Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsFall 2022  Vol. 21  No. 2
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To Have, To Hold

Judging by the way victory drained from Malachai’s eyes, he never expected another key. I guess that all-important, all-French phone call wasn’t so urgent after all. Without the espresso to his lips, I had a full view of his shocked face from across the apartment just before the door slammed behind me, and now, his pleas for me to calm down and be reasonable make it to my ears only after I’ve sprinted most of this distance to the elevator. But no apology crosses his lips, no admission or explanation as his voice gains on me about why there was a gap-toothed smile on the wall. It’s no matter, though; nothing he says now will rid my gut of the fear and rage fueling this race from the apartment to the garage. Not until I see for myself just how far he dared to go.

The elevator dings politely and the doors slide open in their sleepy way, oblivious to this chaos unfolding. And they close in their own sweet time, too, refusing to hurry just because my finger is stabbing at this button. There’s a flash of his beautiful face just before the doors seal—the race and the panic on his face causing my heart to drum during this entire ride down, down. Sixty-six, sixty-five, forty-one, thirty-seven, fifteen, seven, parking level one. Please God, let his elevator stop at all sixty-seven floors. Damn, the camera just caught my prayer.

Finally, the doors yawn open. With boots heavy and crossbody slapping my hip, this dash from the elevator feels more trot than gallop when I need to be on my horse. But she’s right where she belongs, though somehow, even now, that’s not enough. What am I doing? I need to think! I’ll need to . . . take a ride to clear my head. Thank God this spare turns the ignition. Prime the line, kick the lever, feather the throttle. For my effort, the bike soothes me with her metallic growl. Now, a little gas, kiss feet onto the footrests, and fully extend my middle finger to Malachai as I blast past him out of the garage.

White hash marks meld together as I speed north on Lake Shore Drive atop this steel and chrome purring between my legs. And did I ever need this rush of air, perfumed by the lake and gasoline vapors from the bike, even if these loose tendrils falling from my helmet keep tapping against my shoulders as if asking, “Alright sis, so . . . now what?” But right now, there is no answer—no where or why. Now, there is only the pavement and the white hash marks leading toward that razor’s edge between land and sky at the horizon. Lake Shore is smooth, and there are so few cars this early on Saturday that near solitude is my only companion. And this kind of peace can ride with me anytime.

But with this little English at the road’s bend, there are the gleaming, onyx curves of my life tilting back into my rearview—the building where Malachai and I share a third of the sixty-eighth floor. The air so rare between us, we moved in together less than a month after our first hello. I need to calm down, but with every breath, this wind rushes over my lips, into my mouth, flooding my chest too full of air and fueling the coals of my anger, tempting them to erupt in flames again over my key. My key. My key! Maybe more speed will be enough to smother this fire inside. Hunch closer to the handlebars. Tighten thighs around the tank. Third to fourth gear. Shoot across the bridge.

There’s Lake Michigan and its lazy whitecaps spreading across my view. Although the surface glitters in the sun, that undertow lurks, waiting to drag swimmers away from the shore without a hope of being found until—if—the water wants them found. But in a few hours, those deceitfully sparkling waves will invite folks for a dip wearing little more than fig leaves and string. The sun and wind would feel so good on my skin, and maybe cleanse some of the frustration fueling me as I ride in this head-to-toe black leather and Teflon. But knowing the surprising pull of perfection, I have better sense than to shed this gear.

Now, there he goes—that man in the Benz next to me with his predictable double take. More of my hair must have trickled down my back because he has that little smile of a brotha realizing there’s a sista handling this bike. I always feel the look before I see it; know the unoriginal thought forming in his head—that the right man would make me forget about my motorcycle. And he’s smiling to himself, confident that he is that right man; satisfied that he can provide every thrill, every freedom, everything I need. But none of his excited imaginings have anything to do with me—he can hardly see my face underneath this lid, let alone know what makes me smile. No—he’s squirming over a friendly competition with his own ego. So later for that guy, his Benz, and his imagination. A little throttle and he’s already in my rearview. But damn—here comes Malachai to my mind again.

Because for everything happening between us this morning, he was never that guy. The first night we met, by the time he saw my bike, the fates were already decided. Even now, I can still smell that scotch on him. The best scotch that strip club had to offer, I imagine. Me and Angela had no business over there, but two, three sleeps before she was to marry Duke, sometime between midnight and twilight, she called crying about his broken promise to keep his bachelor party out of the strip club and begging me to scoop her on my bike so she could summon her “bad bitch” on the ride over. That hype music she was blasting in the background, and her little buzz hardly calmed her, so none of my best half-conscious alternatives managed to persuade.

“Why don’t you . . . wait in his apartment for him to crawl home?”

“No, Lena. Crawl home? After he’s . . . finished . . . at the strip club?”

“OK, OK. Well, you could . . . call him up, pretend to be watching him from somewhere in the club.” That hopeless sigh, and the heavy, breathy way she said, “Leeenaaaaa, noooooooooo,” is what did it. I knew better than to get involved in their never-ending mess; nevermind that the last bits of snow clinging to the roadside promised a bitter cold ride. But Angela is my cousin, and my heart outside my body. Her brokenhearted, exhausted pleas roused me from my bed.

On the condition that we did things my way. After all, it wasn’t the dancers’ fault that Angela’s fiancé was trifling, so no need to mess with their money. We were to ease up to the table, sit down, and have one drink with Duke and his boys. Get comfortable. Play it cool. No scene and no disruption. She promised. The first indifferent-looking man took our money, but as the next guy took his time wanding me with the metal detector, she spied Duke’s bachelor party at a table next to the stage and bolted. Before I reached them, she had flung that drink at him. He ducked just in time for half the splash to douse a friend of his who I had never met.

As was fair, security ordered us out. Promptly. I hooked Angela’s elbow, and Mr. Friend-I-Never-Met escorted Duke out to the sidewalk where the betrothed attracted every eye, shouting curses at each other peppered with “trust” and “love.” Mr. Friend-I-Never-Met and I were absorbed into the spectacle as the only two on the sidewalk pretending not to pay attention, so it was a mercy when they headed toward the opposite end of the block for some privacy.

“Messy business,” he said before even introducing himself to me. As we watched the lovebirds take their confusion up the street, he pulled a handkerchief from his pocket to wipe the scotch from his chin like people still carry handkerchiefs.

“You aren’t kidding.”

He lowered the cloth and raised an eyebrow down at me with that half-charming smile. That smile. Have mercy. The scent wafting from his soft huff, and from the stain on his blazer, suggested that they were enjoying some good scotch when we showed up.

“Then why’d you bring her up here?” he asked, barely pretending to be annoyed.

“He promised he wouldn’t. He did. And here we are.”

He smiled wider—seeming to reconsider his one-sided indictment—and started dabbing at his shoulder. Oh, I’ll never forget that scotch. Because as he brushed the commotion away, while we continued our light panting after wrangling the lovebirds from the club, the scent on his exhale, and from his jacket, warmed past my lips, swirled around in my mouth, and eased its way down my throat to settle, heavy, inside my chest. His air continued to warm me as we turned to each other, and our breath mingled during the inevitable small talk of waiting:

“Malachai Freeman.”

“Lena Bell.”

Angela was my cousin, Duke was his boy; she and I came up in the west suburbs, them on the west side; he had recently moved downtown after some years in London, I was living in Hyde Park. But before we got any further, both of our phones chimed with text messages announcing that the happy-again couple was getting a Lyft back to Duke’s place. They waved from afar and dipped into a car before we knew it.

“Looks like that’s your cue to go back inside,” I said. “And mine to head home. Enjoy the rest of your evening.” But he walked with me, our words carefully, flirtatiously wending and curling around each other in the smoldering, addictive way of cigarette smoke. Around the corner and up the block, our walk ended too soon. My lungs tightened, holding fast to the last of the air ending between us. At six foot three, with that lean, athletic frame, and hanging a custom-made suit over some glowing, mahogany skin? He just knew he was handsome. And he was right. But I had known a thousand Malachais in my life—men for whom captain of the universe would be a demotion. Robber barons who always took, yet none of them had ever filled me with air like that.

“Hold up, hold up, hold up . . . This is you?” he said when we reached the bike. His surprise washed over all that cool, bringing something very honest to his eyes. Malachai has ego for days—that’ll never change. But unlike that guy in the Benz, his intrigued eyes read not that he knew what I needed, but that he aimed to find out what I wanted.

“Looks like it, no?”

“How does a sista from the wild west suburbs end up riding a motorcycle?” he teased like he wanted to continue conversation, maybe even ask for my number, so I gave him an opening.

“The sun’ll be up sooner rather than later. That’s a long story for another time.”

He didn’t bite. Instead, ego veiled his eyes again, and he said, “I’ll look forward to another time, then,” before kicking up his smile with the finality of goodnight. So, I pulled my lid over my head, turned the key, and pulled off.


The air is rushing over my lips, into my nose, making me dizzy as I ride away from Malachai now. This gear makes it hard to open up my chest and take in the full breeze. I wish I could shed it all, but I know better—not after we almost lost Daddy over two birthday candles. I was fifteen, not thirteen, so he raced from the house on barely rain-slicked pavement to buy two stupid candles for my cake.

But it took nearly a year of surgeries and rehab before he returned from that quick ride to the store. Then another year before he worked up the nerve to uncover the bike’s remains in the garage; that same year spent stubbornly insisting that Mother and my brothers stop trying to sell the scraps. Not that I was surprised; Malcolm and Quincy had never shown interest in Daddy’s bike, or any of the ones he had offered to buy for them. For them. Not me. Never me. No sons of mine, Mother always said, with the certainty that she needed not even speak of her daughter.

For two years, this bike lay under that blue tarp in the corner of the garage. Only pieces of herself—broken and bruised just like Daddy—until that day I found him standing over it, frozen and wide-eyed, with that quarter inch socket wrench in his hand. I couldn’t believe he let me take that wrench, undo one bolt, then two, then so many that a sunrise eased back into his eyes. For a year, we unbolted, unfolded, unscraped; traded favors, replaced parts until she was whole, if still scarred. He blinked only twice while watching her idle before he gave me permission to ride.

“Five minutes,” he said. “Be careful, and just go around the block. Then, we’ll put an ad in the paper.” Only, “five minutes” turned from midday into the streetlights coming on; “five minutes” that opened something wide and free and endless inside of me. It’s been sixteen years since I dismounted and he nodded without a word and the bike was mine; sixteen years since he started telling Mother, “The ad is coming, Marjorie. I’m just letting her have a little fun”; sixteen years since I earned the keys to this bike. I know everything there is to know about her: every belt and bolt, every scratch and dent, every purr and roar.


Malachai was smooth about “another time,” which happened just a few hours after our twilight meeting. I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me because that midnight ride had me nodding off over a manuscript in that book café. But late afternoon, during some thought I hardly remember, Malachai sailed by the plate glass with a sure, clear purpose. He continued up the sidewalk and was out of sight long enough for me to wonder whether my exhaustion was producing apparitions. It had been dark the night before, and I had no snapshot of his face—only my heart’s memory of the way his air felt in my chest. But he appeared in the doorway moments later, head telescoping around the book shop, standing out among the sweatered, sweatshirted, and legginged among us in a cashmere camel coat over a tailored navy suit. I forgave Angela’s overnight antics privately. Instantly.

“It’s another time,” he reminded me when he sauntered over.

So, we spent the rest of the day as strangers with a lifetime of catching up to do. We sat at the book café as the warm, powder-blue sky turned evening gray before heading to that Turkish place up the street. By then, the stars were trying their best to outshine us; to prove their eternity came before, and would outlast, me and Malachai Freeman. But overstuffed dates and lamb, after a bottle of wine became two, even the stars had to admit that there was nothing older than he and I. We lingered long after the restaurant closed; which became me and him lingering in the doorway when he dropped me at my apartment; which became me and him, lingering over my bike after Angela and Duke’s wedding rehearsal; which became me and him, lingering on the dance floor after the happy couple jumped the broom; which became me and him.

“I travel a lot for work,” he called from his kitchen, where he was pouring wine after we had snuck away from the reception. “It’s been a problem in the past.” But neither the relationships in his rearview, nor the travel promising plenty of alone time, nor even what it meant to have his own seat on the Merc, interested me nearly as much as the view of the night sky from his apartment. After consolidating all the units in his leg of the sixty-eighth floor, he had transformed his home into heaven’s east wing.

Among his art collection—full of one-of-kind sculptures and paintings—three yellowed photographs grabbed my eye.

“These are from Mama’s house in Mobile,” he said, handing me a glass. “Where I spent summers as a kid. This one is my grandparents—Ma’Dear and Big Poppa. That one is my cousins, Lil Key and Tre. And that one’s me coming home from Big Poppa’s crab traps, muddy as all get out and grinning like a fool. Mama used to take me down there as soon as school let out for the year, where I had grass stains and pellet guns and night bugs loud enough to remind you that you’re living in their world and not the other way around.” He chuckled with the same fond remembrance that I had of Alabama summers as a child. When life was scraped knees and shelling peas and soft serve on Saturdays with Grandfather. And stars hanging in skies black enough to be eternal. Just like outside Malachai’s window, where diamonds jeweled the heavens and the sea.

“And the night skies,” I said. His eyes sparkled their recognition.

“Black with a full view of every star in the universe.” Malachai and I have been touching the same sky for lives longer than our own. With him, even on the sixty-eighth floor, the air that night was thick with honeysuckle and humidity; thick enough to swim in, float in, get carried away in. The only air ever again worth the effort of breathing.


As the morning sky sheds the last of its gray at the horizon, high heaven is already cloudless and periwinkle. Little Leaguers are trickling onto the Lincoln Park diamonds wearing their rainbow of uniform tops and white pants. That means the soft pretzel stand should be open. I’ve never known it to be closed if there are games being played. Maybe I’ll grab a pretzel. No harm in going to see what’s happening near the softball fields, where I ate the same snack after my regular Thursday hair appointment went off the rails a couple months ago.

“A man is always thinking marriage, Lena. But if he says nothing about it after a year, he’s just not thinking about it with you.” How many times had Mother uttered those words to me? So, it was unsurprising to find her thumbing through the May issue of Chicago Bride when I arrived at our salon for our Thursday afternoon hair appointments. She lifted her nose in my direction for a deep, discrete inhale of the faintest gasoline vapors on my clothes, and she eyeballed my rugged-sole boots before turning back to look over what Chicago brides should want most.

“What does Malachai think about you riding that thing?” At least she waited until the receptionist had escorted us to our shared dressing room before she began her quiet interrogation.

“He met me riding that thing, Mother, and he has no problem with it.”

“Well, you are an exciting girl to know,” she said as she closed a smock around her waist. “I suppose you will be strapping a baby seat to it one day.”

I can only imagine the deep satisfaction she felt when I missed hooking my jacket to the hanger and it dropped to the floor.

“Why would you say something like that to me?” Until then, that joke had only been spoken between me and Malachai. But as I picked up my jacket, and raised my eyes to that slight, knowing smile on her face, it was no wonder where she got it and why she said it.

“Oh, it’s just a joke, Lena. Honestly.” She batted my question from the air with that flick of the wrist that had meant . . . so let it alone since my birth. But then, she followed up with, “Though you must know that Malachai is thinking about your future. It has, as you know, been over a year.”

And there it was. The year. Only, love older than eternity never expires; its vastness just expands with the seasons. And never once had he even hinted at any problem with my bike. Never once, so where was my key, Malachai?

While I hung my jacket and unbuttoned my blouse, she waited with my smock dangling in her hand.

“Your father said things went well at their lunch the other day.”

“They had lunch? When?” Her smile graduated into wicked satisfaction, and she started toying with me and the smock, pulling it slightly out of my grasp each time I reached for it. “You undoubtedly know that he wants to marry you, and though he would never admit it, I am certain that you’ve expressed hesitation to him.” She continued her tight grasp on the robe, and I crossed my hands over my chest. Feeling exposed. And exposed.


“Lena, this man is prepared to ask for your hand in marriage. He grew up with none of the privileges you and your brothers enjoyed.”

“I know that, Mother. Better than you.” Her eyes flickered at the inadvertent, yet perfectly inflicted stab. The only evidence of her battle to maintain her composure was a subtle flinch that reminded me that the callouses she developed over a lifetime could still be pierced in just the right way. “I wasn’t talking about how you came up.”

“Well, no matter. Because with Malachai, you’ll never experience want a day in your life.”

But I was experiencing want right then. “May I have my smock, Mother?”

True to form, she tight-fisted the smock while she rattled off my family’s accomplishments as though garnered through her sheer force of will: Daddy’s seat on the federal bench, Quincy’s biglaw partnership, Malcolm’s career as a vascular surgeon, and her own position as a vice president at a Fortune 500. All except me—the youngest, and a writer. Though a few birthdays north of thirty, I guess there’s still time.

“My first years with your father? Let’s just say that he was no Malachai Freeman.”

Mother always acts like she was born old, but she was young once. I’ve seen the proof.

“And yet, there are plenty of pictures of you smiling on the back of the bike.”

“I did not raise my daughter to speak to me like that.”

“I apologize. It’s just—”

“Your father was young, fresh out of the Navy, and yes, a lot of fun. But settling him was one of the hardest battles I have ever fought. He had a good heart, but a wild spirit because of that bike.”

“May I have the smock, please, Mother?”

“Not to mention that I was a girl when we met. Twenty-two. So, listen to me: it is time for you to grow up, settle down, and give up this motorcycle.”

“At this rate, maybe you can sell it after I freeze to death.” Other than cutting her eyes at me, she let that one slide.

“I only want what’s best for you, Lena. And what’s best is that you not blow up this relationship.”

“Blow it up? Did he say something to you about the bike? Because as far as I know, he’s never had a problem with it.”


“No.” Bombshell silence filled the dressing room as she dangled the smock just beyond my grasp. Mother plays like all turf is her home turf. But there was no expanse between Malachai and I, was there? Is there? Why did he tell her that joke about the baby seat? And where is my key?

Though I tried to act like it didn’t bother me, she smirked a little like she heard some shakiness in my voice. “Well, he says that women all over the world ride bikes,” I said. “To him, it’s just a way for me to get around, so I’m not blowing anything up. We’re happy the way we are.”

She extended the smock toward me, if still holding it fast and just beyond my grasp.

“Lena, I know you think you’re happy now, but this won’t last unless you make it last. So, when he asks you to marry him—which he is planning to do, imminently—you will say yes. And after you say yes, you will get rid of that bike once and for all.” She finally extended the smock within my reach, but she had toyed with it so long she could have it. The only right thing was to hop on my bike and ride. Imminently. Though that day, like today, I had no idea that I would end up at Field Two.

I must have ridden for an hour, maybe two, before my stomach convinced me to stop at this pretzel stand in Lincoln Park. It was early spring, and newly formed rec league softball teams were taking batting practice and playing catch in shorts-over-leggings. I was sitting in the bleachers thinking about Mother’s demands, stewing about the baby seat joke, and panicking about Malachai’s conversation with Daddy, when a guy with a clipboard did a puzzled double take from Field Three and walked over.

“Priscilla?” he asked, and then looked hopefully at that clipboard. Who knew whether it was a goof, a rap, or an earnest question until that nervous smile cracked across his face? And then, who cared?

“My name isn’t on your list.” I ate my bite as he turned down the wattage on his smile and checked his paper again. Then, he placed an open palm over his heart in introduction.

“Christopher,” he said, pronouncing the “er” at the end of his name like “fuh,” trying too hard to have an accent with those tights on his legs. “And you are . . . ?”

“Not on your list,” I repeated. With his pen, he scanned the paper and clipboard again.

“You’re right. I sure don’t have a not on your list on my list.” Corny. “Well, if I’m honest, I knew I had it wrong. You don’t look like anybody’s Priscilla.”

“Then why come all the way over here to ask?”

“To prove myself right. Maybe, a little, out of desperation. But no parent would look at you and dream of calling you Priscilla.” Then Christopher—good natured, easy on the eyes, on the sweet side of goofy, not easily deterred, Christopher—pointed that bright, hopeful smile at me, nodded toward Field Three, and asked, “Wanna play?” I wonder if he read me and knew . . . something. Maybe he was just desperate.

“I’m not staying.” It was time to go.

But as I gathered my things, he said, “Wait, wait, wait! You look like a . . . left fielder. We could use a left fielder.”

I paused, not remembering him from rec league when I had played years before. “Center.” He was between me and my bike and, good natured or not, I was certainly puzzling through my escape. “And I really have to go.”

“Well, we could use a center fielder, too. Because other than not looking like you, Priscillas sign up and never show up, apparently.” I tapped my lid, which was sitting on the bleachers.

“I’m in motorcycle gear.”

He took half a step back and quieted his smile. “Oh, you’re waiting for someone, then.”

“Why would I need to wait for someone to ride a bike?” I waited while the math computed in his head and, when it did, he stammered something of an apology.

Stepping back forward, he said, “Well, take your jacket off, and you could throw a ball and swing a bat in what you’re wearing. It’s only practice, and between you and me?” he said conspiratorially, as if I couldn’t count, “We only have eight people on the team right now, so it’s not like anyone would ever bench you.”

I considered him quietly over the last bite of my pretzel. He wore a baseball raglan—white chest, red sleeves—a Cubs hat, jogging shorts, and those tights on his legs. But more than Christopher, those moments were just the wide-open sky and endless grass. Out there, it was just people enjoying a warm spring day. Playing catch and swinging bats.

So, softball started as just a way to spend an afternoon in the grass. At the end of practice, before heading home, I signed my name on his clipboard.


Neither the stars nor the onyx skies that hold them know anything about the eternal bond between me and Malachai. I know it. I know it. When push comes to shove, he’ll choose my side. I just know it. Like when he blew back from London two weeks ago insisting on dinner with Mother and Daddy. His reflection sailed by my vanity mirror once, then twice, checking his watch with a smirk every time my “five minutes” stretched long. Finally, he unhooked the little black sheath hanging from the doorframe and came into my dressing room looking at his watch. The night of “imminently” had arrived, and the dress, the black pearls, the dinner, all played right into Mother’s trap. Malachai had mentioned nothing of his lunch with Daddy, nor had I said anything about the conversation with her in the salon, but his insistence confirmed this as the night of the grand gesture. He smoothed my hair over one shoulder and kissed my exposed cheek as I sat in my silk robe.

But the way his mouth fell open when I stood and untied my robe, allowing it to fall from my shoulders to the floor! I was ready to say “yes” to all the things he was thinking then as he drank in the sight of my corset, my garter, and my silk stockings. But first . . . the scotch. If we were to start another new beginning in the eternity of us, let it begin, again, with scotch. He followed me from the bedroom to the hallway to the living room, where the view of our togetherness was certain to make the stars jealous. I poured him a Macallan 25.

He took the drink and sipped, and then, his smile grew up the sides of his face until my lips joined his in the most perfect, scotch-laced kiss. Our tangled legs walked toward the couch in full view of all the stars, and our bodies burned precelestial as I climbed on top of him, easing my softest parts onto his solid ridges. The surprise brought that expected, admiring smile to his face as my fingers released the wool, the cotton, the silk, the lace between us. Then, whispering, moaning, inhaling, exhaling, we drank the air like it was being poured from a pitcher. It splashed us, filled our mouths, our chests, our bodies. And it was too much. Like that? was too much. Right there, was too much. And I love you was too much. And Marry me was too much. And I will was too much. And it was too much, and it was too much, and it was too much until we drowned.


Where is my key, Malachai? Six missed calls and a line of text messages telling me to call, come home; reminding me of all those people expecting us in a few short hours at my parents’ house. It was a joke. It was a joke! A lot of please, but no promises. And anyway . . . a joke? Like this? With our engagement party in just a few hours?

This morning started like any other of his in-town Saturdays: his dawn run, followed by espresso and fruit together before his phone rang—my cue to get up for my barre class as he spoke French to move markets into his phone. I grabbed my lid, my jacket, slid my pants over my tights, and said goodbye, but when I reached for my key, there was a gap-toothed smile on the wall. Between the BMW and Range keys to the left; his house keys and my house keys to the right, where my bike key belonged, the hook was empty. Empty! And he saw me notice; saw my hand hovering from where he sat with the newspaper splayed on the kitchen table and a phone to his ear. And I knew. There was no patting of my pockets or digging through my crossbody. As he watched me from the kitchen, speaking French into his cell, I looked at him, and he returned my gaze with victory in his eyes.

“Where is my key, Malachai?” When I called across the apartment, my voice sounded shaky to my ear, so how could he not hear the panic creeping up my spine? But he continued in French, still looking in my direction. “I asked where you put my key, Malachai.” More French, but couldn’t he see? So, when I walked into the kitchen, asked him again and again, and he held an index finger in my face? That was it. “Oh, so we’re playing games now?” The spare was right where it belonged in the false back of my jewelry box. Waiting. Never used, never tested, I still dangled it from my fingers, and shouted, “Then you fucking lose!” before slamming the door behind me.

It’s supposed to be us! Us! When we stood my parents up for dinner two weeks ago, and did things our way, I finally told him what Mother said in the salon. His deep chuckle assured me that we would be married on our own terms. We’re in this together, said the laugh.

“I’ll tell everyone exactly how I convinced you to wear this ring, if that’s what you want,” he’d offered mischievously as I lay atop his chest, in full view of the entire night sky. Though he would never, the offer was ours, the secret was ours, the kind of love was ours. So where is my key?


Bucktown is nice on Saturday mornings. Always nice, really, but I haven’t had any reason to be up this way since the team was waiting out that rain delay at Christopher’s apartment. After the game was finally canceled, Christopher had wine, someone had weed, and we ordered Lou Malnati’s. Oh, sweet, goofy, easy-on-the-eyes Christopher. I haven’t been up this way since that night when I helped him get plates and cups from the kitchen.

“Hey Lena, I’m, um, glad you joined the team.”

“Me too.”

“And . . . if it’s alright with you, I’d like to be in touch with you. You know . . . outside the team? Maybe you and I could hang out sometimes? Talk?” My mouth must have been hanging open, but without a “yes” or “no,” he said, and quickly, “No need to answer now. Just . . . think on it.”

Here’s his brownstone; yes, this is it, with the yellow door. And there’s his window, open upstairs, with that white sheer floating lazily in the breeze. But there are no voices, no music—just the curtain in an open window promising someone is inside. It’s a few minutes before nine, but what else am I going to do now that I’m here? He probably heard the bike, and I do have these pretzels in my bag.

“Hello?” the box crackles. He sounds awake but confused.

“Christopher, it’s Lena—”

“Lena!” The box sings my name. “What’s good?”

“I was in the neighborhood. Riding my bike and I picked up a couple pretzels. I’m sure you probably have company—”

“Nope. Just cleaning. Wanna come up?”

I haven’t answered, yet the buzzer welcomes me inside. The stairs are steeper than I remember, and I hear him coming down to meet me between floors, so let me power off this phone to stop all the buzzing. There. Second floor landing and here he is, pretending that a warm pretzel with hot mustard is just what he wanted for breakfast on Saturday morning. His sincere, wide grin and his hug are a welcome I didn’t even know I needed this morning. He’s so excited he left his front door open. It smells like pine and bleach from his cleaning and something else: coffee, which he pours from a drip machine that I have not used since moving to the sky and espresso. It’s nice sitting with him on the couch, pulling ends from the same pretzel, dipping mustard from the same cup. He’s so sweet the way he wipes some mustard from the corner of my mouth with a napkin while I chew. But . . .

When Malachai thumbs the edge of my mouth, his whispered touch makes my heart jump. Only our air is thick enough to swim in, float in, get carried away in, and is worth the effort of breathing. Except now, I wonder whether we’ll get carried away in a flood of expectation. Has it already begun for him? Was the baby seat joke always a joke? Ever a joke? Were they his words or my mother’s first? Is that why he took my key? When did he take my key? Why did he take my key? He could’ve moved my bike with that key. Daddy’s bike. My bike. I could change the ignition. Where can I get an ignition before going home? Why am I even considering changing my ignition before I go home?


Home is Malachai wiping his thumb against my face. Home is where my bike is.

My head is swimming and I need air. It’s scarce, thinner here on the third floor with Christopher than with Malachai on the sixty-eighth. There is no balcony, the front door is closed. But the window.

“Your apartment is so clean. For a guy, I mean.”

“I can’t stand mess. Honestly though?” He’s flashing that same warm, conspiratorial smile from our first meeting.


“I don’t do it myself. The cleaning company just left. I don’t know why I told you I was cleaning.”

I just need to make it to the window, to the air. By the time I make it to the end of this corridor, to the room, I’ll take some deep breaths, my heart will stop pounding, and I’ll . . . I’ll. . . .

“Lena, you OK?”

“Yeah. Just showing myself around.”

A book lies face down on a couch, and there is a bookshelf and a desk on either side of the window. Down below, my bike reflects the morning sun’s rays pinpointing through full, oak canopies. People walk up and down the sidewalk holding takeout coffee, grasping little hands in sports uniforms, and carrying farmer’s market bags full of baguettes and flowers and fluffy carrot tops spilling over the side. Maybe, if I just close my eyes and breathe, everything will be OK.

Christopher’s arms are wrapped around me from behind and he’s pulling us close after I’ve taken only half a good breath. My mind is dizzy, but I like the feel of his lips, his breath, to my ear; allow the gentle scratch of his morning stubble against my neck; allow his hands to pull and wander my body. But in the open window, with Little Leaguers and farmers market shoppers passing by, with pinpoints of light reflecting from my bike, I exhale but cannot inhale. Even in the opening, this air is thin; I’m breathing what I can, panting when he pulls me away from the opening. As he kisses me, he’s walking me gently, but urgently, backward toward his bedroom. How am I kissing him back, pulling his shirt over his head, landing on his bed, when there’s no air? It’s all gone. His lips are on my neck, his hands are up my shirt, but there’s no air—it’s all gone. I’m suffocating in this dark room that’s clean with pine scent. My breath is short, and he’s tugging at my pants and there’s no air—it’s all gone. I close my eyes and it’s dark, with my hands wrapped around his back as he pulls at my pants and pulls at my pants, and there is no air, can be no air, until I say his name.

“Malachai.” It feels like I have rediscovered breathing when I exhale his name, though now, Christopher freezes and draws back.

“Malachai?” He’s totally deflated. Whether it was to invoke Malachai, to punish him, to confess, to stop everything, or all of it—I don’t know. What I do know is that saying his name was no accident. “Damn, Lena. I thought, since you came here, after the other night—” he says, moving from on top of me. He flops hard on the bed and now we’re lying side-by-side staring at the ceiling, which saves me from having to look him in the eye.

“You thought wrong. You’ve always known about Malachai.”

“Then why did you even come over here?” He’s still talking, but I’m in Christopher’s apartment thinking about, wondering about, how me and Malachai got to this place. Our love started eternity, existed before the stars, so how did we go from “it’s another time” to here?

“I don’t know why I came here. And I probably had no business joining your team.”

He slides his hands over his face and stops talking. My clothes are here, there, and everywhere, but he never uncovers his face the entire time I dress, mutter an apology, quit the team, and leave.


A Little League game is underway at Field Two. Thank God this section of the bleachers is empty—nobody to sit next to me as I turn my phone back on. Eight calls. Twenty-six messages. Malachai. Malachai. Quincy. Mother. Malachai. Daddy. Malachai. Mother. Malachai. Malachai. Malachai . . .

“Malachai?” It barely rang before he picked up. My voice sounds small and rushed and telling if he listens for guilt. But he only sighs into the phone and his exhale burns my ears.

“Lena. Where are you? It’s been hours!” This worry in his voice sounds strange against the cheering in the background and these people yelling for this kid to run theotherway. “A Little League game? Are you coming home?”

“Not yet.” Not when I need the smell of the air, the grass, the hot pretzels to erase the faint scent of pine and bleach still lingering in my nose.

“Then tell me where you are. I’ll come meet you.”

“How could you just take my key?”

His sigh shakes, rattles, then wrecks me. But unlike the bike, I do not have the luxury of coming apart.

“You vanished into thin air over a stupid joke? C’mon, Lena, we’re better than that. Damn, didn’t you listen to any of my messages! It was in my pocket the whole time!” says a man who does not ordinarily give words to frustration. “This is you and me! Always! You know I don’t give a damn about you riding that bike!” He huffs to release some pressure, and the pressure lands all over me. “But trust I’ll never make this mistake again. Just come home, baby. Please? I’m sorry.” The sun is mockingly bright—the closest star, gloating about the mortality of me and Malachai after all. It taunts me about stopping at Christopher’s apartment when any other day—any other day—I would have just kept riding toward the horizon.

“This foolishness? Never again. I won’t do it anymore. Understand?” I say, I promise, I confess without confessing, which he accepts, and even apologizes, without knowing. I hear this as absolution, forgiveness for my sins. “You’d better be glad for my bike, anyway. Without it, being with you, there’s hardly anything keeping me on solid ground. Without it, being with you, I would just . . . float away.”

He barks an unexpected, uncharacteristic laugh and now, my chin’s trembling. I have to get away from these bleachers, but where do I want to go? Let me walk to my bike, tuck my hair and pull the helmet over my head to contain these tears; pull gloves over my hands to contain this shaking; blast the throttle as I wonder whether I can ever absolve myself. Maybe, in eternity, forgiveness is a given? I don’t know. But I do know that I want to go home.  

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