The man who lived on the floor below Naomi was an ex-con with prison tattoos on his face, and each time Naomi called her sister, she didn’t fail to mention that, “An ex-prisoner lives in our building.”
Naomi knew he was an ex-con because he resembled characters she had seen on the prison documentaries aired on MSNBC. Those shows scared the hell out of her but she watched them anyway because she liked to look into the lives of other people and see the kinds of choices they had made that led them down the path they went, and she liked to count her blessings – count them so that she wouldn’t drown in the trauma and in the snow of Milton.
They met in the laundry room one Saturday evening, after she had made it back from the library in time before her night shift at the factory. He was a big man with broad shoulders and when she saw him bent at a dryer loading in clothes, she at first wanted to back out of the door, slowly. There was nobody else in there and the laundry room was small and cramped with the four washing machines and four dryers for the 52 flats, and it smelt like dust balls and lightly scented air. But he had already seen her and when he smiled at her, crow’s feet appeared at the corner of his eyes, remodeling the small tattoo on the edge of his right eye. His beard was a thick bush from ear to ear, blonder than his hair.
She smiled back – the brief, pious smile she had learnt from westerners – and started to load her clothes into a washing machine. She had thought – hoped – that he would leave after loading the dryer, but he seemed to be hanging around, doing something at the sink by the basement window. The air in the room grew tight. Naomi couldn’t load the machine and watch him at the same time without being conspicuous, so she loaded the machine as fast as she could, measured a cup of detergent (it spilled on her slippers), loaded the coins, hit start and was hurrying out of the room when he spoke.
“Hey. You new?” A big man with a big voice.
She froze. Turned. Made herself look at the criminal. “Yes.”
“Nice. You go to school? I see you catch the shuttle some mornings.”
Criminal and stalker. “I do.”
“Well, I’m Matt. Nice to meet you.”
“Naomi. You too.” She turned and bolted.
That night, she told Esther she had nearly been trapped in the laundry room with the prisoner. She told Esther she felt scared and Esther told her there was no need to be – “After all, you live in a country where when you call the police they actually answer.”
But Naomi couldn’t get over the fact that he watched her catch the shuttle in the mornings. The bus stop was right in front of the apartment building, so his flat must overlook the road below. From his vantage point, he could probably see everyone that came and went. Was he stalking her?
The next time Naomi saw him, she had been on her way to her night shift a few days later, and she met Matt and Dianne, the elderly building supervisor, small-talking at the glass doors in the lobby. Dianne had her poodle, Coco Chanel, in her arms and Matt was carrying Dianne’s flower-print shopping trolly. Brief, cordial pleasantries were exchanged and as Naomi was heading out of the doors, Matt said, “Off to work?”
She nodded and walked away. Quickly.
And that was when it really began to terrify her. He was watching her. Should she call the police?
Esther, who had told her she could always call the police, was now telling her, “Nana, you too dey fear. He’s just being friendly.”
Then she didn’t see him for many weeks after that, but she kept thinking about him. Each time she was back from school and had those four precious hours to eat and rest before she headed to the factory, she watched her prison documentaries and kept thinking she might see him on her TV one day. What had he done? How long had he been locked up for? Was he a career criminal or had he only made a stupid mistake? Was it armed robbery? Theft? Sexual assault? God forbid.
At work, she told Sa’diyya about him and Sa’diyya, in between bites of fattoush in the lunchroom, eyes glimmering, grabbed the phone in her pocket.
“Matt what?” She asked.
“I don’t know his last name.” Naomi watched her type on the device. “How are you going to find him?”
“If he’s a sex offender, his criminal record will be public.”
“Oh, God forbid.”
“Habibti,” Sa’diyya reached across the table and covered Naomi's hand with hers. “If this man is threatening you, call the cops.”
“But he knows you catch the shuttle to school in the mornings.”
“And he knows you work in the evenings.”
Sa’diyya sighed and looked at her the way her mother used to. “So? Isn’t it obvious?”
After talking to Sa’diyya, Naomi was convinced she was over-reacting. She wasn’t calling the cops. The last thing she needed was to make a false accusation that would make her already fragile life even more complicated. It had taken over a year to get her papers, and even longer to make enough money to leave the women’s shelter, get the flat at 340 Wembley Drive, enroll at the community college, and resume a life that had been put on hold when she fled Nigeria. The ghosts of her past still haunted her; Facebook messages and emails from Nnamdi, her ex-husband, his family, his friends, his boss, even his pastor, all singing the same tune – This was not the way to handle a troubled marriage, you did not have to run away, you can still make this work, you did not have to seek asylum. One of Nnamdi’s sisters actually wrote: It’s not that deep.
But in the thick of it, it felt like a choice between asylum-seeking or death, when she had been knocked unconscious one evening by the soles of Nnamdi’s shoes and had woken up in a pool of blood, driven herself to the hospital, muzzy and shaken, and couldn’t hear out of her left ear for four days.
It was that deep.
She met Matt in the elevator after school one day. She hadn’t seen him after the “off to work” incident. It had been over a month.
He stepped in on the second floor and she wondered what he had been doing on the second floor. Like it was any of her business.
“Evening,” Matt said.
It was a slow elevator and it felt like the seconds dragged as the silence stretched and stretched.
“You’ve not been around,” Naomi heard herself say.
She saw Matt’s head turn out of the corner of her eye.
“You noticed,” he said.
“Same way you noticed I’m a student?”
He chuckled. “My mother was ill. I was with her in London.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.”
“It is what it is. She’s resting now. That’s what matters.”
“Rest—” Naomi started again. “Resting? She’s passed on?”
“I’m so sorry.”
“Thank you.” The elevator opened and Matt stepped out unto the fourth floor.
On the fifth floor, something eerie followed Naomi from the elevator into her apartment, into the bathroom, and into her bed. Even the noodles she ate tasted poisoned with it. What was it? It was the reminder of the death of her own mother, the burial she could not attend because when the woman had finally been killed by the diabetes, Naomi had been stateless and could not travel home.
She remembered it like yesterday. In the shelter. With a faulty phone she had bought off Facebook Marketplace that came on and went off at whim. The text message from Esther:
Wen can I call? Its abt mummy
Naomi knew in her gut that the woman had died. She didn’t respond for days and each time Esther called, she busied the call until Esther was forced to text her:
Mummy died on Tues. The burial is nxt month. I know u cant come. Nana am so sorry
Naomi cried for days and the shelter manager gave her a tranquiliser to numb the pain.
Naomi scarcely checked her mailbox (nobody but Esther knew her address and all her mail was paperless) so when she eventually did, Matt’s note had been lying there amidst junk mail for over two weeks.
Hi, Naomi I would have called but I don’t know your number and I was wondering if you would like to grab a bite or a drink sometime? My number is 0905-779-1189 Matt (405)
For an ex-con his handwriting was beautifully cursive. Maybe he had been (was?) a white-collar criminal. Insurance fraud? Money laundering? Identify theft?
But she was giddy and she had not been giddy for many years.
When she got upstairs, she turned the TV on and sat with the note and her phone in her palms, wondering what she would text.
Hi Matt sorry I just saw your note
Hi Matt this is my number
Hi Matt are you a rapist?
And then she noticed he included his flat number, so maybe he wanted a handwritten response in his mailbox instead of a text message? She deliberated and deliberated until she talked herself out of it, remembering that Nnamdi too had been so unassuming and sweet with the handwritten notes left on the dressing table and stuck to the bathroom mirror in the beginning, until he started to pound her face in.
She hated to remember. But she was already remembering, and it left the rusty taste of dried blood in her mouth. She put the note and phone on the centre table, curled up on the sofa and let the voices emanating from the television drown her thoughts.
It was when she saw Matt and Dianne, dressed in black – even Coco Chanel wearing a black bow tie and Dianne with the daintiest fascinator and her pretty, red lipstick – that she remembered the note and his mother’s death. This was many days later. It was then she connected the dots; Matt and Dianne were related. It was no wonder they were always chit-chatting, no wonder he helped her with her shopping, no wonder he had been on the second floor, where Dianne lived.
Matt held the door open for Naomi and she stepped out into the cold.
“Did you get—”
“I did,” she said. “I would love to.”
Matt sighed and his breath made white whiffs in the air. “Okay. Text me?”
And then all hell broke loose because Naomi didn’t know what to wear. It was a date, but it was in his flat, so they weren’t going anywhere fancy but he said he would cook and would get a bottle of his favourite wine (and briefly she wondered if he intended to spike it?), so it was a date.
Esther was of no help: “You be waka waka baby, corner corner baby, I go tell your mama!”
Sa’diyya: “Carry your mace. I’m serious, habibti.”
Also, about how soon into a date do you tell him that you have no womb because you had an abortion while you were in UniBen, and the quack took your womb out with the baby, and you didn’t tell your ex-husband that your body could not carry a child because at the time you believed God could restore the womb (God of wonders, right?), until you went for tests at Eko Hospital and the gynecologist called Nnamdi to the side and let the cat out of the bag?
So much baggage, you know?
Naomi settled for a pair of “backend flattering jeans” – as Esther called them – and a black blouse and lip gloss (Not lipstick, habibti, and not that purple shade you like to wear, because we middle-aged women, we cannot afford to smell of desperation).
She was early, but he seemed ready because one knock and the door swung open, and a pleasant smell, the blend of potatoes and grilled fish, hit her. He had his phone pressed to an ear, but he beckoned her in as she handed him the box of cheesecake she had bought from No Frills.
His flat was smaller than her, but the layout was the same, and alas the living room windows overlooked the main road below. The living room was furnished with only a futon and a small TV propped up on an old credenza. The several layers of the credenza had framed pictures, loose change and mail lining them.
Matt was on the phone for a while and eventually came into the living room with a bottle of wine and two glasses.
“I bought red,” he said. The bottle was still unopened, and she watched him twist the cap with some effort.
No spiking then, she thought.
“Red is fine.” She took the glass he handed her. She watched the glass fill up with wine and then, as she took a sip, wondered if he had already spiked the glass before he handed it to her.
The silence went on for too long. He was looking at the blank television screen and at first she stared at one of the framed pictures – of him, Dianne and another elderly woman – and then she looked out of the window at the lights of the apartment building across the road. For a moment it felt like this was about to be the worst date of her life. She was beginning to regret coming when he spoke.
“I’m sorry if I seem… a little out of sorts.” He set his glass down at the foot of the futon. “Sorting out my mother’s affairs has been… pretty crazy.”
“I can imagine. My condolences.”
He looked at her then and up-close, she could see that the tattoo at the corner of his right eye was a shamrock with a swastika inside it. The symbol of the Aryan Brotherhood. She nearly chocked on the wine. She made herself look back out the window.
“I didn’t ask if you were vegetarian or vegan.” He stood up, walked into the kitchen. “I made salmon and fried potatoes.”
“I’m not vegetarian.” Her mind was spinning. “Or vegan.” If he was a white supremist, why had he asked her out? To kill her, chop her into tiny pieces and take her out with the garbage, that’s why.
She watched him set two plates on the small dining table by the kitchen. And Dianne could cover for him, couldn’t she? Disable the CCTV in the hallways. Lie to the police, tell them he was in London the day Naomi disappeared.
“Dinner’s served,” Matt said.
Naomi settled at the table, sitting opposite him. The meal looked and smelled delicious. He had sprinkled chopped parsley in the gravy, the fried potatoes and salmon each sat neatly in their own sides of the place. Was this her last supper?
“Do you mind if we say grace?” Matt asked.
Naomi was gobsmacked.
“Sorry, oh.” She couldn’t help laughing. “But how does the Aryan Brotherhood mix with grace?”
Matt smiled. “You saw my tattoos.”
“They’re kind of hard to miss.”
“These…” His index finger made a circle around his face. “Were a long time ago.”
“How long ago?”
“Can we say grace, and I promise to tell you all about it.” He reached over the table and they held hands. She was sure she heard a Dear Lord Jesus somewhere in there. This was going to be some date.
He went to prison for armed robbery when he was nineteen. It was then he joined the Aryan Brotherhood. They were a family that protected each other from other race-segmented gangs in prison. There was a structure to the organization. They weren’t just some wanton gang that commits mindless violence. Even now, as he spoke about them, Naomi could feel the affinity he had felt for the clan all those years ago before he “repented of his waywardness and found the Lord.”
His mother had been a single mother. She had tried her best with him, but growing up poor, it does something to you; it builds you up angry and hungry and dissatisfied, and violence and aggression begin to resemble the only profitable option. If it won’t be given to you, take it, especially if it’s from someone who has much more than you do.
The night he was arrested, he had intended to steal a car in a quiet street in downtown London. The owner of the car saw him through his bedroom window and accosted him. Matt threatened him with the gun he had in his pocket, but the police was already on their way and he no chance with those wild canines.
He had been out of prison over seven years now and he was still adjusting to being out, to the advent of social media, to the stares he got when he walked the streets. There were some neighbourhoods he wouldn’t dare walk through should he wish to live, because of Somali and First Nation gangs. Getting a job was a pain. It was one of the reasons he lived at the apartment, because Dianne hadn’t taken into consideration his criminal record like other supervisors do.
Well, now that he had opened up his entire life to her, could she tell him she had no womb, was divorced, had fled Nigeria for her life, battled PTSD, still had nightmares about being half-beaten to death, missed her mother so much her chest ached, longed to be in the same room with her sister again?
They shared the cheesecake after dinner, sitting on the futon, the wine dancing at the periphery of her mind.
“Dianne says you’re from Nigeria,” Matt said.
“Yes.” He was sitting close enough for her to smell his cologne. The tattoos above his eyebrows were names: Katie and Dianne. The one on his left temple said: A.B. “Was she the one who told you I’m a student?”
“No, but she told me you work at the Ford plant.” He clasped his large palms around her upper arm. “I wonder how someone so tiny can work in a factory.”
Naomi threw her head back, chuckling. “Hey, hey, hey, women are strong too, you know?”
“Yes, but not as strong as men.”
“No, not as strong.” She tasted blood in her mouth. The glee fizzled out of the room. “I know that.”
“Are you—” Matt’s eyes narrowed. “Did I say something wrong?”
Was it now that she could tell him?
“No.” But the heaviness was sinking into her chest. Constricting her throat. “I had a good time.”
“Oh.” Matt leaned into the sofa, crestfallen. “You leaving?”
“I have class tomorrow morning.”
“Yes. Of course.” He scratched his beard and tried again. “Is it something I said? I’m learning so much about, you know, feminism, women’s rights and, I don’t know if it was saying that women aren’t—”
“Matt.” She put a hand on his shoulder and he quietened. “Listen. I had a good time. I’m just. Tired.”
She stood up and left before he could say any other honest thing that would break her heart.
She didn’t sleep that night. She cried instead, and in the morning she spent an extra fifteen minutes in front of the mirror covering the bags under her eyes with concealer.
She didn’t respond to his text messages, apologising for something he hadn’t even done. When Sa’diyya and Esther asked how the date went, she told them he was very sweet and she would definitely see him again.
After school a week later, she stopped on the fourth floor, half-hoping he wasn’t home, but he was home and he opened after one set of knocks, the flat behind him smelling like grilled cheese toast. He had on a faded Old Navy t-shirt and she saw more tattoos lining his arms.
“I left Nigeria because my ex-husband almost killed me.” She ignored the shock in his eyes. “He was physically and emotionally abusive. So, I know that men are stronger than women because I could never hit him as hard as he could hit me. I have PTSD but I can’t afford therapy right now, so I live with it, I cope with it. And I don’t know if I’m oversharing or if I should just go on making you think you did something wrong the other night, but you didn’t. I’ve just been through a lot of shit and I haven’t learnt to cope with my triggers.”
He nodded slowly. She felt like a fool standing in the hallway with her backpack. She wanted to turn around and walk away.
Then he spoke: “I still have some of that cheesecake. Not sure it’s still edible, but do you want to come in?”