Outside of its half million residents, most people are surprised to learn that the District of Columbia is just a tiny piece of greenery housed between the commonwealth of Virginia and the free state of Maryland. Nevertheless, over 20 million people come here every year just to experience a bit of American history.
But despite being surrounded by tourists and greenery and history, Derek and I only noticed each other.
Two people with nontraditional occupations, who make their own schedules, tend to choose the oddest days and hours to do things. Movies at 10 am on Tuesdays. Golf in 30-degree weather… Kissing marathons outside at all hours of the night. And tonight was no different.
Just as he had twice already that week, Derek escorted me from his car to my door. And also just like those nights, we found ourselves dreading having to let go after hours together already.
“My schedule is wide open tonight,” he said. “So… if you invited me in, I’d say ‘yes’.”
And it was tempting, but regretfully I said, “Tk will be here in like five minutes, so…”
I liked how he threw his head back in playful frustration, hating to hear this. So right as we got to my door and I turned to bid him adieu, he made up the excuse, “You got something—some ice cream on your face…”
And he quickly used his mouth to apparently get this “ice cream” off my face, making a trail of kisses from my cheek to my lips.
“Tastes like chocolate,” he joked.
And I laughed. We had, in fact, eaten ice cream earlier that day (yes, I’d broken my vegan regimen with him), but…
“I wasn’t the one who had chocolate,” I told him, as he jokingly planted soft kisses all over my face.
But those playful pecks began to turn into a sensual silent conversation—him telling me without telling me that he was ready for more—as he had through his kisses the night before. He began using his nose to slowly make circles on mine, while letting his lips brush my lips first before he began to use his mouth to softly pinch my mouth, as a prelude to using his tongue to massage my tongue. It was a slow, almost melodic dance that felt almost inappropriate outside, even though we weren’t in a public place.
I used the wall of the house for support as he applied a gentle pressure in order to assert the effectiveness of his kisses, and I felt his hand slide around as he softly began to finesse my butt, as he pressed onto me a little harder.
Our breath seemed to be in sync, emitting a periodic white cloud that quickly disintegrated no sooner than it formed around us. Had we been in a car, there would’ve been no way to see in or out the windows.
The buzzing of my phone neither startled nor interrupted him.
“I should probably get that.”
But his lips found mine again, as the phone kept buzzing.
“It might be Taj. Or Luc…”
His lips on that part of my neck suddenly made me forget what I was trying to say, as the phone kept buzzing.
And then I remembered, “I’ve been ignoring it all day…”
But again, our tongues met and decided to do that dance again. I didn’t want to stop. I didn’t care who was on the phone, but…
“Okay,” he said, as he pulled away abruptly.
I looked at him, shocked and wondering why he’d stopped. So he came in again for one last, quick taste before he took a breath and said, “Okay. Okay,” and pulled away for real this time.
I instantly put the phone to my ear without even looking at who was calling.
“Well. Hello there, Miss. Shaw.”
It was a man’s voice, but it wasn’t Tk, and it certainly wasn’t Lucas.
“Did I catch you at a bad time?” he asked.
And that’s when it hit me. I remembered this voice. And just like that, I went from burning hot… to ice cold.
+ + +
+ + +
The following morning, I was up bright and early, as I rushed to the little coffee shop where Ty liked to grab her A.M. pick-me-up before work. I spotted her and J sitting at a table made for two, but I went over and stole a chair from the table beside them as I sat down, forgetting to even give either of them so much as a “good morning” greeting.
“I have a situation,” I said with urgency.
But neither of them had this same urgency. In fact, they calmly looked across the table at each other.
Ty said, “I’m sorry. But… do I know you?” And then she looked at J and asked, “Do you know her?”
J pretended to think. “You know… she does look vaguely familiar.”
“You know what? I think it might be that girl who used to hang with us,” Ty said.
“Oh yeah,” J remembered. “The one who disappeared after she met the guy.”
“Alright. Come on,” I said, trying to get to my point. “Look. I know it’s been a few days…”
“Days?” Ty said. “No. Try weeks.”
“Weeks, muthafucka,” J chimed in.
“Today’s Wednesday,” Ty said. “The last time I saw or spoke to you was exactly… 15 days ago.”
At first, I thought maybe she was joking. But then once I thought about it… she was right.
“Oh my god!” I said.
And then I looked at J, then Ty, and then back to J before repeating, “Oh my god! Jesus. I am so sorry. I feel so bad…”
Ty immediately said, “We’re just messing with you. It’s okay—”
“Dude, it’s sooo not okay,” J cut in. “I can understand maybe ditching us for music, but for a fucking guy? Come on, man.”
“I know,” I said, guiltily. “I just didn’t… I didn’t realize. It’s just…”
And as I thought about him, I couldn’t help but begin to smile. And then I was lost in my thoughts about him.
“Man… I like him. I like him a lot. And look at my face,” I said, with a far off smile still tattooed on my face thinking about him. “I can’t stop doing this. I’ve never been that girl.”
“You’ve never been any kind of girl,” J said.
Ty was containing her excitement as she said, “But now she is! Aww… It’s kinda cute.”
J looked at me with a side-eye and reluctantly admitted, “It is kinda cute, Kenya. ‘Girl’ looks really good on you.”
“Alright. Enough about this, though—about me. What’s up with you guys? What have I missed?”
I looked at Ty, so that she could go first.
While I was making no attempts to unlock my and Derek’s lips the past two weeks, Ty was quietly burying herself in her work in an effort to forget about her post-nuptial problems.
As if she hadn’t had enough schooling in the area of psychology, she was reading books on the matter—Malcolm Gladwell, Daniel Kahneman, and one she loved to hate, Freud.
I wasn’t one to try and psychoanalyze anyone, but confining oneself to work and home didn’t exactly sound like the most productive way of trying to return to normal. Before this latest incident with her ex regarding the terms of their permanent separation, she seemed to be getting back to her old self—dating, going out more, being social. But now? I questioned if she wasn’t regressing. But of course I kept those thoughts to myself.
And in just the last two weeks, J had fallen for Rocky Bauer… Literally. Rocky was an X-Games skateboarder, who had recently built skateparks in two of the city’s more underprivileged neighborhoods. J had fallen several times while trying to learn how to skateboard.
He had taken her to an indoor skatepark on their first time out together. It looked so easy, she thought, but she could barely get in two good kicks before she—or he—was picking herself up off the floor.
“Now you see why I didn’t want to do this with other people around?” she told him.
“You’re not that bad,” he lied, knowing that she didn’t believe him. “You just need practice. And training. Lots of training.”
And they shared a flirtatious laugh before she asked, “Is that an invitation?”
Rocky didn’t know how to respond to this kind of assertive sexuality that J oozed so easily onto him. He blushed and turned his attention back to the skateboard. She could immediately see that he had a sweet, unassuming nature, but she didn’t feel bad about how easy he’d be to get.
He was the kind of sexy that had no idea he was sexy. She presumed that he was likely ugly as a kid and hadn’t realized when he’d grown out of it. He was a decent height at 5’11” and had a skater’s boyish frame and wardrobe. Tattoos started at his throat and covered his forearms too, which made her want to know what was on his torso. The close cut, thick, jet-black hair that crowned his head brought out the innocence in his big, almond-shaped eyes that sat on butterscotch skin.
They had caught eyes during his photo-shoot for her magazine, had gone out several times in a matter of days, always had the most intriguing conversations…
“But… that’s it,” J complained. “He won’t let me get close to him.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“We go out, but he doesn’t invite me up to his place, he never comes into mine, kisses are cut off after like two fucking seconds, he squirms when I touch him…” She stopped and shook her head, and then looked at us and said, “I’m thinking maybe he’s gay.”
And Ty immediately rolled her eyes. “Oh my God. Why does a guy have to be gay just because he doesn’t want to have sex with you after, what, three dates?”
J stared at her for a few seconds to make sure she wasn’t joking before she asked, “Really? Have you seen me lately?”
And with that, Ty replied, “I cannot believe you just said that, and with a straight face.”
“Maybe he’s just… a nice guy,” I said.
And with a frustrated sigh, J replied, “Very nice. Too fucking nice. But if all I wanna do is talk, I have you for that. Or at least Ty—”
“Oh, thanks for making such good use of me,” Ty replied, facetiously.
“That’s what women are for,” J said. “Talking. Men? Men are for fucking.”
“So. What?” Ty asked. “That’s it? You’re going to stop seeing this guy because he actually wants to do more than sleep with you?”
“Oh no. I don’t give up that easily. This?” J said. “This is just a challenge. One that I will win.”
Forget X-Games. J had her sights set on X-rated games.
After a hazelnut flavored coffee and twenty minutes of catch-up conversation, I had forgotten all about my problem.
We walked out of the coffee shop and both of them said their goodbyes to one another as they prepared to go to their respective work places.
J started in one direction, while I walked with Ty.
“So? What’s this situation you have?” Ty asked, remembering.
I’d forgotten about it, until Ty reminded me.
“Oh. Yeah. Nothing. It’s nothing,” I lied.
“Kenya,” she said with an exhausted sigh. “I don’t have time for—”
“Marcus called me. Last night,” I revealed. And as I was already expecting her need for confirmation, I went ahead and said, “Yes, that Marcus. He’s in town. Apparently he’s a photographer now, here to shoot some Kennedy Center thing and…”
Ty pulled out her phone in mid-sentence and put it up to her ear.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“I’m calling J. I have 30 minutes before I’m needed in the office. She needs to get back here for this.”
See, as you already know, before I was making records, I was spinning them. I was the lifeline of so many college parties, despite not ever actually partying myself. I had my priorities out of conventional order back then. Understandable that the music was my main focus, but school wasn’t even number two on that list. Number two belonged to Marcus Andrew.
Marcus was a young man of many talents. He even changed his major three times to prove it. I was 18. He was the first guy I ever found both cute and interesting. So to me, his indecisiveness was just spontaneity, and I considered it quite charming. That is… until I became one of his indecisions.
“How many times did he string you along, only to disappear whenever he found something else better to do?” Ty asked. “I mean, he once called if off with you because he thought he was going to become a famous R&B singer.”
“Well he did end up becoming a performer in that Univer-Soul circus thing,” J said.
And both Ty and I looked at her.
“I’m just sayin’,” she said, “he did come close.”
“He was a flake,” Ty said, “who broke your—”
“He didn’t break my heart. He just… changed his mind about it.”
“Wait. Why are we talking about him?” J asked.
And with a deep breath, I said with great reservation, “Because. I agreed to have dinner with him tomorrow night.”
And when I saw that neither one of them could close their mouths, I knew that I had made a huge mistake.
+ + +
+ + +
I arrived at The Park, a premiere lounge downtown, just before the happy hour rush, expecting to see the place dimly lit, devoid of customers, and the sound of a guitar tuning its strings in preparation for the upcoming acoustic performance that evening. Except, I only found the first two of those three things.
It was quiet. Too quiet, in fact. But with perfect timing, I caught eyes with Jose, the manager, casually dressed in a suit, minus the jacket and the tie. We started toward each other, both of us confused.
He spoke first, “He should’ve been here 20 minutes ago to set up. He’s on at 4.”
I quickly looked up at the clock, which read 3:44, and before I looked down, my phone was already at my ear.
“Aye, look, if we’re gonna do this, we need to do it right,” Jose complained, as I waited for the line to connect.
I had a feeling that Lucas was still at home, but I wouldn’t get the details until later about why he wasn’t at The Park when he was booked to perform for the happy hour crowd in 15 minutes.
Apparently, he had spent the day with Alma, a girl who had become his ex-girlfriend three times since I’d met him. Some time within the last month, they found themselves “on” again.
As he scrambled to gather his guitar and everything he needed to go along with it, a simple conversation about where, exactly, he needed to go, turned into a fight about why he needed to leave at the very moment when she was trying to straighten out the terms of their new relationship.
“That’s it, Lucas. Every time I want to have a conversation with you, you find something else more imp—”
“No, you just don’t seem to understand that I am a musician, okay,” he told her. “I have songs to write and shit to record and gigs to do!”
“Who the hell supported you when you were sleeping in the motherfucking street?”
“Do you have to curse at me?!”
“Yes. Because it’s the only way you seem hear me,” she said to him.
“How could I not hear you? Everybody on the block can hear you.”
“This is not a joke!” she insisted. “I’m trying to have a conversation…”
He put his hands on his head as he tried to explain, “I’m not jo- Look, Alma. I gotta go. I can’t do this right now.”
And he grabbed his guitar case.
“You’re just gonna leave? See?” she said, as if her point had been proven. “It’s always about you. You and your goddamn music—”
“Music is all I’ve got!”
And this statement quieted her, because it was an insult. She had been trying to be something to him for the three years that they’d known each other, but seemingly hadn’t made it past being more than an accessory.
The same moment she turned to walk out was the moment his phone, which was in his hand, began ringing.
“Alma, wait…” He went after her.
Without looking back at him, she said, “Lucas, I can’t do this anymore. I’m done.”
“Look, I have this Happy Hour gig I need to do,” he said, ignoring what she’d just said. “Just… let me get my guitar. We can talk about this—”
“I’m fucking tired of always fighting about this! Nothing ever changes! I give you space. Nothing changes. I try to live with it. And still, nothing changes,” she complained.
As the phone continued to sing, he said, “We just started over. I mean, are we gonna do this again?”
With tears running down her face, she said, “I can’t…” And walked out.
This time, he let her go, as he put the phone up to his ear and said, “Kenya, I’ll be there in 10 minutes.”
But I knew that his “10 minutes” was probably more like 15, so I turned to Jose and said, “20 minutes.”
With a frustrated head roll, he said, “Kenya…”
“Jose. He had an emergency,” I said. “Give him 20 minutes.”
It was like he detected my little white lie, because he simply dropped the conversation and accepted that he’d have to wait.
Grateful, I said to his back as he disappeared into another room, “Thank you.”
Fortunately, where I was needed next wasn’t far from the The Park.
I met Justin while interning at a radio station in college. He was also an intern, who thought that he might someday want a career behind the microphone, but after just one semester, he changed both his mind and his major to television production, and hadn’t looked back since.
Now, he was producing a local television show on DC’s public access network, while freelancing his videography skills on the side, which offered the kind of creative adventures he wasn’t afforded at his day job. And of course, extra money. One of those side ventures was his own creation, a YouTube show spotlighting independent creators, and the station let him use one of their studios to produce it. So when he asked me if Taj Kamal would be available as a feature, I jumped at the opportunity.
When I walked in, Tk was already sitting down with the host, Mara, a self-described Blashian—half Black, half Korean—whose beauty was so intoxicating that it was almost uncomfortable to be around. Tk could barely keep good eye contact with me, and I was like a sister to him, so I wasn’t surprised to see him staring at the floor as he answered her questions.
I walked over and stood beside Justin, a shorter-than-average, sloppily dressed guy, with glasses and an unmotivated beard.
“Hey. How’s he doing?” I said, softly.
“He’s doing great. You’ve been working with him on his interview skills, I see,” he said.
“Yes. He practically moved in with me for about a week…”
He began laughing. “How did Maryam feel about that?”
A few years ago, we found out that Justin and Tk’s wife, Maryam, knew each other from when they were much younger, elementary school if you can believe that—a reminder of just how small the world is.
“She’s very supportive of him. I’ll just say that.”
“Normal people have no idea what they’re signing up for when they decide to get involved with you music business folk,” he said, shaking his head.
“No, they don’t,” I confirmed.
We both turned our attention back to Mara and Tk sitting on the set of her “talk show” just as the last question came in.
“Now, your album is hitting the streets this spring—”
“Yeah, April 23rd,” Tk filled in.
“Before we let you go, tell us—where can we find you? Any tours coming up, performances, appearances, interviews?”
And right then, he looked over at me for the first time since I arrived. I knew what that look meant, and even though his glance only lasted about three seconds, it felt like an eternity. The look meant that he didn’t want to answer that question because of what the answer would actually be. But despite the truth in the details, he quickly looked back at Mara and said verbatim what we had rehearsed:
“Ah… You can go to my website, Taj Kamal music dot com. Show updates, music, press, videos—you can find everything you need there.”
“Well alright. You heard the man. Go to Taj Kamal music dot com. We’ll be right back after this video.”
After Tk stepped off the set and was disconnected from his mic, we met in the little green room where he gathered his things as we prepared to leave.
“Spring,” he said. “What do you think about pushing the album back—maybe a few months?” he asked me.
But that wasn’t the answer he was looking for.
“Why are you thinking about that?” I asked.
He took a moment before saying, “She asked me what I was doing—to let people know I got an album coming out. The fact that I can’t really answer that question…”
He looked at me not knowing how to continue his thought.
And then he said, “I’ve heard you use the analogy: if a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it… I’m just thinking about the idea of putting out another album that… may not make a sound.”
I took a breath before I said, “I thought we were past this. I thought that you understood that you—”
“Need to trust the process?” he completed.
I looked at him as he was concentrating on putting his headphones and other gadgets into the backpack he always traveled with.
I didn’t know what to say. Tk was still caught up on the past, and unfortunately I was ill-equipped to talk him back into the present, and apparently I’d done a piss-poor job of helping him to look forward to the future.
He picked up his bag and threw it over his left shoulder, and without another word about it, we walked out of the station. Tk was committed to moving forward with me and my plan, but I hated the feeling that he was uncertain.
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