I’m a medical student.
Graduation’s around the corner and I have three things to my name: a beat-up Honda Civic named Matilda, a loan that’ll cost me a kidney to repay, and a woman who’ll probably be the death of me. I met her in 6th grade. The raven hair she now wears in a poofy halo was imprisoned in two long, braids back then. Her creamy, chocolate eyes mesmerized me.
Yep, lil’ mama had me moonstruck.
She was pretty as a penny but had a brain on her too. My reign of terror as the class genius ended the day she walked in the door. When I went to bed that night, I knew I had to wife her up, or shut her down.
In my mind, there was no other way.
By the time we entered our junior year, things changed. I wasn’t terrible. Still made the top ten, but Mia held on to first place. If it were anyone else, I’d be on the warpath. But something about that girl made me okay with the way things were.
Besides, I had other things to worry about.
I was fifteen when I came home to a note taped to a sandwich on the kitchen counter. Raising me had cost her a career, it said. Sick of being a housewife, she decided I could live without her. I guess Dad didn’t mean shit to her either, because she never came back. He took it the hardest. He stopped talking much, then refused to eat more than a few bites a day. I tried to get him to swallow anything of substance, but it was no use. Somehow, he showed up to work on schedule for a year.
Eventually, he stopped doing that too.
Paulo couldn’t keep him on the payroll. But he’d been a family friend for years, so rather than fire Dad, he had HR process it as a layoff. He’d get employment insurance. Best he could do, he said. I was grateful, but the check barely covered the mortgage. I tried getting a job at the local grocery, but they weren’t taking on any more students. I shimmied down poles at countless bachelorette parties, and my grades slipped right on down with me. It came to that.
We lost the house anyway.
Cramped into a tiny apartment, covering the bills became easier, but Dad only got sicker. He died two months before graduation. His death drove the last nail in the coffin of my glory days. No longer the model student, I became little more than “Mia’s boyfriend.” I loved her, so I swallowed the few scraps of pride I had left and tried to be happy for her. I summoned all the resolve I had left and pulled up my grades enough to get back into the top ten. After graduation, we applied to the same medical schools. She got a letter in a matter of days, while I scraped through with the last batch of recruits.
Still made it, though. That was four years ago. Now, we’re weeks away from walking out of this place to begin our residencies as Doctors’ Marcus and Mia Whitman. Assuming she says yes. I haven’t popped the question yet.
I glance at my wrist. 7:49 p.m.
I feel like I’m forgetting something.
I remember that first day of school, my long curly hair imprisoned in two neat braids. Ma tied two navy blue ribbons on each end. I hated them, being 11, going on 21. But, she made me wear the things anyway. Said no daughter of her was gonna be ‘fast’ in her house. Maybe she wasn’t paying attention, or just didn’t have the time to notice, but boys were the last thing on my mind. No man could give me what I wanted. That’s what I thought.
Then, I met Marcus.
One look at his smug ass face and I knew it. The boy was mine. Sliding into my chair, I twirled the end of my braid around my finger. His eyes burned into the back of my head. I could feel them. Right where I wanted them.
Well, that was a long time ago.
Ma never loved life back in Trinidad. We struggled like everyone else, but we were happy. All of us, except her. Like all her young girlfriends, she dreamed of leaving school and going abroad to chase the American dream. But, she ended up with my sister instead. I soon followed. She never complained out loud, mind you. But I still knew. She didn’t want my sister.
She didn’t want me.
After Pa died, she sold everything and booked flights to New York City for all of us. She had a sister in Brooklyn who promised to take us in until she could find work in the big city. But Ma hadn’t grown up worrying about things like prejudice. Months passed, and the only work she could find was as cleaning woman or a nanny.
I watched her cry herself to sleep night after night, cursing God for not letting her get a good job like they all said she would.
We never made it out of the projects.
Sipping a margarita, I watch the clock on the wall. I don’t hear much of the chatter around me. Rapping my nails against the glass, I shift in my seat.
Where is he?
Slipping off the bar stool, I spot the hostess. A slender gal. No ass, but tits for days. I check my own reflection in the glass doors before I tap her on the shoulder.
“Hey,” I smile, grazing her arm. “I’m looking for Marcus Whitman.”
With a shrug, I shove my hands in my pockets and head down the hallway towards the dean’s office. Betrayed by Lil Xan blasts through my earphones and I break into dance. I’m tired, but I feel good somehow. The mellow beat puts me in a calm state of mind, which is great, given that I need that to talk to this guy. Dean Marsh has been the dean here for, well, probably as long as I’ve been alive. And yes, his name is actually Dean. Having a dean named Dean is the running raggedy joke here on campus. He lived right up to his name, I guess. Apart from having a full head of hair at his age, there’s nothing decent about the guy.
People pass on either side of me, but I barely notice them, drowning in the beats of Xanarchy. “Hey Marc,” I hear, vaguely. I pop out one earphone and look for the source. “Down here,” she giggles. Gina tosses her blonde curls over her shoulder and throws her shoulders back. “Yeah, nice jugs,” I snap, turning back around. She’s saying something, but I ain’t got time for the games today. Gotta get this little meeting over with and head on home to my girl.
Call me a prick. I hate desperate women. Stuffing my buds back in, I resume my dance down the hallway towards the tall, mahogany door. Standing there a moment, I hesitate. This takes me back. All those times I got sent to the principal’s office. Never because I did anything wrong. My teachers just didn’t like having a little Puerto Rican boy dominating their classrooms. Can’t help wondering if this is what’s about to go down all over again.
“Come in, son,” a gruff voice calls from behind the closed door. My hand, already mid-air, drops to my side. How did he know I was here? With a shrug, I turn the knob and ease the door along its hinges. The creaking sounds a lot like his voice. Maybe his bones too, I imagine. His grey hair is peppered with streaks of black and white.
Saltshaker. I whisper to myself. Dude, looks like a …
“Sit down, Whitman.”
Without a word, I plop into the hardwood chair facing his desk. My fingers trace the fancy engravings on the armrest as I eye the stack of envelopes in the middle of the desk. He scribbles a note on a sticky, then pulls off his glasses and tosses them in the top drawer. Wiping his eyes, he leans back in his chair, clasping his hands as he presses his fingertips together.
“Where’d a kid like you get a last name like ‘Whitman’ anyway?” he quipped.
“My dad’s white.”
“Oh. Figures. Your mother legal?”
“Is that what you called me in here for?” I ask, feeling my neck get a little warm. “Because you don’t look like immigration to me.”
“Calm down, kid,” Dean snorts. “Twas a joke. But since you’re in no mood for joking, let’s get down to it then.” He reaches for the glasses and slides them onto his face, resting it ever so lightly on the bridge of his nose. Grabbing the stack of letters, he shuffles through them, mumbling to himself until he reached the Ws. “Mm, yes, here we go,” he sniffs, setting the pile aside as he studies his own handwriting. “I called you here to give you this.”
My name is on the envelope. I’ll look at it later. Shoving it in my pocket, I nod and head for the door. I can feel his eyes burning holes in my skull as I walk away. “Whitman,” he calls. I freeze. “Yes?” I say, not bothering to turn around.
“Tell your mother to get legal.”
I don’t think counting to ten is going to be enough. Better make it a thousand. STepping through the door, I pull it shut behind me. Dean isn’t going to win today. Not a chance. On my way to the lobby, I spot a vending machine. Most of the buttons don’t work, but I manage to get nachos and root beer. I still feel off, though. Confused, like I’m forgetting something very important. I glance at my watch again. Hate when this happens. Heading out through the lobby doors, I tug my coat a little closer to my body. Some of the leaves are still green, but the breezes are cooler these days. Fall is in the air. My legs carry me from the door to ole’ Matilda in a jiffy. Yanking the door open, I duck inside and slam it shut behind me. The weight lifts off my shoulder as I lean back and close my eyes. So good to sit.
I open them a minute later, and see a green Post-It note on the steering wheel.
“Meet Mia at Vianelli’s. 6 p.m.”
The bold, red numbers on the dash seem to scream the unforgiving truth.
It’s 8 o’clock.
Yep. I’m a dead man.
If I said that I liked this chick, I’d be lying. But she’ll have to do, as I need to know what Marcus could possibly be up to. Her eyes flutter up to the right, as if trying to remember if she’d seen a tall hunk of white chocolate. “Hmm, no,” she purrs. “Haven’t seated a Marcus. Let me check another list for you, though. One of my colleagues could have.” “Thank you,” I smile, pretending to be tipsy as I stumble forward, grabbing the podium for balance. “Are you okay?” she gasps, grasping my arms. I steal a glance at her reservations list before resuming my act. He really hasn’t shown up. “I’m so sorry,” I gush. “I’m still breaking in these heels.”
“Oh my gawd, that’s the worst!” she coos, helping me back to my table. My gaze lands on her face. It’s almost grey, like she hasn’t slept in days. I smile and toss a curl off my forehead. “Let me know when he gets here,” I say, straightening up a little.
“I will,” she nods, hurrying off to one of her other tables. I take another sip of the drink I’ve nursed for two hours. There’s a young couple smooching at the table across from me, making me want to scratch my eyes out. A familiar buzz caresses my thigh. Pulling the phone from my pocket, I see it’s a text from him. My cheeks grow hot as my head snaps towards the door.
It’s almost 9, but there he is, looking a little too much like a lost puppy. Turning away, I study the red and yellow stripes on the wall, trying not to look as stupid as I feel.
“Mia,” he smiles, jogging over to me. He kisses my hand before planting one on my lips. “I’m very sorry. Got caught up and totally forgot.”
“I may as well wear a dunce dap with fool scrawled across it in big crimson letters,” I say, taking another sip before studying a hairline crack in the glass. “3 hours, Marcus. What happened? ”
“I told you. I forgot,” he says again, ogling me with watery eyes. I clear my throat, and his eyes pop back up to meet mine. “Nothing serious.” He shoves his hands in his pockets and shrugs. “I got distracted and totally forgot until I jumped in the car.”
Swirling my third margarita, I chuckle. “Why the car?”
His brows raise a little. “I left a reminder on the steering wheel. Seemed like a good idea … assuming I’d get back in the car in time to see it.”
“Clearly, you’ve lost your mind. You have a phone that has pop-up reminders, yet you opt for a sticky note in the car?” Grabbing my coat and purse, I gulp down the rest of my drink. “You can eat alone, Marcus. I’m going home.”
He looks at me like I’ve sentenced him to death.
“Sit down,” he grunts. Heads turn, but I don’t care about that right now. “What? Embarrassed?”
“Let’s just talk about this like adults, please.” His eyes scan the room to see who had heard me.
“Talk about what like what?” I laugh, fluffing my hair. “Sure, let’s talk about how you have the nerve to be worried about how you look right now after you had me looking like an alcoholic divorcee for the past few hours.”
“You gotta believe me, girl. I forgot. Really. It was a mistake. I’ll make it up to you.”
I set the glass on the table with a loud clunk. “No, I’m good. What you’re gonna do is tell me who she is. Not now. Later.”
Up ‘til now, my eyes have been fixed squarely on those globes dancing beneath her silk red blouse. Mia rambles sometimes and I’m not here for it. But another woman? Now, there’s a fun topic. Pausing to pick my jaw up off the floor, I look at her for what feels like an hour.
“Is that really what you think?” I mutter. She just stares at me, not saying a word. So, she’s serious. Blowing out the breath I was holding, I rake my hands through my hair and lean back into the seat.
“I’m a couple hours late for a night out that I planned, and your first thought is that I’m running around with some random bitch.”
“It wasn’t my first thought,” she says. “But after three hours? Definitely.”
“Come here,” I say, reaching for her hand. She pulls away, grabbing the strap on her purse as she moves away from the table.
“Don’t turn away from me, woman.”
My voice startles her. I know, because she actually stopped this time. I see the smoke puffing through her ears, but like me, she doesn’t like to make too much of a scene. Sliding back onto the seat, she perches on the edge, clutching her bag, ready to run again. Her knuckles are white.
“I wasn’t out with anyone,” I say. “Let’s talk about this later. We’ll go home now, rest, and revisit when we’re in a better state of mind. We can try dinner again another day. ”
“Whatever you say, mister,” she shrugs, glancing at her watch. I get up from the table and go around to her side. “Come,” I urge, weaving my arm around her waist. Her body tenses, but she gets up, slowly. I want to make things up to her but have no idea how. I sweep her off her feet. She’s not very tall but she’s not light either. The girl has a serious ass on her. I love the way her hips swing like a pendulum when she bounces down a hallway in her high heels.
“Marcus, put me down,” she whispers, fighting to break loose from my grasp. I swear she’s half earthworm, the way she wriggles about. “Hush,” I say, kissing her on the forehead before I take off through the main doors. One was propped open, so that made my exit a whole lot easier. With my car just a few more steps away, I savour the silence. She won’t be so quiet when we get in. Setting her down gently, I open the door so she can get in.
I know Marc expects me to start talking, but he’s in for a real treat today. For once in my sad life, I have nothing to say. I know damn well that he hasn’t been out with no other woman. He’s too obsessed with me to even notice that other females exist. Pathetic.
Leaning against the glass, I let my mind drift to other things. I feel him watching me from the corner of my eye, but I don’t care right now. My head throbs. Things haven’t been peachy for years, but how do you tell a man that you’re tired of him? Marcus is the only guy I’ve ever dated, and frankly, I’d be lying if I told you that I dated him purely out of love. Not sure if I even love him at all.
Back then, it was easier to stay at the top of the class if I had next to no competition. Marcus was the only one who could actually outshine me, so I had to distract him, somehow. So much work, though. I was almost glad when his mother left. That made it easier for me to maintain my place while he tried to figure out the hell he had for a life.
But, then he bounced back, and …here we are. I shift in my seat, trying to feel more comfortable. The leather seat is normally soft, but today it feels like it’s scraping against my skin. The drive home feels so much longer this time, too. Guess I never realized how much Marc and I actually talk before now. Our conversations do make time seem to fly by. I guess I should feel guilty about riding him like this, but the truth is, I don’t feel anything. I haven’t felt anything in a long time. I just go through the motions so things stay the way I want them to.
Even that isn’t working so well. Just looking at him makes me so angry sometimes. I never had a chance to date anyone else. Could that be it? Maybe I’d feel something with another guy. I don’t want to feel this blank, but I just don’t have that gushy, warm feeling everyone says I’m supposed to have for the man I claim to be in love with. Don’t think I have ever had it. For anyone. When I was little, my mom used to be so angry that I didn’t ever tell her that I loved her, or said all the cute little things that my sister would. What could I do, though? I just didn’t feel an urge to say those things. I didn’t know why she cried when she left papa. I couldn’t understand why she seemed to need every single one of the string of men she tracked through our lives after that. I didn’t need anyone like that. Why did she? It never made sense to me, but I got tired of being treated like an odd duck, so over time, I watched, listened, and learned how to act like everyone around me.
Things got better. People started to like me. A lot.
I could get used to that.
Seems that Marcus loves it the most. He wouldn’t dream of leaving me. Not for anyone. Not for a moment. If only he knew how I felt, though. If he knew how bland my world really is inside my head, watching myself act out all the things I’ve learned, like a skilled clown.
Pretty sure he’d catch the first train outta this place, if he knew.
Opening my eyes, I see the weathered sign belonging to the rundown complex we call home. As the car rolls to a stop, I tuck my purse under my arm and reach for the door handle. Marc is already there. Rolling my eyes, I drop my hands in my lap and let him open the door.
“After you, little lady.”
I pull my keys from my purse and we both walk to the door. There are no elevators, just a long, winding flight of stairs. We begin the tedious journey up the six flights of stairs leading to our door. Stumbling into the house, our legs burn from the climb. Four years of these and it hasn’t gotten any easier. Scraping yesterday’s clothes off the bed, Marcus sits down, patting the space beside him for me come and sit.
He treats me well, I’ll give him that. I know he’s worried though. Whenever this man breaks out all kinds of chivalry, he thinks he’s about to lose me.
Of course, I’d know. I’m no stranger to that particular game.
“Here, sit down,” I say, hoping to lighten the mood. Ignoring me, Mia takes off her earrings, tossing them on the coffee table before plodding off to the kitchen. The crinkle in my pocket reminds me that I still have yet to read that letter, but I’m more interested in figuring out how to get through to Mia. Pulling it from my pocket, I toss it on the table beside the earrings before pulling myself up off the leather couch.
“Babe,” I call. She doesn’t answer. Peeking into the kitchen, I see she’s lost in thought, taking her time to fill the Keurig. I creep up behind her, weaving my arms around her waist.
“Marc!” she gasps, spilling water everywhere. I grasp her wrist as she reaches for the paper towel. “Sorry,” I mumble, pulling her close. She relaxes a little as I bury my face in her soft, curly hair. Her stiff body loosens a little, and I feel her hands clasp over mine. Nuzzling my face under her chin, I breathe in every bit of her scent. She smells like mangos and sea breezes. I just want to hold her forever and forget about everything. Maybe I won’t be put in the doghouse after all.
“Can we talk about tonight?”
“No,” she says, gently pushing my hands from her chest. “Let’s get this cleaned up, then eat. I’m hungry.”
She sure knows how to give a gut punch. Backing away from her, I rip a few sheets of paper towel from the roll and sop up the water on the counter. Tossing both in the trash, I grab the mop and dry the floor.
“You eat,” I say, grabbing a soda from the fridge. “I’m not hungry.”
She shrugs, not even turning around as she goes on making her coffee like it’s the most important thing in the world. For the first time, I wonder what the hell I am even doing with this woman.
Right about now, I wish we didn’t have a bachelor. I need a door to slam. Flopping down on the bed, I grab my earphones. When the world gets bleak, I escape through beats. Hitting play, I curl up with a damned pillow while my woman eats alone across the room. Moments like these will make a man feel like a lonely stranger in his own home.
I don’t know exactly when sleep found me. A fog washes over me, like a morning mist as I lose myself to the music. Everything around me seems blurry, hidden by a smokey haze.
A soft hand brushes my cheek before it sweeps down my neck to fiddle with the top button of my shirt. “Care to lose this?” she whispers, pressing her pink lips to my forehead. She smells like mangos. Familiar, but I can’t see her face with such large, luscious breasts obstructing my vision.
“Oooh. Hello, sexy!”
“Marcus, wake the hell up.”
Everything comes into sudden focus. The girl is still on top of me. Last I saw, Mia had her back to me, eating a humongous bowl of homestyle mac-and-cheese. Now she’s on top of me. Or is this the evil twin she often speaks of?
“Is this your way of making up?” I say, my voice still groggy. “Perhaps,” she says, slipping her hand under my plaid button-down. My stomach is my weakness, and not just at dinnertime. I reach for my belt buckle, but she grabs my wrist and squeezes.
“You’re waking up a dragon, mami,” I groan, breaking free from her grasp. “You sure you’re up for that?” I ask, grabbing her hips to put her right where I want her. Her soft caramel skin glows in the faint light of the fading sun trickling through the picture window. Her eyes twinkle and darken as she lays forward so our entire bodies touch, and cups my face with her hands.
“You’re really going to be the death of me, woman.”
“Funny,” she mutters, suddenly clasping her hands around my neck. I gasp for air as she squeezes tighter. “You woke up a different kind of dragon hours ago,” she hisses. “Who were you with, Marcus?”
Looking down, a dull pain ripples through my stomach. “N-no…” I mumble, my eyes taking in the scene. I don’t know how I ended up here, with my hands around my boyfriend’s neck? I was just sitting there, eating. He looked so calm and peaceful when I turned around to see him fast asleep. A part of me felt happy at the sight. The other part? With a sharp, inward breath, I let him go, skittering to the far corner of the bed, where I sat, my whole body shaking. “I-I’m sorry,” I squeak. Marc doesn’t say anything. He just lays there, holding his neck and swallowing hard a couple of times. I’m afraid to
Every other day, I wonder if he rushed into dating me. Eight years is a long time for a man to go without so much as a little fling. Don’t guys ‘sample the buffet’ before they settle down? I can’t help but think he’s trying to have his cake and eat it. For a few seconds, everything is blurry. I didn’t notice him get up off the bed or break the chandelier, spraying shards of glass everywhere. I can barely make out what he’s yelling over the rhythmic thumping in my chest.
“I knew it!” He bellows. “You royal bitch. So, you’re gonna kill me now? What happened to talking? To asking questions?”
“I asked…,” I reply, my voice barely above a whisper. “But I guess all the screamin’ you had her doing while I drinking my weight in margaritas made you deaf!”
Crossing his arms, he stares at me, head tilted to one side. His mouth is open, but nothing comes out. The look in his eyes is hurt. Pained. I wish I could care more than I do, but all I want is for the argument to end and my question to be answered. Pulling myself upright, I slide off the bed and walk towards him.
“Get away from me, Mia.”
I stop short. “What did you say?” I ask, my voice betraying my surprise. “You wouldn’t dare.” “Oh, but I would,” he replies. “Don’t come near me. I can’t trust you.”
Without a word, I sit down at the table. My eyes fall on a lone napkin, sitting idly by, waiting to be used. Blank and empty, like my soul, I think to myself. Grabbing a pen from the kitchen island, I begin to doodle all over the paper. My hands must stay busy so I won’t do anything else I’ll regret. As I draw, Marcus rummages around in the storage closet. I didn’t pay him much mind until I heard him pulling out the creaky dresser drawers in mad spurts, as though his fight were with the speechless wood.
“What are you doing?” I ask, watching him pull a few shirts and a couple pairs of jeans from the drawers. “You’re not leaving, are you?”
We lock eyes for a moment. He didn’t answer. But he didn’t need to, either. I had gone too far this time. “I’m sorry,” I moan, sinking to the floor where I curl into a ball. “Don’t leave me,” I whisper, a single tear leaking from my tired eyes.
He stands still for a second, then picks me up off the floor and carries me to the bed. “Get some rest,” he says. “I’ll see you in a few days.”
“Yeah,” he says, his voice dull and flat. “I need time.” I open my mouth to argue, but no words come to mind. Instead, I watch helplessly as he takes up his keys, wallet, and a strange envelope, before heading out the door. As it shuts, I lay in silence, unable to move or even breathe for what feels like an hour.
Then, it hit me. A wave of stormy thoughts, like a summer squall.
A prickly, cold feeling spreads through my chest as I pull the phonebook from under the coffee table and flip through the pages to section “L.”