Happy Birthday, Baby.
It was going to take some getting used to, seeing Jamal like this.
The wedding was surreal enough. Up in some godforsaken field upstate, everyone freezing their tails off and wondering why the CEO of Scaife couldn’t have his wedding in the Waldorf Astoria, or the Brooklyn Botanic Garden like every other rich Black person in New York.
But now, his brother was doing the things befitting his station in Black society, things like this—entertaining. The Christmas party was the kind of event that later got written up on Page Six, with phrases like ‘inner circle’ and ‘exclusive’ and ‘glitterati’ being thrown about. And it was true. The living room of Jamal’s apartment—which was bad as hell, there was no denying—was full of some of the biggest names in music, even some who were on Damon’s current playlist.
Interspersed with the music crowd were the music benefactors; young, wealthy, mostly White hipsters in their late twenties, or thirties, who gravitated toward talent, but Black talent in particular, just like the days of the Harlem Renaissance. Many of them had labored over sheet music since they were three, and later learned, to their never-ending dismay, that they had little talent themselves. So, instead, they invested. Or, they used their money and influence to wheedle their way into parties like this one—where the “cool, Black kids” were—and pretended for a few hours that they were just like them.
Circulating among their guests was his brother, and at his side most of the time, his wife, Makayla. They had just returned from their honeymoon and were in the newlywed phase that was a combination of touchy-feely and careful, treating each other with kid-gloves, secret smiles, and occasional surreptitious groping when they thought no one was looking. Jamal was wearing all black, and had the vaguely puffed-up-in-the-chest look of a man who is satisfied with his place in his life, and more than satisfied with the woman next to him
Knocking back his drink, Damon considered his date from across the room. Harper.
She was cute, interesting, and a little bit rough around the edges, which he dug a lot. But Damon knew they weren’t going anywhere. For one thing, she was young. Not chronologically. Chronologically, she was twenty-eight, but she had that emotionally-stunted quality that Damon saw in a lot of folks he met who worked as part of the innards of the entertainment business. Like they had stalled somewhere around seventeen, when they had “the coolest summer ever” when the music was bumping, the movies were blockbusters and they had finally lost their virginity in the backseat of their first car. And since then, their entire life had been about recreating, through art, the sounds, the feel, and the emotions of that pivotal time in their lives.
Maybe that was unfair. He was just bored. He liked parties, he liked—and now, maybe even loved—his brother, and he dug Harper, but he didn’t want to be here. It was almost Christmas, but he wasn’t in the spirit. A week from now, he would be sitting around a table with Jamal, Makayla, his other brother Marlon and his girlfriend, Renée; and his mother and her man, Perry, or Percy, or whatever the hell his name was. They would all make their way through the meal and awkward exchange of gifts, but just about everyone, except their mother, would want to be someplace else.
After dinner, when he and his brothers left, he would be the only one among them who would be going home alone. First time in four years, he would spend Christmas evening alone.
Tipping back his glass again, Damon realized it was empty, except for the ice. His cue to leave. He’d done his time. Almost two hours at his brother’s fancy party, a respectable period of time. He maneuvered his way through the people mingling near the large living room windows and toward Harper. She was talking to Devin Parks, the moody, difficult musician who had grown up with Makayla and seemed animated by whatever he was saying.
“Hey,” Damon said, touching her lightly on the shoulder.
She turned toward him, and looked, for a nanosecond, almost guilty.
“Hey,” she said.
“I’m about to take off,” he said. “You want to …?”
Harper hesitated. “Oh. I was …”
“No, I’m not sayin’ you have to leave, just because …”
“Oh. Yeah. Okay. Because …”
Devin Parks was watching their clumsy exchange with a mix of annoyance and amusement, his bluish-green eyes flitting back and forth between Damon and Harper like those of someone watching a tennis match.
“I’ll give you a shout later,” Damon said finally. He leaned in and kissed Harper on the jaw.
“Sure. Okay. Talk to you later.”
As he turned away from her, he scanned the room, looking for Jamal, to tell him he was out, but his brother was nowhere in sight. Deciding that he would leave anyway, and just hit him up later, Damon headed toward the foyer. There. That was where Jamal was. For a moment, it looked like he was just standing and facing the wall, but when he shifted his weight, Damon saw that he was facing Makayla, who was leaning back against it, and looking up at her husband.
Jamal’s voice was low. “You good?” he asked her.
Makayla said nothing, so Damon assumed she nodded, because his brother continued.
“Wasn’t so bad, right? Anyway, they’ll all be gone soon, and we can …”
“Hey, man. I’m about to bounce,” Damon said, loudly enough to get their attention.
Jamal turned to face him, and Damon glimpsed Makayla’s face. She looked a little embarrassed, as though he’d caught her and Jamal in a much more compromising position.
That explained it. He’d walked in on some newlywed foreplay.
“Thanks for comin’, man.” They exchanged a brotherly hug, and Makayla gave him a quick hug and kiss as well.
“So, we’ll see you at Christmas dinner, then?” she said. “If not sooner?”
“Definitely sooner,” Damon said, though he knew nothing of the sort. He wasn’t sure how much more of this loved-up stuff he could stand.
Outside, he lifted his collar against the cold wind blowing off the Hudson and walked toward where he’d parked his car. But when he got there, he kept walking. His feet took him to a place he hadn’t intended to go. Damon entered, and knew exactly where he was headed. Within minutes, he had completed his transaction and was outside on the sidewalk once again.
This time, he hailed a cab and gave them an address downtown.
At the building, he was let in by a couple going out, and too the stairs two at a time until he was at Apartment 4F. He didn’t hesitate before ringing the bell. He was done hesitating.
The door opened, and Noelle was standing there. She didn’t look surprised to see him, because Damon knew she had to have looked through the peephole before opening up.
“Damon,” she said.
“Hi. You have a minute to …?”
She was already shaking her head. “Damon, this isn’t …”
“Is that the food?”
An unmistakably masculine timbre reached them from somewhere back in the apartment. Damon clenched his jaw, forcing himself not to comment.
“No. It’s … I’ll be right back,” Noelle called. She stepped out into the hallway, which forced Damon to take a step back, but not before he spotted the man in her apartment. The same man she had been with in Barney’s that day almost a week ago. Michael.
“Michael, just give me a minute,” she said without looking back. She pulled the door so that it was almost shut and stood facing Damon, looking up at him, arms folded.
She didn’t say anything further, but her eyes were questioning.
Damon took in the sweatpants, the casual, somewhat worn t-shirt. And yet Michael was in her apartment. Noelle’s attire meant this wasn’t a brand-new relationship. This was someone she felt comfortable and familiar enough with to wear a ratty t-shirt around. This was serious.
“I was walking by Tiffany. And I remembered our tradition,” Damon said, holding out the robin’s egg-blue bag.
Noelle looked at it, but didn’t take it. “It’s not our tradition anymore.”
Damon nodded. “But I want it to be. I …”
“You want,” Noelle said. “Always about what you want. Right?”
“No. Not just me. I know you still love me, Elle. We were going to be married. That all doesn’t go away in six months. I don’t give a shit who you’re … dating. We were more than that. We are more than that.”
His words seemed to shake her a little. She looked down at the floor, and shifted her weight. “That’s why we haven’t talked in forever? And you haven’t even …”
“What was I supposed to say? I didn’t know what to …”
“But now you do know what to say? Why? Because you happen to run into me in a store and it looks like I’m moving on?” she demanded.
“Yes. Exactly. Because I run into you in a store and you look like you might be moving on. And I don’t want you to move on. Because you’re not supposed to. And I’m not supposed to. We’re supposed to be together. And I know I fucked it up, but …”
“You did!” she said, with surprising vehemence. “I needed you, and you …” She broke off with a choked sound like the beginnings of a sob. “Do you know what that was like? To go through that alone? And then you … You shouldn’t be here, Damon. You shouldn’t …”
He moved closer, reaching out and taking her by the arm, gently pulling her toward him so they were inches apart. So close, he could smell her summery scent. Damon inhaled.
“You have to leave. You … Michael is …”
“Fuck Michael. Get rid of him. You know we’re not done.”
She looked up at him again and this time her eyes were wet. Shaking her head, she exhaled. “You never did fight fair, Damon.”
“I fight to win.”
Noelle’s lips twitched, and for a moment, she almost smiled at that. She knew his stubbornness, and throughout their relationship had teased him about it, fought with him about it … and loved that about him in a way no other woman ever had, or could, or would.
“You have to …”
“Go. Yeah. You said.” Damon took her hand and put the bag in it. “But I wanted to leave this. Every year since we’d been together … your Tiffany Christmas ornament. So, you can put it on the tree, as a memory of another Christmas, and another birthday, with me.”
“But I’m not with you, Damon. Not anymore.”
He leaned in. He pressed his nose to her neck, and she let him. He inhaled more deeply, and turned his head. Noelle lifted her chin; and on instinct her lips parted a little. He brushed his against them lightly, in the ghost of a kiss. He heard her soft gasp, as though she couldn’t quite believe herself what was happening.
Damon wanted to prolong the kiss, but he knew that if he went further she would hate herself for her weakness later on, and resent him for having exposed it. It wouldn’t move them forward, it would set them back.
“Maybe I won’t be there this Christmas when you put this ornament on the tree. But I hope you do it anyway. Because I’m still with you, Elle. I’m still with you.”
There were tears on her cheeks now. But she said nothing.
Damon leaned in again. He touched his lips to the shell of her ear.
“Imagine me there, okay? When you put it up.”
When he turned away, he expected to hear her apartment door shut—or even slam—as she went back in, but it didn’t. So, he looked over his shoulder before descending the stairs. Noelle was still standing there, watching.
“Happy Birthday, baby,” he said.