Five Months In Brooklyn

by Tamuira Reid

The left is now rationing life-saving therapeutics based on race, discriminating against and denigrating, just denigrating white people to determine who lives and who dies. In fact, in New York state, if you’re white, you have to go to the back of the line to get medical help. If you’re white, you go right to the back of the line. —Donald Trump, January 2022

*In Memory of Neema J. (1945- 2020)

Neema could sing. Really sing. Thick songs with smooth edges, full of blood memory and knowing. I pressed my ear against the floorboards of our new apartment, the one we would shelter in during the height of a pandemic we didn’t know was coming. In-between moving boxes and piles of books, I lay listening, pressing my palms flat to the ground. The steam pipes rattling alive with each husky note.

Neema was also crazy, people in the building would tell me, in hushed, apologetic tones. “Not right in the head.” “Not all there.” “Gone.”

“Dementia,” the Super said flatly, after I called him in the middle of the night, called about the smell of something burning beneath me, one floor down. The smell of a slow burn, a deep burn. A castiron skillet left unattended for hours burn. Neema’s mind had become a slippery slope where important details often fell to the wayside.

Singing never left her, even as her mind closed shop. Songs took root like trees in her belly.

I learned if I turned the lights off, I could hear her better.

I knocked on and off for several minutes before she answered. Finally a face to put with the voice.

Late seventies. A round, sweet face. Silvery cataract webs spreading across both eyes. Neema’s white nightgown stuck to her thighs the way most clothes will during summertime in Brooklyn.

“Hello dear?” she asked, pulling the door open slowly.

“I’m Tamuira, your neighbor. 6F? Upstairs.”

She leaned in close to me, filling the gap between our two bodies.

I’d carried up a delivery of hers from the lobby, a not so insulated cooler full of food about to expire. “Your box…I wanted you to have your, stuff, your meals?”

Neema smiled, motioned to her ear. “Doesn’t work,” she said tapping it.

I would later find out that a swimming incident as a child left her completely deaf in one ear. “I swear that girl was trying to swim herself all the way to the US,” her exhausted grandmother would joke with friends, as they shoveled market sundries into burlap bags. But Neema had only wanted to touch the horizon. To dig her fingers into its crevice until sky and sea pulled apart.

A decade later she would indeed end-up in America, a Haitian bride with water hiding in her ears.

Neema broke her hip in 2016, after the elevator went out and she tumbled down the stairwell, loose change pouring from her winter coat. A chronic pain would live deep inside her joint after that, aging her but not completely stopping her. An aluminum walker with tennis balls for an easy slide gave her access to plenty of action. If it was a nice day, Neema would ask the Super to borrow a folding chair, and she’d sit for hours, parked adjacent to the front stoop, smiling at neighbors and strangers and women parading their fresh babies.

A nurse would visit occasionally, a perk of being the widow of a vet. So would a well-meaning son with his own family to tend to, the drive from Connecticut stretching his time between the old world and the new until it threatened to snap. Neighbors who’d been friends, growing up and growing families together were slowly being replaced by gentrifiers, tucking themselves away behind closed doors.

Neema’s apartment was a small, unrenovated one bedroom on the fifth floor. She’d never lived anywhere else since coming to New York, and never wanted to. The walls were thin but forgiving. The parquet floor sloped but it was also beautiful after a good buffing. This was all she needed. A milk crate with a TV. A tray table. A worn armchair with duct taped arms where stuffing had tried to find its way out. A ball of yarn with knitting needles protruding from its center. Pictures of family long gone or far away.

Neema loved God, her country, and its president. An American flag hung by thumb tacks on the wall behind her bed. The same bed she’d begin to die in after God, her country, and its president would fail her.

Because she believed him. Because her President wouldn’t lie. Because Covid, he said, was going to go away, disappear, no big deal, we’re doing great. Because Covid doesn’t like warm weather and it’s about to get warm. Because she believed and she believed, even though black bodies were piling high in the streets. Just like Katrina, she thought accidentally. All those bodies with nowhere left to go.

She believed him enough to shop for ripe mangoes at the Trinidadian deli on Friday. To wash her clothes at the laundromat on Saturday. To take a crowded bus to church on Sunday. She believed her cold would go away. That prayer would shield her from infection. That patriotism would stave off the encroaching tsunami of disease whose deep, earthy vibration had begun to rattle in her gut.

One slow afternoon in late September, I found my son with his head pressed to the floor, like he’d seen me do so many times before. “I can’t hear anything,” he whispered, and repositioned his ear.

“Covid is gonna disappear. It’s gonna disappear. I still say it.” —Donald Trump, September 2020

They carried her out in the middle of the night while the building was sleeping. No fanfare, no drama, no scene. Just the nurse who had found her on top of the bed, undressed and out of air, and the paramedics holding IV drips overhead.

We waited for her to come back but she never did.

Her son came to clean out her things and then returned to Connecticut where his wife would hold him like something about to break.

Management started renovating her apartment, tearing it apart, limb by limb, giving tenants first pick of its organs. The family of six on the first floor got her fridge. We got her oven.

I haven’t met the couple who ended-up moving into Neema’s. All I know is they don’t sing.