After our first year in southeastern Ohio my husband Ben said that he needed to spend the summer in a city, and that’s how we ended up, that June and July, living in a dark one-bedroom apartment over Pine Street in Philadelphia, the kind of place where a thing like this could happen. We had picked Philadelphia because it would give Ben easy access to Poe’s house and Whitman’s house for research. Plus he said good things about the neighborhood – antiques, little urban parks, beautiful old houses. We had picked the apartment because it was short-term. We pictured a building full of people like us, wandering academics and their families. Instead it was one of those month-to-month places for people who don’t know what’s going to happen to them beyond a paycheck or two.
“Is this safe?” I said to Ben when the landlord left us alone in our apartment. Little Tamar was asleep in my arms, six months old then. I bounced her and looked at the dirty green curtains hanging heavy and lopsided along the windows, the dark-spotted rugs.
“It’s safe,” Ben said. “You have to be pretty rich to live in this neighborhood.”
“Not to live in this building, though,” I said, bouncing. I pictured the narrow, dark hallways we had come through on the way up to this apartment. The weak lightbulbs and the gray walls, dirty as though weary people had been leaning on them for many decades.
Ben shrugged. “It’s not fancy.”
There wasn’t much to do about it, so we stayed there, and when Ben wasn’t out researching we wandered into the city together to entertain ourselves and Tamar. She was still young enough to not care much about zoos or children’s museums, but a ride in the stroller or a stop at a park bench made her happy and gave me and Ben a chance to absorb the movement and life of a city, the aggressive summer sun of the east coast. I liked being outdoors there. The atmosphere I had grown up with in Portland, Oregon, was softer, but any kind of city was a joy for me.
Even when Ben was out working, I tried to be out of the apartment as much as possible. The building was very quiet – maybe that should have reassured me, but it ended up being part of what unnerved me. It left a lot of mystery in the other apartments. And the quiet also meant that thoughts about the fall crept in on me, questions about whether I’d just keep haunting the streets of our new little Ohio town with Tamar in the stroller or whether I would try to get back to work. I had been to a lot of school, but didn’t want to do what I had been taught to do.
“So what do you want to do?” Ben had asked more than once.
“If I knew, I’d do it,” I had said.
Those were the kinds of things I couldn’t help but think about when I was alone inside for Tamar’s naps. The rest of the time I took her out, even just to the little park on the corner across the street, where we’d watch all the cars back up at the traffic light and then get moving again. Or I’d talk to the strange guy who owned the antique store next door to the building. He was a short, middle-aged guy named Frank with marine tattoos and a bad hairpiece, and he liked to talk about how slow business was, and about the war in Iraq. Once while he was sweeping the sidewalk – he swept the sidewalk, I think, to keep from spending time in a shop without customers – he said that if he hadn’t been too old, he’d go and “cut off Osama bin Laden’s fucking head” himself. Then his eyes went to my stroller and he said, “Sorry. You know.”
Otherwise I sat in the park, waiting for Ben to get back.
Because of all of this, when the doorbell unexpectedly rang during one of Tamar’s afternoon naps I sort of leapt up to go answer it, without even thinking. If I’d had time to think, probably I would have stayed in the apartment with the door bolted – but I was in a desperate way, and it was like a reflex, responding to that desperation as much as to the doorbell.
There was no intercom, and I locked our place up, Tamar sleeping inside, and went down the flight of stairs to the main door. It was a beautiful door, the glass covered with an ornate leafy grillwork that fit in with the rest of antique row. Behind it were the shapes of two men.
I opened the door, and the two men were police officers in uniform, but with protective vests on. Immediately my mind went to Tamar up in our apartment. I think I lifted my hand in a kind of defensive instinct.
“Can I help you?” I said, right from the script.
The man in front, a kind of leading-man face, smiled. He was wearing a baseball cap with the Superman logo on it. “Sorry to bother you,” he said. “We were looking for someone else, but you were the only person who answered any of the doorbells.”
The man behind him had no cap on, just some neat dark hair. He seemed to be trying to not catch my attention, standing behind and down a step from Superman, who now brought my eyes back to him by pulling out a piece of paper.
“Have you ever seen this person in this building?”
I looked at the photo. It was the face of a Middle Eastern young man with close-cropped hair. I studied the picture carefully, looked at it all very closely, as I felt I should. The name under the photo seemed Middle Eastern, too.
“I haven’t,” I said. I actually hadn’t ever seen anyone in the building. Still – I felt a chill on my back. “Is this a dangerous person? Is he in this building?”
The officer smiled again. “He probably doesn’t live here anymore. It’s a last known address – from a year ago.”
“I have a baby upstairs. I’m alone with a baby.”
“Don’t worry,” he said, and then he pulled a business card from a shirt pocket, under his vest. It offered up Superman’s name – William McAlister – along with the words Homeland Security. My heart seized. I looked again at the second officer, dark and quiet in the background, his look steady, uncommunicative. “If you do see this man,” Officer McAlister said, “just give our office a call. But don’t worry. I’m sure he’s moved on.”
Then they were leaving and I was closing the door and leaning on the grillwork. My heart was going fast. Tamar. I jumped off the door and bolted for the stairs. I was very aware now of the darkness of the hallway, the other people hidden away in the other apartments around me. I took the steps two at a time.
And there he was in front of me. There, standing in the open apartment door across the hall from ours, was a man. The man. His hair longer, wild from sleep, stubbled face, a white t-shirt and sweatpants on, but the very man who had been in the photo. Behind him his apartment was very dark. I saw maybe the edge of a table. He was rubbing an eye socket with the heel of one of his hands.
“Who was that?” he said. “They rang my bell.”
Tamar was past him, through our door and in our apartment. I felt a little like a wild animal in a very dangerous situation, a crucial moment.
I moved toward him. I had to. “It was the police,” I said, talking without thinking about it just because he had asked me a question. “They were looking for you.” His face fell wide open in dumb surprise.
He was going to ask me something else, maybe, or do something, but then I got past him, fumbled until I had the door unlocked, and just turned my head as I went in. “Good luck,” I said. Later on I would wonder at myself, at why I had said any of what I’d said, the mindlessness.
I held the inside of the door closed with my back, feeling the wild pulse of my whole body against the cheap, light wood. Then I turned, looked through the peephole. The man was shambling down the stairs. I ran to check Tamar in the bedroom – still there, and fully asleep. Then I was in our ugly dark living room with my cell phone open.
A woman, a dispatcher, answered.
I whispered: “Officer McAlister was just at my building.” I gave her the address. “He was looking for this man – I don’t remember his name – and I hadn’t seen him, but then I came upstairs and he was there.”
“Is he still in the building?” the woman asked.
“I don’t know. He was going down the stairs. I told him…I told him you were looking for him.”
“I’ll get a hold of Officer McAlister and get him back to your address as soon as possible,” she said. “Can you be there to answer the door?”
“I have a baby in my apartment,” I said. I could feel that wild animal feeling again.
“Can you go outside with her? Wait across the street?”
“Okay,” I said, more because this woman seemed to think it’d be a good idea than because of anything I thought about it.
After I hung up I went to the bedroom and stood over Tamar’s portable crib. I didn’t know if she’d be safer in here or outside. I didn’t even know where the man was. My hands curled around the top rail of the crib. She was a pale baby, chubby but not nearly as chubby as other babies her age. She still had only these wisps of hair.
I left her for a moment to go check out the hallway alone. There was nobody anywhere, not outside my door, not on the stairs, not by the front door.
I ran back and scooped Tamar up – she barely stirred – and then I checked the peephole at the apartment door – still nobody there – before going through it and then fast down the stairs. I ran outside and across the street to the little park, put us behind a big tree there so that we couldn’t easily be seen. I was holding Tamar like we were in a strong blast of wind. I danced from foot to foot and saw Frank come out and sweep the sidewalk. In his shop window I saw the chairs and lamps that he wasn’t selling.
I got on the cell phone to Ben, and as soon as he picked up I just started pouring the story all out. “Wait, wait – what?” he said, and I went through it again.
“Wow,” he said when he got it. “I’m coming. I’ll be there as soon as I can. Don’t worry – it’s probably just some immigration thing. But stay away.” Right. I could do that.
The police car – a regular car – pulled up to the curb a few minutes later. Officer McAlister and the quieter one got out, spotted me easily and crossed the street to me. The Superman hat was still on. “Do you know if he’s in the building?” he said.
“I don’t know. I guess I told him you were coming.”
He didn’t have anything to say to that. “Can you please let us in?”
“Right,” I said. Tamar was in my arms – but I was too shell-shocked to do anything but take directions. Only later did it occur to me that I could have just given him my keys. I crossed the street, somehow in the lead. I hadn’t been in the lead of anything for a year – maybe longer. Maybe since I first saw the blue line that meant pregnancy on the test stick. I held Tamar and shifted her into one arm and unlocked the door.
“Can you show us which apartment door it is?” he said.
Again without thinking, I went in and up the stairs, still in the lead – and just as I was going to point to the door, I saw that the man was already standing there, still messy from sleep. His eyes were all young consternation and uncertainty.
“They came back,” I said lamely. My chest had seized up again.
The two officers pushed past me and used the man’s name, backed him into his apartment. Their hands were on their holstered guns. The sight of that woke me up, made me realize what I was doing, got me moving back down and out to the sidewalk. Frank was still standing there with his broom.
“What was that, anyway?” he said.
“Homeland Security,” I said. I was only halfway seeing him, all the rest of my astonished, horrified attention on the danger I had just taken on, and not just for me but for Tamar, too. A new kind of shock started to set in.
Frank didn’t seem that surprised to hear the words Homeland Security. “Who were they looking for?”
I stammered, told him I hadn’t caught the name, but that it was the Middle Eastern man on the second floor. How could I have taken Tamar back into that place? I took a first step away from the building, ready to run.
But then Frank sighed, leaned his weight a little on his broom. “Yeah – that’s what I thought.”
I looked at him, all my attention on him now.
“No – nothing like that. I mean, I actually know a guy, and I had Adi checked out when he moved in last year.” I looked at him with more surprise. He shrugged. “I’m not having any terrorists living next to my shop. But the point is he checked out.”
I felt the edge of another kind of chill come over me. “So why were you expecting this?”
“He’s on a student visa, and a couple of months ago he just stopped going to class. He’s a nice kid, Adi, but he’s lazy. I told him it was going to catch up with him.”
I had called the police to come arrest a slacker. A slacker who was an Arab. The chill surged through me and I bounced Tamar a little vigorously to shake myself loose of it.
A moment later the front door opened, the leaves of the grillwork sweeping out into the street, and the two officers, Superman again in front, took Adi out to the car. He looked at me for just a flash, a depressed sort of look, resigned. My eyes dropped away from his and I saw that he had these dirty sneakers on, completely untied, flapping loose on his feet. Next to me, Frank shook his head. “I’ll call somebody, Adi,” he said.
I looked at the young man’s face again. He was nodding, already turned away from us, focused on the inside of the police car. The two officers put him in there, holding his head down to keep it from bumping the door frame, and went to their separate doors. Officer McAlister tipped his Superman cap to me quietly – a blast of nerves went through me until I remembered that this was just a delinquent student – and then he got in the car, and they all drove off. Still the other officer hadn’t said anything. I guessed it was a technique of theirs – heroic cop, silent cop.
“A shame,” Frank said. “I’d better make that call.” He picked up his broom and went back inside.
I stood on the street corner a minute. The cars went by. Tamar continued to sleep – she hadn’t woken up this whole time. She didn’t know anything about it. There was nowhere else to go, really, but still I didn’t go back into the apartment. I waited for the street to clear of cars and then I crossed the little street to the park and sat on a bench, waited for Tamar to wake up on her own.
Ben found me before she was done with her nap. He was half-running, with his cell-phone to his ear, and I heard mine ring just as I saw him come into view. I told him I was in the park and he swung his head around a little wildly until he spotted me.
“Are you okay?” he said. “What happened?”
I told him. For a half-hour I had been sitting in my considerable guilt – about Tamar, about the poor student I had turned in – and it was good at least to say it all out loud.
“Wow,” Ben said, sitting. “Well, what else could you have done? I mean, really?”
We sat together on the bench for a long time, and eventually Tamar woke up, and I fed her, and we walked upstairs to the apartment. Adi’s door was partway open, and I could see that it was definitely the edge of a table there, a single dirty plate.
“Do you think we need to move to somewhere else?” I said. “I mean, what if he comes back and he’s angry?”
Ben pulled Adi’s door shut. “They’re not going to let him go,” he said. “They’re going to deport him. You can bet on that.” Ben was always very sure about how things would go. He put his hand on the small of my back and I let him guide me into the apartment.
And that was it. The summer just went on from there, with Ben’s work continuing and our family time together and all the walks through Center City Philadelphia. Adi never came back and Frank confirmed that, as far as he could tell, it had all resulted in deportation. The door across the hall stayed shut. When Tamar napped I sat in the apartment and tried to figure out what I wanted to do with the approaching fall. Spend all day every day with the baby in our Ohio house with the nice floors and the mold in the walls and the big yard and the cars racing by on the county road with the blind turns? Cruise the library again looking for other moms? Get a day job somewhere? And doing what? With all this going through my head, I almost hoped the doorbell would ring with some more excitement, but again I felt guilty whenever my mind flashed to Adi, which it often did. I always pictured that slept-on hair, the loose sneakers, his eyes looking into the police car.
Whenever we spent time with one or another of Ben’s friends or relatives from the area, he always asked me to retell the story. He felt that it was a pretty good story, more comic than frightening if Adi was just a lazy student. So I told the story, and I learned how to build the suspense and what side details were the ones that really grabbed people. Everyone was really interested in the Superman hat, for example. That was part of what made it comic, but I always wound up talking about how bad I felt about the whole thing, and I always ended up feeling bad from telling it.
One time, though, we were eating dinner with a couple, both of them lawyers, and the woman said, “You know, there’s no way they would send two guys around for just a little visa problem like that. There are way too many people in violation of their visas.”
I sat up straight in my chair. The table was set beautifully, a dark tablecloth spotted with candles between the pewter dishes of food. Their whole place, a big Center City apartment, was gorgeous. They had been lawyers from the minute they were born, I thought. “What about profiling?” I said. “He was from the United Arab Emirates.”
“Even so,” she said, and her husband nodded. “There are just way too many. He had to have been a person of interest.”
Ben’s eyes were wide, in his taking-it-in, interested look. How about that? his eyes said.
“So maybe…” I said.
“Probably,” the woman said. “Fairly probably.” I remember the way that she held her fork in her hand in that moment – loosely, tines-up, but as though it would have been hard to get it away from her if you lunged for it. She was ready.
After dessert, I went to get Tamar, who we’d put down to temporary sleep in the couple’s bedroom – they didn’t have a baby themselves. I stood over her portable crib, the same way I had on the day the police came. You couldn’t tell that she was pale, or anything about her hair, in the darkness of the room, but I could see her chest going up and down. I had come to be able to see that under virtually any conditions. I often checked her. I stared at the breathing now and wondered what I would do next. Every time I checked, she was always breathing. Every time I stood there, I held the edge of the crib like looking over a wall at something uncertain on the other side.