Ali was due to arrive in about an hour and I had pulled out nearly every article of clothing I owned. For me, a typical day called for a uniform of khakis and a t-shirt and my days off were usually spent running errands or lying around the house watching movies on Netflix, which didn’t exactly require anything special by the way of clothing. On occasion, Oliver and I would go to a movie or a festival that was in town, to which I would step it up a bit by putting on a nicer pair of jeans with sandals or boots, depending on whichever the weather dictated. But today, nothing seemed appropriate. I had no idea what he had planned or if he even had plans, but whatever the day had in store, I wanted him to look at me in a new light. I wanted to be a contender.
I’d settled on my favorite distressed skinny jeans, a lightweight, winter white knit sweater that slouched exposing much of my neck and collarbone with brown, ankle boots. I’d put on a little make up, which I rarely ever wore. I lined my eyes and brushed on two or three coats of mascara, I tapped a little peach tinted bronzer on my cheeks and a coat of peachy gold gloss. I felt beautiful within the confines of my bedroom. I’d rubbed a dab of coconut oil over my hair and braided it all to the side and over my right shoulder, showing my dangling gold hoops and the bronzer, I’d brushed over my exposed collarbone. I was spritzing on a little fragrance when I saw Ali’s car turn into the driveway. I felt my tummy turn on itself. I took a deep breath, closed my eyes.
“Why not you, Camisha Ann Robbins? You are good enough.” I whispered to myself.
I walked out feeling like a million bucks. Ali was already in the family room when I rounded the corner. He was chatting with Nice Camilla and genuinely chuckling about something. He was beautiful with a wide smile spread across his full lips.
“Where are two young folks off to today.” Nice Camilla asked, while flashing her own mega-watt smile.
I shot her a glint and forced a less than cheery smile, until I turned to face Mr. Perfect. I could feel my face light up. I also caught a glimpse of the real Camilla’s hateful countenance as it made a brief appearance.
“You look great. I’ve never seen you dressed like this, well the last time I saw you, umm you weren’t dressed at all,” he said with a chuckle.
I laughed and playfully slapped at him. He grabbed the hand and kissed my open palm, right in front of Camilla. Her jealousy was almost palpable. Ali watched only me as if he didn’t remember she was in the room.
“Let’s hit it, Beautiful,” he said.
He kept my hand in his as we walked through the kitchen to the back door.
“Oh, I’m sorry, Ms. Camilla. I’m surprising Cami, so she’ll have to tell you where we went, when I bring her home. But, she’s in good hands, I assure you.” he said, looking over his shoulder, just as we walked out.
Absolutely loveable, I thought to myself. Absolutely.
Ali merged onto I-285 East and I settled into the deep, soft leather seat. The sun was high by this time and I lifted my hand to shield my eyes. Ali reached across me and pulled another pair of fancy aviator sunglasses from the glove compartment and handed them to me. The casual touch of his hand sent heat waves up my thighs and between my legs, making me shift in my seat.
“I’m not sure how safe this is.” I said, smiling. “I hardly know you and I have no idea where you’re taking me.”
Ali tossed a wink and a smile in my direction and put his free hand on my thigh, intentionally this time.
“What do you need to know to feel safe?” he asked.
“For starters, where are we going?” I asked.
“Nice try.” Ali retorted. “Next question.”
“Hmmm. Let me see. Tell me about your life; your day-to-day life.”
He went silent for a second.
“Well, I go to work. I go to the gym. Sometimes, I run outside in the park.” He answered in a measured tone. “Oh! And I cook sometimes,” he added, a bit too enthusiastically.
“You cook?” I asked. “What’s your best dish?”
“I like to cook Italian food,” he said.
Relief washed over his face and he relaxed in the driver’s seat.
“I make a killer red sauce—and meatballs, authentic ones, I mix three meats for my balls,” he said and closed one eye. His face flushed.
We both laughed at his gaffe, and tried to settle into the rest of the ride with no further conversation about his life. His reluctance set the hairs on my neck and arms on end. Erykah Badu’s melodic voice blended with Jill Scott’s and filled the space around us as we rode along in silence.
“I’ve never heard this song and I thought I’d heard everything from Erykah Badu.”
“It’s not her song, it’s The Roots. It’s from a live performance.” he said, lighting up.
Whenever he talked about music his eyes brightened and the cadence of his speech quickened. He told me all about the backstory of the song and the talented group that performed it. Over his luxurious sound system, it sounded like they were riding along in the backseat with their drums and horns and mic stands, but I couldn’t shake the uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach. His mood change when I asked about his day-to-day life bothered me. Was he married? In a relationship? In several relationships? I tried to shut off my mind and just be in the moment, but my mind was winning and rambled on.
The car pulled into one of the four lanes entering Stone Mountain park and I smiled. I looked at Ali, vibrating with excitement.
“I’ve never been here, as an adult. I used to love coming here on fieldtrips with my classmates!”
He smiled and put his free hand on my thigh and gave it a little squeeze. This time I covered his hand with both of my own, and leaned over and kissed him lightly on the cheek.
“Thank you.” I whispered. “I can’t wait to see what you have planned for us today.”
It was a crisp fall afternoon and I wasn’t dressed for hiking eight hundred some odd feet up a granite mountain by trail or otherwise. I guess my expression betrayed my private thoughts, because Ali laughed.
“We’re not here for hiking.” he said and opened the car’s trunk and handed me a tan backpack and situated another on his own back. “I packed us a couple of bottles of water and some other stuff we’ll probably need.”
He closed the trunk, took my hand and kissed it. He placed a hand at the small of my back and guided me into the park.
When we reached the Sky Rail, I took in a deep breath and held onto Ali’s hand a little tighter.
“Oh, Cami! Are you afraid of heights? I didn’t even consider that. I’m sorry. Are you? Afraid of heights, I mean.”
He shook his head.
“I didn’t think I was afraid of heights. I mean, I’ve never been faced with a situation that tested me but, something about those carts bouncing back and forth on those wire thin cables, hundreds of feet above ground with only a rock-hard, granite monolith to break my fall gives me pause. I won’t lie,” I said.
A nervous giggle tickled my throat and escaped. I swallowed hard, fighting to keep cool. Dewy beads of sweat broke out all over my body and pooled in the palms of my hands.
The one that was cradled in Ali’s hand, communicated my absolute terror. In the calmest tone I could muster,
“I’ll be fine,” I said in the calmest tone I could muster. “I want to go on with everything, just as you’ve planned it.”
I gave his hand another reassuring squeeze as my heart threatened to leave my chest. The closer we got to the Skyrail, the more I nervous I got and obsessively ran my hands over the side swept braid that hung over my shoulder. Ali alternated between rubbing the small of my back and rubbing my shoulders. He was at least nine inches taller than I, which made his chest the ideal spot for me to cradle myself. Being enveloped in his arms was surreal. I was completely distracted by his warmth and concern for me that I hadn’t noticed that we’d reached the cart that would take us to the mountain top. He turned me to face him.
“You sure you’re up for this.” he asked. “We could just walk around and talk. I’d be cool with that.”
“No. I want to go. Come on.” I said, stepping on ahead of him.
The ride to the top was nice. Ali and I sat as close as two people could get. Purposely this time, unlike the way our thighs used to accidentally brush against one another on the train, just a few weeks earlier.
We were at the top in what seemed like minutes.
“This view is incredible!” I said and leaned into his arms.
I could see downtown Atlanta in the horizon and there was a clear view of the King and Queen buildings. There were randomly situated, flat top rocks that served as platforms to stand and take photos with the city as a backdrop. The mountain was full of life, bustling with people working out and taking selfies. Young families were there taking in the sights and pointing out what they thought were their neighborhoods. Couples sat out on blankets getting romantic and yogis struck unusual poses in pursuit of a ‘higher level of being’. Ali laid out a blanket he’d packed in his backpack, offered his hand to help me sit, and lowered himself down beside me. He stretched with his long muscular legs out in front of him and pulled me close. Wrapping both his arms around my shoulders.
“Are you cold?” he asked.
I shook my head no. I was really enjoying the feeling of being one half of a couple.
We talked and reminisced about our separate experiences in the city: “I went to high school there.” “My best friend lived over there.” “I had my first kiss there and so on.”
From time to time, he’d lightly kiss my shoulders, my fingertips, the palms of my hand. He asked about my friends, my job, my likes and dislikes, but he didn’t offer much information about himself and I noticed. I didn’t want the day to end, so I suggested walking down the mountain, because I’d read in the brochure that it was about a half an hour walk by trail. I’d decided to use the time to ask him about his friends, his childhood and his work. I’d already made up my mind to tell him of my misgivings about his reluctance to talk about himself.
“I know we’ve really just met, but we’ve talked for hours on more than one occasion and all I know about you is your name and where you’re from.”
He took the deep breath this time.
“I don’t mean to be mysterious or elusive, my life’s just kind of uneventful. I’ve already told you about the good stuff,” he said with an uncomfortable chuckle. “My family’s the best part of my life. And college was good, so that’s what I shared with you.”
He shrugged casually, but stole a glance at my face.
“Like I told you earlier, my sister is my closest friend, but she can be a lot.”
“How so?” I asked.
“She has strict ideas about my life.”
“Really. She’s, let’s say overprotective when it comes to the women I date.”
I could sense his discomfort and changed the subject.
“Tell me about you work.”
He only offered the basics.
“Well, as you already know—I work in College Park. We moved over there 3 years ago, when the company relocated from Sandy Springs. I like the people I work with, but I don’t love what I’m doing anymore.” he said. “Seeing you on the train at the end of the day has been the highlight of my job for the past few years.”
Few years! I was disarmed and I think he knew it. We took the rest of the hike down hand in hand and in complete silence for most of the drive back to my house.
Dusk was setting in when we reached my place. I could see the front of the house was dark. Camilla must have been out and once again; she’d neglected to leave the porch light on for me. I didn’t know why I expected her to start considering my safety as an adult when she didn’t even bother when I was a child. My huff must have been out loud because Ali gave me a little reassuring smile and offered to see me in.
“Hey, are you hungry?” he asked.
“God, yes! I could cook something.” I said.
“No, you must be tired. Let me take you out for dinner. It’s still early enough.”
“OK,” I said smiling. “I have friends on the restaurant scene. I’ll make some calls to get us reservations somewhere. It is a Saturday night in the city.”
“No need. I’ll take care of everything,” he said. “You go get showered and I’ll chill out here.” He said, pointing to the sectional.
I wide smile danced across my face.
Someone else will take care of everything. What a novel idea.
I thought, as I bounced off to shower and change clothes.
Ali made reservations for dinner at McCormick & Schmicks, an Atlanta classic. We shared an entree of prime rib and had a couple of drinks. Afterwards we decided to take a walk around Centennial Park. The city was beautiful at night and was all lit up with tall, golden pillars at the entrance of the park welcoming us to join the other night owls. We walked along holding hands with the crisp night air keeping us close.
“Let’s keep the Sky-High theme going.” Ali said pointing ahead.
My eyes followed the length of his arm to land on the Skyview Ferris Wheel towering over the city’s skyline. I’d heard about this new addition to my city, but up until meeting Mr. Perfect, I had no interest in touristy attractions like the Ferris wheel or Centennial Park. Heck, I hadn’t been to the park since the 1996 Olympics. I’d been just a hop, skip and jump away from there several times when Camilla was working in crafts food services at the CNN Center, but had never ventured over. There was something special about seeing the city with Ali. It was as if everything was better, brighter.
“Let’s do it!” I sang and skipped ahead, pulling him behind.
I hardly recognized myself that night. I was happy and adventurous; I wasn’t irritated or brooding at all. I wasn’t disappointed in not having more or having better, or wishing my life wasn’t mine, the way I often did in my private thoughts. It was as if, I could appreciate where and who I was at that time in my life and I was grateful for all of it.
The air was cooler in the shadow of the giant ferris wheel, but I liked having a proper excuse for Ali to hold me against his body and wrap his arms around me.
A woman’s voice from behind us paralyzed Ali and I felt his whole body stiffen against mine. His arms fell from around my shoulders and I turned to see a stunning feminine version of Ali approaching. She had to be related to him. She was just as tall as him with the same rich golden brown complexion and dimpled cheeks, but she sported hazel hued, almond shaped eyes, instead of Ali’s sable brown ones. Her cocoa brown hair was cropped in a wavy, shoulder grazing bob with honey colored highlights and thick wispy bangs that framed her heart-shaped face. The shape of her bangs artfully made her eyes look like hand-picked accessories that glittered through the tortoise shell, cat-eye Ray-Ban eyeglasses she was wearing.
“Lacey Baby, what are you doing here? I didn’t know you were in town,” he managed to sputter out. He gave her a warm hug. Was I right, was this Lacey, the little sister/best friend? Lacy Baby? Was this a nickname or was he calling her baby? Was she another puzzle piece to his mysterious day--to--day life?
“Hi, I’m Lacey, Lennox’s sister. And you are.”
Lacey brushed past her brother, extending a hand to me. She was even prettier up close.
“I’m sorry, this is my baby sister, Lacey. Lacey, this is…” he stammered. “Cami Robbins.”
“And how do you all know each other? You seemed rather chummy.” Lacey asked.
“We’ve been getting to know each other more lately, but I guess we’ve been,” he paused again, “kind of acquainted for the past few years.”
His eyes met mine and I saw pleading in them. Pleading for me to corroborate his version of the “how we knew each other” answer. I was so confused and now Camilla’s chiding was ringing loudly in my head,
“He for damned sure not going to marry you or even let you meet his pretty momma and his rich daddy.” The voice in my head added, “or his beautiful sister.”
I wanted to get out of there. I broke the awkward standoff when I offered my hand to Lacey.
“It’s nice to meet you.” I said backing away. “I’m pretty tired, so I’ll take the train home and let you two catch up and I’ll see you later, Ali. I mean, Lennox or whatever.”
I turned and darted off. I heard him call out to me, but I was at least twenty feet away. When he caught up to me my eyes were filled with tears clouding my vision and making all the once beautiful lights, blurry and disorienting.
“Cami, where are you going? Please don’t go like this.”
I could barely compose myself. I nodded wildly and tried pulling away.
“At least let me take you home. Please. Let me explain what happened back there. Seeing her here rattled me, that’s all! Cami, please,” he pleaded.
But, I was too embarrassed to be with him for another second, and to make matters worse, Camilla’s voice was screaming in my head,
“He for damned sure not going to marry you or even let you meet his pretty momma and his rich daddy--or his uppity ass sister!”
“I can’t! I don’t know what I was thinking. We’re just too different and you know it,” I yelled at him and snatched my arm out of his grip. I couldn’t even face him. I ran all the way to the train station.
Camilla wasn’t answering my calls and I really didn’t think I could’ve faced her anyway, so I took a cab home from the train station. When I got home I crawled into bed and rocked myself to sleep. Ali called several times through the night, but I wasn’t ready to talk to him, and thought I would never be.
The softness of the filtered sunlight was ruined by the loud beating at my front door. I peeked out of the bedroom window to see Oliver’s forest green Jeep Cherokee in the driveway.
“Oh my God. It’s 10:22,” I said, looking at the bedside clock. “Why is he here on a Sunday morning.”
I picked up my phone and saw that I had 19 missed calls. I banged on the window to get his attention and signaled to him.
“Gimme a sec!” I shouted.
Relief washed over his pinched face and he smiled.
“What the hell is going on with you?” Oliver asked, as soon as he’d looked me over.
“Nothing. Relax. I’m fine.” I said, anxiously turning away from his critical gaze.
I busied myself putting on a pot of coffee and avoiding direct eye contact.
“You’re lying! What’s up? You better talk, Cam!”
“I just had a bad night, Ollie. That’s all.”
He shook his and pressed on.
“Did Camilla do something?” he asked.
“No!” I snapped back. “I haven’t even heard from her.”
I hadn’t even thought about her until Oliver mentioned her name.
“I’d probably better start making some calls.” I said trying to redirect the focus to Camilla’s absence. Oliver didn’t fall for it.
“I’m sure she’s right where she wants to be. Now, what happened to you last night.”
“Oliver, really. I’m fine now and all I want to do is, move forward.”
“Move forward! From what?” he insisted. He was not relenting. “Was it self-induced or is it in your own head? Did somebody do something to you?” he asked as he sat at the kitchen bar. I said nothing, I continued preparing breakfast and avoiding his intense gaze.
“Cami, you’d better start talking! Was it something to hurt your feelings or physically? Oh hell naw, was it physical! Who was it?” Oliver shouted.
He stood up so abruptly he knocked over the barstool he was sitting on.
“Calm down! No one did anything to me, Crazy man!”
We both chuckled and he picked up the stool, regaining his composure.
“Well what is it? I’m not letting it go, Cam, so talk.” he said.
I gave in and told him all about the day before. I told him about what Camilla had said about Ali, my misgivings and Ali’s reluctance to share details about his life. I told him about meeting the beautiful, Ice Princess Lacey and Ali’s answer to who I was to him. He listened attentively and didn’t interrupt. When I was done recapping, he sat quietly, processing it all.
“Really, Cam!” he exclaimed. “You ran away? What a head case?” he said, shaking his head and laughing.
“Thanks, Oliver.” I said.
My cheeks warmed and a profound pout twisted my face.
“That’s all your evil ass momma,” he said evenly. “Listen, Cam. You may feel obligated to keep a roof over her head because she’s your momma, but you don’t have to let her live in your head. She’d be over the moon to have you end up just like her, alone and looking for meaningless hook ups with whomever will give you a little attention, so she can say you’re no better than she is. But, you are Cam. You are better than she is. You have to know that.” Oliver walked around the counter and held my face with both hands. “You are better than she is.”
My eyes filled and I nodded. A small smile broke through.
As if she were cued, Camilla walked through the door carrying a plastic bag, dressed in a red mini dress and no shoes. We both turned to her, with my face still in Oliver’s hands.
“What the hell is going on in here?” she asked, cackling. “Miss Sanctimonious with two different men in one weekend. I hope you got a little change left on the nightstand.”
She breezed by us and down the hall to her room. From behind the bedroom door, she yelled, “I’ll make pancakes when I get out of the shower. You staying Oli-Nerd?”