Ernest stood up the steps on the landing near the exit, opened the door as I turned for a last glance. Nothing about this place, a condo on the sub-level of a three-floor colonial, registered as a purchase Hope would make. With a visitor’s lot not too far from the secured gate where one signed in, it conveyed more than affluence and seclusion. Less than a five-minute drive, the Lincoln Tunnel separated and connected. The skyline faced us with windows lighted or dark in no specific pattern.
The short walk to the car found us silent, as if processing unconnected thoughts. Ernest had to be thinking two steps ahead or something. Wanting to sleep with him served many functions with lust being near the bottom of the list. If anything, loneliness but not in a needy way, yet I found myself on my way to Brooklyn at one in the morning with a MAX boy. I reasoned with myself – yes, he walked in with Devon, but Attitude only dealt with people of impeccable character. Still I kept thinking they were MAX boys, and their fraternity’s notoriety included the ruthless, deceitful manner in which they dealt with women.
I needed more convincing. If, for all that I had done and accomplished in my life, I couldn’t have a one-night stand with a MAX boy, then maybe I was still an eighteen-year-old freshman.
“Brooklyn, eh?” I exaggerated the words, letting him know my displeasure. “I haven’t been to Brooklyn in months. Didn’t you anticipate Devon leaving with Miranda?”
“Is that who he left with?” Ernest matched wits. His answer avoided telling his friend’s business, while not having me think he condones Devon’s behavior. “Where do you live?”
“Oh, oh! You Queens girls are very high maintenance.”
I switched to a less-occupied lane then paid the toll for the Lincoln Tunnel. “Yeah and you Brooklyn guys are all crooks.” He laughed. “Where do you live? In Flatbush?”
“Not all Haitians live in Flatbush, you know…but I lived there until recently. I just moved to Carroll Gardens to take over my brother’s lease.”
“I didn’t know you were from Haiti. How long have you been here?”
“Going on 14 years.”
A slight tension still existed between us, confirming the small talk we made screened our true intentions. I never had a one-night stand, but I could feel Ernest shared what I felt. I needed something to oil my engine, move me pass the point where I thought that relationships ruled, and sex required an emotional attachment. I kept thinking to be quiet and let him lead, yet I asked, “What have you been doing since college?”
“It’s only been two years, but I’ve mostly been feeling my way around the advertising industry, hoping to land a job at a top-notch agency. What about you?”
“I’m the Executive Director of a school for children who have not done well in traditional schools.” Ernest nodded, more than approval. “Do you currently work in an ad agency?”
“I was but I quit.” I thought, quitter, loser…this guy’s unemployed? As if he could read my thoughts of wanting to turn on the radio and make this ride quicker and less involved, he added, “Things got tough…after my friend, Bliss, killed herself, I couldn’t focus. I needed to regroup. Did you know Bliss well?”
“No, met her and we spoke a couple of times. Why didn’t you just ask for a leave of absence?” A shallow thing to ask, but quite logical; plus I wanted him to move from this topic. Ernest gave me this look. Had the light on the West Side Highway not changed to red, his silence could have meant he had not thought of the possibility. The look meant a dear friend had died and any past involvements had to be severed, and for me to ask that question confirmed my reputation - a cold-hearted chick. Even when I cared deeply, I did so in a cold, demanding way – that was my reputation.
Ernest reached for the radio. We both felt the same thing, so why not, why not turn on the radio. The clear starless sky gave a dark, empty feeling to the night. The sudden quietness between two relative strangers should have been uncomfortable, but it seemed to be what we needed. We drove across the Brooklyn Bridge. The sounds of WBGO, the NPR jazz station soothed a yearning in my heart, to be touched. October has always been my favorite month, although my birthday is in June. The cool, gentle, nightly breeze, sometimes peppered with moments of rain, the month anchoring the fall season symbolized my renaissance, my rise from the ashes of my summer of discontentment. Perhaps, having been in an academic setting since five years old, I viewed autumn as the first season.
“Make a left on Atlantic and a right on Nevins.”
I decided to give him a quick test to see where his heart lies and when it lied. I switched from radio to cassette. I had been playing the song over and over during the ride to Hope’s, to steel me for the first time I saw my ex. Ken was a brother; I knew he would be there. It would be my first time seeing him since he left me a note, that note:
I have to leave. I’m not sure I will be back. You do what you have to do to survive. Always know that I love you and always will.
The song’s first notes drew no reaction from Ernest. He stared straight ahead and I really could not…You can never tell what's in a man's mind
Ken played the role of the perfect man to the limit and though I claimed this as my favorite song, he embodied the lyrics, singing over the cassette whenever I played the song, replacing the next and many other lines with autobiographical sketches like, And if he's Stay Black’n Die, there's no use of even tryin'
SBD were the call letters of his fraternity and over the years the fraternity came to be known as Stay Black’n Die because of their fierce loyalty and willingness to die for the cause. Before then, they were simply known as ‘the brothers’. As years went by and many other organizations formed and the term “brothers” got used for nearly every Black man, SBD veered away from being ‘the brothers’ even though those in the know knew what a person meant when they said ‘the brothers’. The brothers were the glue and the fabric, the married, the fathers, the preachers, the doctors and the lawyers, the scholars; they were the men you saw holding hands at museums with the women who looked straight ahead- down, or with their nose in the air. The brothers had been betrayed, captured and sold; then they escaped, decided to stay, fought, marched to overcome. And, I had a brother; a fine brother… Then he surprised me, leavin' me a note sayin' he's gone for good…
The streets were empty and I was in a car with a MAX boy. His quietness confused me. Had he interrupted the song to give more directions then I would know. A red light. You can have your Broadway,
Then he chimed in…give me Flatbush Avenue…
Angels from the skies stroll 7th and for that thanks are due
I almost asked ‘what’ until I realized what he’d done; he replaced Ken’s Harlem with his Brooklyn street. An invitation to come in, sing lead in an impromptu duet. Not only did Ernest know the words, he held tempo as I sang. He joined in at the end to let me know that he was willing…To put some music to my troubles and call them the Harlem blues...
He directed me to a parking spot. Feeling my hesitation, he asked, “You’re not staying for breakfast?”
“Breakfast at one in the morning?” I wanted to know his exact offer, but he only nodded. To know, I would have to enter.
The two-block walk gave me a chance to survey the neighborhood, consisting of three-story limestone homes, with street-level entrances, and another entrance up on the first floor. The landings were about twelve feet above the street. Parking seemed tight since most cars had very little space between them, and the hydrant across the street from his apartment had a car risking a ticket by being less than ten feet away. Up the block, a school. Across the street, a corner laundry. The streets had no noticeable potholes. Ernest lived in the garden floor and basement level of the fourth house from the corner. “This is an interesting duplex,” was all I could say because he hadn’t done much to the place.
“I still don’t feel at home here. It’s gonna take some time to adjust.”
The top floor had no furniture except for a coffee table surrounded by one sofa and throw-pillows. A small living room with a small bathroom situated directly behind the sofa. Next to the bathroom, an enclosed kitchen area. The main bedroom served as his den. A few canvases, reams of paper and large unframed canvases layered the floor near the computer desk. “Do you paint?”
“No, I just dabble. The computer is my main weapon. I do graphic design and I’m beginning to expand into writing copy.” Ernest walked in from the kitchen and into the living room. We faced each other, adjusting to the environment, trying to reestablish a comfort level. For some reason, he held the locket again. He had done so at the party. I snatched it away and shocked, he asked, “What’s wrong?”
“My father gave me that.” I lied.
“Well call me George Michael then…I’ll be your father figure.” He winked then laughed to show that he served up the corny line on purpose, to make light of the moment.
I turned to leave, but he put his arm around my waist and pulled me to him. I talked forward into the open space in front of me. “Get off me! Get your hands off me!!”
Instead of letting go, he asked, “Why can’t you relax and stop trying to control the situation?”
I turned to face him and spoke in a slow, measured tone. “My father gave me this chain and locket. White gold, he said when he gave it to me. That was the first and last time I saw him. He died two days later. He committed suicide.”
I lied to Ernest again, totally going against my ‘honesty is the best policy’ nature. I could not tell him the truth, that when opened, the locket revealed a black and white photo of my brother, who could pass for my father when he was in his late twenties. The secret and my confusion was that my brother died at 20, so how could he have taken this photo.
Ernest took hold of my hands, pulling me closer. Our bodies leaned softly against each other. Our faces slowly closed the distance between us, we kissed, our fingers caressed. He kissed without squeezing body parts. Next, he did another thing that impressed me when it was my first time with a guy. He took off his top. Sure, I liked to be undressed and savored, but I preferred a man who took off his clothes first. Especially when the room was lit, even if by only the light from the next room, allowing me to see only his shape, the bulky shoulders, the well-defined chest, the shapely arms, the could-be a little flatter stomach, the stiffy with the pee-hole aiming at the ceiling, the strong thighs and calves, and the stiffy.
Ernest smiled as if asking for my approval. I approached and used the tip of my tongue on his chest then our mouths met. I wondered if he would carry me to the bed, instead he pulled me to the cold, hardwood floor.