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.


“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.” 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.”

Babymaking: A Tracy and Brendan Drop-in

BabymakingThis is an unedited excerpt from a longer piece, coming in 2017:

Given that it was almost one a.m., Brendan was sure Tracy had long departed seriously-pissed-off and was somewhere approaching ballistic. But there hadn’t been any way to avoid it. The men he’d been entertaining all evening had flown in from Dubai. They were young Saudi sheiks, or sons of entrepreneurs or some such thing, with money to burn and looking to invest in music.

The Saudis were always hard to shake. When they came to the States they didn’t just expect to be shown a good time. No, these guys wanted pure debauchery. Strip clubs, loose women, hard liquor—the whole nine yards. That was the part of his business that Brendan seldom talked about with Tracy. She didn’t like him being around women in power-suits let alone those in G-strings shaking their tail in his face. And while Brendan never partook in that manner of festivity, he was definitely expected to be along for the ride.

Tonight, his charge had been a twenty-three year old with a potential $2.5 million investment who happened to like blondes. But he and his entourage had two very specific requests: full nudity and twerking. Easy enough in New York City, right? Wrong. Because dude also wanted them to have big butts. Like, really big. The stripper aesthetic differed from city to city, and big butts were more of a down South thing. New York clubs were more into toned and athletic girls, some of them more on the slender side. So they’d been to three clubs before Karim or Jahir or whatever-the-hell-his-name-was had found the perfect dancer who met his and his friends’ requirements. And then they’d spent the better part of three hours making it rain. What should have been a perfectly respectable evening having a few early drinks with potential business associates had turned into a frat boy’s wet dream.

And a husband’s nightmare.

Brendan couldn’t hear her as he opened the front door—the house was completely silent—but he knew for a fact that Tracy was wide awake. Wide awake and waiting.

Making his way up the stairs slowly, he tried to avoid the loud spots, but of course, failed. The door to the master bedroom, which was directly opposite the top of the stairs, was ajar. They were staying in Brooklyn these days, in the house that Tracy owned before they got married. Layla was starting to need more space and they’d agreed that the apartment in the city had way too many perils, not the least of which was the beautiful but child-unfriendly spiral staircase that led up to the loft.

Pausing before going in, Brendan instead decided to go check in on his little girl. The second bedroom, once Tracy’s home office, had been transformed into an explosion of pink, ruffles and butterflies, at the center of which was a “princess sleigh-bed”. And in the center of that bed, his baby girl lay, sleeping sweet little-girl dreams, her long wild, reddish-auburn hair spread around her head like a halo, her rosebud mouth slightly open, her breaths soft and even.

Smiling, Brendan knelt next to the bed and inhaled, kissing her lightly on the cheek and then on the forehead. In her sleep, Layla stretched out her arms, waiting to be lifted. He smiled, and gently pushed her arms back down to the covers. Around the time she turned a year old, things had been so hectic at work that he rarely made it home before her bedtime. So it had been his practice, as he had done tonight, to go into her room just to pick her up, hold her while she slept and walk back and forth in her room for a few minutes. The weight and warmth of this incredibly beautiful little being—the most amazing thing he had ever done in his life—was something he couldn’t even begin to describe.

Tonight he didn’t pick her up, but just looked, smelled her, kissed her and went back down the hall to face his wife.

When he opened the door to the master suite, Tracy was sitting up in bed, back straight as though she was in a yoga pose, her hair loose about her shoulders, arms folded on her lap, and legs stretched in front of her atop the covers. Still the most beautiful woman he had ever known, Tracy struck him right in the chest and in the gut whenever he walked into a room and caught sight of her. Tonight was no different.

“Is it important to you that we have another baby?” she asked, without greeting him first. Her voice was scarily calm.

Trick question, incoming.

“Of course it is. You know me. If it was up to me, we’d have a few more.”

“It is up to you, Brendan. All you have to do is make it home during the window.”

“Let’s not talk about ‘the window’ at one-thirty in the morning. I don’t think I have it in me right now to talk about ‘the window’.”

“According to the book, it’s our best chance for …”

“I know. You read The Book to me every morning for the last few months while I’m trying to get dressed for work, so I know all about it.”

“So you know today is …”

“Yep. I know. Ovulation Day.”

Brendan shed his shirt and began working on his pants. As exasperated as he was by the conversation, he was mostly relieved that she wasn’t angry after all. By Tracy standards, this was nothing short of a miracle. His wife was not one to take it well when things didn’t go according to plan. Particularly if the plan was hers.

“Are you making fun of this process?”

“Nope. Not at all.”

Tossing his clothes over the back of the bedroom armchair, he turned toward the bed, pausing only to switch off the overhead lighting, throwing the room into almost complete darkness. The only illumination came from the hallway where they always kept a dim light on in case they needed to make their way to Layla’s bedroom in the middle of the night.

Climbing on to the bed, Brendan grabbed his wife by the ankles and pulled her toward him, causing her to topple onto her back.


“Shh,” he said, spreading her legs. “You’re going to wake Layla.”

“What do you think you’re doing?” Tracy asked as he grasped her behind the knees and lifted her legs.

“We’re about to make a baby …”

“No.” Tracy said.


“No, Brendan. It’s too late now. And anyway, you don’t get to come in here smelling like a distillery, hours later than you promised and get some purely-for-enjoyment sex.”

“What’s wrong with purely-for-enjoyment sex?” he asked, turning his head to kiss along her inner thigh. “That’s the only kind we used to have, remember?”

“I remember.”

Her voice had softened somewhat and she sighed as he made his way up her right thigh toward the apex, and her chest had begun to rise and fall more visibly. Baring his teeth, he nipped her lightly and was rewarded with Tracy swatting him on top of his head.

“You suck,” she said. “We missed the window because of you.”

“I don’t suck,” Brendan said sliding a hand up and under her nightshirt. “But I will …” He tweaked a nipple and Tracy’s pelvis lifted off the bed.

“You always think you can placate me with sex,” she said.

“Because I always can.” Brendan moved up her body so that finally, they were face-to-face.

Tracy’s greenish-amber eyes blinked slowly, and her perfect bow-shaped lips curled into a smile. Her hair was wild and disheveled, spread around her head and shoulders on the pillow. It caught what little light there was, so that it seemed streaked in gold.

Brendan smiled back, and for a few long moments they just looked at each other. He loved the hell out of this woman, with all her edges, and moods and complications. But among the things he loved most was how hopeless she was at hiding all she felt for him. Even now, pissed as she was, he saw it in those incredible eyes of her.

“I’m sorry,” he said finally. “I should’ve been here.”

Tracy reached up and swatted the top of his head again. “Yeah. You should have,” she said quietly. And then a pause. “So … where were you?”

Brendan froze, weighing the odds that Tracy’s surprisingly mellow mood would persist if he told her the complete truth. He felt her legs, wrapped around his torso slacken a little.

“Out with a potential investor. Young guy from the Middle East. He wanted a little … Western-style entertainment.”

“So you were at a … country-and-western bar?” Tracy asked sweetly.

“No,” Brendan said slowly. “Not exactly.”

“Brendan …” Tracy’s voice hardened.

“Sweetheart …”

“Brendan, tell me you weren’t at a …”

“Yes. But I swear I didn’t enjoy it.”

Tracy thrashed around beneath him, trying to get free, and shoving fruitlessly against his chest. “Get off me,” she ordered.

“Tracy, c’mon.”

“C’mon nothing! You know how I feel about those places, and yet you …”

“I go where the investors and clients want to go, Tracy. You know that. You think I want some sweaty-assed chick who’s been groped by a dozen guys grinding on me?”

“What do you mean grinding on you? Did you get a freakin’ lap-dance?”

Brendan sighed and rolled over onto his back. “No, sweetheart, I didn’t get a lap-dance.”

“You’d better not have, Brendan. Or …”

“Okay, okay. Let’s fight about this tomorrow. Are we having sex or not?”


“Fine. G’night then. I’m exhausted.”

After getting up to switch off the bathroom light, Brendan climbed back into bed. Next to him, though they weren’t touching, he felt Tracy’s tension and wakefulness. She could never sustain her anger at him for very long. She flared, and then she cooled, and then they were all over each other again. Knowing that by morning the whole disagreement would be a thing of the past made it much easier for Brendan to be sanguine about it. Still, it would probably take her another hour to drift off as she tried to talk herself down from her annoyance, while he could already feel himself slipping beneath the soft cloak of sleep. His wife was nothing if not intense; and once she made up her mind to do something she was single-minded until it was accomplished. And having a second baby was definitely her new mission.

The pregnancy with Layla had been far from uneventful. Even their daughter’s conception had happened somewhat against the odds. Tracy had been on and off the pill, and only occasionally having periods. And Brendan definitely hadn’t been trying to get her pregnant back then, because they weren’t married. He only began to reconcile himself to fatherhood—and acknowledge how much he wanted it—when Tracy almost miscarried in her first trimester. But after Layla was born, that was it, he was all the way gone, and the future he imagined for them included a large family.

But unlike Tracy, he was willing to trust that it would all happen in the fullness of time—they didn’t need to orchestrate everything. But because family, their family, was Tracy’s only occupation—since she had left her job to be a full-time homemaker a year after they married—Brendan was happy to let her be in charge of all things home-related, including the baby-making. The problem was, knowing his wife, if she couldn’t have even a modicum of control over the process, she would grow increasingly tense.

“Hey,” he said to her in the dark.


“Come closer.”

He heard and felt Tracy move toward him, but still, they didn’t touch.

“Closer,” he said again.

This time he felt her arm brush against his.


“Brendan …”

He dragged Tracy closer still, so that her head was on his chest and his arm. Heaving a deep sigh, he shut his eyes again. “Good. There,” he said. “That’s where you’re supposed to be.”

“You still suck,” Tracy whispered.

Next Door

nextdoorMy next-door neighbors’ children are enthusiastic and frequent criers.  I didn’t actually know them – my neighbors nor their children – but I knew the children’s names, having heard them being cajoled, scolded, implored and occasionally begged to do as they’re told, sit still, eat their cereal, put on their raincoat, find their school books or toys, or simply be quiet. They are Cassidy and Cullen.  Post-modern names.

The first time I spotted the mother at the mailboxes I only knew it was she because our doorman inquired after Cullen who had apparently been down with the “kiddie-flu.”  That’s what Henry the doorman called it, which made it sound like something you got from grubby children, rather than something children contracted from sources unknown. Cullen and Cassidy’s mother was ridiculously chic.  She looked nothing like the harried, worn-down housefrau I expected or let’s face it, had hoped to see.  She was about five-foot-seven and had shoulder-length dark-brown hair as smooth and glossy as polished mahogany.  Her complexion was flawless café au lait and her nails coral pink and perfectly manicured to a reasonable length for a woman who worked.  She wore a Diane Von Furstenberg wrap dress in peach and white, and high strappy sandals; a look I could never in a million years pull off.

I’d heard interesting little tidbits about this couple from Ericka on the third floor.  Ericka was an artist whose hands and clothing were perpetually stained with one garish color or another.  She made conversation in the elevator, unlike most other residents in the building, and pried loose intimacies you would never think of sharing with a virtual stranger.  The first time we met, she’d commented that I looked “a little more bloated than when I saw you last week” and then she suggested a tea she used for PMS that would work wonders.  To which I replied reflexively that I was actually not on my period.  All this in the first conversation I ever had with her. Anyway, she told me that Cullen and Cassidy’s parents were a famous rapper and his writer wife.  That the rapper had been charged with sexual assault, about one year after he married his wife but the charges were dropped when it turned out to be a spurned lover kind of thing.

“You’ve heard of K Smooth haven’t you?” Ericka said.  “That’s him.  And his wife is editor of a journal for literary geniuses or something.”

I said I thought I might have heard of them, but wasn’t sure.

“They were the ‘it couple’ for awhile,” Ericka continued.  “Sickeningly in love and stylish and rich all at the same time.”

Great.  One more reason to feel inadequate and unloved living right next door.  I had heard of K Smooth and his wife and may even have known that they lived in the building.  I hadn’t recognized her when I saw her because if I remembered correctly, she was kind of a hippie.  Oh, but success tended to change things like that.  I went to college with one of Rupert Murdoch’s daughters and distinctly remember her wearing Guatemalan skirts, a nose-ring, and having disgusting toenails.  And a year after graduation she was in Vanity Fair in a Chanel suit, so go figure.

After hearing who they were, I developed a semi-obsession with my famous neighbors.  The kids wailed sometimes for the reasons kids wailed (i.e., no reason at all) but I never heard the parents arguing.  Once I heard her greet him at the front door.  Their voices were so low and sexy, I’d initially mistaken him for a lover, but then the kids came charging up with screams of ‘Daddy, Daddy’ and I was disappointed.  No intrigue. Just your run-of-the-mill happily married celebrity couple.

I finally ran into the mother on the elevator with Cullen and Cassidy one afternoon when I was coming from a long weekend picking apples with friends in Dutchess County.  I had a duffle bag and was wearing overalls and boots with a long-sleeved white shirt that was kind of filthy.  Cullen was about six and Cassidy looked to be three.  They were ridiculously adorable – big eyes and chubby fingers and curly hair. They twitched and fidgeted as their mother dug in her purse, probably looking for her keys.  Cassidy actually grabbed her mother’s leg and hugged it as I boarded the elevator, peeking from behind her knee occasionally.

“I think we can have the chocolate before dinner,” Cullen opined out of the blue.  “I’ll still eat my dinner if we have chocolate, Mommy.”

“No you won’t but nice try,” his mother said not unkindly.  She didn’t look up from her purse.

“I would,” Cullen insisted.  “I would too.”

“Cullen.” Now she looked up.  “I wish I believed you.”

Then she noticed for the first time that they were not alone and looked at me, smiling ruefully.

“Hi,” I reached out a hand.  “I’m Jaime.  I live on your floor?”

“Oh, of course.  I’m Riley.  This is Cullen and this is Cassidy.”

“Nice to meet you Cullen and Cassidy.”

I looked down at the kids.  Cullen pouted in response and Cassidy retreated further behind her mother’s True Religion jean-clad leg.

Riley laughed.  “We’re just coming back from a weekend at their grandmother’s,” she explained.  “Not the most fun place in the world for some of us.” She looked significantly in Cullen’s direction.

“Grandma doesn’t even have a TV!” Cullen pleaded his case to the jury.

“Cullen, there’s more interesting things in the world to do than watch television all the time,” Riley said.

She spoke to her son like a person, not a semi-idiot little nonentity; the way I heard some of my very few friends with children speak to their kids.

“No there’s not,” Cullen mumbled. “Daddy’s on TV.  I wanted to watch Daddy.”

Riley smiled at me, but didn’t attempt to explain that her husband was a famous rapper.  I might have expected she would; that she might faux-apologetically explain that her husband was on MTV all the time because of his career and all.  But actually, now that I was up close and personal, she didn’t seem like the type.  I knew how to recognize money and privilege, and how to distinguish the old from the new.  Nothing about her told you hers was new.

After Ericka told me who he was, I looked K Smooth up to refresh my memory of him.  He was good-looking in a smoldering, sexy way and had recently graduated from being a mere performer to super-producer, releasing fewer CDs of his own over the last five years.  He was sometimes on MSNBC and CNN talking about hip-hop culture and its relevance.  He sounded like an African-American Studies professor in some of the interviews I’d streamed online.  He talked a lot about the Hip-Hop Nation.  He said it like that: “Hip-Hop Nation” so you could tell that he meant it in capital letters.  He was clearly on a different mission than most rappers.

Riley and her kids disembarked first.  She herded them ahead of her and turned to drag their weekend luggage – a very enviable soft calfskin leather bag – along.  I smiled and politely held the door for her.  When she unlocked the apartment, the kids went charging ahead of her, exuberant to be home.  She turned and gave me a brief wave.

“Nice meeting you, Jaime.”

“See you around,” I smiled again and returned the wave.


I sometimes waited around, listening for K Smooth to get home.  He was unpredictable, and never seemed to arrive at the same time each evening.  And of course, he was away quite a bit.  Whenever he got home, I could hear his arrival in the hall.  Riley almost always greeted him at the door.  I could hear some of their conversation each time but the majority was abruptly cut off when they shut the door.  The only other room in their apartment that permitted me to eavesdrop seemed to be their kitchen, where most of the conversation centered around Cullen and Cassidy’s eating habits, misbehavior at the table or conduct in school.  But once in awhile I got little nuggets.  Like the time Riley and her husband talked about his travel schedule.  I was standing at my kitchen counter, nursing a lukewarm cup of coffee when their voices rose to just the right pitch that permitted me to eavesdrop.

“. . . all over the country,” he said.  “It’s always been that way.   Since we met.”

“So you have dibs on a career that involves being away from home, is that it?”

“No, but what I do means I have to travel.  That’s not how it is with your work.”

“But I want to travel sometimes.  What’s so wrong with that?  I shouldn’t be made to feel guilty just because . . .”

“No one’s making you feel anything.  If you feel guilty it’s probably because you know as well as I do that kids don’t raise themselves.”

“But I’m not their only parent, Shawn.” There was strain in her voice at this.

“What do you want me to do? Cancel my engagements?”

“Yes, when the situation calls for it.  And book fewer to begin with.  Even if I don’t get to travel more as a result, I would still like it if you traveled less.”

He said something I couldn’t hear and then there was Riley’s voice again, this time barely controlling her anger.

“So you would rather we get a nanny . . .”

“No, I didn’t say that.  I just mean some help.  Any kind of help.”

“The only kind of help I need is from my husband.  I need you here.  Especially if I’m not.  We’re not the kinds of people who leave our kids to strangers.  I know you don’t honestly want that.”

There was a long silence during which I shamelessly pressed my ear against the wall.

“There’s a symposium at the Sorbonne about the Jazz Age.  I want to go.” Riley finally spoke again.  “It’s one week long.  I can give you the dates now.  If you cleared your calendar to be home with the kids, I would really appreciate it.”

“You could take them with you,” he suggested.

I could tell he didn’t mean it.  It was funny how hearing a disembodied voice made things obvious.  Without the supplementary and sometimes misleading information in a person’s expressions, you could almost always understand the emotion behind the words.  He didn’t want her to take the children to France, but he didn’t want her to go either.  But she probably couldn’t hear it the way I could; she was probably looking directly into his face, searching only for signs of acquiescence.

“I could, but they would miss school.  And who would look after them when I’m at meetings?  Why are you making this so difficult for me?  I never do anything without thinking of you guys first.  Never.”

“Okay, you’re right.  When is it?  I’ll see what I can do about the schedule.”

“Thank you.”  But the words were said in exasperation.

“C’mere,” he said after a moment.

“You say I knew about your traveling before we got married and I did,” Riley said.  “But you knew how much my writing means to me, and how much the journal means to me.  It’s not fair for you to . . .”

“I know,” he said, interrupting her.  “I’m sorry.  C’mere.”

“I can’t start to resent my kids, Shawn.” Her voice was muffled now, and I imagined that he was hugging her as she spoke and her face was pressed against his chest.  He was, from all the photos I’d seen fairly tall.  “And I feel that about to happen.  I want to be the best mother I can . . .”

“You are,” he said.  “You’re the best mother I know.  I love that you’re the mother of my kids.  I love you.  I’m sorry.”

There was nothing more.  They were probably kissing, or doing something more.  I walked away, wanting and not wanting to hear further intimacies.


My mother was sitting opposite me in my favorite chair.  It was brown microfiber and frayed at the arms.  She rested her Chanel purse on her lap as she spoke, not even deigning to place it on the coffee table in front of her.  I could only imagine the act of will that it took for her to sit on my grubby furniture at all.  She was telling me about her disappointment – she emphasized the ‘DIS’ more than necessary – that I was not coming to Martha’s Vineyard for the summer.  She was leaving in the morning and this was her last-ditch effort to make me come along.  It had only been a year since she’d permitted me to live in the apartment alone, and she wasn’t yet certain I could be trusted to remain in the city without her being a stone’s throw away on the East Side.

I toed a very delicate line with her because I was living here in this luxury building rent-free, having persuaded her that she need not sell the place even though she was newly-married and now had a much nicer townhouse with my stepfather, Sheldon.  Of course, the persuasion not to sell had been easy enough – no one parted with prime real estate in New York City and Sheldon could very handily afford to pay the maintenance fees for this place.  She did need a little push from me about not renting it though.  The income she was forgoing was considerable and I was just out of college, so hardly in need of a 2,500 square foot home.  But I liked it here.  It reminded me of my father and of the times we’d had here as a family.  It reminded me of what it was like before Yale and all that stuff.

“Jaime, I hope you know that Sheldon would be more than happy if you decided to come with us.  He suggested it in fact.”

She shifted closer toward the edge of the chair. I wondered if she might fall off altogether.

The one concession I’d had to make was that she took almost all the furniture.  Much of it was in the townhouse.  I kept the dining set and the furniture in my bedroom.  Everything else I’d gotten from friends and assorted thrift stores.  God only knew where some of it had been.  Because I had so little, the apartment looked immense, and voices echoed in most of the rooms.  But it was still home, and I wanted to hold on to it for as long as I could.

“I know that, Mom.  Sheldon’s great.  I just want to spend time with my friends here this summer.  I’ve got a few from school who’ve got summer jobs in the city and we’re planning all kinds of things.”

Lying to my mother was easy.  She was always desperate to believe the most favorable version of everything and Lord knows, she had just about had it with bad news and fear and suspicion where I was concerned.

“Surely you can spend a few weekends with us.  Bring whomever you want.”

“I’ll think about it,” I said smiling reassuringly.  “But I might not want to miss all the festivities here.”  I tried to sound mischievous, like any normal twenty-three year old might, if she were planning weekend high jinks with her girlfriends.

“Well alright.  But I wish you would reconsider.  It would be wonderful.  Like old times.”

I bit my tongue.  It would not be like old times.  My father was alive in the “old times” and my mother was not married to this man whom I did not know, and who did not know me except as the very problematic offspring of his new wife.

“I’ll definitely think about it.”

I stood, hoping she would do the same.  She did.

“Well, I put a little something in your account.  Like I said we leave tomorrow, so if you need anything additional, please let me know and I’ll have that arranged.”

A little something.  Anything additional.  Both were code for money.  In my family, and in families like mine where there was money in plenitude, it was never spoken of directly.  A “little something” when spoken by my mother meant at least a thousand dollars.  She gave me money fairly frequently because I was enrolled in NYU’s MFA program.  It was a ruse.  I didn’t quite know what to do with my life was the truth.  NYU’s program was fairly exclusive and sounded great at cocktail parties.  It evoked images of the TriBeCa Film Festival and wealthy doyennes who didn’t mind slumming for the sake of high art. I had one more year of this and then I would have to literally get a life.  While my mother might be content to pay my way for the rest of my life if it meant I would be “good”, I sensed that Sheldon was cut of a different cloth and was only biding his time before he made a pitch for her to insist that I make a go of it on my own.

“You look a little thin, Jaime.”

My mother tucked a strand of my unruly auburn hair behind my ear. This was as close as she could come to physical affection and despite my age, it still made me want to fling myself into her skirt and hang on to her leg, starved for a more overt gesture of love.

“Understandably, since I subsist mainly on apples and vodka,” I joked.

She didn’t smile.  References to drinking did not go over well given everything.

“In any event,” she turned and headed for the front door.  “I trust you’ll be alright and will call me if anything . . . arises.”

More code.

“I will.  Of course.”

I walked with her and stood at the threshold as she headed toward the elevator.  I watched as it opened and she got in.  As she did, someone stepped out.

The rapper.

I smiled in spite of myself.  He was handsomer in person than I expected.  Tall, lean and with new facial hair; a neatly-shaped goatee that made him look unexpectedly serious.  He was dressed in business casual, a yellow button-down with t-shirt underneath and lightweight khakis with brown shoes.  As I stood there, I realized that he would have to walk right by me to get to his apartment, and that it would look strange if I simply stared.

“Hi,” I said.  “You must be Riley’s husband.”

He looked at me for the first time and a half-smile crossed his face.  It must have amused him to be referred to in that way.

“Hey,” he said.  He stopped to briefly shake my hand.  “You are . . ?”

“Jaime,” I said.  “I met your wife a few weeks back with your kids.  Adorable, by the way.”

“Thank you,” he said.  “She is adorable.”

I laughed.  “Yes, she is, but I meant the kids.”

He grinned at me.  “I’m just messing with you.  I hope they don’t keep you up at night.  My baby girl’s got a pair of lungs on her and she hasn’t made friends with her bedtime just yet.”

“No, not at all.”

“Good,” he started walking again.  “Nice to meet you, Jaime.”

I watched him for only a moment more, afraid he would catch me gawking when he opened his door.

I thought I heard him in the kitchen getting something but mostly, all there was from the other side of the wall was silence.  I listened to the quiet for awhile then changed to go for a run in the park. I thought about the rapper as I ran. I wondered about him and his picture-perfect kids, his picture-perfect life. I wondered whether I would see him again.  I hoped so.