Bright green grass. The sun, warm and bright. The air, fresh and cool. In the middle of the field was a tree, every branch full of leaves. Birds – – –
Naima’s eyelids flung open.
“GET OUT!” a man’s voice screamed.
She sprang up, knocking her head against the car ceiling. The haze faded, revealing what she knew to be the security guard, decked out in gray apparel and his nametag, banging his flashlight against the window.
“Wait!” she said, and cleared her throat to be louder, to be heard. “You’ll break the glass!”
The tall and gangly man persisted, causing others to glance at what was going on.
It was noon in Jersey City, by journal square, where they were surrounded by corner stores selling everything from cell phones to cigarettes, and local supermarkets with advertisements plastered on the walls, with words in Coptic, Hindi, and Spanish.
Naima stepped out, across from where the security guard was standing. Her body felt drained. She stood on her toes as she remained close to the hood and ordered the man to calm down.
“You can’t park here,” he responded. “This is only for customers.”
“I’ll leave, okay?” she said. “Don’t make it such a big deal.”
“I’ve told you this before,” the man continued, wagging his flashlight at her, “I’ve warned you before, you black cunt.”
Naima glared, and simply got back into the driver’s seat. While trying not to glance in the rearview, she maneuvered onto the road, between traffic, and instead, decided to head over to her next assignment, which involved interviewing an elderly woman turning 101.
That entire week, Naima rushed from one assignment to the next, juggling multiple leads and headlines in her head. She’d skip lunch, and oftentimes, even miss breakfast so she could drop Tulsi off at school on time. Once at work, the routine was to check emails, voicemails, and texts, just to make sure there wasn’t any last second message from her sources about a story she’d be trying to turn in before the afternoon deadline. It was usually her editor, however, who’d be the one to message her in the morning, before the sun was peeking over the horizon, imploring her to head straight to an assignment, whether it was interviewing politicians outside a new organic juice bar or asking people on a packed avenue their thoughts on the early winter weather that’s been predicted, which somehow was always a popular article on the website and in social media. By the end of October, Naima only spent an hour per day at the office, and the rest of her time gathering quotes while balancing her notepad and recorder, and writing her articles on her laptop at a packed Dunkin Donuts.
More were let go from the Tribune. Maria was one of them. Naima didn’t have time to react when she found out. But it was obvious to her how everyone was working at a faster pace, even those who had been at the paper for decades. Naima tried to gather moments of rest, especially before launching into an extra shift, as her bones would start to ache, and her mind heavy with names and numbers. Tulsi often called, asking when she’d be able to help with homework, and Naima’s responses were always the same: “Do what you can.” Most of the time, that was enough, but on some nights, when the voicemails filled her phone and inbox and her joints felt extra stiff, Tulsi would persist. “Mommy, when will you be back?” she said one evening while Naima was parked in the lot of a local diner in Bayonne. Naima did all she could to stay awake, even buying a bottle of ice cold water from the nearest liquor store and splashing it on her face. “Please, just do what you can, okay?” Naima insisted, resisting with all her strength not to snap, not to let loose on her daughter the frustrations and disappointment that was piling inside. “But, Mrs. Lee says that I’m falling behind…” Tulsi replied. Naima told Subhash to make sure Tulsi went to bed on time. “And have you spoken to her math teacher yet?” she said. “I have a bad feeling about her this year.” Subhash explained he’d contact the school when he could, and soon after, Naima was back to being alone in the backseat, the lights from the diner’s neon sign covering her skin.
. . .
It was a Friday afternoon when Naima received a phone call at her desk from a number she didn’t recognize. Naima was just stopping by the office to grab notebooks she kept locked in her bottom drawer, and at first, ignored it. But the same number continued to ring, again, and again, and again. Finally, she answered after noticing the other reporters trading looks.
“If this is about a correction, call our editor,” Naima spoke into the receiver, almost out of breath.
The person on the other end, however, expressed confusion.
“Is this Naa-ee-maa?”
It was a woman’s voice.
“Please,” the woman said, “I need your help.”
By then, everyone was at their desks, typing like pianists. Their heads fixed on their screens.
Naima pressed her hand against her forehead, and asked what the woman needed.
“My landlord isn’t listening,” the woman said, the words pouring out, “I don’t know what to do. We can’t live like this anymore. My son has asthma and I —”
“So, what exact problem are you having with your landlord?”
“We’ve lived here for more than six years, and all the walls are covered in mold and the ceiling in the bathroom is always leaking. All this affects my son’s breathing. I keep trying to get the landlord or at least, the super to help.”
“Who owns your building?
“Yes. Who do you make your rent checks payable to?”
Naima pressed the phone against her ear and asked the woman to repeat the name.
“Dyer Construction,” the woman said, “I’ve been paying them for two years now.”
Naima immediately told the woman she would be there, and went to the woman’s apartment, which was a half-hour away in Jersey City, next to a row of empty storefronts. The woman, still wearing the uniform from the supermarket she worked in, led Naima up the stairs to the seventh floor where she and her son lived. Their apartment was the size of a dorm room, with only a few walls separating their space. Rhona was the woman’s name, and she showed Naima the mold and stains.
“I’ve called their office all summer, especially whenever it rained, but no one ever showed up,” she said, as Naima snapped pictures of the damage.
“Have you spoken to your neighbors about this?”
“They all have the same problem. But they don’t know what to do.”
“Are you originally from the area?”
“Not exactly…but is that important?”
“It adds more weight to your story,” Naima explained, “Readers always like locals.”
Naima knew it was best to tell Rhona as much as needed. Although that didn’t mean being completely honest. What Naima really hoped was that Rhona and her son could fit the image of the “deserving poor” that audiences could sympathize with. Since the Tribune was distributed county-wide, it would be too difficult to spin an effective narrative if it was centered on only African-Americans or even Mexican. Fortunately, Rhona was Indo-Guyanese, born and raised in Jersey City. Rhona introduced Naima to her son, Cheddi, who emerged from the next room, with sunken eyes, and a Spider-Man shirt over his lanky frame. He stood silently by Rhona, and flashed a smile before averting his eyes.
“He’s always coughing at night,” Rhona said. “Most days, he’s tired when he goes to school, and this year is important for him.”
Naima asked what grade Cheddi was in, and after telling her that Cheddi started his junior year at high-school, also added that he was in all AP classes.
“He’s going to be the first one in our family to go to college,” Rhona said, suddenly hugging Cheddi, catching Naima off guard.
Naima sensed the potential that the story had, as she organized her notes at home. Dyer Construction was a major developer in not only Jersey City but the entire state, even in parts of New Brunswick, where new condos were built around Rutgers every year. Christie, in all his two-ton glory, promoted “rejuvenation” and companies like Dyer were at the forefront, swallowing up neighborhoods, and spitting them back out as prime real estate. Naima drank more wine, as she thought of all the readers hooked into every word. How happy her editor would be once the article was finished. She could finally spend less time worrying about the cost of piano and swimming lessons, and actually save more in the college fund. Naima listened to Tulsi laughing downstairs, as she remained in the study, shaping the narrative as fast as she could.
. . .
“I want to be anonymous.”
The words crashed through the floor, landing like a piano.
Naima instantly lifted her head from her notepad.
They were in Rhona’s apartment, and Naima had just interviewed a dozen of Rhona’s neighbors, a combination of working-class black Americans, Mexican, and Bangladeshi, most of whom spent the majority of their lives in the same rooms, who represented the “losers” of the American Dream. The ones to be replaced. Each of them gave her a tour of their cramped worlds, the floors and kitchen tables spotless, pictures of their families hanging on the walls, of times spent at Liberty Park, wearing plaid and collared shirts even under the blazing sun. Naima knew that Dyer Construction would force them out one way or another, and finally, it’d be the yuppies and neo-colonialists moving in, as the new yoga studios and yogurt shops would wait. Still, she’d just nod and smile, and gathered as much as she could in one day as her lunch rotted in her car.
Even in front of Rhona, Naima somehow maintained her composure.
“Tell me what you’re concerned about and maybe we can work something out?” she said, wearing a smile, as her heart beat against her chest like someone was trying to break free.
Rhona explained she was anxious about seeing her name in the article.
“Honestly, all I wanted was to get them to notice, and care,” she said, “I didn’t expect to be the focus of the story.”
“I understand. But if you want something to get done, enough people need to be interested.”
“Wasn’t there anyone else who you could write about instead?”
“They are not as…relatable…” Naima said, thinking back to the assortment of people who called the complex home, from the elderly woman next door who often rambled to herself, about growing up in San Gabriel Valley, to the family of immigrants, whose eight-year old daughter was the only one able to communicate fluently in English as her parents mentioned their past in Sylhet.
Naima also mentioned how important this all was to Cheddi, who was at his uncles’ for the weekend, how he needed something to change sooner than later.
Rhona picked at her nails. She said she’d think about it, and proceeded to pack snacks for her overnight shift, as Naima ignored the pain in her joints, and returned to scribbling notes. After leaving the apartment, Naima threw out her tuna sandwich, and located through Google the main office for Dyer Construction in Jersey City.
The office was at the bottom of a four-story building and tucked between a Dunkin Donuts and convenience store. There was a yoga studio right around the corner.
Naima introduced herself to the woman at the front desk, and asked if she could speak with Ronald Dyer. Naima explained she was writing a story about “the health hazards at one of your properties.” She was instructed to take a seat, and pretended to check her email on her phone.
The office was like a doctor’s waiting room, with golfing magazines scattered on the tables and a fish tank with no fish in it. After a half-hour, the receptionist informed that “Mr. Dyer wasn’t in” and advised Naima to email them any further media requests. Naima said she appreciated the help, and after getting back to her car at the parking-deck across city hall, contacted everyone she knew in the business community, and searched all the Ronald Dyer profiles online, including LinkedIn. Mostly she found men who liked posting pictures of their cats. As sunlight dimmed, she found one living in Short Hills. Naima had only been to the shopping mall in that area, where customers wore suits while perusing aisles, and wristwatches cost a security guard’s monthly salary. Naima followed the trail to the heart of town, which was like any other suburban neighborhood, except that every house loomed, and everyone had their cars parked outside.
It was quiet, as Naima hiked up the sloped driveway, past the five cars, and knocked on the front door.
No one answered. She knocked a few more times, but nothing happened. Naima went to her car, and completed two more stories, posting them on the website, along with more pictures she took on her IPhone. Eventually, another car rolled up, and a tall man carrying a bag of golf clubs appeared, causing Naima to grab her notepad and rush over.
“Sir, excuse me,” Naima said, “I need to ask you about property your company owns, and I – – -”
“How long have you been here?” the man asked.
Naima answered, and the man grinned.
He invited her in and Naima interviewed him in the main living room, the walls covered in paintings of bucolic European villages. There was a fake fireplace too, and a shelf of encyclopedias. Everything reminded her of scenes she’d seen in movies.
“Hmm, are you suggesting that the building is below code?”
“Based on what I saw, it’s a difficult place to live in. And it seems odd how you’re not worried about upsetting the current residents.”
He kept grinning, as they sat across each other. “Do you believe we’re doing this on purpose?” he asked.
“Why else are you ignoring complaints?”
“Have you spoken to the super?”
“Isn’t this your responsibility?”
“That’s true. We will look into it.”
“When? Are you able to promise something soon?” Naima said.
“You must be a New Jerseyan,” he said. “You definitely act like one.”
She thought of the tree swaying in the breeze. She admitted she was from the central part of the state.
“Let me guess. Trenton?”
“No, East Brunswick.”
“Interesting. What did your parents do?”
“My father was an engineer,” Naima answered, trying to steer the momentum of the conversation while not revealing too much, “and my mother worked part-time as an accountant.”
“So, what inspired you to become a journalist?” he said.
Naima shifted in her seat, and replied that she always liked to write and wanted to do something useful with her skills.
“Excellent,” he exclaimed. “You clearly are dedicated. You remind me a lot of myself in fact, when I was your age.”
Naima quickly thanked him, and repeated her earlier question.
The man’s white skin glowed.
“Since I understand how demanding your job can be,” he said, “I’ll just say, we will look into it as soon as we can and we apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused the tenants. We value them and we don’t want them to feel alienated. How’s that?”
Naima was in the middle of writing down the statement, and arched an eyebrow at his question.
“Maybe something more succinct should do,” he continued. “How about ‘we regret what we’ve done and whatever the problems are, we will do everything in our power to solve them.’ Does that sound better?”
“I’m not at liberty to be telling you what to say…” she replied.
But the man was in deep thought, eventually adding, “Just write what you feel is ideal, and I’ll be sure to grab a copy. Just let me know when it’s published, okay? I look forward to checking it out.”
Naima cleared her throat and said she had to go back to the office. Once inside her car, she stared through the windshield. The street was still quiet. Thoughts tumbled through her head. She stayed there until she received an email and a text.
. . .
Fanon 101 will no longer be offered starting next semester.
This was a difficult decision to make, but attendance has not been meeting the new standards that the university has put in place. If you’d like to discuss, you can contact me at this email or through my Gmail.
Andrew McKinley, Chair, Political Science Department
After reading the email, Subhash shut off his laptop, closed the blinds, and went to the top floor, where he filled his thermos with water from the cooler in the mailroom. The hallways were empty, and as he walked around, he realized that all the rooms were locked. He paced, while sipping on his thermos, and staring at his shadow beneath him.
When he got home, Naima was on the living room couch, wearing the red dress he bought for her on their second anniversary. She was watching TV with a bowl of celery and a jar of mustard.
“Sorry, I’m late,” he mumbled, “Traffic.”
“No worries,” she said, while staring at the TV, and munching on a celery stick, “the world isn’t ending just yet.”
They went to a restaurant along Route 18, named Thai Dojo, which seemed a bit racist to Subhash since dojos were Japanese. He wanted to ask the owner about it, but Naima convinced him not to. They were seated by the window, with a view of the shopping mall across the parking lot.
“Do they serve tuna?” Naima asked, as they read the menus.
“Why tuna? I’m getting catfish.”
“Ew. They don’t fry it, you know. It’ll be too gross for you.”
“I love catfish though. They probably have that special hot sauce too.”
“Remember last time? You got eel? You hated eel.”
“What does eel have to do with this? And I never had eel. You were the one who had eel, and octopus.”
“Next time, we should get sushi.”
“Are there even any good Japanese places nearby?”
“When we pick Tulsi up from Harjeet’s and Devika’s, we should ask them. They always seem to know the best spots.”
“Please. What would they know? We can explore. I heard there’s a Mongolian place in Edison somewhere. That should be fun.”
“Are you sure you don’t mean Korean? Also, what do they serve at a Mongolian place anyway?”
“I think it’s just a bunch of meat in bowls. But on second thought, I cannot in all good conscience go to such a place. Not after what they did to my parents’ homeland.”
“That was thousands of years ago. When will you let that go?”
“I’m sorry. But these wounds run deep.”
They ordered salmon and halibut, and afterwards, got ice cream at the shopping mall right before it closed, and while random teenagers gathered in the parking lot.
Subhash reminisced about how they too were once like them, somehow having the time of their lives while at Starbucks or making fun of themselves at Hot Topic.
“Stop doing that,” Naima said, as she licked her cone while leaning against the car.
“Stop doing what?” Subhash asked.
“Stop pretending that you ever cared about that stuff,” she said.
He grinned, and pinched her.
Her cone fell.
“Asshole,” she said, and punched him in the arm.
“I’m leaving you,” he replied, as he rubbed the spot, “For someone who appreciates my love of catfish.”
“Good luck with finding someone who’s as gross as you.”
“Good luck getting more ice cream at midnight.”
Naima pushed him.
“Help! I’m being assaulted by an ice cream addict!” Subhash yelled at the teenagers.
“Stop being an idiot!” Naima said.
“Help! She’s a Rocky Road fan!”
The teenagers traded glances and rolled away on their skateboards.
Naima laughed, as her phone rang.
Subhash asked who it was.
“It’s just someone from work,” Naima said.
“It must be some emergency,” he said.
Naima ignored the glow, and pinched Subhash on the elbow.
. . .
They clasped hands. Naima climbed on top.
The phone vibrated.
They started to kiss.
The phone continued to shake.
“You need to answer it,” he said.
“I will later,” she replied, and leaned in.
But Subhash raised himself up against the headboard.
“What’s up with you lately?” he said.
Naima got off, and stared.
“You do realize what time it is, right?”
“I don’t get it. You should be proud of what you do.”
“Proud of what? It’s just a job.”
“So, you don’t care about making a difference? I don’t believe that.”
“Fine. Believe what you want. I might be leaving the paper anyway.”
Subhash didn’t respond.
“And I might even do PR instead,” Naima told him. “At least then, things can make sense.”
“But what you do is important.”
“You do you, okay? And I’ll be busy worrying about what’s happening in the real world.”
“Wait, what does that mean?”
“Nothing. Look, let’s just go to bed.”
Subhash sighed, and went downstairs.
Naima stayed under the sheets, and kept her eyes closed when Subhash returned moments later.
He lied down beside her, as the night plodded on.
Eventually, Naima picked up her phone off the dresser, and read the messages from Rhona. Some men had come to the apartment earlier that day.
Naima went to the car.
“I don’t know what to do,” Rhona said, gasping for breath. “They just came saying they needed to talk to me, and I didn’t say anything. I didn’t know who they were. I told you I wanted to be anonymous. I don’t want to be a part of this anymore.”
“Just stay calm, I’m on my way,” Naima said.
She turned on the ignition and got on the main road. She stopped at a gas station and bought bottles of cold water.