Photo by Mat Reding on Unsplash
Any other day I slept soundly, tucked right under Joel’s grasp. His warmth is what I looked forward to every night, even while I dreamed. Any other night, I would rarely stir in my sleep as long as Joel was with me. But last night I felt a disturbance in my chest. Something in the energy shifted strongly. I opened my eyes and found the luminescent numbers of the alarm clock glaring 5:00 AM. Something didn’t feel right, but I couldn’t place the feeling. As much as I tried to put this imaginary barrier, this imaginary force, out of my mind, it wouldn’t leave me.
So, in Joel’s arms I lay awake, for the first time ever, for four more hours. It was like there was a whisper taunting me, but I couldn’t quite hear it. The sun hung itself higher and higher in the sky until my alarm clock finally rang out at 9 o’clock in the morning. My eyes were extremely heavy and exhausted. All I wanted to do was sleep, but that feeling still rattled in my chest.
Joel stirred next to me, pulling me back closer to him. I smiled to myself and intertwined our hands together. It brought me so much peace to know the comfort we brought each other. Joel and I had been together for two years, since our freshman year in college. I met him at a brunch hosted by the school and instantly was drawn to him. We were inseparable; whenever people saw Joel, they saw me right next to him. A bond like that was a rare find. I was so lucky to have him.
“Good morning, baby,” Joel placed a kiss in between my shoulder blades. It was his favorite place to touch me. “Do you have class today?”
“Good morning,” I muttered, turning around so I was facing him. His eyes were a soft brown; they housed all of his emotions. I could always tell what was going on in his mind simply by looking into his eyes. “I do. I have class at eleven,” I answered.
Joel’s eyes created a path from the top of my head, down to my collarbone, and finally made a stop into my own dark brown eyes.
“Okay, come on.” He kissed my forehead and turned to swing his legs over the edge of the bed.
I watched him, admired his back muscles as they stretched and prepared for the day. I watched him stand up, all six feet of him, and walk into the bathroom we shared in our apartment. It was so rewarding having that to look at every single morning; just the sight of him made all the money we spent on bills and necessities worth it.
About three months ago, after saving for a whole year, we’d moved into an apartment near the college we attended with one of Joel’s closest friends, Kian. We finally had a place of our own. Kian stayed in a room across from the kitchen, so it was like we all had our own private space. Kian graduated a year before Joel did, but he needed some help getting back on his feet, so Joel offered him the spare bedroom. Together, we were like the three musketeers.
I followed Joel into the bathroom and began our morning routine. He was in the shower, which was pertinent to our having at least a decent day, while I brushed my teeth and washed my face. I liked to take my showers the night before, although one now sounded good. Maybe the hot water would wake me up since I didn’t rest much last night.
I pondered over the feeling I had in my chest while Joel applied body wash to his loofa. My mother used to tell me that I was intuitive all the time when I was younger. She told me that I would be able to feel the energy in the room. For example, once when I was ten months old, I apparently waddled into the room, looked right at my aunt’s husband, and burst into tears. My aunt and my mother couldn’t figure out why for a while. A couple of weeks later he was found, literally, cheating on my aunt. Ever since then, my mother has deemed me intuitive.
So, this feeling that was aching in my chest, this persistent bug that wouldn’t stop flying near me, I knew it had to be something extremely important.
Once I finished freshening up and getting dressed, I walked out into the kitchen to see Kian sitting at the table eating a bowl of Frosted Flakes. He nodded his head at me, his favorite way of saying good morning.
“Good morning, Kian. Are you enjoying your nutritious breakfast?” I questioned. I grabbed a granola bar from the drawer and tore the package open.
“You cannot speak on my lack of nutrition when you’re eating bird food, Teagan. That’s not how this works.” Kian jabbed his spoon in the direction of my granola bar.
I laughed, nodding along. That was fair. Breakfast was never my favorite thing. The shower stopped and I heard the bathroom door open. Joel peeked his head out of our bedroom door and waved his phone at me. I retrieved it without question, tucking it under my arm to bite into my granola bar. Joel always handed me his phone when he was getting dressed; otherwise, he got distracted by the many memes on social media.
“Are you guys going to Walmart later on today?” Kian asked. “I’m all out of that shampoo you bought me.” He flipped his shoulder-length curly locks all about.
I rolled my eyes at him. “I’ll see Kian.” Sometimes Kian felt like he was our child. I never minded running errands for him because he was such a good roommate and overall, a really good guy. But it was just that sometimes…
Joel’s phone began to buzz under my arm. I reached for it and glanced at the caller ID. A picture of Joel’s mom flashed on the screen, showing her smiling and hugging onto him tightly at his high school graduation. That sinking feeling crept into my chest cavity. I furrowed my eyebrows together. She never, and I mean never, called him this early in the morning. She was always at work around this time and she knew Joel and I had to get up and get to class at this time. Something was not right.
But I was never the type of girlfriend to answer Joel’s calls or texts, so I let it ring out because maybe she pocket-dialed. Besides, the call ended just as soon as it had begun ringing. Five seconds, later though, his phone started to ring again, her picture just as happy as the moment as before. Kian looked up at me and then down at the phone.
“Go.” Kian shrugged his shoulders and pushed his cereal away.
I rushed over to the bedroom I shared with Joel and pushed the door open. He was half-dressed, shirtless, but his favorite Nike sweats covered his lower half. “Baby, your mom is calling you,” I said, passing the phone to him.
Joel looked at me with a confused look on his face, but I didn’t have an answer for him, so I shrugged my shoulders.
“Hey ma, what’s wrong?” Joel asked.
I could hear her frantic tone through the phone. I folded my arms across my chest and tried to listen in on what she was saying. Joel sat down on the bed, resting his elbows on his knees as he listened.
“Slow down, what happened? What about Kareem?” He pinched the bridge of his nose as she talked slowly this time, but still just as urgently. All I could hear were the words robbery, stole, gun, dead.
Kareem was Joel’s older brother. He was Joel’s best friend in the whole entire world; not a day went by in the time that I’d known Joel where he didn’t speak to Kareem at least once a day.
Joel’s face fell within a matter of seconds and that sinking feeling hit me again. My heart fell to my knees. His jaw was tense, and I knew something was horribly wrong.
“Kareem…” He murmured softly, dream-like, but there was a hard edge to his tone. “Well let me go to the—” Joel stopped short, his mother talking over him.
Suddenly, Joel hung up the phone and launched it across the room where it hit the wall and shattered into a million pieces. I flinched, goosebumps rising on my skin. Joel rarely lost his temper like that. I heard one of the kitchen chairs scrape back and Kian’s footsteps as he stepped closer to our room. My mouth felt like sandpaper and tasted like pennies. Joel’s eyes were glossy, concealing a whole world of hurt within them. I didn’t have to ask him to know that Kareem was gone. Kareem was dead. I bit my bottom lip to keep from crying and squatted down in front of him.
“Baby… I am so sorry,” My voice cracked slightly; I hated myself for it.
Joel’s lack of tears was concerning me. His lack of expression, his lack of words. He’d lost his only sibling, his older sibling. Joel was stiff as cardboard, leaving a bitter silence in the room. The door creaked a little and I felt Kian’s presence with us.
“I’m sorry, Joel.” I ran my tongue over my lips as I rubbed his arms up and down.
Joel snatched away from me suddenly, rose to his feet, and pushed past me to go into the bathroom where he slammed the door behind him.
I’d felt like he just branded me, burned my flesh, and left me to deal with the pain. I hated that I didn’t know what else to say. I hated that the only word I could find to show compassion right now was, ‘Sorry’. Sorry wasn’t enough. Sorry couldn’t afford to bring Kareem back. Sorry couldn’t bring Joel’s right-hand man back. There was nothing a stupid sorry could fix.
I sat on the edge of the bed, glancing up at Kian. He sat down next to me, staring at the bathroom door.
“Kareem died,” I muttered. Kian shook his head, wiping a hand down his face. “I think he was robbed.”
“Damn,” was all Kian could muster. There was emotion in his voice, but I couldn’t focus. I was staring at the bathroom door, wondering who would be on the other side if I followed behind Joel’s footsteps. I wondered who the man behind the door would be if not Joel.
“He’s not the type to… feel these kinds of things out loud, Teagan. I was with him when his grandmother passed away. You just have to let him go through it all. Please, though, know it’s not your fault,” Kian assured me.
I glanced at him. Before I could even process what Kian had said to me, I finally heard Joel crumble to nothing behind the bathroom door. There were loud, strained sobs, confused, and lost.
He wanted too many answers, things I couldn’t provide for him; I wished a thousand times I could. There were strangled words between Joel’s sobs, creating a river of tears down my cheeks. He’d always been my rock, my backbone. I needed to be there for him.
I padded over to the bathroom and stopped when I heard loud banging. My hands were shaking as I opened the door.
Joel was slamming the plunger into the wall, onto the bathtub. His cries were hopeless and weak.
“Joel.” I cleared my throat and reached for the plunger.
His eyes fell on mine, dark orbs of countless emotions. I pried the plunger out of his hands before tossing it somewhere out of the way. Joel’s lips trembled before he enveloped me in a tight hug. He held on for dear life, like I was his last chance at living through this despicable day.
“He’s gone, Teagan. Kareem is gone.” Joel sobbed, ridiculously crouched onto my shoulder due to the height difference.
I’d never seen him in so much pain. What worried me most was my inability to rectify it. Because if this was his high, the highest level of pain he would experience throughout this… I didn’t know what I would do to drag him out of his lows. All I knew was that I needed to do everything I could for him.
As one would expect, nothing was the same after that day. The day went on in a blur of me wanting to get things done so Joel wouldn’t have to worry about it and Joel staying in bed all day. I didn’t know what else to do to make him feel less gutted, but that was because there was nothing I could do. Kian tried to get Joel to call his mom from his phone later on that day, but Joel couldn’t even think about it before falling apart. Instead, Kian volunteered to go get Joel’s phone fixed, so at least Joel would have the option of keeping in touch. We didn’t make it to any of our classes, of course, so it was a balance of sitting around and giving Joel space, he was wordlessly begging us for. The only time I allowed myself in the room was to go to sleep later that night. By the time I’d built the courage to enter the room, Joel was sleeping, facing away from me.
The following day, when the afternoon hit, Joel went to use the bathroom and to have a cup of noodles to get something in his stomach. He didn’t look at Kian or me as he shuffled into the kitchen and back into the room. I went ahead and called Joel’s mother on my phone. She explained to me in detail what happened and said that the funeral would have to wait a week or two so the police could investigate some things. I let her know that I was ready and willing to help her out in place of Joel with whatever she needed. I knew that he wouldn’t want to hear any of the details for the funeral. I knew better than to bring it up to him. In addition to helping his mother out with the funeral, I emailed Joel’s professors and let them know that he had a family emergency and would not be making it to the next couple of classes.
Over the next few days, I did everything a good girlfriend with half a brain would do. I cleaned as usual. I washed the sheets while Joel was in the shower or when he would sit down on the couch. The Joel I knew was no longer with us. It was like a big piece of him died when Kareem died. My efforts to talk to him were met with monotone grunts and vacant expressions in his eyes. It was like the lights were on in his brain, but no one was home.
Kian kept telling me to give Joel space, but I didn’t think it was helping. A couple of days after Kareem’s death, Kian pulled me into his room.
“There isn’t much you can do or say to him right now that isn’t going to make it hurt any less,” Kian said.
“I understand that, but I don’t think space is helping him either, Kian. He rarely eats anymore; he can’t even look at me. Am I just supposed to watch him fade away?” I tried my best to keep a strong voice, but it faltered. I wanted so badly to be his savior, his shoulder to lean on, but I couldn’t do that when he was pushing me away so intensely.
“I get that you’re frustrated, but just give him a little more time,” Kian begged me.
So, I did. I planned the funeral with Joel’s mother and informed him when it was time to go to the service. He stared at me for a few seconds before nodding his head. I could tell he was reluctant, but he knew it was something he needed to do.
The funeral came and went so quickly, it was a blip on the map of history. It was a beautiful service; his mother spoke radiant words about Kareem and Joel’s relationship. My focus was on Joel the entire time though. He didn’t want to wear sunglasses (I asked). He just wanted to honor Kareem and go home. Joel begged me to go straight home after the burial in order to skip the wake. He didn’t want to do the interrogations from other family members; he didn’t want to share the stories and memories he shared with his brother; all my baby wanted was to go home and lay under me.
That was the first day in two weeks that Joel wanted me. That was the first day Joel specifically asked to be around me, to feel me with him through this. I was honored. I felt Kian was wrong and I was right this whole time: Joel did need me with him.
But when we got back to the apartment, instead of wanting to talk, Joel just wanted to bury his sadness inside me. He practically ripped my clothes off and made love to me like he was trying to bring a child into this world. When it was all said and done, he rolled over and stared at the ceiling.
I was scared to look into his eyes and see someone I couldn’t recognize. I was scared that the love we once shared was depleting because I was incapable of being solid for him.
Joel looked over at me, remnants of the man I loved still in there. “I buried my brother today,” was all he said.
I nodded my head. I was scared to speak because he was finally talking. I missed his voice. I missed him when he slept next to me at night. I mourned him even though it was his brother we had buried today. Joel was right here and here I was mourning him.
“We should have buried me with him,” Joel said. My heart shrank forty sizes. “It’s all the same. I don’t know how to exist without him here, and I hate who this has turned me into.”
“J,” I said, tears welled up in my eyes. I hated hearing him speak like that. I missed his voice, but those were not the words I was used to hearing come from him. “You can get through this.”
Joel stretched his lips back and forth as tears slowly spilled down the side of his face. He weighed my statement and shook his head.
“You can get through this,” I repeated. “That doesn’t mean it’ll be easy. That doesn’t mean you won’t hear his voice in the back of your mind when you do stupid things. That doesn’t mean you won’t miss him during the holidays. It just means you have to adjust to the emptiness. You adjust to the space he’s left. You fill up the space with whatever you need to make it a little easier day by day. It won’t be easy… but I’m here if you’ll let me be.” I rubbed my lips together nervously.
Joel said nothing. He turned back towards the ceiling. I wished I could read his mind. If Joel was a type of math, he would be calculus; it didn’t make sense to me. Without a word, he reached down and grabbed my hand. Like the Grinch, my heart grew again about twenty sizes. He had chosen to have me with him, hand in hand, as he went through this. There was no other place I would rather be than right alongside him.