Track 33: Find Your Love

Track33button“Alisha, delivery for you,” Michelle called over the intercom.
      When she rounded the corner from her office to the lobby, she spotted a deliveryman carrying a large bouquet of flowers. They were brilliantly colored with saturated pinks, speckled reds, and flashes of deep orange.
      “Wow, so gorgeous. You can put them over there on that front table that would be great.” She directed the man.
      The arrangement was too large and cumbersome for her to want to move it herself.
      “Do I need to sign?” she asked.
      “No ma’am. Not until I bring in the full order,” he answered.
      “Full order? This isn’t it?”
      “Nope, have a whole truck full. Been instructed to take them wherever you want them.”
      Alisha sat puzzled for a moment. Flower deliveries were the norm around here. Their boutique was one of the premier wedding planners in the city and companies often sent samples of their products here in hopes to get on their coveted referral list. No one ever sent more than one thing at a time. It was simply too costly. She grabbed the small envelope and pulled out a card.
      “For the pink butterfly necklace you used to wear,” was all it read.
      Alisha absentmindedly touched her throat. She remembered the exact piece of jewelry although she had long since lost it. Her grandmother had given it to her for her twelfth birthday. It was a simple gold chain with a butterfly pendant. It had a yellow stone for the body and four pink stones that made up the wings. She wore it every day until that summer she lost it at the pool.
      A second bouquet came through the door. They were deep purple with heavier, darker greenery. She quickly grabbed the card and tore it open.
      “For the grape lipstick you always had on.” The flowers kept pouring in through the door, each with a card.
      “For the floral couch you first kissed me on.”
      “For the color of your cheeks the first time I sang to you.”
      “For the wine coolers we had before we first said ‘I love you.’”
      “For the sunset in Vegas when you came out to see me.”
      “For every morning I missed waking up with you.”
      “For all of my love.”
      “For all of my heart.”
      By the time she read the last card, Alisha was so overwhelmed that the tears had started falling. She didn’t bother brushing them from her chin as they fell to the floor. She just ignored them and reread the cards again and again. None of them were signed with a name, but they didn’t have to be. They were signed with their past.
      For a moment, she froze in place. Everyone had come out of their offices to see what the commotion was about. Questions were flying around. Alisha couldn’t hear a word of them. She searched her brain for what to do next. A song caught her attention, just outside the shop. Some car must have been playing it. She could hardly make it out, but she knew without a doubt what it was. It was his first single. Instantly, she knew what to do.
      She rushed out of the boutique, dropping the small pieces of paper on the ground behind her. Mack was waiting out front, sitting on the hood of his Bentley coupe, the song blasting through his speakers. He held one last bouquet, daisies, her all-time favorite flower. He handed them to her without a word. She read the last card and clutched it to her chest.
      “For all of me,” it read.
      “Alisha, I have something to tell you. I didn’t come back here to be closer to the record label. I didn’t buy that house so everyone could live in it. I came back for you. I bought it to be near you. I’ve spent too many years making the wrong decisions, hoping for things to change and the right moment to come along. But I’m done waiting, I’m willing to take this chance and give it everything I have. This is it. I’m in it if you are.”
      Mack looked her in the eye and spoke with conviction. This is what he wanted, what he always wanted.
      “I really hate it when you make me cry,” she finally said with a laugh before making her way into his arms.
      As he held her close to his chest, he risked asking, “Does that mean…?”
      “I’m in,” she added before he could finish.

Track 32: Own It

Track32button“It’s so funny running into you here. I didn’t think this was your kind of place.” She eyed him sideways as she took a sip of her dark purple martini.
      “What do you mean by that?” he questioned in response.
      “I don’t know. It’s pretty low-key for someone like you, isn’t it?”
      Mack looked around the small wine bar. It was a far cry from the nightclubs he was known to frequent. This quaint spot had been recommended by a friend as a quiet place he could go, where he had the least likelihood of being recognized. Jazz filled the room, but not too loudly as to drown out the conversations being had. Groups of people, all lost in discussion, gathered around the long shared tables or in a cozy, dimly lit nooks. There was no dance floor or VIP section, only good friends enjoying each other’s company. Mack was enjoying a glass of Bordeaux when an old friend took the stool next to him.
      “I guess it is a bit of a change for me. Then again, change can be a good thing.”
      “Always the poet. I hear you are back for good, bought some big house in a gated community,” Alisha said.
      Mack nodded.
      “Well, it’s good to have you back.”
      A smile washed over his face, and he tapped his glass to hers. “Thanks. It’s great to hear you say that.”
      “What? You didn’t think I’d be happy you’d come back?” she asked, mildly surprised.
      Mack shrugged and gave her a look that said more than he could tell her.
      “I know I never called. I wanted to. I did. But what was I going to say? ‘Wait around until I figure myself out?’ I couldn’t do that to you. So, I just focused on me.”
      “Hey, trust me. I get it. You know what? Let’s just forgot about it,” he said trying to lift the mood. “I think we should try something new. We have an amazing bottle of wine and plenty more where it came from. So why don’t we just enjoy it? Forget about all the other stuff.”
      “I’d like that very much.” Relief washed over her. Neither one of them was in the mood to rehash their emotional past. It felt refreshing to approach the night in a completely new way. They wouldn’t have to relive their wrongs or explain their reasons. They could just be in each other’s company.

~~~

As the waiter poured the last drops of the rich crimson liquid from the bottle, filling Alisha’s glass, Mack gave in to the impulse he had been fighting all evening.
      “I can’t do this,” he blurted out.
      “Do what? I’m sorry. Did you want the last glass?” Alisha felt blindsided. The night had gone so well, she didn’t know where this proclamation was coming from.
      “No, it’s not that. I see where this is going. We said we wouldn’t talk about our past, or us, but that isn’t stopping it from repeating.”
      Mack could feel his chest tighten. He couldn’t believe he was ruining this moment, this night. He couldn’t bear the thought of the cycle restarting.
      “Alisha, I’ve known you for so long. I know what that look in your eyes means. The way you lick the wine of the rim of your glass and the way you grab my arm when you laugh, I’ve seen it before. I’m not letting it happen again. Not this way.”
      “Mack, I have no idea what you are talking about,” she combatted.
      “It can’t happen like this. I don’t want some drunken hook up at a bar. I don’t want a haphazard one-night stand that goes nowhere or ends in a fight. I can’t do that again. I can’t have you only to lose you again.”
      Alisha sat in silent shock and stared at her glass. He knew her better than she wished to admit. She had planned on going home with him if he asked although now she felt shame in admitting it. It just felt so good being back by his side, laughing and talking, like they had never been apart. She thought of all the things she should say. She should tell him how she had felt over the years, how he left a void in her life no one could ever fill and that she knew they would always end up together.
      All she could think to do was leave. It wasn’t the right move. It wasn’t even an easy move, but until she knew exactly what she wanted to say she couldn’t be around him.

Track 31: Come Thru

Track31buttonThe suburbs of Atlanta were just waking up and showing signs of life as the powerful engine of the Bentley coupe quietly purred. Early in the morning, just after leaving the studio, before heading to his large house full of family and friends he was living with, was the only time he had to himself anymore. Mack drove down the roads he knew by heart, the ones permanently etched in his memory. When he lived at his aunt’s house he knew he could make the journey from there to this spot in less than 15 minutes. He’d cut through neighbor’s lawns, down the street, across the elementary school playground all to wind up at this apartment complex.
      Alisha would come down and let him in the rusty white metal door down to her basement apartment that she shared with three other girls. Her room was only half of one, separated from her neighbor by only a series of miss-matched shower curtains. There wasn’t much space, only enough for a mattress on the floor and a small dresser, yet it somehow felt like their own private hideaway.
      As he sat parked on the side of the street, he thought back to the first time he played his song for her. It was the moment that changed everything, and it happened in this very spot, albeit in a much less impressive car. That song launched his career sending him from a virtually unknown artist into the superstar stratosphere of musicians. He could remember the nerves that pulsed through his body, how she jokingly told him it was “just okay,” the joy in her face when she told him she loved it. That moment meant everything to him.
      Alisha didn’t live there anymore. It was just a large building full of people he didn’t know. He couldn’t help but daydream about her running out the door and hopping into the car beside him. It was a foolish thought seeing how she hadn’t contacted him since they went to dinner together. It had been months. In that time he had moved back to the city permanently. He bought a house large enough to move his sister and aunt into and was trying to slow his lifestyle down. He hadn’t even been to a strip club since his split with Amber. If Alisha was ever going to come back to him, Mack wanted to be sure she knew he was ready for her this time. He was ready to have it all.
      Another memory crossed his mind. He couldn’t help but smile. He remembered buying her a ring with the album advance from the song. There were so many times he had it tucked away in his pocket, but the right moment never presented it. For a moment, he found hope in that she had never found the right time to marry Sean either. They had called off their engagement more than a month ago.
      Mack caught himself wondering what would have happened if all those years ago if he had just done it and committed him to her. No groupies, no affairs with pop stars, no strippers, just her. What would have turned out different? Would I have still been as successful? Would we still be together? There was no use in such thinking, Mack knew, but he couldn’t help it.
      Before he drove off, he took one last look at the apartment where he used to spend so much time. Some things he knew he would never forget.

Track 30: Good Ones Go

Track30button“I don’t understand,” Big Man said blankly.
      “What’s there not to understand? I said I’m good,” Mack put up his hands defensively as he spun around in the chair at the studio mixing board.
      “You got robbed! She took your chain. She took your watch. She took a goddamn car and all you are going to do is sit here and say ‘I’m good’?”
      “If that is all it costs to get rid of that crazy girl, I feel like that’s the price I’m willing to pay.”
      “I’m not saying you have to press charges. Amber doesn’t deserve those things. At least get them back from her,” Big Man urged.
      “Manny. Look. It doesn’t bother me, so it shouldn’t bother you. I’m over it. Let’s move on.” Mack smiled at his mentor and friend. Manny just shook his head.
      “I don’t know what has gotten into you lately. You’re letting girls rob you. You’re all happy and shit, and you are passing up on models. I don’t get it.”
      “Hey, what can I say? I had a good trip back home. It was just what I needed to reset my mind and clear my head a little.”
      Big Man leaned back and smiled like he had figured something out.
      “Oh, I get it. I get what this whole thing is now. You ran into Alisha, didn’t you?”
      Mack knew what he was implying, “It wasn’t even like that.”
      “So you did see her. I knew there had to be a reason for the sunshine coming out of your ass. Go home, get a little old school booty, come back ready to work. I see your game.”
      “I told you it wasn’t like that. We just had dinner. That’s all. She has a man.”
      “That has never stopped you before.”
      “Well, this is different,” he said partly defensive, partly playful.
      “Alright, alright. Whatever you say. Seriously though, be careful. She really messed you up last time,” Big Man said out of honest concern for his friend.
      He had known Mack since his first single. He had been there for all the ups and downs with Alisha, and he didn’t know if Mack could survive another epic fall out. The boy’s biggest flaw was the one that made him such a successful R&B artist; he had a massive heart. He fell in love hard and fell out harder. All of the joys and pains flowed out in his music and his fans responded. His vulnerability and honesty were on constant display. Yet Big Man knew every time he got hurt he would sink a little lower. Each time it was harder to pull him up out of it. He feared the day Mack would spiral too far out of control to be saved. At some level, he knew there was only one trigger that could get him there, only one person who could push Mack that far over the edge: Alisha.
      “It wasn’t her fault. I made her wait. I pushed her away. She just…it’s complicated. I don’t want to talk about this anymore. Let’s drop it.” Mack’s good mood instantly plummeted.
      He knew what he wouldn’t see but he checked his phone anyway; still nothing from Alisha. Not a phone call, text, or even an email. There had been no contact since dinner nearly two weeks ago. He wondered how long it would take for her to leave Sean and come to him. Then, for the first time, he let himself wonder if she would come for him at all. Maybe I had done too well of a job deflecting her and in reality, pushed her further into Sean’s arms. Would they finally set a date for their wedding now that I confirmed she should be with Sean? The thought sickened him. He wouldn’t let himself believe it. He couldn’t lose her. Not now that he had finally come to terms with reality it was her he had wanted all along.
      Pushing aside the idea, he made his way back into the booth and put the headphones on. “From the top,” he told Big Man through the microphone. If there was one place he knew he could find comfort and direction it was here, in front of the mic. It was the only place things always made sense. It was the only place where nothing ever changed.

Track 29: Shot for Me

Track29button“Sir?” the valet prompted again, pulling Mack out of his trance.
      He took a deep breath and stepped out of the car, the door having already been opened by a young man.
      “Thanks,” he muttered as the valet climbed in and drove his expensive coupe away. Mack straightened his sweater and brushed off his jeans before heading for the restaurant entrance. His heart was beating in his chest so loudly he could hardly focus on anything else. He wiped his palms off for the hundredth time, clammy with nervous sweat. It was a strange sensation. He felt like this was a first date rather than platonic drinks with an old flame.
      She was waiting for him at the bar when he walked in, even more beautiful than when he saw her yesterday. Her hair was pinned in a casual, yet sophisticated way, like she had thrown it up after a long day at the office. She used to wear it like that when they would study side by side. He used to tell her it was his favorite; the perfect mix of messy and pulled together. She wore a simple gray dress that looked anything but. No other woman could make business casual look like it belonged on a runway; at least not to Mack. As he floated through the bar to her, light reflected off the diamond ring she sported on her left hand, bringing his mood down a notch. He had to remind himself it wasn’t a date at all. She was engaged and it wasn’t to him.
      “Is this seat taken?” he asked coyly.
      “Hey you,” Alisha smiled brightly. Mack’s chest hitched. She was wearing the same grape colored lipstick she used to wear when they were together. It was his favorite. “I didn’t know if you would come.”
      Mack frantically checked his watch. “Am I late? I’m so sorry…”
      “No, no. It’s not that. You are on time. I just…I don’t know. I didn’t know if you would come or if you were being nice. I mean, a big star like you? I just thought…”
      “I’d always make time for you. You know that. Don’t be crazy.”
      He tried to smile casually but wasn’t certain he pulled it off. There was a strange easiness to their interactions. It was like a reflex to be kind to each other. They could pick up where they left off as if they never spent a day apart, as if they had never broken each other’s heart. It was almost odd how easily one smile could sweep years of ups and downs, pain and hurt away, like it hadn’t happened at all.
      Alisha smiled back, not sure how to respond or why she was so nervous. “I ordered you a drink. I hope that’s okay.”
      “Yeah, that’s great. Thanks.”

~~~

Mack laughed so hard he almost choked on his steak. “I cannot believe she said that. You’re playin’.”
      “I am not. Hand to God,” Alisha raised her hands.
      “I can’t believe you remember that.”
      “Of course, I do. That basement of your aunt’s is permanently burned in my memory. I think I spent more time there as a kid than I did at my house.”
      “As a kid,” he couldn’t help but smile as he repeated. Sometimes it shocked him when he thought about how long they had known each other and how much they had influenced each other over the years.
      “Well, we were kids. Sixteen-years old talking about getting married. That’s what kids do.” She shrugged.
      Mack tried to stop the words but they fell out of his mouth before he had a chance, “I wish you weren’t getting married to Sean.”
      Alisha stared at her plate and didn’t answer. The tension between them was suddenly as thick as molasses.
      “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that. You’re happy. I support you. You deserve it.” He tried to backpedal. When she still didn’t say anything he had to ask the question that had been plaguing him. They had been engaged for two years now and still hadn’t set a date. Something didn’t feel right. “You are happy, right?”
      Alisha clumsily put her fork down, clanking it against the plate, and held her lip. Mack could see it in her eyes that she was trying desperately to keep herself together and not cry.
      “Hey, it’s ok. We’ll drop it. Tell me about your sister. She just had a baby, right?” Mack didn’t want to shatter their perfect evening. It was all going so well until he had opened his mouth.
      Finally, Alisha made eye contact. He could see the tears forming, but she refused to let them fall. “I miss you. I hate that I do. I hate it with every ounce inside me. I miss you so much. It wasn’t supposed to be like this.”
      “I didn’t mean to ruin dinner.”
      “Not dinner. This. My life, your life, the way it all turned out. This isn’t the way I thought it would be.”
      Mack was at a loss for what to say. He thought he had run through every possible scenario on the drive over. Never had he imagined this one. It never crossed his mind that she would feel the same.
      “Did you love me?” she blurted out.
      “Of course,” he answered, almost offended she would have to ask.
      “Did you ever cheat on me?”
      “Never. I never cheated on you when we were together. Why, is Sean cheating on you? I knew I didn’t like the scumbag. You just tell me where he lives, and I’ll send some of my boys over there to teach him a lesson. No one messes with you and gets away with it. And on you? Why they hell would anyone step out on you?” Mack could feel his temperature flaring.
      “No, he isn’t cheating on me. He never has. It’s not like that. Sean’s a great guy. He’s sweet and kind…” Alisha tried to calm him down. “He’s just… he’s not you, Mack. I don’t know how else to say it.”
      Mack knew the situation. He knew how it could play out. This would be his chance to say a couple right things. By the end of the night, Alisha would be back in his arms. He could easily do it, but his gut stopped him. If it happened this way, it wouldn’t last. Maybe she was ready to move on from Sean. Maybe she did want Mack back. Starting on a lie would not get them very far. Deep down, Mack knew if they were going to try again, it would require a clean slate. He wouldn’t tell her to leave Sean. It would be a decision she’d have to come to on her own.
      “He’s not me. You’re right. He’s better. You said it yourself; he gives you all of him. That’s what you wanted, right?” He held her hand and gave it a reassuring squeeze.
      At that moment, he realized that they had been living more parallel lives than he had ever thought. Since their split, he had spent all his time trying to replace her with someone else, but no one ever fit. Alisha had been doing the same. It was an impossible task. As they sat at the dinner table at one of Atlanta’s finest restaurants, it was becoming apparent that they were both failing.

Track 28: The Motion

Track28button“It’s just not working out. It’s as simple as that.” Mack tried to keep calm and talk like this was a reasonable conversation. Amber had a way to riling him up, forcing him to lose his temper. She knew how to push his buttons and even seemed to like it.
      “Simple as that? Yesterday at home we were cool. This morning we were fine. Then you come back to the room after being God knows where all day, and suddenly it’s not working out.”
      Amber was gearing up for a fight. Mack could see it was coming from a mile away but still couldn’t steer clear of it. At once he regretted asking her to come on the trip with him. It was a silly tradition, having to buy his album from the same store every time. He should have done it alone and maybe this wouldn’t be happening.
      “It’s not like that. This has been a long time coming and you know that.”
      “You got something to say, boo boo, so why don’t you just spit it out. What is really going on here? You waltz in here, all high and mighty with a dumb ass grin on your face, like all of a sudden you hot shit. What little trick batted her eyelashes at you to make you think you still got it? Who tried to get in your pants to make you think you could do better than this?” Amber yelled and got in his face.
      Mack didn’t respond. Silence often spoke more than words.
      “Oh. Oh, I see. So it was a little hoe that made you think that you could just walk away.”
      Mack still didn’t say anything. His mind was racing trying to figure out his plan on the fly. It hadn’t been his intention to break up with her, but the words just started spewing out the moment he came home. Coffee with Alisha replayed over and over in his head the entire drive back to the hotel. When he came home to find Amber, packing her bag to do a guest spot at a local club, something in him snapped. He couldn’t do it anymore. He was sick of her dancing, sick of picking her drunken ass up at clubs in every city, sick of her insane temper.
      “She’s not a hoe,” Mack finally said quietly.
      “It’s her isn’t it? It’s the girl in all your songs. Oh, don’t play dumb with me. You write about her all the time. Trust me, I know those songs aren’t about me. You never talk to me or about me like that.”
      “I don’t know what you are talking about.”
      “Yes, you do.”
      Amber paced back and forth in the living room of the hotel suite. Her six-inch heels clomped against the tile. Mack waited silently for her to make her next move. He didn’t want to make the situation worse by saying the wrong thing.
      Amber took out her phone and punched in a few lines. Mack’s phone alerted him of a new message. “Send all my stuff here. I don’t want to see your face again.”
      Mack looked at the address with a bit of confusion, “This isn’t your old apartment.”
      “No, it’s not. It’s Tito’s.”
      “Tito?”
      “Yea, you didn’t think you were the only one did you? Oh, honey. You are so cute when you are stupid. You were never the only one. The richest, yeah sure, but not the only.” Amber smacked him lightly on the cheek, winked, and headed for the door.
      As she walked away, Mack was surprised that he didn’t feel the slightest bit of hurt or regret. He didn’t care that they were over or that she most probably had men in every city. All that he could think of was what she had said about his music. He had never thought about it, or let himself think about it, but she was right. There was a piece of Alisha in everything he did. He couldn’t shake her. If a song wasn’t about her, it was to her. How he hadn’t realized it before alluded him. For years now, he thought he had shaken her ghost. Between the meeting earlier in the day and the revelation about his music, he realized how much of him belonged to her.
      He took out his phone and dialed her number. His finger hovered over the “Send” button. He could call Alisha and tell her he broke up with Amber; tell her he wanted nothing more than to be with her. But he pressed “End” and slipped the phone back in his pocket. It wouldn’t be fair to her. He couldn’t go crashing through her life like that. Plus, he probably wasn’t even on her radar. Their meeting had been nice, but Mack assumed she dismissed it as a run in with an old friend and nothing more. He had no doubt it was only him being plagued by the memory of what they had.
      Just then, his cell buzzed in his pocket. It was a 305 number that he didn’t recognize.
      “Hello?” he answered
      “Hey, it’s me.” Alisha came through.
      Mack felt his heart jump into his chest. Suddenly everything in him felt light and warm.
      “Hey,” he managed to say through the lump in his throat.
      “Sorry, I got your number from Trina. I’m amazed she still remembers me.”
      “Of course, she does.”
      “And that you still have the same assistant,” Alisha added.
      “She’s a trooper. Been with me from the start,” Mack said almost wistfully.
      There was a long, awkward pause.
      “How long are you in town for?” she started in.
      “Two more nights.”
      “Are you free tomorrow? Maybe for drinks?” Mack could hear the hopeful uncertainty in her voice. He felt it too.
      “Yea. That would be cool. I’ll see you then.”

Track 27: Sooner Than Later

Track27buttonHe recognized her from across the store. It had been a couple years, and she had changed her hair. Yet there was no doubt in his mind it was her. She was even more beautiful than he remembered. Even under the florescent lights of the electronics store, she was radiant. He watched from afar as she walked through the aisles, picking up items and putting them back. She hadn’t noticed him yet. He could probably still leave before anyone caught on and made a scene. But he couldn’t take his eyes off her. He couldn’t let this opportunity pass.
      He snuck through the aisle, careful not to let her see him. As he approached, the realization dawned on him: she was in the hip-hop row, in the “M” section. She was buying his new album, which was oddly enough what he had come to do himself. It was the first day of the release and it had become a tradition of his to come back home to Atlanta, to the same store, to buy it. It hadn’t occurred to him he might run into her. Quickly, he made his way to her side and picked up a copy of the album.
      “I hear this guy is a real asshole,” he said out of the corner of his mouth.
      Alisha looked up with a mixture of confusion and shock. Soon a smile crept over her face. She punched him playfully in the arm. “Yeah, but he writes good music.”
      “I’m sorry about your birthday,” he sputtered out, suddenly nervous.
      She arched an eyebrow in question.
      “I didn’t call you. I thought about it. But I…I’m sorry.”
      “Oh, hey, no worries. That’s not a big deal. So, how are you?” her voice was pleasant and kind.
      Mack could feel his chest getting warm just seeing her smile.
      “Good, real good. You? I hear you are a wedding planner full time now or something like that.”
      “Yes, yes I am. It pays the bills.”
      “You plannin’ your wedding with Sean?”
      He didn’t know why he asked. Her love life was none of his business anymore.
      “Just other people’s for now. Sean and I haven’t set a date. You still seeing that stripper?” she asked with a smirk.
      “She’s not a stripper.”
      “She’s a stripper,” she quickly retorted.
      “Okay, you’re right. She is.” He smiled widely. He didn’t want to let the feeling go. “Hey, you want to grab a coffee or something?”
      “Like now? Yea, sure. I just have to buy this stupid album.” She mockingly rolled her eyes.
      “Me too. Hey, I thought you said you didn’t listen to my stuff.”
      She shrugged. “Things change.”

~~~

“You know, it’s not everything I thought it would be,” he confessed as he stared down into his cup of coffee.
      “How so? Isn’t this what you always wanted?” Alisha asked, truly interested. They had been talking for over an hour already, and she didn’t want to leave.
      Mack smiled to himself. He couldn’t believe what she could make him admit. There were few people in the world he would spill his heart out to and one of them was sitting across the table from him.
      “After a while, it doesn’t feel like something you are striving for. It doesn’t feel like this wild, unobtainable goal you are pushing for. I’m in the spotlight; I made it. From this side, it’s a lot lonelier than I could have imagined. Not like there aren’t people around, there are constantly people. It’s not the same. Everyone has an agenda. You suddenly realize that there isn’t a lot of room on the top. Everyone is clawing and pushing to make their way up there. So either you are standing there by yourself or you are getting knocked off.”
      “Yea, but you have Manny and Amber.”
      Amber’s name coming out of Alisha’s mouth made Mack cringe. It wasn’t that she said it in a mean way, she said it normally but it felt like blasphemy. Alisha had always been the one he would end up with, and now she was talking about his live-in stripper girlfriend. His choices suddenly made him embarrassed.
      “Why didn’t we work?” Mack quickly changed the topic and threw Alisha for a loop.
      “What? Geez, Mack, let’s not get into it. We were having such a nice chat.”
      “No, no. I’m not trying to start something. I just want to know.”
      His voice was so sincere she couldn’t help but believe him. She took a long sip of her chai tea latte while she thought about what to say. She could brush him off, and say she didn’t want to talk about it. Or she could tell him the truth. They could move on from it. It wouldn’t be hanging over their heads any longer, and maybe they could even be friends again. With that thought, she opted for the latter.
      “You were never really with me. Sure, you dated me. But I only ever had a part of you. I shared you with your music, with your public image, with the groupies and the spotlight. After everyone took their piece, what was left for me? You remember when I got engaged to Sean, and you asked me what he could give me that you couldn’t?”
      Mack thought back to the phone call and a chill rushed through him. He remembered how dead he felt inside after hearing of her engagement. They had planned to get back together before that, but he had yet again blown it.
      “He can give me all of him. That’s all I ever wanted from you, Mack. I just wanted everything.”

Track 26: Houstalantavegas

Track26button“But we agreed on this,” he countered again. Mack was sick of having the same argument again and again. It was like fighting with a five year old.
      “No, you agreed on it. I agreed on nothing. Mack, this is my living. This is my job.” Amber screamed as she threw outfits into her duffle bag.
      “You are supposed to be working on your demo. You said you were committed to this.” Mack kept on.
      “I am!”
      “No one is going to take you seriously as an artist if you are still grinding on the pole.”
      “You’re just saying that because you’re jealous of the attention other guys give me.” She planted her hands on her hips and snapped her head.
      Mack paused from the shock. On second thought, it was like arguing with a teenager rather than a toddler. “Excuse me?”
      “You don’t want me stripping because you want me all to yourself. You want to cut off my income so you can control me.”
      “Bull shit! I have done nothing but help you for months now. I’ve paid for your studio time, vocal lessons. Jesus Christ, Amber, you live in my house. You have one of my credit cards that has no goddamn limit. If anything, I’ve been your biggest supporter. I’m trying to give you everything you need so you can have the life you convinced me you wanted.”
      “Ah, captain ‘save-a-ho’ to the rescue.”
      “Don’t even,” Mack scolded through clenched teeth. “I don’t give a shit if you are a stripper. You can shake that tight ass for ones to your hearts content. Frankly, I liked you better when that’s all you were. At least then I knew what I was paying for.”
      “What’s that supposed to mean?” she demanded.
      “What do you want from me, Amber?” he finally asked. When she didn’t answer he went on. “Do you want to be my girl? Do you want to be some chick I sponsor? Do you want to be my protégé? Just tell me. Tell me what you want so I know what this is because right now…right now I have no idea what we are doing here.”
      Amber took a step back. She looked stunned as though he had just smacked her across her face. “I’ve told you how I feel about you.”
      He shrugged.
      “You know you’re my man,” she said sweetly. “I’m falling for you, boo.”
      Mack took her in his arms and kissed her, but there was no passion or love behind it. It was too late for that. It didn’t matter what Amber said, or how much she professed her feelings, he knew exactly what this was. He knew from the very beginning. He hadn’t really needed to ask.
      It was an arrangement. He would keep paying her bills and she would keep him bed warm. No matter how much they denied it, that’s all this was to either of them.

~~~

Mack slammed the car door. He tried to quell the rage building inside him, but he was finding it difficult to calm down, even slightly in this situation. The call had woken him up. It was her number. It was a man on the line which sent waves of both anger and fear through him.
      “Hey, you need to come pick up your girl or I’m going to have to call the cops,” the man said bluntly.
      “What? Who is this? What are you talking about?” Mack stumbled out of bed and started getting dressed.
      “She’s drunk, puking in the bathroom. Your number is the last one she called. Is she your girl?”
      Mack slipped into his shoes and sighed. “Yeah, she’s mine. Where is she? I’ll be right there.”
      If this were the first time this had happened, Mack might have been panicked or shocked. He’d have rushed to her aid and babied her. Sadly, it was a more common occurrence than he would like to admit. Amber didn’t seem to know her limits, or if she did, she didn’t pay attention to them. One of these days he’d let the police come pick her up, put her in the drunk tank so she could sleep it off for the night. Maybe then, she’d learn her lesson and stop being so damn reckless. He shook his head as he approached the club. One day he’d do it, but not today.
      “Where is she?” he asked with a sigh to the man at the door.
      “Oh shit. You’re Mack. What are you doing here, man? We’re closed.”
      “Someone called about my girl. Said to come pick her up.”
      “No way. That’s your girl? You’re the Mack in her phone? That is crazy. What are you doing with a wacked out girl like that? I bet you get all the best women.”
      Mack wasn’t in the mood to hear it. “Where is she?”
      The doorman led him through the club that looked strange with all the lights on. Clubs were dark for many reasons. It was odd to see them any other way. When they arrived at the women’s restroom in the back, the bouncer propped open the door. “Last stall.”
      Even though her face was in the toilet, he knew for certain it was her. Her long black hair had been rumpled and pushed to the side. Pieces were sticking to her neck and shoulders where streaks of sweat had gathered. She was missing one shoe, with her clutch still firmly grasped in her hand. Amber always put money first. Mack stood at the entrance of the stall and looked her over for a moment. The future played out in his head. He’d take her home, clean her up, get her some water and put her in bed. The next day she’d wake up and not remember it. She wouldn’t thank him or apologize. They’d fight about how reckless and childish she was. They’d make up, the only way they knew how, in bed. They would be happy for a few days. Then in a week or two she’d do it again, and the cycle would start over. Mack realized he was taking care of her more than just financially.
      “Come on,” he said disgruntledly. He reached down and threw her arm around his neck. With one arm around her back and the other under her knees, he lifted her up off the bathroom floor.
      Amber took in a deep breath and looked up at him. “I love you,” she said sweetly.
      “I love you, too,” Mack replied although the words weren’t true.

Track 25: The Real Her

Track25button“I’m telling you dude, this one’s different,” Mack pleaded.
      “They always are. Everyone is different. How have you not learned that yet, man?” Manny waved him off.
      He leaned back in the plush couch and shook his head. He had known Mack for years now. At first, he only saw the young star as an investment, but now he could truly call him a friend.
      “I’m serious. She’s it,” Mack continued to insist.
      “Oh, the one? The stripper you met at the club is the one that you want to bring home to meet your family and wife-up? And I bet you think she doesn’t like you for your money.”
      “She doesn’t. You should have seen the stacks of paper she made last night. She doesn’t need me. She made that perfectly clear. She’s got her own car, her own crib, and pays all her bills. It ain’t about the money.”
      “She is a stripper. It is always about the money. That is her job,” Manny spoke slowly as if he was talking to a stupid person, which is exactly how he thought his friend was acting.
      He himself had developed a soft spot for dancers over the years that went beyond simply enjoying their entertainment. Manny had flashbacks to Charity, the stripper from two years ago that had accidentally become mother of his first born daughter. Charity destroyed his relationship with his woman and then left him, taking their baby girl with her. She was currently cleaning him out for a painful child support every month. After Charity it was Jasmine, then Sofie. They were always the same. Even if Mack couldn’t see it himself, Manny knew this one was just like all the rest.
      “But she’s different. This isn’t even something she wants to do forever. She told me she’s just saving up,” Mack protested.
      “To go through college?” he mocked.
      It was something nearly every dancer said. It had become such a cliché that it was more of a punch-line than anything else.
      “She wants a better life for herself. Is that so bad?”
      “And what? You are going to give her that ‘better life?’”
      Mack paused. He knew what his friend was hinting at but he said it anyway, “I could.”
      “You can’t save every stripper you meet. You are so dumb sometimes.”
      “I’m not trying to save her. I’m just…you know what? Forget it. I don’t want to talk about it anymore. Let’s just record the damn thing.”
      Mack made his way into the booth and put on the headphones. In truth, saving her was exactly what he wanted to do.

~~~

Mack leaned back in his chair, pleasantly full from the evening’s offerings. It was the best meal he had had in months. He’d have to thank Manny for forcing him out of the house. He had almost forgotten about how good real food tastes verse the take out he had been living off of. It didn’t hurt either that the chef prepared feast was accompanied by equally as pleasing conversation. He watched as Amber took another swig of the full bodied red wine the sommelier had recommended. She licked the lingering drops off her lips as she stared at him.
      “What is a Virginia girl like yourself doing in Miami anyway?” Mack asked.
      “You want to know the truth?” she asked with raised eyebrows. “You are going to make fun of me.”
      “No, I won’t. Promise.”
      “Pinky promise?”
      “Did you really just say ‘pinky promise’? You are a grown ass woman,” Mack taunted.
      Amber sat back and crossed her arms. She squeezed her lips tightly together indicating she wasn’t going to talk until he gave in to her childish demands.
      “Fine. Fine. Pinky promise.” He finally gave in, reached across the table, and offered her his little finger.
      “A singer,” she admitted.
      Mack chuckled.
      “You said you wouldn’t laugh!” Amber threw her napkin across the table, hitting him in the face. He put up his hands in mock defense. “I know it’s cliché, but ever since I was a little girl, I’ve just wanted to be on the stage. I want to hear crowds of people cheering my name, to walk the red carpet, wear all those fancy gowns…” she trailed off wistfully.
      “Then how did you end up at the Diamond Palace?” Mack was curious to know.
      She shrugged. “It’s not a cheap dream. There are the basics like vocal lessons and studio time. Then you have to drive to auditions and gas is ridiculous. On top of it all, I have to maintain all of this. And honey, this shit really ain’t cheap. It’s hair, nails, makeup, clothing. You can’t show up looking like a bum and expect anyone to take you seriously. Needless to say the $500 I left home with didn’t get me too far. And well, dancing at least pays the bills. Or at least most of them. After rent and my car, you know, I don’t walk away with as much as you think.”
      “But you’re hustling. You are making it on your own. That’s pretty damn cool.” Mack was impressed by her drive.
      “Why thank you,” she said genuinely pleased with herself. “Hey weren’t you telling me that you have a video shoot coming up soon?”
      Mack pinched his eyebrows together. “Yeah…the studio wants something for the new single. It’s just going to be dumb like in a mansion or somethin’.”
      “Why haven’t you asked me to be in it?” She put him on the spot.
      “Ah…I didn’t…I mean, if you want to of course you can be in it. But…” Mack trailed off. The conversation felt like it had taken a hard left and he wasn’t sure he liked where it was going. It felt familiar but he hoped he was wrong.
      “That would be so dope! AH! I’d love to.” Amber clapped and squealed. “I’m going to need to get a new outfit. My nails done. Oh and of course some new weave because this ain’t video worthy.”
      Amber let her words hang in the air and at once, Mack knew what was happening. He sighed in a way that sounded like a half laugh and closed his eyes slightly. Amber hardly noticed his irritated expression. She was too busy planning her debut. Mack managed to smile tightly as he reached for the wad of cash in his front pocket.
      “Of course. Here ya go,” he said as he peeled off a few bills from the outside of the roll. Amber paused for a half a second, prompting Mack to dole out three more. When she was satisfied with the total, she took the cash, thanked him profusely, and went on to explain in great detail where she was going to go shopping and how awesome the video shoot was going to be.
      Mack tuned it all out. Manny had been right. It was always about the money.

Track 24: 305 To My City

Track24buttonMack realized as he made his way into the dimly lit entrance that it might very well have been the first time that he had ever been to a strip club alone. He checked his cell phone with the bored looking girl behind the counter and paid his $20. It was also the first time since he put out a record that he had to pay a cover charge anywhere. Famous people get in free. That was the rule everywhere. He assumed they either didn’t recognize him or didn’t believe an artist of his level of popularity would show up anywhere alone. Mack let the bouncer pat him down quickly to make sure he wasn’t hiding a recording device or a weapon. The giant man opened the heavy wooden door, letting the young rapper through.
      Mack could feel the beat hit him in the chest as he made his way in. The Diamond Palace wasn’t what he had been expecting. It wasn’t the typical black floors, brass poles, black dance stages, and old tattered chairs surrounding them. This place looked like a blast from the past, like old Hollywood or vintage Vegas. There were five stages, two on each side and one main stage in the middle. The side stages were each decorated the same. They were softly lit with round light bulbs that reminded Mack of a vanity table from old Hollywood movies. Lush ox blood red curtains, edged in gold trim, draped over the backdrops, allowed the dancers to make a grand entrance. The main stage was a more extravagant version of the four other ones. The most noticeable difference was the floor that seemed to be made completely made of diamonds coated in resin. The light was reflecting off the stones glittered around the room like a spectacular disco ball. The chairs closely packed by the stages were made of silky black leather, well-kept by any standards.
      “What can I getcha?” a girl quickly appeared by Mack’s side as soon as he walked in. She was shorter than him, with black and blonde curly hair that grazed her lower back. Her horn-rimmed glasses offset her tattoo-covered body, making her look like a naughty librarian somehow. The fishnets, hot shorts, bra, and necktie added to the fantasy.
      “I’m good,” he said absently, barely giving her any of his attention. He searched the room for signs of Amber. He didn’t see her on any of the stages. Maybe she was circulating around the room or in the back giving a private dance
      “There is a two drink minimum,” she stripper waitress said with her hand on her hip.
      Mack’s sights fell on a group of guys at the far stage. They were all dressed in slacks and ties. Clearly they had dressed up for a special night of sorts.
      “Is that a bachelor party?”
      The girl nodded.
      “Buy them a bottle of Goose. That should be more than enough to cover the drink minimum. Put it on this,” he handed over the card and walked casually to a seat in the middle of the room, not next to any particular stage.
      He watched the crazy life of a strip joint unfold before him. The bachelor party yelled and jeered as they were awarded their free bottle, the girls circulating to pull guys into private dances, and the constant flow of dancers taking turns on each stage. It was well-timed clockwork. Everyone knew their place and time. The DJ kept the rhythm, changing the song at constant intervals to not favor any one girl. Mack realized he had never simply sat back and watched it all. He had always been too involved with whatever woman was on stage taking his dollars.
      “And now, coming to the main stage, the queen of The Diamond Palace. Pull out your cash boys. It’s Madison!” the DJ’s voice came through the speakers and ignited a movement. The crowds were surrounding the other stages turned and made their way towards the center of the space. Mack’s curiosity peaked. Whoever this “Madison” was seemed to be the reason these men all chose this particular club. It was obvious she was the main attraction.
      The dark red curtains pulled back. A familiar beat started to play. Mack instantly recognized it as one of his own. He could feel his pulse quicken. It was going to be her. It just had to be. He could see her heels and legs peek out from the blackness onto the stage before he saw the rest of her. Although he was much too far away, he felt as though he could hear her heels as they clicked across the diamond encrusted stage in rhythm to the music. As the spotlight brushed against her skin, it was as if the rest of the world fell way. Suddenly, they were the only two people in the club. She made eye contact, and his chest constricted hard.
      It didn’t matter that every man in the club was surrounding the stage and ignoring all the other beautiful women floating about. It didn’t matter that the glittery floor was covered in dirty dollar bills almost instantly. It didn’t matter that piece-by-piece she took her clothes off, climbed the pole, and danced. She was doing it for him. It was his private show.

~~~

“I’m sorry. You’re not allowed back here.” The massive bouncer stopped Mack as he made his way through the back of the club towards the dressing rooms.
      “It’s cool. Amber told me to come back,” he replied.
      “I don’t care who told you. I’m not allowed to let guys back here. Now get out before I throw you out.”
      Mack sized him up. The guy was nearly twice his size with arms bigger than both of his legs combined. He was not the type of person Mack wanted to press his luck with. Instead, he put his hands up in mock defeat and made his way out the building. He rounded the block to the parking lot, found the back entrance, and knocked on the door. Amber opened it and smiled.
      “I thought you would have left after Fred turned you away.”
      “That giant’s name is Fred?” he asked jokingly. The name was not nearly as intimidating as the man. “Of course I wouldn’t leave.”
      Amber waved him in and led him to the locker room where she was packing up for the night. Her duffle bag was exploding with outfits and shoes of all different crazy colors and styles. Mack was pretty sure he even spotted a bag of weave or a wig buried in there. There were crumbled piles of bills and a few neat stacks lying on the dressing room table. There was far more cash on her stand than all the other girls combined. The DJ had been right. She was the queen of the club.
      Mack took a seat in her makeup chair and started unfolding the bills, running them over the edge of the table to flatten them. She folded her tiny clothing and packed her bag as he worked. It felt like this was something they had always done. They fell so quickly into a routine.
      “Okay, what now?” he asked as he stacked the last dollar bill neatly on top of her impressive earnings for the night.
      “Lobster,” she said playfully.
      “It’s four o’clock in the morning. Where in the world do you plan on getting lobster?”
      She winked at him. “You’ve lived in Miami how long? In this city, you can get anything you want, any time of the day. You just have to know the right people.”
      “Oh, and you do?”
      “Baby, you ain’t the only star in the room. I know everyone.”