by Nikkiesha N. McLeod
At 3:00 A.M., she wakes up from a nightmare, anxiously tosses the covers aside and runs to the window. Completely soaked in her own sweat, she peeps through the curtains, wondering if the man she believed was following her all day was outside waiting to come and take her away.
She first spotted his shadow during her lunch break. His presence was odd for the neighborhood: black suit and tie, black shiny shoes, unrecognizable face covered by sunglasses. His shadow followed her into the deli near her job. It stood, too calmly, behind her—a calm which had no smell, had no breath, had no movement. It made her uncomfortable enough to discard her pattern of ordering the same sandwich and drink. Leaving the line, she did not dare look at his figure.
“Babe…” Eva, still half asleep, aimlessly searches for Jovany’s body in the covers. “Where are you? Are you ok? What’s wrong?”
“He’s out there waiting for me,” Jovany says.
Eva sits up in the dark and asks, “Who is waiting for you? What are you talking about?”
Remembering that she has not revealed anything to Eva about the mysterious man she kept seeing throughout her day, she reluctantly abandons her watch at the window.
“It’s nothing… I just had a bad dream.”
“What was it about?” Eva asks, fully awake, turning on the nightstand lamp and putting her glasses on. She sips some water.
“I kind of don’t understand it. I see my hands…” Jovany says, lifting her left hand in an attempt to examine it. “Then I bite off my finger and eat it.”
“No, just my index finger. What do you think it means?”
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“I don’t know, babe,” Eva says, flopping onto the pillows. “It was just a bad dream. Go back to sleep.”
She lives in fear. Fear of the front door not being locked (she checked it three times and almost missed the elevator), the iron left on, losing her keys and her wallet and her phone… Mostly, it is a fear of being exposed, that she is not to have any of these things. She tries to be extra diligent about the life she has accomplished because who knows when they will come and disassemble it all?
The catalyst of her increasing anxieties, the one she powerlessly faces daily, is the fear that they will eventually discover her secret.
“Late night with de lady?” Ursula jokes, as Jovany walks into the staff room 30 minutes after her shift starts.
“Hardly…” Jovany says fatigued.
She never went back to sleep. Troubled by the dream and the mysterious man, she kept attempting to predict the moment he and his black-clad forces, believing her to be asleep, would break open her front door in a frenzied state and point their bright flashlights and guns directly at her and Eva’s bodies.
“You know, they’re going to write you up for this. It’s like the third time this week.”
“Yes… I know!” Jovany says, slamming her locker.
“Wow, hold up… Just trying to help here. Hello!”
After work, Jovany and Eva had planned to see a performance. Jovany is early, so she decides to walk around the neighborhood and find a bookstore or coffee shop to sit and read. She sees a chain bookstore and enters, awkwardly. Immediately, she notices him standing at the doorway. He looks at her as she nervously plays with her left earlobe and she knows it’s too late to leave.
Jovany heads straight to the coffee bar and tables located at the back of the bookstore. She sits between two people perusing books, her left leg shaking, and uncertainly pulls a book out from her bag. Her leg stops as she stares intensely at the book’s cover, then, slowly, looks around. It dawns on her that if she tries to leave with her book, the mysterious man will finally have a reason to take her. She would be a thief, and she knows that no one will believe the book is hers.
Quickly, as her left leg re-initiates its rapid shaking, she flips through the pages, searching for the receipt. It’s not there. Breathing deeply, she is aware of every part of her body and every other body in eyesight. Even though she is dressed “properly”—a button-down shirt, clean sneakers and pressed trousers—she is still in a ritzier part of town, still black, still showing off the tail of a red dragon sleeve tattoo on her right forearm, still queer, still suspicious.
But what about all these people? There’s someone here who just brought their book a few minutes ago, and no one is watching them! An alarm won’t go off if I walked out with MY BOOK, right?! Jovany asks herself, trying to calm down so she could read in peace.
But reading is impossible; she constantly reaches for her earlobes and her left leg won’t stop shaking. The rant continues: but I purchased the book at another branch, which means it most likely is in stock. And besides myself, there’s one other black person in the store. She looks across to the periodical section, stares at an artsy-looking gentleman thumbing through a New Yorker, and reminds herself, this isn’t the 1930s…and I’m in New York City.
Jovany still cannot help thinking that it is not a coincidence that the mysterious man is here, that she will be arrested for stealing because someone saw her put a book, her book, in her bag. With his gun clipped to his side, she imagines the mysterious man stopping her, escorting her to a backroom. She will be given one phone call and she’ll call Eva, of course, hoping to explain everything. It is then and there that she will lose everything.
Maybe I’m getting ahead of myself, she thinks, I’ll call Eva… But, then she remembers what she doesn’t want: Eva’s whiteness justifying the reason she’s in an all-white environment. Eva’s whiteness being the one thing that keeps her safe.
Jovany’s legs stop shaking as she recalls a memory from when she and Eva first started dating. They were visiting Eva’s home town, and were invited to a party. So many people were staring at them and she wonders if it was because she was black or because she was black, looked like a man, and was with Eva. She remembers the one drunk guy, drunk enough to reveal his true opinions. He was a friend of Eva’s from high school. He asked Jovany if the jacket she was searching through was really hers while she was looking for her lighter. Because of Eva’s intervention, things didn’t end as badly as they could.
She snaps out of her memories and looks around for the man, anticipating the possibilities. What if, instead of being hauled to the backroom, she is asked to pay for the book? She checks her wallet for cash and her Visa card.
That’s ridiculous, she thinks to herself. Paying twice for the same book. And the shame… Being called a thief… Where is the receipt…?
As both legs resume shaking, and the intermittent pulling at her left earlobe increases, Jovany pretends to read. She then looks at the woman next to her and wonders, if I were white would I ever feel suspected? Would I think like this? Probably not. Maybe I wouldn’t think about race, maybe class? Maybe I’m just too paranoid. I mean, Obama is President…!
I could leave the book. I really want to read it, but I’m not buying another copy! I could borrow it from the library, but I love marking off my favorite passages, phrases…”
Jovany’s time is up. She is supposed to meet Eva at 7:00pm, and it is now 6:50. She thinks that if she gets up and leaves the book, she will not draw suspicion. But it may look incriminating if I just left it there when it was in my bag. It’ll look like I thought about stealing the book, and at the last minute decided not to. Maybe I can casually leave it on a shelf. Jovany gets up, puts her bag over her shoulder, walks to the literature section and shelves her book.
While exiting the store, she feels the mysterious man’s long stares. When she escapes, she comforts herself: it was the best thing to do. Maybe one day I’ll look back and laugh… Who really steals books these days?
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Nikkiesha N. McLeod is a writer and musician. She was a co-founder for the grassroots feminist zine, OutLaw Sister Riff, a recipient of Howard University’s John J. Wright Award for poetry, a finalist in the Hollin’s Poetry Festival, and a co-award recipient for the City College English Department Adrian Schwartz Award for Women’s Fiction.