“It’s been too damn long,” Jericho said, gazing at me from across the table, a hint of a smile playing on his lips. His dark eyes drawing me in like quicksand.
“I agree.” I leaned forward, warmth too strong for the ceiling fans to handle creeping from my chest to my limbs. At mid-morning on a weekday, the hotel restaurant was nearly empty. A trivial detail. No matter the location, my conversations with Jericho always felt like they were happening in private.
He glanced at his menu, then past me at the approaching waiter wearing a long-sleeved shirt, bow tie, vest, and full-length trousers despite the sweltering Caribbean heat. 10 a.m. and it already felt like eighty degrees. Image over common sense, I thought, wondering who had decided food would taste better served by someone in constant danger of heat exhaustion.
“Are you ready to order?”
I’d been so focused on Jericho I hadn’t even looked at my menu. Then again, I practically had it memorized, after five days. I’d always thought of destination weddings as a selfish indulgence of the bride and groom, but with money in the bank, the ceremony over, and everyone I knew besides him long gone, this one seemed like it had been planned just for me. “Um…ackee and saltfish, please.”
“Very good. And for you, sir?”
“Hmm, I’ve had that already,” Jericho answered, his bass voice still tinged with a hint of his hometown, Atlanta, where we’d met in college. He turned toward the waiter, smiling. “Kinda strange, since I’m not much into fish. Got any suggestions?”
The waiter paused. “Yes,” he answered with a sly grin. “May I bring you something off-menu? You won’t be disappointed.”
“Sounds amazing, thanks,” Jericho peered at the man’s name tag. “…Dudley.”
“Still adventurous,” I remarked, as soon as Dudley was out of earshot. Jeri had always been. The April Fool’s joke he pulled on our choir director in my freshman year at Morris Brown was legendary: pages of pornography slipped between the scores in Dr. Bartholomew’s folder before our Spring performance. To his credit, Doc B. kept his cool until intermission, when he threatened draconian consequences if the perpetrator remained unidentified. In the end, nothing happened because the usual suspects had alibis and no one offered an alternate theory.
“I get sick, I’m forced to stay here another week, could be worse. I’m glad the cray schedule is over so we can finally talk. How long has it been?”
“I mean since I’ve seen you.”
“You look fantastic.”
“So do you.”
I glanced down, blushing and grinning. I’d never been cool around Jericho. I’d joined the concert choir because I liked to sing, but stayed at least partially because being in the group gave me a chance to see him almost every day. I’d surprised myself by getting chosen for an elite, eight-voice chamber ensemble, where I sang second soprano and Jericho, bass. Our little group spent extra time together, sometimes rehearsing late into the night, and while we’d all managed to get along, Jeri and I had become especially tight, bonding over a shared love of Bessie Smith and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. After graduation, he moved to New York, where he ended up working on Wall Street. I finished undergrad, then went home to Indiana to work on an MBA. Through it all, we’d kept in touch.
Nobody listened like Jericho, and I’d never met another man who cared enough to ask the questions that helped me get to the bottom of my feelings.
Months passed between our conversations, but the joy in Jericho’s voice whenever he heard from me, was like the sun burning away whatever fog had descended on my life. I sometimes treated him like a big brother, asking for relationship advice, but deep down I was always glad when he told me my latest guy wasn’t good enough. He rarely shared the details of his own romantic involvements, but that was okay because I didn’t want to imagine him with other women anyway.
I made a mental note to thank Nerice for tipping me off about his plan to stay a few extra days. I owed her almost as much gratitude for asking us to sing “Endless Love”, the perfect duet, at her wedding. Okay, endless crush, infatuation – whatever. We were in a tropical paradise, and sitting across from him made our time apart feel irrelevant. Kicking things up a notch seemed inevitable. “So you’re here alone?”
He sighed theatrically. “All by my lonesome.”
“How is that possible? I mean, are all the women in New York insane?”
The corners of his mouth edged upward. “You know I stay busy. And—”
“Coffee?” Dudley seemed to materialize from nowhere. He smiled at Jericho, his silver pitcher hovering over Jeri’s cup. Curlicues of steam rising from its mouth.
“Thank you.” Jericho looked up gratefully.
“You’re very welcome, sir.” Dudley poured, waited a beat, then turned to me.
I was impressed that my coffee didn’t end up all over the place, because after an initial glance, Dudley’s eyes never strayed to my side of the table. I watched him walk away, my eyebrows raised. “I’d say he knows where his tip is coming from, if this wasn’t all-inclusive.”
Jericho picked up his cup and took a long drink. “What do you mean?”
“He’s kind of ignoring me, don’t you think?”
“I didn’t notice.”
Maybe it’s me. “So…you were telling me the reason you haven’t found a woman to settle down with.”
“It’s complicated.” Jericho smiled enigmatically. “Or maybe it’s very simple. What about you?”
“Oh, the usual.” I glanced down for a moment before I let my eyes find his face and stay there. “It’s really hard to meet the right person, you know? I mean, to find a real connection, the kind that lasts, the kind that…” Ah, whatever. Here goes… “lets you be apart for years, and then pick up just where you left off—”
“Ackee and saltfish.” Dudley plunked the plate in front of me. “Careful miss, the dish is hot.” If I hadn’t seen his arm coming at the last minute, he might have dropped my breakfast on my head. “And for you, sir. Oh, I’m so sorry!”
“What the -” Jericho drew back, brushing an omelet and slices of fried plantain off his lap.
Dudley grabbed a napkin from his tray and started to guide bits of sauce, egg, and cheese off the table and into his hand, leaning close enough to Jeri to block my view completely. “That might stain,” he said urgently. “I have some club soda in the kitchen. Please, sir, come with me. No time to waste.”
Jericho jumped up, his lips pressed together in annoyance, and followed Dudley who was beating a hasty retreat. I watched Jeri’s tight behind until it disappeared from view, then sank into my chair blowing air out forcibly between my teeth. Maybe we could recapture the mood over lunch.
Five minutes later I picked up my fork, deciding that there was no point in ruining my breakfast completely. As the marriage of disparate flavors and textures hit my taste buds, I wondered, how can that man not like fish? I’d marinated in all things Jericho at college, but that must have been the one detail I’d forgotten. I recalled going to Red Lobster with him a couple of times when such a thing still seemed like splurging. Maybe he only liked shellfish.
After fifteen minutes, my coffee had cooled. Bored with looking at my cellphone, I surveyed the surroundings for the umpteenth time, taking in the white wicker chairs and peach cushions, the small but elaborate arrangements of tropical flowers on each table, the square white porcelain plates. I took in the blue and turquoise of the ocean, shimmering restlessly just below the terrace. The sun had shifted slightly, allowing a sliver of merciless heat and light to encroach upon a corner of our table, turning a strip of the cloth that covered it blazing white like an angel’s halo.
“This is ridiculous,” I said under my breath, flinging my napkin on top of my empty plate. I was headed back to the kitchen to get somebody to warm up my coffee when I saw Jericho and Dudley emerge from the Men’s room.
They stopped, startled. I stared.
“So…very simple. I get it.”
July 17, 2018
I just had breakfast with the man of my dreams, and by the end of the meal, he was in love. With the waiter.
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Photo credit: Tonl.co
Maria Thompson Corley is a Juilliard trained pianist, composer/arranger and voice actor. An award-winning poet, she has been a contributor to Broad Street Review since 2008, she has also blogged for Huffington Post. Her novels are published by Kensington and Createspace.