Lucien set a tray of cheese, fruit, and imported butter crisps on the kitchen table, returning with a ceramic pot of rooibos tea and a jar of honey. It was one o’clock in the afternoon and Styx had come to deliver some of his belongings, as well as the latest band news. Lucien poured tea into two mugs, as Styx followed his actions in silence. He dunked the wooden dipper into the jar and drizzled a reasonable amount of honey into each cup. As soon as he took his seat, Styx spoke up with mirth in his eyes.
“What the hell is going on here, Lucky?” A chuckle followed his question.
Lucien was placing slices of apple and grapes on a plate and stopped to give Styx his attention.
“What do you mean? We’re about to catch-up, discuss our upcoming dates, and have some tea and munchies.”
“These ain’t no damn munchies, Lucky. This is a tea party. You have this kinda shit with your little girl or some little old ladies.” Styx started laughing outright but not without filling his plate with fruit and cookies.
Lucien found he loved being domesticated. Cooking, cleaning, washing clothes, and buying groceries, were soothing in their repetition. They were mindless tasks, something that allowed his mind to be clear to create while he performed them. Except for the cooking. He loved to cook for Zenobia and it required his creativity, as well as his practical skills for preparation, sort of like their relationship, or whatever title they’d give it.
“What’s going on is I’m fully-present in my life right now. I love the space I’m in with no hurry to move on.”
“Nah man. You can dress it up with all your zen talk but where I come from, we call that pussy-whipped.” Styx continued to laugh, while helping himself now to the cheese and crackers.”
“I’m serious. Aside from music, I’ve never been so satisfied.”
“I guess next you’ll be telling me that you’re gonna pop the question.”
Lucien’s expression turned somber and he continued eating and putting more food on his plate while Styx seemed to wait for a response to his comment. His raised eyebrow further illustrated that expectation.
Lucien leaned forward, bracing his elbows on the table top and clasped his hands under his chin.
“She’s already married, Styx.”
His friend set his tea down and a deep scowl looked to pull his thick, black brows closer to his hazel eyes.
“Then what the hell are you doing here? You can’t play house in somebody else’s home.”
“It’s not like that. She left him for me. She made a choice.”
“You haven’t known her long enough to assume anything.”
Lucien leaned back in the chair, visibly angered by Styx’s words but holding back his stinging response out of his love and respect for the guy.
“This might be hard for you to hear right now, while you’re riding this beautiful high into Xanadu or whatever the hell this is, but I don’t think her decision has anything to do with you.”
“And you don’t know her well-enough to be passing judgement.”
Styx was the only one in the band with one marriage under his belt, twenty years strong, three grown kids and one granddaughter. He used his own life and marriage as an example when trying to advise the guys on relationships. His rocky first year and the sketchy ones leading up to the first five, where things turned around, were all common knowledge to the guys in the band. Every temptation and debate over what was considered cheating or not, had been called into question by Lucky, Roland and Arnie. As a band, they had only been together for five years but in spirit, their bond transcended a timeline.
“Maybe not but I know you well-enough.”
“Explain yourself, Desmond,” Lucien used Styx’s given name to annoy him, since he’d cut so deeply into his feelings.
He watched as Styx looked around at the cozy, lived-in house.
“I don’t want to argue with you about what’s wrong or right. You already know, this house is beautiful. Zenobia is beautiful. You also know what they say about all that glitters. Besides, have you forgotten how you don’t like to stay in one place too long?”
“Maybe I’ll change.”
“Maybe you’re chasing what-ifs”
“This has nothing to do with my past, if that’s what you’re implying. This is about me moving into my future.”
Lucien wasn’t sure he believed those words, but they sounded good rolling off his tongue. He had no more grasp on his future than he had on the moment he currently occupied. And Styx’s expression said he didn’t believe it either, as he pulled a sheath of papers out of his backpack.
“Do what you want, man. But this little love nest ain’t yours and neither is the woman sharing it.”
He slid the packet to Lucien and said, “These are the details about the new record deal. I don’t know why Ray insists on hard copies, when the whole damn thing is available electronically.”
Lucien looked the papers over, while Styx watched him.
“You know I’m not picking on you but this is that kind of bad karma shit that comes back on you. Even I know enough zen to know that. And you’ve been through enough.”
Lucien kept his head down pretending to be more engrossed than he was, as Styx gathered his jacket, his bag, and car keys.
“You have one week to decide. That’s as long an extension as Ray could negotiate. Don’t keep everybody in limbo, Lucky. I’m not trying to be all heavy but whatever you decide from here on out affects other people’s lives.”
Lucien claimed to understand, even though he didn’t. How did his life become about everybody else? It used to be as simple as his love of music and now he wished he could take Zenobia and his guitar and go far away. Only for her would he hole up in a house in this part of town trying to escape life.
Kirk’s pulse sped up, at the sight of Zenobia approaching the door to the school. While he’d been waiting for her car to pull up, she appeared out of nowhere on foot. In an olive puff coat, cuffed jeans and sneakers, she looked younger and more beautiful than she had in his memories over the past month. He had to pick up his pace to make it to the door before it closed. Otherwise, he would’ve needed special access to the building – a card or a special code.
“Uh… Kirk, you scared me.” Zenobia jumped at his sudden appearance and looked around, as if stunned by his presence. Unannounced, Kirk realized the element of surprise worked in his favor. The building was supposed to be secured, after all and this moment showed how easily he could gain access.
She had a lot of nerve acting all jumpy. She’d practically robbed their house when she knew he wouldn’t be home. When he entered the house yesterday afternoon, he could tell Zenobia had been there. She’d left a strange scent clinging to the air, like the incense he used to burn in college, almost masculine and the shoes she’d left next to the door were gone. With her car nowhere in sight, the prospect of her still being in the house was slim but instinct overpowered rationale. He quickened his steps and took the stairs two at a time up to their room, but the spark fizzled out at the sight of her empty dresser. She’d removed the perfume, the jewelry, and the framed picture of their son Aaron. In the closet, Kirk found her lingerie drawer opened and almost empty. Her large suitcase was also gone. Kirk suspected it was used to haul the belongings she’d stripped from the house. He felt so violated… and irritated.
He took this act as a note of finality to replace his speculation. Since she wouldn’t take his calls, it looked like this statement was meant as a response, as a “No, I’m not coming back.” Kirk couldn’t stand the vagueness of it all and the helplessness was driving him crazy.
He called her phone and it rang until it went to voicemail…again. He’d left numerous messages over the past few weeks, but that would be the last one, before he used other tactics.
Zenobia, it’s me again. You can’t ignore me forever. Eventually, you will have to face me and talk like an adult. This is not how it ends, baby. I promise you that.
She hadn’t returned that call either.
“Zenobia, why haven’t you taken or returned my calls?”
He realized how confrontational he sounded but he couldn’t control the anger working its way into his chest and up into his throat.
According to the college’s website, there were no classes scheduled that day but faculty were required for regular hours. He was banking on Zenobia maintaining the rigorous schedule to which she adhered. This time, he’d been right. And now, here she stood, acting annoyed by and leery of him.
“Zenobia…We have to talk.”
They both turned toward the security booth, as if they just realized they were being surveilled by the guard on duty and nodded at the brother trying to act like he was paying them no mind.
It felt strange trying to speak to his own wife and feeling like he had to seek her permission for basic communication, or in other words. It made his anger stronger, but he fought harder to tamper it down.
“This isn’t the best time.”
“Then when is? I’ve given you weeks of no calls or visits, even though I have no idea where you are staying. That’s plenty of time to go unanswered. Now is as good a time as any to talk.”
Kirk wanted to grab her by the hand and drag her into the elevator and not release it until they were inside her office. But he was sure security wouldn’t allow that. After shuffling her feet and acting as if she was being accosted, Zenobia invited him up for some privacy. He stood beside her as they rode to the fifth floor alone, fighting every urge to touch her. It was like denying acknowledgment of his own breath.
They seemed to be the only ones on the whole floor, as he followed her down the hallway, guided by the rhythm of her heels clicking on the tile and the sway of her hips. He missed her so much but still had no idea of how they got to this place in their marriage. He’d been as unsuspecting of her and any illicit behavior, as he would a home invasion while he slept. She’d executed the best sneak attack he could imagine.
She walked toward her desk, as if this was a professional meeting and he’d stand back and let her take her seat,.
“Why are you doing this, Zenobia?”
She sat on the edge of her desk and leaned back on her arms. The “come hither” pose almost invited him into her personal space, but the tone of her voice stopped him.
“Now see. This is why I didn’t want to talk to you or meet with you. You wanna try to play dumb, Kirk, like you’ve been a model-husband and have no idea why I’d choose to walk away.”
He wasn’t prepared for that reaction. This wasn’t his mild-mannered wife. This was a woman who felt empowered and he didn’t want to think about the source of that new boldness, though he had his ideas.
“I guess I’m just dumb then because I didn’t realize we were grading each other. Do you think you’ve been a model-wife?”
Her chin jutted just a little higher, in a huff of indignation. As she failed to respond, Kirk continued with his questioning.
“Do you think you’ve done everything right and I’ve neglected you somehow? Is that what you’re telling yourself, Zenobia? Is that what you’re telling him?”
“I’m not telling anybody anything. I don’t talk about our marriage. He has nothing to do with it.”
Kirk moved closer and she sat up straight, as he approached her.
“He has everything to do with it. The minute he decided to become involved with my wife, he inserted himself between us.”
“He didn’t know I was married, when I met him, and he just found out the night I told you about him.”
Kirk clenched his teeth so hard, he could feel them grind.
“But does he know now?”
Her silence was all the answer he needed. She always shut down when she had nothing else to say or when she’d been bested in an argument. He stood in the same spot, as she walked over to the window, keeping her back to him.
“I’ll take that as a yes.”
“Why are you here, Kirk?”
“You know why the fuck I’m here. You can’t be the victim and the instigator at the same time, Nobi. Stop playing with me like I’m some damn kid.”
“Stop cursing at me! I’m not cursing at you.”
“No but you are cheating on me. Wrong time to get sensitive, baby.”
“This conversation is over,” she said, walking toward him with a haughtiness he didn’t like. “I don’t have any new decisions for you.”
“I have one for you though,” he said. “Unless you want to go to marriage counseling, I’m done. I’m not chasing after you, when I don’t even know why you left.”
Before Kirk could reach the door, Zenobia was already standing there with it flung wide open, ushering him out of her office. He stopped when he was right in front of her and bent down to rub his cheek against hers. He cringed when she stepped back, rebuffing his touch. The hate for his opponent increased that instant but he made a strong effort to contain his fury.
“Can’t stand me anymore, huh? Just be warned, Zenobia, once I find out who he is, he’s gonna wish he’d never met you. I don’t know who you think you’ve been married to for twenty years but you are about to find out.”
He walked toward the elevators, declaring war in his heart.
Zenobia turned the key in the door and opened it to the aroma of dinner. It was the welcome she needed, after the way her day had begun. The spices smelled like something Mexican, something delicious. More delicious still was having Lucien standing in the kitchen wearing an African print apron…and nothing else.
“Ooh, something smells spicy, Mr. Baptiste,” Zenobia called back to the kitchen. She had a clear view to the stove and him standing before it, stirring pots and tasting food from a wooden spoon, looking so sexy she had to mentally pinch herself.
He looked up, his eyes brightening at the sight of her. “Come taste this. I might’ve outdone myself with this paella.”
Zenobia was amazed at the domesticated side he’d revealed over the past few weeks. He showed off his impressive cooking skills most evenings and sometimes served her breakfast in bed, even if it was just tea with a baguette and a piece of fruit. He was spoiling her in a way she hadn’t experienced and after Kirk’s Neanderthal antics, she was so ready for it. She kicked off her shoes and rushed to join him with joy in her heart.
“Ewww. Look at your naked butt in my mama’s apron,” she huffed in fake disapproval, removing her hands from her hips and placing them on his shoulders, as he guided the spoon to her lips for a taste.
“Hmmm. You can put your naked behind in anything you want, as long as you keep cooking like this.” Zenobia went in for another taste then Lucien licked the corners of her mouth for the remnants.
“You and paella go well together,” he said, before coming in for a deeper, toe-curling kiss.
“Go take a shower and let’s have dinner in the buff.” He gave the directive with just enough of a hint of excitement in his voice.
“But you’re wearing an apron, Mister.”
“Only for protection from spattering oil and hissing sauce. It’ll be gone by the time you get back.”
Zenobia pecked his lips then ran upstairs giggling, giddy at the thought of adventures the night was sure to hold, something new and thrilling, like most nights with Lucien.
Later, they sat on cushions around the coffee table with the paella between them and glasses of chilled rosé, feeding each other forkfuls of the piquant dish – seasoned rice, shrimp, and mussels. The food and wine became conduits for the intense passion flaring in them, like flames licking at every lustful thought, pulling out every bit of carnal knowledge in their minds.
Between sucking the shrimp from his fingers to his teasing her with the demonstration of his mussels eating skills – splitting them and scooping out the flesh with his tongue – Zenobia was so turned on by Lucien. Every nerve in her sexual anatomy was popping. At one point, it was hard to tell where the shrimp ended, and his fingers began. Zenobia gasped, as he emptied his glass over her breasts, the chilled wine meeting the heat of her skin. With her mouth opened in surprise, she took in the wicked gleam in his eye.
“Ugh! Lucien Baptiste! You’re so crazy.” She swatted his bare chest, in shock and delight. No one had ever poured wine over her body before. His laughter filled her ears, just as he reached for her.
“Ahhh…Lucien…ahhh…” She’d never had anyone lick and suck wine from her breasts either, but Lucien was doing a superb job, making her feel like she was in someone else’s fantasy. He had a way of doing that all the time, introducing her to something new, blowing her mind, and then blowing it again, and again until she was delirious from the pleasure he served.
Around midnight, Zenobia roused from a deep, satiated sleep induced by all the freakiness she could handle and the slow strokes at which Lucien was quite adept. To say he’d exceeded all expectations wouldn’t come close to what he’d done. He gave her everything she thought she wanted and then showed her she wanted much more. And it wasn’t just his sexual prowess.
She didn’t realize she was looking for consistency. Nothing deep or existential. Every day, she and Kirk had the same nothingness and it’s what bored her to tears and sent her hungry heart searching for a way to fulfill unanswered desires. Lucien was present, not just in body but in the attention, in indulgence, and in consideration. Thoughts of Kirk’s threats came back to her and she knew she’d do whatever it took to protect Lucien. She’d been careless, going about with him as if everything was over. Kirk confirmed it was far from that. They could only stay inside this dream for so long. Eventually, she’d have to tell him what they were up against, keeping his anonymity a top priority.
Zenobia felt Lucien’s hand move over her hip, moving her musings away from bad feelings toward all the good he brought. She smiled, knowing his hand in that place, at that moment wasn’t an unconscious reassurance of her presence. He was awake, and he was claiming the opportunity to continue showing her something new and blowing her mind.
“You okay, baby?” He crooned in that seductive baritone she could listen to all night.
“I’m good, just a little restless.”
“Let me see what I can do about that.”
She turned in his arms, seeking his lips, and the consistency of his touch, hoping he could make her forget she was a bored wife looking for excitement. She had no doubt he would deliver.
Remembering Zenobia’s parents’ place in Reservoir Hill had come to Kirk like the voice of God. As he wracked his brain trying to figure out where she could be for a whole month, he thought of the house her parents had considered selling and ended up keeping, once the neighborhood started a revitalization program. It still wasn’t the safest place in Baltimore. Crime was still rampant and there was a heavy police presence compared to where he’d chosen to raise his son. Zenobia’s parents had been active members of the Black Panther Party and believed strongly in community activism and service. It was the reason they’d purchased so much property in the ‘hood. When they retired to Florida, this was the one place they’d held on to. He wondered if her being there meant they were aware of the separation and if they supported it.
Kirk watched Zenobia leave for work Thursday morning. It was a crisp November day, the last work day before Thanksgiving. She was wearing another youthful ensemble: a puff vest with a turtleneck sweater, distressed jeans and short boots, looking more like a student than a professor. She also looked happy as she walked to the car carrying a thermos in one hand and an oversized leather tote in the other. He recognized the bag from the rack in their closet and figured it was one of the things she’d taken from the house that day. As he took it all in, he fought with his feelings of sadness and anger. His wife didn’t seem remorseful about hurting them and disrupting their household. She wasn’t sorry. She was defiant.
And now, he was officially a stalker. This was his second day visiting the house. On Wednesday, her car had been parked there in the middle of the day and he’d confirmed she was at work. The spare key he’d found at the house was burning a hole in his pocket. He could do one of her numbers, go inside and take something she would miss. But what if there was an alarm system? That would be just like his father-in-law. He wouldn’t leave his house unprotected. Like me, Kirk thought.
Zenobia pulled off and he sat there like he didn’t have a place of employment, like the door was going to open and reveal some life-shattering secret to his problems. Kirk sat there for almost an hour, checking in with Bo who thought he was at work, and calling the office to rearrange what he could on his schedule.
Just when he started to feel ridiculous, some movement caught his eye. He looked toward the house, as the front door opened. Nothing could have prepared him for the sight of the man exiting the house, not just any man but this man. In his disbelief, Kirk had never felt so betrayed or enraged. As he watched Lucky Baptiste (the man who’d smiled in his face, shaken his hand, and agreed to a plan to work with him) close the door and start down the street, he realized he could kill him. He knew it would be smarter to devise a plan for retribution but the way nature was rising up in him, this rocker dude would be history before a calm thought formed in his mind.
He climbed from the car, spilling the papers from a folder in his lap. He didn’t try to put them back in place before closing the car door and moving to close the distance between him and his enemy. He tried to be inconspicuous but his size and familiar face were real challenges. He continued down the opposite side of the street with the intention of crossing when he was across from him.
Memories came flooding back, as instinct put him in hunter mode. The smell Zenobia left in his house was Lucky’s smell. He remembered from the mayor’s gala. New music she’d been playing in their house was Lucky’s music. He finally had the face and he had the name. Her someone else was Lucky who was too damned preoccupied to see Kirk coming up in his peripheral vision. But before Kirk could step off the curb in his direction, a police car seemed to come out of nowhere.
“Excuse me, Sir. You lost?”
“No. What? I’m not lost.”
“You live around here then?”
Kirk felt like a cursed man, as he had to gauge his tone with the officers, as he’d been taught as a young man. In his current mood, it was almost impossible to appear calm. He handed over his ID as requested and as soon as one of the officers recognized his name, he was a celebrity all over again but in no better mood.
When they got out of the car to address Kirk in a friendlier manner, Lucien was leaving the corner store. Scenes with police officers always warranted attention and this one was no different. Lucien stepped outside the store and looked toward the exchange. It was at this exact time, Kirk made direct eye contact with him. He smirked, as a stunned Lucien froze. In total disregard of the officers, Kirk called to him.
“Hey, man. We need to talk.” He pointed his finger over the officers’ heads straight at his target.