A Nice Young Man
by Laila Lalami
I wake with a start, images of our farm in Camaguey still in my head, to find myself in a strange room. I sit up. Coño, how did I get here? I rub the sleep from my eyes and take a look around. Across from the bed, there is an armoire, its lock broken and one of its doors ajar. The curtains on the windows are a light green, bathing the room in cool slabs of light. Three photos hang on the side wall next to the bed. I slide my feet in the grey slippers I find at my bedside and get up.
Three smiling children look back at me from the first frame--one boy in a baseball cap, seated between two older girls. The second photograph is of a young man in cap and gown. He looks vaguely familiar and I stare at him for a long while but can't place him. I move on to the last picture on the wall, and I see a woman with fiery eyes, rouged lips, and brown hair styled in a French twist. She looks smart in her dress, her purse under one arm, the other holding her handsome companion, as though the photographer caught her on her way to dinner at a fancy restaurant. I touch the back of my neck and feel the dry ends of my hair, and I know I don't look smart at all. In fact, right now I'm wearing formless flannel pajamas. I don't know how I ended up in them.
I go to the window and push the curtains open. Outside, the grass is green, with dry, yellow patches around the edges. Tall pine trees line the back wall of the yard. None of this gives me a clue and I step away from the window. How did I get here?
I open the armoire door to find many outfits, all much too elegant. They remind me of when I was a young woman and had gone to visit my aunt in Havana for Christmas. She took me for a walk along the Malecón, the men whistling as we passed them. But none of these clothes are mine. I don't know what to do. I don't want to take what's not mine, but if I'm ever to go home, I have to dress. Hesitantly, I leaf through the clothes again and choose a beige blouse and a pair of pants. I put the blouse on but have trouble figuring out how to zip up the pants. I wear them unzipped and tug at my blouse so it'll cover the waist. Then I pull the sobrecama on top of the bed to make it look more presentable.
I open the door to the room and look around. The corridor is still dark and the house is quiet. I follow the hallway to a bright kitchen. Now, standing in the middle of it, I get hunger pangs. I take a banana from the fruit bowl on the counter. I eat it, but don't know where to put the peels. I put them back in the bowl.
I stand over the counter to look out of the kitchen window at the houses lining the street outside. I can see a stop sign only yards away, where the street merges onto a busy road. I bet I can get home quickly if I take it.
I hear steps coming up the hallway and I turn around to find a young man in a robe. He looks familiar and I smile at him. I don't know who he is, but maybe he'll help me figure out how I ended up here and maybe he'll even drive me home.
"Buenos Dias," I say.
"Buenos Dias," he says. He puts his hand through his ruffled hair. He picks up the banana peel and I stand aside as he opens the cabinet under the sink to put it in the trash can.
"I didn't know where it was," I say.
"I know," he says.
He opens a cupboard to get a bowl and a box of cereal. He's getting some milk from the refrigerator when I ask him if he can take me home.
"No," he says.
"Oh," I say, taken aback by the flatness of his tone.
"It's not far at all," I start. "I think it's that way." I point to the road outside.
He pours his cereal in the bowl, adds milk over it and shuffles out of the kitchen. I follow him because I don't know what else to do. He sits on the sofa in the living room and turns on the TV. I sit next to him. I wait until he's done eating, and when I see him put the bowl on the table, I ask in my nicest voice, "Couldn't you just take me home?"
"You are home," he says with a sigh.
"Here?" I ask.
"Yes," he says.
I laugh. "This isn't my home."
"No? So where is it?"
I look away from him and around the living room, at the overstuffed sofas, the drum set in the corner, the big color TV. "Not here." His eyes press me and so I say, "My home is where my family is."
"Mama, I am your family," he says, his thumb on his chest.
I don't know why he calls me Mama, but it would be too impolite to correct him. I'm not sure who he is, but since he seems familiar, I figure he's someone from the campo. Still, I have no idea what I'm doing here, in his house. So again I say, "I want to go home to my mother's."
"Your mom's dead."
My heart jumps in my chest and my eyes fill with tears. What a cruel thing to say! "Que va, que va, no, no, no. She's not dead."
"Abuela's been dead fifteen years now, Mama."
I run my fingers through my hair. There he goes again, calling me Mama. I feel dizzy. I shake my head. This won't do. It won't do at all. I get up. "Entonces, I will go by myself." I walk out of the living room, and head for the front door. My hand is already on the door handle, when he catches me and holds me back. I pull my arm out of his grip. "¿Que paso?"
"You can't leave."
"Why not? I'm going to walk home if you won't take me."
"We're not in Cuba. We're in the United States."
I look at him and I don't know what to say. And it hits me that we've had this conversation before, and yet I can't make him understand that I'm not home. I hate that I know before he's even done talking that I won't be able to convince him. I try to think of what I'm supposed to say next, when he lets go of my arm.
"Are you hungry?" he says, smiling at me for the first time.
"No," I say.
"Have you eaten anything today?"
"Well, then, let's get you something for breakfast."
He puts his arm around me and gently pushes me away from the door and back toward the kitchen. I could use a little something before going home, I think. He makes a bowl of cereal and puts it on the kitchen table. I start eating. Then he puts a glass of water and a white pill next to it.
"For you," he says.
"What is it?"
"It's a vitamin."
I take it and drink the entire glass. What a nice young man, I think. "Thank you," I say.
Then I sit back. I watch as he clears the bowl and puts it in the sink. Then he shuffles out of the kitchen again and soon I hear the shower running. So much water, I think, when it could be done with just one bucket. I get up and look out the window again toward the main road. If I take it and walk straight down it, I'm sure I'll end up at my house.
Later the young man comes back. His hair is wet and he's wearing jeans and a black T-shirt with glittery letters. I smile at him. He smiles, but I can tell his mind is on something else. I keep my eyes fastened on his and then when he looks up at me again I say, "I want to go home."
"Tomorrow," he says. "I'm busy today, but I'll take you home tomorrow."
What a nice young man, I think.
About the author:
Laila Lalami's fiction has been awarded the British Council Prize in 2003. She has recently completed a collection of short stories and is at work on a novel. She lives in Los Angeles. More at moorishgirl.com