That Sunday I did not rest, nor make it to church. Something felt wrong the night before when I stopped reading and headed to bed. Her call came at the hour when chickens crowed, and before the three little birds woke me. I showered, brushed but did not eat before rushing out my apartment. The rain never came though the grayness enveloping the Manhattan skyline made me weary, on the verge of a mild fear that if we lived in biblical times an ark would be needed for two of each creature. The suspense hinged along the lines of the clouds seemingly perched on the tip of the skyscrapers. The fall colors dissipated into a charcoal blend, nearing black, bruised like purple. The world as we knew it had ended – Ken had left Barbara.
“Hope, he left over some nonsense.” Her sobs overlapped her words, sloppily conveying a misstep, one she took six years ago when she allowed herself to fall in love because of a courtship fashioned out of sentimentality, comfort and trust during a time of personal crisis. Theirs made sense on the surface because she on appearance with the half-smile at formal events, and booming laughter amongst friends; she was the girl Ken longed for when he first came to me. He and I understood behind the façade, a society girl’s longevity relied on more than just a razor-sharp wit. He needed the calmness, the slow tempo behind closed doors and between the sheets. The first emergence of a raised voice, she claimed, he ran.
I listened with half an ear but with two wide open eyes on the dissolution of love when it manifested itself into an ultimatum. She needed the two rings - a diamond, a band: platinum, not a catchy song and dance; and a child or two. He needed space, a place for when he had something to ponder; much more than the studio apartment he kept even after he moved in with her. Ken kept everything, from his looks – wavy hair, café-au-lait texture, dimples, natural bright smile, chiseled body – up to his focus on career and removing any obstacle to his traveling ways. A top salesman for a budding technology company after years at a Big Six accounting firm as a consultant, Ken boxed life in terms of priorities and conquest.
By the time I arrived at her apartment, her tears no longer flowed, only trickled from eyes whose dark circumference made me ask, “When did this happen?”
Four days and the cough, sobs and dry heaves that bulldozed a woman whom I witnessed take punishment and barely wince even when her body gave, her back smashing to the floor. I never once saw her knees touch the ground. She remained flat-footed as her forehead touched her knees. To see her disheveled, going days without a shower and apologetic brought me a small, hidden joy. Still not the time to celebrate for I needed to dust her up for another battle; for the war was far from over.
Nothing Barbara said connected as to why Ken would leave her. The risk to himself was too great. I convinced her to shower as I cleaned up the apartment, all the while thinking her display had an angle. Shifty and words along that line best described her, and that’s why we endured as the best of friends. Yet when dealing with her, I learned to never forgo adages, old wise sayings, just because we live in a new era: your best friend could be your worst enemy; keep your friends close and your enemies closer. I took a step back from her dilemma to assess the trap, if any, being lain for me. Pressing play on the stereo gave me Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue”. I knew this off-hand because of my father. She knew Jazz because of Ken; his music embodied her thoughts. I checked the television and it too channeled Ken - still tuned to ESPN. The refrigerator, somewhat empty, with remnants of food, takeout and half gallon of milk on the verge of spoiling. Four days and nothing? No movement, no change, then a call to me – to say what; that she had given her live-in an ultimatum. And, after he spent the night on the sofa, she woke to find a note, and his traveling bag gone, along with some clothes and basic necessities. She called to find the phone at his studio had been disconnected. She called me because I did not do pity-parties. I did lunch, after work drinks and dinner at trendy restaurants. Crying over a man was so passé, in fact never in my repertoire – something Barbara and I always shared. So, this felt like a trap of the highest order.
She came out of the shower with the towel draped across her right shoulder. Her body still amazed me but never as much as she loved to think. I had my own body. It was just as luscious though not as voluptuous. I held my words to see if her seductive stare conveyed dominance or sorrow. Forever a hard read, I did not accept her reach and her plea for me to follow her into the bedroom. She made a move to kiss me but I turned my head to negotiate the terms. “I told you I’m seeing someone.”
“Come on Hope, you’ve been saying this for a year. Who is he? The Invisible Man? You still have not introduced him.”
“No one needs to know him but me.”
Barbara brushed it off. “Fine but why does that mean you can’t comfort me in my time of need? Remember that time you came to me…” She made to kiss me again. “Come on.”
I moved my head. “I said, no. What is it with you? One minute you’re crying over Ken. Next you want me to put myself in your bed, in the middle of your mess…”
“Oh, forget you then!”
At that moment, thinking she would turn to walk away, I balled my fist, prepared to bust her eardrum. I was seriously tired of this chick. No matter how many times I came to her rescue, she never acknowledged it with any kind of appreciation. But then she fooled me by dropping to her knees. A soft kiss to my navel. Even over the fabric, I felt the wetness of her tongue. Her forehead on my abdomen, she waited for my push-off. Frozen in the moment. Her warm hands moved under my skirt, from my knees to my thighs to my waist. The elastic on my panties, taut against my stomach, gave me another two seconds to push her away. I muttered God’s name in vain then let out a faint murmur for her to stop. She looked up as both her thumbs stroked gently across my lips. Minor orgasms always made me feel like running to the bathroom. I would then realize my surroundings and give way to the moment. Spreading my legs as she simultaneously kissed and pushed up my skirt. I kept my hands to myself, holding my head, and whatever sane thoughts I still had left. We leveled ourselves onto the area rug – she on top, below my navel with her palms caressing the heaves pulsating under my silk blouse. Though I rushed to be by her side, I thought we would simply talk and be done in enough time for me to catch the late service. The glass coffee table reflected the stereo’s amplifier lights, the green fluctuating as the yellow and red stayed steady. She felt no need to hide her hunger, devouring me in the open space of her living room, readying herself for the moment I would curl into a ball, the satisfaction and confusion reverting me into a childlike, feeble state. Our words merged the way Indian ink begged to form calligraphy under the fingers of adolescents, instead the pen drew blotches. We coalesced in raw form, a passion between two beauties; I a svelte five-foot-six quote-end-quote cutie pie with an hacksaw for a mind; she a towering five-nine brick-house who calculated moves in the manner of a chess master. We took slow yet careless steps into her bedroom. It smelled of musk with a tinge of lavender fighting to emerge under the unmade king size bed with four posts, clean linen. The beige light cotton fabric felt cool on my skin. The sheet confirmed Barbara spent the past few days on the sofa or living room floor. The palatable loneliness crushed any misgivings holding a flight pattern in my mind. My first ever taste of her body, down there, as I never trusted what she wanted, never yearned to have this conversation with the sound she made. Her moans, raw and heavy, let me know just how long she had waited for this moment, eight years, when we first met on TGI’s campus. Her hands tried to be gentle but she wanted my face closer. In no time she shivered, then a thunderous groan led to a cool sweat on the rustic glow emanating from her skin. I made to head for the bathroom but she chuckled and kissed, no; she licked my mouth, face, neck, then bit my lip, not hard but a soft nuzzle as she looked into my eyes. The dark of her irises spoke of a love she could not utter, a passion she had held in check. I felt faint, small, worried that I could not return the sentiments she held. I needed a drink to numb the fear swirling in my head; more along the lines of a drink to feel a burn on my chest, sort of the sting rubbing alcohol ignites on an open wound.
The hours moved to the melancholic rhythm of the jazz CDs being played in sequence in the outer room. Each CD had played its full compliment, from Miles, to Budd Powell, to Cannonball Adderley, then to now where John Coltrane’s greatest hits bellowed a sultriness reminiscent of a dark room, a joint, of tables for two, booths for four and high chairs at the bar where dames tilted a bit so a gent’s charge could speed along. We ordered delivery, Italian dishes: linguine with clam sauce topped with calamari; and vegetable lasagna. She wanted richness but without the extra weight. I loved variety, spice and the unfamiliar. I loved the Society, while she inched out of it, thinking I had not picked up on her slow steps. Tonight a different side of her emerged. She had skipped a beat. I ordered wine to further mellow me as the lovemaking though slow, melodic and having reached a crescendo above eighty beats per minute had steadied the way top marathon runners glided across urban landscapes. The rain fell in drizzles, un-momentous, not disturbing the groove. Slight raps against the windows then it would straighten out whenever it got heavier, falling to the pavement, creating a bass line, with car tires sliding across to heighten the acoustics. The traffic lessened when the night came, and the cars turning off the main avenue would slow, throwing caution to the wind and slickness off the road. Over countless meals and girls night-out she had seen me let down my guards as red wine overtook my blood and my laughter masked my apprehensions. My mind calculated how, years ago, she explained how we could be everything to each other while pretending to uphold monogamy if either married a man. To her, my saying no meant I loved her in that emotional ‘if I can’t have you, I don’t want nobody else’ way. Truth was, I loved the freedom she enjoyed to take my body and me in her mouth; use her hands like a tool; use a sex object as if it were attached to her body.
Until that rainy Sunday I never tasted her that way. All I knew: her tongue was long, and her breasts more than a mouthful. Still she kept the pretension of we could be and would be there for each other. Years ago, it felt good because of the curiosity to experience what I read in books and came to know in art, of how women satisfied each other while men fought wars to conquer more women.
Twelve hours had gone by and I needed her to tell me something to interrupt my thoughts of whether I should make a call to my boyfriend to explain I cannot come by for dinner. I needed her to exclaim this to be better than she ever imagined but she was dry, out of words and the way her body shifted told me the same deal she wanted years ago, still on the table, constituted her best offer. “I need to shower.”
“You’re in a rush?” Her response meant I beat her to the punch. Chin in palm, elbow on the pillow, she searched for a way to keep me there. “Why don’t you call your ‘invisible man’ and tell him to come join us? I’m sure he’d like that.”
I cut her a joking look. “Is this your new offer – that I share my man with you?”
“Whatever it takes for us not to go another four years without feeling this good?”
“Extra towels still in the same place?” She nodded and I walked to the hallway then the bathroom. Not even five minutes, before I lathered, she came in and joined me. She tried her playfulness, her norm at least with me, to distract my thoughts. She caressed me from behind, building suds with a washcloth, nuzzling my neck as her right hand probed. I turned to face her. “What do you want?”
Unflappable to the core, my stern tone had no effect on her, “For you to spend the night.”
“I can’t. I have work in the morning. And, you also have to go to work. No more calling in sick.”
“OK on both. But I wake early so you’ll have enough time to get home to get ready for work. Plus, you can take my car.”
“Nowhere to park in Manhattan. That’s why I don’t own a car.” I left the shower to dry off as she lathered and rinsed.
She entered the bedroom as I finished dressing, and sprung the surprise. “Well don’t rush out. Wait to at least say hi to Attitude.”
“He called when you went into the shower.”
“And now you’re telling me this?”
“If you were staying, I would have waited to see your surprised look.”
“Is this why you called me this morning?”
“Oh no, here we go again! Hope, I haven’t heard from him in two years just like you. You’re always thinking I’m part of some huge conspiracy to undermine you.” She went into a tirade. “Who helped you find and buy that condo in that exclusive building? Who helped you get your job by writing over twenty letters?”
“So, you got connections. So what?” The desperate way she threw those two items out there meant she really wanted me to stay. She never mentioned either over the years. “Why is Attitude coming here? Why is he calling you and not me?” She did not answer. “You’re up to something! Does he know I’m here? I don’t want to be here when he gets here.”
“No, I wanted to surprise him too.” She did not challenge why I put myself to be more important in his life. “I don’t get you. After all we’ve been through. After today…You think…What is it you think?”
Thoughts were the first things to betray a person. One’s mind contained a barrel of ideas as well as facts. I had miscalculated the start of the final battle. I never thought this could be it when I entered the apartment this morning, as Ken leaving made no sense. I had to stand my ground. “Barbara, you know what I think. I think you underestimate me. You always have.”
She laughed. “You are my partner in this madness. We are SUM women. Strength. Unity. Morality. Please don’t tell me you’re dropping all three and deserting me.”
I walked to the mirror atop the dresser, fluffed my hair. I took a good look at myself in the mirror at the youthfulness, the worry-free round face that still passed for a teenager. “Your biggest mistake is that you keep thinking you got something to lose. You have nothing. NOTHING! My family has seventy-plus years in this Society, in SUM. And, you’re questioning me? You don’t fucking last this long in this Society if you cannot sift through bullshit. Before Attitude gets here, tell me why did Ken break up with you!”
“I don’t know. I told you he gave me a bunch of nonsense about not being sure if he wants a lifelong commitment, kids, and so on.”
Ken and Barbara. Attitude and Hope. That was how people saw it; how I often imagined it but the reality was that Ken and Barbara were a couple, and Attitude and I had divided loyalties, though fighting for the same cause. “OK, whatever it is you did, the price you’re going to pay is major. So, let me help you. I can get you out of this, whatever it is. I will sacrifice my king for you. But if he dies, you owe me eighty years – 4 full generations of your family. The rest of your life. Your children. Their Children. Their Children’s children.”
“What? What type of help is that?”
“You called me, right? You know something is not right. Ken cannot simply leave you. You know this. I know this. So you decide!”
“I pass. Girl, you’re sick. You ain’t no friend of mine.”
Before I had a chance to answer, the door bell rang. Not the downstairs bell – the one in the hallway, near the apartment’s entrance.