Read an Excerpt
1 The Smiths, "Unlovable"
I don't believe in the devil anymore. But if I did, he would look a lot like Ari Malcolm Klein. My ex has eyes the same amber color as his skin, with flecks of red-gold in the iris, as if you could see the flames licking behind them.
Ari walked into our dressing room with just minutes to spare. This was our first gig in three years, for God's sake. Seventies punk rock, CBGB style, flowed into the dressing room from the club outside. He flicked on a red-fringed lamp and leaned against a battered gunmetal school desk serving as the makeup table. I'd been worried about him, but he looked fine...not just as in "Everything's fine," but "Damn, ain't he fine." Still had his near-feminine leonine grace, an economy of movement, and a way of looking you in the eyes until you dropped your gaze.
He did that to me right now, and when I lowered my eyes, I saw he was holding a small glassine Baggie casually between his index and middle fingers. He lifted it a bit, winked at me. "You want some?" he said. He was naked to the waist, a slight discoloration on his arm where a tattoo of my name had once been, with the suspenders of his pants hanging down his legs.
I felt like cussing him out. He couldn't be bothered to say hi or hello or we're gonna tear this muthafucka up. Just, You want some? I took a deep breath and played it icy. "No," I said, perching on the edge of a couch that looked like it had been slept on. "The only thing I'm on is Effexor." A little depressive's humor. "I don't get high anymore."
"Oh, you don't," he said, tapping a neat free-form line on the back of his hand. Then he heldone nostril and quickquick it was gone. "Well, it's here," he said, rubbing his sinuses. "If you want it."
"I don't," I said. For one, I didn't even know what it was, not that that used to stop me. But whatever Ari was taking was always trouble, for him and for me. And I didn't need trouble right now. All I needed was to get this shit right. Just have one killer show, help our friend out, and see what manifested from there.
The last time I was onstage was more than a year ago, just a threesong-solo set at a showcase in Crown Heights. Red, my best girl from college, had put me up to it. Tonight was different, though. Davide, who'd become our drummer after Red left the band, was riddled with cancer. And had no health insurance. And had a girlfriend and two kids. So a bunch of us banded together to get him a little money to pay his bills, and maybe even save a bit for his little girls, if we raised enough.
A month ago, I would have said that the chance of me and Ari playing together was about as remote as the pope announcing he'd gotten married. But Red, who was here now fussing with my wardrobe, guilted us until we agreed to join the three-band bill. Red and the other organizers had wangled a deal where they took both the door and the drink profits from the Orchid a very good deal.
The Orchid was where the music critics went when they wanted to see what was next. And after college, when I was doing real music criticism, not just being the face for some two-bit video show, this used to be my spot. I was one of the loud ones, you know, who would start talking shit about a weak band while they were still onstage, just to see if they could take the heat. Sometimes they crumbled, and sometimes it made them stronger. I felt like I had earned that power, the right to make or break a band before their album had even hit the streets.
Now, it was my turn to take the heat. And the decision to cross those few feet from the rows of couches and tables, from the safety of the darkness to the glare of the spotlight, seemed more foolish by the second.
We got the five-minute shout from the sound guy, a man with a long white ZZ Top beard. Ari bit his hangnails and I wanted to take his calloused fingertips into my mouth and smooth his eyebrows, just the way I used to.
Red had always been as petite as a pixie, with nappy apricot-colored hair and a delicate face. She tucked my hair into a chignon and asked me if my shirt was too tight. She'd made the shirt herself, in the back of the little boutique she owned on Nostrand Avenue. And somehow in the week between the fitting and the show I'd gained just enough weight to make it seem more like a corset than a blouse.
"Baby, I asked if the shirt was too tight."
"No, Red. It's great." I had to breathe shallowly to keep the seams from ripping, but man, did it look good on me, bloodred raw silk that hugged my rib cage and blossomed like an overripe rose around the cleavage.
Someone came behind me and kissed me on the cheek, his chest brushing my back. I turned around and tilted my head up so I could properly see his face. He had flawless rich brown skin and his eyes were tight, almond-shaped, like a Benin mask. He tipped his head to me and then bent to give Red a hug. "You remember Leo," she said.
Did I ever. After Red had introduced us at a record release party I had spent two days wrapped in schoolgirl fantasies: me in his arms, his arms around me, some heavy imaginary petting. No dream sex...yet.
We'd met for dinner once since then. Leo told me all about his management company, his hip-hop clients, how he was trying to bring some integrity back to the rap game. And he'd told me I should jump back in the flow, albeit as a solo act.
"You look good, baby," Leo said. He kissed me on both cheeks and turned toward Ari. I suspected the two of them were too similar under the skin to like each other. Leo was dark; Ari light. Leo had his hair in minitwists; Ari's was cropped. Leo was dressed in a crisp black suit. Ari, as usual, was punk-rocking it out. But underneath the skin, both Leo and Ari believed they were crusaders in a world of hypocrisy, and that no one could tell them how to live. That was what attracted me to each of them, and what made them insufferable solo and just plain dangerous together.
I tried some fast talking about the wardrobe to distract Leo, but he put his arm around me and turned his body and mine so we faced Ari as a unit.
"You might want to get dressed," Leo said softly.
"I'm dressed," Ari said.
"Like that?" Leo said.
"Like this." Ari sported shiny black shoes, tuxedo pants, suspenders, and, of course, the bare chest.
"This isn't some high school talent show." Then Leo focused his eyes on the Baggie, lying on the old desk. He picked it up, drew it close. I'd always had eagle eyes. Even from a couple feet away, I could see the powder's yellowish tinge and the fine grain.
"Do the world a favor," Leo said, tossing the bag back on a table. "Keep this shit out of my girl's life."
I'd been focused on avoiding a fight, but I got distracted by the words...my girl. I liked his possessiveness, presumptuous though it was. I liked the fact that we hadn't even gone on a date and he was claiming me. No one had in a very long time.
"It's okay," I said to Leo. "Ari's just...Ari."
"And you are a queen," he said.
The sound guy shouted, "Get the fuck onstage." He was never one for niceties.
Ari picked up his guitar. Slowly.
I turned to Leo. "It really means a lot to me that you came out. And, as far as Ari's...stuff...is concerned, I'm not tempted."
"You shouldn't be worried about being tempted," Leo said. "You should get serious about making music your career again. That's the reason I'm here, baby, to see what you got. And you," Leo said, turning to Ari, "should really get the fuck dressed."
"Last time I checked, I wasn't your punk-ass bitch," Ari said. His words slurred slightly, so slightly that no one besides me would probably notice. Ari was looking me in the eyes as he said it. And then he turned, parted the velvet curtains, and walked out on the stage.
"Thank fucking God," the sound guy said. "About...fucking...time."
Red fiddled with my shirt again. "Honey, if it's too tight, you can't breathe. You can't breathe, you can't sing. Quick, let's get you out of this."
"Just let it go. I've gotta go," I said, pushing her hands away.
"That's right," Leo said. "She better get onstage."
"Leo, I know you mean well, but you better get out of my kitchen,"
Red said. And he did, if reluctantly. That was Red, a no-shit-taking Creole girl who could make men twice her size hop to.
"I'm not trying to stress you out, baby girl," Red said. "But we should probably get you out of this. I've got a couple more things in my bag that will make you look out of sight."
"It's all good," I told Red. It wasn't, actually. I was short of breath, and my palms were sweating. Part wardrobe malfunction, part panic attack. Damn. If I could have given this all up, I would have, a long time ago. But music was my heartbeat, my oxygen, my bridge to the world. My demon, too. Oh, Jesus. Showtime.
Copyright © 2009 Farai Chideya