New York vs. Boston
– Fiction by Chola Chisengalumbwe –
Your son kicks my ass at video games. It doesn’t matter what the stage is, the odds. He’s the self-proclaimed god of soccer – even after 1 am, even three goals down. A terrible winner all the time. He can justify his banter when we shoot hoops, even with a faulty controller in his hands. He can snag twenty kills in two minutes, in those pixelated Baghdads.
It’s such a telling metaphor. I pick up your phone calls. You insist nothing we say to each other ever means anything. I hang up, flustered, crazed by you, to go check on the linguine – then the boy crushes me as if he wrote all the computer code himself: as if to crush the nerve of me. You’re no father of mine, sir, even though the performance is pretty captivating.
I remember what boarding school did to the boy. It gave him a taste for blood, and conspired with puberty to sculpt him a persona. Life in a dorm room teaches boys cynicism, misogyny, and solitude, and then it’s up to them which baptisms they carry into the world. College, on the other hand, steers them left or right of all life’s explosions.
When I pick him up from the airport, he mocks my height and hairline afresh, as if the vantage point of size 14 Jordans laces the insult with newfound power. We’re a long way from Lusaka, finally able to emulate the creatures we once beheld starry-eyed on YouTube. He offers me irony-free congratulations.
“You finally sold the book. Awesome, Uncle Cholls.”
Our smiles share a mutual gleam. We’ve finally come full circle. We can attend concerts now, book readings besides my own if we want, nostalgic screenings at art-house theaters. “And you thought,” I remind him, “that we’d be stuck in the thrall of the apocalypse forever.”
He shakes his head, chortling.
“Your mom hates it when I talk like that.”
“When you call our country zombie-infested, doomed?”
“When I speak facts,” I say, and he laughs again.
I help him with his bags. These, he professes, contain mostly shoes. The boy hasn’t changed. The first thing a parent does, even a pseudo-parent like me, is search the face for signs of experience – for signs of, I don’t know, nuclear fission. Is the catalyst alcohol or is it weed? Is there rage or sadness at the world, or both, and the conviction of youth that it must be corrected somehow? Do you ask for sex politely or just take it from a person? Which will be easier to deal with – which harder, to rescue the boy from?
He says no to an Uber home, Brooklyn like we always dreamed, because it’ll take forever to get through traffic, no? Still an avid learner, he questions his own logic – I confirm the subway will take slightly longer. He pumps his fist for it. He wants an authentic weekend. He wants to see the cafeteria where Costanza and Seinfeld talked endlessly about nothing, roam Central Park like sitcom characters, ride the subway.
For the three mornings we have together I let him sleep past 11, because he still spends chunks of the night streaming classic movies or battling gamers in Berlin, Johannesburg, Kiev. I suffer my last defeat around 2 am and fall asleep on the couch with the tweets of movie stars spilling onto my face. You’re so old, Uncle Cholls, he says, in the morning when we plot breakfast. I josh back and tell him it must be all the book tours, the unforeseen disadvantages of literary fame. “It’s not my fault there are so many volunteered tits to sign.” (I know you hate when I speak to them like this, but I must deploy their language – to earn and maintain my pass.)
“In fact,” I add, pulling the bacon from the grill, “you and Otto should come with me to a reading. It’ll be fun. There will be attractive bookworms for you to talk McQueen and Hitchcock and Bacall with.” He doesn’t need this much convincing – this was always the point, after all – but we have a dance. Who am I not to honor its moves?
He still limbers up just to get to scrambling his eggs. Half an hour of blatant disrespect towards all my favorite teams, and excerpting hip-hop songs whose bass I absolutely need to hear, and whizzing round and round the spice rack, for two minutes of sizzling butter. As my own eggs break into a hard rock chorus, he reminds me not to scrape the pan with a fork. “Don’t be such a rookie, Uncle Cholls.”
Really, though, he wonders what’s it like to finally be here. I’m glad to see we still have the same appetite for analyzing our emotions; so I toggle through the subject matter like his concern is a brand new smartphone, unboxed, fragrant with possibility.
Do I enjoy lightning quick Internet? Yes.
Do I enjoy living in a society where I’m not expected to martyr myself for my culture, where I can focus solely on writing ‘good’ sentences? Definitely yes.
Does anything actually change inside? Does the void fill up at last – that allergy to human interaction, that emptiness inside of prime years wasted, that urge to erase oneself from civilization without actually dying; does any of it go away?
“I suppose that’s what the writing’s for.”
Like you, he heard my last interview, on that vulgarly named podcast. Like you, he fears I share too much. I will eventually undress the novel completely, deprive it of all its mystery, if I’m not careful about bleeding publicly. This is all true. He’s had this since he was little: the instinct of a creative soul, to just know things from being even remotely curious about them.
He’s yet to shower, and looks like he intends to spend the rest of the day in boxers and a T-shirt with a fragmented logo. I have emails to send. One to you, others to editors, journalists. I propose supper out and I don’t know where just yet. There are so many different places to show him and we only have three days. Maybe the Chinese place round the block. Maybe the Thai one, round the other. Maybe that Nigerian restaurant I captioned once on Instagram. We’ll do a list – no – we’ll roll a dice – yeah – we’ll settle it with a video game.
My spirit rejoices. He dominates me and decides we’ll grab some Indian food. Neither of us has changed much.
I’m tipping a waitress when you call. I still struggle to suppress excitement at the odd, distinctly African constellation of letters your name strings across my screen. It’s your mom, I announce. The human haiku.
“How is my son?”
You talk about New York like she’s a person in the room, a slim girl with a big ass and a bit of a cocaine habit. You mention news of a recent shooting, which I inform you was in Oregon. You mention yet another episode between a young black man and a careless police officer, which I clarify was in Michigan. Even as I play down your fears, I can’t help but watch the boy go as he excuses himself to use the bathroom. He’s the size of a football player. The sort of creature a cop would need back up to haul to the ground, for nothing.
“We’re fine. He’s in love with the city. We’re going to my next reading together, me, him, Otto. It’ll be good for them.”
Here you surrender some. I ask you about the motherland, feigning concern. What few things I miss about my country have your signature on them: visiting your father’s farmland, pushing trolleys round the malls, innovating chicken dinners. I miss begging you to share my point of view – about the ruling party, the distant future of black people, what makes a good screenplay. I miss discussing the boy with you, what on earth next for him. In those moments, long before book jackets and anxious editorial interns, I could convince myself he was mine too.
“So – what’s for dinner? Since breakfast is clearly a 3pm thing over there.”
Even time zones can’t stifle your sass.
“We haven’t decided. Maybe Chinese. Maybe Italian. Maybe Korean.”
“Please don’t stay out too late. You have a future Zambian president on your hands.”
“What a cruel thing to say,” I respond.
You hang up. As a parting shot, you call me a bootleg American.
Otto gets here late in the afternoon. A girl lights up the street with golden brown hair, her whole head on fire. He hauls out his bag, she shuts her trunk, they embrace. I watch them through the window. Isn’t it odd how you don’t necessarily exist to someone who can’t see you, and how they, in turn, look like cosmic apparitions – operating, as they walk or sneeze or glance sideways, as if within some mystical dimension. Like misbehaving holograms. I remember feeling like this on the streets of Lusaka, like I would never be experienced by anybody, per se.
Otto throws his bag on the living room carpet and rests his feet on it, also revealing the quiet art beneath plus size Jordans. He has rapper hair, rapper chains, a rapper drawl. The boy says there is a dead rapper Otto is working hard to resemble. A girlfriend has recently lent him the journals of Karl Marx and he’s ‘fucking with’ some Keynesian models, just for fun.
“I don’t even take Econ, bro. I’m just woke to this ish.”
I’m refreshed by this turn, that he is at least willing to supplement reasonable street cred with some grasp of current affairs. We talk the midterm elections briefly. He loses interest within five minutes, of course, and chooses to inform me the rumors are true: I have a pretty sweet pad.
The reunion, of Otto and the boy, is wonderful to behold. An invisible joke from the past or even the distant future lingers in the air, punchline unspoken, and they both cackle at knowing what it is inside. I’m in the kitchen again, doing that chicken and mushroom dish you showed me. Naturally, they start up the machine for a game.
Having shown off his ability to drag his syllables in a Boston accent, Otto calls dibs on the Celtics; your boy will represent the hometown Knicks. I watch for a while, amazed at how younger men are able to discuss the qualities of Boston girls versus New York ones versus Toronto ones whilst getting off high volume shots from deep. The boy shimmies and shakes when he scores, ‘cause he literally can’t believe himself. My hands and maybe my smartphone by now reek of garlic.
I haven’t cooked in a while, so I’m pleasantly surprised by how compliant the chicken is, altering complexion. I pour in half a carton of fresh cream and sprinkle karate-chopped parsley over the mélange before it coalesces. I might be happy. The boy storms into the kitchen, over-celebrating a buzzer-beater. Otto curses him from the living room. We have less than 48 more hours together.
I can talk myself into believing the whole club outing was my idea. Otto, just by scrolling down his messages, can mesmerize you into doubting your own recall. At first I think we’re just strolling round the neighborhood, talking hot nonsense just to keep warm, splitting a chocolate bar that cools in the pouch of my hoodie. We don’t know where we’re going but nobody does, sometimes, in New York. Something groundbreaking dawns on Otto. He says, “Now that Uncle Cholls is a bestselling author, isn’t it our job to get him laid?”
I protest mightily. I want to believe a woman with your cheekbones, walking past, blushes on my behalf. The boy lights up, excited by this change in creative direction.
“When was the last time, you, um, uh, yeah.”
I frown, pretending not to remember, then I stretch my arms, pretending not to care. It’s as if the earth moves us forward, as if this is how rotation works. Outside a souvenir store, where Otto purchases a Groucho moustache, he whips out his phone again and asks an Uber driver where the nearest nightclub is. I think we stumble into a private event, Otto passing as the evening’s live act, the boy passing as Otto’s security.
“And you?” the bouncer wonders, blocking the entrance.
“I’m Chuck Englund,” I say, testing the gravitas for the first time.
“Who?” the bouncer frowns.
“The bestselling author?” I say, raising my eyebrows, as if to murmur, “Duh?”
The bouncer nods. I think he only lets me in because he doesn’t want to seem like he doesn’t read books. It’s some athlete’s birthday party, so my paranoia doesn’t let us stay very long. We take off after a beer each and appetizers, spotting B-list movie stars. We find an event typical of the city in an old warehouse, the centerpiece of things an art installation, a giant pig made of stars. We find the bar and order shots. The boy raises a toast to fleeing your homeland without looking back once and we drink. We sink Captains and Cokes and mellow into a fairly civilized conversation about college. I know we’ve been here a thousand times before, but they’re both thinking about dropping out. Again.
“You didn’t go to college, Uncle Cholls, and look. Now you’re selling books in your sleep, to movie studios.”
“WAIT, WHAT?” Otto’s already buzzed, or acting buzzed, a standard feature of nocturnal conduct. “YOU SOLD THE MOVIE RIGHTS?”
“Don’t be idiots.” I’m careful about going into speech mode. It’s the first time we’re drinking together and I want them to have a blast – I also don’t want them rolling their eyes like I’m 50. Maybe I could bump into someone pleasant today, with my nephews for wingmen. Bookmark a phone number for future use, when it’s just Amazon Prime and me again, brainstorming ways to blow royalty checks. Dithering over what drivel to fill up a second novel with. Don’t be idiots, I’d said, after a grown man’s swig of beer.
“You think I wanted to wait this long? Look around: I’m the only 38-year old in a room full of millennials, and I had to break my country’s censorship laws to get here.”
“But you’re pretty damn rich, old guy. (And that dude over there looks 85.)”
“True,” Otto affirms.
“Listen.” I wonder if they can see it: that split-second in time, like those nights I had to lecture everybody about alcohol, loose girls, and cigarettes under the couch, where I don’t believe a word I’m saying. “I’d have killed for this when I was your age. The chance to just wake up everyday and have a real conversation with someone who has twice, maybe thrice the ambition you do. You get to become a person, an adult, in college … You want to be told where to be, when to smile, when to read, all of the time you’re not stuck at a desk pulling gemstones out your ass? You go ahead and be my guest. But college? College is as free as you’ll ever get. Blow it, and you’re going straight back to slow downloads and ifisashi for lunch everyday.”
Even though I don’t pronounce it correctly, I get the desired response. It occurs to me just then that I haven’t spoken my grandmother’s language in months. While I ruminate, Otto and the boy scurry away to take a selfie with or around the giant pig, and then (I presume) to try their luck with New York girls. When they come back, as fearful as toddlers who’ve hopped in and out of an alien’s space-pod, the boy says Otto needs to vomit immediately. I don’t know why this declaration is brought to my seat at the bar.
“Am I supposed to cup it in my hands?”
We disappear soon after Otto desecrates the Men’s. He pukes again on the sidewalk. This is the moment you call.
“How’re things on the apocalypse end?” I greet, prodding at you early.
“It’s quaint,” you reply, “how you think the world’s only ending in Africa.”
You hate when I correct you, even when I’m clearing up my own perspective. “I just think it’s starting in Africa.”
“You know what’s really sad? That you won’t convert any of what God’s given you into something positive for your own people.”
The streets are mercifully quiet until Otto wretches violently.
“What was that?”
“A cat.” I claim to be walking back home from a bodega. I’ve bought spiced rum and lemonade, to read a book with. Every now and then, when I mix this particular drink, I forget I’m not bringing it upstairs for your approval. “You know I didn’t want to leave necessarily. Not at the end.”
“But you did, ultimately.”
I hold my lip, because anything more at this point will get us into an argument. I feel breezy. I want to share the cold November air with you. I let you complain to me about jeans that don’t quite fit you anymore, the surging dollar versus our ailing kwacha, and your usual office politics. I hear every word. I’ve missed this. Your son looks across Otto at me and mouths, The Queen? The Queen, right? To indulge me, you let me recommend you Netflix binges.
“We wish you were here.”
Deflecting, you ask where the boy is.
“Sleeping, I think.”
You bring up a video the Islamic State posted online a few hours ago. Word of a bomb threat in Manhattan.
“There’s always a bomb threat. Bomb threats are like parking tickets out here. They’re everywhere.”
You say bye abruptly, slapping my ear with it. This is what you do.
There’s a pile of books with my name on them and it’s deeply embarrassing. I can hear the commotion from the bathroom, where I often do my best to fend off amateurish anxiety attacks.
Having the kids with me, just this once, makes it a little different. They seem perplexed by everything but in a good way. I introduce them to my agent and publicist, my agent and publicist to them, and Holly relays the publisher’s super-diplomatic concerns about my most recent podcast appearances. I’ve toyed out loud with the idea of never writing another novel, which is weird but nevertheless great for social media. “There is a signed contract, Mr. Englund, demanding a trilogy.” There is quiet hope that I will steer clear of both Zambian and American politics. “Your fan mail, Mr. Englund, is getting way too interesting.”
Perhaps this is why I didn’t achieve much of anything at 23; I might have told them all to go to hell.
Otto grins, his chin raised. “Finna drop a dis track on MC Holly, huh, Uncle Cholls?”
Banana-toned, Sunday sunlight escapes autumn clouds and dabs its paintbrush at the occasion’s moderator. Your boy is sitting in the audience. Otto is next to him, discreetly shooting up gang signs. Overjoyed, deceived, I search for your face in the crowd.
Chola Chisengalumbwe is a copywriter for Publicis Africa, a remote reader for The Bent Agency, and an author of literary fiction. He rants and raves about pop culture sometimes, and all his favorite sports teams, at The Grab. Follow him on Twitter @quarterchuck