Her name was Tameeka Howard. She wore her dreadlocks outside of her Fox jacket underneath a blue wool skullcap. The dreads had blond streaks bleached or woven into them. Threadlocks? Weavelocks? I hoped not. I sunk into the butter-soft leather seat of her Acura Integra and she took off like a criminal leaving the scene of a crime.
She drove a stick, shifting between gears with ostentatious confidence, like she was trying to impress me- Women can drive, too, you know- taking curves with her foot on the gas. Even that dangerous turn around Grand Army Plaza she negotiated like a cop responding to an “Officer Down” distress call. I warned her about the patrol car that usually hung out under the Plaza’s arch waiting for some fool to drive by like Eastern Parkway was the Autobahn, but she didn’t slow down. She was daring. I liked that.
Surprisingly, she wasn’t into eardrum torture with some cookie-cut R&B group or some Neo-soul singer on her Bose´ sound system. Instead, she was playing a Sly and the Family Stone CD. Hot fun in the summertime almost made me forget the temperature outside.
“What you know about Sly?”
She just winked and said, “I’m hungry,” with a salacious smile. I was hungry, too. She suggested that we go grab a bite. “I know this spot.”
Great, another spot.
There was something dignified about Tameeka. It was in the way she handled herself. Effortlessly composed. She spoke with her hands, like a politician, releasing the steering wheel to illustrate a point. Speaking intelligently about nothing really. Remarks on the traffic, the ineptitude of other motorist, the temperature dip over the past few days… Just kind of filling the air with her voice. A pleasant, spirited voice. An easy wave of the hand to indicate she was cool. I could’ve been anyone in her passenger seat. In fact, she was so comfortable that she made me uncomfortable.
When she finally spoke to me she asked questions that were poignant. She had an agenda.
“So, Kevin Jackson, you live alone?”
“You got a woman?”
“No, but I’m seeing someone who thinks she has a man.” Tameeka laughed but I could see her thinking, her forehead wrinkling.
“So, you’re not a man?”
“Not her man. I’m my own man.”
“She must not know you very well.”
“She knows me as well as she’s gonna know me,” I said. “But, enough about me. What about you?”
“What about me?” she said, pretending to be unprepared for or unaccustomed to being questioned. An actress? No, it was more like she was one of those people who interact with other people as if they were characters in a play she was composing. She pretended to be the protagonist but was really unconnected.
“Do you have an education?” I asked, thinking that might throw her.
“I have a Bachelor’s in Waiting,” she joked.
“A BW, huh? So, The Scene is a career move, then?”
Precisely. Sound vocabulary. I liked that, a lot.
“Nice car for a waitress,” I said, checking out her dashboard, all lit up like the Starship: Enterprise D. “Must get some pretty good tips.”
She was doing about fifty-five down the light-friendly strip of Eastern Parkway where the speed limit was twenty-five.
“A fringe benefit of being single, no dependents and working two jobs,” she said, glancing over at me, suspiciously. “You have any kids?”
“What are you waiting for?”
“I’m waiting for my paternal alarm clock to go off.”
“Well, that’s original,” Tameeka chuckled. “If I heard I’m waiting for the right woman to come along once, I’ve heard it one time too many. Either that or there’s got some baby-mama drama.”
I couldn’t help but notice what we had in common. We were both smart-asses.
I was just starting to relax when I heard a siren and tensed up immediately. I could almost feel the butt of a gun upside my head, a plumbing instrument impaling me anally. But, it was only an ambulance. The Force was with her… with us. However, the siren shed some light on my apprehension- she wasn’t the only one on a ride with a total stranger. So was I! For all I knew she could be some kind of serial vigilante the cops have all Hush-Hush about. All she needed was a gun. She could take me hostage, castrate me, and leave me for dead in the middle of nowhere. Add my dick to her ever-growing collection. The “Baby-Daddy Killer Beheads Another,” the newspaper headlines would blare.
Tameeka was just as calm as could be, though. Way too relaxed, considering…
“I guess the question I’ve been asking myself is do you pick up strange men often or is this some you look like a nice guy shit?”
Without averting her attention from the traffic ahead Tameeka’s mouth slowly curled into a Grinch-like smile. It was eerie to watch.
“Aren’t you a nice guy?”
“A little late to be asking now, don’t you think?” I said, taking insult with her arrogance. Do I have ‘nice guy’ written all over my face? “What, you got some kind of sixth sense? Do you see dead people, too?”
She busted out laughing, noticed the serious as cancer expression on my face and laughed some more. Her laughter at my concerns reminded me of Stephanie.
“Let me ask you something,” she said. “Are you implying I’m some kind of slut? Or, are you genuinely concerned for my safety?”
“Your sexual habits are none of my business…” I said.
“Ahhh, isn’t that sweet…” Tameeka sang.
“…and your safety ain’t so high on my priority list either,” I added.
She shot me a look as she turned into the packed parking lot of a diner on Atlantic Avenue. A new enterprise, at least it was new to me. I recorded the location in my mind for posterity. I love diner food. She pulled into a tight parking space a lot faster than I could have. Man, she could handle that machine!
I’d been fiendin’ for a smoke ever since we left the club. But, there were no signs in her ride that she smoked so I had to respect that. Regardless, we grabbed a booth in the smoking section at my request. Thank God, she didn’t object. Once we were seated she whipped out a cigarette and lit up immediately like she’d been waiting all night for this moment, too, which surprised the hell out of me. She had this beautiful golden butane lighter, too. She lit my Black & Mild cigar with one graceful motion, silky smooth. She took a deep toke damn near burning up a third of her cigarette, inhaled deeply and let out a long stream of smoke. She smoked with style and finesse; smoke billowed from her mouth and curled into her nose in tight spirals.
“My father used to smoke cigars, too,” she said, with a slight grin that favored a grimace more than a smile, toying with the lighter still in her hand. “This was his lighter.”
Her teeth were pearly white. Mine weren’t. Stephanie used to say kissing me was like kissing a chimney and that my teeth looked like I brushed them with sunshine. She was always exaggerating everything. Who needed that shit? I swore that if I didn’t quit then my next girlfriend would be a smoker. Tameeka blew a smoke ring towards my face. As it dissipated it almost took on the shape of a valentine. Cute.
She was pouring on the eye contact, trying to read me or connect with me, one. I hate when people do that, play me too familiar, you know? So, I looked away and gave the diner the once over. It was huge and crowded, forty or so booths and at least a hundred customers. I wondered why I hadn’t heard of it. It was a black spot, at that- both clientele and staff. A few Latinos sprinkled here and there- not a white person in sight. I tried my best to patronize black businesses. Something my boy, Kwame, had said to me years ago. He’d said black folks wouldn’t patronize black businesses. I asked him why did he think that was so and he’d said, just as straightforwardly as possible, because we hate to see each other doing well. After all these years, that slave mentality is still with us. Ever since then I’ve pondered how much that slave mentality influenced my own thoughts and actions.
The diner was designed with a 60’s southern flavor. It could have been in Alabama or Mississippi during the civil rights movement and all the patrons from a Freedom Ride bus that had stopped at a place where Jim Crow wouldn’t ruin their appetites. These diners weren’t worried about civil rights, though, I discerned with a glance. Most of the customers were like Tameeka and I- coming from nightclubs dressed to impress and high on something. They were laughing, talking loud and having fun shouting out their orders. The early Sunday morning rush hour crowd had the wait staff racing around like maniacs. Business was very good. I pictured some lucky investors observing the goings on with obvious approval. I hoped they were black.
The menu said the name of the place was “Renaissance”.
“You come here often?”
Tameeka was checking out the selection on the tabletop jukebox: A miniature CD player. Cool idea. It was bolted to the table and the wall as inconspicuously as possible. A waste of time, though. It would take some doing but I was sure niggas would find a way to jimmy the sucker, to fuck up the works. They always do. In a month or two the tables would be jukebox-less. I was certain of it. I wondered if that kind of thinking was part of that slave mentality Kwame spoke of, or just my run-of-the-mill cynicism.
“It’s a new spot,” she said despondently, DeBarge crooning Love me in a special way in our ears. “Only been open a few weeks.”
“You all right?” I asked. She looked like someone died.
“Don’t you find it discouraging?”
“What,” I said. I was confused. “This place?”
“When black entrepreneurs put it all on the line, trying to do something great. Ya know? And, it all comes tumbling down, out of jealousy or spite. Or a lack of preparation or know-how. You don’t find that…disheartening?”
“It doesn’t happen all the time. You gotta learn to have a little faith in us,” I said, though I had hardly any myself. I would love to be an optimistic person so I pretend to look at things optimistically sometimes. Fake it till you can make it is how my mother would put it.
Tameeka looked at me. Actually, she looked through me at something her mind was projecting on the wall behind my head. Her stare was so intense that I almost looked around to see what she was seeing.
“Faith,” she said finally. “I have faith in God, not in people.”
“I think black entrepreneurs fail sometimes because they’re leeching on the community, just like white folks do,” I said. “It doesn’t make sense on the surface, I know, but think about it.”
I didn’t want to harp on what white folks do and have done. It’s like getting upset about a pigeon shitting on you when you know good and damn well that’s what pigeons do and have always done. But, it was hard to discuss the black man’s burden without involving them. I was trying to make sense of it even as I gathered my thoughts.
“I don’t see people trying to provide goods and services to the community and improve their own situations at the same time as leeches,” Tameeka countered to my delight. I love to debate. At least I used to. At times I’d play devil’s advocate just to generate an argument, to see how well people could defend their stance on issues.
“Maybe some are selfish, yes. But, a little selfishness never hurt anybody,” she continued. “Better selfish than selfless.”
“The greed is good argument, huh?” I asked. I’d heard this one a hundred times before.
“That’s right,” Tameeka said. “Not merely for greed’s sake, but more from a self-entitlement, self-empowerment perspective…”
“Yada yada yada…“ I said, rudely. I knew exactly where she was going. “It was greed that got us in this situation in the first place, ya know.”
“And?” Tameeka sassed. “Oh, it’s the two wrongs don’t make it right argument?”
“That’s right! I mean, correct!” I laughed. Apparently she knew where I was going, too. So, I cracked my mental knuckles and added, “White people have always been equated with the best things in life: The best education, the beneficiaries of the political system they set up, the finest residences. Built this country up with the sweat from our ancestor’s brows. But we were never included in the so-called common good. Never even expected to participate at all. The framers made that clear when they only counted us as a fraction of a human being. Right? Then, a couple of centuries later, here comes the Black Entrepreneur. Taking on the qualities of our oppressors yet preaching about how we need cooperative economics to forge our own common good. But, many of that Entrepreneur’s tactics look and sound a lot like his role model. All of a sudden potential clients and customers are saying he’s thinking white and acting white. Ignorant, yes, but I can identify. I get told that shit, myself, from time to time.”
“I can see that about you,” she jabbed. Then, after a muffled giggle she said, “I’m just kidding. Go on.”
“Thus,” I stressed, “that spitefulness you spoke of. Sometimes it comes in the form of jokes, like yours. But, most of the time it’s much more malevolent. That ill will targeted at Mister, or Miss, Black Entrepreneur, I think, is actually meant for white folks. Entrepreneurs just gotta do a better job of distinguishing themselves from the true target- which is almost impossible because what they’re trying to do, namely get rich the greed is good way, they mostly learned from white folks. Sitting up in their MBA programs, and what not; majoring in Greed, minoring in Global Exploitation, I mean, Globalization.”
“So, what are you saying?” Tameeka asked like everything she believed in had just been spat on. “That wanting to get ahead in this life is a white thing?”
“If you do it in the white way it is,” I said sharply, feeling the animosity seething within me. “Their definition of getting ahead has always been to the detriment of someone else, and that someone is usually us!”
Tameeka squinted, probably forming an argument in her head. I couldn’t wait, though.
“So, one could ask: Why would a black person want to use white folks as role models? That’s the question, isn’t it? I mean, it’s an absurd ambition at best. Busting your ass to walk among them as an equal. Why? They’re mostly barbarians! And, they’ve demonstrated nothing but disrespect and hatred towards us and our ancestors for centuries!
“At best, you’ll become a black poster child for the American dream- start talking about abolishing affirmative action like that Cat in California. Talking about black folk pulling themselves up by the bootstraps and shit. Not that I don’t agree with him, but you got to acknowledge the psychological damage and institutionalized hurdles in place to prevent that from happening. Tell me you wouldn’t feel better eating in a white restaurant, feel safer living in a white neighborhood, feel smarter going to a white school…why?”
“And, at worst…Oh my God, we’ve seen the worst. We know who they are. That’s what most of us are afraid of. That’s why we don’t buy black. Call it Playahatin’ if you want to. I think, subconsciously, we’re trying to save entrepreneurs from themselves and save ourselves at the same time.”
I watched as Tameeka digested my food for thought. I could see in the emotions running rampant on her face that the meal wasn’t agreeing with her.
“It’s a sick twisted dilemma,” I said, softening my tone. “I mean, I’ve bought into it for so long that I don’t know which way to turn. Part of me has embraced this progressive black perspective. This part just wants to say fuck it and figure out a way to siphon some of the billions of dollars that we generate as a people into my own pockets-which ain’t hard. And buy a big house- on the fringe of da hood, of course. Not too black, though. You know, over where the other progressive black folks flock- Fort Green, Clinton Hill, Prospect Heights, maybe even over by your job in Park Slope. Get myself a Lexus SUV, a progressive sepia-toned wife, 2.5 crumb-snatching tax deductions, join the NAACP, the PTA, the NRA, and my contribution to the cause would be volunteering for voter registration drives and giving an annual fundraiser for the Save the Niggers foundation, cuz we are definitely an endangered species.”
Tameeka’s face went blank. I wondered if I was getting through. I hadn’t voiced my thoughts in quite some time. It felt good to unleash them, if only for a stranger.
“Another part of me, though…” I continued, “The part of me with the weaker resolve, unfortunately, is anti-social, anti-establishment, anti-American dream. It wants to do something powerful to shake up the status quo. Nothing as psychotic and impotent as stepping onto a train and spraying the passengers with an automatic weapon like that nut did a few years back. I’m not postal, though I can identify. I’m talking about something that would reverse the social polarity. Debilitate the powers that be, pauperize the rich and expose the frauds. It’s just that I’m not sure where to begin and I know I can’t do it alone. I’d have to electrify black people as a unit- as a voice to be reckoned with.
“I find that a very discouraging prospect,” I confessed. “I mean, futility is so embedded in me, in us, by design, and it has us at each other’s throats. I don’t know if one voice, one leader, is even the move anymore, if it ever was. We’ve always been a diverse people. You think that back in Africa all of the cultures had one agenda? Of course not. So, what do I say to the masses? That African Americans can’t afford to be diversified? Who’d listen?
“Back during slavery it was simpler. Our goal was shared. Freedom was tangible. It wasn’t free your mind and your ass will follow. It was more like free your ass and the dogs will follow. And, I would have escaped or died trying. Perhaps, even have conducted on the Underground Railroad, but now…with the rising tide of pro-establishment blacks, I’d be fighting more of us than them.
“Imagine Harriet Tubman, busting her ass, risking life and limb to free us while someone of the magnitude of, say, a Frederick Douglass spoke out daily about how niggas need to stay where they are. That only by working twice as hard, learning how to get along and kissing the right asses will they someday be granted the privilege of being a house nigga or, ultimately, be recognized as human beings deserving of freedom, justice and equality. Cause, that’s pretty much how it is now.
“The government wouldn’t need to off me…Some black person would, and of his own volition at that. Now, ain’t that some shit!”
I liked to hear myself talk. Liked the way my voice flowed, liked the response to my above average intelligence, the look of pleasant surprise on the faces of people whenever I held forth. Tameeka’s expression still hadn’t changed, though. Looked like she was in a deep funk. So, I decided to shut up. Nobody wanted to hear my rhetoric, anyway. It just sounded good.
“So we’re essentially in the same boat,” Tameeka said, returning from that dimension she’d been in for the past few minutes. “You don’t have any faith in us either. A peculiar thing to have in common, don’t you think?”
“Sad, but true,” I agreed, stifling a smile. Peculiar. Her vocabulary was very refreshing.
“My father used to say that there are three types of people,” Tameeka said. “First you have the dreamers. They have these visions, these grand ideas. Sometimes they talk about them and other times the dream remains in their heads and seldom sees the light of day.
“Then you have the doers. They’re always doing something. Constructive, destructive, it doesn’t matter- As long as they’re active. The best of them assume the dream from the dreamer and run with it. The worst of them just run in place. Spend their whole lives on a treadmill.
“Then you have those people who got it together…I like to call them the beautiful people. Even the ones that are doing something ugly with their gifts are beautiful to me. They’re the one’s who have a vision, have a dream, and the wherewithal to actively pursue it, inexhaustibly determined to achieve it.
“On my own I came up with a fourth type. I’ve seen them out there and frankly they scare the hell outta me. In fact, I think my father was one of them, though I make that judgment in hindsight. This type, they don’t dream, they don’t do. They merely watch. They admire, cheerlead, record and take notes, catalog and judge. Maybe, at one time they used to dream or do, but something happened along the way that…I don’t know. Perhaps it’s that futility thing you were talking about. They’ve given up; content to live vicariously through others. Kind of like leeches, in a way, I guess. Maybe the worst of them are. But, the majority of them are perpetually stagnant, stuck in the mud, so to speak. They don’t know what they want to do. And their dreams, like Langston Hughes said, have been deferred, indefinitely.”
I was impressed with Tameeka, quoting Hughes, though it was probably one of his most famous works…still. I’d half-expected her to try and seduce me. And maybe she was, at that. Maybe she’d discerned that I was a man who was turned on by substance as much as I was by physical beauty, which was flattering and seductive in and of it self. She’d also quoted her own father, which was also special. How many people did I know that would or even could quote their fathers? Maybe their father’s parting words…
“From what I’ve heard tonight,” Tameeka continued, “I’d have to say you were a dreamer with as much potential to be one of the beautiful people as you have of becoming one of those people with their dreams deferred.”
“Oh really,” I said, disappointed suddenly.
“There’s despair out there, Kevin. I know you feel it. I can see it in your face; hear it in your voice. But, you can’t let it get the best of you.”
“I didn’t realize I had.”
“You ought to listen to yourself, then,” she suggested. “You sound like a…how do I put this…don’t take this the wrong way…but you sound pompous and bitter and hopelessly desperate.”
“Uhhh, what would be the right way to take that?”
“Considering its source,” Tameeka said, with a light-hearted smile, “I’d take it with a grain a salt. I mean, maybe I just caught you on a bad night.”
“Maybe,” I said as I absorbed her words deeper into my psyche. I could buy the pomposity, even the bitterness, even depressed to a certain extent; but desperate? That wasn’t sitting too well with me. And, I didn’t like how the word hopelessly modified the word desperate. If desperate was gunpowder then hopelessly desperate was nitroglycerin.
“I feel it, too. That desperation,” she said sullenly. “I think I’ve inherited it from my father like a trait. He died a couple of years ago…lung cancer,”
I was about to make the customary remark when she shushed me and added, “Don’t say you’re sorry. He smoked like a fiend, two, three packs a day, cigars, too. Like a man on a suicide mission. I don’t think he wanted to die but I don’t think he wanted to live, either. Ya know?”
I wondered if my father smoked. Lorenzo… I felt a bitter sadness that I had to wonder at all. Hopelessly desperate? Is that the vibe I give off?
“Now, my mother. She has the entrepreneurial spirit,” Tameeka said, lifting her chin proudly. “She’s been a dreamer all of her life and without my father to quash her dreams, like he had for all those years, she decided to go for it. She had this great idea. She bought this abandoned building, over on Malcolm X Boulevard. She fought hard for a loan and allocated a large portion of my father’s life insurance for her dream of a café. Someplace folks could come and chill out. Poetry, Jazz, a place for community artist to display their work, that kind of thing.”
“A café-on Malcolm X?” I asked, finally managing to think of something other than hopelessly desperate. An image of Malcolm X Blvd popped into my head. She sure had a wide selection of abandoned buildings to choose from. Malcolm X wouldn’t have been my first choice, or second, or tenth.
“I know. I told her Bed-Stuy’s not ready for a café. She’d be better off opening a laundromat. But, she was stubborn. Said she knew where Bed-Stuy was headed. That before you knew it there’d be all types of businesses in the Stuy that would never have made it before. She didn’t want to bring up the rear. She wanted to be one of the trailblazers on the front lines of the neighborhood’s renaissance.”
“You actually suggested a Laundromat to a woman dreaming of a renaissance?” I asked in disbelief.
Tameeka laughed uneasily. “You gotta understand. I was afraid we’d lose everything.”
Afraid? She didn’t seem the type. Something about Tameeka screamed courageous. But, maybe that was her mother’s influence.
“I admire your mother,” I said. A woman daring enough to bring her vision to fruition right in the heart of the Stuy. She was definitely on to something.
“Yeah, she is something special.”
“So, what happened with that?” I asked, feeling morbid as soon as I had. Like some deviant wanting the sordid details of a date rape.
Tameeka Howard made a weak attempt at smiling. It seemed she was constantly making efforts to smile, to appear happy.
“Well, to make a long story short, and not so tragic, my mother’s the proud owner of the flyest laundromat in Bed-Stuy. It’s wired for cable, new machines, several TVs mounted around the place, and it even has a little café in the back with an Espresso machine. And of course soap powder and bleach.
“And, best of all, she has 4-units upstairs. That’s my second job: superintendent.”
“You’re a super?”
“It’s not that hard,” she said casually. “Keep the building clean, collect the rent, field complaints, contract out the major stuff, take care of the light stuff myself. I’m pretty handy with a wrench. My sister used to run the Laundromat but…well my mother runs it now. She just retired from the Phone Company. Took a sweet buy-out. They were downsizing anyway.”
The short version of the story was glorious but Tameeka didn’t look thrilled.
“That’s great, don’t you think?”
“Yeah, it’s okay. But, I feel like I took the air out of her lofty ideas. I took my father’s place. Don’t you see? ”
No, I didn’t see. I saw a glass half-full. I saw something being done, which is a lot better than the nothing I was accustomed to seeing.
“It’s not too late, ya know,” I said. “I bet that Laundromat is making some serious coin. She could always give it another go when the time is right. Or, better yet…You could pick up the ball and run with it. You sound like a pretty savvy sister. I don’t see why not.”
Tameeka lit up, her spirits rising before my eyes. And, her eyes…they twinkled. I could see my reflection in them.
“It’s just a thought,” I added, humbly. “I’m sure you’ve had it a hundred times.”
“See, I knew you were a nice guy,” she said as the waitress arrived with our order.
We didn’t talk while we ate but I felt like there was a subtle communication going on that I seldom experienced. We were like two hungry people who’d known each other for years, silently enjoying each other’s company. Making eyes at one another, acknowledging that easy feeling. She wasn’t shy about putting it away, either. I liked that: A woman who wasn’t ashamed of her appetite.
When Stephanie and I were together, we seldom had easy moments like this. There was generally some tension. Some past wrong or some quirk of hers that vexed me senseless. Like the way she nibbled on shit. Like a little rat. Her fragile 5’8 frame never weighed more than 110lbs yet she swore she was getting fat all the time. So, she’d only sample dishes, never finish them. Even when I’d cook for her she’d leave the dishes I labored over only partially eaten. Yeah, we’d eaten in silence, too. But, it was mostly because I didn’t have anything nice to say so I’d opted to say nothing.
Was it always like that? It couldn’t have been.
“How was it?” Tameeka asked, breaking the silence, looking curious. “You look like it’s not setting well.”
“The food was fine,” I said.
“Something you want to talk about?”
“Nah. Just a little Dejavoodoo.”
I finished off my third cup of coffee, and called the waitress for the check.
Tameeka snatched it and said, “My treat.”
Back in Tameeka’s car, things were as quiet as over the meal. She didn’t start the engine or turn on the music. She just sat there staring at me, again, sizing me up with an audacious, calculating gaze. I shifted in my seat beneath it.
“You got some issues, don’t you?” she asked.
“Doesn’t everybody?” I said. I didn’t appreciate her tone at all.
“Pressing issues,” she amended.
“You mean besides being bitter and hopelessly desperate,” I said sarcastically.
“You forgot pompous,” she said with a sly smile. “Earlier, you were wondering why I picked you up, so to speak…You still want to know?”
I did, as a matter of fact, nodding my head, trying to break eye contact and becoming disappointed when I found I could not. I was interested and there was no denying it.
“Because you looked so lonely in there. Even with your friends. You had this expression on your face the whole time. I couldn’t tell if someone broke your heart or up and died on you. Even when you smiled I could see that you were in pain. I feel that way myself most of the time. They say, it takes one to know one.”
They say misery loves company, too.
She’d felt sorry for me. That’s just great! Pity Pussy, inadvertently, had become my forte. Girls would think I was on the brink of self-destruction and offer their hearts and bodies as an incentive to survive. It was the involuntary disclosure in my facial expressions, my body language, revealing conflicted feelings and thoughts; betraying my efforts to be mysterious, to appear impervious. Exposing me for the emotional basket case I’d swear on a stack of Korans I was not.
The poker face was my ambition. To be able to sit at the table of life scanning the hand I’d been dealt and revealing nothing but what I’d chosen to reveal. To be more like my boy, Kwame: Iceman. Mr. Spock. But there was no getting around it. I am what I am: A pantomime, run amuck.
“I hope I didn’t offend you,” Tameeka said. “I didn’t mean to.”
She spoke with that voice I’d heard so many times over the years. Almost everyone that knew me had used it at one time or another. Like I was so vulnerable, so fragile.
“Don’t worry, if you offend me you’ll be the first to know,” I lied.
“Good,” she said, starting the car and smiling sardonically. “Because I’m notorious for speaking my mind. I call ’em like I see ’em.”
“You don’t say,” I said. I suspected it was more likely that she was notorious for being brutally honest.
“Oh, yeah,” she sang. “Always!”
“That’s easy to respect. But, why are you notorious for it? You make it sound like people don’t appreciate that about you.”
Tameeka worked the stick shift with fluid motions, the car responding to her almost symbiotically. She was a horsewoman riding her favorite stallion. Stephanie used to drive like she was afraid that death lurked around every bend. One hand over her mouth like she were rubbernecking the most horrendous accident she’d ever seen, her long saber-sharp fingernails dangerously close to impaling her nostrils. The other hand gripping the steering wheel like a baby grips a finger. If she were ever to get into a crash, God forbid, I’m sure wherever they found the steering wheel her hand would still be attached to it.
“You’re being sarcastic, right?” Tameeka asked.
“I guess if I’m notorious for anything it would have to be sarcasm.”
“I can see that about you. I figure that’s what people say about me, too. But, ask me if I care.”
I didn’t feel the need to. Instead I asked her where the hell we were going. She was on Eastern Parkway again, heading back towards ‘The Scene’.
“Hell, I don’t know,” she said. “To tell you the truth, I’m enjoying your company and since I’m driving, you’re my captive audience.”
She turned my way and grinned. I had reservations about Tameeka, but nothing that wouldn’t have applied to any other woman. At least she was forthright and my sobering sensibility was beginning to appreciate it. Besides, turning me on to Renaissance and treating me to breakfast had garnered her some cool points. There was something different about her- something special. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it but it had an ardency I couldn’t deny.
“If you break out the handcuffs, I’m bailing out,” I said, grinning back at her.
She laughed, but hard.
She cut through Park Slope down Prospect Park West and before I knew it we were on the Belt Parkway racing towards Queens at an illegal clip. The Quiet Storm providing the soundtrack for what was taking on the semblance of a romantic interlude. The potential was there but I tried not to think about it. Afraid I might jinx it somehow. Afraid affectionate feelings might…
Just go with the flow, Kevin.
The channel between Brooklyn and Staten Island, known as the Verrazano Narrows, was outside my window. A barge hauling garbage was cruising lazily upon it. Early morning joggers ran on the running path alongside it. Men with fishing poles stood along the railing waiting for a bite of what had to be some radioactive fish. And on the other side of the narrows, Staten Island loomed like Alcatraz in the Frisco bay. Spanning before us was the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, connecting the two boroughs. It was my favorite bridge in New York. Tameeka had taken me by it without my suggestion. That had to mean something, didn’t it?
Back when Kwame and I were teenagers, we’d take the “R” train to the last stop and walk the six blocks from the station through the lily-white quiet streets of Fort Hamilton. Pass Fort Hamilton Army Base, through the park beneath the Verrazano, across that little bridge over the Belt Parkway, to a bench along the promenade where an awesome view of the bridge awaited us. It was a risky thing for two black kids from black Brooklyn to do. But, we had a driving desire to see something other than the everyday foolishness. The suspicious eyes of white Brooklyn followed us the whole time- cops and residents, alike. Regardless, we made the pilgrimage several times every summer, and always on sweltering nights when the cool breeze off the Narrows offered a tangible relief. We’d sit talking and laughing, smoking and drinking, for hours with the Verrazano at her fullest glory as a backdrop. Those are the days I longed for. Back when Kwame and I were inseparable.
Then, I remembered something else…
“Tameeka, slow down. Pull over to the right. There’s a turnoff coming up over there,” I said, pointing to what looked like an extension of the road’s shoulder. Tameeka responded quickly without traffic to contend with, and pulled into the parking area nearly filled to capacity with automobiles- A popular lover’s lane. She cruised into a spot between a Caravan and a Corvette, instinctively killing the headlights as she did.
To our left, the van was bouncing, its windows all steamed up. She noticed at the same time I did and we shared a laugh. We turned to the right to observe the Corvette. Through its foggy glass you could faintly see the outline of a head bobbing up and down. I had a hard time pulling my eyes away from that spectacle. Tameeka was laughing over my shoulder.
I looked forward, and there she was: The Verrazano Narrows bridge. Man, was she a sight. About a two-mile stretch of concrete and steel lit up majestically. I turned to Tameeka. She was digging the view, too. She turned towards me, her eyes aglow.
There was something very familiar about this moment.
“So, Mr. Jackson, what have you got on your mind?” She asked with that freaky smile that she’d flashed earlier- like she could eat me alive.
Stephanie was on my mind so I said nothing. This was our favorite spot. We’d made love there at least a dozen times. I sat there looking at Tameeka feeling guilty for asking her to pull over.
“Dejavoodoo, again?” Tameeka asked. I felt like I was living up to everything she’d come to expect of me. It wasn’t the best feeling, either.
“I need some new memories,” I said.
“Let’s make some,” she suggested with a wink, taking off her seat belt and jacket and leaning her chair all the way back.
The song Somewhere there’s a love just for me by Shalamar, back when Howard Hewitt and Jodie Watley were still down with the group, came on. Tameeka squealed with delight. Her eyes were glossy and her hips slowly gyrated to the rhythm. She began to sing the song, beautifully. She knew all the lyrics:
Though I’ve been hurt before
It doesn’t mean I’m never trying anymore
To find that one man…I’ve been searching for
And, he’ll be just right for me
In love we’re gonna be…forever
Somewhere there’s a love just for me…
“You’re dating yourself,” I said, considering how old the song was.
“Fuck you,” she chuckled.
She couldn’t be over thirty unless she’d found the fountain of youth and was holding out. She was in very good shape for whatever age. Her spandex revealed definition beneath, thick, shapely thighs, probably from some serious Billy’s Boot Camping, or maybe plumbing and dry-walling. Her stomach was flat and her breasts were standing tall in her reclined position. They weren’t big. A little more than a handful, maybe, or a mouthful. They weren’t nubile but gravity hadn’t claimed them, yet. She had a nice, firm ass, too. The kind that…
“Do you believe in love, Kevin?”
The question took me by surprise, forced me to dredge my mind out of the gutter.
I’d pondered that very question for years. Stephanie and I had been lovers, sure. And, I guess our relationship had some love-like aspects to it. But, sometimes I seriously doubt if I ever really loved her. She was more like an obsession- an enduring one.
“Believing in love is like believing in God,” I said before I knew what I wanted to say. Tameeka raised an eyebrow at that.
“Don’t you believe in God?”
“Yeah, but in an agnostic way. Ya know…”
“So, you believe in love. You just don’t think there’s any way to prove it exists. Is that what you’re saying?”
Tameeka was looking at the ceiling of her car, lost in thought. She was smart, though, knowing what agnostic meant and all. I used words to test people, especially women, all the time. I hate stupid woman, was a line from another film I love: You marry a stupid girl you have stupid kids. You don’t believe me…follow a stupid kid home and see if somebody stupid don’t answer the door!
“I guess what I’m trying to say is that believing in love requires the same kind of faith that believing in God, or the existence of God, does. That kind of faith, I don’t think I possess.”
“You don’t sound very sure of yourself.”
“That’s because I’m trying to keep an open mind. If you had asked me a few years ago if I believed in God or Love, I would have said, sure, I believe in God cuz I believe in me. That the true and living God is the Son of Man, the Supreme Being Black Man from Asia. All wise and civilized. And that love is the highest elevation of understanding, not this ‘When Harry met Sally’ bullshit this culture has sold us.”
“You were a God!?” Tameeka’s face was aghast. “I find that hard to believe.”
I figured she must’ve had some dealings with the Five Percent Nation of Islam at one time. It would have been hard to grow up, black, in New York City and not have been exposed to them.
“Why do you say that?” I asked though I knew good and damn well the perception people had of the Gods. Either they saw them as a street gang, a black hate group or misguided intellectuals. But, I was curious to hear Tameeka’s take. I generally wouldn’t share that part of my past with women. Most of the time, they found the Five Percent’s views on gender rather offensive and subjugating. I don’t blame them.
“I don’t know,” she said. “You just don’t come off to me like a God. You seem more like a…I don’t know…a Geek, I suppose.”
“Be that as it may, I was known as Master Shaquan Powerful Universal Allah,” I said, feeling an odd mix of pride and shame in saying it, like I was bragging about having done time in prison. “I knew my lessons forwards and back, dropping science on mad Gods. I had two students and an Earth.”
My ‘Earth’, Queen Asia, used to give me blow jobs on the staircase at Granville T. Anything for her Shaquan. But, she knew her lessons, and dressed in refinements every day. I hadn’t thought about Asia in years.
“Dropping science?” Tameeka laughed.
“Word is bond!”
Tameeka’s laughter began to sputter like she was running out of humor.
“My sister was Muslim for a few years,” She said. “Used to go with this wanna-be Louis Farrakhan character named Musa something. He changed her name to Mecca and had her wearing long skirts and her hair was always wrapped up. But, I gotta admit: those were some of her finest moments. She was so peaceful, then. And, refined…Man! She had this glow about her. You’d hardly know she was the same person. Always reading, or cooking. Homegirl was even making clothes.”
Then her smile faded away, completely.
“That’s my sister, though. She takes everything to the extreme.”
“Mansa Musa was the ruler of Mali,” I said. I didn’t know what else to say. Tameeka looked so sad I knew something bad had gone down with her sister. Perhaps she wasn’t patronizing me earlier when she’d said ‘It takes one to know one’.
“Let’s go to the beach and catch the sunrise,” she said out of the blue, sitting up, the back of her seat rising slowly behind her.
I was relieved. I couldn’t get comfortable at all there. My favorite spot had been tainted by the times I’d spent there with Stephanie. It was like she was there, then, peering through the windows at me, watching me trying to move ahead with my life, wagging her finger like Dikembe Mutumbo after a shot block signifying, “nigga, pleeeezzze! Don’t even think about it!”
I’d read or heard somewhere that it took half the time you were with someone to get over them- A neat little formula. I was with Stephanie for five years. It has been two years since we broke up; the first six months of which we spent living in denial trying desperately to salvage at least a friendship if not a sexual outlet, with catastrophic results. Fools. We weren’t ever really friends. We’d gone straight from strangers to lovers to adversaries with dark sweet memories of being lovers. At least that’s how I’d seen it. I wasn’t even sure what her take was. Maybe she had closed the book on us. Found some way to forgive & forget and was carrying on with her life. She had that kind of strength, didn’t she?
I looked to the sky as it began to change colors, contemplating another year of Stephanie haunting me, throwing a monkey wrench in anything I tried to do. I shook my head, but in my heart I knew I’d resigned to allow it. It was my comeuppance.
“Catch the sunrise, huh,” I said, peeking over at Tameeka. She paid me no mind. She pulled out of lover’s lane and tore off down the highway.
The sun was on the way. Black sky gave way to dark blue. Tameeka appeared to be racing it. Her speed had increased and there was aggression in her movements. That fluidity I had gotten accustomed to was gone. The car lurched violently with every shift of the gear.
“You all right, Boo?”
“Don’t call me that!” she snapped.
“Tameeka…are you okay?”
Outside the window, the cars she overtook appeared to be standing still like they were parked on the highway. I fastened my seat belt.
“I just don’t like people calling me out of my name. I don’t like Meeka or Meek or Ma or Baby, and especially not Boo! That’s the worst.”
“I called you ‘Ma’ at the club. You didn’t seem to object.”
“I was at work, in work mode. Gotta tolerate a lot of crap there,” she said through gritted teeth, swerving between lanes. “You wouldn’t believe the shit I gotta put up with in there.”
“With that stink-ass attitude of yours, I’d believe it. Your job is to serve and, ideally, serve with a smile. Not to give customers your shit.”
She shot me a funky look. Chill Kevin…Bad time to antagonize her.
“You hate your job,” I said with a calmer tone. “Believe me, I can identify. So, fuck it! Quit. Find something you love doing and do it til ya satisfied.”
The car began to slow and I just knew she was about to put me out on the highway. Again with the two-cents, offering advice I didn’t follow myself. But, I wasn’t sweating it. I knew exactly where we were. The subway at Coney Island wasn’t but a mile or so away. I could grab the Sunday times, and take that long ass ride on the “D” train. No biggie. I was almost hoping she would. I didn’t need anybody’s crap. I had enough of my own.
But, she didn’t pull over. She took the Coney Island exit ramp, and stopped at the light.
Taking the car out of gear, she said, “I’m sorry, Kevin. I’m just going through some changes. I didn’t mean to take it out on you.”
She stared at me with flooded tear ducts. If she starts crying…
The light changed and a few car horns blared from our ear. Tameeka ignored them, having her moment.
Then, she slowly made the turn onto Stillwell Avenue. Before us the sun was beginning to rise, peaking from beneath the sea. The clouds had turned a fiery mixture of crimson, gold, and mustard yellow.
“Good call, Tameeka,” I said. There’s nothing like the sea and the sun to put things in perspective.
After a moment she said, “I had a feeling.”
Tameeka turned on to a street that led to a dead end. The dead end was the Boardwalk. And, beyond it lay the beach and the Atlantic Ocean. She stopped the car, cut the engine, and started to get out. End of the line. I followed. It didn’t feel as cold as I thought it would as close as we were to the shore. There wasn’t much of a breeze, a gust every few moments, but nothing major. Without a word, Tameeka headed towards the ramp onto the boardwalk. I followed. I’m not much for following, fancy myself as some kind of leader. But, it dawned on me then that she’d been leading me around the whole time.
She had a graceful way of walking like an old Hollywood actress- a classy one. Maybe it was the fox that gave her that facade. She smoked like an ex-convict, though- like Trevor, all the way down to the butt. She sat down on a bench facing the shore. I sat beside her. The sunrise came and went, and all that was left was another day, cloudy and cold. Tameeka didn’t seem to notice. I slipped my arm around her just to see how it felt. She leaned her head on my shoulder. It was a nice fit. We sat there silently and watched the sky roll out a golden carpet for His solar majesty.
“My sister hates me,” she blurted after a while.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said, and felt insincere as soon as I had, that queer feeling that I was lying when I was not. The truth was I could identify. I hated my brother. It wasn’t some overblown sibling rivalry, either. Trevor was always doing hateful, certifiably crazy shit. He’d hurt Ma and me too many times with his foolishness. He had crossed that thin line between love and hate.
“It was an accident,” she said, sitting up straight. “Mecca, I mean Karen, would constantly nag me about my smoking. Especially while I’m driving. She’d quit when dad was diagnosed with lung cancer.” She raised her head from my shoulder and winced at the memory. “But, these are my lungs, and it was my car. I could do whatever I wanted with my lungs…in my car, right?”
“Right.” I was that way when I used to have a ride. I’d be damned if anyone was going to tell me what I could and couldn’t do in my car. And, I was intolerant of complainers who could easily get their asses on the train if they had a problem with my driving or my habits. ‘Mind if I smoke,’ I’d say, rather than ask, once my stogie was lit. ‘Crack a window if the smoke’s bothering you.’ Courtesy was what I dictated it to be in my ride.
“Wrong,” Tameeka asserted. “I was smoking a cigarette and the tobacco must’ve been loose, or something. It fell in my lap while I was driving, and it started burning me. I jumped… I let go of the wheel… to brush it off of me, see…”
I could tell she was reliving it. That she had relived it many times. She was dramatizing the event as she narrated it. Holding an invisible steering wheel, jumping up a little, brushing wildly at her lap…I removed my arm from around her to give her room for her reenactment.
“My sister was in the car…She was screaming…The car…It jumped the curb….”
“Geez,” I said, watching the terror bulging in Tameeka’s eyes.
“We crashed into a lamppost,” she said, with a jolt.
“We both had our seat belts on. Otherwise we would have gone through the windshield for sure. I didn’t have airbags on that car.”
Tameeka turned to look at me, tears rolling down her cheeks. She looked as if she was about to plead for my forgiveness.
“She was pregnant at the time. About 20 weeks…”
Oh shit! This is a biggie.
I started feeling uncomfortable, again, shifting position on the cold metal bench. I diverted my attention to the sea. The waves made such a soothing, natural sound lapping at the shore. Loud, then soft, then loud, then soft again…
“She miscarried a few weeks later. The doctor couldn’t tell her why, exactly, but suggested it was…some kind of trauma.” She was bawling, now, hiding her face behind her hands.
“She blamed me. She said I killed her baby…Like I did it on purpose. How could she think…that? It was an accident…I…”
She looked at me with her eyeliner running and her pleading palms smudged. Like something straight out of Days of our lives. I looked away, afraid of what my expression might be revealing, of how it might make her feel.
“Anyway,” she said, sniffling, trying to regain her poise. “She doesn’t speak to me anymore. It’s been over a year, now. I hear she’s pregnant…again.” And, she burst into tears, again.
Oh, enough already. I told myself don’t do it! don’t do it!. But, I couldn’t stop. I looked at my watch. It was pushing 7:00, six hours or so till game time. Then, I noticed an old man who was out on the filthy sand, prowling with a metal detector, bending over occasionally to examine some piece of rubbish carefully. Then, I noticed the life guard towers.
Stephanie loved showing off her body in a bikini so we spent a lot of time at the beach. Man, was she sexy. A little anorexic looking. But, I loved petite women- the contrast with my 6’0, 200lb self. The way I could lift and manipulate her when we made love. Fucked. Like a little girl, my baby girl. She satisfied my teenaged sex fantasies with her ‘Sweet Polly Purebred’ voice and prudish predilection, which lasted until I was inside of her. Then it was ‘Oh, Kevin…Oh, Daddy…Oh, baby.’ Her dramatic ass.
We’d made love…fucked, on a lifeguard tower once. Not on this beach, but at Riis Beach out in The Rockaways, beneath the stars. I remember that night, faithfully. Mainly because it was the night I first told Stephanie that I loved her. She was straddling me, a blanket over her shoulders, grinding and thrusting, sweating, and shaking ecstatically. Moaning my name, over and over, grabbing her breast, squeezing her nipples. Her hair weave was bouncing up and down like a goddamn shampoo commercial. A weave with body and sheen. Her eyes were shut, trapped in the throes of passion, or was she fantasizing about being with some other guy? I couldn’t know for sure, but that night I’m pretty confident it was all about me. It was still fairly early in our relationship when there had been a reasonable facsimile of love in the air. Over her shoulder, I watched the stars and they watched us like little intergalactic voyeurs. Then, for the first time in my life, I saw a star shoot across the sky. I remembered that you should make a wish when you see one. But, before I could, I saw another, then another. Not in rapid succession, but close enough together to distract me. It must’ve been a meteor shower. I told Stephanie to take a look. She stopped bouncing, still grinding though, angry that her pending orgasm had been interrupted, and shrieked ‘What!’ I pointed to the sky. She whipped her head around like she was expecting to see a chopper full of guys with binoculars checking us out. Just then, on cue, another star/meteorite shot across the predawn sky. She turned back and gazed at me. She looked so lovely, so mystified. She closed her eyes. A peace overtook her as she made a wish, I presumed. When she opened them she smiled that lovely smile. A smile I’d made my purpose in life to inspire. “I love you, Stephanie,” I’d said at that moment. She bent down and kissed me, deeply. What a great kisser! I could lose myself kissing her. The blanket fell to the sand ten feet below and she screamed- naked as the day she was born.
I was surprised I could remember a pleasant time between us. That was as good as it got.
Tameeka had stood up and walked to the railing overlooking the beach. I hadn’t even noticed.
“I’m sorry I laid all my troubles on you,” she said, turning around and looking at me. She’d cleaned up her face. Must have used a mirror. She did a good job. She had clear skin. Juicy, thick lips. Her thin dreads wavered in the breeze that was picking up. Her eyes were still slightly red but the puffiness was gone. You could hardly tell she’d been crying.
“If that’s all of them, consider yourself a lucky woman.”
Did that sound condescending? Just shut up, Kevin. You’re better off being quiet.
But, I felt obligated to give her something- A little dose of my misery. Misery does love company.
“You know, this whole night, I’ve been thinking about my ex-girlfriend. I can’t seem to get her out of my mind. I hate her, and I hate myself for not getting away from that catastrophe sooner. I hate my brother for being an evil bastard his whole life. I can’t stand my mother cause she thinks I’m God’s gift to mothers, and I’m far from that. Who needs that shit? And, who wants to be around someone who loves you unconditionally when you hate yourself? Ya know?
“I hate black people cause they’re so fucking ignorant. Not all of them, obviously. But, too goddamn many. Shit can be going on right under their noses and they’ll never see it or they just don’t give a shit, one. It’s hard to tell which, sometimes.
“And, I hate white folks, too, cause they either think they know what it’s like to be black, or they’re scared to death of me, or hate me, or they’re offensively indifferent towards me. I mean, they enjoy privileges and worship heroes who raped, killed, enslaved, and oppressed the heroes I worship- the heroes that made their fucking privileges possible. And they got the nerve to be indifferent? That’s diabolical, isn’t it? I mean, they should be kowtowing at my goddamn feet, at the altars to my ancestors… And, I got to smile in the face of this ignorance every goddamn day. I mean, I try to let bygones be bygones, you know? Try to get over it already and let it go, like the messages I read in their begging fucking eyes. But it’s hard when you…ah, fuck it! What different does it make? I’m getting nauseous just thinking about it.”
Tameeka looked stunned, her mouth wide open. Then, she closed it and her smile returned.
“See. I knew you had issues.”
Tameeka drove casually on the way back. Ventilated, it was an effort to stay awake. I vaguely wondered what she thought of me, really, after my rant. But, what difference did it make? I wasn’t trying to get involved with another woman. Women are trouble. Women are distractions. And, I already had all the trouble and distraction I could ask for in Kim.
The inescapable truth was no other woman stood a chance with me. Not while Stephanie had my heart by the balls. If I wasn’t sure of that before hand, I was certain that night. All I needed to do was look at my last few attempts at romance, aborted at crucial moments when emotional crises would arise, as they inevitably do. Any reasonable woman wouldn’t subject herself to the type of relationship I offered: A relationship devoid of passion and promise, replete with casual amiability and evasions. It’s high point: an occasional display of my sexual prowess. How Kim put up with it was a mystery but I’d decided that night that I’d soon alleviate her of that burden. I’d be better off left to sort this out on my own, without her.
Tameeka was playing a mix CD of different hip-hop artists, a little louder than it needed to be, probably trying to keep me awake, keep things lively and going. Johnny Blaze was free styling with lyrics that flowed like liquid. Johnny Blaze was also the given name of my favorite comic book character as a child: Ghostrider. He rode a flaming motorcycle that left a hellfire trail in its wake. I used to fantasize of riding a motorcycle, a Ninja or a Harley, racing down Ocean Parkway in the middle of the night. I saw myself revving the engine, popping wheelies, with some cutie on the back, holding on to my waist for dear life…
The cutie is Stephanie. She is holding on tightly, yelling “Slow down, Kevin!”
“Shut up,” I say, going faster and faster. “You’re in the hands of the God, Master Shaquan.” Raekwan the Chef, booming from the bike’s sound system, provides the theme music.
Popping a wheelie, looking under the handlebars at the tarmac racing by below, about to take flight. Kwame, off to the right popping a wheelie of his own with some cutie on the back of his bike screaming “Faster, Kwame, faster”. He and I gaze at each other through our helmets’ tinted visors- A silent agreement to race to the shore.
“Hold on, baby,” I say.” Here we go!” Stephanie screams as I shift gears and the bike tries to leave us behind. The speedometer reads 100mph, and rising. Kwame is falling behind. I laugh like the mad hatter. Up ahead, nothing but green lights for as far as the eye can see.
Then, out of nowhere, an eighteen-wheeler is crossing the approaching intersection. No time to stop. We’re gonna crash. I feel my insides tense up, the adrenaline running amok, and my heart racing wildly. My body is screaming ‘I don’t want to die!’ So is Stephanie, directly into my ear. When I hear her voice I realize I’m taking her down with me and my panic is gone.
“We’re going through” I holler. Kwame is nowhere to be found. He’s reneged on our agreement. But, I can’t look back. Not now! I pop the clutch, kick it into high gear and gas it all the way. We’re flying now. The speedometer’s spinning crazily.
Bring it on, Baby.
The Ninja crashes right through the hull of the truck and out the other side, sparks and shrapnel flying everywhere. I land and hit the brakes, spinning and skidding into a stop. Facing the truck, now, I can see the outline of my bike and person in the truck’s hull. I look down at the perfect arc of flaming burned rubber in the road.
“YEAH BABY! Johnnie Blaze in full effect!”
I can feel Stephanie’s hands gripping my waist, her talons digging into my sides. I check to see if she’s okay only to find that the rest of her body is missing!
“Stephanie! Stephanie!” I holler, freaking out. Oh shit, what the hell have I done? “Stephanie!”
“Stephanie?” I opened my eyes- no Stephanie. Just…Tameeka, looking at me like I was deranged. I didn’t know what to say. This was a fairly common occurrence. The dream took its sweet time severing itself from reality. I looked around for the tractor-trailer with my silhouette in the hull. No truck.
We’d stopped. The surroundings were familiar. Bed-Stuy, no question, and not too far from my crib at that.
“Are you okay?” Tameeka asked. “You had me worried!”
I wouldn’t have described her countenance as worried; More at bewildered.
“I’m fine, Boo… I mean Tameeka.”
She smiled, so easy to please. She started driving, again. I wondered where she was headed. I hadn’t told her where I lived. Maybe, she was taking me to her place. I’d have to correct that notion in a minute. Home was where I wanted to be. Home alone.
“You were talking in your sleep,” she said with a sheepish grin. Probably a little embarrassed that she hadn’t awakened me, opting to entertain herself with my subconscious soliloquy. She wasn’t the first. Kim did it all the time and had the nerve to recite me.
“What was I saying?” I asked just to see if Tameeka was audacious enough to say. I couldn’t remember the dream any longer. Just Motorcycles, and a truck, and Stephanie. Looking for Stephanie. Screaming for Stephanie, perhaps.
“I don’t know,” she said. “But you sounded like you were having a good time. So, I didn’t want to wake you. Until you started yelling the name Stephanie.”
Tameeka looked away. She seemed like she was hiding a smile. Ms. I’m Notorious For Speaking My Mind.
“Is Stephanie the ex you were talking about? The one you hate?”
“I don’t hate her. I just…I don’t hate anybody.”
“You sure had a whole lotta hate at the beach.” Now, her smile had clawed its way to the surface- A sneer, really.
“It’s just a figure of speech,” I said, wishing I had gotten in a cab and gone straight home from the Scene.
“Well, you sure didn’t sound like you hated her, the way you were hollering. Sounded like you miss her, like y’all have some unfinished business. Why don’t you just give her a call? You know- dreams are sometimes just your mind’s way of telling you that you have issues needing resolution. Maybe you should…”
“Maybe you should mind your business,” I interjected, cutting her analysis short. “No offense, Tameeka, but I’ve heard enough dream interpretations to last me the rest of my life. So, spare me…”
“…Well, not from me,” she said, re-asserting herself, passionately. “I studied psychology in school, and, believe me, I’m an authority on bad dreams. So I know what I’m talking about. And I’m telling you- the key is closure! If you don’t get some you’re gonna be dejavoodooing the rest of your hopelessly desperate life!”
I was about to give her a piece of my mind. Desperate or not, this was my life. I didn’t need some traumatized waitress with a bad attitude and a psychology book advising me how to live it. But, Tameeka was feisty and pretty well equipped intelligence-wise. Even now, well into the next morning, after a night of waiting tables and rehashing heart-wrenching woe, she was ready to do battle. I really liked her. But, I wasn’t up to a fight.
Usually I’d relish such a scenario, a chance to pit my wit and intellect against any comers. But, along the way, I’d changed. Had become less inclined to fight, more inclined to internalize and brood- to evade and scapegoat. There’s an aspect to fighting where I’d be forced to engage myself; examine my own motivations and desires and draw from these the fuel necessary to drive on. Too often, of late, I’d find myself troubled by what I found in my heart. Or, perhaps, I wasn’t digging deep enough, afraid of what I might find if I dug wholeheartedly.
“You know what…” I said. “I need to stop at the store. I can walk from here.”
The fire in Tameeka’s eyes flickered.
“Did I offend you, again?” she asked, mock concern etched into her rather pretty face. “Poor baby…” she added with puckered lips, teasing me.
What had I done to provoke her? Maybe it was the glance at my Seiko at the beach, my concern with what time it was amid her sobbing. Maybe she didn’t like guys falling asleep on her while she was driving, dreaming and screaming of other women. Who would? Ah, fuck it. Who cares?
She pulled over into a parking space on Fulton Street by the entrance to the Billie Holiday theatre. Sunday morning. Black folk in their Sunday best, walking tall and proud. Christian soldiers…off to one of the many neighborhood houses of worship, to praise God and to give thanks.
“Thank you,” I said with a smile. “Thank you for breakfast and for the ride home.” I wrapped my scarf around my neck. “Overall, I enjoyed your company. I had a real good time!” I buttoned my leather jacket up to the collar, and donned my tam and gloves. Ready for the elements.
Tameeka was staring at me, perplexed.
“You know…black men are a trip,” she snapped, generalizing like she didn’t have a black man sitting right beside her. Kind of like how Cheryl and Melanie had earlier. “They say sisters are abandoning them, that we aren’t willing to stand by them. But, the truth is, how the hell can we be expected to stand by while they aren’t even behaving like men? I mean, I’m hard-pressed to even name a black man I’ve dated that didn’t have the maturity level of an infant.” She looked me deeply in the eyes and said, “I want to have a child, not sleep with one.”
Hard-pressed. I like that. Her insinuation was offensive but not entirely without merit. And, it may have even been warranted. Irregardless, I didn’t feel compelled to endure anymore of her harangue.
“Listen Tameeka,” I said. “I don’t know what I did to set you off but you’re talking out yo’ ass now and I ain’t trying to hear it. But I have a suggestion: Maybe if you stopped picking up desperate black men at nightclubs you might have less to bitch about.”
“If this ain’t the damndest thing,” she said beneath her breath.
“Mind what you say,” I said, nodding towards the church across the street on her side. When she turned the other way to look, I got out of the car. No more Mr. Nice Guy. “God might hear you,” I said and closed the door.
As I started making my way down Fulton Street I heard Tameeka yelling my name.
“What’s up, Boo?” I said, turning to watch her stalking alongside me in her car.
“You ain’t shit, Kevin!”
I stopped at that.
“Now, that’s original. If I’ve heard when God made you, he broke the mold once, I’ve heard it one time too many,” I said, smiling egregiously.
She seemed stumped for a moment. Then, she said, “Oh, never mind. It ain’t even worth it.” And she sped away.
On the walk home, I watched as Bed-Stuy came to life. The rattle of security gates being raised seemed to come from everywhere. Bodegas that had served customers through bulletproof windows all night were opening their doors. Five and Dime stores and street vendors were rolling their goods onto the sidewalks. Fulton Street. The Vena Cava of Bed-Stuy.
And, on Decatur Street where I live, beautiful brownstone homes stretched for as far as the eye could see. I was planning to buy a Brownstone one of these days before the prices skyrocketed. I thought, I’d better hurry though. The gentrification plague was headed this way. Yep, a nice two-family house- live in it alone, furnish it for one. I can’t imagine myself married anymore. Stephanie was my one shot, I conceded; A shot that missed. A Hail Mary, at best. And, children…forget about it! I’d probably spoil them so badly they’d be more screwed up then I am.
I needed some groceries so I stopped at the corner Bodega and grabbed some milk, Cap’n Crunch with crunch berries, coronas, tortillas and the News. Ponch never had the Times. Always crying that they’ve sold out.
“Maybe you should try ordering more than 10 copies.”
“Maybe you should get your ass up earlier,” Ponch responded.
“Maybe you should try turning on the fridge. Beer and milk are supposed to be cold, ya know.”
“Maybe you should pay my electric bill.”
Ponch and I went way back. He owned a store in my old neighborhood, too. Brooklyn is a small world. His real name was a mystery, though. All Latino Bodega operators I call Ponch. All the Arabs I call Ali or Muhammad. It had always been that way, and they never PC’d me.
As I climbed the front steps of the Brownstone dwelling where I rented out the top floor, still gleeful, I heard a familiar voice behind me. I almost dropped my 6 pack of Coronas:
It was Stephanie’s voice.
Coming Soon- Chap 3: Is They?
(What do you think so far? Leave comments!)