I wait. It is 1979, my sophomore year of high school, the moment for which I have been raised. From our monthly United Nations Day dinners where my mother and I dress in makeshift rebosas and saris and dashikis and burn recipes for crêpes and piroshki and kimchee from Time-Life cookbooks from the public library, to the home curriculum she designs for me from her college anthropology textbooks, to our mispronounced mutterings over the kinara ("Umoja means unity...") and the Haggadah ("We were slaves of Pharaoh...") and the shahada ("There is no god but God..."), my mother has been preparing me for this. It is to be my first trip out of North America—the escape from Sunnyside she never quite managed herself. The only thing possibly standing in the way is my father's signature.
"I'll get the custody agreement." I offer, holding out a pen. Program enrollment to Mexico is on a first come-first serve basis. "Where is it?"
Anything having to do with my father, who lives overseas, is a bit of a mystery. He and my mother divorced when I was still a baby, and in time she returned to her hometown and he to his. His photograph a college man with close-cropped curls, thick glasses matching hers, and a green wool overcoat—hangs above my bed. Occasionally I write to him, and his affectionate replies drag in months later. I know what he looks like and I know his handwriting. I know that he loves me very much. I just can't remember ever having seen him.
If I think about it, I'm a bit bewildered. I believe that, no matter how young I was when he left, I should remember my father. At least the sharp bouquet of Lux soap, the scratch of green wool against my cheek, the rich bass of his full-throated laugh, the lush Rs of his accent. He is, after all, the only one in family like me. The only one who is black.
Being black matters. It was the reason for the trouble. Though my mother's story is sparse, always the same information presented in the exact same words, she has always been forthcoming about the trouble. For years I've watched her bee-sting lips twist into tight shapes as she describes how my grandfather demanded that she stop seeing my father, a Nigerian graduate student. How, when she refused, he forced her to transfer to another college hundreds of miles away.