I opened my eyes and thought, God, do I have to do this again? Get out of bed? Get through another day. What for? Not calling on God because I believe in a higher being, but because this is what people say. Even non-believers call on this imaginary authority to answer questions. Like screaming into the dark we call out just to relieve a pain, not expecting an answer. God is just another word for help.
Somehow I make it out of bed. I guess I’ll get dressed. Jeans, an old T-shirt and a sweater. No shower. I’m just going there. To my alter-life where desperation permeates the air. I make my way downstairs to make coffee, feed the cats, and the fish. My morning ritual. I always think about how much garbage I make even before I’m truly awake. Coffee grounds plus filter from the previous morning and two cans from the cat food. While the coffee brews I scoop the litter box. More garbage.
Taking my cup of thick, rich coffee over to my desk by the window I open my email. Google has divided my life into primary, social and promotion. I didn’t ask Google to do this sorting of my life, but they did. I have one primary email—one person I know who really wants to tell me something I might be interested in, 12 “social” messages from people I don’t know, and 54 promotions. Sort of sums it all up right there.
To get myself to go over there I have to trick myself into thinking that it’s not a choice. I’ve never been one of those people who thinks they have a choice not to do things they don’t want to do. I do the trick unconsciously. I’ve tricked myself even before I think of tricking myself. Remote control. I drive to my sister’s apartment.
What should I feed her? Wendy’s? Turkey meatballs? Mac n’cheese? Feeding her has become the prime focus of my life. Her arms are so thin they’re hard and angular, no roundness, none of the softness that fat brings to the bone. I decide on Wendy’s. No cooking. Just having done the dishes at my own house, I don’t really want to mess up her kitchen. I order her a hamburger. No bun. Her teeth are so bad that she can’t bite into a bun. It’s taken the girls at the Wendy’s drive-through some time to understand my order.
“Just the meat and cheese,” I say.
“No. No bun.”
I can hear disdain in their voice. Who eats a cheeseburger without the bun?
I try to think about the sun as I drive. I do love the sun. The light floods my brain with endorphins and I think maybe this moment is okay. The familiar swerve of the road before I hear the rush of the water from the river calms me. The geese lift their beaks and flap their wings. By the time I turn into the apartment complex I feel steady.
There’s been some trouble at the apartment. I’ve got to go and put the pieces together and figure out what to do. Marley called me to say that Dana told her that she saw a man coming out of my sister’s apartment. I don’t know Dana but Sam, my sister, has talked about her. Told me she is very nice to her. Marley said that Dana went by to say hello and a big, black man came out of the apartment. Sam has mentioned this guy before but no one else has ever seen him and for the life of me I don’t know why Sam lets him in. She doesn’t like other people in her apartment. If a maintenance man needs to get in she makes me come and be there with her.
I ask her why she lets this guy in and she says, “He wants to use the bathroom.”
I say, “Sam, that’s not your problem. Don’t answer the door. I’m afraid he’ll hurt you.”
“I’ll just tell him to go away. I won’t let him in again,” she says.
“Promise me,” I say trying to make direct eye contact.
“I won’t. I won’t let him in.”
I notice that for some reason she won’t promise. On some level it’s childish, me wanting her to promise, but I feel I can call her on it when she lets him in again. In an unusual moment of clarity she once told me that she lets him in because she feels bad about what white people did to black people. She says she once got down on her knees in a diner and asked the forgiveness of some black people eating their lunch. The Spanish owner of the diner told her not to come back there anymore.
My life straddles two worlds: my nice, white upper-middle-class life where people worry about which prestigious college their children will go to (I myself am guilty of this indulgence) and Sam’s multi-ethnic world where people worry about how to pay the rent and whether a man with bad intentions will come into their apartment. I went to a highbrow book signing last week where the authors—two women from Maine—spoke about how people don’t talk about class in America. How there isn’t supposed to be class in America. I felt like I was from a different planet. Everything’s about class I felt like saying. Politics, education, healthcare, even food is about class.
Anyway, I have to figure out what to do about the man who ran out of my Sam’s apartment. I decide to call the cops. They send a young officer to meet me at the apartment to take a statement from Sam. Without a greeting, or a clipboard, or paper and pen, he asks me what happened. I invite him in, eyeing his nametag. Sam tells him that she is a Justin Beiber fan. The young officer can’t decide if she is mocking him in some way and motions toward the kitchen with his chin. I oblige him by stepping into the other room.
“Does she have a disability?” he asks as if he has made a discovery.
I fight the urge to say, “Oh my God, (there he is again) now I know what’s wrong with her. Thanks.”
“Yes, she’s mentally ill.” I watch his young face try to wrestle with this fact. The situation has now clearly escalated beyond his pay-grade and he stands in front of me, his arms falling heavily forward, and I suggest we go into the other room and try to get the story from Sam.
Sam is sitting at the table eating her hamburger without the bun and watching MTV Hits. I turn the sound down.
“I’m gonna keep eating,” she says.
“Yes, you keep eating,” the boy-cop tells her.
He turns to me and takes down my name, address and phone number. Then Sam’s name. I tell him the story as I know it, asking Sam for her input, but mostly she chews her hamburger and cranes her neck to see the TV behind me.
Finally, the boy-cop and I agree that he should go and interview Dana because she saw the man and maybe she can give a description.
As he starts to leave Sam volunteers, “I told him I wouldn’t touch his penis.”
The boy-cop and I stare at each other.
“Did he tell you to touch it?” I ask.
“He came out of the bathroom with no clothes on and told me to touch it, but I wouldn’t.”
“Then what happened?” I ask.
“Dana rang the bell and he went in the bathroom, put on his clothes and left,” she says.
“I have to talk to my superiors,” the boy-cop says and moves toward the door.
The weariness I felt when I woke up is back and I feel the need to sit down. A tightness in my chest makes it hard to breathe. The boy-cop leaves and I plop down in the chair beside Sam.
“Sam, you’re saying that the man was naked here in your living room? Sam this is serious. I’m afraid he’s going to rape you.”
“Rape me? You think he’s gonna rape me?” Sam’s eyes look a little wild.
“Yeah, rape you. Why would you ever let him in here?”
“No, I’m not going to let him in.” She turns her attention to Katy Perry who’s singing on the TV.
“Turn it up,” she says.
I look at my hamburger with a bun and the meat has turned gray with cooling. I push it to the side and reach for a fry. I chew slowly with the weight of the situation hunching my back. I stare at the wall as Sam announces each new video with editorial.
“Here’s Miley. She’s sad about her boyfriend. Here’s Pitbull and Keisha. She looks fat. Oh, Five Direction. I like Liam. You like Harry.”
“I think it’s One Direction.”
“No, there are five of them.”
She eats every bit of her burger and I feel a sense of accomplishment. Like feeding my children when they were babies. A satisfaction that’s primal. I feel a need to see that she eats. We used to wear the same size pants but now she wears a 4. I wear a 10.
“Do you want some peaches?” I ask.
“Yes, but just give me one.”
I pour three cups of canned peaches into a bowl and hand them to her. She gives me a toothless grin.
I sit while she eats the peaches and then I get ready to go to the store. Going into the kitchen, I open the refrigerator noting what she needs. She always eats bologna and cheese Lunchables for breakfast and I feel compelled to stock up on them. I can’t always find them. She won’t eat ham and cheese or the chicken nuggets or the taco ones, only bologna and cheese. And not the ones in the big box. Only the small box. Telling her to lock the door behind me, I go first to Pathmark. No bologna and cheese. I head to ShopRite. No luck. Sometimes Target has them. I look at my watch. It’s been an hour since I left Sam. She’ll be wondering where I am and I feel a pull to get back to her.
Once at Target I pull one of their large, red plastic carts out of the cart chain and head to the back of the mega-store to the supermarket section. Hoping I don’t run into anyone I know because at this point I am feeling frazzled and don’t want to make small talk. Will the prize be there? I head into the refrigerated section and am so relieved to see three rows of bologna and cheese. I feel like I’ve won the lottery and start to dump the small packages into my cart; using two hands with two packages in each I deplete their stock. Victory! The stockboy gives me a nasty look. I wrinkle my nose at him.
Now, to the checkout where the young cashier also gives me a once-over as he rings up 38 bologna and cheese Lunchables. I think of stories I could make up. I have many children. I’m a teacher and we’re having a party. But, instead I say nothing.
As I throw the bags into the back of my van I realize I haven’t even given a thought to what I’m feeding my family for dinner. My temporary high at finding the Lunchables is erased. Oh well, I’ll deal with that after I finish with her. Back to the apartment. As I turn the corner I can see her standing in her doorway waiting for me. She starts to wave frantically and call my name. I ignore her and park the van and grab the bags.
“Did you get me Lunchables?” she screams at me as I hurry across the street.
I climb the few stairs to the apartment and hiss, “Sam, do you have to yell at me from across the street?”
Before I can even get into the apartment a car drives up and two police officers get out. Not a police car, just an ancient gold sedan. One is completely bald with a kind smile and the other is weathered but jovial. Still holding the bags of Lunchables, I ask them to come in. Sam turns immediately back to MTV.
The weathered one takes the lead and wonders if he can ask Sam a few questions. “Good luck,” I say retreating to the kitchen. The bald one plants himself firming in the middle of the room, legs astraddle, hands on hips. Sam points to Usher gyrating madly on the screen and laughs.
“So, he knocked on the door and then what?” asks weathered.
“He wanted to use the bathroom, but when he came out he was naked,” Sam screams the last word causing Baldie to reposition himself.
“He wanted me to touch his penis but I wouldn’t,” she declares emphatically.
“What does he look like? Is he black or white? Does he have short hair or long?” asks Baldie.
“He has more hair than you,” says Sam.
Baldie smiles and rubs his head. “A lot more or a little?”
Sam can’t answer. Nor can she answer the next four or five questions.
“Why don’t you go and talk to Dana? She saw him and can give a description,” I volunteer coming back from the kitchen.
“Please let me know if you need anything else.”
“Yeah, go talk to Dana,” Sam says.
Feeling dismissed, the policemen agree to leave and talk to Dana. I go back into the kitchen thinking about going back to the store and buying groceries for my house. Sometimes I get in the store and I can’t remember where I need toilet paper, home or at Sam’s Sometimes I have 20 rolls of paper towels at Sam’s and none at home. I vow to get more organized with lists for both places but who has time for lists? I finish stacking the Lunchables in towers of four, the way Sam likes them. Over the years I have found it easier to comply with her idiosyncrasies than to make her eat my way or arrange things my way. Her will is much stronger than mine.
While returning to the living room I stub my toe on the metal trash can, “God dammit!” I exclaim. Another way of using the almighty—to convey extreme annoyance at minor pain.
“Sam, why do you keep putting the trash can by the door? I like it under the sink!”
Sometimes I lose my temper with Sam. I feel like I do so much for her that she should let me make some simple rules.
“I don’t know,” says Sam sulkily. She’s not used to all this activity and so many visitors and I can tell she’s getting tired.
“Well, I’m leaving,” I always say this definitively because I don’t want her to ask me to stay.
“Now listen Sam I don’t want you to let that guy in here under any circumstances. I don’t care if he has to go to the bathroom or he’s hungry or anything else. Don’t even go to the door if he comes. Just pretend you’re not home.”
“I won’t let him in. I’ll tell him to go to the bathroom at home,” she said.
“No, don’t have a conversation. Just don’t go to the door,” I said.
“Okay, I’ll tell him he can’t come in.”
Beginning to feel the frustration in my chest expand, I just decide to leave before I start screaming.
“Fine. I’m going. I’ll be back Wednesday.” It’s Monday.
Sam struggles to her feet. “I want to kiss you,” she says.
* * *
Tuesday, I have off. I can think about myself and my family, although she is always with me. Food is a problem. I hate to eat what she likes to eat when I am not with her. Her favorite is chicken parmigiana, but my son loves it too, so when I make this for my family every bite is a stab. A little voice keeps saying “I’m eating this and she is not.” Pain. Bite. Pain. I do end up eating, so what does that say? But she’s always at the table. Maybe I never get a day off.
When we were kids she used to make my lunch. Turkey loaf sandwiches. Pizza buns which consisted of English Muffins, tomato paste and mozzarella cheese on top. Sometimes tuna on white toast. Our mom worked and Sam is years older than me, so food prep fell to her. I try to put her out of mind but I keep thinking about the man. Why does he keep coming around? Why does she keep letting him in?
Tuesday passes and I’m on duty again. I go through my morning routine with the cats rubbing my legs as they wait for their breakfast. Our cats Mrs. Poe, Zelda and Raphael always think food when they see me which reminds me of my son who once said to me “I wasn’t hungry until I saw you.” That must be my destiny. To feed people. Could be worse.
I get ready to go to see Sam. I’ve done her laundry and food shopping and have to remember to put everything in the car. While I drive over I wonder what I would do if the guy showed up and I was there. Would I go to the door and yell at him? Would I hide with her and keep her quiet? I’m pretty sure I would confront him which scares me. I remember back to once when I worked in the City and was on the subway and I felt my purse pull on my shoulder as the car swerved and realized that the guy beside me had his hand in it. Without consideration I reached out and grabbed the guy by the tie. He immediately dropped my wallet and exited quickly at the next stop. There are other examples of when I dive in without caution. I try to think about her and hope that it won’t be me against him with her being the loser. I try to trust myself.
As soon as I turn the corner I see the open door. Grabbing my purse and feeling around for my cell phone, I pull it out and call 911. That done, I park down the street and start to run to the apartment. The apartments sit on a little hill, up six stairs. I climb the stairs a few apartments away and hurry to Sam’s window. The shades are down and I can’t see anything. I don’t hear anything as I approach her door.
Where are the police? Where are weathered, baldie and boy-cop now that I really need them? I’m sure they’re on their way but I can’t wait. My ears are trying their hardest to pick up on any noise in the apartment as I climb the first stair. My hand goes out to the wall to steady my shaking legs. Silence. I climb another step. I can hear the sirens now. I climb the final step. I can feel that he is there. I step into the foyer. I smell Axe deodorant.
“Sam!” I call.
Now I hear a scuffle. I move into the darkened living room and I know they are in the bedroom. I know I should wait but I don’t. In the bedroom I see Sam on the floor and before I can move I see the gun pointed at me from behind the door. His finger moves on the trigger. I step back hearing the gun go off and then I feel the impact of the bullet in my chest. I collapse against the closet door in the hallway. The man leaps over my out-stretched legs and I hear him run out the door.
Sirens. Shouts. The police in the front yell at him to stop. I want to see Sam. Boy-cop is now looking down at me. I try to ask him to go and see if Sam is dead. As the lights start to fade in my eyes I hope that she is dead. I know I won’t make it and there’s no one to take my place.
God, are you there?