Teju Cole was shortlisted for the 2015 PEN Open Book Award for Every Day Is for the Thief, in which a young Nigerian living in New York City goes home to Lagos for a short visit, finding a city both familiar and strange. The following is an excerpt from the novel.
Amina has come out onto the street to meet me. She looks like herself: girlish still, slender, with chubby cheeks. She wears her hair in an afro usually, but today she’s plaited it simply. I catch sight of her wounded hand (a kitchen accident), which she makes no effort to conceal. Three fingers, two stumps. I back into the driveway of the two-story duplex. It’s a middle-class home, a ground-floor apartment of, I guess, two or three bedrooms, with exterior paint that has gone gray in parts. Air conditioners protrude from several windows and, from somewhere, comes the hum of a generator or two. In the doorway is a man whom I suppose is her husband. He carries a sleeping toddler.
—My husband, Henry. My daughter, Rekia. Please come in, come in.
We are playing grown-ups.
Amina’s living room has solid red floor-to-ceiling drapes and a hushed air. She looks less girlish now. The interior has brought a seriousness to her mood and her body. I notice the bags under her eyes, little dots of heat rash on her cheeks, and the nubs where her right middle and ring finger used to be. Daylight shoots through in a white column where the drapes fail to meet in the middle. Conversation is polite. Henry is a kind, narrow-shouldered man with the beginnings of a paunch. The flat-screen TV, which is on but muted, is playing a Nollywood drama.
He is a banker; he has Friday mornings off. Amina recently left banking and is looking for the next thing. She says she enjoys the opportunity to be with her daughter, but there’s something dutiful in the answer. I ask them about their commutes to work, and about whether they plan to have more children. They don’t ask me much about myself. They do ask if I’d like lunch, and I say no. She has, I presume, told him about me: the first heart she broke (or perhaps it was the other way around). It would be different if I was alone here with her, without the stranger who knows nothing of our conversations, our letters (belabored cursive on perfumed paper; where are they all now?), our long-ago truancy, our first frightened moments in bed, the shame and delight after. And then doing it again and again, any opportunity we had, swept up in a hunger like none since.
The pauses last too long. The tension is that of a waiting room, and I wonder why I have come, why I have chosen, yet again, to recover the impossible. I tell them about my encounter with the policeman, careful not to sound too angry about it.
—You see what we have to face in this country? she says, laughing. But you paid too much. One thousand naira would have done it.
I listen closely to her laughter. I can’t quite reconcile it with what I remember. I can’t tell if it has darkened or if it is some other difference. Is there some trace in her every reaction of that day her hand was caught in the food processor? There had been a power surge, a mutual friend had told me. Something had slipped, somehow, or she had reached into the machine. The blades had whirred, and she’d lost a lot of blood.
I’m distracted by this thought when Henry asks me something.
—I said, Did you think you could move back here?
—Oh, who knows? The money would have to be right. Things would have to fall into place. It’s easier for bankers than for doctors. We have good banks and bad hospitals.
Another pause. Traffic outside. Generators. There are many lives and many years, and relatively few moments when those individual histories touch each other with real recognition.
At no time is Amina awkward in handling objects. It is she who gives me the glass of water, in the clawlike grip of her right hand. When she writes (but this I know only from hearsay) she writes with her left. She had to learn again, with a hand different from the one that used to write to me. On the television, the camera zooms in on a man with wide eyes, then cuts away and zooms in on another man, with whom he’s locked in staring combat. The little girl finally wakes up. Hello, Rekia, I say. She shies away.
—So moving back has crossed your mind?
—It has crossed my mind.
This is the answer I have heard others give. It will be many weeks before it rains again. When I leave their house, I wipe water from the side-view mirror to get a better glimpse of the three of them waving me bye. They are close together and small, as in a medallion of the Holy Family.
From the Book Every Day Is for the Thief by Teju Cole. Copyright © 2007, 2014 by Teju Cole. Published by Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.
Read more from the 2015 PEN Open Book Award Finalists
• “The Messenger,” from City Son by Samrat Upadhyay
• “You and Your Partner,” from Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine
• “Our Own Maps,” from An Untamed State by Roxane Gay
• “The Beiruti Hustle,” from An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine