The first time I saw Ati, she was standing straight, her chin up and her feet in first position, looking at the mailboxes next to the Jacaranda, outside my building on Brickell Avenue. The first thing that came through my mind was that she looked like a queen. The second one was that sentence I had heard in an old black and white movie with the actress Michele Morgan: “dancers are taught to dance, not to walk”. She was wearing a black top that looked like a leotard and her hair was pulled back in a tight bun. Her long flowing blue skirt could have made one think that she was standing on stage, waiting to dance. She turned towards me.
“I can’t find my mailbox,” she said. “Wait, let me start over; Hi, I am Atinuke, my friends call me Ati.”
“Hi, I’m David,” I said.
I was so fascinated by Ati, I had forgotten that I was still wearing my noise canceling headphones. She didn’t even say anything about them. My heart skipped a beat.
“I just moved in 16A.”
I thought my heart was going to jump out of my chest.
“I’m in 16B,” I said. “I just got back from the Keys.”
“Well, David, I’m going to make us some tea and you are going to tell me all about the neighbors and the best place to find some yam.”
It was July, when the Poincianas are in full bloom, that I saw her again. Our schedules were opposite of each other. I worked at night at the library and she was gone to her dance studio during the day. That day, I heard something rolling outside my apartment and I opened the door to see what it was. I saw a young man, looking a bit like her, pushing her in a wheelchair. She had two casts, one on each leg. Her head was down and her hair looked undone and was covering her face.
“Hi, I’m Teju, Ati’s brother,” the young man said. “Let me make her comfortable and I’ll come back to speak with you”.
“Hi Teju, Hi Ati, “ I said.
Ati didn’t reply and didn’t make the slight move.
I heard some noise and Teju came back out.
“Listen,” he said. “She doesn’t want me to tell anyone but you are her neighbor so you need to know. She was coming out of the Dance Studio one night after rehearsals, with a friend, and some guys attacked them. The doctor said that they probably used bats.” Teju paused for a second.
“If I ever catch them, I will kill them,” he said. “The other girl is still in coma. Ati got both legs broken. She can never dance again. She can’t remember anything that happened and she doesn’t want to talk. She has to wear the casts for three weeks so I’ll stay with her for that time”.
I couldn’t talk. This was the second time Ati had made me speechless.
“Did they catch the guys?” I finally asked.
“No, nobody was around to id them,” Teju said. “Someone found the girls half an hour after it happened. Their teacher can’t forgive herself. She is a friend of our family .She usually gives them a ride but she was sick that day and didn’t go to the studio. I made her promise she wouldn’t tell my dad.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because he would send Ati back to Abuja and she doesn’t want to go back,” Teju replied. “You know what the worse part is? She cries quietly all day long but she doesn’t talk at all. I begged her to talk to me but she keeps her pain inside. She started dancing when she was three, that’s all she knows. My mother was a dancer. She used to be with her in her studio all the time. Her dream was to get into the Alvin Ailey dance company. She never talked about anything else than dance. She used to drive me crazy back in Abuja. Now I wish she would speak about anything, I don’t care what. I miss my sister, man.”
“Can you tell your mom?” I asked
“My mom passed last year,” he said.
“I’m sorry, “ I said.
“I have to go back, I just wanted to let you know”.
Three weeks after, Teju stopped by to talk to me.
“Listen man,” he said. “I have to go back to DC. They took the casts off and the doctor said that she is healing fine considering what happened. She doesn’t want to walk though and she still doesn’t talk. The doctor gave me the address of a psy but she doesn’t want to go and I don’t blame her. I was wondering if you could watch her until Christmas. I’ll be back then. If she isn’t better by then, I’ll tell my dad.”
“Don’t you think he should know?” I asked.
“No, you don’t know my dad. It is better if he doesn’t know. Here are the keys. There is money for food and the adress for the Physical Therapist in the box on top of the fridge. My dad paid the rent for a year. Thanks. I really appreciate your help man, ” he said before I could say no.
The next day, I went to knock on Ati’s door. Ati didn’t answer so I opened with the keys Teju had given me.
“Are you my new baby-sitter?” she asked as soon as I entered the place. “Are you going to spoon feed me too? And why are you always wearing those stupid headphones?”
“They are noise canceling. I don’t like noise,” I said.
“You don’t like noise and you don’t like light either,” she said referring to my sunglasses. “What kind of weirdo are you?”
“I have Asperger,” I said. “I’m sensitive to those. Now, may I sit down?”