Chapter 3

Amari liked her job most days. It kept her out of the desert cities. Kept her in an area where she could move somewhat inconspicuously provided she didn’t venture too far into Skid Row. People left her alone for the most part. That also meant she was left alone with her drafts and works-in-progress, the sole arbiter of whether or not they ever saw the light of day. And the draft Khadijah had torn apart? Never should have left her hard drive.

     She wasn’t sure what she was going for with this book. It had no title and was shorter than her first one by a rather wide margin though not for lack of trying. She jotted notes on her phone, had a few ‘Idea’ files on the computer, and even a page or two in a notebook; they reached a few hundred words before the ideas just escaped her. A select few would make it to a thousand, a few to two, maybe even three thousand. There would always be a base for something decent but the means to finish the story always seemed to be just beyond her grasp.

     This book started by combining several of her longest notes and as such the styles fluctuated in ways she’d found unpleasant as she tried to tie them together. Jessie probably hated it but Amari knew she would before dropping off the manuscript in the dead of night, when she was out of her office.

     Every section seemed to be doing something different but Khadijah had managed to find the one unifying thread underneath the superfluous prose. And it turned out she needed even more than half a book. She’d crossed out the first pages, only a note to “start here” at the beginning of the sixth. Amari didn’t need detailed notes on that one; the pages before six had too much exposition, too few characters, too little to draw in anyone whose job wasn’t looking for the faint sparks of creativity in what was otherwise junk.

     With her first book, Amari managed to get all the good ideas to the forefront, unencumbered by the messy prose. Back then, all her spare time was spent on writing and rewriting, trying to finish…something. The something turned out to be the first draft of her first book. It was rough as all drafts were but she liked it enough to hassle professors and the people he came across in writing classes to give it a read. The overall feedback was good, even if she still had to do some massive overhauls.

     Writing could work. But it had to go on the backburner while she finished up a bunch of the boring requisites whose actual content she’d never use. For a while she wrote nothing, just plucked away at half finished short stories. Nothing serious. She certainly didn’t have time to look over the five or six marked up drafts of her novel.

     But when she found a break in her schedule, a string of classes that could be done anywhere they taught in English, she thought of maybe going out of the country for a while. There was no reason not to; it wasn’t like she had anything better to do. She hadn’t joined a sorority nor had she tried out for any sports, joined any clubs. She was wholly unattached.

     Going to the info session was a whim so she ended up going alone while Malik, her best friend, worked one of his campus jobs. The theater was tucked in a far off corner, in one of the old liberal arts buildings that was last in line for renovations. They had bad coffee, barely sweetened hot cocoa, and stale pastries, the same as every other campus event. Amari chewed on a dry croissant as she made her way to the front row of the theater, wishing she didn’t have to expose herself so much just for some leg room.

     Amari had drifted into in the cluster of black students that sometimes formed without words, unintentionally, but was always welcome. When the presentations were done, she was wandering around gathering info packets about the various schools she could choose. That was where she noticed them, as they’d not had any classes together in a few sessions.

     “Where are you thinking of going?” they asked.

     “Oh, I’m not sure yet,” Amari said, not noticing she’d dampened her accent and speech to the inoffensive southern California ones, the ones that kept assumptions down and questions to a minimum. She’d always done that with them, even back in high school.

     They texted for most of the semester and all through the summer, not often meeting as their commutes took them in opposite directions. Amari hadn’t questioned why they rarely arranged to meet up, even when they were only a quarter mile walk away on campus, why there was always something going on that kept them apart. It would be different in Tamaki, when all the messy parts of their lives were thousands of miles away; how couldn’t it?

Amari flushed the toilet, wishing she’d brought her phone because she still wasn’t done. She was supposed to be editing, revising, rewriting! Not stuck on a toilet, trying to piece together where her life fell apart. On top of that, she was wondering what the hell she even had to shit out when she’d only managed half a bag of pre-hulled sunflower seeds and a few swigs of red grapefruit juice in the last two days.

     Granted it was no different than when she found herself in the bathroom at the flat that was little more than a converted shed that shared a wall with her room, her stomach griping for no apparent reason. The shed-bathroom had proven to be one of the least annoying places in the entire flat, maybe even her favorite. No one disturbed her, she only had to take a few steps outside, and she didn’t have to risk an encounter with a flatmate. There was just her, her phone, the toilet, and the spiders that often made the pipes under the sink their home.

She refused to coexist with spiders now, mostly because her nerves were shot. They were weak after months of trying set dates, waiting for responses that seemed to come slower when she and they were in the same place with less obstacles between them, and wondering exactly how long she’d have to wait, how much their already limited time would be cut down. Amari wondered if she would be stood up more than once, left alone in Britomart. She stuck out even more so than at home, and while she knew it was a transit center and no one gave a damn who was there or for how long, when fifteen minutes passed into twenty and that into thirty, she began to wonder. Try to sit still. Not look around anxiously, fidgeting until they finally decided to show.

     She was never sure how to greet them, why the terms of endearment never fell from her lips with any ease. Even the hugs felt stranger than they had back home, like there wasn’t a show to put on anymore. Who the show was for was something Amari had never figured out. Just like she never figured out why they always felt like a stranger.

     Because they always were a stranger.

    There was no wonder she spent most evenings after a “date” in the shed-bathroom clutching her stomach and trying to keep her legs from falling asleep on the toilet. Unease permeated her entire being, unsure if dinner or the person she had it with was the problem. Surely it was just something odd she’d eaten like the beets on the burgers, she convinced herself.

     I won’t do that anymore, she thought as she finally washed her hands, making sure to dry them well; she hated messing up the paper while she was editing.

     No more lies.

“I know you in there. Your ass don’t go outside.”

     Amari set the manuscript and laptop aside, having only gotten through a few pages anyway, and let Malik in her apartment. Better to let him in before he used his key.

     “What?” Amari asked, ready to be grilled over what she’d done and if she’d eaten since their last video call. Malik wouldn’t like either of her answers, but she’d give them. Instead Malik went past her to open the curtains to let some light in.

     “…I don’t care if it start raining, we going outside. Put some pants on.”

     “I was working,” Amari pointed to the coffee table where her manuscript lay in a few piles.

     “Is that the last book you had me read?”

     Amari winced at the way Malik’s nose scrunched up, but nodded.

     “Yeah. I got a new editor and she don’t play.”

     Malik leafed through a few pages, red pen in hand but he didn’t need to add to Khadijah’s hack job.

     “Oh, she really don’t play,” he set the stack back down with a laugh. “I told you it’d be aight…eventually. But still get dressed; that book not going nowhere.”

     Finding something decent to wear was no easy task; all her nice clothes had been purchased back when she was promoting her first book and had to look decent. Now the only things that didn’t hang off her were basics and the slacks she’d worn to her meeting with Khadijah. But Malik didn’t drag her to the nearest mall when she came out of the bedroom so she must have looked okay.

     “So what we doing?” Amari asked while she lotioned up.

     “Frat party.”

     “Now I ain’t go to them in school; what make you think–” Amari sighed. That was a joke. When would she stop missing those? “Okay where we really going?”

    “Tony’s. Ricky and his lil’ jazz band playing at the bar.”

     “It’s already nine; we gon’ make it?”

     “They got the late set. Let’s go.”

     She left home barehanded, only a pack of tissues, tube of lip balm, and her wallet tucked in her jacket pocket. Nothing to look for if she needed to make a quick exit.

     “I’ll drive,” Amari offered as she locked the door.

     “You still dry?”

     “I’d be fucked up off one beer. It’s cool.”

     There wasn’t even room to take out a phone without bumping elbows in the antique elevator once she rolled the gate shut. No escape route either, Amari noted dimly and for a moment, she thought Malik might let her off easy.

     “You look better,” Malik said, breaking the silence. “I’m glad you out the house, but–“

     “But today we about to go act like these saxophone solos slap,” she patted Malik’s arm as she exited the elevator and started down the hall to the parking lot, confused yet relieved.

     Malik had hesitated for some reason, only speaking when they were one floor from the garage. It wasn’t like him to miss an opportunity to pry when Amari couldn’t run. They would have to broach the subject. Just…later.

     “Won’t need to act,” Malik loosened back up and Amari hoped she could keep him that way.

Amari kept a hand on Malik’s shoulder as they walked down the path to the boardwalk, her glasses in her other hand. This close to the water nothing would keep them from fogging up every five steps but without them in the dark? Everything was uncomfortably fuzzy.

     She could still make out a few things, like how the souvenir stands were still in full effect. Light up balloons and inflatable animals went for twice what you could get them for downtown and parents were letting out exasperated sighs as they handed over crisp twenties from the nearby ATMs. All the restaurants served fresh seafood, most of them having their own overcrowded tanks with their wares on display. She couldn’t read the signs right then but knew they were pointed towards the submarine and whale watching rides on the far side of the boardwalk.

     Amari had thoughts of bringing them here before it all went to hell, showing them all the simple things she liked about it, from the section of pier where you could see fish poking their heads out of the water to the decrepit papier-mâché witch in the Fun Factory. All the small parts had their own charm and added up to a place that was suspended in time, where the newest gadgets were credit card readers and Time Crisis II.

     “…and I lost her.”

     “What?” Amari looked around and saw that she’d fallen behind Malik quite a ways.

     “Sorry,” she caught up and tried to focus on the now, on showing her boy Ricky some love, maybe finding some fruity, nonalcoholic blended drink to sip on while he zoned out.

     Ricky was waiting outside Tony’s for the call to set up their equipment. They kept it simple; a guitar, a bass, a sax, and a keyboard. It’d be better than most live dinner bands she’d ever had the misfortune of sitting through, that was for sure.

     “What’s good, stranger?” Ricky embraced her briefly and the near curtness of it stung but it was in line with what she expected. Malik was an outlier; most people could only take so many declined invitations and the caginess when she did go out and Ricky was one of them.

     “Nothing much,” Amari shrugged, “Y’all doing music full time?”

     “Nah, still a weekend thing. Might leave it that way. Less pressure.”

     “Right, right…”

     Before Ricky could say anything else, one of the waiters called them upstairs.

     “See y’all in ten.” The band filed up the narrow staircase and Amari tried to not to look too relieved. She had to start going out more.

     “Now that wasn’t too bad, right?” Malik asked in the same tone of voice doctors used when giving shots.

     “Shut up.”