“Mannn, the things I could say about my boy, Romeo.”
Chuckles rippled through the great hall; some tinged with nerves, others with anticipation. No one knew where this best man reception speech was going but that was the magic of Michael Camden.
Michael – 6’2”, smooth-skinned, a body intimately familiar with HIIT circuits at the poshest local gym – knew this was just icing. He really endeared himself to the crowd with his fun-loving antics at the wedding. He’d frantically patted his pockets and gasped when the groom, Romeo Berry, looked to him expectantly for the wedding ring. In seconds that felt like hours, he’d smoothed his hands over seemingly every inch of his tuxedo with eyes bulging and mouth agape. Michael’s eyes trailed down to the floor and raced back and forth as if the wedding band had magically jumped from his pocket. The crowd murmured, of course. And when he whipped the ring box from behind his back like the smoothest magician to ever do business, the cheers overwrote any earlier traces of disapproval.
If anyone else had tried a stunt like that, they might have ruined the most important day of a couple’s life. But not Michael Camden. He was intimately familiar with how to tiptoe across tightropes and blow past boundaries that no one else would dare. His mastery of subtlety allowed him to shift into anyone’s good graces with a smile here, a light touch there, a joke there. He was a member of an envied class of men; the sort who drew a dramatic and involuntary, “Charmed, I’m sure,” from your lips upon meeting. Because you were. You were charmed, surely.
“Romeo Berry and I met in the fifth grade. We were thick as thieves. He’d come over to my house and we played Batman and Robin, tying my grandma’s good towels around our necks, using our science class goggles, climbing on top of the shed out back, and jumping off to go save the world.”
The room was breaking apart with laughter and he hadn’t even delivered the tiniest bit of a punchline yet.
“My grandma molly whopped both of us. She didn’t care that Ro wasn’t her blood. He got the business just like I did. We might still have the stripes to prove it, huh dawg?” He glanced over at the groom who raised his eyebrows and shook his head like he could still feel the switch Mama Jadie chased them with. “But that just goes to show how close we were. We took our whuppins’ together just like our dinner. Romeo stayed at my house like the brother I never had…”
“Hey!” someone yelled. The baritone voice echoed against the high, regal ceilings and far marble walls.
The room hushed, heads turning accusingly to identify the culprit who’d dare interrupt The Best Man Speech by Michael Camden. At reception table six, Michael’s older brother, Dr. Marcus Camden stood, mockingly upset. He was equally fine and only slightly less of a ham.
“Oh yeah, I do have a brother. My bad. Dr. Marcus Camden, head of Pediatrics at JFK, everybody!”
Michael tipped his imaginary hat as Marcus took a bow and jokingly raised both fists to his little brother.
The scattered, confused laughter riled itself into a roar.
Michael’s grin rivaled The Cheshire Cat as he continued.
“But seriously, Ro and I became truly like brothers. When Marcus went away to college, Ro was the one I could count on. He’d talk me out of my bad decisions and halfway into some good ones. I looked up to him the same way I looked up to my big brother because he was always about something. He always either knew what he wanted or made moves to figure it out as quickly as possible.”
Michael paused dramatically and rehearsed.
“Well, from the moment he met her, he always knew he wanted Audrey LaShawn Babineaux by his side. He didn’t have to figure it out.” He turned to his left and charmingly pointed the microphone at the bride who blushed and melted against Romeo’s arm, gazing adoringly at the man she’d just given her life to. The reception guests twittered and sighed with adoration for the beautiful bride.
“Now Audrey was the finest thing on two feet Romeo had ever brought home. He did just aight with the ladies up until that point. That was usually my area of expertise.” Michael paused for effect and smoothed the arms of his winter white, shimmery tux. Not one person in the room was looking at their smartphone or engaging in side conversations. He was in his element.
“He invited her to my birthday party a few years ago and you know how I knew she was the one for him? Can anybody guess?”
Everyone shook their heads, anticipating what he might say next.
“Because of her best friend and maid of honor today, Lena.”
Audrey reached to her left, feeling for, grabbing, and squeezing Lena’s hand. Lena squeezed her hand back and immediately plastered a gracious smile on her face for the onlooking guests who were hooting and whistling in her direction.
Michael turned to face her as he continued, eye contact as fierce as the day they met. The moment was more intense than she’d anticipated for his silly old speech; and if she looked away the whole room would start constructing a puzzle from the old, dusty pieces of her love life. Hell, they already were, she guessed. So she held his gaze. A feeling, something between an embarrassed cry and a growl of anger hung in her throat, threatening to crawl up and out if Michael didn’t redirect his attention soon. But she maintained a smile.
“Audrey and her best friend, Lena Vivienne Potter, walked into my apartment on that wistful September evening in 2008 and I knew Ro’s number had hit.” He belted out the word knew with a conviction that felt both practiced and unequivocally true. “Not only were they both fine as hell, they moved like queens. I remember offering Lena a mixed drink and, without being rude, she dug a beer out of the cooler and said, ‘Thank you but I’d rather have something unopened.’ And I mean, hey, she was right. She didn’t know me from a can of paint. And I’d never met a woman who was as aware of her surroundings but still so down-to-earth. Whew. Good God Almighty. Hurt me.”
Michael put his hands on his hips and scrunched up his face as if he were in pain. More applause. More whistles. Lena had to give it to him, he was the greatest showman on earth. She played along, shaking her head, the corners of her mouth turned upward just enough to appease the crowd.
“So check it – one of Ro’s exes showed up to the party, y’all,” he continued with the story, lowering his voice and leaning out toward the guests as if he were telling a deep secret to his boys on poker night.
“Don’t ask me how she got there but she was trying to put the moves on Ro once she saw he was there with somebody nine times finer. Now, Audrey didn’t even notice. You know you bad when you’re just meeting your man’s friends and you don’t even notice the ex! That other girl, she was having a tough time dealing with it. So she was doing the most, trying to pop up in Ro’s face every two seconds. Am I lying, Ro?”
“Nah, you ain’t lying,” Romeo laughed and took a sip of champagne as Audrey playfully narrowed her eyes at him.
“And, you know, me being the nice guy that I am, I wasn’t quite sure how to handle the situation without causing a scene, right. Oh, but then there was Lena…”
A few people let out another series of whistles.
Lena shifted in her seat and ran her hand over her short curls, wondering when he would get to the point and turn over the mic to someone else. She always held her breath when he got a microphone in his hand or an audience of any sort. Nothing was off-limits for Michael as long as he won the affection of whoever was within earshot.
“Lena didn’t know I was watching her but she pulled the girl to the side and said, ‘You don’t think you’re being disrespectful? You see Romeo is here with someone else and you’re throwing yourself at him.’”
The chick was like, “Ohmigosh, what are you talking about? And who are you to tell me what to do?” Michael put on the best Valley Girl accent he could and pretended to flip his hair.
Lena gazed out at the people. They were waving their napkins in the air, high fiving each other, having side conversations about what they would’ve told that “ho” and wiping tears from laughing. She had to give it to him. He was good at making people feel good.
“Now, this is where I knew Audrey was the right pick for Ro. Because Lena had her back and Audrey was none the wiser. No big drama. No fallout. Lena’s little 5’4” self just backed that girl into a corner, put her hand on the wall over the girl’s head, and said, ‘That girl Romeo is dating is my ace and unless you want me to kick your monkey ass, I suggest you excuse yourself and slip out unnoticed. I am not the one and you ain’t got the range to fool with me. Now try me if you want to.’”
The guests went wild.
Audrey squealed and turned to look at Lena with a gasp. Her grin seemed so big it could crack her face. “Girl, what? Is he telling the truth? That happened?” She leaned in and whispered to Lena.
Lena smiled. “Girl…she was working my nerves from the minute she hit the door.”
Audrey fell onto Lena’s shoulder laughing so hard Lena burst into giggles.
Michael continued. He was bringing the crowd home now like the end of a feel-good sermon.
“She didn’t know I heard that little conversation until today but I knew that with a homegirl like Lena, and a homeboy like me – Audrey and Ro were going to be just fine. And I was right. Audrey has kept my mans solid as a rock. Holding him up in the tough times and holding him down at all times. They’re a perfect match. They make loving look easy and they have a good time doing it. Both of them love hard and look for the absolute best in people.”
He paused again.
“And they keep on looking for the best in people…even when people mess up.”
He was staring overtly at Lena now. He was staring so hard that Audrey turned back to look at her.
She nudged Lena’s clenched fist open and held her hand.
“You better let that man love you, Lee,” she whispered.
Lena squinted her eyes and pursed lips. It was the best semblance of a smile she could muster at this point.
“So, everybody… raise your glasses to these two beautiful Black people… May God bless your union and may the rest of us know a love like yours sooner than later. Cheers.”
Michael handed the microphone back to the DJ who announced that dinner was served. Lena could feel him making his way toward her and she felt Audrey squeeze her leg. She felt her heartbeat in her neck and she felt sweat begin to form on her bare back. Before she knew it, she was up and out of her seat just as Michael was about to lean down to speak to her. She felt eyes on her as her heels clicked out into the foyer. She couldn’t breathe.
The cool marble column in the foyer against her back felt good. Her eyes closed and she searched for her breath. All these months of meditation practice and when she needed to calm herself the most, everything she’d practiced seemed to be lost to her. The way Audrey had squeezed her hand… she wanted Lena and Michael to get back together. Everyone who knew them did. But everyone didn’t know everything.
“‘Scuse us a minute.”
Lena’s eyes flew open. Michael’s hands were swift on the small of her back, guiding her away from the wedding guests who were lingering in the mansion hall. She didn’t have time to think, she just moved as quickly as his nudging hand moved her.
Quick quick quick. Click click click. She felt like a scurrying mouse.
Lena accidentally caught the eye of Miranda, one of the other bridesmaids. Miranda didn’t seem to care for too many of the bridesmaids, her mouth always a reservoir of gossip about anyone and everything. She was propped near a pillar, surrounded by groomsmen, letting loose a laugh Lena had come to understand as insecurity masking itself as comfortability.
Miranda narrowed her eyes. Lena uncharacteristically averted her own.
She willed yet another weak smile to find its footing and stumble across her face as she disappeared behind the impossibly tall, polished wooden library door, Michael’s hand still pushing her.
Michael gently pushed her into the massive library before her brain could signal her hands to slap him. She stumbled forward toward the cherry wood desk which was free of anything except a leatherbound notebook and an antique lamp that fashioned itself a perfect murder weapon if needed.
“Seriously?” she breathed without even turning to face him.
“What can I say? You was lookin’ aight and you were dodging me. I want to talk to you.”
Lena’s boiling anger turned tepid when she pivoted on her heels to look him in his face. No words formed. Not the way they did when he’d text her something ridiculous or email her after months of not speaking to tell her how much he loved her. She knew how to do battle with this man. Why were her hands so slow to war now?
“Nigga, I look good,” was all she could muster. Her arms were folded, body poised against the desk for support in more ways than one.
Michael pressed his lips together and raised his eyebrows, an attempt to keep from laughing.
“Oh…shut up. You’re so immature.” Lena rolled her eyes but couldn’t stop the smile that all but cracked the sides of her face. So, she turned her head to face the bookcase.
Michael came undone. His body rippled with laughter and then so did Lena’s.
He looked backward to make sure he was close enough, then pulled up his pant legs and sat on the luxe green chaise lounge. He moved smoothly. Like a conductor’s arm moving an orchestra. Everything about how he looked and moved felt regal, seductive, powerful. Like a king propped atop a throne. A green throne with golden trim. It looked so good on him but she wasn’t convinced it was consistent with what was going on inside him.
“This is a beautiful place. Ro’s uncle was generous to let them use it.” Lena’s hand trailed along the desk as she gazed upward at the massive four walls of bookcases and the floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking The Potomac.
“Yeah…” Michael studied her. “So, you want to do this?” He leaned forward, clasped his hands, and pursed his lips daring her to say whatever it was she’d been holding back. “Matter of fact, it don’t matter if you want to. We’re doing this,” he proclaimed with an authority that flipped a switch in Lena’s spine.
She turned back toward him and blinked in his direction.
“What is it that you want to do?” Her breath was even and so was her voice for the first time since she saw him that morning.
They’d been in and out of each other’s lives since freshman year of college. Now, here they were ten years since they’d first met and a year since the last time they’d spoken. Michael was trying to do that authoritative thing that had always made her feel inferior and wrong and submissive.
Lena didn’t take to it now. There were many days behind them that she might have begun to apologize with a hand reaching for him or a tear begging its way down her cheek. But now? Her reserve of desperation had run dry and Lena meant to make him feel how dry it’d run.
“What is it you’d like to do, Michael?” she asked again, stepping toward him. “That performance you put on out there was fabulous but it wasn’t rooted in reality. I don’t give a damn how many compliments you pay me publicly, you’re wrong and you have been. For years. So, what – pray tell – do you want to do?”
“You don’t have to curse.” His tone was a different kind of serious. He was thrown by her severity, looking to regain the upper hand. But how could he think she’d care?
They’d been broken up (this time) for a year. It was the longest they’d stayed apart and it was a declaration from the deepest places of self-respect in Lena’s soul that they would never ever get back together. She’d circled this mountain long enough. It was time to move on. She’d spent too many hours with her therapist, in pastoral counseling, journaling, and meditating to not pass this test.
“Hasn’t there always been something between us? Or you want to act brand new today?” He bit his lower lip, stood up, and stepped toward her in the way that used to melt her dignity. Temptation was a strategy for Michael; memory was Lena’s.
Defiance carried her another step toward him. She called to remembrance how this had gone wrong every single time before. This bridge had to be burned before it fell out from under her.
Lena had never felt quite this bold in his presence except at the very beginning. They were just kids then. Their passion was potent but then so was their immaturity. All those years ago, fear of how small she’d feel without him toppled her boldness like an ancient city conquered. She never could quite assert herself and she always fell victim to his gaslighting. She wilted for him. She laced and silked for him. She was cotton to the touch. And he knew he could wrinkle her with the slightest word or gesture. But to let her family and friends tell it, she was tough and bold and unflinching. Leather and brass.
It is striking the ways a woman can shapeshift to fit a man’s ever-gerrymandered ideas of love.
“I’m not acting brand new. This is the bed you made. Now you have to lay in it.” She shoved him away.
He stepped back. One, two, three. Regained his balance like he always did.
His wingtips caught a glint of the sun through the large windows. They shined so brightly that they could blind somebody. That was one thing about Michael Camden. He was going to shine to the nines. Lena would be a savage to argue against that truth but she’d found the ability to stand in the presence of knee-buckling truth, call it by its name, and still remain standing.
“I did this? I did what? You tell me.” He was smirking and moving toward her again, mouth slightly agape in that taunting and familiar way a man does when he’s maxed out his allotment of teasing his woman for the day. But they weren’t husband and wife. They weren’t lovers. They weren’t partners. Hell, they weren’t even friends. That playfulness didn’t belong to them anymore. They were just a maid and man of honor in an extravagant mansion library arguing about a past that would never lead them down an aisle.
“Move, Michael. I’m leaving.” Lena scooped up the bottom of her dress and started for the door. Michael was quicker.
He slipped between her and the door, kissed his teeth, swirled her around and looked at her with eyebrows raised again. He stepped toward her, moving her back across the room, step by step; a twisted sort of dance.
She could tell he had nothing substantive to say. This was The Look. The one he offered when he knew words wouldn’t help cash the check his ass should never have written. The Look. The one that coaxed a white flag to timidly rise from behind enemy lines.
Lena met his stare, raised her eyebrows, and shrugged.
“I don’t know why I wasted this much time. Ooh!” A groan of self-disgust rose from her throat.
“Here it is. Come on. What?” He rubbed his hands together as if preparing for a meal he was ready to devour or an argument he just knew he’d win.
“You send me a letter asking me to wait for you while you’re shacked up with some woman you can’t even stand? Hm?”
His stare was blank.
She shrugged again. “You got nothing, right? Cool. I’ma go.”
“Oh, come on, Lee! You know it’s more complicated than that.” He reached out to keep her from moving around him toward the door again.
She suddenly couldn’t breathe again. Her hand was on her belly as she spoke.
“I don’t know that. I don’t know anything about you anymore. My best years. My best years! I gave up my best years… For you!”
This wasn’t the fight he wanted. Michael turned his back on her and started to leave. Lena rushed the door, pushed his hand from the knob, and backed against it. The slam echoed through the room.
Was this anger? Was this sadness? Was this disappointment? Was it some unholy trinity of the three? Her arms were folded as she stood against the door. Her body felt stiff and strong. She didn’t need a marble column or a desk or even the door for support anymore.
“You forced me in here. Now you ain’t got nothing to say, man? Huh?”
“What do you want me to say, Lee?” He was looking up at the ceiling now.
“You bullied me into thinking I was the one doing something wrong all these. All these years if Lee and Mike can’t seem to make it work then it must be Lee’s fault, right? Wrong.”
Tears came but she was not sad. He said nothing and wasn’t looking at her.
“Do you treat that girl right, Michael? Do you?” She inched toward him, her eyes following his head as he looked everywhere but directly at her. “Look at yourself. What are you even doing? You hate the situation you put yourself in so you take it out on her and she’s too weak to leave your fool ass. You think this here, what you’re trying to do with me is better than breaking it off with her?” A chuckle of mock amusement pulled itself up from a deep grief she had never had the courage to voice. Tears like old friends were meeting each other beneath Lena’s chin.
“What was your best outcome, Michael? So, you come out here to Maryland and you leave her at home. You come out here with your fancy car and your best man speeches and you erase her from the whole story and put me in? You think people won’t know? You think they won’t find out because you made your Facebook page private? I know! And that doesn’t mean a damn thing to you. You ruined your life and now you want me in it. Boy, please.”
She’d found her breath.
“You belong in it, Lena!” He never called her Lena, only Lee. For the first time since he’d arrived at the beautiful estate deep in Potomac, Maryland for the ridiculously charmed wedding of his best friend, Michael Camden had lost his composure. “What do you want me to say? That I messed up? I did! God. I did. I messed up. But you belonged in the story the whole time. What the hell!” His hands were rested atop his head. His body was moving back and forth.
“How? How do I belong in a story that has never really committed to me? I was never a main character. It was always just you, and when I pushed you and challenged you, you couldn’t take it. So you ran back to what you knew. You want to be a big fish in a little pond. You don’t want to grow, and with her you don’t have to.” Lena paused, because for the first time she envisioned them together. Maybe at a local Sears having a family portrait taken with her son sitting between them. It cloaked her in sadness she had not allowed herself to feel from the first moment she’d heard they moved in together.
He stepped closer and lifted her chin.
It felt like a ball of yarn was blocking her airway. Lena reached for the doorknob. He reached for her shoulder. A weak outstretched hand as if one last attempt at holding onto something that had long left his orbit.
“Please do not touch me. Just do right by her, Michael.” Lena brushed his hand away and pointed her finger directly to his face. “This may be a mess but it’s one you created. So either do right by her or let her go. Don’t you treat that girl like last week’s paper. Whatever she may be, however she may be… she doesn’t deserve that and you know it.”
He grabbed her hips. Heat rose from her wrists to her shoulders as she pushed against his chest. There was nothing here. She had to remind herself of that. There was nothing but bad habits that could emerge from this. He leaned down and rested his lips on her forehead. “It’s not that simple, Lee, and you know it.”
She knew it. All the little details that kept them just out of one another’s reach for years fell over them in that moment. Held them sweetly but firmly.
“I know you have it in you to do the right thing. That’s what I know. I’m rooting for you because I’m rooting for us. I’m still rooting for us!” She knew she was yelling, but how much should volume matter when unloading years of the unspoken? “There’s goodness all in you, all over you. You know I can feel you some days? I can feel you. I didn’t believe people when they said they were so in tune they could literally feel everything about one another. But I do now. God… I believe ’em now. It’s like I feel your misery and I just shake it off because I’m thinking, ‘Well, he’s not my problem.’ But you are. You’re my problem. You’re my burden. You’re my spark. I walk around wearing you. Like, at all times there’s a piece of you on me. Just enough to keep you somewhere in my atmosphere. You’re just here.”
She motioned to the air around her head. “You have been for a long time. And I quiet that in me because as much as I care for you, I don’t know how to do this anymore. And I can’t be dragged around trying to figure it out. I’ve built too much of my life to willingly knock it down for your empty hand. And as much as I know your heart and who you can be, I’m not kneeling down to lift that up out of you anymore. Knowing is enough for me. Even if you never fully recognize it, I’ll always know who you are but if you have to become who I know you can be with someone else, then so be it.”
Lena’s neck was wet. She could hear her heartbeat in her ears. She needed to go. “You do right by that girl. She doesn’t deserve this.”
The click of that giant door closing behind her sounded like the end of something.
Or the beginning.