“Shawni, please tell me you’re not wearing that plain ass black dress. The Grove is gonna be crawling with snacks, and you’re looking like an actual trash bag.”
A woman with lesser confidence would've found Kendra’s insults offensive. But she’d been my best friend since kindergarten, and I’d learned not to take her seriously. Plus, these full hips and plump b-cups would easily bring glory to any attire: even a got damn trash bag.
“Kendra, shut up.” The other third of our dynamic trio, Tristan, butted in from her rightful spot in my bedroom mirror, easily offsetting my little black dress with her not-so-little white one. “The girl looks slamming in anything she wears. Besides, she's somebody's fiancé. She ain't shopping.”
“First of all, I'm nobody's fiancé.” I held out my ring-less left hand. “And second, I'm the baddest trash bag you've ever seen, lady in red.” I rolled my eyes at Kendra and stepped back into the restroom to finish applying my lip gloss.
I'd pulled my curls up into a messy bun and popped on some silver hooped earrings to finish off the face after a lite beat. A pair of black, leather pumps awaited my feet under the sink, marrying perfectly with the black bodycon dress that my best friend thought was boring.
We were celebrating Kendra’s thirty-first birthday which was one day before mine and one day after Tristan’s. For as long as I can remember, we'd agreed to celebrate all three in the middle. But the older we got, the more Tristan and I realized that we’d been tricked into celebrating Kendra’s birthday all these years. It didn't bother us though, since Kendra was the neediest of the three of us. If drowning her with drinks and attention on her birthday made her happy, we’d do it with no hesitation; even though it usually meant spending my birthday nursing she and Tristan’s hangovers.
On the bright side, Kendra always came through with the nicest gifts. Last year it was a diamond bracelet. This year, I got diamond earrings to match. Of course, I'd probably never wear either of them, unless somebody got married or threw a sophisticated brunch. But they'd look nice in the lavender jewelry box Mama gave me on my sweet sixteen. She'd given Tristan and Kendra one too, in pink and yellow.
“Well, don't blame me when y'all are holding up the wall in those traditional ass dresses.” Kendra fussed, wiggling herself into a crimson red, high-waisted skirt that left little to the imagination. “I'm putting these puppies on display tonight.” She adjusted her strapless bra and sent her boobs almost spilling out of her matching red halter.
“You should. They're worth a few mortgages.” Tristan teased, securing the studs on the back of the huge golden hoop earrings that Kendra bought for her birthday.
“Fuck you, Tris!” Kendra smirked over her shoulder, standing in front of the full-length mirror near my bedroom window. “Some people pay off student loans. Some people get bigger titties.” She shrugged, returning her attention to her voluptuous reflection, primping, posing, and duck-lipping into her front facing phone screen before she uploaded five pics to her super stalked Instagram page.
Kendra was a bit of a socialite, and it was her popularity that had landed us a spot in the V.I P. section at The Grove Nightclub that night. It was Super Bowl weekend and our city was hosting; which meant that anybody who was anybody was there and throwing parties.
Right up Kendra’s boujee alley.
Personally, I would much rather have stayed home in bed, wondering where my on-again off-again boyfriend, Ted, was, while surfing Netflix for something to binge on. On the surface, we were the perfect couple because I kept folks out of my business. But behind closed doors, we were a shitty mess. Barely even spoke if I didn't place the call or text. Neither of us could decide why we were still holding on. Guess familiarity was better than being alone.
“Alright, you bitches ready?” Kendra finished up her photoshoot and joined me and Tristan at the foot of the bed. Her six-inch crimson pumps taking her from midget to super model.
“I thought we were leaving that term of endearment in 2017.” Tristan stepped back up to my wall mirror and puckered her lips to smooth out her lipstick.
“2016, actually.” I corrected. “We fell off the wagon midway through the year when the replacement term failed.” I squinted in the mirror over Tristan’s spaghetti strapped shoulder.
“You know what? You right.” Tristan stood straight and propped a hand on her perfectly curved hip. “What was the replacement word again?” She asked.
“Girl, I can't remember.” I blew out a breath, mentally contemplating faking a sudden illness, kicking off my shoes and climbing in my bed.
“It was butter pecan.” Kendra informed. “Tris was pregnant with Lola and grew the whole baby on butter pecan ice cream.”
“Only Blue Bell!” Tristan and I said in unison, before the three of us busted out laughing.
“Yeah. That shit was a terrible idea.” I chuckled.
“For six whole months.” Kendra smirked. “And that's why it didn't work, bitch.” She rolled her eyes wearing a smile on her pretty, caramel face while Tristan licked her tongue out in defeat.
“Man, my stomach feels funny.” I lied, rubbing my belly, giving my one and only attempt at backing out of this evening of socializing.
“Butter pecan, please! Grab your purse. We’re leaving.” Tristan blurted before I could kick off my shoes.
“It's still a no on the butter pecan, Tris.” Kendra chuckled. “But, bitch it's too late to play that hand.” She landed those slanted eyes on me. “Bring your fitted trash bag wearing ass on here.”
Needless to say, my escape efforts were in vain. We were gathered and out the door before the clock struck ten.
Crowded, flashy and fucking loud was the best description for this venue. It took a full thirty minutes for us to cross the velvet rope, thanks to Kendra being pulled into photo ops on the Black Carpet.
And she loved it; every minute of it.
My girl lived for the lime light and would rather lose a limb than pass on the opportunity to be the center of attention. It's a good thing I came to love her before her life took on such a drastic change. As far as life goals went, Kendra’s and mine weren’t even in the same library, let alone on the same page. With me standing as the first ever African American Branch Manager at Harris Bueller’s Federal Credit Union, and Kendra claiming her spot in the social media industry, sharing beauty blogs and recently touring the US as a spokesperson for Chocolate Time Beauty Essentials, we were both climbing upward, just on different ladders. Tristan was the more traditional of the three of us, gaining her Master’s in Journalism before deciding to settle down and become a stay at home mother while her fiancé, Clayton, brought home the bread. Chasing Lola wasn’t the only thing she had going on though. There was no way Tristan was gonna sit on her promise of becoming a published author. And I’d appointed myself as her accountability coach, sending daily texts and call reminders, pushing her to get her first book published before the clock struck twelve on our thirty-fifth birthdays.
“Alright, y’all ready?” Kendra rushed over to the corner where me and Tristan were standing beside a perfectly manicured wall of greenery with The Grove mounted to it in metallic silver lettering. Tristan couldn’t be photographed because she'd told Clayton she wasn't going out, trying to make him feel guilty for choosing to work overtime instead of staying at home with their eighteen-month-old daughter. I'd already voiced my opinion on how childish she was for being upset at the man for being responsible. But Tris was stubborn as hell, notorious for giving advice that she couldn't take. She’d ignored my bickering and dropped Lola off at her mother's right before she rushed over to my place to get ready for the night.
“It took you long enough.” Tristan griped. “I'm starving. You know I didn't eat shit tryna squeeze into this dress. And Clay kept blowing me up like he didn't believe I was at home.”
“And rightfully so.” I rolled my eyes as the bouncer pulled the velvet rope open, and another pushed open the tall metal doors to let us into the club. “You should be ashamed of yourself!” I yelled in her ear. The music was so loud, I felt it vibrating under my feet.
“Do I look ashamed?” She curved her lips, moon shaped eyes shooting at me without a care.
“Trifling.” Kendra chimed in, extending her wrist to be stamped by the cashier. Tristan and I followed suit.
“Judge not lest ye be judged, Tittie Two Chains and Trash Bag Badu.” Tristan gave me and Kendra a once over then laughed to herself.
“It's all fun and games til somebody spits Cherry Amaretto Bliss on your milky ass dress.” Kendra jabbed Tristan. And thank God I wasn’t drinking anything, cuz it woulda came flying outta my mouth.
“How long ago did that happen, Kendra? Seriously, you're childish.” Tristan’s voice went up as we eased into our decked-out VIP seating, fully bedazzled with a bouquet of red, black, and white balloons, a bucket of iced champagne and three tiaras that I had no intentions of asking about.
“Not long enough.” Kendra chuckled, taking her seat. “I can be in a shitty mood, think about that night, and laugh my way through a crisis. Thanks for that, Tris. You’re like a counselor nshit.”
While I swallowed the urge to laugh, Tristan stared a hole through the side of Kendra’s head while she was distracted by the waitress handing her two bottles of Cristal.
The night that Kendra spoke of was our twenty first birthday. We we’re seniors in college and had pooled together what was left of our paychecks and threw ourselves a house party at the apartment we shared. Tristan was in hot pursuit of her now fiancé, Clay, at the time, and heard through a mutual friend that his favorite mixed drink was Cherry Amaretto Bliss. Tristan was never one to half-ass on anything, and if she wanted something, nothing but the hand of God damning it to hell would stop her from getting it. With our blessings, she took twenty dollars from our party budget—funds that had been allocated to table snacks and a couple of board games—and spent it on ingredients for Clay’s favorite drink. Long story short, Clay showed up and made Tristan’s night, smiling like a Cheshire cat from the minute he walked his thick self through the door. About an hour into his visit, Tristan brought out his drink, wearing the prettiest white romper her mother’s hands had ever stitched. Whatever sour ingredient went into the drink, Tristan must’ve went a little heavy on it, because soon after Clay sipped if from the red Solo cup, he spit it out, spraying the whole front of Tristan’s romper with Cherry Amaretto Bliss.
“It was a punk ass drink, anyway, Tris.” I trailed off in laughter, trying to defend my friend. “Clay’s ass was too big to be drinking anything that sweet. You were helping him.”
“And he spat on me.” Her fluffy face balled up into a frown.
“Yes, he did.” I wrapped my arms around her shoulders, pulling her into a side hug. “But look at y’all now. Done messed around and made me an adorable God daughter. And you’re sneaking off to clubs to hang out with your girls. Perfect fucking relationship!” I teased. She pulled from my embrace and pinched my arm.
“Ow!” I yelled, rubbing my arm while she laughed at me.
“Aye, could you two take your hands off each other long enough to figure out where these bottles came from?” Kendra fussed, holding a black slip of paper with silver writing on it. “It's Cristal and I didn't order it. The waitress left this slip, and it makes absolutely no sense.”
“Lemme see.” I reached for the slip, but Tristan intercepted. “2004? What the hell is that?”
“The year we graduated high school. Somebody tryna be funny?” Kendra held one of the bottles up and scanned her eyes across the crowd.
All I could do was laugh, knowing full well where the bottles had come from. Damn Justin Dewayne Collins Jr. It had been too long since I'd seen him, and still not long enough.
“You ain't been in this house a full hour and you're already hitting the streets. But that's alright. One day, I'm gonna be gone from here. Maybe you'll miss me then.”
Ma was always with the theatrics. Granted, I lived in a different state and didn't make it down to visit nearly as much as I wanted; she still didn't have to hit me so hard with the guilt trip.
“Rene, you’re fifty-two, healthier than me and it's only one night. Then you got me to yourself for a solid week.” I put my hands out, palms up. “I can't have one night with the boys before you drag me around town, showing your lil perverted friends how grown up I am?” I joked.
The lady bragged on me like I was an only child. Which made sense seeing as my older brother had nothing to show for his thirty-three years of life but a five-year-old son that I was financially supporting due to his twenty year prison stay for drug trafficking.
“Whatever.” She dismissed me with her hand, smoke swirling from her blunt like it had all my life. “Just make sure you don't bring nobody home. If I ain't getting laid, ain’t nobody getting laid in this bitch.”
“Come on, man.” I rubbed my head with disgust. “Don’t nobody wanna hear all that.” I stepped into the kitchen and grabbed a bottled water from the refrigerator that I’d bought her for Christmas. She’d been dropping hints all year and after pissing her off by taking her shopping at Goodwill on Christmas Eve, I brought her home to not only the brand new frig she asked for, but stainless-steel stove to match.
The celebration over those new appliances lasted all of two weeks before she was calling and texting, dropping hints about a car she had her eye on but couldn't afford. As long as I had breath in me and could afford to do so, I’d buy my Mama anything her heart desired because she’d busted her ass raising me and my brother by herself and never once complained. And she was taking full advantage too. I was starting to think she liked the fact that I preferred to stay single. Because God forbid a woman stepped in and their hands collided in my pocket.
“Well it's the truth.” She continued without my approval. “Mama’s in a drought. Think I might be losing my finesse.”
“Ma, seriously?” I twisted the cap back on the water and leaned against the counter.
“What? It happens. I'm fine tho. Long as I got my trees, I’m good.” She took a drag from her blunt then blew smoke up in the air.
My Mama was a G for sure.
“I guess, man. I’m bout to get outta here.” Leaned in and kissed her on the cheek. Woman didn't look a day over thirty. The only reason nobody was checking for her is cuz she was so damn mean; had been since my Pops cut out and started a whole other family on the other side of town. Shit like that can kill a person’s spirit, and I vowed to never be that kinda nigga, ever in life. Staying single made that promise a whole lot easier to keep. Might've been missing out on some shit, but it couldn’t hurt if I never knew.
I left Mama with her bud and Frankie Beverly, then headed out to my truck to get the night started.
I could tell from the crowded parking lot that this was gonna be a wild night. It was the Saturday before Super Bowl Sunday and anybody with a stack and a half was out and ready to be seen. I hadn't been able to visit home often, thanks to the production gig I’d landed with a popular R&B artist I went to high school with, J. Shaw. I'd snuck in a little Christmas break for Mama and didn't get to visit too many other folks while I was down for that weekend. And the only reason I was down for the Super Bowl was because J. Shaw, also known as Jordyn, was performing in the halftime show.
Most of my work was done in the studio I’d opened up in Atlanta where Jordyn lived with her husband, Russell. She'd put me in charge of producing over half the tracks on her upcoming album thanks to the little buzz I’d picked up making beats and doing and doing a little ghostwriting for a local Atlanta rapper by the name of Kush. Needless to say, sleep and leisure had become a foreign language. And that's not a complaint, by the way. I'd been actively pursuing this dream of becoming a sought-after music producer since I first laid eyes on a switch board my freshmen year in college. And things were finally coming together. But I missed my Texas family bad. Especially my boys, Milk and Eddie. And another person who’d probably wished me dead.
We usually pulled up to The Grove in the same slab, but tonight, I was meeting them there due to some kinks in my schedule. Thank God valet was an option for your boy. They knew that my presence would bring em out without a doubt. I was outta my truck and past the velvet rope in minutes, anonymous as fuck with my signature black hoodie pulled over my locs. I’d shed it once I got in, but the paparazzi would blind me before I got inside if they knew who I was.
A steady, gutter, fire ass beat thumped through the speakers as soon as I walked through the tall, stainless steel doors. I hadn’t seen The Grove this packed since it opened about three years prior, and I couldn't wait to relive that night with the two fools I’d called my brothers since we were in third grade. Milk, government name Brian, was the first voice I heard yelling my name from the corner booth I’d reserved for us. And Eddie, government name Edward, wasn’t more than a millisecond behind him.
“Deuce with the juice in this bitch!!!” Eddie rushed up on me with dap and a tight hug before I could even make it to the booth.
“Nigga, you vegan? I could wrap my arms around you twice nshit.”
“And that just topped the list of the gayest shit ever said. Congrats.” Milk teased, elbowing Eddie outta the way to put in his dap and hug.
“Congrats?” Eddie smirked at Milk. “Ain't nothin more feminine than a grown ass man cuttin words in half.” He stood there, jotting his eyes from me to milk seeking approval.
We both busted out laughing. Here wasn't getting it.
“Fuck y'all.” Eddie huffed. “Aint been with you niggas collectively for five minutes yet, and you already ganging up on the dark skinned bother. That's cool tho.” Eddie popped the collar on a shirt he'd, without a doubt, picked up from the cleaners that morning. “We back in style now. Y'all gone be catching my overflow tonight. You can bet that.”
“Nigga, ain't nobody tryna get at yo murky water colored ass.” Milk jabbed my boy, sitting at a single shade darker than Snow White himself. “It's Milk season. It's always Milk season out here.”
“Wait, is that Bella?” I winked at Eddie, signaling the joke I was playing on Milk. Milk had been dating his high school crush, Bella, for the past seventeen years. And even though they were on a little break, he knew she would pop up anywhere and fight his ass like a man.
“What? Where? You serious, my nigga?” Milk's eyes damn near doubled in size, turning in a complete circle, looking for Bella’s crazy ass.
Of course. he didn't find her, and blew out the biggest breath when he turned back around to find me and Eddie doubled over laughing.
“Nigga, you shoulda seen your eyes!” Eddie slapped his thigh laughing.
“Nigga looked like he saw Mr. Woodie in the window again!” I couldn't see myself, but I'm certain my face was red from laughing so hard.
The Mr. Woodie reference came from a childhood ghost story that we could never prove to be true, but had seen with our own eyes. An old man named Mr. Woodie used to live alone in this old two-story house across the street from our intermediate school. He never came outside, but he used to sit in the window and watch us play at recess. Never waved or nothing; just sat in the window and stared for thirty minutes, then left when recess was over.
During our last year in intermediate, Mr. Woodie passed away. And we only know that because we hadn't seen him in the window for three days straight, and when we told our P.E. coach, he called the police to go check on him. The following day, Coach Terrebonne gave us the news, and it crushed us for reasons we couldn't understand. We didn't even know the man. Had never heard him speak and didn't even know his real name. We just called him Mr. Woodie because his house was made of wood, and that was the literal stent of our relationship with this now dead stranger.
In any event, me, Milk and Eddie had a hard time letting go of Mr. Woodie, so one day after school, we decided to stop by and make sure he was in fact dead, by chunking rocks at the window he used to sit in. It was stupid, we’ll admit that now. But it's only one on the list of the many stupid things we did when we were together.
Eddie was always the bravest, or dumbest depending on how you look at it. So, of course, he volunteered to throw the first rock. It only hit the side of the house since my boy had terrible aim.
Up next was yours truly, as usual. Not one to be outdone, I chunked my rock and hit the window dead center. But still, no signs of Mr. Woodie.
“Man, y'all suck.” Milk yelled, bending over to pick up the biggest rock he could find in Mr. Woodie’s back yard, which surprisingly had little to no grass in it. “I bet this’ll bring him to the window.” He said before cocking his long ass arm back and lobbing that rock at the window as hard as he could.
The next sound we heard was glass shattering. We all jumped back as pieces of it rained down in our direction. With our mouths wide open in disbelief, we looked at one another, praying that nobody nearby had seen what Milk just did.
“We gotta go, dog.” Eddie’s voice trembled.
“Yeah, Rene’s gonna whoop my ass if she hears about this.” I stepped backwards, preparing to take off running like the neighborhood dog was at our feet.
“Y’all.” Milk almost whispered while me and Eddie were turned in the opposite direction. “Do…do y'all see that?” He stuttered, giving us no choice but to turn around and see what had him shook.
In unison, our eyes traced from Milk, following his line of focus up to Mr. Woodie’s window. And I shit you not, there he sat, just as plain as the day, doing and saying absolutely nothing, just as he’d been doing every damn day at recess.
We’d told our parents, who were pretty good friends, that we saw Mr. Woodie with our own eyes; conveniently leaving out the part where we chunked rocks at the window, of course. They dismissed our little story, showing us Mr. Woodie’s obituary where we discovered his government name was Harry Thompson. And we were left as the only three souls who would ever know the truth about what happened that day.
“Man, don't bring that shit up.” Milk looked shook again just thinking about it. “I lost a whole year of sleep behind Mr. Woodie’s dead ass.”
“I think we all did, bro.” I added with a chuckle. “We probably shoulda got counseling.”
“Man, you know black folks don't go to counseling.” Eddie added. “I’d wake up in the middle of the night sweating like a hoe in church behind Mr. Woodie. And you know what Pops gave me? An ass whooping for pissing in the bed.” He shook his head. Those flashbacks were a mother fucker.
“Wait, you peed in the bed, bruh?” Milk never let anything slide.
“Nigga, I just told you it was sweat. You hard of hearing?” Eddie defended. Typical night with these two clowns.
“Aight, so where was the sweat located? Cuz pee and sweat don't usually travel the same route.” Milk kept on. This shit could literally go on all night.
“Bro, it was sweat.” Eddie put his hands out in frustration. “I ain't never peed in no damn bed.”
“Yeah, but you did pee on our couch.” Milk reminded him. “And don't act like you don't remember. You lucky my Mama cut for you. Pops wanted your little pissy ass locked up!”
“Your Pops was crazy as shit.” I chimed in with a chuckle. “Nigga had everything in y'all house smelling like bleach and rubbing alcohol.”
“Say, chill on my Pops, fam.” Milk warned. Dude loved his Pops more than most men loved most things.
“I'm just saying, dude was an extreme germaphobe.” I pushed my limits cuz it was fun to watch Milk react.
“Make that your last one, Deuce. For real.” His brows hiked. My boy wasn’t playing.
I had one more jab. “What you gone do, Milk? Squirt me with hand sanitizer?” I chuckled. Thankfully, he thought the shit was funny too.
“Say, Deuce, is that ya girl over there?” He pointed across the table toward another open booth in V.I.P, where three nicely dressed, familiar looking women were being escorted in.
“Damn, that's Shawni nem?” Milk noted. “Shawni bad as fuck, bro. Too bad she settled for a lame nigga at the post office. You missed that bus, Deuce.”
“Don't count my boy out.” Eddie said, nudging my arm while I tried and failed to pull my eyes off of Shawni. She’d had that effect on me for as long as I could remember. “Boy making that Black Hollywood money now. All he gotta do is drop a stack on the table and the hoes start fallin out the sky. Ain't that right, Deuce?” His voice was a mumble under the music and the pounding of my heart at the sight of this damn woman.
“Watch your mouth.” I warned, still staring. “Shawni ain't like that, bruh.”
“Oh, shit. This nigga still in love.” I could tell by Eddie’s pitch he was talking to Milk. They both clapped palms and laughed behind my back.
“Man fuck both of y'all.” I said dismissively, motioning for the waitress to come to our section.
“What can I get you, baby?” The long legged, half naked brown-skinned beauty whispered in my ear, balancing a tray of empty champagne glasses on the palm of her manicured hand.
“We’re good over here.” I said, glancing over my shoulder at the bounty of beverages my boys had already racked up on my tab. “But could you take two bottles of Cristal to those three ladies in the far-right V.I.P booth? Put it on my tab.”
“Will do, boo.” She winked. “Who should I say it's from?” She asked, clicking a silver ink filled pen over her all black notepad.
“2004.” I replied. “She'll know who.”
“Oh shit, which one?” The waitress sucked her teeth wearing a grin on her face that had nasty written all over it.
“Deliver those bottles and you'll find out.” I whispered in her ear before she spun away with her tray and disappeared into the crowd.
With squinted eyes, she searched from her end of the club, panning the audience in one sweep without venturing too far to the left or too far to the right, afraid that she might actually see him and wake up all those butterflies that had fallen asleep in her belly.
He stared down at his tennis shoes; custom leather seal black Chuck Taylors, that would only be worn to this event before he dropped them in a box and shipped them to the nearest Dress for Success office to be of more important use to a young man trying to find his footing. He too was avoiding a set of butterflies, although they’d already been awakened at the single sight of her. There’d be no rest for the wings tonight. They’d had enough of that in the last five years.
Her curves had grown rounder, eyes had grown sadder, and posture had sunk a little since the last time they spoke. He wondered if that had anything to do with his absence. Had his departure been to blame for these subtle signs of sadness? Even with his friends hooping and hollering and the music blaring in his ears, he couldn’t drown out echoes of the last words she yelled in his direction as he disappeared down her driveway, speeding towards his dreams and disregarding her feelings unintentionally.
“I hate you!”
He never knew that so much weight could sit on three single-syllabled words. But there he stood, still carrying that weight, lacking the courage to walk over to her and potentially have it lifted.
Somewhere in the haze of strangers grinding against strangers whose names they didn’t know or care to know, to the lyrics of a song that they knew all the words to. Way up over their heads where hope floated and forgiveness was a possibility, their eyes met. For the first time in a long time, they were looking at something—someone—that once held meaning, feeling things that had not and could not be replicated, no matter how hard they tried. Given their history, it would’ve seemed instinctive to look away. Especially with all the distractions being thrown in Deuce’s direction from the groping hands and attempted kisses from ladies, now that he’d shed his hoodie and was fully exposed for them to see exactly who he was. But they couldn’t. Not after all that time had passed. Not after all of those feelings had settled to the bottom of their feet only to rise right back up to chest level in a fraction of a second.
“Bruh, you alright?” Eddie nudged Deuce after catching him in a trance. The man didn’t even realize he was staring across the club, let alone standing in one, until his friend snapped him out of hypnosis.
“What? Yeah… yeah, I’m good. I just— “ He stuttered, eyes returning to her because now, she was the only thing he could see.
“Man, just go over there. I’m sure she’s over that shit by now.” Milk urged, following Deuce’s line of sight. “You want us to go with you?” He asked.
“Yeah, maybe we can hold hands and shit.” Deuce replied sarcastically, looking at Milk and shaking his head.
“My nigga, low key, I been tryna get at Kendra since the seventh grade when her ass just blossomed over the summer.” Eddie said, licking his lips like he could taste Kendra’s ass on them. “Went from empty back pockets on her jeans to not being able to fit a hall pass in them mother fuckers. Come on, man. If not for your Cowardly Lion lookin ass, then for mine.”
A hesitant smile spread across Deuce’s juicy red lips, hands slipping into his pockets to wipe away the sweat. He’d avoided the situation for as long as he could. There was no leaving that club without crossing paths with Shawni.
“Here they come.” Tristan sent out the bird call as she sipped from a fruity, colorless concoction. “Three the hard way.” She joked.
“You want me to throw something on him, Shawni?” Kendra offered, pulling a glass of champagne from her pouty, crimson red lips, eyes blazing a path to the three handsome gentlemen headed their way.
“What? No.” Shawni chuckled, rolling her eyes at Kendra. “We’re grown. I’m good and hopefully he’s good too.” She sank into a comfortable smile that she hoped would hide the anxiety of Deuce’s pending approach.
Nothing she felt could be hidden from Deuce when he looked into her eyes. And she knew it. Which explained why he’d left without looking back, back then.
“You know I was talking about Eddie, right?” Kendra slanted her eyes to the side at Shawni who was gulping down a glass of champagne, seeking courage somewhere in the last drop.
“Girl, you’re crazy.” Shawni smacked her lips, staring at the empty glass, wondering where all of its contents went. “Why you always giving Eddie such a hard time? He’s cool.” She put her glass down and straightened herself; well as much as she could without Deuce noticing.
“Eddie dropped a snail in my back pocket in seventh grade. You know I have a damn snail phobia.” Kendra cringed at the thought of that encounter as if hadn’t happened nearly twenty years prior. “Oh, and he ain’t shit.” She added, returning her lips to the brim of her champagne glass.
“Most niggas ain’t.” Tristan offered her two cents, glaring at Milk who had been at the top of her enemy list since he topped her asymmetrical bob with fruit cocktail during a food fight at b-lunch their freshman year in high school. “Milk still looks like he bathes in bleach and shoe polish.” She rolled her eyes as the guys neared their booth. Kendra almost spit out her drink laughing, leaving Shawni to be the only one standing with a stiff smile on her face.
“Damn, Deuce got fine.” Kendra cleared her throat long enough to swoon. “Did y'all ever smash, Shawni? Cuz if not, I think I should be allowed to shoot my shot.”
“They were in love, whore.” Tristan slipped the words through tight lips. The handsome trio was too close at this point for anything to be said in secret.
“Girl, I’m just playin.” Kendra shrugged, throwing back the rest of her beverage before resting the glass on the table behind her, and fixing herself as the men approached the booth. “He is fine though.” She nudged Shawni’s arm, drawing a friendlier smile of
agreeance to Shawni’s face.
There was a deeply imprinted smell about Deuce that was prevalent no matter what cologne he paired it with. Shawni could vividly remember traces of it being left behind on her pillowcase many nights after he’d moved away. There was a safeness in it. The promise of his presence as long as that smell lingered. She'd long since washed it away, storing those old sheets and pillowcases in the linen closet at her mother’s house with other things that were just as useless in her life as Deuce had become. That same scent had traveled through the small space between them the minute he walked up to her booth. And though no one else would recognize it, Shawni's body fought hard not to react.
Same lanky stance. Same half assed smile. Same heavy lidded brown eyes that could stare the promise out of a preacher’s wife. He wasn’t perfection, by any means. But you'd be hard pressed to find a man who looked more like it.
“Sup, STK?” Eddie greeted the ladies by their unified nickname; a collection of their first name initials. It was no surprise that Eddie was the first to speak. He was known for many things and being shy wasn’t one of them.
“Eddie.” Kendra barely opened her mouth to speak, turning away to take a seat before Eddie had a chance to start his shenanigans. “Hey Milk. Hey Deuce. Sorry, your friend brings out the worst in me.” She crossed her leg, rolling her eyes at poor Eddie.
“Sup, ladies? Long time, no see.” Milk’s greeting was so cheerful, it was obvious he'd seen the bottom of a few drinks already. “Y’all lookin good. Keepin it right and tight, I see.”
“Brian, shut up.” Tristan didn't hesitate to express her festered hatred toward the designated light skinned friend of the three.
“Man, why you so hostile?” Milk stepped into the booth, dangerously close to Tristan considering how badly she wanted to slap him.
“I don't know. Maybe it's because you still owe me thirty-five dollars for ruining my fucking bob with a cup of fruit.”
“Tris, really?” Kendra snickered. “Maximum petty is at knee level and your ass is approaching the neck.” She shook her head at her friend, topping off a third glass of champagne.
“You just mind those bottles and let me tend to yellow highlighter as I see fit.” Tris hissed at Kendra who was nearly too far gone to save.
The disgruntled foursome hesitantly settled into their respective seats on either side of the booth, forced into close proximity because of the way things were arranged. A slither of a moment passed before they were locked into the music, filled to the brim with nostalgia as Erykah Badu’s Love of My Life (An ode to hiphop) came booming through the speakers. Just as quickly as they’d bumped heads, they were now bobbing them in sync with the music.
The only two who hadn’t spoken two words to each other though only a few inches separated their bodies, were Deuce and Shawni. With so many thoughts whirling in their heads, it was hard to pick one to start with. Her chest rose and fell to the beat of the song. His breathing seemed easy, but was taking effort to control. They stared everywhere but at each other for as long as they could.
Until they couldn’t.
And so, it began.
“You um… you look nice. Grown up.” Deuce took the leap and spoke first, through a salty, nervous mouth.
Shawni said nothing. And it wasn’t because she had nothing to say. It was because she had too much. And if she started, she was afraid she’d never stop.
“Listen, if you don’t want me over here, I can— “
“Bounce?” She tilted her head to the side, perfectly messy bun staying in place with a single strand of curls choosing to fall free. “You want me to give you permission to do it this time, or you just gonna do it either way?”
She couldn’t believe those words had left her lips after she’d just told her girls moments earlier that she was fine. But sometimes holding things in for so long can result in uncontrollable spillage.
“Guess I had that coming.” Deuce shoved his hands in his pockets—a nervous habit—shifting his weight to one leg while trying to catch her fleeing eyes.
“That and more.” Shawni said, bringing her eyes up to meet Deuce’s for the first time in what felt like forever.
They still melted her insides like they used to. Still pulled her in like a magnet like they used to. Still made her feel like she was the only girl in the world, and it was hard as hell not to scream all of that over the music.
But she resisted. She stared right into his panty melting eyes and resisted the urge to drag his ass to the bathroom. Because being less than an hour away from being thirty-one-years old was so different from being twenty-five. And having your heart crushed and disregarded equipped you with the tools you’d need to avoid having it happen again.
Or so she thought.
“Why don’t we go talk?” Deuce suggested. “I’m sure they won’t miss us.” He slanted his eyes over to the booth where their four enemy friends were singing off key and forgetting how much they despised one another.
“About what?” Kendra folded her arms, trying her hardest to keep the barriers up.
“That’s up to you.” Deuce shrugged, sweaty palms still planted in the pockets of his dark blue jeans.
He wanted so badly to pull a hand out and thumb that strand of curls out of her face he could almost feel the softness of her hair between his fingertips.
“Whatever.” She turned from facing him, and lead the way out of the booth.
Houston’s silver streaked skyline was well placed as the two torn hearts found their selves on the second-floor balcony of The Grove. No space was left unoccupied in this establishment, and the same old school music that played on the lower level was also being played up top. But as sparsely crowded as it might have been, the balcony offered the intimacy necessary for the conversation that needed to take place.
The skyscrapers standing erect against the midnight sky were the only things that could shrink the severity of a broken heart. And the crisp, February breeze passing over and between them was the only way to breathe through the all but forgotten pain.
“It’s nice up here.” Deuce stuck to small talk, having no idea what else to say. “I don’t think I’ve ever been to this part.”
“Your memory’s pretty good, Justin. I doubt you’d forget being anywhere.” Shawni blew out a breath, sending that loose curl flying up in the air as she leaned forward over the steel railing.
“You’re the only person that calls me that.” Deuce chuckled at the sound of his government name. “You knew how much I hated it and said the shit anyway.” He joined her at the railing, pulling his hands from his pockets to lean beside her. “Congratulations on the engagement.” He said. And if one listened closely enough, they could hear the pain in his voice.
“I’m not engaged.” Shawni lifted her left hand to his face. “See, empty.” She rolled her eyes, setting them back on the city lights below.
“But you’re with somebody, right? I mean if you don’t mind my asking.”
“And what if I do mind your asking?” Shawni snapped, still leaning on the rails. “What if it’s none of your business what I’m doing or who I’m doing it with?”
“I didn’t mean it like— “
“You never mean any damn thing.” Her voice went up. Luckily the music was too loud for anybody around them to notice. “You said we’d make a plan, you didn’t mean that. You said we’d stick to the plan, you didn’t mean that. You told me you loved me, you didn’t mean—”
“I meant that, Shawni.” Deuce cut her off. “And I’m not about to stand here and listen to you saying I didn’t. Yeah, shit went bad. And I take the blame for that. But don’t you ever question how I felt about you. You get to throw alotta shit in my face right now, but not that.” Deuce had gotten so worked up that his chest was caving with every breath he took.
Shawni’s eyes were wide with worry and anger. She wanted to defend herself against Deuce’s rebuttal. But she wasn’t finding anything to throw back at him. She believed he loved her despite his disappearance.
“I missed alotta shit, Shawn.” He continued in her silence. “I can’t buy that time back, not even with all this money I’m making. But I owe you. Whatever you want, just say the word and it’s yours.”
“Is that what you think of me, Justin?” Shawni stood straight and looked Deuce square in the eyes. “You think that you can just disappear into the great unknown, leaving me hear to sweep my fucking feelings up off the ground; then come back and buy forgiveness?” Her eyes twitched. Deuce knew Shawni well enough to know that that wasn’t a good sign.
“That’s not what I’m saying.” Deuce defended, now standing erect, staring down into Shawni’s eyes in near desperation. It had taken him all this time to even approach her. And just that quickly, he was about to mess it up.
“Then what are you saying? Cuz apparently I’m not hearing it right.” Shawni propped a hand on her hip, eyes lit with anger and maybe even resentment.
“I’m saying I’m sorry.” He threw his long hands out to the side. “For lying, for leaving, for all the time that passed without saying sorry. I’m just… I missed you. Like… you don’t even know.”
“You’re right, I don’t. Maybe a phone call or a fucking messenger pigeon could’ve cleared that up.” She slipped her hand from her hip and turned around to lean her back against the rail.
Deuce stood there in the awkwardness of wanting to step in front of her but not knowing if it was okay. He could remember a time when all of this could be solved with a kiss. But Shawni wasn’t that woman anymore. Heartbreak, inflicted by him, no less, had hardened her a bit. And he needed her softened. Otherwise his advances would be in vain.
“Did you miss me?” He asked, fresh out of other options.
“Excuse me?” Shawni squeaked, slanting her eyes up at Deuce as he took the chance and stood in front of her. The towering buildings seemed to sway behind her, wrapping around her frame like a beaming silhouette. “I’m standing here fighting the urge to slap those dreds off you head, and you’re asking me to stroke your ego? So fucking typical.” She pushed away from the rails and started walking back to the door leading inside from the balcony.
“Wait, where you goin?” Deuce hurried after her. “Shawni, we ain’t through talkin.” He picked up the pace as she did the same. “Shawni!” He yelled loud enough for others to hear him over the music as Shawni pulled the tall, glass door open and walked in.
“Seriously?” He kept up with her, his eyes slanting down for a second to watch her ass jiggle beneath her dress. His groin tightened at the thought of gripping his hands around it. Mouth watered at the thought of how sweet she used to taste. Deuce was no longer being driven by hopes, or dreams or any of that fluffy shit that had taken place on the balcony. As the woman of his dreams trekked through a crowd of unknowing party-goers en route to any place but the space that he stood in, he was driven by the full-blown necessity to have her body and soul in his safe-keeping.
“Shawni!” He gained enough closeness to grab her by the arm. “Please, just talk to me.” His eyes watered and knees grew weak, terrified that she would pull away and leave him there sulking in desperation.
“I lost my Daddy, Justin.” Her lips trembled as she turned to face him. “Besides you, he was the only good thing in my life back then. And yes, I had Mama and Tris and Kendra. But you and Daddy, y’all were a soft place to land. I couldn’t even call you to— “
She couldn’t even make it through the sentence before she collapsed against Deuce’s chest, signaling his embrace. She was as soft as she had been way back then. Smelled as sweet as a new day with flowers to boot. Nothing and no one fit the bend of his arms the way she did. He felt guilty for being the reason she was crying, but overwhelmed with happiness to have her body pressed against his.
“I’m sorry.” He squeezed her tighter, wishing that letting go wasn’t an option. “I fucked up. I fucked up bad. And I didn’t come for the funeral because I couldn’t see Pops like that. He was like a father to me too. But that’s no excuse.” He found himself being slightly defensive and quickly realized that was the wrong route to take. “Look, I’m sorry. Just let me fix it.” He pleaded, allowing her to spill her tears on the collar of his brand-new leather jacket until there were no more tears left to cry. “Shawni, you hear me?” He tilted his head down to meet her reddened eyes. “I wanna make it up to you. And I’m not tryna buy you. I got time, back rubs, scalp greasing. Whatever you want me to do.”
Deuce was as serious as a heart attack, naming all the things he used to do to make her smile. And she smiled up at him, nose read and eyes puffy. “Scalp greasing, Justin?” She caught her breath and eased out a chuckle. “I can’t imagine you greasing anybody’s scalp. What would that do for your reputation?”
“Wonders, probably.” He smirked. “You know how quick I could sell a record titled “Scalp Greasing Love”?” He joked, holding her tightly around the waist with no resistance on her part.
“You stupid.” She blinked, shaking her head in total disbelief that she was standing there in his grasp. “Where are we supposed to go from here, Justin? I have a boyfriend. You have Atlanta. You did what you did and I accept your apology, kinda. But we’re too old to be playing games.”
“What do you mean kinda? And who’s playing games?” Deuce pushed back to get a better look at Shawni’s face.
“I mean I need to sit with it for a while. Forgiveness has to be digested.” She said. And he kind of knew what she meant.
“I get that.” He nodded. “Now explain who’s playing games.”
“Cuz I’m not.” He cut in. “Listen, I’ve gotten alotta shit right in my life. The move to Atlanta was one of em, cuz… well, look at me.” He let go of her waist to throw his hands out to the side. “There was nothing good here for me. You see what happened to Limb.” He referred to his older brother who had been incarcerated since a year after Deuce left for Atlanta.
Shawni wasn’t pleased with that, given her place in the equation.
“But I also got alotta shit wrong.” He continued, dropping his hands. “And the most important one happens to be standing in front of me, potentially with a dry scalp.” He grinned, finally raising his hand to her face and sweeping that stray curl away. “I been waiting to do that shit for like an hour, man.” He couldn’t stop grinning and neither could she. “I don’t know ole boy, but he can’t be worth too much if he let you leave the house alone in that dress.” Deuce gave Shawni another once over, taking his eyes on a trip up and down her body, committing every curve to memory all over again. “So, what are we doin? The ball’s in your court.”
“Oh. So, I get to make the decision this time?” She pursed her lips, arms folded across her chest as she shifted her weight to one hip.
“Look, you get to throw that in my face for like six weeks. But that’s it.” Deuce attempted to put his foot down.
“Eight weeks.” Shawni countered. “Nine if I see fit.” She sucked her teeth.
“Fine. One question though.” He asked, pulling her in at the waist, tightly against his body. “What about ole boy?” His eyes were filled with something like the opposite of worry as Shawni accepted his embrace without pushing away from his semi-erection.
“His name is Ted.” She started. “And save the jokes. I’ve heard them all.” She pinched his side. He shrugged his shoulders and smiled. “Anyway, we’re at the beginning of the end already.” She looked up into his eyes, feeling at home. “You’re not stealing me from anybody. Not that you’d give a shit anyway.” Her eyes lowered to his nearly throbbing erection, then fluttered back up to find Deuce grinning like a school boy. “You were never good at taming that damn thing.”
“But you were always good at helping me.” He kissed her cheek, pushing away respectfully to diffuse the situation.
Down on the lower level, their four friends had found their way to the dance floor. Milk and Tristan danced at a respectable distance, each aware that their significant others might not appreciate them bumping uglies on the dance floor with anybody but them. Eddie and Kendra, on the other hand, had each found their way to a full-fledged grind session in the middle of the floor. Nobody would be surprised the next morning if they found themselves wrapped in each other’s arms at the foot of Shawni’s guestroom bed.
Shawni and Deuce found situational familiarity in a song that conveniently came on as they reached the bottom of the staircase leading to the dance floor. Soul binding energy brought their eyes to each other as Deuce let go of Shawni’s hand and pulled her in against him, not leaving space for even a strand of hair to divide them. Their heartbeats were once again in sync as they swayed sided to side, chest to chest, breathing in the reminiscent pleasures of two lovers who were always meant to be together. Shawni’s arms lifted from her sides, up around Deuce’s long neck, rustling his shoulder length dreds, anticipating how good they’d feel between her fingers when she’d forgiven him enough to make love again. Everyone and everything else in the club disappeared as they locked eyes. Deuce leaned in, happy that Shawni wore four-inch heels that night to put her nearly at eye level with him. His soft lips grazed the side of her neck on his way to whisper something in her ear; something he prayed she’d take seriously because there was no way he was going to lose her again.
“Shawni.” He whispered below the music, heart beating so fast Shawni could feel it against her breast.
“Justin?” She whispered back, giggling because the wind from his lips tickled her neck, curling her body in against his because she’d been wanting to do so for the past five years.
“I love you. And I need you to understand that by the time this song goes off, you’ll be mine.”
Shawni creamed at the thought of Deuce being so certain of himself. His bluntness and drive to take life into his own hands was one of the many things that she’d fallen in love with when they were together. Even his departure displayed those qualities, and had it not been for the fact that he had to leave her behind to pursue his dreams, that would’ve turned out perfectly without this huge five-year bump in the road. The conflict of body and mind had Shawni’s thoughts spiraling out of control. But as the man she’d deemed her soulmate, despite the anger and resentment that had settled in her mind during his absence, was holding her body in his arms like she was his, she let go.
Because she was his.
“Justin.” She whispered in his ear as his lips stayed resting against her neck, pecking her here and there to remind her of is presence; not that he needed to.
“Shawni?” He whispered back, mocking her.
“You won’t have to wait til the song goes off.” She leaned back with a smile on her face that I had kiss me written all over it. And without hesitance, Deuce took heed, smoothing his big hands up both sides of her face and pulling her lips against his lips, slicing them open with his tongue and painting the inside of hour mouth with overflowing passion that not even the turning on of the club lights could disturb.
“Ummm, y’all ready or should we get them to roll a mattress out here?” Tristan tapped Shawni on the shoulder, pulling her from an intense tangling of the tongues.
“Shit!” Shawni put her hand to her chest, eyes going wide as cameras flashed all around them. She’d forgotten that the man she was swapping saliva with wasn’t just Justin from down the street anymore. He was Deuce with the juice, producer and composer extraordinaire hailing from Atlanta by way of Houston.
“My bad.” Deuce looked down at her apologetically but not regretfully. “Hadn’t tasted you in a while. Still sweet!” He winked, pulling her to his side and leaning in to peck her lips one last time before they gathered their crazy crews and began their journey outside of The Grove as the song went off.