, the city council tried to tear the settlement down. They said it was a health hazard-an affront to Kenya’s image, you see. Bulldozers came, and people lost what little they had. But of course, they had nowhere else to go. As soon as the bulldozers left, people rebuilt just like before.”
We came to a stop in front of a slanting tin shed where a mechanic and several apprentices emerged to look Auma’s car over. Promising to be back in an hour, Zeituni and I left Auma at the garage and began our walk down a wide, unpaved road. It was already hot, the road bereft of shade; on either side were rows of small hovels, their walls a patchwork of wattle, mud, pieces of cardboard, and scavenged plywood. They were neat, though, the packed earth in front of each home cleanly swept, and everywhere we could see tailors and shoe repairers and furniture makers plying their trades out of roadside stalls, and women and children selling vegetables from wobbly wood tables.
Eventually we came to one edge of Mathare, where a series of concrete buildings stood along a paved road. The buildings were eight, maybe twelve stories tall, and yet curiously unfinished, the wood beams and rough cement exposed to the elements, like they’d suffered an aerial bombardment. We entered one of them, climbed a narrow flight of stairs, and emerged at the end of a long unlit hallway, at the other end of which we saw a teenage girl hanging out clothes to dry on a small cement patio. Zeituni went to talk to the girl, who led us wordlessly to a low, scuffed door. We knocked, and a dark, middle-aged woman appeared, short but sturdily built, with hard, glassy eyes set in a wide, rawboned face. She took my hand and said something in Luo.
“She says she is ashamed to have her brother’s son see her in such a miserable place,” Zeituni translated.
We were shown into a small room, ten feet by twelve, large enough to fit a bed, a dresser, two chairs, and a sewing machine. Zeituni and I each took one of the chairs, and the young woman who had shown us Sarah’s room returned with two warm sodas. Sarah sat on the bed and leaned forward to study my face. Auma had said that Sarah knew some English, but she spoke mostly in Luo now. Even without the benefit of Zeituni’s translation, I guessed that she wasn’t happy.
“She wants to know why you have taken so long to visit her,” Zeituni explained. “She says that she is the eldest child of your grandfather, Hussein Onyango, and that you should have come to see her first.” “Tell her I meant no disrespect,” I said, looking at Sarah but not sure what she understood.
“Everything’s been so busy since my arrival-it was hard to come sooner.”
Sarah’s tone became sharp. “She says that the people you stay with must be telling you lies.”
“Tell her that I’ve heard nothing said against her. Tell her that the dispute about the Old Man’s estate has just made Auma uncomfortable about coming here.”
Sarah snorted after the translation and started up again, her voice rumbling against the close walls. When she finally stopped, Zeituni remained quiet.
“What’d she say, Zeituni?”
Zeituni’s eyes stayed on Sarah as she answered my question. “She says the trial is not her fault. She says that it’s Kezia’s doing-Auma’s mum. She says that the children who claim to be Obama’s are not
Obama’s. She says they have taken everything of his and left his true people living like beggars.”
Sarah nodded, and her eyes began to smolder. “Yes, Barry,” she said suddenly in English. “It is me who looks after your father when he is a small boy. My mother, Akumu, is also your father’s mother. Akumu is your true grandmother, not this one you call Granny. Akumu, the woman who gives your father life-you should be helping her. And me, your brother’s sister. Look how I live. Why don’t you help us, instead of these others?”
Before I could answer, Zeituni and Sarah began to argue with each other in Luo. Eventually, Zeituni stood up and straightened her skirt. “We should go now, Barry.”
I began to rise out of my chair, but Sarah took my hand in both of hers, her voice softening.
“Will you give me something? For your grandmother?”
I reached for my wallet and felt the eyes of both aunts as I counted out the money I had on me-perhaps thirty dollars’ worth of shillings. I pressed them into Sarah’s dry, chapped hands, and she quickly slipped the money down the front of her blouse before clutching my hand again.
“Stay here, Barry,” Sarah said. “You must meet-”
“You can come back later, Barry,” Zeituni said. “Let’s go.”
Outside, a hazy yellow light bathed the road; my clothes hung limp against my body in the windless heat. Zeituni was quiet now, visibly upset. She was a proud woman, this aunt; the scene with Sarah must have embarrassed her. And then, that thirty dollars-Lord knows, she could have used it herself….
We had walked for ten minutes before I asked Zeituni what she and Sarah had been arguing about.
“Ah, it’s nothing, Barry. This is what happens to old women who have no husbands.” Zeituni tried to smile, but the tension creased the corners of her mouth.
“Come on, Auntie. Tell me the truth.”
Zeituni shook her head. “I don’t know the truth. At least not all of it. I know that even growing up, Sarah was always closer to her real mum, Akumu. Barack, he cared only for my mum, Granny, the one who raised them after Akumu left.”
“Why did Akumu leave?”
“I’m not sure. You will have to ask Granny about that.”
Zeituni signaled for us to cross the street, then resumed talking. “You know, your father and Sarah were actually very similar, even though they did not always get along. She was smart like him. And independent. She used to tell me, when we were children, that she wanted to get an education so that she would not have to depend on any man. That’s why she ended up married to four different husbands. None of them lasted. The first one died, but the others she left, because they were lazy, or tried to abuse her. I admire her for this. Most women in Kenya put up with anything. I did, for a long time. But Sarah also paid a price for her independence.”
Zeituni wiped the sweat on her forehead with the back of her hand. “Anyway, after Sarah’s first husband died, she decided that your father should support her and her child, since he had received all the education. That’s why she disliked Kezia and her children. She thought Kezia was just a pretty girl who wanted to take everything. You must understand, Barry-in Luo custom, the male child inherits everything. Sarah feared that once your grandfather died, everything would belong to Barack and his wives, and she would be left with nothing.”
I shook my head. “That’s no excuse for lying about who the Old Man’s children are.”
“You’re right. But…” “But what?”
Zeituni stopped walking and turned to me. She said, “After your father went off to live with his American wife, Ruth…well, he would go to Kezia sometimes. You must understand that traditionally she was still his wife. It was during such a visit that Kezia became pregnant with Abo, the brother you haven’t met. The thing was, Kezia also lived with another man briefly during this time. So when she became pregnant again, with Bernard, no one was sure who-” Zeituni stopped, letting the thought finish itself.
“Does Bernard know about this?”
“Yes, he knows by now. You understand, such things made no difference to your father. He would say that they were all his children. He drove this other man away, and would give Kezia money for the children whenever he could. But once he died, there was nothing to prove that he’d accepted them in this way.”
We turned a corner onto a busier road. In front of us, a pregnant goat bleated as it scuttered out of the path of an oncoming matatu. Across the way, two little girls in dusty red school uniforms, their round heads shaven almost clean, held hands and sang as they skipped across a gutter. An old woman with her head under a faded shawl motioned to us to look at her wares: two margarine tins of dried beans, a neat stack of tomatoes, dried fish hanging from a wire like a chain of silver coins. I looked into the old woman’s face, drawn beneath the shadows. Who was this woman? I wondered. My grandmother? A stranger? And what about Bernard-should my feelings for him somehow be different now? I looked over at a bus stop, where a crowd of young men were streaming out into the road, all of them tall and black and slender, their bones pressing against their shirts. I suddenly imagined Bernard’s face on all of them, multiplied across the landscape, across continents. Hungry, striving, desperate men, all of them my brothers….
“Now you see what your father suffered.”
“What?” I rubbed my eyes and looked up to find my aunt staring at me.
“Yes, Barry, your father suffered,” she repeated. “I am telling you, his problem was that his heart was too big. When he lived, he would just give to everybody who asked him. And they all asked. You know, he was one of the first in the whole district to study abroad. The people back home, they didn’t even know anyone else who had ridden in an airplane before. So they expected everything from him. ‘Ah, Barack, you are a big shot now. You should give me something. You should help me.’ Always these pressures from family. And he couldn’t say no, he was so generous. You know, even me he had to take care of when I became pregnant, he was very disappointed in me. He had wanted me to go to college. But I would not listen to him, and went off with my husband. And despite this thing, when my husband became abusive and I had to leave, no money, no job, who do you think took me in? Yes-it was him. That’s why, no matter what others sometimes say, I will always be grateful to him.”
We were approaching the garage shop; up ahead, we could see Auma talking to her mechanic and hear the engine of the old VW whine. Beside us, a naked boy, maybe three years old, wandered out from behind a row of oil drums, his feet caked with what looked like tar. Again Zeituni stopped, this time as if suddenly ill, and spat into the dust.
“When your father’s luck changed,” she said, “these same people he had helped, they forgot him. They laughed at him. Even family refused to have him stay in their houses. Yes, Barry! Refused! They would tell Barack it was too dangerous. I knew this hurt him, but he wouldn’t pass blame. Your father never held a grudge. In fact, when he was rehabilitated and doing well again, I would find out that he was giving help to these same people who had betrayed him. Ah, I could not understand this thing. I would tell him, ‘Barack, you should only look after yourself and your children! These others, they have treated you badly. They are just too lazy to work for themselves.’ And you know what he would say to me? He would say, ‘How do you know that man does not need this small thing more than me?’”
My aunt turned away and, forcing a smile, waved to Auma. And as we began to walk forward, she added, “I tell you this so you will know the pressure your father was under in this place. So you don’t judge him too harshly. And you must learn from his life. If you have something, then everyone will want a piece of it. So you have to draw the line somewhere. If everyone is family, no one is family. Your father, he never understood this, I think.”
I remember a conversation I had once in Chicago when I was still organizing. It was with a woman who’d grown up in a big family in rural Georgia. Five brothers and three sisters, she had told me, all crowded under a single roof. She told me about her father’s ultimately futile efforts to farm his small plot of land, her mother’s vegetable garden, the two pigs they kept penned out in the yard, and the trips with her siblings to fish the murky waters of a river nearby. Listening to her speak, I began to realize that two of the three sisters she’d mentioned had actually died at birth, but that in this woman’s mind they had remained with her always, spirits with names and ages and characters, two sisters who accompanied her while she walked to school or did chores, who soothed her cries and calmed her fears. For this woman, family had never been a vessel just for the living. The dead, too, had their claims, their voices shaping the course of her dreams.
So now it was for me. I remember how, a few days after my visit to Sarah’s, Auma and I happened to run into an acquaintance of the Old Man’s outside Barclay’s Bank. I could tell that Auma didn’t remember his name, so I held out my hand and introduced myself. The man smiled and said, “My, my-you have grown so tall. How’s your mother? And your brother Mark-has he graduated from university yet?”
At first I was confused. Did I know this person? And then Auma explained in a low voice that no, I was a different brother, Barack, who grew up in America, the child of a different mother. David had passed away. And then the awkwardness on all sides-the man nodding his head (“I’m sorry, I didn’t know”) but taking another look at me, as if to make sure what he’d heard was true; Auma trying to appear as if the situation, while sad, was somehow the normal stuff of tragedy; me standing to the side, wondering how to feel after having been mistaken for a ghost.
Later, back in her apartment, I asked Auma when she had last seen Mark and Ruth. She leaned her head against my shoulder and looked up at the ceiling.
“David’s funeral,” she said. “Although by then they had stopped speaking to us for a long time.” “Why?”
“I told you that Ruth’s divorce from the Old Man was very bitter. After they separated, she married a Tanzanian and had Mark and David take his name. She sent them to an international school, and they were raised like foreigners. She told them that they should have nothing to do with our side of the family.”
Auma sighed. “I don’t know. Maybe because he was older, Mark came to share Ruth’s attitudes and had no contact with us after that. But for some reason, once David was a teenager, he began to rebel against Ruth. He told her he was an African, and started calling himself Obama. Sometimes he would sneak off from school to visit the Old Man and the rest of the family, which is how we got to know him. He became everybody’s favorite. He was so sweet, you know, and funny, even if he was sometimes too wild.
“Ruth tried to enroll him in a boarding school, hoping it would settle him down. But David ended up running away instead. Nobody saw him for months. Then Roy happened to bump into him outside a rugby match. He was dirty, thin, begging money from strangers. He laughed when he saw Roy, and bragged about his life on the streets, hustling bhang with his friends. Roy told him to go home, but he refused, so Roy took David to his own apartment, sending word to Ruth that her son was safe and staying with him. When Ruth heard this, she was relieved but also furious. She begged David to come back, but when he again refused, she tacitly accepted the arrangement with Roy, hoping that eventually David would change his mind.”
Auma sipped on her tea. “That’s when David died. While he was living with Roy. His death broke everybody’s heart-Roy’s especially. The two of them were really close, you see. But Ruth never understood that. She thought we had corrupted David. Stolen her baby away. And I don’t think she’s ever forgiven us for it.”
I decided to stop talking about David after that; I could tell that Auma found the memories too painful. But only a few days later, Auma and I came home to find a car waiting for us outside the apartment. The driver, a brown-skinned man with a prominent Adam’s apple, handed Auma a note.
“What is it?” I asked.
“It’s an invitation from Ruth,” she said. “Mark’s back from America for the summer. She wants to have us over for lunch.”
“Do you want to go?”
Auma shook her head, a look of disgust on her face. “Ruth knows I’ve been here almost six months now. She doesn’t care about me. The only reason she’s invited us is because she’s curious about you. She wants to compare you to Mark.”
“I think maybe I should go,” I said quietly.
Auma looked at the note again, then handed it back to the driver and said something to him in Swahili.
“We’ll both go,” she said, and walked into the apartment.
Ruth lived in Westlands, an enclave of expensive homes set off by wide lawns and well-tended hedges, each one with a sentry post manned by brown-uniformed guards. It was raining as we drove toward her house, sending a soft, gentle spray through the big, leafy trees. The coolness reminded me of the streets around Punahou, Manoa, Tantalus, the streets where some of my wealthier classmates had lived back in Hawaii. Staring out Auma’s car window, I thought back to the envy I’d felt toward those classmates whenever they invited me over to play in their big backyards or swim in their swimming pools. And along with that envy, a different impression-the sense of quiet desperation those big, pretty houses seemed to contain. The sound of someone’s sister crying softly behind the door. The sight of a mother sneaking a tumbler of gin in midafternoon. The expression on a father’s face as he sat alone in his den, his features clenched as he flicked between college football games on TV. An impression of loneliness that perhaps wasn’t true, perhaps was just a projection of my own heart, but that, either way, had made me want to run, just as, an ocean away, David had run, back into the marketplace and noisy streets, back into disorder and the laughter disorder produced, back into the sort of pain a boy could understand.
We came to one of the more modest houses on the block and parked along the curve of a looping driveway. A white woman with a long jaw and graying hair came out of the house to meet us. Behind her was a black man of my height and complexion with a bushy Afro and horn-rimmed glasses.
“Come in, come in,” Ruth said. The four of us shook hands stiffly and entered a large living room, where a balding, older black man in a safari jacket was bouncing a young boy on his lap. “This is my husband,” Ruth said, “and this is Mark’s little brother, Joey.”
“Hey, Joey,” I said, bending down to shake his hand. He was a beautiful boy, with honey-colored skin and two front teeth missing. Ruth tousled the boy’s big curls, then looked at her husband and said, “Weren’t you two on your way to the club?”
“Yes, yes,” the man said, standing up. “Come on, Joey…it was nice to meet you both.” The boy stood fast, staring up at Auma and me with a bright, curious smile until his father finally picked him up and carried him out the door.
“Well, here we are,” Ruth said, leading us to the couch and pouring lemonade. “I must say it was quite a surprise to find out you were here, Barry. I told Mark that we just had to see how this other son of Obama’s turned out. Your name is Obama, isn’t it? But your mother remarried. I wonder why she had you keep your name?”
I smiled as if I hadn’t understood the question. “So, Mark,” I said, turning to my brother, “I hear you’re at Berkeley.”
“Stanford,” he corrected. His voice was deep, his accent perfectly American. “I’m in my last year of the physics program there.”
“It must be tough,” Auma offered. Mark shrugged. “Not really.”
“Don’t be so modest, dear,” Ruth said. “The things Mark studies are so complicated only a handful of people really understand it all.” She patted Mark on the hand, then turned to me. “And Barry, I understand you’ll be going to Harvard. Just like Obama. You must have gotten some of his brains. Hopefully not the rest of him, though. You know Obama was quite crazy, don’t you? The drinking made it worse. Did you ever meet him? Obama, I mean?”
“Only once. When I was ten.”
“Well, you were lucky then. It probably explains why you’re doing so well.”
That’s how the next hour passed, with Ruth alternating between stories of my father’s failure and stories of Mark’s accomplishments. Any questions were directed exclusively to me, leaving Auma to fiddle silently with Ruth’s lasagna. I wanted to leave as soon as the meal was over, but Ruth suggested that Mark show us the family album while she brought out the dessert.
“I’m sure they’re not interested, Mother,” Mark said.
“Of course they’re interested,” Ruth said. Then, her voice oddly distant: “There are pictures of Obama.
From when he was young….”
We followed Mark to the bookcase, and he pulled down a large photo album. Together we sat on the couch, slowly thumbing through laminate pages. Auma and Roy, dark and skinny and tall, all legs and big eyes, holding the two smaller children protectively in their arms. The Old Man and Ruth mugging it up at a beach somewhere. The entire family dressed up for a night out on the town. They were happy scenes, all of them, and all strangely familiar, as if I were glimpsing some alternative universe that had played itself out behind my back. They were reflections, I realized, of my own long-held fantasies, fantasies that I’d kept secret even from myself. The fantasy of the Old Man’s having taken my mother and me back with him to Kenya. The wish that my mother and father, sisters and brothers, were all under one roof. Here it was, I thought, what might have been. And the recognition of how wrong it had all turned out, the harsh evidence of life as it had really been lived, made me so sad that after only a few minutes I had to look away.
On the drive back, I apologized to Auma for having put her through the ordeal. She waved it off.
“It could have been worse,” she said. “I feel sorry for Mark, though. He seems so alone. You know, it’s not easy being a mixed child in Kenya.”
I looked out the window, thinking about my mother, Toot, and Gramps, and how grateful I was to themfor who they were, and for the stories they’d told. I turned back to Auma, and said, “She still hasn’t gotten over him, has she?”
“Ruth. She hasn’t gotten over the Old Man.”
Auma thought for a moment. “No, Barack. I guess she hasn’t. Just like the rest of us.”
The following week, I called Mark and suggested that we go out to lunch. He seemed a bit hesitant, but eventually agreed to meet me at an Indian restaurant downtown. He was more relaxed than he had been during our first meeting, making a few self-deprecatory jokes, offering his observations about California and academic infighting. As the meal wore on, I asked him how it felt being back for the summer.
“Fine,” he said. “It’s nice to see my mom and dad, of course. And Joey-he’s really a great kid.” Mark cut off a bite of his samosa and put it into his mouth. “As for the rest of Kenya, I don’t feel much of an attachment. Just another poor African country.” “You don’t ever think about settling here?”
Mark took a sip from his Coke. “No,” he said. “I mean, there’s not much work for a physicist, is there, in a country where the average person doesn’t have a telephone.”
I should have stopped then, but something-the certainty in this brother’s voice, maybe, or our rough resemblance, like looking into a foggy mirror-made me want to push harder. I asked, “Don’t you ever feel like you might be losing something?”
Mark put down his knife and fork, and for the first time that afternoon his eyes looked straight into mine.
“I understand what you’re getting at,” he said flatly. “You think that somehow I’m cut off from my roots, that sort of thing.” He wiped his mouth and dropped the napkin onto his plate. “Well, you’re right. At a certain point, I made a decision not to think about who my real father was. He was dead to me even when he was still alive. I knew that he was a drunk and showed no concern for his wife or children. That was enough.”
“It made you mad.”
“Not mad. Just numb.”
“And that doesn’t bother you? Being numb, I mean?”
“Towards him, no. Other things move me. Beethoven’s symphonies. Shakespeare’s sonnets. I knowit’s not what an African is supposed to care about. But who’s to tell me what I should and shouldn’t care about? Understand, I’m not ashamed of being half Kenyan. I just don’t ask myself a lot of questions about what it all means. About who I really am.” He shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe I should. I can acknowledge the possibility that if I looked more carefully at myself, I would…”
For the briefest moment I sensed Mark hesitate, like a rock climber losing his footing. Then, almost immediately, he regained his composure and waved for the check.
“Who knows?” he said. “What’s certain is that I don’t need the stress. Life’s hard enough without all that excess baggage.”
We stood up to leave, and I insisted on paying the bill. Outside we exchanged addresses and promised to write, with a dishonesty that made my heart ache. When I got home, I told Auma how the meeting had gone. She looked away for a moment, then broke out with a short, bitter laugh. “What’s so funny?”
“I was just thinking about how life is so strange. You know, as soon as the Old Man died, the lawyers contacted all those who might have a claim to the inheritance. Unlike my mum, Ruth has all the documents needed to prove who Mark’s father was. So of all of the Old Man’s kids, Mark’s claim is the only one that’s uncontested.”
Again Auma laughed, and I looked up at the picture hanging on her wall, the same picture pasted inside Ruth’s album, of three brothers and a sister, smiling sweetly for the camera.