I

Unsuitable Men cover“There’s no point,” Tracy said, balancing the phone in the crook of her neck, surveying her fresh pedicure.

“Does everything have to have a point?” Riley asked. “Just come because it’s Saturday and you have nothing to do. And because I’m asking you to. Please.”

“And there won’t be any weirdness?”

“That’s completely up to you. He seems to really like this one. He may even be serious about her.”

Tracy tried to ignore the immediate ping she felt just beneath her breastbone on the left side of her chest. “Serious?”

“Well, he’s mentioned her a few times and this is the third time he’s brought her over and that’s never happened before,” Riley said. “So . . .”

Brendan, serious about someone? Tracy blinked. It didn’t seem likely. But stranger things had happened. Like Riley and Shawn being happily married, for instance. Of all the skeptics out there—and there had been many—no one was more skeptical than Tracy when her best friend, a progressive political writer had a whirlwind romance with and married one of the planet’s biggest hip-hop stars, Shawn Gardner, also known by the absurd handle, ‘K Smooth.’

After the first year of marriage from hell which no one thought they would survive—least of all Tracy—they seemed as happy as any couple she had ever known. Now they were closing in on year four and Riley, pregnant with their first child, was placid and happy as a cow in a country meadow. Not that she would have appreciated the comparison.

The coming of the baby had led to them buying a house in New Jersey which Tracy helped find. It was a beautiful old five-bedroom Tudor with turrets, ivy-covered walls and an English garden and pool out back. After one of their frequent battles of wills, this time about where to raise their family, Shawn and Riley had compromised by buying the house without getting rid of their Central Park condo.

Riley loved living in Manhattan and wanted to spend most of her time there while Shawn for some reason had suddenly decided that even on Central Park West, there was danger around every corner for his wife and unborn child. So now they were in Jersey just about every weekend, and as often as possible, Riley roped her friends into coming out for barbecues, pool parties or brunch. And because she wasn’t the kind of woman to have anything as cutesy as a “baby shower” had preemptively invited a few friends over for a cook-out now that she was one month away from her due date.

“Okay, I’ll come,” Tracy said finally.

So she was curious. So what? How could she not want to see this person that Brendan was supposedly ‘serious’ about? After all, one of the hallmarks of Brendan’s personality was his complete and utter lack of seriousness.

“What’s her name?” she asked, keeping her voice casual.

“Meghan,” Riley said. “She’s not at all like the other women I’ve seen him with.”

“So she’s not a model, or hoping to break into Broadway as a dancer?” Tracy asked, trying and failing to keep the sarcasm out of her voice.

“Nope. I think she’s an accountant or something. In fact, under different circumstances, I could see you two being friends.”

Tracy bit back the knee-jerk response that rose to her lips, which was something along the lines of, ‘no way in hell’. After all, why should she care who Brendan was dating?

“I’m sure I’ll like her just fine.”

“Good,” Riley said. “And if you could come a little early that would be great. You can make yourself useful by, I don’t know, helping me out of chairs and such. I feel like such a whale.”

Tracy laughed. “That’s what husbands are for.”

“When Shawn’s around I try to pretend like I can do everything I’ve always done,” Riley said. “He’s been pressuring me to take my maternity leave, so I don’t need to give him any more ammunition.”

“Ah, I see,” Tracy said. She was only half-listening. She couldn’t get out of her head the idea of Brendan with an actual girlfriend. And someone of substance at that. The bimbos were no competition—not that she was competing—but someone with an actual career . . .

“So get here around noon. You can help me get out of the tub,” Riley said, only half-joking.

As soon as she hung up, Tracy was already planning what she would wear. If Brendan was bringing a woman, she would have to look amazing. The thought embarrassed her because she had spent the last three and a half years telling herself she wasn’t at all interested in him, reminding herself that they were just friends. So what on earth did it matter how she looked when she met his girlfriend?

But, Tracy reasoned, she also hadn’t seen Brendan in about four months. Not since he had become chief operation officer for So Def Records, Shawn’s label. Now that he was no longer Shawn’s manager, he traveled less but it had had the opposite effect from what she’d expected.

While their best friends were going through their relationship drama, Tracy and Brendan had been thrown together quite a bit, and over time had become good friends themselves, but things had changed. His being local and not traveling as much hadn’t made any difference—she never saw him now. Perhaps even less than she had when he was globetrotting with Shawn. It shouldn’t have surprised her; men didn’t like being put in the friendship column, especially when they made their interest in more than that abundantly clear, as Brendan had done with Tracy. Still, there had been no way around it then and there was no way around it now. Brendan did not fit into her life plan.

True, he was almost perfect for her physically—tall, lean and with angular good looks—but in almost all other respects he was wholly unsuitable and over the years when he’d occasionally made a move, she’d made sure he understood that. Even before she saw what Riley went through trying to adjust to becoming the wife of a rap star, she was sure that no one who lived in that world could be the right person for her. And though Brendan wasn’t performing onstage, his life was pretty interchangeable with Shawn’s. The incessant travel, the nightclubs, the women and all the hallmarks of a subculture that produced what Tracy considered, at the end of the day, crude music. Nope, she knew what she wanted and Brendan was not it. Still, that was no reason she couldn’t look good when she saw him and met his new girlfriend.

 

 Tracy could not recall a time in her life when she had not commanded attention. From she was a little girl, she remembered people telling her mother how beautiful she was, so that by the time she was twelve and had begun to get male attention, she saw it as her due. When she walked into a room, heads turned. Her hazel eyes were large and arresting and her unusual coloring—burnt sienna hair and skin tone the color of a honeycomb—something that set her apart. And though her family tended toward tall but hippy women, she made sure she didn’t suffer that fate by scrupulously adhering to a low-carb diet, doing cardio five days a week and yoga on weekends to make sure her long legs remained lithe and lean.

Still, her looks came with one drawback: women tended to hate her on sight, or reach the conclusion that she was likely to be hateful herself. She’d noticed it first in high school when friends and acquaintances alike pushed her away after a very short period of time, deciding that they didn’t like her any longer for very vague and sometimes nonexistent infractions. But Tracy thought it more likely that they couldn’t stand the competition.

Besotted boyfriends of her friends were not her fault, but she was invariably blamed. She coped by developing aloofness to mask the hurt of being rejected. And later, she learned how to make the most out of being so often alone. When she had no girlfriends with whom to spend her time, she studied. And all that studying on Friday nights paid off when she graduated at the top of her class.

By the time she got to Gilchrist College, she was prepared for a repeat of her high school experience and had developed a resilience that most college freshmen probably didn’t have. This time she fully expected not to have all-nighters with a best friend, braiding hair and doing each other’s manicures. She assumed she would date, but expected to spend much of her remaining free time alone.

She hadn’t been prepared for her freshman year roommate, an artsy, quirky girl who wore clothes that looked like they were from Goodwill or the seventies, and had a head full of crazy unkempt curls. Her name was Riley Terry, and she was sitting on a pile of boxes when Tracy entered their dorm room for the first time. Riley had looked up and done a literal double-take. Holy crap, she said, you’re stunning!

It was the first time in Tracy’s memory that another girl had told her she was pretty without having an envious or resentful edge to their voice. It was disarming. From that moment on, Riley had slowly chipped away at the walls Tracy had spent her entire adolescence fortifying and by the middle of freshman year, they were inseparable; and had been ever since. Today, Tracy could think of no one, not even among people to whom she was related by blood, who was as important to her as Riley.

But there was still a part of Tracy that wondered how it was that her best friend had so easily wandered into the love of her life while she—the so-called beautiful one—had been so luckless. Not that Riley didn’t deserve it, but she had never been preoccupied with finding Mr. Right. Heck, even when she did, Riley had been ambivalent about getting married and only did it because he would accept nothing less.

Tracy walked into her large closet and looked through her considerable collection, wondering what would be most suitable to the task of looking sexy-without-trying-too-hard at a poolside brunch. She finally settled on an orange knit maxi-dress with a crocheted racer-back. It complemented her complexion perfectly, looked great with gold accessories and made her toned arms and shoulders look amazing. She would wear it with her brown wedges and put her hair up in a sloppy ponytail that would belie the thought and effort she put into her appearance.

 

The drive out to Jersey only took about forty-five minutes. Tracy enjoyed those occasions when she could take her Range Rover out for a real spin, not just the stops and starts that typified life in Park Slope, Brooklyn. If it wasn’t for alternate side of the street parking, there would be entire weeks when she didn’t have reason to start the engine, so maybe this brunch would serve a purpose after all. When she’d bought the SUV, Riley had warned her that she would regret it, and truthfully, it was an unnecessary extravagance. But she’d made so much in bonuses the last couple of years that the growing bank balances had only heightened her sense of having no core purpose, and no person with whom to share her success. Getting rid of the money by buying things like an expensive SUV and pricey designer clothes made her feel better. And it wasn’t as though she was irresponsible about it. Besides, as a hedge fund manager, the bonuses seemed to keep rolling right on in.

When she was five minutes away from Riley’s Tracy checked her face in the rearview mirror to make sure her lipstick held up and taking out her phone, dialed Riley’s number. Shawn answered. Great.

“Hey Tracy,” he said.

His voice was flat. Shawn and she had never completely warmed to each other and it was only partly because she’d given him a hard time about Riley when she thought they were all wrong for each other. She also knew for a fact he thought she’d strung Brendan along. So he at least had to be happy about this Meghan person.

“Hey Shawn, is she around?” Tracy asked, keeping her voice cheerful.

“Getting dressed. What’s up?”

“Just letting her know I’m almost there, that’s all. Anyone else there yet?”

“Yeah,” he said.

Tracy waited, but he didn’t say who. And of all the people she didn’t want to ask about Brendan, Shawn would be at the top of the list.

“Okay, so tell Riley I’ll see her in a few,” she said.

“Yup. See you soon.”

He hung up and Tracy rolled her eyes at the phone. That man sure knew how to hold a grudge. Granted they would never be best friends, but you would think he could manage to be a little nicer to his first kid’s godmother.

By the time she pulled up to the security post, Tracy was feeling a lot more confident. She punched in the security code and waited for the wrought iron gates to open, honking the horn as she pulled up the long gravel driveway. Still, as she parked next to the white BMW roadster, which was she was quite sure was not Shawn’s or Riley’s, she could feel some apprehension returning. Aside from Riley, Brendan was one of her best friends, or at least he had been until he fell off the edge of the earth. It would be awkward figuring out how to greet him after all this time had passed, and when he had a woman with him who he was involved with. Perhaps coming had been a bad idea, she decided. But it was too late now.

As the enormous front door swung open, Tracy could not help but smile at the sight of her friend coming toward her. Riley was at the end of her pregnancy but still looked like someone who had maybe swallowed a watermelon whole. She was all belly, with very few of the unattractive elements of pregnancy, lucky heifer. Her arms and legs seemed to have remained pretty close to the same size though her boobs were bigger and her face slightly fuller. Her hair had grown fuller and thicker as well. She now wore it out more often than not, in a mass of messy curls down past her shoulder blades. Today, like Tracy she was wearing a maxi-dress though hers was white with spaghetti straps and on her feet she wore brown sandals.

“You’re waddling,” Tracy lied as she got out of the truck, reaching for the bottle of wine she brought along for the occasion.

Riley laughed. “Shut up. I can’t wait for you to experience the pressure of an infant’s head against your cervix.”

“Ugh. Spare me the details,” Tracy said hugging her.

“Come on in,” Riley said looping her arm through hers. “Don’t worry he’s not here yet. It’s just Chris.”

“Oh.” Tracy relaxed. “Are you sure he’s coming?”

“I’m not sure if you’re hoping he will, or hoping he won’t,” Riley said glancing at her as they entered the foyer.

“I’m not sure myself,” Tracy admitted.

The house was beautiful; worthy of a write-up in a design magazine. Riley had gotten over her aversion to being wealthy at least for as long as it took to get this decorating job done, probably because she was pregnant and too exhausted to do it herself. She had even gone so far as to hire one of the most famous celebrity designers in New York to do the task. The result was a warm, homey interior filled with craftsman pieces and clean Shaker lines. Like their Central Park condo, they had chosen earth tones but with the occasional burst or orange and red hues. Riley led Tracy out to the back where under the loggia, Shawn and his friend Chris Scaife were sitting, each with a beer in hand. They looked up as she and Riley entered.

“Hey Tracy,” Chris said. “Long time no see.”

“Chris.”

As with Shawn, there was no love lost between Tracy and Chris Scaife. As one of the biggest rap moguls in the world, he was a walking, talking breathing symbol of what ailed Black America as far as Tracy was concerned. I mean, as rich as he was, would it kill the man to pull his pants up to the waist? But other than that, she bore him no personal ill will. He was just one of those men who, if he wasn’t sleeping with you or planning to, or you weren’t unavailable to him for some other reason (like Riley was), he really had no inclination to give you the time of day.

“You want something to drink?” Shawn asked, standing.

“Sure,” Tracy said amiably. “A sauvignon?”

Shawn headed for the bar at one corner of the loggia and Tracy took a seat where she could watch the sunlight reflecting off the pool and admire the splendor of the pink tea roses in bloom nearby. She turned and watched as Riley joined her husband at the bar and he handed her a glass of what looked like cranberry juice. Riley took it from him and tilted her head back to look up at him, a slight smile on her face. He gazed back at her and one corner of his mouth turned upward. He reached out and playfully tugged a lock of Riley’s hair. Tracy looked away, feeling like an intruder.

Say would she might about Shawn, he definitely adored Riley. Not just loved, but adored. There was almost nothing about his life that had remained unchanged since she had come into it. Despite his fame, money and his considerable physical attractiveness (that even Tracy had to grudgingly acknowledge) he seemed not to see anyone else. Unable to help herself, Tracy glanced in their direction yet again, just in time to see Riley reach out and place Shawn’s hand on the swell of her pregnant belly while sipping her cranberry juice and him smiling, probably feeling the baby kick.

“So what have you been up to, Chris?” she asked, tearing her gaze away from them again.

“The usual,” he said, taking a gulp of his beer. “Defending America against bullshit pop music.”

In spite of herself, Tracy smiled. “Yeah well it’s a dirty job . . .”

“. . . but someone had to do it,” Chris finished for her.

“Well then I’m glad the task is in your capable hands,” she said.

“Don’t listen to him,” Riley called from the bar. “I saw a Lisa P CD in his car a couple weeks ago,” she said naming the latest pop princess to saturate the airwaves.

“Well, you have to know the enemy,” Chris said unfazed.

Shawn returned with her wine and Tracy took it gratefully. She needed a drink, fast. If she was beginning to enjoy Chris Scaife’s humor, she must be lonelier and more desperate for male companionship than she thought.

“You guys want to get that grill started?” Riley suggested. “We’re only expecting a few other people.”

“How few?” Tracy asked.

If it was only Brendan and his girlfriend, she was going to kill Riley. If she had known it was going to be such a small party, she would have brought a date. Either that or she would be stuck with Chris Scaife all afternoon.

“Just another six or so,” Riley said. “Want to come help me get these steaks and stuff together?”

“Still no household help?” Tracy asked, her voice disapproving. Riley and her arbitrary austerity measures.

“Nope,” Shawn said. “No household help. I think she’s hoping that going up and down the stairs will bring on an early labor.”

Clearly Tracy had stumbled across one of his pet peeves.

“At this point, if I go into labor it’s hardly early,” Riley said. “I’m well within the range.”

“Not for a first kid,” Shawn said.

“Okay Shawn. Whatever. C’mon Tracy . . .”

“Bickering over meaningless crap?” a voice said from the entrance to the house. “I know I’m in the right place now.”

Everyone looked around. Brendan was standing at the door. He was wearing a white polo, chinos with brown loafers and looked like someone who had just come from a cruise; relaxed and at ease. Maybe it was because he was in the presence of old friends, but Tracy feared that it might be something else. Like maybe the young woman at his side. She had a fashionable tousled pixie-cut and the perfectly-even oval-shaped face ideal to pull it off; she was pretty and petite, and wore a denim summer dress and bright white tennis shoes. Tracy expected her to be attractive and she was, though that was not what shook her. What she wasn’t able to process, couldn’t even bring herself to look directly at, was the unpleasant fact that Brendan was holding her hand.

3 thoughts on “Unsuitable Men – Chapter One

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