Originally published in Fiction365
copyright (c) 2011 by Anjoli Roy
She only had a few weeks left. The mandated thirty hours would be up in no time, and she would be free. She didn’t really know what she was doing anyway. And yet she’d found herself, week after week, heading to their South Bronx apartment, invariably underdressed, fooled still by the white winter sun, that cruel tease of warmth that seemed to, no matter how bright it shone, stay as cold as a slap across the face, the sting lasting for months.
Yes, she’d wanted a gig where she could actually use her higher degree and thought she’d like teaching, but were they learning anything? Or was she just keeping them from playing on pretty snow days, when she’d still, to their chagrin, trudge the two miles from her Harlem home to come see them?
She’d been tutoring pretty, fourteen-year-old Fausto — whose curls topped off a roundish brown face, who laughed when she told him that in his swim trunks, white T, socks, and flip flops, he’d looked like the freshmen she’d tutored while she was pursuing her master’s in Hawai‘i — when there had been five or six rapid shots on the street outside his family’s apartment. She kept on with her lesson about Alexander the Great as if nothing had happened until Fausto had stopped her, said, “Miss? You know those were gunshots?” his eyes questioning her—a kid asking an adult for guidance, a handle, she’d thought. She’d fumbled in the silence when he’d added, “Don’t walk home again tonight, okay?”
She’d send up a quick prayer in thanks that Fausto and his family lived on the eleventh floor (far enough from stray bullets, she convinced herself), that she didn’t live there even though she was sad that Fausto and his family did, even though that meant she’d have to go outside to figure out how to get home later on that night.
A few days later, Fausto’s stepdad had told her a story with the enthusiasm of a kid the age of Fausto’s younger brother that there had been shots the next night too, that he’d rushed downstairs to find out what was going on and seen the slight form collapsed on the sidewalk, a wet pool widening between the dark bodies of two high-rises, that he’d been the first to arrive.
He’d told her that story on the same night that he and Fausto’s mom had argued in the kitchen, their Spanish a rising crescendo like an express train careening off the track until—crack! She didn’t have to be in the kitchen to know it was male hand across female face. Fausto’s little brother had run to the kitchen, the silence heavy and airless, and everyone was suddenly cheery and smiley in the living room, doing their best to crowd out that initial raw quiet. She’d kept on with the lesson then too.
The cold cut against her throat. She stole a glance at her phone. 3:47 p.m. No time to stop at the neighborhood Salvation Army across Third Avenue to cop a second-hand sweater. If she did have time, she wouldn’t be able to wash it before throwing it on but—who was she kidding?—it wouldn’t have been the first time.
She marched up to the front door of the project building with purpose, just as she had for the last several weeks, being sure to nod at anyone who’d made eye contact with her or, in this case, held the door. After all, people were just people.
She turned around instinctually, pulled the bright white headphones out of her ears, heard him kiss his teeth.
“Some people don’t know how to say a motherfucking thank you around here. All stuck up and shit.”
Her eyebrows shot up. She felt the smallness of the space between him and the opaque face of the acid-washed elevator door behind her, thought she saw the shadow of someone else disappear down the hall. She nodded, deciding to agree with him.
“Can’t even say thanks for holding a fucking door.”
“Yah,” she said. “I hate that.” Agreeing: Her best tactic.
She shrugged, looked instinctively back at the face of her phone. She’d be right on time. If she made it upstairs.
“Whatever. You didn’t say thank you.” Teeth kissed again, a snarl at the back of his throat.
“Yes I did,” she said, sounding every bit the petulant child. Bad tactic.
“No, you fucking didn’t,” he laughed, sizing her up.
“Oh, I’m sorry then.” Apologizing: second best tactic.
They’d wonder, probably, if she didn’t show up on time. But what would they do if she didn’t? She looked back at the elevator doors, held the urine-smell just outside her nose, kicked at the bits of watery cardboard on the floor, mashed from melted snow and boot bites.
Elevator still not there. Fingers rooting around in pockets. Phone. Need something sharp. Keys in hand. What was she going to do with something sharp, anyway? She laughed a little at herself, shrugged, looked at him.
“Yah, it’s okay though, cause you’re pretty.”
She noticed his busy hands counting bills, darkened at the edges, dirty leather tongues, his boot propping open the door again.
Whoosh and someone else was inside. An older man, squeaky dolly wheels. A younger one, stabilizing hands.
He dipped his head, hiked up his drooping jeans, and then was outside and beyond.
“He gives you a problem?” the older man asked, jerking his head back at the door, now hissing shut.
She shook her head; her heart, flopping in her chest, beginning to slow.
Elevator door beeped open. She went in first, pressed the hold-door-open button with her thumb. Eyes went to the perpetual tag at the top of the elevator buttons: “Niggas needed for a new gang.” Eyes ran away.
“These guys—crazy. Don’t do nothing with their lives. You teacher?” He nodded at the books at the top of her back, mystery stories for Fausto and his brother, parting gifts to make leaving easier.
“That’s good. Stay safe, mija. Help us keep our kids indoors.” He held the elevator door open for her at Fausto’s floor.
Her mandated thirty hours would be up soon, but she knew that Fausto and his brother had other after-school programs that they’d catch up with, that their mom would keep them busy and, yes, inside, whether or not she was there. Still, she felt something heavy on her chest.
She said thank you, loudly this time, and turned to watch the elevator door click shut, covering up the older man’s calloused hand, raised in good-bye.