I email him and tell him that I want to see him. I send it via email because I deleted his number to keep myself from drunk texting him, as had become my habit. We haven’t talked in weeks; the last message was a picture of myself at an event where I looked beautiful and ethereal. He hadn’t responded.
But when I suggest coffee, he writes back, Ok.
He texts my phone and we decide to meet the next morning at 9am.
I don’t sleep the night before. I am staying with a friend and she only has a loveseat, so I spend my nights curled up in the fetal position. I am in Atlanta for a week. Everything that I am planning during the trip is about closure, before heading back to New York where my life is waiting. But nothing is going right. I was robbed of my phone and $500, so I feel vulnerable and silly. Still, I have high hopes for this meeting. I want to ask him, again, to invest money in a dream that I have. I want him to give me all the things I have been willing to give him. My time, my faith, energy that seems bottomless.
I dream of him the night before. We are in Harlem at a little apartment that belongs to his mother, who in the dream was Phylicia Rashad. He has a drunk uncle who keeps saying that he isn’t shit, and I am defending him virulently. I am like that when it comes to him. I explain away all of his faults. In the dream, we have sex for the first time, and it is bad. I don’t cum, but he does, and this makes perfect sense to me.
I wake up feeling strange.
It is the first time I have ever dreamt about him, and it feels prescient. Still, I get dressed in a cute dress and nice makeup. I look beautiful. I call an Uber and ask the driver to stop at CVS so I can buy nail polish remover; my manicure is raggedy and I want him to find as few faults as possible. I take off the polish in the car. At the coffee shop, I order a coffee and wait for him. I sit next to the two other Black women in the restaurant who are discussing a website. Before they leave I tell them I am a writer and offer them my business card. I get a writing gig on the spot. Good luck, I think.
Are you there? the text says.
It is 9:30. I am here. I have been here.
I woke up. Then fell back to sleep. I’m on my way.
He lives in walking distance, which is necessary because he doesn’t drive. At nearly 40 years old, he has never learned how. If I was going to see him, I was going have to come to him. I wait. Sip my now cold coffee and listen to the same song on repeat. “Jekyll” is about a man who kept showing his lover two different and conflicting sides of himself. It is the song that will come to define him for me.
I am writing the lyrics in my notebook. I want to look busy when he walks in. Then I feel it. I feel his gaze on me. I feel it in my heart first, then my head, then my pus*y. I look up and he is standing at the counter staring at me. When I meet his gaze, he gives me a half-smile and blushes. I smile in earnest and, as usual, I approach him first. Wrap my arms around him.
I look up at him. “Hi.”
I order another coffee and a pastry. He orders cookies, at 10am, and a black iced coffee. He walks over to the table while I add two natural sugars and a splash of cream to the java. It was the way he took his coffee and, for the past few months, mine too. I have gotten used to the acrid, bitter taste. I have come to love it. It makes me feel close to him.
As I sit down we just look at each other. It has been months since we have seen each other. The last time was at a party where we pretended to not see each other, finally embracing. He was sweating, and I gave him a napkin to mop his forehead. We lived in two different cities. I lived in his hometown, he lived in the city that I had taken as my second home. We texted all the time for a while, then less, then not at all, because I told him that I loved him. He told me that he didn’t love me. But he lied.
“You look beautiful. I like your hair.”
He looks the same way he always did. He is wearing his favorite tee shirt, emblazoned with the image of 2Pac on the front, the black shirt faded to gray. His jeans are wrinkled, and his New Balance sneakers have seen better days. He has a hat perched on his bald head. He looks beautiful to me.
“You look good too.”
“So… what’s up?”
How will I launch into it? I have several goals. I want to help him believe in me again. I want to work for or with him. But I also want him to understand me, and I want him to love me. I want him to say it. To show it. I want his heart and his mind. I want him.
“Not much. Same old. Working. Writing.”
I tell him about this idea for a site that I am planning on working with. I give him a sales pitch and ask him for ten thousand dollars.
He studies my face. “No.”
He likes the idea, but the site doesn’t belong to me. It belongs to someone else. He tells me that I need to find and follow my own dreams. “You’ll figure out what’s really right for you. Maybe we will talk about that when you do.”
He bites into a cookie and looks into my eyes, registering my disappointment. Instead of addressing it, he changes the subject.
“Do you like Harlem?”
New York is a sore spot for me. I went to the city with a dream job that turned into a nightmare and I quit. I was jobless. He had tried to open some doors for me. But, as it stands, I am broke and unsure about my future. Plus, it is his hometown. I spend a lot of my days wandering around it trying to see it through his eyes. I am there waiting on him.
“I don’t know. I feel like I haven’t gotten to know it yet. Or maybe I just don’t understand it. I have a lot of dreams for it, but none of them seem to be coming true.” We understand the double entendre and for a moment lapse into silence. “What happened to your hand?”
There is a small cut on his finger.
He looks down, “Oh… I don’t know. Just some random cut I guess.”
“Let me see.”
He extends his hand and I take it in mine. Turning it over and studying the fingers, I memorize the callouses as I let my fingers dance over his palm. I lace my fingers in his the way I had the last time we saw each other, and the intimacy of the gesture takes up space between us.
He watches me, and I refuse to meet his gaze.
“You need a manicure,” I say, as I take my hand away.
“I need a lot of things.”
“Don’t we all?”
“How’s your daughter?”
We talk about our kids. We each only have one. A boy for him. A girl for me. They are creative, spoiled children. He is more of a friend than a father to his son, and lately, I am more an enemy than a mother to my daughter. But the kids are a safe space. We can talk about them and the tension between us fades.
We have been at this table for over an hour now. I get up to go to the bathroom, and he asks if I want water. I do. I leave everything at the table. My phone. My purse. My laptop. I leave my life in his care. In the bathroom, I pee and try not to cry. I’m confused. I’m nervous. I don’t know what to say next. Or what to do. But, as I wash my hands, I am pleased that I look pretty and I’m glad he got to see me this way.
Back at the table, I put my laptop away, there will be no more talk of money or business arrangements. I try to remove the barriers between us. We both push our phones to the side and I slip into reporter mode. I feel comfortable pretending that this is an interview.
I ask the most cliché question I know: “When did you fall in love with hip-hop?”
He laughs. I laugh too.
“That’s what you wanna do?”
“I can’t remember exactly. It seemed like it was always there. I loved the music, the energy. When I was about 12, 13, I started boosting tapes. I did that for a while. I would go downtown to Tower or Strawberry’s and get all the new rap shit. I would get them the day they came out, then come back uptown and play them for my niggas. I always had the new shit. I kinda became known for that.”
“Yep. I would steal the tapes and bring them back home. I remember when I got caught the first time. I didn’t go to jail, but my mother had to come get me. She was so pissed.”
We laugh. Of course she was.
“The second time I got caught wasn’t even my fault. I took somebody with me, which I never did. And HE got caught. I went back in to find him, and they busted me too. That was the last time I stole anything.”
“Isn’t that how it always is? As soon as you bring somebody else in, everything goes bad?”
“Yeah. But, that was it. I was a little tape thief. That was my first industry job.”
We laugh again. His most recent industry job was as an Executive Vice President at a major record company. He resigned at the end of his contract and is now jobless. But he signed a major rapper and producer early in his career and he is extremely wealthy.
“What have you been up to with the app?”
This is our other safe space. He is designing a hip-hop app that will redefine the industry. I have seen the mock-up and all of his notes. For months, he would take pictures of them and send them to me. I would type them up, color code them with thoughts, questions, and ideas and send them back. I loved it. I loved him. I wanted to be a part of it. But I wanted to move fast, and he likes to move slow. Speed was a major point of contention for us.
“The same. I’m still mulling some stuff over. I have some meetings.” He shrugs. “You know me. I just want to do it right.”
“Sometimes I wonder if you’re overthinking it.”
He’s quiet. He looks out the window, the sun is shining in full force. It’s May 3rd and nearing Noon. The temperature is nearing 80 outside.
“You overwhelmed me,” he says quietly.
“I know.” I look at him until he turns from the window and back to me,. “I’m sorry.”
“I just have such a sense of urgency. I don’t have a job. I don’t have money saved. I wanted you to invest in me. To be there for me.” I pause. “To rescue me.”
“That’s a lot to ask of me.”
“I know.” I pause again. “I’m sorry.”
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry I couldn’t be that for you.” He shrugs and lifts an eyebrow, “I kind of wanted to. I just couldn’t. Do you know a girl named ___________?”
The name sounds vaguely familiar, but I don’t know her and I tell him so. The story that he tells is one of Hip-Hop legend, about a girl who left her boyfriend for a famous rapper. As he recounts it, I remember seeing it all over the blog sites; it was a bit of a scandal.
“But, she was more than that. She used to throw parties all the time when we were together, and I would never go. I wasn’t… I’m not the party type.”
“But, it wasn’t until she left that I realized that she didn’t just want me to come to the party. She wanted me to be there for her. She wanted my support. She was trying to break into the industry that I was already in and I didn’t help her. But he did. He went to her parties. He got her a job at a label. He was there for her in a way that I just couldn’t bring myself to be. I fucked up. By the time I realized it, it was too late and she was already gone.”
“You’re doing that again. With me.”
He nods. “I know.” He shrugs again. “I tried with you though.”
He helped me get an interview, but I didn’t get the job. They really wanted him, and I would come along with him. It was a package deal. He didn’t take the gig so I didn’t get the gig.
“That wasn’t totally my fault.”
“She wanted to be rescued too. Maybe I’m just not the rescuing type. Maybe I need to be rescued too. When she left me, I met a girl who looked just like her. I rushed into a relationship with her and tried to make up for everything I had done wrong. She had just broken up with someone famous, and I thought we had all this stuff in common. But, in reality, all we had in common was pain. And all we could offer each other was more pain. Relationships are hard.”
“They are. The best ones really are.”
“She left me for a better man. She upgraded. I heard they’re getting married.”
I stay quiet. He needs to say this, and I let him.
“When she left, I listened to Views for a year.”
“The Drake album?”
“She went from a B-lister to an A-lister. I couldn’t compete with him.”
“Is that how you see yourself? As a B-lister?”
“You’re the smartest man I have ever met. You’re a rap legend. You’re strong in so many ways. She didn’t leave you because of who you are, she left you because of who you aren’t.”
“She likes to talk, like you, and I don’t. He’s a communicator. I’m not. I couldn’t compete with him.”
“She wanted to be with someone who believed in her. You didn’t. That’s not her failing. You gotta own your shit. You build up this wall and you do everything to keep people out.”
“Have you heard of the Five Love Languages?”
“Yes, but refresh me.”
“There’s…um, words of affirmation. That was hers. Quality time, that’s mine. Gifts, and something else. We just weren’t on the same wavelength.”
“But you loved her.”
“I did. I loved her even more after she left me.”
“Don’t we all?”
It was nearing two o’clock. We have been sitting at this table since 10. “Let’s get some lunch.”
We go back up to the counter and order a sandwich to share. Sitting back down we wait for the food.
“What do you think your love language is?”
“I don’t know. I guess it would be whatever would be the need to be protected. I didn’t grow up with my father, I had a kid young and her father went to prison. I’ve always been looking for someone who would protect me. To be the rock. To be the shade that I could hide behind. To be the person that I could show my true self. It’s hard being a woman in the music industry. It means either having to be ultra-feminine or ultra-masculine to be respected.”
He nods. “I can see that.”
“I’m tired, honestly. I’m an only child. I’m a single parent. I’m tired of doing everything by myself. I want to choose up.”
He laughs at the pimp analogy. It fits. It makes sense.
“I’ve always pursued the same type of girl. These light-skinned, skinny girls who looked like what everybody said I should be with. But…” he gestures toward me, “I want sincerity and loyalty.”
He stops himself.
I fill in the blanks in my mind. Me.
“You’re not… I don’t know.”
The waitress puts the sandwich down. We only ordered one and we split it. As we chew silently, we both contemplate it all. The interruption takes away the best opportunity for me to say that I want more. I want to be his lover and his secretary. I want the same thing his ex did. The interruption gives us both the respite that we need; he won’t have to say what we both already know.
“I’m sorry I can’t be what you want me to be.”
The conversation feels final, but neither of us want it to end.
He flips the script and becomes the interviewer this time. “What’s the first hip-hop album you bought?”
“Kwame’,” I say immediately, “I was in love with-.”
“Those polka dots did it for you?”
“It was good music.”
“It was a good album.” He pushes the empty plate aside. “Who’s the better songwriter? Babyface or R. Kelly?”
“Is that a joke? Babyface.”
He shakes his head, “Nope.”
The mood is lightened. We have a debate about R&B, we laugh. This feels better. The words again go unsaid.
I ask him how he met his famous rapper client and how he knew he would be famous. It’s a story that he likes to tell, and it seems well-practiced. We talk about his former boss, a rap legend who is arguably the greatest rapper of all time. We talk about the new Kendrick Lamar. I say I didn’t like it.
He shrugs. “It was only okay, honestly.”
It’s nearing three o’clock.
Our phones are buzzing with phone calls and text messages, neither of us move to answer them. For another hour we talk about music, and then I tell him that I’m going to a wedding the next day.
“I’ve never been to a wedding,” he says, with a mischievous sparkle in his eye.
“Maybe once. Back on the island. One of my aunts, but I was probably like five or six.”
I remember that he was born in the Caribbean. “You like that don’t you?”
“What?” He bites into another cookie.
“Being odd. Different.”
He laughs. “Yeah. I guess I do. I don’t like to conform. I don’t like to fit in a box. I’m extremely introverted. I don’t talk much. I do everything I can to not stand out. All the way down to the way I dress. I don’t want to be memorable.”
“That’s funny. You have one of the most recognizable names in the industry. You’ve worked for and with the greats.”
“Those are just jobs. They don’t define who I am.”
“Who are you?”
“I’m still trying to figure that out.”
“You know, I was born on the same day Prince was born. You were born on the same day that he died.”
“Really? That’s interesting.”
“Everything happens for a reason. We met for a reason.”
“I willed it.”
“What do you mean?”
“I wanted to meet you. I would get up in the morning and meditate. I would picture your face in my mind. I would talk to you, in my mind. I wrote it down on a piece of paper that I would be your assistant. Then, you know… there you were.”
“That day on the street.”
“That was crazy, right?”
“I was just walking down the street, and there you were. Of all places, on 125th , you were walking right toward me. It felt like a dream.”
“To you too?”
“I thought about you a lot after that.”
“We talked a lot after that.”
That was six months ago. We got so close, then so distant. Now we are trying to figure it all out in one day.
It is nearing five o’clock. We have been sitting at this table for seven hours.
“I don’t know.”
The sun is lower in the sky. It is time. Time to say goodbye.
“I wanna show you something.”
We finally stand. My legs are nearly numb. We both go to our respective restrooms, meeting again in the hall. “This way.”
Outside of the shop are a series of office spaces for rent. We put our faces to the glass.
“I like this one the most.” It has an upstairs and downstairs. It is what I had pictured us working together in. Side-by-side. “I’m thinking of maybe opening a space.”
“I would come back… for you. If you asked me.”
We walk down the block. There is a restaurant next door and I need a drink.
“I guess I’m gonna go in here.”
“I’m gonna go home and smoke.”
I look down at my phone to answer the dozen text messages from my best friend. “My best friend thinks you kidnapped me.”
He’s walking just ahead of me as we near the corner. My head is down as I step off the curb. He puts his arm out and stops me as a car passes.
“Kidnapped you? You’re always safe with me.”
“I should go.”
He pulls me in for a hug and his lips graze my face. My lips graze his neck. Don’t go, I plead, silently. Or at least take me with you.
“I’ll call you.”
He walks ahead toward home.
“I love you,” I say quietly to his back.
But he doesn’t hear me. He keeps walking and doesn’t look back.