I’d been in the apartment for days, weeks. I was sure by now that I was safe, but I hadn’t yet made a move. Having lived a lifetime of listening for intruders, I’d come with an ear that pricked up like a guard dog’s. The door at the entrance to the corridor opened with a yelp of its yaw; the one at the exit closed like the fading report of a shotgun. I’d listen to footsteps, receding to a faint footfall on the furrow of carpet, counting along with the metronome beats of my clock. The tread would end with the summary click of a lock or the sound of a far-off thump. However, along the way there could be one other stop, announced by a vacuum seal release, when for a brief moment, the churning of washers and driers escaped until that door closed, and the mechanical sound was cut off. The two peepholes on the plain surface of my door helped; if I was close by, I would tiptoe across the wooden tiles to peer through. I’d come to know that in large measure, the movements around me were the comings and goings of tenants like myself, mainly women who, if I missed them when they went down, I could identify as they passed on their way up.
One day, however, as I stood with my eye against the peephole, a face on the outside magnified within spitting distance to a blur.
“Cockroach!” it yelled.
I sprang back. After that I began to use the lower peep hole, angling myself at the outer edge, and ducking swiftly as soon as I saw who it was that had passed.
I timed my shopping trips, putting out of garbage, and laundry days by the rituals I’d observed. Tuesdays and Thursdays, for instance, became my preferred days for going out because these were the days of least traffic. For I wanted to take things slowly, although I felt safe, 300,000 percent safer than in where I’d come from. Back there, fifty-two murders had already been racked up for the twenty-seven days of the new year, compared to the four where I now was. How did I know? Every morning the first thing I did was check the Internet to see what had happened back there overnight. Why the Lot’s wife syndrome? Why the constant looking back, especially since my decision to leave had been tortuous yet doggedly pursued over years and years of interminable vetting and fees and certificates of good character and medical and educational reports? Even the scriptures don’t have an answer for that. On the one hand, Matthew counsels, “If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out.” But on the other hand, there is the counsel of Paul: “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is . . .” You don’t have to read down to the end of the verse to understand that cutting off one part of the body doesn’t mean that you don’t miss the part that’s gone.
Two incidents in the first month, though, gave me cause for concern. One evening, prime time news led off with the account of a murder that left me thoroughly spooked. According to the report, a cleaning lady originally from Eritrea was stabbed to death around 6:00 a.m. on a well-trodden footpath as she made her way home from her graveyard shift. CCTV footage showed a woman of about my age in a duffle coat, umbrella open, handbag on forearm, walking in the halo of the streetlight along a black footpath starkly rolling away in front of her like an inky spool slipped from a hand’s grip through an expanse of snow. A hazy clip a few seconds long: that’s all it was. Nobody saw. Except that a man on his way to work said he’d heard what sounded like a groan in the field of white and had called 911.
Perhaps it could follow me here, I thought. I was dumbstruck.
The second: I had gone to the laundry room one Tuesday, one of the days of the least corridor traffic, only to find all three machines loaded. A woman stood at the machine near the entrance, watching her laundry spin. Self-consciously, more to myself than to her, I said, “I’ll come back.”
“You don’t have to, I’m almost done,” she said, pointing at the timers lit up in phosphorescent green. “Just two more minutes on each and I’m outta here.”
I looked at the machines. Yes, her loads were almost through. Still, not wanting to be a bother, I said, “You don’t have to hurry. I can come back.”
“It’s Ok . . . I’m done . . . and when the dryer over there times out, that’s it for me,” she said, motioning over her shoulder to the machines behind her. I looked across the room to the row of dryers. Only one was in use.
“Ok,” I said. I thought I’d recognized a familiar inflection in her voice. Reassured, I proceeded more fully into the room, wheeling my laundry buggy to the table at the center, relieving my hand of the large bottles of detergent and fabric softener that I had bought along with other bulk items to last the entire winter months.
My washing companion’s attention was back on the front-loader nearest the door, and we both watched as its timer wound down. Soon there was a click.
“These are just things to hang out,” she said, kicking forward a basket and bending to open the door.
Behind her, from the center table I could observe her form more closely. She had on a baseball cap with an adjustable strap in the back, through which I could see her hair. It was natural, like mine. Perhaps I could ask her what she used to protect her locks in this brittle weather, for in the mornings I was beginning to see more and more tiny coils on my bathroom floor, meaning that my hair ends were breaking off.
She continued taking bathroom mats from the drum, vigorously shaking off stray fluff that stuck to them like plucked chicken feathers, and dropping these rubber-backed items one by one into her basket.
“One good thing about winter—before you blink your eyes, these dry.” More relaxed, her twang became more pronounced.
“Where’re you from?” I asked.
She dragged the laundry basket across to the second machine that by now had also stopped, and bent again to unload.
With all the churning in the room perhaps she hadn’t heard. “Where’re you from?” I said more loudly.
“I’m from right here,” she said, her voice breaking up as she continued tugging at damp items that had wound themselves into a clump.
“I mean, where’re you originally from?”
She stood up, squeezing her shoulder blades back. “This back of mine . . . ,” she said, flexing her pectorals. “You could go ahead with that washer, you know,” she continued, motioning with her chin to the machine she’d already unloaded. “I’m done.”
“It’s OK,” I said. “I’ll use the one that you’re emptying now. I only need one.”
Incomprehensibly, she stared.
“Ah!” she said, after a pause as if a light bulb had flicked on. “You have bleach?” She scrutinized my supplies. I didn’t. “No problem, I’ll wipe it out for you.” Coming over to the table, she reached for a damp cleaning cloth. “I wipe out each and every one of these machines before I use them, because you never know. I only put my bath mats, but some people put even their dog and cat beds in the wash.”
I could feel my face flush.
“It’s OK.” I said. “You don’t have to.”
Nonetheless, she continued with her quick swiping, coming over to rest the cleaning cloth back on the table next to me when she was done.
During all her ministrations, I’d remained awkwardly silent, processing the insight she had just shared. I’d never given a thought to what tenants put in the wash—dirty laundry, of course, but dog and cat beds and cloths? Yet come to think of it, where else would they wash these items? Back home, where there was no winter and dogs didn’t sleep inside the house, the issue never came up. Even on rainy nights, or if they were sick, and you put out an old khaki pants or a worn-down towel for them to lie on, no way were those throwaways ever put in a washing machine. You pummelled dog and cat bedding with your feet on the landing after lathering it with carbolic soap. You followed that up with a rinse under the building tap. Or you hosed the bedding down and put it out on the hibiscus fencing or the concrete to face the blazing sun.
Here, however, in my few commutes, I’d already noticed dogs, with crusts of street salt on their paws and mucus in their eyes, invited up onto the seats. “Up, boy!” the owner would say, tapping his lap, and his best friend would leap up. Endearments from fellow commuters were sure to follow. Come to think of it, I hadn’t heard, “Marche, Dog!” in the last couple of months, a command at which every island pot hound knows to Scram! because a lash is not far behind.
“Ok, all clear,” she said.
I wheeled my buggy forward, put in my laundry, and poured the recommended levels of detergent and softener in the respective slots. All set, I inserted my coins, pushed the start button, and looked at my watch.
“I’ll be back in half an hour,” I said. “Because someone else might come in and want to use the machines,” I added to soften any hint of snobbishness that I might have given. After all, I needed to make friends, and this was as good a place as any to start.
“Not likely . . . Tuesday is a quiet day,” she said from the table where she was busy putting shirts and blouses on hangers. Turning the items this way and that, she brushed away lint that clung before placing them on a standing rack. Very handy, I thought, I should get one of those.
“Yes, I noticed!” I said, resuming my path to the door. “Tuesday is a very quiet day around here.”
“If you want, I could put your clothes in the dryer for you when I’m done.”
I looked over at the row of dryers.
“That’s OK. There are three. I’ll just use whichever one is free when I come back.”
“No, I mean that dryer.” She nodded in the direction of the one that was spinning. “You only need a quarter to get all your clothes dry in that one. As a matter of fact, if you put in your clothes before my time runs out, you wouldn’t have to put in any money at all.”
“Really?” I looked over at the $2.00 sign flashing psychedelic green on the slots of the dryers not in use. “Are you sure?”
“Does the Super know?”
“If he doesn’t know, I’m not about to tell him.” Her face was as blank as the pillowcase she shook out before lining up the corners and making a fold. “These people aren’t losing any money, you know. That’s peppercorn to them. As far as I’m concerned, any penny you get, you take it.”
I was about to respond, when a dark glass dome, facing me from snug in the corner of the ceiling, caught my eye. I hadn’t noticed it before.
“Someone might come in before you’re back just to dry,” she added. “Some people have washing machines in their room, you know . . . though it’s not allowed. Then you will lose out.”
“Thanks, but I’ll take my chances . . . if it’s gone, it’s gone,” I said lightheartedly. However, as if I were being pursued, I reached for the door knob and pressed forward, hauling my buggy out after me. As I opened the door, though, the tail end of my words bounced out, reverberating along the corridor walls. I’d been talking more loudly than I’d thought!
Worse, just as I got to my doorway I realised that I’d forgotten my five-litre bottles of detergent and fabric softener. Go back? This coming and going under the eye of the camera didn’t seem a good idea to me right then. I’d collect the items when I went back.
Back in my room, I set my stopwatch for thirty minutes. Close to ten would have gone already, but still I stuck with thirty. To avoid further awkwardness, I intended to let the full half-hour run out. By that time my washing companion should be gone.
Meanwhile I tidied my kitchen. There were many other things I needed to get a move on. Getting a job was at the top of the list. I had to get out more, go to the nearest ACCES Employment office listed in the CIC brochure that I’d been given at the airport. Snow or no snow, I had to get moving before my money ran out. And so my mind roved on and on.
Until Beep-Beep, Beep-Beep . . . the stopwatch broke into my thoughts.
“Keep the talk to minimum,” I said to myself as I started down the corridor. “Most likely she wants to be helpful, but you don’t know her, so don’t get too close . . . you don’t even know her name . . . see how she avoided telling you where she’s from?”
Determined to be friendly but to meet whatever lay before me with tact, I pushed open the laundry room door, my heart beating double time. However, to my relief, there was no need for strategy. The laundry room was empty; my laundry friend and her carts were gone. The hum of one of the machines, though, meant she might return.
In one swift move, I put my coin purse on the table and scrambled to the washer. If I hastened, I could pile all my clothes into a dryer fast, and get out, before she came back.
I opened the door of my washer and bent down. Where were all my clothes? I spun around. Was it my laundry revolving in the dryer that was on?
I walked over and opened the door. Indeed it was!
“Calm down,” I muttered to myself to bring the pumping in my chest under control. “When she comes back, just say ‘Thank You,’ but let her know, ‘No Thank You,’ for the next time. She’s just being nice. Let it go!”
I lingered a while, but she didn’t return. In fact, no one came, so I went back to my room to wait the cycle out. “Well, I must meet her some other time,” I concluded. By the time I returned with my buggy to take away my clean laundry, my equilibrium had been restored. Much calmer now, I turned to take up my detergent and fabric softener that I’d been too distracted to collect before. But as hard as I looked, my two five-litre bottles of laundry supplies were nowhere to be found.
Cynthia James is a Trinidad-Canadian poet, novelist, short story writer, and winner of The Caribbean Writer’s Canute A. Brodhurst Prize 2013. Her latest publication is Watermarked: A Poetry Collection (2014). She is the author of the novels Bluejean: A Novel (2000) and Sapodilla Terrace (2006); a collection of short stories, Soothe Me Music, Soothe Me (1990); the poetry collections Iere, My Love (1990), La Vega, and Other Poems (1995), and Vigil: A Long Poem (1995); and a published work of literary criticism, The Maroon Narrative: Caribbean Literature Across Boundaries, Ethnicities and Centuries (2002).