The first time I visit my father's bungalow at the University of Nigeria, I perch on a vinyl settee in the parlor and drink milky tea while my father rambles on about the student riots, the military government's Structural Adjustment Program, his college years with my mother, what he recalls her saying about the family farm in Washington State—never a pause for me or anyone else to speak.
Meanwhile my stepmother, another stranger, flits about the room, dipping forward with Black Market sugar and tins of Danish biscuits, slipping coasters under our cups the instant we lift to sip. From the darkened hallway come the slap of flip-flops and giggles.
"You have children?" I ask politely, as if this were a question for a daughter to be asking her father, casually, as if it were not the question I've traveled halfway around the globe to ask. My bag bulges with shiny American goods: books and toys, watches and Walkmans, scarves and perfume. No matter their age or gender, I've got it covered.
When I was not quite two, my father, a graduate student from Nigeria, received an urgent summons to return home. He left forty-eight hours later, clothes and books scattered across the floor of his rented room. He was to attend to family business, scout out job prospects, and come back. Though my parents had split, and my mother was raising me alone—her Scandinavian immigrant family having thrown her out for bearing a Black child—in Seattle, they maintained relations for my sake.
"I want you to know that this is not a good-bye," he wrote to us from a ship in the middle of the Atlantic, nervous about reports of ethnic and religious tensions awaiting him. "I shall look forward to our meeting so long as we are all alive."
My mother never saw him again.
My stepmother nods at my question, glances at my father. She is light-skinned and solicitous, with a wide nose and a voice like the breeze of the fans she angles at me.