America the Beautiful by Gail Upchurch


Daylight seeps in the through the mosquito netting that hangs from the ceiling. You ignore the lizard that has squeezed under your bedroom door during the middle of the night and instead fumble under the mattress for the smooth pages of Modern Bride. You turn the pages of the glossy magazine, admiring the white women in white lace and satin and organza. While little lizard feet scurry around the perimeter of your room and the heavy tail slaps against the baseboards, you dream of America.

“Ama, come and get the water,” Mama yells.

There is never enough time to sit and dream. You ram your feet in crooked-over flip flops and fetch water from the spigot in the courtyard to make a warm bath. When you get the plastic bucket full enough, you squat in the stone shower and soap your cloth, rinsing yourself with the small bucket, bubbles dancing around your bare feet. A leaf swirls around the surface of your bath water. Girls in America don’t have to wash themselves with buckets—hot water bursts into their showers through plumbing.

You sweep the yard and ready yourself to go to the market for vegetables for the kenkey stew and fufu while Mama makes fried eggs and beans.

“Don’t pay too much for tomatoes this time, Ama. No more than fifty cedis.”

“Of course. What do you think I’m going to do?”

“Ohhh, you think you’re so smart. Let some people go off to college to study literature, and they think they know everything.” Mama tosses her nose in the air in jest. “Just go see Yaa. She’ll be fair. Listen to me,” she says, playfully holding up her pointer finger.

You can’t resist Mama’s face when she smiles this big. “Yes, Mama, I know what to do.” You kiss her warm, damp cheek, which smells of Black soap and baobab oil. She catches you by the shoulders and gives you a squeeze, her gaze falling on you heavier than usual.

“I am coming,” you say.

“I know.”


Squinting against the orange sun, you walk three miles to the market with the empty basket slapping against your thigh. Flies buzz and flit about your face—you swat one, mortally wounding it. You lick the sweat that drips from the sides of your nose onto your upper lip, more out of habit than anything else, and the familiar mix of salt and red dirt tastes like Ghana, the only place you’ve ever known.

On the margins of the market, annoyed women whose backs are laden with their adinkra cloth-wrapped babies bump into an obruniyi. It’s not just the women either. Goats yell at him, too, as they try to jump over open gutters and men scoff as they piss in them. You squint. It’s your Shakespeare Professor, Dr. Klein, the American Fulbright Fellow who is teaching at KNUST for the year. He’s young and handsome, barely older than you. On the first day of class, he tells everyone he’s from Chicago, and you think of Michael Jordan. You watch him with amusement as he tries to avoid stepping on rotten fish, shuffling from one foot to the other like some kind of rhythmless dance. He grimaces, tries to shield his face with the cup of his hand—thin wiry hairs stick to his forehead. When he sees you, relief swallows his face. “Hello, Ama!”

“Hello, Professor. Getting some vegetables?” You accidentally bang him with your basket.

“Not really. Just taking a few pictures.” He holds up his cell phone. “Wow, this is . . . this is something.” He looks all around the market, wiping his face with the back of his hand.

You shrug. “Yes. It’s quite big.”

You look at one another for a few seconds without talking. His hair is the color of cocoa nut after the sweet flesh has been sucked away. You hadn’t noticed that before now.

“Well, while I have you here . . . ,” Professor Klein says, fidgeting in his pocket for a mottled piece of paper, “have you heard of this place? Bon Wire?”

You move in to him, peeked at the paper. “Ohhh, BOHN-REE, yes. It’s not too far. Just take a tro tro. It will be cheaper than a taxi.” You hand him back the sheet of paper.

He nods, smiles a big white smile. Like America. “Thank you. I’ll see you on campus.”

“Yes, Professor. See you then.”


On Monday, Professor Klein comes in to the class and hops on top of the desk— his face is as flushed as it was at the market. He flexes his jaw whenever a student reads a line from Hamlet and leans in, resting his elbow on his thigh. His hands are smooth. After this academic year, Professor Klein’s Fulbright Fellowship will be done and he will go back home to Chicago.

You want to go too.

That’s why you don’t mind when he asks you to stay after class to talk about the essay you are writing. You want to show that Laertes’s true weakness is the flawed way he loves Polonius and Ophelia. Professor Klein tells you to call him Jacob when no one else is around. He speaks to you barely above a whisper. “Ama, your writing is confident, but you should engage more with recent scholarship.” You deflate. He cajoles. “But, you know, if you want, maybe we can work together on this. I can help you get it placed in a journal in the States,” he says, placing his warm hand on top of yours. He is a gardener planting a single seed.


The sprouting starts the night you go to him a few days before holiday. KNUST campus is encircled by one snaking road, and Professor Klein’s apartment—a wooden box with huge windows and dusty, green painted frames—sits right in the bend. You walk around the cube, looking for a door, which is behind a decrepit gate. You rattle it with one hand because the other holds a bowl of peanut stew.

When he doesn’t answer, you exhale, almost relieved to not follow through with something as absurd as this. You practice the story you will tell Mama about where you’ve been all this time. You will tell her you had a study group on campus and that you had to wait for a turn in the computer lab. It will work because your mother trusts you. You shake your head and turn away from the gate just as Jacob emerges.

“Wait, are you leaving?” Jacob, shirtless and wet, towels off his hair.

“Ohhh, I thought you weren’t here.” Your back itches so you move your shoulders up and down to relieve yourself.

“Well, I am. Might as well come in.” He opens the door wide and you slide by him, the stew sloshing in the bowl. “What’s this?”

“I made you dinner.”

Jacob nods and raises his eyebrows at the same time, perhaps surprised by your forwardness or that his half advances in the classroom have actually worked. “Go ahead and set it on the table,” he says, gesturing with his hand. “It’s just in there. I’ll join you in a sec.”

Militaristic black ants march in and around and between the curvy crack that spans the length of the kitchen wall. You stand and wait, fidget with the skin between your thumb and index finger before foraging in the refrigerator for some sense of who Jacob is. A wrinkled apple. Star beers. A lone bottle of pineapple Fanta. A bottom shelf filled with water pouches.

When he comes into the kitchen, he wears a soft blue shirt, smells of grass. “It’s good to see you,” he says. “Do you have a curfew at home?”

You squirm. “I can always leave.”

“No.” He touches your hand the same way he had that day in the classroom. “At least stay for dinner.” He sniffs deep. “It smells . . . good.” Jacob looks at you like you’re the dinner, which you both like and don’t like.

“I got your address from the secretary in the main office,” you say, just to get that out the way. This isn’t completely true, though. You scoured the files in the cabinet while Miss Ofori was at lunch.

“Okay,” he says, and you think he’ll probe further, ask you why, but your cotton dress is pulled taut across your flesh and that’s all the answer he probably needs.

Jacob devours the stew like a starved man—the spices cause rivers to drip from his eyes. He touches your waist after dinner, at the spot right above your buttocks, and the two of you listen to the high life blaring from the car of some other Fulbright Fellow who lives in the faculty apartment next door.

“Thank you for the stew, Ama.” Jacob’s mouth brushes your ear and you worry he will taste the thin layer of dust from the road. If he does, he never complains about it.

You think he expects you to giggle, so you do. “Ohhh, you don’t have to pretend you liked it.” You rub the inside of your ear clean with two of your fingers before he moves his mouth to your ear again.

“No, I liked it,” Jacob says. “Really.” He stares at you and you have no idea how to read the green of his eyes. You’re in a situation you hear about at church, about the evil of temptation, but you don’t fight it. You’ve got a job to do. You touch Jacob’s alabaster skin with your dark hands, which makes you tremble, not from desire but from deception. As he pulls you in and kisses your mouth, the taste of Jacob’s beer swims inside your mouth. He kisses you again even though you place the palms of your hands on his chest and press. The harder you press, the firmer he grabs you.

“Ama, you’re so beautiful,” he purrs against your neck. 

That’s when you fly above yourself—somewhere near the ceiling fan—and watch everything that’s happening. Jacob’s hands are too fast, and you should be at home seasoning the chicken for Christmas Eve service at church. You can’t show up at a man’s flat at night, wear a dress so tight you have to adjust the way you walk, and not expect for him to touch your breasts the way he is doing right now. You stop pressing because you’ve come here to do this. You convince yourself it won’t be so bad. There is nothing left to do but let him disappear inside you, but he won’t find you there. You’re still up near the ceiling fan. Watching.


By May your stomach pouts, and Jacob is fine with it, not excited, but fine. Since you are four months along, you don’t wake in the morning with the strong urge to empty your stomach into the toilet anymore. You and Jacob are able to make love again in his bedroom with the curtains drawn. He buries his face in the thickness of your breasts, kneads your back with his strong fingertips, kisses the top of your foot, and asks you, “Is this okay?” when he thrusts because he doesn’t want to disturb the son who resides there now. This is, you think, something adjacent to love. You’ve done enough to go and live in America.

While Jacob has gotten used to the idea of being connected to you forever, Mama is in a lather about it. He does not tick any of her boxes for a proper match for you. He is not Ashanti. He is not Ghanaian. He is not even African. And Chicago? God, Chicago. Ma can barely say the words out loud without tearing up.

Back at home, Aunty Yaa chops onions. She and your mother sit and curse and cry, mostly from the onions but the rest is definitely because of you. Jacob reads a book of literary criticism in the living room, sweating. You give him a grave smile. He is twenty-seven years old. You’re eighteen and have barely finished your first year at KNUST. He stays away from Mama and Aunty Yaa for his own safety.

“What about school?  You will never finish with a baby,” Mama says.

“Your baby will be an obruniyi,” Aunty Yaa says, sucking her teeth. She can barely stand to look at me. Disgust rises off both their bodies like steam.

“Mama, Aunty, don’t worry,” you tell them. “There are universities in Chicago. Jacob teaches at a university there. I will have the baby and then go back to school.”

Mama stops cutting the onions. “Maybe so, but then what? Who will you have with you in Chicago?”

Jacob’s eyes droop—he can obviously hear everything you all are saying in the kitchen because of the close proximity. And even though he doesn’t speak Twi, he must understand the direction of the words, the way they tilt downward.

“Mama,” you say, trying to lower your voice. “I’ll have Jacob.”

She reaches over and grabs your face with one strong hand. “Marriage is not just about two people,” she says. “You hide him away and come home to us with your stomach already growing with a child. And now you want to go away to the States to live without knowing anything at all about what life will be there. It is filled with obruniyis! What do they know about us there? Nothing! And it’s because they don’t want to know. And you, you smart college girl, heh? You are so smart that you lie with a man so soon, make a baby, and go to America, where it is so cold you will freeze your feet to stone. You go, and you see. There is no home there for you, Ama. Not with a white man who never even bothered to talk to me first.”

At this, Jacob comes to the mouth of the kitchen, his face puffed with worry. “Mrs. Mensah,” he says. “I don’t know what you’re saying, but I will be responsible for Ama. You don’t need to worry about that.” He glares at the three of you in the kitchen, waiting for something he will never get from your mother. When he leaves the house, the screen door falls hard against the wooden frame.

You slap the table with your hand, startling Mama and Aunty Yaa, and go after him, catching his elbow as he paces back and forth in front of the yard. The smell of fried chicken from the fast food place on the corner wafts. Neighbors stare.

“It’s time for me to go home, Ama,” he says. “I’ll marry you so you can come with me, but we’ve got to start to make plans. Do you understand what I’m saying?”

You nod. You’ve put in too much work to be left behind, to mess up a good thing, but the decision you’ve made is harder than you thought it would be. You hate to leave Mama. You’ll miss the tro tro, the red, powdery dirt, the bath water with floating leaves.


You toil to expel your baby’s body from your own and hate every moment of it.  The gush of liquids, the body snapping pain, the burning and tearing. And then the boy’s cries. This trip to America has cost too much. No Mama holding your hand and mopping your face. Only Jacob, sitting, eating Lay’s potato chips in the green reclining chair in the corner of the room. This America is just like the pain of giving birth, it lingers and morphs into other pains.

Your baby’s cries are strong, but his face is tinged blue. You’re not as worried as you should be. The nurse takes him, coaxes breath from his tiny chest, suctions his mouth with a white bulb syringe, turns him over and rubs his wrinkled back with the heel of her hand until he pinkens. Jacob peels himself away from the chips long enough to touch your shoulder. You shrug him away. Your vagina throbs.

“Look at what we’ve done,” he says.

Look at what I’ve done. You can’t think about anything else. You wonder if the baby will turn brown, if you will be etched anywhere on his body. God, what if he doesn’t? Your heart pings your chest—you are in a strange place with an American baby. You name him Kwaku Klein so you don’t get completely absorbed.


You start taking Kwaku to get his hair cut at a barbershop on the South Side near 87th and Stony Island when he’s five. His thick hair curls loosely and grows fast. Jacob had tried a couple of times to take him up North to his barber in Lincoln Park, but he would bring Kwaku home with his hair uneven in spots.

“It looks fine, Ama,” Jacob says. His eternal optimism frustrates you.

Kwaku is still only barely brown. Like a coffee-stained page. It’s the only indication he is yours at all. His green eyes and skinny nose all boast his father, and he talks like any white boy you see on those stupid Disney shows. Jacob insists you all enroll him at Francis Parker where Kwaku makes friends who don’t look like you. When they come over to the condo, they are always surprised to see you open the door.

“Mommy do you have to keep wearing the scarf on your head?” Kwaku says. You are embarrassed that he is embarrassed of your kente cloth head wraps and the smell of jollof in the apartment. 

“Mommy, I’m American. I like American food like pizza,” he says.

Jacob’s parents never come to your condo. You go to their house in Naperville that sits off a small lake. Jacob, Kwaku, and Ira— Jacob’s father—sail the family boat after dinner. You are stuck with Jacob’s mother Maud, who never calls you by your name.

“So Kwaku (She always pronounces it “Quackoo.”) is getting to be so tall. He reminds me of Jacob when he was that age. All legs.”

You nod, help collect the dinner dishes. You have no other conversation for her.

“Do your parents speak much English back in Africa?”

“It’s the official language in Ghana,” you say. Again.

“Oh, I see. That’s good,” she says. 

You wonder what she’s been thinking all these years, maybe that you’ve come from a jungle where people don’t speak at all, only go around grunting with spears in their hands, men running around in ridiculous loin cloths.

“Jacob tells me you’re planning a trip to Africa this summer.”

“Yes, once Kwaku is out of school for the term, we’ll go and visit my mother.”

“I hope it’s safe. So much unrest going on over there.”

“Over where?”

“Well, in Africa.”

You know she still thinks Africa is a country, no matter how many times you try to explain it to her. You hold your breath and wait for Jacob and Kwaku to come back from the lake. Dry each dish Maud washes. Listen to the Barry Manilow station on Pandora.

That night, after Kwaku is fast asleep in his bed, Jacob reaches for you and talks into your hair.

“Kwaku really wants to do soccer camp with his friends this summer,” he says.

“What? When did he say this?”

“When we were out on the boat tonight, he told me. He doesn’t want to tell you. He doesn’t want to make you angry.”

You sit up and turn on the lamp on the nightstand. Your chest heaves. “What did you tell him?” you say.

“I told him I’d talk to you about it.”

“Why would you tell that to a seven-year old? We’re his parents. We just tell him what he’s going to do.”

You forget for a second that here in America parents let their children decide.

“Ama,” he whines, “we can go at Christmas. Or send for your mother and she can come here to visit,” he says.

You think about the times your mother has come and how she sits in one spot on the couch in the living room and watches nothing but HGTV all day long, speaking to you only in Twi and how exhausted you get of all the translating. Your hands shake. You kick the blanket from your legs like it’s fire. “No, Jacob. I want to go home.”

“Here is home, Ama.”

“You know what I mean. I want to go to Ghana, back to Kumasi.”

Jacob sighs. “You can go this summer by yourself and then the three of us will make a trip for Christmas.”

You look at Jacob’s neck and the vein that bulges, thick and green. You want to rip it out and watch him bleed out on the sheets. Then you could take Kwaku with you and somehow touch the Earth.


Jacob starts a clandestine thing with Rachel Levinoff, the Jewish woman upstairs who never shaves her armpits. His phone lights when he’s in the shower one morning while you scramble eggs and green onions for him. There is a text message:

I can’t wait to suck you off later.

You think about how his penis was in your mouth just an hour ago and how exhausted and drained he’s going to be by dinner. You wonder how long it’s been going on. You think the first time must have been that day you were at the Whole Foods picking up a few organic vegetables for that stew he likes so much with the chickpeas and carrots. You prop yourself against the counter so you don’t collapse.

When Jacob comes into the kitchen, his hair dripping onto the shoulders of his plaid shirt, you hand him his phone with the text still visible. He opens his mouth, spraying a light drizzle of spit.

After a few unbearable minutes, he says, “Now you know. I’m sorry,”

You stand in front of him with curled lips, using all of your available energy not to blink because if you do the muscular tears will stream down your cheeks and you want to be a different kind of woman, one who carries her heart in a safer place.


Telling Jacob you’re leaving him is not as bad as you’d feared. You pack at all hours of the day when he is gone. When he’s home, he slams pans in the kitchen, and you reach around him to grab your favorite set of dishes and the silverware from the drawer.  By the end of the week you’ve packed nearly twenty boxes of various sizes and stacked them neatly by the door. While Kwaku is at school, you pack two suitcases of clothes he’ll need for school and his soccer uniform. He’ll be back to the condo so you don’t need to pack any more than that. You, however, will never return.

Jacob is at the condo when you come with the small U-Haul van. The condo smells like someone else already, lavender and cinnamon. Or maybe that’s the smell of your absence. You and Jacob’s lovemaking no longer lingers and swirls in the atmosphere of the unit.

Your friend Linda Idewu, a Nigerian woman you met at church, is with you. The two of you take the boxes down two flights of stairs while Jacob sits on the couch and watches you heave and lift and breathe unbeautifully. 

On the fifth trip, you barely catch your breath— you sit on a box that buckles under your weight, breaking it. Jacob comes over and pulls you out the box with both hands while you grope for balance, touching his forearms. Linda comes up the stairs, breathing hard. She sees the destroyed box with its context splayed on the floor of the living room.

“Shit,” she says.

Jacob goes to the bedroom and comes back with packing tape.  He tries to piece the box together, tries to make it better, careful not to bother the contents too much. He runs the tape around the sides a few times.

“That’ll hold it, at least till you make it to the van.”

You cover your mouth with trembling fingers and nod. You almost thank him until you remember why you’re leaving in the first place.


To save money, you and Linda move into a three-bedroom apartment in South Shore overlooking Lake Michigan. The walls are thin—the couple next door fights about gas money right before they have obnoxiously loud sex. Kwaku bounces back and forth between you and Jacob like a rubber ball. When he is with you, you can tell he is only biding his time. He sits on his bed with his head in his hands, eagerly awaiting the honk of Jacob’s Nissan Altima in the circle in front of your three flat. You walk him out to the car. Jacob murmurs something under his breath about the neighborhood being crime-infested, how it’s no place to raise a young boy. You don’t worry about the crime. You worry about Kwaku listening to the couple next door and finding out that love is not a gentle puddle but a deep well of ink.

In the fall, you apply to the Liberal Arts and Humanities program at Harold Washington Community College downtown. Jacob always said he would arrange for you to go to Loyola North Shore for free since he’s a professor there, but you never tried. You threw yourself into Kwaku. When you leave, Jacob suggests it again, feels bad about Rachel, but you don’t want anything else from him. He’s done enough.

You’d like to say that it was just you and Kwaku now, but that’s not true. You don’t really have Kwaku—America does. All you have for sure are your two hands, which are, at the moment, empty. 

A 2021 Tin House YA Scholar and a finalist for the inaugural Crystal Wilkinson Creative Writing Prize, Gail is a writer of young adult and adult fiction. She holds a Ph.D. from Binghamton University’s creative writing program (SUNY) and an MFA in creative writing with an emphasis in fiction from Chicago State University. Gail is currently at work on a young adult novel about a teenage boy’s coming to terms with the loss of his mother. She is represented by the brilliant Lucy Irvine of Peters Fraser & Dunlop. Originally from the south side of Chicago, Gail now lives in Maryland with three kiddos and a hubs. When she’s not making up stories, she teaches African American literature, creative writing, and composition at the University of Maryland, College Park and keeps up with Academy Awards buzz.