“Bennett Davis is a home wrecking bitch.” Everyone said it when they heard Michelle had left me. Only our cramped apartment wasn’t quite a home and, from my understanding, Bennett hadn’t meant to wreck it, but the bitch part I’ll let stand.
“You’ve gained a lot of weight, Cameron,” Bennett said to me one night, monosyllabic, like she was commenting on the weather or DC traffic. “But it looks really good on you. You look good.” Her voice was fervent, the combination of fire and ice.
“I’m trying to lose it. I just . . .” I stammered. “Well, here.” I handed her a six-pack of Blue Moon.
She took it, invited me into her one-bedroom apartment where unframed photos were plastered like wallpaper. Already small clusters of people stood around, red cups everywhere, Chance the Rapper fiending cocoa butter kisses through a twelve-inch speaker. “Where’s the girl?” she asked.
“At home. Studying. Finals.” My girl. Michelle. Sometimes I had to remind myself that I had one. Bennett was the kind of girl who could make a guy forget. Warm brown skin, an unshakeable mound of tightly curled hair, one mesmerizing dimple caught in between cheek and chin. And that’s not even mentioning what she looked like from behind. Just enough to make a guy say, damn.
She grabbed my shoulder hard, smiled. “Loosen up.”
I hadn’t seen her in a long time, always cancelled when she and my half brother Kris made plans to go out. The bigger I got, the more I stayed in. I had nothing to wear, refused to buy clothes that fit. Even now, it was eighty degrees out, and I had on a winter sweater. But it was her birthday, and she’d begged me to come.
Kris was already there. He was stupid, shitty in love with her. Everyone knew it and acted like they didn’t. He would only bring it up with me, and I would always shut him down. “Someone else, Kris. That girl is just a guy’s daydream.”
We looked nothing alike. Kris was deep brown like our dad. I was high yellow like my mom. I had a square jaw and a perpetually arched right eyebrow. He had a round face with a thin nose, as thin as they came on black people, and long eyelashes. He stood as tall as he could, at 5’8”, five or six inches shorter than me, in the corner of the room, looking at Bennett. Her short shorts had probably done him in. I walked over to him.
“You drove here?” I asked, thinking maybe he could give me a ride home. It would be better if Michelle didn’t have to pick me up.
He nodded. “Shouldn’t you be studying? Don’t you have summer school exams?” I was floundering in school, the theorist without a theory why. And Kris, the same age but already a college graduate, with Bennett two years ago, was always on my ass.
“C’mon, man. You know this isn’t even my scene. But it’s Bennett’s birthday.” Parties made me anxious. I had to be drunk or high to have any fun. But like I said, it was Bennett’s birthday. I held up my hands, what was I supposed to do?
She came over to us dancing, roping Kris in, typical half-drunk Bennett. Then she turned to me, almost boxing Kris out of the conversation. “I’m so glad you came, Cameron.” She grabbed my arm, stood on her tiptoes to put her chin on my shoulder, nestled her face right into my dreadlocks hanging underneath a baseball cap. At 24, I was fat and balding. So I did everything I could to hide the weight and the top of my head. She pushed me away. “I don’t think you need to lose any weight.”
“That’s what counselors say to the fat kid,” I said. Kris laughed. Bennett didn’t.
“Well, maybe we should work out together,” she said.
“I don’t know. I’m pretty busy. With school and all.”
“Aww, come on.” She rubbed her hand against the side of my stomach, and I felt my fat jiggle, slippery, uncontrollable, like the juice of a day old smoked pork chop or warm canned cranberry sauce leftover from Thanksgiving. I hated it. I wanted to hide.
“Let’s do it,” I heard myself saying. Really, I did like the idea of not facing the gym alone. And I was too dense to foresee any major problems. Sure, I knew Bennett had her ways, intriguing ones. But she was a heart flutter, while Michelle was a consistent beat.
I nodded. I hated talking about how fat I’d gotten, because the worst of it was that I was athletic, the leading scorer on my high school’s soccer team. The weight had snuck up on me like a bad reputation, my unforeseen fall to shame. “You got any new prints?” I changed the subject.
“Yeah. I shot a whole roll last weekend.”
“Let’s see them.”
She held up a finger and walked quickly to her bedroom. Kris left behind her, said he was going to pour himself another drink. I leaned against the wall, waited.
She came back with a handful of photos, some intentionally grainy, others classically sleek. She’d used the corners of buildings, the posts of streetlights to frame sweating, grumpy subjects. She fished for her favorite. An older man, full of wrinkles, weighed down with bags, stood in the middle of Georgia Avenue, in front of its new storefronts and fresh sidewalks. “I really wanted to juxtapose his weathered, rough skin with the clean lines, the newness of this street.”
“Gentrification,” I said.
She looked at me, pensive, her eyes straining. “Exactly.”
“It’s beautiful. Is it supposed to be beautiful?” I asked, loud over the music.
She shrugged. “It’s whatever you want it to be. But for me, I think it’s inviting?” She nodded. “Ironically inviting.”
My girlfriend flipped out when I told her I was going to the gym with Bennett. She shook her long brown hair, rebuked me with piercing hazel eyes, slurred all of her words together to make one long incoherent sentence.
“No you don’t not with that loose biddy anyone else- Kris Emmanuel Mike- whoever but not her I swear to God Cam no.” She sat up in bed, while I tied my sneakers.
“It’s not a big deal. Trust me,” I assured her.
“I don’t trust her.” She pulled at my shirt, lay back down.
“You don’t have to. Trust me.” I turned around, found her face, brought my hand to her cheek.
“But why do you need to lose weight? We can grow old and fat together.” She laughed.
“I’m unhappy. I’m unhealthy,” I muttered.
“Whatever,” she snapped.
“You can come with us.” That was the winning idea. Michelle was good at math, liked shopping for shoes, watched Martin reruns all day every Sunday, but working out was not her thing. And nothing could make her change her mind about that. I’d tried.
“Watch your mind and your hands, Plato,” she warned. No one understood my college major in social theory. So friends and family took to calling me Plato or Socrates, thinking philosophy and theory were the same, never mind that theory didn’t have the boundaries of philosophy, the limits of experience and reason. But Bennett, she always called me Cameron.
“Plato was a philosopher,” I reminded her, picking up my wallet, walking out of our small bedroom.
“One day you’ll get it,” I said, opening the door on my way out.
“Hey,” she called me.
I shut the door, went back to the bedroom, popped my head in its doorframe. “What’s up?” I asked.
“I love you.”
“I love you more. But you already know that.”
When Bennett and I hit the gym, I was surprised at how strong she was. She could bench press eighty, which was a lot for a girl with twigs for arms, weighing in at an easy one-twenty. But the weights weren’t too bad for me either. It was the cardio that killed.
I would use the stair master while she ran for what felt like hours. Every week the distance grew longer, 4 miles, 5 miles, 6. I would watch her head bop to the music coming from her Beats and wonder how she managed to run without dripping sweat. Just the slightest shine polished her forehead and neck.
We went on like that for a few weeks, lifting weights, Bennett running, me taking the stairs. But my fat was barely falling. I’d only lost five pounds. So she decided that we needed to up the cardio.
“Hey,” she called me a little past seven one night.
“What ya doing?” Breath. Sniffle.
“Nothing. Watching TV. What’s up?” I turned the channel, Crime TV, reality TV, Modern Family, reality TV.
“Come outside.” Pant. Swallow.
“What are you doing?”
“Running.” Exhale. Pause. “Come outside.”
“Are you outside of my house?”
“Ha. Yeah.” Sniffle. “You coming or what?” Inhale. Exhale.
“Yeah. One sec.”
“Wait.” Pant. “Wear running shoes.”
It started as a jog, her enticing idea to run to the Washington Monument. She’d made it sound beautiful, cathartic, necessary, racing to the tall obelisk under the setting summer sun, finding answers with our legs.
But as I struggled for air, desperate to keep up a half mile in, she was silent, easy breezy, easy breathing. I could close my eyes, and she wouldn’t even be there with those stretched tight Nike leggings that mocked me, just do it.
At the mile mark, halfway there, she held up a finger, and I knew I couldn’t take it much longer. “Hold on.” The words barely escaped. My lungs were collapsing; I was sure of it.
“What are you doing?” She ran in place. “Come on. We’ll just take it slower.”
Hands on my knees, mouth open, I shook my head, so heavy it barely moved.
“Let’s just get there. Don’t you want to get there?”
“What I want is for you to get off my ass while I catch my breath.”
She stopped running and turned her fury on me, as quick as her legs. “You’ve been catching your breath for two years now. I’m going to the Monument with or without you.” And she was gone.
I didn’t move forward, didn’t think to go back, lost on the streets I traveled daily.
Braking at the end of the block, she turned around and came back with a resigned look on her face. “Look, small goals work. Let’s just make it to the stop sign. And after we get there, we’ll aim for the light. Then the Smithsonian. But right now, just the stop sign.”
“Just the stop sign?”
And we ran. To the stop sign. To the light. To the Smithsonian. Up the hill. Reaching the Monument. It was beautiful, cathartic. The sun at half mast, the Monument unwavering in a slow breeze, my last breath of accomplishment. It was necessary.
The weight dropped. Two pounds here, three or four there. And I began to believe that I would be myself again, minus the hair.
One day on our cool down, walking a few circles around my block, Bennett mentioned a guy and asked me for some advice.
“I like him a lot. Already. It’s kind of scary. But you know, some things are just like that. Chemistry. Congruous energy. Divinity. And you have to act, right? Fast. Before it slips away.”
“How can you be so sure already?” She just said she’d only known the guy for two weeks.
“I’m just sure that something is meant to come out of it. I’m not saying I’m going to marry him. But there are so many things to learn, to explore. So many people to meet.” She took a breath. “Things never work out for me though.”
We passed a small coffee shop and decided to go in and sit down. I ordered a large black coffee, while she drank hers cold with milk and huge lumps of sugar.
“You know you’re a little inaccessible, right?” I asked. I broke things easier than she did, never had the heart to say much flat out.
“What do you mean?” She looked startled, as if it was the first honest thing she’d ever heard.
“A guy doesn’t know what to do with you other than,” I stopped myself. “You’re hot and cold, wishy washy, the kind of date that leads up to a cold shower.”
“I’m not like that with everyone.” She shook her head. And I thought then that she must have known that she was like that with some.
Somehow that became our routine, running, walking, grabbing a cup of coffee, dissecting Bennett’s love life, discussing her photos, releasing some of my built up tension with Michelle. And from there, our friendship spread to other parts of our lives. We joined a softball league. We met for happy hour. She sat in the library with me, reprimanded me if I didn’t focus. And I gave her so much advice, novels worth of material on the idiosyncrasies of men.
On the night of the incident, we sat in my car, passing back and forth an inexpensive bottle of Bacardi, dipping chips in guacamole, discussing what could have been, delaying meeting friends at the dive bar across the street.
It was Bennett’s idea to buy the bottle. Then she said she had a craving for something green, as if she could taste color. So we stopped at a Mexican restaurant and ordered their largest container of guacamole to go. Her jaw almost hit the floor when she heard I’d never had it before.
“But how?” she asked.
“I’m allergic to sour cream, and they always pair them together. It’s just a side of the plate that I don’t touch. But that’s some good shit.” I pointed to the container, now half eaten.
“Wow.” She pinched me.
“Sometimes I can’t believe you’re a real person.”
For a while, we sat quietly, crunching, drinking. Then she turned toward me, propped one of her knees on the center console. “I didn’t mean to be so predictable.”
“You know, with that guy I told you about. That’s why he dumped me. I was predictable.”
“Just don’t let me see you crying over him.”
She shook her head, took a sip. “Nah, it’s not about him anyway. It’s about the feeling.”
“You know, that feeling of working toward something, of building something earth shattering.” She ran her finger along my seat, starting at the headrest, zigzagging down the side of it.
“But any other guy can make you feel that way.” Kris, my brother, her good friend, I thought. I put my hands on the steering wheel, keeping close track of them.
“Nope. He can’t.” She knew. She was good at that, guessing what I was thinking. And I was good about saying what she needed to hear. I could tell because she would nod her head, bite her lip, smile. And she’d begun to come see me, call me more often, text me at any time of the night, which really worked a number on my girlfriend.
I wanted to ask her if she thought I could make her feel that way. But I knew it would be crossing some unspoken boundary, cheating our friendship. And I needed her, deep in the gut, pestering me, reminding me of who I was.
“You put it all out there too soon,” I said. “You have to fall slowly.” It was interesting to me that Bennett could make any guy love her so long as she didn’t love him back. When that feeling got involved, she became a shit show, clingy, emotional. A man’s nightmare.
“Why? When I already know?” She grabbed my arm, shook my body as if the answers might fall out of me.
“I don’t know. That’s just the way it works.” I ignored the electric sensation of her touch.
It was the type of bar that always had a sticky floor and a theatrically pouty bartender, a gem hidden in the maze of DuPont Circle with the best wings and tater tots around. Kris won a happy hour with drink and food specials. He stood with our close friend Emmanuel, trying to get the grouchy bartender’s attention. Michelle was holding a booth not too far off. Bennett squeezed her way in between Kris and Emmanuel, flicking Kris on the neck. I slid in next to Michelle, pushed her easy against the wall, put my head on her shoulder. She smelled like the most expensive flower, and I sniffed her neck like a dog.
“Stop playing, Cam.” She was annoyed.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, grabbing her waist.
“You’re late, Cam. Where were you?”
“In the library with Bennett,” I lied. My first lie. My last.
“Of course.” She pushed me away, crossed her arms.
“But I’m here now. What do you want to drink?”
She pointed to her usual, already ordered and on the table, a gin and tonic, diet if they had it. “You’re late,” she reiterated.
“I’m sorry.” I pecked her on the cheek and went to greet Kris at the bar.
“Hey, man,” I said.
He looked into his drink and we all walked over to the booth, Emmanuel and Bennett sliding in across from Michelle. I thought maybe Kris hadn’t heard me so I brought my hand down on his shoulder. “Thanks for inviting us out. Especially Michelle, it’s important for her to feel like she fits in.” He walked away, deeper into the bar. I followed him. “What the hell?”
Kris turned around. “I know you’ve been pushing up on Bennett.”
“You don’t know shit, man. She’s helping me lose weight.”
“That’s not what I heard.”
I looked at Michelle. She was laughing with Emmanuel. “From who?”
“Not her,” he said. “Everyone knows.”
“Everyone knows what? Nothing. It’s not true.”
Kris didn’t say anything. Instead, he looked up at the scene that was starting on the mostly empty dance floor.
It was the type of spot that played Hall & Oates, The BeeGees, Tears For Fears, Michael Jackson and occasionally Al Green. It goes without saying that we were the only blacks in the joint. But Bennett loved that shit, everything from disco to pop to blue-eyed soul. The songs occupied her IPod, not unlike hip-hop, jazz and R&B. So it was nothing new, but really it never grew old, to see her dancing and singing along to King Harvest.
We get it on most every night. When that moon is big and bright. It’s a supernatural delight. Everybody’s dancing in the moonlight.
Kris and I watched Bennett vibe, a rock bounce, hands above her head, exploring levels with her knees. She always looked a little silly, almost sad when she danced. Every now and then, she would lose the beat, a second ahead or behind. But she danced with conviction, like she was doing the song a service, justice.
Emmanuel got up, front two stepped his way toward her. She gestured for him, come over. Then she shook her head. He spinned around, a full 360 and decided to move her way anyway.
Emmanuel was a lot like Bennett. He looked the part of her perfect dance partner, tall and chiseled with a wide white smile. He moved like the song was inside of him.
Everyone in the bar watched them, every nationality, every shade, every gender. They were designed for greater, bigger, spotlight. They were invincible.
When the song ended, I noticed that Kris had moved off. I looked around but couldn’t find him. I stood alone watching Bennett order a glass of water at the bar. She headed back to the booth and sat across from Michelle. At first it looked like they were exchanging small words, slight smiles. But then I saw a finger rise, and I thought maybe I should see about them. I came up behind Michelle.
“I just think you should take a step back.” Michelle.
“Tell him that. He’s your boyfriend. I’m not.” Bennett.
“Exactly. He’s my boyfriend.” Michelle.
“Well,” Bennett said, applauding me as I came around the booth.
“What’s going on?” I asked Michelle.
“We’re just chatting. Woman to woman,” she said.
“No,” Bennett said. “Your girlfriend was just showing me how insecure she is about your relationship.”
“Whoa, whoa.” Emmanuel came up behind Bennett and grabbed her by the shoulders. “Calm down.”
“Don’t tell me to calm down,” Bennett shouted. The people around us, sitting or standing at tables, dancing not too far off, grew silent, watching. “Tell Ms. Pretty and Perfect Michelle to stop acting like such a bitch.” Mamma always said it takes one to know one.
I hung my head. “Bennett,” I said under my breath. “Why?”
She turned to me as if answering, “You’re such a coward.”
Michelle stood. “Take me home.”
“But we drove separately,” I reminded her.
Her eyes narrowed, holding back anger. “Take me home.”
We walked to my car, and I saw Kris getting into his. I guess we were even.
I knocked, tried the cold doorknob. It was locked. I knocked again, and I heard her light footsteps.
“Who is it?” Bennett asked.
She opened the door, stood speechless, mouth agape. “What are you doing here?”
It was midnight, chilly outside, the beginning of fall and I’d forgotten to wear a jacket. I had on my pajamas, basketball shorts and a shirt branding my high school’s debate team. She had on her pajamas, a purple tank top and purple and white boxers with hearts all over them. I didn’t wait for her invitation. I walked in.
“What happened the other night?” I asked. I wanted to move closer, touch her. And I tried, but she stepped back, not her usual self, the one who would tug on my dreadlocks, trace her finger along my back, bump into me with her bony shoulder. Playful, not quite sexual. Now, she stood scared. “What happened the other night?” I asked again.
She smelled like a fresh shower, pink soap, girly. I thought maybe I’d caught her at a good time. “I don’t know. She was mad at me.” Her voice rose, high but strong. “Your girlfriend was mad at me. What have you been telling her?”
“She feels threatened.” It was so warm in her place, comforting. I wanted to stay there waiting for all of this to blow over. Only I knew I couldn’t. “You’re gorgeous. Guys like you. Kris loves you. Of course she feels threatened.” I wondered if Michelle was right to feel that way. I wondered if maybe I did have something for Bennett. I closed my eyes, covered my face, sat on the possibility.
“So she just doesn’t like me?”
I looked at Bennett. I knew her. “You don’t like her either. And why is that? Because of her personality or because she’s with me?”
She stood silent, blinking. She turned away. “I don’t like you like that, if that’s what you mean.”
“I know you don’t. That wasn’t the question.”
“I just.” She shrugged, turned toward me. “I don’t know.”
“Me too,” I admitted. Bennett was ethereal. I was corpulent. I wanted to ground her. I wanted to keep her from flying away, looking down, falling. Or maybe she could take me with her.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“Say that to Michelle.”
“No. Why should I? Michelle started it.” She paused, went to pour herself a glass of water. I could hear her through the single wall that separated her kitchen from the living room. “Do you believe in God?” she asked.
“But you’re a theorist. Can you be both? A believer and a theorist?”
I considered it. “God is the ultimate theory.”
She came back into the living room, handed me a glass filled to the brim. I sat down. “What do you think?” I asked.
“Of course I believe in God. I believe we’re supposed to be in this room right now, that we were supposed to run to the Monument. We’re in each other’s lives for a reason greater than us. And if your girlfriend doesn’t like it . . .” She raised her hand to her forehead, see ya, the officer’s salute. “But I’ll apologize,” she added. “For you.”
I finished my drink slowly. I wanted to stay. I wished we could fall asleep together, and I don’t know what would happen with a girl like that except maybe we would become a part of each other and this problem between girlfriend and friend wouldn’t exist.
Bennett skimmed her lips with her index finger, thoughtful, barely suggestive, all it takes to be effective. And I remembered that she knew, that in some way or another, even I wanted her. And I remembered simultaneously that she couldn’t help it. I realized I missed my girlfriend. So I left, grabbed the door handle, warm.
For two days and two nights, a stretched out and persistent 48 hours, Michelle and I were strangers. During the day, we moved around like hypochondriacs in a hospital, careful not to touch. At night, lying on our sides, both facing the door, I inched closer to her, reached out my arms to pull her in. She swatted at me and slid further away.
That afternoon, she started the conversation, throwing newly folded shirts, sweaters, underwear into drawers she would eventually slam shut.
“Bennett called me this morning,” she said, terse, commanding.
“That’s good, right?” I was optimistic. I walked toward her, but she held out her hand, keep your distance.
“Good. She didn’t mean it. She really doesn’t have anything against you.”
She kept her back to me, still facing our dresser, the wall where a picture of us sitting in a rocking chair outside of my mother’s house hung. “You can’t see her anymore,” she said.
“Don’t be like that.”
“That girl called me a bitch in front of a room full of people, Cameron.”
“But she apologized.”
“And I forgave her.” She turned around, faced me square with wide eyes.
“Then why?” I asked.
“Because I don’t want her in this relationship anymore. There’s no room for three.”
“But Bennett is my friend. We’ve been friends for years now. And I’ve been losing weight and passing classes. It’s a good platonic friendship.”
“I have a theory,” she said. Michelle liked saying that when she was angry. She always found a way to use who I was against me. “What’s good for you isn’t always meant for you.”
“That’s not even,” I digressed.
“Or she’s worth it? She’s worth this?” She circled her finger around, indicating us, our room, our bed, our dresser. There were so many ours.
“She felt like you backed her into a corner.” Maybe that was the wrong thing to say, but Michelle had to see that Bennett wasn’t malignant.
“So you’re sticking up for her?”
“No, she’s just a complicated person, that’s all.”
“So am I!”
“Not like her.” I said it too quickly, without thinking.
“I knew it.” She looked up, held back tears. “But you’re right. I’m so simple for letting you run around with her.”
“I love you.”
She shook her heard. “It’s not enough.”
She turned around, opened her drawer, scooped out all of the clothes she’d just thrown in and packed them in a bag, the closest bag, my gym bag. And she left.
I didn’t try to stop her.
Janelle M. Williams is an African American writer from Decatur, Georgia. She received her BA from Howard University, her MFA in Creative Writing from Manhattanville College, and a 2017 fellowship from Kimbilio Fiction. Her work has appeared in Auburn Avenue, The Feminist Wire and Writopia Speaks. She is currently at work on a novel set in Harlem.