An Excerpt from I Choose Pain
Corey is all I can think of as I speed up Charles Street. The age old, one-word question resounds in my head, Why? Why did this happen? Not my Corey. My bold voice. What am I going to do if I lose him? What are we all going to do? Out of the four of us, Corey is always the one who speaks his mind without fear or favor. Even Peep, as opinionated as he is, has considerable restraint when it deals with expressing how he feels. But Corey can do it freely without apology. It’s hard to focus my eyes on the road with stinging tears blinding my view, and imagining life without Corey, or any of the guys, is even harder. Ok. You gotta think positive. He’s gonna be fine. He’s got to be fine. He still has that dream of composing the great Black American symphony to rival William Grant Still’s. God, I know you aren’t going to take him without giving him the chance to complete that. Please say you won’t. We need him here. A dead man can’t inspire the world and he has so much to give. I run a red light. Oh shit! I look around for the next 15 seconds. Whew! Thank God the police aren’t around to ticket me. Please Lord, let him be OK.
When I walk into the waiting area of the emergency room, I see Peep and Jimmy huddled together and a pale and wiry white man next to them, nervously flipping through magazines. Upon seeing me enter, Peep rises to embrace me. My plentiful tears fall on his white T-shirt, soaking through to his skin. My arms cannot let him go. Neither can he release me from his iron grip. I feel Jimmy’s hand rubbing my back fervently as if transferring good energy and reassurance to my desolate spirit. I then feel him hugging the both of us as we stand in a triangle- heads pressed together with our tears falling to wet the hospital floor.
We pull back from the hug to see Jojo walk through the door. His expression frantic with bloodshot eyes, a sweaty brow, and chapped lips, he begins to ask question after question.
“What happened? Where is he? Is he OK? I want to see him.”
“Calm down, baby. They have him in ICU and they are keeping him under observation,” Peep soothes.
“Observation?! Why aren’t they doing more than that?”
“Well, they said it’s standard procedure. They don’t want to go through the trouble of a surgery before they are sure that it’s needed.”
“Are you kidding me? They are just going to let him sit there in pain while they are watching and not doing shit?”
“Jojo, you have got to calm down,” I reproach carefully.
“Calm down, hell! That’s my friend in there.”
“And he’s our friend too. Believe me, we are just as shaken up about this as you are.”
Jojo sits down, and his left leg starts shaking. Oh Lord, I know that sign. He is about to go into meltdown.
“Look, can somebody just tell me what happened?”
“A street gang jumped him. They beat him up, broke his wrist, and stabbed him in the side,” Jimmy informs.
“Only Corey can answer that.”
“Was there anybody that saw it?”
“No, but his neighbor rode with him in the ambulance.”
“Where is he?”
“Over there,” Peep says, pointing at the pale, trembling man flipping through the magazines. “Alex? Come here. These are my friends Lion and Joseph. Tell them what you told me.”
The young man shuffles over, His rusty blond hair was disheveled, and his blue work shirt was drenched in Corey’s blood. His thin voice cracked as he related what he saw.
“Well, I was coming home from work and I saw Cordell staggering weakly up his stoop, trailing blood behind him. There was a bigger pool of blood at the foot of the steps. I ran to help him and saw the stab wound. That was when I called the paramedics.”
“Tell them what you saw spray-painted on his door.”
“It said, ‘Death to all faggots.’”
A jolt goes through me. I look at Peep’s face, melancholy cloaking it in it’s dark shadows. Jimmy looks like he wants to grab the guy that did it and drop him in a river somewhere. But Jojo… his expression is the bleakest of all. His eyes look like they had been searching for answers and coming up short every time. I see my friend’s face and spirit crumble as he begins to cry. The walls of the sterile room reverberate the angry, helpless sobs of one without hope. Suddenly, he bounds up from his seat and runs out of the waiting room. I run to catch up with him, calling his name. He runs outside to the circular driveway and pauses at the curb. I stop dead in my tracks at seeing him with his head held down. Catching my breath, I walk up to his side and put my hand on his shoulder. He glances at me then resumes his downward gaze.
“Why do they hate us so much? We are no different than they are. We shit and piss like they do.”
“I don’t know. I have struggled with that same question. And I’m not gonna try to give you the easy cliché answers, cause I’m sure you’ve heard them all.”
A long silence closes in. I can see, even in profile, the hurt and depression on Jojo’s face. Finally, Jojo breaks the silence.
“You know, sometimes I really wish I wasn’t gay.”
“Yeah. I mean… most times, I’m ok with it. But at times like this, I ask myself, ‘What am I getting out of it’? You always have folk judging you. You get your heart broken by trifling ass men who can’t decide whether they want a man or a woman. Worse, look at Corey. You get beat up just for having the balls to be yourself. We have these fools who say that this is a choice. Who would choose anything like this?”
“Yeah. I had to correct a coworker of mine the other day when she was ranting about this being a choice. If people only knew what we knew, they would realize how ridiculous that statement really is.”
We sit down on the curb and I put my arm around him. My fingers massage his temples and my free hands caresses his cheek. His head rests on my shoulder as the sobs subside. Peep comes out and sits next to us. We join hands as we pray for the life of our friend.
For three hours, we sit on the curb not saying much. The spring breezes of May whistle softly in our ears and play with the hairs on our skin. The wait is unbearable. Peep and I try to make small talk to ease the pain of the circumstances, but Jojo just sits there, blankly staring at the buildings on the other side of the street. His eyes are tearless but anger colors his face a deep and dark plum color. What can I say to make it better for my friend? And what is taking so long?!
Finally, when we are almost to the breaking point, we hear Jimmy’s voice beckon, “Guys, come back in. The doctor’s got news.”
We rush back into the hospital, circling the snow-white corridors and praying that the news given to us is good news. When we walk into the waiting room, we see a short white woman wearing a lab coat. She has short red hair and friendly green eyes. Her smiling expression is reassuring and positive. This is a good sign, I think to myself.
“Well? What’s going on?” Jojo questions.
“Mr. Kennedy is fine. He lost a lot of blood, but the stab wound is nowhere near his vital organs.”
Collectively, we all breathe in grateful release. “Thank God,” Jojo gushes out.
“We had to reset his wrist, however, so he will have to wear a cast for four weeks.”
“Uh, doctor...” I cut in.
“Camden. I’m Dr. Camden.”
“Dr. Camden, how bad is the injury to his wrist?”
“Not too bad. I’ve seen much worse. A few weeks in the cast and he’ll be just fine.”
“Can we see him?” Peep says.
“Well, he is still very groggy from the sedation. He also needs his rest after going through that attack. I would try him on Friday.”
“Can we just sit overnight with him until he comes around and feels like talking?” I inquire.
“Are you all family?”
“He has no blood family that we know to contact. We are his closest friends,” Jojo says.
“The privilege for overnight guests is reserved for the natural family.”
“We understand that, Frances. But, is there any exception to that rule? His friends are like his brothers. Plus, he has no blood family, like Joseph stated,” James cajoles.
The doctor thinks it over. “Ok, I know I am not supposed to do this, but ok. I’ll take you to his room.”
“Uh… can we hold that thought a minute?” Jojo pulls us to the side and says, “Guys, I think we should do this in shifts.”
“You’re right, baby. People might see four guys in the room and start tripping,” Peep says.
“Right, I’ll cover tonight,” I say. “This way, y’all can get home and get some sleep.”
“I’ll come tomorrow,” Peep volunteers. “And we can all come on Friday. He’ll be out of the woods by then.”
The guys nod in the affirmative.
“Alright, I’ll call if anything else happens.”
We embrace each other. Then the three of them exit the waiting room.
“Ok, Dr. Camden. We’re going to do it in shifts.”
“Certainly. Come with me. I’ll get you a blanket for the recliner.”
As we walk, I ask, “Uh… Dr. Camden, did he happen to say who did this?”
“No. In fact, when he came around from the sedative, he closed up about everything pertaining to the attack and frankly, that worries me. Hopefully, he will share more with you all, because holding on to it is going to do him more harm than good. Outside wounds heal, but inside wounds can linger forever if he doesn’t get help.”
“Oh, come on now. Don’t be looking at me like that. Old Corey is gonna be fine,” Corey banters lightheartedly through his hoarseness. It is Friday and Peep, Jojo, and I are visiting Corey.
I go over to hug him, and as soon as my arms encircle him, he starts yelping.
“Ow! Ow!! Watch my side!”
I jump back exclaiming. “Oh, I’m sorry, Corey. I didn’t mean...”
“Made you jump!”
Despite myself, I had to laugh. Only Corey could turn something this serious into a joke that loosens everyone up. The only one that is not laughing is Jojo.
“Corey. This ain’t no time for joking. This scared the livin’ shit out of us!” Jojo reproaches.
“Before or after Lion tried to squeeze the rest of my life out of me with them big ass arms of his.”
“Corey, I’m serious.”
“I know you are… and I know how concerned you are. But baby listen,” He responds with difficulty, tears in his voice. “You gotta treat it a little lightly… to keep from crying over how bad and sick the situation really is.”
“Well, since you brought it up, what exactly is the situation?” Peep asks.
“Two black eyes, a broken wrist they had to reset, and stab wounds. But hey, I’ve been through worse.”
“What in the hell could be worse than this?” Jojo suddenly explodes. His rich dark skin tinted a shade of violet as tears flow profusely down his face. “You almost died. That knife could have killed you. At this very moment, we could’ve been planning your memorial service. And you say you’ve been through worse?”
Corey looks stunned, “Jo, calm down.” He repositions himself to where he is sitting up. A spasm hits his side, making him wince. When the pain passes, he says, “I can’t front. What those idiots did was stupid and horrible. But I have to look at it like this. They are not doing it out of personal hatred of us. They are doing it based on the same shit their parents heard from friends, family, and surprisingly the church. They are just reacting on what they were taught. To hate us and everybody that is either like us or understands what we go through.”
Jojo turns towards the window. His back is in the same slump it was as a teen when he was belittled. Then his voice, deeper and more bitter than I’ve ever heard it, breathes out, “I just can’t see what it is about us that those dumb motherfuckers hate so much. I have been wracking my brain, but that is the one question that does not have an answer.”
“You want an answer?” Peep’s strong voice booms, his face flaming with fury. He bolts up from his chair and forcefully turns Jojo to face him. “Now, you listen to me! Corey just gave you the answer. Stupid people breed stupid people. And just as sure as we are all standing here in this hospital, it will never get easy for us. That stupidity is never going to go away. You can live in your Candy Land fantasy all you want to, but you would just be doing more damage to yourself than anybody else. Accept that, stick your chest out, and grow the fuck up!” Speechless, Jojo looks around the room, as if he lost something and was wearily trying to find it. Peep becomes conscious of his force. He relaxes and massages the back of Jojo’s neck. “I’m sorry for shouting. I know this is eating you up, but questioning other people’s fucked up issues is not going to help, baby. Never has and never will.”
Jojo looks at him and me, with sadness. Then his eyes rest on Corey, who has his arms up and open. “Come here, Jojo.”
Jojo goes to him and takes his hands.
“To hell with that hand shit, baby. You can hug me, ya know. I still got one working side. You can lean on that.”
Jojo bends down and hugs him. Corey’s arms hold Jojo tighter. As I watch him hold my childhood friend, love for him fills my heart. In all the facets I’ve seen Corey in, this is the side of him lesser shown. He shows it in abundance to Jojo. Many a day I wished he would show it more to Peep and me. Not brash. Not loud. Not defensive. But, comforting, loving, and nurturing. Then I thought, Wait a minute! We are the ones that ought to be comforting him, not the other way around!
As I hear Jojo weeping, Corey says to him, “Alright now. You only get to cry but so long in here. Baby, this is life and in life, shit is gonna happen. I can’t ultimately answer the question as to why they hate us. That chaos started long before we were born. But I will ask you this. Get up, wipe those tears, and look at me.”
Jojo pulls back and looks at him.
“Am I dead?”
“Am I still moving?”
“Can bones, black eyes, and stab wounds heal?”
“Well, there you go. I ain’t dead, baby. I went through a lot worse. I went through stuff that if I told you, it would turn you straight. And with your ass being more fish than me, that’s sayin’ a lot!”
Jojo laughs tearfully, wiping his tears with the back of his hand. Corey joins him laughing softly. Then he goes on. “Yes, they hate us. We can’t change that, but we can’t let them make us hate ourselves. Do you hate yourself?”
“Well, alright then! That’s what I’m talking about. We’re going to get our gorgeous asses in gear and we’re go’n keep it moving. You with me?”
After a gulf of silence, Jojo smiles and says, “All the way, baby,” Jojo embraces him again. Peep and I join in the hug.
After a few minutes, Corey clears his throat and bellows, “Alright now. Gimme some room! I’m glad y’all quit crying like some wet-diapered babies. Now, y’all get the fuck out before Nurse Hatchet-face comes back in and scares everybody to death.”
“Are you going to be alright?” I ask.
“Please… This is Corey you’re talking to. Of course, I am!”
“You want me to bring you anything tomorrow,” Peep volunteers.
“Well, can you sneak me up some Jack?”
“Uh, yeah! As in Jack Daniels. You know, they call it whiskey.”
“Uh, you will not be getting that,” Peep says.
“Party pooper! Then get me my phone and charger from Alex. And go to my house and get me my tablet to watch some movies. Can’t do anything with my left hand. But I sho’ as hell can do something with my right!”
“Ew.” Jojo lets out laughing. “You are one nasty old bitch!”
“And I’ll be one until I’m a dead old bitch!”
“Whatever! Bye”. Jojo answers as he and Peep exits out of the room.
“You are a crazy ass! Do you know that?” I tell him.
“And you are a naïve ass! Do you know that?”
“Who are you calling naïve?”
“You. I swear you and Jojo got that same rosy look about the world. I’m surprised y’all don’t have fairy dust to make ya happy asses fly!”
“Still the trash talker huh.”
“You know it! In all seriousness though, as evolved as this world is, there are still a lot of people that are not going to be receptive to us. And like Peep said, it ain’t gonna get any easier. We will still have gay bashers, physically like the ones who kicked Jojo’s and my ass and mentally, like the mind ass kicking your family is giving you. You and Jojo gotta toughen up.” Corey’s voice breaks as he continues. “Because if y’all keep traveling down this primrose path where everything seems flowery, you gonna get some thorns in your ass.”
“I’m serious. This is our reality. We gotta accept it and be strong in ourselves. But old Corey can’t be strong for all of y’all, because old Corey got weaknesses and issues too. Do you hear what I’m telling ya?”
“Good. Now, get on outta here. Talk to that fine ass Garrett. I wish I had tried to talk to him first, but I got a good feeling about him. You are coming back tomorrow, right?”
“Good, then you can give me the 411 on your little date!”
I start for the door and open it. I pass through it. But before it closes, I glimpse Corey’s profile as he stares at the ceiling. The tears waiting to fall from his moistened eyes, the crumpled look on his face, the pulse of his jawline jumping. When the door finally closes, I hear beeping machines, nurses chattering and having lively, humorous conversations, doctors ordering tests in their medical jargon. But none of these are as loud as the sound of a gay battered man sobbing at the hatred of society and the horrors of a trampled life. A broken and dejected man crying himself to fitful and anguished sleep.