Caution: Language; Mature Content
"Either you tell him the whole truth, or I will.”
I slowly closed my eyes and rubbed my temple. A jackhammer would have created less tension. I shouldn’t have been surprised by her ultimatum, and yet I was. Why was this my life right now?
“I don’t see the point.” I responded, hoping to convince her.
“I can’t keep silent about this anymore.”
“I might as well have the scarlet letter A on my chest.”
“But you aren’t married.”
I thought I heard a chuckle. Good. At least the tension was starting to ease.
Days had turned into weeks, and weeks into months, and yet I still hadn’t told Zeke what happened. The timing was never right. Then again, when was the time ever right to give your best friend devastating news?
“Avery, don’t do this.” I pleaded.
“I have to, Ellis.”
“I’m coming over.”
“We need to talk about this.”
“There’s nothing else to talk about.”
“I disagree.” She didn’t argue further, so I added, “I’m on my way.”
I cranked my Audi, and she purred like a kitten. If only life could be that simple. Push to start. Push to stop.
I drove onto I-64/40 from Chesterfield, MO and headed into the city. The traffic was lighter than it had been the previous week. Last week had been Valentine’s Day; also known as a day for lovers. I chuckled to myself. That type of thinking is exactly why I was in this predicament in the first place.
From playing basketball in elementary school to chasing girls in high school, Zeke and I had been thick as thieves growing up. We even attended college together at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Neither of our moms were thrilled about us leaving Jackson, Mississippi. Knowing we would be together, however, was enough to settle the mama bears.
During our sophomore year, I was convinced I met the love of my life. Pricilla Easton was one of the finest girls I'd ever met. Her skin was the perfect golden brown, like freshly baked cornbread. (I'm from Mississippi, of course I love cornbread.) She had long wavy brown hair and hazel eyes that I got lost in. Although she was a year ahead of me, we never lacked conversation. She stimulated me both physically and intellectually.
I invited her to meet my family over the Thanksgiving Break. She declined to say she would come another time. Imagine my surprise when she arrived at my house with Zeke. Seeing as she was also his girlfriend, he’d invited her as well. Being the young co-eds that we were, we almost came to blows over her.
"F.O.E.," my mother said. "Family Over Everything."
She was right. That day, we promised each other we would never allow another woman to come between us.
I exited onto Jefferson Avenue in the city of St. Louis. Rubbing the waves in my hair, I waited for the traffic light to turn green. My car was at a stop, but my mind shifted gears to the first time I met Avery.
It had been during the Black Soul Food Festival in Tower Grove Park. I was transfixed by her smooth mahogany brown skin, light brown eyes, and her 1000-watt smile. She was the perfect size; about 5’5 with curves in all of the right places. It was Zeke, however, who’d made the first move. She returned his smile, her feelings mutual. I didn’t think too much of it at the time. A 90 Day Fiancé’ would last longer. As far as I knew, she was just going to be a “one and done” for him. It didn’t bother me; I was cool as a summer breeze. At least, that’s what I told myself.
One night, I went over to Zeke’s place to watch the basketball game. I was a Chicago Bulls fan and Zeke’s team was the Detroit Pistons. Zeke was working late but was expected at any moment. I had a key to Zeke’s place just as he had one to mines. It seemed logical since I always listed him as my “in case of emergency” contact.
The scent of chicken wings and pizza floated through the air when I heard a knock at the door. Why doesn’t that boy just use his key? However, it wasn’t my best friend at the door, it was her. My heart began a marathon, and I chided myself. She wasn’t mine; she was his.
I cursed as the memories flooded my psyche. Avery had shown up to make Zeke’s favorite dinner---chicken parmesan. If only Zeke hadn’t forgotten. She wouldn’t have been pissed, and I wouldn’t have invited her to stay. The room was quiet, but the tension was thick. Her lips became loose after drinking a few beers. Liquid courage gave her the nerve to scoot closer. Looking into her eyes, and then her lips, my resolve burst like water through a dam. I captured her lips as we stretched on the sofa. Excited hands explored one another. Our clothes were gone, but our mouths never parted. Looking into her beautiful face, I linked her fingers with mine, and with no space between us, our bodies intertwined. Afterward, I held her. For just that moment in time, she was mine.
Reality quickly set in when he called and said he was almost home. Clothes flew. This time on. I almost collided with him during my escape. He invited me to stay. After all, we were like brothers. I told him I had an appointment early the next day. The lie emerged easily from my lips, but my eyes couldn’t meet his. Neither could I get out of that apartment fast enough. After he gave me a dap, I left; never looking back.
Avery wanted to confess from the beginning. I convinced her I wanted to break it to him myself. I meant to. I’d convinced myself that time would slow down until I was able to form the words. It was Zeke, however, who reached out to me first. His voice was grim, and I prepared myself to be a balloon, and him, a safety pin.
“She dumped me.”
“Avery. She dumped me.”
The confusion on my face was sincere.
“She told me she felt I had been neglecting her.”
I paused; not sure what to say.
“I mean, yes, I’ve been busy with work. Then I had to cancel on her a few times…” He faced me, “but that’s nothing to end a relationship over. You work on it.”
I opened my mouth to speak, but he kept going.
“I know what you’re about to say. Who would have ever thought I’d want to work on something in a relationship? But I did---with her.”
“Did you tell her that?”
“Of course I did! I apologized and asked her to give me another chance.”
I swallowed. “What did she say?”
Zeke took a long gulp of his beer before looking me in the eye. “It’s too late. “
My shoulders dared to relax. We sat in silence for a beat.
“What if there’s another guy?”
My breath caught. “Why would you think that?”
He shrugged. “After that night I forgot she was coming over to make dinner, she just started acting different, you know. Distant. Like she didn’t want me to touch her.”
I tried my best to laugh. “Oh, come on man. That’s a little bit of a reach, don’t you think?”
He swirled the liquid in his beer bottle. “Maybe, but something isn’t right. I can feel it in my gut.” He turned to face me. “You know my gut is always right.”
I swallowed again but remained silent. The look on his face would never leave my memory bank as he speculated about the “other man”.
“I’d been in love with her.” Zeke admitted.
His words were a sucker punch in the gut. “I know.”
He pulled out a small blue box, enveloped in velvet, and slammed it on the high-top table.
“Can you believe that shit?”
My eyes widened at that little blue box. I returned my gaze to Zeke. While his words were laced with venom, I knew Zeke too well. Hurt didn’t suffice to define his current state. I put my hand on his shoulder.
“I’m sorry man.” He had no idea how much I meant it.
Zeke shrugged again. “Nothing for you to be sorry about. It wasn’t your fault.”
As soon as the words left his mouth, guilt became my new best friend.
I couldn’t dare see Avery after that. Her calls and texts went unanswered. Conflicted was my new middle name. While she was no longer his, I was now held captive by my conscience. I wanted to rid myself of my new best friend but saw confessing to Zeke as nothing more than a double-edged sword. I probably shouldn’t have treated her like a plague, but my new best friend took up residence easy in my gut. Her text today caught my attention. She’d texted me before that she was going to tell him the truth. Instinct told me to believe her this time.
Minutes later, I parked onto a side street across from Avery’s apartment in Lafayette Square. It was a beautiful neighborhood, known for its Victorian-styled two- and three-story homes. It was also known for having restaurants that were great for brunch (e.g., Sqwires and Polite Society). The overcast created a dreary mood. As if my day wasn’t hard enough.
Before I could knock, the door opened, and our eyes met. I caught a whiff of her perfume. Japanese Cherry Blossom, I remembered. A large overcoat covered her small frame along with denim jeans. Once I entered her living room, I turned to face her.
“Avery, you can’t tell Zeke.”
A tear slid down her face. I wanted to comfort her, but my feet remained planted, and my heart nearly broke in two.
“I have to.”
“No, you don’t. You’ve already broken up with him. Why thrust the dagger into his heart?”
I was being selfish, but I wasn’t ready to lose my best friend.
“That was before...”
“Before what?” I shouted.
Another tear followed. Then she opened her overcoat, and I saw her swollen belly. My legs gave. Lucky for me, her sofa caught me.
For two full minutes, there was nothing to say.
“So, you’re getting back with him?” I didn’t give her a chance to respond. “If that’s the case, why would you tell him the truth? To clear your conscience?” I got up and began pacing the floor.
She frowned. “This isn’t his.”
I halted mid-step, frowning in return. “What the hell do you mean, it isn’t his? Who else have you been fucking?”
I never saw the slap coming.
“How dare you! You’re the only other one!” she spat.
Her words had the impact of a train that came out of nowhere. The room began to spin. Once again, I landed on her sofa.
“Are you saying…” I couldn’t even get the words out.
She nodded again.
I stared at her wide-eyed. “You’re sure?”
There had to be some mistake.
“How do you know for certain it’s not Zeke’s?”
She huffed and got in my face again. I braced myself for the lightning strike.
“Because I didn’t sleep with him again after that.”
“He could have gotten you pregnant before that night.”
She shook her head. “He didn’t.”
“But how do you know?” I argued. This just wasn’t making any sense.
“Today we have this little thing called technology. This technology in the OBGYN’s office can tell you the date the baby was conceived. October 21st.”
I took out my phone to look up my NBA app and scrolled. Yep, that had been the date Chicago played Detroit. My team had gotten their asses handed to them. Mines was next.
It became obvious she wasn’t pleased with my initial reaction.
“Forget it, Ellis.”
I gave her a confused look. “What do you mean forget it. It’s too late for that now!”
“Not if I don’t keep it.”
I bolted to my feet. Fury replaced the confusion in my eyes.
“What do you mean you’re not keeping it?”
“Why should I?” She squared her shoulders and looked up at me. Her eyes peered into mine, returning their own fire. “We’re not a couple. You obviously don’t want it…”
“That’s not true!”
She wasn’t convinced.
“I mean…I admit I was shocked…”
Avery crossed her arms over her chest. “You’ve been ignoring me for months! You wouldn’t even pick up your damn phone! The only reason you did so today was because I gave you an ultimatum. If you had just picked up your damn phone, I could have told you this weeks ago.”
“On that, we agree.” She replied.
My eyes went back down to her belly. We hadn’t planned it, and the situation wasn’t ideal, but now that the initial shock had worn off, I smiled. I was going to be a dad.
“Avery.” I spoke softly and pulled her into my arms, “You’re right. I was wrong for ignoring you. I’m truly sorry, but I’m not sorry, you’re carrying my baby. I mean it when I say I want it. I want us to be a family.”
I’d been ignoring her, yes, but it wasn’t because I didn’t have feelings for her. Rather it was the opposite. I had fallen for my best friend’s girl. Every time I was around Zeke, I felt lower than low, especially when Zeke told me Avery dumped him.
“Really?” she asked.
I kissed her forehead. “Really.”
Our embrace was interrupted by a knock at the door. When she opened it, Zeke was standing on the other side. Surprise washed over his face when his eyes fell on me.
Zeke pushed past Avery and stepped inside.
“What are you doing here?”
The question was directed at me. Before I could respond, Avery asked a question of her own. “Zeke, what are you doing here?”
Zeke pulled his gaze from me and faced Avery. “I came here to tell you to end it.”
Her eyes shifted. “End what?”
“Whatever you have going on with this other guy. I heard you loud and clear, and I don’t want to lose you over something as crazy as my pride. I love you.”
It was then that he noticed her stomach.
“We’re going to have a baby?” His eyes lit up, and he grabbed her in a hug.
“Zeke, please put me down.”
He did as she asked. His face searched hers. “What’s wrong?”
“Zeke…I’m going to have a baby.”
His brows furrowed. “What do you mean?”
Her voice trembled. “Zeke, I’m so sorry…”
Comprehension of what Avery was saying finally set.
“Whose is it, Avery?” Zeke sneered at her. “After all of the shit you put me through, I deserve to know.”
This was the moment. It was now or never.
He spun around so fast, I just knew he was going to get whiplash.
“What?” Zeke croaked.
I shoved my hands into my pockets with my head down and slowly walked towards him. Meeting him face-to-face I confessed. “I said, it’s mine. I’m sorry, Zeke. I should have told you sooner. I just didn’t know how.”
I watched a wave of emotions cross Zeke’s face. Confusion. Denial. Pain. Rage.
In a flash, I was on the floor, and his fists were getting well acquainted with my face. I heard Avery scream, but the punches continued. The hate in his eyes was clear. Zeke no longer saw me as his best friend. I was the enemy, and at the moment, he was a bull who saw nothing but red.
If someone hadn’t heard her screams and came over, Zeke probably would have killed me. After what felt like an eternity, Zeke lifted off of me. Then I felt the arms of someone helping me sit up. It was two of Avery’s neighbors. Her screams had subsided, but her tears continued to flow.
“I’m going to call the police.” Neighbor #1 said.
“No.” I rasped.
“Are you sure?” It was Neighbor #2 asking this time. The bull was still in his grasp, breathing heavily.
I nodded and coughed. I could barely see out of one eye. My face felt numb, and I was drooling. When I looked at my hand, I saw the red sticky substance. Still, I said, “I’m sure.”
The bull yanked himself from Neighbor #2’s grasp. He shot both Avery and me an evil look, then left.
Avery was sleeping peacefully after a long night. I, on the other hand, couldn’t get enough of her. She had stolen my heart at first sight. Her light brown eyes sparkled in the sun, and her skin was soft as butter. I even loved watching her yawn. She was beautiful. She was perfect. She was mine.
I hadn’t seen or heard from Zeke since that day at Avery’s. My mother had given me an earful.
“Ellis, I’ve always told you, Family Over Everything. How could you do that to your first cousin? He’s your blood!”
What she didn’t realize though, was that I did choose family. All that mattered to me was right here in my arms.
I looked into my daughter’s light brown eyes. If this was the price of being Judas, so be it.