I think they’ve lost our luggage,” Enitan announced to Remi. They both watched the only item left on the carousel—a haggard, haphazardly taped Ghana-Must-Go bag—make yet another turn.
“Well,” Remi said, and then she looked at her mother and they both began giggling, the unfettered, unhinged laughter of the exhausted. Their journey from New York to Lagos had been a chaotic one. Remi was supposed to have spent the night with her mother in Enitan’s new apartment in Jamaica, Queens, where Enitan now lived since she had moved out of the family’s two-bedroom Park Slope apartment. But Remi had decided to take the train to Queens instead that morning, slowing them down considerably.
Even when she and Remi had finally managed to get a car, they had had to endure a two-hour-long wait to get through security at JFK because everyone, it seemed, was desperate to go somewhere warm two weeks before Christmas. Then they had another three-hour wait when they got to Heathrow because their flight to Lagos had been delayed. Now, at last, they had arrived, tired, hungry, and apparently without luggage.
Still, it was good that Enitan and Remi were laughing together. That Remi had even agreed to come had been somewhat unexpected. Since Enitan and Charles had announced their intention to separate, Remi, nineteen years old, had reverted back to a younger, more beleaguered self; her eyes had rapidly filled with tears when they had sat her down and first told her the news. They had not expected her to take it so hard. In truth the divorce had been a long time coming. Remi’s departure for college had clarified that yes, this man Enitan had abruptly and dramatically left Nigeria for, while she loved him and always would in the familial sense (he was the father of her child after all), he was no longer someone she could envision spending the rest of her life with—certainly not as husband and wife. In many ways, it felt like a miracle that they had been together as long as they had. Sometimes Enitan wondered if, were it not for her utter literal dependence on him those first few years in the U.S., and the shared deep sense of mutual obligation toward the other—he for taking her away from everything she had ever known; her for doing so without complaint and even excitement—their marriage would have lasted as long as it had.
But to Remi, who was nineteen but a young nineteen, Enitan thought, a naïve nineteen, her mother was a traitor; she was breaking up their beautiful, close-knit family that had always prompted smiles from neighbors who thought that Enitan’s presence in the neighborhood belied the persistent and aggressive whitening of the area. Just that morning, as Enitan kept refreshing the ride-hailing app hoping for a car to magically appear, Remi had rolled her eyes and sighed melodramatically and then suggested they take the bus so Enitan could save money for the divorce. Enitan had told Remi to cut it out and Remi had rolled her eyes again and so Enitan had slapped her reflexively. They had both stared at each other in shock. Remi began to cry. Enitan said she was sorry and then their car had come.
So yes, laughter was good and suggested momentary forgiveness, which Enitan appreciated. In general Remi had always been bad at holding grudges. And Enitan was grateful that Remi had given up a ski trip with her boyfriend’s family over the winter break to attend the wedding of a girl she had only met twice. Once, when Remi was a baby and Destiny a docile five-year-old, dutifully holding on to the handle of the pram in which Remi had been lying in Washington Square Park; the second time as surly adolescents, when Funmi had come with her daughter on another occasion to the city and they had gotten breakfast at the Waldorf Astoria. Charles had insisted on paying the bill, and Enitan had felt so embarrassed she barely spoke to him on the train ride home.
She hoped that the trip would be good. Charles was going to be spending the holiday with his sisters and their children in that giant house in Newport—that last vestige of family wealth—so if Remi was feeling guilty or traitorous there was no need for that. In fact, before Enitan had finally decided to go to the wedding, Charles, ever the gentleman, had invited Enitan to join him there for Christmas. Everything had been amicable considering, but the thought of being in that drafty house—probably built by slaves, Enitan suspected—seeing the secret, knowing smiles from his sisters, who had never liked her, and all their bratty children—loud and entitled in that uniquely white American way—made her say no. Enitan genuinely would have preferred to stay in her apartment. Alone for the first time in two decades that first night, she had climbed onto the twin bed in her narrow bedroom and cried like she hadn’t cried in years. Not since her mother’s funeral five years ago. Which, incidentally, was the last time she had been home.
“So, what do we do now?” Remi asked. Enitan moved a strand of hair from Remi’s face. Remi automatically flinched at the gesture, and they looked at each other then, the memory of the slap still fresh.
“I wish I had some water,” Remi said, stepping away slightly from her mother.
“We should be able to buy some. I have to break these bills anyway,” said Enitan. “But let’s sort out this luggage situation first.” It was hot, stiflingly so; the overhead fans didn’t appear to be doing much. The bright fluorescent lights only seemed to make the hall hotter. Fellow passengers coming from abroad were quickly shedding layers in the humidity as sinewy luggage boys finessed trolleys stacked with suitcases. Cranky toddlers cried in harried mothers’ arms, a phalanx of drivers with signs for clients stood near one side while oyinbo businessmen, dressed in cargo shorts and boots as if they were going on a safari, marched toward them.
“Wrong side of the continent,” Enitan wanted to mutter to them.
She checked her watch—still set to New York time. It was 3:04 p.m. there, which meant it was 8:04 p.m. here. Funmi had told Enitan that Sunday, her driver, would be coming to meet them.
“We’ll report the luggage missing and then we can find Sunday and head to the house,” Enitan said. She scanned the crowds looking for a uniformed official. She spotted one walking without evident purpose, a walkie-talkie attached to his belt loop.
He didn’t seem to hear her. She rolled her shoulders back. She tried to channel the aggression that felt so necessary when traveling in Nigeria. As soon as the plane had slowed to a crawl on the runway, the clicking of unbuckling seat belts began even as one of the flight attendants asked, at increasing volume, for passengers to remain seated. Her pleas were futile as men, always men, sprung out of their seats ignoring her. Enitan and Remi had exchanged a meaningful eye roll after the man in front of them leaped from his seat with alarming alacrity, opening the overhead bin to retrieve a dilapidated carry-on. That competitiveness, a singular, almost-myopic self-centeredness, that dog-eat-dog mentality, permeated every interaction with a stranger in Lagos. It was why Enitan had always hated visiting Lagos as a child. She felt unprepared, caught off guard by the demands of the city. Abeokuta was so much more tranquil in comparison.
At dinner parties with Charles’s acquaintances, whenever talk turned to cities and the inevitable, slightly ostentatious comparisons of the ones his guests—fellow failed or struggling artists who had lived in Prague or Berlin or what have you—had visited, Charles would tell them that Lagos was like the New York of Africa. She knew he was just trying to draw a point of comparison for them but she still inherently chafed at the phrase, which she hated because it made Africa sound like one massive country, something a lot of Americans irritatingly seemed to believe, if not literally, then in essence. The other reason was because, if anything, Lagos was what New York wished it was at its grittiest. Lagosians were desperate in a way New Yorkers would never be. When failing meant actual starvation, the hustling became boundless. Of course, long term, these gripes didn’t really matter. As Remi never failed to periodically remind Enitan, both cities were going to sink into the ocean one day.
“Our luggage has not arrived,” Enitan told the officer, tipping her head up at him in an imperious manner. She watched the officer look at the both of them, his gaze lingering on Remi, who shifted under his eyes. The stares were going to be inevitable on this trip. She was mixed (“half-caste” as they said here at home, though Enitan had learned the hard way that this was not the appropriate term in the U.S.) and tall, with a mass of red curls and freckles. No one ever assumed that the short, skinny woman, with closely cropped hair and a complexion the warm brown of a coconut husk, standing alongside Remi was her mother. Enitan had begrudgingly accepted this fact.
The officer smiled, revealing a prominent gap between his front teeth. He leaned in conspiratorially.
“You are from America?” He was still looking at Remi, smiling. Remi reddened and looked at Enitan quickly before answering.
“Yes?” she said, making it sound like a question. She always sounded less sure of herself when she was anxious. Enitan had given Remi a lecture during their layover in London about not divulging more information than necessary to strangers while they were in Nigeria.
“You know there are kidnappings. You don’t want to give anybody any reason to think you have a lot of money.”
Remi had rolled her eyes. “Please, Mom. You’re being ridiculous. Didn’t you say yourself that kidnappings are happening on the roads? Aren’t we going to be in Lagos the whole time? And as soon as people look at me, they’re going to know I’m not from here, so who are we trying to fool?”
Enitan had been quiet. Remi was right of course. Enitan wanted to scare Remi into being vigilant; she was distressingly lacking in street smarts, a naturally trusting person. She had been the kind of child who would engage strangers in conversation on the subway and would say hello and goodbye as a toddler to passersby when Enitan took her on walks in the park in the middle of the day, sleep-deprived and depressed and often mistaken for the nanny.
Enitan knew her anxiety was slightly unreasonable. But traveling to Nigeria fueled her paranoia. Just the thought of going home made her deeply apprehensive and anxious—on a molecular level. The stress of it. Now that her mother was dead, there had been no strong incentive to ever go back. Not until now.
“Don’t worry, fine gehl, we will get your luggage for you in no time,” said the official, and though he did not lick his lips, he looked like he would have had Enitan not been standing there. Enitan cleared her throat and mustered up her strongest glare. The official’s smile weakened. “Please, follow me,” he instructed them. “We will go to the computer and should be able to locate your boxes.” He led them away from the carousels to a booth and asked for their passports and boarding passes. He held Remi’s passport up, squinting.
“Is this the same person? This small pikin?” And he smiled again at Remi and winked. This man. Enitan had had enough.
“Please, tell us where our luggage is!”
The official now eyed Enitan warily.
“No problem, no problem.” He began typing on a keyboard—hen pecks, not the QWERTY style Enitan had learned to do on Charles’s old typewriter when she had first arrived in New York, unable to work legally and utterly bored. To save paper, she would reuse the same sheet over and over again so at the end of her self-guided lesson superimposed lines of see the quick lazy fox run filled the page.
“It looks like your luggage didn’t make the flight,” the official said.
He printed out a paper and handed it to Enitan. “Your boxes will be coming on this flight tomorrow. You should be able to pick them up here at that time.”
He smiled again at Remi.
“Welcome to Nigeria.”
They walked back into the arrival hall, this time studying the signs the drivers were holding up more closely. Sunday should be here by now. She spotted him at the far end of the line.
“Sunday,” Enitan said when she saw him. “How far?” They had met before briefly. Five years ago, he had picked her up from the airport and had driven her to Abeokuta the following morning—courtesy of Funmi.
“This is my daughter, Remi,” Enitan said.
Remi smiled and stuck out her hand. “So nice to meet you, Uncle Sunday.”
Sunday looked bewildered. He took Remi’s hand tentatively, while looking at Enitan as if for permission.
All Remi’s life, Enitan had told her that calling adults by their first names was rude. Mister or Ms. sufficed, though Enitan still thought those honorifics sounded so formal, so distant. They were fine for white people Enitan didn’t know. Charles told Enitan he thought it would be odd for Remi to call their friends “uncle” or “aunty” if they weren’t related. Enitan had fought this battle and won for a while when Remi was young, but by the time she turned eleven, Remi had abandoned the habit. She had decided it was awkward after her friends would stare at her quizzically when she told them the Indian woman with the Trinidadian accent who sometimes picked her up from school was Aunty Maya. Remi hadn’t revived the practice until now.
Enitan smiled at Sunday and he took her carry-on. Then he looked behind them as if he expected the rest of their luggage to suddenly appear.
“Madam, na all your bag be dis? Where the remaining?”
“They didn’t make it,” Enitan said. “Don’t worry, we will get them tomorrow. Let’s go.”
They followed Sunday out of the hall and into the humid night air. The streetlights cast a soft lambent glow and illuminated the hordes of flying insects hovering near each lamppost. Enitan used her knuckles to knead her lower back slowly. She had had to pick up extra shifts at the nursing home in order to accrue the ten days of vacation she was taking and to start saving up for the divorce. The dull ache there was a reminder that her body was no longer cut out for such labor. As annoying as standing around and waiting for their missing luggage had been, it was preferable to sitting at the moment. And judging from the long line of traffic right in front of the airport, they would be sitting for a long time.
A zealous young man speed walked past them commandeering a luggage trolley loaded with precariously positioned suitcases. A fashionably dressed young woman wearing Dolce & Gabbana sunglasses, her phone glued to her ear, followed slowly after him.
Copyright © 2022 by Tomi Obaro. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.