Sunset: hot day melting into warm night. Amina stood, watching the shadows lengthen, feeling a heavy breeze pass her by – the hard iron balcony rail a stiff weight across her belly.
For a while she just looked at the people walking along the street below, calmly following their progress as they went wherever they were going. Not for the first time since Stanley had left her, she wanted to be one of them – any of them. A pair of Greek sailors; a young black man in threadbare jeans and a stained T-shirt, pedaling a wobbling, squeaking bicycle; a tourist couple in their pressed whites, standing out in their catalog-bought profiles; a fat man who didn’t walk as much as slowly swim through the heavy sunset atmosphere, his legs seemingly linked by some internal arrangement to his fat arms swinging rhythmically by his side.
Many went by till the sun had dropped behind the filigreed rooftops, and the street lamps started to, at first, glow then burn brightly, but she sadly remained herself.
Finally the night touched, hinted at, becoming cool, so she turned away from the iron curlicues of the balcony and walked across the small boarding-house room to robotically turn the antique light switch by the door. Yellow light snapped down through a dirty, cracked ceiling fixture, bathing the room in harsh realism: sink stained with a rusty high-water mark, mirror above cracked with an angry bolt, wooden floorboards that had been worn not into a smooth sheen but rather a broken and splintered forest. Wallpaper covered the walls, a tawny rainbow of mildew, and where it didn’t it curled away from the soft plaster in stiff tubes and torn twists.
“Bathroom’s down the hall, girl; that’s why you be gettin’ this one so cheap,” the manager had said. A polished noir Buddha, she’d sat, rocked back on a low stool by the front door. A simple white dress, all lace and tiny red stitching, covered her great body. She was a momma, like a primordial soft bosomy comfort made into a breathing person. As she spoke, she’d cooled herself with a fan lettered with a gospel hymnal – too slow to deliver a good breeze, but too fast for Amina to see what it said. “But you be gettin’ a sink, so you ain’t bein’ completely uncivilized.”
Amina hadn’t argued, and yet hadn’t agreed, either: the redbrick building across the street from the iron pickets of the cemetery had neither been her destination or even a way point. She been walking since dawn, a shocked son ambulation that had started with Stanley’s note on the kitchen table, and ending with this big black woman calling to her: “Here, girl; rooms for a tired lookin’ lady.”
Money had been exchanged. How much Amina didn’t care. Not many thoughts inhabited her mind during that long walk, and even after she’d climbed the stairs under the simply lettered sign: Rising Sun. Only a few thoughts had managed to make themselves known to her as she’d leaned over the balcony – wishes to be anyone but Amina Robinson.
Then, as the sun set and the not-hot, but-warm night had started, she thought a few more. Not words, really, just a cool rationalization: she’d not brought anything with her. no razors, no gun, not even some pills. She was only two floors up, too low to jump. The ceiling fixture didn’t look strong enough to support her, even if she had anything like a rope. The mirror was obvious, razor-edged cracks promising – even without a handy bathtub.
In the end, she retreated to the mildew-sink of the too-soft bed, old springs complaining as she settled into it: not avoiding the escape she so desperately wanted, but rather not wanting to face even her fractured reflection.
Amina sat on the bed for a long time. Listening with half an ear to the architectural mumblings of the old building: the hissing of water through pipes, the rolling creeks of footsteps next door and up above, the flapping of the shade in the open window.
Like a toothache she couldn’t help tonguing, she replayed Stanley – hurting herself with his absence. Each act – the last fight, the daisies he’d brought home from work one day, the way he’d looked at her when she undressed in front of him, the color of his nipples, his laughter – seemingly to press harder down on her shoulders. She cried, after a time, but her tears were long since used up.
She couldn’t go on. She knew that, felt the truth of it somewhere down deep inside herself, but – still – she sat on the edge of that bed in the House of the Rising Sun and did nothing, except weep without tears.
Night: warm darkness pushed back by street lights, diluted by flickering advertisements. The sounds of passersby seemed louder, as if the sunlight of only a few hours before had done its own kind of pushing back, their volume increased by its absence. Now free, their voices and the sounds of their cars, bikes, and trucks echoed up into the small room.
Amina stood and went to the window, intending to close it. She stopped, though, in mid-stride. What did it matter? she thought to herself in sentiment if not in those exact words; I won’t be able to hear anything very soon.
Then she did. Hear something, that is: a knock – thunderclap, pistol shot loud in the small room – and a voice: small, quavering, weak, helpless. “Hello?” someone said from the other side of her door. “Hello? Can you hear me?”
She didn’t have to. Still, she did: turn, walk to the door, slip the cheap chain, turn the knob, and open it just so much.
“Thank God, I thought someone wasn’t in here.” She was small, young – maybe twenty to Amina’s thirty, with hair as straight as dried pasta and as yellow as polished gold. Freckles dotted her pale cheeks, and her eyes were puffy and swollen from tears. “Please, can I come in – please?”
She didn’t need to, but Amina did: open the door wider. Stumbling over the first words in many hours, “S-sure” sounded like gravel pouring out of a coffee can.
“Thank you, oh, thank you—” the young girl said, hunching down and moving quickly into the room. Then she turned, and before Amina could do anything, had wrapped her thin, surprisingly warm, arms around her.
Wet tears seeping through her dress, onto her shoulder, Amina’s arms moved without her. The girl was so slight, so small, putting her arms around her was like hugging a doll.
“I just – I just didn’t want to be alone,” the girl said. Then she repeated, as much to herself as to Amina: “I just didn’t want to be alone.”
Amina patted her warm back, feeling – distantly – the knots of her spine and the planes of her shoulder blades. “I’m here,” Amina said, without really feeling like she was.
“Can I . . . can I stay with you for a while?” the girl said, pushing herself back just enough to look up into Amina’s eyes.
Amina still wanted to leave, just not be . . . there or anywhere else. But the girl’s eyes, tugged at her, needed her. She didn’t want to stay – in that room, in this world – but she also couldn’t leave this sad, lonely girl, either.
Midnight: the darkness still warm, the sounds of sunset and early night chased away by the weight of hours. Twelve, it seemed was too deep, too back, to allow anything but a single wandering drunk who tried to sing – and failed – a song Amina didn’t recognize.
Under the blankets they were warm. How they’d gotten there seemed so quick as to be part of a half-performed dance. One step then another: “I just don’t want to be alone anymore. Please, I just don’t want to be alone.” Then, “Thank you, thank you for opening the door. Thank you for being here.” Her sobs had turned to shivers, and between her sobs she’d managed to slip, “Please, hold me close.”