“Can you take that envelope on the counter up to Niky?” Ali yells from the loft.
Sitting on a stool in front of the windows and my easel in the living room, staring at a blank canvas, I curl my lip: “You’re calling him Niky now? Really?”
She peers over the wall above me looking down: “Please?” She says sweetly. Almost too sweetly and I wonder what she’s up to.
Ali’s machinations shift like the erratic weather lately. She fancies hooking me up with what she considers our soul mate.
“As you can clearly see, I’m not dressed. Please, Willa? I’m running late.”
“Alright. I doubt he’s awake though. It’s only eight.”
“He’ll be up. He has a standing appointment with his trainer every weekday at 8:30.”
I scoff in annoyance, roll my eyes, grab the envelope murmuring “Trainer? Pfffttt.”
I walk upstairs and knock on his door. He opens it immediately. I unexpectedly move backwards squinting at him suspiciously. I find myself staring at him unashamedly, running my eyes down his body from his blonde bedhead and unshaven scruff to his bare feet. His jeans, unbuttoned, hang low on his hips. His chest and abdomen, slightly tanned, bare, even of hair.
Manscaping, I think.
I could trace the hard outline of his abs and I imagine doing just that when I hear a chuckle—not from him.
A rough male voice pulls me from my lust. Looking me up and down, his face curious with an affectionate comical and kind expression, he materializes from behind: “A fan, Niky?”
My eyes, fiery and unapologetic, meet Nik’s. His wide smile continues to floor me. Something lurking in his eyes that draws me in; something Darwinian I have yet to rid myself of apparently. I keep waiting for his rotten teeth, stinky breath, and serpent tongue to snap and curl towards me; alas, pretty, white, rich, and male is a drug and one I needed to avoid.
He laughs. “Jamie, Willa. Willa, Jamie. Nope. She doesn’t like me. At all,” he says. His eyes and lips dance dirty at my gaze and I see something gentle and warm…and disturbing.
I scowl at him.
“I bet,” Jamie, eyeballing me, says and reaches an arm around Nik’s neck gently to plant a hot sensual slow open-mouth tongue kiss onto him. Nik complies and returns it willingly and completely.
I stare, like a kid at a cherry popsicle on a long hot summer day. I lick and bite my lips feeling my tongue move over the backs of my teeth waiting for the kiss to not end and after five very short Mississippis, it comes to a screeching halt. I almost whimper in disappointment but contain myself as Jamie finally pulls away mouthing a later to him, wet lips and all, looking at me as he passes whispering: “Pity. You don’t know what you’re missing. Hate fucks are some of the best fucks,” he smiles and winks disappearing down the stairs, leaving me standing there staring between Niky’s eyes and his damp kissably swollen pink lips.
He takes the envelope and opens it and laughs at what’s inside. I drop my eyes from his lips bouncing back up to his eyes then beyond cursing Ali and her schemes.
“Come in. I’ll sign it and you can take it back down to her.” He pushes the door open and walks into the room not bothering to see if I follow. I enter the loft thinking I’d find an overpaid rich boy’s extravagance and openly baroque obscenity of wealth and privilege, but no. The loft—decorated simply—is larger than the one we occupy below since this one covers the entire top floor, whereas, we share ours with two other lofts. The room’s neutral colors highlight and bracket the impressive works of art hanging on the walls. With many large windows opening out to the buildings in front, the boardwalk, and eventually the wide beach and ocean, the wall space is limited, but he—or an interior designer—has made excellent use of the space. The art varies from brightly colored abstracts to nudes and landscapes, both paintings and photographs.
In the shadows of the loft, it’s the bookshelves crammed with books that gets my full attention while he’s otherwise occupied behind me. So many books stored, stacked, and displayed and not neatly either, but haphazardly discarded, once read, without thought to order or neatness. I see everything from Harry Potter and Jane Austen to Carl Jung and Carl Sagan and Karl Marx. As always, the first thing I notice on anyone’s bookshelf is if the person in question reads women, BIPOC, and queer authors, and yes, I note Ralph Ellison, Alice Walker, Adrienne Rich, James Baldwin, Audre Lord, Willa Cather, Emily Dickinson, t.s. eliot, et cetera et cetera—row after row of marginalized authors and that’s when I see it: bell hooks’ The Will to Change. I pick up the book—a first edition—and note the inscription inside the front cover: ‘Recommended by Dandria. “Patriarchy promotes insanity.” Read this. We love you, GPG.’
“‘Imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy,’” Nik quotes standing behind me.
I look at him over my shoulder as he moves to stand next to me.
“‘Patriarchal violence is a mental illness,’” I quote back barely audible. “GPG and Dandria have good tastes.”
“Yes, they do.” He smiles that wide smile again and I feel the first flutters of infatuation take flight.
I grab the envelope from his hand and walk swiftly towards the door attempting escape. I look back trying not to make eye contact lest I feel those odious and clichéd flutters: “thank you,” I mumble and exit post haste out his door and down the stairs.
I slam our door, leaning against it, closing my eyes, letting out a long slow breath. I open them to see Ali standing and staring at me, hands on hips, with a wide grin.
“Stop,” I say to her knowing exactly what she’ll say.
“It’s getting harder for you, isn’t it? The temptation? The sweet delicious taste of sex is calling to you, isn’t it? I planted that seed, didn’t I? The compassion and acts behind deeds no one knows or mentions? The lure of his mystery and the enigma of his antagonistic presentation and history you’ve constructed versus the many narratives that society has placed on him, the rich white boy? Then there is reality—what is real about him? What are his facts? You do still deal in facts, yes, Willa?”
Silent, I listen to her, aware of what she rambles towards: “Stop talking.” I hand her the envelope while walking to my easel sitting in front of it. “If you like him, why don’t you go out with him?” I ask, my back to her, picking up the sketch book and turning to my next project. “You’ve never needed my permission before? Have at it.”
“We’ve done this dance before: girlfriends don’t let girlfriends date assholes and he’s not an asshole. You’re biased and can’t see it yet.” She opens the envelope and laughs at what’s inside then pulls a rolling stool across the wooden floor next to the easel, now facing me: “I am. I do, kind of. I’m waiting on you.” She sighs losing her smile. “I’m telling you he is the one.” She takes my hand. “Trust me, love, he won’t hurt us like the others did. Will you promise to at least think on it? For me?” She pauses. “I told him: there’s no me without you.”
“It’s all I’ve been thinking about. You won’t let me think about anything else. I get two paragraphs into that Lahiri book you gave me and my mind wanders back to Nik West and I blame you. He’s constantly on my mind and you emailing me these Nikolas West dossiers all the time makes me feel like I’m in the middle of a John le Carré novel.”
“Pride and prejudice, the L.A. twenty-first century celebrity reveal,” she giggles. “This is so much fun.”
“I am not a celebrity and have no desire to ever be one and certainly not date one. Can you imagine the horror?” I shudder at the thought. “I love you. I want you to be happy. You do you. I’ll be okay on my own.”
She ignores my statement and question. “I won’t let you think?” She asks then blows a raspberry. “I have no control over you. You are you and you do that on your own. And your relationship history says otherwise. We do this one together.”
I get up moving to the kitchen to start making breakfast. She follows pulling out her laptop.
“He reads bell hooks, Al. bell fucking hooks.”
“Why yes, yes, he does,” she says.
“How do you think this is supposed to work? You, me and him? What are the rules gonna be? Are there gonna be rules? It’s not like we’ve done this before, you and I.” I feel her eyes sweep over me judging me. Ignoring that, I lean down onto the counter on my elbows chin in hand across from where Ali sits pecking away on her laptop. “Seriously, how is this supposed to work? I mean, we’ve had open relationships—short and sweet, but this kind of thing is a totally new experience. I’m not as convinced as you that we can pull this off. Does he know that I’m not just the white girlfriend slash best friend trope? That we like have sex…occasionally—”
“Oh yes,” she says looking up, eyebrows raised, from her laptop daring me to argue.
I move on going back to fixing my breakfast. “—and are like an old married couple and that we’ve been together since high school? That we’ve been together so long we have separate rooms?”
“We’ll make it up as we go and I refuse to sleep in the same bed with you. You are a bed hog. Besides, I need my own space. And it’s not like we’ve stayed together…consistently.” She gives me the eye. “Have we?”
I could fall through the crack in her voice and disappear. Shame and guilt are emotions I don’t carry easily.
Do any of us.
Irked by the shuffle in conversation, I turn, my back to her, and continue making our breakfast avoiding that topic—that topic of a past filled with mistakes and failures and betrayals, most of which are mine.
What can you do when the person you love most in the world confronts you with the realisms of the past? You can accept and acknowledge those failings and move on—probably most of which you’ve already done so—and when she brings it up again and again, do you avoid it? Or not.
“I am who I am,” I say to her.
“Yes, you are. And so am I.”
“He acted like he didn’t know me when we first met in the hall and that ridiculous bigoted scene?”
She laughs. “He did, didn’t he.” Oddly enough, she finds this funny—I don’t. “He said he wanted to provoke you to see how you’d react. Besides, he heard from somewhere that you have a predilection for…drama. All those issues—fucked up beyond repair,” she says dramatically, flourishing it with a southern twang mimicking what I assume is me at my most heated.
It is my turn to laugh—a non-amusing snap that drags a smile from her: “And I wonder where he heard that.”
“You need drama in your life, Will, in order to thrive. He will supply it when I do not and unlike me, he’s specialized in it.”
Her smile is ironic and doesn’t reach her eyes. I try and not let the hurt show. “My drama is your entertainment.”
“Yes, till I wanna turn the channel and watch something else for a bit. Have a heart, love, he will be good for us.”
“I thought you loathed the aristocracy? That they were a disease? Isn’t his family a sort of aristocracy?” I give her a plate of scrambled eggs, bacon, tomatoes, and avocados.
“Oh yes. To the core.”
“I don’t understand—why?”
“He’s hot and I have an itch.” She playfully shrugs it off not meeting my eyes.
“You said we shouldn’t hang out with those kinds of rich people cuz they were like sinkholes of power and we’d get hypnotically sucked in—willingly. Are you saying you’ve changed your mind or that you’re a hypocrite?” I ask her practically pleading for understanding and guidance.
She looks at me rolling her eyes in sort of childish impatience: “This is the United States where capitalism reigns—we are all hypocrites and whores.” She takes a bite of each then pushes the plate across the table towards me. “You eat. I’m late.” She gathers her things and leaves heading off to wherever it is she goes.
She pauses sticking her head back through the crack: “And he’s making us dinner tonight. Be ready by 7,” she says smiling, closing the door behind her.
“Obama is not a magical Negro. He isn’t going to magically fix everything and racism isn’t suddenly just gonna go away if…when he’s elected president. If anything, it’ll probably get worse,” Ali says. She takes a drink of red wine glancing at her indigo blue manicure. “Dr. Reverend Barber says we’ll probably have another reconstruction on our hands.”
“Are you saying there’s no hope?” Nik asks softly, the ridge in his forehead deep and novel.
Ali laughs. “On racism? Of course there’s little hope.” She sits forward. “The majority of white people will never acknowledge white supremacy and to acknowledge white supremacy, y’all first must acknowledge settler colonialism and the erasure of indigenous lives and don’t get me started on militarism, police and prison abolition. Racism and white supremacy is an existential threat built into whiteness and this country and not just bad manners and disrespect.” She sits back staring at his silent solemn face.
“Don’t sugarcoat it, Al—call it what it is: Genocide of Native Americans,” I tell her.
She nods in agreement: “Yup. Ask the Native Americans how they feel about Columbus or Indians how they feel about Churchill.” She pauses to take a drink. “What you’ve been taught is revisionist history. It’s of the white male colonizing perspective.” He doesn’t say anything and Ali continues. “Let me guess, you’re a Churchill fan?”
Nik frowns. “Not really. Why?” Ali says nothing so Nik moves on. “So, how do I help?” He asks sheepishly.
“Stop asking black people to educate you and do it yourself. Listen, read, empathize with BIPOC, study our cultures and don’t lump us all into one pile; join the protests, acknowledge your white privilege and give up your precious spaces—your privilege and power to women especially Black women, use that privilege, money and power to demand spaces for us, yadda blah—you do all this; keep doing it. It’s a Sisyphean task; it’s arduous and unending and then finally you start understanding what we go through every single minute of our lives. Just remember it’s not about you.” A pause and a shy smile. “I do have faith in you and Willa. Both of you are persistent. You keep learning even in spite of all your … whiteness. So, yeah, you both give me hope. Obama gives me hope.” Her face transforms into a beam of happiness. “Yes we can, motherfuckers.” She giggles. We laugh.
Sitting in silence for a bit eating and chewing on what Ali said, Nik speaks. Looking down at his plate, moving the last of the noodles around with his fork, he shrugs, a seemingly childlike and coy kind of gesture that unmasks his sincerity and humility leaving him naked and vulnerable before us. This is something I’ve rarely seen in guys like him. “I’m a dilettante. I haven’t done nearly enough. Not like I wanna. I want to do more and I want you both to help me.”
The honesty and vulnerability in the statement takes me by surprise. His blue eyes meet my green ones from across the table. The sincerity ripples through my chest and around the room in a slow-roaming rush, like a tornado. Years go by in the moments after, till I hear Ali’s long hard open-mouthed sigh. We break eye contact and look at her: elbows on the table, chin in hand, a full breathy smile, staring at us, eyes hooded—words generating in the deep pools of her earthy brown eyes.
“Breathless love / soundless coves / in waves of sunshine / and lines of sand / the wind it wrought / the sea it calls / breathless love / is the kiss we sought.”
A crooked smile inches across his face and he mimics her pose, a wispy murmur in return: “Your words are as beautiful as you are,” he says, his voice low and throaty and weighted in affection as he reaches across the table and grabs her hand bringing it to his lips kissing it lightly. “How can someone so romantic have so little hope?”
The smile that floods her face flushes me with pleasure and folds me in red hot heat. The comfort and security I get in witnessing that deep genuine smile on Ali’s face elevates me to thin air and slaphappy thoughts. She even giggles in enjoyment and it makes my smile nine times as big and pure—so pure my cheeks hurt. There are very few people in our lives that do this for her. I’ve watched the power words have wrapped in hostility and bigotry that bludgeon her like a cold hard club. So, when someone gifts her with such a treasure of appreciation and affection and acceptance, I feel her flight and sail it with her. Niky does this for her. His impact on her is pure. I see it now and have witnessed it over these last few months. Her happiness in her work and play has grown. My smile dims.
It’s then I understand—she’s in love.
It takes me a moment before I realize I said this aloud. Ali gapes at me and I feel her blush across the room. Nik’s smile, genuine and pleased, spreads across his face. She looks at Nik, shrugs then back at me expressionless and says “Yes, so? At least I admit it.”
The deep boom, boom, boom of bass far below us on the street from the stereo of a passing car echoes the embarrassing beat of my heart; Missy Elliott asks me is it worth it and clearly Ali thinks it is. My face flames and the temperature of the room rises ten more degrees and unlike Ali’s mild blush, mine is recognizable.
I glance at Nik and back at Ali. “I’m not—” I stop looking back at Nik. His smile has faded and he seems almost shy and anxious—eager even for my reply like a small child awaiting encouragement. I look away.
© 2020 Pamela Gay Mullins