I like to say ‘I don’t write romance’. And I believe that. But I do write about love, and all its many complications. It’s my singular writing ambition, capturing the love of a man for a woman, a woman for a man, a mother for their child, between siblings, and sometimes the fleeting flash of something like love that springs up between strangers.
So, on this Day of Love, I share a few little ‘bites’ of love from my work, featuring men I fell in love with as I wrote them., and a woman who never knew love who came to me in my sleep one night. Happy Valentines Day, readers.
Love and Peace to you,
WHAT REAL LOVE LOOKS LIKE
“So what’re you doing? You got anything planned?”…
Shawn looked up at his friends’ startled faces and laughed. “I have a sensible, levelheaded woman at home, unlike some of us.” He looked in Brendan’s direction. “So she won’t be flippin’ out and actin’ all crazy if I don’t have hearts and chocolate and a dozen roses in hand when I get home on February fourteenth.”
“You lyin’, man,” Chris said sucking his teeth. “No way you stayed married all these years without doin’ anything on Valentine’s Day.”
“I didn’t say I don’t do anything. Just that my wife doesn’t need all those dramatic gestures that y’all talkin’ ‘bout.”
Brendan swallowed a gulp of his Hennessey and shook his head. “I’m not buyin’ it either. Even if your wife were one of the founders of the Occupy Wall Street Movement, spends her days picketing against American consumerist culture and her nights blogging about the scourge of poverty in the developing world, she would still want you to do something big for her on Valentine’s Day.”
“Hell, Riley probably is one of the founding members of Occupy Wall Street, and probably does spend her nights blogging about poverty,” Chris said dryly.
Shawn laughed again. “Shut up. So what? My woman’s about something more than shopping and looking pretty.”
“Why you keep lookin’ at me?” Brendan said, feigning outrage. “Tracy likes nice things. And I like giving them to her. What’s wrong with that?”
“If I thought ‘nice things’ would do the trick with Robyn, I’d go that route, but …” Chris shrugged. “When we were just kickin’ it, I gave her a twenty-five thousand dollar bag and she just yawned at that shit.”
“Give her a baby,” Shawn suggested. “We know she likes those.”
Chris shot him a look. “Don’t even joke like that, man. I’m done. I’ve been thinking of getting snipped on the sly just to shut that down once and for all.”
“Yeah, you are one baby-making motherfucka, that’s for sure,” Brendan chimed in. “But don’t get snipped. I heard if you do your dick won’t get hard anymore.”
Shawn laughed. “Don’t listen to him …”
“Ain’t nobody payin’ his dumb-ass no mind,” Chris said shaking his head.
Boys’ nights out like this had become fewer and farther between in the last year, but after a business meeting earlier that day that all three of them had attended purely by coincidence, Shawn coaxed his two best friends into dinner and then drinks. Things were different now, so they all had women at home they had to check in with before they could head out to Mastro’s Steakhouse for a rich meal, followed by drinks in the bar at a small, exclusive boutique hotel.
Watching Chris in particular make his way over to a private corner to tell his wife he wasn’t coming home straightaway that evening was particularly satisfying. Who would have thought? Chris Scaife, married—and happily at that—with two kids under three years old at home. If there had been anyone he would have given the label ‘confirmed bachelor’, Chris Scaife would have been it. But even he got taken out by Cupid’s arrow.
It had been entertaining watching him fight it though. Shawn recalled with amusement the occasions before they were married when Chris and Robyn visited with him and Riley, or came to parties at their home. Chris had been a ball of coiled awareness, his eyes involuntarily following Robyn around the room, his body growing tense when someone of the masculine persuasion approached and spoke to her.
Shawn remembered even more keenly what those days had been like in his own relationship. Riley had been his singular obsession until he finally came to terms with the fact that she wasn’t going anywhere. He’d proposed to her before he truly knew and accepted that, and for the first few months of their marriage, he felt like he’d somehow tricked her into something … lured her into a trap that he knew he had no earthly intention of letting her get out of. It was an entire year—and a shitty one at that—before he could allow himself to truly believe she wanted to be there.
Glancing over at the clock atop the old English pub-style bar, Shawn saw that it was just past ten p.m. This was about the time Riley would be getting ready for bed. Their nights were early ones when he was home. His son, Cullen was a little bit of a hellion, who, when he was awake tore through the house like a freight train and just as noisy. Because Shawn still traveled a fair amount, whenever he was home, he kept his kids close; and Cullen especially followed him around, sometimes mirroring his every move.
His daughter was different. At three years old, she was quiet and a loner and … graceful. He had no other word for it. Already, she was a little lady with a gentle disposition and a seemingly innate sense of calm. Like her mother.
Neither of his kids was ever far from his thoughts. And Riley, of course, she was everything.
Turning away from the clock, Shawn signaled to the bartender to bring him another drink. He could afford to stay out awhile because according to his wife, getting the kids to bed was twice as difficult when he was home, because to them, Daddy equaled playtime. But still, Shawn loved being there in that magic hour before bed, and particularly loved watching the rituals. Riley had a little refrain she repeated to them: Bath-Time, Book-Time, Bedtime. So now they’d started saying it as well, like it was one word.
Mama, I don’t want to go bathtime-booktime-bedtime, Cullen would whine, shaking his head from side to side.
I know, darling, Riley would say before scooping them both up, one under each arm.
She never argued, cajoled and bribed their kids, but just gently … handled them, getting whatever needed to be done done, while Shawn looked on in awe, wondering how in the heck it was that he’d lucked out like this. So the hell with Valentine’s Day. He knew what real love looked like.
But … maybe he’d get the flowers and candy anyway. And throw in a nice piece of jewelry. Just in case.
Backstory for Jayson from ‘Mistress’, ‘Wife’ and ‘Mother’. This is from his travels after he left Keisha in ‘Mistress’) and while he was falling in love with her, though he didn’t know it was happening.
Journey: Jayson’s Travel Journals
There was one dude on the block who kept a journal when I was inside. Muslim brother. He wrote all the time, day and night. Kept his head down, his lips moving as he wrote. I couldn’t tell whether he was praying or talking to himself. One time I asked him what he was mumbling about and he smiled.
“Talking to Allah, my brother,” he told me. “Al-Raḥmān, al-Raḥīm.”
His name was Ahmad. He never got into it with anybody and everyone left him alone. He wasn’t a prison Muslim, he was a real deal zealot, who was inside because he’d beat his teenage daughter to within an inch of her life when he found out she had a boyfriend. His case was in the papers and on television a lot because folks were a still looking cross-eyed at all Muslims because of 9/11.
I asked Ahmad about his case one time. Which broke code. You weren’t supposed to ask anybody about their case. But I asked because Ahmad looked like the most peace-loving dude you would ever meet, and seeing on television what he’d done to his own flesh and blood, I just couldn’t believe it. That he would do something like that.
“Man’s law, or the law of the Allah?” he’d responded. “Which should I choose? Lā ilāha illā Allāh”
Some of the other Muslims told me Ahmad was full of shit. And that if he truly followed God’s law, he would understand compassion. Rumor had it, Ahmad planned to finish the job he’d started on his daughter when he got out.
The only thing I guess I learned from Ahmad was that writing things down can be purifying. So I’m writing.
When I left New York yesterday, it was already dark. I thought about leaving at first light, but didn’t know whether I’d want to leave if I waited one more day. Especially after seeing Keisha. She cried before I left. Real tears, fat drops rolling down her face and dripping off the tip of her chin. And I wanted to stay to comfort her, but knew I couldn’t because then it might get really hard to leave. And I had to, because I have some things to work out, and on top of all that, I’m not sure I trust her. I want her. I like her; hell, maybe more than like her . . . but I definitely don’t trust her. And what kind of messed-up shit is that? To want a woman you can’t even trust.
So I had to leave.
Right now I’m in a Motel 6 in Allentown, Pennsylvania. I don’t know why except that I saw the exit signs and decided to check it out, because of that Billy Joel song. From my room, it looks like a depressing place to live. The song was depressing too now that I think about it—all about how someplace that was brimming and alive practically died.
That’s how I feel sometimes. Like maybe I died when I was inside. Not physically, but in other ways. In prison, I was Inmate # 01-B-8746 and now I’m not even that. And I’m not the Jayson Holmes who went in either–that cocky bastard got the shit beat out of him three days after he went in. So who am I now?
That’s what this journey cross-country is about. Finding out.
I won’t write anymore tonight. Too tired. A little scared. Wondering what the hell I’m doing traveling hundreds of miles away. I had to tell my P.O. because I have a five year tail on my sentence. He didn’t have to approve it but he did. His name’s Chester. Older white dude who looks like he’s been doing this for dog-years. He has runny eyes, a cloudy blue. Behind his glasses he stared at me when I told him my plan to travel and see the country. I expected him to ask me why, or what I was planning to do out there. I expected him to be suspicious. But he didn’t seem to be.
“I hope you find it,” he said.
I didn’t even tell him I was looking for anything. I didn’t even know for sure that I was. But I guess I am looking for something. And I hope to God I find it.
Journey: Jayson’s Travel Journals
I thought about heading south to Philly, but that seemed kind of obvious. So instead, today I headed west towards the Appalachian Mountains in the direction of Pittsburgh. I stopped once, so I could call Chloe. She sounded like she was crying but trying to hide it. I think she believes I’ll never come back. I wanted to tell her that the only way for me to really ‘come back’ is to go on this trip. See, I never really came back home from prison. For the longest time, working in Rey’s garage, going home to that small room in his house, sleeping with a bunch of women I didn’t care about … that wasn’t me, that was me in limbo, waiting for Jayson to come back. Like I was asleep and going through the motions of the dream, waiting to wake up.
In Altoona, a woman tried to pick me up in the parking lot of a gas station with a little diner attached. I thought she was just looking for a quick hook-up, and was thinking that maybe she had a hotel room nearby or something. She looked like she hadn’t slept in days and her breath smelled like crap, too. It took me a minute to realize that she was a hooker, one of those they call ‘lot lizards’, who walk through truck stops and do tricks for like ten or twenty bucks a pop. And once I realized what she was, I saw about a dozen other women like her. Kinda messed with my head a little, that I couldn’t even recognize hookers when I saw them.
What the hell am I doing out here?
My cousin Ty used to pay crackheads to suck his dick once in awhile. I could never do it. When he made fun of me, I told him it was because I was too attached to my dick and couldn’t imagine putting it just anywhere. He looked like he didn’t know what the hell I was talking about. Ty. Stupid-ass Tyrone. One of these days, I’ll stop being mad at him, but I’m sure as hell not there yet. Not even close.
I wanted to call Keisha when I found a motel for the night. Just before I closed my eyes, I thought about her and the way she says my name. Jaaay, with the ‘aaaa’ elongated, like she’s caressing it with her tongue. Caressing it with her tongue. Yeah, that’s just what I need to be thinking about right now. I shouldn’t be thinking about that, or about her at all. So I’m going to just stop. For now anyway.
Until maybe tomorrow.
Journey: Jayson’s Travel Journals
I fell in love while I was locked up. Nah. Not with a dude. Although that does happen, even to guys who weren’t gay before they came in. I have a theory, that the human heart is like that—it seeks out something, or someone to love. And if you live an unfulfilled life, it’s only because you never found that person, or that passion which filled your heart to capacity.
My third year in, I thought I found that. Her name was Donna Pierce. She was a law student in her final year of school who came onto the unit as part of a re-entry program. They showed us films about guys on the inside preparing to get out and coming to terms with the things they’d done, the time they missed and the lives they’d ruined. After the film, Donna led a discussion where I guess we inmates were supposed to see something of ourselves in the men on film.
Though she put up an image like she was comfortable sitting around on the unit with a bunch of beefy, horny convicts, I could tell that Donna was nervous. She didn’t know what to do with her arms and legs when she sat and spent lots of time arranging them, probably trying not to be too alluring. But hell, when you’re locked up, it doesn’t take much. Anything that bears hints of the feminine will make your dick hard. And Donna bore more than just hints. She had shoulder-length hair that she wore out whenever she came to the prison, and a deep, rich complexion that reminded me of Belgian dark chocolate. And her eyes, black as coal.
I remember the eyes and complexion now, but at the time I was more focused on her hands, slender and graceful, the slight hint of breasts she had—they were small, but more than enough for a dude in prison—and her beautiful, curvaceous hips. I went to watch her films, but never participated in the discussion afterwards, though I sat there staring at her. I mean, I hadn’t done a crime, so what the hell did any of that have to do with me, right? That’s what I thought at the time; that I was somehow going to come out of prison different or better than the other dudes who actually had done a crime. Stupid.
One day, after one of her screenings, Donna approached me. Usually the guys descended on her like locusts, asking questions they didn’t care about the answers to. This time, as I was about to saunter away, she stopped me. She didn’t just stop me, she touched me. She touched my arm. That was like lighting a fucking forest fire, having a woman touch me, all soft and gentle like that.
“Hey,” she said. “What’s your name? You always come to these discussions, but you never talk.”
“I’m Jayson,” I said.
And just that quickly, just because she looked at me in the eye, and because she was female and pretty and touched me with an intention other than custody and control, I was in love. Donna came back many times after that, and for a while, it seemed like she loved me too.
But that’s a story for another day.
BETTER OFF NOW
Maintaining the fiction of a perfect marriage–that had been the most difficult part. From the outside, had anyone known what was happening to Helen, they would have assumed the beatings were the worst of it. But they would have been wrong. If there was a way to rate levels of unhappiness, Helen would have put them in this order:…
One; pretending–to family, friends and co-workers that the reason she walked so slowly, sat so carefully and wore such thick pancake makeup had nothing to do with anything of consequence, because of COURSE things at home were fine; of course she loved her husband and he loved her; and of course, he would never do anything so terrible as raise a hand to her.
Two; waiting to be hit–there was no way to characterize that other than ’emotional terrorism’. ‘Abuse’ seemed far too tame a word to describe what Brett put her through. The days and weeks and sometimes even months of sweetness, romantic gestures, gifts and praise, were all a cruel wind-up to the main event, which was always, always unexpected. On one occasion, he had immediately consoled Helen when she tearfully–and fearfully–confessed to having scratched his prized black Range Rover. But yet, her forgetting to get his favorite salad dressing led to a beating that cracked her front tooth, dislocated her jaw, broke a rib and landed her in hospital for a week.
Three; the beatings themselves–they ranked lowest on the list of things that had been difficult about being married to Brett. No one would believe her if she said it aloud, but it was true. The beatings were sometimes sweet relief. They validated her fear (‘See,’ she would think as he stomped on her abdomen. ‘Of course I should be afraid, because this is what he can do!’) and they externalized the pain she carried around inside all the time. The force of a fist on the side of her face, making her eye feel as though it might explode, only matched the resounding ache she had inside every moment of every single day.
Helen never told anyone any of this. She maintained her silence throughout her trial; she maintained it to her parents and Brett’s, and even with her defense attorney. No one understood how and why she stabbed her childhood sweetheart to death while he slept. They assumed she must have gone quite mad. That was her defense–temporary insanity. Helen let her attorney say that, because she didn’t much care about the outcome of her trial. Sitting in her cell, from the night she’d been arrested and even now that she’d been transferred to the prison following her conviction, Helen said nothing.
Because what she thought the moment she knew Brett was dead remained true, no matter where she was. What she thought then, and still thought every day, was, ‘I am better off now.’