Traffic stretches as far ahead of me as I can see, and this snail's pace leaves my mind to traipse through theory-
Nehemiah, now lying on a cold metal table, would have died with his eyes open. I imagine him gazing upward, pupils snared by invisible wires bound to the drop-ceiling tiles. His hands are palms up beside him, and he still has mortar caked beneath his fingernails. His lips are dry, his cheek housing a splatter of cement. His skin has gone ash, but his hair is vivid, curly-wild to hide where it's thinned in years prior. He took a shower this morning, so it's also clean and buoyant, floating in a halo as if placed in fluid. His clothes are cut away, and his nipples are dusky pink like pressed roses. His chest hair is coarse, supple, and there's a man standing over him, a faceless doctor holding a scalpel, ready to mar in order to seek an answer that's obvious-
But I realize they'll probably wait until the body has been identified to perform an autopsy. Maybe I can perform his autopsy; I'm not qualified to, but I know his liver would be in ruins, his heart grossly enlarged. His blood might be whiskey and his lungs coal but blue-veined like a sodalite stone-
Black and blue. Solid yet transient in my vision, redirected when I'm forced to hit the breaks. Moisture keeps hitting the back of my hand, warm and salty. I taste it, and I'm crying. I'm crying. The cars ahead of me blur into smears of color, a Monet of shining light and candy brightness tapered with neutrals; I pick out reds, blues, but they rest in the midst of many blacks and tans and silvery-whites that aren't quite gray-
I used to be black and blue, hued arms instead of vehicles or organs, covered in pinch bruises on my biceps and shoulders but never any lower. I named each mark after the mistakes that brought them: I go store, This for making, Dishes I do, Ran to street, How you say...?, and countless butchered colloquialisms. My right arm was spared more often than my left, but he grabbed me by the former and left a strawberry print whenever I stuttered, "I-I don't know how to say it."
He stared into me and pulled me closer by the redness and insisted, "You do know. Correct yourself. I'm not teaching you everything, you can't learn if I just tell you everything. You do know it."
"I don't!" But the longer he squeezed, the more inclined I was to learn, and in that manner I mastered English. By the time I was fifteen, I spoke it better than some American citizens native to the language. I knew the idioms, the innuendos, what was proper and what people actually said. He made sure I knew the difference, always a good teacher: consistent, authoritative, yet he made me as independent as I am. He gave me the skills that make me an efficient worker and a better bullshitter-
When I was in high school, I wore long sleeves and said I lived with my uncle. He acquired fake papers, and that was the truth in the eyes of my peers. If they asked where I lived, I gave them the wrong address. I never had close friends; it wasn't compatible with my secrets, and I preferred it. I liked my life. Coming home to Nehemiah...
Once, I walked through the door and shed my sweater and looked around the apartment. It was a little box divided into four rectangular rooms: the living room that doubled as a dining room and den, the kitchen, the bathroom, and the bedroom. The walls were painted white but smoke-stained and peeling, and the carpet emitted a peculiar odor, a combination of mold, marijuana, and cockroach feces. Vomit permeated the air, ate into my nostrils; I gagged and dropped my bag, used to vile smells but sensitive to ones that didn't linger daily.
I went to the closet and found bleach, searching for the source of the stench; the living room was clear, the bathroom, the bedroom- I rounded into the kitchen, and Nehemiah was hunched over, retching and trying to scrub what had already emptied from his stomach. Sweat beaded on his forehead, and I wondered how I hadn't heard him, cussing under his breath and pressing a Brillo pad onto the linoleum so hard it scraped up lines of color or maybe filth; I didn't remember the natural color of the tile, and I doubted I had ever seen it.
He glanced up, mentioned, "I'm sick." The vomit was purple like wine, but he wasn't a liar. If he said something, he meant it. I didn't question him, just stepped close and set the bleach spray on the table and then collected hand-towels from the counter.
Even standing over him, I felt little next to his heaving frame, entranced by muscle rippling beneath his shirt, the way the cloth caught and rearranged itself again and again to suit his figure. I was fourteen, maybe. I don't remember, but I was still wearing my sister's bracelet; he broke that in an argument when I was sixteen, so it had to be before then. "I got it. Sit down."
I knelt on the floor, poured bleach over the bile and alcohol, watched it bubble and seethe. I wadded up the mismatched towels and rubbed, rubbed, kitchen floor was white, I realized, with tiny black and blue specks. I looked up at him; he'd placed himself on a stool beside the breakfast bar. "Did you go to work today?"
"Yeah." His eyes were closed, his eyelids shades darker than the rest of his face, appearing intentionally blackened. Color slowly returned to his cheeks. "You were at school the whole day?"
"I didn't go to gym."
"You're not going to graduate."
Shrugged; then, I didn't know I'd wrack up an extra gym class my senior year. "It's fine. I'm not going to do anything."
"You're not going to do anything?" he parroted, incredulous as he eyed me, following my steps to the trashcan.
He made no complaint when I tossed the towels. "There isn't anything I can do. I'm not going to college-"
"Who told you that?" It caught me off-guard; his illness faded, the rheum gone from his visage, replaced by ferocity. His jaw tensed, and he hissed through the slightest part in his lips, "You're going to college."
It was a statement. A decision into which my input would offer no effect. I gaped, stuttered in my head, turned to him, and finally stared. He said it like it was planned, like it had been consented to and discussed and- I smiled. I smiled so broadly it hurt my cheeks, and I felt heat rush over me, "Really?"
"Why did you think not?"
"Because, I'm not...it's-"
"C'mere." He smelled awful, like acid thinly veiled in aftershave, but it was heady to be in his arms. My head swelled, my heart pounded, and his hands clasped behind my low-back. I rested my head on his shoulder and then kissed him and he pulled me onto his lap. I straddled his thighs, toes on the floor to keep my balance. I braced a hand on his shoulder, and he said, "I don't know what goes through your head, sometimes. You're smart. You're going."
I melted, and he rubbed my back in slow broad circles that worked their way beneath the material barring us. A few minutes passed, heavy breathing and clumsy touching, and he had me over the counter, but I wasn't with him, then. I dreamed about the future, and I realize that I'm here. Tapping my thigh, glancing at the time, then at the miles of cars ahead, this is the future I dreamed of, but Nehemiah was alive in my visions-
He offered me a drink and held me to his chest, once we finished, but I didn't drink. I don't drink; the first time I puked cranberry and vodka all into the rug, and I never tried again. It made me a bore, in college, but I love myself more for it. I'm strong, but I'm crying. I never stopped. The nightmare pours in upon the reverie, and I imagine Nehemiah dead on the floor, rather than drunk. Coming home and finding him, but I'll never have that experience.
Not with him, not with anyone; my life is planned around Nehemiah's being. I was supposed to take care of him in exchange for him taking care of me. I was supposed to grow old with him and tend to him when he's elderly, geriatric. I was supposed to be at least forty when he died, not twenty-three. Not with this much time ahead of me. Not with the ring he gave me on my finger, but his hands cold and decaying. I could take hours or I could take minutes, this traffic could clear or I could inch my way towards him, but he's dead either way, and I'm stranded in loneliness for decades to come. My future is being rewritten as I sob, and the woman in the car next to me keeps staring. I look over, but then I don't care. My eyes are on the ring; it's a blue stone set in black metal, and I laugh through hiccuping breaths-
He gave it to me last year. Unceremoniously, he just dropped it on my lap and told me it was cheap. Don't worry about it, he said. You can wear it if you want, but you don't have to. You're going to leave me anyway, when you meet someone your age. Until then, you can wear it if you want, but I didn't spend a lot on it. I got this one...But I didn't spend a lot on it. Not a lot at all. I won't be hurt if you don't wear it, but I'm going to wear mine. And he put a black metal band on his finger, and I asked why mine had a jewel. I never liked to be effeminate.
"Because," he paused to sit beside me, "I like it when you wear black and blue."