Summer has an invitation to ‘Black America’s Wedding of the Decade’ and wouldn’t miss it for the world. Deuce Scaife is finally marrying his college sweetheart Zora Diallo (an outcome that was never in doubt, by the way, except maybe to the two people getting married) and since there’ll be celebrities all over the event, it’s in an expensive, remote location and all very hush-hush.
As an up and coming blogger and YouTuber for a series called ‘The Black Girls’ Guide to Slaying at Absolutely Everything’ Summer’s stock will increase considerably if she documents her experience at the wedding celebrations.
But when an unforeseen obstacle presents itself, Summer realizes she can only go to the most exclusive of the wedding events if she shares accommodations with the insufferable Lloyd Winston. Lloyd is a conservative, stuffy wannabe politico whom Summer is shocked even got an invite.
But whatever … she can tolerate him for one winter weekend, right?
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
“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
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
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.
“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?”
“I don’t believe in God,” Thea says conversationally.
“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
“Sometimes violent. But not random.”
“If you really believe that, Mr. Carter, then you must have
been a lucky, lucky man.”
An unedited excerpt from Chapter 1 of ‘Rhyme & Reason’, from the new generation of ‘Afterwards’ novels, coming 2019.
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.
you have my whole name in your contacts?
you’re kind of famous.
Deuce had twisted his lips and narrowed his eyes
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.
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.
watching Netflix all on my own. On a Friday night. Yes, I was.
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.
“Springing up on you. I mean … it wasn’t fair. I
On the other end of the line, Deuce sighed. “I
don’t know that it would have made a difference anyway,” he said.
“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.
“It’s goin’ okay, I guess. Mostly I’m learning
the business, y’know?”
“Does your father help?”
“I don’t ask him.”
“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,
“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
Then they both laughed at the same time.
“Okay, fine,” she said. “There were moments, I
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
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.”
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.’
“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.
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.”
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
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 …”
Oh, 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.
“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.
“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?”
“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.”