I’m excited about this new apartment, its shining glass windows overlooking Harlem, until I see her peeing in the park one morning, shortly after we move in.
Insulated glass dampens the screech of taxi honks and sirens below and gives us a great view of the nearby park: a huge swath of hilly green in the middle of the city, where evergreens reach up like pining lovers and silent figures walk along its paths. And yet one morning, while sipping my cinnamon coffee, I see her. Knit hat, skinny pale thighs exposed, sparkling jeans crumpled around her ankles. She squats on a patch of dirt. A thin liquid line darkens the earth around her feet, and her shoulders relax under her dirty orange hoody. I look away. Afterwards she rises and leaves so quickly I can’t see where she went.
My roommate and I are young black women, two professionals moving into this new development. The shining complex was built last year, in a neighborhood of brownstones and old walkups. In a historically black neighborhood like this one, these buildings bring white families in droves. My roommate and I bring balance, help diversify the complex. The light floods in every morning over our ivory walls and cream couch, glints off the copper legs of our TV stand.
I start seeing her and her friends every morning. These drifters occupy a grassy enclave surrounded by rocks and nestled into the hill. The police walking below on the sidewalk can’t see them. The park employee with his leaf blower above can’t see them. They occupy our vantage point every time we look outside. Shifting, sliding, disappearing. They drink from Styrofoam cups and litter them in the surrounding bush. The white cups glow even in the darkness, eyesores, just like the clothes they hang off the trees. The grass becomes trampled and brown.
Can the leaf blower man blow away the refuse?
Soon, they are staying later, showing up earlier. They lay their sleeping bags on huge pieces of cardboard. I never see them arrive. They are always there. In our living room, we are surrounded on all sides by large bay windows. We see them at 6am before work, at midnight after we finish a movie. Do they scramble up the rocks in the middle of the night?
The weather gets colder. Leaves turn towards aching reds, falling, dangling off the branches. When I open my eyes in the mornings, I face my window and see them there. I start staying up later, scanning the park and the new inhabitants below. Waking up, I rush to get ready for work. If I can see them, can they see me? I cover my half-dressed body. The coffee I’m brewing in my new percolator has a rich, toasty aroma.
That same person circles the hillside below. Today, she wears a torn purple windbreaker, the same sparkly ripped jeans, and creamy yellow shoes. I slow down to watch her, even though I’m late. She’s staring at the rock face along the hillside, examining it. I lean forward. It’s like she’s looking for the faintest trace of something, like she’s studying an ancient, faded cave painting. I only see traces of blue, illegible graffiti. She presses her hand on the rock. Maybe she’s searching for a way around. A way in. The hidden, dark interior of a secret cave. She flips her floppy, dirty blond ponytail. Turns her pockmarked face and lights a cigarette. Even from here, I can see her bloodshot eyes, how she picks at her left palm. Is she doing drugs? I don’t want to see her doing drugs, but I can’t look away. Like the dead, flattened pigeon I keep passing on the way to work this week. Each day I can’t help staring at its withering body; first, eyes gone, then maggots, then ribs, then just feathers and tiny bones. She sniffs and she turns her head upwards. We lock eyes and I spill my coffee as I bounce up, skittering back and away. I’m not sure what I saw in that split second, but a flash of something scurried up and over the boulder. When I look back, she’s gone.
By the evening, the police are removing the new inhabitants. We didn’t call them. I try not to look. After this clearing out, only their Styrofoam cups and cardboard remain.
I lie in bed that night and think of her red, glistening eyes staring back at me. Burrowing deeper under my comforter, I clear my mind. I finally fall asleep.
A sudden noise jolts me back into alertness. A tap tap on my window. My heart beats faster. I squint towards my window. I see the tops of trees swaying in the night breeze. Red and blue lights flash from a police truck parked below. The occupants of the building have told me that they don’t feel safe in this neighborhood. I don’t like that they are like that. Everyone makes me nervous; my neighbors, the cops waiting below, the people that had been living in our otherwise lovely park. I am about to close my eyes. For a wild moment, I see a pair of red eyes in a flash of red light. But I see nothing after, and I know I am just too tired, seeing things that aren’t there.
The next morning, I need two coffees. I leave quickly after gulping them down. Work is busy, and by bedtime it takes me an hour to calm my tumultuous thoughts.
Confused, I sit up in bed. My phone reads 2 a.m., and everything is dark.
Tap tap tap.
I can’t see clearly and rub my eyes. I squint at my window, but I see nothing in the blurry darkness. I wobble out of bed, move towards the wall of glass. It must be a bird. Or sounds bouncing up from the street below. Gripping the sill, I look down.
A pair of red eyes stare up at me.
She is there, the same one from the park, clinging to the side of the building. I don’t understand what’s happening. My hands tremble and my body is frozen in place. Bloodshot eyes hold my own, and with her dirty fingernails and bare pale feet she’s stuck to the brick façade like a filthy Spiderman.
Lunging, she rises level with me, hands pressed against the window. We face each other and she licks the glass. My ears buzz with the rush of blood and adrenaline. Scraping, shuffling noises come from below, and her fellow drifters emerge out of darkness, scaling the walls. Their collective sweet and sour smell wafts into my room through the window’s cracks. They surge upward as one, disappearing over the rooftop ledge.
I don’t move for a long time. None of this is real. If I don’t move, if I don’t touch anything, then maybe I’ll just wake up.
The morning is cloudy and my eyes burn with fatigue. The tops of the high rises and church spires are submerged in fog. The park looks like a gothic heath. In a rush, I remember last night. A tight energy fills my body. It was too vivid to be a dream. Stumbling out of my room, I knock on my roommate’s door. She’s startled, raising an eyebrow as she turns from her desk.
“Sorry to bother you!”
“No problem. Just working.”
“Right, of course. Did you notice anything…funny last night?” Our homeless park dwellers climbing our walls like evil zombies?
“Nope. Slept like a baby.”
I am losing it, then.
I stop by the roof before leaving for work, looking for evidence of their presence. Nothing there. Only the garden where the top floor tenants grow fruits and vegetables, like fresh heirloom tomatoes. My roommate and I are planning to sit out here in the summer and have a barbecue. No dirty clothes, dirty footprints, flattened cardboard. Nothing damaged, nothing missing. I don’t know what I’m really looking for. Before I leave, I spot a few half-eaten tomatoes in the dirt, and the leafy remnants of strawberries.
Later that night, I’m watching TV with my roommate and ask her what she thought happened to the homeless people in the park.
“They moved to another park?” She laughs and shrugs the question away.
Maybe nightmares are unsettling my head again, like when I was a child. Maybe I saw it all wrong. It was the middle of the night, the details obscured in the dim streetlight. Maybe my memories are merging with my dreams. It doesn’t make sense. I didn’t see any harnesses around their waists, or a single dangling rope. Earlier, I passed by the refurbished façade of my building and saw no easy footholds or ledges.
“What do you think they want?” I ask my roommate, although I’m really thinking out loud. She doesn’t answer. Maybe she doesn’t hear me; maybe she’s absorbed in the reality show we’re watching, I don’t know. Leaning back, I stare out of one of the windows, lost in thought.
After she’s gone to bed, I stand watch by my bedroom window, clutching my phone in my hand. The cold seeps in. I can’t sleep anyway. And you have to call the police right away for this sort of thing, for people trying to break in or cause harm. Their purposes are unclear, but they are a disturbance, most likely up to trouble. I don’t want to wait here, past midnight, but I have no choice.
The clock glows in the dimness, reading 1 a.m.. I’m slumped against the wall. I drink an ice mocha to stay awake, stay vigilant. My head is heavy with fatigue and my forehead almost hits the glass before I hear anything. 2:15 a.m.. I am awake, not dreaming.
The sound is muffled, scratchy reverberations that I realize are coming from my living room. My thoughts go flying and I rush to get there. At first, I only see our furniture, outlined in the faint green glow of our WiFi box. Then I turn to windows.
They are waiting for me, perched against the glass, limbs at odd angles. Their greasy fingers smear the panes.
Their bodies perch motionless. I step forward, drawn in by their silence, like I’m sneaking up on still, wild creatures. Now I should be able to see how they climb, what their tricks are, and shake off this surreal veil. The hardwood is cold. My eyes are wide and my chest squeezes in on itself.
Their leader is perched in the middle. She shifts, glaring, slowly unsticking and re-sticking her hands and feet.
I wonder if I can call 911, or take a video for evidence. No one will believe me otherwise. Only documentation will prove the danger we are in. I won’t believe myself in the morning.
Reaching for my phone, I move my arm at a glacial pace. It’s as if they sense my thoughts. They snarl, exposing brown teeth, red eyes widening, angry or maybe fearful. Their leader squints then lurches, up and out of view. The others follow.
This time, I have to follow them. We’re being … harassed. Terrorized. I have to get to the roof before they disappear again.
I scurry out the door and to the elevator. Running through these hallways still in my house slippers, with my head wrap on, I realize I’ll look disturbed on the building’s security cameras: one of the new black girls causing trouble. I get out at the top floor and climb the last steps to the roof door. I fling it open. It’s freezing cold outside, and the moist, fine gravel burns through my thin slippers like a coating of hard snow.
She stands in the middle of the group, her face wrinkled and dirty, half-shrouded in the darkness. One of them rummages through the vegetable garden, picking and dropping tomatoes into the earth. At first, they don’t see me. The door crashes closed behind me and I flinch. They all turn, and start walking toward me. I’m outnumbered, and I don’t know what they are capable of. My hands begin to tremble, and I can’t feel my toes. Running would make me a coward. I came here to get evidence. They walk with their backs hunched, their movements fluid. My legs are stiff. They surround me. Their exhales rise, visible in the night. The smell of musk and tang fills the air, along with the ragged sounds of breathing.
“What do you want from me?”
I glance at the door, but the garden thief slinks behind me and blocks my escape. He bites into a tomato, its juices bursting down his chin.
A wild energy fills me. I want to fling my arms around and make myself larger, scare them off. Instead, my hands rise to clutch my forearms. Goosebumps have popped up along my arms.
The garden thief shuffles from side to side before the door, dangling my escape before me. I step towards him and then stall, turning back to their leader. I have the strongest urge to be warm and safe in my bed, and yet I’d hate myself for leaving
“What are you doing up here?” Instead of a demand, the words escape from my tight throat in a whisper.
Her hair is undone, falling in oily blond waves. A questioning expression flashes across her face. The skin around her eyes is soft, loose. She looks lost, confused. The next moment her face tightens. Lifting a dirty fingernail, she summons the thief. He hands her a tomato.
She steps forward and holds it out to me.
I don’t move to take it.
She places it on a metal table and points to it. I glance at the door again, before picking it up. The tomato’s skin is night cool. I take a bite. Flecks of its garden dirt hit my tongue, as well as its acidic juices. The savory flesh bursts in my mouth. I chew and place the tomato back down.
With a flick of her head, she summons the others to follow her as she turns back to the roof’s edge. Her legs swing over the metal barrier and she disappears. The others follow, vanishing over the edge. Up close, I can see no equipment, no tricks. Gone, as if they’d never been there.
A gust of wind brings me back to the moment; I am shaking, teeth clenched. My limbs are stiff but I force them forward, slippers crunching on the icy gravel. I feel disconnected from my body. The wind picks up as I get closer to the edge of the rooftop. The leaves on top of the park’s trees are a muted orange, twisting and falling in the dark. Vertigo washes through me as I look down. Shadowy figures are already climbing the hill into the park at its steepest point. My heart drums into my ears, and the spinning accelerates. Crouching down, I grip the metal poles of the short barrier. One shadowy figure turns back to me and waves their hand in the air. It’s her. I don’t wave back but keep watching until they all disappear.
I need to get inside. I shuffle towards the roof door. I touch the frigid handle before remembering it locks automatically, realize I’ve left my keys downstairs. My roommate is fast asleep. I can’t wake her. She’ll think I’m weird. I pat my pockets; I have no way to wake her—my phone is downstairs too. No one can hear me up here. I settle, sliding onto the ground, my back against the garden’s small wood fence. Looking at the tomato on the table, I grab it, brush off the dirt, and eat the rest. I wrap my pajama top tighter around my body.
Just a few hours until dawn. I can survive a few cold hours. Like that I time I went camping, communing with nature. My limbs feel heavy and light at once, like I’m spreading in every direction. Pulling my head wrap off, I wrap the pink silk around my shoulders for added warmth. I re-examine her face in my mind: the bloodshot eyes, the blue tinge to her lips. I wonder what she thinks of me. My skin hurts in the night wind, and the gusts drag like long, ragged breathes. The night is longer and colder than I realized. My eventual sleep is restless and confused.
The sun wakes me at dawn. My roommate peeks a worried face from the rooftop door. “You . . . ” She stalls, taking me in. “The apartment door was open. I thought you’d been snatched or something. You look like . . . ”
My cheeks tug my mouth open, as if they don’t belong to me. A casual yet manic smile spreads across my face. “I just came up a few minutes ago.” I give an awkward wave of my hand. “To see the sunrise. Got locked out. So stupid.”
She raises her eyebrow and shakes her head. We walk back to the elevator in silence.
After she leaves, I take off from work and collapse in my bed.
• • • •
On Saturday morning, I walk into the kitchen and my roommate turns to me. “Our neighbors are back.”
I walk to the window. They lie scattered under meager coverings. Families and runners are already roaming the sidewalks and park paths. My roommate grabs our picnic blanket and brunch basket, full of white wine and cheese I bought in Park Slope and bread she picked up from the new bakery down the street. I see a mother yank her child back from the steep slope of the park’s hill; below, the park’s dwellers are nestled away from view.
My roommate and I head downtown, but I stop after a block and walk back to the park near our building. My roommate calls after me. With the picnic basket slung over my shoulder, I run up one of the paths, then scramble down to reach their spot. People stare as I make my way down, but I quickly disappear from their view. The same musk and tang, familiar and now almost sweet, rises from the settlement. Their leader rolls over on her blanket to look up at me. Reaching into my basket, I offer her the still warm loaf of sourdough bread. She tilts her head and doesn’t take the bread. The others are still asleep. I put the bread back and place the entire basket down before her. She stands and spits onto the ground between us, just missing the basket. The side of her mouth jerks into a lopsided smile, and she grabs the straw handle.
After days of clouds, this morning the sky is clear and the sun is unrelenting, pulling our eyelids open, coating our throats and insides with burning gold.