Dana left New York to escape a roller-coaster relationship. Vincent is living in Los Angeles, trying to forget his own shattered marriage. They want to plan a future togetherbut first they have to stop running from their pasts. Eric Jerome Dickey, a rising star on the bestseller lists, delivers a boldly honest novelabout love that starts with a lie.CHAPTER ONE
I was making love to En Vogue.
Not the group, but one majestic woman in a royal blue negligee. She had Cindy's intelligent smile, Maxine's sexy disposition, Terri's womanly grace. Her negligee slipped off her shoulders, slid down across her breasts. Inside her moan, she sang my name. Inched me toward her warm soul.
Dana hummed with the feeling. "You love me, Vince?"
Okay, I was about to tell you my name, but I guess Dana beat me to the punch. Vincent Calvary Browne Jr. And the woman I was holding, the one who had my face flushed, toes curling while I sang her name, the angel who was squirming ever so slowly in pleasure, that was my woman. The one I wanted to have forever. The last one I ever wanted to make love to.
I'm almost thirty and don't have a lot of family. Not now anyway. Not since my divorce. Not since Moms and Pops died. Moms had colon cancer and it spread up. That was when I was nineteen. Pops had it in his throat and it spread down. That was right after I made sixteen. Moms didn't have me until she was almost forty; Pops was in his fifties. So I guess I came from an old egg and some old sperm. That's why people always tell me I have an old soul. People have always said that I acted and sounded ten years older than I was. A baritone voice makes anybody sound older. But I've always felt ten years younger. Mistakes make a man feel like that. Hard living and bad loving ages a man.
Divorce ranks right up there with death, so I've lost more in a few years than most men lose in a lifetime. The biggest loss was when my ex-wife had an affair, divorced me, then vanished with my little girl.
I met Dana a few months back, up at the Townhouse. That's a soul food restaurant that doubles as party central up in Ladera, a black middle-class part of Los Angeles not too far from LAX. That night Jaguars, Rolls-Royces, and Benzes were corralled at the east end of the strip mall, dark-haired Mexicans doing the valet parking. The club had a live band up front, playing sassy, Marlena Shaw-style jazz. An unknown all-girl hip-hop group, Dangerous Lyrics, was supposed to hit the small stage in the back room a little later.
In the meantime, a D.J. was keeping the flow going in the rear. A few sisters were under thirty, maybe under twenty-five, most showing as much flesh as legal. And a few were the victims of gravity and time: old babes in young dresses. This was where the generation gap collided over jazz and drinks. A few brothers had some age on them too; older-than-dirt players who were strutting around, Poli-Grip on their breath, acting like they knew they were still the shit. If this was a meat market, some of this beef needed an expiration date.
It was easy to make eye contact with the lonely and brokenhearted. I know because I was one of them. Hell, I was both of them. Right before Dana drifted into the room, I was kinda leery about trying to start a conversation, because I'd just gotten a rejection slip from one sister.
Earlier that night I'd met this long-legged creature with stilettos and a slinky dress. She'd come to me while I lingered at the bar in the back room. Said she worked at UPS, been there ten years. Her Bugs Bunny overbite said that she hadn't taken advantage of her dental plan, but the more I drank, the less that was a problem for me. She was perky and had personality. Stood out from the women who were clinging to dirty old men twice their daddy's ages. She made at least twenty duckets an hour, bragged about her 500-series BMW, even showed me a Polaroid of her new ride, but was crying broke because of the twelve-dollar cover charge.
We danced on the itty-bitty wooden floor, grooved to Blackstreet and Mary J. Blige, then hung out close to the fireplace and had a damn good time for the left side of thirty minutes. Bought her two glasses of wine while we laughed about this and that. Her eyes were all over my dark suit and off-white linen shirt, flirting strong, and my mack was on target, more persuasive than Johnny Cochran's closing argument.
Then she asked me, "So, brotherman, are you married?"
I told her, "Divorced. You?"
"Single." All of her youthful features started to sag, like air being let out of a balloon.
"So, you have kids?"
I sipped my chardonnay. "A daughter. I have a daughter."
Midnight-colored clouds came from nowhere and darkened her brown eyes. Her shoulders slumped and she let out a sigh. Real quick, she gulped down the last of her wine, lost the pep in her voice, said, "Well, it was nice to meet you, Reggie."
I said, "Vince. My name is Vincent Browne."
"My head is hurting. I'm going home."
I asked, "Well, can I get your number?"
"Ahhhh . . . give me yours."
I did. My eyes were on the back of her head as she headed up the hallway, passed by the pictures of Billie Holiday and Malcolm X, kept moving by the exit sign, made a right, and vanished. Minutes later she was up front at the octagonal-shaped bar, on a new yellow brick road, jazzing it up, in another man's wallet, a brother older than Grady from Sanford and Son.
That wasn't the first time I'd gone through rejection. It wasn't always about the marriage thing; sometimes it was about income, even went on a date with a sister and she saw I wasn't rolling around in a new hoopty, the kind of ride she wanted to be seen cruising Pacific Coast Highway in. Nope, rejection ain't nothing new and doesn't discriminate geographically. It's happened at First Fridays. At the L.A. Social Club on First Saturdays. At the Los Angeles County Museum during a cultured happy hour. Happened at church on communion Sunday. On-line in AOL, sisters were either looking for an Adonis or a brother with a mega bankroll. Always looking for love in all the wrong faces.
So that's where my head was at: frustrated and pissed off.
I'd wasted an hour of my life, and because of the cover charge and the drinks my pockets were thirty dollars thinner. I was about to say three tears in a bucket and give it up; going to a club searching for a quality woman was like going to Target and hunting for Saks Fifth Avenue merchandise-ain't gonna happen.
Then I made eye contact with Dana. Rapturous midnight skin in a golden business suit. White pearls. Hair in thin, spaghetti-style braids, the kind that were loose on the ends and could be curled or put in pretty much any style. Classic, conservative, fashionable, and feminine. A womanly shape that should be engraved in stone from the heart of the motherland. A few brothers with their momma's breast milk still on their breath put down their cellular phones, craned their necks, and peeped. A number of the rusty players with Geritol dripping out of the corners of their mouths rubbed their receding hairlines and checked her out, head to toe.
She eased into the room, her tight eyes my way.
A smile is the shortest distance between two people. The musician Victor Borge said that. One-thousand-one, one-thousand-two-I counted how long she held my gaze. By one-thousand-five, Dana's superior gravitational pull had me bumping through the crowd, heading her way, adrenaline rushing.
By the time I made it to her zone, she stopped dancing in place. Her arms folded across her breasts. She shifted like she didn't want to be bothered. I would've let it go, but her eyes. Tight light brown eyes that hypnotized me. Her eyes, her build, the physical package was there. I couldn't walk away, not without a try.
I gave her another easygoing smile. Introduced myself. Dana Smith did the same. We shook hands. Her hands were soft, fingers thin, but she had a good grip. Very business, very questioning, that signal established a thick line. As far as I could tell, she'd come in alone.
Before I got cozy she said, "I'm meeting somebody up here."
East Coast. I recognized that metropolitan accent, flair, picked up on the bright lights, big city tone in her words. That with her straight back and straightforward posture, her urbane style, made her so different from the rest. Made her mysterious, exotic, and fascinating in my eyes.
She wasn't a born and raised L.A. woman. I didn't know if that was good or bad. Based on my track record with West Coast women, it had to be good.
I said, "Place is pretty crowded. You see 'im?"
"Not a he, a she. Geraldine"-she caught herself-"I mean Gerri Greene. We work in the same real estate office."
Nervousness ran through my blood, a fresh heat dried my throat. Her buddy's name sounded too damn familiar. I wondered if her friend knew my ex-wife, or me, for that matter.
I asked, "She married?"
"Divorced." Dana checked her watch. "She should've come by now. I should page her before she gets here and wastes twelve bucks."
"Uh-oh. What's wrong?"
Dana looked at the clientele, frowned. "No curb appeal."
"Don't look good from the outside. Real estate talk."
"Somebody call George Lucas, this looks like a Chewbacca convention."
She went on with her ranking: "And that sister over there needs to quit getting dressed in the dark. She has on more colors than a pack of Skittles. Quick, somebody give Grandma Cellulite a fun house mirror."
Comical. Intelligent, thick, bedroom voice that made a brother wonder what she sounded like when she whispered sweet things. Perfume dabbed behind her ears, in the crevice of her breasts. Long black braids pulled away from her face, clipped in place. Nails clear, not overdone with a million colors. One small diamond in each ear. Classic, classy, smooth.
And she had a job. She gets bonus points for being gainfully employed.
I wanted to know, "How did you end up in real estate?"
"I have an older cousin, Dawn, who was out here doing real estate. Did it for about ten years. Hubby dumped her for a singer. Dawn moved back to New York after she divorced, but always talked about how great the market was out here. Guess I wanted to pick up where she left off."
A waitress dressed in fake black leather, a purple wig, and a top that made her breasts look like pyramids stopped in our faces holding a tray of shots: "Would you like to try a Crown Royal tonight?"
I shook my head and asked Dana if she wanted a drink, my treat. She wanted a 7UP. I took out my wallet, invested four dollars in my future.
We moved over by the light blue rails and white walls, watched people who had denied their last ten birthdays struggle with a Lauryn Hill groove, and fell into the typical conversation people have when they're sizing each other up: the age, what do you do to make your ends meet, where you from thing. Told her I was twenty-eight, born July 17, in Pasadena. In between singing along, Dana said she was born at Mount Sinai, June 14, twenty-seven years ago, had packed up and come out here by herself.
I'm a moody Cancer and she's an unpredictable Gemini.
Fire and dynamite. A dangerous combination in any season.
Midsentence, she stopped and motioned. "There's Gerri."
Dana waved at an amazon of a woman who had on dark linen pants, white blouse. A small waist, everything the right size, in the right places. Cinnamon skin, round face, freckles, light brown hair in a bob. I saw all of that while Dana's buddy made her way through a crowd of ancient brothers who hovered over her like vultures on a prairie. Four men tried to stop her stroll; four men were ignored.
Dana and Gerri hugged, short and intense. I expected them to start talking in that silly, high tone that women use when they're trying to act like girls, but they didn't. Their voices stayed smooth, even. I stayed in the background, tapped my feet to the hip-hop, and played it cool.
Gerri frowned. "Dag. This place is usually popping."
Dana introduced us. Her buddy had a faint southern accent, added down-home sensuality to her strong presence. Gerri had a young face with a mature demeanor. That had to come from being a parent and raising kids. What stood out was the weariness underneath her eyes. To me it looked like she'd had a busy life. No dirt was underneath her fingernails, but hard workers recognize hard workers.
Dana asked, "What took so long? Had me waiting."
"Shit." Gerri took a deep breath. "Today has been hell on wheels. Had to drop my kids off at my ex-in-laws-that's where my ex is going to pick them up. His weekend with the crew, so I'm free from parental servitude for forty-eight hours. Anyway, my son didn't want to go. He met this girl."
"That's why I want him gone, gone, gone. I ain't trying to be nobody's grandmomma. Anyhow, to top that off, my daughter wasn't feeling good, so I had to stop and buy her some of that nighttime, sniffling, sneezing, coughing, aching, stuffy head, fever so I can rest medicine."
Dana laughed. "Could you just say NyQuil?"
"Then I ended up getting there the same time Melvin did, and we had a few financial things to talk about. We almost got into a shouting match, but you know I didn't want to show out in front of my kids."
"You tell him things have been a little rough?"
She nodded. "And I let him know that I'm tired of being patient and I'm talking to an attorney. A Jewish attorney at that. I don't want the white man all up in my biz, but like my momma used to say, when a nigga don't do right, call Mr. White."
"You're taking him back to court?"
"I don't want to. But a sister gotta do what a sister gotta do." Gerri tsked. "So, I'm going to have to keep working my other paper route twice a week. That extra cabbage is really making a difference."
Dana was single, no kids. Gerri was the one with two kids and an ex-husband, a profile that was damn close to mine. For a few seconds I wished that Gerri had sashayed in the room first. Empathy would live in her corner. Maybe. But then again, maybe her plate was already too full.
A tall brother peacocked his way across the room, tapped her on the shoulder, then leaned in and smiled like he was auditioning for a Colgate commercial.
He said, "Mind if I talk to you for a minute?"
"Do I know you?" was Gerri's stiff reply.
He had a reddish complexion, built like a solid oak tree, goatee trimmed, hair short and texturized to make it look curly, dressed head to toe in Tommy Hilfiger jeans, shoes, probably had on matching Hilfiger drawers. The walking billboard had jumped right into the flow of our verbal intercourse, burglarized his way into our conversation.
His name was Jefferson. He was the proud manager of the rap group Dangerous Lyrics, which was about to hit the stage in the back. He bragged, told Gerri how the group had just got back from Atlanta. They'd won a talent show for HOT 97, had a big after party at someplace called Plush.
Chris Tucker. Holyfield. Chilli. Miki Howard. In the middle of his flattery and nonstop macking he dropped a lot of names.
Gerri asked him, "Ain't you kinda young to be playing me so close?"
"I ain't young. I'm twenty-six."
"Well, this chunk of Little Rock is thirty-six."
"Damn, you don't look no more than twenty-one."
"Thanks, but look. Let's not waste time. I'm divorced with two kids. My daughter is in middle school. My son is sixteen, almost your age. What you wanna do, come over and play Nintendo with him while you baby-sit?"
"Hey, age ain't nothing but a number."
"In some states it's ten-to-twenty singing jailhouse rock."
"Five minutes, that's all I ask. Let me buy you a drink and we can talk, and in the end if you wanna step off, cool."
He didn't back away. Stood in front of her like he had been appointed the spring to her summer. Six foot five, thick, and when he strutted, most of the sisters looked like they were ready to start throwing him their panties and keys to hotel rooms and charge cards.
Jefferson took Gerri's hand, pulled her away from us, got her a glass of wine, hemmed up in a private spot, and got his mack on.
When they left Dana smiled, looked the young buck up and down, let her eyes dance to a rhythm of envy and delight, then made a sexy, humming sound.
I asked, "What was that all about?"
I mimicked her scandal-lust humming.
She laughed. "You weren't supposed to hear that."
While me and Dana tainted our souls with a strong and smooth French Connections, I played the role and hid from my memories, told Dana I was a black man working hard every day, as single as a dollar bill, no kids, no ex-wives, no problems. With every word I dug my hole deeper. Dana shifted closer, gave me serious eyes, said she had the same r?sum?.
Dangerous Lyrics took the stage. A group of five girls. Most of them barely looked legal. All dressed in tight-tight black pants made of that trendy, stretchy-tight material that let you know where a woman's panty lines are. Colorful halter tops-satin lying across their majestic breasts-made them look like rainbows above the waist. All of them with nicknames like Big Leggs, Goldie, Butter Pecan, Pooh Bear, Chocolate Starr.
Butter Pecan stepped up like she was the leader of the crew. From her looks, her nickname was based on her complexion. The D.J. kicked on a preprogrammed tape. People stepped back and the group found some space on the tiny wooden dance floor, danced with the same ferocious energy M.C. Hammer did when he had a job, sounded like TLC with a NWA edge and did an edgy song of possessiveness of a lover. They set the room on fire with a catchy melody that praised sex, retribution, violence, pretty much everything wrapped in one tune.
Gerri was on wearing out the carpet, hands up high, pumping it up and grooving. At thirty-six she danced better, had more choreography than most of the girls in the rap group.
Dana smiled, bebopped where she stood, shoulders bouncing to the beat.
I spoke up over the music, asked her, "Wanna dance?"
"About time. I was wondering when you were gonna ask me."
She took my hand, anxiously led me through the heat. We had to settle for the carpet; the floor was only big enough for about ten people. It was awkward because the carpet was worn, held stains that made the fabric sticky to my shoes.
That stylish native New Yorker had wicked rhythm. She adapted to the carpet, turned up the volume on her rhythm, moved so good that other men tried to sneak a peek and women tried to mock her style.
After Dangerous Lyrics finished two records, the room applauded loud enough for the girls to O.D. on their egos, then the group went to another room. Gerri and Jefferson were between the fireplace and the exit sign in the back, slow dancing, laughing, talking nonstop, her southern grin gazing up at that roan-colored statue with dreamy eyes. Dana turned down my offer to slow dance, didn't let me get that close. The music changed.
Then Gerri vanished with the spring to her summer.
Dana said, "Gotta go potty."
"I'll be right here."
I headed for the narrow hallway between the front of the club and the back, where the loud music from the front collided with the loud music in the back, canceling each other out. The girls from the group came out of the bathroom. Somebody sounded upset, like she was holding back tears with every pissed-off word: "I don't believe that fucker brought us down here, then was all over that old-ass bitch, dumped me like I ain't shit."
"Why you tripping, Butter? He ain't your man. He set your ass straight down in Atlanta. Stop playing up on him and quit tripping."
"I ain't trippin'. He the one trippin'."
"Well, you need to think about the group. Like he told you, this is business. That other stuff you running off at the mouth about ain't-"
They felt me listening. Ten eyes snapped my way at the same time. Butter stepped out, gave me a cold what-the-fuck-you-looking-at expression before she stormed away. Her girls followed their leader.
As soon as Dana came out of the bathroom, she said she was ready to raise up out of here, so I escorted her out to her car. We talked and headed beyond the Brenda's Talk of the Town and the Chinese dry cleaners, strolled down on the far side of Ralph's grocery store. Dana stopped in front of a dark-colored Infiniti Q45. Her ride was ten years old.
She looked disturbed. "Full moon."
"Full moons means romantic."
She shook her head, her mood changing, becoming dark and distant. "Drama. A full moon is a flashlight so everybody can see your drama."
I opened her door, peeped inside before I let her get in. No child seat, no sign of those cheap throwaway toys that come inside a Happy Meal. No man's belongings. No leftover cologne scent.
Dana kept the door between us, that subtle yet straightforward move a woman does when she's letting a man know that she ain't in it for the kissing. Her lips, full and dark with color. All evening, every time they opened and closed, my mouth watered. She tossed her purse over to the passenger seat; it turned over and some of the woman stuff she had inside spilled across the seat.
Makeup. Pager. Checkbook. A coal black stun gun.
That caught my eye.
She followed my eyes to the stun gun and said, "I was mugged on the subway."
"Got jacked for my little old purse. Damn near fell in front of a freakin' subway train and got run over." She cleared her throat like she was trying to cough the memory out of her system, then picked up her urban assault weapon, let it rest in her lap, in ready position. "I was almost run over by a train, but this guy caught me before I fell."
"Good thing he caught you."
Her tone turned flat. "Good thing, yeah. Bad thing too."
She fired up the engine; it purred like a newborn kitten.
She took my digits, gave me her red-white-blue business card. Her office was near the golf courses in white-bred Westchester. The card had her smiling face on the front, an office number, pager number, web site, e-mail address, but she didn't give up the home number. That made me question whether she really lived alone. Or was single. I've been on a few dates with sisters, and when we made it back to their crib, a boyfriend or a husband that they'd forgotten all about was waiting in the parking lot. Not a good way to end a night.
It's all part of that dating game. You lie about this, I lie about that, you don't tell me this, I don't tell you that, we date a while, have sex, some lies come out, we mention the unmentioned, we realize how incompatible we are after about six months of fun in the sun, then bygones.
I offered, "Wanna hit Roscoe's for some chicken, maybe coffee?"
"My girlfriend in New York said Roscoe's stole the idea from Well's Chicken and Waffles on Seventh Avenue in Harlem."
"Never heard that. Never heard of Well's, actually."
"Said Roscoe stole everything but the recipe."
"Is that fact or fiction?"
"Well, my fact is this: I support my people back in Harlem."
She gave me a firm good-bye handshake, then drove away.
Three tears in a bucket, motherfuck it.
I headed three parking spaces over to my old 300ZX. A ride that needed a set of new tires and new fuel injectors. With the layoffs, I'd been cutting corners. Aerospace had been as steady as a two-legged table during an earthquake.
When I came down a moment ago, I hadn't looked out across the lot, had been too focused on the woman from New York. Her friend, Gerri, was standing between an Eddie Bauer and a Range Rover, under the full moon, living in the broken shadows with Jefferson. His arms were wrapped around her like he was her protector. They were kissing and I heard their sound. Moans and groans that come from hardness and wetness. Her slim arms up around his shoulders, intense tongue dancing like high school kids.
I watched them until heat warmed my groin and envy burned in my lungs.
Yep, once again I'd wasted half the night and too much money on the wrong woman. I tossed Dana's ReMax business card facedown on the black pavement. I knew that I'll-call-ya routine.
During my three-mile drive, I passed by bus benches. Saw Gerri's photo plastered on a few. Felt relief. That was why her name and her face were familiar. It had nothing to do with my ex-wife, nothing to do with my past.
?Reprinted from the hardcover of Liar's Game by Eric Jerome Dickey by permission of Dutton, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright ? June 2000, Eric Jerome Dickey. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
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