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Between Lovers

Eric Jerome Dickey - Author

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ISBN 9780451204684 | 384 pages | 06 May 2003 | NAL | 5.27 x 7.95in | 18 - AND UP
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Eric Jerome Dickey is "at the top of his game" (Detroit News and Free Press) with a hip, sexy, and wise novel that brings a new twist to the game of love...as a woman torn between two lovers-one male, one female-becomes the center of an emotional storm of anger, passion, and exhilarating excitement.

Chapter Two

Nicole says, "I still want you to meet her."

I don't respond to that.

I lay there in the bed with my eyes closed. Nicole is on top of me, her hands tracing over my body, wide awake like she's been IV'ed to a double latte mocha cappuccino espresso.

Another commuter train rumbles by out on Embarcadero.

She kisses my lips before she heads for the bathroom. Nicole walks in a way that lets you know she used to do ballet many moons ago, as a child, that she does yoga as an adult, using the core of her body to move herself, her abs and inner thighs tight from doing most of the work.

Nicole leaves the bathroom door wide open. She sings a Pru song, the one about the candles. She sings that all the time. Her singing is terrible, but it has raw passion. The toilet flushes.

The sandman sprinkles sleep dust all over me. Try to shake it off. Body heavy.

Water runs in the sink. She's washing up. Her bracelets jingle with her scrubbing.

She asks, "Did you hear me when I said that I want you two to meet?"

I sit up. We stare. I tell her, "I'm not deaf."

"Last month, when I asked, you said that you'd think about it."

"Help me out here. Why would you want us to meet?"

"Then I won't feel guilty. Like I'm cheating."

"Are you?"

She pauses. "Then you won't act like she doesn't exist. I love you. I love her."

"You don't love her."

"How do you know?"

I say, "Adam and Eve. Adam and Eve."

We stare at each other, restless, indeterminate gazes that reach deep.

She says, "I'm a divided soul, sweetie. And I can't go on like this. Not much longer."

"Then choose."

This is a discussion we've had countless times since the wedding. Each time it becomes harder.

She tells me, "I have a solution. If you're still open to new things, it can work."

She wants me to ask, but I don't.

With a wounded smile, she hand-combs her locks, untangles that hairstyle that started off as a sign of resistance, and still is, and she takes my running shoes from the closet, tosses them at my feet.

She gently says, "Get dressed."

Fog walks the streets. Dark skies give Oaktown that Seattle appeal.

I have on black running tights, white T-shirt, gray St. Patrick's Day 10K sweatshirt. She wears blue tights and a black hooded sweat top, a red scarf over her golden hair.

We take a slow jog out of the Waterfront, by all the gift shops, head through the light fog. Rows of warehouses that are being converted into lofts line the streets. All in the name of profit and gentrification, the reversal of the White Flight is in progress. The homeless are out peddling Street Spirit papers for a buck a pop. Some are sleeping on the oil-stained pavement while people pass by in super-size SUVs and foreign cars that cost more than a house in the 'burbs of Atlanta, Georgia. The dirt poor, the filthy rich, all live a paper cup away from each other in the land of perpetual oxymorons.

I say, "You want me to meet this chick-"

"Don't say chick. That's a misogynistic word."

"Nicer than what I usually call her."

"Which is disrespectful. Yeah, I think meeting will benefit us all."

"So, this thing with her is pretty serious?"

She smiles because I've given up the silent treatment. "It's serious. There's more to it."

Acid swirls in my belly.

Nicole goes on, "I think we can resolve this situation."

"More like what?" I ask. "What more is there?"

"We ... just more." She has a look that tells me this is deeper than it seems, but can't tell me all, not right now. She says, "Let's talk while we run."

We take the incline up Broadway, my mind trying to react to what she just asked me about meeting her soft-legged lover, whirring and clicking and whirring as we jog by the probation department. We come up on a red light and stretch some more while we wait for it to change. The signal makes a coo-coo, coo-coo, coo-coo sound when it changes to green, that good old audio signal for the blind folks heading north and south. It chirps like a sweet bird going east and west, so we know we have the right-of-way and it's okay to get back to running north toward freedom.

Before we make a step, a Soul Train of impatient drivers almost mows us down.

We jump back. Both of us almost get hit. That lets me know that both of our minds are elsewhere.

Nicole says, "Be careful here, sweetie. This is where all the assholes rush to get on the Tube."

Someone driving a black car with a rainbow flag in its window slows and allows us to cross.

I run behind Nicole. Check out the fluid movement of her thighs. Seven years ago they weren't so firm. Back then she had a whacked Atlantic Star hairdo that hung over one eye and she looked like Janet Jackson, not the Velvet Rope version, but the chubby-faced Penny on Good Times version. Now her belly is flat and the muscles in her calves rise and fall, lines in her hamstrings appear, her butt tightens; all of that shows how much she's been running, doing aerobics, hiking up every hill she can find.

It fucks with me. I try not to, don't want to, but it fucks with me and I can't help thinking about her being naked with another woman. Keep thinking about all the videos I've seen with women serving women satisfaction, but refuse to see Nicole in that light, in that life. I want to believe that they sit around baking cookies, knitting sweaters, and watching Lifetime Television for Women.

Those silver bracelets jingle as she gets a little ahead of me, not much. My shoes crunch potato chip bags and golden leaves. Buses spit black clouds of carbon monoxide in our faces.

The light at 13th catches Nicole. I catch up and ask, "Why does she want to meet me?"

"Because. Curious, I guess. I love you; she knows that. Sometimes she sounds intimidated."

"Because I'm a man."

"Maybe. After seven years, we have a solid history, don't you think?"

That makes me feel good. The simple, five-letter word solid makes me feel good. The signal coo-coos three times. We run north.

We race the incline toward Telegraph, a liquor store-lined street that leads into good old Berkeley.

At 20th, under the shadows of a sky-high Sears and World Savings building, she turns right toward Snow Park. We avoid a million chain-smokers who are congregated out in front of Lake Merritt Plaza, the black-lunged outcasts of a politically correct world, then cross several lanes of fast-paced traffic and head toward the children's park and petting zoo called Fairy Land.

I maintain a steady pace and ask, "This hooking up, is this for her, or for you?"

"For me. Because I'm in fucking purgatory."

"Where do you think I am? I'm standing next to you."

"Feels like I'm dancing naked on the sun."

"That sounds painful."

"Wanna see my blisters?" She clears her throat, spits. "It's important for her because she needs to get comfortable with my needs, and wants, with my love for you, to be secure. And it's for you."

"How in the hell is this hooking up for me?"

"Because I see how much it hurts you. You're an open book."

"Don't go clich on me."

"You put it in all of your books. Especially the one with the orange cover. The one where you wrote about the wedding."

"A fictional wedding."

"Save that bullshit for your fans. I read your books and I see me, hear the things I've said, see you, your words, hear your voice, feel sad and bad because I know that all the pain you write about is us."

"Maybe you should write a book. Let me know how you really feel, what's going on with you."

She goes on, "Be honest. Would you be this, I don't know, well, for lack of a better word, understanding if I were-"

"I'm not understanding; I don't understand this whole lesbian shit."

"I'm not a lesbian," she says with force. Then she backs off. "Sweetie, I'm not a lesbian."

I tell her, "Look, I'm being patient. Waiting for you to get through this ... this ... this phase."

"Okay, patient. Would you be acting like a stunt double for Job if I were having a relationship, okay, even living with another man?"

"Hell, no. I'd break his neck. Go Left Eye and burn down the house. Not in that order."

She says, "Going Left Eye. Now that turns me on. That evil side you try to hide."

"Try me."

"I'm serious. I want you two to meet. We have to. I want both of your spirits to be at ease. I want my spirit at ease. I want all of us to be able to lunch together from time to time, have conversations, run races together, that way I don't have to be stressed and trying to figure out who I'm going to be with. It's a lose-lose for me, and I'm trying to make it a win-win for us all."

"So, she's scared of me."

"You don't see her as a threat, not the way she sees you as a threat."

"Nothing that menstruates is a threat to me. Ain't scared of nothing that bleeds."

"Okay, Mister Macho."

Nicole has immeasurable passion when she talks about her soft-legged lover. I wonder if when she's talking to her friend about me, if she speaks with the same heated tongue, one that drips adjectives made of sweet mangos, verbs made of ripe kiwis, says my name as if it were a fresh strawberry.

I say, "So, this is for me, you, and her."

"At this stage in my life, I do know what I want. And I'm going after it. I'm being honest with myself and I have the courage to follow it."

"How long did you practice that Fantasy Island-sounding speech?"

She extends both her middle fingers my way.

I ask, "You want it to be like that?"

"Ideally, yeah. If could wake up every day knowing I was going to share my life with two people I adore, do that without any stress, yeah, my world would be perfect."

I say, "World ain't perfect."

"Our world can be perfect enough for us. We can create new boundaries, new love."

We. I notice she uses the word we a lot. The ultimate team player. A company woman.

"Dunno, Nicole. Dunno. Me, you, and your friend. That puts a chill in the pit of my stomach."

"That chill is your sense of adventure tapping you on your shoulder."

"You're quoting me."

"The unknown is always an added attraction."

"I told you that too."

"Yes, you did. Got me to drop my drawers when that honey-rich baritone voice of yours whispered those words in my ear. Had me doing all kinds of shit for your ass. In and out of bed. Helped you out when your money was low, was your shoulder when your daddy gave you grief. I gave all of me to you. Your turn to give a little. Push the envelope, sweetie. Live up to your own standards."

Our pace gets closer to eight-minute miles. She's a great runner. Five inches shorter than I am, and a minute faster on a hilly mile. Arms low, nice smooth kick, floating, she moves as if my orgasm has given her strength, doubled her stamina. I'm a slow starter and I use her to motivate my stride.

A few miles and a million thoughts later, Nicole leads me over to Harrison and we run past Westlake Middle School, beyond the 580 freeway, keep heading toward a rolling hill that reaches up to the sky.

"Where you taking me?"

"C'mon."

Like a used car salesman she wants to show me every feature of the city. Doesn't talk about The Village, or Sobrante Park, parts that are the Bed-Stuy of the Bay, forgets all about the Twomps or the Rollin' 20's over in East Oakland. Places that mirror how we grew up, her in Memphis and me in L.A.

Nicole sequesters me from that part of the city, keeps me away from the coal and leads me to the diamonds, takes me a few miles uphill into the area called Piedmont Hills. Tells me a half-million will buy a two-bedroom home; two million might get five thousand square feet.

Eighteen minutes later, we reach Highland, which is almost at the top of the hill, then head toward the row of mansions leading to Piedmont High School. She's sweating, face glowing with pain, back of her oversized sweatshirt damp, but not too damp because her T-shirt steals most of the moisture.

No nice way to put it, right now I'm hurting like hell and making fuck faces.

She slows a bit, says, "Think ... about moving ... up this way. Get some ... investment property."

I wipe my face with the sleeve of my sweatshirt. "Sell crazy ... somewhere else. A blacksmith in one village ... becomes a blacksmith's apprentice in another."

"Smart ass ... what does that ... mean?"

"What kind of fool do I look like? Can't be your number two. Not going out like that."

"Dammit." Her breathing evens out. "There you go again. It's about love, not competition."

"Everything in this world is about competition."

"Not if we let it be about love," she says with enough force to show her inner struggle and frustration, then she softens her attitude, "Not if we let it be about love."

In a tone that doesn't hide my jealousy and frustration, doesn't mask my anger, I ask, "Hypothetically, if I moved here, where the hell would you stay?"

"You'll think about it?"

"Then what? Who gets you at sundown? Do I have to flip a coin every night, pull straws, what? Or do we go to court and get an order so I can get you every other weekend and every other holiday?"

She's offended. I want to offend her.

She takes off running, speeds up when I get too close, challenging me like I challenge her. We both move like we want to make up for lost time. But lost time is never recovered.

I run faster, zip by homes, everything from Classical Greek to Armenian Revival to French Restoration. Run faster and match her pace. Jealousy pours out of my system by the gallon.

Three more. I see three more houses with unique rainbow-hued flags, one with a multicolored cat as we run downhill and trek from Highland to Harvard back to the shops in Lake Merrit.

We find our way back over to Grand Street, run the outskirts of the lake back up 20th, then challenge each other's pace down Broadway, through the crowds, passing by women with white gauze gowns and scarves swirled around their faces, by sons whose ancestors were slaves, daughters of immigrants.

Nicole is in full stride by the time we come up on 6th, her tailwind stirring all the debris on the uneven, oil-stained boulevard, her bracelets jingling as she pumps her slim arms and races for the Tube.

Can't let her win. Ego chases ego.

She makes it out of the 980 overpass a good five seconds before me, flies across the entrance to the Tube, crosses 7th before traffic can take off. I break out of the darkness underneath the block-wide overpass and approach that good old Tube.

Death is waiting for me.

The light is green, the illuminated white man is on, those three sweet coo-coos telling me I have the right-of-way. With me coming both out of darkness and from behind a huge column that supports the 980, and everybody and their momma rushing to get on the Alameda on-ramp before they lose the light, that is a deadly moment in the making. I'm sweating, legs aching, but feeling invincible, trying to catch the Roadrunner, in a zone, and when I sprint off the curb, traffic doesn't give a fuck about me.

I'm facing a fast-moving death disguised as one of those ugly-ass PT Cruisers, that atrocious car that is built like a hearse for a midget, this one with windows tinted pallbearer black.

The driver of the uglymobile is on the phone. Zooming right at me. I can't move. Can't break left because it looks like that bastard wants to do the same. Can't break right because that would throw me in front of the traffic that is zipping up Broadway.

The sparkling grill on that Chrysler widens; death is smiling. The engine rumbles out a soft chuckle.

I think of Lolita. I think of the obsessed man who dies at the end. This is where I meet Joe Black.

The driver drops his cell phone, cringes, makes a wide-eyed, oh-shit face as he cuts left, his tires screeching a bit, then his sideview mirror slaps my arm so hard I think I'm shot.

Brotherman sends back his curses and speeds on, his radio blaring "Shake Ya' Azz, Watchya Self."

Nicole is still running, accelerating like a bullet, has no idea that I just cheated death.

I come alive, race through the other cars before they mow me down.

Nicole zips by the row of sushi joints and a plant store offering Psychic Reality, her heels smacking her ass with every stride. I don't give up, lengthen my stride, arms pumping, knees high like Olympic great John Carlos. I dig as deep as I can. She's doing the same.

She stops at the edge of Second Street, not once looking back. She never looks back.

Fifteen seconds later, which is a runner's lifetime, I catch up and stop next to her, my chest heaving, muscles burning, sweat coming from every pore, my face cringing with pain stacked on top of pain. There is a glimmer in her eyes, the shine she gets whenever she wins. There is competition. She's pimp-strutting like she just left Maurice Green and Michael Johnson in the dust and won a gold medal.

I check my watch. We've covered ten miles in an hour and twenty. Not bad, considering we lost a good five to ten minutes talking. She spits like a pro athlete, wipes her mouth on the sleeve of her damp sweatshirt, and then walks in circles.

I take deep breaths, in through my nose, out my mouth, and tell her, "You run like a cheetah."

Her shoulders are tense, face cringes, fights to control her breathing. "You call me a cheater? It's not cheating. If both of you know, it's not cheating. I have never lied to you. Never lied to her."

There is a pause. "I said cheetah. C-h-e-e-t-a-h. Not cheater."

"Oh."

"At least I know where your mind is."

A flash of embarrassment skates across her face.

I ask, "Are you comfortable?"

She gets animated, talks with her hands, like a teacher before a class breaking down a problem to its simplest terms. "A lot of women are attracted to women, but are scared to admit it."

I pause and we stare. "I meant are you okay. I thought you were limping."

Her mouth becomes a huge letter O.

I say, "Let's try this again. How do you feel?"

"Like screaming."

"Because of me?"

"Because of my cellulite."

I laugh. That's just like her, to jump to the trivial concerns stirring inside her head. "What cellulite?"

She groans. "Years of running and I still have big legs."

Her legs aren't big. And she hardly has enough ass to mention. There is no cellulite, not enough to worry about. She magnifies the flaws that Superman's telescopic vision can't see.

I remind her that she's the most beautiful woman in the world, that the anorexic airbrushed images on the covers of Cosmo and Body and Soul can't touch her.

She smiles. "Another reason I'm hooked on you."

"Cold?"

"Not really. Body temp way up."

"Let's go in before we get sick."

"Wait. Air feels good." She blows; her breath comes out like steam. She's hyped. "Miss being with you all the time. Move up here. It'll be so cool if you moved up here. So many things I want to do with you, sweetie. Wanna take you to this salsa club in Emeryville. On the Black Panther Legacy Tour."

"Slow your stroll." I spit; wipe my mouth too. "You're trying to wear me out."

"Wanna share my world with you," Nicole says as she scrubs her face with a corner of her sweatshirt. "Maybe I can kick in on the down payment if that'll help convince you."

"You're talking about a grip. Maybe thirty thousand."

"If all goes well, my sloptions are going to break through the roof in the next year or two."

Sloptions is San Francisco-Silicon Valley slang for stock options. Her soon-to-be large techno Internet company offered her a chance to leave her old life and her program management position at Boeing in Anaheim to come here and be a contract renewal specialist. She left the shaky aerospace business behind and moved on to better things in dot-comville.

I ask, "What you looking at, moneywise?"

"At least a million. I wanna be a baller like you."

"Nobody balling but you. Sounds like you got all the cheddar."

"With the cost of living and property, that's chump change up here. Hate thinking what the capital gains taxes are gonna be, but either way it'll be a nice piece of change."

"Need any help before then, let me know."

"I'm cool. Thanks for offering. That's sweet of you."

I'd give her my all, but she relies on me for nothing but love.

She doesn't have that Cinderella gene. Anything a man can do, she can do to the nth degree. She'll let the man be the head of the house, be it for his ego or the way she wants it to be, but she will not become dependent. That lets me know that the reason she's with me comes from the heart. She's better than Cinderella. She has beauty and skills. Outside of a dysfunctional family and a glass shoe, Cinderella had nothing but beauty and that fades with each tick-tock of the clock.

And at the same time, I want to be her prince. Want to ride up to her window on a black stallion, let her throw down a lock of her hair so I can climb up into her castle and snatch her ass down to my reality.

A beautiful sister walks by. Both of us stare at her, then at each other.

Nicole puts her arms around my shoulders, kisses the side of my face, tastes my drying sweat before she tongues me with a true passion, allows me to taste her salty emotions, each kiss asking me to accept her as she is, pimples on her butt, dry scalp, PMS, soft-legged lover and all.

She says, "Okay, now I'm getting cold."

As we stroll, she does a couple of gymnastic walkovers, first forward then backward, then laughs, puts her face to mine and sucks my lips again. Even her moist skin is as sweet as a mango. With people rushing by, heading into all the seaside specialty shops, we close our eyes and kiss. Her bracelets sing and jangle as she hugs me. I pretend we're still engaged and that sound is the sound of wedding bells.

Reprinted from the hardcover of Between Lovers by Eric Jerome Dickey by permission of Dutton, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright $#169; 2001 by Eric Jerome Dickey. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced without permission.

With each new novel, Eric Jerome Dickey has established himself as one of the freshest and most exciting writers on America's contemporary fiction scene. His latest book is no exception. Set in the San Francisco Bay area, Between Lovers brings together three irresistible characters. The novel's narratora Los Angeles-based writeris still reeling from being dumped by Nicole after seven good years followed by an aborted trip to the altar. Nicole grew up during their time together, and changedshe became a successful career woman, moved north to Oakland, and fell in love with another woman. But she's still not satisfied. She likes what she has, but misses what she had, and wants to find out if she can have it all. She's playing with fire, not to mention the feelings of the two people who love her most in the world, but Nicole lures her former fiancé back into her new life, opening the floodgates of anger, passion, pain...and refreshing honesty. How these three fascinating people handle this unusual and complex love triangle makes for one of Dickey's most provocative and unforgettable novels.
"Lust and confusion collide in this supple novel about a woman who wants it all." People

"Sensational… spicy… another winner from an author who only seems to be getting better." Publisher's Weekly

"Provocative and complex." Ebony

Chapter Two

Nicole says, "I still want you to meet her."

I don't respond to that.

I lay there in the bed with my eyes closed. Nicole is on top of me, her hands tracing over my body, wide awake like she's been IV'ed to a double latte mocha cappuccino espresso.

Another commuter train rumbles by out on Embarcadero.

She kisses my lips before she heads for the bathroom. Nicole walks in a way that lets you know she used to do ballet many moons ago, as a child, that she does yoga as an adult, using the core of her body to move herself, her abs and inner thighs tight from doing most of the work.

Nicole leaves the bathroom door wide open. She sings a Pru song, the one about the candles. She sings that all the time. Her singing is terrible, but it has raw passion. The toilet flushes.

The sandman sprinkles sleep dust all over me. Try to shake it off. Body heavy.

Water runs in the sink. She's washing up. Her bracelets jingle with her scrubbing.

She asks, "Did you hear me when I said that I want you two to meet?"

I sit up. We stare. I tell her, "I'm not deaf."

"Last month, when I asked, you said that you'd think about it."

"Help me out here. Why would you want us to meet?"

"Then I won't feel guilty. Like I'm cheating."

"Are you?"

She pauses. "Then you won't act like she doesn't exist. I love you. I love her."

"You don't love her."

"How do you know?"

I say, "Adam and Eve. Adam and Eve."

We stare at each other, restless, indeterminate gazes that reach deep.

She says, "I'm a divided soul, sweetie. And I can't go on like this. Not much longer."

"Then choose."

This is a discussion we've had countless times since the wedding. Each time it becomes harder.

She tells me, "I have a solution. If you're still open to new things, it can work."

She wants me to ask, but I don't.

With a wounded smile, she hand-combs her locks, untangles that hairstyle that started off as a sign of resistance, and still is, and she takes my running shoes from the closet, tosses them at my feet.

She gently says, "Get dressed."

Fog walks the streets. Dark skies give Oaktown that Seattle appeal.

I have on black running tights, white T-shirt, gray St. Patrick's Day 10K sweatshirt. She wears blue tights and a black hooded sweat top, a red scarf over her golden hair.

We take a slow jog out of the Waterfront, by all the gift shops, head through the light fog. Rows of warehouses that are being converted into lofts line the streets. All in the name of profit and gentrification, the reversal of the White Flight is in progress. The homeless are out peddling Street Spirit papers for a buck a pop. Some are sleeping on the oil-stained pavement while people pass by in super-size SUVs and foreign cars that cost more than a house in the 'burbs of Atlanta, Georgia. The dirt poor, the filthy rich, all live a paper cup away from each other in the land of perpetual oxymorons.

I say, "You want me to meet this chick-"

"Don't say chick. That's a misogynistic word."

"Nicer than what I usually call her."

"Which is disrespectful. Yeah, I think meeting will benefit us all."

"So, this thing with her is pretty serious?"

She smiles because I've given up the silent treatment. "It's serious. There's more to it."

Acid swirls in my belly.

Nicole goes on, "I think we can resolve this situation."

"More like what?" I ask. "What more is there?"

"We ... just more." She has a look that tells me this is deeper than it seems, but can't tell me all, not right now. She says, "Let's talk while we run."

We take the incline up Broadway, my mind trying to react to what she just asked me about meeting her soft-legged lover, whirring and clicking and whirring as we jog by the probation department. We come up on a red light and stretch some more while we wait for it to change. The signal makes a coo-coo, coo-coo, coo-coo sound when it changes to green, that good old audio signal for the blind folks heading north and south. It chirps like a sweet bird going east and west, so we know we have the right-of-way and it's okay to get back to running north toward freedom.

Before we make a step, a Soul Train of impatient drivers almost mows us down.

We jump back. Both of us almost get hit. That lets me know that both of our minds are elsewhere.

Nicole says, "Be careful here, sweetie. This is where all the assholes rush to get on the Tube."

Someone driving a black car with a rainbow flag in its window slows and allows us to cross.

I run behind Nicole. Check out the fluid movement of her thighs. Seven years ago they weren't so firm. Back then she had a whacked Atlantic Star hairdo that hung over one eye and she looked like Janet Jackson, not the Velvet Rope version, but the chubby-faced Penny on Good Times version. Now her belly is flat and the muscles in her calves rise and fall, lines in her hamstrings appear, her butt tightens; all of that shows how much she's been running, doing aerobics, hiking up every hill she can find.

It fucks with me. I try not to, don't want to, but it fucks with me and I can't help thinking about her being naked with another woman. Keep thinking about all the videos I've seen with women serving women satisfaction, but refuse to see Nicole in that light, in that life. I want to believe that they sit around baking cookies, knitting sweaters, and watching Lifetime Television for Women.

Those silver bracelets jingle as she gets a little ahead of me, not much. My shoes crunch potato chip bags and golden leaves. Buses spit black clouds of carbon monoxide in our faces.

The light at 13th catches Nicole. I catch up and ask, "Why does she want to meet me?"

"Because. Curious, I guess. I love you; she knows that. Sometimes she sounds intimidated."

"Because I'm a man."

"Maybe. After seven years, we have a solid history, don't you think?"

That makes me feel good. The simple, five-letter word solid makes me feel good. The signal coo-coos three times. We run north.

We race the incline toward Telegraph, a liquor store-lined street that leads into good old Berkeley.

At 20th, under the shadows of a sky-high Sears and World Savings building, she turns right toward Snow Park. We avoid a million chain-smokers who are congregated out in front of Lake Merritt Plaza, the black-lunged outcasts of a politically correct world, then cross several lanes of fast-paced traffic and head toward the children's park and petting zoo called Fairy Land.

I maintain a steady pace and ask, "This hooking up, is this for her, or for you?"

"For me. Because I'm in fucking purgatory."

"Where do you think I am? I'm standing next to you."

"Feels like I'm dancing naked on the sun."

"That sounds painful."

"Wanna see my blisters?" She clears her throat, spits. "It's important for her because she needs to get comfortable with my needs, and wants, with my love for you, to be secure. And it's for you."

"How in the hell is this hooking up for me?"

"Because I see how much it hurts you. You're an open book."

"Don't go clich on me."

"You put it in all of your books. Especially the one with the orange cover. The one where you wrote about the wedding."

"A fictional wedding."

"Save that bullshit for your fans. I read your books and I see me, hear the things I've said, see you, your words, hear your voice, feel sad and bad because I know that all the pain you write about is us."

"Maybe you should write a book. Let me know how you really feel, what's going on with you."

She goes on, "Be honest. Would you be this, I don't know, well, for lack of a better word, understanding if I were-"

"I'm not understanding; I don't understand this whole lesbian shit."

"I'm not a lesbian," she says with force. Then she backs off. "Sweetie, I'm not a lesbian."

I tell her, "Look, I'm being patient. Waiting for you to get through this ... this ... this phase."

"Okay, patient. Would you be acting like a stunt double for Job if I were having a relationship, okay, even living with another man?"

"Hell, no. I'd break his neck. Go Left Eye and burn down the house. Not in that order."

She says, "Going Left Eye. Now that turns me on. That evil side you try to hide."

"Try me."

"I'm serious. I want you two to meet. We have to. I want both of your spirits to be at ease. I want my spirit at ease. I want all of us to be able to lunch together from time to time, have conversations, run races together, that way I don't have to be stressed and trying to figure out who I'm going to be with. It's a lose-lose for me, and I'm trying to make it a win-win for us all."

"So, she's scared of me."

"You don't see her as a threat, not the way she sees you as a threat."

"Nothing that menstruates is a threat to me. Ain't scared of nothing that bleeds."

"Okay, Mister Macho."

Nicole has immeasurable passion when she talks about her soft-legged lover. I wonder if when she's talking to her friend about me, if she speaks with the same heated tongue, one that drips adjectives made of sweet mangos, verbs made of ripe kiwis, says my name as if it were a fresh strawberry.

I say, "So, this is for me, you, and her."

"At this stage in my life, I do know what I want. And I'm going after it. I'm being honest with myself and I have the courage to follow it."

"How long did you practice that Fantasy Island-sounding speech?"

She extends both her middle fingers my way.

I ask, "You want it to be like that?"

"Ideally, yeah. If could wake up every day knowing I was going to share my life with two people I adore, do that without any stress, yeah, my world would be perfect."

I say, "World ain't perfect."

"Our world can be perfect enough for us. We can create new boundaries, new love."

We. I notice she uses the word we a lot. The ultimate team player. A company woman.

"Dunno, Nicole. Dunno. Me, you, and your friend. That puts a chill in the pit of my stomach."

"That chill is your sense of adventure tapping you on your shoulder."

"You're quoting me."

"The unknown is always an added attraction."

"I told you that too."

"Yes, you did. Got me to drop my drawers when that honey-rich baritone voice of yours whispered those words in my ear. Had me doing all kinds of shit for your ass. In and out of bed. Helped you out when your money was low, was your shoulder when your daddy gave you grief. I gave all of me to you. Your turn to give a little. Push the envelope, sweetie. Live up to your own standards."

Our pace gets closer to eight-minute miles. She's a great runner. Five inches shorter than I am, and a minute faster on a hilly mile. Arms low, nice smooth kick, floating, she moves as if my orgasm has given her strength, doubled her stamina. I'm a slow starter and I use her to motivate my stride.

A few miles and a million thoughts later, Nicole leads me over to Harrison and we run past Westlake Middle School, beyond the 580 freeway, keep heading toward a rolling hill that reaches up to the sky.

"Where you taking me?"

"C'mon."

Like a used car salesman she wants to show me every feature of the city. Doesn't talk about The Village, or Sobrante Park, parts that are the Bed-Stuy of the Bay, forgets all about the Twomps or the Rollin' 20's over in East Oakland. Places that mirror how we grew up, her in Memphis and me in L.A.

Nicole sequesters me from that part of the city, keeps me away from the coal and leads me to the diamonds, takes me a few miles uphill into the area called Piedmont Hills. Tells me a half-million will buy a two-bedroom home; two million might get five thousand square feet.

Eighteen minutes later, we reach Highland, which is almost at the top of the hill, then head toward the row of mansions leading to Piedmont High School. She's sweating, face glowing with pain, back of her oversized sweatshirt damp, but not too damp because her T-shirt steals most of the moisture.

No nice way to put it, right now I'm hurting like hell and making fuck faces.

She slows a bit, says, "Think ... about moving ... up this way. Get some ... investment property."

I wipe my face with the sleeve of my sweatshirt. "Sell crazy ... somewhere else. A blacksmith in one village ... becomes a blacksmith's apprentice in another."

"Smart ass ... what does that ... mean?"

"What kind of fool do I look like? Can't be your number two. Not going out like that."

"Dammit." Her breathing evens out. "There you go again. It's about love, not competition."

"Everything in this world is about competition."

"Not if we let it be about love," she says with enough force to show her inner struggle and frustration, then she softens her attitude, "Not if we let it be about love."

In a tone that doesn't hide my jealousy and frustration, doesn't mask my anger, I ask, "Hypothetically, if I moved here, where the hell would you stay?"

"You'll think about it?"

"Then what? Who gets you at sundown? Do I have to flip a coin every night, pull straws, what? Or do we go to court and get an order so I can get you every other weekend and every other holiday?"

She's offended. I want to offend her.

She takes off running, speeds up when I get too close, challenging me like I challenge her. We both move like we want to make up for lost time. But lost time is never recovered.

I run faster, zip by homes, everything from Classical Greek to Armenian Revival to French Restoration. Run faster and match her pace. Jealousy pours out of my system by the gallon.

Three more. I see three more houses with unique rainbow-hued flags, one with a multicolored cat as we run downhill and trek from Highland to Harvard back to the shops in Lake Merrit.

We find our way back over to Grand Street, run the outskirts of the lake back up 20th, then challenge each other's pace down Broadway, through the crowds, passing by women with white gauze gowns and scarves swirled around their faces, by sons whose ancestors were slaves, daughters of immigrants.

Nicole is in full stride by the time we come up on 6th, her tailwind stirring all the debris on the uneven, oil-stained boulevard, her bracelets jingling as she pumps her slim arms and races for the Tube.

Can't let her win. Ego chases ego.

She makes it out of the 980 overpass a good five seconds before me, flies across the entrance to the Tube, crosses 7th before traffic can take off. I break out of the darkness underneath the block-wide overpass and approach that good old Tube.

Death is waiting for me.

The light is green, the illuminated white man is on, those three sweet coo-coos telling me I have the right-of-way. With me coming both out of darkness and from behind a huge column that supports the 980, and everybody and their momma rushing to get on the Alameda on-ramp before they lose the light, that is a deadly moment in the making. I'm sweating, legs aching, but feeling invincible, trying to catch the Roadrunner, in a zone, and when I sprint off the curb, traffic doesn't give a fuck about me.

I'm facing a fast-moving death disguised as one of those ugly-ass PT Cruisers, that atrocious car that is built like a hearse for a midget, this one with windows tinted pallbearer black.

The driver of the uglymobile is on the phone. Zooming right at me. I can't move. Can't break left because it looks like that bastard wants to do the same. Can't break right because that would throw me in front of the traffic that is zipping up Broadway.

The sparkling grill on that Chrysler widens; death is smiling. The engine rumbles out a soft chuckle.

I think of Lolita. I think of the obsessed man who dies at the end. This is where I meet Joe Black.

The driver drops his cell phone, cringes, makes a wide-eyed, oh-shit face as he cuts left, his tires screeching a bit, then his sideview mirror slaps my arm so hard I think I'm shot.

Brotherman sends back his curses and speeds on, his radio blaring "Shake Ya' Azz, Watchya Self."

Nicole is still running, accelerating like a bullet, has no idea that I just cheated death.

I come alive, race through the other cars before they mow me down.

Nicole zips by the row of sushi joints and a plant store offering Psychic Reality, her heels smacking her ass with every stride. I don't give up, lengthen my stride, arms pumping, knees high like Olympic great John Carlos. I dig as deep as I can. She's doing the same.

She stops at the edge of Second Street, not once looking back. She never looks back.

Fifteen seconds later, which is a runner's lifetime, I catch up and stop next to her, my chest heaving, muscles burning, sweat coming from every pore, my face cringing with pain stacked on top of pain. There is a glimmer in her eyes, the shine she gets whenever she wins. There is competition. She's pimp-strutting like she just left Maurice Green and Michael Johnson in the dust and won a gold medal.

I check my watch. We've covered ten miles in an hour and twenty. Not bad, considering we lost a good five to ten minutes talking. She spits like a pro athlete, wipes her mouth on the sleeve of her damp sweatshirt, and then walks in circles.

I take deep breaths, in through my nose, out my mouth, and tell her, "You run like a cheetah."

Her shoulders are tense, face cringes, fights to control her breathing. "You call me a cheater? It's not cheating. If both of you know, it's not cheating. I have never lied to you. Never lied to her."

There is a pause. "I said cheetah. C-h-e-e-t-a-h. Not cheater."

"Oh."

"At least I know where your mind is."

A flash of embarrassment skates across her face.

I ask, "Are you comfortable?"

She gets animated, talks with her hands, like a teacher before a class breaking down a problem to its simplest terms. "A lot of women are attracted to women, but are scared to admit it."

I pause and we stare. "I meant are you okay. I thought you were limping."

Her mouth becomes a huge letter O.

I say, "Let's try this again. How do you feel?"

"Like screaming."

"Because of me?"

"Because of my cellulite."

I laugh. That's just like her, to jump to the trivial concerns stirring inside her head. "What cellulite?"

She groans. "Years of running and I still have big legs."

Her legs aren't big. And she hardly has enough ass to mention. There is no cellulite, not enough to worry about. She magnifies the flaws that Superman's telescopic vision can't see.

I remind her that she's the most beautiful woman in the world, that the anorexic airbrushed images on the covers of Cosmo and Body and Soul can't touch her.

She smiles. "Another reason I'm hooked on you."

"Cold?"

"Not really. Body temp way up."

"Let's go in before we get sick."

"Wait. Air feels good." She blows; her breath comes out like steam. She's hyped. "Miss being with you all the time. Move up here. It'll be so cool if you moved up here. So many things I want to do with you, sweetie. Wanna take you to this salsa club in Emeryville. On the Black Panther Legacy Tour."

"Slow your stroll." I spit; wipe my mouth too. "You're trying to wear me out."

"Wanna share my world with you," Nicole says as she scrubs her face with a corner of her sweatshirt. "Maybe I can kick in on the down payment if that'll help convince you."

"You're talking about a grip. Maybe thirty thousand."

"If all goes well, my sloptions are going to break through the roof in the next year or two."

Sloptions is San Francisco-Silicon Valley slang for stock options. Her soon-to-be large techno Internet company offered her a chance to leave her old life and her program management position at Boeing in Anaheim to come here and be a contract renewal specialist. She left the shaky aerospace business behind and moved on to better things in dot-comville.

I ask, "What you looking at, moneywise?"

"At least a million. I wanna be a baller like you."

"Nobody balling but you. Sounds like you got all the cheddar."

"With the cost of living and property, that's chump change up here. Hate thinking what the capital gains taxes are gonna be, but either way it'll be a nice piece of change."

"Need any help before then, let me know."

"I'm cool. Thanks for offering. That's sweet of you."

I'd give her my all, but she relies on me for nothing but love.

She doesn't have that Cinderella gene. Anything a man can do, she can do to the nth degree. She'll let the man be the head of the house, be it for his ego or the way she wants it to be, but she will not become dependent. That lets me know that the reason she's with me comes from the heart. She's better than Cinderella. She has beauty and skills. Outside of a dysfunctional family and a glass shoe, Cinderella had nothing but beauty and that fades with each tick-tock of the clock.

And at the same time, I want to be her prince. Want to ride up to her window on a black stallion, let her throw down a lock of her hair so I can climb up into her castle and snatch her ass down to my reality.

A beautiful sister walks by. Both of us stare at her, then at each other.

Nicole puts her arms around my shoulders, kisses the side of my face, tastes my drying sweat before she tongues me with a true passion, allows me to taste her salty emotions, each kiss asking me to accept her as she is, pimples on her butt, dry scalp, PMS, soft-legged lover and all.

She says, "Okay, now I'm getting cold."

As we stroll, she does a couple of gymnastic walkovers, first forward then backward, then laughs, puts her face to mine and sucks my lips again. Even her moist skin is as sweet as a mango. With people rushing by, heading into all the seaside specialty shops, we close our eyes and kiss. Her bracelets sing and jangle as she hugs me. I pretend we're still engaged and that sound is the sound of wedding bells.

Reprinted from the hardcover of Between Lovers by Eric Jerome Dickey by permission of Dutton, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright $#169; 2001 by Eric Jerome Dickey. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced without permission.

"Lust and confusion collide in this supple novel about a woman who wants it all." People

"Sensational… spicy… another winner from an author who only seems to be getting better." Publisher's Weekly

"Provocative and complex." Ebony

With each new novel, Eric Jerome Dickey has established himself as one of the freshest and most exciting writers on America's contemporary fiction scene. His latest book is no exception. Set in the San Francisco Bay area, Between Lovers brings together three irresistible characters. The novel's narratora Los Angeles-based writeris still reeling from being dumped by Nicole after seven good years followed by an aborted trip to the altar. Nicole grew up during their time together, and changedshe became a successful career woman, moved north to Oakland, and fell in love with another woman. But she's still not satisfied. She likes what she has, but misses what she had, and wants to find out if she can have it all. She's playing with fire, not to mention the feelings of the two people who love her most in the world, but Nicole lures her former fiancé back into her new life, opening the floodgates of anger, passion, pain...and refreshing honesty. How these three fascinating people handle this unusual and complex love triangle makes for one of Dickey's most provocative and unforgettable novels.
Chapter Two

Nicole says, "I still want you to meet her."

I don't respond to that.

I lay there in the bed with my eyes closed. Nicole is on top of me, her hands tracing over my body, wide awake like she's been IV'ed to a double latte mocha cappuccino espresso.

Another commuter train rumbles by out on Embarcadero.

She kisses my lips before she heads for the bathroom. Nicole walks in a way that lets you know she used to do ballet many moons ago, as a child, that she does yoga as an adult, using the core of her body to move herself, her abs and inner thighs tight from doing most of the work.

Nicole leaves the bathroom door wide open. She sings a Pru song, the one about the candles. She sings that all the time. Her singing is terrible, but it has raw passion. The toilet flushes.

The sandman sprinkles sleep dust all over me. Try to shake it off. Body heavy.

Water runs in the sink. She's washing up. Her bracelets jingle with her scrubbing.

She asks, "Did you hear me when I said that I want you two to meet?"

I sit up. We stare. I tell her, "I'm not deaf."

"Last month, when I asked, you said that you'd think about it."

"Help me out here. Why would you want us to meet?"

"Then I won't feel guilty. Like I'm cheating."

"Are you?"

She pauses. "Then you won't act like she doesn't exist. I love you. I love her."

"You don't love her."

"How do you know?"

I say, "Adam and Eve. Adam and Eve."

We stare at each other, restless, indeterminate gazes that reach deep.

She says, "I'm a divided soul, sweetie. And I can't go on like this. Not much longer."

"Then choose."

This is a discussion we've had countless times since the wedding. Each time it becomes harder.

She tells me, "I have a solution. If you're still open to new things, it can work."

She wants me to ask, but I don't.

With a wounded smile, she hand-combs her locks, untangles that hairstyle that started off as a sign of resistance, and still is, and she takes my running shoes from the closet, tosses them at my feet.

She gently says, "Get dressed."

Fog walks the streets. Dark skies give Oaktown that Seattle appeal.

I have on black running tights, white T-shirt, gray St. Patrick's Day 10K sweatshirt. She wears blue tights and a black hooded sweat top, a red scarf over her golden hair.

We take a slow jog out of the Waterfront, by all the gift shops, head through the light fog. Rows of warehouses that are being converted into lofts line the streets. All in the name of profit and gentrification, the reversal of the White Flight is in progress. The homeless are out peddling Street Spirit papers for a buck a pop. Some are sleeping on the oil-stained pavement while people pass by in super-size SUVs and foreign cars that cost more than a house in the 'burbs of Atlanta, Georgia. The dirt poor, the filthy rich, all live a paper cup away from each other in the land of perpetual oxymorons.

I say, "You want me to meet this chick-"

"Don't say chick. That's a misogynistic word."

"Nicer than what I usually call her."

"Which is disrespectful. Yeah, I think meeting will benefit us all."

"So, this thing with her is pretty serious?"

She smiles because I've given up the silent treatment. "It's serious. There's more to it."

Acid swirls in my belly.

Nicole goes on, "I think we can resolve this situation."

"More like what?" I ask. "What more is there?"

"We ... just more." She has a look that tells me this is deeper than it seems, but can't tell me all, not right now. She says, "Let's talk while we run."

We take the incline up Broadway, my mind trying to react to what she just asked me about meeting her soft-legged lover, whirring and clicking and whirring as we jog by the probation department. We come up on a red light and stretch some more while we wait for it to change. The signal makes a coo-coo, coo-coo, coo-coo sound when it changes to green, that good old audio signal for the blind folks heading north and south. It chirps like a sweet bird going east and west, so we know we have the right-of-way and it's okay to get back to running north toward freedom.

Before we make a step, a Soul Train of impatient drivers almost mows us down.

We jump back. Both of us almost get hit. That lets me know that both of our minds are elsewhere.

Nicole says, "Be careful here, sweetie. This is where all the assholes rush to get on the Tube."

Someone driving a black car with a rainbow flag in its window slows and allows us to cross.

I run behind Nicole. Check out the fluid movement of her thighs. Seven years ago they weren't so firm. Back then she had a whacked Atlantic Star hairdo that hung over one eye and she looked like Janet Jackson, not the Velvet Rope version, but the chubby-faced Penny on Good Times version. Now her belly is flat and the muscles in her calves rise and fall, lines in her hamstrings appear, her butt tightens; all of that shows how much she's been running, doing aerobics, hiking up every hill she can find.

It fucks with me. I try not to, don't want to, but it fucks with me and I can't help thinking about her being naked with another woman. Keep thinking about all the videos I've seen with women serving women satisfaction, but refuse to see Nicole in that light, in that life. I want to believe that they sit around baking cookies, knitting sweaters, and watching Lifetime Television for Women.

Those silver bracelets jingle as she gets a little ahead of me, not much. My shoes crunch potato chip bags and golden leaves. Buses spit black clouds of carbon monoxide in our faces.

The light at 13th catches Nicole. I catch up and ask, "Why does she want to meet me?"

"Because. Curious, I guess. I love you; she knows that. Sometimes she sounds intimidated."

"Because I'm a man."

"Maybe. After seven years, we have a solid history, don't you think?"

That makes me feel good. The simple, five-letter word solid makes me feel good. The signal coo-coos three times. We run north.

We race the incline toward Telegraph, a liquor store-lined street that leads into good old Berkeley.

At 20th, under the shadows of a sky-high Sears and World Savings building, she turns right toward Snow Park. We avoid a million chain-smokers who are congregated out in front of Lake Merritt Plaza, the black-lunged outcasts of a politically correct world, then cross several lanes of fast-paced traffic and head toward the children's park and petting zoo called Fairy Land.

I maintain a steady pace and ask, "This hooking up, is this for her, or for you?"

"For me. Because I'm in fucking purgatory."

"Where do you think I am? I'm standing next to you."

"Feels like I'm dancing naked on the sun."

"That sounds painful."

"Wanna see my blisters?" She clears her throat, spits. "It's important for her because she needs to get comfortable with my needs, and wants, with my love for you, to be secure. And it's for you."

"How in the hell is this hooking up for me?"

"Because I see how much it hurts you. You're an open book."

"Don't go clich on me."

"You put it in all of your books. Especially the one with the orange cover. The one where you wrote about the wedding."

"A fictional wedding."

"Save that bullshit for your fans. I read your books and I see me, hear the things I've said, see you, your words, hear your voice, feel sad and bad because I know that all the pain you write about is us."

"Maybe you should write a book. Let me know how you really feel, what's going on with you."

She goes on, "Be honest. Would you be this, I don't know, well, for lack of a better word, understanding if I were-"

"I'm not understanding; I don't understand this whole lesbian shit."

"I'm not a lesbian," she says with force. Then she backs off. "Sweetie, I'm not a lesbian."

I tell her, "Look, I'm being patient. Waiting for you to get through this ... this ... this phase."

"Okay, patient. Would you be acting like a stunt double for Job if I were having a relationship, okay, even living with another man?"

"Hell, no. I'd break his neck. Go Left Eye and burn down the house. Not in that order."

She says, "Going Left Eye. Now that turns me on. That evil side you try to hide."

"Try me."

"I'm serious. I want you two to meet. We have to. I want both of your spirits to be at ease. I want my spirit at ease. I want all of us to be able to lunch together from time to time, have conversations, run races together, that way I don't have to be stressed and trying to figure out who I'm going to be with. It's a lose-lose for me, and I'm trying to make it a win-win for us all."

"So, she's scared of me."

"You don't see her as a threat, not the way she sees you as a threat."

"Nothing that menstruates is a threat to me. Ain't scared of nothing that bleeds."

"Okay, Mister Macho."

Nicole has immeasurable passion when she talks about her soft-legged lover. I wonder if when she's talking to her friend about me, if she speaks with the same heated tongue, one that drips adjectives made of sweet mangos, verbs made of ripe kiwis, says my name as if it were a fresh strawberry.

I say, "So, this is for me, you, and her."

"At this stage in my life, I do know what I want. And I'm going after it. I'm being honest with myself and I have the courage to follow it."

"How long did you practice that Fantasy Island-sounding speech?"

She extends both her middle fingers my way.

I ask, "You want it to be like that?"

"Ideally, yeah. If could wake up every day knowing I was going to share my life with two people I adore, do that without any stress, yeah, my world would be perfect."

I say, "World ain't perfect."

"Our world can be perfect enough for us. We can create new boundaries, new love."

We. I notice she uses the word we a lot. The ultimate team player. A company woman.

"Dunno, Nicole. Dunno. Me, you, and your friend. That puts a chill in the pit of my stomach."

"That chill is your sense of adventure tapping you on your shoulder."

"You're quoting me."

"The unknown is always an added attraction."

"I told you that too."

"Yes, you did. Got me to drop my drawers when that honey-rich baritone voice of yours whispered those words in my ear. Had me doing all kinds of shit for your ass. In and out of bed. Helped you out when your money was low, was your shoulder when your daddy gave you grief. I gave all of me to you. Your turn to give a little. Push the envelope, sweetie. Live up to your own standards."

Our pace gets closer to eight-minute miles. She's a great runner. Five inches shorter than I am, and a minute faster on a hilly mile. Arms low, nice smooth kick, floating, she moves as if my orgasm has given her strength, doubled her stamina. I'm a slow starter and I use her to motivate my stride.

A few miles and a million thoughts later, Nicole leads me over to Harrison and we run past Westlake Middle School, beyond the 580 freeway, keep heading toward a rolling hill that reaches up to the sky.

"Where you taking me?"

"C'mon."

Like a used car salesman she wants to show me every feature of the city. Doesn't talk about The Village, or Sobrante Park, parts that are the Bed-Stuy of the Bay, forgets all about the Twomps or the Rollin' 20's over in East Oakland. Places that mirror how we grew up, her in Memphis and me in L.A.

Nicole sequesters me from that part of the city, keeps me away from the coal and leads me to the diamonds, takes me a few miles uphill into the area called Piedmont Hills. Tells me a half-million will buy a two-bedroom home; two million might get five thousand square feet.

Eighteen minutes later, we reach Highland, which is almost at the top of the hill, then head toward the row of mansions leading to Piedmont High School. She's sweating, face glowing with pain, back of her oversized sweatshirt damp, but not too damp because her T-shirt steals most of the moisture.

No nice way to put it, right now I'm hurting like hell and making fuck faces.

She slows a bit, says, "Think ... about moving ... up this way. Get some ... investment property."

I wipe my face with the sleeve of my sweatshirt. "Sell crazy ... somewhere else. A blacksmith in one village ... becomes a blacksmith's apprentice in another."

"Smart ass ... what does that ... mean?"

"What kind of fool do I look like? Can't be your number two. Not going out like that."

"Dammit." Her breathing evens out. "There you go again. It's about love, not competition."

"Everything in this world is about competition."

"Not if we let it be about love," she says with enough force to show her inner struggle and frustration, then she softens her attitude, "Not if we let it be about love."

In a tone that doesn't hide my jealousy and frustration, doesn't mask my anger, I ask, "Hypothetically, if I moved here, where the hell would you stay?"

"You'll think about it?"

"Then what? Who gets you at sundown? Do I have to flip a coin every night, pull straws, what? Or do we go to court and get an order so I can get you every other weekend and every other holiday?"

She's offended. I want to offend her.

She takes off running, speeds up when I get too close, challenging me like I challenge her. We both move like we want to make up for lost time. But lost time is never recovered.

I run faster, zip by homes, everything from Classical Greek to Armenian Revival to French Restoration. Run faster and match her pace. Jealousy pours out of my system by the gallon.

Three more. I see three more houses with unique rainbow-hued flags, one with a multicolored cat as we run downhill and trek from Highland to Harvard back to the shops in Lake Merrit.

We find our way back over to Grand Street, run the outskirts of the lake back up 20th, then challenge each other's pace down Broadway, through the crowds, passing by women with white gauze gowns and scarves swirled around their faces, by sons whose ancestors were slaves, daughters of immigrants.

Nicole is in full stride by the time we come up on 6th, her tailwind stirring all the debris on the uneven, oil-stained boulevard, her bracelets jingling as she pumps her slim arms and races for the Tube.

Can't let her win. Ego chases ego.

She makes it out of the 980 overpass a good five seconds before me, flies across the entrance to the Tube, crosses 7th before traffic can take off. I break out of the darkness underneath the block-wide overpass and approach that good old Tube.

Death is waiting for me.

The light is green, the illuminated white man is on, those three sweet coo-coos telling me I have the right-of-way. With me coming both out of darkness and from behind a huge column that supports the 980, and everybody and their momma rushing to get on the Alameda on-ramp before they lose the light, that is a deadly moment in the making. I'm sweating, legs aching, but feeling invincible, trying to catch the Roadrunner, in a zone, and when I sprint off the curb, traffic doesn't give a fuck about me.

I'm facing a fast-moving death disguised as one of those ugly-ass PT Cruisers, that atrocious car that is built like a hearse for a midget, this one with windows tinted pallbearer black.

The driver of the uglymobile is on the phone. Zooming right at me. I can't move. Can't break left because it looks like that bastard wants to do the same. Can't break right because that would throw me in front of the traffic that is zipping up Broadway.

The sparkling grill on that Chrysler widens; death is smiling. The engine rumbles out a soft chuckle.

I think of Lolita. I think of the obsessed man who dies at the end. This is where I meet Joe Black.

The driver drops his cell phone, cringes, makes a wide-eyed, oh-shit face as he cuts left, his tires screeching a bit, then his sideview mirror slaps my arm so hard I think I'm shot.

Brotherman sends back his curses and speeds on, his radio blaring "Shake Ya' Azz, Watchya Self."

Nicole is still running, accelerating like a bullet, has no idea that I just cheated death.

I come alive, race through the other cars before they mow me down.

Nicole zips by the row of sushi joints and a plant store offering Psychic Reality, her heels smacking her ass with every stride. I don't give up, lengthen my stride, arms pumping, knees high like Olympic great John Carlos. I dig as deep as I can. She's doing the same.

She stops at the edge of Second Street, not once looking back. She never looks back.

Fifteen seconds later, which is a runner's lifetime, I catch up and stop next to her, my chest heaving, muscles burning, sweat coming from every pore, my face cringing with pain stacked on top of pain. There is a glimmer in her eyes, the shine she gets whenever she wins. There is competition. She's pimp-strutting like she just left Maurice Green and Michael Johnson in the dust and won a gold medal.

I check my watch. We've covered ten miles in an hour and twenty. Not bad, considering we lost a good five to ten minutes talking. She spits like a pro athlete, wipes her mouth on the sleeve of her damp sweatshirt, and then walks in circles.

I take deep breaths, in through my nose, out my mouth, and tell her, "You run like a cheetah."

Her shoulders are tense, face cringes, fights to control her breathing. "You call me a cheater? It's not cheating. If both of you know, it's not cheating. I have never lied to you. Never lied to her."

There is a pause. "I said cheetah. C-h-e-e-t-a-h. Not cheater."

"Oh."

"At least I know where your mind is."

A flash of embarrassment skates across her face.

I ask, "Are you comfortable?"

She gets animated, talks with her hands, like a teacher before a class breaking down a problem to its simplest terms. "A lot of women are attracted to women, but are scared to admit it."

I pause and we stare. "I meant are you okay. I thought you were limping."

Her mouth becomes a huge letter O.

I say, "Let's try this again. How do you feel?"

"Like screaming."

"Because of me?"

"Because of my cellulite."

I laugh. That's just like her, to jump to the trivial concerns stirring inside her head. "What cellulite?"

She groans. "Years of running and I still have big legs."

Her legs aren't big. And she hardly has enough ass to mention. There is no cellulite, not enough to worry about. She magnifies the flaws that Superman's telescopic vision can't see.

I remind her that she's the most beautiful woman in the world, that the anorexic airbrushed images on the covers of Cosmo and Body and Soul can't touch her.

She smiles. "Another reason I'm hooked on you."

"Cold?"

"Not really. Body temp way up."

"Let's go in before we get sick."

"Wait. Air feels good." She blows; her breath comes out like steam. She's hyped. "Miss being with you all the time. Move up here. It'll be so cool if you moved up here. So many things I want to do with you, sweetie. Wanna take you to this salsa club in Emeryville. On the Black Panther Legacy Tour."

"Slow your stroll." I spit; wipe my mouth too. "You're trying to wear me out."

"Wanna share my world with you," Nicole says as she scrubs her face with a corner of her sweatshirt. "Maybe I can kick in on the down payment if that'll help convince you."

"You're talking about a grip. Maybe thirty thousand."

"If all goes well, my sloptions are going to break through the roof in the next year or two."

Sloptions is San Francisco-Silicon Valley slang for stock options. Her soon-to-be large techno Internet company offered her a chance to leave her old life and her program management position at Boeing in Anaheim to come here and be a contract renewal specialist. She left the shaky aerospace business behind and moved on to better things in dot-comville.

I ask, "What you looking at, moneywise?"

"At least a million. I wanna be a baller like you."

"Nobody balling but you. Sounds like you got all the cheddar."

"With the cost of living and property, that's chump change up here. Hate thinking what the capital gains taxes are gonna be, but either way it'll be a nice piece of change."

"Need any help before then, let me know."

"I'm cool. Thanks for offering. That's sweet of you."

I'd give her my all, but she relies on me for nothing but love.

She doesn't have that Cinderella gene. Anything a man can do, she can do to the nth degree. She'll let the man be the head of the house, be it for his ego or the way she wants it to be, but she will not become dependent. That lets me know that the reason she's with me comes from the heart. She's better than Cinderella. She has beauty and skills. Outside of a dysfunctional family and a glass shoe, Cinderella had nothing but beauty and that fades with each tick-tock of the clock.

And at the same time, I want to be her prince. Want to ride up to her window on a black stallion, let her throw down a lock of her hair so I can climb up into her castle and snatch her ass down to my reality.

A beautiful sister walks by. Both of us stare at her, then at each other.

Nicole puts her arms around my shoulders, kisses the side of my face, tastes my drying sweat before she tongues me with a true passion, allows me to taste her salty emotions, each kiss asking me to accept her as she is, pimples on her butt, dry scalp, PMS, soft-legged lover and all.

She says, "Okay, now I'm getting cold."

As we stroll, she does a couple of gymnastic walkovers, first forward then backward, then laughs, puts her face to mine and sucks my lips again. Even her moist skin is as sweet as a mango. With people rushing by, heading into all the seaside specialty shops, we close our eyes and kiss. Her bracelets sing and jangle as she hugs me. I pretend we're still engaged and that sound is the sound of wedding bells.

Reprinted from the hardcover of Between Lovers by Eric Jerome Dickey by permission of Dutton, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright $#169; 2001 by Eric Jerome Dickey. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced without permission.

"Lust and confusion collide in this supple novel about a woman who wants it all." People

"Sensational… spicy… another winner from an author who only seems to be getting better." Publisher's Weekly

"Provocative and complex." Ebony

With each new novel, Eric Jerome Dickey has established himself as one of the freshest and most exciting writers on America's contemporary fiction scene. His latest book is no exception. Set in the San Francisco Bay area, Between Lovers brings together three irresistible characters. The novel's narratora Los Angeles-based writeris still reeling from being dumped by Nicole after seven good years followed by an aborted trip to the altar. Nicole grew up during their time together, and changedshe became a successful career woman, moved north to Oakland, and fell in love with another woman. But she's still not satisfied. She likes what she has, but misses what she had, and wants to find out if she can have it all. She's playing with fire, not to mention the feelings of the two people who love her most in the world, but Nicole lures her former fiancé back into her new life, opening the floodgates of anger, passion, pain...and refreshing honesty. How these three fascinating people handle this unusual and complex love triangle makes for one of Dickey's most provocative and unforgettable novels.
Chapter Two

Nicole says, "I still want you to meet her."

I don't respond to that.

I lay there in the bed with my eyes closed. Nicole is on top of me, her hands tracing over my body, wide awake like she's been IV'ed to a double latte mocha cappuccino espresso.

Another commuter train rumbles by out on Embarcadero.

She kisses my lips before she heads for the bathroom. Nicole walks in a way that lets you know she used to do ballet many moons ago, as a child, that she does yoga as an adult, using the core of her body to move herself, her abs and inner thighs tight from doing most of the work.

Nicole leaves the bathroom door wide open. She sings a Pru song, the one about the candles. She sings that all the time. Her singing is terrible, but it has raw passion. The toilet flushes.

The sandman sprinkles sleep dust all over me. Try to shake it off. Body heavy.

Water runs in the sink. She's washing up. Her bracelets jingle with her scrubbing.

She asks, "Did you hear me when I said that I want you two to meet?"

I sit up. We stare. I tell her, "I'm not deaf."

"Last month, when I asked, you said that you'd think about it."

"Help me out here. Why would you want us to meet?"

"Then I won't feel guilty. Like I'm cheating."

"Are you?"

She pauses. "Then you won't act like she doesn't exist. I love you. I love her."

"You don't love her."

"How do you know?"

I say, "Adam and Eve. Adam and Eve."

We stare at each other, restless, indeterminate gazes that reach deep.

She says, "I'm a divided soul, sweetie. And I can't go on like this. Not much longer."

"Then choose."

This is a discussion we've had countless times since the wedding. Each time it becomes harder.

She tells me, "I have a solution. If you're still open to new things, it can work."

She wants me to ask, but I don't.

With a wounded smile, she hand-combs her locks, untangles that hairstyle that started off as a sign of resistance, and still is, and she takes my running shoes from the closet, tosses them at my feet.

She gently says, "Get dressed."

Fog walks the streets. Dark skies give Oaktown that Seattle appeal.

I have on black running tights, white T-shirt, gray St. Patrick's Day 10K sweatshirt. She wears blue tights and a black hooded sweat top, a red scarf over her golden hair.

We take a slow jog out of the Waterfront, by all the gift shops, head through the light fog. Rows of warehouses that are being converted into lofts line the streets. All in the name of profit and gentrification, the reversal of the White Flight is in progress. The homeless are out peddling Street Spirit papers for a buck a pop. Some are sleeping on the oil-stained pavement while people pass by in super-size SUVs and foreign cars that cost more than a house in the 'burbs of Atlanta, Georgia. The dirt poor, the filthy rich, all live a paper cup away from each other in the land of perpetual oxymorons.

I say, "You want me to meet this chick-"

"Don't say chick. That's a misogynistic word."

"Nicer than what I usually call her."

"Which is disrespectful. Yeah, I think meeting will benefit us all."

"So, this thing with her is pretty serious?"

She smiles because I've given up the silent treatment. "It's serious. There's more to it."

Acid swirls in my belly.

Nicole goes on, "I think we can resolve this situation."

"More like what?" I ask. "What more is there?"

"We ... just more." She has a look that tells me this is deeper than it seems, but can't tell me all, not right now. She says, "Let's talk while we run."

We take the incline up Broadway, my mind trying to react to what she just asked me about meeting her soft-legged lover, whirring and clicking and whirring as we jog by the probation department. We come up on a red light and stretch some more while we wait for it to change. The signal makes a coo-coo, coo-coo, coo-coo sound when it changes to green, that good old audio signal for the blind folks heading north and south. It chirps like a sweet bird going east and west, so we know we have the right-of-way and it's okay to get back to running north toward freedom.

Before we make a step, a Soul Train of impatient drivers almost mows us down.

We jump back. Both of us almost get hit. That lets me know that both of our minds are elsewhere.

Nicole says, "Be careful here, sweetie. This is where all the assholes rush to get on the Tube."

Someone driving a black car with a rainbow flag in its window slows and allows us to cross.

I run behind Nicole. Check out the fluid movement of her thighs. Seven years ago they weren't so firm. Back then she had a whacked Atlantic Star hairdo that hung over one eye and she looked like Janet Jackson, not the Velvet Rope version, but the chubby-faced Penny on Good Times version. Now her belly is flat and the muscles in her calves rise and fall, lines in her hamstrings appear, her butt tightens; all of that shows how much she's been running, doing aerobics, hiking up every hill she can find.

It fucks with me. I try not to, don't want to, but it fucks with me and I can't help thinking about her being naked with another woman. Keep thinking about all the videos I've seen with women serving women satisfaction, but refuse to see Nicole in that light, in that life. I want to believe that they sit around baking cookies, knitting sweaters, and watching Lifetime Television for Women.

Those silver bracelets jingle as she gets a little ahead of me, not much. My shoes crunch potato chip bags and golden leaves. Buses spit black clouds of carbon monoxide in our faces.

The light at 13th catches Nicole. I catch up and ask, "Why does she want to meet me?"

"Because. Curious, I guess. I love you; she knows that. Sometimes she sounds intimidated."

"Because I'm a man."

"Maybe. After seven years, we have a solid history, don't you think?"

That makes me feel good. The simple, five-letter word solid makes me feel good. The signal coo-coos three times. We run north.

We race the incline toward Telegraph, a liquor store-lined street that leads into good old Berkeley.

At 20th, under the shadows of a sky-high Sears and World Savings building, she turns right toward Snow Park. We avoid a million chain-smokers who are congregated out in front of Lake Merritt Plaza, the black-lunged outcasts of a politically correct world, then cross several lanes of fast-paced traffic and head toward the children's park and petting zoo called Fairy Land.

I maintain a steady pace and ask, "This hooking up, is this for her, or for you?"

"For me. Because I'm in fucking purgatory."

"Where do you think I am? I'm standing next to you."

"Feels like I'm dancing naked on the sun."

"That sounds painful."

"Wanna see my blisters?" She clears her throat, spits. "It's important for her because she needs to get comfortable with my needs, and wants, with my love for you, to be secure. And it's for you."

"How in the hell is this hooking up for me?"

"Because I see how much it hurts you. You're an open book."

"Don't go clich on me."

"You put it in all of your books. Especially the one with the orange cover. The one where you wrote about the wedding."

"A fictional wedding."

"Save that bullshit for your fans. I read your books and I see me, hear the things I've said, see you, your words, hear your voice, feel sad and bad because I know that all the pain you write about is us."

"Maybe you should write a book. Let me know how you really feel, what's going on with you."

She goes on, "Be honest. Would you be this, I don't know, well, for lack of a better word, understanding if I were-"

"I'm not understanding; I don't understand this whole lesbian shit."

"I'm not a lesbian," she says with force. Then she backs off. "Sweetie, I'm not a lesbian."

I tell her, "Look, I'm being patient. Waiting for you to get through this ... this ... this phase."

"Okay, patient. Would you be acting like a stunt double for Job if I were having a relationship, okay, even living with another man?"

"Hell, no. I'd break his neck. Go Left Eye and burn down the house. Not in that order."

She says, "Going Left Eye. Now that turns me on. That evil side you try to hide."

"Try me."

"I'm serious. I want you two to meet. We have to. I want both of your spirits to be at ease. I want my spirit at ease. I want all of us to be able to lunch together from time to time, have conversations, run races together, that way I don't have to be stressed and trying to figure out who I'm going to be with. It's a lose-lose for me, and I'm trying to make it a win-win for us all."

"So, she's scared of me."

"You don't see her as a threat, not the way she sees you as a threat."

"Nothing that menstruates is a threat to me. Ain't scared of nothing that bleeds."

"Okay, Mister Macho."

Nicole has immeasurable passion when she talks about her soft-legged lover. I wonder if when she's talking to her friend about me, if she speaks with the same heated tongue, one that drips adjectives made of sweet mangos, verbs made of ripe kiwis, says my name as if it were a fresh strawberry.

I say, "So, this is for me, you, and her."

"At this stage in my life, I do know what I want. And I'm going after it. I'm being honest with myself and I have the courage to follow it."

"How long did you practice that Fantasy Island-sounding speech?"

She extends both her middle fingers my way.

I ask, "You want it to be like that?"

"Ideally, yeah. If could wake up every day knowing I was going to share my life with two people I adore, do that without any stress, yeah, my world would be perfect."

I say, "World ain't perfect."

"Our world can be perfect enough for us. We can create new boundaries, new love."

We. I notice she uses the word we a lot. The ultimate team player. A company woman.

"Dunno, Nicole. Dunno. Me, you, and your friend. That puts a chill in the pit of my stomach."

"That chill is your sense of adventure tapping you on your shoulder."

"You're quoting me."

"The unknown is always an added attraction."

"I told you that too."

"Yes, you did. Got me to drop my drawers when that honey-rich baritone voice of yours whispered those words in my ear. Had me doing all kinds of shit for your ass. In and out of bed. Helped you out when your money was low, was your shoulder when your daddy gave you grief. I gave all of me to you. Your turn to give a little. Push the envelope, sweetie. Live up to your own standards."

Our pace gets closer to eight-minute miles. She's a great runner. Five inches shorter than I am, and a minute faster on a hilly mile. Arms low, nice smooth kick, floating, she moves as if my orgasm has given her strength, doubled her stamina. I'm a slow starter and I use her to motivate my stride.

A few miles and a million thoughts later, Nicole leads me over to Harrison and we run past Westlake Middle School, beyond the 580 freeway, keep heading toward a rolling hill that reaches up to the sky.

"Where you taking me?"

"C'mon."

Like a used car salesman she wants to show me every feature of the city. Doesn't talk about The Village, or Sobrante Park, parts that are the Bed-Stuy of the Bay, forgets all about the Twomps or the Rollin' 20's over in East Oakland. Places that mirror how we grew up, her in Memphis and me in L.A.

Nicole sequesters me from that part of the city, keeps me away from the coal and leads me to the diamonds, takes me a few miles uphill into the area called Piedmont Hills. Tells me a half-million will buy a two-bedroom home; two million might get five thousand square feet.

Eighteen minutes later, we reach Highland, which is almost at the top of the hill, then head toward the row of mansions leading to Piedmont High School. She's sweating, face glowing with pain, back of her oversized sweatshirt damp, but not too damp because her T-shirt steals most of the moisture.

No nice way to put it, right now I'm hurting like hell and making fuck faces.

She slows a bit, says, "Think ... about moving ... up this way. Get some ... investment property."

I wipe my face with the sleeve of my sweatshirt. "Sell crazy ... somewhere else. A blacksmith in one village ... becomes a blacksmith's apprentice in another."

"Smart ass ... what does that ... mean?"

"What kind of fool do I look like? Can't be your number two. Not going out like that."

"Dammit." Her breathing evens out. "There you go again. It's about love, not competition."

"Everything in this world is about competition."

"Not if we let it be about love," she says with enough force to show her inner struggle and frustration, then she softens her attitude, "Not if we let it be about love."

In a tone that doesn't hide my jealousy and frustration, doesn't mask my anger, I ask, "Hypothetically, if I moved here, where the hell would you stay?"

"You'll think about it?"

"Then what? Who gets you at sundown? Do I have to flip a coin every night, pull straws, what? Or do we go to court and get an order so I can get you every other weekend and every other holiday?"

She's offended. I want to offend her.

She takes off running, speeds up when I get too close, challenging me like I challenge her. We both move like we want to make up for lost time. But lost time is never recovered.

I run faster, zip by homes, everything from Classical Greek to Armenian Revival to French Restoration. Run faster and match her pace. Jealousy pours out of my system by the gallon.

Three more. I see three more houses with unique rainbow-hued flags, one with a multicolored cat as we run downhill and trek from Highland to Harvard back to the shops in Lake Merrit.

We find our way back over to Grand Street, run the outskirts of the lake back up 20th, then challenge each other's pace down Broadway, through the crowds, passing by women with white gauze gowns and scarves swirled around their faces, by sons whose ancestors were slaves, daughters of immigrants.

Nicole is in full stride by the time we come up on 6th, her tailwind stirring all the debris on the uneven, oil-stained boulevard, her bracelets jingling as she pumps her slim arms and races for the Tube.

Can't let her win. Ego chases ego.

She makes it out of the 980 overpass a good five seconds before me, flies across the entrance to the Tube, crosses 7th before traffic can take off. I break out of the darkness underneath the block-wide overpass and approach that good old Tube.

Death is waiting for me.

The light is green, the illuminated white man is on, those three sweet coo-coos telling me I have the right-of-way. With me coming both out of darkness and from behind a huge column that supports the 980, and everybody and their momma rushing to get on the Alameda on-ramp before they lose the light, that is a deadly moment in the making. I'm sweating, legs aching, but feeling invincible, trying to catch the Roadrunner, in a zone, and when I sprint off the curb, traffic doesn't give a fuck about me.

I'm facing a fast-moving death disguised as one of those ugly-ass PT Cruisers, that atrocious car that is built like a hearse for a midget, this one with windows tinted pallbearer black.

The driver of the uglymobile is on the phone. Zooming right at me. I can't move. Can't break left because it looks like that bastard wants to do the same. Can't break right because that would throw me in front of the traffic that is zipping up Broadway.

The sparkling grill on that Chrysler widens; death is smiling. The engine rumbles out a soft chuckle.

I think of Lolita. I think of the obsessed man who dies at the end. This is where I meet Joe Black.

The driver drops his cell phone, cringes, makes a wide-eyed, oh-shit face as he cuts left, his tires screeching a bit, then his sideview mirror slaps my arm so hard I think I'm shot.

Brotherman sends back his curses and speeds on, his radio blaring "Shake Ya' Azz, Watchya Self."

Nicole is still running, accelerating like a bullet, has no idea that I just cheated death.

I come alive, race through the other cars before they mow me down.

Nicole zips by the row of sushi joints and a plant store offering Psychic Reality, her heels smacking her ass with every stride. I don't give up, lengthen my stride, arms pumping, knees high like Olympic great John Carlos. I dig as deep as I can. She's doing the same.

She stops at the edge of Second Street, not once looking back. She never looks back.

Fifteen seconds later, which is a runner's lifetime, I catch up and stop next to her, my chest heaving, muscles burning, sweat coming from every pore, my face cringing with pain stacked on top of pain. There is a glimmer in her eyes, the shine she gets whenever she wins. There is competition. She's pimp-strutting like she just left Maurice Green and Michael Johnson in the dust and won a gold medal.

I check my watch. We've covered ten miles in an hour and twenty. Not bad, considering we lost a good five to ten minutes talking. She spits like a pro athlete, wipes her mouth on the sleeve of her damp sweatshirt, and then walks in circles.

I take deep breaths, in through my nose, out my mouth, and tell her, "You run like a cheetah."

Her shoulders are tense, face cringes, fights to control her breathing. "You call me a cheater? It's not cheating. If both of you know, it's not cheating. I have never lied to you. Never lied to her."

There is a pause. "I said cheetah. C-h-e-e-t-a-h. Not cheater."

"Oh."

"At least I know where your mind is."

A flash of embarrassment skates across her face.

I ask, "Are you comfortable?"

She gets animated, talks with her hands, like a teacher before a class breaking down a problem to its simplest terms. "A lot of women are attracted to women, but are scared to admit it."

I pause and we stare. "I meant are you okay. I thought you were limping."

Her mouth becomes a huge letter O.

I say, "Let's try this again. How do you feel?"

"Like screaming."

"Because of me?"

"Because of my cellulite."

I laugh. That's just like her, to jump to the trivial concerns stirring inside her head. "What cellulite?"

She groans. "Years of running and I still have big legs."

Her legs aren't big. And she hardly has enough ass to mention. There is no cellulite, not enough to worry about. She magnifies the flaws that Superman's telescopic vision can't see.

I remind her that she's the most beautiful woman in the world, that the anorexic airbrushed images on the covers of Cosmo and Body and Soul can't touch her.

She smiles. "Another reason I'm hooked on you."

"Cold?"

"Not really. Body temp way up."

"Let's go in before we get sick."

"Wait. Air feels good." She blows; her breath comes out like steam. She's hyped. "Miss being with you all the time. Move up here. It'll be so cool if you moved up here. So many things I want to do with you, sweetie. Wanna take you to this salsa club in Emeryville. On the Black Panther Legacy Tour."

"Slow your stroll." I spit; wipe my mouth too. "You're trying to wear me out."

"Wanna share my world with you," Nicole says as she scrubs her face with a corner of her sweatshirt. "Maybe I can kick in on the down payment if that'll help convince you."

"You're talking about a grip. Maybe thirty thousand."

"If all goes well, my sloptions are going to break through the roof in the next year or two."

Sloptions is San Francisco-Silicon Valley slang for stock options. Her soon-to-be large techno Internet company offered her a chance to leave her old life and her program management position at Boeing in Anaheim to come here and be a contract renewal specialist. She left the shaky aerospace business behind and moved on to better things in dot-comville.

I ask, "What you looking at, moneywise?"

"At least a million. I wanna be a baller like you."

"Nobody balling but you. Sounds like you got all the cheddar."

"With the cost of living and property, that's chump change up here. Hate thinking what the capital gains taxes are gonna be, but either way it'll be a nice piece of change."

"Need any help before then, let me know."

"I'm cool. Thanks for offering. That's sweet of you."

I'd give her my all, but she relies on me for nothing but love.

She doesn't have that Cinderella gene. Anything a man can do, she can do to the nth degree. She'll let the man be the head of the house, be it for his ego or the way she wants it to be, but she will not become dependent. That lets me know that the reason she's with me comes from the heart. She's better than Cinderella. She has beauty and skills. Outside of a dysfunctional family and a glass shoe, Cinderella had nothing but beauty and that fades with each tick-tock of the clock.

And at the same time, I want to be her prince. Want to ride up to her window on a black stallion, let her throw down a lock of her hair so I can climb up into her castle and snatch her ass down to my reality.

A beautiful sister walks by. Both of us stare at her, then at each other.

Nicole puts her arms around my shoulders, kisses the side of my face, tastes my drying sweat before she tongues me with a true passion, allows me to taste her salty emotions, each kiss asking me to accept her as she is, pimples on her butt, dry scalp, PMS, soft-legged lover and all.

She says, "Okay, now I'm getting cold."

As we stroll, she does a couple of gymnastic walkovers, first forward then backward, then laughs, puts her face to mine and sucks my lips again. Even her moist skin is as sweet as a mango. With people rushing by, heading into all the seaside specialty shops, we close our eyes and kiss. Her bracelets sing and jangle as she hugs me. I pretend we're still engaged and that sound is the sound of wedding bells.

 

"Lust and confusion collide in this supple novel about a woman who wants it all."- People

"Sensational; spicy; another winner from an author who only seems to be getting better." -Publisher's Weekly

"Provocative and complex." -Ebony


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