Amina Susi Ali
is a poet and short fiction writer. Her work has been published in Nuyorican Poetry; Cuentos: Stories by Latinas; Hispanic, Female and Young: An Anthology; the New Voices Anthology (La Pluma y La Tinta, 2016); and LatineLit (Summer 23 ). She was the 2019 First Prize winner in the Brooklyn Caribbean Literary Festival Short Story Contest. She holds a certificate in Fiction Writing from the NYU School of Professional Studies.
When she saw the ad in the newspaper, the room seemed perfect, especially the rent. Cheap, in a large apartment, and shared with other college students.
She had to take three trains from Queens and travel for an hour. She had never been to that part of Manhattan before. The buildings looked old and elegant. She passed two large supermarkets on her walk from the train. She passed a liquor store and rolled her eyes at a couple of catcalls. “Some things never change,” she thought.
When she got to the lobby, a white marble silence surrounded her. She pushed the elevator button and rode to the third floor, and after a brief search, pushed the doorbell for 3-F. The door opened. A woman with big brown eyes and curly short hair smiled and beckoned her to enter. She was wearing cut-off jeans and shiny gold hoop earrings, which were like hers but smaller and more expensive looking.
“Hi. I’m Marcelle. You must be Autumn. Come on in. I guess we can start with the room first, then I’ll show you the rest of the house.”
They walked past a small kitchen that smelled of coffee.
When Autumn saw the room, she knew immediately it would work. It had a small bed, a closet for her clothes, shelves for her books, a desk, and a window. A door led to a small bathroom. It was right off the kitchen. Everything she needed, and she wouldn’t have to bother anyone.
They exited back to the kitchen, which had a window, a stove, plenty of shelves and cabinets, and a small table on which rested a copy of The Vegetarian Epicure. The shelves were lined with recycled jars holding dried beans, pasta, brown rice, and coffee.
Next came a narrow alcove with a black wall phone and a list of phone numbers taped to the wall. The list was written in a beautiful calligraphic style by Marcelle, who was an art student. “Oh, I do wedding invitations, menus,” she casually replied to Autumn’s admiration.
“I’m a dance major at NYU,” Autumn said. “I start next week.”
Marcelle said she thought that was cool.
Behind the wall that held the phone was the living room. There were a couple of overflowing bookcases, a worn couch, and a long dining table. There didn’t seem to be a television.
The dark, wood floor was a little creaky and partially covered by a rug.
Marcelle explained that some of the roommates cooked and ate dinner there together, if their schedules permitted, and they sometimes had guests. “We’ve had a couple of parties here too!” she said.
Autumn paid the month’s rent and security deposit in cash. Her new life awaited.
There were five other roommates.
Marcelle, School of Visual Arts. Julie and Ron, Princeton graduates working their first jobs that summer. Roger, Columbia grad school in Anthropology. Seth, History at City College.
None of them had a ton of money. They bought and cooked food together and saved dinner for anyone who came home late. They worked and shopped in food co-ops, bought in bulk, and avoided meat and popular culture. They shared bagels and the Sunday Times, and were always going to classes or jobs, or writing papers.
Two men and one woman roommate called each other comrade. The other three Roger, Marcelle and herself did not
The three comrade-amigos all grew up together in the Bronx and had childhood friends who came over frequently for dinner and sometimes used the word comrade and sometimes did not. They mostly wore denim and plaid and had the habit of getting into long political discussions which were usually accompanied by wine. Autumn would eat, drink a little wine, take her dish to the kitchen, and then go to her room, sometimes to read a book and always to tune it all out. In the kitchen, there was a poster of Che Guevara, someone she grew up hearing cursed by her Cuban grandmother. She flashed back to her childhood, hearing her parents talk about Cuba, where her father was from. They spoke in excited voices, but in different languages and excited for different reasons.
When October came, there was talk among the roommates about planning a party for a Saturday night. With Halloween coming there was a party atmosphere in the neighborhood, but they didn’t specifically talk about anything as bourgeois as a costume party. Just a house party.
As the date approached, Autumn did not think too much about it. She figured she would help set up, join the party for a while, and then help clean up afterward. A music tape was being made by Jason, a childhood friend of some of the comrades. Autumn did not know who the guests would be, and she did not invite anyone from school. She had not yet made any close friends; she just went to her classes and her regular ballet practice. She had just started to meet other dancers, some of whom appeared in performances in small venues.
Autumn felt a tremendous yearning, something she could not put into words. It was a hope for enough money, for accomplishment, and a desire to change the world, all rolled up in one. Besides classes, studying, and writing papers, her days and evenings were filled with subway rides to different parts of Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Bronx to small stages to see others’ works and performances. She hoped that soon she would be asked to join some production or other. There were so many emerging works and artists. There were student rush tickets every weekend to see the New York City Ballet, the American Ballet Theatre, Alvin Ailey, and the Dance Theater of Harlem on majestic stages with Moorish décor and brilliant chandeliers. She appreciated all of it and lived on her dreams.
On the day of the party, Autumn helped to clean and move furniture, and went to the supermarket to help purchase snacks, veggies, and cheese. Other roommates went to the liquor store to buy bottles of wine. When the time came for the party to start, they put on Jason’s tape, which Autumn noticed was mostly R and B with a Latin tune thrown in here and there. No big thing; no pressure. There would be no competitive dancing, maybe competitive political discussion. She was hoping it would not turn out to be a total bore.
People started arriving. When they were introduced to Autumn, they commented on some of the things they had heard about her from other roommates. By 9 PM things were getting loud and crowded.
“So, you are Autumn!” a woman named Zayna exclaimed. She introduced the man she was with as Joel, who said, “You make the best arroz con pollo according to your roommates!”
“Not to mention how much they rave about your coffee!” Zayna added.
What? Autumn thought to herself. Maybe they were just being polite. Who can’t make coffee, or arroz con pollo? When it was her turn to cook, that’s what she made, the way her mother and abuela taught her. What was the big deal?
Just then the door opened again, and Autumn heard a couple of people shout, “Jason!”. She felt the excitement in the room. So, this must be Jason. She turned and looked at the person who had just come through the door. She took a deep breath.. He was gorgeous. And really smart looking. He wore jeans and a T-shirt, Adidas white sneakers, and a denim jacket. His skin was golden tan, just a couple of shades darker than hers, and he had curly black hair and piercing, dark eyes.
Maybe he would ask her to dance. Maybe the party was not going to be a big bore after all.
He caught her looking at him, looked straight at her, smiled broadly, and walked up to her.
“Hi, my name is Jason. I’ve never seen you before and I’m guessing that you’re the new roommate.”
“Yes, you’re right. My name’s Autumn.”
“Seth has told me that you’re a dancer?”
“Well, just learning....”
“Hey, I hope we get a chance to dance tonight. And that you won’t put me to shame.”
Someone called his name, and his attention went elsewhere.
“Excuse me, gotta work the room, I guess. Catch you later. Nice meeting you.”
Autumn took a few deep breaths. Where did he come from? And what did he do?
He seemed so casual and at ease with people, and it seemed like a lot of people in the crowd knew him.
Marcelle asked her to dance when Janet Jackson’s “What Have You Done for Me Lately?” came on. Then a man she did not know introduced himself and asked her to dance the next song.
She went into the kitchen afterwards and got a beer out of the fridge.
When she turned around, Jason was standing behind her.
“Hey, do you dance to salsa? Because I put a couple of Eddie Palmieri cuts on the tape.”
“I love Palmieri”
“OK, don’t totally waste me out there. I’m only half Latino. My mom is Jewish, and my dad is Puerto Rican.”
“Oh, interesting. I’m half Cuban and half Puerto Rican. The pressure.”
They both laughed.
“So, what do you do?”
“I’m on an athletic scholarship at Fordham but I’m thinking about law school. But also thinking about taking a break because work, school, the sports...it gets to be a bit much. Plus, everyone I know is majoring in Poli Sci and thinking about law school and I’m frankly kind of up to here with it all. My mom is a lawyer. I don’t know.”
“I hear ya. Right now, my life gets to be kind of full, but I’m hoping to get through this and get my degree and move on to the next phase of my life.”
“Not a bad idea. How’d you end up living here, may I ask?”
“My family is in Queens, and I wanted to be closer to the campus, but the dorms are so small and so expensive. This seemed more reasonable.”
“And so it is.”
Autumn soon got tired of trying to hold a conversation in which she felt she was trying to shout over the loud discussions happening everywhere. She heard snippets of people talking about labor unions, the military-industrial complex, health care reform, and women’s rights. Everyone there was dressed casually in jeans, T-shirts, flannel shirts, and sneakers. The music was loud, but the dancing was low-key and minimal, and did not interfere with the beer, wine, imported cheese, and hummus consumption, nor the political discussions.
Just then “Nada de Ti” by Eddie Palmieri came on.
“They’re playing our song,” Jason said, and pulled Autumn into the living room.
He seemed an adequate salsa dance partner. After the song ended, some of the women in the crowd approached him and ended up in an animated conversation, while two other men introduced themselves to Autumn and started talking to her, asking her about where she went to school and general questions.
Around 2 A.M., Jason announced to the thinning crowd that he had a long trip to the Bronx and wished everyone a good night. The rest of the guests soon followed suit.
Autumn and the other roommates did a quick cleanup, saving the dishes and recycling for the next day. Then they sat around the dining table and poured themselves glasses of water. Marcelle announced that she was making coffee but nobody else wanted any.
Autumn went to her room, got into her pajamas, brushed her teeth at her small sink and took down a book about famous ballerinas, and read herself to sleep while wondering who this Jason person really was and when she would see him again.
Over the next few days whenever Autumn heard Jason’s name mentioned in the house, her ears perked up and she had to steady herself. She wanted to know everything about him, who he lived with, what his family was like, who he associated with, and which other women liked him.
The following Saturday afternoon, Autumn was getting ready to meet another dance student, Maria, who had gotten them student rush tickets to see the Alvin Ailey company at City Center. She was in her room putting in her contacts when she heard Seth let someone in through the front door and told them to wait a few minutes. She assumed Seth and the person we also going somewhere for the evening.
She put on her jacket and shoulder bag and came out of her room. As she passed the kitchen, she saw Jason sitting at the dining table, by himself, reading a newspaper.
“Hey. Hi, Jason. How are you doing?”
“Good, good. How are you?”
“I’m fine. Well, hi and bye”
“Yes, bye. See you soon.”
His gave her a big smile..
She walked out the door, numb, but with her heart pounding.
Once in the elevator, she thought to herself, “See you soon, what does that mean? Was he being polite, or does he really want to see me soon? Was that his regular smile, or his extra happy smile?”
The performance whizzed by. All she could think about was Jason.
Afterward, on the way to the subway, she said to Maria,
“There’s a guy I like but I don’t know what to do.”
“Ask him out.”
“Oh no, I can’t do that. He’s a friend of my roommates, and they’re always around.”
She explained the circumstances of her two encounters with him.
“So, why didn’t you talk to him more when you saw him today?”
“Because I had to meet you. I just don’t know how to be smooth.”
The next day, Sunday, Autumn was writing a paper for her English class. She felt stifled indoors and decided to take a walk in the neighborhood. She walked down Amsterdam Avenue and stumbled upon a little Cuban restaurant-café. She sat at the counter and ordered a café con leche and a guava and cheese pastry. The menu was posted on the wall, and it listed all the foods her grandmother made, making her homesick. She needed to find the time to pay a visit soon.
The man behind the counter who served her looked about 25 or 26 years old, with a goatee and straight black hair.
“Looking at the menu, nena?”
“Looking and drooling. All the food my abuela cooks. I have to come back for dinner sometime.”
“That you should definitely do. Eres cubana?
“Sí, my grandparents and dad are from Cuba. And you?’
“I was born in Miami but my whole family is from Cuba. Hey, if you like music, I sing with a band. We’re gigging most weekends; maybe you would like to check us out sometime. Here’s my card. My name is Nestor Santana. And you?”
“Autumn. Autumn Velez”
“Que nombre más bonito. Mucho gusto Autumn. I hope to see you again soon.”
She reluctantly left the café, its smells and comfort calling to her to stay. Nestor was like a breath of fresh air. She felt so comfortable talking to him. But she had a paper to finish writing.
Two weeks later Marcelle took Autumn to a party at Zayna and Joel’s, the people Autumn met the Halloween party. They had specifically asked Marcelle to invite her. They lived just two blocks away. Marcelle told her that they were both doctors at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital which was further uptown.
Their building seemed more elegant than theirs. It had a doorman in the lobby and the elevator was prettier and quieter. There were a couple of sculptures in the apartment and the furniture was new. There was a platter of fresh vegetables, cheese, and quiche in the living room. Autumn served herself a piece of quiche on a paper plate and began to reminisce about the Cuban café she had stumbled upon and the aromas of familiar food.
She was beginning to get bored. The atmosphere was low-key, and she was not really into the music that was being played, mostly oldies. She told herself she was going to call Nestor soon and ask about the next time his band was going to be playing.
After about forty-five minutes, Jason arrived, alone as usual.
With his good looks, Autumn wondered why he did not seem to have a girlfriend. The way women fawned over him and how he was never left alone at parties led her to question his seemingly solitary status.
Jason asked her if he could get her a beer or a drink as he was on his way to the kitchen.
As he handed her a bottle of opened Corona. She thanked him and found a spot on the couch. He sat next to her.
“So, between the two of us, we make one Puerto Rican.”
“I guess that’s right.”
“Who in your family is Cuban?”
“My grandparents and my dad. They came over in 1970. I have an uncle who is still in jail there--a political prisoner.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that. You know, my mother has always been kind of on the left and belonged to some kind of pro-Fidel group at one time. She’s not into that now. I have always been against authoritarianism myself. Frankly I’m not really into politics. I just try to focus on what’s good in life and have a good time.”
“Politics really bore me.”
“Me too. Are your parents still together?”
“No, they got divorced.”
“Mine too. Would you like to get out of here to get some air? It’s so crowded and loud.”
They took the elevator down and exited the building. Jason suggested they walk along the Hudson River. They ended up sitting together on a bench.
After a few minutes, Jason spoke. “I have a question. Are you seeing anyone?”
"At the moment, no. I hardly have time to breathe. What about you?”
“Nope. I really think you’re cute.”
“You’re not so bad yourself.”
He leaned forward and they kissed, then kissed again.
“It’s starting to get cold out here. Maybe we should head back up the street.”
They were walking on Broadway holding hands when they noticed a woman heading towards them. As soon as Jason saw her, he dropped Autumn’s hand.
Autumn was perplexed.
When they reached the next block, Jason spoke.
“Are you going to invite me up to your little room where we can talk some more? Where are your other roommates?”
“I think most of them are out of town this weekend, except for Marcelle. She was working on some calligraphy orders. I think I’m just going to go home and go to bed. Kind of tired.”
“Is that a hint?”
“What do you mean?’
“So, am I getting any tonight, or what? What is the deal?” He laughed.
“Is that some kind of a joke?”
“Good, because nobody’s laughing.”
“Well, I’m trying to drop all the games and am trying to gauge where I stand with you.”
Is this how he always acts around women, besides accepting their constant admiration, Autumn thought. Now that he has a little beer, a little weed in his system, is this his true self coming out?
“Let me ask you a question. Was there anyone at that party that you had had sex with that would have sex with you now or in the near future? Because I’m just trying to gauge what’s going on here”
“Hmmm...that’s kind of, you know, possessive. What if I had?’
“Because maybe you have unfinished business that I should leave you to.”
Autumn realized that there were invisible threads out there, threads from Jason’s past or connecting to a possible future, that he did not want her to know about.
“Jason, all that aside, we hardly know each other...”
“Nobody cares about that stuff.”
“Hmmm...no offense, but did you think you were someone that I could be serious about? I mean, look at this book you’re reading.” He pointed to a book that was half in and half out of her tote bag. “Dream Big, Live Big?” I mean, what the fuck?” He laughed. “I wouldn’t read that in the bathroom. It’s not like I don’t have other options.”
Autumn heard the slap and felt his face before she realized what she had done.
There were a few people walking in the street, and the usual traffic whizzed by. She raised her voice and announced to no one in particular:
“Here we are on Broadway on a Saturday night, and I am stuck with a man-hoe.”
“Goodbye Jason,” she said, and turned and walked away from his shocked face.
That was the day that Autumn Velez realized the Disney films she dreamt about in her childhood had run their course. Lady and the Tramp were just dogs. If she were ever going to share a strand of spaghetti with someone it would not be with a person whose soul had become toothless due to a steady diet of mental candy.
The leaves in the trees rustled in the fall wind. It was her favorite time of year. She heard the leaves shivering, getting ready to transition to their next phase.