Saturday, August 16, 2014

Fiction Series: Free Verse, Part 3





I checked Malaki's email once again:

FWD: Network & Jazz

Jai,

I'd love to see you here. Get out of that office and drink, girl!

--M.M. 

I'd almost forgotten about Malaki's invitation.

Okay, I'm lying. I didn't forget.  

I was hoping that he'd forgotten, and I could quell my anxiety of finding something to wear and teetering on the boundary of professionalism and damn-you're-fine.

I wasn't desperate---much.

It's been five years, since I'd been in a serious relationship. I'm not sure if I could even call it that, considering it started and ended during my sophomore year of college. I'd spent six years, in the south, acquiring a Bachelor's and Master's Degree and not once, during post-grad, did it occur that it might be time to date. After six months in NYC, with no roommates and no demanding class schedules, the loneliness started to kick in. There was only so much wine, a good Netflix series, and a pack of batteries could do, for much longer.

I grabbed my cutest, all black, H&M dress from the closet, threw on some heels I'd got at an incredible discount, and puckered up to some Ruby Woo. I did my best struggle walk--courtesy of the several steps descending into the station--to the train, praying I'd catch the shuttle to the other side of Brooklyn. The platform was filled with a Brooklyn that I was still trying to recognize. Twenty-somethings in variety: off color gals with sunken trousers and bohemian bags, those with trust funds and those with a dream, men in Vans or boat shoes, brown girls with wild hair gabbing about the tiny apartment that they were forced to share. I looked for the little boys with blue snow-cone lips, the beckoning mamas with swaying breasts, the confused Timberlands in muggy weather, the BK I grew up in. 

I opened my notebook on the train, squeezed between a woman with a laundry cart and another on her iPad: 

Lorraine and I found love at the bodega
He was gesturing to the sound of slapping dominoes
and sipped Heineken 

Marcus checked Lorraine first
Of course he did
She was chocolate smooth
and all legs

I was portly,
back then

All hips, lips, and acrylic fingertips

"I wanna be your man." 

& I knew he wasn't talking to me, 
but L-boogie already had one of those, 
so she walked right in and ignored him

I could hear her from outside
the chimes-still-ringing,
glass door

"Lemme
get a 
ham and cheese
lettuce,
tomatoes, 
onions,
mayo,
mustard, 
vinegar,
on a roll
& don't give me none of that cheap sh*t
I want the cheddar kind,
the yellow one that got taste"

His second attempt was a grab at my arm:

"So you just gon' act like you didn't hear me?"

& although I knew...
none of his words, before this
were for me

I swallowed them
on park benches,
in the laundry room of his apartment building,
after church, 
when my parents were still conversing,
and could care less about where I was, 
long as I got my scripture

I remember his purple Sunday suit
a few weeks after I found out that I was old news
He was pissed that I ended it first

My mother, father, and I 
walked with bibles in hand

"YO B*TCH!,
GET OFF THE BLOCK!"

Funny...
I'd been dating eighteen year old Marcus for six weeks, three hours, 
and 43 minutes, sometime last month...

But that day...was the first time I'd ever seen a MAN...

My father lifted him up to a broken street light
and asked him if he'd like to see God

"I love your daughter."

I'm still looking for the love he spoke of that day...

Brooklyn. 

I arrived, to the networking event, thirty minutes later than I expected. My feet were already in incredible pain and I longed to switch into the flats, immersed in my oversized purse. The location was right around the corner from Free Verse, an unmarked store, with dark drapes in the windows. I'd always assumed it to be closed. There was a huge man, in all black, standing at the door. 

"Password," he said.

I gave him a blank stare.

"PASSWORD."

I remembered the flyer, "Swanky!"

Walking into the venue was like stepping into another world. The entire place was open brick, draped in all white. There was a huge bar along the wall, with bartenders that wore tuxedos, and the jazz band sat right across from it, on a platform stage. I looked at the man, at the piano, and immediately knew him to be Robert Glasper. What kind of shindig was this?

The crowd was intense. Everyone was draped in dark hues, despite the luminous decor. I spotted Louboutins and Armani suits, champagne glasses clinked, and the sound of forced conversation pervaded the space. I pushed through a cohort of cackling naturalistas--that I'm sure were "Mean Girls" in their heyday--and dropped my coat off at coat check. I made my way to the bar and pulled my wallet, from my purse. I hadn't spotted Malaki and I was in need of something brown, warm, and numbing. I asked the closest bartender for a whiskey, neat and a splash of water. I took out a ten to pay him. He leaned over, touched my hand with the payment, and whispered, "Open bar, love. Enjoy." 

I didn't know why I was embarrassed, but I was sure that I blushed. The gentleman next to me must've noticed. 

"I would offer to buy you a drink, but the bartender just ruined my game."

I smiled.

The bald brother wore a black linen shirt and slacks. He had the strongest hands I'd ever seen. He extended one for a handshake.

"I'm Karam."

I grasped his hand and shook it, "I'm Jai, short for Jailin, pleased to meet you."

"I've never seen you here before. How'd you get your invite?"

"A co-worker asked me. Well, he's more so like my boss. Kind of. He's a colleague," I was trying to make myself sound more important than I actually was.

Karam laughed, "You always this nervous expounding on the hierarchy of your occupation? May I ask what you do?"

"I'm in publishing. I work for.."

Just then Malaki slipped in and finished my sentence, "She works for my firm, Karam."

Karam stepped back, as if he'd been caught doing something wrong, "Oh. Then you work with the best." 

Malaki and Karam embraced one another, like longtime friends.

"I guess there's really no need to introduce you Jai. This is Karam, my brother from another mother. He works for the devil."

Karam play jabbed Malaki in the side, "He means...I work for Goldman Sachs. Hater." 

Malaki excused us and showed me around the room. There was a VIP loft area, a raffle for a Jamaican getaway, and dinner being served in the back area. He explained that the event was very exclusive and only the best and brightest were here. 

I joked, "Why was I invited?"

He stopped mid-tour, "Because that's exactly what you are. I wouldn't have invited you if you weren't."

Malaki was no Marcus. He'd probably never known the serenity of sitting on a Brownstone stoop, kissed a girl in an alley, or played ball in Gersh. He was no silver spoon, but he'd always been given the best. The child of Bajan immigrants, his parents persevered and made sure that he was enrolled in the greatest programs NYC had to offer. At thirteen, he was accepted into a private school with a view of Central Park, where he'd be one of two black students. At 17, he left for Harvard. Now he was back home, jet-setting and making his mark in the industry, sure of himself, and fine as hell in his repetitive tailored navy blue suit.

Yes, I Googled most of that. 

Something fabulous blurred past with a compliment, "Ludlow. J. Crew. Correct? Looking right, Mal."

Malaki smiled back at her and caught a quick glimpse of her behind while she walked away. I looked down at my crumpled H& M dress and suddenly felt a little insecure.

"Oh, you have it like that? I see."

"Sometimes, but I've been single for a while. I'm turning 28 this month. I've thought that it might be time to settle down."

I looked up at him, avoiding his perfect chestnut stare, "Is that right?"

He licked his lips, "Yeah. I need someone smart, ambitious, creative, beautiful, mysterious..."

He touched my arm while he spoke. The room suddenly seemed empty. I wanted to fill the spaces between his adjectives, with something. I just didn't know what, yet. 

After watching Karam do a tipsy dance to the reggae that now filled the room, after Glasper and his band left, and several introductions to Malaki's friends, I started to think about Free Verse. I wondered what was on their schedule for tonight. Malaki was conversing with a group of other publishing folks, when I grabbed my coat and whispered to him that I was leaving.

He stepped away from the conversation, "Do you need a ride home?"

"No, I'm fine. I think I'm going to head over to Free Verse and get some coffee and a new book." 

He put his arms out, asking for a hug, "C'mon. Bring it in."

I laughed, he'd clearly had a little too much to drink. I hugged him. 

Walking into Free Verse, felt like coming home. Mr. Mills was behind the register, in the bookstore, and I gave him a fist pound upon entrance. 

"Jai! Looking more like your momma everyday, girl."

"That's what they keep telling me, sir."

I could hear noise coming from the performance space, on the second floor, "What's going on tonight?"

Mills took the money from the register and placed it in a small blue bag, for deposit, "Jones is having his reading. Just dropped a book today."

I didn't know who Jones was, but I was always down to support a new author. I crept upstairs and found a seat, in the back. There were black and white books stacked in a corner, a girl sat next to them on guard and took twenties from folks who couldn't wait to buy one. The host stood at the microphone urging the author to come back up and read one more excerpt, before it was time to go. 

"I've been bugging him all night and he's agreed to give us one more. Ladies and Gentlemen, put your hands back together for Damali Jones." 

I watched Damali get on stage and finally put two and two together. Damali Jones. 

He stood in silence at first, looking crisp and pure. Playing with the cross that hung on the v-neck collar of his white tee, he spoke into the mic: 

She’s from a small town.
Depending on what side of the fence you stood on,
You were home,
Or somewhere far away.

But no one ever left.

Her mother vowed
She would be different

Enrolled her into performing arts high school
Tuition scraped off dinner plates,
They sent her off to college
On a full stomach

But she was hungry.

Parties, boys, and the occasional girl
Dissolved between part-time jobs
And school work
Someone had to pay the difference
That someone had to be her

Living life in a blur,
She kept responsibility on (lock)

Lock

Locks, the color of fire,
drape her butterscotch neck
Like sweets set ablaze

Ring through her heart shaped lips
She knew nothing of love,
Degree in one hand
Burden in the other
Her past somewhere in her sleeve

An uncle,
Who disguised incest with playtime
And cousins
Who needed help to meet
Childhood orgasms

Her art,
Performed and perfected
Relative-ly

She walks university halls with her head down
Mumbling whispers,

“I don’t belong here.”

Pummeling dorm walls with her fist
Claustrophobia of her memories
Catching up with her

She feels (lock)ed in

White lines replace
(or sit on top of)
Textbooks
She snorts her release

Roommates worry,
She promises to kick/sniff the habit

“Don’t worry, I got this on lock.”

Tardy and absences
Swallowed
Grades faltering
Lectures with the store supervisor

“How could you forget to lock up?”

Questions become literal
She opens up shop
Craig-listing her attributes
For the world to see

Re: I bet you can’t find a lower price than this

Craig is a white man with a wife
And two kids
Who balances his checkbook,
Like his junk on prostitutes

He knocks at her front door
Arrangements made
Chastity forgotten

She lets him in
The door (locks)

52-year-old
a graying man unzips,
demands that she (locks) lips with it

Her knees lock into position
One she knows all too well
Her locks, fly back and forth for dear life,
like the two-hundred dollars she needs for rent
depends on it

He tells her to “come,” after he’s done so

“Sit here, so I can look at you.”

He all too pleased,
Grins as he leaves

Forgetting to (lock)
The door behind him

Allowing the shame
To sift into the January wind
Money flickering like light leaves
On the nightstand

She cannot look in the mirror.
Pulling at her dreads,
A hyperbole for what she will feel in the morning,
A (lock) of hair falls to the ground

as does she

she’ll do anything to keep from going home
anything to be the first in her generation to progress
she will dance with success

otherwise, there is no movement
stuck where you started
tight position

a complete stop

closed mind
closed heart
closed opportunity

closed everything

LOCK.

So much talent.

The crowd applauded him and several folks got up to grab his book. The host got back up on stage, "Grab a copy of "Sever" and make your way out, after you get it signed. Y'all know the deal." 

I waited for Damali to engage with his prospective readers. He signed each book with care, took pictures with people, and gave dozens of smiles. He was some kind of awesome, tonight. I was the last to get my book signed.

He looked down at the open book, "Who am I making this out to?"

"Jai."

He looked up and smiled, "Good girl. How are you?"

"I'm great, just waiting for my signature."

He leaned back in his chair and smiled, "Anything else?"

I bit my lip and held back on what I really wanted to say, "I also want to know how you know my dad."

After Damali packed the rest of his books up, said thank you to Mr. Mills, and helped to close the store, I walked him out. While walking through the foyer I inquired about my father again.

"He was like the father I never had. A mentor, if you will."

Damali continued to the door, but I stopped him.

"I was always with my dad. How am I just meeting you now?"

Damali pushed the door open despite my protest, "Your dad was very protective of you, Jai. He kept you away from where he was from, but he always came back to see us. He always came to see me." 

We walked down the steps and as I got ready to ask another question, I saw Malaki waiting at the corner. Once he saw me, his eyes lit up. He walked towards us and took my, now heavy after purchasing three of Damali's books, purse from my arm. 

Malaki spoke, "I'm going to put you in a cab and ride home with you. I can't have you taking the train this late."

Damali looked Malaki up and down, "Gonna introduce me to your friend?"

I looked at the both of them. Malaki was headed to drunk, and Damali was sober and annoyed. 

"Malaki this is Damali. He's...he's...a friend of my dad's." 

_____________________________________

You can find Erica's books, here.








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