I am looking out the tall glass windows to the left of my desk at the breathtaking view of Manhattan. All I can think about is that I only have two months to go. Two months and I’ll be free to do whatever I want for half a year. I won’t have to worry about my job or money. My job is stimulating, and I’ve reached a level of seniority where I’m financially comfortable. But it often feels like something is missing. Many would salivate over my sixty-fourth-floor view overlooking the whole city, but my thoughts are elsewhere. They are in a place far away from here.
My name is Gnilane Sy. I am twenty-nine years old. You’ll understand why this detail is relevant in a little while. I work for a leading technology company in downtown New York City as a data science manager. I grew up at the crossroads of two different cultures. I was born in the United States, but was raised in Senegal, my country of heritage, until the age of thirteen. As the firstborn in my family, I was then sent back to live in the United States with my aunt Mariam and her family. Aunt Mariam is one of my mother’s little sisters. I would spend the school year with her and be shuttled back to Senegal for the summer to be with my parents and two siblings. I completed middle school and high school in Pennsylvania. My parents thought this was the best way for me, as their only American child, to access the opportunities my birth country provided, while remaining grounded in my Toucouleur African culture.
The Toucouleur people, also called HaalPulaar, are spread across a few countries in West Africa. Despite modernization and globalization, our culture has remained fairly traditional in some aspects. Many of our women marry young and are expected to prioritize being wives and mothers above all else. I have managed up until now to withstand the family pressures to get married because I live far away. My mother, however, has made it her mission since I turned twenty-one to convince me to come home and find a Toucouleur husband. That is one of the reasons why I’ve only been back home once since graduating college. I miss Senegal a lot, and I dream about moving back and building a life there. But the thought of being nagged and guilt-tripped by my family has kept me away. GD, the company I work for, offers employees the option to take a six-month sabbatical after five years of full-time employment. I will get 30 percent of my regular pay and my job back guaranteed when I return. That’s something revolutionary for any company to provide. I’ve been looking forward to seizing that opportunity since I joined. My plan is to use the time to rediscover my home. I want to travel, rest, and spend time reconnecting with my family and my roots.
Hearing my name interrupts my deep thoughts.
“Gnilane! I’ve called your name at least three times, honey. Where was your mind?” Anita is standing in front of my desk.
“I was thinking about one of my projects. Are you ready to go?”
She gives a skeptical look and says, “Umm-humm. I’m sure that’s what you were thinking about. Let’s go!”
Anita was one of the first people I met when I started working here almost five years ago. She is a lead in the marketing department which sits on the other side of the office from my team. She quickly became one of my best friends and confidantes at work. Over time, our friendship has grown beyond work. We talk about everything: work, our lives, and our families. Her parents emigrated from Bangladesh when she was seven years old. We relate to each other about being multicultural and balancing the demands of both cultures. I think of her as a big sister who can impart wisdom when I need it.
I grab my wallet and meet her at the elevator. She’s pressing the call button rather aggressively. Unusual for someone who’s usually so calm and grounded.
“What happened to you?”
“You have no idea. I’ll tell you when we get downstairs.”
She looks through the glass doors to see if someone else is coming out. When we get downstairs, and she’s sure nobody can hear, she says, “Your boss is really testing my patience!”
“Who else? He is a piece of work. This press release with him has been the worst project in my seven years working here. I don’t know how you deal with him.”
“I took your advice and started meditating. It’s working for me. And at this point, honestly, it’s all noise to me. I am two months away from my sabbatical. Tying up loose ends is all I want to give my energy to.”
“Well, he better change his attitude. I don’t know how much more of this I can take.”
We cross the street. There are a good number of places to grab a quick lunch down the street from our office building. We make our way to Pret A Manger, get our food, and find a table.
As soon as we sit down, she asks, “How is the planning going for the sabbatical? Do your parents know you when you’re coming yet? Did you find someone to rent your place while you’re gone?”
“It’s coming along. My cousin’s friend will be here from Philly for a three-month internship. She’ll rent my place. I know and trust her, so I'm happy I have that in place. My family knows I’m coming, but I haven’t given them an exact date yet. I don’t want them to have too much time to plan anything.”
“Anything like what? Like setting you up or trying to force someone on you?”
“I don’t know really. I don’t think they would ever try to ‘force‘ someone on me. My parents are modern. They both went to college here. But I think it’s odd that they stopped talking to me about marriage these past couple of months. Especially, when it’s all they could talk about since I graduated college.”
She opens her fruit bowl and starts eating it. “They gave up maybe?”
“Maybe. Who knows! Maybe they’re concentrating on my sister instead. She’s twenty-two and graduating soon. God forbid she ends up like me, unmarried at almost thirty.” I roll my eyes at the thought of everything I’ve heard from relatives throughout the years.
“It’s hard for our parents to relate. This new world and our realities are difficult for them to understand. My mom always asks my sister and I if we’ve become feminists now. Like it’s the worst thing in the world.”
We both burst out laughing at the mental picture of Anita’s mom lamenting at what America had done to her children.
“But seriously, though. What if they introduce you to a guy, and he ends up being everything you’ve always wanted? Maybe you should be open to it. You’re not in a relationship anymore. This might be a good thing. You might come back from your sabbatical married to the love of your life!” Her eyes light up. We talk a lot about being independent women, but at the end of the day, the conditioning still persists. We’re getting a little too carried away with this whole conversation.
“I’m not opposed to the idea of being introduced to someone. But I do have a big problem with being pressured or manipulated into a situation.”
“Yeah, I know what you mean. But you know the dating life out here in these New York streets is brutal. Us single gals need all the help we can get.”
“Tell me about it! Between the Peter Pan syndrome guys; the ones whom you have to explain your whole life and culture to, and they still don’t get it or want to learn about it; and the ones just looking for a hook up. I’m taking a well-deserved break!”
“Hahaha arranged introductions might just be what we need!”
“I would not go to that extreme just yet but ask me again in a few years, hahaha. Anyway, we should head back. I have a one thirty meeting with your best friend Deren.”
She gives me a look of horror. That’s how she feels about my boss. We head back to the office in good moods ready to knock out the rest out the day.
I love New York City in general but particularly at the beginning of spring. The energy and the convenience of my lifestyle here keeps me upbeat and motivated. I lived in a studio on the east side for my first three years here. Then two years ago, I bought my very own one-bedroom condo. I adore my place. I’ve decorated it to reflect my taste and the way I live.
The city feels like a second home to me. We’re in the first week of April, and the weather is simply perfect. The temperature is almost warm but not warm enough for my allergies to kick in. Since my lunch with Anita, a few weeks ago, work has been as busy as ever. I tried to get most projects wrapped up before my sabbatical only two weeks away. I’m going to Philadelphia this weekend to see Aunt Mariam and her family before leaving. She has packages she wants me to take to Senegal for her. Some are for my mother, but the majority are for various other family members. Knowing my aunt, she probably purchased a ton of things for me to bring. I decided to rent a car and drive down to Philly. That way, I won’t be overwhelmed with luggage coming back on a bus.
The drive is pretty this time of year. The air is a bit chilly, but the sun is shining brightly. This is my kind of day. I leave around 11 a.m. and surprisingly there isn’t much traffic after I get out of the Lincoln Tunnel into New Jersey. I have a special karaoke playlist on Spotify that is perfect for long rides. I haven’t had many opportunities to drive since I moved to Manhattan, so I’m particularly savoring singing to Mariah Carey’s best hits at the top of my lungs.
A little over two hours later, I pull up in front of my aunt’s house.
Aunt Mariam lives in a nice middle-class community in the Philadelphia suburbs. The houses are spacious with well-kept front lawns. Although very diverse, everybody in this little community knows each other.
I’m surprised to see a truck that I don’t recognize. It has Maryland license plates and is parked in my aunt’s driveway alongside her and her husband’s cars. She didn’t tell me she was having out-of-town visitors. My aunt loves to host, so they were probably here for lunch.
I park, grab my two bags, and walk around the house to enter through the back. When she has guests, they sit in the front living room. It’s better for me to come in quietly to not disturb them. My aunt is very involved in the Toucouleur community in Philadelphia. She always has other Toucouleur wives and mothers over. Whether it’s people who recently moved here or people who need recommendations, she is the one they go to. People jokingly refer to her as the Toucouleur mayor of Philly. If this is another one of her lunches, I would rather stay out of the way. I’m happy that she has a strong community of people here. But because I’m from a different generation and I grew up differently, my lifestyle is very puzzling to them. They can’t understand why I insist on living in New York City away from my family. Why I want to compete in a male-dominated field. Why I refuse to find a nice Toucouleur husband and focus on taking care of him. In my family and community, most of the women—especially my grandmother’s and mother’s generation—are homemakers. Some of them are highly educated and worked prior to getting married but chose to stop afterwards to focus on being mothers and wives. Needless to say, I gave up trying to explain myself to them. I gladly stay out of the way when they’re around.
I make my way to my old bedroom, right past the kitchen. Aunt Mariam converted it into a guest room after I moved out. They must have heard me come in because as soon as I drop my bags, someone knocks at the door.
My aunt comes into the room immediately and closes the door behind her.
“Ma cherie! I thought It was you.” She gives me a big hug. “I missed you, nene Why didn’t you come through the front? We have guests. Did you see their car in the driveway?”
“Missed you too, Auntie. Yes, I saw the car. That’s why I came through the back. To let you guys do your thing.”
“Oh no, these ones are family. They are your distant relatives from Fouta. They live in Maryland, so they came to visit. You should come and say hi to them.”
She seems very excited. She takes a look at my outfit quizzically then asks, “Did you bring a traditional gown you can wear?”
“Traditional gown? Am I going to a function, or this just to come say hi to relatives? Are they from the royal family in Fouta? Hahaha.”
“You joke too much. Anyway, I guess what you‘re wearing is fine. Just hurry and come say hi.”
She leaves the room and heads back to the living room.
Hurry? That’s strange. Now I’m curious to see who these people are.
I make my way to the living room. I mostly hear female voices as I walk through the small hallway leading to the front of the house, my aunt’s and another woman’s. I get to the living room, and I immediately see two men sitting on the large couch facing me, a younger one, probably in his mid-thirties and an older one, who judging by their resemblance is probably his father. On the couch to my left, Aunt Mariam is sitting with a woman who looks I would say maybe ten years older than her. All three of the guests are wearing traditional outfits. My uncle Leyti, Aunt Mariam’s husband, is sitting by himself on the couch to the right of the two male guests, facing Aunt Mariam and the other woman. They all stop talking when I enter the room and begin staring at me.
Aunt Mariam introduces me. “This is Gnilane. “
I make my way to each of the guests and greet them by shaking their hands. Then I take a seat next to my uncle. All I have to do is stay for a few minutes, exchange some words with them, and then I can leave and let them finish their conversation.
The woman speaks first, “Gnilane, it’s really nice to finally meet you. Your father and I are distant cousins.”
“It’s nice to meet you too, Auntie.”
“My son Yoro lives in Maryland. Myself and my husband are visiting him for a month. We figured this would be a good opportunity for all of us to meet.” She says that as she points to her son who is looking at me.
“That’s great, Auntie. How has your stay been so far?”
“It’s been great. Yoro just bought a new house, so I have been helping him decorate and prepare.”
I wonder what they’re preparing for.
As this exchange is going on, I noticed Aunt Mariam’s eyes going from me to Yoro. Yoro for his part is still staring at me and remaining quiet.
“That’s great, Auntie. Yoro, congratulations on the new house.”
He smiles and says thank you. My uncle Leyti shifts in his seat a few times. I glance quickly at him, and his facial expression looks rather uncomfortable. The silence that follows is nothing short of awkward.
After a few minutes, I find an excuse to leave.
“I think I hear my phone ringing in the room”
I get up. My phone is actually in my pocket, but they don’t know that. “It was really nice meeting all of you.”
I’m almost out of the living room when I hear the woman say, “OK, my daughter. We will see you tomorrow then.”
I mutter a quick OK and head back to my room. So they’re planning on being here tomorrow as well? I’ll be sure to leave early in the morning to head back to New York. It’s really taxing to spend the weekend entertaining relatives that you don’t know.
A few minutes later, I hear voices in the hallway. The front door opens then closes. I’m assuming they just left. My aunt finds me in the kitchen making myself a sandwich for lunch.
“What did you think of them, they were nice people huh, especially Yoro?”
“Yeah, I guess. Have they come here before or is this the first time?”
“No, they have come before. You would have met them sooner if you came down more often.”
She had to jump at the opportunity to make me feel guilty. But It’s a good sign that they’ve been here before. That means this isn’t another one of her awkward introductions. She’s always keeping an eye out for young eligible Toucouleur man in her community to introduce myself and her daughter Bannel to. Unfortunately, her definition of eligible is very questionable.
“You know it’s been so lonely here since Bannel left for college. She’s like you, always too busy to come home.”
My aunt always tries to guilt-trip me and Bannel into coming home more.
“You? Lonely? I doubt it. With all of your mayoral duties!”
We both laugh at the mention of her fictitious title. Her community involvement keeps her very busy.
“Do you already have all of the things you want me to take to Senegal?”
“Yes, I have them all in my room. I just have to put them in the suitcase.”
“You’re giving me a whole suitcase to take? Wow! OK. Please include some instructions, so I know what goes to whom.”
“OK. You’re right. I’ll do it later.”
“OK. Just try to do it today, so that I can put the suitcase in my trunk as soon as you’re done.”
She turns around and gives me a worried look. “But you’re staying until tomorrow evening, right? What’s the rush?”
Well, the rush is that I’m leaving first thing in the morning, but she doesn’t know that yet.
“Yes, but it looks like you have guests tomorrow, so let’s just wrap this up today so we don’t forget anything.”
“Ah, right! I forgot about that. You’ll be busy tomorrow. OK. Let me go do that now, so I can pack the suitcase then write the instructions for you.”
I’ll be busy? Hmmm…I don’t add anything and let her take the stairs up to her bedroom. I sit down to eat my lunch, as uncle Leyti comes down in his workout outfit. He informs me he’s going for a walk with his friend. I’m glad he’s exercising now.
After lunch, I make myself a cup of herbal tea that I brought with me. I love holistic health and mixing different herbs into teas. It helps me maintain my energy and boosts my immune system. I settle down in front of the TV to enjoy it when I remember. I wanted to tell Aunt Mariam to group things in the suitcase by who they were supposed to go to. I don’t want to go through the whole thing myself and organize it. I put my tea down and take the stairs up to her room. When I get right outside her door, I hear her talking on the phone. I guess I’ll come back later. I turn around to go back downstairs when I hear her say my name. Something tells me to get closer and quietly listen to the conversation:
“Gnilane? Yes, she is downstairs…I honestly don’t know how it went. Are you sure about this?…Yes, I was, but with these things you can never tell…OK, OK. I will ask her. OK. I will talk to you tomorrow.”
I sense she’s about to hang up. I hurry back down the stairs as quietly as I can. I don’t know who she was talking to, but now I have a suspicion that something is up. I’m not hanging around until tomorrow night to figure out what. I’m two weeks away from going on a six-month trip. I’ll figure this out whenever I make my way back down here. And by then I'm sure whatever this is will have gone away.
When she finishes packing, Aunt Mariam brings the suitcase down to me. I immediately put it in the trunk of my rental. I need to do this now, so they don’t hear me dragging it in the morning when I'm leaving.
The rest of the day is rather uneventful. Before I go to bed, she asks me to mail her a copy of my condo keys. So she can drive up to New York periodically and keep an eye on my place while I’m gone.
The next morning, I wake up, shower, and am ready to head out by 6:30 a.m. I write a note for my aunt:
There was an emergency at work last night with our overnight processing. I have to head back to the city right away. Will call you when I get home. Gnilane.
I clip it to the board on the fridge door, grab my two bags, and slip quietly out of the house. The sun is rising slowly. It’s going to be a nice day today. I see a neighbor walking her dog. I’ve never seen her here before. She must be new to the community. I avoid eye contact, so she isn’t tempted to stop and say something. People around here love to make small talk, but I’m not used to that anymore.
I throw my bags on the back seat, settle myself in the car, and c’est parti!
One hour into the drive, my mind starts drifting to the phone conversation I overheard. Who was she talking to? I also remember that she asked me for a copy of my apartment keys. Thinking about it again, that seems strange. Why would she drive all the way to New York to check on my tenant? I probably won’t be mailing them to her. I can just pretend that I forgot. The rest of the drive is breezy. As always when I come out of the Lincoln Tunnel and enter New York City, I feel a rush of excitement coupled with a kick of energy. I love this city.
 Word of endearment meaning my darling.
 Word of endearment meaning baby.