Nina and Aaron
Only thirty-three minutes separated their emergence into the world, one thousand nine hundred and eighty seconds of elder wisdom that Nina would lord over Aaron for the next three decades. Already mocha brown with a thick thatch of jet-black hair, a brand new Aaron greeted his audience with an endearing whimper, eliciting a joyful noise from his exhausted mother, his exuberant father, and even the slightly indifferent resident who stepped in when it became apparent that Mom's obstetrician wasn't showing up for the big event. Eighteen miles away from Aaron's well-received entrance in Brooklyn, Nina was already swaddled tightly in the nursery in Queens, discovering the addictive taste of her own wrinkly knuckles. Nina's audience—even Mom—had been all too happy with her banishment to the nursery because the delivery room was still pulsing from the startling decibels reached by her maiden voice. The girl was loud, insistent, and, to all who observed, apparently angry about this new development. Nina, for years to come, would never live down the fuss she raised. Her mother would remind anyone who listened, whenever she had reason to note her daughter's aggressive volume, that "the girl been screaming ever since she got here."
Aaron was brought home to a small Brooklyn apartment whose rhythms hardly were altered by his arrival—though the space instantly was squeezed to a maximum, which wasn't a pleasant change in late July's summer swelter. His mother Josefina Simmons was still the same patient soul who could go months without ever raising her voice—even when challenged by the everyday outlandishness of her firstborn son, Carney, who seemed intent upon waking every morning to find a new way to ruffle all feathers in sight. Josefina's patience combined with her husband Ray's gentle humor to create a household that could easily rival the idyllic domestication of Josefina's favorite show, The Brady Bunch. Josefina was twenty-eight, born in postwar Harlem, so it didn't escape her notice that the world of Carol and Mike Brady was glaringly bereft of colored people. But she tried not to let tiring demands of racial consciousness intrude on her television viewing. After all, she thought, if you got worked up over things like that, you'd never have any peace. Peace was the goal in the Simmons residence, even in the early 1970s, when there wasn't much of it around them. Their goal was to achieve that airless, settled calm that one would normally associate with senior citizens—certainly not a home with two young kids. Pictureless walls, plastic sofa covers, dark-beige carpet worn thin not by footfalls but by excessive vacuuming. It was a place that could be lifted whole and deposited in the Smithsonian or the Museum of Natural History, in a wing entitled "Americana Living Quarters: 1970s." Aaron's father was a Manhattan doorman. His whole day was defined by adhering to decorum, overreacting—or not reacting, period—to nothing. Years later, after he left his parents' house, Aaron escorted a grieving friend to a funeral home and was startled by how comfortable he felt in the company of the dead—or at least in their sitting room.
Nina was carted home by a family that couldn't have been more different from the Simmonses. The home in Jamaica, Queens, was a cluttered mess, throbbing with so much intense energy and filled with so much stuff that the place always seemed about to explode in a shower of black militant outrage. The family's central theme, in fact, told much of the story: Nina's father Willy was a Black Panther who had spent the last two years in hiding. The NYPD believed, with good reason, that Willy Carruthers—also known as "Baby Ruth" by party loyalists—had played a key role in the botched robbery of a Department of Transportation parking meter collector. The idea, hatched a week after an unpopular fare and toll hike, was to take back the public's money and stage a very public redistribution—even giving some to white people—thus attracting attention and thousands of converts to their cause. But Baby Ruth and three accomplices wound up breaking the man's arm—for about $35 in quarters and a permanent APB with their names on it. Willy was just the driver—but unfortunately was using a car registered in his name. The public redistribution idea was shelved. Didn't take the police long to get to his momma's apartment in Harlem. Consequently, Nina's birth certificate read "Nina Andrews." It would take her twelve years to discover that the name really wasn't hers.
Willy Andrews—né Carruthers—spent most of his days poring over outdated, yellowing Panther literature, harassing his wife and claiming to look for work as a freelance auto mechanic. He wore a brooding scowl as his morning greeting and rarely found time—or inclination—to offer anyone a smile, including his wife Angelique. As a defense, she had long ago gone on the offense, berating him for his many faults whenever she got the chance. But still they clung to each other with a passionate desperation. And they seemed to find many opportunities to display that passion. It was a union that confounded all who knew them.
But as far as unions go, none was as surpassing as Nina's and Aaron's. From the first meeting, they became nearly the same person. It was no surprise to friends and family when eventually their powerful friendship turned into something more. Everyone just wondered what took them so long.
It took twenty-six years to build it up, fine little pieces of selflessness, layered on top of one another like the strongest brick mansion in the neighborhood. Twenty-six years of empathetic embraces, three-hour-long phone calls in the gloom of the night, bold and dramatic acts of courage with no thoughts of one's own well-being, jokes—oh, so many jokes—of such brutal wit that their bellyaching laughs would rumble into the next century; twenty-six years of plenty, of so much love and affection that they could smear jealousy over all who observed them like toddlers spreading a cold virus; two decades plus six years of a friendship for the ages.
And it was all over in exactly thirty-three seconds. Splintered by the same demons that had damned all of their individual attempts to forge meaningful love relationships with the opposite sex: the haunting presence of another woman, a creeping lack of trust, and the nasty drama of indictments and incriminations. Her name was Cocoa—and Nina just couldn't let her go.
"Why can't you just trust me, Nina?" Aaron asked his girlfriend, his voice cracking in exasperation. "Why, all of a sudden, are you trippin' over the dumbest little things? No wonder you couldn't ever keep a damn man!"
Nina removed herself from the kitchen and walked toward the living room, where her boyfriend was breathing heavy and wearing a scowl. There were veins visible on both sides of her neck. It looked like a long wiry creature was trying to escape by way of her throat. She clutched a pot in her hand so hard it trembled. It contained string beans. They were still frozen.
"Well, it turns out that every man I've ever known has been a lying, no-good snake," she said. Her voice was barely louder than a whisper, but she might as well have shouted from the rooftops.
They stared, almost as if they saw each other for the first time. Aaron shook his head sadly and headed for the door. He turned around just before exiting. When he looked at her face, he believed he saw unwavering rage and resentment. He did not see the tears in her eyes.
After the fight Aaron became a squatter on his best friend's couch, drifting through his days in a prolonged stupor, agonizing through nights at the club. He didn't even pick up a camera—there was too much of Nina attached to the camera. Nina became a worker bee, pressing herself into her job with the manic energy of a mental ward escapee. Her coworkers noticed her new single-minded passion for her job, but no one questioned her about it—after all, how do you query someone about suddenly becoming a good worker without subtly deriding their prior work ethic? Once she returned to her empty Lower East Side apartment, she'd collapse on her couch and stare at the images on the TV screen without seeing anything at all.
But then Nina started getting worried about her health. She couldn't keep down any food; she didn't even have an appetite anymore; she found herself dizzy and winded after scaling just the first flight in her walk-up. She didn't know heartache could pack such a wallop. By the end of week two, her worry was building into a torrent of grief, remorse, and panic. She felt like her body wasn't her own, as if some bogeyman had invaded her bedroom while she slept and stolen the real Nina away. She stopped doing her hair; she even wore the same outfit two days in a row. Sensing that she was losing her way, that her control over the order and sense in her life was slipping, Nina summoned the courage to pick up the telephone. She had to overcome shame, to step over pride, to spin away from ego, in order to lift the receiver, which suddenly felt like a twenty-five-pound barbell.
"Aaron?" she said, her voice cracking from the effort. It was past midnight. Aaron was still in the club, but preparing to leave. He pressed the cell phone closer to his ear, thinking that the voice must be an aural mirage, his mind tricking him.
"Nina?" he said.
"Aaron, I need you to come over here. It's important," she said, still shaky.
Aaron could hear the trembling. He felt a pain in his chest, a footprint of fear. He couldn't even hazard a guess what went wrong. A dozen questions crowded his mind at once. Was she sick? Was she hurt? Was she dying? Was she in danger? It was almost an involuntary reflex on his part to rush to Nina's aid—he'd done it so many times that his body could act without deliberation.
"Nina, what's wrong?" he said, already rushing toward the club exit. But he heard nothing. "Nina? Nina!" His cell phone was dead. He ran.
I think I made a mistake. As a matter of fact, I know I made a mistake. And it wasn't the insignificant kind that you forget about a day later—like forgetting to put the gas cap back on after you fill up, or walking away and leaving the ATM card in the machine. Those aren't the kinds of mistakes that can tear your heart out of your chest and leave it hopping around on your living room floor like a doomed fish. That's how this drama with Nina has me feeling. Why did we have to leap off this cliff anyway? From the moment I first opened my eyes the morning after the consummation, I had been grappling with this dread smacking me in the back of the head. Why couldn't we just leave it alone? Wasn't a friendship crafted by the angels enough for us? What was it about the human condition that made wanting more so inescapable?
Nina was the kind of friend that most men never even dare to dream of—smart, funny as hell, tough, competitive, and as loyal as a Labrador. She had been in nearly a half dozen fights over three decades in some way defending my ass. Most of us don't think we'll be lucky enough to get half of those qualities in a friend—I've had them smart and funny and I've had them competitive and tough. I've even had them loyal—but so dumb that you'd be tempted to pick the Labrador in a battle of wits. But in her I got it all—and the fact that it was wrapped in a beautiful package added something to the mix, but in retrospect I'm not sure it was something good. Her beauty just confused me. Well, if I'm being honest here, confused probably isn't exactly right. The confusion came in after that other thing—I believe it's called lust.
What do you do after you sleep with your best friend, a woman you have loved for more than twenty years as if she were a part of you—the way you love the strength of your hands or the curve of your calves—who has been your life's most dependable part? In our case, we began what had to be the craziest, most intense love affair the world has ever seen. Or at least our friends and family had ever seen. A love affair for which I'd regularly sleep in the hall outside her apartment door, awaiting her return. (Nina despised cell phones.) A love affair in which she once lay in the bed for three days straight, holding me tight as my feverish body shook from the ravages of what turned out to be pneumonia. A love affair during which her irrational suspicions and hefty baggage pushed her to track my every move, like some kind of curvaceous TV detective on CBS.
And what happened to our friendship, you might ask, this precious thing that seemed to breathe a purer form of oxygen and radiate in its own self-sustaining photosynthesis? In fact, that's a damn good question—I'm still searching for the answer. Before our troubles, Nina might have told you the friendship was still going strong, enhanced now by the drug of sexual exploration and physical intimacy. And I would have to agree that the sex was, indeed, earth-shattering, like some New Age tantric gymnastics that could only be achieved after years of emotional dependency and physical familiarity. But if this thing doesn't make it, if the jagged edges we keep tripping over manage to induce permanent bleeding and injury, will we emerge as best friends still? Somehow I don't think so. Something tells me that my lover will bring the same passion to discarding me that she now brings to loving me—that she brings to every single thing that she does.
I want to tell you about my lover; I need to. But first I have to unburden myself about the power of friendship. If you've never had a true friend, this might sound foreign to you, unbelievable even. But if you've been as lucky as I, you'll likely find yourself nodding in hearty agreement.
Probably the first necessary ingredient in forging one of these Hall of Fame friendships is that it start as early as possible, preferably in childhood. Only the youngest souls are free of the instinct for self-protection and the latent jealousies that eventually doom most human relationships. After we've been around for a while and seen the pain that humans easily inflict on one another, how can we fail to put up every barrier and wall in our reach to fight off a stranger's probing interest? To put it simply, people are fucked-up. They do incredibly foul things to each other, often in the service of some objective as trite as excitement or as ugly as ambition. In a world where stressed-out mothers drown their children and bored teenagers torch homeless men, where hungry ghetto thugs murder Chinese food deliverymen for an order of pork fried rice and absentee fathers pretend their children don't exist, how consoling it is to know that your flank is always covered—you shall never be alone. That's what a true friend brings. Companionship, a kindred soul. In fact, the word friend doesn't even feel adequate enough to get the point across. I prefer something more dramatic, like limb.
Of course, friendship is easy when we're young, when the special interests and likes that can be so idiosyncratic later on are more likely to coincide. If it's enough that you have a new football or the latest hot video game to lure a new buddy, something extra must occur to elevate the ones that last. I think it's a psychic connection, some kind of linking of fates and experiences at a level so deep that we never even see it, like the synchronization between two PDAs as they exchange information. And I think I actually remember when Nina and I achieved that synchronization, when we clearly were more than just friends—we had become limbs.
Nina likes to tell people about the day I moved onto her block, how she knew I was the man for her when I offered her a piece of candy like a precious little gentleman. Though my recollection is a bit different—I only offered her the candy after she brazenly asked me what that was in my mouth that I was suckin' on like I was "scared it's gonna run away"—that's not even the karmic moment I'm talking about. My moment came several years later, after both of our libidos had started revving like NASCAR engines. Nina, in effect, became a pimp for my benefit.
We had become obsessed with the kiss. Everything about it—what did it feel like, what separated good kisses from bad kisses, was it nasty to take someone else's spit into your mouth? As I recall, Nina was of the opinion that anything having to do with spit was nasty. I was a bit more ambivalent, considering the spit part of the cost of getting involved in the kiss business. Our mutual obsession—which probably was shared by every twelve-year-old on the planet—could be traced to a movie my mom took us to see one memorable weekend called Flashdance. A lot of the action probably flew right over our heads, but we did in our own way pick up on the sexual tension that flowed from the screen in waves. I don't think my mom was prepared for all the sexual innuendo. I'm judging this by the frown she wore on her face throughout much of the movie. When the female star, Jennifer Beals, took out a piece of lobster and let it linger suggestively between her lips, my mother audibly sighed in frustration—signaling to the two twelve-year-olds in her presence that something nasty was happening, though exactly what we weren't certain. But then at the end Jennifer and Michael Nouri get engaged in a furious lip-lock that produced a strange reaction in my lower extremities. It was one of the first times I remember getting an erection that was linked to a sexual image, rather than the arbitrary gust of wind or shifting in my seat. We fled the theater that day giddy from the sights we had seen and desperately wanting to escape my mother so we could analyze it together.
"Have you ever kissed somebody like that, with your mouth all open and stuff?" Nina asked me later, as we leaned lazily against the rusty old swing-set in her backyard. Many years had passed since those swings were deemed safe enough to hold the actual behind of a child, but they were far enough away from the open kitchen window of Nina's house that no one could hear our conversation. The swings had become a favorite spot for us to start exploring the complexities of the boy-girl interactions that swirled around us at our middle school and created loads of confusion for everyone involved. Adolescence might be an exciting time, but we already sensed that it was confusing and scary as hell.
"Uh, well, yeah, kinda . . . I don't know," I stammered. Only recently had Nina and I started discussing these quasi-sexual matters and I still wasn't sure what kind of posture to take with her. The cool, experienced pro, which I instantly became around any male friends, or the truth?
"I think I know the answer, Aaron," Nina said with a little giggle. The giggle intensified my natural embarrassment—I felt a hotness on the back of my neck. "You've never done that before. Well, that's okay. I haven't either."
There was a silence. I couldn't look her in the eye. We had stumbled onto unfamiliar terrain for us. I had thought we could talk about anything.
"Would you like to?" she asked, hesitating just a little. Now I turned my head toward her. She was trying, unsuccessfully, to look blasÈ. I nodded and then ducked my head. Looking down at the ground, I opened my mouth and forced out my own question. It sounded like a cross between a mumble and a throat clearing.
I looked up just long enough to see Nina also nod her head. But the difference was that she was looking at me as she did it, her already large eyes widened. Was she telling me that she wanted me to do it, to kiss her? I was so startled that I felt an intense need to flee. I looked down at my wrist, even though I wasn't wearing a watch.
"Uh, well, I gotta go," I said, clearly lying. "See ya." And with that I disappeared around the side of her house faster than a frightened cat. The shame flowed through my body like hot lava, making me want to melt into the cracks in the sidewalk as I scurried back to the safety of my house and my room.
That was the background to explain why, less than a week later, I was crammed underneath the band shell in a nearby park with my lips and tongue nervously engaged in a wrestling match with Tonya Billings, a fast little seventh-grade classmate that Nina had convinced to accompany me to the park. The circumstances weren't really explained to me until afterward—and neither was I told that Nina was spying us from behind a tree about thirty feet away. Tonya knew everything; I knew nothing.
About the kiss? It was fantastic, magical, earth-shattering, and utterly terrifying. Tonya did most of the work: she approached me just before the final bell and asked if I wanted to come to the park with her "to hang out for a little while." I knew Tonya's reputation—well, what I knew was that one boy in the eighth grade had told a few of his homies that he had "made out" with Tonya and she had let him feel on her titties. I guess that constitutes a reputation. Tonya had never paid me more than a passing interest. She wasn't mean or indifferent to me by a long shot, but she had never indicated that I'd soon be on the receiving end of an invitation to accompany her to the park. One of my friends, Paul something (I can't remember his last name all these years later), had heard Tonya's request and I glanced over and saw that he had already reported it to two other boys. So now Tonya and I had an audience as we exited the school building together and walked toward the nearby park. Though we were only about a foot apart as we walked, we weren't really acknowledging each other's presence. I was paralyzed with fear, indecision, and cluelessness. I didn't know what to say so I just shut up and walked.
"Can I ask you something, Aaron?" Tonya said softly. I stole a quick glance at her and nodded my assent. What could it be?
"Do you like Nina?" she asked. I looked at her a little more closely this time. We were less than a half block from the park now. Curiously, I don't remember other students streaming past us, though school had just let out and it was a bright spring day—I do remember that much. It was almost like the streets had been cleared for our big scene.
"You mean, do I like her like her? Like a girlfriend?" I asked.
Tonya nodded. I looked at her again. She had a round, pleasant face—not as pretty as Nina but certainly not ugly either. Somewhere in the middle. Her brown eyes seemed to sparkle when she smiled, which made you want to see her do that as much as possible.
I still didn't know that Nina was the mastermind behind this whole production—though the questioning was Tonya acting alone.
I shook my head vigorously. It had certainly begun to cross my mind what it might be like to have Nina as a girlfriend, but I knew enough about these matters of the heart to understand that in this situation, while heading toward the park with a different girl, it was best to deny any interest in somebody else.
"We're just friends," I said. And it was the truth.
My answer was followed by more silence—enough so that I could hear my heartbeat pounding in my head. When we got into the park, Tonya appeared to know where she was going—straight toward the octagon-shaped band shell that sat in the middle. It was a grand little brick-and-steel structure that had been erected in another era when families came to this Queens park to be entertained, before television would come along to splinter and isolate them. We made our way to a staircase that led to an area below the band shell. At the bottom of the stairs, we probably would be invisible to most passersby, unless they were specifically looking for us. Tonya had a certainty about her step that told me she had been down here before. I saw her give a lingering glance up and behind us—at the time I thought she was checking to ensure we had our privacy, but I soon found out she was making sure Nina was in position. I was expecting an odor as we descended—this was the kind of location where a boy could do some serious pissing if he couldn't get to a bathroom—but I was happy to smell nothing except faintly the grass and trees and cement and rubber, the odor of urban outdoors.
Tonya looked at me with sudden passion, or as close as a twelve-year-old girl could come to it. It looked more like the facial expression of a girl who had to go to the bathroom. She stepped forward and pressed her lips against mine before I had a chance to prepare, to object, to scream, to get scared. She smelled like strawberry Bubblicious; I opened up my lips enough to taste the lab-created strawberry glucose that lingered on her lips. I pressed my eyes shut and marveled at the thickening sensation I was feeling in my crotch. I was getting a woody! Tonya moved her body closer to mine, almost as if she knew what was transpiring down there. My first instinct was to thrust my butt out to keep my loins away from her, but I didn't do that. Instead I let her flatten herself against me until the unmistakable bulge pressed into her groin area. Her lips pulled away slowly, causing my stomach to do a quick flip. I opened my eyes long enough to see her staring at me. I was tempted to apologize for the bulge, but I didn't. Turned out I didn't need to—Tonya smiled. But she remained silent and shut her eyes as her lips came at me again. This time she opened her mouth. I followed her lead and opened mine too, tasting the strong flavor of the chewing gum.
"Wait," Tonya said, pulling her mouth away again. She reached up and removed the pink wad of gum. I laughed and she smiled as she tossed the gum behind me.
How do you describe the thoughts that race through your head during your first kiss? The EKG printout would undoubtedly resemble a person in the midst of a heart attack. I tried to focus my energies on my tongue, imagining that it might scare her if I let it get too wild but also being aware that this wasn't supposed to be boring. But there didn't seem to be much danger of scaring Tonya with an out-of-control tongue. Not when her tongue was probing every crack and crevice of my teeth and gums, like an adolescent dentist conducting a cleaning. And what about my hands? Where should they be, what should they be doing? Was I supposed to be grabbing stuff, squeezing and stroking? How long did you have to wait before you could get a feel?
I decided that I had nothing to lose at that point, that I might as well go for it. Slowly my right hand snaked its way up her side, stopping for a moment several inches below her left breast, as if it was resting up for the big expedition breastward. I plunged my tongue deeper into her mouth, thinking that it would serve as a distraction. My hand settled lightly on top of her breast, waiting for a reaction. I got one. She didn't move her mouth away, but the sharp intake of breath scared me. I considered moving my hand, but I knew once the hand was gone it wasn't going back. So I hung in there. Started searching with my forefinger for nipple. Not so easy with the various lumps and bumps on the surface of her bra. Tonya had actual breasts, proud grapefruit-sized globes that had brought her significant attention for the past ten months or so from grown men, many of whom were technically old enough to be her father. Having located a swelling in mid-breast about the size of a thimble, I moved the forefinger around and over it, back and forth, wondering whether my ministrations were being received by Tonya with less discomfort than I was feeling. I heard a sound almost like a rumble that started deep down in her gut and rolled its way from her mouth to mine—actually I felt it more than I heard it. If I wasn't losing my mind, it was an actual moan. And then she did it again, clearly intending the sound effects to deliver a message. If I could chart the three decades of my sexual life on a long, hilly graph, with the early hiccups representing perhaps the accidental penis encounters of my young hand and then moving to the penisñhand encounters that were quite intentional and usually initiated under the covers in my bed before sleep, the moan that Tonya emitted that afternoon under the bandstand would be depicted by a mountainous rise not matched until my junior year of high school four years later. I couldn't have planned a better induction into sexual exploration, this early encounter with the joy of giving women pleasure. The chill that raced down my back and the hardening bulge in my pants sealed my future unselfishness as a lover—much thanks to Miss Tonya Billings, wherever she now may be.
Alas, my hand was allowed to venture no further than the left breast, but that was okay. My indoctrination had been complete. After Tonya and I finally pried our bruised and swollen lips away from each other, we shared very little conversation. We had "made out," yes, but we still had no intention of talking about it. What was I supposed to do, thank her? With little more than a glance in her direction—and her in mine—I scurried up the stairs and out of the park. I did turn around after several minutes to watch her retreating form—and was shocked to see her huddled next to a tree, in deep conversation with Nina Andrews. Huh?
It only took about another twenty-five minutes for Nina to call me on the phone, demanding that I meet her outside at the swings.
"Okay," she said in a loud whisper as soon as I rounded the corner of the house, "you just have to tell me everything!"
In order for you to understand my feelings for Aaron—indeed, my feelings as I sit here at this very moment—you need to know about all the knuckleheads who've staggered through my life over the past seven years. It has not been pretty. My friends tell me the reason why I've collected such a stable of losers is because of my ridiculously high standards—though I'd prefer to think of my rules as absolute necessities for an intelligent, pretty, got-it-together girl who deserves nothing more than what? The best. Topping my Man Must-Have List? It's simple, really. Rule Number 1: He's got to be tall, chocolate, and fine—but that's a given. Rule Number 2: He's got to be at least four years older than me (you know, to make up for that maturity curve we women have over these dumb little boys). Rules Number 3 and 4 and 5: He must be at least four inches taller than me (when I put on my most prized possessions, my Manolos, Ferragamos, and Choos—not necessarily in that order—I want to still be able to look up at my man, not down), have at least the same level of education as I (I've got a BA in business from Emory, and a year completed toward an MBA from Columbia University—Mama didn't raise no fool), and a serious desire to keep bettering himself educationally, financially, mentally, and emotionally. Number 6? He has to be able to know how to dress (I've been known to dismiss a potential suitor if his pants hung too low off his waist, the tag in his jacket didn't match at least one advertiser in GQ magazine, he owned more than two pairs of sneakers—means he spends a little bit too much time playing, not enough time making money or figuring out ways to make more money—or the worst of offenses, his shoes are busted.) Numbers 7 through 18: He has to be well-traveled. A sense of humor is a huge plus. So is sensitivity. And strength. And a healthy respect for culture. He's got to know Jesus. He can't be a liar, a cheater, distrustful, dishonest, or disrespectful. And he's got to appreciate the fact that I'm not perfect, and be ready to accept me as is—faults and all.
That's for starters.
Now, I've been known to deviate from The List. I've recently concluded that the reason why my relationships with all these boys didn't work out is because of said deviations. Too many concessions. Like Stephen. I met him on a rainy Tuesday afternoon at the deli near my office. I went there with a jones for chicken soup—I wasn't feeling well and wanted something hot for my throat, which had begun a slow throb that, along with my stuffed nose and sleepy eyes, was a sure sign that a cold was coming. Stephen saw the glaze in my eyes and, without prompting, handed me the soup he'd ordered for himself, along with his business card. "I'd be happy to bring some Alka-Seltzer and orange juice to your house later on if you're still not feeling well," he said with a smile. He strolled away as cool as you please without saying another word. Suit? Donna Karan. Slides? Cole Haan. Title? Esquire, Pierson, Lehman and Fitzgibbon. By Saturday evening, we were clutched in a furious tongue-wrestle in Central Park (my cold conveniently forgotten by us both), where we went for our second date (Rule Number 22, no passionate kissing until at least the fourth date to ensure the man truly respects you). By Monday, I was calling in sick to work so that I could lie up in his bed while he burned the eggs—a clear violation of Rule Number 23, no giving it up until at least three months of dating have occurred. Six Mondays after our passionate love affair began, Stephen wasn't bringing soup, wasn't offering to stroll with me through anybody's park, sure wasn't serving a sistah anything in bed except his own special brand of (mediocre) hot beef, and was supposedly so busy at work that he could only dial my digits late night, during which he'd kick off his feeble conversation by asking me what I was doing "right now" (Rule Number 24—never, never ever never, become the booty call.)
Then there was Wallace the Millionaire. He was a trader who made a killing renting out the Sag Harbor mini-mansion his parents left him to use for summer vacationing (I loved that he was so industrious). He opened doors (Number 46), always made sure I arrived home safely (Number 47), was a stimulating conversationalist (Number 19), and claimed to be quite smitten with the idea of commitment. "I can't wait to be able to call someone my wife, and to hear my child call me ëDaddy,'" he said to me over breakfast during one of our short weekend getaways to the Hamptons.
Damn if I wasn't hanging in for that title.
Alas, it wasn't to be. Come Thanksgiving, we both realized that we'd made plans to go to the Washington, D.C., area—he to visit his family, me to visit my best friend, Kenya—and eagerly laid out plans to hook up. But for some reason, that Negro, who drove one of his three rides wherever he went—never got around to offering me a lift, even though he knew I was headed down on the ruthlessly nasty Amtrak. Rude. I kept waiting for my phone call invite, but it just never came. In fact, in the few days before it was time for both of us to leave, I couldn't get him on the phone, and he only returned my phone calls when he knew I wasn't going to be around—at home in the afternoon, at work in the wee hours of the early morning, all of which just got me more steamed. Finally, he fessed up in an e-mail that he was stopping in Delaware to visit "friends"—whoever the heck they were—and that he wouldn't be able to see me until after Thanksgiving. "Maybe we can meet up for a movie or something," he said. A movie? Was his mama going to go to the movies, too? Would his beloved aunties and cousins be there? How, exactly, does one offer to "hook up" with his girlfriend in his hometown, and not once offer to bring her over to meet family?
Uh-huh, I thought he was dead wrong, too.
So I holed up at Kenya's and didn't bother calling him—not that weekend, and not anymore after that. In an e-mail a few weeks later, he said that he needed to "take a break" from our relationship so that he could "sort out some things." I heard through a few of my friends that he was sorting out some blonde named Lanya.
Then there was Dana, the perpetual liar.
Jason, the mama's boy.
Tysaan, the thug who just stayed in the gutter and seemingly liked it there.
I even tried a few white boys—Liam, Mark, and Michael—but I was fooling myself; they were just as doggish and immature as any black man, just not as blatant. Besides, my girl Kenya wasn't with the interracial dating, and I was tired of listening to her racist tirades about how white men can't "measure up" to "beautiful, strong black men." She sounded like my damn daddy, but more on that later.
The question was, if not white boys, then who? "Well, where are all those beautiful, strong black men? Because I keep coming up short with all these perfect guys you keep fantasizing about," I said to her one day as I hurriedly stuffed a few of my bathing suits into my oversized overnight bag. We were headed to the Hamptons for a short midweek getaway with Aaron, who, during his bartending travails, got invited by some guy to use his beach house for a few days (he was an old, rich white guy who liked the way Aaron conjugated his verbs and mixed rusty nails)—free of charge. Aaron, of course, invited me and Kenya to hang.
"What do you think, there's some open field somewhere, where they're all waiting on line to meet you?" Kenya said, slightly annoyed. She always got a little snippy whenever we found ourselves having conversations about boys, which was often. "You have to put yourself out there, be willing to talk to guys even if they're not wearing Prada, even if he's not making a million bucks, even if . . ."
Blah, blah, blah. That's what she always ended up sounding like to me—like the teacher in Peanuts—you know, wonk wonk wonk wonk wonk. She wasn't telling me anything that I hadn't already considered, or done. Frankly, I'd grown quite bored with her boy proclamations—they were clichÈd, tired, stale . . . until she said "it."
"I mean, I just don't get why you two don't just go on ahead and do it—it's not like you're not perfect for one another," I heard her say just as I tuned her back in. She'd gotten my attention now.
"What did you just say?"
"You heard me," she snapped. "I said Aaron, heifer. That's your man right there. I can't figure out why you all keep playing around and acting like you're not perfect for one another. Anyone with eyes can see it."
"Aaron?" I said, incredulous. "He's my best friend. That'd be like, like . . ." I was searching for the words to describe how preposterous it would be for me to get with the man who'd been my boy, my ace, my road dog, for practically as long as we'd both been on this earth. He's been the man in my life from age five, when his family moved into Ol' Mrs. Johnson's house. She was the old lady who always sat out on the stoop in a pink-flowered housecoat that smelled like that nasty medicine my mom used to force down my throat when I couldn't move my bowels. Ol' Mrs. Johnson never wanted anyone to walk in front of her house, particularly kids, which I always thought was bizarre, considering if you were walking on that side of the street, you had to walk past her house to get where you were going. I guess that never occurred to her, though, because she'd get to shooing folks—kids in particular—the moment their big toe hit the first block of sidewalk in front of her house. "Y'all git, now—git on from in front of my house!" she'd yell, all loud, crinkling her nose to the side of her face and waving her hand like she was pushing away flies. She was scary, but for some reason, she was always trying to kiss on me. "Lord, if that ain't the cutest little baby I ever did see," she'd always say to my dad as he held tight to my hand while we walked to the corner store for the morning paper. "Mornin' Mrs. Johnson," my dad would call back, and then mumble under his breath as he tugged on my hand. I don't really remember what he'd be saying—I was only three at the time—but I knew enough that what he was saying wasn't nice. He didn't seem to like Mrs. Johnson. Or anybody, for that matter. Daddy was one of the most bitter men I've ever known; the most incidental of things would set him off into a tangent of tirades—against "the system," "the man," "pig-headed women," "the racist governmental structure," "backwards-ass Negroes." Hardly anyone was spared his wrath, which came loud and often, depending on whatever misstep—real or imagined—a person might have made against him, his family or black people in general. See, Daddy was what he called "a Black Panther sympathizer," someone who was down with the movement, but didn't really participate. He was more like the fan on the sideline, who draped himself in the team's colors, painted the quarterback's number on his face, furiously waved signs for the cameras, and yelled at the referees whenever they made a call against his team. Though he preferred to describe himself as a race man who cared deeply for his people, most of the people who came in contact with him just thought he was a little loopy.
Anyway, Daddy would straight clown Ol' Mrs. Johnson—would talk about her silver wig and her loud mouth and how she was "setting back the movement" by wasting her time sitting on the stoop "instead of helping the people." And then, one day, Ol' Mrs. Johnson was gone, and Mommy and Daddy started whispering about what would happen to her house. I was too young to know that Ol' Mrs. Johnson was gone forever; she'd just stopped chasing people off her front walk. But I was more than happy to look out our front door one day to see a little boy standing next to this great big old truck in Ol' Mrs. Johnson's driveway, with a fistful of Now and Laters, this new candy I'd seen on the counter next to the cash register at the newspaper store. Daddy wouldn't let me eat candy—"a black woman has to be in the best of health to help her people, and candy's not good for you," I remember him saying whenever I'd ask for a piece—and I didn't really know how to get my hands on any, seeing as I couldn't reach it, and I didn't have any money to buy it, anyway. But there was Aaron, sucking on a Now and Later like his life depended on it. I was going to get me a piece, too.
"What's that you suckin' on like it's gonna run away?" I said, walking up to him. I'd caught him by surprise—or at least that's the way it seemed, because he didn't say much of anything. His eyes just got wide as saucers. But he kept right on sucking that candy. And then he lifted his right hand toward me and said, "Grape. Want one?" A total gentleman, I tell you. Just as I'd popped that magnificent burst of sugar into my mouth, his mom made the most spectacular entrance I'd ever seen anyone's mom make: "Hello, dear," she said, cupping my face. Her hands were soft, her fingernails were creamy, her hair perfectly coiffed—like one of those white moms on TV who never got mad, even when their kids did something that, in my house, would have meant a quick ass-whooping followed by a really long lecture. "Aren't you lovely? What's your name?"
"Nina," I said, trying to push the candy deeper into my cheek to keep it from falling out while I talked.
"Nina," she practically sang. "What a pretty name for a pretty girl. I take it you've met my son, Aaron. How nice it is to have someone on the block to look out for him."
My cheeks were hot—from excitement, embarrassment, too. I was searching my brain for something to say when my mom threw water on the new neighbor parade: "Nina! Get your butt back across this street. You know better than that!"
"I gotta go," I said quickly, turning around to look both ways before I crossed the street, something I wasn't supposed to do without permission and a grown-up watching. "It was nice meeting you Aaron and Aaron's mommy!" Aaron never did say anything—he just waved his Now and Laters at me as I scurried back into my house.
It was the beginning of the most sincere friendship I've ever had. We went through our first (terrifying) day of kindergarten together, slept over each other's houses, talked to one another into the wee hours of the morning about everything from what our favorite chocolate was to who we'd let touch us down there, to what college would best match our ambitions. He cut all my hair off when we were six—my mom forgot to put away the scissors and I thought it would be cool to see what my ponytail would look like on my favorite dolly; I insisted he take ballet with me so that we could practice our dance moves together—and he did (much to his dad's chagrin). When I got my first period, I told him before I even told my own mom and sister. I dressed him; he dressed me. I approved his girlfriends. He had final say on who I was dating, and if he didn't like him—out the door the guy went, no questions. Nothing was off-limits for us, and anyone who knows us knows that we're tighter than some married couples.
But actually getting with him? Like, in a man-woman kinda way? That wasn't really something we ever considered. Well, at least not out loud. Come on, now—we went through puberty together, slept in the same bed with one another, saw each other naked. To go through our entire twenty-six-year friendship without at least wondering what it would be like to get with the other person would have been nothing short of abnormal. I'll admit to cuddling next to his solid, chiseled back in search of warmth and my body shivering from sexual energy—not necessarily the chill in the room. I'd found myself wondering what it would be like if he loved me the way a man should—usually when he was telling me about some freak he'd posted up after a hot party or whatever. I'd even gotten jealous of some of the girls I deemed unworthy of such a jewel, particularly when even I, his hot best friend, hadn't sported him. There were nights when climbing in bed with him was damn near unbearable (usually when I'd gone without sex so long, my thongs had cobwebs), his gentle (friendly) touch so incredibly sensual that only the most passionate of lovers would have known what to do with it.
Alas, we never went there. "Sleeping with Aaron would be like sleeping with you," I told Kenya incredulously. "I might as well be a lick-sister!"
"Um, I hardly think sleeping with fine-ass Aaron would be like sleeping with a girl," Kenya shot right back. "He is all man, honey."
"Uh-huh—just not my man," I said. "Let's drop it, please."
I hadn't thought about what she said again until later on that night. I still don't know if Kenya was sick for real or if she was just faking cramps when she said she couldn't go to the "rhythm and blues fest" at the local nightspot near where we were staying, but Aaron and I left her sucking down Aleve and nursing a cup of hot tea.
"Go ahead, have a good time without me," she said pitifully. "Don't you worry—the kid's going to make a comeback. I'm going to be bigger, better, stronger—just not until tomorrow morning."
"We'll get in a dance for you," Aaron tossed back as he grabbed my hand and headed for the door. "Later girl," I said, waving. She was winking at me, with a really mischievous look in her eye. Wasn't nothin' wrong with that fool; she was just trying to get Aaron and I to hook up.
The so-called "rhythm and blues" concert was a white-people version of R&B—all Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis and other white musicians who'd co-opted black artists' styles, watered them down for the masses and, with a twist of their hips, got folks to call it soul. You couldn't tell the good white people of Sag Harbor that they weren't listening to some real music—they were just clapping their hands and doing their awkward, stiff-legged, jerky-hip dances and singing off-key. Not even three shots of tequila, two berry martinis, and a lime-flavored Corona between us could get Aaron and I low enough to sit through that madness; we hung in there for about an hour and then blew the joint in search of somewhere quiet, where we could enjoy our buzz and a break from the locals. We ended up on a bench in front of a short stretch of a public beach frequented by families during the day, but, as we soon discovered, lovers by night. Couples, mostly teenagers, were fogging up their parents' oversized SUVs and expensive—but practical—rides, coming up for air only when it was time to steal away back to the places where they wouldn't have dreamed of doing what they'd just done in their daddy's backseat. The night was starry and still—its beauty, and the chill in the air and our liquor-induced buzz tempting us to draw closer. The air was electric. I rested my head in the crook of his neck. He smelled incredible. The liquor made me say that out loud. Really loud. He busted out laughing.
"Why you yellin'?" he said, just as loud.
"Who's yellin'?" I said back, trying my best to stifle my giggles.
"Why you got your nose buried in my neck?" he said, shouting again.
"Well so am I, but you don't see me with my nose all up in your neck," he yelled.
"You want me to move?" I asked, raising up. "Fine—I'm going to go over here to this side of the bench. Doesn't smell as good, but if it makes you more comfortable. . . ."
Aaron followed me over to the other side, sliding dramatically to make his point: "Nah, nah, baby—come on. Let's be warm together."
"Warm together, huh?" I said, nuzzling back into his neck. This time, though, it was my lips, not my nose, that was doing the nuzzling. Without thinking, I dotted my sentence with a series of sweet, soft kisses. He tilted his head just slightly, giving me more access—an access I happily took. I was certainly getting warmer.
"Yeah," he said, turning his head toward mine. "Warm."
We were silent for a moment—the pause pregnant with possibilities. For years, we'd played with one another, teased and threatened, lingered, suggested. But we'd never followed through—never gone there, because, at the end of the day, it was the friendship, the loyalty, the respect, that kept us coming back for each other. Still, I'd felt this incredible urge to break all of our unwritten rules, to face head-on the years of sexual tension that buried itself beneath our friendship, our trust, our years together. This very night, he was all I'd ever dreamed of having in a man—stable, familiar, capable. I wanted him. But I didn't say that. I buried my desire to touch him beneath my insecurity—refused to follow my instinct into the unfamiliar. So I burst out laughing—the spit from its force sprayed his face. "What the fuck was that—ëYeah, warm,'
" I said, in a deep and mocking voice. "What are you, Barry White now?"
"Oooh, you dissed me," he said, raising up off the bench enough to make me tumble backward. He used his pointer finger to nudge my forehead, then started heading for the car.
"Aw baby," I said, mockingly. "Come on now baby, don't be mad."
We were quiet heading back to the house, the silence thick with questions. What had just happened? Was I really trying to put the moves on my best friend? Was he willing to accept my advances? Would we have . . . nah. We were drunk. Wasn't much else to it.
That's what I thought, at least, until I got back to the house and climbed into the bed with Kenya. "I think I almost kissed Aaron." She didn't say anything. I was silent, too. Then I said: "I think I wanted to kiss Aaron."
"Of course you do. You want to marry Aaron, have his babies, and live happily ever fucking after. I don't get what took so long for you to get this. Duh. Now what you gonna do about it?"
A few weeks later, I did something about it, all right. A few weeks later, I had sex with my best friend. And it was incredible. And he was incredible. And we were incredible. Two people, with a shared history, mutual admiration and love for one another, perfect for each other in every way, together. Finally. Perfect match, right? One would think. Everyone says it's important to be friends before you're lovers if a relationship is to last. The reasons are obvious: Only with full disclosure can you truly decide whether someone is worthy of sharing your pillow for the rest of your life. Is he honest? Do you trust him? Do you really love him? Does he love you back? Are you still down to call him your friend, despite that you know what his nastiest habits are? Does he treat you different from all the other tricks he's run up in without giving a second's thought to how they'd be affected once they realized they were just another piece of ass, and not The One? In Aaron's case, all of my answers were a resounding, "Yes." After more than two decades of unconditionally loving each other beyond limit, it was only natural that we progress—together. The only thing anyone who was remotely privy to our long-standing friendship wanted to know was, "What took you so long?"
Well, we broke down and did it. And now our friendship is broken down, too. All the things that seemed special, endearing, about my best friend are now making me question whether he's really the man for me—or if he's going to end up on the heap of failed relationships that made me reach out to Aaron for companionship in the first place.
—Reprinted from A Love Story by Denene Millner and Nick Chiles by permission of Dutton, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. Copyright © 2004 by Denene Millner and Nick Chiles. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.