A few weeks ago on a lazy Saturday morning, I was looking at a real estate website and browsing through one bedroom apartments for sale in our neighborhood in Queens, NY.
I made note of an apartment that appeared to be within walking distance and called the broker to ask if the apartment was available for viewing. A deep, gravelly voice answered the phone and responded that he would be at the listed apartment later that very afternoon.
I told my partner about the quasi-open house and he agreed to check it out with me. We took the elevator down to the lobby of our apartment building only to be greeted by collections of puddles and overcast grey skies.
He ran back upstairs to grab two umbrellas, despite the fact that we only used one on the fifteen minute walk over. I linked my arm through his and stood underneath his protection, carrying my umbrella, unopened and hooked around my forearm. He joked about how he had brought me my own umbrella for a reason and I responded coyly that I liked being close to him. We are known to have this back and forth banter over most things, especially the food we … excuse me … he orders. The fries on his plate always taste better.
We spotted the apartment building a block away. It stood ten stories high and seemed to be connected to two other identical apartment buildings, like a complex of sorts. Upon entering the lobby, we spoke to a doorman who directed us to the elevator. We opted for the stairs instead. The listed apartment building was on the second floor.
There was a sign on the second floor that labeled which units were located on which wing. R-Z was to the left. We walked right past the S apartment, finding it the second walk around. It was listed as a duplex apartment, but there was nothing behind the front door besides rickety wooden steps.
We walked up the steps and into the actual apartment. The broker, an older white man with cotton white hair, was in the kitchen to the left facing the window with his back to the stairs and his phone in his hand. He did not look up until I greeted him first. Maybe he didn’t hear us come in, I thought to myself.
He looked up and smiled, revealing teeth that were too perfect for any age. He reached out and took my extended hand. I waited for him to give the same courtesy to my partner. He never did.
“You were the nice girl that called me about the trains, right?” he asked me with his perfect smile in place.
“No” I hesitated, “that was not me. I am a nice girl though.” I joked in an attempt to break the awkwardness I felt in the dingy apartment.
We walked around the small one bedroom, unimpressed in spite of his remarks that the apartment was going to be renovated. The kitchen was miniscule with a dishwasher straight out of the 70’s – spin dial and all. The only two closets in the apartment were narrow with angled ceilings that took up valuable storage space and the bedroom was cramped. The air was stale, as though whoever had lived in the apartment previously hadn’t cracked open a window in months. The broker could have at least lit a candle or sprayed some cookie scented air freshener or something.
We ended the walk-through in the same place he had been standing when we walked in, the minuscule kitchen.
“You can be honest if you’re not interested.” he attempted to gauge our plan of action.
“We aren’t really interested in this apartment,” replied my partner in an effort to finish the awkward interaction and move on with our day. His answer was cordial and polite despite the broker’s blatant lack of regard.
“Well, what exactly are you looking for? I can help you find it,” pushed the old white man broker.
I quickly ran through an outline of our budget and apartment criterion and let him know we would be in touch, another effort to finish the conversation and move on with our day – what I thought was my slam dunk to my partner’s assist.
“What’s your combined income?” he continued.
I looked at my partner unsure of what to say. I was a bit uncomfortable sharing that information with this man given the circumstances. My partner said nothing and I could feel the tension rising, so I did my best to respond. I attempted to talk around the question, “We’ve already been pre-approved.”
“I need to know what your combined income is so that I can get you approved by the board of a co-op building.” He continued, not picking up on our cues to be done or perhaps just not caring that we were not interested in doing business with him.
This broker could use some therapy for his social pragmatic skills – my informed clinical opinion as a speech-language pathologist.
I looked at my partner again, uneasy and hesitant.
“We will take your information and follow up with you” my partner asserted this time, with firmness in his voice.
“I’m just trying to help you. You don’t want to answer my questions?” the man continued to press. His voice sounded incredulous, like he couldn’t believe that we didn’t want his help. Like he was Jesus and we were at the gates of hell turning down salvation.
“We are fine for now. Thank you.” my partner maintained. This time the corners of his mouth clenched around each word and aggravation was clear to everyone in the room.
The broker looked confused, as though he had no idea where this conversation or interaction went wrong. He also looked a little nervous. I imagine he was feeling threatened by the possibility of an angry Black man.
We walked toward the stairs and I heard him call out a “good-bye” or “good-luck” of some sort.
We walked out of the apartment complex and started making our way back home. Silence hung over our heads like the dark clouds that released the light drizzle we were walking in. We weren’t using the umbrella anymore.
I processed the interaction with the broker as we walked and I felt the anger start to rise in my throat, hot like boiling water whistling through the top of a kettle.
“That man was so rude.” I voiced, breaking the silence that loomed above us. “He really didn’t shake your hand. He barely acknowledged you.”
My partner nodded and I watched as his kinky, coily curls captured drops of water like moments in a photograph. “Why didn’t you say anything?” he retorted.
There was no accusation in his tone. It was simple question, but it pierced through me like … You know that scene towards the end of the movie Ghost where a broken shard of a window punctures Carl through the gut and kills him.
Yeah… like that.
Guilt coursed through me like violent crashing waves.
My partner, my husband, my best “fwen” as we jokingly refer to other in creole accented English has always been quick to defend me. As my volunteer legal representative – he has never allowed anyone to disrespect me in his presence.
I carried that guilt with me all the way home and sat with it on the couch that Saturday afternoon turned evening. I felt like I had let him down.
My guilt became heavier when I shared the experience with my mother-in-law later that evening and she interrupted my story to say she would have walked out the moment the broker did not shake Steven’s hand.
After sitting with the guilt in silence for a few hours, I came to an important breakthrough.
How could I stand up for anyone else if I was still working on standing up for myself?
I need extra time to process, reminiscent of the children with special needs that I work with,
Perhaps this is why I’m able to have such patience and tolerance for their aggressive behaviors and delayed response time. I have learned to give them extra time to process and react. I have discovered the necessity of counting the seconds that feel like minutes in my head in order to provide them with the time that they need.
I understand that not everyone is able to process and integrate information at the same speed.
As a speech-language pathologist, I work with children who have a variety of functioning levels. Some of my children are completely non-verbal. They have a desire to communicate but can’t . They grope with their mouths and try to form sounds and words. Their minds race faster than their muscles and articulators can coordinate. It’s no wonder they get frustrated and sometimes respond aggressively.
I understand why they don’t say anything. Most of the time, they can’t. They don’t know how. They need therapy and training. They need practice and they need tolerance and love as they work through the learning process.
There is no one blueprint that works for all children. Some make progress in months. For others, it takes years.
With the right help and resources, they are able to find their voice. Although each of their voices sound and look distinct. Some of their voices are manifested in a picture exchange system. Other voices are electronically produced by a dynamic output device like an iPad or GoTalk. A few voices flow through sign language and approximated gestures. But with help, they all find a way to their voice
Tonight, I’m sitting at my desk in my room and I’m thinking about all of my clients. I’m thinking about the love, patience and empathy I give them as they journey towards finding their voices.
I’m also thinking that I may not feel as much guilt over the things I don’t say when I start showing myself that same love, patience and empathy.
I just need to remind myself that it is a journey. That it will take time. That there will be dips and valleys, progress and regression. And that it will all be worth it when I find my voice.
Each essay I write brings me a little closer.
*** This is Essay 17 in the #52essays2017 challenge created by Vanessa Mártir.