Early Morning

Ibrahim’s eyes open around four in the morning, as always. He sits up, and next to him, Jada mumbles in her sleep, turning over onto her side and away from him. Lowering his feet to the floor, he slips out of the room and into the hallway. He showers then dresses quietly in the next room, not wanting to wake his wife. When he leaves the house, it is still dark outside. He shoves open the front gate and steps onto the sidewalk, and his mind is drawn to his son, about an hour away.

Kaleem will be already be up and training with his coach. It is mere weeks from the 2020 Olympic Trials and the pressure is up, especially since now Kaleem is a father—and Ibrahim a grandfather—to a six-month-old baby boy.

His name is Anwar.

It means, ‘light’, Kaleem explained, his voice filled with pride. Anwar Ibrahim Carter.

And Ibrahim smiled.

Anwar looks like both his parents. His complexion, currently that of a lightly-roasted peanut, will ripen slightly to a richer, darker hue, but his eyes are the same hazel as those of his mother, Asha, with her dense, spiky eyelashes. Anwar has her disposition as well. He is often still, smiles easily, and is content to lie quietly in his crib or play alone. Occasionally he gurgles to himself, or bursts into loud, high-pitched shrieks as if testing to make sure he still has a voice in this world. He rarely cries. His nose, his lips, his ears are Kaleem’s, and he reminds Ibrahim of what his son looked like as an infant.

Like I spat him out, Kaleem likes to say when he picks Anwar up, holding him above his head like Mufasa did Simba in ‘The Lion King’. We gotta make some more, babe. Two more. Or three. Let’s make three more just like this one.

Whenever he does this, and says this, Asha rolls her eyes but Ibrahim can see the deep feeling in them, and the indulgence. Kaleem will no doubt get three more babies out of that girl. He will get whatever he wants.

About two months after Anwar was born, Ibrahim spent a weekend with his son and daughter-in-law. In the morning, when Kaleem woke up to run, Asha was up as well, and breastfed their son, sitting on the sofa next to him while Kaleem put his runners on and prepared to leave the house. Walking in on the moment, Ibrahim apologized and retreated to the second bedroom listening to their voices trailing behind him.

Kaleem and Asha talk all the time, their apartment filled with the sound of their voices, of them narrating to each other details of their days and the hours they were apart.

Bruh peeled out of the parking lot at like, ninety, I’m tellin’ you …

… She is the meanest teacher in the whole school, and I kind of hope they fire her before I get back … I guess that makes me mean?

I was so high offa that run, babe, I almost jumped over the car instead of getting into it …

… Wonder if I’ll always have this little pooch now. Will you still love me if I’m fat?

Kaleem makes Asha laugh, and when Ibrahim looks at her with his son, he sees a light in Kaleem’s eyes that no one else—except now, Anwar—can ignite with the same ease.

Ibrahim found himself wishing that he and his wife talked as much. They used to, but not now. Now, there is often silence in their house.

When he first came home, they talked. Well into the night, and for weeks afterwards, they had long, winding conversations and frantic bouts of spontaneous lovemaking. But that, too, has slowed and almost stopped.

The very first time he touched Jada, after he came home from prison, Ibrahim was hesitant, slow, and embarrassed that his hands trembled. He was afraid of the strength of his need, and that he might hurt her. Jada was patient, and kept saying that it was okay, that he could go slow, that it was okay … okay … okay.

Her saying that had an effect that was opposite of what she probably intended. He was not reassured. It made him worry that prison had not only stripped them of their easy intimacy, but of her belief that he could please her as a man. And if she doubted his manhood, he wasn’t sure what he had left.

They managed it that night, though the first time had been fast, and no doubt unsatisfactory for her. He waited until he was ready again, and the second time had been better, but still, not good enough. He wanted to try again, but Jada said it was okay … okay … okay. And so he just held her until she fell asleep.

He did not sleep as easily. Or, really, at all, until early the next morning after he was finally able to make her pant and perspire and moan out his name the way she used to before his own foolish actions and the State of California had splintered his family, and separated him from his wife.

Making his way down the block to Free Range, the newest hipster café in the neighborhood, Ibrahim notes that the streets are quiet, deserted, and clean. All the gangbangers are gone these days and in their place are signs on almost every block about city council meetings, and block parties, farmers’ markets and garage sales. Free Range is open twenty-four hours because the couple who owns it, lives in the upper level and have a rotating cast of characters who staff it around the clock. They are young, this couple, and friendly, and fair-haired and perpetually suntanned. The dude wears flip flops all the time no matter his attire, and occasionally he wears skirts, which bear Polynesian prints.

It’s called an ie lavalava, he told Ibrahim when he caught him looking.

And then he launched into a soliloquy about how he didn’t really buy into the whole “gender binary thing” especially when it came to something as meaningless as the garments one put on their body.

That’s cool, Ibrahim told him, though really he was just hoping he would stop talking.

His name is Martin, and his partner’s name is Thea. That’s what he calls her, his “partner.” Funny, the changes in meaning that words have gone through in Ibrahim’s lifetime. While he was in prison, ‘partner’ also came to mean ‘life partner’ or ‘domestic partner.’ Apparently heterosexual people used those terms now as well and it wasn’t just the inadequate subsitute that gay people had to adopt when they couldn’t get married.

Though the streets are quiet, and it would be an ideal morning for it, Ibrahim no longer runs as often. He lost the habit when he was in prison, and afterward, found that he did not enjoy it as much as he used to. When he started, many years ago, it was because it gave him an outlet for the urge he had to move, to get things moving, to get ahead. Now, he has a different impulse – to sit still, to contemplate, to enjoy details, and to appreciate. He is not as hungry as he once was. This lack of hunger and the absence of a fire in his belly concerns him.

Sometimes, he still runs with Kaleem; though not lately now that his son has had to train harder. Now, Kaleem can run circles around him.

“Mr. Carter!”

Ibrahim approaches Free Range and finds the front door open, and Thea on her knees wiping the glass with a cheesecloth, holding a bottle of organic cleaner.

She stands upright and smiles at him, wiping her hands on the thighs of her jeans and setting aside the cleaning tools to take one of his hands in both of hers. She does a little bow when she greets him, a habit she says she picked up in India, where she once lived on an ashram.

Although he is aware she’s a cliché, Ibrahim likes her. She has that kind of blonde hair that always looks frizzy and dry, and out of control that she doesn’t do much with, except pull it back with a scarf once in a while. Stray strands are always wafting out of nowhere into her greenish eyes, upon which she will swat them away impatiently. She reminds Ibrahim of someone. He can’t remember who.

There is no one else in sight, either inside the café, or on the street. Ibrahim wonders at Thea’s comfort being this alone with him, a tall, brawny Black man. Over the years, Ibrahim met a few white kids like this—the ones in whose eyes he detected no awareness of his being different from them. The ones who he believed truly did not attach any consequence to him being Black and them being white. To whom their difference was a matter of descriptive significance only.

Obama Babies was how Ibrahim thought of them – young people who were in middle school when the Black President was elected, and who grew up in uber-liberal enclaves where it was so accepted it didn’t even merit discussion. Some of those young, white Obama Babies used to come into San Quentin as volunteers. Some of them looked truly surprised at what prison was like. Some of them even cried while they were there, or as they left. Many of them didn’t come back.

“Lemme guess,” Thea says. “Spinach omelet with egg whites only.”

“You got it.” Ibrahim nods. “I’ll help out while you’re doing that … put these …” He indicates the umbrellas for the outdoor seating, still folded, and stacked in a corner.

“Yeah, thanks. That’d be cool. It’s going to be a real scorcher today, apparently.”

While Thea goes in to make his breakfast, Ibrahim unfolds the umbrellas one by one and chooses a place to sit. When he sits, he takes the time to look around and sees that the neighborhood is still quiet. He realizes that he has left his phone at home. Having a cell phone with him all the time is something he still hasn’t become accustomed to, so he often leaves it places.

You can’t do that, Ibrahim! Jada said to him once, when she returned from work and found his phone sitting on the entryway table.

He discovered her sitting on the sofa, his phone clutched tightly in both her hands, still wearing her scrubs from work, eyes rimmed in red.

I didn’t know what to think! she continued, her eyes still a little wild.

You should think I forgot my phone, he told her, calmly.

And then she dropped it to the carpeted floor beneath her feet, put her face in her hands and began to cry.

It was like that at first, after he came out. Like she wasn’t sure she knew him anymore, and didn’t know what to expect. It stung that she thought there was any scenario, any circumstance that would have him walking out on her without even a word. Walking out on her at all. Before prison, she knew that there was no way he would ever leave her unless he didn’t have a choice. Now, he was constantly reassuring her and she was constantly reassuring him when before, no reassurance was necessary.

When Jada works a long shift, as she did last night, his wakefulness unsettles her and that is why Ibrahim leaves the house. She sleeps better, he thinks, when he is not there. And yet, paradoxically, his absence also makes her uneasy.

“Here we go!”

Thea returns, bearing a tray, but on it are three plates. One with Ibrahim’s omelet, another with scrambled egg whites and avocado, and another with whole grain toast. There is also a decorative teapot, and two teacups.

“Do you mind if I join you?” Thea asks.

 “Of course not. Please.” Ibrahim gives a brief nod.

Thea sits in the chair opposite him. She has pulled her hair back more securely, and is now wearing sunglasses atop her head. She pours them tea.

Ibrahim smiles at her and then shuts his eyes to say a brief, silent blessing over their meal. When he opens them, Thea is staring at him.

“Were you praying?” she asks.

“Yes.”

“To whom?” Thea’s head falls to one side.

Ibrahim’s eyebrows involuntarily lift.

“I mean … what religion are you?” she amends.

“I believe in the existence of the Divine, the Most Holy.”

Thea smiles. “That’s not really an answer though, is it?”

Ibrahim shrugs.

“I don’t believe in God,” Thea says conversationally.

“No?”

“No.” Thea picks up her fork. “The world is just a random, violent place. And we have to take from it whatever joy we can find.”

Staring at her for a moment, Ibrahim feels a sudden sadness.

“You’re really young to have such a grim outlook,” he said.

“You don’t think it’s random and violent?” Thea asks. “The world?”

“Sometimes violent. But not random.”

“If you really believe that, Mr. Carter, then you must have been a lucky, lucky man.”

“Ibrahim,” he says. “Please. Call me Ibrahim.”

Rhyme & Reason — COMING 2019

An unedited excerpt from Chapter 1 of ‘Rhyme & Reason’, from the new generation of ‘Afterwards’ novels, coming 2019.

Happy Friday.

She had fallen asleep while watching The Best Man and woke up to the sound of her phone ringing. On television, the Netflix home-screen was scrolling through programming options. Grappling for her phone, expecting to see either her brother’s name or Asif’s, Zora sat upright when she saw the initials DS.

Why don’t you have my whole name in your contacts?

Because you’re kind of famous.

Deuce had twisted his lips and narrowed his eyes skeptically.

Here’s what we can do to fix that, he said. Just change it to ‘My Man’. I can live with that. So, whenever you see it, you know.

I already know, she’d said, trying not to blush.

“Hello?” Her voice sounded gravelly, so she cleared her throat and tried again. “Hello.”

“Hey. I wake you?”

“No. I mean, yeah, but it’s fine. I was …” She didn’t finish her sentence, imagining how pathetic it might sound.

I was watching Netflix all on my own. On a Friday night. Yes, I was.

“You alone?”

Zora thought for a moment, wondering why he would think … Oh, yes. Asif. He hadn’t allowed her to explain earlier. One would have thought he would figure it out. Asif and she could have passed for siblings. 

“Yes. I’m alone. And Deuce …”

“I just … I wanted to say I was sorry,” he said. “For speaking to you the way I did.”

Zora felt her throat tighten.

“I’m sorry, too,” she said.

“What’re you sorry for?”

“Springing up on you. I mean … it wasn’t fair. I should’ve …”

On the other end of the line, Deuce sighed. “I don’t know that it would have made a difference anyway,” he said.

“Why?”

“Zee, you know when it comes to you …”

She held her breath.

“Anyway. I’m just sorry I came off like that,” he said in a rush.

The silence stretched.

“How … how are you?” she asked finally. “Lately. How have you been? With work and everything. And that plan you had.”

The last time they spoke he mentioned he was about to make a pitch for a special project with an artist his father’s company had high hopes for. But after the way the rest of that conversation went, they hadn’t spoken since.

“You mean with Devin Parks?” Deuce asked.

“Yes. Did Jamal ever give you the go-ahead to have him as the first …”

“Nah. He shot it down. Said he couldn’t give me an artist of Devin Parks’ caliber right out the gate. Told me to work with the team to find my own people.”

“Ouch. That’s harsh,” Zora said, settling back into her pillows again.

“Not really. He was right. Devin Parks is going to be huge. He is huge. Lettin’ me have him for this new label would have been giving me something I didn’t earn. Hell, I didn’t even earn the right to develop a new label.”

“Don’t say that …”

“It’s true though. Who graduates from undergrad and gets that kind of opportunity from jump? I mean, if I was just some regular dude, I would be an intern at SE for real.”

Zora had heard him speak this way about himself before, but it hurt her every time.

“You’re always underestimating yourself,” she said. “So what if you’re not ‘some regular dude’? So what if you got a foot in the door because of your father? Now that you’re in, you just have to prove you deserve to be there.”

“Tryin’,” he said.

“And?”

“It’s goin’ okay, I guess. Mostly I’m learning the business, y’know?”

“Does your father help?”

“Nah.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t ask him.”

Deuce.”

“What?”

“That’s such a wasted opportunity. Your father probably has an encyclopedia’s worth of knowledge about how to develop a record label. Why wouldn’t you take advantage of that?”

“So he can get confirmation that I’m just fakin’ through it right now?”

“Are you?” she asked.

Deuce said nothing for a few beats.

“Not really. I mean, I did my homework. I’ma have to take a couple risks, but I feel good about where things are at, considering.”

“Okay, so where are they?”

“What d’you mean?”

“I mean, tell me where things are. What stage are you at in developing the label?”

Deuce didn’t realize this about himself, but Zora knew he needed to process things aloud. To talk them over with a thought-partner, and problem-solve through conversation. When he did, his confidence strengthened. Deuce was not short on confidence by any means, but Chris Scaife Sr. was a formidable yardstick to measure oneself by.

“You won’t be bored by all that?”

“Have I ever been?” she asked, before she caught herself.

Then they both laughed at the same time.

“Okay, fine,” she said. “There were moments, I admit …”

Moments?” Deuce echoed, laughter still in his voice. “You fell asleep on me, Zee. When I was talking about …”

“In my defense, it was right after …” She broke off.

Right after they’d made love. Made love. That’s what it was with him. Every time, maybe even including the very first time.

After lovemaking, Deuce was wide open. He talked. Told her his greatest fears, his biggest dreams. He talked until he was exhausted, and sometimes until she was, as well.

“Yeah,” he said now. “I’ll give you that. The moment wasn’t … opportune.”

“Baby?”

 The sound of a female voice, interrupting their conversation was so unexpected that Zora for a moment didn’t know where it was coming from. Her eyes instinctively shifted to her tv even though the sound was clearly coming from her phone.

She heard shuffling, and the muffled sound of Deuce talking to someone. To the someone who had called him ‘baby.’

From ‘Rhyme & Reason’ COMING 2019

Before ‘Rhyme & Reason’ gets here, make sure you’re caught up, by first reading ‘Young, Rich & Black’ and ‘Snowflake’.

SAMPLE SUNDAY:SNOWFLAKE

“I have a proposition.”

Asha opened the door and smiled. “He lives.”

“Barely. But yeah. Got some rest and now I feel much better.” Kal moved around her and entered the apartment without waiting for an invitation.

She hadn’t seen him in a day and a half and more than once, wondered whether she should go over to knock on his door just to check that he was okay.

But that would have felt pushy. Kaleem Carter did not need her to be his babysitter, and as it was, she was getting too used to his face, too excited at the thought of just being in his presence. It was ridiculous.

“Good. Glad to hear it,” she said. “And the ankle?”

“Still sore. But getting better. Since I was on my back all day yesterday, that helped.” He collapsed on her sofa.

He was getting super well-acquainted with that particular piece of furniture. Like it was his spot whenever he came over. Asha wondered whether he would come over once school started again, and once his regular female visitors resumed. More likely, she would recede into the back of his mind—as if she had ever been in the forefront—and they would wave from their front doors or say a brief hello on the stairs when they ran into each other.

“You said you had a proposition?” she asked, lifting an eyebrow.

“Yeah.”

He said the word in a slow drawl, and was eyeing her from where he sat, his gaze running over her from head to toe. Asha took mental stock of her appearance— her hair was in a ponytail, and she was wearing tattered cut-off denim shorts frayed at the hems and a grey NY Giants baby-tee.Nothing remarkable, but Kaleem sure seemed to find it interesting. It was probably just his way, making girls feel so visible. Like he missed nothing about them and liked it all.

Asha felt her skin flush and damned her fair complexion. Every tiny blush was visible.

“You know Deuce Scaife?” he asked.

“Not personally, but I know who he is,” she said.

She wanted to sit, so he wouldn’t be on eye-level with her bare legs. She didn’t hate her legs, but sometimes wished they were less gamine, and had more muscle-tone. She looked great in jeans, she knew, but sometimes, unclothed, Asha wished there was more there for a man to appreciate.And a man to appreciate it.

“His father has a place in Jersey and every Thanksgiving the whole family is there, some friends … a whole mess of folks.”

Asha nodded, wondering where this was headed.

“Deuce invited us to come stay with them.”

“Wait. What?

She shook her head, wondering if somewhere along the line, while she’d been distracted she had missed a step in their conversation.

“Deuce wants us to come to Jersey for Thanksgiving.”

“Why would he want me to come to his house for Thanksgiving? He’s never spoken a single word to me. I don’t even think he knows my name.”

“He knows my name. And he knows that I’m not leaving you here.”

Asha opened her mouth but didn’t know what to say. She took a step back and lowered herself into the armchair opposite Kaleem. Biting her lower lip, she chewed on it for a few moments, buying time.

“Ahm … You … Why would you …? We don’t even know each other,” she said.

“You looked after me when I was sick.”

“I gave you two Advil and some soup.”

FourAdvil. And you let me sleep off my fever, and drool on your sofa,” Kaleem corrected her. “In my book, that means you don’t get to claim to be a stranger.Not anymore.”

Asha was touched. But she shook her head. “I can’t. It would be …”

“You know Zora Diallo?”

Asha nodded. “Yeah. I used to be a member of the BLM chapter, before … Before.”

A question flickered in Kaleem’s eyes. The obvious question. Asha hoped he wouldn’t ask it aloud.

“Zora is Deuce’s girl. She’ll be there, too. So,if you’re worried about being a third wheel, don’t. You’d be saving me from being the third wheel, for real.”

Asha said nothing.

“And you have a more than fair chance of meeting a couple of celebrities.” Kal squinted, as if making a last-ditch selling point.

“I’d be terrified to meet any celebrities,” Asha said quietly.

“Bullshit,” Kal said, just as quietly. “You don’t scare easy.”

“How do you know?”

“I don’t know how I know. I just do.”

Their eyes met, and Asha didn’t want to look away. His were an impenetrable shade of brown that was almost black, and their shape when he squinted a little, as he was doing now, was almost feline.

There was a time when Asha had been obsessed with ethnicity. It was the kind of obsession a kid with no idea of who her father might be developed. She searched faces on the street for clues, thinking, ‘That woman looks like me. She looks like we could come from the same place … And him … And her … and him.’ It was futile, and exhausting, and she had eventually given it up, but now she had a largely useless stockpile of information, and the uncanny ability to identify people as Haitian versus Jamaican, Argentinian versus Colombian. She was practically an Ethnic Studies savant.

Kaleem reminded Asha of pictures she had once pored over, of Fulani men, long, but strong neck, narrow nose-bridge with flared nostrils, and thick lips, balanced by a strong, square jaw. And the body. Coiled strength, in a deceptively long and lean frame.

Did he know he was beautiful?

“Come on, go with me,Snowflake,” Kaleem said, his voice low and hoarse. “Let’s you and me have a winter adventure.”

COMING IN 2018.

SAMPLE SUNDAY: ‘The Broken’ COMING SUMMER 2018

THEtakedown (1)

A lot of folks have reached out to ask me about Devin’s story. You may have met him in ‘The Takedown’. So I thought I’d give you a sample to let you know I’m working on it. This one is actually super-important to me, and I want to get it right. So, I’m projecting a late summer-early fall release. I work on it every now and then, when something strikes me about Devin. His story is not unlike that of someone I know and love very much, so I can’t screw it up. It will be a love story, of course, but with elements of two people learning to love themselves just as they learn to love each other. At the moment, I think I’m going to call it ‘The Broken’. Here’s a sample. Enjoy.

N.

From ‘The Broken’:

Half past midnight and well past drunk, Harper was sitting on the floor of her living room, pretending it didn’t matter that Matt and his boyfriend were cuddling on the sofa; and near her on the floor, his sister Sloan and her boyfriend, Ross were doing the same. They were watching a soulful French film that was non-linear and not at all conducive to getting drunk and high. The last thing one wanted to do when they had been drinking and smoking was read. And the second to last thing one wanted to do was feel like the fifth wheel. Harper was doing both.

All evening, she had been reaching for her phone, pretending to check iMessage, as though she had other options. But the truth was, she had imagined a very different kind of evening. She, Matt and his boyfriend had done the whole movies and chill routine many times, but it was easier with them, and more raucous. People stopped in at odd hours, bringing more drinks, more weed, and once in a while, even some harder stuff. And it would be fun and diverting, and Harper wouldn’t think, or even feel much of anything. The music would be loud, the television would be turned up to compete with the music and everyone would be practically shouting to be heard above it all. But this time, Matt had toned things down for his sister who was younger, and went to an artsy college. The French movie was her idea.

“Harper!”

She looked over her shoulder. Matt was talking to her, and she’d missed whatever it was he said. “Huh?”

“The door. Didn’t you hear it?”

“Nuh uh. Is someone out there?”

Matt looked at her with wide eyes. “Yeah. I guess. And I didn’t invite anyone else, so …”

Harper sat upright. Alert suddenly.

Please, she thought. Please. Please. Please.

Standing, she shook her head a little to clear it. It was almost one in the morning. She hadn’t even given it a thought that he might …

Devin was standing there when she opened the door. He was in jeans and a long-sleeved black t-shirt. He looked lean and rangy. And as always, he looked good. So, so good.

And Harper was surprised that she had the urge to hug him. If she did, he would probably recoil in shock. As it was, he was looking at her as though his being there was as unexpected to him as it was to her.

“Hey,” he said. He didn’t smile.

The corners of her mouth twitched as she tried not to do so herself.

“Hey.”

~~~~~~

Devin was up before anyone else.

Harper was still asleep next to him. Her apartment, her neighborhood, were so quiet, it was almost unnerving. Even though he had much nicer digs himself now, he still remembered what it was like to live in Brownsville, where he was accustomed to noise all night, just outside his window. Baseheads and other junkies wandering the street, shouting expletives at each other, sometimes getting high in the tiny alleyway just behind the building. Sometimes, he heard people having transactional sex, the grunts and groans cursory, sad, and sometimes theatrical, because the pleasure was being faked.

Harper’s bedroom was like sleeping in a cocoon. Twice he’d woken up, reminding himself of where he was by looking around. She had posters on the walls, like a teenager might. Of Tupac, Jimi Hendrix, and OutKast. And framed LP covers, from eighties artists like MC Lyte and Chubb Rock; artists who had been talented enough, famous enough, but who were mismatched and counter-intuitive. Devin had a feeling that if he asked her, she would have very specific reasons for why she liked each one, and maybe even specific memories associated with them.

She was an interesting, and strange chick. When she talked about music, it was with a light in her eyes that made him want to smile, because it was something he almost never saw in people who weren’t themselves musicians. That light—the way she looked when she talked about music—was what made him want to sleep with her that first time. He noticed that she was pretty, probably even beautiful, but he noticed that as an afterthought. The exteriors of people were sometimes the least interesting parts of them. Inside was where all the action happened; and in some people, it was where the darkness lived. You couldn’t trust anything that was on the outside.

But still, Harper’s outside appealed to him. He reached beneath the sheets and touched her. She moaned in her sleep and opened her legs a little wider. Watching her face, Devin stroked her. Her eyelids fluttered as she came awake, and finally her hazel eyes were visible, clouded over and unfocused. He kept his gaze fixed on them, moving his fingers in slow and then faster circles, feeling as she grew moist, then slippery, then sopping wet. Harper’s lips parted and she moaned, her hips lifting off the bed.

“Devin,” she said. She bit into her lower lip, and all the while, her eyes remained open, and she stared right into his. “Devin,” she said again.

He had the sudden and surprising urge to kiss her mouth. He still wasn’t used to kissing on the mouth when he was fucking. He had kissed Kay, when they had that kind of relationship, a long time ago, but no one since, except now, Harper. But with Kay it was because he had never just fucked her. What they had done was about love, and after her, he had loved no one else. Kissing was too intimate to do with just anyone.

He had been mindlessly stimulating Harper while his mind drifted, so Devin was almost startled when she lifted her hips even higher off the bed, and emitted a low, deep cry as she came. Then she was limp again, still looking at him, her eyes lazy and half-shut. She smiled.

“Good morning,” she said.

One corner of Devin’s mouth lifted at the unexpectedness of the greeting, at the irrelevance of it. Just as their greeting at her front door the evening before had been irrelevant. In the things they didn’t say, sometimes it felt as though he and Harper actually said a great deal.

~~~~~~

“Did you find an apartment?”

Harper was sitting opposite him in the diner down the block from her house. It was a faux-diner, really. Decorated to look old-fashioned, but in reality, brand spanking new. A breakfast of two eggs, home-fries and bacon cost fifteen dollars. Devin shook his head in disbelief and put down the menu.

“No?”

He looked up at Harper. “No, I mean, yes, I found one.”

“Where is it?”

“Couple stops from here. Near the bridge.”

Harper looked surprised. “Oh. Wow. Cool.”

She was wondering, as Makayla had, how he could afford it. But unlike Makayla, Harper wouldn’t ask.

The waitress showed up and Devin ordered the expensive two-egg breakfast, after Harper had ordered her own. And once their coffees were refreshed, their server left them alone again. The only other people in the diner were young families, couples with kids, cajoling them through waffles and pancakes, trying to keep their little hands away from the syrup.

“You want to come see it?” Devin asked, on a whim.

“You have the keys and everything already?” Harper asked. “You signed a lease?”

He nodded, and shrugged. “I’m not picky.”

Harper laughed. “I know. I’ve seen the place you have now, remember? Are you going to be able to get out of that lease?”

“Lease?” Devin laughed. “That place is barely habitable. They’re lucky I don’t report them for all the code violations.”

“I do want to come see it,” Harper said. She moved the salt and pepper shakers back and forth, like someone playing a game of chess and contemplating her next move. “But I have to … I’ve got someplace to be today.”

Devin leaned back, studying her. This was the first time in ages he could remember seeing her outside of his apartment in the cold light of day. Her eyes looked more amber than hazel. Her lips were pink. It was like she was suddenly in technicolor.

“What?” she asked.

He had been staring, and it embarrassed her.

“I was just wondering what it is you’re doing today that makes you not want to come see my new crib,” he lied.

“I do want to see it. This is just … it’s something I can’t get out of. Again.”

“So you’ve gotten out of it in the past?”

“Many times. But my chits have all been used up.” She shrugged.

“What is it?” he asked. “This thing you’ve gotten out of many times before.”

“I’d rather not say.”

Devin didn’t press. Because if it were him, he would not want to be pressed.

“But maybe after?” Harper asked.

Devin shrugged. “Maybe,” he said.

 

COMING SUMMER 2018

SAMPLE SUNDAY: ‘Young, Rich & Black’

Holding her phone between her shoulder and the side of her head, Zora stuffed her black one-piece swimsuit and a brown viscose skirt into her hobo along with an orange scarf and a long-sleeved beige t-shirt.

“You talk to Rashad since you’ve been home?” the voice on the other end of the line asked.

“Nope. He hit me up a couple of times, but I didn’t pick up. All we have right now to talk about at the moment is business, and I’m on Break, so …”

“Yeah, but you guys barely even broke up. After two years being together, that’s kind of cold to cut a brother off like that. And I can’t believe you’re going to hang out with Deuce Scaife again.”

“Mia,” Zora sighed. “It’s no big deal. I’m just …”

“Trying to get a little of that good-good,” her friend cackled on the other end of the line. “I don’t blame you, girl. Nothing like it to get you over the post-relationship hump. No pun intended. And if what I hear about him is true …”

the-optics-of-it-the-black-power-coupleOh, it was definitely true. But Mia didn’t need to know all that.

“Mia, I’ll call you back when I get home later. And please stop bringing up Rashad. He is definitely past tense.”

“If you say so. But dudes like Rashad don’t come a dime-a-dozen. You should …”

Zora held the phone away from her ear.

She had heard this sermon one time too many for her taste—about how Rashad was a “woke brother”, how he was on some “Barack Obama-type shit” and most of all how rare he was. That was the kind of talk that helped lead Zora into such an intense relationship with him so quickly in the first place; and it was probably also responsible for her staying in said relationship for at least one year too long.

It was just that the optics of her and Rashad were too powerful to ignore. People loved the idea of them. Together, they looked like the prototype of the ideal Black power couple—her with the dark skin and big natural, and Rashad, with his militant bearing and unrelenting scowl, staring down anyone who dared to look at him even halfway funny. And that they were co-chairs and co-founders of a Black Lives Matter chapter? That just made it even more of a modern Black American storybook romance.

When she was honest with herself, Zora admitted that it wasn’t just other people who loved the idea of her and Rashad. She had too. Until just a few months ago, she was as bought into the story as anyone else. Breaking it off had actually given her a few anxiety attacks. What if he was The One? What if she was being foolish by letting him go?

There was no question Rashad was going to be making some big moves in the next few years. He was the guy who would miss his five-year college reunion, but only because he was running for State Senate, or was a nationally-respected activist too busy to attend since he was on a speaking tour. But being in love with Rashad’s passion and drive; being enamored of his politics, and in sync with his worldview wasn’t the same as being in love, enamored with or in sync with Rashad himself. It had taken Zora a long time to acknowledge that, and now she was determined not to backslide by having anyone persuade her otherwise. She had been avoiding his calls mostly because of all the people who might attempt that persuasion, Rashad was the most persuasive of all.

Deuce Scaife was a convenient, albeit very pleasurable, antidote to that. No one could be more different from Rashad than he was. When they met up that night, completely by accident after his traffic stop, she had taken her shot, partly to see what would happen if she did; and partly because he had—much to her surprise—been just as magnetic as all the rumors suggested.

Glancing at the face of her phone, she checked the time. He would be pulling up at any minute. And since she preferred to head him off at the front door, or better yet at the curb, she needed to get downstairs fast. The last thing she wanted was for her brother, Ousmane, to spot the car outside and suggest that she invite her guest in. His, and her father’s more traditional sensibilities would be offended if she snuck out with some anonymous guy without at least introducing him for their inspection.

“Mia, let me catch up with you later,” she said, cutting her friend off mid-sentence. “I need to get out of here before Ousmane starts getting on my nerves.”

“Okay. But answer the brother’s call, Zora. Even if you’re not planning to get back with him, y’all can still do some good work together.”

In that, Mia had a point. BLM was facing a lot of negative media backlash, and along with about a dozen other college chapters, there had been talk about having a stakeholder call over the holidays to strategize on how to counter all that. The problem with decentralized movements like BLM was that a few knuckleheads; or as was the case in New York, a lone gunman with misguided motives and a history of mental illness, could blow the whole thing up in one news cycle. Just because nationally, the movement lacked the resources to coordinate a rapid-response strategy.

They had lost a lot of ground over the past few months and were in danger of losing control of the media narrative altogether. But luckily, Rashad was a master strategist. If they had a stakeholder call, Zora was confident he would have more than a few good ideas for how they might recapture their hard-earned public support.

On the handful of occasions when he had been in the media locally, Rashad had owned the interview, coming across as articulate, thoughtful and commanding of the facts. His credibility had no doubt given credibility to the movement itself. Zora still remembered the hundreds of emails and text messages he had gotten from chapters and individual supporters around the country. The buzz online about him after one particular radio interview that past spring had enabled them to raise over ten thousand dollars for their chapter in less than a week.

In a word, Rashad Dixon was impressive.

“Admiration is not love, Zora,” she whispered to herself.

Available now, exclusively on Amazon.

 

** EXCLUSIVE SAMPLE **

exploringFrom ‘Young, Rich and Black’:

“Human relationships are complicated,” Rashad said. “You can’t rig that shit. It just happens the way it happens.”

Zora said nothing, keeping her hands folded on her lap, listening to him talk.

Usually, she loved listening to Shad talk. He had such agency of expression, such complete command of his words. They were currency for him—buying him entrée into circles where most young, Black men would never go. After Penn State, he was going to law school at Stanford, and after that, who knew? The sky was certainly the limit for someone like Shad but he wanted to be out West. He liked that he was going to be close to Oakland, because like lots of East Coast Black activists, he was in love with the city as the birthplace of the Black Panther Movement and imagined that there, some of the magic from that time would rub off.

“And I definitely understand why you were curious about him. I mean, hell, how many like him we got out there, apart from the ballers?”

He was talking about Deuce. Because after an hour of barely-disguised curiosity about how inaccessible she had been to him over most of the Break, he guessed that she had what he called “a fling” with someone. So, not wanting to act like Deuce was a dirty secret, and most of all wanting to put an end to the probing, Zora had just come out with it.

I drove home with Deuce Scaife, she said. And we wound up spending some time together over Break.

Yes, they spent time together. Lots of time. And then there was New Year’s Eve which was amazing. Scarily so. So scary that when Deuce had taken her home the next morning, Zora ignored all his calls and texts, instead immersing herself in her parents and brother for the next day and a half, then packing all her stuff to return to school.

She called Shad late on the night of the third of January, and suggested that they get going sooner rather than later. He was there before nine a.m. on the fourth and they had hit the road in his reliable but beat-up Toyota 4Runner.

Today, she knew for sure, Deuce would give up calling and stop by her parents’ house. He would have exhausted his limited patience by now; and knowing her planned departure date would simply show up. He was spoiled in that way. Spoiled in every way, really. He just wanted what he wanted when he wanted it. He never waited for anything. Not even for her. When he wanted her, he just … took her.

Sighing, Zora shook her head. It wasn’t working. She wasn’t going to be able to work up anything resembling anger at him. Because he had never treated her with anything but respect, and care and consideration. If his greatest sin was that he wanted her all the time, and didn’t like waiting to have her, then she was in for a hard road to get him and their “fling” out of her system.

“I don’t mean to get all in your business or anything,” Rashad continued. “But as far as you and him …”

“Nothing changes,” Zora said. “We were just … kickin’ it over Break.”

She couldn’t even look at him when she said those words, because they felt so blatantly false. But it was basically what she and Deuce had agreed to—the temporary shedding of expectations. And that was all.

“Figured.”

“What does that mean?” Zora snapped.

Rashad shrugged, looking away from the road for a moment. “Nothing. I just don’t see bruh at a BLM march, do you?”

“It’s not like he’s oblivious to what’s going on out there. He’s been stopped before.”

Rashad laughed. “Impressive. Him, and every other Black man in America. That’s hardly the equivalent of street cred.”

Zora rolled her eyes. “He’s more than you think, Rashad,” she murmured. “And besides, that wasn’t what it … what we were about.”

“Okay, so tell me,” Rashad’s voice rose a little, and Zora heard the annoyance, and the jealousy he had concealed before. “What were you about?”

“It doesn’t matter,” she said. “Because …”

“Did you fuck him?”

“Shad.”

“You did, right? Because that’s all I can think of that would make someone like that interesting to someone like you. Curiosity about the magic dick that sends all these dumb-ass girls scurrying his way to get used.”

Zora’s stomach clenched at the phrase, ‘sends all the girls scurrying his way.’

But that was Deuce’s rep. And though Rashad hadn’t said it, implicit in his comment was some judgment about the type of girls Deuce was notorious for bedding. He generally checked for Latinas and White chicks, and the precious few who weren’t, may as well have been since they looked it. His type was so firmly established that even people on campus who had never exchanged three words with him could probably pick his likely sex partners out of a line-up.

Zora knew what it was like to be fetishized. Since puberty there had been guys, some of them White, some of them Black, for whom her darkness, her unmistakable Blackness, seemed to be her single most irresistible feature. They stared at her in a manner that was vaguely disturbing, sometimes putting their arm against hers, rhapsodizing about the contrast in their skin tones. Or they played a little too often with her wiry, kinky hair, testing its texture, stretching and releasing it; examining each component of her as though she was a rare museum piece.

Deuce wasn’t like that.

He never remarked on their differences, but instead, often told her she was beautiful, or pretty. Even Rashad had never done that—leaned in, though they were in a crowded room, in a Target checkout line, or waiting for movie tickets—and with mouth against her ear, whispered, you’re so beautiful or damn, you look amazing today.

Where’d you learn that? Zora had asked him once. Where did you learn to make a girl feel so good?

But that time, she meant something else entirely. Deuce had been at the foot of the bed, between her legs. When he lifted his head, he looked dizzy, and drunk with her. Sliding up along her body, he was rock-hard.

Making you feel good, makes me feel good, he said almost matter-of-factly. And you don’t know, Zee … you taste better than anything in this world.

Then he kissed her, long and deep so she could taste herself as well. But Zora still didn’t know what he was talking about. To her, what made the kiss good, was just … him.

“You know what?” Rashad said now. “It don’t matter. You fucked him, but it’s over. That’s the important thing. It’s over. And I’m confident in my shit … Fuck that nigga.”

Available Now on Amazon

 

 

 

Letting Go #HolidayShorts

 

holidayshorts-1“Will you think about it?”

“Yes, I said I would.” Karen heard the strain in her voice.

Fearing that she had also been too loud, she glanced worriedly toward the stairs. She didn’t want to wake the kids. The last thing she needed was to have one of them come wandering out and with sleepy eyes, spot Kaden’s football coach sneaking out of their house while it was still dark outside.

“I think it’s an important step, Karen,” Vic said. “For all of us.”

“The kids …”

“I meant them too,” he said, his eyes holding hers. “It’s time.”

“Okay. We’ll talk again later. But for now you have to …”

“I know,” he said, his eyes narrowing. “Leave before they see me.”

Karen sighed and leaned in, hoping the quick kiss would placate him. At least for the moment.

Across her lawn, behind her neighbor’s house across the street, and in the horizon, she could see the pinkish-orange splashes across the sky. The sun was almost up, and with it, Jasmin and Kaden.

Since they were on Winter Break they seemed to have no trouble getting out of bed in the morning; unlike school days when she practically had to drag them from beneath the covers.

Karen watched as Vic made his way down her long driveway and toward his car. He’d parked on the street, the way he always did, because Karen was paranoid about her neighbors or the kids seeing a strange car in the driveway in the middle of the night. The neighbors wouldn’t care. Or if they did, they would probably cheer for her. Her kids, she wasn’t so sure about.

Vic reached his car and turned to give her a brief wave before getting in and pulling away. She heaved a sigh of both relief and resignation. Watching him leave was hard, and getting harder. But what else was she supposed to do?

He’s fed-up, Karen, the little voice in her head warned. He’s going to leave you.

Shoving it aside, Karen shut the door and leaned against it for a few moments before taking another breath and heading into the kitchen. She would make herself a cup of chai before attending to the kids’ breakfast. Putting on the tea kettle, she reached for her iPad and checked her schedule. There was very little on it—a hair appointment, a manicure, lunch with Priss and Amy, and then shopping with the kids. They still had to get presents. For their cousins, their aunt and uncle and their grandparents. And of course, for their siblings.

The ones for their brothers and sister were harder, because Karen didn’t really know Chris’ other kids. That made it difficult to overrule the choices Jasmin and Kaden made. Deuce was in college now—a sophomore, a junior? Karen couldn’t remember. And the babies, Caitlyn and Landyn were both under four. But mothers were strange sometimes; they had all these rules about what they wanted or didn’t want to their kids to play with. And though Robyn didn’t strike Karen as being that kind of a stickler, one never knew.

Everything to do with Chris’ wife caused Karen to feel a low-level hum of anxiety. She didn’t want to offend, nor to commit some kind of faux pas. But no matter what she did, she couldn’t help but feel that she might never measure up. Not that Robyn had ever given her any reason to feel that way. It was just that damned voice in her head, the one that Vic was always telling her was a liar.

If it tells you you’re not beautiful, it’s lying, he said one night as he kissed her shoulder. If it tells you you’re not an amazing mother, friend … it’s lying.

Vic was so sensitive, so understanding in that way. He didn’t get impatient with her insecurities, or find them to be a turn-off the way Chris had. Instead, he soothed them away.

When they were together, Chris loathed the way she put herself down, the way she assumed, with no evidence whatsoever, that just about everyone was smarter, more consequential, more … everything than she was. It was one of many things that made them a mismatch probably. The fact that Chris knew, or at least had learned how to project the impression that he was better than most people at most things; that he was way ahead of everyone else. She had admired, and envied that about him. Maybe the admiration had been too much, and had turned to simpering, and that was what made him leave her.

But what did it matter now? That part of her life was long done with. Chris was happily married and she was with Vic. So why was it she couldn’t stop thinking about it? It had been years, but she still thought about it almost every day—what she might have done differently so that Chris would have stayed.

What made it harder to turn that question off was his larger-than-life image which seemed to follow her, no matter where she went. Even Priss and Amy never tired of probing about her past relationship, now almost ten years dead.

So … what was he like? Amy had once asked, a twinkle in her eyes.

And when Karen looked confused at the question she’d asked it again, this time with a different inflection.

I mean, you know, what was he like?

And that was when Karen realized she meant sexually. What had Chris been like sexually? It was the most frequent area of curiosity for women up here in staid Bronxville with their controlled glamor, and New York-lite fashions.

I wouldn’t even know how to answer a question like that, Karen had laughed.

Answer it truthfully, Amy suggested. Was he, like, really … wild and rough?

Karen smiled at her friend. No more so than any other man, I guess.

Amy looked disappointed. Karen couldn’t figure out whether her disappointment was that Chris wouldn’t live up to her Mandingo fantasies, or that Karen was disinclined to share that he had.

Amy and Priss weren’t even properly classified as ‘friends’. They were the mothers of her kids’ friends; women she was repeatedly thrown together with during all those enforced socials associated with various teams, committees and neighborhood associations. Amy used to have a career as a gallery manager until she had her third kid; and Priss, whose real name was Priscilla (swear to God) was a jewelry-maker in SoHo until she met her hedge fund manager husband. It was easier to hang out with Amy and Priss than some of the other mothers because Karen secretly didn’t think ‘gallery manager’ and ‘jewelry maker’ were real careers.

Some of the other mothers, though they were now stay-at-homes like Karen, Amy and Priss used to be lawyers, venture capital consultants, compliance officers. Those women formed their own little tribe, and clustered together at socials, talking about things like President Obama’s energy policy or whether or not Hillary Clinton would have made a good president (‘I mean gender aside,’ Karen heard one mother say, ‘What did she really bring to the table other than that she wasn’t the other guy?’). Karen wouldn’t have had any idea how to contribute to that conversation. She hadn’t even registered to vote.

She met Vic at one of those events. It was a celebratory dinner for Kaden’s football team and Vic had stopped in because he was a local celebrity. He used to play for the Giants until an injury forced him into broadcasting instead. Now he was on ESPN as a commentator. Karen hadn’t even known that his kids went to Kaden and Jasmin’s school. But truth be told, even if she had known, she wasn’t sure she would have recognized his name.

When he’d walked into the restaurant for the team dinner, Karen noted how all the other mothers had straightened up in their seats, some of them flipping their hair, or jutting their chins and chests forward. All the boys on the team had oohed and aahed. Some of them, including Kaden, shoved back from their seats to rush him. Vic had smiled and taken it in stride, high-fiving some of them, shaking the hands of others, and beaming at them all.

Vic Elliot, someone whispered into Karen’s ear. His son doesn’t play anymore, but he promised to stop by as a special surprise.

Vic was handsome, tall and still had the build of a pro athlete. Karen found it hard to look him directly in the eye when introduced. When she got home later that evening and Kaden and Jasmin were in bed, she Googled him. He had retired from the NFL four years prior and had two kids with his ex-wife, a former Miss New York. Vic had custody, and his divorce had been messy and public. His children were almost the exact same age as Jasmin and Kaden—a boy one year younger than Jasmin, and a girl, one year older than Kaden.

There were lots of pictures of Vic online. Enough to convince Karen that a crush on him was pointless and unwise. That was all she needed. Even if he was by some remote possibility to become interested in her, there was no way she was subjecting herself to being involved with a high-profile man who had been married to a beauty queen, and also dated models. Oh no. Never again. Her self-esteem wasn’t nearly durable enough for that.

~~~

Karen took the whistling kettle off the stove and poured it over her teabag. She took a deep breath, reveling in the aroma of the chai for a few moments before adding sweetener and cream. Just as she did, the phone rang. She reached for it, grabbing it out of the cradle before the second ring to avoid having it wake the kids.

“Hey,” the voice on the other end said. He still had the power to make her heart race.

Karen wasn’t sure why that was, since she was no longer in love’with Chris. But there was part of her, still, that wanted his approval and always felt as though she was falling just a few steps short of ever having it.

“You’re calling early,” she said. “Everything okay?”

“Just trying to get some things straight for the holidays. You said you’re bringing the kids over tomorrow, right?”

“Yes,” Karen confirmed. “Or you could send your driver. Just because the traffic this time of year will be awful. I’d like to avoid driving too far.”

That was a lie. She wasn’t worried about traffic. She just hated pulling up to that house—the house where she used to live—and letting her kids out of the car, usually running because they were so eager to see their younger brother and sister. And this time, since Deuce would be home, there was that as well. Kaden would be jumping up and down in his seat, just dying to leave his boring old mother behind and spend time with the older brother he practically worshipped. Karen swallowed the lump that rose in her throat. It used to be that Christmas was hers and and the kids’ alone.

Back then, she had yearned for Chris to pay more attention to their children. Had prayed for it in fact. Now that he had made a family with someone else, he wanted Jasmin and Kaden with him as much as possible. Karen was grateful for that, because they adored their father, but it also broke her heart just the tiniest bit as well. They had been absorbed into a large, mysterious new family system that didn’t include her.

“That shouldn’t be a problem,” Chris said right away. “I’ll have Rick come get them. What time you think?”

“I don’t know. Maybe around three or so?”

“Cool. And what time do you need them back?”

Hesitating, Karen thought about what Vic said. They could spend Christmas together, just the two of them, if she was willing to let her kids go stay with their father.

We’d take them out Christmas Eve, both of us together, he suggested. Your kids and mine. Let them know we’re together, and then maybe, if you’re comfortable with it, you’d explain to yours that they’re spending the holiday with their Dad for a change.

At first Karen had resented the suggestion. Who was he to tell her she should ship her children off for the most important holiday of the year? But that wasn’t his motive. His kids were going to be with their mother, and he would be alone as well. It would give them some time to plan for the future, think about whether they wanted a future that included the other.

You’re not just their mom, Karen, he said. You’re my woman, too. They have a father. You don’t have to hold them so close. It’s time to give yourself and them, a little more rope. Let go a little.

She’d promised him she would think about it. She did want Jasmin and Kaden to know about Vic. At first, she concealed it because of the awkwardness of it all. Vic had started coaching the team. That was how they’d started—Karen and Vic exchanging glances during games, and then finally, he invited her out for a drink, and then dinner. It had been a slow courtship because both their lives were largely about their kids. Well, her life was about her kids and his was about his kids and his demanding job. But he hung in there with her. Even when they first spent the night together and she’d snuck him out the back door like a fugitive. And even though that arrangement had been going on for months now, with her showing no inclination whatsoever to change it.

Then last night, he insisted.

I want to think about what a life together someday might be like. But … with things like they are… I need you to tell your kids. I need us to spend real, couple time together.

“Karen?” Chris prompted. “What time do you need them back tomorrow evening? I want to make sure they get a chance to see Deuce before they go home.”

God, he was different. Trying to arrange things with his children in mind was definitely not the guy he used to be. But more likely, he was acting on instructions from Robyn.

“I’m … I was thinking that … I was considering whether you might want to … you know, to keep them for Christmas,” Karen said. Her heart was pounding, just saying the words, never mind considering actually following through with them.

Chris said nothing for what felt like a really long time. Finally, he took a breath. “You sure?” he asked.

“No,” Karen said, with a sound that was half-laugh, half-sob.

“Everything okay?” Chris asked after a few more beats. He never did know how to handle it when she got emotional; had never understood nor connected with any of her feelings as a matter of fact.

“No. I mean, yes.”

“Which is it? No, or yes?” He sounded mildly impatient.

That was another thing he never had much comprehension of: how women could simultaneously hold two completely opposing impulses, and feel both with equal conviction.

“It’s just … I … I have … I’m with someone,” she began. “And …”

“And he doesn’t want the kids around?” Chris asked, his voice rising. “Is that it?”

“No, no, it’s not that. He has kids as well. They’re going to be away. He wants us to spend Christmas Eve morning with all the kids and then he and I would spend Christmas Day together. He thinks I need to …”

“Do what you want to do, Karen. Don’t let some dude …”

“He’s not like that,” she said sharply. “He just thinks I need to give the kids some breathing room, give you a chance to spend the holiday with them. And give us a chance to see where we could take things, y’know, with our relationship.”

Once again, Chris remained silent for a long while. “I don’t know what to tell you. Other than, I would love to have them for Christmas. And Robyn would love to have them. So whatever you decide … that’ll be fine with us.”

Us.

Now, Chris was speaking in terms of an ‘us’. He was in love with his wife. Like truly, deeply and completely in love with her. Karen sighed quietly. She had to stop letting that surprise her the way it did. She had to stop letting it sting the way it did. He had never loved her that way. Maybe he had never loved her at all.

“So I’ll decide and let you know,” she said, trying to pull herself together.

“Yeah, okay. I’ll send Rick for them tomorrow around three and if you plan to let them stay, send them with their bags and we’ll talk later about when you want them to come back. Sound good?”

“Sure,” she said. “Sounds like a plan. Bye Chris.”

“Yeah, bye. But Karen?”

“Yeah?”

“If he’s a good guy, maybe you should let yourself have that. Y’know what I mean? Our kids are going to be okay.”

Our kids. Sometimes, though they lived with her, and she was their primary caregiver, it felt like she was raising his kids. That sense was only heightened because of the money he deposited into her account each month. It was a sum most people with full-time employment would love to see; but each time Karen saw it, it made her feel small.

Because it was way more than a court would have mandated for child support – it was enough for nice clothes, not just for the children, but her as well; and for lunches out every week, and for trips, dinners, spa days. It felt like too much, and sometimes made her ashamed because within months of meeting Chris all those years ago, she had never worked another day. To alleviate the guilt, Karen gave some of the money away to her siblings and parents, and saved some for the kids in accounts they would have access to when they were in college.

“They’ll be okay.” Chris said again. “Other than missing you like hell on Christmas morning.”

Karen smiled. That was something she always forgot about him—occasionally, he knew precisely what a woman needed to hear.

~~~

“Baby. I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” Vic kept saying. “Maybe you just weren’t ready. I shouldn’t have pushed you to do this.”

“No, you were right,” Karen said, wiping her nose. “It is time. I mean, how ridiculous am I? Standing here crying because my kids just left to go have an amazing time with their father? I should be happy, right?”

Vic put an arm around her shoulder and pulled her against him, and when Karen lifted her chin, she saw that he looked uncertain about whether to believe her. Unsure of whether he had done the right thing by insisting on this.

Jasmin and Kaden had been a little quiet and standfoffish at first with Vic’s two kids, but neither of them seemed to take issue with the fact that Vic was their mother’s new ‘boyfriend’. In fact, Kaden seemed to think it was pretty cool, having a pro football player—and his coach!—become such a huge part of his life.

Vic and Karen had taken the kids to brunch at First Watch, then they went to the mall together to do some last-minute shopping. After a little while, Jasmin and Vic’s daughter Sarah had peeled off on their own to look at clothes in a tween clothing store. Kaden and Vic’s son Vic, Jr. had less to say to each other.

See? Vic said as they walked together hand-in-hand. It’s fine. They’re fine.

And they were. And she was as well. Until Rick showed up to get them in the black Lincoln with the darly-tinted windows that Chris had his driver use whenever he was chauffeuring family members. Jasmin and Kaden piled in. Carrying with them favorite pillows, luggage and the mountain of gifts that they’d bought for everyone, they barely spared her a backward glance. As they pulled away, Karen waved energetically from the front door, and when they were out of sight, burst into noisy tears.

Vic, who had been discreetly waiting inside for her to say her goodbyes came out to get her, and now was comforting her while they sat together on the sofa.

Karen wiped her nose again and braved a smile.

“So now it’s just you and me,” she said, trying to sound bright. “What’re we going to do with all this time?”

Vic grinned at her and she blushed. He was a voracious lover, and made Karen feel for the first time in her life like she might really, truly let herself enjoy it. When she was younger, before she had her kids, she used to find that difficult. It felt good, but there was always a part of her that was self-conscious about the sounds she made, the exposure of her whole, naked self, and of the noisiness of her orgasms. With Vic, she sometimes cried when she came and he held her, and kissed her as though her tears were the most natural thing in the world.

Let go, Vic would say, his breath whispering against her ear. Just let go.

She wasn’t quite sure she was there yet, but maybe with him, she finally could.

~~~

Later, when they were in her bed, Vic with his head thrown back, not quite snoring but breathing heavily, she lay wide awake and staring at him, studying him—the lines and planes of his square jaw, the broad but high-bridged nose, the thick, well-formed lips and the solid musculature of his neck. This was her man, if she wanted him. If she could just allow herself to believe it.

The phone rang, interrupting her scrutiny. Taking a breath, she picked up. Next to her, Vic rolled onto his stomach.

“Hello?” she said, her voice low.

“Karen?”

She sat up. Oh no. Why her? And why now? Just when she was beginning to think about feeling comfortable in her own skin.

“Robyn. Hi!” Her voice sounded falsely perky.

“Hi. So, the kids got here okay. And don’t worry, everything’s fine. But I had a thought.”

“A thought?”

“Yes. Chris told me why you were sending them over for the holidays, and …”

“I didn’t mean to impose,” Karen said hastily. “I know it’s last-minute and …”

“No, no, it’s not that,” Robyn said. “It’s just that he also told me a little bit about why you wanted them to stay. And so I wondered …”

Karen waited.

“We already have a full house for Christmas dinner and Chris said you’ve never not had Christmas with the kids, so if you and your friend, if you didn’t have other plans for dinner … Did you both want to stop by here?”

Karen pulled the sheet up to cover her bare chest. How unthreatening Robyn must find her, to make such an invitation?

Stop it, Karen!

“I … I’d love to but …”

“Great!”

“I mean, before I could say, I would have to ask Vic. Maybe he’s already made plans for us.”

“And if he has, don’t change them on my behalf,” Robyn said. “But I thought of you when I saw Jasmin and Kaden come charging in. And how you probably miss them already. So … anyway. Only if you want, but the invitation is an open one. We have dinner early, like around two. So please come. If you’d like.”

Karen thought of Chris’ friends—Brendan and Tracy, Riley and Shawn, Robyn’s family, Jamal Turner and his fiancée. They were all nice enough, but they were Chris’ and Robyn’s friends. That was their life, and she had a chance now to rebuild her own. She didn’t need Robyn to feel sorry for her, and glancing over at Vic, she realized she didn’t need to feel sorry for herself either.

“Thank you,” she said, her voice a little stronger now. “That’s really nice of you, but on second thought, I think it’ll be good for the kids to be with you and their father. So I’m going to decline.”