He called his mother in faraway Asmara to tell her we were marrying. I got on the phone, having learned my “selam” — “hello” — and “Kemay aleka” — “how are you,” if speaking to a woman — and though we did not share a language, I felt her gladness at her beloved son’s happiness in the tones of our talk. He hung up the phone and said, “I miss my mother,” and wept for the first time in my presence. This was life in diaspora.
We waited a year impatiently until the end of my teaching quarter at the University of Chicago and then he drove out to the city of big shoulders I had come to love so well, loaded up the car, and took me to New Haven. That was June of 1997. August 16 we were married in Saint Barbara Greek Orthodox Church in Orange, Connecticut, the closest we could get in New Haven to the church of his childhood. Then I changed from my simple wedding gown into a traditional Eritrean dress and we danced in hundred-degree heat in his brother Gideon’s New Haven backyard to Congolese rumba played by a pan-African band called Dominicanza. Our guests ate injera and stews. We danced the consecrating guayla under a canopy held aloft by our families, who each took turns coming under to bless us. Two of his older female relatives beat small oil drums. The men danced with ferocious grace in a circle together. My brother’s two small children, Maya and Jonah, twirled from soul to soul. In the middle of it all I slipped away and went inside to lie down in an upstairs bedroom, my cheeks burning with our secret. The heat and the music came through the wide-open windows from outside. I fell into a profound sleep, my hand on the baby quickening within me. When I woke and rejoined the celebration, at the peak of the August New Haven humidity, a wild storm briefly broke and then, Dear Reader, there appeared a double rainbow, the first I had ever seen. Some of the Eritreans slept under the wedding tent in the backyard and even the next day, there was ululation as they awakened. Ficre and Elizabeth were married.
Reprinted with permission from Grand Central Publishing ©2016 Elizabeth Alexander