Zaire

ICYF: Be Honest

The smell of boiled chicken with Caribbean seasonings lingers around the room as I pour out unspoken feelings across our dining table.

I never liked this dining table, but it made him very happy. The day we chose it, the weekend we moved in with each other, it rained. A random day of rain in the middle of July. I bought way too much for our quaint condo with no air-conditioning. I remember not wanting much myself, all I really wanted was the counter-height dining table. He wanted the old-fashioned mahogany-colored wooden family-style dinner table. He also wanted these wackadoo wooden chairs to accompany. I thought stools would be nice. We inevitably got what brought a smile to his face.

We sit in the kitchen, as the chicken simmers. It hasn’t been a full year of living together and here we are.

“So…something is off with me,” I say. I’ve thought about what I could say to soften the truth. But that has been my struggle. Always needing to soften the truth or something for someone else. “With this. With us. I can’t quite explain it. But I know, I’m not happy. I think we need to separate. Maybenotdivorce. But perhaps live apart.” That was the softening. Unnecessary in retrospect. I am calm in my speech. I am also sad. I know I cannot take back these words.

Time stands still. We stare at each other in the eyes. I cannot quite read Mario. I know he is processing. I dare not do what I’ve been accustomed to doing our entire five-year relationship—coddle, challenge, and support. I sit in silence with him.

“When you texted me this afternoon, Zaire, that we should talk tonight,” he says, “I thought it was going to be about my birthday. I didn’t think you wanted a divorce.”

Mario gets up from the table, walks over to the stove, and turns off the fire. Grabs his keys, leaves the kitchen, returns to the kitchen, and looks at me.

“This is how we are ending? Like this?” he asks, more of a statement than a question.

“I didn’t say I wanted a divorce.”

I do.

“Fuck you, Zaire,” he says. “I’m going for a drive. I don’t know when I’ll be back. Do not check in on me.”

The door slams.

I, Zaire James, am the eldest of four. I do everything first. The good, the bad, the unexpected. I figured that’s the role the eldest is supposed to have. So whenever I do something I’m sure my other siblings haven’t, I cope by telling myself it’s supposed to happen this way. I am very close to my siblings. We weren’t always so intimate, but when our mother passed away my junior year of college, shit got real, real quick. I was twenty, my sister Savannah was nineteen, the middle girl Langston was seventeen, and the baby boy Harlem was fifteen. Our father was murdered by an undercover cop during our childhood. I was there. I was also nine and this was before body cameras, live cell phone recordings, and #BlackLivesMatter. There weren’t any riots or major news coverage. There was, however, our neighborhood and community love. I remember for a month, our home was filled with flowers and food from our block and local community. Then there was a settlement and we moved from South Central, now known as South L.A. or SoLa, #gentrification, to this white town in the high desert, hoping to start a new life, where no one knew our names, our past, our trauma.

I sit at the table alone for a few minutes, not knowing exactly what to do next. I am sad and at the same time, I feel a breath of relief that I had spoken a truth that was buried deep for a few months.

Fuck you.

I thought it was going to be about my birthday. I didn’t think you wanted a divorce.

I didn’t think you wanted a divorce.

I didn’t think.

That is what he should have said. I. Didn’t. Think. How much of myself did he need? How much more of myself did he want? This condo, in the San Fernando Valley, his desire. The alkaline water machine, the Alexa, the bidet, these other gadgets that fill our home, his desire, his want, his command. Fuck me. The audacity. I know that fuck youwas from a place of hurt. I will try not to hold on to that fuck you. I will try not to get angry.

Fuck you.

Then there are tears on my face. Some on this table where I sit. Alone.

The smell of the chicken that I do not actually want brings me back to myself. I text Savannah, Langston, and Harlem in our sibling group chat: JamesGang.

 

Zaire: Happy Monday. I’m getting a divorce. Another first. Drinks tomorrow night?

 

I know Harlem will be the first to reply. I turn off my phone before I get a notification. I get up from the table. Turn off the kitchen light. Leaving the chicken in the pot, I grab my car keys.

I do what I have done for years when I do not know what to do, but I know I must do. I drive west. I end up at the ocean.

Yes, getting a divorce is shitty, and yet it feels fitting. I wonder who in my circle will be next. Tragic.

 

 

Kenny

ICYF: Leave On Read

I’m in Toledo. He’s in Los Angeles. I’m in the back of a limo, just minutes away from the church, where my two sisters and I will give the performance of a lifetime as we say goodbye for the final time to the one who gave us life—our mother. Texts from family members have been coming in all morning, but it’s the one from him—Brandon-Malik—that I’ve looked forward to the most. It’s been well over a week. I tap and open his text.

 

Brandon-Malik (heart emoji): This is going to be a novel, four page letter, Kenny, so bear with me. Lol.

 

I hope you are doing well. You’ve probably noticed that I’ve pulled away and distanced myself from you since you went back home for…you know what. Ten days is the most that we’ve gone without seeing, talking, or being with each other, especially after spending so much time together in the past year.

 

I want to give you space while you deal with your situation with your mom. Part of it is for me, too. I just don’t know how to support someone who’s going through what you’re going through. I’ve never had someone significant in my life die and I don’t know if I’m going to do or say the wrong thing. So, I guess, in a way I’m taking the easy way out by just not saying or doing anything. I apologize if this hurts you.

 

You are amazing. I hope one day we can pick up where we left off, but for now, I think the best thing is for both of us to have space. It’s not you, it’s me. Don’t forget how much I love you, respect you, like you, and like being with you. For now…let me give you space until the time feels right for me and when you’re back to…yourself again.

B

 

Trigger fingers me. I text back right away.

 

Kenny: Hey B. I am happy and sad to hear from you. Happy that you’ve reached out, finally. Sad that you say you want space.

 

No explanation needed.

 

No one knows how to support someone who’s lost their mother. Just reach out now and then, even with this space you want. I’d love and appreciate that from you.

 

If you don’t know what to say, just send an emoji that expresses what you’re thinking or feeling. I’ll know what you mean. Or that you’re just thinking about me. That’s better than nothing. I just want to know you’re there for me. Especially after all we’ve done and been to each other.

 

I miss you. I miss us. I’ve wondered why the disappearing act. Now I know why. I’ll be back in L.A. in a few weeks, but I’ll be ready to pick up where we left off. If you want. I hope you want.

 

I love you.

K

 

The limo door opens and I see a receiving line of family and friends all dressed in black and violet, ready to greet my sisters and me at the church. They’re here to celebrate my dear mother’s life. Little do they know that I just got broken up with via text message. That’s no way to say goodbye. Tragic.

 

 

 

SUMMER

 

 

 

Kenny

ICYF: Hear Your Friends

I’m about to stop being nosy from watching the moving truck parked across the street from my place for two reasons. One, because I’ve got some black beans, quinoa, and spinach that I’m cooking for lunch and I don’t want them to burn. Two, because I hear my phone chime to notify that I’ve got an incoming text message.

The last week of every month—with people coming and going from the neighborhood—is always interesting in West Hollywood. But it’s especially interesting once June’s Pride Month festivities have ended and people, fresh off a month-long binge of parties, performances, and parades, think living here will replicate that celebratory feeling. Hasn’t been my case, and I’m a good three weeks living in WeHo myself.

I’m looking for new people who might become friends, since moving to WeHo—also known as the gayborhood of the city—from the east side suburbs of Los Angeles. Between the mix of Black, Latinx, and Asian Pacific Islander people moving items from the truck I’ve been watching, I can’t tell if I’m finally going to get some more color in this neighborhood or if the people I see are working for yet another white guy, white straight couple, or white blah blah blah moving into WeHo. I’ll have to get back to watching this storyline of the new neighbors unfold in a few minutes before my lunch overcooks.

I make my way across the gray laminate hardwood floor from the living room picture window to the kitchen, when I hear another text notification. I’m shook. This time it’s the special tone weuse with each other. A tone I haven’t heard in weeks, since shortly after my graduation party and the day of…I don’t want to think about that day right now. Brandon-Malik has gone ghost. For weeks. And now he’s texting. Again. Ugh. Shit. Damn.

I turn off the burners, and despite being hungry—starving, in fact—I head toward my phone, which I think is still inside my gym bag on the kitchen-adjacent barstool. It’s definitely a text from Brandon-Malik, but I don’t know if I should leave it unread, read it and not respond, or just see what the first text—a group text from my doctoral classmates—longtime best friend Carlos and our straight girlfriends Tyra and Lily are messaging me about on a Saturday morning.

I open the group text from Carlos, Tyra, and Lily first:

 

Carlos: Kenny. Meet us for brunch at the Abbey at 12:30. We’re parched. Ricky is in Palm Springs for the weekend with his softball team.

 

I reply.

 

Kenny: I just made lunch…And deciding if I should read this text I just got from Brandon-Malik or not.

Tyra: Fuck BM and find a doctor to fuck.

 

By the way, Tyra calls Brandon-Malik “BM” because she says he’s a piece of shit.

 

Lily: Open it. Fuck BM. Forget him.

And meet us at the Abbey. Been too long. Wanna see how you been.

Tyra: And why is he texting now anyway? He been ghost since your mom died last month anyway. Fuck him.

Carlos: I’m Lyfting over to your place in WeHo now. So you gotta go. No excuses. Deuces.

Lily: Not like we got homework anymore. We doctors now.

Tyra: Dr. Kane. Me and Lily on the way. Meet you at the Abbey.

 

I reply: You’re right. All right. See you in an hour…

 

Carlos: See you in ten minutes, Doc. My Lyft is exiting Santa Monica right now.

 

So much for black beans, quinoa, and spinach today, but hey, that’s dinner for later.

What does Brandon-Malik want? Ugh. Let me see. Part of me is excited that he’s contacted me. Part of me is wondering why now. I press his name.

 

BM (shit emoji):

 

Oh, I’ve shortened Brandon-Malik’s name, like Tyra, to “BM” and added a shit emoji next to his name.

 

Hi (hello emoji)

 

Hi? Freaking hi.

And so now, six weeks later, after absolutely no response to my accommodating or excusing what I now see as Brandon-Malik’s lame excuse to end things with me, he decides to text Hi.

Hi.

The fuck? I’m shook. Six weeks. And this.

Happy that Brandon-Malik texted. Sad that Brandon-Malik texted. I’m leaving the message on “read.” That’ll send him a message without sending one. I set the phone aside, wondering if I’ll get anything else from Brandon-Malik. I kinda hope so. I do miss him. A lot.

I am this close to one of those going-down-memory-lane moments, where, if this were a TV show, I’d see a bunch of flashbacks scroll across the screen—the casual glance across the gym floor, his basketball games at the nearby park, the first time he liked a few pictures and dropped into my social media DMs, texting and FaceTiming to learn more about each other before a series of food, concert, and Netflix and chill dates. Those are the good going-down-memory-lane moments. The bad ones, which I don’t like to think about often—being nosy about his social media likes and follows, the photos and videos of him with other cute and younger-than-me men, the times between our dates when he’s with other dates, and more—I wouldn’t want to include in the TV show flashback scene of our time together. But they’re there, I know, and part of the story of me—Kenny Kane—and him—Brandon-Malik.

Meantime, cut to present scene from flashbacks, I Tupperware all the vegan cuisine I just prepped and place it in the fridge, peek out the front window again to catch a glimpse of who my new neighbors might be, and head to the shower. Looking forward to what, if anything, Brandon-Malik might text next, but for now…I’ve got a brunch date with Carlos, Tyra, and Lily at the Abbey, and hopefully, I’ll give a West Hollywood neighborly hello to whoever’s moving in across the street after I’ve had a few libations.

 

v

 

“I should probably be venting to a therapist instead of venting to you all,” I tell Carlos, Tyra, and Lily, full of spirit that comes with a third frosé and hardly any food. “My life is a mess.”

Carlos, I’ve known for way over a decade. My bestie at work, when we were entry-level professionals—him in campus activities; me in diversity work at California University, East Los Angeles (CUELA)—and then eventually moving up the student affairs career ladder. And besties outside of work, playing softball, running, barhopping (in our twenties), and man collecting—him with his long-term partner, Ricky, through whom I met my first serious ex, DaVon. That’s another story.

Having already been friends, Carlos and I bonded pretty quickly with Tyra and Lily when we started in our doctoral program in educational leadership three and a half years ago. My three favorite classmates, we graduated together just six weeks ago. One day, like magic, we bonded in a class on statistics and research methods by deciding to use their Tinder swipes left and right as the measures for our class project. From there, with our similar interests in social justice and lamenting the state of being woke millennial scholars of color in L.A., Carlos, Tyra, Lily, and I were a tight trio of friends and scholars in a cohort of eighteen classmates. They knew all about Brandon-Malik, as I’d known about the men who were coming in and out of their lives and beds while we were doctoral students.

After telling them about what the previous six weeks had been for me—handling everything that comes with the death of a parent, quitting my job, turning down a lucrative job offer to be an associate vice president at a community college, venturing out into the unknown business of consulting, working for myself and the possibility of having no work at all, packing up and selling my house in Monterey Park and moving to a small condo in WeHo, wondering what to make of Brandon-Malik’s ghosting and reappearance text—this brunch and beverage session was what I thought I needed. Or was it?

“That’s what I get falling for an IG model,” I say and signal to our server that I’m ready for a fourth frosé that I’ll probably regret later. Alcohol and being in my feelings don’t mix. Especially after almost six weeks of no drinking, while taking care of life’s business. “Cute, younger than me, popular online, ain’t doing shit, and full of shit. I feel so stupid. Stupid.”

Tyra and Lily each grab one of my flailing hands to calm and reassure me that I’m not the only one who’s fallen for style over substance in L.A. Carlos rolls his eyes and takes a sip of his drink, pinkie finger out like an auntie. He’s seen and heard it all before during our fifteen years together as coworkers, classmates, and friends…my pattern, one he’s pointed out many times, one that I know, but one that I just haven’t broken.

“That’s why I moved to New York after graduation,” Tyra says. “Real Black men who don’t play games. Too many people there to play games and miss out on a chance at love.”

Lily, too, left L.A. for the San Francisco area shortly after our graduation for a new and higher-paying job and with a mission of finding a more educated and substantive Latinx man with similar credentials as she.

The challenge of being an educated professional of color in L.A. A bond that keeps Tyra, Lily, and me together any time they find a free weekend to come back to visit L.A. Carlos, luckily, remains in the L.A. area and attempts to keep in touch with me, although I don’t accept too many of his and Ricky’s invites—see, they still hang with my ex, and Ricky’s bestie, DaVon.

While Carlos, Tyra, and Lily continue with small talk, I scroll and swipe anything and everything Brandon-Malik—his Instagram posts (nothing new since a week earlier, which I liked and probably shouldn’t have), his IG stories (nothing new added today, but I rewatch last night’s bowling night stories with unknown new friends), his followers (to see if anyone new is following him), then the IG activity timeline to see if he’s liked any photos or followed anyone new in the past couple hours since texting me (nothing). Where is he and what is he doing now? Driving myself crazy. And I’m buzzed.

Carlos catches me. “Kenny, are you lurking on his social media again?”

“Um, no,” I lie. Then go, “Yeah.”

“Well, since you’re on your phone, show me the breakup texts one more time,” Tyra says and grabs my phone. “I need to see what this little nigga said again.”

“Tyra and them trigger fingers,” Lily says and laughs.

When I hand the phone to Tyra, I go, “Don’t message him anything else.”

It’s both a plea and a call to action. It was Tyra’s “hand me your phone” order one night in class that got Brandon-Malik to finally step up and take me seriously as a date, and moved us past the initial friend zone that we lingered in for weeks. The texts she sent on my behalf were a thousand times more forward and sexual than I’d initially felt comfortable sending to Brandon-Malik. As a practice, I generally move cautiously and slowly with men and life decisions. Obviously, not what my past six weeks have been with the spontaneous job resignation, selling my house, buying a new condo, and day drinking like I’m independently wealthy and don’t need to start drumming up some consulting work.

Lily laughs. “Tyra’s good at being the wing person. Until we find out the one she’s pushing on us ain’t shit.”

We all chuckle again and bump fists as the server brings over another round of drinks for us. Despite the ninety-plus-degree weather, it feels light, airy, and free, with a bit of electricity with the Abbey’s Drag Saturday performers nearby onstage. Or is it the drinks talking at three-something in the afternoon?

Tyra asks for the bill, as both she and Lily both have people to see, events to attend on their short weekend back in L.A. Carlos offers to stay behind and barhop with me if I’m game. I know he’s game, Ricky’s away. I’m game. No one and nothing to go home to.

“This is weak…his text,” Tyra says. “Shitty way to break up with someone. What a fuckboy. You deserve better.”

Lily chimes in, “Classic gaslighting and narcissistic behavior.”

Carlos gives me that all-knowing look. Because he knows all. DaVon. Jeremy. Brandon-Malik. The other nameless ones who never made it past a first date or a first-night stand.

“Maybe part of it is me,” I say and sip from what will be my fourth and final frosé of the afternoon. “I keep telling myself that maybe I could have reached out more when I was back home handling all the family stuff.”

“Your mom died,” Carlos, Tyra, and Lily say in unison.

“Or maybe I could have been more attentive in the months while finishing up the dissertation,” I say, sounding like a pity party on what’s supposed to be a fun Saturday afternoon reunion and drink fest with my former classmates. Not that I’m aiming for sympathy or anything. “Maybe I could have tried to be more…I don’t know…I ameleven, twelve years older than Brandon-Malik, I’m not IG popular, I don’t have an A-list crew…I hate feeling that I’m not enough, or wasn’t enough, for him. I hate feeling like I’m not enough.”

“Kenny, please,” Carlos says. “Being busy with a dissertation and studying didn’t break up Ricky and me.”

“Fuck him,” Lily says, “just like we said earlier. We’re all doctors. We have substance. If someone doesn’t see that, and they’re stuck on superficial, that’s on them.”

“Kenny, chill,” Tyra says. “Don’t do this. You’re Black. You’re not even forty yet. You have a doctorate degree. You’re fine. You care about people and social justice. You are a good catch.”

I hear my friends, but I don’t hearthem. I don’t know if it’s the alcohol alone, the alcohol in combination with my feelings about everything happening in my life recently, or the alcohol and the summer heat. I know what Carlos, Tyra, and Lily are saying is true. At some point, I know, I will have to try and believe that what they are saying is true.

More work to be done.

 

 

Zaire

ICYF: Move

Another move. I’ve moved three times in two years. I’m a pro at this packing and going thing. I mostly leave or donate what I do not need. And I don’t actually need much.

If you would have asked me a year ago, when I moved in with Mario, if I’d live in West Hollywood, I’d tell you, ab-so-lute-ly not, that white-ass city. But, as the old folks say, never say never, because here my Black ass is, in the heart of WeHo. I bet my housemate and I are the only Blackishpeople on this street or in a two-mile radius. I say Blackishbecause I don’t quite know my housemate that well. I know he’s Dominican, but I’m not sure if he identifies as Black, which clearly he is. We met on a moving and roommate app, as he had a room open, and after a few hours of chatting, I figured what the hell, give it a shot.

Thus, aquí estoy—here I am.

I’ve been in WeHo for about a month and a half. I do not hateit. Hell, I don’t even actually dislikeit. Minus the fact that it isn’t a Black or Brown space, and this is a major minus, it’s an okaycity. I most enjoy the fact that I do not have to drive to the things I need or enjoy. I think I live on one of the few blocks where whole families reside. I’ve had a few notices on my door announcing property changes in the neighborhood. The few two-bedroom homes will be torn down, to make space for luxury apartments. I live in one of the oldest seven-unit apartments in the area. Thanks to rent control around here, I’m able to afford it all while getting a divorce. Lord knows I wouldn’t be able to afford living in WeHo without my housemate’s rent-controlled lease.

Some mornings, I wake up early and look out the front window, as we do not have curtains anywhere in our open-floor-plan dining and living room, and marvel at all the different family of trees and all of the greenery in my view. My favorite things to meditate over are the bush of bird-of-paradise flowers, the bundles of yellow angel trumpet flowers that align the fence near the front window, and the two Phoenix palm trees that cascade over our backyard near my bedroom window. The mini mansions that swirl through the Hollywood Hills aren’t a bad sight either. Many mornings, I stare and take in these sightful joys. I’ve even noticed a Black guy jogging around the neighborhood in the early morning. I think he lives on this street. I don’t think he’s Black-Black, though. I do not know any actual brown-skinned Black men running or jogging in their neighborhoods wearing a hoodie. Not these days. Especially not since Trayvon. I for one do not jog / run in any neighborhood. That’s what the track or my gym membership is for. He’s probably one of them Black men that justhappens to be Black, or of the Blaqué elite, comes from money, grew up around white people all his life. Wouldn’t acknowledge the head nod if his life depended on it. Damn shame.

The question I’m centering this morning is if I should have some sort of friend gathering in my new place. The only ones to see my new place are the folks who helped me move in a few weeks ago. The rest only know of this move via my social media posts.

I must be making noise washing last night’s dishes because my roommate has awakened and slowly saunters to the kitchen. He’s never up before 11 a.m. Never.

“Morning, Zai,” Alberto says. He is in his usual in-the-house get-up of gym shorts, ankle socks, and a bare chest. He’s got one of those naturally built bodies that requires very little gym time, though he spends quite a few hours a day in the gym.

“Hey, Alberto,” I say. “Good morning. Did I wake you with the dishes?”

“Nope. Just had to piss, and now I’m thirsty. What’s with the pensive voice?”

I do not know Alberto that well yet, but from what I do know, he’s quite observant. We do not even share that much space or time together. When I’m home, he’s out working or enjoying L.A. But, when we cross paths, he seems to know how to read my energy. His sense of emotional intelligence is strong.

“How do you do that, Alberto?”

“Do what?” He stands next to me at the sink, lifting the filtered-water handle to pour himself a cup of water.

“Pick up on things. How did you hear in my ‘good morning’ that I was in deep thought?”

“Oh. I thought I told you, I’m a brujx.” He laughs, then drinks the glass of water in three gulps. “I come from a long line of Black witches, voodoos, and healers on the island.”

Oh, thank God he said Black. Because some of these obviously Black guys in WeHo refuse to say Black to describe themselves.

“Really?”

“Yes, really,” he says. “You do, too, you probably just don’t know it yet. But you will soon.”

And like nothing, Alberto walks away, retreating back to his bedroom. I didn’t get to tell him I was thinking about having folks over this weekend for a get-together.

“You should invite some of your friends over this weekend,” Alberto yells from his room. “The space needs more of your energy!”

It’s only been a month and a half living here, and I think for the first time in a long time, I’ve done something completely for myself. And it feels so right.