As I sat in first class, I couldn't believe I was heading back to the States. I'd been living in Paris for six years, working as a stylist at a fashion magazine when I got my mother's letter. We'd been in contact since I'd left, but now she wanted me to come home. She didn't say why, just that she had to see me.
My mother so rarely asked for anything that I knew I'd be on the next flight back. Honestly, I didn't mind taking a break. My job kept me busy; always packed and ready to leave for a shoot at a moment's notice. No room for relationships either, but I didn't mind. If you didn't care, you didn't get hurt. I'd been hurt enough. The last time I almost didn't make it. And here I was heading back to New York, back to Harlem.
I exited JFK behind my driver. I took a deep breath and looked around, taking it all in. I couldn't believe I was here. We were meeting at 7:00. It was 6:15 as the car made its way across the Triborough, the magnificence of 125th street coming into view.
Six years ago, I'd fled the country putting as much distance as possible between myself and the man I'd fallen in love with. I shook my head to dispel the memory.
I leaned forward in my seat. I wanted to see the neighborhood. It had been a minute. I was back in Harlem, where I was born and bred. I asked the driver to let me off on 125th. He looked at me like I was crazy. Giving my outfit the once over he shook his head.
"Are you sure, this is a rough neighborhood?"
I laughed, "Are you kidding? Look at all these white people, all these cops." I smiled. "Don't worry, I'm from Harlem."
He shrugged and pulled over between Park and Madison.
"I'll deliver your bag." He said opening my door.
I nodded, sliding my long legs out of the car. Tossing my stole over my shoulders I headed west across 125th towards Madison.
There was the same hustle and bustle, chicken joints and fast food spots, book vendors and jewelry shops, but lots of new buildings. 125th was packed. That certainly hadn't changed: Africans hawking shea butter and fabric. Sisters sidling up offering braiding services. Drunks loafing near the liquor stores. Project kids hanging out. Everywhere you looked, fine brothers and sisters. Every dreadlocked head making my heart skip a beat.
I slipped on my shades. Turning north on Fifth towards 130th I passed my favorite Church, Mt. Moriah Baptist on 126th. The church ladies would congregate outside in their big hats and Sunday finery, gossiping and laughing. St. Andrews Episcopal on 127th was more staid. No kids running around in front after services. No loud clapping and shouting during. As an only child I'd spent a lot of time watching kids and their parents. My mom and I lived on 130th and Convent, up on the hill. Our apartment was the only good thing my dad left when he took off. Actually, my mom would tell me, he'd left two good things: the apartment and me, because I'd been a baby in my mother's belly. I always wondered what kind of man could leave his child.
I looked around Fifth; there was still row after row of brownstones, some old, some newly renovated. A few tired tenements were still hanging on, but Fifth had changed. The brownstones were now mostly in various states of renovation and not dilapidation.
130th was like another world after the hustle and bustle of 125th. Serene and peaceful it seemed like the only block with trees, their bushy canopies shading the brownstones beneath. I marveled at how the street had changed. There was still a row of plantation style brownstones near Lenox. I'd always fantasized about buying one and fixing it up. I guess I wasn't the only one. Nearly all the brownstones had been renovated. The three-story, single-family row houses set back from the street behind their big porches and fenced yards were the centerpieces.
I looked at the address on the paper I held and then at the number on the brownstone in front of me. This is where I was going. Number 46 was tastefully renovated with a mint green fence and white exterior. The door was a deep mahogany with a brass knocker. Exactly the way I would've done it. The curtains were drawn but I could see light inside. I hesitated at the steps, nervous. I wondered whose house this was. Mom would never move; she loved the Convent avenue apartment, despite the memories.
I took off my shades and walked up the stairs to the porch, my heels clicking on the wooden steps. I knocked twice with the knocker. I heard footfalls on the other side of the door then it opened. My breath caught in my throat as my past caught up to my present.
He just looks at me, his eyes moving slowly over my 5 ft 10 frame. My hair is pulled back; its unruly twists piled high. His eyes travel down my chocolate brown light wool suit, the one-button jacket tightly cinched at the waist, accentuates my womanly curves, three silver chains nestles between the swell of my breasts. His gaze moves down the length of my brown woolen pants, cuffed above the high-heeled brown crocodile pumps. I can barely breath.
He is still fine, his cheekbones defined and sloping. His lips are as plump as my own but now there are a few fine lines around them. He'd shaved his head. Gone is the heavy mane of dreadlocks he'd sported 6 years ago. About 6 feet, he is still muscular, now he is also sexy. His sleeveless white silk t-shirt is tight across his chest. His jeans hanging low at his hips, barely held up by a thick leather belt, white boxers peek out from the waist. At his wrist is the thick silver bracelet I'd given him to celebrate our first year together. As I stare at him he stands there watching me. Then he steps aside and opens the door. My legs move as if on their own, as I walk inside. He closes the door.
The hall is dark, bathed only in the twilight seeping in through the open curtains. My bag is on the floor.
"It's good to see you Nona," he said, his voice still a rich baritone.
Then I remembered how we met, 8 years ago.
Cocoa colored and tattooed, his locks tied high up on his head, he'd stopped me on 125th and Lenox holding my scarf, which had fallen.
"Thanks," I'd said, taking it, thinking he was cute. Then I continued across 125th. A few moments later I turned to see him standing next to me.
"Have I dropped something else?" I asked him.
He smiled, "No, but I'm waiting. I got all day."
Jamal was a performance poet living on 124th near Marcus Garvey Park—not far from where Maya Angelou lives now—in one of those huge 2 bedroom apartments you could score back then for $500 a month. He'd lived Harlem almost as long as I had.
Jamal and I spent the day together, like old friends. He bought us coffee then we walked to Morningside Park and hung out, talking shit, laughing. We must've been lovers in another life because we had a synchronicity that was electric. We'd finish each other's sentences and laugh at the same things. We'd look at people and arch our brows, no need for words. We knew we had something that was very rare. You could search your whole life for someone, for something like we had, and we'd found each other.
When the afternoon slipped into dusk, we went to his apartment, a huge, white space with only a bed in one room, a worktable in the other, and a massive sound system throughout. His windows faced Marcus Garvey Park. We stood there holding each other watching the sun set over Harlem. Then we spent the next two days in bed.
Two years ago, Jamal—Jah, as he's known to his millions of fans—hit the big time. After laying some spoken word on one of Usher's songs, the single went platinum and he became the next Big Thing. The Neptunes produced JahLand had gone double platinum in its first week. I'd followed his career; it wasn't hard, he'd been in all the magazines, even in Europe. He was now making appearances on The Wire and had recorded two tracks for Oz.
Leaving me standing at the threshold, Jamal walks into the living room silhouetted by the twilight coming in from the windows. A moment later the room is bathed in a soft warm light and he is leaning against his desk, arms crossed. My eyes go to his muscular biceps. I see the snake tattoo that starts at his wrist and winds its way to his shoulder. Its twin is etched along my spine.
I almost jump when he speaks.
"Why did you leave?"
When I just stare at him, Jamal sighs loudly.
"Nona, we were in love. Remember?
He opens his arms.
"I bought this house for you. You always wanted to live in one of these." He goes to the window. "You should have come to me. Instead you take off, and over some girl."
He picks up a piece of paper from his desk and holds it out to me. It's the letter I left him six years ago. I didn't need to read it. I knew exactly what it said. How could you? I loved you. Goodbye.
"After two years, you left me a note."
When I don't take it he crumples the letter.
"I finally got your mother to tell me where you were last year. It took another year for her to agree to ask you to come home."
I couldn't believe my mother had brought me to Jamal. When I'd gone to her that day, she'd told me to trust myself. To do what I felt was right.
"Nona, why didn't you trust me? Why did you leave?"
I took a deep breath.
"She said she was pregnant, Jah. That she was having your baby." She let herself into your apartment. She had a key. What was there to talk about?" My mouth had gone dry.
"You thought I'd stepped out on my kid. After everything you told me about your dad. You think I'd do that? Didn't you know me at all? He shakes his head. "She was an ex, Nona. She had a key. She'd wanted to get back together but I loved you." Then he sighs.
Walking across the room he holds me by my shoulders. There are tears in his eyes. "But you didn't give me a chance." He releases my arms so abruptly I almost fall down.
He turns his back and walks away from me. A knife twists in my chest.
"What I don't understand is why I still love you, why I can't forget about you?" He turns back to face me. "Did you ever love me?"
My heart pounds in my chest so loudly I can barely hear my voice.
"I still love you, Jah."