This was a nice place before YOU came, read the inky print penned by a jittery hand. The paper was folded in half and stabbed to the door with a push pin. Olena found it on the way out of her apartment.
Her stomach flipped. She peered down the hallway. There were no steps or jiggling knobs at 6:15 a.m. in a building occupied by retirees and widowers. She refolded the note on its crease, kicked off her boots and walked back inside, setting the paper on her coffee table. She pulled her cellphone from her pocket. She scrolled for Penny but instead of tapping the call button, she tucked the phone away again.
The next note was tacked to her door few mornings later. Go back to where you came from. Olena carried it into her kitchen. Sun flushed the curtains over the sink and glowed in a square on the floor tiles.
“What?” asked Penny on the other end of the line. “Who would do that?”
Olena felt her pulse drum at the side of her neck. “They didn’t sign their name.” She thought of the white-haired lady who lived to her left and the man with a greasy brown toupee who lived to her right. They had emerged from their units in slippers and robes to welcome her when the movers brought her boxes in. “Are they trying to make me leave? It’ll take more than a racist scribble.”
“Tell the landlord. And go to the police.” Penny’s exhale overtook Olena’s ear. “I wish you weren’t on your own.”
After returning from her worksite that evening, Olena brought the notes to the ground floor office.
The superintendent hunched over his desk and blinked at the lettering through his glasses. “Gosh. You’ve only been here a few weeks.”
“I just want to be left alone.” She was surprised by the tickling of tears behind her eyeballs. She fingered the clasps of her Prestige Engineering parka.
He looked up at her. Light shifted on the bald spot of his crown and his pupils were magnified by the lenses. “People don’t do things like this here.”
The superintendent posted a notice on the lobby bulletin board. This is a safe space. Harassment shall NOT be tolerated.
But will he investigate? texted Penny.
Yeah, answered Olena, sitting out on her balcony in the frigid night with her jacket on and her feet in boots. The top of her ears tingled.
Yes. He said I shouldn’t have to deal with this.
Everything was dark except for the empty plaza lot across the street, a couple of flickering stoplights, and the highway in the distance. It was nothing like the nightscape beyond the Toronto apartment Olena had shared with Penny. It was only 600 square feet but seemed as wide as the sky, perched on the 25th floor, towering over other high-rises and crisscrossing roads. Rent was expensive but the cousins moved there to be close to the University of Toronto, where Olena had been accepted into the Engineering Program.
“You’re going first,” Penny said. “I’ll catch college after you’re done.”
But she never enrolled. She picked up more shifts at the restaurant and took an overnight hotel security job to manage their expenses and let Olena concentrate on her studies. “I need you to focus on getting your iron ring,” Penny told her. “I don’t want you to have to take a break from school and waste your smarts.”
That night, in her new 2000 square foot apartment in a town thousands of miles away from Toronto, Olena locked the deadbolt and slept with her bedside lamp on.
The next morning, another note had been slid under her door. You’ll regret snitching. A lopsided swastika was drawn at the bottom in the same blue pen. Olena got in her car and drove to the nearest police station, 40 minutes away in another town altogether. She had to call her worksite to tell them she’d be late. The sky spitted all along, coating her windshield in mist. She cracked the window. The air was chilly but anger roasted her scalp.
“Unbelievable,” muttered the officer, shaking his head. “Some people.”
She watched his smooth, white face as he shuffled through paperwork on the other side of the desk. She found herself thinking of him as someone who had moved to this town the way she had moved to hers: pouncing on the first job out of school, miles away from the people who’d raised him.
He photocopied the letters and instructed her to call if she received another.
That night, Olena sat on her couch in the dark. Her spine was stiff as she clutched her phone in her hand. You’re crazy to think you can catch him, she imagined Penny scolding her. Why do you always have something to prove?
But Penny was that way herself, taking after her mother. When she was eight, Olena moved in with them when her own mother had returned to Guyana to care for an aging uncle. Olena was there when her aunt entertained a couple of lady neighbours one summer afternoon.
“Penny is going to be a dentist,” her aunt said, chest proud. “She gets the best marks in her class. You should see her do her little dental exams. She knows all the teeth words!”
Penny pranced up and jumped onto the couch by her mother’s soft hip. “I’m better at math than the boys.”
Sitting cross-legged on the rug between the guests and her aunt and cousin, breathing in the women’s clashing perfumes, Olena stayed quiet. She focused on her pencil crayon as she shaded shapes in her colouring book and wished that her aunt would brag about her too. At the time, she had no idea her mother wouldn’t return, that her great uncle would die of heart failure and her mother would die in a car wreck hardly a week later, careening out of control on a perilous tropical road. Olena, her aunt and her cousin would have to fly down to arrange two burials.
On the evening before their flight, the cousins played dentist. Olena bent over Penny, who lay on her bed as patient, and shined a pocket flashlight into her mouth. She peered at the pink gums, glossy white incisors, sharp-peaked molars.
“I hate Guyana,” Olena whispered.
“You don’t have to go,” Penny croaked, hardly able to form words in her wide-open mouth. “My mom can’t make you.” She closed her fingers around Olena’s fist holding the flashlight.
Olena knew she had to face her mother. She would approach her body in the greenheart wood coffin at the double funeral, the great uncle’s twin coffin beside it, and grief would overrun her, a suffocating sack yanked over her head and tied about her ankles. But Penny’s certainty that it was Olena’s choice to go was at least comforting that night. After that, Penny’s declarations seemed to have the power to make anything happen.
Olena battled sleep on the couch and kept a carving knife under her pillow. I deserve to be here, she told herself. I deserve a chance at a real career. Still, doubt washed through her. She had always needed to push to get good grades. Penny had been the natural student.
By morning, no paper had been shoved under the door. Days passed and Olena wondered if the writer had moved onto someone else.
But another note was tacked to her door when she got back from a late shift a few days later. I can write to you anytime. You can’t predict it. Along the edges, a chain of tiny, exact Ks had been drawn on as a border.
Olena left stern voice messages for the superintendent and the police.
“I think I’ll have to take care of this fool myself,” Olena said. “I won’t be scared off.”
“What if he has a gun?” gasped Penny.
Olena tensed her arms, forcing the tremors out of them. She hadn’t considered the possibility of weapons.
Early the next morning, a Saturday, Olena showered and put on her Prestige Engineering sweater. She unfolded a lawn chair beside her super’s locked office and sat down, squinting at every resident going in and out of the front door. They smiled and offered good mornings as if it was her habit to station herself there.
A frail, wispy-haired lady descended the stairs cradling a terrier with stained fur. “Super told me everything,” she said as she lingered on the last step. “Awful behaviour.”
“Any idea who might be doing it? I need information.”
Her eyes widened, watery and grey. “I’ve lived here for over twenty years and I know all the tenants in the building. No one thinks that way. It has to be one of the landscapers or HVAC people. They’re not from around here.” She shuffled out of the building, shushing her fast-panting dog along the way.
Your biryani stinks up the place, the next note read.
A white-hot flame sparked at the base of Olena’s skull. She slapped the page onto the counter, snapped a picture of it and extracted a pen from the drawer.
Wrong kind of Asian, dumbass, she scribbled under four dancing swastikas, drawing a line under dumbass. She jerked her door open and taped the note back onto it. Only when she slammed her door shut did she realize that the writer had upgraded to pricey, thick paper instead of the usual stock.
You the kind that eat cats? came the reply, expensive paper all the same. I can’t tell.
You are a buffoon, Olena wrote back. Your ignorance is astounding.
“We’re an Asian smorgasbord,” Penny would tell kids at school, explaining their family’s Chinese and Indian ancestry. By then, Penny’s mother was doing endless rounds of chemo and dialysis and Olena wondered how her cousin could flit from class to class and group to group so cheerily, keeping up her high marks. Olena started failing quizzes. She felt like holes had been punched in her lungs.
Penny’s mother died before they entered grade 12. Penny quickly dropped out to work at a supermarket and fast food place. Olena returned to school and discovered she didn’t have friends apart from her cousin. Penny’s popularity had provided cover, camouflaging the fact that Olena had been a loner the whole time.
Ignorant? read the following note. Your sure you can speak English, little girl?
You’re = you are, Olena scratched in a rage. Don’t lecture me about English, asshat.
Think you’re better than me? came the next day’s reply. With that potty mouth?
I am more intelligent than you. I do not spew hate. P.S.: I’m glad to see your correct usage of the contraction “you’re” this time. P.P.S.: The police are onto you. If you were smart, you’d never write to me again.
As you say, the writer responded, I’m not smart. P.S. I know the difference between “you’re” and “your”. I made a mistake. Sue me.
“You two are passing notes?” said Penny.
“I’m not scared and he knows it.”
She clucked. “What if he shows up at your door?”
The officer returned Olena’s call when she was at work. She hurried into her car and pressed her gloved palm to her free ear to dampen the noise of drilling and screeching metal gears. “There’s been a dozen messages now,” she told him.
“Keep sending pictures.”
Mud and melting ice oozed from the treads of her boots onto the car mat. “But how can we make him stop? Can you canvas the building? He needs to know I’m not going anywhere.”
The receiver was silent. Olena wilted.
“We’re a small shop,” he finally answered. “At this stage, I’d advise you to look for another apartment.”
When Olena got home, she yanked the Harassment shall NOT be tolerated notice from the bulletin board and barged into the super’s office, insisting he make copies. The two of them visited each floor to slide notices under doors and tape them up to the hallway walls.
“I’m disappointed in your response,” said Olena, pausing and turning to the super’s bald spot as they ascended the staircase. “What about the investigation you said you’d do?”
Sweat glossed his forehead. “I haven’t dealt with this before.” He clutched the railing and wheezed. “People who say things like that don’t live in this town.”
You think flyers will stop me? The swastika at the bottom of the sheet was bookended by twin smiley faces, both drawn in yellow highlighter.
You don’t scare me, she responded.
Then why did you go to the cops? Yeah, I know about that. Did you tell them you’re writing me back?
Why don’t you come and face me like a man?
Okay, maybe I will.
“Oh, God,” said Penny, “why did you say that? Get out of there, right now.”
“No,” answered Olena, knife balanced on her knee as she sat in a chair set to face her front door, head throbbing. “Absolutely not. After everything, all my hard work, I finally have an amazing job, a place of my own—”
“But what if you get hurt?”
“I can’t let him get away with it. Let him come!”
“Oh my gosh, Ole. You’re too far. I told you, it may take a while but you’ll find something here. You didn’t have to take the first job you got. I’ll take care of everything in the meantime while you look. Don’t I always? Just come home.”
The stove was off, but Olena told Penny a pot was boiling over and hung up. Her eyes were unfocussed. The wood and upholstery of the apartment merged into a soup of unfamiliarity. Her cousin’s dictates had lost their power across time zones, from one end of the country to the other. She couldn’t convince herself that she had really made it She was not in an apartment, she was not in a real life. She had never been the deserving one.
A large shadow appeared outside Olena’s apartment door, hovering in the sliver of light under it. Olena’s respiration was a blistering whirlwind in her mouth. Her muscles knotted; her hands were fists. She imagined bolting up, kicking away the chair, and swinging the door open, but in her head, she was confronted not by the face of a stranger but the wrinkled, ashen face of her dead mother’s dead uncle, just as he had been in the greenheart casket, head to head and side by side with her mother in her casket at the front of the church. This is where it started, she thought. Penny wanted her to come back, but there was no going back now.
The corner of a folded piece of paper shimmied through the door crack. It glided all the way in with a quick flick. Exhaustion rippled through Olena’s limbs. She couldn’t move. Minutes passed, or maybe hours, before she managed to stand, retrieve the note, and walk it into the kitchen.
Immigrants ruin everything. Go back to where you came from.
You can’t, she wrote with an unhurried hand. You think you can, but it turns out you can’t.
When another note returned, there were no Ks, no swastikas, only: ???
You can’t hand your life back. It’s not yours to return. Is it?
She taped the question up for the writer to answer. The paper that arrived under her door the next night was entirely blank.
Andrea Gunraj is author of The Lost Sister (Vagrant Press) and The Sudden Disappearance of Seetha (Knopf Canada). She is also a contributing essayist to a new collection entitled Subdivided: City-Building in an Age of Hyper-Diversity (Coach House Books). Andrea lives in Toronto and, beyond writing, she’s passionate about non-profit leadership and communication for social change.