I end the call and change the direction I'm driving in; it was the conversation I was half-expecting and fully dreading, the one doctors predicted, and I felt was inevitable deep in some morose pit of my reasoning. I went to school to become a nurse and have no illusions of the human condition: people survive because they want to, and if they don't, they die in months predestined. Nehemiah, he was of the latter sort, and I knew the call was coming. Sat in the driver's seat, clutched my cell phone, knuckles turned white, ring tone blared, and I didn't recognize the number-
He didn't like doctors. He paid for my education out of a sense of obligation, even after he protested my interest in medicine. Perhaps he felt he'd cheated me of something; when he got drunk, he'd apologize, and he got drunk very often. I heard him say he was sorry far more often than he said he loved me, and at some point, I began to equate them. When he apologized, I smiled, brushed his hair from his face, and told him, "It's okay. I'm sorry, too."
Like it was an oath. And that always made him laugh or smile or stare at me solemnly or some mixture of the three that only he could accomplish, especially in states of misery. Once, I walked in and he was lying on the floor, on his side. The room smelled like the rum dripping from his flask and soaking into the carpeting. It stunk, filled my nostrils with a hateful nausea; I knelt, though, and it soaked into my scrubs. I was interning at the time and used to the scene-
Coming home to him half-conscious and mumbling. Nothing in particular, usually in broken Italian filtered by his very American accent. I recall the coffee table distinctly, the books that lay upon it; one was physics related, untouched for months, and the other two were memoirs: I was reading about an immigrant from Taiwan, and the other he was reading, an exploitation of a drug addict that he grinned about, enjoying the inaccuracies the publisher had missed before letting the bullshit become a bestseller. I stared at it as I checked his temperature, his pulse, his responsiveness- he seemed okay, sort of, and I was about to guide him to bed when he grabbed my wrist firmly.
The green in his hazel eyes was enhanced by the redness of the whites, "I'm sorry, Kien."
He could never say my name. I hardly remember how to say it properly, after hearing it in his voice for so long, "It's okay. I'm sorry, too."
Silence festered and he made a maudlin act of it, turning away from me like a petulant child, his shirt riding up his back. I touched his skin, cleaned the carpet, and changed my pants, after throwing my liquor soaked ones into the wash. When I returned to him, his eyes were closed, and I thought he was asleep or more aptly, passed out. I used the blanket that was settled over the back of the couch to hide the stained upholstery to cover him. A gruff whisper interrupted my path to our bedroom, "Can you just stay here?"
I wanted to kick him. I wanted to press a pillow over his face and smother the sad bastard, but I lay beside him and hugged him tightly and mumbled, "Sure."
"Sure," he echoed and then repeated, "Sure." His hands found their way under my shirt, pressing against my back, against the bumps of my ribcage. He caressed me, "You never forgive me."
"And I'm never going to."
We fell asleep, that night, locked like that; I never forgave him, and he's dead, so I'll never be able to. It's a surreal thought. He's dead. I'm driving to the hospital just to walk down to the morgue, gripping the steering wheel until the leather molds to the shape of my hands- it's been coursing my mind repeatedly, perpetually: He's dead. He's dead. He's dead; his heart is not beating, and it's been more than ten minutes, so any neural activity has ceased. He's effectively a husk of meat, pale and cold, stiffening with Rigor Mortis. That will last approximately seventy-two hours before his skeletal muscles slump when he starts to decay, no longer replenished by activity in his cells-
I saw my first cadaver in an anatomy class I took while I was still under the impression I would become a surgeon; it belonged to a twenty-eight year old convict, and when the body had been filled with his life, he had used it to rape his daughter. I found myself staring at his dick, as I emptied his chest cavity, made note of the abnormalities in his heart and liver. He'd been a drinker; I could it tell it just from looking at his face, his brow, his jaw, the slope of his forehead, his yellow teeth... In a delirious moment, distant from my own logic, I witnessed a passing resemblance to Nehemiah. Not in figure, not in face; they didn't appear as if they could have been the most distant relatives, but even in death, I could sense their shared desperation, their willingness to do anything to hide their misdeeds from the person who judged them the hardest: internal dissonance, lies told through the Superego, incapable synapses and blaring twoness-
Then my classmate snickered, making a comment about telling her boyfriend that she'd dissected a monster that afternoon, and I replied flatly, "He's human."
"This is humanity?" she said, gesturing to his open corpse and the organs we'd set aside, as if his misdeeds were written in blue dye and formaldehyde. "He was a sick fuck."
"There's nothing more human than that."
She didn't talk to me for the rest of that year, even when we happened to work together on labs. She'd just stare at me hard, and it was clear she thought I was a monster, too. That I was the one who was morally inept, because I didn't want to pass judgment on the dead. Because I didn't want to think in shades of black and white. Because we were fundamentally different, and yet, I'm sure when she sat down and thought, when she truly looked inside herself, she detested me because she knew I was right.
I told Nehemiah all of this, and he laughed, "Poor fucker. Don't let them cut me up when I die. I don't want any future doctors poking around my body and talking about my life. Just get me burned."
He wants to be cremated. I'm the only one who knows, and I wonder if anyone else cares. He has a brother that's alive, but I only met Micah once. He looked nothing like his sibling; he was thin, weak. Damnably effeminate with a stutter when he got flustered, which was often in the presence of Nehemiah. I knew there was a tension between them- a thickness in the air when they were in the same room, something I sensed even within our brief meeting. It was the way they looked at each other, the way Nehemiah scowled, the way Micah received it-
I didn't need to be told what had happened between them. I didn't need the sobbing, intoxicated admission that followed a week later. I didn't need Nehemiah to grab my arms and tell me he was a paedophile, a disturbed human being incapable of doing anything right; before he confessed he'd molested his brother and two other children, I knew it. I knew it because I was twelve when I met him, and I was twelve the first time he took me to bed, and no matter how grown up I felt then, I was still a child. A vulnerable child, standing alone at a gas station, in tears, gasping for breath, alone in a new world like an infant straight from the womb, foreign language screaming at me on every label, and it'd be five years before I could confidently read and compose English-
Nehemiah never told me how old he was. I asked regularly and his answer always changed. I realize, staring out the windshield with no recognition to what's ahead of me, that I am going to know now. It will be on official papers, documents I have seen often; I work at a hospice, something that depressed Nehemiah. He asked me, once, why I would take a job like that, and I told him it was because I had the stomach for it. People could pass while I held their hand because there was no family left to love, and I'd be okay. I'd move on, unscathed, because there was so much ugliness I'd already seen.
"You do live with ugliness," Nehemiah replied, vivid against the background of my fading memory. He had a glass of water in his hand or maybe it was vodka, "You know that, right? You live with ugliness."
"You're not ugly," I said, because he wasn't. He was one of the handsomest men I'd ever met, with deep set hazel eyes and dark thinning hair. His skin was like ground olives and leather, tan and rough and matted with imperfections that only added to his exquisiteness. He was like a fine work of art, to be dissected piece by piece; I often find myself staring at him, trying to memorize every crinkle and scar and crease and crevice. "You're-"
"-Living with ugliness. It's not about the outside."
But I have been elbow deep in a man, and they all look the same, there.
(author's note: i'm not guaranteeing regular updates or a coherent story or any chronological order/semblance to a linear plot. but i will finish this.)