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  • During my third year of college, I lived with a family – my landlord, her son, and her boyfriend. The day I moved in, a young couple approached me on the sidewalk. The woman told me she was the previous tenant, and she had a warning. Her companion cut her off. He claimed that the man I was moving in with was a criminal living under an alias who had stolen the woman’s credit card number while she’d been living there. He gave me my new roommate’s “real” name, and said that if I searched public records I’d find evidence to back up his story. The former tenant didn’t say anything more except to quietly murmur assent. Her silence and the force of her companion made me uncomfortable, and it all seemed too farfetched to be true. I just nodded and thanked them, willing them to leave.

    They left, and I moved in. I liked living there; my roommates were kind people and it was easy to share space with them. The boyfriend worked odd hours that mimicked my student’s schedule, and our paths often crossed during the day. We talked a lot about politics and writing, gave each other books to read. A car hit me one afternoon while I was riding my bike home from campus, and he helped me clean the scratches on my hand and hugged me while I cried the shock out. We became friends.

    Then one day he was gone, and the next and the next. After a while my landlord told me that he was helping family down in LA and he’d be gone a while. A few days later she left some mail on the kitchen table. On top was a letter addressed to her from an inmate at the local jail. The name on the return address was the same name the last tenant’s friend had told me on the day I moved in.

    Suddenly I didn’t like it there anymore. It didn’t feel right to find out like that. I knew it wasn’t really my business, but I lived there and they should have said something – shouldn’t they? – and anyway why wouldn’t they tell me unless it was something awful? The silence made it hard to doubt the former tenant’s claims, and hard to think that my roommate was harmless, and worst of all I knew that I wasn’t supposed to know.

    I found a new place to live, quickly, while he was still gone. I asked my landlord to return my deposit to my work address so they wouldn’t know where I’d moved. One evening I pulled up to an intersection as the whole family was driving through. The boyfriend saw me and leaned out the window, waving and calling my name with a big grin on his face. I smiled a tight smile and waved, and as soon as the light changed I drove away.

    Half a year later, my former landlord emailed me asking for my phone number; I wasn’t sure what to do so I gave it to her. The boyfriend called me instead. He told me a woman had accused him of kidnapping and unlawful imprisonment, and they were going to trial. She was small and white like me, he said, and it would really help to have me as a character witness in his defense. Would I come to court and testify that I’d never felt threatened living with him, that I’d always felt safe under the same room?

    Technically I could have answered yes, because it wasn’t until after he left that I’d stopped feeling safe, but it sure would have felt like lying. I said no; I don’t know what happened to him. I still don’t know how much of my fear belonged to him and how much belonged to a faceless stereotype. I still don’t know if it was the right thing to do.
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