I am split down the middle, existing in two halves that have been separated for so long they’ve learned to be whole on their own. Adondi is hovering in the corner of my living room by the wall-to-wall bookshelf. Her feet are floating off the ground, her head swaying from side to side like she is listening to a tune I cannot hear. I can see the spines of the books behind her through her skin. On the opposite side of the room is Tyla—my practiced self, a copy-paste version of Adondi; same body but somehow taller, identical face, curly hair pressed straight, no discernible accent, with the tiny hints of Kenyaness removed.
Tyla is sitting on the sofa, her feet firmly planted on the floor. She is leaning forward, her dark brown eyes boring into me. I know what she is thinking. What am I waiting for? The guests will arrive any minute. I have to pick one: Adondi or Tyla. I turn to Adondi and her head stops moving, she begins to float towards me, slowly like the wind from the open window is propelling her but before she reaches me, we hear a sharp “No!” from the sofa. Tyla is between the two of us in seconds. She is glaring at me. Looking at them is like staring at my distorted reflection in a broken mirror held together by little pieces of tape.
“Drissa’s friends are all foreigners,” I explain to Tyla.
Where her eyes darken at the mention of Drissa, Adondi’s eyes brighten up. The thought of Drissa here, in my apartment, again, makes my heart beat a little faster and I return her shy smile. He’d called to ask if I could have a couple of his friends over for dinner. International students just like us. Adondi had said yes before Tyla had the chance to respond. Afterwards, I had had to mediate when the two of them fought over what I should cook. Adondi wanted pilau, samosas, nyama choma and definitely chapo. Tyla thought we should order a tray of hoagies and a cheese plate. To appease them, I got both sets of food.
Someone knocks on the door.
“Choose,” Tyla commands.
As if I have a choice? I can already see Adondi turning away. She floats through the hallway and I hear the bathroom door close behind her. I open the door to my apartment and Drissa hugs me tight. He lets his lips brush against the edge of my mouth…accidentally or on purpose? Ah, he’s trying to see which version I’ve chosen to be. He frowns when he sees that it’s Tyla but he introduces me to his friends with a smile all the same. There’s Divya, the Indian IT major; Kwame, a med-student from Ghana; Julia, a Business major from London, and Marie, the French Economics major.
“You okay?” Drissa asks.
We’re standing by the now closed door and I’m watching his friends in my living room. There is a flurry of conversation mixed with loud hearty laughter. Their English is tinged with French, Gujarati, Twi and Cockney. Drissa leads me to his circle of friends and I position myself on the edge of the sofa. As the evening progresses I find myself leaning into the seat, listening to them argue about politics, work, and football. Their accents are like music to my ears, reminding me of the eclectic collection of music that Adondi listens to whenever Tyla lets go of the reins. A little Afrobeat, Italian and French rap, a splash of House, K-pop and some Reggae. She always listens with her earphones in, never on the speakers.
The conversation slowly switches to accents and though I’m only half listening when Drissa says, “I chose to keep my accent…” and his voice trails off, I realize that he is looking in my direction.
Everyone goes quiet. I can feel their eyes on me. I clamp my mouth shut before Tyla’s cuss words leave my lips. I suddenly feel like an outsider, like this circle has no room for me. Drissa’s saying something else but I can’t hear him, my ears are ringing. I rise from my seat saying I’m going to get another beer but I head to the bathroom instead, locking myself inside with Adondi and Tyla.
“What’s going on?” Adondi asks. She’s leaning against the door straining to hear the conversations on the other side.
“The guy is a jerk,” Tyla answers her but addresses me.
“He’s not a jerk!” Adondi says.
Tyla continues to ignore her. “Who cares what language I choose to speak or how I sound when I speak? As long as you can fucking understand me.”
I watch them in the bathroom mirror, Adondi trying to get a word in between Tyla’s tirade against Drissa and his war on sole-English speakers. Someone knocks on the door and I hear my name being called.
“Go away!” Tyla shouts but Adondi opens the door letting Drissa in.
He closes the door and comes to stand behind me. I am flanked by my two selves. Drissa, oblivious to their presence, begins to run his hand over my bare shoulder. Adondi leans into his touch at the same time that Tyla shakes his hand off my shoulder so that in the mirror it looks like I am experiencing a muscle spasm. When he kisses my shoulder, Tyla gives up and seats herself on the corner of the bathtub. She makes sure that Adondi and I can see the scowl on her face.
I turn around and face Drissa. “So, I’m guessing I manufactured my accent.”
“That’s not what I meant Claire,” he says, pulling my face up so that he is looking into my eyes.
It scares me when he does that. When he looks at me and it feels like he can see into the deep well of my emotions. I always wonder what he sees reflected back. I close my eyes and listen to the thick quiet in the room. With the four of us in the bathroom it feels crowded and I want to tell Adondi and Tyla to leave so that I can be alone-alone with Drissa, but they’re here to stay. I let my head fall onto his chest and allow myself to drift away.
Pennsylvania, 2002. I am in Mr. Walker’s English class. There’s a new student. A boy from Africa. He’s standing at the front of the room with Principal Berman at his side. I look at his outfit, a matching wax printed shirt and pants combo, and I immediately feel sorry for him. His mom must not like him very much to send him to school dressed like that. A couple of the kids are already snickering and I immediately know that I cannot, will not, let myself be associated with this boy.
When Principal Berman leaves, Mr. Walker asks the boy to introduce himself to the class and to name his favorite author. His name is Drissa Tounkara and he’s from the West African country called Mali. His accent is so thick that half the kids don’t know what he’s saying. I can understand him because he sounds just like my dad does—minus the French accent. Before he can go on, Amy Reins raises her hand and asks him if he can repeat himself. I don’t get what he’s saying Mr. Walker. I want to yell, “Don’t be such a bitch Amy!” but instead I sink into my seat and concentrate on the illustrations on my grammar textbook. From the corner of my eye, I see that Drissa is looking at his feet. He’s wearing a pair of thick black rubber sandals and the sight of them makes me cringe. Mr. Walker quickly turns to the rest of the class, sparing Drissa the embarrassment of trying to tell us who his favorite author is. He makes us all introduce ourselves to Drissa and when my turn comes, I sit up straight in my chair. I speak slowly and clearly, making sure that I enunciate each word. I will not stumble over my English. They shall not group me with this Drissa kid. “My name’s Claire Nyainda”, I pronounce my surname as ‘N-yah-n-da’ the way my teachers and classmates butcher it whenever they say it. I speak looking only at Mr. Walker. “And I like J.K Rowling’s stuff.” I then quickly turn to Tom Harris, who is sitting behind me, and look at him expectantly. I’m too slow. Mr. Walker stops Tom before he gets past his surname.
“Claire, aren’t you from Africa too?”
“Hmm?” I say, playing with the corner of my textbook.
“Aren’t you Kenyan?” Mr. Walker asks but it feels more like he’s reminding me of something rather than asking me a question.
“Yeah, my parents were born there,” I tell him.
I don’t look at Drissa in case he gets any ideas. I can already feel us being linked together. Amy’s eyes are drilling holes into my side and I immediately regret choosing to sit in the front row. I watch in horror as Mr. Walker tells Drissa that Claire N-yah-n-da will show him around the school. I sink into my seat, not listening as the rest of the class finish their introductions. Thankfully, Mr. Walker seats Drissa in the middle of the room and then returns to the lesson. I cannot wait for the bell to ring. I am antsy in my seat, leaning to one side like my chair is searing my buttocks. Five minutes before class is over, I make a show of dancing in my seat and ask to be excused.
Mr. Walker is not having it.
“Claire you can wait five minutes.”
He continues to hand out the week’s homework. He looks at me like he knows I want to escape, to run away before Drissa’s Africaness catches up to me. When the bell rings I am the first one out of the room.
At lunch all the guys are talking about the new kid who speaks with a funny accent. We’re sitting in the middle of the cafeteria, huddled over our lunches.
“What is he wearing?” Amy asks.
I ignore her, but then someone elbows me indicating that they all expect me to answer the question.
Once again I sit up straight, pulling my chair back a little, making sure that the kids at my table can see that unlike Drissa, I am wearing a GAP hoodie, GAP jeans and a pair of white Nike Air Force 1’s.
“I guess that’s how those people dress back there,” I say. I attempt to sound as ignorant as I can so that my schoolmates won’t ask me any more questions. I am American now and I would like it to stay that way but Amy is relentless.
“Those people?” she asks, “Aren’t you African too?”
I want to tell her being African doesn’t mean that Drissa and I are carbon copies of each other but instead I speak into my food and say, “Yeah, but I’m different.”
That night when mom speaks to me in Swahili, I answer her in English. In the shower I practice my enunciation, going over words out loud as the hot water falls around me.
Category – Cah-re-gory.
Vitamin – Vite-a-min.
Twenty – Tweny.
Thirty – Thurry.
Schedule – Shed-ual.
Water – Wodder.
Herbs – Erbs.
Whenever my mom says “loo”, I give her a dirty look and say bathroom. When she’s helping Brian with his homework and says, “You forgot to put a full-stop.” I yell, “Mom, it’s a period!” shaking my head at her before eventually snatching my brother’s homework.
She takes me on her trips to the T-Mobile store, positioning me in front of her so that I am conducting the transaction in her stead, so that she doesn’t have to talk to the clerk who makes her constantly repeat herself. I am talkative when my dad’s engineer friends come over, taking the chance to practice my new English on the unsuspecting adults. I bask in their praise when they tell my father how articulate I am. Well-spoken. Intelligent.
“This one’s going to be someone big,” they tell my dad and I grow a little taller. And every morning when I leave for school, I begin to leave my original self at home.
It takes a while before I notice my two corporeal doppelgängers standing at opposite corners of my bedroom. I don’t leave my room all morning, telling my mom that I feel sick whenever she knocks on my door. One girl, the one with shiny permed hair clipped around her shoulders, moves to my dresser and sits down like she belongs there. I throw furtive glances at her because it’s unsettling watching her watch me in the mirror. When my brown eyes finally squarely meet hers, she speaks.
I recognize the name immediately; it’s from a TV show I used to watch when we first got to the States. I’d obsessed over the character, wondering what it would be like to be her; to walk down the hallways of a high school flanked by my two best-friends; to be one of the cool-kids; to be American. I wait for the other girl to introduce herself but she doesn’t, instead she plays with her beaded necklace watching Tyla and I wearily. She is wearing a white sundress and leather sandals with her thick hair shrunken into a mini-afro. “That’s Adondi. She doesn’t talk much.” Tyla says to me. The name sounds familiar but I cannot place it.
At dinner I ask my mother if we know anyone called Adondi and she laughs as she scoops more baked potatoes onto her plate. “You don’t remember Auntie Adondi? She’s the one who lived in Zambia and would bring you those Yvonne Chaka Chaka tapes. My God, you followed her everywhere!”
Brooklyn, 2014. I am in a tiny bookshop on the corner from my apartment. It’s a rare day. I’ve gone out as Adondi. Tyla is at home, recharging her batteries after a full week of fitting in. I am here listening to a poetry reading. I hang around between the bookshelves not really sitting down. When the session is over, I do not leave but instead delve deeper into the store, wanting to make the most of my time out with Adondi as I can. I find a French graphic novel and begin to thumb through it when someone taps my shoulder.
“Hey,” he says.
My first instinct is to pretend I do not know him and walk away but Adondi turns me around. “Claire Nyainda?” he asks, saying my name the right way. On his lips, my name is as light as air. He is much taller now but just as trim as he was twelve years ago.
“Yes, that’s me,” I say slowly, cautiously looking around us. Adondi tells me to keep calm. Tyla’s not here. I pretend to try and remember his name even though it is at the tip of my tongue.
He nods. There’s a distracting smile on his lips.
“Sorry, I kinda forgot your last name?”
A girl attempts to squeeze past us in the narrow aisle and Drissa moves to my side. She picks a book from the shelf and walks away but Drissa remains there. I can smell his cologne wafting off his white t-shirt. I softly repeat his name like I am in class memorizing words for a foreign language exam. He is quietly looking at me and I wonder if he is remembering things. Things like how I would run away from him in the hallways or when I watched the cool-kids shout ‘dirty African booty scratcher’ at him as he walked past.
I begin to turn away but Adondi speaks, “I’m sorry.”
“We were kids,” Drissa says as he takes the book from my hand and lets his fingers brush over mine.
“You’re being incredibly kind.”
“I probably would have done the same if that was you walking into my class dressed in that hideous outfit.”
He winks at me and I feel myself relax. All thoughts of Tyla are pushed to the back of my mind.
“Somehow, I doubt that,” I say.
As I pay for my book Drissa asks if he can walk me home. I point in the direction of my apartment and we head off. We get to my door five minutes later. I open it slowly, revealing the neat but eccentric décor of my apartment as I look around for Tyla. Drissa doesn’t ask me what I am doing. He stands quietly behind me with the book I just bought in his hand. Tyla is nowhere in sight. I grab Drissa and pull him inside, closing the door behind us before I walk him into my bedroom.
“Are you hiding from someone?” he laughs.
I shake my head quickly and then suddenly he is kissing me. We fall onto my bed and later when we are hot and sticky, our limbs tangled in the white cotton sheets, he turns to me and says, “Can I give you some advice?”
“Don’t leave home without all of your selves.”
I sit up and pull myself away from him. He keeps his eyes on me and says, “I’d like to see all of you Claire; the good, the bad and the African.”
My face breaks into a sad little smile. Drissa takes my hand and kisses me. I want to tell him that it might be too late for me, that my practiced self is like a skin-suit I’ve worn too long and now it’s molded to my frame and I cannot take it off. I want to tell him about Adondi and Tyla who are like two children being forced to make up by their parents. They reach out to each other to shake hands but let go too quickly before a friendship can take. Somehow Drissa already knows about my fragmented self and seems unbothered by it. He is walking around my room now, stopping every few seconds to look at the knick-knacks on my dresser or bookshelf. I wonder if he can tell how hungrily I have started to secretly devour the foreign: Italian films, French novels, and Zimbabwean spoken word poetry. I want to tell him that I cannot remember who I used to be before I became this practiced self.
We stay in bed all evening, talking about art and music and I take the chance to ask Drissa all the questions I couldn’t muster the courage to voice before. How many languages does he speak? Eight. Why does he even bother? Je mehr Sprachen du kennst, desto mehr Mensch bist du. My ears perk up at the sound like I am tethered to his voice. It’s pulling me in. I am a fish on a line. On Drissa’s tongue the harsh German words are almost lyrical. And, even though I have no idea what he’s saying I can tell that it means something beautiful.
“It means, the more languages you know, the more human you are.”
I am back in the bathroom wiping tears I had no idea I was shedding.
“Will you come with me?” Drissa softly asks, “I want you with me in the room Claire, all of you.”
I look at Adondi and Tyla one last time as I follow Drissa out of the door. With each step I take towards the living room I can feel my two selves disappear behind that door. I slowly feel myself becoming whole again.
I slip my hand into his. I am Claire Nyainda.
Sey Llani is a young writer who finds imperfect humanity fascinating and enjoys writing about people in various states of it. Find her on Twitter: @seyandmari.
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