Chapter I: New Life, New Beginning
Friday Afternoon, April 17th, 1:46 p.m.
Erica looked out from her window seat of the Delta 747 and saw the tall skyscrapers of Chicago beckoning her. The plane was nearing descenta on O’Hare International and she couldn’t have been happier. For one, her legs were tired from sitting on the nearly nine-hour flight from Paris. She had gotten up occasionally to stretch her legs and to use the facilities when need be but she was still tired. She had stayed up until 1 am getting the last of her things packed into her large suitcases. She had left all her furniture behind, being that she had purchased new furniture online from IKEA. The furniture and appliances were set to be delivered the next day, thanks to Erica’s older sister Bianca, who was 10 years her senior. Erica was very excited to see her big sister, since it had been nearly two years since they’d seen each other in person.
When Erica was eight, Bianca went off to college at Bowie State University, about four hours away. Bianca came home as often as she could but being that college was college, she had to concentrate on her studies. She had also met a guy there, Dean Sharp, who was born and raised in Chicago. He had a younger brother Darren, who was just about Erica’s age. Bianca and Dean fell in love and had planned to marry. However, Dean made no plans to move to Bethesda, Maryland where Bianca and her family lived. Bianca knew from the time she left high school that she wanted to relocate. The thought of living in Chicago thrilled her, so two months after graduating college and landing an internship as an accountant at a prestigious law firm, she relocated. She and Dean were married a year later. Dean worked at an architectural firm and he was one of the top architects at his company. The couple tried having children after their 3rd year of marriage but unfortunately, Bianca suffered three miscarriages. After the 3rd miscarriage, they decided to take a break from trying to have children but they were still determined to become parents someday.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we are descending into O’Hare International Airport,” the captain announced over the loud speaker. “If you’re in town for a visit, I hope you enjoy your time here. If you’re here for a long period of time, I hope you like your stay. Welcome to Chicago. Please fasten your seatbelts and prepare for landing.” Erica snapped her seatbelt and prepared herself for the beginning of her new life.
It was a sunny spring day in mid-April and the weather was unusually warm. Erica took her jacket off as she waited for a taxi to take her to her new apartment near the South Shore of Lake Michigan. She had sold her car in Paris to a friend of hers that she’d met during her modeling days and she had enough cash to pay for a new one, which she planned to do immediately. She’d always been fond of BMW’s so she planned to purchase another one. Her last BMW had been cherry red but she decided that black would be the color of the next one. A taxi pulled up and the driver got out and helped her with her luggage. She didn’t bring many items of clothing with her, as she couldn’t bring all of them on the plane anyway. She had made arrangements to have them flown to Chicago and she’d pick them up at FedEx when they arrived.
It took nearly 30 minutes to get to her new apartment but in that space of time, Erica had time to reminisce about the last 9 years of her life. She had left Bethesda two months after graduating high school to get her modeling career underway. She had lived in New York for a period of time, shuttling between there and Los Angeles, then finally settling in Paris, France. She appeared on many magazines, including Vogue Paris, L’Officiel, and Elle Magazine. By the time she turned 24, she knew that her modeling days were coming to an end. Models past the age of 25 were passé. She knew she had to find a career to fall back on so when she turned 25, she created a fashion blog, which in turn helped her to create a magazine called Forever Strong, which is the meaning of her name. She thought about her past love life as well. In high school, she had dated a young man named Cassius Turner, whom she had grown up with in Bethesda. He was captain of the basketball team and she was the head cheerleader so of course they were the It Couple of the high school. She and Cash had broken up after she moved to New York for her modeling career and he had relocated to Atlanta to attend Morehouse College. They kept in touch for a while but neither of them wanted to feel the stress of a long-distance relationship so they ended it, but on good terms. About a year later, she met Ryan Toussaint. The two met during her third year in Paris. Ryan had been out shopping and he and Erica literally bumped into each other. Erica settled back in her seat and let the memories take over her thoughts:
“I am so sorry sweetheart, are you hurt?” Erica looked into the face of one of the most handsome men she had seen since living in Paris. She was coming out of a clothing store, peering down into one of her many bags and did not see the handsome guy until they collided. One of her bags fell to the sidewalk while the guy grabbed hold of her arms to keep her from stumbling.
“I’m okay,” Erica said, looking into his beautiful hazel brown eyes. From his accent, she knew he had to be from America (Louisiana maybe?). “I wasn’t looking where I was going.” She smiled.
“Neither was I, because if I had been paying close attention, I would have definitely not bumped into you but I would have passed you my number,” the guy said, smiling. He was definitely from America.
“Are you flirting with me?” Erica smiled, already knowing the answer to that.
“What if I said yes?” the guy asked. He had a beautiful set of teeth to match those beautiful colored eyes.
“I would have to ask you first…what is your name?” Erica laughed.
“Ryan. My name is Ryan Toussaint,” Ryan answered, holding out his hand.
“I can’t exactly shake your hand right now,” Erica said, holding up her shopping bags. “And my name is Erica Parker.” They both laughed, thus beginning a new relationship. Erica learned that Ryan was a former NBA player who was waived a few years back and decided to bring his talents to France, where he’d played for the past three years. He was from New Orleans and came from a Louisiana Creole family. Erica told him about her own life: about her sister and parents, her modeling career and her plans after modeling. For the first year of their relationship, they took things slow, being that both of them had careers that kept them apart. The second and third year of the relationship is when the relationship took off. Ryan took Erica to New Orleans to meet his family, and Erica took him back to Bethesda to meet her parents. They had stopped through Chicago once for Ryan to meet Bianca and Dean. They had made plans to marry in the near future…that is, until Ryan’s career tanked. Near the fourth year of their relationship, Ryan was waived by the French Basketball team and he became depressed. In turn, it caused their relationship to suffer. Erica was at the height of her modeling career, so Ryan was feeling a bit envious that she was still at the top of her own game, which caused a serious rift in their relationship. Things came to a head during the middle of their fourth year together.
“Babe, we need to talk,” Ryan said one night after dinner. Erica had just finished washing the dinner dishes and was wiping her hands on a towel.
“What it is babe?” Erica asked, walking into the living room of their shared apartment, taking a seat next to Ryan on the couch.
“I think I need to go back to the States,” Ryan said, looking into Erica’s eyes. “I don’t have a reason to stay here anymore. I’ve been cut from the team so what else is there for me to do here?”
“What do you mean, you want to leave?” Erica asked with a surprised look on her face. “I live here Ryan. My career is here. I am in the midst of creating a company of my own. You would just up and leave me here? You would just leave without me?” Erica asked again. She knew that Ryan had been depressed for a while but he never expressed to her that he was considering leaving France altogether.
“Babe, I gotta do what I gotta do,” Ryan said. “You have a career. You don’t need me.”
“What do you mean, I don’t need you? I love you Ryan,” Erica said. “I can take care of things until you get back on your feet.”
“Maybe I don’t want you to take care of me,” Ryan said. “I don’t want my woman taking care of me like I’m some loser.” He stood up and started pacing.
“It’s not about you being a loser, because you’re not,” Erica reassured him. She walked over to him and placed her hand on his broad shoulder. “I just want to make sure we’re okay.”
“It’s not about us, it’s about me being a real man and taking care of my woman properly,” Ryan said, turning to face Erica.
“Wait a minute: so you mean to tell me that it’s okay for you to take care of me but I can’t do the same for you?”
“That’s not how I was raised,” Ryan said. “The man is supposed to take care of his woman and family. That’s how it is.”
“That’s not how it is,” Erica said, getting upset. “What about these single women and mothers who have no man to fall back on? A lot of them do a pretty amazing job taking care of themselves.”
“That’s their fault that they don’t have a man in the first place,” Ryan said.
“Excuse me? So you’re saying that single women and mothers are nothing if they don’t have a man?” Erica felt her voice rising but she didn’t care; how dare Ryan say that single women and mothers were beneath married women!
“I’m saying that if they had been doing their job, they wouldn’t be single in the first place,” Ryan said.
“And what ‘job’ is that? Being barefoot and pregnant? Being subservient to their men? Well guess what: women have their own minds and can make their own decisions without a man’s input.”
“So now you on this women’s lib kick huh?”
“You sound like a male chauvinist right now,” Erica said, surprised that Ryan’s true nature was tumbling out in the heat of the moment.
“Maybe that’s what it is,” Ryan said.
“I can’t believe this,” Erica said, sitting on the couch. “I’ve been with you for four years and you’ve put up this façade for this long. So what did you expect me to do after my career was over: stay home and raise babies?”
“I wasn’t too keen on this modeling shit anyway,” Ryan said. “Men looking at you half-dressed on the cover of magazines and shit. My boys can see your body any time they want!”
“I don’t give a damn about your boys! This is my job and you knew that when you met me! So why did you stay? Huh, Ryan?”
“Because I thought maybe you’d give up this modeling shit and get a real job, be there for me, be my woman.”
“A real job? You don’t think modeling is a job? This is what I’ve been doing for years now Ryan. I can’t believe you’d disrespect my career like this.” Erica was on the verge of tears. “And as far as being there for you, I HAVE! When the team dropped you, who was there to comfort you, to show you love, to be your biggest support system? Me, that’s who! So I guess none of that meant anything to you, right?” Tears fell from Erica’s eyes and she knew then that Ryan never truly loved her. She didn’t know why he stuck around as long as he did, but she didn’t want him to stick around any longer.
“Look, I didn’t mean to disrespect you or your job; I’m just pissed,” Ryan said, trying to reach for her. Erica yanked away. She wiped the tears from her face.
“If you want to go back to the States, you’re free to go. I’m done. I have my life to live and I don’t have time for anyone pulling me down. I’m gonna live my life the way I want, and not to please you. I’m done.” Erica walked into the bedroom and slammed the door. She heard the front door slam in her living room and also on the relationship.
When Erica snapped out of her memories of Ryan, the taxicab was pulling in front of her high-rise apartment building. It was just as breathtaking as the pictures she’d seen on the website. She opened her purse and paid the cab fare and the cabbie got out to help her remove her luggage.
“Enjoy your stay in Chicago,” the cabbie said with a smile and an Indian accent.
“Thank you,” Erica replied. She looked up as high as she could until the sun blurred her vision. She giggled to herself and walked into the lobby. A handsome Caucasian man greeted her as she walked to the front desk.
“Hello madam, how may I help you?” he asked. Erica noticed his name tag read Steven.
“Hello Steven, my name is Erica Parker. I will be moving into the building today and I was told that I could pick up my apartment key here.” She smiled.
“Yes, Ms. Parker, we’ve heard all about you,” Steven said in a very upbeat tone. “You’re moving here from France, correct? Paris?”
“Yes, that’s right,” Erica said, taking in the ambience of the lobby.
“I have your keys right here; Apartment 1525,” Steven said, handing her two sets of keys. “You have been given two sets just in case you lose one. You may make as many copies as you like.”
“I will be sure to do that, thank you,” Erica said, looking around.
“Would you like someone to help you with your luggage?”
“Oh no, that’s okay,” Erica replied.
“It’s no trouble at all,” Steven assured her. “That’s what our staff is for. Greg! Can you come here please?” A guy of medium height and big muscles came over to the desk and gave Erica a once-over, making her feel funny.
“What’s up?” Greg asked him, still looking at Erica.
“Can you help Ms. Parker with her luggage please?”
“I’d be happy to,” Greg said, smiling at Erica. Erica quickly turned away and started walking toward the elevators. She pressed the Up button and waited, not looking at Greg. He was making her feel uncomfortable. The elevator doors opened and she stepped inside. She knew that Greg was looking at her behind. She turned and faced front, pushing her back as close to the wall as possible.
“So you just moving in huh?” Greg asked, looking at her up and down.
“Yes,” Erica said quickly.
“How come your man ain’t helping you?”
“I don’t have one.”
“You want one? I’m available.”
“No thank you. I prefer being single.”
“You’re too pretty to be single.”
“Says who?” Erica was getting irritated.
“Says me,” Greg said, licking his lips.
“Look, I don’t think management would appreciate staff flirting with a tenant,” Erica said. “So please stop.”
“What they don’t know won’t hurt them,” Greg said.
“But it could hurt you,” Erica said. “I want you to stop before I report you. Do you understand?” Greg stopped smiling and looked annoyed. The elevator doors opened to the 15th floor. Erica was relieved. “And I’ll take my bags from here, thank you.”
“Whatever,” Greg mumbled, practically pushing the bags into the hallway. Erica didn’t care; she was happy to get away from the pervert of the building. She could have sworn she heard him say stuck-up bitch before the doors closed but again, she didn’t care. She knew that he was pissed that she’d turned down his advances. She strolled down the hallway with her rollaway luggage until she reached 1525. She stuck the key in the lock and walked into a new chapter of her life.