When I met Isaac, I was almost what my mother would have called “a woman of a certain age.” That in her mind made me vulnerable, though I never felt that way, not even as a child growing up in a house where it would have been much easier to be a boy. My mother was a whisperer. She spoke in soft tones, in case my father was upset or had entered one of his dark moods, a habit which she continued after he had left. We lived in a quiet, semi- rural Midwestern town, and decorum for her was everything. What mattered most was that the cracks that came with a family were neatly covered up, so that no one knew when you were struggling to pay the mortgage, or that your marriage was over long before the divorce papers were signed. I think she expected that I would speak like her—and maybe when I was very small I did, but my instincts tell me that, more likely than not, this was never the case. I could never have been a whisperer. I liked my voice too much. I rarely read a book in silence. I wanted to hear every story out loud, so I often read alone in our backyard, which was large enough that if I yelled the story at the top of my voice, no one in the house closest to us could hear me. I read out there in the winter, when the tree branches sagged with ice and the few chickens we owned had to be brought into the basement so they wouldn’t freeze to death. When I was older, and the grass was almost knee-high because no one bothered to tend to it anymore, I went back there with a book in my hand simply to scream.
That Isaac said he didn’t mind if I raised my voice was the first thing I liked about him. I had driven nearly three hours, across multiple county lines and one state line, to pick him up as a favor to my boss, David, who had explained to me earlier that morning that, although, yes, tending to foreigners, regardless of where they came from, wasn’t a normal part of our jobs, he had made an exception for Isaac as a favor to an old friend, and now it was my turn to do the same.
I was happy to take Isaac on. I had been a social worker for five years and was convinced I had already spent all the good will I had for my country’s poor, tired, and dispossessed, whether they were black, white, old, fresh from prison, or just out of a shelter. Even the veterans, some of whom I had gone to high school with, left me at the end of a routine thirty-minute home visit desperate to leave, as if their anguish was contagious. I had lost too much of the heart and all the faith needed to stay afloat in a job where every human encounter felt like an anvil strung around my neck just when I thought I was nearing the shore. We were, on our business cards and letterhead, the Lutheran Relief Services, but there hadn’t been any religious affiliation—not since the last Lutheran church for a hundred miles shut down at the start of World War II and all of its parishioners were rechristened as Methodists.
It was common among the four of us in the office to say that not only were we not Lutheran, but we didn’t really provide any services, either. We had always run on a shoestring budget, and that string was nipped an inch or two each year as our government grants dried up, leaving us with little more than a dwindling supply of good intentions and promises of better years to come. David said it first and most often: “We should change our name to ‘Relief.’ That way, when someone asks what you do, you can say, ‘I work for Relief.’ And if they ask you relief from what, just tell them, ‘Does it really matter?’ ”
Mildly bitter sarcasm was David’s preferred brand of humor. He claimed it was a countermeasure to the earnestness that supposedly came with our jobs.
I knew little about Isaac before I met him, except that he was from somewhere in Africa, that his English was most likely poor, and that the old friend of David’s had arranged a student visa in order for him to come here because his life may or may not have been in danger. I wasn’t supposed to be his social worker so much as his chaperone into Middle America—his personal tour guide of our town’s shopping malls, grocery stores, banks, and bureaucracies. And Isaac was going to be, for at least one year, my guaranteed Relief. He was, in my original plans, my option out of at least some of our dire weekly budget meetings and the mini- mum of two hospital visits a month; last and most important, he secured my right to refuse to take on any new clients who were terminally ill. I had been to twenty-two funerals the year before, and though most were strangers to me when they passed, I felt certain my heart couldn’t take much more.
My first thought when I saw Isaac was that he was taller and looked healthier than I expected. From there, I worked my way backward to two assumptions I wasn’t aware of possessing: the first that Africans were short, and the second that even the ones who flew all the way to a small college town in the middle of America would probably show signs of illness or malnutrition. My second thought—or third, depending on how you counted it—was that “he wasn’t bad-looking.” I said those same words to myself as a test to measure their sincerity. I felt my little Midwestern world tremble just a bit under the weight of them.
Isaac and I had known each other for less than an hour when he told me he didn’t mind if I sometimes shouted; I had already apologized for being late to meet him, and for failing to have a sign with his name on it when I arrived. Later, in the car, I apologized for driving too fast, and then, once we arrived in town, I apologized for my voice.
“I’m sorry if I talk too loud,” I said. It was the only apology I had repeatedly sworn over the past ten years never to make again. The frequency with which I broke that promise never softened the disappointment I felt immediately afterward.
“You don’t have to apologize for everything,” he told me. “Talk as loud as you want. It’s easier to understand you.”
I couldn’t hug Isaac or thank him for his attempt at humor without making us feel awkward, but I wanted him to know that I wasn’t normally so easily moved, that I was a woman of joy and laughter. I tried my best to give him an animated, lively description of our town.
“It’s pronounced ‘Laurel,’ like the flower,” but I suspected that wasn’t entirely correct, so I pointed to the hulking brick factory, which, other than a grain silo, was the tallest object on the horizon.
“That used to be a bomb factory,” I said. There were rumors that it would be converted into the state’s largest shopping mall, but I wasn’t sure he knew what a mall was, so I left that out.
We drove past gas stations and fast-food restaurants clustered together every quarter-mile with nothing yet built in between them. I tried to think of something else interesting to say. I pointed to a gas station and said, “Fifteen years ago, that used to be a pig farm.” A second later, I worried that maybe he didn’t know what a pig farm was, or that maybe he thought I was bragging about our town’s pig farms to someone who had just come from a country where there were no farms, or pigs. I had to bite my cheek to keep from apologizing. When we reached the old, charming main street that used to be the heart of the town, I asked him if there was anything he’d like to see before I took him to his apartment.
“Thank you for asking,” he said. “I would like to see the university if it isn’t too much trouble.”
I looked at his hands. He had his hands palm-down on his thighs, with his back perfectly straight like a schoolboy trying to prove he was on his best behavior. I thought, Now I know what it means to be frightened stiff.
We made a quick tour of the southern half of the campus. It wasn’t the largest or most prestigious university in the state, but I always suspected it was the most beautiful. Like everyone, Isaac was impressed by the trees—hundred-year-old oaks that, especially in August, seemed more essential to the idea of the university than any of the buildings. I felt a surge of nostalgia every time I came there, and offered to take him to the library. “I would appreciate that,” he said.
We were standing in the main reading room—a wide, grand hall that a professor of mine had described as a terrible clash of Midwestern and classical taste—when I decided that, for Isaac’s sake, I’d had enough of his formal politeness. He’d been staring silently for several minutes at the wood-paneled walls lined with leather books and supported by marble columns, all of which stood on top of a thick green carpet that could have been found in any one of a hundred living rooms in town. He looked down before he stepped onto the carpet, and I could almost hear him wondering if he should take his shoes off. He was still staring at the walls in awe when I shouted to him, “How do you like America?”—not quite at the top of my voice, but definitely somewhere near it.
There were two weeks until the start of the semester, so the library was nearly empty. The few people there all turned to stare at us, and I could see a librarian on the other side of the hall slowly making her way toward me. As she did so, Isaac walked out of the room and then the library without saying a word. I began to prepare yet another series of apologies—to him, to the librarian, and, if I lost Isaac, to David. I waited until the librarian had almost reached me, before following Isaac out: to run after him, in our town, at that time, would have given the wrong impression.
Isaac hadn’t gone far. He was standing a few feet away from the front door, near the very top of the steps, with both hands tucked into his pockets, as if I had caught him in the middle of a late-afternoon stroll across campus.
“I apologize for leaving so abruptly. I didn’t understand what you were saying in there. Next time, please speak louder.”
I wanted to hug him again. There was a natural, easy charm to his words, and, more than that, forgiveness. No one else I had ever met spoke in such formal sentences. I had been told when given his file not to be offended if he didn’t speak much, since his English was most likely basic, but I remember thinking that afternoon that I felt like I was talking with someone out of an old English novel.
At the office the next day, when David asked what Isaac was like, I told him he was kind and had a nice smile and an interest- ing face, all of which was true and yet only a poor part of what I really wanted to say. David half listened to my description of Isaac. When I finished he asked me, “And what else, other than the obvious?”
“He has a funny way of speaking,” I said.
“He sounds old.”
“That’s a new one. Maybe it’s just his English.”
“No,” I said, “his English is perfect. It’s how I imagine someone
talking in a Dickens novel.”
“Never read him,” he said.
And neither had I, but it was too late to admit that Dickens was merely my fall guy for all things old and English. From that day on, David and I took to calling Isaac “Dickens.” When Isaac and I went to find more furniture for his nearly empty apartment, I told David, “I’m off now to see my old chum Dickens.” In meetings, David would ask how Dickens was getting along in our quaint town, which only a decade earlier had stopped segregating its public bathrooms, buses, schools, and restaurants and still didn’t look too kindly upon seeing its races mix.
“He’s doing very, very well,” I said, in what was as close as I could come to an English accent.
A month later, after Isaac and I had spent a half-dozen nights intertwined in his bed till just before midnight, I brought him a copy of A Tale of Two Cities. He had a growing stack of books, used and borrowed, around his bed, but none, I had noticed, were by Dickens.
“A present,” I said. It was unwrapped. I held the book out to him with both hands. He smiled and thanked me without looking at the cover.
“Have you read it already?” I asked him.
“No,” he said. “But I have every intention of doing so right away.” I laughed. I couldn’t stop myself. He was so eager to please. I had to confess: “We have a nickname for you at the office. We call you Dickens.”
Only then did he look at the cover.
“Dickens,” he said.
And again I was afraid I had embarrassed him. He flipped the
book over and read the description on the back and, as he did so, smiled. It was the same expression he’d had on his face when I found him on the library steps.
“I could do much worse here than that,” he said.
What Isaac and I never had was a proper start to our relationship. We missed out on the traditional rituals of courtship and awkward dinners that most couples use to measure the distance they’ve traveled from restaurant to bedroom. No one watched us draw closer, and no one was there to say that we made for a great or poorly matched couple. The first time Isaac placed his lips on mine was in his apartment after I had shown up unannounced to check on him. He had been in town for two weeks, and we already had a routine established. I picked him up from his apartment every other day at 4 p.m. In the beginning, our afternoons were spent primarily doing errands. I drove Isaac to the grocery store, bank, and post office.
I spent an afternoon waiting with him for the telephone company to arrive, and when it came to furniture, I was the one who picked out the couch, coffee table, and dresser from the Goodwill store two towns away.
Isaac told me he knew how to cook, but not in America.
“The eggs here are different,” he said. “They are white, and very big. And I don’t understand the meat.”
And so I taught him what few domestic acts I had learned
from my mother. I taught him how to choose the best steaks for his money from the grocery store. I held a package of discounted beef next to my face for contrast and said, “See those pockets of fat? That’ll keep it from drying out,” and told him that if he had any doubts he should smother it in butter. Eggs, I told him, were an entirely different matter. “I hate them. You’ll have to find a better woman than me for that,” I said.
I knew that part of the reason I had been given this job was that David assumed that it would play to my motherly instincts, and that, as the only woman in the office without a family, I had the time. I never had those instincts, however. I watched friends from high school and college grow up, get married, and have children, and the most I had ever thought about that was “That could be nice.” My mom had been that kind of mother, and if Isaac had been from Wyoming, I could have dropped him off at her house the day he arrived and never thought of him again until it was time for him to leave.
“She would have made you fat,” I told him. “And the only thing you probably would have ever heard out of her was a list of what was in the refrigerator and what time you could expect to eat.”
That kiss happened September 3, in the doorway between his living room and bedroom, just after we had returned to his apartment from buying silverware and plates. He was on his way to the bedroom and I was leaving the bathroom when we collided in the hallway, which was wide enough for only one person to pass at a time. Forced to stand face to face, what could we do but smile?
“Do you live here as well?” Isaac asked me.
“I do now,” I said, and, without thinking, we leaned toward each other, me up and him down, until our lips met. We kissed long enough to be certain it wasn’t an accident. When we opened our eyes and separated, what we felt wasn’t surprise so much as relief that our first moment of intimacy felt so ordinary—almost habitual, as if it had been part of our routine for years to kiss while passing.
I was late getting back to my office, but had I not been, I would still have wanted to leave on a dramatic note. I grabbed my jacket and thought of walking forcefully out the door, stopping for one final, brief kiss, but once I was close to him, I wanted to press my nose into the crook of Isaac’s neck so I could smell him, and that was exactly what he let me do.
“You are like a cat,” he said.
“You smell like onions,” I told him.
He craned his neck around mine. We held that pose for at least a minute, at which point I pulled away so I wouldn’t have to worry about him doing so. When I was back in his apartment two days later, I walked from room to room as soon as I entered. Isaac asked me what I was doing. I took his hand and pinched the flesh between his thumb and index finger before wrapping my arms around him. “I’m making sure you’re really here,” I said. He lifted my chin up to his lips and kissed me quickly.
“Does that help?” he asked. It did, but it wasn’t enough. Compared with others, Isaac was made of almost nothing, not a ghost but a sketch of a man I was trying hard to fill in.
I nudged him backward until we landed on the couch. I felt his legs trembling; I was relieved to know he was nervous.
“I’m still not convinced,” I said. My doubt became the cover story we needed to take each other apart. Isaac kissed my neck, and in return, I took off his shirt and placed his hands on the bottom of my blouse so he knew he should do the same. I kissed his chest and he kissed mine. Once we were undressed, he asked, “And what about now?”
I raised my hips and pulled him inside me.
“I’m almost convinced,” I said. His right leg never stopped trembling. Knowing he was afraid made me want to hold on to him that much harder, and I thought if I did so, with time I could help color in the missing parts.
With no outside world to ground us, every moment of intimacy that passed between Isaac and me did so in an isolated reality that began and ended on the other side of his apartment door. I had never had a relationship with a man like that, but I under- stood how easily the tiny world Isaac and I were slowly building could vanish.
“I am dependent on you for everything,” he often said during our first two months together. He said it sometimes as a joke, sometimes out of anger. He could say it if I had just told him where his glasses were, or if I had taken his clothes out of the washing machine and hung them to dry because I knew he had a habit of leaving them in the washer overnight, and it would be affectionate and charming and made me think that it wouldn’t be so bad to fall in love with a man like this, who noticed the small things you did for him and found a way to say thank you without making you feel like his mother. At other times, he said the same words and all I heard was how much he hated saying them, and how much he might have hated me, at least in those moments, as well.
The list of things he was dependent upon me for grew larger the longer he stayed in our town. In the beginning he needed me only to do my job: to help get him from one point to another, since he had no car or license; to explain basic things, like when and when not to dial 911. Later on, he needed me to sit with him quietly in the dark and hold his hand as he mourned the loss of someone he loved. Once, he called me at work and asked me to leave the phone on the desk, just so he could hear other people talking. He didn’t always know how to fill his days. He had his books—dense historical works and biographies along with a smaller collection of romance novels that he kept hidden under his bed. He read obsessively. When I asked him why, he said it was “to make up for all the lost time,” because he had never had access to libraries like ours until now; but I suspected it had as much to do with not knowing what to do with all those long empty hours. Isaac had none of the good or the bad that came with living in such close, sustained contact with your past. If there was any- thing I pitied him for, it was the special loneliness that came with having nothing that was truly yours. Being occasionally called “boy” or “nigger,” as he was, didn’t compare to having no one who knew him before he had come here, who could remind him, simply by being there, that he was someone else entirely.
Excerpted from All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu. Copyright © 2014 by Dinaw Mengestu. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.