The Other Americans by Laila Lalami Read Online (FREE)
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My father was killed on a spring night four years ago, while I sat in the corner booth of a new bistro in Oakland. Whenever I think about that moment, these two contradictory images come to me: my father struggling for breath on the cracked asphalt, and me drinking champagne with my roommate, Margo. We were celebrating because Margo had received a grant from the Jerome Foundation to work on a new chamber piece, her second big commission that year. We’d ordered steamed mussels and shared an entrée and lingered late into the night. The waiter was trying to convince us to get the chocolate mousse for dessert when my phone rang.
I have no clear memory of what happened next. I must have told Margo the news. We must have paid the bill, put on our coats, walked the five blocks back to our apartment. A bag was packed, somehow. But I do remember driving home on the 5 freeway, in the foggy darkness that cloaked almond groves and orange orchards, all the while dreaming up alternate explanations: perhaps the sheriff’s department had misidentified the body, or the hospital had swapped my father’s records with someone else’s. These possibilities were far-fetched, I knew, and yet I clung to them as I drove. Under my headlights, I could see only twenty feet ahead. But the fog lifted at dawn, and by the time I reached the Mojave, the sun was out and the sky a brazen blue.
All I could hear when I stepped into my parents’ house were my heels on the travertine floor. There was a copy of Reader’s Digest on the console, a set of keys on a yellow wrist coil, and a pair of sunglasses with a missing lens. One of the framed photos on the hallway wall was askew. In the living room, my mother sat on the sofa, staring at the cordless phone in her hand as though she couldn’t remember how to use it. “Mom,” I called, but she didn’t look up. It was as if she couldn’t hear me. She was still in the white shirt and black gi from her karate class the night before. Across the ottoman, the jacket of her uniform lay in a heap, the dragon appliquéd on its back a startling red.
It seemed to me then that my father was still with us—in the half-empty packet of Marlboros on the windowsill, the frayed slippers under the coffee table, the tooth marks on the pencil that stuck out from the book of crossword puzzles. Any moment now, he would walk in, smelling of coffee and hamburgers, saying, You won’t believe what a customer told me this morning, and then, seeing me standing by the armchair, call out, Nora! When did you get here? His eyes would gleam with delight, he would kiss me on the cheeks, the stubble on his chin would tickle me, and I would say, Now. I just got here now.