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.”

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.