Can I Have a Hug First?

Mary Paula Hunter

A gust of wind knocked me into a man who also hesitated in front of Gold's Gym. "Sorry," I said, giving him a quick once-over, praying I hadn't maimed him. He frowned, glancing at a rush of clouds and the tops of trees thrashing back and forth. Minutes before we had climbed one step after the next on side-by-side Stairmasters. I hope he hadn't seen me flinch when his sweat flew my way. "Good luck," he said before bolting to the parking lot. I wanted to yell thank you for not being injured by my clumsiness and for having the kind of brain, like my husband's, that sticks to one thing at a time and doesn't connect the rarely connectable. Instead I hurried off as an inverted black umbrella flew by. My first ballet class was in an hour and I had to get home to change into my teaching clothes.

I walked at a fast clip pushed by the wind and pelted by flying debris and dirt along the main drag called Hope Street. The Hope Club, Hope Street, Hope Village—Providence is obsessed with hope. About a block in front of me a branch crashed to the sidewalk. I checked out the other trees lining the street as I waited for the light to change at the intersection of Hope and Benevolent. I was about a half mile from the single-family house we'd bought recently, holding onto our first house, a double-decker my husband and I hoped would provide the steady income we desperately needed.

"What do absentee landlords do?" my husband had asked, frowning the morning we drove to the closing. I knew he had a point: neither of us had the faintest understanding of how to manage a property. Two units suddenly seemed way more than one. But how complicated could it be? "I think we just continue to fix things," I said, which seemed like a small price to pay for the relief of coming home to an empty house. The possibility of running into the inscrutable upstairs tenant had filled me with dread. All my skills at instantly morphing into a fake doppelganger deserted me whenever we met in the hall, her eyes narrowing at every word I uttered. "Just keep going," I said to my husband as he coaxed our dying car into gear. "We don't want to be late," I said, praying there'd be no glitch in refinancing one property for the purchase of another.

On moving day we rented the bottom apartment to two women who appeared out of nowhere while we lugged our Salvation Army furniture to a van we'd borrowed. As we drove away, my husband worried about renting to complete strangers. "They seem reliable," I said, trying to remember their names. Midge and something else.

Before I turned left on Friendship, I heard my name or a version of it. Devi, a Cambodian woman who cuts hair in the neighborhood ran across the street waving at me. I worried she needed help translating something. I didn't want to refuse her but I could feel the clock ticking. During one hair appointment, I'd given directions to someone on a speakerphone as she held my head under a too hot stream of water. I thought about changing hair cutters but I liked that she rushed through the wash, cut, and blow dry. Sometimes I left with damp hair.

"Everything bad," she said. I nodded, widening my eyes. I love hearing stories about someone's bad luck. "My son in ICU at hospital," she said. "Why?" I asked. "He weigh four hundred and fifty pounds," she said, scrolling on her phone to a picture of an obese man strapped to a bed with wires coming from his face, neck, everywhere.

"I have a friend who works at Weight Watchers," I offered. "If he live you bring me friend," she said. "Oh Devi, I'll pray for him," I lied, or I sort of lied because as I ran off, waving to her, I actually tried praying. "Please God," I said, but was interrupted by a guy honking at a woman jaywalking. She started to run when another car careening around the corner on the opposite side of the street screeched and swerved, missing her by an inch as she froze. "I'll never jaywalk again," I thought, imagining this woman splayed on the cement, bleeding from everywhere. She stumbled to the sidewalk and then hung onto a tree like she might pass out. I paused while wind whipped around me. As a witness should I run to her? Make sure she's not suffering a stroke or an aneurysm? I pictured a headline demanding the whereabouts of a witness who'd left the scene of a potential homicide.

Then, just as I let this about-to-be-dead woman and my possible incarceration go by the wayside, a clown ran towards me on my street, a very thin clown with a bright orange afro. "I was knocking on your door," the clown yelled, waving both hands at me. I squinted hard. "Why two hands?" I thought. "Was this a joke or a dream?" Panic struck and I worried the moment had arrived when I'd turn into something else. I wished I'd never heard the story of Daphne trapped inside a tree for eternity or the pizza delivery man trapped in an elevator in the South Bronx for a weekend. Maybe I was hallucinating? Had someone drugged me? The guy at the gym seemed benign but my husband's cousin came to on a boulevard in Los Angeles minus his shoes and wallet after what he said was a friendly encounter. Probably involving women and alcohol, but still.

Luckily, the clown turned into my tenant. She was the other woman from the bottom unit and I sighed, relieved to discover that I was still me, my mind intact. "I need to talk to you," she yelled, an inch from my face. "What is wrong?" I asked. "I don't feel safe in the apartment. Midge is abusive and prejudice and also scary," she whispered. The clown-look made me wonder about this other woman's sanity. "Had we rented our apartment to insane people? Why did she find me a kindred soul? How did she know where we lived? I always picked up the rent from a milk box on their front porch. "I must teach," I said, backing up, hoping I didn't seem uncaring. I didn't want criminal charges brought against me for callousness or indifference. For a second I pictured me stuck in a jail cell while my husband begged his brother for bail and I started to feel dizzy. But then I thought of something else to say.

"Could you come to our house tonight so we can discuss this situation?" I asked. "My husband will be home and if you're afraid of your roommate, we shouldn't come to you. I mean, you shouldn't be in the apartment."

"Yes," she said. "I'll come but can I have a hug first?"

"Of course," I said, inching away as she reached her arms towards me letting her bag clunk to the sidewalk. "Oh your bag," I said, skirting around her, hugging her in a fake way so that we barely touched. "Good luck and we'll see you tonight at eight?" I said. "Eight is good, but in the meantime I will go to the library where I bet I'll find legal advice," she said. "Oh that's a good idea," I said, practically through my backdoor.

I taught my classes, worrying the whole time about the upcoming meeting. On the way home I brushed against a low hanging branch and screamed, imagining the clown tenant's hand, whatever her name was, grabbing at me.

My husband had dinner on the kitchen table and the news on. I wolfed down some potato salad while he sliced the turkey breast with a long sleek carving knife the previous owner had left behind—more like a weapon than an ordinary kitchen utensil. Tell him, a voice in my brain said but another voice interrupted, warning me that after he heard the story he might act impulsively and set in motion a catastrophe involving lawyers or police, or any number of possibilities I couldn't imagine. I scooped out some more potato salad. Besides maybe the whole thing will blow over I thought. She may not show up. But then a commercial for life insurance came on and I blurted out that soon one of our tenants would ring the doorbell. Before he could react, the clown tenant appeared on our TV screen. I shrieked so loud my husband dropped the carving knife, stabbing his bare foot. Beneath the photo of the clown AMBER ALERT was displayed in big letters. "If you know this woman or have any information about her whereabouts please call the station. She's kidnapped her child and could be dangerous. The news reporter raised her eyebrows like she knew we were out there harboring information, like she could see us standing guilty in the kitchen of our new single-family home. My husband and I stared at each other and then we saw a stream of blood running along the floor.

"Let's get to the emergency room," I whispered. I was about to turn off the TV when another picture appeared on the screen, this time of the clown tenant with long black hair next to a taller blonde woman. "Isn't that the one called Midge?" My husband pointed to the tall woman.

"If you encounter this woman who goes by Nancy Hawks and her accomplice Midge, call 911. I grabbed the car keys. "I'll call your brother and the police along the way and explain everything. It all makes perfect sense," I said.