When Neni enters the Hudson Hotel bar, where Winston is having his birthday party, she wonders why people like hanging out in bars, where one has to scream to chat with a friend and spend four times more than a beverage would cost in a supermarket. She and Jende arrive an hour late, thanks to Neni’s multiple wardrobe changes. She wanted to look “equally sexy and respectable.” The sight of two men sitting so close together on a stool that they look as though they might kiss reminds her of Jerry, whose help earned her an A-minus final grade in precalculus. She will end the semester with a 3.7 GPA.
Neni’s opinion about bars is yet another indication that she’s a practical and frugal person who doesn’t like to spend time or money unnecessarily. On the other hand, her clothing changes indicate that she’s eager to look like she fits in, even in spaces in which she doesn’t feel she belongs. The social rituals in the bar, including the sight of the two men, are new and strange to her.
Neni excuses herself to go to the restroom. She looks at herself in the mirror and notices that she’s sweating. She doesn’t know what she’s going to say to Winston’s guests for the next two hours. She’s never been to a party with mostly white people, and this doesn’t feel like her kind of place. She wonders if she just should’ve stayed home and cooked him fufu and eru for his birthday gift. Neni is fine with working for white people or attending class with them, but it’s a whole other thing “to laugh and chat with them for hours,” worrying about her accent as well as what they would talk about. Most of them are associates at Winston’s law firm, so she’s concerned about doing something that might embarrass Winston.
The sight of Neni sweating in the mirror parallels with Jende sweating during his interview with Clark. Both feel insecure in spaces that are dominated by upper-class white people. The idea of cooking him the traditional foods that she knows he likes reminds her of what binds her and Winston, despite his ability to mingle easily with people who make her feel out of place. She feels that she can’t fully be herself around white people, as she worries about how they’ll perceive her.
A minute after reentering the bar, Neni doesn’t see Jende or Winston and ends up standing by herself. Then, she sees Jende standing by the door, chatting with someone, probably one of Winston’s friends whom he met when he first arrived in America. While trying to decide if she wants to join Jende or order a soda on Winston’s tab, a young woman approaches her and introduces herself as Jenny, Winston’s girlfriend. Neni exchanges pleasantries with her but can’t decide if she should laugh or feel sorry for the young woman. She knows that Winston will never marry a white woman and that he “[changes] them the way someone changes underwear.” He would date every type of woman who availed herself and then marry a Cameroonian woman.
Neni’s meeting with Jenny makes her feel a bit more at ease. Though she and Jenny are very different on the surface, Jenny is also vulnerable. Just as Neni feels that she can never fit comfortably into Jenny’s world, Neni knows that Winston will never fully bring Jenny into his world. For him, Jenny is part of his American experience and one of the ways in which he integrates himself into his new country, but he will never make Jenny a part of his Cameroonian family or introduce her to that aspect of his life.
A friend comes and takes Jenny’s attention away from Neni, and the two women hardly pause to say goodbye. Neni pushes through the crowd to look for Jende. When she finds him, she tells him that she wants to leave. He asks for thirty more minutes, and she tells him that he can stay; she’ll leave and wish Winston a happy birthday on the phone tomorrow. She feels better in the cool air but averts her eyes from the sight of Roosevelt Hospital where her friend Betty delivered a stillborn baby a year ago.
Neni may be slightly annoyed at how much more easily Jende is blending into this social scene. It suggests that he’s more capable of adapting to new environments and more eager to socialize to fit in. Neni averts her eyes from the sight of the hospital, as though she were trying to avoid bad luck with her own pregnancy by banishing the thought of Betty’s stillborn baby.
Jende suggests that he and Neni go sit at Columbus Circle. On the way there, she notices that most of the people on the street are walking with people like themselves—a white man walks hand-in-hand with a white woman, a black teenager giggles with other black (or Latino) teens, a quartet of Asian men pass in tuxedos, and a group of friends with different skin colors but who “[are] dressed in similar elegant chic styles” walk by.
Despite the diversity of the city, Neni notices that she’s not so unusual for being uncomfortable in an unfamiliar crowd. Everyone around her seems to prefer those who are familiar and similar to themselves, which suggests the desire for connection and belonging is widespread.
At Columbus Circle, Jende and Neni sit near the statue of Christopher Columbus, “surrounded by skateboarders and young lovers and homeless people.” Jende tells her that this place is the best place in the city. During his first days in the country, he would come to Columbus Circle to call Neni “when he got so lonely and homesick” that his only comfort was the sound of her voice. He tells Neni that they’re sitting at the center of the world because Columbus Circle is the center of Manhattan, Manhattan’s the center of New York, New York is the center of America, and America’s the center of the world.
The statue serves as a beacon for all kinds of people. For Jende, who wanted to return home as a “conqueror,” the statue was a reminder of his purpose as well as the importance of journeying away from home to discover something new. His presence in this “central” space, this time with Neni and a step closer to the fulfillment of his American Dream, makes him feel as though he’s an active part of the world.