A GARDEN ON THE ROOF
By Patty Somlo
The tall, very dark-skinned man didn’t say a word, as Katherine Foster led him and the woman from the refugee agency through the flat. Moderately tall herself and willowy, with short cropped and spiky hair dyed red, Katherine stepped into each room off the long, narrow hall, and waited.
“This one would be mine,” she said, gesturing with her right arm to take in the large, sunny front room.
“And this one too,” she added, turning and walking past the open, sliding double doors, into a smaller dark room lined with bookshelves.
It wasn’t until they’d passed the two separate parts of the bathroom – one closet-sized space housing the toilet, next to a larger room containing the combination tub/shower and pedestal sink – that Katherine entered a room and said, “This one would be his.”
When they got to the kitchen at the very back of the flat, Katherine noticed that the man, who she’d learned on his arrival to the flat was named Joseph Maboso, didn’t seem the least bit interested. Without waiting for Katherine to lead him, Joseph hurried through the kitchen to the tiny enclosed porch Katherine referred to as the den. A TV sat in one corner, opposite a rolled piece of foam on the floor, covered with a mostly orange Indian cotton bedspread.
Joseph finally spoke.
“Where does this door go,” he asked.
“Oh, that door. It goes up to the roof.”
“Can we go see?”
Katherine had placed an ad for a roommate on Craigslist. The ad didn’t specify whether she was looking for a male or a female. She couldn’t afford the entire rent herself, as the cost of living in San Francisco, where the flat was located, had skyrocketed.
An actress, Katherine took temporary typing jobs, in between appearing in commercials and plays. With large, pale blue eyes and a small delicate mouth in an oval face, Katherine had been aware ever since childhood that she was considered quite pretty. She sometimes wondered if she owed her success in acting to talent or if she got parts because of her looks.
The day after she placed the ad, Katherine received a call from the Methodist Refugee Resettlement Committee. The woman on the phone told Katherine about Joseph.
“The agency sponsored Joseph to come here from the Congo,” she explained. “He lost his entire family in the war. He had a hard time at first. But he’s been in the country for almost a year now. He’s recovering and acclimating well.”
As Katherine led Joseph to the roof up the narrow wooden stairs, she thought he might be perfect – quiet, it seemed. Someone who would mostly keep to himself.
It didn’t cross Katherine’s mind, at least not then, that Joseph might prove to be more than a nice, quiet roommate. She had dismissed that possibility right off, minutes after he walked in the door. The color of Joseph’s skin hadn’t disqualified him for consideration as a lover, even though Katherine was white. As Katherine would later tell Sarah, her neighbor across the hall, he was “terribly thin.”
Katherine reached the top of the stairs, stepped out onto the black tarpaper and walked forward far enough to allow Joseph to join her. In the four years she’d lived in the building, she had hardly ever climbed those steps. Standing under a clear cobalt sky, she wondered why. She watched Joseph tiptoe across the tarpaper, noticing once again that he was very tall. And also very black. Suddenly, he turned toward her and smiled.
“This could be a garden,” he said.
He spoke English with the loveliest accent. Even though his body was way too slender for her taste, which gravitated toward the muscular type, Katherine thought he had a beautiful face. The cheekbones were high below large dark eyes. His smile dazzled her.
In the first few months after Joseph moved into the flat, Katherine barely saw him. Whenever she was home, he seemed to be out. Early on, Katherine had spelled out the rules to Joseph, about alternating weekly cleaning and taking out the garbage. Of all the roommates she’d had over the years, Joseph turned out to be the only one who cleaned as much as she did.
Every so often when Katherine was sipping her morning coffee at the scratched oak kitchen table, Joseph passed through the room, his hands carefully balancing a cut-down cardboard box filled with plants. Not looking in Katherine’s direction, he would say, “Good morning. How are you today?” She imagined those were the first phrases he’d learned in his English class.
Because Joseph lingered in the enclosed porch, rather than standing closer to Katherine in the kitchen, she got the impression that he didn’t really want to talk to her. Once, though, she asked, “What are you doing with all those plants?”
“I am making a garden,” he said. As if it wasn’t exactly clear, he added, “On the roof.”
A year passed, following Joseph’s move into the flat. In that time, Katherine had gone through a half-dozen lovers. When one of her lovers spent the night and they made love in the front room, Katherine sometimes wondered if Joseph could hear them. He never brought anyone home, neither male friends nor women. In some ways, it was an odd arrangement, sharing the flat with a man she barely spoke to or knew. In other ways, the situation suited Katherine just fine.
In her forties now, Katherine had mostly resigned herself to being single. Earlier, in her twenties and thirties, this was what she had wanted. Over the years, she had watched her mother grow more and more depressed, married to a minister who spent more time counseling the divorced and widowed women in his congregation than he did with her.
Katherine spent time with different men to assuage her loneliness but didn’t expect most of the relationships to last. Even so, she still held onto the tiniest hope that one day she would meet and fall in love with a good man who would love her back.
Oddly, there was a surprising similarity between the men with whom Katherine got involved and Joseph. Like him, the men all had dark skin. A few were foreign. Two had even emigrated from Africa to the United States.
This was no coincidence. When Katherine was young, her missionary father moved the family to Uganda, where he started a Christian church. The African continent – its people, music, the smell of food and damp earth – seeped into Katherine’s soul, she liked to tell people years later. In her junior year of college she returned to Africa, falling in love with a man as black as Joseph, who she considered marrying. That is, until she learned he already had a wife.
Katherine’s skin was so pale, she never stayed out in the sun for long. She loved laying her arm next to that of her latest lover. Chocolate and vanilla, she would think, and sometimes said the words out loud. Katherine failed to realize that she didn’t fall in love with the men she brought into her life. Rather, she loved the idea of them, exotic, happy and warm, the way she recalled the people, music and culture of Africa.
During that year, Joseph tried to keep busy. When he wasn’t working or in class or sitting in a straight-backed chair across from his counselor, he climbed the narrow wooden stairs to the roof. Often, he simply sat on one of the white plastic chairs he’d found at a garage sale down the block and let his eyes roam from leaf to leaf and flower to flower, resting on one plant and then another. He had never realized that growing things could be so soothing. Other times, he pulled weeds and watered, or planted seeds in rich black soil through which he delighted in running his fingers.
Some nights lying in bed, he heard Katherine moaning in a steady rhythm, the sounds growing louder, until he wrapped the soft pillow around his head and pressed it to his ears. It felt strange to hear such intimate sounds from a woman he barely knew. Though he tried not to think about Katherine, the feelings that arose, of desire and longing followed by a wrenching sorrow for what he had lost, forced him out of bed. Each time this happened, he pulled on a pair of gray sweatpants and a black hooded sweatshirt, then picked up his blue and white running shoes and carried them out the front door.
As soon as he reached the sidewalk in front of the building, he started to run. He loved the brush of cold foggy air against his face, as he passed a string of tall white apartment buildings. Turning onto Church Street, neon lights flashed above him, reds and blues caught in the windows of the bars and restaurants.
Like being in the garden, running took Joseph outside himself. Once the endorphins kicked in, he felt like a different man, not someone who had lost everything – his family, his country and his job as a government clerk – but a person with a future, on his way forward to a better life.
It wasn’t until Joseph had lived in the flat for close to a year and a half that he invited Katherine up to the roof for the first time. In his right hand, he carried a five dollar bottle of red wine. He asked Katherine to bring two wine glasses.
Dusk had brushed the sky pastel, with wispy clouds drenched mauve against a pale, blue-washed sky. Katherine stepped onto the black tarpaper, her heart beating a little fast from the climb.
“Oh, my gosh,” was all she managed to say.
In every direction, green plants reached for the sky. To the right, Katherine glimpsed staked-up tomato plants, with clusters of small red, orange and a few yellow tomatoes growing. Next to those were climbing vines. When she looked more closely, she saw green beans curled like tiny fingers. She turned around. Tumbling down a metal trellis was lush red bougainvillea. Like a waterfall, she thought. Green leaves, flowers and vegetables. The roof was filled with life.
And in the center sat a white plastic table and two chairs.
“Do you like it?” Joseph asked.
“It’s incredible,” Katherine answered. “It’s just incredible.”
By the time they finished the bottle of wine, the air had grown cold. An hour earlier, the fog had blown in, scattering drops onto the plants and chairs, and the flat black tarpaper. Joseph started slowly, filling Katherine in on his life. He explained that bringing a dead, neglected garden back to life in the house where he first lived after being brought to America saved him. Before he witnessed the first green shoots peeking out of the ground, he hadn’t believed anything would ever again thrive, after all the death he had witnessed. His wife and two children, two uncles and an aunt were gone. Joseph had asked himself every day why he ended up being the one to survive.
At some point in the telling, Katherine reached over and grabbed Joseph’s hand. They made their way back down the stairs, and Katherine took Joseph’s hand again. Once they stepped out of the kitchen, she pulled Joseph down the hall, past his room, up to the front, where still holding hands they entered her room.
Sometime after midnight, Joseph left Katherine’s bed and crept back down the hall. He grabbed a jacket and a pair of blue and white running shoes from his room before heading out the front door.
In the hall outside the front door, he slid his feet into the Nikes and tied them, then pulled on the dark gray windbreaker. Even though the stairs were carpeted, he tiptoed down, not wanting to wake Katherine or any of the other tenants at that hour.
He stepped outside into fog-shrouded air, the coolness making him feel revived. A few feet past the building’s entrance, Joseph waited, letting himself ponder what had just happened.
He felt ashamed. Even though the air was cold, the shame caused the blood to rush to his face. He was tempted to strip off his jacket and even the T-shirt he wore underneath. His forehead throbbed.
“It’s the wine,” he whispered. “I drank too much wine.”
He began to jog, making his way toward Church Street, where he knew people would still be out, leaving the bars or stepping off the streetcar from downtown. He didn’t know why but he wanted to lose himself in the crowd, become the anonymous person he’d been for so long. The refugee. The foreigner. The African. The guy who tended a garden on the roof of a nondescript building. The man who looked out over the city from his perch, where it was possible to disappear.
Joseph turned right when he reached the corner. He jogged to busy, wide Market Street. Though the lights were usually bright there, tonight they were muffled by fog. He could only see a few feet ahead and on both sides. The fog made him believe he was invisible.
If only he had stayed on one of the main streets, Joseph probably would have been all right. But he wanted to climb, to get the endorphins pumping through his body. He’d learned this after coming to America, that jogging up hills cheered him. Some streets in this neighborhood rose at a nearly ninety-degree angle. He jogged around to one of them, aptly named Hill, and started to make his way up.
The street was dark. No lights appeared in the windows of the houses and apartments. Even the streetlights were dim and set far apart. The fog made everything darker.
He could feel his heartrate quickening, as he pumped his long legs high. What had he expected, he silently asked himself. If only he hadn’t drunk so much wine.
He didn’t want to think about anything. Not how Katherine had looked tonight, her skin so pale, and dare he think it, beautiful. Or how it felt to be with a woman again, a woman who was not his wife. He wasn’t going to let his mind settle on the ache under his breastbone, where guilt had nested for so long. He had stirred up that guilt again, making love to this woman. Joseph wanted to blame her. But he had invited her up to the roof. And hadn’t he bought the wine?
As Joseph got closer to the top of the hill, he found it harder and harder to breathe. It wasn’t enough to inhale through his nostrils. To take in enough air, he was forced to open his mouth. His chest hurt, as if it wanted to punish him. A part of Joseph enjoyed the pain, thinking he deserved it.
By the time he reached the top of the hill, the pain had slid down to his belly. He stopped, bent over with cramps, trying not to vomit. But he couldn’t help himself. He rushed over to a house set just beyond the sidewalk, rested his right hand on the wall, and let himself lose everything he’d put into his stomach that night.
Joseph didn’t see the police car parked next to the curb, since the officer didn’t have his lights on. In the dense fog, Joseph was lost to the officer for several minutes. As soon as Joseph recovered and stepped back onto the sidewalk, the officer looked him up and down, then stepped out of the car. His right arm was bent, his hand poised a few inches above his gun.
“Stop there,” the officer ordered.
Joseph jumped, having thought he was alone.
“Put your hands up in the air,” the officer shouted.
Joseph attempted to locate the source of the sound. He walked forward, in the direction from which the voice appeared to be coming.
“Stop right there. Let me see your hands.”
Joseph raised his arms, making sure his hands were high in the air, hoping the man barking orders could see through the fog.
Katherine woke up, just as Joseph left her bedroom. At first, she thought he was going to use the bathroom and would come right back. She heard the toilet flush and waited. Several minutes later, the sound of footsteps went past. The front door creaked as it opened and then a second time being closed. Joseph’s key clicked in the lock.
Katherine got up and walked to the front window. The air was white with fog. It was impossible to see the side of the historic Mission church across the street. She couldn’t pick Joseph out in that fog. Where would he go at this hour, Katherine wondered. The whole time he’d been her roommate, she had known practically nothing about his life.
At first, the worry about Joseph and sadness that he’d left her bed kept Katherine awake. Eventually, the effect of the wine and the late hour brought sleep. When the phone rang, Katherine didn’t know how long she’d slept or whether Joseph had returned.
“We got a call reporting a prowler,” the police sergeant at the desk reported to Katherine, as the reason for Joseph’s arrest. The officer was young, his hair shaved on the sides, leaving a short tuft of black hair growing on top and in the center.
“Did they see this prowler?” she asked, thinking no one could have picked a man out in that fog.
The officer looked at Katherine and frowned, as if tired of her questions, even though she’d asked only one. Katherine waited for his response. When none came, she said, “I can’t imagine they could have seen anyone. I had to drive really slowly over here because it’s so foggy.”
The lights in the reception area seemed overly bright. Finally, the sergeant spoke. “No. They didn’t see anyone,” he admitted.
She took a deep breath.
“It’s because he’s black,” she said.
There wasn’t enough evidence to charge Joseph, so the police let him go. He sat next to Katherine, his long legs folded up in that little car, which was practically too small for him. Katherine’s forehead ached, from the wine, the late hour and having been woken up. She felt a familiar sensation in her belly and realized that she was angry, and not just because she’d had to leave home in the middle of the night to pick Joseph up at the police station. A man had made love to her and in the moments after, when she felt close to him, he had gotten up out of bed and gone for a run.
Katherine wanted to ask why he’d left but thought it best to wait and see if he offered an explanation.
Every time Katherine and Joseph made love after that first night, Joseph got out of bed, crept to his room, grabbed his blue and white Nikes, and tiptoed to the front door. Just as on that first night, Joseph jogged, only now he kept to busy streets with plenty of light.
Though he told himself he had no right to have feelings for a woman, Joseph’s heart opened a little, each time he and Katherine made love. Looking at her face before the fear crept in, he experienced a contentment he’d only known in recent years when tending his plants. Still, he did not express a single endearment to Katherine. He also didn’t tell her about the letter he’d gotten.
Katherine tried convincing herself that she didn’t love Joseph. He wasn’t really her type. Plus, as much as they seemed connected whenever they made love, Joseph put a wall around himself moments after. The rest of the time, Joseph barely let her in, past that wall.
The letter had arrived from Joseph’s Uncle Solomon a few short weeks after he and Katherine first made love.
“I am alive,” his uncle, who had lived in the Congo with Joseph and his family, began. “I made my way back to the house. Everything was stolen but the house is still standing. I am hoping this letter will reach you, as it took me so much time to find you. A peace agreement has been signed. Would you please come back home?”
Joseph climbed up to the roof, after he had read the letter three times. He sat in one of the white plastic chairs and glanced around. What a joke, he thought. He had tried to make a life here, on top of a roof, with plants, and by making love to a white woman he felt too ashamed and guilty to love. The last words his uncle wrote, Would you please come back home, kept echoing in his mind.
By the time Joseph packed a navy blue nylon duffle bag with three changes of clothes and his blue and white Nikes, there was barely any room on the roof to add a single other plant. The air was drenched with the almost too sweet scent of honeysuckle. The white plastic table was covered with plants.
Katherine climbed up to the roof at dusk, the note Joseph had left on the kitchen table in her left hand. She didn’t know that Joseph made his decision to go back to the Congo while sitting in the same white plastic chair where she now sat. In his note to her, Joseph hadn’t said whether he would come back or not.
Katherine was surprised when the tears came. She hadn’t loved him, she told herself. She always knew it would end.
Through her tears, she noticed a lovely, staked-up purple bougainvillea she hadn’t remembered seeing before. The fragile petals reminded her of butterfly wings.
A few minutes later, she went downstairs and pulled a chilled bottle of Chardonnay out of the refrigerator. She took two stairs at a time when she returned to the roof. It took several hours to finish the bottle of white wine.
The fog rolled in around midnight, and the wind tugged at the purple bougainvillea’s petals. Groggy from the wine, Katherine watched the wind tear at the petals, like a lover carelessly toying with her heart.
Patty Somlo’s most recent books are The First to Disappear (Spuyten Duyvil), a short story collection which was a Finalist in the 2016 International Book Awards and a Finalist in the 2016 Best Book Awards, and Even When Trapped Behind Clouds: A Memoir of Quiet Grace (WiDo Publishing). Her fourth book, Hairway to Heaven Stories, is forthcoming from Cherry Castle Publishing in 2017. She has received four Pushcart Prize nominations, been nominated for storySouth Million Writers Award and had an essay selected as a Notable Essay for Best American Essays 2014. Her work has appeared in journals, including the Los Angeles Review, the Santa Clara Review, Under the Sun, Guernica, Gravel, and Sheepshead Review, and in numerous anthologies. Find her at http://www.pattysomlo.com or on Twitter @PattySomlo.