Our kitchen is a square box with food-stained white walls. It has chipped cupboards and a round oak table, chipped to match. I claimed ownership of this table the summer my dad bought it. I anchored myself to it, using it as home base. It is where I heard my favorite song for the first time while grilling tilapia at 1 AM, and where I curled up and read Zora Neale Hurston drawing strained breaths at each line. It was where I sat the two weeks after graduating from high school, hungover and scrolling through job listings for home health aides in my area.
I started taking classes to get my Home Health Aide license during my last month of high school. It was only logical. All the West African immigrants, my ma included, were home health aides. For us, it’s the job of choice, or at least the most viable option, since it is one of the few jobs that pays above minimum wage and doesn’t require a college degree. The blue building where my classes would take place was sandwiched between a mom-and-pop grocery store and a gas station. Thirty minutes early, I stopped at the front desk to pay my starting fee of $500. While the secretary processed my information, I snuck peeks around the building. It was a stale, small place with only two rooms. In one of them, a dummy dressed in a hospital gown sat on a hospital bed. That’s all I could see from where I was standing but I knew it was the skills practice room, where students could practice home health aide skills, hands on. From the classroom upstairs, I could hear rapid chatter, in English, French, Igbo, and Pidgin. Anxiety gripped me. The secretary handed me a tattered textbook and oversized blue scrubs, which were my uniform, and sent me on my way.
As I walked up the stairwell to the classroom, anxiety turned into a full-blown panic attack. It occurred to me that I had lost. I’d never thought I would be doing this; I’d fought hard not to be here. I didn’t want to prepare for a career cleaning shit for $13.80 an hour, the way my mother has been doing since the first day we arrived in this country—I had other hopes for myself. During the eight years we’d been in the U.S., I’d dedicated myself wholeheartedly to assimilating and developing a solid academic life. I figured that if I became American enough, I’d be saved. If I was different from my aunts, my mother, my neighbours, the people chattering in that classroom I wouldn’t be here right now, I’d be able to break this cycle. Everyone—parents, teachers, mentors, extended family—had encouraged me to study hard, saying that education was “a key out of any bind.” That didn’t pan out. Reality had set in: I didn’t have the money to go to college and my grades were not good enough to grant me a full scholarship. As I searched for breath, I realized I hadn’t done enough. If I had, I would be going to college like most of the kids in my grade, who were shopping for dorm furniture and preparing for what I considered the right kind of adulthood, the kind I deserved. I took a breath, walked into the classroom, and looked around the room. Most of the students were my ma’s age or older. I saw my neighbor from a few floors below, she has three kids and a husband back home in Sierra Leone. I said hello and started thumbing through my copy of “Nursing Assistance Care,” the required pamphlet for the course.
A week before my high school graduation, our principal passed around lime green sticky notes and asked us, the class of 2014, to write down who we would like to be after high school. A clever deviation from the frequently asked “what are you going to do after you graduate?” although, at the time, I didn’t see the difference between the questions. I stared at my Post-it note and half smiled with exasperation. Adulthood. I saw it hurtling at me like a train going 150 miles an hour. I had no idea who I wanted to become. Once upon a time, I cared about who I could be once I’d broken out of the walls that constrained my academic and social lives. Now all I knew was who and what I had to be. As the truth of my finances and the year that lay ahead set in, there’d been little space for fantasy, no time for plans of self-construction. I don’t know if I was embarrassed or angry at the fact that I no longer had an answer, but I could feel myself getting hot at the question. I stuck the blank Post-it to the back of my copy of Joan Didion’s My Year of Magical Thinking and leaned back in my chair.
That night, I curled up against my kitchen table, absentmindedly thumbing Post-it while reading Didion’s words on loss and trying to anchor myself. As I read, I couldn’t help thinking about escape, Did Didion ever think about running away or is that just me? Isn’t that what everyone thinks about when shit hits the fan and everything is coming at you from every angle? All I could think about was bailing. Escaping meant not dealing, not having to assume the role I was being forced to play. It meant not being me, which was what I wanted more than anything. I tried to rationalize my anger and my frustration: I was too young to have all my space to grow taken away from me. I needed more time. I should be testing the waters like my peers fresh out of high school, I should be standing at the edge of adulthood with anticipation and fear and excitement for the world.
By mid-July, a few weeks after getting my Home Health Aide’s license, I still hadn’t been able to find a job. I was going mad with longing and fear. I didn’t sleep because I was scared of waking up. When I did sleep, waking up felt like drowning. Groceries were running out, rent was past due, my mother’s sorrow spilled into every room in the house and there was nothing I could do about it, I couldn’t carry any of her financial burden. I’d expected to be working and helping out with bills by now, but getting a job was proving to be a tough feat, even with the license. The kitchen table sat deserted for most of July, piled with bread crumbs from the toaster and books I planned to read but didn’t.