Hilton looked at his watch and winced. Four o'clock. His wife's reception had started at three, and although the lodge was only a ten-minute drive from here, he was late even by Colored People Time standards.
"You got to go, right?" Danitra asked, her arms folded across her chest, not hiding the disappointment on her painted lips. Hilton was intrigued by lipstick, especially this shade as bright as blood, because Dede never wore it.
But then, Dede didn't have to.
"I'll be in trouble if I don't," Hilton said, glancing at the boxes stacked in the empty apartment. Anything to keep his eyes off of her black tank top, which she wore with a brazenness only a woman in her early twenties could. "You're all set here, Miss Thang. I know the elevator's broken, and it's not Buckingham Palace, but"
"Oh, please," Danitra laughed. "Close enough. This is better than I thought it could get for me, Mr. James. And I won't mess it up this time over shooting up or a man or nothing else."
Metro-Dade police had referred Danitra to Hilton's drug-rehab center six months ago, when the remnants of her stitched-on, store-bought braids hung sloppily from her scalp, her lips were never quite closed and never quite dry, and her arms were swollen from needle tracks. Now her arms had dark bruises from the habit she would fight off all her remaining years, but they were also sculpted with muscles. Her faded jeans at last had a form to cling to, and cling they did.
This was a dangerous place for a married man to be today, Hilton thought. Higher intentions were one thing, but it was a plain fact the woman was looking good, and the two of them had spentthe past hour working up a healthy sweat carrying boxes and donated furniture up two flights of stairs to move her and her baby into a place they hadn't known for the infant's entire eighteen-month life: a home.
And Danitra had brains going for her. Even when she used to get high, she never shared needles, which kept her and her baby free of the disease that had decimated his clients who shot up. She had a strength that reminded him of his wife, with a will to match.
All of these qualities added, in his mind, to her general fineness. He couldn't help thinking about what might have happened between them if he were single, which he hadn't been in fifteen years. The bare, airy room felt too small for them both.
She read his mind. "You know, there was a time a man like you would have asked for my phone number. Back before I tore myself up like I did."
"A man like me would ask for your phone number now," Hilton said carefully, to reassure her that she should not be ashamed, "if a man like me weren't married."
"I guess you already got my number, don't you?" She took his hand and pressed it to her chest near her collarbone, where beneath a thin film of perspiration her skin felt touched with fever.
another time, a different doorway
His lips parting slightly, Hilton gently pulled his hand away and patted her firmly on the shoulder. Danitra laughed at the brotherly gesture.
"Don't be looking at me like that, girl. I don't know what you want with an old man anyway."
"Not that old. I don't see no gray in that beard yet."
"You aren't looking closely enough."
"Well, I don't think I'd better look no closer, seeing as you have that ring on your finger and you won't take it off."
Still smiling, Hilton shook his head. Her attraction was flattering. "Damn. You don't give up, do you?" he asked.
"No, sir. That's why I'm standing where I am right now."
He saw a fleeting image of the two of them nude, entwined behind boxes on the carpeting, christening her new home, but he forced the thought away because he felt the heavy warmth of arousal growing beneath his stomach. He took a deep breath and pinched her cheek. "Good luck, sweetheart. I'm late. I'd better leave."
"Yeah," Danitra said, grinning knowingly, "you'd better."
As Hilton climbed into the dented Corolla he'd driven since grad school in the late 1970s, the thrill of temptation buzzed in his mind. Instead of regret, he felt a sense of power over it, knowing he had chosen not to act. He had Dede, who even now was being lauded as a newly elected circuit-court judge, the only black woman in Dade with that title; and together they had Kaya and Jamil, whom only a certified fool would risk willingly. Cute wasn't worth it. Ten times cute wasn't worth it.
He knew and respected men who didn't feel the same carnal allegiancesand he'd heard straight-faced arguments from black friends on how insulting it was to try to force fidelity, a European notion, on the descendants of African princesbut Hilton had already come too close to losing his own tribe from selfishness. Fucking around, as far as he was concerned, was just another form of selfishness. One he didn't dare explore.
The Elks lodge on Northwest Seventh Avenue was flanked by rented limousines with tinted windows and three Miami police cars, sirens flashing, just in case any restless have-nots nearby got ideas about crashing the bourgeois party. Seventh Avenue was otherwise occupied by storefronts badly in need of paint and customers; the Burger King across the street was bustling, but the African-fashions store next to the lodge was nearly empty. Hilton adjusted the kente-cloth necktie Dede bought him from the little shop as he excused himself past the huddles at the lodge door. Inside, he scanned the balloon-filled hall for his family.