Excerpt from How to Read the Air by Dinaw Mengestu, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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How to Read the Air

By Dinaw Mengestu

How to Read the Air

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She never knew what her husband had gone through in the three years they had been apart, nor had she ever really tried to imagine. Say America enough times, try to picture it enough times, and you end up with a few skyscrapers stuck in the middle of a cornfield with thousands of cars driving around. The one picture she had received during those three years was of him sitting in the driver's seat of a large car, the door open, his body half in the car, half out. He kept one arm on the steering wheel, the other balanced on his leg. He looked handsome and dignified, his mustache neatly trimmed, his thick curly hair sculpted into a perfect ball that highlighted the almost uncanny resemblance his head had to the globe that her father kept perched on top of his chest of drawers.

When she first saw the picture she didn't believe the car was his. She thought he had found it parked on the side of the road and had seized the opportunity to show himself off, which was indeed almost exactly what he had done. Still, that didn't stop her from showing the picture to her mother, sisters, and girlfriends, or from writing on the back, in English: Yosef Car. She expected other pictures would eventually follow: pictures of him standing in front of a large house with a yard; pictures of him in a suit with a briefcase in hand; and then later, as the days, weeks, and months collided, and two years was quickly approaching three, she began to wait for pictures of him with his arm around another woman, with two young children at his side. She had secretly feared the latter would happen from the day he first left, because who had ever heard of a man waiting for his wife? The world didn't work that way. Men came into your life and stayed only as long as you could convince them to. She even named the children for him: the boy Adam and the girl Sarah, names that she would never have chosen for her own children because they were common and typical, and Mariam's children, when they came, were going to be extraordinary.

When no such pictures arrived, she wanted to write him and tell him to show her a picture of him in the middle of something, a square, a city park, a picture in which he played just one, minor role.

"Show me a picture of you doing something," she had wanted to write, but that wasn't it exactly. What she wanted was to see him somehow fully alive in a picture, breathing, walking, laughing, living his life without her.


On the morning they left for Nashville, my mother packed a small suitcase with two weeks' worth of underwear, three heavy wool sweaters she had bought at a garage sale for two dollars apiece, and pants and shirts suitable for summer, fall, and winter, even though it was the first week of September and so far the days had been nothing but mild, sunny, and occasionally even too warm for the thin cotton tank tops she had seen other women wearing as they walked casually through the aisles of the grocery store, through shopping malls, and down the deserted Main Street. Those women were neither slim nor graceful. They were plain, pale, and average, and to her eyes entirely indistinguishable one from another, which was precisely what she resented and envied the most. The trip was supposed to last from start to finish four nights and five days, but as she stuffed her suitcase to its limits, she decided it was best to always be prepared for the unexpected, for the broken-down car, for the potential wrong turn, for the long walk at night that for one reason or another never ended. She had packed up her entire life once before, and now six months later, if she had learned anything at all about herself, it was that she could do with far less. She could, if she wanted, get away with almost nothing.

Her husband, Yosef, was already waiting for her outside in the red Monte Carlo he had scraped and saved for more than a year to buy and now could hardly afford. It was not the same car as the one in the photo. She couldn't have said how or why, but it was less elegant, smaller perhaps, and even though the picture had been black and white, she thought of the Monte Carlo he was waiting in as being a shabbier shade of red than the one she imagined.

Excerpted from How to Read the Air by Dinaw Mengestu. Copyright © 2010 by Dinaw Mengestu. Excerpted by permission of Riverhead Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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