Vimbai knew that it was going to be one of those days the moment she shuffled downstairs, her socking feet blindly finding their way on the carpeted steps. Her eyes still half-shut from sleep but her nose already picking up the oily smell of freshly roasted coffee beans, she smiled just as the raised voice of her mother cut into her mind. Vimbai stopped smiling.
Ever since she was a child, she had not liked these days, when her parents fought first thing in the morning and the rest of the day came out all narrow-eyed and lopsided, devoid of the usual sense of balance and rightness in the world. Not that those were ever serious fights—the normal spousal squabbling, Vimbai supposed; nothing bad, and most families had it far worse. And yet these fights made her feel exposed and vulnerable, betrayed in her sanctuary and given to the mercy of strange hostile elements.
She slipped into the kitchen, her eyes wary now, looking from under the lowered eyelids.
“Don’t squint,” her mother said. “Do you want any breakfast?”
“Just coffee,” Vimbai answered, and momentarily envied her mother’s accent. The words, the familiar English words that melted and mushed in Vimbai’s mouth, came out with startling sparkling edges, as if they were just born, unpolished by the world, rough and fresh and solid.
She sidled up to the table—they always ate their meals at the table, and even breakfast was a family occasion, an extra opportunity to either bond or hurt each other’s feelings.
Her mother shook her head but poured Vimbai a large steaming cup. “You have to eat breakfast.”
Vimbai’s father made a sound in the back of his throat, a mild sound that seemed to serve only to remind them that he was also present and perhaps could offer opinions on breakfasts and other matters but was too absorbed in his thoughts to vocalize them.
Vimbai looked out of the window, at the familiar suburban street and the red leaves of maples that grew in this sandy soil through some miracle of gardening and landscaping. “How are you doing, dad?” Vimbai said. “Long day today?”
He nodded. “Double shift,” he said. “You?”
Vimbai pursed her lips and blew on the surface of her coffee, wrinkling it like smooth brown silk. “Three classes today.”
“You’re coming to school with me?” her mother asked.
“Maybe,” Vimbai answered. “If you’re not working late again.”
“You can go to the library,” her mother suggested.
“Or I can take my car and drive home.” Vimbai tried to keep her voice neutral—when her parents fought first thing in the morning, it was not wise to annoy her mother. If Vimbai was not careful, shit would go down and both her and her father would get it—not that they didn’t deserve it, Vimbai admitted to herself. After all, why shouldn’t she get in trouble every now and again?
Mother rose, pushing her chair away with a hair-raising squeak. “Fine. Suit yourself. Carpooling is of course too much trouble and inconvenience. Who cares about global warming anyway?”
“Mom.” Vimbai cringed. “Don’t be like this.”
As Vimbai had grown older, she had realized that the arguments and the problems she had with her mother were not unusual—in fact, she suspected that teenage girls who did not get along with their mothers outnumbered those who did at least three to one. It did not make her feel any better, and she still wished—selfishly, she would be the first to admit—that her mother paid more attention to Vimbai than the news from abroad, or to the Africana studies and who set the agenda there. She wished that she would pay as half as much mind to Vimbai’s problems and worries as she did to the white men trying to hijack her department.
Mother shrugged and left, and Vimbai and her father traded looks.
“What brought that on?” Vimbai said.
Her father shook his head. “Everything, darling. Be nice to her—she’s having a rough time. Her department and all that. Stress.”
“You have stress too.” Vimbai drank her coffee, sizing up her father from the corner of her eye. He was always so much more subdued, so willing to make excuses and make peace and sacrifice, always minimizing his own fatigue and heartbreak. It’s not important, darling. Such a slight man, his eyes so sad and kind. She did not know how to tell him.
“It’s all right,” he answered. “You get used to it; you get used to everything.”
Vimbai shrugged and drank her coffee, considering all the things she never wanted to get used to; at the same time, the habitual guilt stirred—her parents had been through so much, it felt downright selfish for her to complain about anything at all. And yet, if the experience was all that mattered, wasn’t hers just as valuable? All she knew was that she had to get out of here, before she became the same as her mother.
Her father was a nurse down at one of the Camden hospitals, and whenever she visited him or picked him up after work, she felt shamed for her sheltered life, reasonably devoid of suffering. This one wasn’t a university hospital, and the emergency room always overflowed with gunshot wounds and overdoses, with beatings and burnings and other godawful things. Vimbai did not know how he could stand it, how it was possible to get used to things like that.
“You seem pensive today,” her father said. “Hope we didn’t upset you.”
“Of course not,” she said. “I was just thinking . . . am I getting too old to live at home?”
The words just poured out, mushed by habituality. Her parents never spoke like that, all their words considered, even in the heat of an argument. Even when they fought in Shona, even though she understood little of what they said then.
He put down his newspaper with the picture of Barack Obama on the page folded over. “Why would you say that? You know we don’t want you living on your own.”
“Just thinking.” Vimbai finished her coffee in a few quick gulps. “No reason. Do you think Obama could really win?”
Her father shook his head. None of them thought that he could—the country is not ready, her mother said. He is black and not really American. He was like them, the unsaid words crowded. They would never accept people like us. We are to remain on the cultural margins of multiple worlds, abandoning one and never entering the other. Even Vimbai felt that though she had lived in New Jersey most of her life—she too was on the margins. What hope was there for her parents then, and how would they cope if she was really to move out? And yet, how could she not?
Vimbai decided to skip class. It was that sort of a day, and missing a lecture on invertebrate zoology seemed only fitting. What was there to learn that she couldn’t find out by walking along the shore, the dirty hem of foam curling around her bare ankles? She stopped to crouch over a dead horseshoe crab and to stare at it for a while, then to flip it over and count its limp little legs, jointed and pale and slightly obscene. She flipped it back on its belly, as if the dead crab’s dignity needed preserving.
The beach was deserted—just gulls and terns circling overhead, waiting for the tide, just sandpipers endlessly chasing after the retreating waves and then running away from them, just the surf and the sky, the tang of October bursting through the iodine smell of seaweed and the ocean to singe the back of Vimbai’s throat. Just the wind and the promise of winter, when the beach will be gray and dead, a giant whale flank colonized by silent invisible life under the leaden clouds.
These beaches of the barrier islands lining the eastmost side of the continent like the crook of a mother’s elbow had been so good to Vimbai—they nursed her through the first years here, they sustained her through school that had seemed so endless and was now over; they whispered the answer to her when her mother had asked if she considered a college major yet. Marine biology, Vimbai had answered and never lost her temper as her mother lectured that marine biology was not the same as swimming with dolphins or whatever other romantic garbage she thought Vimbai was imagining. Invertebrates, she said, the word that wondrously summed up all the fascinating transparent things that the tide left behind thrashing in tiny pools. I want to study invertebrates. Anything, she wanted to add, but your Africana Studies, anything but that continent you—both of you—carry inside; what was the point in ever leaving if you were going to bring it with you? Instead, she babbled about horseshoe crabs that were declining in number thanks to their use as fishbait and to the pharmaceutical companies who drained their blood to make vaccines.
Oh, the blood draining, the wazimamoto and the colonialism; as much as Vimbai resented the Africana Studies, her mind was its own little storehouse of legends and stories and memories not quite her own, she didn’t think—but wazimamoto. The vampire, the white man who came on a medical truck to steal your blood. She learned the story from her Kenyan babysitter, an old woman who was so dark and shrunken she seemed to smolder. And her mother’s verbal annotations—Vimbai could never get away from those. And then the books, anything that her mother could find translated, anything African. And yet, Vimbai’s alliance was to the horseshoe crabs, the ones who were in real danger of having their blood stolen.