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“You look sick, son.”
The old man’s voice was an ancient river, running thick and heavy with wisdom; always slow and deliberate, on his own time. Nigel looked out the immaculate window at the deceptively bright day, the sun’s smile glinting off the last traces of last week’s snowfall.
His own smile had left two weeks ago. Gone with the wind, or some sick abortion clinic in California.
“I’m cool.” He adjusted his sweater, classic argyle hiding his seeping heart.
His mind was too full, heavy as the bags of salt that weighted his car down this winter. His father wouldn’t understand. Couldn’t understand the strength it took to be here today, just to stand and be present without being reminded of that woman.
Jade was a poison. A jagged stab in his side. The type of nagging pain that ate at you, a vulture over a rotting carcass.
Fuck her. His mind had this biting stand-by on auto-reply each time he felt the nip of sadness trying to creep in.
“Come here, son. Tell me what’s troubling you.”
Nigel stopped, turned to face the man who gave him his black stare, his sharp nose, his acute temper. He kept his face mute, stone. “I said I’m cool, Joe.”
Disappointment cast a brief shadow in his father’s identical black eyes whenever Nigel addressed him by his first name. The years that existed between now and the last time he’d referred to the graying, elegant man as “dad” were going on twenty, yet his father still showed visible disdain.
At that, a rough rumble in Joseph’s throat cleared away any softness, any hint of sentiment that had been allowed to sneak in for that snap of a moment. He got back to business. “Have you spoken to Nathaniel? I’ve some things to discuss with him and he keeps going missing.”
The tide of bile that rushed to the pit of Nigel’s stomach at the mention of his brother’s name sickened him. He’d laid low, become conveniently unavailable whenever Nate or Jade had tried to reach him in the last two weeks. He knew what Nathaniel wanted. The start of his term was approaching, he’d be taking his oath of office soon. There were press conferences to be held, donations to make, plans to re-familiarize himself with. But what could she possibly want? To step on his contents she’d already yanked with bare hands and a cold pair of forceps? He had no care to hear anything she had to say. He’d accepted their ending. Now he just wanted to be over it.
“Not my brother’s keeper anymore Joe.”
His father’s fiery eyes shot up at him, right hand stopped signing the document he’d been writing on before Nigel walked into his large office. “Oh cut the bullshit boy. I asked have you talked to the man, nothing else. Spare me the fits of nuance.”
Nigel toyed with the nameplate boldly displaying Joseph E. Richardson in gold-plated letters on his father’s heavy, expansive desk gleaming with a fresh shine, walked back over to the window with it in his hand. Looked down fifteen floors to the miniature people walking outside. He cleared his throat, decided not to address the old man’s intentional use of “boy” versus “man.”
“No. I haven’t.”
Joseph stood up, took a step from behind his desk. “I don’t know what’s got you walking around like you’ve got a wrench on your nuts lately, but you need to get over it. Soon. Whatever is going on between you and Nathaniel needs to die today. Not next week, not tomorrow, today. There’s work to be done. I won’t have him looking incompetent because he hired his brother instead of someone more qualified.”
Old Joe. Now this was more familiar. Simultaneously praising Nathaniel while demeaning Nigel was an area of expertise for his father.
Nigel set the nameplate down quietly, turned to walk out, his pride overriding the fact that he’d come here for a reason; Joseph’s consummate business acumen and wisdom much needed for a current negotiation he was working on.
“You can’t run from every truth, son. Sooner or later one of them will catch up to you.” His father’s voice was serious, his face lined with condemnation.
Nigel paused at the door, insides sinking faster than the Titanic. “Maybe I can’t, Joe. Maybe I can’t. But I can tell that truth to go fuck itself.”
Black covered the sky outside the window like an arrogant magician’s cloak that night, the only light a lone plane like a slow moving shooting star in the distance. Nigel stared out into that dark space numbly, let his mind wander into a midnight forever. He was beyond heartbreak; oil spilled through the hole in his heart now, black and murky. The places his mind traveled to these days led to nothing but a vast vacuity.
The wax of the record crackled heavily in the room dark as the night outside, like the fireplace in that six-bedroom “cabin” in the Poconos his father used to take him and Nate to when they were boys.
He placed the needle down, Donny’s voice like a hot lozenge.
“If I ever leave you baby… you can say I told you so…”
He sunk his gloom onto the oversized leather chair alongside the window, sifted through mail he wouldn’t bother opening. When his thoughts became too much, when the elements of life hammered at his sanity and proved too great to handle, he sat in this chair.
He listened to the music his father listened to all those years ago, when his mother’s shrill voice and unending complaints had forced a retreat to the basement of their large three-story home, away from her anger and toward the jar of moonshine. His parents didn’t argue much, but when they did, even the windows vibrated with tension. Nathaniel, being the diplomat he was, not able to handle the words they slung, would leave, sneak out the window and run to the home of one of his older, misfit friends.
Nigel absorbed those times though, intensely aware of the symphonic way their battles moved; chaos and calm between moments of silence. It’d start abruptly, his parents returning home from a night out, the liquor-flavored yelling and slamming of doors. Then it’d grow soft, still, as his mother tried to reason with her husband, calm the storm he’d turned into. And sometimes, on good nights, they ended there, with an embrace and an unspoken truce. Most times, not.
His father was not a man of compromise; everyone living under the roof he provided was subject to his rules, as far as he was concerned. That’s where the finale would come, the bursting of his father’s temper like the breaking of a New Orleans levee, his storm would grow, become a full on hurricane. Sometimes Nigel would come out of his room, see the wild in Joseph’s eyes, the thick vein protruding out of his neck as his father yelled and his mother retreated, locked herself in their bedroom until the hurricane had passed.
The fear that he’d have to kill his father one day lived in the back of his mind, clear and present. This powerful, strong man who represented everything a hero was for him, who was everything he wanted to be when he was older. He was always scared he’d have to shoot Joseph with his own gun if he ever hit his mother. Scared, but always ready.
He’d sigh with relief, thank God in his prayers before bed when his father finally made his way to the basement; angry, heavy steps punctuated with the slam of the door at the bottom. Immediately, Donny Hathaway’s emotional alto would rise from his father’s domain, making its way through the walls, ebbing like slow tide throughout the house. Nigel’s bedtime lullaby. Donny meant he could fall asleep without worry. Donny meant his father would be cordial with his mother in the morning, apologetic even.
“Is that any way for a man to carry on, do you think, I want my loved one gone…” The words of that song were ingrained in his memory, forever in the blueprint of his childhood.
Now years later, he sat in his chair, let thoughts run wild, fold and unfold themselves over, usually working themselves out into neatly cubed stacks or straight planes. Today they were cranes. Crumpled like accordions and wrinkled sheets left from restless nights. He hated how much of his father’s anger had made its way into his DNA, hated that this song was the only calm for his storm.
“Said I love you… moooore than you’ll ever knoooow…”
He stared at his phone. Watched it call his voice mail.
“Nigel. We should talk. I know you’re upset but please–”
He pressed the seven button wearily, ache like a fifty pound weight on his chest, expanding itself ever so often, restricting his breathing. Her voice only made betrayal a thousand times more potent. Fueled his anger in ways he imagined a man committed to a madhouse would relate to.
She was a ghost. Gone. The Jade he knew was nothing but an idea of a dream he’d envisaged one day. An imagined utopia. A hazy, deceptive mirage.
He deleted another message. Shook his head, traded the mail for the beer resting on the table beside him. Regret of years wasted pooled inside, a simmering ball of uneasiness.
He sat, leather sighing underneath his movements like a tired old man, let this numb sadness radiate. He wanted it to travel through him, consume every space until it had no where to go but out, so he could rid himself of this horrible feeling, finally move on to not caring. He wanted to go back to being the selfish, self-indulgent, womanizing, happy man he’d always been. He rubbed a large hand over the freshly twisted locs tight on his scalp, pulled back away from his face with plastic band.
He’d been mulling this decision for a long time, but now, in this dark room, he’d made up his mind. He was going to move. Change the details of his world once again. Uproot himself, toss his life into a small bag, relocate, and disassociate himself once again from the brother both she and his father seemed to love more. Nate had won. He always won.
He shouldn’t be mad at his brother for being the one people preferred. It’s wasn’t Nate’s fault he was so much more palatable than Nigel. And not surprisingly, Nigel didn’t really care when it came to most people. He’d carved out a nice, successful existence even with the absence of the favor that seemed innate for Nathaniel. But this one. This one stung.
He’d never speak to Jade again, never tell his brother of the history he didn’t know existed.
Now he just needed to decide where the hell would he go.
The quiet buzz of his cell struggled to be heard above the raucous chatter of five men, losing the battle over and over again until Nigel’s peripheral caught the blinking blue light.
“Yo baby, yo baby, yo.” He answered comically for Jade, ready to shake his head at whatever she was interrupting his night with.
She knew he was indulging in a testosterone night. He had a good hand in this round of poker, a table stacked with deep dish pizza, and hydro smoke permeating the atmosphere. Whatever she wanted could wait, most likely.
“Stop by tonight after you’re done there, please.”
Jade had a bad habit, an annoying habit, of immediately launching into conversation when he answered. The reason he’d stopped bothering to answer with a traditional hello long ago.
“I’m in Ann Arbor with a friend. No can do.”
“It’s important Nigel. Please.”
He softened, like he always did when she used that voice made of silk, soft as rabbit fur. That one change of tone could have so much power over him was annoying too.
“What is it? Everything alright?”
“Just stop by Nigel.”
Her refusal to communicate over the phone made him nervous.
Oh God, please don’t let her be pregnant. Could she be? This thought gnawed at him, spread fear to places he didn’t think possible. He thought back to two weeks before when they’d laugh at the condom breaking mid role play. Wouldn’t be so funny now.
“Is it something major? …Are you pregnant? I’d like to know now before I come over there. Don’t just spring something big on me. Black men stay dying young from coronary failure.”
Silence crackled on the other end, the absence of Jade’s voice either a very good, or very bad thing.
“….Hello?” he said.
Her lips smacked together almost violently. “You should really stop smoking.” Her voice was as finite as the click that sounded in his ear.
His locs were shoulder-length now, swaying when he walked, giving his primal bone structure an even sharper shadow. She couldn’t help but stare.
“You look like you’re losing weight.” Jade’s eyes crawled up, then down Nigel, cried mute, invisible tears. Suffered alone.
“Nah. Building more muscle.” He answered casually, as if that phrase had made its way to his tongue several times before tonight. “So what was so urgent? Boogie man out there again?”
Last Thursday, lying in bed, she heard a rapping on the window. A loud, angry rapping that would taper off into a soft tap, then become irate again. She nudged Nigel’s sleeping black ink body with her pointy elbow, pulled him from his dreamland. He grumbled something incoherent, something in caveman language, and turned his angular back to her, pulled the royal blue sateen comforter up over the left shoulder peeking out.
“No Nigel, wake up! there’s someone trying to break in!” She screamed as loud a decibel as a whisper could take her voice, nudged him again, harder.
“Woman. there is no boogie man outside your window. Go back to sleep.”
She wouldn’t though. She nudged and nudged and finally kissed his neck softly, a faint brush of a kiss, and he woke; begrudgingly removed the cover off that left shoulder, got out of bed, and walked over to the window. Explained to her why she couldn’t see the large branch being forced at varying speeds against the window by the wind. Ever since then, she couldn’t escape his boogie man jokes.
She would miss those moments. The small, seemingly insignificant moments that made them an Us.
No boogie man.” Her voice sobered, caught a blue note.
“Well what.” Nigel dropped his weight onto her red chaise, propped one leg out, grabbed the remote.
“Alright, where are you going and for how long?” he asked, his mind completely shifted to the super-sized men in blue and orange jerseys, running up and down the beige court.
“I’m moving away Nigel, leaving New York.”
She reminded herself that he wasn’t hers. That the tears pooling were juvenile and unnecessary. She turned away, looked toward her kitchen decorated with grape paraphernalia.
She’d wanted royal colors in her home, a place fit for the queen she felt she was. For a reason unknown to her, all home designers assumed bushels of grapes were the only suitable purple to put on a kitchen towel. It’d been hard to coordinate with a fruit she only liked crushed and fermented in liquid form, but she’d grown to like her grapes. They were familiar, comforting. This was the closest to a feeling of being at “home” she’d had since leaving California, and now she’d be leaving them.
Nigel laughed that half laugh people do when they take something meant to be serious as a joke; a laugh full of skepticism, of disbelief. He kept his eyes trained on the Samsung and the overgrown men.
“And why would you do that?”
She kept her tone serious. “I’m going back to school.”
His head fell to one side, cocked in a question mark. “Seriously?”
He’d asked her no later than day two of them knowing each other, the life path that had led someone with such an extensive vocabulary to pole dances and raunchy clubs. She told him being a college dropout had disadvantages she hadn’t considered before walking away from USC the year prior, apparently. He’d suggested she give it another try, didn’t pry or pressure, and never mentioned it again.
Now, a big smile made its way to his face, a celebratory laugh leapt from his depths as he sprang from the chaise. Before she knew it, she was a foot closer to the ceiling, lifted above his smiling face.
Oh, sweet Nigel. He was so happy for her.
This goodbye was going to tear her. Split her right in half and force her perforated edges to try to mend themselves back whole. She wouldn’t get over Nigel. She’d never.
“Look, we won’t be talking anymore Nigel. That’s what I’m trying to say.”
His smile dissipated, arms deflated. She slid down his body like heavy molasses. His eyes searched her for some sign of candor, some glimpse of comedy. There was none. She kept them as they were, blank, staring, hiding tears that would never stain her cheeks.
“Why?” Sweet pockets of cologne permeated the air as he turned away from her suddenly, put a few feet between them. The air in her apartment shifted from warm to cold.
Her voice was gravel, harsh and coarse and unable to smooth or sand the words she knew would hit him like boulders denting a car.
“Because I don’t want to live like this. I need to start anew and get myself together. That includes eliminating unavailable men from my diet.”
His eyes tightened, confusion burrowed into his brows. “I left her. Two weeks ago. I told you that.”
She walked into his space, broke the icy barrier of his glare, forced him to look down into her eyes.
“And now I’ll forever be the woman you left her for. From now on, that will be the starting point, and the comparison you look back on. I don’t want a breakup to define us. I deserve more than to be the escape route. I don’t want that.”
She hated this part. The goodbye stained with tears and broken hearts. She was great at leaving people in the distance. Horrible at saying goodbye before she created that distance.
Nigel shook his head, ran a large, incredulous hand over his face. “This is really blowing my high. Fuck, man.”
His midnight eyes were a veil, but she could see through the starless abyss that was his stare. He was hurt.
“I don’t mean to hurt you Nigel. This is going to be incredibly hard for me too.”
Nigel felt a shell forming around him, his heart hardening. He took another step back, looked at her blankly. He needed to get out of here. Needed to breathe.
“And you haven’t. Was there anything else you needed to tell me?”
She shifted her weight from one hip to the other, longed for the valiant knight to rise up in Nigel and demand she stay; proclaim his love in a way that left her unable to do anything but confess the real reason she was exiting his life. She wanted to tell him all about Toni and her unscrupulous offer.
“Just that I love you, Nigel. I really do.”
There was so much to say. How could she express in mere words the depth of his impact? The way he’d altered her perspective on life in just a few months? How could she tell him that no one had ever loved her with such sincerity?
A small chuckle passed his lips, his eyes went flat, unfeeling. “Aight. Well I have to go now. Godspeed.”
Like a lever being switched from on to off, she’d watched Nigel’s internal process, evident before her eyes; saw his love go from red to blue, all lights dim down to pitch, like an empty stadium after the game.
“That’s it? You’re just going to leave?”
“Nah darling, that’s you.” Nigel pulled his coat back on, shook his head.
“Tell me to stay, Nigel. Tell me you want me to stay. Please.”
Dew gathered in her eyes, eyes that pulled at something unreachable in Nigel to anyone but her. He warned his heartbeat to slow down, threatened it silently to not give in to her pathetic plea. This was all a game to her.
“You’ve made your decision, Jade. Live with it.”
The bass in the song surrounding his body thumped almost as fast as the BMW Nigel was speeding down I-94 in. He inhaled over and over, attempted to fill his body with fresh air, replace the growing anger coursing in his blood stream. How much disregard could one have for someone else’s feelings. Someone they claimed to “really love.” This abrupt ending had thrown him. Jade was good at that, blindsiding him, throwing him off kilter. She was a stop sign thrown in the middle of an Nascar race.
His watch didn’t show ten minutes passing before Jade was ringing his phone. Pathetic. Was this all just for attention? Was he being given some kind of litmus test? If so, he’d gladly fail again. He suppressed the urge to hit “ignore,” let her go to voice mail as he made a quick right off the next exit.
He saw the familiar brick building where he’d bought his last suit and realized he was only a few blocks away from his brother’s place. He picked up his phone.
“Busy, man?” he asked when Nathaniel answered.
The tension that loomed between them, stale and bitter, had subsided in the last month. He didn’t want to admit it, but he was glad. Apologies given both ways had convinced him that blood really was thicker than water, and every other liquid substance. They would never be inseparable again, but the vast valley that existed between them for the last few years had been bridged at least. One thing about sharing DNA with someone was the uncanny ability to forget the reason you rued their existence the day before.
“Work is never done, you know that, sir.” Nathaniel’s voice was tinged with alcohol, deeper than usual.
Cheery laughter from a sultry voice drifted in the background.
“Ah, you have company. I was just down the street. Was going to stop by.”
Awkward laughter spilled from Nathaniel like slow wine. “Always. You know how I do. Feel free to stop by.”
“Cool. I might. This woman though, man. Said she’s moving out of state. Fucking getting to me.” Wind sailed out of him in a slight sigh.
“Joy? You didn’t fund this sudden exodus did you? You gave her any money lately?”
Nate’s mind thought only in processes of making or receiving money. A natural politician. He’d definitely be mayor of some city one day, governor of some state.
He’d bought Jade things, sure. Sponsoring her lifestyle was out of the question though. He was smart enough to save something for the woman who would have his last name in the future. Until he knew who that woman was, he wasn’t paying anyone’s way in the world but his own.
“Well, shit. Be happy. You’re free from two women who were completely wrong for you. Come celebrate, man.”
Jade’s pretty face, her poetic physique, lovely lines and hypnotic curves, danced across his mind. Her big, elephant personality in the small, mouse packaging. Her beautiful eyes. Their lovemaking, like being in a warm, springtime shower one day, then raging through the jungle the next. He’d miss her. All of her. His memory would recall her beauty in uninvited spurts for months to come.
But maybe Nate was right. Maybe he was dodging a painful bullet to the heart with her leaving. Maybe this small ache in his gut was serving as a warning to make better decisions going forward. This could be a clean break from the burden of Toni’s need to control and Jade’s need to play games.
A free man. He nodded his head, looked out at the night lights running past. Free. He liked the sound of that.