I grew up in a house on HWY 10, just as you left our small town in northern Wisconsin. On the way to Duluth, you would see it there, a tiny ranch style home, in a perfect spot for transients and traveling preachers and homeless wanderers who were always on their way to some place better. We took these nomads into our house often; the church always calling my father whenever they needed a place to put someone. He always agreed to help. Well, almost always.
The house sat on four acres covered in maple trees along with a few crab apples we would harvest in the fall. Despite its access to passersby, we could not see our nearest neighbor from the house. The original owners had built it from scraps, they said. Pieced it together from discarded lumber and other materials. You could tell this from the way the cheap molding would snap off and curl in the cold weather and the way the bathroom floors began to droop into a bowl catching leaking toilet water. Sometimes, I think about that home and how it didn't always feel like a home, people wandering in and out, any sense of privacy relinquished to strangers.
I didn't always mind much when Dad let people sleep in our living room. What I minded most was when he volunteered my bedroom. I minded when they slept among my things—these strange people—touching my stuff, laying on my mattress with their sweaty, unwashed bodies.
I don't know why Dad always volunteered my room to these people. It was as if he had something to prove—I don't know to whom—about the kind of man he was. He and my mother were the couple that brought wool blankets to the Budreau family when they couldn't afford to buy a new furnace. I wondered what good a wool blanket would do. It was the middle of winter in northern Wisconsin, with 20 below temperatures. I knew if we had had the money in our checking account for a new furnace, Dad would have bought them one. Nevermind that one of our cars was broken down, and we couldn't afford to repair it.
He once made me babysit for a couple without pay, only to find out later they had just gone to the casino and gambled away any money they had left. But he still made these decisions, sometimes weekly. The only thing I got out of that babysitting experience was a leftover Dairy Queen birthday cake the couple set out for me. I ate three pieces as I watched their 16-month-old toddle around. When I returned home that night, I savored my own space with a shut door. I savored how, in that moment, in that one night of aloneness, I didn't have to give any of myself away for free.
Now, I live in west Dallas, Texas, off of Route 75 towards downtown, a more forgiving climate than the one I grew up in. I live in an apartment with my roommate, Dana: an apartment stacked on top of other apartments, squeezed in between buildings of other apartments, in a neighborhood crammed with apartment buildings.
Yesterday, I came home with plastic bags slung over my arms, only to see a Nigerian woman standing in the middle of our living room wearing black slacks and a green polyester blouse. I could hear Dana in the kitchen, rattling around. The bags filled with groceries were leaving impressions in my skin, and so I heaved all of them on the dining room table before addressing the visitor.
"Hello?" I said to the woman, and she just smiled at me, nodding, her eyes shifting nervously to the kitchen where Dana was.
Dana finally came out, two glasses of water in her hands. "Oh, Paige. This is Chibundo. She's going to be staying with us for a while."
"Okay." It came out more like a question.
"I know this is abrupt," Dana said, handing one glass of water to Chibundo and taking a moment to sip her own glass, "but everything happened so fast, and so here we are."
"Chibundo," I repeated the name. Realizing my body and face felt stiff, I forced myself to relax. "So glad you're here, Chibundo."
She smiled again but was trembling. At what, I was unsure. "Do you need something to eat?" Dana asked the woman, but it was too late. Chibundo dropped her glass of water to the floor and seconds after, went with it, sprawled across the living room, almost crashing into our glass patio door. Ice water seeped into the carpet around her head, spreading underneath her jaw. Dana stooped over her, patting her gently, but it was the cold water touching her skin that caused her to stir. I ran for some grapefruit juice this time, and then reached for a bag of Taki's from the kitchen countertop while Dana eased her onto the sofa.
"How long has it been since you've eaten something?" Dana asked.
"I don't know," said Chibundo.
"Well, I'll make us all some dinner in just a minute," Dana said, gesturing toward the kitchen. I set the items before Chibundo and followed Dana, bewildered, into her bedroom.
"Look. I know this is weird. She got into a wreck in front of work and was apparently living in her car. Everything she owned was in there, and she had no place to go."
"And so you brought her here? To our home?"
"I mean, what else was I going to do? I'm not even certain why she is in Dallas. I can't get much out of her. She said she's been in America for three years."
"Well, this gets better every second."
"Don't be a prick."
"I'm not. I'm just stating the reality of the situation. We don't know if she's here legally."
This long, exasperated breath came from Dana's mouth. "No one is illegal. What the fuck is wrong with you?"
"I know. I didn't mean it that way," I said under my breath. "Just want to gauge how much trouble we'll get in here. Landlords, leases..."
Dana rolled her eyes. "She won't be here long enough for that to be an issue. Relax. Good Lord."
I remember the day of the eclipse clearly because it was the day Tiffany ran away from our home. She was another one of the vagabonds who had come to live with my family, sleeping on an air mattress on my bedroom floor every night. It was the one time I had been perfectly okay with someone else sleeping in my bedroom. Tiffany had shown up at our house with her orange, 1986 Toyota Celica one night, saying her dad had smacked her in the face and then grabbed the back of her shirt, ripping it as she fled the house. She knew we would take her in. We took everyone in. But secretly, I was thrilled to have a close friend in the house.
The night she moved out of her house, we stole into her orange car and leaned out the windows as we cruised downtown, yelling at boys before they yelled back at us. We had both the windows down, Tiffany's torso almost halfway out of the car as she maneuvered the steering wheel.
"Hey Ted Schwiesow! You're an asshole!" she called to one of our classmates and then slid back into her seat as we sped away. We laughed maniacally, like we loved being the worst people in the world. We did this for months, insulting boys from the window of her car and then driving to the beach afterward. We would peel off clothes and lay across the hood of her car like we were spokesmodels in our bras and panties.
"Wouldn't it be fun if Ted Schwiesow were here now?" she said. "Wouldn't it hurt him so much to see us like this?"
On the afternoon of the eclipse, I came home from work and found no trace of Tiffany in my room. Her green duffel bag was gone, and her pillow was no longer crammed into the corner of my bed. The few clothes she had were cleared from my closet. Although I loved Tiff, with her fluffy blonde hair and perfect complexion—someone I was generally not cool enough to be friends with—I had this feeling in some dark space in my mind something was wrong. Under my desk, I had been stashing a manila envelope with cash to save up for a trip to California with my high school choir. Around $400 was in there. I needed $100 more to purchase my plane ticket. I scrambled underneath my desk, my knees scraping across the rough shag carpeting. The envelope lay perfectly flat, propped up behind my curtains. She had completely cleaned me out, unapologetically. She did it because she knew she could get away with it. She knew that was the kind of people my family were. Forgiving. Conciliatory. But I was pissed.
I called her on the phone, the fury of built-up frustrations, of broken boundaries and forced occupations of my bedroom erupted through the phone lines. "How could you do this to me?"
"I didn't do anything."
"Tiffany, I know you stole that money."
"No. No. I didn't take anything."
I could hear the lie in her voice, this nervous, quiet hesitation—this moment of wrestling with herself. But the apology, the acquiescence of guilt never happened. Weeks later, when I stuffed the betrayal deep in desperation for a friend, I attempted a reconciliation and found myself in Tiffany's old bedroom, lounging in a vinyl bean bag chair on the floor. On her bed were two of my CDs with my name written clearly on the cover in blue ink. Her eyes followed my own, and a look of alarm spread across her face. "I was going to tell you I borrowed these. You can have them back if you want." I left the room and went home. It was better to be alone, I thought.
Dana laid a plate of spaghetti in front of Chibundo, and I watched as Chibundo forced herself to eat slowly, not looking us in the eyes. "Chibundo, can you help us understand your situation?" Dana asked sitting across from her at the table, leaning forward earnestly. "Why are you here? What are you doing in the United States?"
"Chibundo, you can tell us after you're finished eating," I said from the sofa.
"I am a preacher," she said, after she took a few swallows. "I come to America to preach the gospel."
"Well, were you working with a church of some sort? Do you have any contacts you can give us so we can help you?"
"No. No, I have nothing."
"But what have you been doing? Don't you know any pastors?"
"I work with a pastor for three years but—"
"Who? Who did you work with?"
"No. He is a bad man. I will not say."
Dana and I looked at each other for a long time, trying not to react and feed off the emotions of the other, trying not to alarm the woman.
When she finished eating, we lined up on the sofa and turned on our favorite movie, Napolean Dynamite. Dana and I watched it at least once a month. It was a film we enjoyed under extra amounts of stress. Once, after a particularly horrendous week, we watched the film and then went on a two-hour quest to find a tetherball court, only to discover they were impossible to find anymore due to safety concerns.
Chibundo laughed at the characters' lines, but the laughter was mostly of derision. "What stupid men," she said, aghast. "How could they be so stupid?" I had a fear Chibundo would think we were stupid, as well, for loving this movie in the first place.
After we finished watching, Dana escorted the woman to her own bedroom. "I will sleep with Paige tonight. You are welcome to my room," Dana said. Dana hadn't mentioned anything to me about that. Hadn't even asked. I assumed Chibundo would take the sofa. I felt myself stiffen at the thought of sharing my bed with Dana. Yet another person invading my space without consent. Yes, we had become relatively close roommates, but I had crafted very rigid boundaries with my personal space.
"What are you doing? Are you being serious right now?" I whispered to Dana as we made our way further down the hallway.
"What do you mean? She's a guest," Dana said.
"But she's gonna be in your room with your stuff. And I mean, she's not really a guest. She's just someone who needs help."
"What is your problem?" Dana said. "If someone stays at my home, he or she is a guest. Period."
"But have you done this before? Had a total stranger stay in your bedroom? You don't know who she is and what she's capable of."
On the afternoon of the eclipse, after Tiffany's theft and my grief, my parents invited over some neighbors a few houses down. The father was an Ojibwe man who had married a white woman, distancing himself from the reservation he grew up in. His daughter, the same age as myself, had once been a close friend, but we had grown apart as we got older. Our friend circles had changed. In the next year, she would be pregnant at 17 and married to a known womanizer who was already into his 20s, a police officer for a city across the Bay.
We stood in our dirt driveway, gazing into the sky, when the 3:00 PM sun went dark. "Don't look directly at it," my mother said.
"If we can't look directly at it, then what are we doing?" I said, shielding my eyes, peeking through a space between my fingers.
"Look at it peripherally, where you can see it from the corner of your eye," she said, "it is less harsh on your eyes if you don't look directly at it. It can damage you."
It can damage you. If you look directly at it.
Where the driveway met HWY 10, we saw three figures emerging from the road: two women and a teenage boy. They wore light colors, two of the women wearing white hoodies, the boy wearing a pale blue T-shirt, and so their silhouettes stood out perfectly against the strange darkness.
"Who is that?" I asked.
"Some people who called the church from 6th Street Market. Apparently, they hitchhiked into town. Need a place to stay for a few days until they figure out what to do next," said my dad.
"Well, they can't have my room."
"That's not how we act in this family," my dad said. He just pretended Tiffany's betrayal didn't happen just hours earlier.
"Then give them your room," I said, "I don't want a bunch of strangers in my room. I'm done with this shit."
"Watch your language (as if that was the real sin in this situation). You know that's not how it works. These people are just down and out. It could be us, homeless. End of conversation."
I was furious. "But it's not us, Dad. We're responsible. You and mom have jobs. We don't go around mooching off everyone."
"Calm down, Paige."
"Don't tell me to calm down." I walked into the house, and then into my bedroom, slamming the door behind me and locking it. No one would be sleeping in my room unless they had a SWAT team who took forced entry measures.
Last night, after I had drifted off to sleep, I woke up to the sound of yelling. Only it was not really yelling. It was an intense throttle of weeping, reverberating through the paper-thin apartment walls.
"Oh no," Dana said. She had woken up, as well. "I feel so badly for her."
"Maybe we should check on her," I said. I don't remember the last time I heard someone cry that way. It was frightening, the brazen display of emotion.
As we laid in the bed, deciding what to do or what not to do, the weeping turned into whispering, but loud, husky whispering. "She's praying," I said.
"Praying," Dana repeated. "I think we should just leave her be. I mean what can we do?"
I agreed. It would be uncomfortable for a stranger to knock on your door when you were in such a state. I closed my eyes, and listened to my own breathing, paid attention to the air as I drew it through my nose and pushed it from my mouth. Counted backward from twenty. I could not sleep.
An hour later, the noise continued. Sounds of crying and praying were interchanged. This woman was desperate, but I was also desperate. For sleep. I had to be at work at 8:00 AM. "Doesn't she understand we can hear everything? Doesn't she care?" I said. My patience had grown thin in the last hour.
"I will talk to her in the morning," Dana said.
"Please do," I said.
I felt my own immaturity and stubbornness as I attempted a standoff in my bedroom. I waited a while after my dad's repeated attempts to lure me from the room. I didn't want him to think he had won. I didn't want him to know I, in fact, knew how much like a child I had been acting.
I still felt I was right, however, as I opened my door and joined the others in the kitchen, who were reaching inside a Little Caesar's Pizza box. Johnny, the Ojibwe man, was there with his wife and his daughter, Celina, who had once been my friend. Celina glanced at me from the sides of her eyes. I could see solidarity in there. Quiet solidarity. She understood. Other than her, no one acknowledged my presence. I think they thought any interaction could result in another explosion.
The teenage boy, his dirty blonde hair parted down the middle, hanging loosely around his face, had found a place in the back of the kitchen, away from the conflict. He was staring at his slice of pepperoni hungrily.
I looked at everyone and then went into the linen closet to retrieve some blankets for myself, stacking them on the couch and then crossing my arms to stare at my father. He had won this time, my look said, but he should know how unfair I still thought this was.
I stretched across the couch that night as the strangers took over my bedroom. The lights shut off around the house as my parents settled into their own room, their own private quarters, never disturbed. I couldn't sleep that night and gazed at the popcorn ceiling and the pattern the moon was creating on it through the large picture window in our living room. When things like this had happened before, I had worried more about the invasion of my personal space, but now I was concerned with how accessible I was to these strangers, how exposed and vulnerable I felt, sleeping in a place with no lock to keep others out.
I heard my own bedroom door open and sat up quickly, pulling my blanket above my chest in a protective stance. It was the teenage boy. "Hey," he said.
"Hey," I said back.
He came into the living room and sat on the opposite sofa, putting his feet on the coffee table, making himself perfectly at home. "Sorry we took your room," he said.
"It's fine. I'm sorry I acted like such a baby about it."
"You want to watch some TV?" he asked, picking up the remote before I could answer him. I put my blanket down and then turned to face the TV, my feet on the floor now. The remote clicked and clicked as rerun sitcoms flashed across the screen.
"I guess we can watch something. Conan, maybe," I said.
"Here. Lemme show you something cool." He went to a channel whose service we clearly did not subscribe to. You could still hear a voice, however, and on the screen fuzzy black lines obscured an image behind it. A woman panted heavily, and we could see the faint image of her naked breasts rise above the black lines. We saw a man's hand reaching between her legs.
"Cool, huh?" he said.
I didn't say anything. I felt uncomfortable, but I also felt a warm sensation move through my body. I looked at the boy as he faced the TV, enthralled by the images and sounds. He looked like one of the skater boys at school. The kind of boy I would certainly have a crush on. He was the kind of boy so used to girls falling over themselves for, he interpreted any rejection as an invitation.
"I figured this out a while ago. It comes on late at night, this show. You might not be able to see all of it, but so sexy, right?"
"I hope you don't mind me saying this," he gave me this tentative look. "You're kinda sexy. Black hair. Blue eyes. You have that exotic look."
"Thanks. I guess."
He didn't look defeated after what I thought was a clear dismissal. Instead, he came to sit next to me on the sofa, taking the other end of my blanket and pulling it over himself. "Why you moving way over there?" he said. He nudged closer to me, his shoulder touching my own, now. I was not used to this kind of attention from boys.
I could feel his hands moving underneath the blanket, one hand on my thigh and one hand around his penis poking up underneath the blanket. I felt rigid. Panicked. Mute. I didn't move away, but I didn't know why I didn't move away.
"What's going on in here?" It was my dad's voice, and he had now flipped on the light in the kitchen. I turned around in time to see a look of recognition on his face. He walked in and saw the sex flickering intermittently on the screen, saw the back of our heads facing away from him.
"Nothing, Dad," I said. "We were just finding something to watch." The boy's hands frantically moved under the blankets.
"Get away from my daughter," he said.
"I would throw you out of this house if you weren't a kid and it wasn't so cold outside. Get in that room and don't come out until morning," he said to the boy.
"Sure. Yeah," said the boy. He stood up and scurried to the bedroom.
My dad didn't say anything to me about that moment again. Never apologized for his carelessness. Never said why I had been put in that position in the first place. He just turned around and went back to his bedroom.
Dana and I have returned from work, and Chibundo opens Dana's bedroom door, still wearing the pajamas she slept in the night before. She has probably slept all day while Dana and I have worked through very little sleep. I am aggravated by this. Smoldering, actually.
"Chibundo, we need to talk to you," Dana says. She motions to the couch. Chibundo looks nervous again as she glances at my face. I try to soften my expression, realizing this situation can't be completely comfortable for her, either. "We are just concerned about being able to sleep at night. The sounds coming from the room were just too loud."
How placating Dana is. How I wish sometimes I could be this way.
Chibundo peers at her hands. "I am sorry," she says. We are quiet for awhile and then she looks at us, grinning—the change in demeanor, shocking. "I will cook for you. Nigerian curry. It is so good."
"Oh, you don't have to do that," Dana says. "Really. You're our guest."
"No. No, I will cook for you," she says. Her eyes shine with determined energy—excited to offer something—anything for our trouble.
From the start of the conversation, I felt tension in my shoulders, could feel the usual pattern of red moving over my neck. It's what happens when I'm anxious or angry. But now—now, as I watched this woman's movement toward us—this friendly gesture, I feel the muscles in my jaw give way, breath leaving me and coming back as if I'm waking up to something. As if I've just stumbled on awareness.
"But you don't have the money to buy us groceries," Dana says.
"I will buy the groceries. I will take her to the grocery store. I think I would love to try Nigerian curry," I say.
I wait for Chibundo to change into her clothes. She wears the same black pants and green blouse she wore the day before. "Chibundo, you can use our washing machine any time you'd like," I say. She looks embarrassed, eyes turned down at the mention of this, so I don't say anything else about it.
We drive to Central Market, which is a large international grocery store near The Village, the neighborhood of apartments where we live.
I let her push the cart and steer us through the store. Most of the spices I know of, such as cayenne, coriander, and turmeric, but some of them, such as fenugreek, I have never seen before. When she reaches for fresh jalapenos, I become a little worried. Although I live in Texas now, my bland tastebuds from Scandinavian country have not yet adapted to hot foods.
"I'm not a big fan of hot food, Chibundo. You may want to go a little easy on us," I say.
She looks at me and laughs. "Nigerian curry is hot. It would not be Nigerian curry if it was not hot." She leads us to the dairy section and picks up a large tub of yogurt. "This will help you with your tongue," she says and hands it to me. I think of the double entendre of that phrase.
"Chibundo, can I ask you a question?"
"You may ask me all the questions," she says.
"Why was this man so bad? The pastor you worked with. What did he do?"
"He and I talked on the Internet. He did not know I was a woman. He thought he was helping a man preacher from Nigeria. Thought it would make him seem like a big man to help a black man. He paid for me to come to America, and when he saw I was a woman, he said, 'we don't believe a woman should preach,' and instead he made me clean the church." She paused and rubbed a hand along her right hip. "He gave me a room in the basement, but no one in the church would speak to me, other than when his wife who brought me meager groceries. She would just say, 'hullo' and not look me in the face."
"They didn't pay you for cleaning the church?"
"No. They did not. I could not go back to Nigeria. It is dangerous there for me, but they threatened to fly me back, and so I fled. I brought a little money with me to America and bought an old car for 500 American dollars. I have been living in it until another car crashed right into me."
I feel the familiar tension creep across my shoulders and neck, feel strength leave my knees. "I am so sorry that happened to you."
We continue to shop as she gathers vegetables: peas, onions, red potatoes, green beans, red peppers, and carrots. As I put the items on the conveyer belt and watch them move toward the cashier, I feel her hand on my shoulder. Normally, I would instinctively move away from touch, but I stand there and let her put her hand on my body, feeling its warmth move through my clothes to my skin, and then underneath my skin.
The morning after the incident with the boy, cool air had moved up from the bay and seemed to settle around the house. My mother set out cereal boxes for everyone as I rose from the sofa and heard my bedroom door open, feet shuffling out. I watched as the three guests moved into the kitchen and sat around the table with their bowls and spoons clattering noisily. I remained on the sofa, waiting for them to finish, avoiding any eye contact with the teenage boy who'd committed some kind of violation, though I wasn't certain what violation it was. Consent wasn't a familiar topic in my house.
My Dad entered the room, his face pinched, and he looked at me with silent accusation, not at the boy who crossed boundaries the night before, but at his daughter.
"I'm sorry, but we are going to have to take you all to Duluth today. There is a Salvation Army there that should suit you much better."
The two women looked at him and nodded, although they didn't seem thrilled about the idea. The teenage boy did not look at my dad, however. He stared at his bowl of Honeynut Cheerios as if nothing unusual had happened the night before.
The hour-long drive to Duluth was brutal. My dad forced me to sit in the front seat of the minivan, and my mom sat directly behind my dad, the teenage boy next to her. The two women sat in the very back. My dad turned the radio on, and Bob Dylan's gargled voice drowned out the vapor of hostility filling the space between us.
I didn't do anything wrong, I thought. This is your fault. Your fault. I thought of the moon the day before, the way it moved over the sun, and how we couldn't look directly at it even though it looked like a black circle in the sky. If my father could look directly at it, he would know the truth. But it was too painful for him. Helping others was a part of his identity. It was how he was able to ignore his own suffering: our own suffering, and his role in it. And how his own generosity came with his own ideological restrictions, which had nothing at all to do with care for his family.
When we made it to Duluth and turned into the gravel drive of the Salvation Army, the three people spilled out of the van and walked toward the building without looking back at us. I could tell from the way the womens' shoulders were raised high, they knew they were not the kind of guests my father preferred. My dad could welcome junkies and gambling addicts and thieves, but being exposed to these women too much—to this boy—would force him to see a side of himself incongruent with his own perceived compassion.
And almost immediately, after they disappeared from sight, the distance between us was swallowed. "Let's go to the mall," he said. "We can eat at the food court. Whatever you want."
After Chibundo places steaming bowls of Nigerian curry in front of us, I take a few bites, and my face flushes red from the heat. Tears stream down, as if I am weeping uncontrollably. Dana laughs at me, and Chibundo looks on in horror. "I am so sorry, Paige," she winces.
"I told you, Chibundo. I told you it would be too hot for me," I laugh a little, my vision blurring as my eyes fill up over and over, spilling onto my cheeks. "But it is good. It's very good. Just hot. Oh, my god," I gulp in large quantities of air, wagging my hand at my tongue, and I laugh again. Chibundo relaxes a little as I assure her it's okay.
After our meal, I help Chibundo wash dishes, and Dana wanders into her bedroom to gather some of her things. "Paige. Come here for a second!" Dana yells.
I dry my hands on a towel and walk into Dana's room to see one of her throw pillows in her hand. She had handstitched these pillows herself, sewing them together with dupioni silk and glittering beads. "These pillows smell horrible," she says and hands one to me. I inhale whatever scent she says is there while she runs to the bathroom for a can of Febreeze.
"It will go away eventually," I say. "I don't think it's as bad as you think."
She sits on the bed and gathers the pillows into her lap, running her thumb along the beaded edges.
"If you're worried about it, she can have my room," I say.
"I was hoping you'd say that," she says, looking at me, relieved.