Gifty remembers being slow to experiment with recklessness and slow to make friends. Nana always had lots of friends, in part from being on sports teams. After he became a basketball star and a hometown hero, everyone in town wanted to talk to him and associate with him. Gifty was too young to go to parties with him and when he hosted them at their house, he bribed her to stay in her room, where she piously prayed for the partygoers’ souls. And she wouldn’t tell on Nana, even though their mother always found some tiny sign that he’d missed during cleanup: a bottle cap, or a beer stain on a washcloth.
While Nana’s recklessness may have contributed to his addiction, it also benefitted him socially. Conversely, although Gifty was spared dangerous experimentation because of her extreme risk aversion and self-control, she also made herself lonely by these character traits. The image of her sitting in her room, praying for her brother and his friends as they sinned by partying, reinforces this distinction between the siblings.
Sometimes, Gifty wishes she had told on Nana, especially after a party not long after his injury that included unfamiliar faces. She snuck downstairs and watched him standing on the coffee table, putting too much weight on his hurt ankle while his friends cheered him on for doing something Gifty couldn’t see. She remembers how badly she wanted to have whatever made people cheer and gather around Nana.
In light of her piety, judgmental attitude towards others' perceived sins, and aversion to risk, it’s interesting that Gifty didn’t tell on Nana for his parties. Now, of course, she regrets that she didn’t, thinking that perhaps if his addiction had been discovered and addressed sooner, he might have lived. But it also makes sense that she would have instinctively protected Nana: he instinctively protected her from their parents’ fights and from the racism and loneliness of her childhood. At first, she can only see the brother she loves, admires, and wishes to emulate.
Gifty had her first alcoholic drink at a party in college, and she surprised everyone with the willingness it gave her to talk, laugh, and dance. After Anne arrived, she pulled Gifty up onto a table to dance. While partygoers catcalled them, Gifty asked Anne if she liked her better when she had been drinking. And Anne said she liked her best when she was talking about Jesus and “feeling holy.”
When Gifty does finally experiment with alcohol, much later than many of her peers, she discovers that it’s not as scary as she had thought. It loosens her up and makes her more fun. At first, she worries that her friend Anne will like the inebriated Gifty more than the regular Gifty. But Anne’s love isn’t circumstantial. She befriends Gifty because Gifty defended religion to her classmates. Anne, unlike everyone else Gifty has known outside of her family, sees and accepts her for who she is.
A few weeks later, Anne and Gifty drove to the woods to do mushrooms together. They spread a blanket in a clearing of trees that impressed Gifty with their age and height. She doesn’t know how long it took for the psychedelics to take effect, but she remembers the sensations of relaxing, unspooling, and of time slowing down. She murmured about “living-man trees,” and when she and Anne came down, Anne wanted to know the story. Gifty refused to tell it, unable to imagine being free enough to truly connect with others.
Gifty has spent most of her life scrupulously avoiding temptation, so it’s a testament to the trust and affection she has for Anne that she would risk trying psychedelics with her friend. And, as for Nana, the emptying-out feeling of the drugs is a welcome relief to Gifty, who hasn’t felt this relaxed and unguarded in a long time, if ever. But her unwillingness to share the story of the tree men with Anne, because it relates to her father, shows that Gifty still desires control and self-control. This foreshadows the end of her relationship with Anne, which also involves unconfessed stories and Gifty’s addiction to a feeling of self-control.
Gifty’s relationship with Anne was intimate and romantic, if not fully sexual. But Gifty remained guarded and unwilling to talk about Nana, because those stories all ended in his death. She told Anne one about painting Nana’s nails while he slept; he punched her when he couldn’t wash it off. She wanted to know if this was the kind of story Anne wanted, and only became angrier and more defensive when Anne suggested she see a therapist. Gifty laughed a mean laugh and cried “He died” over and over.
Despite the importance of her relationship with Anne, Gifty isn’t able to accept Anne’s offer of intimacy, and so she refuses to tell Anne about her brother or her mother. Gifty’s refusal to tell unhappy memories suggests a fear that her struggles and traumas make her unlovable. Ironically, however, she makes herself unlovable more by her refusal to share, although it will take at least two painful breakups for her to realize this.