With fiber-optic cables attached to their heads for her experiments, Gifty’s mice look like they belong in a science fiction movie. When she mentions this to Han, he confirms that they are, indeed, creating cyborgs, which sends him into a lengthy monologue about the “Future of Science Fiction.” Gifty doesn’t really care, but she’s drawn in by his animation. When she says that her brother wanted bionic legs to help him on the basketball court, Han is surprised to learn about him. She awkwardly blurts out that he died a long time ago. Han holds Gifty’s gaze and tells her how sorry he is to hear that.
The conversation between Gifty and Han about science fiction shows the ways in which human imagination pushes beyond scientific horizons. This is another way to think about the similarities between religion and science: both imagine a situation where things are made whole that are currently broken and painful (heaven, in Christianity; the future, in science). It’s also a moment that demonstrates the slowly growing intimacy and friendship between the two. Gifty, who could be callous towards other people’s needs and interests in previous relationships, finds herself drawn in by Han’s enthusiasm, even though she herself doesn’t really care about science fiction. This intimacy underwrites her first attempt at sharing some of her life story when she reveals that her brother died prematurely.
Gifty remembers how Nana started playing basketball a year after he quit soccer. The physical education teacher suggested that he try out, surprising them since they were a soccer family and the Chin Chin Man once said that he’d rather watch giraffes in the wild than basketball on TV. But Nana was in perpetual motion, and he had clearly missed sports. He immediately fell in love with basketball and spent hours a day practicing with the hoop Gifty’s mother bought and put up in the driveway. It was like a totem that he worshipped.
Nana’s death is indirectly connected all the way back to the day when he decided to stop playing soccer. That’s because he needed the outlet of some athletic activity, and he ended up in basketball and was eventually injured during a basketball game. Switching from soccer to basketball also finalizes the separation between Nana and his father. Perhaps it’s Gifty’s adult knowledge of the connection between the sport and Nana’s addiction, but when she remembers him practicing in the family driveway, she particularly remembers his compulsion towards the game, the way he would “worship” the hoop and practice for hours.
Although they didn’t understand the game, Gifty and her mother were proud of Nana when they went to his games. But Gifty’s mother was annoyed when people started to suggest that Nana had a future in sports, like they hadn’t expected much for him before.
Gifty and her mother support Nana as best as they can when he starts playing basketball, and their presence at his games indicates their love for him. Because Nana is athletically gifted, once he starts playing—and helping to win games for the local high school team—people in the community become interested in him and assume he has a future in sports. This is another subtle reminder of the pervasive racism that Gifty and her family experienced while she was growing up and which colors many of her early memories, even though she doesn’t often address racism directly.
Sometimes Gifty and Nana would play HORSE. One day, Gifty asks if Nana thought the Chin Chin Man would have liked basketball if he’d grown up with the sport. Nana answered, “I don’t give a fuck what he thinks,” and punished Gifty by setting up an impossible shot for her. He hadn’t answered the question. And Gifty knows that he was lying every time he tried to tell himself he didn’t care about their father. Long after dark that night, Nana continued to practice free throws in the driveway.
As Nana and Gifty grow up, they remain close even if their roles in the relationship change. Now, Nana does less caretaking of Gifty, but he still tolerates her presence, and they shoot hoops together in the driveway. It’s during one of these moments of sibling connection that the depth of Nana’s anger and hurt over the Chin Chin Man’s abandonment bubbles to the surface. And this pain connects with an obsessive energy he brings to basketball that foreshadows his addiction to opiates.
Adult Gifty thinks about a study that applied cognitive-behavioral therapy to basketball players to improve their success at free throws. It helped them to replace negative thought patterns with positive ones. She wishes she could know what was running through Nana’s head when they were kids, even though she can’t. But she imagines that his mind was as restless as his body. She imagines that he “cared deeply and thought deeply,” and that his driving thought as he played basketball—“I don’t give a fuck what he thinks”—harmed him, if not his game.
As she’s replaced religion with science as a guiding force in her life, scientific studies have come to have a force like scripture for Gifty: she uses them to interpret and understand the world around her and how it works. But just as religion’s ability to answer big questions is limited, so too is science’s. Just because Gifty understands the power of repeating thought patterns to shape behavior and outcomes doesn’t mean she can fully apply this knowledge to Nana, since she doesn’t really know what his thought patterns were. The best she can do is guess, based on her knowledge of her brother, what he was thinking.
Gifty would walk to the high school to watch Nana’s games, then they would walk home together. One night, as she said, “Good job, Nana,” the school janitor butted into their conversation. He says that they sound more like business partners than siblings and asked why they didn’t just hug. Nana and Gifty left, but on the way home she repeated the question, asking why they didn’t hug. In a dark spot left by a broken streetlight, Nana paused to ask Gifty if she wanted a hug, and she said no.
This chapter started with a moment of growing intimacy between Gifty and Han, and it closes with a reflection on how differently her family expressed love and intimacy than other people. The janitor—a notable figure because he reminds them of their father, who was also a school janitor—critiques their relationship as overly formal, even though the siblings both experience it as a nurturing and intimate experience. Gifty’s refusal of the offered hug can be read either as a part of her pattern of refusing the help and support of others or as an acknowledgement that the relationship fulfills her needs, even if it looks different than what people expect.