It was my first time in Shawn’s apartment since he’d moved, and since our hiatus. He frequently referred to himself as “just a street kid from Miami,” so I wasn’t expecting anything elaborate in this apartment. But once I stepped into the living room with sunlight pouring in through the sliding glass doors, felt dwarfed by his flat screen TV, giggled inwardly at the tangle and stacks of tech gadgets, and took in the spaciousness, I knew he’d come a long way. His sofa was basic beige, but covered in microfiber, so it was soft and inviting. He’d never had any aspirations at architecture that I knew of, so a drafting table ringed with neat stacks of papers and journals caught my attention.
“Why do you have a drafting table?” I asked, as my eyes wandered taking in the details bit by bit.
“Doodling, mostly,” Shawn said, stepping into the kitchen.
I followed him. At the end of the short kitchen were folding doors, opened to reveal a washer and dryer. Damn, he’s living the life. Street kid from Miami is doing just fine. It wasn’t envy exactly filling me, but wonder and pride, sadness that I’d missed so much of his upward trajectory during our hiatus. I’d missed so much of him.
Five years ago, we’d started out as friends, though he’d made it clear he wanted more, but my feelings for him hadn’t extended beyond a comfortable friendship. A couple years later though, everything inside me aligned in his direction, but he’d found someone else. After being shunted to the periphery for just over a year, I’d reached out to him, only to discover he was single again. So, here we were, trying to find out if the feelings we’d once had for each other could revive and flourish, if our compatibility remained strong, or if we’d grown in different directions. Was this time our time or not?
“Would you like tea?” he asked, filling a kettle and turning on the stove burner.
“Sure, that sounds nice,” I said, trying not to let him see my eyes bulge with desire at the way his biceps flexed through his black T-shirt. I returned to the living room, nosing around the variety of artifacts evidencing his personality. Piecing Shawn together this way was fun, an exploration of his psyche on display. What did he think was interesting, beautiful, unique, meaningful, important? I had so many questions as I gazed at and fondled his things. What I noticed was his living room lacked a unifying theme. It needed a woman’s touch. My touch, in particular, however presumptuous that sounded.
I continued surveying the open space close to the entryway. “Where did you get this cabinet?” I tapped the antique sideboard made of an ashy walnut, admiring its curved two doors.
Shawn peered through the break in the wall above the kitchen sink. He looked at the cabinet and shrugged. “My aunt was clearing stuff out of her place and she gave that to me.”
My eyes paused and circled around a framed photo of a young, Black girl, resting on his drafting table. “Who’s this?” I asked, picking up the photo, as if holding her photo closer would make her more familiar, bring her as deep into my heart as she was in Shawn’s.
His expression softened, melting somewhere into the past. “That’s my mom.” Shawn’s eyes filled with layers of emotion. Nostalgia, pride, grief, a hint of a pained smile.
“How old was she in this photo?” I could have dived right into his eyes, but they were swirling with eddies that had no bottom. I would have drowned, so I returned my gaze to the photo.
“About fifteen. Not long after I was born.” Shawn came into the living room with two steaming cups that didn’t match.
The currents of his emotions swirled around me, threatening to pull me under into a realm of sadness and loss. Fifteen and already a mother, but with precious few years ahead of her. She wouldn’t live to see Shawn graduate from elementary school, much less see how far away from the streets of Miami he’d reach, or how the Marines had toughened him from a scrawny kid.
Pure unadulterated love couldn’t be trusted. I knew that in that instant. For love to endure, it had to be alloyed with shared pain. Pure love is like 24 carat gold. It’s rare, shiny, and valuable, but it’s soft as far as metals go. It doesn’t stand up to the rigors of real life. It needs mixing with stronger metals like nickel, copper, zinc, and silver so it can withstand everyday wear. As far as emotions go, pain, loss, grief, despair, and loneliness are the less desirable emotions that must join in love so romance endures future trials. The memory of loneliness makes togetherness more valuable. The memory of grief and loss makes having a person with warm flesh and a throbbing heart in your arms more precious. Despair makes relying on someone more cherished. If I’d ever allowed Shawn a tender place in my heart, he burrowed deeper at that moment.
Shawn handed one cup to me with such a look of hopeful expectation that I had to smile.
“What kind of tea is this?” I asked, sniffing the steam.
He grinned and nodded. “Taste it. Guess.”
Intrigued, I sniffed again, blew on the amber liquid and tasted it. I couldn’t quite place the flavors, though I swished the first sip around. “Hmm, citrus?”
“And?” Shawn grinned a sly, almost villainous smile. I was certainly entertaining something inside him.
“And?” I shook my head cluelessly and took another sip, more slowly to study and unfold the mystery. “Ginger?”
“Ugh, no. Try again.”
I didn’t like to fail, but I learned in kindergarten that flavors are hard to detect without knowing what they are beforehand. Challenge accepted. I took a third sip. “I taste orange and I’d swear it’s ginger. What’s so special about this tea?”
Shawn threw back his head and let out a frustrated sigh. “It’s chocolate-orange.”
Then I knew, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that he loved me. I fell headlong into the eddies, ready to swim, float, or drown and I didn’t care which. I mean, I knew he loved me before by the way he treated me, but this one thing let romance gush into my heart. “Chocolate-orange tea. You found it?”
The year before in September, I’d taken my mother to the Ritz-Carlton spa on Fort Lauderdale beach. Everything about the environment was elegant, understated, and beach-themed. The color scheme was soft teal with a delicate tan and highlighted in ethereal billows of white. While we’d waited for our massage therapists to come call out our names, we nosed around the lounge. They had a tight assortment of teas: common chamomile, boring peppermint and oh-my-what’s-this chocolate-orange. We opted for the exotic chocolate-orange and fell head over heels in love with such a rare, decadent treat. I’d even asked an attendant what brand of tea it was. Paromi. Our services were wonderful, but all we could talk about for months was chocolate-orange tea. I’d searched the internet and found Paromi’s website, but the tea was obscenely expensive. I’d bought a tin anyway, but then after it had arrived, I couldn’t bring myself to drink more than one cup. Because, well, if I didn’t finish the tea, I’d always have it. Of course, the rest eventually went bad.
Here I was, in Shawn’s apartment and he’d gone to the trouble to hunt down the most memorable part of my spa day with my mom, bringing the day vibrantly and lovingly back to life. My mind cranked up into overdrive. First, of course, I’d make love to him. Then, with Christmas on the horizon, I’d have to find flawless gifts that would have him grinning like a schoolboy for months to come. So, my mission began taking shape in my head.
I put my cup down and threw my arms around his thick, strong neck and planted kisses on his cheek. I thought back to the first time we exchanged “I love yous”, only to be followed by, “But we can’t be together.” I’d leaned over to kiss him and he had held me at arm’s length. I’d wanted to make it impossible to resist me, but we never did kiss. So now – right now – I hungered to know what his lips tasted like. I couldn’t be denied – not again – so I pressed my lips to his mouth, unstoppable as a freight train.
The tea lingered, sweet and light. His tongue tasted of summer rain and passion. I could hardly get enough; I’d been pining for this opportunity for over a year. We simmered down and carved out hours to talk, getting reacquainted. Some time later, I remembered I’d promised to make dinner for us, so he drove me to the grocery store where I spent more than a week’s pay to buy premium ingredients for our first home cooked dinner together. By the time I finally took the lasagna out of the oven and we sat to eat, it was already eleven o’clock at night. Shawn excused himself to the bathroom, and I took advantage of the opportunity to slip out of my clothes and into the cool mismatched sheets on his king size bed. He proved his patience with hours of foreplay. I loved him physically. The longer we made love, I loved him spiritually. The kinkier we got, I knew I had no way back to life without Shawn.
By one o’clock in the morning, I knew what I had to get him for Christmas, and I settled into a blissful sleep cocooned in his arms.
The next morning, Shawn went to work and I drove back home, plotting Christmas along the way.
When Christmas Day arrived a few weeks later, Shawn and I exchanged gifts, taking turns giving and receiving. I stole glances at him repeatedly; he suspected nothing. Then I pulled out the grand finale gift that I’d wrapped with tender loving care and precision. I had to admit, I’d done a beautiful job with the glossy white and red paper and metallic gold ribbon edged with wire to hold its shape. It was glorious. I edged closer to him as he unwrapped it. “Hurry,” I said, after he’d taken damn near forever to unknot the bow. “Tear that shit open!”
I frowned and rolled my eyes. “No. No more patience. I want to see your face when you open that one.”
“Won’t you see my face anyway?” he asked, careful not to rip the wrapping paper. He was toying with me now.
I took a deep breath, debating whether to strangle him or rip the gift out of the paper myself. “Dammit! Open that up,” I said, gesturing emphatically with tense arms, hands, and fingers.
“Fine.” Shawn huffed and tore off the rest of the paper. “I wanted to savor the moment.”
“Savor the actual gift, knucklehead.” A smile lifted at the corners of my mouth. This was our moment and it wouldn’t come around again. No one could steal it or even peek in on it. It was all us.
“Wait,” he said, pulling his head back in confusion as the contents came into view. “Isn’t this…?” He looked toward his drafting table and back at the framed photo in his hands. “I don’t understand. What did you do?”
I giggled and waved my hands in gleeful triumph. “One night when I slept over, I ‘borrowed’ the photo of your mom while you were at work and replaced it with a laser color copy. The photo in your hand is the original.”
“Look at the frame, babe.” Excitement bubbled inside me so hard I thought I’d levitate. “I took a photo of the cabinet your aunt gave you and did a little research. It’s the style of Queen Anne. I wanted to give you something you’d treasure, so…” I paused to gather my thoughts. I didn’t want to stumble or sound like a babbling idiot. “I took the picture of your mom out of that frame. I was super careful with it, I promise. I had a custom frame made in that same Queen Anne style. Walnut wood., similar carving, the whole nine yards. See, now they match! And that – ” I gestured like I’d pulled a rabbit out of a hat “- is how you tie a room together and make it into a home.”
Shawn held the framed photo up into the light and took a good, long look at it, inspecting the frame intensely while his fingers traced the ornate carving. I could have sworn I saw a dewy glistening in his dark eyes, but he bent his head quickly and put his fist to his mouth. He cleared his throat, leaving my heart pounding in slow motion with anticipation. Was he happy? Winning at Christmas meant making him unspeakably happy. Had I succeeded?
“This is the best gift anyone’s ever given me. Thank you, Michelle.”
“You’re welcome, babe. I love you.”
“I love you, too.” His eyes lingered on the picture a good long while, until finally he got up and rested the new photo on his drafting table, giving the replica a double-take. Shawn looked back at me and smiled with a depth that reached back to his childhood. A golden smile with all the pain, agony and ecstasy alloyed so exquisitely into the pure gold that there was no telling where one ended and the other began.