Empty Spaces #10 (The End…For now.)

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.

“Kirk…”

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.

Empty Spaces #9

 

Kirk felt like he was in an alternate reality, like he was on a movie set and the director was going to yell, ‘Cut’ and he would go back to his regular existence. Instead, Zenobia’s chilling words rocked him. This couldn’t be his life. This couldn’t be his wife starring in his worst nightmare. For the first time in a very long time, he was wide-awake.

I’ve met someone else.”

Her confession was on an endless loop, taunting him into a state of rage. All he could think about was how hard he’d been working to maintain their lives, using every minute to advance his career and guarantee success. And she’d had time to meet someone? Kirk slapped the slick tiles high above Zenobia’s head and she ducked, as if she were in danger of being struck. Repulsed and remorseful at the same time, he took it all in.

“What do you mean, you met someone else, Zenobia? Wait. Are you screwing somebody?”

He snarled, as his pain exposed the feral nature of a man in self-protective mode. The fear in her eyes, as she curled into herself, tucked her chin into her chest and wrapped her arms around her body were all disregarded. He slammed the shower door back, rattling it, as its handles collided, and the glass shook. Kirk grabbed a bath sheet and left Zenobia still trembling, as he exited the bathroom.

He shed his towel for a robe, while his heart hammered in his chest. With the way his adrenaline pumped through him, he knew he needed to rein in this feeling of defeat. Kirk was a competitor and didn’t like to lose at anything. He stood at the window in their room and looked out on the start of a new day, filled with an emptiness he’d never experienced. Kirk didn’t want to know the answer to the question he’d asked Zenobia. He knew her well enough to realize this was something significant. Zenobia was the type of woman who put her all into everything. Before she built up the nerve to tell him what she did, he knew she’d already bitten the apple and tasted the fruit of temptation. Her whole heart had been in that confession. That’s why the simple statement cut so deep. His reaction was probably the last push she needed into this “someone’s else’s” arms.

Kirk heard her enter the bedroom. The sound of hangers sliding on rods convinced him she was doing more than getting dressed. When he turned to face the huge walk-in closet they shared, his suspicion was confirmed. Zenobia was pulling clothes from hangers and shoving them into her weekender bag – big enough to hold a week’s worth of clothing and toiletries. How did they go from A to Z so quickly? He wondered if this had been her intention all along.

“So you’re leaving, just like that, huh?”

“I don’t know you anymore, Kirk.”

She was still wrapped in a towel and not making any attempts to wipe the tears and snot from her face.

“Right now, that’s a joke coming from you.”

“I…uh…I thought you were going to hit me.”

“Sorry I didn’t react in a more civilized manner. You tell me you’re fucking some other guy and I’m supposed to congratulate you, huh?”

Zenobia’s mouth dropped open in shock. “I never said I was sleeping with anybody, Kirk. I said I met someone.”

Kirk moved toward her, closing in on Zenobia and noted the nervousness in her body movements. She backed up further into the wide space, as he drew nearer.

“What did you expect me to think, Nobi? You said you met someone, while you’re blubbering all over me in the shower. I know you. You wouldn’t have told me about him unless you’d been with him or planning to very soon. Who the hell is it?”

Kirk’s voice was raised to the right decibel to bring the fear back in her eyes.

“Why do you keep backing up? You know damn well I’m not going to hurt you. Up until tonight, I would have thought the same thing about you.”

He felt the emotion rise in his throat and mist his eyes, as he lowered to the settee in the spacious dressing room.

“Look at how you slay me, Nobi. I should be the one cowering in a corner.” He felt a lump lodge in his throat.

Her face looked mortified and he fought to contain what he considered a sign of weakness.

“Kirk, I didn’t mean to hurt you. I’m sorry.”

He refused to look at her while she pitied him, choosing to keep his head bowed and his focus on the paisley pattern in the carpet. When he felt her hand rest on his shoulder, he recoiled and raised his eyes to meet hers.

“Don’t feel sorry for me. You are going to regret this shit, Zenobia. I have been good to you from the first day I met you. I’ve never stood in your way. I’ve never stopped you from entertaining every whim, whatever struck your interest. Apparently, I made it too easy for another man to become the object of your interest.”

“You act like I planned this, Kirk. I didn’t.”

“But you made a choice, like I do every day. Women try me all the time. I tell them I’m married. I tell them I’m happy with my wife. I guess you didn’t feel the same way.”

Zenobia dropped her towel, like she did any other day and started rummaging through her lingerie drawer. It was something she’d done countless times so, she had no idea of the effect it had on Kirk. Despite himself, he watched her with yearning. She was his! He couldn’t just let her walk away because she’d been tempted. Hell, he’d been tempted more times than he could remember. Before she could settle on her choice of underwear, Kirk moved into action. He laid his hand across her back and stroked her cucumber-scented skin. He wrapped his arms around her waist, pulling her to him.

“Kirk, please don’t do this.”

“Don’t do what? Don’t love my wife? Please tell me what I am supposed to stop doing? Tell me and I’ll do it.”

As she tried to pry his hands away, he held on tighter and began raining kisses on her shoulders. Still seated, his mouth was perfectly aligned with her breasts and he sucked her nipple into his begging lips. The more he manipulated her most sensitive flesh, the more she leaned into him. Her hands moved from trying to push his shoulders away to holding his head against her. Kirk was encouraged by her reception to his touch and made sure to lavish his knowing skills on one breast then the other until Zenobia was whimpering with pleasure.

“Don’t make me beg, Nobi,” he implored softly. “I’m sorry I blew up…just stay.”

He slid down to the floor, bringing his nose in contact with the trimmed thatch of hair at the apex of her thighs. Her hands moved to his head and she grabbed at his ears as he parted and covered her with his hungry lips and tongue. Kirk was relentless in the attention he lavished on Zenobia. When he heard her cry out, he stood and picked her up, walking toward their bed with her legs wrapped around his waist. Everything else fell away, as he made his wife the sole focus of his lovemaking. He didn’t give Zenobia a chance to do anything but receive everything he had to give, the continuous strokes, the ardent caresses, and the presence of mind to make sure she was pleased and more importantly, satisfied. Her cries of ecstasy were music to his ears, but he still withheld completion for himself, not wanting it to end. And not wanting to discover it wasn’t enough.

 

###

 

Zenobia felt horrible, as she lay in bed alone, reminiscing over Kirk’s eager lovemaking. He hadn’t allowed her to return any of the pleasure, as he stroked every inch of her body, from her toes to her head. He claimed her like a man possessed, performing sexual acts he’d never attempted, and tasting parts of her he’d long neglected, like he was partaking of his last meal.

She was physically-spent but emotionally, she still yearned for Lucien’s company. He talked to her and asked questions. He listened to her answers and offered some of his own. He was attuned to her with an intuitiveness of which Kirk didn’t seem capable. It wasn’t a strike against her husband. It was a spiritual awareness like none she’d ever known.

Therein lay the problem. Kirk knew how to step-up physically and through that body language, he expressed his love. She knew he loved her and for hours, he made sure to leave no doubt. But the things he dismissed as trivial were what she most wanted. She wanted to be held, listened to, kissed tenderly, read to… She wanted romance – all the things that prefaced the sex. He always wanted to skip straight to the destination while she wanted to savor the journey. The touching and tasting he’d done earlier was all the foreplay he had ever given.

The sexiest foreplay she could imagine started with the seduction of her mind. Lucien was the man for that and with whom she wanted to explore those sapio-sexual tendencies. She was ready to be exposed to his spiritual practices and Zen philosophies. She wanted his kind of freedom. She needed it. She needed him.

As he waited for her in her parents’ house, Zenobia knew she was going to him. She hated that her decision would hurt Kirk. What better way to curtail the hurt than to yield to the instant gratification of his pleasure? It was the reason she’d given in to his desires. She didn’t want him to hate her.

But she’d only postponed the pain. When she thought of what Kirk would find, upon his return from addressing a crisis with the team, she felt heartless. He hadn’t wanted to go and she knew why. Such a horrible person she was. That was her thought, as she rushed from the bed to the shower, and as she finished packing her bag, as she set the house alarm, got in the car, started the ignition, and drove down the street. But she didn’t stop, and she didn’t turn around. Zenobia didn’t think she could, if she tried.

 

###

 

When Lucien opened his eyes, it was late Sunday morning, much later than his usual rising. As he slowly came into himself, he scanned the room, becoming familiar with his surroundings. He admired the old-fashioned bedroom with beautiful woodwork framing the walls and an antique marble fireplace, all original to the house. In the light of day, everything looked like a fresh start. He slid from the bed down to the floor and did something his mother taught him, since he was three years old. He prayed. He thanked God for another chance to be a better person. Still admiring the craftsmanship of the space, he went into the bathroom and washed his face then prepared an area in front of the bedroom window to do his morning yoga practice. He opened a window to let the brisk fall air fill the room. Next, he rolled out his mat and assumed the first pose in a series of sun salutations, reaching toward the sky in a standing backbend and inhaling deeply before expelling his breath in a controlled count.

When Lucien finished the abbreviated session, he felt relaxed. To underscore the sense of calmness, the sound of a saxophone drifted into the open window and brought a smile to his face. In a buoyed mood, he went down to the kitchen, prepared hot tea and stood on the back porch in the morning chill with his bare feet, tee shirt and cotton drawstring pants. As his warm breath met the cold air, he took pleasure in filling his lungs with the crispness and looking out on the evidence of an artistic community taking shape around him.

Wood carvings stood on porches that were painted in multiple hues of bright paint. One house was decorated with mosaic, glass panels enclosing the porch and another sunroom showed a painter setting up her easel and canvas. In the distance, he spotted the sax player standing on an open porch moving as he held his instrument like a dance partner. Lucien felt at home. He wanted to pull out his acoustic guitar and join the dance. The only thing that would make it perfect was Zenobia standing behind him with her arms wrapped around his waist, taking in the scene along with him or maybe sitting by his side writing all about it.

He was going against everything he believed in to be with her. In his music life, he’d been given access to a bevy of beauties, of all hues and walks of life but in his personal life, he’d only given his heart to one woman. And Pam had crushed him, making it almost impossible to let anyone else in. Until Zenobia… Although she was gorgeous, the physical attraction isn’t what held him. He saw something of himself in her. Zenobia was haunted – empty, just like him. Some people filled their emptiness with things and some with other people. They were doing both. He wondered if it would be enough.

When the air went from invigorating to plain cold, Lucien went inside. He tidied the area where he and Zenobia opened to each other the night before. As he folded the throw they’d been wrapped in, memories hit him hard. One passionate kiss had lead to another, then another, until she was pulling his shirt from his pants and running her hands up his chest. It had only been his intention to confront her but she made his resolve waver. Clarity didn’t hit him until he had her breast in his mouth and his fingers plunged inside her.

“I can’t do this.” He’d said, as he withdrew from her.

“Wh – what’s wrong, Lucien?” She’d looked at him with rejection reflected in her eyes.

“You’re not ready. You’re still tethered to your unhappiness and I want you free.”

“But…I want to be with you. I’ve been waiting for you all night.”

“You weren’t going to tell me about Kirk who’s very much a part of your life.”

He watched as she fixed her clothes and he did the same. He was intoxicated by her scent on his fingers, but his mind was clear. It wasn’t time yet.

Don’t play with this one. He dismissed the small voice and drew her into an embrace.

“I’m not trying to punish you, Zen. I promise. I’m trying to protect us.”

She’d insisted he stay at her parents’ house, as she prepared to leave, looking forlorn, like a tortured soul caught between heaven and hell.

 

“Hello.”

Lucien heard her call out, as she entered the house, pulling his thoughts away from what was. When she appeared in the doorway, he had to do a double-take. It was as if a different woman stood watching, as he straightened the stack of magazines they’d disturbed the last night.

Her face was clear and bright, free of makeup and misery. And her smile was wide open. This was the least inhibited Lucien had ever seen Zenobia. She set the big leather bag down near the door and walked into his arms.

“You smell amazing,” he said. He would always remember those words as the first he’d uttered in the theater. Happiness welled up inside him. He was with the beautiful woman from the theater. The realization put him in his feelings.

“And you feel amazing.”

They shared a soulful kiss, using their whole bodies, as well as their mouths. The contact felt right to Lucien – solid and enticing.

“I’ve cleared the way for us,” she spoke against his chest and neither moved to break contact.

 

    ###

 

When Kirk pulled up to his house, his heart sank to his toes. Zenobia’s car was gone. It was what he feared most – that what he’d done to hold her wouldn’t be enough. He sat in the driveway for an hour trying to come to terms with the abandonment he anticipated and also holding out hope that she’d run an errand and would return any minute. Out of sixty minutes, that one never came.

The smell of flowers wafting up from the bouquet he’d bought were stifling. Kirk wanted them out of his sight. Every glance at them on the passenger seat was a reminder of how he’d played the fool for his own wife. Flashes of their morning played in his mind, as the yearning for her slowly turned to disgust. The woman he’d placed high on a pedestal would seem to have more game than a loose woman like Jeannette. Her advantage was the perception of wholesomeness he would have defended with his life.

Kirk entered the house and dumped the flowers in the kitchen trash bin. He descended the stairs into the basement, searching for solace in the comfort of his man cave and the fully-stocked bar in it. He undressed down to his boxer briefs and undershirt, down to his self-pity and anger. He poured the first drink before he turned on the TV. A game wouldn’t fill the void her absence created. As the whiskey burned his throat going down, Kirk felt the warmth of the brown liquid spreading throughout his body. He thought of how much it would take to make him go numb. That’s how much he needed to ingest. He needed to make the pain go away. The biggest hurt was being in a fight and not knowing his opponent. If he knew who was ripping his baby from his life, at least he’d be able to build a strategy to get her back. Because there was no doubt about it, Zenobia was coming back home.

After the second whiskey, Kirk stripped away his undershirt and turned on the tube. By then, he was ready for a distraction… and more whiskey. When he thought he’d bought more time, he told his assistant coach he’d be out all week. Kirk thought that time would be spent loving on his wife, instead it would be spent trying to drink her out of his system.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Empty Spaces #8

Zenobia went ahead and opened the second bottle of wine and looked around at all her handiwork: the ambient lighting, the finger foods, the bottles of wine, and the bed upstairs – made just right for stripping down. When she thought of how much she’d planned to try with Lucien, the short memories came flooding back: the tender kisses and the hungry ones, the sexy voice, the serenade, the invitation in his eyes. All of it reminded her she hadn’t been crazy to think they had something. They did. Zenobia felt it in her bones. Something awful was keeping him away.

She decided to leave one more message. Anything more would be like begging and in her heart, that’s exactly what she’d been doing. Please don’t leave us undone. Please don’t leave me hanging. Please don’t do this. Please…The lust was almost suffocating. Despite everything, she still hoped he would call with a plausible explanation. She still wanted him, even if for one night. This night. This was that time she was prepared to give him everything, even if it wasn’t to be spoken of again.

It felt immature, handing that kind of power over to someone else. She was right there, poised at the threshold of her own happiness, waiting for someone else to open the door. She didn’t need permission. It was time for it to stop.

The wine hadn’t dulled the hollow ache of disappointment in her chest. Zenobia hadn’t felt so rejected, since being stood-up for senior prom. That was twenty-four years ago, and she still remembered the pain. Kirk had labeled her a drama queen for her emotional overreaction to everything from long waits in line to forgotten anniversaries. She wondered if this unexpected hurt of Lucien’s rejection should go on that list. Maybe, it was time to face reality: Lucien had toyed with her affections and now she felt naïve for falling for him. It was simple. He chose not to come. He chose to be somewhere else. He chose.

When Kirk called, the play had ended three hours ago. She wasn’t ready to face him, but she wasn’t going to ignore him either.

“Nobi, where are you? Did you get my text earlier tonight?”

She almost felt bad about the care in his voice but not quite. Where was his concern, when he regularly dropped her off at the theater alone with no thought of how she felt attending every play like a single woman?

“Yes, I got it. I’m out with a friend in need.” The remorse about lying was gone.

“Did you ever think that I might need you?”

She paused to give her response careful consideration.

“No, Kirk. Actually, that never crossed my mind.” And it hadn’t.

He uttered an expletive under his breath and the rarity of it didn’t make her cringe. It was the same f-word reverberating in her soul.

“Are you serious?” Annoyance crept into Kirk’s voice. “Where are you right now? I’ll come to you.”

“No. I don’t need you to come.”

Before he could finish his babbling response about what had gotten into her, Zenobia disconnected the call. Kirk did everything in his own time, she reasoned. She would go home when she was ready.

###

Zenobia had been reaching out to him all evening and even though Lucien felt betrayed, he couldn’t ignore the desperation in her voicemails. No one had to tell him she wasn’t a promiscuous woman. He knew it as surely as he knew he needed answers and that he still couldn’t shake his desire. As good as Mayor Johnson looked in that tight dress, her suggestive behavior had ultimately turned him off. Zenobia had the kind of sexy that didn’t require any more effort than being herself and that’s the kind he liked. She wasn’t aware of the power she wielded.

He told himself, he shouldn’t be thinking of her that way anymore. Now that he knew. He was still reeling from the news of Zenobia’s marriage and that he’d liked her husband well enough…as a stranger. Lucien wondered if Kirk Sanford was responsible for the sadness Zenobia wore like a cloak. He didn’t have anything personal against the man, but if he was causing her pain, he would move him out of the way. Sometimes the ones who seemed to have it all together left a lot to be desired. And she was desired, by him.

Given his not so distant history, it amazed him that his thoughts were traveling this route. How could he still want that man’s wife, after he’d been deceived by his own? He’d learned by trial, the ways of duplicitous women.

Lucien sat outside the address Zenobia texted him. When his ringing phone disturbed the quietness of the limo, he was reminded he wasn’t alone. Kit sat dozing in the driver’s seat. The screen lit up with Zenobia’s number again. At that point, Lucien had no shame whatsoever. It was 2a.m. and he opened the car door.

“You want me to knock for you first, Lucky? This ain’t the best neighborhood.”

“Naw, I’m okay. You’re parked right outside the door…and remember, I’ll make it worth your while.”

“I’m cool. G’on handle your business, while I listen to some Luther.” The Barry White lookalike said with a chuckle at the end of his comment.

Lucien approached the marble steps leading up to the large rowhouse. The streets were deserted and the sound of his boots striking the pavement stood out. He wondered whose house Zenobia had invited him to, what she expected, and if she was still waiting? These were only a few of the questions to which he needed answers. His knock was hard and short, but his wait was long. He shoved his hands in his pockets while he waited longer than he wanted. As he turned to walk away, Zenobia opened the door, looking as if he’d roused her from a sound sleep, with her curls askew and her eyes still drowsy.

“Lucien. I didn’t think you were coming.” She was wiping at her eyes, smearing her makeup and still managing to look amazing, like a Sunday morning with her turning over in his arms. He swallowed to relieve the tension clenching his throat.

“I didn’t think I was coming either.”

He stepped toward the door without waiting for an invitation and Zenobia moved aside to let him enter.

Lucien took in the scene before him. The disheveled sofa with scattered pillows and the throw draping to the floor was obviously where she’d fallen asleep. The spread of food and candles looked like the remnants of a party.

“What did I miss?”

Zenobia rested her hand on his forearm, stopping his next comment before he could utter a word.

“I got worried, when you didn’t show up at the theater and I called you all night.” Lucien admired how she became the interrogator, when he was the one with the most important questions. “Where were you, Lucien?”

He took a seat on an ottoman next to the sofa.

“I was with Kirk.”

“What?” Her voice faltered on just that one syllable. He gave her a look that told her not to question his announcement and she didn’t.

“Lucien, let me explain…”

“Why didn’t you tell me, Zen?” He jumped to his feet, while trying to contain his irritation.

“I didn’t know how to tell you.”

Standing face to face, Zenobia’s eyes filled with tears and her face – with shock.

“This is why you ignored me, isn’t it? I can just imagine what you must think.”

Lucien watched as she moved away from him in a frantic burst of energy. Zenobia started collecting the trays of food, filling a waste basket to overflowing. She was crying openly, as she blew out the liquified candles.

“Stop it, Zenobia! I didn’t come here to watch you clean up. I want you to answer me.”

“I don’t have any answers.”

“Why did you ask me here? And I know this is not your home, so what exactly is this?” He moved his arms to point out their surroundings.

He stood his ground, as she moved in closer. “This place belongs to my parents. And no, I don’t bring people here to sleep with.

“Is that what you wanted, to invite me here for sex?” Lucien used his thumb to wipe her cheek, as she averted her eyes. “Look at me, Zen.”

He tipped her chin with his finger so her eyes met his gaze. The sadness he saw in them touched his heart.

“Why are you living like this?”

Lucien didn’t stop her from pulling away, but he did follow her to the sofa.

“Lucien, I’m sorry for not being truthful but I’m not sorry for meeting you…or for wanting you.”

“You think I don’t want you because I met your husband? I wish I was that smart because then, I wouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t have passed up a proposition from an eligible bachelorette who was sweating me so hard tonight. I wish I was that decent. All I could think about was being with you, while your husband insisted on being nice to me, making business proposals, and setting up lunch meetings.”

“No! You can’t do that. You have to tell him no. Please?” Her jump from contrition to panic caused alarm, which he couldn’t disguise in his shocked expression.

“I’m sorry.” She reined in the hysterics.

“Stop being sorry because it doesn’t change shit. I can’t stop yet and I know you’re curious about me. We could satisfy our curiosity but sex is not my priority. I’m feeling you way deeper than that.”

With heated passion, he moved in swiftly, kissing her tears and taking her mouth in the most sensuous movements – sucking her lips and running his tongue across the seam of her mouth.

“I’ve been so lonely, Lucien. I know that sounds stupid for a married woman.”

“I don’t know what this is, but loneliness won’t ever be a part of it. You feel me?”

He enfolded her in his embrace and continued to plant kisses across her eyelids and her face, before claiming her lips again. He really didn’t know what he was doing but leaving her alone didn’t figure into his plans.

###

Kirk sat in the living room waiting. It was almost 4 a.m. and he refused to budge from the chair facing the door. His calls had gone straight to voice mail and his gut was tight with apprehension. He wanted to be the first thing Zenobia saw when she got there, from wherever she’d been all night. It was as if he’d been speaking to a stranger on the phone, the attitude so foreign. Lately, her behavior had been odd. She was distant, and Kirk was worried about his wife.

With any other woman, Kirk would suspect an affair. Where before, they bickered about his disinterest in going to the theater, she was now wearing sexier clothing, going to jazz concerts, the theater, and helping mysterious friends all of a sudden – it all pointed to cheating ways. But Zenobia was no cheater.

It had been different with Jeannette. When they were together, she was flirtatious and sexual…with too many men. As he’d observed her at the gala, Kirk was glad he’d closed that chapter of his life. Jeannette had been so obvious in throwing herself at that rocker guy, Lucky Baptiste. He wasn’t Jeannette’s normal suit and tie type. Kirk almost felt sorry that she hadn’t recognized the signs of disinterest. He’d sent up a silent thank you that a woman like Zenobia was waiting at home for him. But she hadn’t been at home, not after the theater, and not after four o’clock in the morning.

When Kirk heard her keys in the door, it was an hour later. The birds were announcing a new day, but it was still as dark as night. He remained quiet, watching as she hung her keys on the designated hook and stepped out of her shoes. She didn’t notice him sitting there with the lights turned off.

“Where the hell have you been?”

Zenobia jumped at the sound of his voice. It wasn’t raised but it was forceful and she turned to face him.

“Kirk, you frightened me. I…uh… had to help a friend.”

“What damn friend, Zenobia? First, you have a friend you need to talk to at two in the morning, now you have a friend who needs to keep you out all night. What is going on?”

He took in her appearance. Her clothes were bedraggled, and her hair was mussed, as if she’d just gotten out of bed. The sheen of gloss on her lips suggested she’d freshened up before she came home. It all looked suspicious and she looked guilty as hell.

“Answer me.” He demanded, as he stood and flicked on the bright overhead light. The first thing he noticed was the puffiness of her eyes. It looked like she had been crying all night long.

“I..uh…I needed to help my friend. You don’t know her. We know each other from the theater.”

“Why didn’t you call to let me know that and why have you been crying?”

He noted the agitation in her voice and how she stiffened when he pressed for answers.

“Why are you interrogating me, Kirk?”

“Because you’re my wife and you’re just getting home at the crack of dawn.”

“And I’m grown.”

She pushed past him and headed up the stairs. Kirk stayed on her heels until they reached their room.

“I’ve never disrespected you, Zenobia and I’ll be damned if I’ll allow you to disrespect me.”

Kirk stood with his arms crossed, as Zenobia disrobed, flinging her clothes across the chaise lounge like they were on fire.

“I just wanna go to sleep. It’s been a long day.”

“You look like you just woke up. Maybe yesterday was long but this is a new day. And I’m not going to stand for this new shit.”

She stormed into the bathroom and turned on the shower, leaving Kirk to get undressed. He walked to his dresser and removed his watch, placing it on his valet. He emptied his pockets and placed the contents on the dresser top and paused to gaze at his reflection. He noticed how drawn he looked, how angry. Between the pressures at work to deliver a winning season and now the worry over Zenobia, he looked wrung out. Was that more gray hair? He massaged his temples and closed his eyes. Kirk was exhausted.

He felt blindsided by the change in Zenobia’s behavior. She was pulling away. It seemed sudden, but realization hit him with a swift kick. This had been building for awhile and he thought it was as simple as her wanting him to accompany her to plays and museums. But it was much more than that. He removed his tuxedo jacket and pants and laid them over her discarded clothing. After he’d stripped down to his boxer briefs, he walked toward the bathroom, and opened the door to a cloud of steam. He stepped out of his underwear and pulled back the shower door to find Zenobia standing in direct contact of the hard, piping spray. Her hands were over her eyes, as she sputtered against the water running down her face.

Kirk moved behind her and pulled her into his arms. It was then that she lowered her hands and turned to face him.

“What’s wrong, Zenobia? Tell me what’s going on.”

“I can’t right now, Kirk. I just need some time.”

“Time for what?” He coaxed her away from the forceful stream. “C’mon, Nobi. You can tell me anything.”

Kirk was taken aback by the flood of tears that followed his tender touch on her face, as he cupped her chin and looked into her eyes. He dropped his hand and pulled her in closer. The two of them stood in the humid shower engulfed by the rise of steam and their emotions. As she cried uncontrollably, his chest tightened with a sense of foreboding. He often accused her of overacting or being dramatic but that was when she threw tantrums and sniffled when she couldn’t have her way. He wasn’t prepared for this onslaught of tears and heaving sobs.

“What is it, baby?” He spoke in a soothing tone that was nowhere near the anxiety rumbling within him.

He reached around her body, slickened with a mixture of water and sweat, and fumbled with the knobs on the wall. Just minutes ago, he’d entered the shower expecting to connect with his wife and climb into bed for a Sunday full of make-up sex and maybe a movie marathon. Now, as he turned the water off, he had an uneasy feeling that nothing about his Sunday would be sexy or relaxing.

As they stood facing each other, Kirk reached down to slick Zenobia’s wet hair back from her face.

“Just tell me, Zenobia.”

She hiccupped the remnants of her last sobs. “It’s really bad.”

Kirk’s anxiety level spiked, as he stretched his eyes, prompting her to speak.

“Kirk… I…uh…I’ve met someone else.”

Empty Spaces #7

The tour bus had become claustrophobic a week ago, so when it pulled into the reserved spot across from the arena downtown, Lucien had to restrain himself from running down the aisle and out the door. He’d bet that would make him look like a madman but not any crazier than he felt.

When the band embarked on their mini-tour, the optimism made the trip exciting. Then the social media hype, the sold-out crowds and high energy performances, reassured him he still had it – that they still had it.

Lucien stood in the aisle, pulling his carry-on belongings from the overhead compartment. As he checked his bags for forgotten items, he peeked out the window to insure a car had been sent to collect him and take him straight to the hotel. Life on the road had its share of ups and downs. It seemed like they’d experienced most of the ups early on and the downs had dominated the past seven days. The dark place he’d occupied during the last few days was starting to dissipate, thanks to his friends. They had yet to leave him hanging whenever he fell off the precarious perch of his emotional stability, talking him down off the proverbial ledge more times than he could count.

Roland, usually the jokester, advised Lucien to not place too much hope in connecting to Zenobia. In a rare somber moment, he said it wouldn’t be fair to her. After a lot of thought, Lucien agreed. It wasn’t her responsibility to save him from himself. It seemed like she was coming to the same understanding. The abrupt ending to their call a few nights ago, was cryptic and left questions where he shouldn’t even be concerned. Maybe she had to go to the bathroom or she wanted to make sure she got enough sleep for work. Whatever the reason, she didn’t owe him anything.

“Shorty is fine though,” Roland never tried to hide his opinion of Zenobia’s looks.

“She’s more than fine, Ro.”

“That’s for you to know. Just don’t put everything into finding out. She’s not your superwoman.”

“I don’t expect her to be.”

“Don’t tell me you don’t expect her to come in and save the day. She ain’t Pam and you need to let her be who she is.”

The conversation had ended with him pondering Roland’s advice.

He would be lying to himself, if he pretended he didn’t want to matter to her. She was the mystery woman from the theater, after all and there was still enough of a puzzle he wanted to solve. Knowing he’d see her in a few hours, brought back the hunger he’d been suppressing, as he made a conscious effort to push her to the back of his mind. But Zenobia wasn’t having it. She was occupying his thoughts, like a cliffhanger, knowing he was in the perfect position for excitement but afraid it would be held out of his reach.

After parting with the band, he loaded his belongings in the trunk and the hired driver delivered him to the hotel. Lucien was prepared to spend hours doing nothing but taking a long, hot shower and watching meaningless television until it was time to go to the theater. He didn’t know what the play was about but once his driver realized he was amenable to friendly conversation, he filled Lucien in on the hot debate brewing over who would attend the premiere vs. the mayor’s ball. It had created the biggest conflict of the Baltimore social calendar. It wasn’t an issue for Lucien, the decision had been taken out of his hands by the lure of Zenobia and his decision to buy a subscription to the theater just to increase his chances of spending time with her. If he was honest, he’d admit how much he wanted to see her right now, but he could control his impulse and he would refrain from calling her. Absence not only made his heart fonder; it made it hungrier. Roland’s words were but a distant memory, something to consider then allow his true feelings to have free reign. His ringing phone disturbed his vision of just how he wanted the evening to play out. A glance at the screen displayed his manager Ray’s name, which told Lucien to expect the unexpected.

###

     Zenobia was slowly becoming someone she didn’t recognize. Sneaking, cavorting, fantasizing, and lusting weren’t her everyday behaviors but now that they’d been drawn out, she wasn’t sure she’d be able to put them away or if she wanted to. The sneaking had become exciting. Cavorting with Lucien made her feel sexy. Fantasizing about him kept her inspired and lusting after him was its own reward. She didn’t know how long she’d be able to keep up the pretense. Based on desire alone, she was in deep, a place she had not occupied in a long time. She hadn’t been with another man in more than twenty years and had never considered it…until now.

To her disappointment, she and Lucien had been communicating by voice mail (hers) and text messages (his), ever since Kirk’s presence ended their call Wednesday night. With so much lost in the translation between SMS language and real talk, Zenobia couldn’t tell how he was feeling. All she wanted to do was connect with him.

No emoji or typed word could ever replace the inflection of human voices, the tones of excitement or anticipation, the breathy sighs, or well-placed pauses. It was all so very telling, which is why she was in limbo. Lucien’s texts weren’t giving her much:

The road has been rough. I’ve been meditating a lot …and thinking.

     She wondered what that meant and how it applied to them, or at least to her. The row of hearts with which he ended each text gave her hope that they were still sharing the same desires. They had the theater and their assigned seats. As far as she was concerned, it was a date. That had to be enough for now.

On Saturday night, Zenobia was dressed in all black for the Baltimore premier of a much-anticipated play by Jefferson Opoku, a British-Ghanaian playwright. She stood before the cheval mirror, smoothing the silk charmeuse fabric over her hips, admiring the movement of the bias-cut bottom, which swayed when she twirled on her toes, making her feel like a ballerina. The boat neck, adorned with faceted jet buttons, was elegant in its simplicity and left no need for a necklace. Exquisite diamonds glittered in her earlobes and on her hands.

The absence of a wedding ring had always been a point of contention between her and Kirk. He took her refusal to wear one as an affront to their marriage. She, however, maintained the beliefs with which she’d been raised. Her unconventional parents, who’d never legally married, considered it a show of ownership and passed that conviction down to their son and daughter. With a jewelry designer for a brother, there was no shortage of exquisite pieces at her disposal. The cocktail ring she was wearing for the night was both bold and stylish. As she slid her feet into the black satin mules to complement her outfit, Kirk whistled his appreciation as he entered their room.

Also, on Saturday night, the mayor’s annual fundraising gala was honoring the music program for the Baltimore School for the Arts, one of the many causes Kirk supported. Their son Aaron was a product of BSA and a star student at the Berklee School of Music. There was no question of where Kirk would be, the one night he wouldn’t be driving Zenobia to the theater because he would be attending the gala. With so little interest in the Arts, his dedication was astounding. He was so invested, she figured a force of nature was the only thing that could pull him away from the chance to give back – a hurricane or flood to shut the city down. That’s how loyal he was. He overflowed with determination toward whatever he held dear. Zenobia knew how that felt because she was just as determined to attend the play, only in her case, the cause dear to her heart was not only the theater but also Lucien. God help her.

When she turned around, it was Zenobia’s turn to be wowed by her husband. Kirk was resplendent in a Tom Ford tuxedo. Like her, he was also dressed in all-black, his jacket tailored to hug his slim, athletic build. He was in excellent shape. Standing at 6’8”, he was an imposing figure, and in that moment, Zenobia acknowledged him for what he was – fine. She was aware that Kirk still turned many heads other than hers, one being that of the current mayor, Jeannette Johnson, his former girlfriend in whose company he would be tonight. Even though it was business, they still shared a history.

“You look very handsome tonight, Mr. Sanford,” she said, as she smoothed his lapels and perfected the Windsor knot in his tie.

Kirk flashed his crooked smile. “I’d look even better with my gorgeous wife on my arm.”

“Kirk…you know I have a play tonight.”

“And another one next month, then another a month after that.”

“This one is special though. It’s a premiere and people have been trying to get tickets for weeks now. It’s sold out.”

The smile had left his face from the moment she mentioned the play. Zenobia squeezed by him to head toward the stairs and he grasped her by the waist, turning her in his arms.

“You’re determined to make this hard for me, aren’t you?”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about, Kirk.”

He pulled her toward him and nuzzled the crook of her neck, following with his lips, as he slid his hands down the silky fabric to grasp her full behind.

“Do you have to go out looking so damn good?”

“Do you have to grab my ass like that?”

“Absolutely, ma’am. Because it’s mine.”

Zenobia chuckled as she pried Kirk’s arms from around her.

“Stop playing. I’m not your property and I’m gonna be late if I don’t leave now. So are you.”

He fixed his eyes on her so long and hard, Zenobia found it unnerving. He pulled her back one more time and kissed her so that she’d have to reapply her lipstick. As she made her way down the stairs, he spoke to the back of her departing figure.

“Just because I don’t have an interest in attending plays, doesn’t mean I’m blind to how my wife looks. I know other men notice too.”

Zenobia’s steps slowed near the bottom of the stairs. He was in a peculiar mood, assessing her appearance as if it defined her worth. If anything, she should have mentioned something about him attending an event with his ex, almost fiancée, the woman who’d use any excuse to be in his presence. But then that would make her a hypocrite.

###

     Zenobia took a detour on the way to Centerstage to a beautiful brownstone in Reservoir Hill. It was the last property her parents retained when they retired to Florida. Most of the time, it was rented through Airbnb and it was a twelve-minute drive from the theater. It was currently unoccupied, and it was where she planned to bring Lucien after the play. Those galas, given by the mayor, always ran into the wee hours, long after the theater closed. She hadn’t thought much beyond that, beyond nature taking over, or in their case, opportunity presenting itself. If, as the quote stated, luck was what happened when preparation met opportunity, Zenobia was feeling very lucky and hoped Lucien would live up to his larger than life persona.

As she took a final inventory of the food and drink in the kitchen and a last sweep of her eye across the downstairs, her phone buzzed with a text. It was from Kirk:

Jeannette’s having an after party at her place. Don’t make me go alone. Here’s the address

Zenobia felt like the heavens had just rained down the first stroke of luck. Kirk would be busy campaigning for money and her parents’ house would be the last place in the world he’d expect to find her. With half an hour to travel, she locked up the house and headed out for the play.

As expected, it was a packed house and Zenobia encountered plenty people who knew both her and Kirk. That didn’t faze her, as she kept looking up the aisle for Lucien to make an appearance. She could barely contain her excitement. Wondering about him was far different from knowing about him, touching and kissing him. She wanted to hold his hand in the darkened theater and to experience the new play together. This time she wouldn’t have to leave early for her ride. She could stay until the end, after the Q & A with the playwright and the cast, and walk out to her own car, which was parked one block up the street. Afterward she wanted to be with Lucien in every way. She hoped her desire wouldn’t dominate her thoughts and diminish her theater experience but then again, it was too late. He already dominated her thoughts and she knew the play would be nowhere near as impressive as he.

Ten more minutes passed. Zenobia sent a text and received no response. The lights dimmed, and she was worried. The play was about to start, and Lucien wasn’t there. When she thought of it, nothing had been confirmed for the evening. She assumed he would show up for the play. They had their subscriptions, right? She hoped all was well between them, after not hearing his voice since Wednesday. She’d planned with no assurances and now she felt like a fool. Something had to be wrong. Lucien wouldn’t leave her hanging like this. Would he?

The MC appeared downstage to announce the play, asked everyone to silence their devices, and Zenobia had a lot more room to stretch her legs, when the curtain went up. The play literally started with a BANG! A gunshot rang out in the opening scene and she moved to the edge of her seat to be immersed in the drama about gang life in the slums of London, while the thoughts warred in her head.

###

         Lucien sat back against the maroon leather seats of the limo, wondering how he let himself get talked into Ray’s shenanigans. His last-ditch plan to have Lucien participate in this music fundraiser for the mayor was a major inconvenience but he owed the man so much, it was almost impossible to tell him no to anything. Ray had saved his indie career when he thought he could accomplish everything through the Internet. That plan had worked for a while but started running out of steam along with most of his followers from My Space. Ray took him under his tutelage and applied some old school music business tactics to the new-fangled methods of increasing visibility and attracting fans. They worked better than either of them could have dreamed. For that, he would be grateful to Ray always. Thus, he found himself dressed in a tuxedo, with no semblance of himself, except the alligator cowboy boots he wore and his nose ring. Ray was convinced his stamp of approval on the fundraiser would bring bigger donations and an increase in interest. Lucien was a hot artist with a lot of clout.

The same driver who’d driven Lucien from the bus to his hotel now pulled his limo to the front of the Baltimore Hilton, stopping then opening the door for Lucien.

“Thanks, Kit,” Lucien shook the limo owner’s hand, sliding a twenty against his palm.

“Thanks, Lucky. If you wanna leave early, you have my number.”

Lucien entered the lobby of the hotel alone. Sometimes he traveled with a bodyguard, especially when visiting a public place for the first time but this was a black-tie event with the mayor. He didn’t feel comfortable drawing that kind of attention, even though the attention was sure to come. He wouldn’t be an easy man to miss.

If there was such a thing as a mix between a soul brother and a rock star, Lucien would be it. Standing about 6’3” with dark chocolate skin, broad shoulders, wild curls tousled atop his head and shaved on the sides, he attracted looks every where he went. The gala was no different. In fact, the mayor was expecting him. He’d spoken briefly with Mayor Johnson on the phone and he still wasn’t sure what was expected of him, other than to speak to certain people, shake hands, and play nice so a ridiculous amount of money would be raised for the kids. But then again, his experience in dealing with Ray told him to roll with the punches.

He was sorry to miss the play with Zenobia but no official plans were made for the night. Lucien planned to touch base as soon as the gala was over. He was in the spotlight as a single man and since he wasn’t attached to anyone, he wanted to keep it that way.

“Lucien, so glad you could make it, man.”

Ray, with his narrow face and round glasses, looked different with his hair slicked down and pulled into a tight ponytail. The tuxedo alone would’ve communicated he was serious about his appearance that night but the ponytail took it over the top. Lucien didn’t know whether to be nervous or to fall out laughing.

“Hey Ray. New look?”

“Yeah, well, I try a little harder sometimes.”

“Tell me about it.”

The two men maneuvered the crowd together, stopping intermittently to speak and/or to be introduced to various people in attendance. Lucien wasn’t familiar with anyone, so far. He spotted Mayor Johnson being photographed in front of a backdrop under bright lights with one person, after another who appeared to be waiting in line, a very long one. She was a beautiful woman, like Jayne Kennedy from back in the day. She was also statuesque with a bodacious body and the body hugging dress to play up her attributes well. To his knowledge, she was single. He’d googled her earlier, after agreeing to make an appearance at the event.

“Ain’t she fine?”

Ray sided up to him and noticed the direction of his gaze.

“Yes, she is and single, right?”

“As far as I know. When she was a young attorney, she was hooked up with this baller I know. I thought he would’ve wifed her but I understand homeboy dumped her for one of those creative types, a younger, finer version of Jeannette.”

“Damn. If he found someone finer than her, she must be a heavenly being.”

The two men shared a hearty laugh as they considered what it would be like to be with a woman as fine and accomplished.

Lucien’s thoughts landed on Zenobia. He was still pining for her. She must be thinking the worst of him right now. He was a no-show for the play and he’d taken the coward’s way out, not calling to notify her that he’d made other plans. Theirs had been an unspoken agreement that the first Saturday of every new play of the season was their standing date. So, essentially, he’d stood her up. While he relinquished his thoughts to ways he could make it up to her, he felt the tug of his sleeve and met Ray’s inquisitive eyes.

“I lost you for a minute, Lucky.”

“Yeah.” Lucien chuckled. “I was thinking of the fine woman I’ll be meeting later tonight.”

“That was a fine one you had at the show a while back.”

“Yeah, she’s all that.”

“Well, c’mon. I don’t want to keep her waiting. Let’s go over here and talk to the mayor so we can set up a meeting later to discuss how you can help her cause. You bring a lot to the table and in times like this, only face to face meetings will do. Let the social media kick in later.”

Lucien followed Ray in the mayor’s direction. Her line of photo ops had dwindled down to two. As they drew closer, he realized she was even more attractive up close. The vibrant red she wore played nicely against her cinnamon brown complexion and her full curls draped over her shoulders the way a man would appreciate them fanned out on his pillow. She was sexy and as he watched her practiced pose – the placement of her shoulders and the forward thrust of her hips – he knew she was aware of her appeal.

He was bound to be recognized, eventually, and he began attracting attention before they reached their destination. First, a musician from the band approached and introduced himself. Then, two young women who’d just seen him in Ohio walked up, full of excitement, asking for hugs and selfies. Fresh off tour, Lucien welcomed the love. This is what he thrived off – the opportunity to connect with fans. Soon, other curious eyes wandered in his direction, which led to the curious gaze of Her Honor. Her eyes met his across the crowd and she started toward him, as well, accompanied by a small entourage of suits and elegant gowns.

She had a determined strut, as she walked with purpose. It was hard not to notice the rhythm of her hourglass figure as her hips swung one way and her breasts effected a firm jiggle with each new step. She was a walking advertisement for sex appeal and Lucien didn’t dare look away.

Ray intervened as soon as she approached.

“Hello, Madame Mayor.” He took her hand and raised it to his lips.

The people surrounding her looked shocked as he took personal liberties and she pushed him away with laughter.

“Stop that Madame Mayor stuff, Ray. How you doin’, my friend?”

“Everything is everything, Jeannette. You look stunning as usual.”

Lucien took in the scene playing out before him, including the interest in her eyes as they didn’t stray too far for too long. They kept coming back to him until Ray seemed to notice her unspoken inquiry.

“Mayor Johnson,” Ray started. “Let me introduce you to Lucky Baptiste, guitarist extraordinaire. He’s a world-renowned artist, here to support your cause.”

She offered her hand, which Lucien accepted with a firm hold.

“Pleased to meet you, Mayor Johnson. I’d be happy to help anyway I can.”

“Lucky, huh? That’s a nice name. Are you?”

Lucien knew she would be flirtatious. It was almost a dare for him to accept the challenge. The thing about him was, he liked a bit more mystery. There was nothing hidden about her at all, nothing to wonder. He knew if he could see it, others could too.

“It’s actually Lucien. Lucky is my stage name and I guess since I’ve been fortunate enough to live my dreams then yes, I am lucky.”

Her eyes sparked with intrigue and just that quickly, he knew she was his for the asking. But he wasn’t. He released her hand, as another fan approached and asked for a photo, which led to another, then another. He was in his element and if he played it up right, he could parlay it into generous donations for the school’s music program.

A very tall brother, accompanied by an older couple, walked up to the mayor, greeting her like family, while he remained occupied with Ray and new autograph seekers.

“Well, I’ll be damned.” Ray’s outburst was loud and targeted the new arrivals. He hunched Lucien with his shoulder. “This is the baller I was telling you about earlier. Maybe they are still an item, after all these years. I thought he got married.”

Ray turned toward that side of their now busy gathering, huddled at the edge of the makeshift dancefloor.

“Hey, Skip. Skip Sanford is that you?”

“Hey, man. Long time, no see. How’ve you been Ray?”

“I’m still working that music business, bruh. Let me introduce you to my biggest client.”

Lucien turned toward Ray and the man he identified as “the baller” for the introduction he knew was coming. The brother made his 6’3” feel dwarfed. Lucien was wondering what team he was affiliated with, when Ray took him by the arm.

“Lucky, this here is Skip Sanford, formerly of the Washington Wizards. He’s a son of Baltimore, a real mover and shaker in this town.”

The two men exchanged friendly smiles and firm handshakes, with Lucien looking up to maintain eye contact.

“It’s Kirk Sanford, man. As a matter of fact, it’s Coach Sanford now. I haven’t been introduced as Skip in years.”

“You two need to connect. With Lucky’s following and your connections Skip, you could probably build a music school. And just so you know, you will always be Skip in Bmore, son.”

Neither one affirmed Ray’s idea but continued with friendly banter, talking about the cause for the fundraiser and how the event didn’t seem to be suffering from the number of people attending the new play.

“Skip,” Ray interrupted their conversation. “Where’s that gorgeous wife of yours?”

Kirk chuckled, as Lucien paused mid-sentence.

“I have a house divided, Ray. I came to this event and Zenobia chose the play.”

Lucien’s blood went cold. This dude just said his wife’s name is Zenobia and his last name is Sanford. The woman capturing his attention and who he couldn’t wait to see was Zenobia Sanford. Only a fool wouldn’t be able to see how this added up. Only a fool like him hadn’t been able to figure why Zenobia wasn’t forthcoming with any information about herself and now he had his answer. He forced a smile, as Kirk Sanford continued the conversation and searched his memory for any mention of a significant other or the evidence of a wedding ring, knowing there was none. He accepted Kirk Sanford’s card, when the talk ended and thanked the universe for the timely revelation.

Before they parted, he looked up to find himself under the scrutiny of Mayor Johnson. There was an offer on the table and he had to think about whether he would accept it. With the way she lowered her lids and bit her bottom lip, he needed to think quickly. This kind of offer usually had an expiration date. He winked at her, in response. No more Mr. Nice Guy. It was time for the real Lucien to come out to play.

Empty Spaces #6

At forty-five, Kirk Sanford was an accomplished man. He was a local basketball legend – star player at Dunbar High School, full ride at Loyola, and a number three draft pick for the Washington Wizards. He played for a few years before walking away to attend law school but remained in the spotlight for his basketball career, his social causes, his political affiliations, and his good looks. He’d been next in line to make partner at his uncle’s law firm, when he walked away to pursue his old love. His career had been lucrative, earning well into six figures. But he had come home, one day too many, carrying the burdens of his work: defending criminals, and the wrongfully accused; visiting crime scenes, interviewing witnesses and finding experts to strengthen his cases – all of the heaviness of the system was pulling him down. Fighting legal battles had lost its luster.

At the urging of his impulsive, sometimes naïve, always beautiful wife, he gave himself permission to choose passion over everything. It was something she employed every day, to his disapproval. She created playtime to entertain her muse: drawing pictures, making handmade books and pottery as tools to inspire her writing. He found himself turning to basketball, every time he needed to relieve stress or get away from the daily grind. He was reminded of just how much he loved it, after establishing a regular pick-up game in Druid Hill Park one summer and once that passion was rekindled, he wanted more. He was too old to play for a living but a perfect choice for a coach.

“Walk away from it, baby.” Zenobia said of his law career, like it was as obvious as the sun in the sky.

“I can’t just walk away.”

“Why not? You have enough money and it’s not making you happy.”

“You think life is all about being happy?”

“It should be. If you’re not happy, change it. It’s really simple.”

“There’s more to life than happiness. I have responsibilities – a wife, a son, houses, cars, and bills…”

“Excuses, Kirk. That’s what I call them. The day life starts being nothing more than a chore, is the day we fail at life.”

He remembered their conversation, as if it had taken place months ago, as opposed to almost ten years. Her solution was something his pragmatic mind would never have considered. It’s what he was thinking about, when she entered the house that evening. He was sitting in his favorite arm chair with the fireplace lit, drink in hand. This was not his normal evening practice. Normally, he would be at the school finishing paperwork or attending a road game. When he was home, he’d be watching TV in his man cave – not chilling in front of a fire, sipping brandy from a snifter in the living room. The flat screen in this room was used on rare occasions, when he tried to stay out of Zenobia’s way but not out of her sight.

“Good evening,” he greeted her, as she stepped in the door.

“Oh…good evening,” she didn’t conceal the shock from seeing Kirk out of his element. He smiled smugly, deriving pleasure from the surprise.

“So, you can do something, other than come home and head straight downstairs to watch TV, huh?” Her question was laced with sarcasm.

“I know how to do many things, Zenobia.”

“Yay. Kirk comes out of his coma.”

This wasn’t the first time they traded snide remarks with no obvious provocation. The tension was coiled as tight as a drum, ready to pop at any given moment. At this point, Kirk accepted it as a part of being married so long or menopause. He placed a lot of stock in all their years. He believed in riding out the rough patches until they were smooth again. This wasn’t the first spat and he didn’t think it would be the last. He planned to relieve the tension as soon as they climbed into bed. That was the time to quiet the nagging Zenobia often came home with. The thought of easing into her already had him thinking of ways to soften her mood.

“The team made the semi-finals, in case you were wondering why I’m having a drink on a weeknight by a cozy fire.” He monitored her reaction closely and found reassurance in her ready smile.

“Oh, Kirk,” she exclaimed, her mood transformed. “I’m so happy for you. I know you’ve worked really hard for this.”

“I was expecting you to come to the game tonight.”

A shadow of sadness crept across her face, leaving a slight frown.

“What is it?” he asked.

“I can’t believe you.”

“I’m not supposed to expect my wife’s support? You used to attend all the home games.”

“Until I realized how many things you’d never do for me.”

Kirk stood taller, as if to brace himself for a battle.

“I hope you’re not talking about that art shit.”

“Wow. That’s great. You go from celebrating a highlight in your career to belittling my interests. How classy, Kirk.”

He was moved to see the tears shining in her eyes, but it didn’t mean he shared the emotional perspective. He wasn’t insensitive, however, to her concerns. He drew her into his arms, attempting to comfort her. He never imagined she’d push him away.

“You don’t have to do that,” she said. “I know you think it’s nothing more than a hobby and that’s ok. Just don’t expect me to go out of my way to accommodate you anymore.”

Zenobia stomped upstairs to their bedroom and he eased down the basement to his man cave and a refrigerator full of beer. There had to be a game on somewhere. At least with sports, he knew the score could go either way, but the ground rules stayed consistent. In his marriage, he didn’t know what to expect, since it seemed the rules changed all the time. He decided to ride out this latest change in the basement but regardless of the little blow up, he still wanted some from her when she cooled down and he knew which buttons to push to make her open up. He would be pushing her buttons by midnight.

 

###

 

Lucien watched the dark horizon through the bus window. It was an endless stretch of shadows with an occasional flash of headlights to remind him they were on the move. He and the bus driver were the only ones awake to gauge the contrast between the sky and the landscape. They were driving through rural Pennsylvania where the endless road evoked deep thoughts about everything. The other guys were asleep. It was Wednesday night and they were half way to New York from Philadelphia. The back to back shows had gone very well for a last-minute booking but jumping from a high energy show to a long bus ride was hard on his forty-year-old body. He rarely complained. He was grateful for the interest in his music, grateful for many things in his life. After the hell visited upon him two years ago, everything was finally smoothing out. He’d had more than his share of bumpy roads. This was the third day on the road and he was becoming more pensive, as the days went by.

He tended to brood, when he ruminated on his personal life. The professional part was locked down. As an indie artist, he’d gained a huge following over the years but was still allowed a degree of inconspicuousness a mainstream artist wouldn’t be able to claim. He’d just been notified his agent secured a new record deal and he had one week to decide if he wanted to go that route. Lucien valued his freedom. He was pondering how Zenobia could factor into it all, when Stix slid into the aisle seat next to him and tapped him on the shoulder.

“Hey man, whassup?”

“I’m good.”

“You mean good -n- quiet.”

“Whatever. Sometimes quiet is a good thing.”

He took in Stix’s doubtful expression and realized it was justified, based on his history.

“I know that mood you ease into when you’re thinking too much. It’s never good.”

“That’s not it this time, bruh.” Lucien insisted.

They rode along for a few more miles in silence. The driver was playing the recording from one of their performances and Lucien’s guitar was talking over the tight rhythm the band delivered.

“She killed my babies, Stix.”

He didn’t have to say who “she” was. As his bandmate and confidant, Stix already knew. He was referring to his ex-wife, Pam. She was a free-spirited beauty who turned heads with her wild Afro, long legs and touchy-feely ways. Lucien had come to know too well and too late that she was a little too touchy and a little too feely.

“I knew you had something on your mind. Maybe…she knew they weren’t yours and that’s why she did it.”

“You trying to rationalize that shit?”

“No. I’m apparently trying to perform a job I’m not qualified for …”

Lucien turned toward Stix with both anger in his eyes and pain. To say Pam had hurt him would be an insult to the definition of hurt. What she did to him made hurt feel like a mosquito bite or a slap on the wrist. While he was riding the highs of his bourgeoning career, she’d been using all the material gain to rape and pillage their marriage, traveling around the world entertaining every whim, living out her depraved fantasies with anything that had a pulse. He’d been blackmailed with pictures that still made him gag, two years later.

“Three abortions, Stix. Not one, three.” His voice lowered to a tortured whisper. “She knew I wanted a family.”

Stix placed a supportive hand across Lucien’s shoulders.

“You need to see a therapist. All that Zen shit – the meditation, chanting, the yoga, that’s just great but you need to talk to somebody.”

“I’m talking to you.”

He’d made it known that he had a problem with seeking attention from a mental health professional. Telling his personal business to a stranger wasn’t a consideration. He had his boys, his tribe of confidants.

“I’m not qualified to help and I’m definitely not Zen.” Stix made air quotes to emphasize the Far-Eastern practice of enlightenment.

There was a sardonic twist to Lucien’s brow. “I found my Zen in Zenobia.”

“Don’t play with this one, Lucien.” Stix warned.

“How do you know she’s not playing with me?”

“Well, just don’t play at all, damn it!”

Lucien had been self-medicating with a bevy of women he met in his travels – courting them, endearing them to him, then inflicting emotional pain beyond reason. Hurting them before they could hurt him. However, none of it helped erase the humiliation Pam had imposed upon him. Every time, he started with the best intentions, then would always be reminded to guard his heart. Maybe this time with Zenobia would be different, he hoped. He thought of the hurt and longing always present in her eyes. Maybe she needed to be healed too.

Stix said, “If you’re really feeling Zenobia, I say go for it. At this point, love is probably the only thing that could help.”

Lucien laughed unreasonably. “Love is a farce, an ideal we all ascribe to but it’s a fairytale force-fed to us by religion and animated movies.”

Holding on to the headrest before him, Stix rose from the seat beside Lucien. Before he returned to his seat down the aisle, he bent down close to Lucien’s ear.

“It’s worse than I thought. She took everything from you and left you on empty. If you don’t fill that space in your soul, you might never make it back.”

Lucien closed his eyes to absorb the full meaning of Stix’s cautionary words.

The bus slowed, as they approached what was called a rest stop but looked like nothing more than a country store and gas station on the side of a very dark, backroad. Lucien figured it would be a good time to stretch his legs. He and the guys used the facilities and while the driver took a smoke break, he sat on a pitiful excuse for a porch. There would be two more hours before they reached their destination and he was still processing the food for thought, Stix had fed to him.

He could never hurt Zenobia, could he? He asked that question of himself, as the memory of her face made him want to kiss her until they had to gasp for the air to breathe. No. He could never hurt her, but he needed to find out the extent of her interest. Never again would he assume anything about anyone, especially someone he couldn’t stop thinking about.

 

###

 

Zenobia awoke around 2a.m. to an empty bed. She guessed Kirk had fallen asleep in the basement. It didn’t happen often but it did happen, especially if they were on the outs. As far as she was concerned, his audacious comments had done more than just hurt her feelings, they’d pissed her off. She wondered how they were ever going to pull their relationship out of this funky place, if he never acknowledged things weren’t going right.

Her very next thoughts were of Lucien. She pulled up the calendar on her phone to check the date and day of the week because he’d sent a copy of the band’s itinerary so she’d always know where he was. Not even Kirk did that. When the team was on the road, he’d just say, they were going to be on the road for the next day or week or however long he’d be gone. She accessed the list in her Docs app and found out his next stop was New York City and two new shows had been added. That meant he would be there even longer. It was one of her favorite places to visit.

On a whim, she dialed his number. It was a big chance because of the time of night and because she wasn’t home alone. But she didn’t let herself dwell on the risk. She wanted the reward.

“Hello, baby.” His rich tone was roughened by the sleep in his voice but it still rubbed her all the right ways.

“Hey. Did I wake you up?”

“No. I’m just looking out the window at the night and thinking about you.”

“You know how to say all the right things.”

“All true, Zen.”

For the next twenty minutes, Zenobia gave him the edited version of her day, while he painted a picture of life on the road. It sounded exciting but exhausting. The venues, the crazy promoters, sound checks, rehearsals, guest lists, amazing shows, and crazy fans. Lucien confessed he was addicted to the whole scene. It was in his blood, he told her.

“I have to be careful with you, Zen.”

“Why. I don’t mean you any harm.”

“Because once you’re in my blood, I’ll be addicted to you too.”

Zenobia heard footsteps on the landing outside her door – the slow, methodical steps of someone still groggy and stiff from drinking beer and sleeping on the couch. It was Kirk, seconds away from stealing her joy.

“Look, I gotta go, Lucien. You’ll be fast asleep, while I’m working. I’ll call you tomorrow between classes.” Her closing comments were spoken fast and left no room for sexy small talk.

“Ok, Babe.”

The door opened, and there Kirk stood with his white dress shirt pulled from his pants, his buttons undone, and his necktie dangling from his hand. Zenobia silenced her phone, placed it on the nightstand and turned on her side away from him, pulling the covers up over her shoulders.

“Who was that?”

“What?” She didn’t turn to face him, instead she spoke in the direction she faced.

“I said, who was that on the phone? It’s after 2 o’clock.”

“Just a friend who needed to talk about something.”

The bed dipped under Kirk’s weight, as he sat down and started removing his clothing.

“Nobi, I’m sorry about earlier.” He spoke with his back turned. “I don’t want us to fight about dumb shit. I know you’re happy for the win and that’s all that matters. And … I apologize for the insult about the art.”

Zenobia was stunned by his words and her response felt stuck in her throat. She didn’t know what to say. It had been years, since Kirk left her at a loss for words.

“I’m sorry too, Kirk.”

He slid beneath the covers and turned in her direction. She felt his hand at the small of her back. It was the perfect combination of rough and warm and she knew what he was asking.

“Kirk, it’s late. Let’s just go to sleep tonight.”

He wrapped his arm around her waist, pulled her into a tight spooning position, and rested his chin on her head.  Zenobia let herself relax against his tall form. Within minutes, they were both asleep. If she had peeked at her phone on the nightstand, she would’ve seen the flashing red light letting her know she’d missed a call.

 

 

Empty Spaces (#5)

When Zenobia peeked into her room, Kirk was sleeping on his back, snoring lightly and the television was on full blast. With thoughts of Lucien still swirling around in her head and the taste of his kiss still lingering on her lips, she had taken to the refuge the shower allowed. She tried to wash away all the temptation, the passion, the images of him that continued to taunt her. She didn’t care about wetting her hair or the unreasonable temperature of the water. She wanted him.

She thought of her husband sleeping in the next room and how unsatisfied she’d been for the past few years. She couldn’t bring herself to walk away. Kirk was a good man. He took care of home, just like he’d been raised to do but he forgot about taking care of his wife. She thought of how he could bring her to orgasm without even thinking about it. He knew her spots, her triggers and how to manipulate them. He knew how to connect the dots but not how to color in the picture. What made her sad was that she didn’t think he cared. She felt like a piece of the furniture in their beautiful home – a thing to admire and show off with no emotional attachment. The tears that flowed down her cheeks were washed away as soon as they fell but they continued to fall anyway.

“Zenobia.” She heard Kirk call out from their bedroom, as she dried herself off.

“I’ll be there in a minute.”

In their room, she sat on the edge of the bed applying body cream with her mind still fixed on Lucien. A flash of memory from the lounge made her groan inwardly. She was so hot for him, hotter than she could ever remember being…for anyone. That knowledge felt like a heavy weight holding her down. She wasn’t free to explore the fantasies. She had no right to make plans to do so. She knew that as surely as she knew Kirk was waiting.

At that very moment, he was waiting for her to climb under the covers. He always had the same routine: wait until she’d showered, head to the bathroom to freshen up, climb into bed under the guise of watching television…and then, he’d touch her. Usually, it started with a hand at the small of her back.

As expected, he excused himself then slid beside her, after a trip to the bathroom. He lay there watching, saying nothing. She felt his hand on her, as she bent over to moisturize her legs. He moved it up and down her back and continued, until she was done. Like always, his hand was very warm, and it felt good on her skin. He knew how she liked to be touched. He’d been doing it for twenty-two years. It was so easy to follow his pattern. It had become a blueprint for guaranteed orgasms and nothing else. It used to also guarantee peace of mind and sound sleep but lately, that eluded her.

She climbed under the covers, waiting for him to move to her erogenous zones in order of habit. Her back was always the beginning, then her breasts. He knew how sensitive they were and how to suckle them to perfection. Despite herself, she felt her juices increase, when his lips enclosed the bud closest to his lips. He flicked his tongue against it and her breathing grew heavier, as she strained toward release. It wouldn’t take very long. He cradled one breast in his hand, as he continued to nibble on the other, drawing whimpers from the back of her throat. Kirk slid his hand down her body until he was parting her, and a long sigh escaped. She knew it wouldn’t be much longer now, it never was. He curled his fingers into her tender spot, stroking it, arousing nerve endings that made her flow like lava. The breathing came faster now, as the tension built. When the orgasm hit, it rolled through her like thunder and quickened like lightning behind her closed lids. As her body went limp with the release, she welcomed the chance that it would clear her head of all the visions of Lucien and of what couldn’t be. She had to accept reality. She rolled over to accept Kirk’s hard length, as he pushed into her. He pushed and pulled, in and out, slowly at first, then with a building pace, he pumped harder and faster. In five minutes, he was groaning his satisfaction and slumping on top of her. Not quite ten minutes. From beginning to end.

He had been a good lover, once – sensuous, considerate, unselfish, and unhurried. Now, he let his hands do most of the work and followed up with her body as a receptacle for his thoughtless screwing. Zenobia rolled away from Kirk and pulled the cover over her shoulders. He threw his leg over hers, like an afterthought, as they lay back to back. Eventually, she drifted off to sleep but not before his loud snore filled her ears and not before she realized the desire for Lucien was still there. That was another reality she had to accept.

 

###

 

Monday morning arrived just like the beginning of every week, but it wasn’t the same. It took much more effort for Lucien to go on like it was business as usual, as if he were the same person who woke up Friday morning, practiced his instrument in the afternoon and attended the theater that night. He wasn’t. The pleasure he’d found in the theater Friday night had escalated to full grown joy by Sunday. But nothing could have prepared him for how that joy would change his life.

He’d thought about Zenobia well into the early hours of Monday. The look in her eyes had stayed with him. Something in them called to him and he didn’t think he could ignore it. He sent her a text message to let her know he was thinking of her. It was the middle of the night and it went unanswered. He couldn’t deny, he was disappointed. He wanted to believe they had some deep cosmic connection and he felt foolish and juvenile for believing such a thing. However, it had taken hold and he didn’t want to shake it off.

Truthfully, he didn’t know much about her. He knew she caused a physiological reaction, like electricity energizing the cells in his body. Even the smallest contact felt like static pulling all his feelings to the surface. It was hard to explain but easy to feel, to give in to. They’d hardly shared any words. He knew her name. Until he’d asked for her phone number, that was all. He knew she had a hard time accepting compliments and how she became bashful when he remarked about her beauty. He knew her eyes were beautiful pools of deep brown he could dive into. And he knew the tone of her voice captured his undivided attention, even if she was only using it to moan or sigh her pleasure – especially if she moaned or sighed. She hadn’t volunteered much.

Other women he’d spent time with were endless founts of information – both welcome and unwelcomed, trivial and important; sometimes too important, too personal. She was different in that way. With her, there was no: where do you live, what do you do, when is your birthday, what’s your sign kind of small talk. She strode into a room, smelling delicious, carrying herself so regally, and appealing to the man in him. He didn’t know much else but he wanted to know everything.

As he prepared to leave for the next two weeks’ performances from Philly to Detroit, he thought of how he’d miss her touch and her kiss. He smiled at the memory of how sweet it was. He didn’t think he would ever look at a cherry quite the same. Memories of the way they’d shared hers sent the blood charging to his loins in a heated rush. He adjusted his pants to relieve the tightness and shook his head. She didn’t even have to be physically present to cause this reaction, he mused. He wondered if she was thinking of him in the same way.

 

###

 

Zenobia’s morning class had just dismissed, and she had two free hours, before the next one started. Her students hadn’t required a lot of her attention, which worked out for the best. She didn’t have much to give. Their mid-terms had taken most of the time and that left her to her own roaming thoughts for the whole period. It wasn’t necessarily a good thing. That gave her too much time to focus on Lucien.

He’d sent a text message around two a.m. That would’ve been about an hour after Kirk’s ten-minute session – about five minutes after she dozed off. Lucien had reached out, as Kirk lay sleeping beside her. Zenobia was more disappointed about the missed opportunity to talk to him than the abbreviated session with her husband.

That morning, she’d listened to Kirk’s whistling, something he did every day in the shower. When he was half way through his morning routine, she was already out of bed with her clothes picked out for the day. Both of those actions were unusual. Normally, she slept until Kirk was dressed and out the door. Then she’d rummage through her closet for an outfit at the last minute. He, on the other hand, rose without the use of an alarm clock, spent no more than twelve minutes in the bathroom and had his clothing prepared for the entire week by Sunday night.

When he’d entered their room, he affected an exaggerated look of surprise with his eyes stretched wide.

“You have an appointment or something?”

“No. I just want to get an early start.”

“That’s new.”

“I know.”

He raised his brow with a smirk. “It’s not time for New Year’s resolutions.”

She rolled her eyes at him, even though she was known for making drastic declarations every January 1st.

She felt him watch her, as she rushed into the bathroom. His strict regimen left him little time to gawk at his wife’s change in routine. He’d showered, shaved, dressed and headed downstairs for his coffee – brewed earlier via timer.

Kirk led a strictly organized life that ran contrary to hers. It was a structure that worked for him. Other than her classes, Zenobia didn’t have much structure at all. Their differences were among the things he always said he liked most. He was convinced that’s what made their marriage so successful.

“Opposites attract” was his go-to phrase and it used to be enough to satisfy her.

However, two decades in was far different from when they started. He had been the serious, scholar athlete at Loyola who’d chosen practicing law over playing pro basketball, even though he had great prospects in the NBA. She’d been the fine sister he met at the lunch counter of a popular Jewish deli, after their orders got mixed up. She’d taken a sip from his drink and smiled bashfully when she realized the mistake. He’d gotten her attention, when he took the soda from her hand and took a long swig from her straw, while managing to smile at her. The other customers cheered at their antics, while the deli’s owners, husband and wife, looked between the two of them smiling like they were responsible for making a love match. In a way, they were.

It would always be a sweet memory but that was a long time ago. Sometimes she wondered, if they were those same two people.

When Kirk finished his simple breakfast of wheat toast and a boiled egg with black coffee, he retrieved his coat from the closet and his briefcase from beside the door, Zenobia had come bounding down the stairs so quickly, they almost collided. She was fully-dressed in a tan pencil skirt, matching cowl neck sweater and her tall suede boots. He whistled at her like a construction worker making cat calls and she stopped to give him the recognition he seemed to want.

She noted the change from his regular, athletic attire: a charcoal grey flannel suit with a white shirt and sensible navy-blue tie. It fit his tall frame perfectly and Zenobia paused to admire how handsome he looked. His chestnut brown complexion was accented by his close-cropped salt and pepper hair and his fresh shave displayed his square jaw and dimpled chin. Kirk took good care of himself. His understated good looks and no-nonsense approach to life had been enough to hold her attention once, like a school girl’s crush on her favorite teacher. He was smart and loved to impart his knowledge about a variety of subjects, but he was also known to speak his mind about his feelings for her. Those days were gone. Somehow, she thought, he’d missed the signs that told him how he was losing her.

“What is it?” His question had alerted her she’d been staring.

“Uh…Nothing.”

He’d swatted her backside, as she turned toward the kitchen, and left the house chuckling to himself, exuding confidence from his walk to the set of his shoulders.

Now, nearly three hours later, Zenobia mulled over the text from Lucien, reading it again, as if the words would change. The message had been simple: Thinking of you. Can’t sleep. Before she could respond, another message popped up on her phone.

I want to see you. Five simple words changed the course of her day. Her fingers twitched with the urgency to respond, as she tried to hold back the impulse. She couldn’t ignore it, even if she wanted to.

She typed her response quickly, before she lost the nerve. In the daytime, she lacked the anonymity of darkened corners and her confidence wavered. I’m free, reeked with irony but she sent it anyway. She recognized the hotel address in his answer and left campus right away. If possible, she wanted to spend every available minute with him.

 

 

###

 

 

Lucien took the liberty of ordering lunch for the two of them, playing it safe with soup and salads…and wine. Deciding on the privacy of his room was a bit presumptuous but he had the audacity to think she’d want them to be alone this way. Arnie had already left to visit his children in Columbia, since they’d be leaving town around seven, heading to Philly for a gig Wednesday night. His luggage was packed and there was really nothing holding him in town, except her. Their parting had felt incomplete and he wanted to place periods where there were question marks.

She arrived before the food, eliminating the necessity of it. He opened the door to find her with the cold air still clinging and the warmth of her smile melting his heart.

“Hey, you,” he greeted her.

“Hey.”

“How’d you get here so fast?”

“My job is close by.”

She was adorable in golden tones and rosy lips he couldn’t wait to kiss again. He grasped her cold hands and welcomed her to him.

“What a sight to behold,” he said with a flourish.

His words were dramatic, but his sincerity was natural, as he helped her out of her coat. She stayed planted, barely over the threshold, while he walked over to the bed and laid her coat down, the way he wanted to lay her down. Instead, he looked her over in the tight-fitting skirt and yearned to grasp her ample hips but he held back. He was a gentleman, one drawn to a very sexy woman but a gentleman, nonetheless. He reminded himself of his intention to talk the next time they met and hoped he would be able to abide by his own decision.

He never said he wouldn’t kiss her though. He could never say that. He beckoned her to where he stood at the foot of the bed. This one thing he had to get out of the way before his head would be clear enough to form another solid thought or question. As her arms wrapped around his waist, he made extra effort to stand firm and not take another step further. He was one foot from fulfilling his ultimate fantasy.

“What are you wearing,” she asked.

“Clothes.”

“What scent, Silly?”

They laughed at his humorous attempt to tamper down the heat but that only lasted sixty-seconds, tops, before he touched his lips to hers. Once her tongue licked at the corner of his mouth, he sucked her in, reveling in the taste of her and how well she fit every contour of his body. From their lips to their pelvises, they clung to each other like two people consumed with lust – not the beautiful kind in romance novels but the kind of hunger that made them abandon all decorum, like eating with their mouths open and making smacking sounds in public. The only concern was how it felt, how it tasted and how much they could have. If their slurps were any indication, the kiss was delicious.

The second knock at the door was the only thing that brought them back to their senses. The first knock had been an intrusion, one easily ignored. The second knock was reality and it couldn’t be put off much longer. Their lunch order had arrived. It was a reminder of the ruse they’d used to be together. Both knew the food would do nothing to satisfy their hunger.

Lucien set up the meal on a table positioned in front of the window, giving them a view of Mt. Vernon, other people on their lunch breaks, messengers on bikes and nannies bundled up with their young charges. Unbeknownst to Zenobia, he watched her as she stood looking out on life going on below them.

“You okay,” he asked. Trying to read her wasn’t an easy task. Whatever had her thoughts made her look doubtful and he wanted to assuage that.

“Yes, let’s eat.”

He took her hand and bowed in a brief blessing, surprising her with the spiritual practice. She hesitated before tasting the soup.

“If it’s cold, you could dip your finger in.” He sensed she needed to lighten up.

“It’s fine.” She chuckled.

“How are we on time?”

She checked her watch. “I have a little over an hour before I need to get back.”

“And I have about two hours before I meet up with the guys. We’re heading out at seven.”

Her forkful of salad hung suspended between them.

“You’re leaving?” The food seemed to lose its appeal.

“I’ll be on the road for the next two weeks.”

“And I’ll still be in the classroom.”

“What are you studying?”

“I’m an English professor.”

“Really?” The revelation delighted him and made him think of freaky librarian fantasies.

“You don’t look like any English teacher I ever had.”

She gazed across the table at him, and Lucien could hardly believe she was there. But he also felt like he was brimming with excitement while she looked like she was nursing second thoughts.

“Why do you look so sad?”

“I’m sorry. I don’t mean to.”

“I just want to know how I can change it.”

He laid his hand over hers, rubbing his thumb across her soft skin, trying to calm her frayed spirit.

“You are changing it now. No need to do anything different.”

He poured the wine and toasted their little rendezvous.

“Let’s make the most of the time we have then,” he said, bringing her fingers to his lips.

He was determined to sample her vulnerability because it was cloaked heavily in yearning. Even with the mixed emotions and expressions, he homed in on the yearning. It mirrored his own. But not yet.

“Come on, Zen. Let’s get to know each other.”

She smiled at the shortened name off his lips.

“You don’t mind me calling you Zen, do you?”

“No, it’s kinda sweet.”

“Sweet’s not the effect I hoped for but I’ll accept that, for now.”

They moved to the sofa in the seating area, where he wedged himself in the corner and enfolded her in his arms. With her head resting against his chest, they talked. He shared his passion for music, how he played multiple instruments, and how he liked playing all over the world. He asked her about her favorite flowers, food preferences, movies, everything that would impact them, everything except if she had someone else. She told him how long she’d been teaching and how she liked to read and go to the beach, about her one sibling in Florida and her parents who retired there. She told him about everyone important in her life, everyone except her son and husband.

“Do you have room in your life for a musician, Zen? One who is gone sometimes as long as two months at a time?” He felt her stiffen in his arms.

“Before you answer that, I want you to know two things. First, I want you. I don’t wanna play guessing games about that. You feel me?”

She nodded and hummed her affirmation.

“Second, I need to know where you stand, before I make my move. Because I’m coming for you. All you have to do is say you want this too.”

She adjusted her position on the sofa, so she was facing him.

“You asked two questions and made one statement, Lucien. I don’t know if I have room for you in my life. I’ve never dated a touring musician before.”

He stroked her cheek and tilted her head to make her gaze even with his.

“And?” He pressed.

Her fidgeting alerted him that something wasn’t right. It was as if she was buying time before answering his questions, for telling him what he needed to know.

“I do want you.” Her response was just above a whisper but in her husky voice, it was sexy as hell.

Lucien claimed her mouth with a deep, sensuous kiss. He was tender in his handling of her, mating his tongue with hers, while caressing her body through her clothing. He hiked her skirt upon her thighs and gripped the expanse of her hips, digging his fingers into the ample flesh.

The chime of his phone was responsible for the frustrated sighs they expelled.

“I didn’t want you to be late for work.” He turned the alarm off on his phone. They’d really pushed the limits of their time constraint, ending with her on his lap indulging in one more kiss, lingering as long as possible.

“You have to get back to work, Zen.” He nipped the soft underside of her jaw and nuzzled her warm, scented neck. “And I have to hit the road.”

She climbed off his lap and composed herself, while he retrieved her coat from the bed. He enfolded her in a tight embrace, as he helped her into the heavy coat and she lay back against him for a few more stolen moments of his touch.

 

###

 

When she left, an emotion she couldn’t name grabbed her in its clutches. It had her by the throat, making it difficult to swallow her circumstance. She walked against the wind, which made it easy to blame the tears gathering in her eyes on the frigid air. Wrapped up to ward off the unseasonably cold temperatures, his scent – the one she loved – clung to her skin and her clothes.

As she passed other pedestrians on crowded Charles Street, she wondered how many other women were meeting powerful, sexy men in hotels while their husbands worked their butts off at their offices. The guilt didn’t sit too well with her but she was reminded of the absence of romance, of being taken for granted, the predictable touch and the disregard of the past decade.

Desire welled up in her like a spring that needed to run free. It served as a reminder that she hadn’t imagined the whole thing. She really did sneak off in the middle of the day to meet Lucien…in his hotel room and she had allowed his intimate touch. He really did want her, as much as she wanted him. She fought the impulse to smile broadly for no apparent reason, because then she would look crazy – smiling and crying at the same time.

Empty Spaces (#4)

Lucien knew the inquiries were coming. His boys hung back for as long as they could, silently watching him move around the room, after he emerged from the restroom – refreshed and seemingly serene. It was hard to tell with him. He was always the coolest in the room.

As usual, Roland was the first one to let loose.

“So, now we know who she is, Luck.”

Lucien didn’t respond. He gathered the shirts he’d changed out of and placed them in a canvas bag he then stuffed into a leather tote. All eyes were on him.

“It’s like that, man?” Stix stood with his arms folded. “You gonna single-out and serenade a fine-ass sister and not say anything?”

Arnie, the silly one, finally chimed in. “Yeah, you know all our shit! Baby mamas clashing with new chicks and all ‘at.”

That jab broke through his flimsy guard. He couldn’t hold back the smile any longer. The truth was he had no idea he would break out into song. Although his voice was decent, he rarely used it onstage, aside from backing a guest vocalist.

“All right. Damn! Can’t I have anything to myself?”

“No!” They all chorused.

“Not when you put the spotlight on her in a room full of people. That’s not how you keep something to yourself,” Roland persisted.

He knew they were right. If he were in their shoes, he’d want to know. It had been so out of character but he was still high on the euphoria of her meeting him and agreeing to wait. Besides, they were the closest thing he had to brothers. His biological ones were in New Orleans and California. He didn’t get to see them as much as he’d like. On more than one occasion, he’d turned to this group of men for advice and more heart to hearts than he could count. He’d trust them with his life.

He took a deep, calming breath. “Her name is Zenobia.”

“We heard that…along with every damn body else.” They all laughed hard at Roland’s truthful words.

Lucien hung his head, chuckling along with them.

“She’s the woman from the theater,” he said.

The room became quiet enough to hear the collective intake of their breath. They gasped, then cheered. The previous summer, he had worn their ears out about the mystery woman, as they toured the country.

“Congrats, man. I haven’t seen her, but Roland says she’s a knockout.” Stix clapped him on the shoulder.

“She’s gorgeous,” Lucien confirmed, “but I’m hoping her beauty goes far beyond that.”

“I hope she’s everything you are looking for.”

As the oldest member of the band, Stix was prone to be the most serious and didn’t hold back on advice. “After Pam,” he continued. “I want you to take your time.”

The two men locked eyes, with no need for a response or further suggestion. The other two stood by quietly, bearing the same sober expressions.

 

###

 

The crowd had dispersed a while ago and Zenobia waited in the quiet room that now held memories full of surprises. Music man. Attentive man. Romantic man. Lucien was all of them rolled together into one irresistible package. She was both nervous and excited about finding what other attractive qualities he possessed. She gave no thought whatsoever to what he was looking for himself. Did he want more from her than a pretty face? Could she give him what he wanted?

He appeared in the archway between the seating area and the door to the lobby. A sensuous whiff of masculinity preceded him that appealed to everything feminine in her, especially her physical needs. She was overwhelmed. He came closer and she noted the soap and water clean mixed with his herbal scent. His face looked fresh-scrubbed, like the top of the morning and he looked nowhere near ready to call it a night.

“Ready?”

“I think so.”

She accepted his hand and followed him down to the lower level, where he stopped to speak with the manager, a wiry little man with wild hair and round tortoise shell glasses.

“Did you drive?” he asked, as they exited the building and descended its marble steps.

“Yes.”

“Where’d you park?”

“Just up the street.”

As they walked toward her car, she thought twice about the public display of affection but did not release his hand. He was walking to his personal beat again and she was enjoying the rhythm. Her head reached his shoulder and it occurred to her she’d be a perfect fit tucked under his arm with it draped intimately around her. But not yet. In the meantime, she wondered what exactly he had in mind for them tonight.

“I didn’t drive,” he announced, as they approached her mid-size SUV.

“Where are we headed?” Her eyes brightened with curiosity.

“My hotel is up the street…near the theater.”

Zenobia’s steps slowed. “Your hotel?”

Lucien chuckled at the implication.

“It’s not like that. I thought we could go to the hotel bar for somewhere to talk and some privacy.”

“And not to get lucky?” She walked around to the driver’s side of her car. “No pun intended.”

“This is lucky.” He winked, and she responded with a broad smile.

 

###

 

They parked in the deserted underground garage at the hotel. In the quietness, two floors below ground. As they waited for the elevator, she was more aware of him and it had a strong pull. When she thought to take a quick glance, she found his gaze on her.

“I’ve been wanting to do this, since last summer,” he said. She met him halfway, as he bent to her, taking her face in his hands and guiding her mouth to his.

Zenobia anticipated that first touch of his soft lips and when they descended on hers, she felt like they were asking for something she wanted to give. She tried to answer his kiss with all the tenderness she could muster but heated passion took over. He slanted his mouth over hers and she opened to him, accepting his tongue as it moved across and around her own. Zenobia’s eyes were squeezed shut, as she braced herself for the consequences of her actions but she also held onto the lapels of his leather jacket, holding him to her. She wasn’t sure which one of them moaned but the sound brought her back from the brink of tumbling out of control. He had her mouth tingling like the feeling returning to a sleeping appendage and moistness seeping from some neglected place.

“I knew you would taste good.”

With lazy eyes, he smiled and swiped his thumb across her lips then claimed her mouth for another kiss.

“So do you,” she said, averting her eyes.

“I know all of you will taste good.”

His bold statement increased her arousal and quelled the guilt trying to permeate her consciousness. He finally pushed the button for the elevator and pulled her away from the wall against which she had been pressed.

Her knees felt wobbly, as they entered the elevator. After the hot episode, her body surged with energy. She was wide open to the possibilities of how much further it could go. In fact, the air was thick with unfinished business. He brought her hands to his mouth and planted kisses across them, while keeping eye contact. The gesture was filled with promise.

When the door opened, the mood changed. The lobby was busy for a late Sunday night and she was hyper-aware of her surroundings. There was no telling who she might run into. She hadn’t thought of anyone else all evening but now that the suspense had been removed regarding their desire, the only thing standing in the way was what she had yet to disclose – her marital status. She wasn’t sure she was ready. As she watched him walk over to the desk to have her parking ticket validated, she knew that aside from the decision she’d already made, the most important one would have to be made very soon.

The lounge was dimly lit with recessed lighting that created the intimacy she sought. Most of the patrons were gathered around the bar with a few spilling over into the immediate vicinity, standing at pub tables, talking over drinks. She spotted an isolated corner and led him there. With a high back banquet that afforded them the comfort to relax and the privacy to enjoy each other’s company, Zenobia felt free to give into her naughty thoughts.

It was like she was seeing him through someone else’s eyes – some risqué woman with indecent thoughts. It thrilled her and made her feel powerful. This was far-removed from the vanilla life of her existence. This was chocolate – deep, rich, decadent and she was enjoying the temptation to taste every drop.

 

###

 

Lucien stood at the bar waiting for the drinks he ordered – something strong and fruity for Zenobia and a glass of wine for him. Ever since he met up with her at the theater, he’d exceeded his drink limit for the year. He had wine at the play, took a bottle to his room afterward, tried not to drink on Saturday and now, here he was on a Sunday night, adding more wine to the waning power over his faculties. No woman had ever affected him this way. As he turned to look at her situated in the corner, leaning back casually against the padded seating, he felt a clenching in his gut. He didn’t know what was causing this strong attraction. He came across beautiful women all the time, all over the world but she was much more than that. He hoped to find out how much more tonight.

When he arrived at the table, she appeared to be in deep thought. He set the martini glass down in front of her and the gaze that met his was intense. He placed his wine on the table, and slid into the banquet closely, thigh to thigh. Her big luminous eyes held measures of sadness, curiosity, passion. They were all reflected in the cocoa brown orbs that were glazed with yearning.

He stroked her cheek and leaned in for a brief, sensuous kiss. He removed the cherry from her drink and extended it toward her small, lush mouth. Although there was some hesitation, she opened slowly and tilted her head back to accept his offering. He rubbed the cherry across her bottom lip, leaving a trail of the orange liqueur glistening there. He leaned in and kissed it from her mouth. The second time, he dipped the cherry into her glass and when he spread it across her lips, her tongue darted out to swirl around the fruit and his loins tightened at the sight. The third time, he swiped the dampened fruit around her whole mouth and laid the cherry on her tongue, just before he swooped in to help her devour it. In the process, they turned up the heat between them. Their tongues tangled in the last bits of the cherry and the hot desire that drove them to deepen the kiss, with her pulling his tongue further into her mouth. He pushed his hands under the hem of her sweater, grasping her waist and pulling her in tighter, flush with his hardened body. Reluctantly, he broke off the kiss.

Lucien reached for his glass and took a long swig of the Australian Malbec. The potent wine went straight to his head, compounding the plans forming in his mind. He wanted to invite her to his room so but didn’t want to scare her off. He was scaring himself with the ferocity of the need rushing through his veins. It didn’t help to see Zenobia running her finger around the rim of her glass and dipping it into her mouth. He moaned, as his libido was given a stronger boost. He reached for her hand and drew her finger into his mouth. He watched her eyes slide closed, as he stroked her finger with his tongue. He was trying to figure why he was torturing himself.

She wasn’t a one night stand type of woman. He knew that, even if it was the first time they’d been together and they couldn’t seem to keep their hands or lips off each other. She was hungry for something and he had an unexplained desire to help her find it. And as much as he wanted to satisfy the hunger with his own physical need, he sensed she needed much more than that.

He ran his hand down his face, resting his chin in the palm of his hand.

“I think you are trying to drive me mad, Zenobia.”

Her smile held a bit of disdain yet it did nothing to detract from the lust in her eyes.

“I’m already there,” she said. “Why not share some of the madness?”

She excused herself to go to the ladies’ room. Lucien was perfectly positioned to watch her saunter across the glossy marble tiles. Her heels clicked against the slick surface, balancing her shapely hips that swayed in the tight black leather pants. Her walk captivated him but the slight slump in her shoulders did not go unnoticed. She seemed like she was carrying a weight, which piqued his curiosity further. He wanted to know everything about her. It was too late for the night but now that they’d given in to the scorching attraction, he wanted them to really talk next time, not that he was guaranteed a next time.

 

###

 

Zenobia entered the cavernous restroom past the end of the bar. After relieving herself, she washed her hands then stopped to study her reflection in the illuminated mirror. The woman staring back at her looked like someone in total control, like she wore red lipstick everyday and knew what she was doing with herself. She was a stranger. Zenobia was none of those. She knew she wanted to make love with Lucien because he made her feel desired, like someone who turned him on. It was liberating to feel wanted by such a magnetic and mesmerizing man. Men like him weren’t usually giving forty-something women like her the least bit of consideration. They usually had women at least a decade younger hanging on their arms. That their attraction was mutual intrigued her even more because of that.

She fished into her bag for lipstick and took a quick glance at her phone. A chill ran through her to see twenty-five missed calls from Kirk. Twenty-five. Something must be wrong with Aaron, she thought. Her twenty-year old son was away at school out west and her mind raced with awful scenarios. Her pulse raced, as she pressed the button to return Kirk’s calls. He answered on the first ring.

“Kirk. What’s wrong?”

“That’s what I wanna know. Where are you?”

“I told you I was going to a jazz concert. What’s the problem?”

“Do you know what time it is, Nobi? You’ve been gone for hours.”

It was rare for him to address her by anything other than her full name. He’d only called her by that silly nickname in the first months of dating. That had been eons ago. Now, he’d used it twice in one week.

She glanced down at the time on her phone. It was midnight. The time had truly gotten away from her and Lucien didn’t look like he was ready to call it quits anytime soon.

“No. I didn’t realize it was so late. I can’t believe you called me over twenty times, Kirk. You had me thinking something happened to Aaron.”

“You had me thinking something happened to you…”

“I’m at a bar downtown having drinks with my friends. Everything is fine.”

“You know you have work in the morning.”

“I know. I’ll be home soon.”

When she re-entered the lounge, Lucien was talking on his phone. She hung back but he motioned for her to join him. From what she could make out, he was speaking to one of his band members. He reached out for her hand and began rubbing his thumb across the back of it in a circular motion. She sipped the last of her drink and tried to clear her head enough to let him know she was leaving.

“It’s getting late,” he announced, after finishing his call. “How about getting you to your car before I take you hostage in my room?”

They both chuckled at his wise-crack that they both knew was tinged with more than a little bit of truth. If he could’ve, he would’ve invited her up to his room but Arnie was his roommate for the night and had just called to remind him of that bit of information.

“Arnie’s hiding out in my room. That brother’s always got drama.” They laughed at the bass player’s predicament, as they headed to the elevator.

At her car, the garage that seemed even more deserted than before. He pulled her into another hot embrace and kissed her passionately, stroking her tongue with his. When he heard a soft whimper escape her lips, his hands slid under her sweater, across her silk camisole, up to her small firm breasts.

A car door slamming off in the distance made them jump. It was enough to remind them of where they were. They were driving each other crazy.

“Go,” Lucien insisted. “Go now because right now, I don’t recognize this man you’ve cast a spell over. And soon, I won’t be responsible for what he might do.” He smirked.

“Next time, we’ll talk,” he said, smoothing his hand over her short sassy hairdo.

She stood on her tiptoes and planted a short, soulful kiss on his lips. Then she hurried into her SUV, pressing her palm against his through the window. As she turned her key in the ignition, and started to back out of the space, he called out to her.

“Your phone number,” he yelled, pointing to the cell phone in his hand.

She rolled down the window, grabbed his phone and dialed her number. When the phone rang in her purse, she smiled and returned his phone. Then she left him standing in the garage watching until they were no longer in one another’s sight.

Empty Spaces (#3)

Lucien Baptiste stood before the mirrored wall of his dressing room, preparing for the night’s performance. He played a riff on the guitar to warm up his fingers. He flicked his tongue from side to side, as was his habit when he slipped into what he referred to as “the zone”. He was in that mind space, where everything faded away accept the sound of his guitar and in this case, Zenobia. As his hips swayed to the rhythm in his mind, his thoughts drifted to her.

He’d thought of her often over the summer with regret for not getting her name and contact information – or at the very least, introducing himself, like a gentleman. Instead, he’d gawked at her quietly out the side of his eye, delighting in her laughter at the comedy onstage. Now, he winced at another lost chance, when she’d left unexpectedly Friday night, robbing him of the opportunity to ask her out. The memory of her leg pressed against his, exchanging the heat simmering just below the surface, had him heated all over again. He played out his passion in an impromptu solo.

“Hey Lucky. Slow down, man. You sound like you’re already blowing up the stage.”

Having been caught in the throes of such intimate musings, he stopped abruptly. Roland, his drummer, had a look of knowing in his eyes. It made him feel more transparent for which he wasn’t ready.

“Who is she,” Roland asked.

“Who are you talking about?”

“I was hoping you’d tell me. Only the sexual tension caused by a woman would make a man play his axe like that.”

“It’s just the high energy of getting ready to perform. That’s all.”

“I hear you, man,” Roland said. But I ain’t buying it, his expression seemed to finish.

When the fellow musician went to his own corner of the small area they’d been provided for a dressing room, Lucien moved to a more comfortable spot, to a sofa under dimmer lights. He told himself it was to get it together. He didn’t know her, so he hadn’t been lying to his friend. He wanted to get to know her so badly, it was like a thirst he couldn’t quench. In line with his thoughts, he picked up a cold bottle of beer from the ice filled chest at his side, popped the top and gulped half its contents before he paused to take a deep breath. He hardly ever drank but he chose to feed his thirst and jumpy nerves at the same time, hoping the beer would do the trick.

“Ten minutes to showtime,” came the announcement from Stix, the piano player, who came into the room followed by Arnie, the bassist.

“Whoa! Look who’s drinking,” Arnie exclaimed with a big laugh. All eyes turned to Lucien sitting in the darkened corner finishing off the beer.

“What is it, LB?” Stix had a look of genuine concern. Lucien Baptiste was the healthy one in the bunch. He ate organically, practiced yoga and holistic healing. None of that had included the consumption of alcohol, as a matter of fact, his usual indulgence was an occasional glass of wine, and even that was organic. The beer in his hand was a serious departure from his norm.

“It’s nothing, Stix. I was thirsty. The cooler was there, and the beer was convenient.”

The guys looked at each other with unspoken questions.

“Well, damn,” Arnie still joked. “Was it at least good?” He snickered.

“It was refreshing,” Lucien answered, in his smoky voice.

“Showtime, fellas.” The manager poked his head in the door.

Roland, Stix and Arnie left to take the stage, leaving Lucien to make his grand entrance in the middle of the first set, leaving him with his thoughts and his hopes. He returned to the sofa and assumed a meditative position – eyes closed, forearms resting on his opened thighs, hands cradled palms-up, shoulders relaxed. He inhaled deeply through his nostrils and released the breath slowly through his lips, his abdomen deflating with the exhalation. He repeated the process until he achieved the calm the beer had not delivered.

When the time was near for him to join the band, he strapped on his guitar and stood at the door listening for his cue. It was soon time for the break in the song and for his guitar, connected to the amplifiers by remote, to fill-in. His heart rate increased, as Stix took his solo. The excitement of the song filled him with anticipation. He could hardly wait for his turn.

###

ADMIT ONE had been printed on the card and when Zenobia presented it, she was directed to a space on the second level for the live music. The band was already playing their first set. She checked her coat and gave her card to the doorman who instructed her to sit wherever she liked. She was pulled into an atmosphere of muted blue lighting and enough seating to accommodate about 90 people with a wide aisle cutting down the middle, leading to the stage.

She was disappointed the show had started. In the semi-darkness, she couldn’t tell if he was there or not. She sat in the last row at the aisle, just in case. There was no way of knowing if she’d want to leave early this time but at least, she didn’t have to wait for a ride. She’d driven her own car. It was dark enough, so she wouldn’t be self-conscious about being alone. It helped ease her discomfort in this unfamiliar environment. As soon as she allowed herself to settle down and stop looking for him, she realized the music was amazing. Right away, she noticed there were only three musicians on stage, even though the card advertised a nameless quartet. They were playing a funky rendition of a rock classic and the lanky piano player was giving a very animated solo, showcasing his playing skills and his ability to dance in his seat, like Elton John.

Off stage, a guitar rang out, wailing through the room and a tall figure appeared at the top of the aisle, just behind Zenobia. She caught the towering shadow which filled her with the intrigue of mystery. His presence was electrifying but what really captured her attention without turning to get a look, was the way he smelled. He wore a woodsy, herbal scent that had had her reminiscing all weekend. Just as she turned around to look at him, the bass player announced,

“Ladies and Gentleman, let’s welcome to the stage, fresh off his tour in France – Lucien “Lucky” Baptiste, the funkiest guitar player this side of New Orleans.”

The crowd stood to its feet and turned to face the aisle and Zenobia felt like all the breath had left her body. This Lucky was Lucien. Her Lucien. She didn’t think she could be more intrigued by the man but as she matched his name to the fine looks and now to the magic playing from his fingers, she was even more entranced.

She watched as he stood in the same spot, playing a high energy solo for the funky song. The notes competed with the hard beating of her heart. He was so close, she could touch him if she had the nerve. In a brief pause, while the piano seemed to respond to his masterful call, she felt his eyes on her. The feeling he filled her with was enough to make her run down the aisle but the smile he sent her way was an acceptable reward. He took off toward the stage playing to accent the song and when he took center stage, it was to huge applause.

He was magnetic – smooth, chocolate, tall. He commanded attention. He owned the stage.

Zenobia took her seat. While everyone else remained on their feet, she needed the air down there and the space alone to digest what had just taken place. She’d come to the performance hoping for a glimpse of him, the beautiful, mystery man who’d caught her attention at the theater, invaded her dreams, and hijacked her desires. She ended up finding Lucky Baptiste, a world-renowned musician with star appeal who had the women squealing like young girls at a boy band concert. That she was there at his invitation made her feel like the most special woman in the room. Somehow Lucky seemed like it should have been her name, not his. The serendipity was enchanting, and she surrendered to the spell Lucky Baptiste was casting.

She could feel every note he played and got caught up in the rhythm of each song. From sexy sambas to jazz standards to funky dance songs, Zenobia was feeling his vibe. As she looked around, she knew she wasn’t the only one feeling him and it filled her with something she had no right to feel – jealousy. She was feeling territorial, when it came to him because she felt deep in her heart that she would be someone special to him and him to her. The problem was, she was a grown, married woman who was strongly attracted to another man, waiting and hoping he felt the same way. She was too busy riding that wish than to think of how it could be made to happen.

She was soon back on her feet, dancing to the last song of the set, swinging her hips to a seductive Latin number. It was like she was having a dance with him, while the drums, piano and bass helped to regulate the pace. Her eyes were fixed on him, as she got lost in the beat. He stood front and center and it felt like he was focused on her too. She knew it was wishful thinking but with his feet planted in a wide-legged stance and his shoulders pulled back, as he raised his guitar high in a finishing wail, she felt like they’d occupied the same moment with the same desire. The tension was high, and she took her seat again, just as the lights came up and the MC announced a twenty-minute break for the band.

“Girl, you were gettin’ it in!”

Zenobia turned toward the woman sitting next to her and offered a smile, as she caught her breath. It had served as an invitation to continue talking, which wasn’t her intention.

“Lucky is fine as hell.” And though she didn’t respond, Zenobia agreed with her whole heart.

It turned out, the woman wasn’t looking for responses. It seemed she was still reeling from the Lucky-effect too and her chattering was part of the excitement.

The room was humming with energy, as the crowd mingled. A line formed at the ladies’ room door, like always, while the men had no wait time to use the facilities. They were the ones standing in line at the bar, some of them coming away with drinks in both hands. Rather than wait in line for either purpose, Zenobia observed everyone else from her seat. She recognized a few people from the theater crowd but not anyone she would approach. The time was much later than she would be out on a Sunday night but she had no intention of leaving before the show ended.

The touch of a hand on her shoulder made her turn to find Lucien smiling down at her. The surprise rattled her, and she plastered on a nervous smile, an extra-wide one that eventually made her cheeks hurt.

“Hey, Pretty Lady,” he said. “You came.”

She was still smiling nervously and before she could respond, he moved into the chair beside hers. He’d changed his shirt from the crisp white one that made him look like a god onstage to a long-sleeved charcoal grey tee that clung to his well-formed chest and sizeable biceps. Damn, he is something. She continued to scan his appearance, finding him more appealing every time her eyes landed somewhere different. His tempting mouth displayed the perfect teeth adding another element of fascination. His smile and his warm brown eyes communicated longing.

“You smell so good,” he said. “And please, don’t go anywhere without agreeing to have dinner with me.”

“My name’s Zenobia.” She blurted in a jumpy announcement.

Lucien chuckled. “You are so beautiful, Zenobia. Did you think I’d forget your name?”

She lowered her lashes, unsure of how to respond to the unexpected compliment and felt embarrassed for reintroducing herself.

Her “Thank you” came out sounding more bashful than she would have liked. She didn’t want him to think she was some shrinking violet. His attention was making her bloom in ways she thought had dried up years ago.

“Come with me.” He held out his hand and rose from the seat.

Without question, she stood and joined her hand with his, allowing him to lead her through the crowd, drawing curious looks from other women whose attention he’d held mere minutes before. Down a dingy hallway in the aging brownstone building, he led her to a closed door. They entered the band’s dressing room, which was quiet and smelled of sandalwood incense. It wasn’t what she would have expected, not that she had much to compare it to. But with the all the hype surrounding the band and the international fame the announcer proclaimed, she thought his dressing room would have been more like the green room touted from the backstages of television studios.

“Let’s talk,” he requested and led her to the sofa.

“Ok. What would you like to talk about?”

“First, let me start off by saying you look mighty fine in that black leather. This is different than any look I’ve seen on you.”

“Thank you…I think. I didn’t realize you noticed what I’ve been wearing. You’ve only seen me twice.”

“You captured my attention from the first time I showed up at Center Stage. I almost didn’t make the performance that first night. That’s why I know it was meant for me to meet you.”

She wasn’t ready to disclose her connection to the seat he’d obtained. If she told that, she’d have to tell him about Kirk then he would know she wasn’t free. The perception of freedom was too sweet to relinquish just yet.

“So which name do you prefer, Lucien or Lucky?”

“Lucky is a stage name, and this is private.”

The suggestion in his words, implied there would be a private relationship. And she wanted the possibility to exist, whether she should or not.

“Lucien, it is then.”

“Yes.” The word hung between them in a sexually-charged moment that had her wishing she could touch him – his hand, his cheek or his nice lips.

The electric current had her nerves bristling with a yearning that scared her and when he reached up and stroked her cheek with the back of his hand, her eyes fluttered close, as she bit at her lower lip.

“Lucky!” A raspy voice cut into their private moment. “Oh, shit…sorry, man. We were looking for you.”

“It’s ok, Roland. I was just leaving.” He stood and she followed suit.

Zenobia felt the man’s eyes on her even before she watched them roam down to her four-inch black stiletto pumps, up her leather encased legs to the juicy redness of her lips, ending with a look of sheer male appreciation. She watched, as Lucien’s eyes met his with a glint of warning.

“Excuse me,” he muttered under his breath, as he left the room holding his hands up in surrender.

“Will you wait for me, after the show,” Lucien asked, holding onto her hand.

“Yes, I’ll wait.”

His eyes, hooded with craving, mirrored her own. She wanted to kiss him, had been itching to, ever since he led her to the dressing room. It was something she’d fantasize about while she waited.

As soon as she was seated, the whole band took to the stage and played a second set that seemed to last forever.  His performance in the second half was even better than before and when he played a ballad so beautiful, it almost made her cry, she knew that not only was he looking in her direction, he was directing the song to her. And to remove all doubt, he completely blindsided her by speaking into the mic, saying, “I want to dedicate this song to a special lady in the audience. Zenobia, this is for you.” He started singing in this rich baritone, a song about the way she looked tonight and how she made him feel, all while strumming an acoustic guitar.

She was torn between the possible attention from someone who might know her and the attention she was receiving from him. He made her long for stolen kisses, spontaneous dates, drives on autumn afternoons, walks along the beach and evenings in front of a warm fireplace. His spell was making her yearn for romance, something she hadn’t had in a very long time. But first, there was this desire. As she listened to Lucien croon the soulful, romantic song just for her, she didn’t know how long she could make it wait.

Empty Spaces (#2)

The first time Zenobia had seen Lucien was late in the previous season. She was drawn to him from the time he’d shown up next to her, claiming the seat that had been her plus-one for at least four years. The cancellation of her second seat had been her final acceptance that, except for an occasional concert, Kirk would never share her interest in the Arts. For years, she’d maintained a double subscription to various organizations on the off-chance that he’d give in and accompany her to an exhibit or show every now and then. That plan hadn’t worked out the way she’d hoped.

The reality hit especially hard in the middle of the last season, when Kirk finally agreed to go see an experimental adaptation of a Shakespeare play. It seemed they’d finally turned a corner. Instead, he sat through every excruciating minute with his arms folded across his chest, barely responding to the humor on stage or the comments she directed specifically to him. She’d felt foolish for forcing her interests on him. But it wasn’t like he’d never gone along with her plans before. When they’d first started dating, he gladly met her halfway on their social engagements. As a compromise, she’d attended games for various sports of which she’d had no knowledge. Those concessions ended years ago.

That night, he made it perfectly clear that even though she could talk him into showing up, he had no intention of being anything more than a spectator. Ever. She was so outraged by his behavior, she went to the box office during intermission and donated her extra tickets to the theater for the remaining shows. It was a prescient decision that in hindsight would seem almost divine. A follow-up phone call to her brother in Miami convinced her she’d done the right thing.

“Sis,” he’d said. “I go to gatherings solo, all the time. I meet people who already share my interests. You can’t make someone want what you want.” She wondered if that sentiment applied to more than the Arts.

At least, the tickets for the last two performances would go to some lucky person who wanted to be there, she reasoned. She had no way of knowing that person’s good fortune would also be hers.

 

###

 

Lucien couldn’t believe his luck. He’d come to the theater hoping to catch at least a glimpse of the mystery woman he’d sat next to the previous year. The voluptuous beauty with the haunted eyes had piqued his curiosity in such a way that he wanted to know everything about her. He’d traveled all over the world and been with some of the sexiest women on earth, but she had him sitting in the darkened auditorium feeling like a schoolboy trying to muster the nerve to ask for a date. The biggest turn-on was she seemed to have no clue about who he was. Sitting in such close proximity, trying to ignore the surge of chemistry they embodied, turned out to be one of the purest moments of genuine attraction between a man and a woman with no outside interference or influence. And here he was again.

He pulled the mirrored aviator shades from his shirt pocket and slid them on to help obscure his face from prying eyes. He’d rather a few people think he looked like a certain someone than to have them know for sure he was that someone. It was one of the disadvantages of being a public figure, even one who hadn’t conquered the international spotlight.  He knew how to skirt the perimeters of that identification without letting it steal all of his anonymity, or his whole life. Wearing dark shades in a theater was a small sacrifice to make, in exchange for a modicum of control.

“You look like that musician,” an older gentleman addressed Lucien, as he stood in line for drinks. “I’m sure you get that all the time.”

He smiled and nodded. “Yeah, all the time.” They laughed together, as other patrons standing in line joined in with their opinions about the resemblance to himself. As much as he hated the celebrity label, he wasn’t willing to be totally transparent. Zenobia had no idea and for now, Lucien wanted to keep it that way. The only enthusiastic attention he wanted tonight was hers, for him, not his public persona. And not for the giant bodyguard standing five feet behind trying to blend his bulk in with the rest of the crowd.

With drinks in hand, he made his way back, while devising a plan to really introduce himself without scaring her off. Not everyone looked forward to having their lives put on public display. Other than eager fans, Lucien could think of no one at all. For the most part, he’d been able to keep his love life private but there was no denying, dating him could sometimes shine an unwelcome light. Zenobia had put stars in his eyes and he wanted to feed the longing in hers.

 

###

 

The signature woodsy, herbal scent of cologne signaled his return. Zenobia tingled with the anticipation of something she couldn’t name. But it was something she needed. Something. New.

“I hope I didn’t take too long,” he said, upon his return. “You know how the lines get.”

“Yes, I do know.”

His timing was perfect and so was the wine he’d chosen– crisp, slightly sweet and very refreshing. It suited the circumstance poetically. She closed her eyes, as she sipped and when she opened them, his gaze met hers.

“Good?”

“Delicious.”

Each time, it was easier to flirt with him. She thought she’d be out of practice, but their repartee came naturally. The lights flickered to signal the end of intermission and the patrons ended conversations between rows and across aisles to find their seats.

During the second half, they were both more relaxed. Their contact had extended beyond knees to the full length of their thighs. They laughed together at the funny parts and honored the solemnity of the deeply moving parts. Zenobia was always moved by the end of the story. She was finding that the play was no different. Desire and its pull had changed the characters’ lives. They found love and lost it; ultimately, love won. But it had all started with desire. There in the darkened theater, she experienced the lure of desire so strong, she was compelled to obey its power.

The buzz of her phone hummed in her purse. She was abruptly transported back to her reality. She knew who it was without answering. The production was running a little late, due to the designated Q&A with the cast at the end. Knowing she was going to miss the best part, she rose from her seat and Lucien’s silent inquiry made her feel like the clock had struck midnight and the spell was about to be broken.

“I have to go,” she whispered, so as not to disturb others.

“Before the end?” He whispered back.

She nodded. “See you next time.”

Lucien moved into the aisle, so she could pass – his touch on her arm, slowing her down.

“I want to see you again.”

Zenobia’s eyes darted nervously to the people watching the play, then looked up into his eyes but didn’t respond. Although she could think of nothing to say in the quietness, she knew “no” wasn’t an option.

He patted his jacket pocket and produced a card which he slid into her hand.

“Meet me.”

“Okay” was uttered in a rushed whisper, right before she moved toward the exit like Cinderella running from the ball – away from her prince and back to a life of drudgery.

###

     Zenobia worked her way through the cars double parked at the curb, to find Kirk at the end of the block with the truck idling, like he was ready to step on the gas. She spotted the dark figure in the passenger seat. As she drew closer, she confirmed that Bo was riding shotgun, as she’d thought. It was something he’d done regularly – accompany Kirk to pick her up. Bo moved to give up the front seat and she gestured for him to stay put, like always.

They pulled off in silence until Kirk turned the volume up on the talk radio show he listened to every evening, even Fridays. It played, whether he was listening or not, as if the drone of the host’s nasal voice made him feel informed just to hear it. Oft times, it served as a backdrop for whatever conversation he was having, which usually resulted in a cacophony of sound that grated on her ears, clashing like a ball of confusion.

Zenobia looked out the back window, hoping to catch a glimpse of Lucien as they passed the theater. Within minutes, Kirk and Bo were in a passionate debate about which teams were bound to make the playoffs. Too bad, she’d left her earphones at home. She tried to escape into the memories of the night and recapture some of the buzz that had her lit up like a flame. Anything was better than the dying ember her life had become.

Her clutch chimed to let her know a text had been received. It was a message from her brother.

“Home yet?”

“Just leaving.”

“U had a good time, right?”

“The best.”

“Told u.”

“Glad I listened to you.”

“U should ALWAYS listen to me.”

Her brother always guaranteed a laugh. She finished the conversation with rows of annoying emojis, just because she was the younger sister who still had the power to annoy…with love.

Zenobia chuckled, as she placed the phone back in her purse. The lighted screen directed her attention to the card Lucien placed in her hand. It was the perfect time to study it, while she went completely unheeded. It was the kind of glossy card they handed out to promote parties at clubs, the kinds of parties she never attended. Fridays at Logan’s Supper Club was emblazoned across the top of the card, which featured photos of people enjoying themselves. It advertised the club as the place to go, after the show, the theater, or the museum, to feast on authentic New Orleans cuisine. The post card served as an invitation to a private party, but Zenobia had reservations about accepting. The images of people smiling, dancing, listening to live music, and dining on food from the Bayou was intriguing but she’d be attending alone. Meet me. Lucien’s words reminded her she didn’t have to be.

She smiled deep down in her soul. It would be her little secret. As she listened to the two sitting up front, still talking about nothing, she knew her plans were the last thing on Kirk’s mind.

Empty Spaces


Zenobia Sanford never thought she could be a cheating woman but as she smoothed the scented body cream over her damp skin, she knew she was primping for another man. The coordinating perfume dabbed behind her ears, on her wrists, and in her décolleté, made her confident about the effect it would have and excited her at the prospect of seeing him tonight. After she put on the delicate lace boy shorts and matching mocha-colored bra, she could barely get the sweater dress over her head, before her husband stormed into their bedroom.

“C’mon, Nobi. You don’t want to miss the beginning of the play.”

He paused and watched, as she zipped the rust suede boots up her legs and the show of interest didn’t impress her. She found it unusual for him to be concerned about her punctuality for any “artsy-fartsy event,” as he called all her creative interests.

“I’m almost done, Kirk.”

She dismissed his perusal, spritzing the oriental scent behind each knee and turning the TV off.

With no eye contact, her answer seemed to satisfy him. He left the room without uttering another word and went downstairs. The sounds of a football game drifted up to her. Now she understood his impatience. The sooner Kirk left, the sooner he could return, she surmised. The commentator’s voice reverberated loud and clear, followed by fans’ cheers. She wondered why he was watching TV in the living room, when his man cave is where he usually indulged all his creature comforts. Kirk was happiest with a plate of food, a six pack, a 50-inch flat screen and his subscription to a sports package that boasted access to numerous local and international networks. They seldom went out together anymore and hadn’t for a long time.

Five minutes later, Zenobia descended the stairs. The cream-colored angora draped off one shoulder, hugged the right curves and stopped just above the knees, exposing an inch of  polished skin between the hem and her boots. The heels clicked on the hardwood stairs, but the sound didn’t pull Kirk’s attention away from the TV screen. In fact, she was standing at the front door in her coat before he realized she was ready to go.

“My boys are ‘bout to score, Babe.”

He raised one finger to reserve one more minute of her dwindling patience. Babe. She felt the endearment meaningless – the equivalent of adding any name to the end of a comment, any “Mary” or “Jane”.

In a little over thirty minutes, the curtain would rise on the first act of a stage adaptation of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. If he hurried, she would be there. It was her favorite novel and she had high hopes for the production, which had received excellent reviews. Yet, Kirk sat perched on the edge of the sofa, all his attention focused on the game. Since there was no need in watching the clock, she took the time to look at him. He’d traded his suit and tie from work for athletic gear, including a fitted cap and running shoes. The new coaching job had proven to be very demanding. As evidence, there seemed to be more gray sprouting from his temples and the fullness in his cheeks, greatly diminished. She wondered if there was any regret over leaving his law practice to coach college basketball.

In an unanticipated move, he sprung to his feet and started cheering for the player making his way into the end zone, going from A to Z so quickly, it was hard not to be amused. What had seemed a look of tiredness a few seconds ago turned into a show of vigor she didn’t expect. When the team scored the touchdown, Kirk sent up a hearty shout, snatching the cap from his head, and smacking it against his thigh. It was obvious, he had energy and interest for what mattered to him. That observation was tinged with resentment. Almost immediately, his cell phone rang.

“Did you see that? That had to be a record,” he yelled into the phone.

The commentator confirmed his presumption.

“See? I told you, man!” He could hardly contain the excitement.

It was Kirk’s best friend Bo calling to discuss the play. They lived within a block of each other and could easily watch the games together, down in the basement – out of earshot. For reasons never stated, they chose to watch in separate houses and only call to discuss the highlights.

“Kirk, seriously?” Zenobia made a point of tapping her watch and didn’t realize how her foot mimicked the movement.

Tonight, wouldn’t allow the two friends time for one of their traditional recaps. Zenobia was more concerned about whether she was going to miss the play and she couldn’t pass up the chance to see him, once again.

###

     They pulled up to the front of the theater, having cut the twenty-five-minute drive down to fifteen. Zenobia hurried from Kirk’s Escalade alone, as always, having become accustomed a long time ago, to his perceived act of chivalry. He’d insisted on driving her to nighttime activities, so she wouldn’t travel by herself. The irony didn’t go unnoticed. She was always alone. As she entered the lobby, her presence drew inquisitive glances, even bold stares. She was familiar with the patrons with whom she’d been crossing paths for years and with them, she exchanged pleasantries, while waiting in line at the coat check. For others, she was an enigma, looking like a golden goddess traversing the crowd unaccompanied. She was a mystery.

     Zenobia accepted a program from the usher, hurried into the main theater, and made her way toward the front – to the fourth row, left orchestra seat reserved every year with her subscription. As she got closer, her pulse raced. Her eyes scanned the ends of the rows, looking for signs of his presence. When she spotted a leg encased in black leather extended into the aisle, she came to a stop. She trained her eyes on the gold lettering and numbers that marked the row. She had the location right. Heat suffused her face, flushing it from the inside out.

“Excuse me,” she spoke with a steadiness that belied the tremble in her larynx.

“Of course,” he responded and rose to his feet, allowing her access to the next seat and her gaze traveled up his impressive size. She avoided his stare, her hip brushing his, as she squeezed into the row.

“Sorry,” she mumbled.

“No problem.”

Once they were both seated, the MC appeared downstage announcing the start of the performance. The lights lowered and in the hushed anticipation before the curtain rose, he turned to her.

“You smell amazing,” he spoke in a low, husky voice.

With a smile she couldn’t suppress, she whispered back, “Thank you.”

Zenobia felt the electricity surging between them, as their knees touched, and neither moved to break contact. The curtain came up and they turned their attention to the stage. With provocative thoughts swirling through her mind, she no longer had any doubts about whether she could cheat. The fantasy being conceived, at that moment, placed her in the midst of a torrid affair. And she had no remorse, none whatsoever.

For what felt like an eternity, her eyes and ears were riveted to the stage. As the lead actress conveyed the struggle between her needs and her desires, Zenobia felt pinned to her seat. This story was for her. It was as if the spotlight on the actress illuminated all the empty spaces in her own life. She shifted uncomfortably, every movement rubbing her bared knee against the cool smoothness of his pant leg. She found the friction both arousing and unnerving but not enough to pull her leg away. Neither did he.

When they reached intermission, the lights came up and she got the first good look at him in almost a year. It was likely her first real look whatsoever, one where she didn’t take tentative glances but rather made eye contact.

Not much had changed. His beard was still full and lush, and his hair was the wild mass of kinky curls she remembered. He was the antithesis of Kirk’s clean-cut, sharp creases and buttoned-down handsomeness. And the glint of a ring through his septum caught her off guard. It was a new detail that stirred an unexpected reaction, something she couldn’t name but it felt erotic. His mahogany skin was unmarred, and his dark-rimmed eyes were framed by thick black brows and filled with invitation. No, not much had changed. He was still fine with a dash of danger. When he smiled, her insides fluttered. Goddamn it, he’s beautiful. Zenobia was glad he couldn’t read her bold thoughts.

“I got my wish,” he said.

“Really? What’s that?”

She allowed one coy remark, knowing exactly to what he alluded.

“That you’d come back.”

Their initial encounter was committed to her memory, but she didn’t have to let him know that. Her lashes lowered as he dared her with flirtation.

“Well, here I am,” she said, raising her eyes to maintain contact.

“Yes, here we are.”

     We. The invitation in his eyes had found its way to his mouth. His nice full lips held her attention. She was wondering if he’d be a good kisser, just as she realized he was expecting a reply to his comment.

“I guess we’re stuck for the next six months,” she said. “That’s if you’re here for the season.”

“I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

She hadn’t flirted with anyone in years. And it felt good.

“By the way, I’m Lucien.”

     Even his name is sexy. “I’m Zenobia,” she said, allowing him to clasp her hand in his.

“I’m going for a drink,” he said. “Would you like one?”

“I’d love one.”

It was then she realized he still held her hand and she pulled away, using the act of retrieving money from her purse to break the awkwardness.

He held up his hand to halt her efforts.

“I got you.” The slight chuckle that followed wasn’t a sound borne of humor; it was more like a cat acknowledging the mouse he would devour later but stopping to thank him for the taste he anticipated… I got you. It gave her a delicious chill.

She couldn’t resist turning to catch a glimpse of him. His natural swagger created a smooth gait with a mesmerizing rhythm, like he was walking to a personal theme song. It was easy for her to follow him through the crowd. Her lips twisted into a devilish smirk prompted by arousing thoughts, thoughts that seemed to summon his attention, as his gaze met hers across the room. He paused long enough to offer a smile that reiterated his earlier assertion, “I got you.”

A flush rushed to her face. She was downright giddy. This wasn’t a one-way thing.