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Story Of The Week

The Gift Of Breath

by Amontaine Woods

I had begun to notice everything.  All the little things I never noticed before.  Like the autumn leaves dancing to the music of the wind like wild women.  So trusting, those leaves were; not the least bit of resistance in them.  As if they were assured that the wind would carry them to wherever they were supposed to be.

I had plenty of time to reflect on leaves because I had stopped going to work.  The day Ronald died I didn’t go back.  I lived off of my savings and spent my days counting the little decorative holes in my ceiling.  In the late afternoons I’d step out on my balcony and wait for the light and dark to change places.  I would sit and pray and wait for the answer to the riddle of his passing.  Perhaps he didn’t do it consciously, but he taught me not to take life for granted.  We’re not promised anything – not even another day.  So resist nothing.  Breathe it all in while there’s still time.

Breath.  What a miraculous thing breath is.  I had thought I could finally stop holding mine because I’d found him: Mr. Right.  Not only was he handsome and intelligent and generous and kind, he was a brother, to boot.  I had struck pay dirt.  Hats off to me ladies, I have found him – the most righteous brother on the planet.

My girlfriends told me to be careful, but I didn’t want to.  The man rubbed my feet, ran bubble baths for me, picked me up in his silver Jaguar with tiger lilies in hand, and made me laugh with his Richard Pryor imitation.

But maybe my girlfriends had a point.  Maybe he was too good to be true.  Maybe Ronald was hiding something.  So, when I went to his apartment for the first time, I was on alert for any yellow or red flags pointing to deceit or disaster.  When he opened the door into his spacious apartment, I was surprised to hear music filling the space where no one had been all day.  “I leave the radio on during the day,” he said.  “I don’t like coming home to quiet.”

As he showed me around I took odd liberties, spontaneously opening drawers, closets and cupboards, as if what he was hiding could be discovered among the cups and saucers or tucked neatly beneath the linens.  I laughed when I saw the book on his nightstand: Dating for Dummies, the yellow rubber ducky adorning his bathtub endeared me to him like you would not believe.

I made myself comfortable on his leather sofa as he turned on the music, and then went to fix me a vodka martini.  The leather, the drinks, the music, the repartee – it was all out of a nighttime soap.  He was the smooth and dashing playboy setting a skillful trap for his next conquest.  Only one problem: he wasn’t smooth.  I think he wanted to be, but the loneliness that hung in the shadows around him would be anathema to a real player.

I prided myself on recognizing the music he played.  “That’s Miles Davis,” I said.

It was the original LP he’d had since he was a kid.  I couldn’t hear a scratch on it.  “The first time I heard this record I was thirteen years old,” he said.  “I immediately ran out and bought it.  My mother asked me why I kept playing that sad music.  But it wasn’t sad to me.  It was like I’d been living in a black and white movie, and then I heard Miles blow and the world turned to color.  Miles Davis made me want to live.”

Hmmmmm.  Miles Davis made him want to live.  Did I make him want to die?  I asked myself that over and over again, the same way he must’ve played that record until it made his mother want to come out of her skin.  But how was I to reconcile that a mere seven weeks after we met he’d flown the coop for good?

So where did he go?  That’s what I wanted to know.  I knew that wasn’t him lying in that box at the funeral looking so hard and staid.  After all, the body is just a shell, right?  That’s what my father told me when I was a little girl of six years old.  My father believed in reincarnation, and told me that this body was not me, that I had lived many lives before in other bodies, and would live again in different bodies still.

So where was my Ronald now?  And what was it like for him as he departed this world?  Did he fly away?  Maybe he went out spinning.  I imagined his death to be no less spectacular than a comet catapulting across the night.

All of these ideas probably would have sounded very strange to my Ronald.  He had more traditional beliefs.  I remember the time he asked me to go to church with him.  I hadn’t stepped foot in a church in years, and wouldn’t have stepped foot again, except I wanted so to please him.  As we were leaving that morning I walked into his kitchen and found him pouring tomato juice in vodka.

“You’re not planning to walk into church smelling like alcohol?” I said.  “I mean, it just doesn’t seem right somehow.”

He looked at me as if I’d asked him to throw away some life-sustaining medicine.  Then calmly and matter-of-factly he announced, “Maybe we shouldn’t go.”

But we did go, and he didn’t dare take a single sip after I’d shot that disapproving scowl his way.  We showed up cold sober and smelling of competing colognes.

At some point during the service, Ronald turned and looked at me for a long time.  I watched him out of the corner of my eye.  Then he gently took my hand.  I looked up to find tears of joy glowing in his eyes.

So the eyes are windows to the soul.  Then what of the hands?  His hands.  The ones that did a million little things for me – stroked me a million little times.  The same hands that wrote me the first love letter I’d ever received.  Those black, knobby knuckles and thick, sausage fingers that worked and worked to please, they told it all.

But at the very same time that we were becoming more deeply committed and trying our best to make things work between us, the disagreements over the drinking were escalating.  At first, I just assumed he was a person who liked to party.  But after a few weeks in his company, I began to realize that he had a severe drinking problem.  Several days after the church incident, I threatened to call it quits if he didn’t get some help.  He promised he would stop.  “Tomorrow,” he said, “But let’s drink tonight.  Let’s drink this one last time together.”

I woke the next morning, immediately straddling myself across his chest.  Startled and puzzled, I heard this great sloshing inside of him.  His chest had become a seashell through which I could hear the ocean.  I asked him what that was.

“I haven’t taken my water pill yet this morning.”

“Oh, my God.  And it sounds like that?  That’s bad, isn’t it?”
“Well, yeah.  People die from water in their lungs.”

Even then it didn’t dawn on me that there could be something wrong with him.  After spotting a bill from a cardiologist on top of his kitchen cabinet, I continued to remain clueless.  Here I was searching for secrets in closets.  All the while the truth was in plain view for anyone who had eyes to see.

But love is blind, as they say, and he wasn’t by any means old.  He was so energetic, the one I strained to keep up with.  The one with the money, the car, the connections, the jokes.  The one everyone relied on to make it all better.  People like that didn’t get sick.  People like that didn’t die.  Maybe the rest of us had lives held by the whims of a gossamer thread, but not Ronald.  Not my Ronald.

It was a Wednesday morning at 5 a.m. that I suddenly awoke in a panic.  I sat straight up in bed – stupefied – as if smashed in the head with a frying pan.  But it had just dawned on me I hadn’t talked to Ronald yesterday; the first day we hadn’t talked to one another since we’d met.  I immediately called his apartment.  No answer.  He should have been home.  Should have been home.

I tried calling as soon as I reached the office.  Still no answer at his house, so I left a message on his work phone.  By noon, he still had not returned my call.  Now this was very strange.  Ronald was extremely attentive and incredibly available for small talk any time of the day or night.

Worried, I left work at lunchtime and headed for his apartment.  Along the way, I looked for his car in the parking lots of bars he frequented.  Funny.  I hoped to find him merely drunk.

Men in white overalls were poised on scaffolding and carrying buckets of paint around his complex when I arrived.  His silver Jag was in its regular spot.  Even though I’d come here looking for him, I didn’t really expect to find him at home in the middle of the day.  Breathe.  Yes, I remembered.  He told me he sometimes came home for lunch.

I maneuvered past workmen, got on the elevator, walked down the long hallway with the plush brown carpeting sinking around my feet.  I knocked.  “Ronald, it’s me.  Ronald, open up, this isn’t funny now.”  His neighbor squeaked open her door ever so slightly, peeking out with appetite wet, sensing some juicy tidbit on the horizon.

When he didn’t answer, I scrambled back down and found a young woman outside with a baby slung across her hip – the assistant manager of the complex.  I told her I was worried.  I told her she should let me into his apartment.  It was against the rules, but she had her own reasons for being worried.  It seemed a note had been posted for weeks asking residents to have their cars moved for the painters.  She had been trying to reach him all morning, but to no avail.

I remember the manager; the baby still perched on her hip, knocking on his door.  Then, finally, turning the key in his lock.  As she tried to open the door, she was stopped midway by the chain.  “He’s in there,” she said, stunned.  We yelled his name.  The manager began to weep.  I found strength I didn’t know I had, as I pushed and pushed against the door.  She cried, “Yes! Yes!”  On the third push the door gave way.

There he was.  In his bed, the covers pulled up to his chin.  The television was running.  The drone of the TV was always a lullaby to him.  I screamed his name and still he refused to acknowledge me.  There was no blood.  The blankets were barely mussed.  His death had no smell, no real vulgarity.  Only his face had turned hard as a diamond, and a thin dribble of white foam issued from the side of his mouth.

In time it became clear that I had to forgive Ronald for leaving.  I understood that he was tired in a way that a good night’s sleep could not fix.  He was afflicted with congestive heart failure; something he, for whatever reason, had decided not to tell me.  One of the policemen on the death scene called me the day after to find out how I was doing.  He told me that he had talked to Ronald’s doctor, and the doctor confirmed that Ronald had a serious heart condition for some time, and was in fact amazed that Ronald had lived as long as he did.  A ticking clock had been stalking him like a predator.  Maybe that’s why he had so much gusto and energy for life – for he really understood that any moment it could be over.  Maybe that’s why he drank – a habit that was surely shortening his life, but at the same time keeping that dark, dank shadow at bay.

Would I have stayed with him if he had lived?  Would I have tried to work it out?  I don’t think so.  The drinking scared me.  And for that, I’ve had to learn to forgive myself.

I’m left with a lot of questions: What is this road we are traveling, this bumpy, mysterious and dubious road of pain and joy, laughter and tears?  And why sometimes does the road suddenly become swallowed up in a tangle of vines seemingly gone amok?  I don’t have the answers.  But regardless, it’s okay.  Okay that I have stayed.  Okay that he has gone and begun anew in another place.  Whether we know it or not, we are just like those leaves dancing on the wind.  And what’s more, we are being blown in the right direction.  So let it be.

Excerpted From The Book, Sometimes Rhythm, Sometimes Blues

Young African-Americans on Love, Relationships, Sex,

and the Search for Mr. Right

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