Princeton, in the summer, smelled of nothing, and although Ifemelu liked
the tranquil greenness of the many trees, the clean streets and stately
homes, the delicately overpriced shops, and the quiet, abiding air of
earned grace, it was this, the lack of a smell, that most appealed to
her, perhaps because the other American cities she knew well had all
smelled distinctly. Philadelphia had the musty scent of history. New
Haven smelled of neglect. Baltimore smelled of brine, and Brooklyn
of sun-warmed garbage. But Princeton had no smell. She liked taking
deep breaths here. She liked watching the locals who drove with pointed
courtesy and parked their latest model cars outside the organic grocery
store on Nassau Street or outside the sushi restaurants or outside the
ice cream shop that had fifty different flavors including red pepper or
outside the post office where effusive staff bounded out to greet them
at the entrance. She liked the campus, grave with knowledge, the Gothic
buildings with their vine-laced walls, and the way everything transformed,
in the half-light of night, into a ghostly scene. She liked, most of all,
that in this place of affluent ease, she could pretend to be someone
else, someone specially admitted into a hallowed American club, someone
adorned with certainty.   But she did not like that she had to go to
Trenton to braid her hair. It was unreasonable to expect a braiding salon
in Princeton--the few black locals she had seen were so light-skinned
and lank-haired she could not imagine them wearing braids--and yet as
she waited at Princeton Junction station for the train, on an afternoon
ablaze with heat, she wondered why there was no place where she could
braid her hair. The chocolate bar in her handbag had melted. A few
other people were waiting on the platform, all of them white and lean,
in short, flimsy clothes. The man standing closest to her was eating
an ice cream cone; she had always found it a little irresponsible, the
eating of ice cream cones by grown-up American men, especially the eating
of ice cream cones by grown-up American men in public. He turned to her
and said, "About time," when the train finally creaked in,
with the familiarity strangers adopt with each other after sharing in
the disappointment of a public service. She smiled at him. The graying
hair on the back of his head was swept forward, a comical arrangement
to disguise his bald spot. He had to be an academic, but not in the
humanities or he would be more self-conscious. A firm science like
chemistry, maybe. Before, she would have said, "I know,"
that peculiar American expression that professed agreement rather than
knowledge, and then she would have started a conversation with him,
to see if he would say something she could use in her blog. People
were flattered to be asked about themselves and if she said nothing
after they spoke, it made them say more. They were conditioned to fill
silences. If they asked what she did, she would say vaguely, "I
write a lifestyle blog," because saying "I write an anonymous
blog called Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks
(Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black" would
make them uncomfortable. She had said it, though, a few times. Once
to a dreadlocked white man who sat next to her on the train, his hair
like old twine ropes that ended in a blond fuzz, his tattered shirt worn
with enough piety to convince her that he was a social warrior and might
make a good guest blogger. "Race is totally overhyped these days,
black people need to get over themselves, it's all about class now,
the haves and the have-nots," he told her evenly, and she used it
as the opening sentence of a post titled "Not All Dreadlocked White
American Guys Are Down." Then there was the man from Ohio, who was
squeezed next to her on a flight. A middle manager, she was sure, from
his boxy suit and contrast collar. He wanted to know what she meant by
"lifestyle blog," and she told him, expecting him to become
reserved, or to end the conversation by saying something defensively
bland like "The only race that matters is the human race."
But he said, "Ever write about adoption? Nobody wants black babies
in this country, and I don't mean biracial, I mean black. Even the
black families don't want them."   He told her that he and
his wife had adopted a black child and their neighbors looked at them as
though they had chosen to become martyrs for a dubious cause. Her blog
post about him, "Badly-Dressed White Middle Managers from Ohio
Are Not Always What You Think," had received the highest number
of comments for that month. She still wondered if he had read it. She
hoped so. Often, she would sit in cafes, or airports, or train
stations, watching strangers, imagining their lives, and wondering
which of them were likely to have read her blog. Now her ex-blog. She
had written the final post only days ago, trailed by two hundred and
seventy-four comments so far. All those readers, growing month by month,
linking and cross-posting, knowing so much more than she did; they had
always frightened and exhilarated her. SapphicDerrida, one of the most
frequent posters, wrote: I'm a bit surprised by how personally I am
taking this. Good luck as you pursue the unnamed "life change"
but please come back to the blogosphere soon. You've used your
irreverent, hectoring, funny and thought-provoking voice to create
a space for real conversations about an important subject. Readers
like SapphicDerrida, who reeled off statistics and used words like
"reify" in their comments, made Ifemelu nervous, eager to
be fresh and to impress, so that she began, over time, to feel like a
vulture hacking into the carcasses of people's stories for something
she could use. Sometimes making fragile links to race. Sometimes not
believing herself. The more she wrote, the less sure she became. Each
post scraped off yet one more scale of self until she felt naked and
false.   The ice-cream-eating man sat beside her on the train
and, to discourage conversation, she stared fixedly at a brown stain
near her feet, a spilled frozen Frappuccino, until they arrived at
Trenton. The platform was crowded with black people, many of them fat,
in short, flimsy clothes. It still startled her, what a difference a
few minutes of train travel made. During her first year in America,
when she took New Jersey Transit to Penn Station and then the subway to
visit Aunty Uju in Flatlands, she was struck by how mostly slim white
people got off at the stops in Manhattan and, as the train went further
into Brooklyn, the people left were mostly black and fat. She had not
thought of them as "fat," though. She had thought of them as
"big," because one of the first things her friend Ginika told
her was that "fat" in America was a bad word, heaving with
moral judgment like "stupid" or "bastard," and not
a mere description like "short" or "tall." So she
had banished "fat" from her vocabulary. But "fat"
came back to her last winter, after almost thirteen years, when a man in
line behind her at the supermarket muttered, "Fat people don't
need to be eating that shit," as she paid for her giant bag of
Tostitos. She glanced at him, surprised, mildly offended, and thought it
a perfect blog post, how this stranger had decided she was fat. She would
file the post under the tag "race, gender and body size." But
back home, as she stood and faced the mirror's truth, she realized
that she had ignored, for too long, the new tightness of her clothes,
the rubbing together of her inner thighs, the softer, rounder parts