By Denene Millner and Nick Chiles
As I walked from the conference room, I had to struggle with an overpowering urge to scream. Of course the eyes of my new colleagues were following me closely, even if they were trying to pretend they weren’t. They were looking for some sign that I had been surprised by those lovely words that floated through the small speaker and settled over the room as dramatically as a summer storm. But I was trying to cultivate an image as the cool, unfazed New Yorker--my ever-present cool brother pose--so I couldn’t let these Paris folks witness my joy. I wanted them to think this kind of stuff happened to me all the time--no big deal.
"We want Randy to stay on in Paris to see this thing through." That was the first stunning announcement to the conference room. The sentence was rife with ambiguities that would take me hours to decode, but Peter Webber, the senior vice president of Trier-Stanton, wasn’t through with me yet.
"When you come back, Randy, if everything goes according to plan, we’re making you the director of creative. That comes with a title of vice president, as you know. But there’ll certainly be more discussion on this."
I had glanced quickly around the room; my glance repelled the stares like a fan. Though most of the people in the large conference room were Parisians, and I couldn’t be sure they’d have anything more than an envious curiosity about Webber’s words, it was the eyes of my four fellow New Yorkers that held the most interest for me. What were they thinking, particularly the aloof and blonde Eliza, who was the closest thing to an equal that I had in the room? That just as easily could have been her name falling from Webber’s lips.
Catching no eyes with which to lock, I looked around the outer environs of the conference room, even managing to notice for about the 20th time how remarkably bare this showcase meeting place looked to my untrained eye. I didn’t have to ask to know staggering sums of money had been spent on its decoration. Big money, with not much to show for it outside of a large irregularly shaped conference table--I thought it looked just like the shape of the African continent, but maybe that was just me--and some extremely comfortable leather chairs. Not even any artwork--not even in Paris. It was that minimalist thing again. So understated. As with the entire city and its people, never had so much effort gone into looking like there had been no effort at all. I was from Brooklyn. By itself, that was a biography. I didn’t at all think of myself as tacky or low-class, but if something was expensive as hell, I thought it should look expensive as hell. Otherwise, what was the point?
It wasn’t until I was about to step, or skip might be more accurate, through the threshold of my little office that I even thought about Mikki. How weird was that? A dramatic promotion and my wife doesn’t even cross my mind? Was this a sign of some type of transformation taking place in my marriage--a severe turn for the worse? But it wasn’t the promotion that triggered the somersaults in my stomach when the image of Mikki’s round smooth face flashed across my mental monitor. It was that first sentence Webber spoke: "We want Randy to stay in Paris and see this thing through."
I had already been away from my wife for nearly two months. Exactly how much longer was "see this thing through?" Did I even have the option of declining? Of course I would never consider not accepting Webber’s assignment, but I wasn’t sure how I should feel about the effect it would have on my marriage. Though there had been very little passion and longing between me and Mikki in the months before I left, I had started to get some pretty sturdy erections of late when my mind wandered to my wife. That was evidence of some feeling, wasn’t it?
What I was being offered had the sound of a Faustian bargain of sorts: kiss your marriage goodbye and you’ll get the job of a lifetime. If I squinted hard enough, I could imagine ghastly little horns poking out of Webber’s head as he grinned and spoke into the speakerphone. Mikki had been unhappy enough when I accepted the three-month transfer to Paris. The memory of those long, silent weeks in our Brooklyn brownstone leading up to the trip made me shudder. She was even reluctant to drive me to the airport, though she finally relented. I felt a small tug of pleasure when I saw alarm, or maybe surprise, cross her face when I pleaded for her to drive me.
"Come on, Mikki. I need to see the face of someone I love right before I step on an airplane and go halfway around the world." I laid it on with just the right touch of whine in my voice--and about as much as my ego could stand. What I wanted to add, but held back because I found excessive melodrama more than a little distasteful, was that something terrible could happen to me and I’d never see her again.
Mikki knew those pleading words from me were about as theatrical as a love confession would ever get. I could tell that by her abrupt change in attitude. She even smiled, something I hadn’t seen probably in weeks. Do you understand how painful it is to live in a house with another person for weeks without a gesture as modest and easily conjured as a smile? I hated the silent treatment--at which Mikki excelled. I needed human interaction, conversation, contact. I wasn’t exactly what some would call a "people person"--in fact, I despised that expression; the people who described themselves as such seemed quite a bit too proud of it for my tastes. But I just couldn’t take cohabitating with someone while pretending they were non-existent. When Mikki denied me those basics, I truly suffered.
"Mr. Murphy? Will you be needing me any longer?"
It was my secretary, Claudia, interrupting my meditation to ask in her heavily accented English whether she could go home. I smiled to myself. I still hadn’t gotten used to her politeness. Back in New York, my secretary usually announced when she was leaving.
"Sure, Claudia. Have a nice evening," I said.
"Thank you, sir. Bonne nuit."
"Yeah, bone newee to you too."
I heard her hearty laugh through the open doorway. I knew she enjoyed my painful attempts at French enunciation. For a place with such an historic reputation for rudeness, Paris was about as ornery as a monastery compared to the New York I had just left. I had been braced for hostility but instead found gentility. But I suspected it might be a black thing: my white colleagues from New York had taken to complaining bitterly about their treatment, even as they absolutely cherished the idea that they were actuallyliving in the world’s most storied place. I spoke not a bit of French beyond the basic greetings, yet waiters and shopkeepers greeted my arrival with welcoming smiles and sincere courtesy. And the women. That was the biggest shock of all. There had been not a word from any friend or foe stateside to prepare me for the aggressive interest of these Parisian chicks. My God, it was enough to make me gaze into the mirror and wonder if I looked any different. White women openly staring at me on the street? I had no clue what to do with that. That just did not happen where I came from. They might steal glances when they believed no one was looking, but a bold-faced stare? And a welcoming smile? What was THAT all about?
I knew that quite a few black Americans over the years had reveled in the different treatment they found in Paris, from James Baldwin to virtually every bebopper of note. It was a popular destination for disaffected black folk--particularly males. This I knew--and could now fully understand. But still, to see it in the flesh was breath-taking.
When I glanced back down at my note pad and saw it was covered with doodles, I decided I was too juiced to get anything more done. I gathered up my things and hurriedly strode out of the office before my relatively early slide attracted too much attention from my New York colleagues. The Parisians didn’t seem to appreciate the long hours that were put in by the New York team, but me and my colleagues had grown so accustomed to eating dinner at the office that we had a difficult time turning it off. Of course, nothing appalled the Parisians in the office more than the idea of eating dinner at the desk.
As had become my recent custom, I walked home to absorb more of this intriguing city. I considered it part of my job to study the French, to observe the things that pleasured and angered them, to know what set their pulses racing. I was an ad man, a creative director at one of the world’s largest, most far-flung advertising empires. Selling was what I did. It came as easily to me as breathing—or at least that’s what I liked to think about myself in my most self-indulgent moments. Finding those clever, original, memorable phrases and ad campaigns that would move product. Or sell tickets, in this current assignment.
My last project had been hugely successful--I was the creative force behind the ad campaign that launched the Women’s Professional Basketball League, which vastly outpaced projections in ticket sales and television viewership in its debut season. Impressed, the executives at Trier-Stanton gave me and my "team" an even more challenging assignment--sell the French on a women’s professional soccer league. Or "football" league, as I had to learn to call it in Paris. Beneath its elegance and "joie de vivre"—-ha, I already knew that one!--France had a rigid belief system about who did what. Women could do many things--and did--but play football was not one of them. It was the same in many parts of the world, of course--how else could you explain the fact that the U.S. of all places had the world’s best women’s soccer team? But a group of European billionaires had gambled very large sums on the hope that this mindset could be changed. Trier-Stanton had been hired to pull off the miracle.
The company had sent essentially two competing teams from the New York office to Paris--my team and Eliza’s team. We were supposed to be working together, but everyone knew we wouldn’t. Couldn’t. It was an office joke in New York before we left—people snickering about which one of us would come back to Manhattan still breathing. We had such a long and sullied history of competition to make cooperation possible. Eliza’s success had come a few years earlier when she convinced every child in America that they just had to own a silly little chirping bird that fit in a pocket or the palm of a small hand and flapped its mechanical, velvety wings whenever someone petted its head. Called "Flap-happies," the birds had caused near-riots in some toy stores when parents feared the dwindling supplies would leave their little Sam or Lisa in the cold.
By promoting me to vice president, Webber was acknowledging that my team had "won" in Paris. I couldn’t help it but to stroll down Boulevard St-Germain toward my hotel and gleefully watch the Parisians on the streets and in the cafes put on a show of seeing whether they were being seen while pretending to be indifferent to it all. It was this studied indifference that I had skewered in the ad campaign for the women’s soccer league. My commercials had shown beautiful, fashionably dressed Parisians sitting at cafe tables and whispering to each other, the camera zooming in to catch the pretentious, superior looks on their faces, their unapproachable glamour. Then the narrator knowingly, conspiratorially, asked in French, "Haven’t you always wanted to know what the hell they were talking about?" Long, pregnant pause... "Well, now you do." A soccer ball then was featured in close-up, flying directly at the screen, coming at the viewer--then the camera pulled back to show a lovely, sweaty woman in the blue-white-and-red French colors grinning as the crowd wildly cheered her goal. Eliza and the other New Yorkers had tried to warn me that the Parisians didn’t like to be made fun of--but the Parisians loved the ads, as I knew they would. The people in this city were too damn smart not to get it—-surely they understood how ripe they are for gentle ridicule. And the point was proven: Tickets for Opening Day sold out in the first six hours--about a week faster than the Women’s Professional Basketball League had. I knew it was these walks down Boulevard St-Germain, gazing into the cafes and watching the parade of beautiful women gliding down the streets, that had been my inspiration.
Swimming deep in my thoughts, I almost collided with a woman who was coming out of a clothing store. I was thoroughly embarrassed, and we both wound up apologizing simultaneously.
"Oh wow, excuse me, ma’am," I said hurriedly.
"Ca va, monsieur," the woman said abruptly, telling me in French that everything was okay. I looked into her face and was quite startled to find myself staring at a tall, stunning black woman. She had the narrow face and lush cheekbones of a model. And she was scowling at me. This was the kind of public face I was accustomed to from beautiful women.
"Uh, well, have a good day," I mumbled, chastened by her expression. The woman nodded, her angry eyes flashing like emeralds. I hoped I wasn’t the cause of her saltiness. Damn, it wasn’t like I had knocked her over.
"I hope your day gets better," I added as an afterthought, flashing what I considered my most charming smile. Evidently it worked. The anguish melted off the woman’s face like frost. She even managed to smile back.
"I’m sorry," she said in clear, slightly accented English. "I wasn’t upset at you. It was the women in that damn store." She cut her eyes at the small boutique, whose French name I didn’t recognize and couldn’t pronounce.
"They act like their damn clothes are on display in the Louvre or something."
I laughed, though it came out like a feminine little giggle that briefly embarrassed me. Where the hell did that come from, I wondered. This beautiful woman had moved from scary to engaging in seconds. Something about the way her eyes glinted when she talked --she made everything appear to be a secret--reminded me of Mikki. Strangely, that comforted me—but it scared me stupid at the same time. That little voice that acted as my marital conscience told me I better get away from this fetching woman, whose fingers were noticeably free of wedding bands.
So why then, 15 minutes later, was I seated at a table in one of those preening cafes I enjoyed ridiculing, smiling up in the face of this lovely woman, whose name happened to be Marie? I guess my little voice needed to have the volume adjusted. In minutes, I had found out Marie was originally from Haiti and had lived in Paris for the past eight years, since she was 21. And yes, she was a model. Or at least part of the time, when she found modeling work. The rest of the time she was a secretary at a music company. She was also hoping to get a record deal. The reason I already knew all this was because Marie liked to talk. I knew instantly that I could listen to her talk for hours and never get bored. That realization also frightened me; I told myself for about the 30th time in the past 15 minutes that I needed to leave.
Marie was responding to me in obvious ways, smiling at my observations about Paris, looking down and blushing when my eyes caught hers for too long. I was thoroughly shaken by what was happening, but I was not locating the energy or the emotion that would allow me to stop and flee. Admittedly, I was enjoying myself too much. Despite the stares and entreaties from all the stunning white women over the past weeks, this was still more flattering and gratifying. I knew a black woman’s attention was different, more meaningful. The sister was responding to my words, my personality, my essence--not some prepackaged notion of what I represented. With the white women, I suspected they could care less whether I had any game, any rap, anything to say. With them, it wasn’t unlike the Mercedes Benz salesman who doesn’t even have to open his mouth to sell the car--the image, the outer package, the aura, had done all the work already. He might like the rewards for awhile, but ultimately how much job satisfaction was Mr. Mercedes going to get?
"So, where did you say you were staying in Paris?" Marie asked, trying to make it sound casual. I wondered if it was casual, or if she was boring in on those vital facts.
"Oh, Hotel St-Germain. It’s not far from here. It’s near the Museum D’Orsay."
"Do you like it?" she asked. I wasn’t sure if this was more small talk. What if I didn’t like it? What then?
"Yeah, it’s pretty nice. The room is kinda small, especially for the amount of time I’m supposed to be here, but it’s alright."
She nodded. Our eyes locked again. This time she held it slightly longer, then she looked down again with an even fuller blush.
"Why do you keep blushing? A shy fashion model--is that what you are?" I asked, teasing just a little.
"Models can be shy, you know. Most of them are." She said this a little too seriously. I realized my comment might have offended her a bit. She hadn’t yet succeeded as a model, so she wouldn’t be taking kindly to any suggestion that she might be ill-equipped for the job.
"Anyway, you’re married, and you’re quite good-looking. I probably shouldn’t even be talking to you." She blushed again when she said it. I could almost feel my head expanding, filling with the drug of her compliment, which I fixated on so intensely that the second part of her statement barely registered. My ego was getting the gassing of its life. Sitting in an oh-so-fashionable cafe in Paris with a beautiful model telling me I was good-looking? What more could a man ask for? As far as I was concerned, Paris was Disneyworld for grown-ups.
"You DID say you were married, right?" Marie said, staring at my wedding band for effect.
I quickly remembered the point she had been making. It wasn’t about my looks, not really. She threw that part in to soften any blow I might feel from the I-stay-away-from-married-men brush-off. But even if the compliment was a throw-away, I was running with it anyway. Months into the future, I knew I’d still savor it whenever I happened to glance into a mirror.
"Yeah, I’m married," I said matter-of-factly, trying not to give away any information revealing how I felt about it.
"Well, maybe we should be going our separate ways, then," Marie said. I noticed a small amount of hesitation in her voice, like she was hoping that I’d contradict her. But I knew she was right; I needed to get away from this woman. What every married man needed was a good pair of track shoes and the instinct to flee at the right time, like a long-surviving deer. Without those, his marriage was doomed. Unfortunately, the married man was first a man, and his DNA was likely to contain a strong predilection to runtoward beautiful women, not away from them.
I visibly struggled with my DNA at the cafe table. Marie even noticed.
"Why are you looking so pained?" she asked. Her English was precise, but it sounded heavily French-inflected--and quite lovely to boot.
"My wife is coming to visit in the next week. I’d love to see you again, but I know I shouldn’t. I can’t." I knew from my three years of marriage that honesty was best in these situations. It usually took the hard work of fleeing out of my hands because the woman would get the message and run away herself. Usually.
"Okay, Mr. Randolph Murphy. You be a good boy and go home to the St-Germain. I enjoyed your company very much."
I raised my wine glass. "I enjoyed your company too, Miss Marie Bautista. Here’s to the best of luck in your career. Cheers."
She beamed back at me. "Thank you. A votre sante."
I frowned. "What’s that mean?" I asked.
"The same as what you said. Cheers."
As we were about to separate on the sidewalk out front, she threw me one more meaty, irresistible bone.
"By the way, Mr. Randolph Murphy, in case you wanted to know, my company is called Chaud. That means hot." I could have sworn there was a twinkle in her eye as she turned around with a little wave. She didn’t even say goodbye--as if she knew we’d see each other again. I watched her round ass twisting under the short skirt. Her smooth light-brown legs stretched for days. Oh God, I thought, I better run like hell.
Once I touched down in my room, I would desperately search for activities to keep me busy so I wouldn’t think about it, but I usually failed. Inevitably my wandering would bring me right back to Fort Greene, Brooklyn, and Mekhi Chance-Murphy, my wife of three years. When I thought about Mikki, the name by which she is widely known, I felt a peculiar mix of anger and confusion that combined to produced helplessness. I just did not understand what had happened to my marriage, to my unabashed loving. Our beginnings could have fit comfortably in a fairy tale: we met on a commercial shoot, me on the set to make sure it ran smoothly, Mikki as a stylist ensuring that the actors had the right "look"; the wildness of the early courting, like sex on a subway car--that wasn’t empty--sleeping in Central Park for a night to see what creatures lurked in the dark, paying a horse-drawn carriage to gallop through Harlem; and my kicker--proposing to Mikki across the sheltering sky of New York City with a sky-writer airplane painting the words for all to see, "Marry me, Mikki."
Mikki’s initial response will never be forgotten: "Look, Randy, that airplane pilot is asking me to marry him!"
I wasn’t sure if things had started to go bad before the Baby Wars. I suspected that they had. But maybe that was just my wish, to place the blame elsewhere, not on my own doorstep, because I knew I had pushed too hard with the baby thing. The conventional wisdom said that women were the only ones equipped with a biological clock, but I knew the truth--men could just as desperately crave the moment when the world’s promise and possibility multiplied exponentially because it had been joined by your own human creation. Ever since I had entered adulthood--actually, even during my teen years--I had wanted a baby. It didn’t even matter if it was a little boy or a little girl; I just wanted to cherish and nurture a tiny, helpless reflection of myself, showering it with as much love and protection as I could manage. I loved everything about them--their smell, their little whines, their grasping need, their velvety softness.
But Mikki wasn’t having any of it--at least not now. She wasn’t ready, she said over and over again. Wait! she virtually shouted to me. But I didn’t want to wait, and I said some pretty awful things to her to make my point. Questioning her womanhood, her commitment to our marriage, her love for me. Things I wished I could take back. I had tried to apologize on many occasions, but the damage appeared to be done. Mikki had shut down on me, or so it seemed.
She would be in Paris in less than a week. That thought frightened me from my nearly cleanshaven head to my raggedy toenails. I had grown comfortable without the pressure, the stress, that had started to accompany us whenever we were together. It had started to become unbearable--which was a major reason I had jumped at the chance to come to Paris. Actually, considering how unpleasant our Brooklyn home had become, I was surprised that Mikki had reacted with such anger and bitterness at the announcement of my three-month stay in Paris. In fact, I wondered now for the first time, her reaction had been so extreme, so over-the-top, maybe she had been faking it. Maybe she was glad to see me go and she felt so guilty about it that she put on an Oscar-worthy performance for me--and even herself. Why had there been so little contact between us since my departure? The communication had dwindled to once or twice weekly e-mails that were perfunctory in message and tone. It was almost like we no longer had anything to say to each other.
The more I thought about it, the more I dreaded Mikki’s arrival. What would we talk about? I had an elaborate week planned, but would any of it matter? And now I had the extension of my stay to worry about. How would that go over? How should I break the news to her? Somehow, e-mail didn’t seem sufficient. But it certainly was easier. Perhaps waiting until she arrived would be best, so I could tell her face-to-face. If I gave her forewarning, it might put a splash of cold water on our romantic Paris rendezvous before we could get around to "doing the do," as I used to jokingly say to her in our coupling’s early days. She’d laugh and tell me that I was "soooo corny," but she’d add that "the do always needs doin’." Usually I’d giggle happily at how lucky I was to have found such a sexy, sensuous woman.
I had invested in a modem for my laptop so that we could exchange e-mail whether I was at work or at "home" in the hotel, but I hadn’t yet even connected the modem to see if it worked. Thus far I had done all my e-mailing from the office. As I threw off the last of my work clothes, my eyes settled on the laptop across the room and I felt a flash of inspiration pass through me. Like a zap of the same kind of energy I felt when I had just thought of a clever ad campaign or slogan. I was going to sit down and construct the sexiest, most romantic, toe-curling e-mail love letter for my wife. After reading it, she’d want to sprint to JFK Airport and hop on the first thing to Paris so she could hop on me.
Like most married men, my love-missive writing skills had grown rusty from disuse. I made my living as a writer of sorts—though I’d never make that claim around authors or journalists--but ad writers always went for the cute and clever, which was almost the opposite of the earnest, heart-rending tones you needed in a good love letter. The more I thought about it, the more excited I got. Stripped down to my briefs for maximum comfort, I placed the computer on my lap and turned it on. As I listened to the familiar grunts and hums of the computer, I considered what message I wanted to get across here: Was this going to be some sort of apology? If so, for what was I apologizing? If not, was I trying to wipe the slate clean and pretend none of the unpleasantness ever happened? Was it possible for us to start all over?
Yeah, starting over, I thought, nodding my head. That’s the tone I would go for. I’d ask Mikki if we could jog back to the starting line and correct our mistakes. We could treat Paris like a week of those sexy, exciting nights we used to share racing around Manhattan from one hot spot to the next, hardly stopping to take a breath, sucking in the intoxicating scent of each other’s company in the most scintillating place on earth. Well now we were really going to be together in perhaps the most exciting place on earth. If Paris wasn’t more exciting than New York, it certainly was more romantic. By a landslide. Romance had a tough time sustaining life in the cynical air of the five boroughs.
Twenty minutes later, I still hadn’t gotten the modem to work properly. Wasn’t that just so typical of my marriage--get in the mood for romance and things just can’t seem to proceed according to plan. As I tried to get the computer to recognize the modem card for about the 12th time, I considered stopping the whole production and pulling out some paper to write her an old-fashioned letter. Talk about a bygone era. When was the last time I had written anybody a letter? I couldn’t even remember the feel of my hand sliding across the paper, trying to avoid the fresh ink. But if I had only six days until Mikki’s arrival, what assurance would I have that she’d even receive the letter before she got on the plane? That would be a major drag--pen the most affecting letter ever written, only to have her arrive in the City of Lights without reading it and that scowl still on her face. I knew a letter was too risky. I needed to hurry and get the damn computer working; I felt the romance bug slowly seeping from my body.
When I finally figured it out and opened up the message, a gigantic case of writer’s block sat down on my lap, gazing back at me through the computer screen. I had no idea how to start. There had been such a long-standing impasse between us that I wasn’t sure how much I needed to acknowledge it before trying to move the thing forward. I couldn’t simply pretend that the past six months or so hadn’t happened. The marathon arguments over babies and my late hours at the office and Mikki’s growing distance--would she allow me to jump over all that stuff with not a word of explanation or apology? I didn’t think so, but how could I get through the unpleasantness without bogging down my love letter with negativity? A love message had to be inspirational, emotive, poetic. Not whiney and pathetic. How do you achieve the former when your entire being was suffused with the latter?
I took a deep breath and closed my eyes, letting my tired bones sink back into the pillows. Maybe I should go to sleep first, take a nap before I tried this writing business. But that seductive thought forced me into action—my eyes flew open and I pushed my fingers across the keyboard. I couldn’t afford sleep right now. I had a marriage to save.
Mikki: Damn. How do I start? How have I even gotten to this terrifying point where I’m not sure what I want to say or need to say to you? You are still the center of my universe--to which I’m sure you’re responding, "Then why the hell are you in Paris instead of in Brooklyn with me?" That would be a legitimate question--one that you’ve asked before--but I’m not sure it’s an entirely fair one. There are sacrifices we all must make for our careers, to advance our lives forward to get the things we want out of them. Working hard and staying in Paris is definitely one of those sacrifices. If I had declined this trip, it would have been difficult for me not to blame you for any stagnation I suffered throughout the rest of my career. Don’t you think that would be an unfair burden for our marriage?
I hope you aren’t turned off by the idea of my sending you these words through e-mail. Just think of it as an instant letter, that’s all. I know e-mail has acquired a certain informality, a casualness that might not be suited to a love letter. I’m aware of that and apologize for any discomfort you might get from the inappropriateness of this message in this forum. But I just had to make sure you received this note before you arrived in Paris next Tuesday.
I want us to take this opportunity to start fresh, wipe the slate clean, if that’s possible. We have flung enough angry statements at each other to last us the next 30 years; how about if we declare a truce and start all over again? Can we put the past unpleasantness behind us, for the sake of our lives and our love? I’m willing to purge it all from my mind. I hope you are too.
As far as a baby is concerned, I am truly sorry for any pain I may have caused you with my insistent stubbornness. I just got the idea in my head and I had a hard time letting it go and a hard time seeing things from your perspective. You’re absolutely right that you would be the one bearing the overwhelming burden of having a child and that it must be something you’re totally ready for. If you had gone ahead and gotten pregnant just for me and not for you, you probably would have resented me for it--just as I would have resented you if I declined the job in Paris.
There are many times in a marriage when we must compromise and try to keep the other person’s perspective foremost in our minds before we fly off the handle and start making crazy accusations. I was guilty of failing to do this over the last few months and I’m really sorry about that. We both need to become better at talking through problems before we let anger get the best of us and do things we’ll regret. Maybe we could try going to a third party, like a marriage counselor, to help us resolve our problems. If you don’t want to do that, we should at least make more of an effort to communicate instead of just shutting down. It doesn’t get anything accomplished when you turn off and just stop talking to me, as if I no longer exist. It makes me wonder if you even enjoy being around me any more. Sometimes I still wonder that. When you come here, I’m going to pour it on pretty thick. You’re going to get all the loving you can stand, and then some. I hope you’re ready to once again be swept off your feet. I love you dearly and I can’t wait to see you.
I read over the message several times, asking myself if I was accepting too much blame. I wasn’t sure I really believed much of what I said in the note, but I felt it was necessary for me to show some contrition in order to get her attention and have any chance of her moving toward me. I still harbored some resentments about her not wanting to give me a baby right now. She had been saying "Now is not the time" for almost two years. I was starting to fear that she would never want a child, that there was something else going on that I didn’t understand. This frightened me to my core. Maybe she had never planned on having a child; she just refused to tell me. I knew those childless-by-choice women were out there, angrily refusing to accept the conventional wisdom that a woman wasn’t really a woman unless she had produced offspring. But I knew that if my lack of trust grew, there was no way we could patch this thing up. I had to accept her decision to postpone the baby-making, and I had to believe that it would happen soon. I just didn’t want her to wait too long. I had so thoroughly idealized my image of fatherhood, of the sports I would teach my child to play, of the marathon basketball games we would stage in the driveway of our future suburban home, that I had calculated how many years I could afford to wait before all my plans would be ruined because I’d be too old. At age 32 I was now about three years away from my age threshold, beyond which I’d be too old to be Athlete Dad. I didn’t want to be into my 50’s when the kid went through teenhood. I didn’t want to be an aging, hobbled 53 or 54 or 55-year-old when my child turned 16. I wanted to be able to spank my 16-year-old in a game of one-on-one. (This child was always male in my parenting fantasies. I just couldn’t manage the necessary mental gymnastics to leave room for the possibility that the child would be a girl. I told myself I’d put in that work as I got closer to this baby dream actually happening.)
When I pressed the send button, I felt a slight easing of the tension that had gripped me ever since I walked out of the cafe with Marie. I felt that I had taken a strong, proactive measure to rebuild my marriage. I had put out just enough apology and contrition for my head-strong wife to allow me back into her embrace without feeling she had compromised too much of her anger. Or at least that’s what I thought. Mikki was so unpredictable that I could never really know how she was going to react. That’s why the thought of her filled me with such tension of late. That unpredictability, that mercurial storminess, had thrilled me in the beginning, but as with so much of a marriage, those early virtues had turned sourly in my mind into vices. Now instead of the thrill of discovery and the possibility of danger, what I felt when I stepped into her presence was the fear of conflict. It sat in the pit of my stomach like an ulcer, gnawing away at my love for my wife. I found myself trying to postpone it, to stay away as long as possible to reduce the hours I’d have to sit amidst her vitriol. But of course it curved into a vicious cycle because the longer I stayed at work or the more I hit the bars and strip clubs with my buddies to stay away from her, the angrier and nastier she got.
I lunged for the television remote in search of a distraction. I couldn’t understand anything except for the BBC’s newscasts, so if I wasn’t in the mood for world news--which I usually wasn’t--distractions were hard to come by. Once in a while I’d stumble upon some peculiar Parisian show featuring scantily clad women with juicy bouncy breasts, but I never seemed to find those shows when I was looking for them. I couldn’t stand the French version of MTV. I didn’t know what they were saying and I had no taste for the music they played--bizarre hip-hop style phrasings over monotonous house music beats. You haven’t been musically repulsed until you’ve heard a French rapper using a watered down MC Hammer beat. After laughing for the first few days, I had taken to avoiding French MTV.
When I turned off the television, I heard the unmistakeable sound of rhythmic groans and grunts through the wall behind me. Unfortunately, the groaning had become a familiar visitor during my Paris stay. I was living in a Paris hotel in the heart of the fashionable St-Germain district--blocks from the Louvre, from Musee D’Orsay and within shouting distance of some of the city’s most important cafes. My hotel was bursting with newlyweds. Everywhere I turned, my eyes were met with lusty kisses, groping hands and way too many smiles for my tastes. Mired in a marriage that was collapsing before my eyes, I found the omnipresent scent of romance suffocating. But it was even worse when I went to my room after the day darkened. At least a few times a week, my silent repose would be shattered by the rutting soundtrack of consummation. The first few times I heard it, I admit, I was instantly aroused and once even slid my hand down to stroke my thickened penis to orgasm as the groans cheered me on in the background. But the arousal had eventually turned to annoyance and then depression and now anger.
I slammed my head back down on the bed and covered my face with the pillow, but I could still hear the woman’s high-pitched wails. I wondered if the wailer was the homely blonde I saw the night before, slipping from her room as I was coming home. She was wearing a loose-fitting robe and as she swung around to head down the hall, the robe opened up enough for me to see her full breasts almost to the nipples. She stared me fully in the face as she walked by, making no attempt to cover herself. I had tried to read her expression, but as was so often the case while I had been in Europe, I could extract no information from the blankness of the stare. She brushed by me and I thought I smelled the juicy mixture of moist pubes and fresh perfume, but it could have been my imagination. I tried to stop myself from looking down, but at the last moment I succumbed to my erotic curiosity and dropped my eyes to catch what I would have sworn to friends and strangers was a tuft of blonde pubic hair saluting me. Stunned, I watched the woman saunter down the hall, finally reaching down and tying her robe. Just before she turned into the alcove with the ice machine, she glanced back at me with an expression that I interpreted as bemusement—though, again, I could have been wrong.
As I heard the woman’s wails reach an orgasmic pitch and then subside like a police siren fading away into the night, I worked up a picture of the face I saw in the hall. The nose was much too large and hawkish and the eyes too close together, but perhaps she wasn’t so ugly after all.
When the fucking sounds had been replaced by the faint irregular squawks of a distant television, I clicked off the light and slid under the covers. As was often the case, I chose sleep. Now I was horny--certainly even more reason for me to close my eyes and declare the day over. As a married man in Paris, I was afraid to choose entertainment or distraction that involved stepping out of the hotel into the night-time Paris streets and clubs. I was tired of reading. Television was hardly a distraction. The soundtrack of newlywed sex was torture. What else was there but sleep? I tried to slow down my breathing and paralyze my overactive mind in an effort to lure sleep into my bed. Before I dozed off, I was aware of a dull ache that still sat in my belly. It wasn’t anxiety, I now realized. No, it was something harder to purge, something more deep-seated and affecting. It was loneliness.
Look at her, twirlin’ around in that dress, like she don’t have a lick of sense. Yeah, it looks nice on her and all, the way the bridal white silk is slinking and clinging to her little bony hips and her little itty-bitty waist and those doctor-done-hooked-me-up breasts of hers. I do do good work, I ain’t gonna lie. But I wish I could walk over there and do her mouth like I used to do those whack sand faces I made at the beach when I was a kid -- just take my hand and slide it across the mouth and the eyes and the nose. Hard. Erase every single solitary hint of a facial feature until there is no more nose, no more smiling eyes, no more lips spread wide. It’d be just a blank dirt circle.
She was irking me that much -- singing that stupid-ass bridal march song.
"Oh, it’s just beautiful Mikki," she said to me, still twirling. "It looks just like the dress in your sketch and it fits me like a glove. You have such an amazing eye for detail. How do you do it, girl? You’re an angel!"
"Oh, it’s nothing baby -- just been making wedding dresses for a long time now," I said, putting on my best syrupy-sweet voice. "It does fit you beautifully. You’re going to make a lovely bride."
"Oh yes -- thanks to you! Brian’s mouth is going to just drop to the floor when I walk down that aisle. We’re getting married at the Akwaaba House in Bed-Stuy. It’s going to be out in the garden with lots of flowers and harps and we’re having a catered buffet..."
Damn. The last thing I want right now is to hear the details of her stupid wedding. I don’t want to think about weddings, because weddings make me think about vows and vows make me think about relationships and relationships make me remember how my relationship with my husband Randy is unraveling like a ball of catnip-laced yarn at the claw of my nutty, mischievous cats. Thinking about other peoples’ happiness -- particularly their nuptials -- bums me the hell out.
I don’t need to be bummed.
Right now, what I need to do is think happy, happy, joy, joy because tomorrow morning I’m going to fly to Paris to meet him and I’d best have my face straightened out when I do it. I already called Angelou -- told her I need her to help me pick out a new haircut, some kind of style or something -- like one of those short, cute Halle Berry pixie cuts, or maybe even one of those supershort Jada Pinkett/bleach-it-blonde-slick-it-down dos -- and some make up. And a sexy get-up from BCBG. Something. Anything. Because I know that if I don’t have a new look to provide for that distraction when I rush into his arms at the Charles deGaulle Airport in France, my face is going to betray it all -- the late-night dinners, the long lunch-hour phone talks, the Sunday morning brunches -- all of that stuff I’ve been doing with Marcus that I should have been saving for Randy.
Of course, if Randy’s ass was home, I wouldn’t have been on the stroll with Marcus.
Well, maybe that’s not exactly true. Okay, okay, okay -- it’s a big, fat, round, bold-face lie. I didn’t want him to go to Paris at first -- gave him hell when he told me he was going away for three months without me. I didn’t particularly give a damn that it was for his job and that his commitment to this project would get him "mo’ money, mo’ money, mo’money" like he’d kept reasoning. I wanted him home. I wanted him to slow down. I wanted us to work a few kinks out of our marriage. Okay, a whole lot of kinks. Three months in Paris wasn’t going to accomplish any of the above.
At least that’s what I thought when I dropped him off at Kennedy Airport.
But you know what? He’s been there seven weeks, and I’m not mad at being without him anymore. I didn’t realize how tired I was of the excuses, the headaches, the heartaches, the arguments, until his butt left. I got sick of him asking me to have a kid, sick of him telling me I should sell my shop and let him take care of me, sick of him making me sick. I didn’t want to argue about it any more -- didn’t even want to twirl it around in my thoughts for more than two seconds at a time.
Oh, he tried to bring it up in our earlier phone conversations -- "Babe, when I get back from Paris, I’ll be set with the firm and I’ll probably get a fly promotion. We’ll be set financially, and if we’re set financially then we can do this." I’d just find a way to cut him off -- move on to another conversation, quick fast and in a hurry -- which would then, of course, just piss him off.
"Randy -- let’s not argue about this right now, baby. Let’s talk about happy things."
"Oh, my bad -- I thought having a baby with my wife was a happy thing."
I mean, it’s not like I don’t like kids. My sister Zaria has two crumb-snatchers -- James and Jasmine -- and I guess I like them. I mean, they can be some bad asses -- James came to my house a few months ago and decided he wanted to look out the window where I’d just hung my brand new sheer off-white curtains while he was eating the cherry, lemon and blue ice bomb pop I’d just sprung for him from the ice cream truck. Blue and red sticky shit everywhere. I wanted to kill him -- or at least inflict a little pain on his little behind. I would have, too, if his sister hadn’t busted her butt climbing up on my kitchen ladder and started screaming like a banshee. That’s what she got for trying to grab for some cookies without asking. She was alright -- and I guess I did a good job of comforting her and scolding him, but Lord I’m not ready to do that all day, everyday -- especially if my husband isn’t committed to being there to help. Zaria, their mom, my sister, knows I’m a good auntie, but she also knows that Auntie Mikki can’t be left with the kids too long because she values sane, grown-up interaction too much to handle more than a two-hour dose of kids at any one time. Her kids are cute, so long as I can give them back when they really work my nerves. They work my nerves often. I am not around them too much.
I can only imagine that I’d feel the same way about a child born to a marriage that isn’t all that stable and one parent who can’t keep his behind still long enough to have dinner, let alone raise a child, and another who much prefers sewing children’s clothes to cleaning vomit off of them. Truth of the matter is that I’m scared to death of kids -- both having them and rearing them. I saw my sister go through two pregnancies; her body was possessed. The birthing experience? It was an experience, alright. Probably the most violent experience I’ve ever witnessed in my life, next to that scene in "Scream II," where some guy with a death mask and a really big knife gives Jada Pinkett hers in 28 places in a crowded movie theater. Everybody was watching Jada and cheering her on, without recognizing that homegirl was bleeding real blood, in serious pain, scared to death and about to die. That would be the perfect description of Zaria and the hospital scene when she was giving birth to both James and Jasmine.
I don’t know nothing ‘bout birthin’ no babies. Ain’t trying to anytime soon.
Besides, my shop, Mekhi’s, is just getting off the ground; my client base is starting to build up and I think there’s a buzz going on about my work. No, I’m not turning very much of a profit. In fact, I’ve lost money each of the three years that my shop’s been operating. But I love being my own boss, and keeping my own time, and Randy makes enough money to get me through the first few years of my business’s struggle for self-sufficiency. There’s no need to bring a little person into this world while I’m trying to get my stuff together -- no matter how desperate Randy is for a baby. Shoot, I need to spend this 30-year-old energy on Mekhi Chance-Murphy and my true baby -- my shop. I got plenty of time to have a rug rat.
I’m not being foul; I’m just keepin’ it real.
Now Marcus, he understands all of that. He has a kid of his own -- a five-year-old, Kofi -- whom he loves, but didn’t really want. His ex-wife, Marti, just straight up stopped taking her pills without telling him until, of course, it was too late. He wasn’t ready -- and he didn’t think their marriage could stand it either. He was right.
They slept with each other maybe twice after the baby was born, and then she moved into the kid’s room -- talking about how she wanted to keep an eye on the baby. Before she knew it, he was turning into one long bad husband cliche -- working late during the week, staying out with the boys on the weekend, coming home with Calyx perfume on his collar. Marti didn’t wear Calyx. Her husband’s secretary did; she got a bottle of it from Marcus and Marti Peate for Christmas. Marti Peate picked it out.
I know these things because Marcus is Randy’s best friend. They talk about everything under the sun -- have done so since Marcus became Randy’s mentor and ace boon coon back in college, at Yale -- and Randy, being my husband, tells me everything (or at least he used to).
"Mikki? I’d like to try the headpiece on one more time, just to make sure that it’s right for the dress. I saw another in a bridal magazine that looked like it might work better," Fool said.
If this little girl doesn’t get out of my face quick, I’m going to hurt her. Bad.
"You know what? I think you should leave those magazines alone, because you’re always going to find something you think is more beautiful than what you have. I was the same way when I was getting married."
"Really? Wow! I thought I was the only one who became addicted to bridal magazines. Even though I’ve had most of my wedding planned for months, I can’t help but to pick up the new ones when I get into one of those magazine stands. They’re so expensive, though. Like, Bride? That one is just ridiculous..."
I really can’t do this. She’s going to make me go postal.
Anyway, back to Marcus. I also know all of his business because I am on the verge of having an affair with my man’s boy.
Yes, I know that it is not right. Yes, I do feel bad about it -- horrible if you need to know the absolute truth. Yes, I know that this needs to come to an end, for the sake of my marriage, for the sake of my sanity and for the sake of the 12-year friendship my husband and my kinda-boyfriend share.
But Marcus feels so good. His hands -- Lord have mercy, his hands -- they’re just so soft, and gentle, and his breath, so sweet and sensual when he’s tickling my ears with conversation about nothing in particular. I think -- no, I know -- I fell in love with him at the Meshell Ndegeocello concert at the Knitting Factory last weekend, just when Meshell started singing some love song she was dedicating to her new girlfriend.
"This song here -- it’s about love and commitment," she said into her microphone, her bass resting in the swell of her stomach and thighs. "I see y’all, looking at me like I’m crazy. Muthafuckas in New York are jaded; y’all don’t believe in commitment. Y’all saying to yourselves right now, ‘Commitment? Sheiit, alls I expect is that he’ll have a job and he pay the rent on time.’"
Then she started strumming the most beautiful song I’d ever heard in my life, and the keyboardist just played this gorgeous melody and the crowd started swaying and I started to catch a buzz from dude to the left who’d lit up the bud the second the host announced smoking wasn’t allowed in the concert area and Marcus accidently -- or maybe it wasn’t an accident -- brushed the back of his hand across my ass and leaned into my neck and said, "Excuse me, baby -- I didn’t mean that," and then paused for exactly two beats and then leaned back into my neck and said, "That was nice."
"Sure was," I said without realizing it was coming out of my mouth and also without hesitation.
And Meshell kept strumming and the crowd swayed some more and before I knew it I was burrowing my ass into Marcus’s crotch and he was rubbing my thighs with those thick, strong hands of his and his face was thisclose to my neck and his lips brushed against my collar bone and I know he must have felt my pulse because it was racing and racing and racing and everybody in the crowd heard it, I know it, because it was keeping time with the drummer who’d begun pounding out this boom-bap, de-boom-bap, and I could hardly breathe. I was exhaling like a mug, in the middle of some smoky, trashy Manhattan club, with someone who was not my husband. I felt like a schoolgirl who’d graduated to her first "PG-13" date.
And now, after thinking on it long and hard, (I think) I’m ready to make the "R" rated version of this Marcus movie. No, really, I am. Marcus makes me feel sexy, and beautiful, and sweet -- like a woman who deserves love and affection and all that syrupy shit you hear R&B singers whining about in all those stupid songs they play on the radio. He makes me feel like I’m the only woman in the world who deserves his attention. He’s so smart and funny and he makes me feel like I’m smart and funny, too -- you know? I love holding onto his arm -- it’s big and muscular -- while we’re walking down the street (of course, we only do this in the middle of the afternoon, in weird places where no one we know will ever see us -- like Chinatown and Little Italy, and elementary school playgrounds in the Bronx). He makes me feel protected.
In fact, it was his protection I was seeking when we got ourselves into this predicament in the first place. In fact, it was Randy who suggested I call Marcus the night after I thought I heard somebody tramping through my pegonias out in the garden just outside our ground-floor window.
"But Randy -- I can’t take it anymore, you all the way on the other side of the world. I need you here," I’d told him the next morning, exhausted from having had absolutely no sleep whatsoever. Too scared. "Some woman was coming home from work the other night -- 10: 30 in the evening -- and someone shot her in the head while she was getting out of her car. She was parking her car a block over on South Portland St. The same guy that shot her could have been watching this apartment, figured out I’m here all alone, and decided he’s going to rob us blind or rape me or both or..."
"Baby, calm down. You know that was probably one of your fool cats making noise," he joked, totally not taking me serious.
"Not outside -- you know they don’t go outside. And don’t call Pootie and Mac fools. Aren’t you the least bit concerned that I don’t feel safe here all by myself? At all? I mean, damn." My voice was trembling and I was getting angrier with every word.
"I’m sorry, Mikki," Randy said, careful to remove the smirk from his voice this time. "Look, here’s the deal. As soon as you hang up this phone, I want you to call Marcus and tell him to go over to the apartment and check all the locks on the doors and make sure the security system is hooked, okay? And tell him to do his ol’ buddy a favor and stop by just before you turn in to make sure no one’s waiting out in the bushes. Is that cool with you?"
"I don’t want to call Marcus to do for me what my husband should be doing -- can’t you understand that? I need you here, Randolph Murphy. Not in fucking Europe, not in fucking Paris, not in fucking Manhattan, not in your fucking office, not anywhere else in this whole entire fucking world but H-E-R-E, Randolph. Here."
I’d worked myself into a tizzy, you see, and now Randy didn’t know what the hell to do. He had no answers for me, no solutions that would amount to what I wanted right then and there. He had but one suggestion.
"Please, babe, calm down. Just call Marcus. He’ll take good care of you until I get back, I promise you. I won’t let anything happen to you, baby, please. Just -- just call Marcus. I’ll call him, whatever you want, okay?"
He was near begging mode. I mean, what the hell else was I supposed to say? He wasn’t coming home, that was clear. He wasn’t going to be here for another three months, that was clear. He didn’t really care that I was scared shitless without him and I needed him to be with me, his wife -- that was crystal.
"Fine. I’ll call Marcus."
"Babe -- everything is going to be fine -- okay? I trust Marcus with my life -- and I know I can trust him with yours, baby -- please. It’s going to be alright. I’ll be home before you know it. Call Marcus."
I called Marcus alright.
And now, I don’t particularly care if Randy stays in Paris for another three years. As far as I’m concerned he messed up when he left me here alone, and he messed up big time when he pushed -- yes, pushed – me into the arms of his best friend. Had the nerve to send me a two-page-long e-mail, talking about "let’s make a new start." I mean, he called himself apologizing and wanting to straighten shit out, but he asked me in a damn computer message. A computer message. You order t-shirts on the computer. You read newspapers on the computer. You send insignificant e-mail to the friends you kinda want to talk to, but not enough to run up your phone bill. You say, "the kids are fine," and "I went to see Wynton Marsalis in concert last week, he was great," and "Belize was the bomb." You do not use it to tell your wife that you want to put all the bad stuff behind so that there’ll be no bad blood when she comes half-way across the earth to see you -- which she wouldn’t be doing if your ass was home where she wanted you to be in the first place.
My reply to him was simple and swift.
Randy: Did you forget the phone number here? Will I need to bring a computer with me so that we can "communicate?" I guess I’m not a big fan of marriage by "e-mail.
Perhaps it was too simple and swift, but I’m a blunt kinda girl -- and Randy, being my husband for three years, should know this by now. Still, I felt instantly bad the moment I lifted my finger off the send button. Sometimes, though, I just get the feeling that he doesn’t know me -- doesn’t care to find out. He’s so self-absorbed in his work and making loot that -- and I know this is going to sound, like, entirely too simplistic, but it’s real -- I continue to come in a distant second to them both. I’m sick of it.
Don’t get me wrong -- I love my husband, see? He is a good man and he takes care of his responsibilities, which is more than I can say for most of the trifling Negroes I’ve dated in my lifetime. But I can’t give him cool points for that; he’s supposed to be a good man and take care of responsibilities; that’s what being a man is about. Being a husband? Now that’s something altogether different. A good husband is supposed to be there for his wife -- to love her unconditionally, to support her in all that she wants to do without pressure to do things his way or no way.
I’m not sure that Randy is capable of loving me unconditionally. He certainly isn’t here for me, seeing as he’s in France on yet another job assignment. And homeboy wouldn’t know the meaning of "no pressure" if it attached itself to the grill of a mack truck and ran him down like a dog.
And I’m not so sure any of this would change if he was sitting right here next to me at this very moment.
Marcus? He’s fine. He’s intelligent. He treats me like the Queen of Sheba every moment we’re together -- which is beginning to be often.
My man is not here.
I’m beginning to think that he may be gone for good.
What’s a girl to do?
"Mikki? Mikki? Girl, what you thinkin’ about?"
"Hhm? Oh, um, I’m sorry -- what were you saying?" This fool girl was still standing in front of me -- well, the mirror -- but she’d finally directed her attention to me, a minor miracle in and of itself.
"I said, should I come back for another fitting, or do you think this is it?"
I walked over toward her and put my hands on her shoulders -- guiding her into a perfect-posture position. My eyes washed over her body, taking in every inch of the dress that I’d painstakingly sewn over the past three weeks to fit her shape to a tee. There were flaws -- the seams that traveled down the sides of her breasts and down to the hem of the gown weren’t completely straight. The hem could have been about a quarter-inch shorter (she changed her shoes, again). And if she lost one more pound, the whole thing was just going to slink right off her body when she walks down the aisle, if she doesn’t die from starvation first.
"No, you need to come back one more time so that I can make sure it’s absolutely perfect. When is the date again?"
"October 21 -- one month, three days from now. God, I’m so excited."
Ugh. Bang, zoom, to the moon, Alice. This is one corny bitch.
"Okay, I’ll come see you a week before then, okay? We’ll take a final fitting and you’ll be all set."
"Oh, thank you, Mikki -- you’re the best. I really love it."
"You’re welcome," I said, practically pushing her back into the fitting room. "I’m going to make a phone call. Just hang the dress up after you get it off and leave it in the fitting room. I’ll see you in three weeks."
"Okay," she said, muffled, through the fitting-room door.
I walked over to my desk and plopped into my chair, picking up my cordless on the way down. I’d been calling Angelou at this number for so long that I couldn’t even remember it unless my fingers were flying over the keys.
"Hey girl -- whatchoo doin’?"
"I’m waiting for my very best friend to take me shopping," Angelou said sweetly into the receiver.
"Shopping?" I asked incredulously. "No darling. I’m going shopping. You’re coming with me. You are the designated helper -- get it straight."
"Well, I’m figuring if you’re going to drag me to the village in this heat on my day off, the least you can do is hit a sistah off with a little BCBG goods, knowhatumsayin’?"
"Chile, please -- know damn well you don’t have a job. Your day off. Bitch please. You ready to go or what?"
"Now why I gotta be a bitch?"
"See you in, what, 20 minutes? Don’t have me sitting there waiting all day long for you, Angie. You know how you do."
"Well damn. A sistah just has no credibility, whatsoever."
"Well, you don’t have to pour more salt into the wound with confirmations. You just be ready when I get there. Oh, and wait -- don’t hang up!"
"Yes, Angelou," I said, putting on the monotone of life.
Joke of the day -- you ready?
cvv uot;Oh, here you go."
"Okay -- how are tornadoes and redneck divorces different?"
I didn’t even bother thinking about it -- didn’t make sense to. "I give up. How are tornadoes and redneck divorces different, Angelou?"
"They aren’t -- either way, the trailer’s gotta go." Then she started laughing hysterically. I swear this chile ain’t got the good sense of a billy goat.
"What?" she asked, still giggling.
"Well damn. Why I gotta be stupid?"
* * * * * * * * * *
It was one of those sweet summer days -- the kind where if you have an office job, you wished there were some outlets outside or an extension cord long enough to allow you to move your computer and your phone and whatever other tools you need outside. If you’re really smart, you don’t dream about taking up residence on a park bench; you use up one of those sick days and you call in from a pay phone on the corner of West Broadway and Houston and tell your boss you have cramps and shit -- you know, gross him out with some feminine stuff so that he won’t ask questions and he’ll rush off the phone -- then you hang up and walk on over to the deli and pick you up one of those plastic cups of sweet watermelon and spit out the seeds onto the sidewalk while you’re peeking into all the little boutiques and checking out all the fascinating dresses hanging in the windows and imagining all the crap you would buy if you had a little more money in your checking account or you hit the Lotto or something.
I don’t have to call a boss -- I am my boss. That means I get to enjoy these kinds of days regularly, because that’s how the boss at Mekhi’s rolls. Ha.
Angelou pretty much has the same luxury. She’s auditioning right now -- has been for the last three months since the chorus gig she had in a Disney Broadway musical closed. In the meantime, between gigs, she does interior decorating -- freelancing for all these rich misses who’re long on dough and time, but really short on creativity. She’s bad, too. She bought this little raggedy brownstone over in Bed-Stuy out of foreclosure last year for virtually pennies, and, then, room by room, gutted the entire thing and created a virtual mansion with her own bare hands: there’s italian leather and afrocentric flourishes everywhere, walls in mauve and sandstone and amber and closets built into walls and walls that expand into french doors that kiss perfectly manicured sitting rooms. Simply lovely.
I let her hook up Mekhi’s -- but not because of what I saw her do to her own home. I knew girlfriend had a gift the moment I saw her dorm room back at Spelman, where we first met and became best friends. We’d gone to a sorority rush together -- for a young organization, Sigma Kappa Psi, and simultaneously fell in love with its promise of sisterhood, security, community leadership and afrocentric values the group had promoted on its advertising flyers. Then the president of SKP, Chandon Patrik, opened her mouth. Complete and total ditz.
"Okay -- joke, one-liner." Angelou didn’t know me from a can of paint, but that didn’t stop her from leaning into my right ear and whispering into it. She was altogether strange and familiar to me -- like someone I’d met before, but, like, in a former life. I knew she didn’t belong there, though, because she had these locks -- long and pretty and shiny black, like doll baby hair rolled between the fingers of a child who’d gotten into her mama’s Afro Sheen. They reached just past her ears; a decorative pin of cowrie shells gathered a bunch just past her forehead. I’d considered locking my hair a few months back, but my daddy told me he’d treat me like I stole something from him if I walked into his house with "those dirt worms crawling from your scalp." He’s so descriptive -- dramatic. I settled on braids. Neither Angelou nor I looked like the light-skinned, long-haired baby dolls we were rushing. "If Barbie is so damn popular," Angelou asked, "why does everybody have to buy her friends?"
"No, you didn’t," I said, my mouth wide-open and full of giggles.
"I know you’re not buying this bullshit. I do not want some girl making me wash her clothes in between classes and beating my ass after dinner for the next seven weeks so that I have the right to call her my sister. You can forget that," Angelou stage-whispered.
A few girls -- they were wearing the organizational colors, lavender and beige -- peered in our direction, making sure to swivel their necks just so, so that their hair could do that Pantene commercial bounce when they turned. It was amazing. I rolled my eyes at one -- some chick with long, sandy hair, a whole lotta make-up and a white girl nose -- then leaned conspiratorially into the purveyor of bad jokes and said, "Come on -- let’s go get a cup of coffee or something."
Then we both stood up, careful to make as much noise as humanly possible as we "excuse me, pardon me"d our way out of the room. We fell out of there and laughed all the way to the Student’s Cafe across campus, through a cup of coffee and two scoops of ice cream, through the walk back to her dormitory and way into the night. We were both the same age (19), both born the same month (her birthday is Oct. 21, mine, Oct. 8), both from northern New Jersey (she’s from Englewood, I’m from South Orange) and both unsure of what we were going to major in at the almighty Spelman. We were both seeking a career in the arts. I liked to sew. She was the drama queen. We were instant best friends. We were inseparable.
We knew better than to become roommates in college -- didn’t want to ruin the friendship before it really got started. But a week after graduation, we moved into a squat two-bedroom walk-up in Manhattan Valley, 105th, between Manhattan and Columbus Avenues. We were both searching for gigs, getting work anywhere we could find it. She hit up off-Broadway, singing in choruses, dancing in music videos, doing commercials and, in one theater production, playing an understudy, and designing the sets of small but prominent plays; I hit the video and commercial circuit, becoming a stylist for the starving dancers and actors who made their living shaking ass for $100 and a half-second of fame. There wasn’t a single, solitary thing under the sun that Angelou and I didn’t talk about -- our crushes, our fears, our families, our period pains. I was there for her when that boy was beating her ass and she pressed charges against him and got a restraining order and he came after her anyway and we got him sent away to prison, and she was there for me when that other boy, the professional basketball player (who shall remain nameless because to this day I still can’t admit I screwed his dumb, whorish behind) refused to kick that other woman out of his house so that he could make room for me, the one he claimed he loved.
"I’m telling you, Mikki," Angelou warned about my NBA escapade, "this shit is going to end. It’s cool and all that he sends for you at the drop of a dime and flies you all around the earth and sends you nice gifts even when it’s not your birthday. But he’s not leaving her."
"But, he says..."
She never let me finish. "He’s not leaving her, Mikki. The sooner you get that into your thick skull, the sooner you’ll be able to handle your business."
"And what business, exactly, is that, Angelou," I said, disgusted, even though I’d heard the same argument at least 508 times since I’d started dating Mr. NBA five months earlier. I knew she was right, but I wasn’t used to not having a boyfriend, and I was feeling the itch. I wanted to be married, to get a husband who would support my dreams -- and who could afford it, too -- and have a family, eventually. I thought Mr. NBA was the one. Angelou was trying to snap me out of it.
"Oh, your business is simple. Number one: Get as much shit as you can. Number two: Get tickets to the games. And Number three?" She paused. I stared at her. She paused some more.
"Well, number three?" I asked, incredulous.
"Always, always, always," she said, adding another pause, "hook up yo’ friends."
"I know, I know -- I’m stoopid. But you know you gonna get kicked off the team the moment you tell him to get rid of that girl. I’m the one who’ll be providing my shoulder -- the one with my good shirt -- for you to cry on. The least I can get is a hook-up. You know how I do."
"Lord have mercy -- what am I going to do with you?" We tumbled into a five-minute giggling fit, then went to the movies. That’s my girl, Angelou. She’s certified. On some days, I don’t know which she needs more -- medication or Jesus. I do know something else, though: I don’t know what I would do without her. I value her intellect, her silliness, and especially her opinion. In fact, it was her opinion that I was heeding when I decided to hit on Randy when we first met him on the set of a commercial five years back. He was an assistant account executive, in charge of making sure the taping went well. I was on the set dressing the talent, which included Angelou. He walked in and introduced himself, checked out what Angelou was wearing and asked to see her nails (it was a Domino’s pizza commercial, and at some point, Angelou was supposed to drop grated cheese onto a pizza pie with sauce). Both of our mouths were watering, like, the entire 90 seconds he was in the room -- and I’m almost sure the temperature rose a good 20 degrees, because I just got hot and flustered and began to sweat and stammer a little bit when he turned his attention to me, introduced himself and flashed me this million-dollar smile. Boyfriend had barely gotten out of the door before both Angelou and I breathed again.
"Well damn," Angelou said, loud as hell.
"Shhhh! He might hear you," I whispered. "Let me close the door first." We burst into giggles as soon as the door’s latch clicked. "I’m saying, honey was fine! Did you see his eyes? And those lips? And his arm was as big as a tree."
"No -- did you see how he was smiling at yo’ ass?"
"Oh, stop it Angelou. He wasn’t paying me any mind -- just being polite is all."
"Girl please. If he grinned any harder, his mustache would have fallen off. Did you peep the mustache?"
"No -- did you peep the beard?"
"No, what I peeped was him checking you out, girl. You better go talk to that man."
"Angie, what? Go talk to him? As far as he’s concerned, I’m just the help -- the little pee-on stylist. What on earth would he want with me?"
"First of all, you’re not a pee-on. Second of all, he’s not in charge -- just the gopher for the guy in charge of making sure that everything is fine. There is a subtle difference, Mikki. You best recognize and go talk to that man."
I thought about it for a minute. "And what exactly am I supposed to say to him?"
"Oh, don’t even try it, Mikki -- acting like you don’t know how to mac. Just go talk to the boy."
I looked at her as if she were crazy. Just as I was about to ask Ms. Go On and Talk To Him to help me out with something pithy to say, she was called into the set to run lines. "You better talk to him, or I will," she warned before she squeezed into her corny red and blue Dominoes jacket. She slammed the hat on her head. I fixed it so that it didn’t completely muss up her shoulder-length bob. She winked at me and walked onto the set. I swear, you could be the cutest thing on this earth -- but squeeze into one of those fast food restaurant uniforms, and you immediately become one of the goofiest muthafuckas on the planet.
I followed behind her.
"Go work that cheese, girl," I called after her. "And work that Dominoes hat, too. Shoot -- ain’t nobody gonna tell you you ain’t fly, girl. Work it!"
"Oh, hush," she said, laughing. Then she put on this weird face and jerked her head to the right. Mr. Assistant was standing there. Angelou made her eyes go like saucers, then she started making all these weird, funky faces -- all of which were to tell me to get my ass over to Mr. Assistant so that I could kick a few words to him.
Randy never gave me a chance.
As soon as Angelou and her crazy behind got past him, he turned his attention to me. "So, can I get you a can of soda, some water, a cup of coffee -- anything?"
I just looked at him. He had the most piercing brown/black eyes I’d ever seen -- framed perfectly by these shiny black eyebrows that kinda looked manicured, but without the abruptness we women get after the tweezers mold our brows into shape. He was the color of bare wood submerged in one coat of fresh mahogany stain -- a weird kind of reddish brown, but pretty all the same. A nice height he was -- about 6’1’’ or 6’2’’ -- and I immediately started thinking about how far I’d have to crane my neck and arch my back to kiss his those big ‘ole juicy lips of his, and whether it’d be worth it to get used to the pain getting into a serious lip lock would cause.
I surmised that any lower-back pain caused by his embrace would be well worth it.
"Um, I’ll have a glass of wine, but since I never drink on the job, I guess you’ll just have to take me out after we’re finished."
"Well, you’re certainly not shy."
"I decided a long time ago that shy isn’t worth the bother. I’m a go-getter."
"Well, go-getters are just what I like. We’re not going to be wrapping it up for another four hours or so, so if you’d like, I’ll get you a ginger ale for now, and then I’ll figure out a place where go-getters can get a nice meal and a glass of wine." His smile was infectious.
"Sounds like a plan," I said, trying hard not to show all 32 of my teeth. Just maybe, like, 30. Angelou was practically climbing over the fake Dominoes counter she was standing behind, craning her neck for a better look.
Now, the same woman who set us up, served as the matron-of-honor in our wedding and set up the candles, hot bubble bath, flowers, champagne and edible panties in our honeymoon suite is rapidly becoming the fiercest advocate for the demise of our marriage. Angelou can’t stand the fact that my husband is gone more than he’s here -- and she knows I’m hurting because it’s her shoulders that I cry on when I feel like Randy just doesn’t give a fuck about this marriage. Not to say that she’s been coaxing me into Marcus’s arms -- but she hasn’t exactly been encouraging me to stay away from him, either. One thing about her encouragement, though, is that she’s been trying to get me to be smart about all of it.
"Damn, girl. That e-mail was foul as hell," Angelou said. We were in "Jean Jacques," a trendy hair salon in Soho -- though the only thing trendy about the joint was that it was on a cobblestone street and the beauticians charged a good $60 more for the haircut that I could have gotten uptown. But it was really pretty in this place, and they gave you coffee and pastries while you waited and all of their magazines were up-to-date (unlike the 70s collection they had at "Roots" up on 138th St.) and everybody in there dressed like they were about to step to a corporate board meeting at Goldman Sachs. Their hair? Always hooked. I like that. Can’t stand letting a woman who can’t comb her own hair messing in mine. "You didn’t send it, did you?"
"Yeah, I did. I felt bad about it a few minutes after I did. I mean, he was trying to set it up so that we wouldn’t spend an entire week in Paris angry at one another. But something as serious as this requires a conversation -- not Randy’s dictations, you know? I felt like he was just telling me how I was going to act when I got to Paris, andtelling me I’ve been compromising our marriage and telling me how I’m supposed to respond to his wanting a child. Why couldn’t he just pick up the phone and talk it out with me?" I quickly answered my own question. "Because he’s not interested in how I feel about anything -- it’s all about him, all the time. He’s going to set the tone for the way I should be acting, and I should just go on ahead with the set agenda because that’s what Randy wants. What about what I want?"
"Okay -- chill, Iyanla. You don’t need to find the value in the valley for me. I understand."
"I’m glad you do, because this whole thing just confuses me. I mean, do I have a marriage or not? Should I just chill the fuck out and hope we can work everything out when he gets back? Should I even let him come back? And what about Marcus?"
"What about Marcus, Mikki?"
"I don’t know girl -- I mean, we’re definitely kickin’ it. It clearly has the chance of turning into something else, at least I think it can."
"Mikki. That’s your husband’s best friend."
"You don’t think I already know that?" Angelou was pretty much down with whatever decisions I’d made in my love department -- always had been. She was also keen as hell when it came to insight on why things were happening the way they were -- and she was pretty accurate most of the time, but I had to wonder how good she was at this love thing when she couldn’t keep a man longer than a baseball season.
"You know what I think you don’t know?" Angelou asked me. Her face was grave -- serious. I knew to listen intently. "I think that you don’t know that your heart needs a rest. It can’t stand all this trauma, Mikki. I’ve known you for close to ten years, girl, and not once have you slowed your roll and just took some time for yourself, you know what I mean? You go from boyfriend to boyfriend to boyfriend to husband -- and I don’t think you need to go to boyfriend in the middle of your marriage. But that’s just me. If I were Mekhi Sidnei Chance-Murphy and I was considering removing that marriage hyphen from my name, I damn sure wouldn’t jump into another relationship -- particularly with my soon-to-be ex’s best friend."
"Well, who said I was getting a divorce?"
"If Randy finds out you’ve been messing around with Marcus, you better hope all you get is a divorce."
"Act nonchalant all you want to -- but you’re going to need more than a haircut to make things all better with Randy, and a freakin’ army if he ever finds out about Marcus. For real."
I was tired of her preaching. I’d run through the same thing over and over and over again in my mind after I sent Randy that e-mail, and frankly, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do, even though I was leaving for Paris in less than 24 hours. But by the time Esperanza (she’s my beautician) turned me around to the mirror to check out my new do, I’d decided that the Marcus thing was, indeed, ugly -- we’ve kissed and hugged and touched, but no nookie has been had -- and Randy shouldn’t be privy to the 4-1-1 on that front. In fact, as I prepare myself to meet the man that I married three years ago, I feel downright guilty. There’s no way in hell I’m going to bring it up. I’m going to call Marcus before I leave and let him know that this was all a big, big, B-I-G mistake, and what we had together ends right now, this moment, right here, immediately.
And then Randy and I are going to have to take these next seven days to figure out what we’re going to do about this marriage thing, because it’s sinking -- fast. I love that man -- adore him to pieces. And I respect him and this marriage too much to let our union fail. Being in the most romantic city in the world might be the perfect elixir.
I pray it is, because all the short hair cuts in the world aren’t going to change the fact that I’m losing my man.