A chill ran up my spine. The hairs on the back of my neck stood and, for the life of me, I couldn’t tell whether it was because of the supermarket’s near freezing temperature, or if it were because my mind’s eye had turned to him. I knew I’d be seeing him. As I made my way through the chilly produce section I wondered what cute, funny bits of slyness he’d whisper for my ears only as he handed me my pound and a half of spiced ham. He knew he was getting to me, slowly breaking down my defenses and scaling the walls I’d built these last few years, but I didn’t mind. At that point in my life, 3 years removed from the sergeant, more than a year since Lance’s proposition, 10 months since Steve and I last saw each other, 6 months since I’d last had sex and 5 weeks into my new job-I was clear on exactly what I wanted and more importantly, what I didn’t want.
“So when you gonna stop playing and give me your number?” he said smiling.
I’d been enjoying that smile for a while. It was a surprising and wonderful contrast to the natural sternness of his face. When his sharp, high cheekbones, skeletal jaw line and thin eyebrows opened up into a smile, his brown skin took on a joy-filled glow rarely seen in the modern day black man.
“Why should I give you my phone number?” I responded, coyly.
“Why shouldn’t you?” he said quickly, as if he already knew my response and planned his ahead of time.
It was that sort of attention to detail and subtle knowledge of the way these games go that made him both attractive and intimidating. It was clear that I knew he’d known his share of women, clear to me, and clear to him. He wore that knowledge with neither pride nor humility, but with a comfort and grace that spoke to a natural elegance that is only acquired by a few at birth.
“You know what, I actually don’t have an answer to that,” I said, finally relenting. “917 -xxx-xxxx,” I said.
“You’re not going to write it down or put it in your phone?” I asked.
“Nah, hands are dirty from all this meat, I’m just going to remember it.”
“Derrick are you sure?”
“Nah, I’m positive. I been trying to get your number for months, no way I’m going to forget it. I get off at four, I’ll call you then.”
“If you say so.”
Our first time hanging out outside of the supermarket was a lazy stroll through Fulton Park a week or so after we exchanged numbers. It was unseasonably warm for April so we celebrated the awesome weather with ice cream cones from Mr. Softee–mine vanilla with rainbow sprinkles and his, chocolate with chocolate sprinkles. We’d been walking for more than a half hour when I realized I’d been talking about myself the entire time.
“But enough about me … how bout you? How’d you become a butcher?”
“Ahhh… that’s a long story. You want the long version or the short version?” He asked.
“Whichever you feel like sharing,” I responded.
“Well, the short of it is, did two semesters at NYU, hated it, dropped out, ran around for a while, did a little bit of this and that, then about three years ago, I just got tired of being a child so I went and got a job.”
“At the supermarket?” I asked, not intending my question to sound as judgmental as it did.
“Yeah …” he said laughing at my judgment, “… At the supermarket. At the time, it didn’t really matter to me what I did, I just wanted a real job.”
“What were you doing prior to that? I asked.
“I mean, a little bit of this and a little bit of that. I’d string together jobs here and there–a sneaker store for a little while, a bank for a little while. I could never settle on any one thing, and all throughout I’d have these little hustles I picked up from the guys I came up with.”
“Like what?” I asked, intrigued.
“I mean like, when I was at the sneaker store, I became cool with the store’s manager–even after I left. So like, when new Jordan’s would come out, he’d hold like 6 pairs for me, I’d buy them, and then sell them on e-bay after all the stores ran out.”
“That’s interesting,” I said.
“Yeah man, easy money. I always had hustle to me, ever since I was a little kid.”
He went on to tell me about his childhood. He’d grown up in the neighborhood and was a problem child of sorts. The youngest of his still-married parents’ three boys; he was the kind of kid who teachers always said was “really smart but never works to his potential.” His middle brother was athletic and stern and grew up to be a cop, and his oldest brother, a genius academically, but an idiot as far as common sense was concerned, was a doctor. He told me how he’d always had success with everything he’d ever put his mind to, but that he never found anything worth sticking with. Normally when men talked like that it was a major red flag. I’d learned that commitment issues in one area of life typically meant commitment issues in all areas of life, however, there was something special about the way he carried it all. When he talked about acing his SATs and getting into NYU he wasn’t bragging; he wasn’t proud of it. No, for him, intelligence was a burden. “It’s easy to pick a career when you’re only good at one thing. How can you dedicate yourself to anything when everything comes easy?” he asked at one point.
And that’s how we were for a long time. I’d meet him after his shift ended on Saturday afternoons and we’d take these long walks. I’d talk his ear off about the everyday minutia of my life from the light ups and downs of my new job and the mini-crush I was developing on my boss, to the heavier stuff like my dad’s addiction issues and the difficulties of my prior relationships. He’d just listen, and listen, and then listen some more. It felt good to be heard. So often, in so many of the relationships prior to him, who I was seemed strangely irrelevant. The sergeant wanted a chick on the side, Lance wanted a concubine and Steve wanted a Stepford wife. But with Derrick, he seemed to just want to listen to me talk. We didn’t need to sit down at a fancy restaurant, or in his apartment–he just wanted to walk and talk. Every so often, in between my expansive rants, he’d open up about himself and peel back a new layer of his life piquing my curiosity and intrigue only to pull away leaving me yearning to know more. It was slow, deliberately slow, on both of our sides. And I didn’t mind.
Eventually we moved on to more formal dates, dinners some nights, drinks others, but our Saturday afternoon strolls never stopped. The first time I ever went to his house was after one of those strolls.
“Wait, this is where you live?” I asked.
“Yup!” He said with a smile.
“We’ve been walking by it all this time and you never mentioned it?”
“Yeah, I mean, there was no need right?”
“I guess,” I said walking into the building.
The first thing I noticed walking into his apartment was the smell. His apartment smelled like what I imagined the apartment of the guy who sells incense and African oils on the train to smell like. The second thing I noticed was a wall full of pictures, right by the door. In the center of the pictures was the picture of a black man. Beneath the portrait was the man’s name, and beneath that, the dates of his life 1977-2007.
“Derrick, who is this?” Sitting on the couch, he didn’t even look up when he started speaking.
“That’s my oldest brother.”
“I thought you said he was a doctor.”
“He’s dead?” I asked, realizing the obviousness of the question.
“I mean, how come you didn’t tell me?”
“I don’t know, just didn’t feel like talking about it at the time.” He said, motioning me over to the couch where he was sitting.
“His death was, complicated and I really don’t like to talk about it,” he continued.
“He was murdered. Over a girl. She was cheating on him with a real street dude, and like an idiot, he confronted him, they got into a fight, and my brother got stabbed.” The words lingered in the air as he stared out into the nothingness before him, clearly picturing the woman who had caused his brother’s death, and the man who had taken his life.
“Nigga never had no common sense when it came to that bitch.” His tone had shifted, there was no smile, no joy on his face, just disgust.
Before I could muster up any sort of encouragement, he leaned over and kissed me. I was caught completely off guard but it was beautiful. Never before had I been kissed so deeply and passionately. He stood, reached out his hand and lead me to his bedroom, closing the door behind him. What followed was what I can only describe as the best sex I’ve ever had. We did it all night long. We’d have sex, fall asleep, wake up and do it again. It was at times slow and intense and at other times fast and intense. I found myself simultaneously satisfied and insatiable; I couldn’t take anymore but couldn’t get enough. That night he guided me, happily, across boundaries I never thought I’d even approach and by the time I went to sleep for good, I found myself floating on the soberest high I’d ever experienced.
The staggered brightness peeking through the shades on his bedroom widows woke me the next morning. I was still high. I reached over, pulling open what I thought was the drawer I’d seen him go into last night each time we were ready to reacquaint ourselves; but condoms I did not find. As quickly as I’d accidentally opened the larger bottom drawer, I shut it. Pretending not to have seen what I knew I saw, I opened the smaller top drawer, which happened to be filled with protection; but I couldn’t proceed. My curiosity got the best of me. I looked back at Derrick, still fast asleep and slowly pulled open the bottom drawer. It was filled, nearly to the top, with thick rubber-banded knots of money. My heart sank. He had to be a drug dealer I thought. I slithered out of the bed grabbing my things as quietly as I could. Derrick stirred. My clothes in hand, I crept my naked self through the door and got dressed in the living room shaking my head the whole while.
Later that day, he called but I didn’t answer. Later still, he sent at text to which I did not respond. That evening, he left me a voice-mail.
“Sam, what up. You slid off smooth this morning and I haven’t been able to reach you. Just making sure you’re safe and hoping you’re alright with everything that happened last night. I’m just kinda hoping you don’t feel like we went too fast – I had a wonderful time and hope you did to.”
I didn’t return the call. I hated drug dealers. I thought the whole game was filthy–resentment built after seeing what it had done to my family. As far as I was concerned I was fine with leaving the night Derrick and I had shared exactly where it was – in my past.
The next day, Monday, my work phone rang and I picked up instinctively.
“Derrick?” I said surprised, remembering I’d given him that number.
“Yo, what happened? You got me feeling super lame over here.”
The fact that I was at work, and but a few feet and paper thin cubicle away from my boss, forced a calmness in tone I would not have been able to otherwise muster.
“Derrick, I can’t talk right now. Actually, we can’t ever talk o.k.? I’m gonna hang up now.”
“Wait … the fuck is wrong with you? How the fuck you turn into super-bitch over night?”
I hung up the phone. It immediately rang. I let it ring out. It rang again. I let it ring out. It rang again. My boss stood up, looking over the cubicle wall.
“Everything alright over there?” he asked smiling.
“Yeah Dave, I’m alright.”
“Tell them dudes stop stalking you!” he said joking, as he often did.
The phone rang again and I picked.
“Derrick, you need to stop calling here, this is my job.”
“I’m sorry baby. And I’m sorry for cursing at you. Just tell me what happened and I’ll stop.”
“I saw the money Derrick – all that money. You know how I feel about dealers …” I started.
“What the fuck were you…” he started and stopped, catching himself. “ I’m sorry. I’m cursing again. I just don’t know why you would go through my stuff. But that doesn’t matter. What matters is: I don’t sell drugs, Sam. I know how you feel about that and I give you my word, I’m not a drug dealer.”
“So where the hell did all that money come from? I’m not stupid. That’s not normal. Not at all.” I said louder than I wanted to.
“Look, let’s just take a walk when you get off work today. I promise you I’ll explain everything … just meet me in the Park … 6:30” he said convincingly sincere.
“6:30 I responded.”
I hung up the phone and my boss stood up again.
“Are you sure you’re alright?”
“Yeah, just girl troubles. I’m sorry I was loud.”
“It happens, if you ever wanna grab coffee and talk about it let me know.” He said.
I walked up the stairs, from the subway, into Fulton Park. Looking at my watch, I realized I was 45 minutes late. Still, at the top of the stairs, there stood Derrick, waiting. And as we had so many times before, we began walking.
“Look Derrick, I been thinking about it all day, you don’t have to lie to me. That’s more upsetting than anything. You’re a really nice guy. I really enjoy spending time with you and maybe we can even still be friends eventually, but I just can’t be with a drug dealer. I’ve just seen too much of that growing up and I know how that ends.” I’d been practicing all day, and most of what I said was true. I wasn’t angry at him for what he did, just disappointed.
“Sam, stop saying that. I’m not a fucking drug dealer. I don’t sell drugs. I sell sex.”
I stopped so suddenly that he took two full steps before he realized I was no longer next to him.
“What? What does that even mean?” I asked. He turned around and walked toward me.
“I … I work with girls. I help them. I help them use what they have.”
“This isn’t happening. You’re telling me what I think you’re telling me.” I said. “You’re a fucking pimp?” I asked.
“Nah … Come on baby, it ain’t like that. I help women who don’t have any other options …”
He talked for ten minutes straight. Told me how he gives women the opportunity to make money, save money. Told me that he’d “rescued” girls from group homes and shelters and taught them how to use “the best asset they had” to change their station in life. He told me how lost they were before they met him. He said it wasn’t like what I’d probably seen on TV. That they weren’t out on corners running from police and blowing guys in back alleys and the backseats of cars. Instead, they placed ads on sites like craigslist and backpage, and that he’d drive them to their “appointments” and wait outside and pick them up to make sure they were safe. It was a business he said. And the money they made he held onto for them. That’s the money I’d seen. It was theirs.
I felt disgusting. He had stopped talking, but I was so frozen in shock that I didn’t even notice. When it finally occurred to me that it was my turn to speak, I didn’t have much to say.
“Do me a favor …”
“Lose my number and please just pretend we never met.”
When I got home, without even thinking, I sat on the couch and flipped open my laptop. I made my way to one of the sites he’d mentioned. It was divided by state. I clicked on New York. Once I clicked on New York, it was then segmented by borough. I clicked on Brooklyn. And that brought me to the ads. Page after page after page of ads. All women, all in Brooklyn, all offering their sexual services. Some looked old, some looked young, some looked really young. And with each ad I clicked through, with each set of eyes I stared back into, pieces of my heart began to erode, slowly disintegrating inside of me.
“Caramel Delish – STD Free – 420 Friendly – 60 hearts for top, 120 for Fetish – All Access Available – 718-xxx-xxxx”
The picture attached to the ad was of a young girl who could just as easily have been 16 or 26. I looked into her eyes as she looked into the mirror, camera phone in hand, snapping a picture of her own half naked body. I shut my laptop abruptly and tried to forget about everything I’d seen. But I couldn’t get away from her eyes staring at me. I imagined her mother, staring at those same eyes when she was child. I imagined all the hope she might have had for her life. I imagined the hardships she might have endured as she grew up. The tough hand of cards this world may have dealt her; cards that might have led her to a women’s shelter or a group home. I pictured her at her lowest, looking for some ray of light, maybe a hand to help her out of the dark place she’d fallen into. But instead of a savior’s hand, it was someone like Derrick who found her.
A chill ran up my spine. The hairs on the back of my neck stood and this time I knew with absolute certainty that it had nothing to do with the temperature of the room and everything to do with the fact that my mind’s eye had turned to him, the butcher.