The trip had been in the planning for nearly five years since Nhamo went to study in the States. As the affordability factor loomed its ugly head, it was decided that Tino, the elder brother, would represent the family at the graduation of the first person to get a foreign degree.
"It's a pity we can't all go. The airline tickets are so prohibitive. Be sure to send us all the exciting news about Nhamo's big event," said Father. "And don't forget to take all your paperwork. We don't want you detained or denied entry at Immigration."
Father sounded more thrilled about the trip than Tino, who played it cool, although he had told half his friends and neighbours. The homies were promised designer this, that and the other, even though it wasn't clear how Tino would buy them since he had only recently got his first paycheck. Half of it had gone to his parents, who immediately passed it on to Nhamo.
Nhamo had sent the graduation email invitation after a lot of back and forth when even his mother berated him over his lack of enthusiasm about celebrating the milestone. Soon after arrival in Chicago and going through rigorous custom procedures, Tino found somewhere to wait for Nhamo, who had promised to meet the flight. Half an hour passed, and he dialled Nhamo's number. It rang unanswered before a drowsy voice picked it up.
"Nhamo, it's me! I'm at the airport. Had you forgotten I'm arriving today? I have been here at least an hour. Are you not coming to get me?"
"Oh, it's you! Welcome to the States. Sorry I have just woken up after the night shift. You know I work all hours."
"Ok, I can get a cab and save you the journey. I have your address."
"Yeah, tell the cab driver, and he will take you. See you soon." The line went dead.
Tino stared in awe at the tall buildings and the busy streets as the cabbie gave a running commentary about life in the big city. An hour later, after sitting in numerous traffic jams, Tino became worried as the meter moved with the speed of a hamster in a cage.
"Is it always this expensive? I was not expecting to spend so much."
The cabbie peered at Tino through his rearview mirror, "First time in Chicago? I'm one of the cheaper fares. You could have gone by train. We are nearly there."
Tino started searching for his concealed cash. "I think I can make my way from here. Please drop me off by that kiosk."
"But your address is just around the block!"
"It's ok, here will do," said Tino. He handed over crisp new dollar notes.
As he walked the last few metres lugging a bag, he found the address in Nhamo's email, started up the stairs in a rundown part of town. The building needing a lick of paint had seen better days. Tino steered clear of the grimy walls as he searched for Nhamo's apartment.
"229, this must be it." Tino knocked continuously after getting no response.
"What the … some of us are trying to sleep," said a belligerent voice from 227. "Who do you want to see? That flat has been empty since the beginning of the month."
"I've come to visit my brother. Number 229."
"Well, I'm telling you, there is no one there. You must have got the wrong address or something. Are you sure this is the right building? Try phoning him and give us some peace." The door closed. Tino hesitated and then started down the stairs. Holding his bag, he redialed his phone. Nhamo answered instantly.
"What game are you playing, Nhamo? I'm right outside your building and tried your door and was told it's empty. Are you still asleep?"
"Oh, sorry, Tino, you must have my old address. I'm staying with a friend, just a few blocks away. Walking distance. I'll text you the directions and meet you outside our building."
Tino, now beginning to feel the effects of different time zones and jetlag started down the street and soon arrived at his brother's building. Nhamo apologised profusely, taking his brother's luggage as they entered the flat. After a quick shower, the two brothers ate Chinese takeaway as Tino filled Nhamo in on the goings-on at home while taking in the dusty flat, a sofa strewn with un-ironed clothes and a sink full of unwashed dishes.
"If only your mother could see this place! There's no way I'm going to sleep here. I might as well check into a hotel; otherwise, I will pick up some disease!"
"Tino, you haven't changed. Always worrying about appearances! This isn't my flat. I moved in a few days ago. I'll find something soon."
"So, tomorrow, what time do you want us to leave for your graduation? I promised the family lots of pictures and live streaming if I can manage it. Everyone is so excited back home. Your university brochure is the centrepiece on our coffee table, and everyone who comes to visit gets told the story about you being the first doctor in the family. We are all so proud of you!"
Nhamo explained that he still had to work the night shift before going to the ceremony.
"Well, I'll meet you there since it's only round the corner. I can't afford to be late after travelling this far. How many are graduating in your Class? Over 300? So many doctors! I'll get there early, so I get the best seat. Don't forget to ring me if your plans change."
Luckily, a boutique hotel nearby had some rooms. Tino checked in and phoned home to tell everyone he had arrived and was safe. His parents wanted to have a quick word with Nhamo before the big day, and Tino explained the new sleeping arrangements. His father ended the conversation, saying he should ask if Tino needed more money deposited onto his debit card.
Daybreak arrived, and Tino was surprised to have slept through all the outside traffic noises. Realising the time, he hurried down for breakfast and soon stood in the lobby waiting for Nhamo. Half an hour passed as Tino became anxious about the appointment. Muttering about tardiness, he rang his brother. It was going straight to voicemail. Had there been some confusion about the meeting time and place? By the time Tino found the venue, the place was packed, and he found an end seat after getting a copy of the programme. The guests were seated, and in front of Tino were rows of expectant graduates waiting for their minute of fame. They were too many for Tino to spot Nhamo in the crowd, so he occupied himself reading through the programme. Scrolling through a second time, he could not find Nhamo's name. Thinking he had made a mistake, Tino started listening more attentively as the Class of 21 was called out. The newly qualified doctors paraded on the stage and were given their scrolls and congratulated. The process went on for a while until the speeches ended. The crowd began to disperse amid the excitement of families and friends hugging and congratulating the new graduates.
Tino slowly got up, unsure what to do next. What had just happened? Where was Nhamo? Had he missed his graduation? Tino looked at his phone in anticipation of a message or something. There was nothing, not even a missed call. He retraced his steps back to the hotel with a sinking feeling that he had missed something. He tried to rehearse what he would tell his parents, probably surrounded by relatives and friends invited to celebrate Nhamo's significant achievement. As he entered his hotel lobby, Nhamo was seated in the reception with the same clothes he had worn the night before. Tino slumped into a chair opposite and stared at Nhamo, trying not to catch his brother's eye.
"I don't know where to start. What has just happened?" said Tino.
"I'm so sorry! I'm glad you came, but unfortunately, it's all for nothing."
"But why, Nhamo?"
"It's a long story, and I know you will all never forgive me."
"Forget about the parents, for now, Nhamo. I need an explanation. You drag me all the way here. I had to ask for leave from work. Think of the time and money spent only to find that you were not even on the graduates' list. Was that a mistake? You better have a plausible explanation."
Nhamo tried to compose himself and failed.
"You owe us an explanation, Nhamo. Do you know the sacrifices we have all made to get you here? Don't think you are getting away with silence!"
The story came out in dribs and drabs, how Nhamo failed his first year and then repeated the courses, only to get worse results. From then on, it was all downhill. He had been living off the charity of friends and odd jobs, which didn't pay much. He couldn't remember how many times he had moved flats, living from hand to mouth under the radar.
"What does that even mean?"
"I am now an illegal immigrant, and my student visa expired some time ago since I haven't been attending classes."
"Let me get this straight, Nhamo. You dropped out of school? Three years ago? And all this time, the parents have been depositing your school fees, which you converted to pocket money."
"I feel bad enough as it is, Tino! You don't have to give me a lecture about abuse of trust, how the parents will be very disappointed and the money could have been used for something else! I should never have come here. I can't stand the pressure."
"Oh, now you tell us! After years of fabricating stories about how successful you were! Some of us were even envious of you, the favourite son living it up in the US. Sorry Nhamo, as for explaining to the parents what happened to their dreams, you are on your own."
"What should I do, Tino? It's such a mess! I prayed that you would decide not to come so I don't have to face reality. I'm a failure! You don't know what it's like living in this place and the pressure to succeed. It's been a nightmare, knowing I have disappointed all of you. Please help me!"
"I honestly don't know how I can help. The only option is to pack your bags and return home with me."
"I feel as if I am spiralling out of control."
Later that evening, Tino left his brother after persuading Nhamo that the only option was to go home and face the music. He felt obliged to share part of the story when the parents phoned. There was a commotion in the background of the call, with his mother wailing. Father composed himself and said he would send money for Nhamo's single air ticket.
By the time Tino reached his hotel, he was too despondent to follow through with sightseeing plans and a night on the town. After picking up a few groceries, he shut himself in his room, bingeing on late-night TV. Sleep illuded him. He checked out early the following day, took a cab to pick up Nhamo for the ride to the airport.
"I don't believe this; Nhamo's late again! Sorry let me run upstairs and find out why Nhamo is taking so long," he said to the cab driver. "At this rate, we will miss the flight."
Tino reached Nhamo's door and knocked furiously. "Nhamo, are you in there? We are running late. Open up!"
The door was opened tentatively, and Tino brushed a woman aside and searched the flat.
"Who are you?" said Tino, now short of breath. "Where's Nhamo? We are running late. What's he thinking?"
The woman, wrapped in a flimsy dressing gown, stared in fright at Tino. "I don't know who you are, bursting into my flat. If you don't leave now, I'll call the police."
"But this is Nhamo's flat! I was here yesterday, although the place now looks different. Where's my brother?"
"Look, Mr I don't know who Nhamo is. You're in my flat, and I've been staying with my partner who moved out abruptly last night before I came back from work. He certainly wasn't called Nhamo. So if you don't mind, I have my own problems and am going back to bed." She retreated behind the door.
Tino slowly descended the stairs in a state of shock. He remembered he had left the meter running downstairs in a cab with his suitcase in the boot. Coming back to his senses, he entered the cab and told the driver to proceed to the airport.
"What's happened to your brother? I thought you had gone to get him?"
Slumped in the back seat, Tino covered his face." I don't know what's happening. I just want to go home."