Track 13: My Side

Track13buttonThe vibration from the phone in his front pocket sent excitement coursing through him. He knew it was from her. He had been anticipating it all day. It seemed like she only liked to text him when she knew he was doing something important. Right now, meeting with his manager and a rep from the label was the perfect time. He fiddled with the metal object before giving into temptation and sneaking a look under the table. The rep droned on about numbers and release dates, the new album, and publicity photos, but it was white noise to Mack.
      The text was brief. “My place.”
      Instantly, he felt flush. His pulse quickened. There was so much implied with such simple words. It meant she was thinking of him. She wanted him. Maybe even needed him. Mack was eager to oblige.
      “Doing something,” he wrote back after a long pause, not wanting to seem too available. It was still new. They were still in the game phase, trying to feel each other out, trying constantly to gain the upper hand. If she waited five minutes to respond, he would wait ten.
      He was used to getting everything he wanted. But Sharra was the same. The last two weeks had been a constant power struggle, but it almost made it more exciting. She made him work for it and he liked it.
      “Fine. Then all this goes to waste,” the reply read. The photo attached was Sharra in her bathroom mirror, completely naked. She covered one breast with her arm that was holding the camera, and the other she covered with her hand that was flipping the bird. The photo sent him into overdrive. He gave up playing it cool.
      “You got this, right?” Mack patted his manager on his shoulder as he got up to leave, never taking his eyes off his phone.
      “What? We aren’t done yet. Sit down,” he scolded but Mack was already out the door.
      He looked forward to seeing her as a kid looked forward to Christmas morning. Every time was new and different. She was exotic, powerful, and exhilarating to be around. No matter how much he got, Mack wanted more.
      It wasn’t a far walk between the record label’s building and Sharra’s. He took his usual route, the one she had told him to take. At first he thought it was strange that she had it scoped out and could rattle off the intricate path with ease. But he figured she was a big enough star, she probably used it herself to avoid the paparazzi. As he made his way through the trash filled alley ways, he found it hard to picture Sharra letting her thousand dollar heels come within even an inch of the retched sludge that flowed through the alley. On second thought, there was no way Sharra had ever stepped foot back here.
      After passing the second homeless man passed out amongst heaps of garbage Mack stopped.
      “What the hell am I doing?” he said out loud. It finally hit him. He realized the truth in the situation. She was in control. She doled out her time as she saw fit. It was always in private, always kept hush hush, and almost always on her terms. The power struggle between them was all for show. In reality, they both knew who held the upper hand. There was no question.
      Mack kicked a pile of trash.
      This ends now, he told himself. Sharra was good in bed. Really good. But no chick was good enough to warrant being played like a whipping boy. He started to rehearse his speech as he made his way to the back entrance of the high-rise condo building. He’d put her in her place.
      Doesn’t she know who I am? She can’t walk all over me like that. Telling me to “come here” “do this” “go there,” and expect me to obey. I’m not her puppy or some love sick little kid. I’m one of the biggest names in the game. I can get any chick I want and it is about damn time she recognizes that and shows some respect.
      By the time he got to her door, he had worked himself up into a huff. He puffed out his chest and steeled his nerves. The moment Sharra opened the door he opened his mouth to talk but the words seemed to get lost in throat. Nothing came out. He didn’t tell her she had to start coming to him. He couldn’t articulate that he was not her boy toy. He couldn’t even put her in her place about making him take the back entrance.
      Seeing her in nothing but one of his tour t-shirts and heels made his mind go completely blank. She pulled him into her penthouse apartment and he happily followed.

~~~

The smell of bacon woke him. Mack groggily rubbed his eyes to pull himself from his slumber. He rolled over to find the other half of the bed was vacant. A quick check of his cell phone showed six missed calls. He didn’t even bother to check who they were from. He could guess they were all from his management for skipping out on that meeting. He groaned to himself thinking about having to deal with them.
      For a moment, he thought of getting it over with and calling them back then. If he was going to get yelled at, it might as well be when he’s in a good mood. But again, the smell of breakfast cooking pulled at his attention. He checked the clock. It was four in the afternoon.
      He threw his phone on the bed and put on his jeans. A quick search of the floor proved fruitless for finding his shirt. He assumed it was in the living room, or hallway. It was hard to say. Everything was a blur once the front door had closed. It was a frantic mix of skin and passion. His heart raced replaying the bits in his mind he could focus on.
      Sharra was in the kitchen when he found her, humming as she cooked. She had on over-sized sweat pants, a loose fitting t-shirt, and her hair was up in a messy bun. It was a new look for her. Mack couldn’t think of a single time he had seen the singer when she wasn’t completely dolled up or aggressively dressed. As he watched her for a moment from the hallway he couldn’t help but think she was beautiful. Not sexy, not sultry, not hot; beautiful. There was something about her when she was toned down and real that made her more stunning.
      “Strange time for breakfast, no?” he asked.
      Sharra shrugged but didn’t look up from the pan. She never felt the need to explain herself. It was one of the things Mack liked best about her. She was confident to no end. Sharra was who she was; take it or leave it.
      “Any for me?” Mack saddled up at the bar stool across from the range.
      “You eat pork right?” she asked very seriously.
He gave a hardy laugh from deep within his gut. It wasn’t what he had expected her to say. He nodded.
      “Because this ain’t no turkey bacon, good for you shit. This is the real deal,” Sharra warned.
      “I eat bacon,” he answered with a chuckle.
      “Good. It’ll be ready in five.” She waved the spatula at him as she spoke.
      Mack was mesmerized watching her move through her grand kitchen with ease, humming as she did. It was a side of her he had never seen and something about it took him off guard.
      It felt real.
      Not that what they had been doing hadn’t been real, but it had been completely different. Everything up to this point was more like a torrid love affair: hot, heavy, and secretive. They had been sneaking around, hiding from the press, and even lying to their own people about where they had been. Their encounters were brief with a sense of urgency that was exhilarating.
      But this was different. They slept in the same bed together. They ate together. It was what people did when they were in a relationship.
      He let the idea rattle around in his head: a relationship. He thought of their life together; what their future would look like. Eventually they would both finish their albums and it would be time to leave the city. Then they would both be on tour, likely on the other side of the globe from one another at any given time. They would have to make special trips to spend time together. They could video chat when apart, but that would only give them a small sense of comfort. The press would eat their relationship alive. Stories would be run that they both would know were false, but it would put enough doubt in their minds to start eating away at whatever trust they had built up between them. Eventually, they would implode. Hopefully it would happen before they did something crazy like get married or have a kid. And when they did eventually fall apart, they would have to release a joint statement saying something along the lines of “We are still the best of friends, but realize that we couldn’t give each other the time and attention the other deserved for a relationship.”
      A Relationship, he mused again. A foul taste formed in his mouth. If this became a relationship, it would be completely ruined.
      He knocked his knuckles a few times on the counter.
      “Hey, I gotta bounce,” he said.
      Sharra looked up with a questioning glace but didn’t say anything.
      Mack offered no explanation.
      “I’ll see ya,” he said as he gathered the rest of his clothing and headed for the door.

Track 12: Take Care

Track12buttonShe got dressed faster than most men do when they are trying to skip out on a one night stand. Mack didn’t say anything as he watched. He was too worn out and over taken with ecstasy to complain. He had fantasized about being with her but never in the furthest stretches of him mind could he have imagined how intense their encounter would be.
      “You want to grab a bite to eat or somethin’?” He finally pulled himself together enough to ask.
      Sharra paused for a minute. The look was so fast, so subtle, that Mack couldn’t be sure he saw it at all. But for a fraction of a second he could have sworn both panic and sadness crossed her face. As soon as he saw it, her normal confident expression returned.
      “Gotta run,” she said gathering the last of her things and heading for the door. She waved slightly and then she was gone.
      Mack fell back on to the couch once more and let the last bits of afterglow settle over him. It was almost 7:30 a.m. and he had been up all night working on tracks for the album. Finally, his mind was at ease enough to allow him to drift off to sleep.

~~~

Amika entered the studio with all the pomp and fan-fair that one of expect from the international superstar. Forget that she had known Mack since the beginning. And forget the fact that this was a low key, no frills studio. She came in with her manager, assistant, publicist, two security guards, and three best friends. There was hardly enough space in the cramped room to fit her entire entourage and the people required for recording: the producer, sound engineer, and Mack.
      “What, no mom?” Mack taunted.
      “Boy shut your face and give me a hug.” Amika was bouncing with excitement greeting her old friend. After their hug she stepped back and smacked him with her handbag on his shoulder.
      “Ow! What did you do that for?” Mack hollered.
      Amika did it again. And then a third time. “First you didn’t even have the decency to tell me you were leaving. Then I have to find out from my management that I need to fly all the way to New York to finish our tracks. What the hell?” She hit him a fourth time for good measure.
      “Alright! Alright! I’m sorry. I had to get out of town. Switch it up for a bit. Ya know?” Mack said defensively.
      Amika’s expression quickly changed from fake mad to genuinely understanding. “I know, boo.”
      “Plus, don’t act like it’s a big deal for you to come all the way to New York. You are from here! You come home all the time.”
      “Boy, don’t even start.” She smacked him again playfully. “Ok. What are we working on?”
      They started by playing the tracks that Amika was set to do a guest verse on. She had been sent them in advance, so it wasn’t the first time, but things always sound different in the studio. It was never a bad idea to listen to everything once more before heading into the booth. Before they went on, she asked to hear the rest of the album. Mack agreed, letting her listen to the four completed tracks.
      As one played over the sound system, she pointed to the speaker. “Is that Sharra?”
      Mack nodded to the beat in response.
      “I didn’t know she was doing the hook for you on that one? Last I heard it you were going to use one of the new chicks from Wild ‘n’ Rich.”
      “I was. But Sharra fit the piece better.” He shrugged. There was a lot of politics that went into making music. Sometimes, labels would want to use their big name stars to help catapult the newer talent into relevance. Sometimes, having two huge names on a track was better for everyone even if the artists were from different labels. It was all a balancing act that Mack tried to stay out of as much as possible.
      “I can tell,” Amika conceded. She paused for a minute and took a quick breath as if she wanted to say something but was stopping herself. “I’ll catch up with you all later, okay?” she said to her crew. It wasn’t a question but more of a pleasantly worded command. They were being told to take a hike. Amika waited for the last member to file out then she turned her stare to the sound crew. Apparently, she expected the producer and engineer to follow suit. They did without hesitation, fearing her notorious temper.
      After the last person left the room, she turned her attention to Mack. “You’re screwing her, aren’t you?”
      “Whoa! What? Where did that…? I’m not even…” he stumbled over his words.
      “So you are screwing her. You are dumber than I thought. Jesus, Mack. You know she’s still with that DJ, right? What the hell are you thinkin’ messin’ with that chick? She is crazy.”
      “Hey, don’t even front like you know what’s goin’ on in her life. You don’t even know her,” Mack countered.
      “I know of her and that’s enough. That is one bad bitch. You need to get your head outta your ass and stop seeing her.” Amika snapped her head to the side and waved her finger in his face as if she was telling him off. When Amika got mad, her ghetto roots showed through. Her wardrobe might have been Rodeo Drive, but her temper was definitely all Queens.
      A voice at the back of the room grabbed both their attention. “You his mother now or somethin’?”
      “Sharra, it’s…” Mack tried to find the words to explain but before he could Amika was on her feet in the Sharra’s face.
      “I ain’t his mother but I care about his ass.” Her words bit. Even with heels Amika had to stare up at the songstress. But she didn’t let the height difference intimidate her. She was never one to back down from a fight.
      “Easy girl,” Sharra mocked.
      “Alright. Alright. Ladies. Hold on now.” Mack was on his feet in an instant, putting himself in between the two women. He was half expecting the pair to each remove their earrings and throw down in the studio. He turned so he was just facing Amika, leaving Sharra to stare daggers at the back of his skull. “What the hell is wrong with you?” he demanded through clenched teeth.
      Amika pursed her lips and rolled her eyes. “She started it.”
      Sharra started to protest, but Mack raised his hand to silence her. “Meeks, stop. Thank you for your concern, but I’m a big boy. I can handle myself. Okay?” When there was no reply he said it again. This time it was less like asking and more like telling. “Okay?”
      “Yeah. A’ight. You do you,” Amika finally said. She returned to her seat and dramatically collapsed.
      Mack rolled his eyes. He returned his attention to Sharra. “Can I talk to you outside?”
      She folded her arms and followed him out of the room but didn’t respond.
      “Look, I don’t know how much you heard but just forget about it. Meeks is a good friend of mine. She’s just trying to look out for me. She’s been there with me all through the Alisha days. Ya know what I mean?”
      “I feel ya,” Sharra admitted. They walked a ways further before she spoke again. “She really did a number on you didn’t she? I’ve read the songs you wrote about her. That’s some real shit right there.”
      Mack let her statement hang in the air. She wasn’t wrong. The lyrics he wrote about Alisha were the most honest words he had ever penned. He left his heart on those tracks. “That’s the problem with rapping: people feel like they know you, like they know your life.”
      “But it’s true with you. You put it all out there. That’s why people connect with you,” she continued. When they reached the end of the hallway, they stood in front of the rear exit to the studio. “Here’s the thing. I’m not looking to be your next Alisha and I’m sure you don’t want to be my next Silas. I’m not going to dick you around, or lie to you. I’m not going to hurt you. Let’s not screw this up by bringing our pasts into it, yeah?”
      He knew all about her ex-boyfriend Silas the DJ. Their relationship had played out on the front page of every tabloid around the world. Her pasts didn’t bother him. Like Sharra pointed out, they each had one.
      “Yeah. That sounds good to me.”
      Just before Sharra exited, a thought hit Mack. “Hey, what’s up with you and Amika anyway?”
      Sharra laughed and shrugged. “I may or may not have slept with her man.”
      “You did not?! Damn! Now I’m going to have to go back and deal with that? You set me up. Jesus, you are a bad bitch,” he mocked with a smile. Sharra winked as she disappeared into her town car.

Track 11: A Night Off

Track11buttonThe air couldn’t be considered “fresh” by any stretch of the imagination, but that was the feeling it gave him. Fresh. A fresh perspective. A fresh start. A fresh outlook. It was exactly what he had needed. As Mack walked the streets of the Lower East Side, he took in the hot city stench, and breathed out relief. Moving to New York, getting lost in the city, and working with almost whole new team in the studio had thrown him so far out of his comfort zone that he had landed in the perfect head space to finally work on his album.
      He had to give Trina credit. By the time he had landed, she had already set up transportation and found him a fully furnished apartment to live in. His clothes arrived in boxes less than two hours after he did. Within a day, studio time was booked and the best musicians and sound engineers in the state were ready to work with him. Even his producer, Dime, was on the way across country. It felt like things where finally coming together.
      Mack checked the address one more time before pushing open the glass door with newspaper taped up over it. There was no sign, but the street number was right, so it had to be it. He made his way up the narrow stairwell to the landing one story up. Of the two doors, he went through the one on the right which had a sign that read “Garnet Photography.” The door to the left had no sign, as the glass had been completely smashed out.
      The lobby was small, echoing the cramped feeling of the stairwell. There was a single desk where a young woman, no older than 21, sat with a laptop and a cell phone. There weren’t even chairs to sit in. There was no space for them.
      The woman continued to busily type on her computer. She didn’t even look up as she addressed him. “Mack?”
      “Yeah…” he hesitantly confirmed.
      “They are around the corner in the first studio on the left. Please let me know if I can get you anything. My name is Heidi.”
      Mack left the strange receptionist and made his way to the correct studio. It was a scene he was used to, having had numerous photo shoots himself for album covers and promos. It seemed like there were never enough photos. It was the one thing he was always being hounded to do. It was also his least favorite thing. Thankfully, this was not a shoot for him.
      He stood off to the side, not wanting to interrupt the process. The instant he saw her, his blood began to pump faster. As he watched the subject move, his temperature began rising and the room was starting to feel hotter than the city streets he had just stepped off of.
      There must have been twenty people in the room including makeup artist, hairstylist, regular stylist, the photographer and his three assistants, and then her manager and support team. But Mack didn’t even notice them. He couldn’t take his eyes off her.
      She was mesmerizing.
      She moved with a purpose and without permission or forgiveness. She oozed confidence and it was intensely sexy. Sharra knew exactly what she wanted the camera to capture, that much was clear. She knew just how to tilt her head, how to contort her body, how to stare down the lens to give off the image she desired. There was no doubt about it: Sharra was in absolute control of everything and everyone in the room.
      Mack was still hanging back in the shadows when they locked eyes. Sharra didn’t stop moving for the camera as she held his gaze. It felt like she had reached across the room straight in to his chest, and squeezed something inside him so tightly he was paralyzed. Mack knew right then, he was in trouble. In an instant, he was like everyone else surrounding them: at Sharra’s mercy.
      “Shit,” he muttered to himself. It was his big mouth that landed him here, square in her sights. He had been the one demanding to work with the young, fiery Pop Star. What did I get myself into?
      “I’m Sharra,” she purred with a thick island accent. Mack had been too lost in thought to realize she had made it all the way across the room to him.
      “Mack,” he managed to stammer out.
      “Thanks for coming down here. I know it’s short notice, but to be fair, you didn’t give me much notice either.” Sharra used a small towel to wipe the beads of sweat from her neck and face. The bright lights mixed with the multi-hour shoot was harder work than it looked. It was like running a marathon in six-inch heels.
      “Yeah. My bad about that. Just thought we should meet first if we are going to be working together.”
      Sharra paused and looked Mack up and down. She was sizing him up, but for what, Mack wasn’t sure. He instantly felt self-aware and subsequently self-conscious. He questioned his clothing choice, the way he was standing, and if his breath was fresh enough. For some strange reason, it felt like more than a simple collaboration rode on this meeting. Whatever job Sharra was vetting him for, Mack wanted. Even if he had no clue what it was.
      When she seemed satisfied, she continued. “Okay, great. I’m slammed this week, but next week is looking like I’ll be in the studio every day. Maybe you can stop by? See what you think you can do?”
      It felt like a playful challenge; like she was calling out his abilities. It made Mack wonder if she had really been looking to work with him or if that is a rumor Big Man had created. Once again, Mack found himself uneasy.
      “I think I can make that happen. I’ll have my assistant get in touch with yours,” he said with some bravado, trying to regain ground. He instantly felt stupid. Having an assistant meant nothing. Everyone had an assistant. How was that supposed to make me sound cool?
      Sharra laughed and raised her eyebrows. “You do that, hot shot. See ya then.”
      And with that, she left Mack alone in the corner kicking himself.

~~~

“I don’t know what you want me to tell you, but it’s just not there.” Sharra twisted her face in disgust. She waved her hands at the soundboard. “This shit? It’s ain’t shit.”
      Mack took his headphones off in the booth and draped them around his neck. It was the best verse he had written in weeks. He had heard the Pop Star was a pill to work with, but never expected her to come down on his lyrical abilities.
      “You got something better you’d rather me say?” Mack bit back his tongue. This wasn’t the typical way these things went. Collaborations usually involved the main artist recording the track and the feature artist doing their spot. End of story.
      Sharra took a deep breath, squeezed her eyes tightly shut, and shook her head. “Everyone out. I need a minute.”
      Mack cursed under his breath. If he had any say, this would be the last time he worked with the diva. He set the headphones down on the stool and started to exit the recording space.
      “Not you, stupid ass,” Sharra hollered at him. She joined him in the booth. Her arms were folded as she stared him down. She waited for the last of her staff to leave and they were all alone. “You the best rapper alive, huh?”
      “What?” Mack didn’t know what to make of the attack.
      “That’s what your track says. That’s what I’m to believe, right? You da best. No one’s better.”
      Mack took a step back, trying to find his bearings. He looked around as if he was seeking support, only to realize they were alone. Suddenly, he felt cornered and defenseless. He started to wonder if Sharra was as crazy as all the tabloids would have him believe. Is she going to try to jump me or something?
      Instead of responding, he shrugged.
      “Well, I don’t care. No one does,” she told him condescendingly. “And even if they did, that’s not what this track is about. Here, listen to it again.”
      Sharra exited the booth and went back to the soundboard. She played the track back again from the top, but with just the instrumental. When she came back into the booth, she sang her part directly to Mack. Their eyes locked as she did and Mack felt completely anchored. He couldn’t have looked away or even moved if he wanted. She had her hooks in him. Her voice pulled at his being and at once, he understood what she had been trying to say. The song wasn’t about him. It wasn’t about her. It wasn’t even about them. It was about that intangible vibe, that unexplainable pull between two people: chemistry. It was a topic he was becoming intimately familiar with just from being around Sharra.
      Mack started to nod. “I got you.”
      Sharra smiled and called her team back in. “If you got me, then get me.”

~~~

Mack sank deeper into the worn leather couch in the dimly lit studio. Everything was quiet and still around him. The only noise that filled the space was the scratching of his pen on paper. He had been so lost in his writing he didn’t notice the door open and a familiar face slip in.
      “Are you still here?” Sharra asked, her face twisted in confusion. She lifted her oversized designer sunglasses and placed them on top of her head.
      Mack looked up to see the young songstress in high heels, skintight leather leggings and a crop top with Madonna’s face on it. Her trademark deep red lips and smoky eye shadow were still holding even after a night of clubbing.
      “What time is it?” he asked halfheartedly.
      “Six a.m.”
      Mack hadn’t left all night. The studio was the only place he could get work done. It was the only place quiet enough he could hear his own thoughts. New York was an amazing city, but it was much louder than he could have ever imagined. The quietness of the studio allowed him to focus on his words without distraction. It also helped that no one was around to distract him.
      “What are you doing here?”
      “Forgot my phone.” She pursed her lips as she answered. He nodded.
      She gave him a knowing look. They had been working together for the past few weeks and already it felt like they had known each other for years. Although the chemistry between them was both tangible and intense, there was something more. It was like an unexplainable force surrounded the two, heightening both their creative intuitions, and drawing out the best work from both of them. They fed off each other’s energy and wrote together for hours. They were each acting as the other’s muse in a way and the results were pure gold. The only other person he worked this well with was Amika, but that was because they were friends.
      Sharra, on the other hand, was no friend. She was a danger; a disaster waiting to happen. She was the type of woman who would eat him up and spit him out, broken into tiny pieces. She was excitement and sex wrapped up in a tight package. He wanted nothing to do with her, and wanted everything from her in the same breath.
      “Can’t go home can you?”
      “Naw, it’s not like that. I just lost track of time.” He waved her off. He knew what she was getting at. Sharra had pushed him to write about Alisha. It made for great music but unfortunately for him, dredging up the recent past and pouring it out on paper was like reliving the heartbreak again and again. It was another reason why he hated being in his apartment. It was lonely there and she haunted the halls even though she had never stepped foot in the place.
      “Lost track of time? Till six a.m.? Doubtful.” Sharra questioned.
      “About as doubtful as you leaving your phone. It’s practically another appendage to you.”
      She waltzed over to the soundboard, grabbed a small gold object and waved it at him as proof. There was a lusty playfulness in her eyes that made him question if she had come for the phone at all. His gut told him that he knew what she had come for. The tension between the two of them had been building for weeks. It was undeniable although neither of them had so much as mentioned it. Mack didn’t want to ruin the damn near magical creative connection between them. Plus, he had been nursing his broken heart and hadn’t wanted to risk the sting of rejection if she had turned him down.
      His mind began to race through all the possible courses of action, all the possible outcomes. They worked together and things could get messy. He forced his brain to shut up. This was the perfect chance to distract him and, get lost in something else outside of his own head for a while. For once he didn’t look into the future. He didn’t picture them together forever, or even tomorrow. All that mattered was that moment.
      He took a chance. Without a word, he walked to the door of the studio and clicked the lock over. Sharra watched him carefully but didn’t protest. He took her over-sized purse and set in on a chair, never breaking eye contact. For a moment, they stood inches apart, breathing in each other’s scent, waiting for the other to make a move. She was accustomed to men throwing themselves at her, begging to get a chance with her. She was always desired, always in control. Mack wanted her to doubt his intentions for a moment. He wanted her to question whether he would act and whether she would get what she came for.
      In one quick motion, he grabbed her thighs and lifted her around his waist. He let the moment linger. The energy flowing between them was electrifying. For a second, he let her yearn for him. When he finally went in for a kiss, it was everything he had hoped for, nothing short of fireworks. Suddenly, the fatigue from sleepless hours drifted away, and he felt alive again.
      He kissed her hard with urgency behind his lips. Now that he had her, it was as though something in his body was suddenly made aware of the one thing it always wanted. Passion and hunger ignited deep in him. He couldn’t get enough of her taste. Sharra ran her sharp nails through his hair, scraping his scalp. It sent tingles down his spine.
      Mack carried her across the room. He didn’t loosen his grip on her backside as she dropped her feet to the ground. Her heels clicked against the tile. She exhaled as she looked into his eyes. Sharra placed her hands against his chest, feeling it rise and fall with raspy, heavy breaths. A wicked smirk crossed her face. She pushed him hard into the couch and climbed on top of him.

Track 10: Doing it Wrong

Track10buttonSlowly, his anger subsided. Somewhere between the studio and the small apartment they shared it was replaced by an overwhelming feeling of dread and sorrow. There was no telling what he’d come home to. Will she even be here? Will all my stuff be destroyed? He was determined to face it head on, no matter what he had to face. It had to end here. They couldn’t keep going on this way. Neither of them was happy. He knew it. She knew it.
      Her bags greeted him, lined up neatly in the living room, ready to be whisked away. They looked full, like she had already packed, not like she was threatening to. Silently, he made his way through their place like he was walking through a cemetery, afraid to disturb the relics of their past. All around him in the small space were memories of their time together—her favorite blanket draped over the couch, framed photos of them on the end table, the gossip magazines they would read together piled on the floor.
      When he finally found her she was sitting on the edge of the bed. Her hair was pulled back revealing her puffy eyes and red cheeks from hours of crying. He tightened his expression, determined not to let his emotions seep through. He sat on the bed next to her, being sure to leave enough space between them so they wouldn’t be touching. There had to be a way to start this conversation, but the words escaped him. For a long time, they sat quietly next to each other, each in their own sadness as they realized this was it—for good this time. They had failed again at being together. This time had been less than six months. Each time they did, it felt worse than they last. They broke harder, hurt deeper. Mack didn’t know how much more pain either of them could endure.
      Her quiet sobs pierced his ears and stabbed him in his chest, but he didn’t attempt to comfort her. He clenched his knee tightly to keep from reaching out to hold her. It was all he wanted to do, but it wasn’t the right thing. If he had, he would have undoubtedly tried to patch things up yet again. He couldn’t allow that to happen. As she cried, he knew all she had to say was “I love you,” and he would stay.
      “You can stay as long as you want. I have a hotel,” he stood to leave. He knocked on the door frame lightly before walking out completely. “Goodbye, Alisha.”

~~~

One night had turned to two and then a whole week. Mack had even considered never coming back to the apartment. He could have Trina arrange for all his things to be moved, scrubbing traces of Alisha out of his life in the process. That would have been a far easier route.
      Mack quietly set his keys on the entryway table and listened to the stillness in the vacant home. He felt the emptiness echo in his heart.
      She was gone.
      He went from room to room, checking to be certain. All the clothes were gone from the closet. The shoes she left scattered through the place had all been removed. Even the bathroom counters, once cluttered with her makeup bags, were barren.
      Breaking up might have been the right thing, but that didn’t make it any less difficult. As Mack stared at the half empty closet, he realized that maybe it was time for something new. He grabbed his keys and left, calling Trina on the way out.
      “Does Wild ‘n’ Rich still have that studio space in New York?” he asked before she could even greet him. He hadn’t been to the studios since he first signed onto the label. Back then, he was only working on a mix tape and living in the cheapest apartment he could find.
      “Hello to you too,” Trina replied, her words dripping with sass.
      Mack wasn’t in the mood to cater to someone who worked for him, even if he did consider Trina one of his closest friends. He waited for her to snap out of it.
      Trina sighed on the other end of the phone. Mack could practically hear her rolling her eyes. “Yeah. They got it. Why?”
      “Book it. Get me a place out there. I’m going to need the next flight out. I hate this damn city. Screw L.A. I need to get outta here.”
      “Okay…so you want me to tell the whole team to what? Pick up everything and move to New York to finish the album? Are you outta your damn mind?”
      “If they don’t want to move, I’ll get someone new. It ain’t like there aren’t a thousand people dying to work with me. Didn’t Sharra just strong arm Manny into producing her next album?”
      “Well, yeah. But what does that have to do with anything?” Trina was taken aback by the sudden change of topic.
      “I want her on one of my tracks. Have Manny set it up. I’ll do a verse or something for her. I think the collabo is just what the album needs.”
      “Mack, are you alright?” she asked after a long pause.
      “Fine. Just get someone over to the condo to pack up my stuff. I don’t have time to deal with this bullshit. Just…just tell me you’ll handle it.” Mack sank into the driver seat of his car and slammed the door. The tension in his shoulders started to release. It felt good to take control. The more he thought about it, the more he liked the idea. A new city, a new start, and maybe even a new sound. It would be good for him, and his music. His album had stalled ever since he and Alisha had started having troubles again. A reboot was exactly what he needed.

Track 9: Let’s Call it Off

Track9buttonMack zipped up the last of his luggage and looked over the hotel room. It told the secrets of last night. The alarm clock had been knocked on the floor and was now under the window. He picked up the stack of magazines that had fallen from the coffee table when they collided with it as they made out across the small space. The bed was a mess and sheets were untucked and askew. It was empty when he woke. Somehow Alisha had snuck out in the early morning hours while he dozed peacefully. It had been the first good night sleep he had gotten in months.
      The last thing he had to pack was his notepad. He reread the words he wrote in the moments just before he closed his eyes as she laid on his shoulder. For a moment, he thought about texting them to her. Eventually, he concluded she didn’t need a reminder of last night. She didn’t need to be told she cheated, or that she fell back into the same pattern. He didn’t need to be reminded of it either. He waded through his murky emotions, unsure of where he stood. Perhaps it was for the best for them that he left town without trying to reach her.
      A knock on the door pulled him up short.
      “I want to try again,” Alisha said unprompted after he opened the door.
      Mack didn’t know how to react. He didn’t know what he had been expecting, or what he wanted for that matter. Last night was amazing, sure, but did I do it to get her back. Do I want her back?
      “Hear me out. Spring semester ends in two weeks. I can take the summer off, come with you, and we can really give this a go. Don’t we owe it to ourselves to at least try?”
      “You’ll come out on the road with me?” he said surprised. Last time they tried this it was disastrous, but suddenly it was the furthest thing on his mind. His gut pulled at him. Something didn’t feel right, but he pushed the feeling aside. How could he not want more nights like last night?
      She nodded eagerly.
      “Okay.”
      “Let’s make it official,” she winked and nodded her head towards the messed up bed.
      They had broken up over a year and a half ago, but their bodies moved as if they were never estranged. His fingers remembered every inch of her as they grazed over her curves. His lips traveled knowingly to her favorite spots. Between the twisted sheets and roving hands, Alisha felt her heart slip from her chest right into Mack’s hands as if she had never taken it back.

~~~

Mack held his head in his hands as he stared over the soundboard. The switches and dials lit up with various colors as he listened to the play back of his latest song. His leg twitched anxiously. It was the fourth track he laid down in the last week, and he hated it even more than all the others.
      “This shit is terrible,” he grumbled.
      “Naw, man. It ain’t that bad,” Dime, the producer, tried to console him.
      “It ain’t good either,” Amika snipped under her breath. Everyone else in the room besides Mack shot daggers her way. She shrugged dismissively. “Look, my name is on the track, too.”
      Mack’s phone chimed for seemingly the hundredth time that day. Everyone groaned. No doubt it was Alisha once again wondering where he was and who he was with. He ignored the text. It chimed again. Frustration boiled up inside him. He was reaching his breaking point and didn’t know how much more of her possessive ways he could put up with.
      “It’s shit. I just need to clear my head. It keeps being the same lame crap again and again.” What the hell is wrong with me?
      A familiar ringtone filled the small studio. Alisha had upgraded from texting to calling. Mack gripped his phone tightly. He could feel something in him snap. Without warning he launched the small object across the room into the brick wall, shattering it. Tiny shards of plastic and electronic bits scattered on the floor and the room fell silent.
      “That ain’t good for you man. No wonder you’re writing such crap. You need to get your head right,” Dime finally said.
      Mack knew he was right. Ever since he and Alisha started fighting again, his music had suffered. It wasn’t working. It felt like they were back to two years ago; the last time it all fell apart. Relationship whiplash was the best way he could put it. They were either extremely happy, hard to pry apart, or were at each other’s throats. How did they always seem to jump over that coveted middle ground where everything worked and life was easy together? He sighed deeply. It was clear now what had to happen.
      “Trina, can I borrow your phone?” he asked calmly.
      “Not if you are going to do that to it.”
      “I just…I won’t. Please. Can I borrow your phone?” He held out his hand expectantly. Hesitantly, his assistant complied.
      Outside in the parking lot he dialed a number he knew by heart.
      “Hello?” Alisha answered.
      “It’s me. Look, we need to talk,” he started.
      “Whose phone are you calling me from?” she cut him off before he could continue. The edge in her voice gave away her frustration.
      “Trina’s. Hey…”
      “Why aren’t you using your own phone?”
      “I broke it. It’s…it’s not important.”
      “Why did you break your phone? Is that why you haven’t been texting me back?”
      “No, I haven’t been texting you back because you are annoying the hell out of me. What has gotten into you lately? Seriously, Alisha, you were never like this before. I feel like I can’t move without you breathing down my neck or trying to get a hold of me every five seconds.”
      “I’m sorry if I just want to know where you are.”
      “You know where I am, for Christ’s sake. I’m at the studio where I’ve been for the last week. That’s all I do. Studio, then spend time with you.”
      “Is Amika there?”
      Mack went silent. He bottled in a scream and forced himself not to throw Trina’s phone across the parking lot. He clenched his jaw tight and spoke through his teeth, “Is that what this is about? You don’t trust me?”
      The first time they broke up, Mack had lied and said he had cheated on her. Even though he had since come clean, Alisha never truly believed him. That trust had been broken and had never fully mended.
      “Don’t act like I haven’t seen the pictures, Mack. I know you two are getting cozy.”
      “Now I know you are tripping. We are on the same label. She’s my best friend out here.”
      “Well is she there?” Alisha snapped as if his answer would prove anything.
      “Of course, she is here. We are in the studio. You know, where I work. She’s laying down her verse for a new song. You know that. We are just working.”
      “Like I’m supposed to believe that.”
      “You’re supposed to believe it because it’s true!” he growled. “Are you going to freak out every time I work with another artist? For Christ’s sake, Alisha, this is my job. You know what? That’s it. This isn’t working. I’m done. We’re calling this off. I’m out. You win. It’s over.”
      Alisha suddenly went silent on the other end of the line.
      “Fine,” she said coldly after a long silence.
      “Fine,” he repeated. Before she had a chance to speak again, he hung up the phone and walked back into the studio.
      “Everything okay, boo boo?” Amika asked.
      Mack shook his head. Amika had been there by his side since day one. They were record mates and close friends. He should tell her what was going on. She would completely understand, but he had no desire to talk about any of it.

Track 8: Don’t You Have a Man

Track8button“Girl, you sure you want to do this? We don’t have to. I promise I won’t be mad or nothin’. We can just go to the show or another club or something. I appreciate that you got the passes. We don’t have to use them,” Cameron stammered.
      “For the hundredth time, it’s fine. We’re cool now. I told you. We broke up almost a year and a half ago. We are friends now. I told you. It’s nothing. You said you wanted to go to a Mack show for your bachelorette, so that’s what you’re going to get, boo. Only the best for my best friend.” Alisha gave her hand a reassuring squeeze.
      “And what did Tre have to say about you going to the show?” she asked cautiously.
      “He said it was fine,” she told a half-truth. Tre, her boyfriend of four months, was fine with her going to the Mack show because he didn’t know about their history. She was certain if he did, he would have objected to it. She conveniently failed to mention that fact. It was her best friend’s bachelorette weekend in Miami, and she wasn’t going to let anything ruin their party.
      “Just through here,” the security guard pointed them into an unmarked room.
      Inside was a surprisingly relaxed environment for backstage at a concert. A few people milled about, most on phones or computers. Wardrobe racks lined the perimeters around the small cluster of couches. There were a few stations in the back with mirrors and light for the makeup artists to work. Mack sat in the chair with his back to the door. He noticed her immediately through the mirror when she entered the room. A smile crept across his face.
      “Hey you,” he said as he turned to greet her. The makeup artist put her brushes down to let him up.
      “Hey!” Alisha exclaimed excitedly. He gave her a brief hug. She felt the slights pang of hurt in her chest. It had been a difficult adjustment stepping down from lovers to friends but what was harder was not having him in her life at all. After that night six months ago, they started talking again; first by text, then by phone. It was easier to rebuild a friendship from a distance. There was less risk of getting hurt when all one had to do was hang up to get away.
      In person, even being back in each other’s good graces was not enough to completely mask the old wounds. Every now and again, she’d catch a whiff of his cologne or see him smile a certain way and she would feel the absence of their relationship in her heart. Including the time at the park, this was only the fourth time she had seen him since their break up.
      Alisha smiled back at him. “Mack, you remember Cameron, Stacy, Vicky, and Becks.”
      “Ladies, glad you could make it. I hear a congratulation is in order,” he offered to Cameron who blushed brightly. “Well, I got to finish getting ready. You guys are going to be at the after party right?”
      The girls exchanged confused and excited glances.
      “What? You didn’t tell them about the after party?” He poked Alisha in her side. She shook her head and gave a knowing smirk. “Trina will get you the details. It’s mandatory you come.” He winked.
      As the rest of the girls enjoyed the open bottles of champagne, Alisha took a seat in the makeup chair next to Mack. “You didn’t have to do that, you know. Invite us out. You’ve already done so much.”
      He shrugged. “It’s what friends do.”
      The both smiled and nodded, satisfied with the explanation. The makeup artist dabbed colored powder on his nose and chin. It was strange, but he looked natural. Not his makeup, although Alisha could hardly figure out what exactly the effect was supposed to be, but his demeanor. Like this was where he was meant to be—back stage at a show getting ready to perform. For the seemingly hundredth time since they broke up, she found herself missing being the one he shared this with.

~~~

He stared down at her lips and tried to steady his pulse. He could feel his heart beat in every inch of his body. Excitement coursed through him so intensely he could hardly contain himself. The night was a blur. How had I ended up alone after we had taken so many precautions to keep things platonic? And yet here I am, by myself in the lobby bar.
      Her friends had called it a night, but Alisha couldn’t sleep. Mack, also restless after the energy fueled show and an equally invigorating after party, needed to unwind and slow down a little before he could head to bed. It had been pure luck that they both ventured down for a nightcap.
      Or had it?
      He had used his connections to provide Alisha and her friends with a suite at the same hotel he was staying. If he hadn’t wanted to run into her after hours, why would he have done that? Watching her slowly nurse her drink, Mack questioned his own intentions. Something stirred deep within him he thought had long since been snuffed out. They were friends now, weren’t they? He wasn’t so sure.
      The way her lips glistened with each sip of liquid, the grape lipstick left on the glass, it was almost too much for him. He swallowed hard and wiped the sweat from his brow. Resisting her was like trying to hold his breath. He could only do it for so long until succumbing to the need.
      She interlocked her fingers with his and opened her mouth to speak. Nothing came out. Instead she smiled and let out a small sigh. She could feel the heat radiating from his skin and smell his cologne. It was the one she had bought him many years ago. He still wore it. Alisha wondered what that meant. She wondered what she hoped it meant.
      She laughed in the breathy way that made Mack melt. It was a cruel torture to be so close to her, touching her even, and not being able to have her. She had a man, the two of them were finally friends again, and his career was taking off. Everything could come crashing down with that sexy, disarming, debilitating laugh.
      “We should get some sleep,” she whispered.
      Mack’s chest tightened. He bit his lip and shook his head. This was a good night.
      Alisha lingered longer than she should have. She didn’t let go of his hand of stand to leave. The voice in the back of her head reminding her of Tre had been drowned two drinks ago. The flashing danger signs warning her she was about to do something stupid were dim and out of focus. All she could see was Mack in the soft light of the bar. The way his smile was higher on one side, a devilish twinkle in his eye, the way he looked at her. Alisha couldn’t pull her gaze away.
      They both knew they should have stopped it then. They should have pulled their hands away and retreated back to the safety of their own rooms. Maybe they needed a few more months apart to let the chemistry between them smolder out.
      But he didn’t stop. He couldn’t stop. Instead, he leaned in and kissed her gently. The world didn’t come to a screeching halt, although he felt as though it could have. All that existed was the sweet taste of sweet cherry vodka on her lips. He kissed her harder, with more desperation than lust in his movements. The need for her was stronger than anything he had ever known.
      Screw what this would mean tomorrow, he thought to himself. All that matters is now. All that matters is the heat between us.
      He grabbed her by her hand and they raced down the hall. He fumbled in his pocket for the room key, his hands shaking as adrenaline raced through his system. Alisha rested her back against the wall and eyed him greedily.
      She should have stopped him, he thought, as they tumbled into the room.
      She should have stopped him as he grabbed her by her waist and pulled her in close.
      She should have stopped him as he tore off her shirt pulled her onto the bed.
      But she didn’t, so he didn’t.

Track 7: Say Somethin’

Track7button“This is Crazy Tony and you are on with the Tiger Morning show. We have a very special guest this morning. The one, the only, Mack is in the studio with us today.”
      “Hey, yo, thanks for having me,” Mack spoke into the microphone.
      “How does it feel to be back home now that you are a big celebrity?” the DJ asked.
      “It feels good, ya know. It’s been over a year. Sometimes it’s just good to come home.” Mack adjusted his headphones and took another sip of his energy drink. Being up before dawn was the one thing he hated about the job, but morning radio shows were a necessary evil when it came to promotion.
      “I bet, I bet. So, let’s talk about the mix tape. How the hell do you get a mix tape to be number one on the charts? I mean, you don’t have an album yet and you are blowin’ up. It seems like no one puts a track out these days without a verse from you,” Crazy Tony went on.
      “Well, no one hot, that’s for sure,” Mack joked cockily. “I mean, I’m just out there doin’ me. I’m blessed people are responding to it like we had hoped they would.”
      “Is it true you always write about your life? Do you think that’s why people are gravitating towards your music?”
      “Most definitely. All I can do is write about what I know. I put it out there because that’s real to me. That’s as real as it gets. No one cares who has the bigger chain or buys more bottles. That shit ain’t real.”
      “And you are real?” Tony asked.
      “The realest,” Mack answered confidently.
      “Speaking of real, when can we expect a real studio album from you?”
      “You know we’ve been in the lab working hard. Don’t worry. You’ll get it. I ain’t going to make you guys wait forever.”
      “Alright, alright. We have to check traffic, but when we return, we’ll be back in the studio with more from R&B sensation, Mack.”

“Did I get any messages?” Mack asked his assistant as they left the studio in his town car.
      Trina didn’t answer. She held his phone to her chest along with the day planner that was bursting with loose papers.
      Mack shot her an expression as if to ask “What?”
      “You aren’t going to like it,” she said hesitantly, but still didn’t surrender the rapper’s cell. “It’s from her.”
      It was a possibility, he knew, that he could run into Alisha while he was here. After a year without contact, the last thing he had expected was for her actually to reach out to him. It wasn’t a move he was prepared for.
      “Erase it,” he told Trina dismissively.
      “You don’t want to see it?”
      He shook his head.
      “Call the club and tell them I want two tables. Put it out on Twitter. Get some girls there. I want it on blast where I’m going to be tonight. Put her name on the guest list.”
      Trina was confused by the last instruction but wasn’t going to protest. She made the arrangements in the car while he closed his eyes and leaned his head back on the plush leather headrest. He knew that if she wanted to talk or to see him, she’d know how to find him.

~~~

The bouncer found her name and lifted the rope to let her in. The line for the club wrapped around the block. She had taken a chance and asked if she was on the guest list before waiting like everyone else. Something in her gut told her he might have added her even though he hadn’t replied to her texts.
      The club was packed. It didn’t take long to spot the young star surrounded by models in the VIP section. The girls looked like sharks circling their prey. Mack was no more than an endless pocketbook to them. They all wanted to stand out and be the one who took him home. He was a prize to be won.
      Alisha felt her stomach turn at the sight. It was sickening to see how women threw themselves at him; worse to know that it probably worked most of the time. If she left now, he would never know she came. He would never know she wanted to see him. A strange sense of failure washed over her. She was ashamed she had come. He was doing so well, living the life as she was struggling to pay for school. She had to work as a wedding planner and part time at a coffee shop to make ends meet. Here he was, buying bottle service for women he didn’t even know. The heat of jealousy started to rise from her gut, but she wasn’t entirely sure of the source. Is it his success, or the women he shared it with?
      Just before she turned to leave, Mack caught her eye across the club. He didn’t wave her over or even smile. He just waited for her to make a move. Time froze but only for the two of them. Neither of them budged; everything else continued around them. Alisha couldn’t force herself to head towards him. It didn’t feel right. It had been more than a year since they had seen each other or even spoken. This was not the place to reunite and she knew it.
      Mack watched as she pulled her cell phone out of the small clutch she was carrying and punch in something. She tucked it back in, gave him one last look, and turned to leave. Before he could make sense of the action, he felt his pocket vibrate.
      “Meet me at our spot,” the text read.
      He looked back and forth between her leaving and the message. A strange mix of paralyzing fear, intense curiosity, and a deep desire swirled in his gut. He wanted to run to her but also never wanted to see her again. He wanted to kiss her lips once more and erase her memory at the same time.
      “Come dance with me,” a sultry voice whispered in his ear, trying to pull him away from his thoughts. The sexy blonde leaned over and placed her hand on his thigh for support. She took the cell phone from his hand and tucked it into her cleavage.
      Mack ignored her and quickly stood to leave. He had to do something.
      “Where are you goin’, Papi?” the girl asked.
      He was too deep in a trace to respond. As he made his way to the exit, his assistant stopped him. “Are you leaving?”
      “Just put it on my card,” he answered a question that wasn’t even asked. He couldn’t give her his full attention. All that mattered was making it out of there. “And get my phone back.”

~~~

She didn’t see him approach. He came up from the backside of the park, not the front entrance that the swings faced. Mack watched her for a moment. It was almost surreal seeing her again after so long. For a moment, he wondered if she was there or if his heart and mind had teamed up to play a cruel trick on him, and he was simply hallucinating. Alisha kicked the pine mulch below her feet as she halfheartedly swung. The light from her phone cast a blue glow into the night. Surely she was checking the time again.
      “How long were you planning on giving me?” he called. Alisha turned her head to see him walk up the old path.
      She smiled despite herself, “Only two more minutes.”
      He held his hand to his chest and mocked being hurt, “That’s all I get? Two minutes? Ouch. I would have thought I was worth at least five.” As he joined her on the swing set he asked, “Does Brian know you are out here with me?”
      “We broke up.”
      He nodded.
      They sat for a long time without saying a word. The cool night air felt fresh on the skin. The city sounds all around them mixed with the crickets and critters of the night, yet somehow it still seemed silent. Both their minds raced, heavy with conversation, but nothing left their mouth. There was too much to say and not a good place to start. Instead, they swung side-by-side and tortured themselves with potential conversation.
      Eventually, Mack gave in. “I’m gunna go.”
      He stood before her, waiting for her to say something; for her to stop him. She didn’t. As she watched him walk away, she wondered how much she would grow to regret that moment. She kicked herself but still she didn’t call out for him. Why had she even asked me to meet her? What had she been planning on saying? The ball of guilt and sadness grew heavy in her stomach. Even after a year apart, it all still hurt too much.

Track 6: How About Now

Track6buttonHe flipped the scoreboard tiles in his brain, adding a number. Day 59. That meant it had been almost two months since the split. He absently wondered how many more days or even months it would take until it was at least bearable. He wasn’t even aiming to be happy or feel like himself. He just wanted one day where it wasn’t the first thing he thought about when he opened his eyes.
      Unfortunately, it was days like day 59, the empty calendar days, which made him acutely aware of his own emptiness. He knew Trina did her best to keep his schedule as packed as possible with appearances, interviews, and recording session with other artists, but even she couldn’t work miracles. There were bound to be some dead days where Mack was left with nothing to do but stare at the walls of the bland, cheap hotel room and think about her.
      Big Man had encouraged him to use his free time to work on tracks for his first studio album. The mix tape wouldn’t hold the public’s interest for long. For his freshman debut, he would have to put together something spectacular. He knew the importance of coming out of the gate strong and not just laying down great guest spots on other people’s songs. Putting out something of his own that could secure his place in the industry was what he needed to prove he was a true player in the rap game. He understood it. But that didn’t make writing any easier.
      Everything he had written for the past few years had been about her. Everything he wanted to say now was about her. And the last thing he wanted to think about was, of course, her.
      It seemed though, in every corner of his mind there Alisha was lurking. Great party anthem? There is Alisha in a metallic dress dancing like a fool to make me smile. Could I write some nonsense about being the best rapper out there? The public would eat it up but it only reminds me of the years she encouraged me to follow my dream instead of going to college like my aunt wanted. Song about finding the right girl? It was hard to envision anything more perfect than her cooking pancakes on a Saturday morning in her rolled up sweatpants and a ratty t-shirt. Perhaps a song about love lost? Well, those wounds were still far too fresh for me to want to poke around in, no matter what gold may come from it.
      Mack took a deep breath and cringed. The unpleasant tinge of stale beer and an equally stale room curdled in his nose. It had been too many days since he let housekeeping freshen up. Perhaps it was time. It was probably best to get out anyway. A change in scenery could do him good. He fumbled for his cell on the nightstand.
      “Hello?” She picked up on the third ring.
      “Hey, Meeks. You in town?” Mack asked.
      “Yeah. Why? Do we have a recording session or something? I don’t have it on the books. Let me call my assistant and figure out why it didn’t show up on my calendar.” Amika launched into a frantic train of thought.
      “Naw, naw. We don’t got nothin’ on the books. I was just callin’…well, I guess I was callin’ to see whatcha were doing today. Maybe we could chill.”
      Mack figured she was the only person here whose job wasn’t to keep him happy. Amika was, after all, the only person he knew who lived in New York City who didn’t work at the label. They had only known each other for a few months since they met back at Club Trap in Atlanta. Already they were becoming close friends. Since he left Atlanta, friends seemed to be the one thing on an extremely short supply. He hadn’t talked to anyone back home since he left so all he really had now was Trina, his assistant, Big Man, the label owner, and Amika. With a list that short, he was thankful she had answered her phone.
      Finally, after a long pause she answered. “Mack, you know it’s Sunday morning, right?”
      He didn’t know that. Frankly, the only reason he remembered what month it was, was that he knew it had been 59 days since he had split with Alisha. Beyond that, time had lost much of its meaning.
      “Yeah, sorry. Did I wake you?” He realized he hadn’t bothered to look at the clock.
“No, you didn’t. I just got out of the shower. We are heading out to service in a few.” She paused. Mack could hear the half sigh in her voice as she asked, “Do you want to come?”
      “To church?” he asked stupidly.
      He quickly tried to count how many years it had been since he last stepped foot in a place of worship. His family is what he would call “Holiday Christians.” When he was growing up, he went to church on Christmas and Easter and that was it. They didn’t say grace at the table. He never said prayers before bed. He had never been baptized or confirmed and didn’t know what either meant, truly.
      Mack took another deep breath in and questioned if it was the room that smelled or him. Without another moment’s hesitation he agreed to join Amika and her family. As quickly as he could, he showered and hopped in a cab.
      He walked along the sidewalk outside the large stone building searching for the familiar face. He would have walked right passed her had Amika not reached out and grabbed his arm. She looked nothing like she did in the studio or club, the only places he had really spent time with her before. She was dressed in a simple black shift with long sleeves. Her jewelry was understated and not the usual gaudy chains all rappers preferred. Her hair was tied in a low bun and her face was absent the fake eyelashes and bright pink lips she usually sported. She even wore flats. It was like she was a completely different person here.
      Amika brushed off his questioning looks and politely introduced him to her parents, grandmother, and two brothers. Along with the rest of the congregation, they filed slowly into the church, shaking hands with the greeters and taking programs for the day’s service. Once they sat down, Amika crinkled her nose.
      “You reek of booze,” she whispered over the murmurs as people settled into their pews.
      “I showered,” he responded defensively.
      She patted his arm, rolled her eyes, and gave him a halfhearted smile. “Just behave yourself. Grandma Mimi is cooking up supper after this. She usually goes all out, chicken, greens, cornbread. You name it. She’s making it. You should come.”
      Mack lowered his head and stared at his hands folded in his lap. He suddenly felt undeserving of her kindness and ashamed that he desperately needed it.
      “Thanks, Meeks. I…” he started to explain, but didn’t know how to finish.
      She shook her head dismissively. “I know.”
      Before they could say another word, the choir began belting out the first hymn of the day. Mack sat back and listened to every word of the service. He wasn’t a believer, but he was willing to try or even to pretend if it would keep his mind busy and away from thoughts of her.

Track 5: Paris Morton Music

Track5buttonThe rain soaked his light jacket as he walked along the path outside Alisha’s apartment. He hardly noticed. The fight replayed in his head, consuming every thought. The words burned into his memory. He wished he could take them back, every last one.
      Impulsively, he turned around and started to retrace his steps. He should go back. Tell her he was wrong. Tell her that he lied and that he hadn’t cheated on her. He would never do such a thing no matter how many issues they were having. Maybe she would forgive him and they could work it out. Maybe he could save this.
      He paused on the sidewalk. Save what? If I run back to Alisha’s what is it exactly that I am trying to fix? Is there anything between us that is even worth salvaging anymore? All we have done since she left the tour was bicker and argue. There was hardly a phone call recently that didn’t end in shouting.
      Another thought crossed his mind. Why did I lashed out like that? Sure, we have fought before, but never like that. A panicked fear washed over him. Some part of him wanted to hurt her. He knew how the venomous words would sting yet he said them anyway. He wanted to crush her before she had a chance to do the same to him. What kind of man am I becoming?
      Space, Mack thought. That is what they needed. That is what he needed. Space.
      He walked at a brisk pace, putting as much distance between himself and Alisha. Mack pulled out his cell and scrolled for the right contact.
      “Hello?” Trina answered after two rings.
      “Hey, T, it’s me. Can you arrange a flight out of here?”
      There was a moment of silence. Mack could practically hear the wheels in his assistant’s head cranking as she tried to figure out what had happened.
      “Yeah, I got you. Just head to the airport now. I’ll have a ticket waiting for you. You okay?”
      “Fine. Fine. Thanks, Trina. I’ll see you back in New York.” Mack ended the call before she could pry into his reasons for leaving.

~~~

Mack stood outside the room with his hand on the doorknob while he composed himself. He could faintly make out a familiar song playing from within.
“Can we turn that shit off?” he mumbled as he entered the room.
      Big Man and Dime, the producer, were sitting at the soundboard fiddling with the various levels. They both stopped to look at the young artist.
      “What are you doin’ back? Trina said you were in A-Town until Monday or Tuesday. Didn’t you just go down there today?” Big Man questioned.
      Mack let out a deep breath and shook his head. “Manny look, I don’t want to talk about it, okay? Can we just work on somethin’ else?”
      Dime turned off the music. “Sorry, man. We were just polishin’ it up.”
      Mack understood. It was his biggest single, the hit that made him famous, but it was also the last thing he wanted to hear. He had just left Atlanta, just left Alisha. He had no desire to hear himself sing about how much he loved her. It only made the ache in his chest more pronounced.
      He pulled the notepad from his messenger bag and flipped through it. It didn’t take long to find the page he had been thinking about.
      “Hey, Dee. You know that beat you were putting together the other day? Can you play it out? I think I got something to go with it.” Mack headed into the booth and put his headphones on. Momentary relief washed over him. In here, everything was right and good.

Track 4: Karaoke

Track4buttonHe answered the phone on the third ring.
      “What time does your flight come in?” she asked impatiently.
      “It’s already in,” Mack replied, the exasperation already apparent in his voice.
      “Shit, do you want me to come get you?” Alisha scrambled for her purse.
      “Naw, naw. I got a car. I’m already on the way to you.” Mack watched the city pass by through the heavily tinted windows of the town car. An ominously dark cloud hung over the tall buildings as if even the weather knew what was coming. The wind kicked up, tearing the white blossoms from the trees and tossing them in the street. It looked like the sky would open up at any moment and erupt into a hurricane strength storm. Mack felt the same. “I know you are busy with class and such. I didn’t want to bother you.”
      “It’s no bother. You should have told me.”
      “It’s fine. Just drop it, Alisha. I’m almost there anyway. It’s not a big deal. Let it go,” Mack said shortly, leaving no room for argument.
      Instead of pushing the subject further, Alisha let the call end. Mack threw the phone on the seat next to him and reached for his tattered spiral notebook. He fought through the clouds in his mind, allowing the rhythm to flow through his head as he poured his thoughts and feelings on to the paper. He matched his cadence to the imaginary beat, even though there was no actual music to flow to.
      When things were at their best or their worst, the only place he found true comfort was in music. Coming home to see his girl shouldn’t be so stressful. It had been three months since she left the tour and the tension was so thick between them that every hang up, every text message, every wrong tone felt like it was pushing them over the edge. How much longer could they maintain their relationship in such a fragile state? Mack could feel his head pound, and his chest tighten like his world was collapsing in on him. Thunder rolled outside. He let his frustration out in his work as he continued to pen a new song.

~~~

Anxiously, she paced around her living room. She tidied the stack of magazines, fixed the couch cushions, and checked the fridge for the twelfth time; anything to keep herself moving and her nerves calm. Part of her dreaded the fact that he was coming home and that made her feel guilty. At least when he was away, she could hang up the phone. Face-to-face there would be no more running away. They would have to deal with their issues. Deep down, she knew it was a good thing. She wasn’t ready to give up on them. She could only hope he was feeling the same.
      The door opened slowly. At least she knew he got the key she sent.
      “Hey, honey,” she called in a sweet and hopeful tone.
      “Hey, boo,” he returned her tone. Suddenly, months of tense arguments and missed connections melted away. The storm that had been brewing between them lifted and the skies were blue again. He smiled warmly as he dropped his bags in the entrance. “Can we not fight anymore?” he asked without preamble.
      “No more fighting,” she agreed and quickly found her way into his arms. When she kissed him electricity coursed through her body. It felt like she was seventeen again and they were sneaking into his childhood bedroom. She couldn’t help herself. She kissed him again. Everything felt right and good. It felt like home.

~~~

Mack’s phone chimed, waking them from their midafternoon nap. He reached across her to grab it from the nightstand but stopped midway to brush against her exposed shoulder. The alert could wait. He kissed her rosy cheek softly and brushed the hair out of her face. This was the perfect moment. If he could suspend time here forever, they would be okay.
      “I wish you’d give it another chance,” he whispered, knowing she was awake.
      She knew what he was suggesting without saying it. “We’ve talked about this. I have school.”
      “But I can take care of you. I can provide for you. Don’t you wanna to wake up like this every day?” He propped himself up on his arm and looked her over.
      “Pump your breaks there, champ. I don’t need anyone to take care of me.” Her words were full of distain as if they tasted bad as she spoke them. “I provide for myself. I pay for my own school. I pay my own rent.”
      “I didn’t mean it like that,” Mack quickly tried to calm her.
      “You haven’t even recorded your album yet. You don’t have the money to support me even if you wanted to. You spent your whole damn advance on a cheap gold chain.”
      It felt like a slap in the face. She didn’t know he had originally bought an engagement ring with that money. He had never been happier with his decision to pawn it and buy something for himself. His uncle was right; nineteen was too young to get married. He could see that now.
      Alisha sighed heavily, calming her temper, and rolled on her back so she could stare at the ceiling instead of into his caramel colored eyes. “Besides, even if you could afford to support us both, what is there for me out on tour with you? You have your shows, interviews, and your club promotions. Then there are business meetings, the rehearsals, and the appearances. And while you’re out there doin’ it big, doin’ you, I’m in the hotel room by myself. On the rare occasion that you did take me out, it was all over the blogs. I don’t want my picture plastered everywhere. Maybe you like that sort of thing, but I didn’t sign up for this. It is just too much. We would constantly be moving, city after city. Your life is so crazy right now. I feel like things can’t stop long enough for us to have a moment like this.”
      Tears welled up in her eyes and slid down her cheeks. She wiped them away before they could reach the pillow.
      “What are you tryin’ to say?” Mack could hear it in her tone. This wasn’t just about coming back out on the road with him. There was a much deeper pain in her voice.
      “I’m not gunna ask you to stay…” she started but her words caught in her throat.
      It was obvious what she was going to say next, but he couldn’t bear to hear her say it. He wasn’t going to let her see him hurt. He snapped, “Is it because of Brian?”
      The sudden change in topic caught her off guard. “What?” she asked confused.
      Mack started putting his clothes on in a hurry. “Don’t play dumb with me. Don’t act like I don’t know about it.”
      “What are you talkin’ about?” She wrapped herself in the sheets as she sat up to face him. Her mind was racing, trying to regain her mental footing.
      “My boy, Damien, saw you two at the bar. He saw you leave together,” Mack yelled to keep the pain out of his voice.
      “Brian is just a friend from class. We just grabbed a drink after a test. Nothing happened,” Alisha pleaded.
      “Then why did I have to hear about it from someone else? You can’t go sneaking around with other guys. You know how that looks on me? You know what people will say about us?”
      Alisha felt as though a boxer had sucker punched her in the chest. The hurt was both instant and shocking. His words stung with what they were insinuating. She couldn’t believe he was willing to take it there. This hadn’t been the conversation she wanted to have after not seeing him for months. Anger started to build inside of her and the pent up frustration began to pour out.
      “If you are so damn worried about what people will say, why do I see pictures of you with different girls out in the club every night?” She no longer yelled, but rather talked in a hushed controlled tone. “Don’t play dumb with me. I’ve seen it online. Baby, you famous now. People take pictures and post them all over the gossip columns. But I’ve ignored it because I love you. How many of them did you take back to your room? How many of them did you say you’d write a song about?”
      “All of them!” he screamed and clenched his fists together. His chest heaved as he breathed heavy with rage. He watched the hurt register on her face as he pulled his shirt on. His words bit as he repeated them, “All of them.”
      Mack snatched his bags from the apartment entrance where he left them. The door let out a startling bang as it slammed behind him. Alisha flinched. She pulled the blankets close to her chest for comfort.