CHAPTER 1 East Texas April 2002 I
gritted my teeth and with all the force I could command, I hurled my body into the solid frame of my adolescent lover and sent his body flying off the rooftop. Jabari’s body plunged seven stories and crashed into the jagged rocks that jutted up from the ground like the fangs of an enormous primordial beast.
I heard his body crack on the rough stones below. Crack. Crack. Crack. Crack.
The unmistakable sound of death spun swiftly around my ears, causing me to become disoriented. I was dizzied and dismayed by what I had done. I stumbled clumsily backwards as a flood of emotions swelled within me. I tripped over a rusted pipe that lay diagonally across the commercial rooftop, but regained my balance by anchoring myself against the air conditioning unit that rose from the rooftop.
I shook my head from side to side in wild disbelief and screamed silently into the night; horror stole my voice, but I could not free myself from the sound of his screams and the cracking sound of his body splitting the rocks below. The chilling sound of death would echo in my ears long after this night had passed. Crack. Crack. Crack. Crack.
The breaking sound of Jabari’s body felt sharp and cut into my skin like a scalpel. I doubled over in pain and expelled a hot puff of breath when I felt a splinter of pain in my heart; it was as if my body had been deeply penetrated by one of the pointed stones below. Jabari’s pain was my pain, too, as if we were the Corsican brothers.
I swallowed hard and steeled my disposition. With carefully measured steps, I moved closer to the edge of the building and stopped several feet from the ledge. I tried to propel myself farther, but my feet were held in place by a thousand pounds of guilt… and shame. Crack. Crack. Crack. Crack.
I covered my ears with my hands. Crack. Crack. Crack. Crack.
I could not free myself from the sound. It reminded me of the snapping sound the branches made when a strong summer storm violently tore them from the tree in my front yard and sent them crashing through my bedroom window. This cracking sound was not made by breaking branches, but breaking bones; yet, the sounds of both events were eerily similar.
I stepped closer.
I had to see, even as my heartbeat pounded ferociously in my chest.
I wasn’t sure how I would react to the sight of my dead lover. My mind raced and a litany of unpleasant thoughts threatened to topple me. What would I see when I looked down? Oh my God! What have I done? Please God, let him be alive.
In spite of my anemic pleading, I already knew the truth. No one could survive that fall. Not even Jabari. Crack. Crack. Crack. Crack.
I teetered and tottered slowly to the edge of the building. My breathing was labored and dug deeply into my chest. In the distance, a thousand points of light punctuated the peaceful sky, in severe contrast to the night’s discord.
When I mustered up the nerve, I peered downward, toward the ground in search of Jabari. Despite the darkness, I could see far better than I had expected. My senses were acute, sharpened by the adrenaline racing through my veins. From atop the building, I could clearly see the labels of broken beer bottles that were strewn across the landscape; an old tire, whose tread was worn and abused, was halfway buried near an old stump. Cigarette butts were so common they looked as if they were sprouting from the ground. The landscape itself was dotted with nappy patches of dry grass, tangled, coarse and uneven.
Then, my eyes locked onto the twisted and mangled body of Jabari. His body was broken in ways I never realized a body could be broken.
Blood flowed from his body, as if he had an endless reservoir of it. I had never seen so much blood; it seeped from the corners of his mouth and flowed from his chest, aided by a crooked piece of wood that shot up through his sternum like a jagged monument to our failed love affair.
In my heightened state of awareness, I could even smell the blood.
A frightening thought assaulted me even more than the sight of the body below—the animals. Out here in the country, they would come to claim what lay beneath me. The creatures that lived in the night would smell the blood and would soon search for its source. I shuddered. It pained me to imagine Jabari’s body being ravaged by some wild thing, torn to pieces in a ravenous display of savagery.
In my heart, I knew that Jabari’s body had already been ravaged by a wild thing.
I continued to eye my dead lover. This was no proper end for our love, with Jabari lying twisted below me. I thought, albeit briefly, about moving the body, but my inclination to do so diminished the more I looked at him. I wouldn’t be able to stomach the stench of death so up close. Even if my thoughts were more sincere, I certainly would fail in my quest to carry the body to hallowed ground; I barely remained in command of my own limbs.
Still, I longed for a final touch from him.
I longed to feel his warmth once more, before his body went cold.
Only days ago, we had been locked in a passionate embrace on this very rooftop, making love like it was our first time. Only days ago, our lips had locked in a fiery kiss that set every cell in my body ablaze. I remembered how my skin sizzled when Jabari grazed his fingers across the arch in my back. Even now, with Jabari splayed unnaturally across the earth below me, I could feel the weight of his body on top of mine, pressing down with perfect force. We panted in a unified rhythm, as our bodies sang together in harmony; that night, I thought our union had been blessed by heaven, instead of cursed by tonight’s hell.
Now, Jabari was dead at my hands. Crack. Crack. Crack. Crack.
I cocked my head to the side and eyed the lifeless body, almost expecting him to rise before my eyes, but Jabari was no Lazarus.
Even from my distance, I could see the pleading in Jabari’s eyes; his eyes were wide, held open by shock. His mouth was agape, as if terror had been ripped from this throat. One of his arms was folded artificially behind his back and his left leg seemed to point in multiple directions at the same time. Dear God. What have I done?
I wanted to scream, but I could not find my voice; it was lost in the madness of the moment. In the still of the night, I would have settled for any sound, regardless of how infinitesimal. I would have settled for the flutter of insect wings or the annoying blaring of a car horn in the distance; instead, a haunting silence suffocated all sound, locking it inside this awful dread. The silence taunted me, reminding me of death’s finality. As I stood motionless, awash in my worst nightmare, the irony of it all was not lost: I had always known, even from our first kiss, that he and I were destined to say goodbye.
The breathtaking silence stood in measured contradiction to the chorus of chaotic thoughts that powered through my mind. Flee. Scream. Cry. Call 9-1-1. Hide any evidence. Run. Run. Run.
Instead of taking action, I remained motionless, almost catatonic.
My mind wildly spun, replaying the moments leading to this terrible turn of events.
“Thanks for meeting me,” Jabari said in a voice that struck my ears as unusually rough.
“Hey, baby.” In spite of his lackluster greeting, I was more than happy to see him, even though something was off; I could feel it in the air. An uneasy breeze chilled the air, not enough to cause alarm, but enough to make me take notice of the goosebumps that speckled my bare arms. I was wearing a thin pullover shirt—something I could easily slip in and out of in case things got heated. In spite of the trepidation in my spirit, I had come prepared to light up the night in our usual carnal way.
Earlier, when Jabari phoned and asked me to meet him in our special place, I recognized the uneasiness in his tone, but I didn’t press the issue with him over the phone. Instead, I agreed to meet him and prayed that tonight was not the night I’d been dreading for months.
We named our special meeting place “heaven” because there was no place in the city that we could claim as ours. The isolated and dilapidated building that sat atop Mount Royale, a very large hill overlooking the city, kept a watchful eye over the town below. The building, an old schoolhouse, had been condemned years ago and had been cut off from the world by an intimidating barbed wire fence, but we were able to sneak through a narrow opening near the back. From the rooftop, Jabari had crowned himself emperor and claimed the world below as his kingdom; a kingdom he would lay at my feet.
Looking out, the colorful city lights decorated the horizon and the sound and fury of a world furiously spinning beneath our feet did not register at our height. This was the one place Jabari could be himself without fear of rejection or reprisal. Here, he didn’t have to worry about being an athlete or a favored son; here, he didn’t have to entertain thoughts of going to Harvard or Yale or wherever his father would send him; here, he was a lover—my lover—and that was all that mattered.
Jabari stood on the edge of the building, with his hands in his pockets. He smiled uncomfortably and shifted his weight as I approached.
“What’s wrong?” I moved closer to him and kissed him, but Jabari didn’t kiss me back. His lips were cold and void of passion.
Then, I hugged him.
Jabari’s embrace was empty. Have I done something wrong? Is he mad at me?
A sick feeling grew in my stomach as Jabari turned away from me.
“It’s a lovely night, isn’t it?” Jabari spoke, but his voice was low.
“Yeah, it is, but what’s going on? Are you okay?” I felt panicked, like I couldn’t catch my breath, but Jabari didn’t respond. I looked at him and his eyes confirmed my greatest fear—this was the end. Our love affair had run its course. Jabari needn’t speak the words for me to know. I realized that when we started this affair that we had an expiration date—Jabari was clear in stating that in the beginning. There would be no happy ending for us, no warm Christmas days with the family or moving into an off-campus apartment together for college. Jabari told me that he could never fall in love with a man and what we had couldn’t last. He said he was experimenting, and despite the fact that he had a girlfriend, he allowed himself this experience to get it out of his system.
But, the last year had been magical. He couldn’t deny that. We loved in ways that resisted definition; in ways that made it difficult for him to shake off. Even as our love grew, I carried worry in my heart; worry, that on a night very much like this night, he’d break my heart.
Jabari turned to face me. “I can’t do this anymore.”
His words felt like hot bullets.
“What are you talking about, baby? Can’t do what?” I knew what he was talking about.
“I’m talking about us—this thing
we’re doing. I can’t…anymore.”
“Why? Has something happened?” I stepped closer and he backed away. “I love you. You love me. What’s the problem?”
“The problem is I’m not a fag.” The careless and hateful word leapt from his mouth, but it had undoubtedly been placed there by someone else, probably his father; the same father who demanded perfection, and the same father that I was certain Jabari would spend a lifetime trying to please.
“I’m not a fag either,” I said with some irritation. “I just happen to love you.”
“I’m not like you. I…I don’t want this life. I want a normal life.”
“Normal? What’s normal? Look around you, Jabari. Think about all the people we know who are divorced or alone or miserable and you tell me what normal is. What we have is as normal as anything else.”
“If it was normal, we wouldn’t be sneaking around, meeting on the rooftop of some raggedy-ass building. If it was normal, I’d take you to the prom or home to meet my father, but I can’t, now can I? What we’re doin’ ain’t normal. My family would never accept this in me.”
“Stop worrying about your family and think about us.” The growing desperation in my spirit shook my voice. “We could move…we could run away and be together.”
“And do what, Blues? We’re in high school. We don’t have any money. How would we live?”
“We can get money.”
“How? You gonna rob a bank?” Jabari exhaled in frustration. “Don’t be so fuckin’ naïve.”
I gritted my teeth. I hated when Jabari cussed at me.
“Stop saying my fuckin’ name!” For some reason that remained a mystery to me, Jabari started to get angry, as if he was placing the blame of his homosexuality at my feet. Jabari’s face twisted and his voice sounded final, as if there could be no compromise, but I was not ready to let him go. I had to convince him to stay.
“Baby,” I said in a pleading whisper, “please don’t do this. Okay, so we won’t run away. We can keep seeing each other. I don’t care about Nia—you can keep seeing her and I won’t give you shit about it anymore.”
“You don’t get it, do you? This will never work. I don’t want to be like you!” Jabari screamed.
I felt Jabari’s thunder in my chest.
“You don’t want to be like me?”
“You know what I mean.”
“You’re more like me than you want to admit.”
“Fuck you, Blues!”
We stood in silence as seconds stretched into minutes. The empty space between us grew and I struggled to find words to close the gap. The wounded sky, although speckled with flickers of starlight, seemed to feel my pain. I felt small and insignificant, crushed by the weight of Jabari’s pronouncement. The air was still and the night silent; all that could be heard was the breaking of my heart.
Jabari’s decision had stolen my voice. There were so many things I wanted to say, so many things I had rehearsed in case this day ever came, but I couldn’t find the words that I had practiced over and over again. All I could think was don’t leave me, don’t leave me, don’t leave me, don’t leave me…
Suddenly, it became hard to breathe and the world started spinning around me. I doubled over as if I had been hit in the stomach. Such pain was dealt to me by five small words: ‘I can’t do this anymore.’ Everything collapsed around me. My head hurt. My chest hurt. Hell, even my feet hurt. As I looked up into the sky, I saw the stars tilting out of orbit. Any second, one would hit the earth and destroy everything I knew and loved.
“Baby…” I said as I wiped tears away from my face. Jabari looked away again, avoiding eye contact. “Whatever you’re looking for out there, you won’t find. Everything you need, everything you want, and everything that you are is right here with me.” I spoke with outstretched arms as tears streamed down my face. I laid it all on the line.
Finally, Jabari looked at me. I expected some emotional response to my emotional plea, but the expression on Jabari’s face wasn’t love—it was mockery. He looked at me with such disdain, as if I was some rabid stranger on the street begging him for loose change.
That was the moment that everything in me changed.
My tears stopped falling. My heart stopped beating. I stopped breathing.
I looked at Jabari through newly formed eyes. This wasn’t a man that loved me; this was a man that despised me and used me for months to satisfy his temporary pleasure.
His vacant eyes taunted me.
His callous words mocked me.
Five words eviscerated the love we shared and left me a cold, empty shell.
I felt many things in that horrifying moment, but the most pronounced thing I felt was rage. Something inside me broke and the popping sound of whatever it was rang so loudly in my ears that I heard nothing else. I could see Jabari’s lips moving, but the words remained indecipherable through it all. In a quick-fire blind impulse, I lunged at him. I lunged at him with a strength I didn’t realized that I possessed. I sent his body reeling over the edge of the building to the rocky earth below.
As Jabari plummeted to the ground, I heard his screams. I would always hear those screams and the sound of breaking bones. Crack. Crack. Crack. Crack.
That wasn’t the first time I had killed.
I had been born a killer. My father had told me so.
I burst into the world on a sweltering July afternoon, with the merciless force of a pounding sledgehammer.
I tore my mother apart.
I violently pushed my way out of my mother’s belly, using my head like a battering ram. I would not be stopped, but when I was free of her womb, I struggled to breathe on my own. My mother panicked, but before any proactive measure could be taken to save my life, she gasped, stretched out her arms, and drew in her last breath. The moment she drew in her last breath, I drew in my first—a circle of life in the truest sense. She died, never having seen my face.
When she drifted into that eternal night, she released her secret shame; the secret she kept tucked away into the recesses of her mind died with her. No one would ever know that she had been raped and I was the result of that unholy union. My father would never know that his son belonged to another man, a nameless and faceless being who forced himself into his wife on a very ordinary October afternoon.
She had been jogging along a familiar trail when she was snatched and forced deeper into the woods. When it was over, she steeled her disposition, went home, showered and pretended that it had never happened. She pretended that she didn’t wince with pain with each step she took; she pretended that she could no longer feel the stranger’s coarse hands rubbing against her inner thigh or the smell of beer on his hot breath.
Later that night, she cooked her husband’s favorite meal, set the table and stuffed herself into the pantry and cried while the meatloaf baked; her tears were not pretentious. When it was time to eat, she fixed his plate and served it to him, as she usually did. Then, she pretended that she wasn’t feeling well, excused herself, and went to bed early. The pillows muted her sobs and drew in her tears, but the horror did not diminish—even in her dreams.
She pretended for nine months, but she could never forget. Her pregnancy was difficult, full of highs and lows. She alternated between mania and moods so sullen it appeared that someone had stolen her life force. The fire in her belly was constant, never relenting or dulling. When she died, a part of my father died, too. When I was placed in his arms and my father held me for the first time, he looked at the immutable blackness of my sublime skin and my exquisite features. He thought about all the misery this beautiful child had already caused, even before his first breath. He thought about the constant morning sickness and the severe mood swings my mother had faced; he remembered how this child had transformed her into something he hardly recognized. He remembered her constant tears.
This child had given her the blues.
He tried to feel love toward me but, he couldn’t. He simply didn’t feel it. Deep inside his heart, he blamed me for her death.
And so I was aptly named.
© 2011 Lee Hayes