Episode five preview

 

ISSN 2476 – 1753 (online)

I met a woman in a small New York style bodega, who made it her priority to tell me—no, warn me—about Mercury turning retrograde. The planet that controls our communication, she explained, appears to stop in its tracks and move backward, taking everything that’s not nailed down with it.

Now, since my zodiac sign is the extent of my astrological knowledge, I wrote off this notion as just silly superstition.

In my 20-something years on this planet, I’d relied on a number of things to help me get from one day to the next: Will. Grace. Luck. Faith. But never stars. So, in spite of fair warning that I, and everything and everyone around me, would be marred by confusion, I rebellious and arrogantly proceeded without caution anyway.

Which brings me to why I was sitting on a park bench along the Mount Vernon Trail, staring out at the Potomac River at 7 AM on a Monday morning with a cup of coffee in my hand and another cup on the bench beside. Seeing the sunrise at 7 AM is a beautiful thing. Not having gone to sleep and seeing the sunrise at 7 AM is nightmare. At least I had coffee though.

Back across the bridge and up I-395 just moments earlier, I’d been standing in line behind two other people at a local coffee shop getting this coffee because it would be the fuel I needed to carry me for another few hours.

“I’m sorry, Miss, but we don’t have grande,” the barista said to me. “Or Pike Place roast. That’s Starbucks.”

“Well, what is this place?” I asked.

She had turned from moderately cordial to now slightly agitated.

“This is… not Starbucks.”

“Oh,” I said, accepting this vague response. And with a sigh, I said, “Okay. Give me a cup of the strongest thing you’ve got.”

This was what I got for disrespecting that damn retrograde.

She typed it in and accepted my card. All I could think about was why I was in this situation in the first place and how I got here. The only redeeming factor was the thought of what I hoped would be waiting for me on the other side of the bridge that morning where I’d planned to wait in the cold with only coffee as my company.

Because see, even earlier that morning—or late the night before if you want to be less technical—I was at the studio with Lucas. It was a long session that day and we hadn’t planned on being there all night, but we kept running to technical issues, which kept pushing back the time we were scheduled to finish.

First, it was the computer; the software wouldn’t open. It had opened the day before, and the day before that. In fact, it had never not opened… before now. After rebooting the system twice, erasing, and then reinstalling it, it finally opened. This was about an hour-long setback.

It worked fine, until Alana, the engineer, went to record vocals. That’s when no microphone in the place would receive and send sound into the system.

“Is it the cord or the mic?” Lucas asked.

“I have no idea,” Alana told him. “I changed the cords and I changed the mics.”

She was stumped.

After a few more cord-swops, she finally got one that worked—the first mic and cord she’d been working with since the beginning. She didn’t question it, she just proceeded doing what she’d been hired to do. We were almost three hours in the hole now and hadn’t recorded a single track.

Things finally got rolling around midnight. The plan was to record two songs that evening, but we were only able to get in one, barely, before the music stopped.

The sudden silence caused me to sit up and look around. I’d been resting my eyes as I lay across the sofa behind the mixing board. No noise meant we had a new problem.

“What happened?” Lucas asked, coming into the room from the recording booth.

Alana sighed. “It just shut off,” she said, looking at the black computer screen.

The lights were still on, but anything related to recording had gone black.

“Has it ever done that before?” Lucas asked.

“Once, actually,” she responded. “But it was during a power outage. Obviously the power’s fine. The lights are on.” She stood up before saying, “The good thing that time, I didn’t lose everything. But… I did lose the track I was working on.”

And she looked back at me cautiously to see my response.

But by this point, I already knew what was going on—or at least I had an idea—and I knew that there was nothing wrong with Alana’s equipment. By now, I was content that there was no technical reason for the equipment to malfunction.

With a deep breath, I stood up and started wrapping up to prepare for the freezing weather outside.

“You’re leaving?” Lucas said, almost outraged.

It was 5:34 in the morning. Trying to reconcile this fact in my mind, I thought to myself that the good news was: I could get to that coffee shop by 6 when they opened and head over the bridge to the Mount Vernon Trail, where I wanted to be by 7. The bad news was that I hadn’t gotten any sleep and was tired as hell.

“You’re not pissed?!” Lucas demanded to know. “If this song is gone, I’m gonna have to do the whole thing over, Kenya.”

“Then Lucas… if it’s gone, you’ll just have to do it over. Right, Alana?”

They were both confused. Alana didn’t even respond to me.

So I said, “Look. I need coffee. I need to make an apology. And I need sleep.”

“That’s it,” Lucas said, conclusively. “You’re just tired. Once you get some sleep, you’ll realize you’re pissed.”

And I smiled. Being pissed in a situation like this was pointless. I was in the middle of my first conscious Mercury Retrograde and already it had taught me that when life insists on happening… let it.

Which is why just hours before I came to the studio to meet Lucas, I was able to accept the crushing rejection I’d been delivered by Maimouna with grace.

After spending several days with Maimouna over the past two weeks, this afternoon at Lake Needwood in Rock Creek Park wasn’t a farfetched trip, all things considered.

The specifics of my acquaintance with Maimouna will come earlier in this story, since this moment at the park would be the last time I’d see her for the rest of the year.

Anyway, after a rather brief hike, she chose a spot and sat down right on the grass without warning. Admittedly, I’m not a “nature person,” so the thought of cold, itchy grass and potential ticks and other bugs rushed through my mind, but I quickly joined her before I had the chance to think myself out of it.

She sat for five minutes with her eyes closed. My eyes were closed too, but I wasn’t meditating; I was thinking about why that deer across the way was staring at us.

“I’ve made my decision,” she said, with her eyes still closed. And then, she opened them, but she still didn’t turn to look at me. She just said, “I’m going to pass.”

And I closed my eyes as my posture disappeared and I allowed all kinds of expletives to run through my mind. This was not what I’d wanted to hear. It was not what I had been doing all of this for.

“I like you personally, but I don’t feel like we’re in sync,” she went on. “You’re a really beautiful soul. I just feel like… you’re a little out of balance right now and it’s throwing off your energy and affecting your decision-making. I can’t afford to deal with the potential backlash of that.”

I’d heard her, but I didn’t know how to accept it. And I wouldn’t truly accept it until later that night in the recording studio when I lay there with my eyes closed, thinking about it.

I didn’t know how she knew that I had a lot—perhaps too much—going on, but apparently I reeked of imbalance.

“Try to put a few things down… More will come to you,” she said.

But it was hard to really take this advice seriously when I was constantly bombarded with taking care of my own problems—many of which I can admit were self-inflicted—and being there as a sounding board for my friends.

Just the evening before being shot down by Maimouna, J and I had driven to Dulles Airport to pick up Ty, who was returning from her vacation. She spent the entire 45 minute ride back telling us all about the week-long getaway, everything she did and didn’t do, and just how new she felt now that she was back.

“But this trip,” she said, “it really gave me an opportunity to relax and refresh. Focus on me for a change, you know.”

Somehow, I ended up with her larger suitcase and J ended up carrying the smaller one, while Ty walked from the car to her apartment with just her pocketbook.

As we entered, J asked, “So did you put any more thought into that… René situation?”

Ty took her time, and even took a seat on the sofa first, before giving this question the attention J sought.

J and I sat down on chair adjacent to her.

“I tried not to,” she said with melancholy in her tone now. “It was my vacation, for goodness sake. I still haven’t decided what I’m going to do.”

J, who had been a bit quieter than normal since we left to go to the airport, discreetly rolled her eyes at Ty’s response. Ty didn’t see it, but I did.

“Look, I’m just going to say this and then I’ll leave you alone about it,” she said, looking at Ty seriously. “Don’t compromise your entire life just because of something some fucking man does or doesn’t want to do. There. That’s all I’m going to say.”

To lighten the mood, I asked, “Are you still disappointed by your first ‘big love’ experience?”

“Oh my God! You’re still doing that?” Ty asked, looking at her in shock.

And J rolled her eyes in that irritated way again before responding, “No. And it wasn’t polygamy. It was more like… ‘polyamory.’”

“Splitting hairs now, are we?” I asked.

“The point is,” she said in her own defense, “I believe in the sanctity of marriage and I do not believe in consciously undermining it in any way. I just think that marriage is between a person… and one other person.”

Ty and I looked at each other.

J went on, “And… if I’m going to fuck a guy in his house while his wife is home, I’m going to need there to be a little more discretion.”

There it was. We knew that “J” was somewhere hidden in the first part of that statement, but now she’d finally come out.

“Jesus. For a minute, I actually thought my absence had had a positive effect on you,” Ty said.

J finally laughed. “No, my dear, Ty,” she said as she sat back on the sofa and put her feet up on Ty’s coffee table, while consciously ignoring the Where the hell do you think you are? look on Ty’s face. “I am going to sit back and bask in every waking minute of my beautifully fucked up single life, and I’m going to love it.” She looked at Ty and said, “And I think you should do the same.”

Although I wanted to, I didn’t know how to tell them that the woman from the bodega was onto something. We were all confused and overly sensitive and making bad decisions for reasons, perhaps, beyond our control. So… maybe, more than anything else, it was cosmic.

In fact, a bit earlier that day, I met up with Tk just off the campus of University of the District of Columbia. I’d told him about my impromptu meeting at the school and he decided that he should meet me there in order to get the answers to questions I could easily have texted him.

“So did you talk to him?” he asked, as soon as he approached me.

I nodded and said, “We talked.” And then I revealed the rest of the news, “You’re back on the show.”

Tk exhaled, thankful and relieved. But I hadn’t finished the story.

“But,” I added, “you’re not getting paid.”

“What?!” he exclaimed, staring at me, hoping that I was kidding. “But he was paying two Gs before—”

“That was before,” I said.

Tk took another deep, frustrated breath as he paced in a four-foot radius.

“We gotta pay my band, so… we’re losing money just to do this show.” Without looking at me, he asked, “So what are we even doing it for? Hell, it’s not like I need the experience. God knows I get enough of that.”

I took a moment before I gave him the answer to a question that, by this time, I’m sure he’d forgotten that he’d just asked: what are we even doing this for?

I needed to say it out loud for both of us to hear, perhaps as a reminder of why we were in this situation in the first place.

“I gave my word. We. We gave our word, and then we went back on it. That didn’t affect just us.”

Tk just stared at the ground thinking about what I was saying.

“But look, if you don’t wanna do it, just tell me don’t want to do it and I’ll—”

“I’ll do it,” he said, reluctantly. “It’s just—this is getting old. Not feeling like I’m making any progress? Get’n old, man.”

All I could do was look at him as he was still avoiding looking at me. I knew just what he’d meant. It was almost as if every time we did something we thought could move us forward, something would happen to push us back a notch.

I wished that I could find something to say in the moment, but I couldn’t. And maybe I really didn’t need to. Tk wasn’t the type to benefit much from pep talks and I never felt right trying to give them to him. So I didn’t, and he was content in finding resolve to these problems on his own, which seemed to be a fine, unspoken arrangement between us. He’d be back to being himself by tomorrow; he always was. He was never one to hold onto such “first world problems,” as he called them. I often wondered how much of a role his wife played in this.

“Look. I gotta go,” I said. “I gotta pick my friend up from the airport tonight. Can we talk about this later?”

He shrugged. “What else is there to talk about?”

He wasn’t expecting an answer.

“I’ll see you,” he said as he walked off.

It had only been moments before that that he’d been standing there waiting for me to come out of the arts theatre on the campus, where I was meeting with Roderick Dannon.

I’d met Roderick a few years back, when I was juggling my freshmen year in college with interning at a local radio station and DJing on the side. He was throwing a party and somebody had given him my name as the perfect source for the music. It was a “pajama jammy jam,” of course, thematically paying homage to the cult classic, House Party.

For four hours straight, I gave the crowd just what they wanted—R&B and radio friendly Hip Hop hits starting from the late 80s up to the present. There wasn’t a silent moment during that party and nobody was given the opportunity to stop dancing, not for a second.

From that moment on, whenever he had a party, he had his DJ. That is, until I started to moving away from spinning records, which fortunately was right around the time he started to grow out of—or just grow tired of—throwing over-crowded pajama parties.

Now, he was the director of student activities at the University of the District of Columbia. He wore suits without ties, hairstyles without braids, and glasses with prescription.

I spotted him across the room as soon as I walked in, directing a small crew where to place speakers and how to position chairs.

He looked over and saw me slowly coming in his direction, and he let out a slight sigh and a discreet roll of the eyes, obviously mentally preparing to talk to me while pissed.

I stopped right beside him, but I didn’t say anything. I knew that I was not wanted there, so there was no need to act otherwise.

“Do you know what goes into putting on a show like this?” he asked.

And I started to answer, “I have an ide—”

“Apparently no idea,” he answered for me. “Weeks,” he said. “That’s how long I’ve been working on this. Weeks. Although this kind of thing should be planned months in advance, when a school has limited funds for an organization and the committee couldn’t really care less about the recreation of a Muslim student group, you work with what you got.”

He stopped for a minute to make sure the guy carrying the subwoofer could make it across the floor without help. Once he did, Roderick, still without looking over at me, continued.

“Now, I thought I was doing something good by adding an artist from the city to the show. Good, positive music. Students love him. My job was to make sure he was paid, treated like royalty while he was here, and that this auditorium was filled.”

Finally, he took a step in order to turn and face me.

“Now I did my part. But then… seven days before the show, my headliner backs out—for God only knows what reason—leaving me to try and find somebody else to do it on one week’s notice. I don’t even wanna think about all the tickets that’ll need to be refunded once people get here and realize they won’t be seeing Taj Kamal.”

He shook his head, let out another breath, and then turned away from me again.

Not that he was asking for an excuse, and especially not that it would’ve made anything better, I decided that I would give him one.

“It was my fault. I was just trying to do something that I thought would be best for my artist’s career and I—”

“By backing out on a show you gave your word on? That’s what’s best for your artist?” he asked.

And I couldn’t respond that. He was right.

Trying to stay professional, he said, “Listen, I gotta finish this—”

“Roderick. Wait,” I said. “I came here to apologize.”

Perhaps, he was expecting something like this, because he simply said, albeit apathetically, “Apology accepted. Now, I have to—”

“And… to tell you that he’ll do the show,” I added.

And this made him smile. But it wasn’t a smile of happiness. It was a smile, or more so a smirk, of condescension.

“You know what? That’s okay. I already found somebody else to take his place—”

“I understand that,” I said. “But you passed out thousands of fliers, and spent quite a bit of time and money promoting this thing for weeks to get people to your show to see Taj Kamal.”

Our eyes met and we both knew that I was right.

“Now. People are expecting Taj Kamal. They should have Taj Kamal.”

It took a few more apologies and explanations, but I convinced Roderick to give us our place back in his show. Now, I had to go outside and tell Tk that he’d now be doing the show for free.

I was fortunate to have been able to fix this, but it wasn’t a part of my original schedule for that day. But I should know better by now than to be going around making schedules. Because since when has my life ever gone according them?

+ + +

to the top

+ + +

When I woke up that morning, I only had two things on my… I’d rather call it an agenda now. One was to pick Ty up from the airport that evening, and the other was to finally get some one-on-one time with the guy I’d been texting and talking and video chatting with for almost a month, but hadn’t actually been able to get one proper date with yet.

Derek and I had decided to meet downtown. The plan was not to make any plans, but to let the day unfold in whatever way it wanted to unfold.

Yeah, this sounded like it could’ve been romantic considering all of the sights and enjoyable things there is to do in DC that didn’t require reservations. But this non-plan was made out of necessity because of the way our previous real plans had gone thus far.

I spotted Derek waiting just where he’d told me he’d be waiting—on the corner of Independence Avenue in front of the Smithsonian Museum of African Art. As he spotted me walking toward him, his face lit up with a bright smile. And I was happy to be seeing him too, and I tried to emulate his smile with one of my own, but I failed. I couldn’t mask what I was really feeling about I was seconds away from saying to him.

Already knowing, he asked, “What is it?”

And as I looked at him, the fake smile slid off of my face. I was already ready to apologize after saying this: “I gotta go over to UDC. I blew off a deal I made with an organization and… I need to make things right.”

Derek let out a light sigh. Perhaps it was only light because he was trying to mask his frustration with me. He nodded, again, trying to accept what I’d just told him. He wasn’t saying anything, but he also wasn’t looking me in the eyes either.

So now was as good a time as ever for that apology.

“Derek, I am so sorry—”

“Nah, don’t… Don’t apologize,” he said, calmly and coolly.

“But I hate this,” I admitted. “I hate that I can’t… be where I want to be and… do what I want to do.”

And when I said that, he finally looked at me. But he had a slight smile on his face as if my admission caused him to think something that he’d yet to share.

I went on. “I hate that I’m doing this—showing this to you…”

“Why? It’s who you are—”

“No, it’s not,” I said.

“Yes, Kenya. It is,” he said, still smiling. Although, now I could see the smile for exactly what it was—a way to keep from really showing how angry he was. He had obviously already put a whole lot of thought into this and now he was finally saying it to me. But we hadn’t known each other or gotten quite close enough to actually be fighting about this just yet. So he was telling what he thought, but he was doing it nicely. And this probably made me feel even worse.

“Right now, this is who you are,” he said. “Can you change it? Yeah, of course you can. Just… don’t change for me,” he advised with a warning tone.

And this caused me to think, because the first thing to come to my mind after hearing him say this was, Who else would I be changing for, if not you?

And even though I didn’t ask that question out loud, he answered it anyway.

“If you change, do it for you. But either way, somebody’s gotta lose in this. You do know that, right?”

I looked at him as he said this. And he looked at me, right in the eyes. I didn’t like the sounds of this because I really, really hate losing.

“So. Who’s it gon’ be?” he asked. “Is it gonna be me?”

I thought about it, and I knew that I didn’t want it to be him.

“Is it gonna be… the people you do business with, who, since we met, seem to be the ones winning all of the time,” he said. “Or…”

And he stopped for a moment and really looked at me, making me even more uncomfortable.

“Is it going to be you?”

I had never thought about my choices this way—that choosing music over everything all the time didn’t mean I was winning.

So, I had a question for him that I honestly didn’t want to know the answer to, but needed to ask anyway.

Looking down, fearful of the response I would get, I said to him, “So… if you think that music is going to come before you all the time… why would you even bother?”

And I could feel him just staring at me for a moment before he said, “Look. Right now? I’m just trying to get a lil time with you, that’s it.”

Relieved, and not expecting that answer, I quickly looked up at him.

“I like you,” he said, frankly. “I think you’re funny. You’re smart. You’re gorgeous.”

His eyes wandered my face for quick moment before he smiled and added, “I think you’re incredible.”

It was 30 degrees out, but I was sweating under that coat, as the blood had escaped my extremities and gathered in my face, I could feel my cheeks turning red, and in my stomach, I could feel the flutter of butterflies, and in my chest I could feel my heart beating a million times a minute now. I was freezing when I left the house, but in that moment, I was melting.

Before I could find a smart, sarcastic, or funny response to his admission, he moved in and places his lips on mine… making it that much harder for me to want to leave him to correct my mistake at UDC.

I had about ten minutes to spare before I would need to hop on the Metro in order to get uptown in time to catch Roderick Dannon. But even this ten minute first kiss in the cold was actually a step above our other date attempts…

In fact, just two days prior to this, our trip to the Phillips Collection was cut short because I had agreed to meet Maimouna for a spiritual life-coaching workshop on aligning the chakras.

Four days before this, he’d prepared bass he’d caught himself while fishing in the Chesapeake Bay and invited me to his place for lunch one afternoon. But I called right when I should’ve been arriving and requested a rain check because… Well, Maimouna wanted me to attend a class with her on balancing the physical and metaphysical.

And then, a week ago, we had planned our very first date. Nothing fancy, just dinner on the first Friday of the new year at one of my favorite restaurants, a quaint Asian spot in Old Town Alexandria.

Instead of letting him pick me up from my house, as he’d requested, I instead on meeting him there, since I’d planned to be in the area that evening anyway.

When I walked in, I spotted him sitting at the bar, reading and drinking a brown liquid in a small glass filled with ice. I made my way through the dining room and over to him.

“Maestro. Hey,” he said as he stood up to greet me with soft, welcoming hug and a peck on the side of the face. He smelled so good. I honestly considered biting him right on his neck just to see if the taste matched the look of chocolate that was his skin, but I obviously thought better of it.

To change the subject (for no one but myself), I said, “So…. what’s that you got there?” taking a seat on the stool next to him.

He looked at the drink and said, “Scotch and soda on the rocks. I love a good Scotch. But… I only drink it January to April.”

“What? Why?” I asked, puzzled by this extremely odd and random admission.

He smiled and shrugged. “It’s the only time of the year I can allow myself to slow down for a good, hard drink like this. The soda is the hard part really, not so much the Scotch.”

I smiled, still not quite getting it, but I’d let him better explain that one to me at another time.

My eyes turned to the magazine he was holding, and before I could ask, he revealed, “It’s Face Magazine. I was checking out this article about languages…”

He handed it to me. I didn’t bother making small talk about my friend who worked at Face.

I started to skim the article he was showing me, but he decided to just reel me in.

“According to the guy that wrote the book, everybody has a dominant language, as he calls it—one of five unique ways we respond to how people…” And he searched for the words. “How people express themselves, and how they prefer to give and receive from one another.”

I looked down at the page again. It was talking about “love languages.”

“Like what?” I asked, not bothering to read, rather preferring to make conversation.

“Well… like I said, there’s five of them,” he explained. “Some people need what he calls, ‘Words of Affirmation.’ For those people, what you say to them means everything. They gotta hear what you feel. Then some prefer what he calls ‘Acts of Service’—fixing something, doing chores, things like that mean a lot. Then there are those who like ‘Receiving Gifts.’ Kinda self-explanatory. Fourth one is ‘Physical Touch.’ For these people, physically feeling a person’s presence means everything. Last is ‘Quality Time.’ That’s the type of person who feels most special when they have your undivided attention. They like you to be there. That’s what’s most important to them.”

I nodded, thinking about this. And then I asked, “Do you know what yours is?”

He shook his head, “No. I haven’t taken the test yet.”

“There’s a test?” I asked.

“A few questions,” he said, smiling. “It ain’t the SAT.”

I laughed. “Alright then,” I said. “I’ll take the test if you take the test.”

Like we had just negotiated an important pact, he stuck his hand out for a shake, and as I took it, he said, “Got yourself a deal.”

And we laughed, but we didn’t even get the chance to be properly seated or to look at the menu. This was our first attempt at a date, but it ended up just being a 20-minute conversation at the bar… because I was desperately needed by Lucas uptown.

That day had also been the first day I’d met up with Maimouna. She’d invited me—more like summoned me—to her place off Kalorama Road. It was a two-bedroom apartment in a recently renovated old building in one of the city’s more established neighborhoods. It wasn’t unlike what I would’ve imagined had I taken the time to picture what her place would look like.

It had a “home” feeling to it, like a place you’re immediately comfortable in because of the unpretentious décor—a mixture of woods and earth tones, and an enormous, but neatly placed collection of stuff from worldly travels. Authentic African batik art lined the walls, figurines and masks stood on every flat surface, a massive vinyl collection with Nina Simone and Miles Davis albums pulled from the stack, having recently been played. It smelled like a mixture of frankincense and patchouli, and I was certain the aroma would still be on me once I left, constantly reminding me of this incredible cultural slap in the face.

She continued moving around the place, from the kitchen to the bedroom to the living room where I sat, all while vocally exercising—belting out beautiful, whaling sounds of nothingness meant to keep her voice sharp.

I was waiting for her, but I wasn’t sure what I was waiting for her to do. You see, this was an unexpected summons, so I didn’t ask questions.

She came into the living room and stopped. She was no longer moving or singing, but simply holding two small ceramic bowls with spoons in them. And then she looked at me and said, “Before I commit to working with someone, I have to get a feel for them.”

She then walked right over and stood in front of me. I was supposed to take a bowl, so I took a bowl.

“Lentil soup,” she said.

I wasn’t exactly hungry, but not taking the soup would be rude.

“I like Lucas,” she said. “He has a great sound. Strong voice. Soulful.”

She sat down on the sofa beside me. She sipped a little bit of her soup, so I did the same. I was on a string at this point. She’d brought it up—my request to get her onto a song with Lucas—and now I was about to get answer!

“But you’re the leader. So… We have to spend time,” she said. “I gotta vibe with you first. And then I’ll know if this is the right thing for me.”

“Absolutely,” I said. “We can vibe. Just… you say the word and I’ll be there to… you know—vibe.”

The idea that I was now on a job interview made me nervous. But she didn’t notice my nervousness, I don’t think, because she just kept sipping her soup.

But this is when it started—the preoccupation with creating the right impression with Maimouna in order to get what I wanted from her, which required sacrificing what I wanted from Derek.

Perhaps my eagerness to land this deal with Maimouna was because I desperately needed a “win.” This was the same day, just moments before I came into her apartment, in fact, that I’d gotten some terrible news that affected my other artist, Tk.

My phone rang just as I was coming up the third floor landing of Maimouna’s apartment.

“Winston,” I said as I answered.

“Kenya. Hey. Listen,” he said. “You know the group I told you Tk would be replacing on the show?”

Hoping this wasn’t going where it sounded like it was going, I said, “Yeah?”

“Well. Their visas came through, so… they’re going to make it after all, so…”

Yup, it was going where I hoped that it wouldn’t. It felt like a blow to the gut. I actually literally began to bend over in agony right there in the stairwell.

“I hope this didn’t… fuck up anything for you,” he said, gently, almost as if he knew that it had.

This show was the whole reason I had backed out of the University of DC show. This show was on the same day, same time, but much bigger in audience attendance, and paid two times as much. How could I not take it?

I sighed and revealed, “It’s just… I canceled another show in order to do yours—”

“Shit,” he said, feeling bad. “Shit. Now you’re out of both. I’m so sorry. Jesus. Wish it was something I could do—”

“It’s…” I wanted to say it was fine, but it wasn’t fine, so I wasn’t going to act like it was. But I really couldn’t be mad it him. This was a gamble I’d taken and lost. “Thanks anyway for… calling,” I said.

“Kenya, I’m going to make this up to you. I promise.”

I told him “alright” before I hung up the phone, still bent over, thinking about this blow. That’s when a door opened and a voice said, “Just three flights. Can’t be that bad,” she said.

I looked up to see Maimouna, having not even realized that I was already right in front of her door.

+ + +

to the top

+ + +

When I got the summons from Maimouna, I was at Ty’s place. I’d been there for the better part of that Saturday morning… for moral support. In situations like the one Ty was in, I was only good for offering an ear; I always sucked at offering words of advice. So I was there with her just to be there.

J, however, was also there, sitting at the dining room table, rigorously reading through a small stack of papers. I came and sat across from her, and she slid the papers over to me to look at.

She then quickly stood up and turned to Ty. “Can he do this?”

“Yes, he can do it. Of course, he can do it,” Ty said. “I mean, just because it’s—”

“Bullshit,” J finished.

“Yes,” Ty agreed before she finished. “Doesn’t mean it’s not legal.”

Ty, who was sitting on the couch in the adjoining living room, dropped her head down into her hands and began rubbing her face, agonizing over this.

“I’m just tired of this—”

“Bullshit,” J finished again.

I chuckled quietly at her response, although neither of them were in a laughing mood.

Ty sighed. “This back and forth with him… I just want it to be over. He ruined my life with him and now he’s trying to ruin it without him. I thought I was being mature by filing for the divorce under ‘no-fault,’ but all that did was give him ammunition with this.”

She sat back on the chair and looked at us.

“I’m tired of fighting. I might just… not even contest this.”

“What?!” J exclaimed, set off by this. “No! You’re gonna fight this. You can’t let him do this to you!”

“J,” Ty said, calmly, trying to calm her down.

“No! That piece of shit fucking cheated on you! Remember that?” J asked. “Over and over and over again.”

“J,” I said. Now I was attempting to calm her down.

“And now—”

“Now I’m still paying for it,” Ty said, completing her sentence.

“Right!” J said. “You can’t lay down like some punk ass bitch and keep taking this shit, man. Tired of fighting, my ass. You fight! That’s what the fuck you do when you have even an ounce of dignity and self respect. Shit.”

“What is your problem?” Ty asked.

“My problem is weak ass women—”

“So now I’m weak because I may not do what you want me to do?” Ty asked.

“Whatever,” J said. “I’m not going to argue with you about this.” And she turned and walked toward the bathroom. We could hear her add, “Do what you want.”

Ty sighed and continued rubbing her face before she said to me, “I avoided throwing hot tea in his face and she thinks I’m weak. That takes strength, wouldn’t you say?”

I nodded. “I would,” I agreed, offering a smile. “And she doesn’t think you’re weak,” I said for J. “Look. Just get on that plane in a few days. Go to Puerto Rico. Eat. Pray. Love. Whatever it is you plan to do…”

Ty smiled, even though I could see that the tears had reappeared. She hadn’t cried since we’d been there that morning, but I could tell she had spent time doing so before we arrived.

“And this,” I added, referring to the papers I was holding. “It’ll be here when you get back. He’s already ruined your marriage. Don’t let him ruin your vacation too.”

She nodded as she wiped tears from her face. All of this was about what had happened the day before.

It had been nearly four months since the last time she saw him, which was when she moved out of the upper northwest condo they’d shared for two years and told him she wanted a divorce—words Ty never thought she’d ever utter. So understandably, she had a fluttery stomach and was fidgety and inexplicably warm all day leading up to this dinner with her soon-to-be ex-husband.

Ty had stepped into the restaurant, unwrapping her scarf while looking around trying to spot him. She was expecting the version of him from the very last time she saw him to be the one sitting at a table waiting for her. Instead, her eyes narrowed when she saw a slightly slimmer, now well-groomed version of him, dressed in a dark blue suit, sitting at a table in the middle of the floor, looking over a menu.

She immediately hated the fact that she thought he looked good. Really good.

She pushed that thought from her mind as she approached the table. He got up to greet her and help her with her coat, as they sat down exchanging cordial pleasantries.

Looking around, Ty said, “This place is really nice.”

“Yeah. I found it a few months ago,” he said. “I live ah… not too far away from here. I come here sometimes.”

The waitress stopped and placed two mugs on the table for each of them, and then sat the teakettle in its place for them to help themselves to the hot water.

Still fidgeting and fighting the potential awkward silence, Ty said, “I’m not usually in the Brookland area too much, so I’m not familiar—”

“Oh, they have some of the best vegan food in the city,” he insisted. And then gave her that smile—the smile she remembered falling in love with—before he added, “I always think of you whenever I come here.”

Ty almost allowed herself to be smitten by it, but then she thought about it, remembered who she was sitting across from—the guy that never remembered her birthday.

He never really cared about anyone but himself. So why all of a sudden would he be thinking about me when he came into a vegan restaurant? She thought.

So she tested him and asked, “Oh yeah? Why is that?”

He couldn’t find a response.

So she smiled and said, “You do know I’m not vegan, right?”

He didn’t know it, or simply hadn’t cared to remember it. He looked away from her, almost as if he was making sure no one around them heard this.

“I have celiac disease. I don’t eat—”

“That’s right,” he said. “Gluten.”

“That’s right,” she said, kind of pissed.

Knowing that he’d already screwed up, he couldn’t look her in the eyes now. So he changed the subject.

“Ah. So, um… I ah… I got a few good leads on some government positions…”

“Good,” she said, genuinely happy to hear this. “That’s good. Doing…”

“Graphic work. Graphic design. My field,” he said. “The NSA wants things to look nice, apparently.”

“That’s… good. I’m happy for you,” she said.

And that awkward silence she’d been trying to avoid had shown up. Fortunately, it was brief.

“So, what’s… How’s everything with you? I mean… you still enjoy listening to people complain?” he said, smiling at this question.

This was something he always thought was funny—that she could not only enjoy, but actually get paid to listen to people’s problems. She always resented the fact that he didn’t respect her career choice. So yet again, he’d hit a soft spot.

“I’m actually still in my postdoc, so my time with patients is supervised, but yes, helping people understand how to effectively cope with some of life’s more challenging issues and mental health problems is… very rewarding. Yes. I enjoy it. I love what I do.”

She had never stood up to him in this way in defense of her career. This shocked him, so all he could do was reply, “Yeah?”

“Yeah,” she confirmed.

And then the awkward silence was back. She was starting to get annoyed. She wanted to know why she was here. He’d asked her to dinner. She came. She wanted to know why, but hadn’t built up the nerve to come out and ask it. So she just sat there, enduring this difficult “date,” and the food hadn’t even been ordered yet.

“So. You enjoying the weather?” he asked. “You know they’re calling for snow next week.”

“I know. Fortunately, I won’t…” And she stopped herself. She didn’t want to reveal too much about life without him and what she was doing, or with whom she was doing it.

But he caught this and asked, “You won’t what?”

“Nothing,” she said.

“No, come on. Tell me,” he urged. “You won’t what?”

Against her better judgment, she revealed, “I’m just… I’m going out of town next week, so… fortunately, I won’t have to deal with the sno—”

“Oh yeah? With who?” he asked.

Again, she took her time because she didn’t want to say. But Ty was new to all of this. She wasn’t used to evading questions or even lying. She was the kind of person that didn’t have anything to hide, so she never had anything to offer but the truth. But in that moment, she wished this part of herself wasn’t true.

“I’m going by myself,” she said.

“By yourself? What, you soul searching or something?” he asked.

“I just need a vacation.”

“Hm,” he replied.

And she knew what that hum of conclusion meant. It was judgment. He was thinking something about her need for a vacation, but had chosen to only give this hum instead of his true feelings.

Perhaps, just to amuse himself, he asked, “So where you going?”

“Puerto Rico. For a week.”

Nodding and still calculating, he said, “Wow. Okay. Puerto Rico.”

“So what do you recommend here?” she asked, trying to get off this subject. She picked up the menu and skimmed it quickly. “Vegan chicken wings? Interesting. I wonder how they do that.”

“Ty,” he said, and stared at her, waiting for her to look over at him.

Finally, she did.

“I ah… I really miss you,” he told her.

And then, she couldn’t keep looking at him.

“I do,” he went on. “I hurt you. I know that. And I’m sorry. I’m so sor—”

“You apologized already. And I told you I forgive—”

“I know. But I really regret what I did—”

“Why are we here? René. Huh?” she asked, finally, in a painfully calm tone. “Because… I don’t want to drag this out. I’m not going to order anything because I’m so nervous that I can’t possibly eat right now!”

They both quickly looked around, hoping no one noticed this quiet outburst.

Returning to a conversational tone, she went on. “All week… I’ve been going over and over it in my head, why you would want to meet. Why, whatever it is, couldn’t be said over the phone or through email or a letter or something. I’ve asked everybody that I know why they think you would want to meet me.”

She stopped and stared at him for a moment.

“And I’ve gotten one answer from all of them—that you might… want to get back together.”

And his eyes fell away from hers and down to the table.

“So. Since you asked me here, it’s all I’ve been able to think about. If René wants to get back together—rip up the papers and start over—what would I do?”

He looked over at her. “And? What did you come up with?” he inquired.

She didn’t know where to begin answering that question.

“I’ve forgiven you. I can sit here and… drink green tea with you. I can look you in the eyes, remember the good times we had. Remember all your little quirks, like the fact that… as much as I wanted to go to Puerto Rico with you… we never went because you’re afraid to fly.”

He held back a smile and nodded.

“How you would listen to Mozart before bed every night,” she said. “Fried chicken every Friday night…”

“I do love fried chicken. And what about dancing on Saturdays?”

“Dancing, yeah!” she said. “The first time I danced in public as an adult was with you.”

Now, for the first time since they’d sat down, they looked at each other in the eyes for more than two seconds.

“It was heaven, when it was,” she said. “But when it wasn’t…”

“No, I… I understand,” he said. And with a deep breath, he said, “I wouldn’t be able to take me back either.”

He smiled, which made her smile.

“Well,” he said. “I’m happy to see you’re doing well. Hopefully, we can move past this.

Just then, the waitress approached and asked, “Are you ready to order?”

“Could you give us a few?” René answered.

She nodded and stepped away.

He looked back at Ty. “I just… I asked you here…” He reached down into his bag on the floor beside him. Ty hadn’t even noticed this bag the whole time they’d been sitting there.

He pulled out a white envelope and pointed it at her.

“I wanted to be… man enough to give this to you in person.”

Not understanding what was going on, a confused Ty opened the envelop while grimacing. But before she read the paper she’d unfolded, he said, “I’m… requesting spousal support…”

His mouth continued to move, but his words went unheard. Instead of looking at him, her eyes moved to the mug emitting steam from the tea.

He went on and on about how graphic designers don’t make as much as doctors and how she had the comfort of her family’s fortune, and how he needed to get on his feet after this divorce… She admitted to me that it took everything she had not to pick up that cup and douse him with piping hot tea. That was real strength.

The kind of strength that J wrongfully mistook for the kind of weakness she saw in Amy Gale.

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