In broken English she says her name is Risha. Or something close to it. I don’t remember. It is stuck, lodged between reaction and welcome. The moment confuses me; my memory does not fixate on her name, but on how suffocating the moment feels.
My feelings mimic hers—scared and friendly, hostile and hospitable—certain about how confusing the world can be.
Memphis is oblivious.
Memphis is an adorable little thing—mostly black with some of white and a little bit of brown. But mostly black. Memphis the city isn’t that much different.
I read somewhere that black dogs are not adopted as frequently as white dogs or brown dogs—something about the fur color mirroring racial perception.
In Memphis, I live in an area where many of my neighbors have dogs. This pleases my dog Memphis, who is always curious to meet other dogs and excited to get love from people on his daily walks.
I walk him three times a day around the same times: six, noon, and six during which someone usually makes a comment to or about him, smiles at his trotting, or stops to pet him and receive his kisses.
Though cautious and watching at first, he always acquiesces welcoming the new person with a wagging tail.
A month or so after I move in, at the end of my block, across the street, I notice a Middle Eastern family.
My first introduction to them was sometime last October. A man from the family stood outside talking to police.
The famed “Midtown Tire Thief” had struck his car. Sometime before dawn they had jacked the car up with wood loosed from a tree during a recent storm and stole all four of his tires.
He was the only one from the neighborhood robbed. I saw his distress as I was walking Memphis and hoped this odd occurrence a coincidence.
I told a neighbor around another corner about it as we said our customary hellos. She was as shocked as I was. Her blue eyes showed worry.
“I just saw this on the news last night! Seems we all are easy targets.”
Oddly enough, no one else in the neighborhood was targeted—I know so. She left for work just fine. My plans to later run errands were unbothered.
I always wave to members of the family as I turn the corner on my noon route, they across the street—a grandma and her two grandchildren enjoying the sun. I imagine the children belong to the man distressed about his missing tires not too long ago.
The two children, a young girl and even younger boy, always wave excitedly at my little dog—their eyes and movement on the verge of approach that only children can project in their body language. Grandma sees it. Resting in her lawn chair, she says something to them in her tongue. They relax, letting go of the dream of bounding a few feet to meet the dog that has caught their attention and resume playing with their toys.
Grandma waves and smiles at me.
Dogs typically make meeting people easy. This fact emboldens something I had been mulling over for a while.
I have a conversation with myself on that corner that today would be the day: I would meet the family. Memphis has already rounded the corner after pausing shortly to look at the waving kids.
I want to be a good neighbor: Go talk to them.
No, Memphis has already moved on; keep moving.
But you’ve been waving to them for almost a year. Go introduce yourself so you can at least greet each other by name.
I guide Memphis back to say hello.
One message has been abundantly clear about living in Memphis. The guy who activated my security system said it. The man installing the internet said it. Even a Lyft driver said it. Funny, they were all male.
“What is one thing I should keep in mind being new to Memphis?” I ask.
“People are watching you, so you have to be careful.”
“They watch you. Memphis has a high crime rate for a reason. So just be aware of your surroundings. But you shouldn’t worry too much; you actually live in a pretty good neighborhood.”
I watch them go about their day. The little girl is outside playing on a toy bike on the lawn, the grandma sweeping cobwebs off of the ceiling of their front porch.
Memphis and I go to say hello, hoping to add another family to my friendly-neighbor list.
I’m wearing my dog park clothes: jeans that aren’t good for much else, i.e., severely baggy and odd-fitting, and an old t-shirt from my master’s program.
Though I am incredibly nervous and terrible at the whole introduction thing, I approach them, smiling. It’ll be worth it, I convince myself.
I call out hello before crossing the street. I’ve learned to disarm my approach by using my cheery voice. Woman or not, being black rings alarms.
Memphis trots happily, me close behind him keeping his leash tight in case he wants to sprint to meet his new friends.
The grandmother’s eyes change as she realizes I am approaching. I feel an inkling of something but brush it off.
It doesn’t leave.
I sense something breaking as I cross the street—I am violating a threshold. It had meant something to her. Safety perhaps.
The grandmother abruptly puts the broom down and begins calling to the child urgently.
I stop a third of the way in the driveway.
“Hello! My name is Tomi. I live down the street…”
I say it again, slow to understand what the anxious grandmother hurrying the child away means. Still, amidst the moment’s confusion, my walk instinctually slows.
She keeps calling the child.
In fear, the little girl leaves her bike and runs up the stairs to her grandmother then quickly into the house.
The grandmother half blocks the front door with her body.
“Hello! My name is Tomi. I live down the street. I just wanted to say ‘Hi’,” the words start to feel heavy.
I walk a few steps closer.
“My name is Risha.” Her fear holds something up.
I cannot identify what it is I have been sensing. My smile wavers a bit. I don’t know what to do with strange moments. Maybe she’s afraid of the dog. Understandable enough. Not everyone is a dog person. I can respect that.
“I work at the seminary right over there.” I point. “I see you all almost every day and just wanted to say hello!”
Something still feels wrong; it isn’t about the dog.
“I work at the seminary – o, over there...” I repeat dumbly, the fullness of the situation falling on me, tangling my words.
This doesn’t feel okay.
I need for her to know I am okay.
Shouldn’t my work help? Lighten the situation?
Ah, maybe it is because I have not clarified a title! I’ll let her know I’m a professor!—But my words don’t move. I can’t find the wherewithal to begin explaining.
“I’m still pretty new. I moved here for work,” I manage.
The words feel futile in my mouth.
“I’ve been here six months. My son, one year. I come from Pakistan.”
“Ah, Pakistan!” I say hoping to build a connection through my enthusiasm.
I keep trying to smile.
“You live here?”
I can’t explain it, but I know she means, “Are you African-American?”
“Yes, for work,” answering and not answering the question.
I want to say “No.”
I want to say “I’m Nigerian!” to build a sense of camaraderie of foreignness, to bring relief that my blackness is the type that feels a little safer to a lot of people because, more often than not, it has a narrative of educational ambition, a success story, attached to it—perhaps like her son’s.
I’m Nigerian. I get what it feels like to feel different. It doesn’t leave you. I know.
I’ve ruminated on what my grandmother must feel every time she steps off a plane onto U.S. soil, what my parents must have felt when they emigrated—young, ambitious, and hoping for their dreams to gain length and form, breath and being.
Their stories have embedded themselves within my own. I know them. I know you!
I am so desperate to explain.
I understand you! I know the habits of foreign culture. You’ll stay for months on end to help your son’s family or simply be with them because you are something like home to him.
I know your family! I know you are afraid people will make fun of your clothes smelling like your food, of your accents, of your skin tone and culture.
I know that people will assume your history, your religion, your values. I know you!
It burns my mouth, the shameful logic my parents taught me. I’m Nigerian, not African-American. I am black, but not in that way.
Maybe if she knows this she’ll put her guard down.
But I don’t say it. I don’t tell her.
My tongue hasn’t caught up to the discerning parts of myself.
“Can’t come in!” she says abruptly, assertively. I snap back into reality.
“Oh course, I wouldn’t let the dog…” my words trail off. The fog clears, her assumptions now verbal, painfully clear.
She’s talking about me.
I can’t come in.
I never intended to!
As Memphis and I stand in front of her she has imagined a story that rings true in her mind. She thought I was there for other reasons, malicious ones no doubt.
A thought flits across my mind in hopes of another hope: maybe she doesn’t know what a seminary is. Yes, that could be it! I need the benefit of the doubt. Education has to mean something.
Worse yet, another thought crosses my mind: maybe she does know what a seminary is.
“Of course not. I just want to introduce myself…”
She calls out to her daughter-in-law as I am mid-sentence.
The young woman hurries to the door with a friendly smile and a dish in her hand she is wiping down. I wonder about her story, their relationship—she probably knows her mother-in-law to be a bit dramatic, or at least I hope.
I see something in the younger woman; her shoulders relax once she sees me.
I had put the smile back in place for her. My dog’s tail was wagging. We seemed friendly, safe.
She is different from her mother in law, but not by much. Her demeanor is different—less guarded, more American. She is welcoming, says “hello” with less of a Pakistani accent. She has learned the way Americans greet each other.
But I have seen too much, already. Body language is still language.
I repeat my hollow script, an empty smile on my face:
“Hello! My name is Tomi. I live down the street and work at the seminary right over there…”
Oluwatomisin Oredein is a writer and poet whose work has appeared in The Curator Magazine, the Invisible Bear Literature Review, LA Review of Books, The Mudroom, Red Letter Christians and elsewhere. She is the author of the poetry chapbook, *i have stared down winters*.
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