I am fast like the ginger bread man. In this sequence of the film they can’t catch me. They are men, and they are stronger, but I can outrun them. I’m running down my stairwell, through the corridor, out onto the wintry street.
In the next scene they send a woman, and I give it to her, she feels all my anger at being persecuted in my own home. I don’t run, I fight her on the floor of my bathroom. I have her in a choke hold and I’m knocking her head over and over again against the tiles. Her face is rigid with shock, and this expression of defeat makes my rage more powerful than fear. I don’t want her blood on my floor and there is suddenly a shower head in my hand, and I spray water into her eyes, mouth and nose as I bash her head.
In the final sequence the men let me run down the stairwell, they watch me go. They know, and I do too, that this time there is something waiting to receive me in the lobby. It’s my boss, he is wearing a woman’s wig and a dress, and he falls backwards as I throw the door open. So long sucker. I feel the cold wind, I’m outside, and I wonder if my feet are bare. That is when the man thrusts a knife into my throat.
I wake up, rigid with fear. I know I’m awake, that the dream is finished and all I have to do is lie still and breathe. My neck is twisted, and the sensation that it is separated from my body doesn’t subside for several minutes.
Violent dreams were a regular feature of my night life when I was safest. Living in Holland for ten years, making my way home at 2AM, with the certainty that no one would ever accost me. I cycled past men on foot, men on bikes, men in cars and they didn’t throw up something dirty, with their eyes, their words or their bodies. And yet the dreams were the worst in Holland. They were frequent enough for me to figure out their pattern: they were wet with blood and they preceded the first sighting of my menstrual flow. I was attacked, but I was also a victim that was very good at violence. It was a mortal combat type of scenario: flesh, guts, blood and limbs flying, filling the screen.
I check my period tracker app on my phone and it says clearly I am not premenstrual. I have no excuse for this dream.
I’m not scared of New York anymore, but of course this doesn’t mean that I’m not often in code red mode. But sometimes I disarm and put myself out there, play the hero, even though I’m not brave.
I am this close to getting home and out of the blizzard – a New York blizzard that is. And then I see a granny standing in the middle of the road. A car slows and drives around her. The woman in the passenger seat stares reproachfully at the stranded figure. I call to the woman, ‘Get off. You need to get off the road.’ I walk towards her and say, ‘You need to get off the road.’ She whimpers, ‘The ice, the ice!’
It’s obvious, she needs to be grabbed but I can’t tell if she is scared of black people and if she will resist or hurt me if I try and grab her. I wait at the side of the road, but the white drivers and pedestrians (there are still a few although the snow is falling) pretend not to see her.
I have a mango in my shopping bag, and I want to eat it at my kitchen table. I have aubergine, spring onion, tomatoes, a yellow green pepper and mushrooms and I want to google an easy ratatouille recipe. Mommy makes the best ratatouille, and I want to be in my kitchen, thinking of Mommy tossing salt over the thick slices of aubergine. But I’m on the road, playing the hero.
I’m a lawyer so I only take her by the hand after I ask her permission. She is used to strangers rescuing her, and is very compliant. She does not want to stand on the icy sidewalk but she lets me pull her onto it. ‘I know you’re scared of the ice but I can’t have you standing on the road. Do you really think that’s a good idea? Where’s your house? Can I call your Mom?’ I admonish her as if she’s a child, but she’s not really. She is quite hopeless, not drunk or mentally ill, but something is missing. She gives me a telephone number four digits short. She begins to cry.
‘Can I take you to my building lobby? It’s right over there, and then I can call your family.’ She says, ‘No. I don’t want to go to your house.’ I believe that she really understands so I ignore the impulse to push and pull her like a sheep towards my lobby. My head and feet are getting cold, and my fingers gripping plastic shopping bags have lost sensation.
‘I’m going to call the police. Can I call the police?’
‘Yes, call the police.’
‘Are you sick? Should I call an ambulance?’
She tells me she is Betsy and she is not sick. Her knees hurt, but she doesn’t need an ambulance. She wants the police. I’m kind of disappointed, 911 is different in real life. It’s slower and they asks lots of questions.
‘What is she wearing?’ I notice for the first time that she is not wearing a coat. ‘And what color are her mittens, and the hat?’ They want to know how old she is. I look at her face pressed childishly against my coat and answer, ‘She’s a senior, maybe in her sixties.’ And then I ask her, ‘Betsy how old are you?’ She answers, ‘I’m 42.’
Okay, she’s not a disoriented geriatric, but something is wrong with her. I don’t want to say it though. ‘Betsy do you have a mental problem?’ I ask.
‘I don’t know.’
So, I say it to 911. ‘She has down’s syndrome.’ And then Betsy says it herself, ‘I have down’s syndrome!’
They want to know my full name, they make me spell it. And my telephone number. And then, ‘Are you going to stay with her?’
No I’m not going to stay with her. I see my neighbor walking by, she is a member of my co-op board. I once caught her in a screaming match with a Jewish woman in the laundry room. She accused the other woman of being racist against Italian accents. She is a blond Italian or maybe Italian Swiss. She is curious about the spectacle of me in the snow, in the dark embracing an elderly white woman, but clearly not interested in being a Samaritan. ‘My phone is dead,’ she shouts as she trudges past, ‘I call the police in my home.’ I want to tell her, ‘It’s -11 degrees celsius and I want to go home and watch Louis C.K. on my laptop while eating popcorn too. Vaffanculo.’
‘Yes. Yes. OK. OK.’ I snap at 911, ‘I’m waiting with her. I won’t leave her.’
Betsy starts to sob, and wraps her arms tighter around my winter coat. To avoid falling over, I drop my groceries and school bag onto the pavement. We wait for 15 minutes, and then the police come, and as they exit the car they are already cooing, ‘Come on Betsy, we’re going to get you home, let’s go Betsy.’ They know her. She may not know them personally, but she knows the drill, and lets them cajole her into the police car. I want the police to recognise me, but they don’t. This is the first time I’ve ever really been offended by the police.
I grew up with hungry cops. Their weapons and their uniforms barely concealed their lack of power, or that they were malnourished, or at least undernourished. They have come a long way. This summer a policeman and woman detained me in their police car, under a tree out of the sun. I was driving without a license – I have never had a license. It was cozy in the police car, and I lingered, they wanted to know about my life in New York. A line formed as others detained at the road block manned by the small police waited for their audience with the big police. As I counted out my fine, I told the policewoman that I was very proud of her, and that I should have joined the police force when I graduated from the University of Zambia in 1996 but I lacked courage. The policeman, her supervisor asked me if I was married, and I told him that if he wanted to marry me he should go talk to my father. My father was waiting in the car in the sun across the street with eight of my nephews and nieces. The policeman chided me ‘professor, this is not the village, and anyway there are women’s rights in Zambia too now, first I must spend some time with you, take you out, win you, and then if you want I can talk to your father. I’m not afraid of your father.’ I blushed in my earlobes and underarms.
The cops here are fat, even the muscular ones who pose topless on e-harmony – flexing breasts and thick necks. Some of them pose with their big, tall guns, usually group shots. They are looking for ‘someone beautiful inside and out, loving, adventurous and no BS or games please ladies coz I don’t need anymore of that.’ More or less the same type of lady the guys in finance, the lawyers, and the techies are looking for. I would like to date a policeman but I lack courage.
Rescuing Betsy has given me a head cold. It’s as if I have a towel, heavy with cold water, wrapped around my head. I sleep badly, breathing is laborious and I’m shivering even with my hot water bottle in bed with me. I want a hot shower, but remember a friend telling me six years ago that in China everyone knows better than to bathe until the cold passes. She had found me with my head buried on my desk in the Law Library – we were both international visiting scholars in DC. My eyes, nose, ears – everything was sealed shut. She told me to go home, and warned me against a hot shower. She also wrote in Chinese on a piece of paper I have held onto as a talisman, the name of a herb I should pick up in Chinatown on the way home, to pour into my tea. ‘Just give it to anyone in Chinatown – they will have this medicine.’
I sponge bath at noon and step out to get some medicine from CVS. I keep touching my leaky eyes because I don’t understand how they are not bleeding when the pressure behind them is so severe. It’s freezing out but it’s beautiful. Winter in New York is bright, the wind chill is murder, but there is sun, I can feel it on my face. I have to squint to lessen the glare. Sunglasses are in order, but I hate to look like a poser.
There are kids on the bridge making a riot, throwing lumps of snow over the bridge and onto the highway below. They are not black, they are not white, they are everything in between that you can imagine. I look at all of the adults walking by the kids, they are white and old enough to be afraid of adolescents, so it’s on me. ‘Cut it out. Stop that. You guys know better than that.’ They stop immediately, they are probably relieved to be stopped. They suddenly turn on the one who ignores me, he is busy making a really big ball, lifting it up carefully, cupping it right before the drop. They scream at him ‘Cut it out James! I told you man! Nigga stop!’
He turns on me, he’s the tallest of the boys and that is enough to make him the leader. He says in a phony Spanish accent ‘Me no speak English.’ He is still holding the snowball.
‘No, no, no, that’s not right’ I’m incensed. ‘I’m calling the police now.’
‘The police?’ One of them screams – they are taller than me, but their voices are still like girls.
‘Yes, you are going to hurt someone. Imagine a nervous driver gets a big ball of snow on their window and veers out of her lane, and hits someone. Where’s your brain?’
James drops the snowball at my feet. They apologize, call me ma’am and disperse. Some cross the bridge towards Independence Avenue and the others head toward Netherland Avenue.
There’s a fire truck on Netherland and I tell the firemen about the snow on the bridge. I tell him someone needs to clear the snow, and he tells me someone needs to call the police on the kids.
I have a week off work because of the Presidents’ birthdays. I don’t have much hair left – it’s been falling out steadily since November, and I have a bald spot in the center of my head. The Kaunda push-back style (circa 1960s) hardly conceals it. In the mornings I afro comb my hair bent over the bathtub, wipe up the fallen curls with a wet tissue and flush it all down the toilet. It’s getting to be traumatic and I am this close to going to Jerry’s on 242nd and letting him shave it all off. I look at the pictures of myself with a shaved head, I looked tough and soft at the same time, pretty, but it takes Attitude. I don’t think I could raise the Attitude again – I’ve fallen pretty deep for the Bronx hetero-fem-gender performance of beauty. I call Khadija. She doesn’t remember me, but she tells me to come to her shop in Mount Eden.
The shop has changed, the barber is still there, the Latina women doing hair and nails are still there, but there is an elderly man, a white Latino at a huge desk selling food supplements. And there are lads playing at a huge pool table. ‘Hi guys,’ I call out, and they respond politely, ‘Good morning, hello mami.’
Khadija has a fresh new baby tied with a lapa on her back. The baby is fast asleep and her nose is dirty, poor little thing. She breathes like me, through her mouth. Khadija still looks pregnant, her hair cut short like a boy’s. She is very tall and always sullen. ‘What happened to your hair?’ I ask her. ‘Perm. Now I say no more chemicals in my hair sister. Perm breaks my hair like crazy.’ She rubs my bald spot and asks, ‘What happened to your hair?’ I shake my head sadly. ‘Problems Khadija, I have problems.’ This makes her laugh, but sympathetically.
One of the lads calls out, ‘I got you some pizza but they say you don’t eat pork, Khadija.’ I can’t see his face, so I can’t tell if he is cracking a joke or if he really bought her some food. I argue with Khadija about the cheap wig she wants to use on my head, and the price of the job. I leap out of the chair when she begins to separate my hair with a pick. I apologize and leave. It’s not really about the price or the wig, it’s the sick baby and the traffic of boisterous young hunks – I can’t be around them for four hours.
I take the 1 train back to 231st and Broadway, and pop into Mustafa’s. He owes me money for Mommy’s arts and crafts I supplied after my last vacation home. I scan the shop floor for my goods, but everything is gone except for the Madiba shirts. I pick up a tall Moroccan basket, and imagine it in my bedroom at the foot of my bed. The ladies are there, and when I tell them I’m on the way to the barber at 242nd, they charm me into the back of the store where the hair salon is, and in no time, the first braid is installed. ‘Don’t worry sister, even this’, they rub the bald spot, ‘will grow.’ They are almost twice as expensive as Khadija, but they are not as unhappy as she is, and the four hours go by quickly. There is traffic but it’s customers coming to buy jewelry and shea butter.
In the first hour, they talk about raising kids in America. ‘When my son starts school the teacher tell him not to play with the black boys, they’re bad. And he didn’t listen. My husband beat him, almost to death. He said, ‘I didn’t work hard to bring you from Togo so you can ruin yourself. And now there’s no problem. Only school. My son is a good student.’
In the second hour, we watch videos of west African leaders’ state visits. ‘That’s Samuel Doe.’ I glance up at the screen and see a young man with a full afro – my hair used to look that good. Doe descends from a plane and a leader in military garb receives him. ‘He was so young,’ I say. The ladies ask me if I have seen the video. I know they mean the torture video where Doe’s ears, fingers and toes are hacked off. ‘No. I was just a child when it happened.’ And just in case they have the video I tell them, ‘It’s a shameful thing!’ They agree but then add, ‘Samuel Doe did the same thing to his own uncle. He killed him like a dog. He didn’t know God was watching.’
In the third hour, we talk about God. Aissata holds her smart phone in front of my face and I see a man being interviewed. It takes me a while to glance at his lap and understand that the massive sack in his lap is a testicle, swollen beyond belief. I close my eyes and make a sound of protest. ‘Asho!’ She keeps the phone in my face. She really wants me to see this.
‘What’s wrong with him?’ I ask to make her move the screen.
‘He sinned. He went to Mecca but he didn’t really believe in God, this is sacrilege. He could not fool God, God saw his heart – this is God’s curse on non believers.’ She puts up the volume. ‘He is saying it himself, God has cursed him.’ She tells me about another man who stood with unwashed feet on the holy book, and he suffered the same fate, an engorged testicle. She removes the screen and says with solemnity. ‘Sister, God is great.’
I think sourly, ‘Oh yeah, this is why we can’t be friends.’ I change the subject, ‘So I can’t invite you for a drink at the Spanish restaurant because you don’t drink, because of your religion.’
‘Sister, Muslims drink. It’s not a sin to drink. My husband drinks every night he comes home. I give him a glass of wine. He drinks in our house not outside in the bar. Some of us don’t drink, but it’s not because of Islam.’
It’s not always winter. I was walking down the street, feeling very beautiful and womanly, in a clingy sun dress, massive $4 sunglasses, Ethiopian silver jewelry and beadwork, and a head full of braids knotted in a bun on my head. I crossed the street at the intersection of Corlear and 231st and an old white man called out from his convertible, ‘Yeah! Shake that fat ass!’
I was on Broadway and 239th, opposite Staples, buying fruit, and a man of indeterminate race and class, walking by shouted ‘Slut!’ I looked around to see who he was talking to, but everyone else knew, they had all turned and looked at me.
In Harlem a black man, ruined by hard living, asked me to give him a smile. I didn’t smile, I’m afraid of black men in Harlem. He screamed after me, ‘Fuck you you think your pussy hot!’
And that’s it, that’s the worst street harassment I’ve experienced in four years. Not bad right?
I promise myself, this is the last dream. It starts off happy and high. I’m speaking eagerly about cancer, anger, and loss with a writer I met at the Sunday Salon. We are like sisters, finishing off the other’s sentences and clasping each others arms and wrists to emphasize our points.
And then I drop.
This is not the falling dream, it is as if someone has pulled the bed out from under me. I land hard and petrified, and it is as if my body is dead. I am lying like the chalk man at the murder scene. But I am lucid and I can whisper, ‘Get up, go in the closet. Hide in the closet mama.’ And then, ‘Put on a gown, stand up go fight him. He’s here.’ And then, ‘No Sis. We are not going to live like that.’ It takes time, an hour and a half, before I can put myself under again. I thank boarding school, it instilled a certain discipline in me. This is the gift of institutional life. I know how to swallow the dark, to resist the urge to rise before the prefect rings the rising bell.
There is a beep. It’s a whatsapp message from Mommy to her daughters.
‘Am blessed have a blessed day all of you.’