The Slave Quarters
Chapter 10: The Most Annoying Emotion
By Rock Kitaro
Already my fingers are jittery. We haven’t even entered yet. For a Tuesday night, the place is friggin packed with large groups congesting the waiting area. It’s so bad that a line formed to curl around the brick walls outside. Most had been waiting for well over forty-five minutes, so I can understand their exasperated gasps as a self-assured Griffin leads us past the hostess like one of the mobsters from back in the day.
Josey’s Steakhouse is a popular spot on Broad Street in downtown Augusta. It’s loud with country guitar music flooding out. Passing pedestrians were prompted to give a little two-step as they traverse the popular thoroughfare. Broad Street was known for its bars and southern restaurants. It’s one of the main thoroughfares saturated with foot traffic every month on a little festival the locals called, “First Fridays.”
The place is dimly lit but bright enough to notice there’s nothing but white people in the building. That’s not a knock on race, just a glaring observation anyone used to diversity would notice. The restaurant boasts an authentic cowboy theme. Loud burly men in flannel shirts chug their beer at the bar in front of their sports. The rustic skulls of Texas longhorns hang above the main entrance and nearly every major beam. Lassos and haystacks are stationed in random places to give it that barn vibe and the waitresses look cute in their brown boots, jean shorts, and red midriff baring center knot shirts.
The dance floor in the middle of the restaurant is the size of a tennis court. As per usual, I locate all five exits and differentiate the uniforms of employees from the guest. I’m stepping on crunchy peanut shells as Griffin leads us to his favorite booth in the corner. Along the way, I notice timid glances from gorgeous women. I sensed their fear of upsetting their territorial dates. The men would simply glare over their shoulders and I, for some reason, made sure to smile submissively as if to say, “It’s okay. I’m not after your woman. Carry on.”
A glimmer of light catches my eye. I turn to the flames of the grill kitchen on the other side of the restaurant. Everyone is good looking and young. Everyone’s having a great time. The atmosphere is energetic and uplifting and suddenly I can’t help but think I’d rather be anywhere else.
My heart’s pounding. A migraine flares. Heat crawls up my neck and stretches to one side of my face. It’s chilly outside, but the moving bodies and racing hormones bring the room temperature up to a humid eighty-two degrees. I’m beginning to think it was a bad idea to wear my black slim-fitting, shoulder-padded sweater. I have it worn over a tucked in collared shirt and I feel the beads trickling down my abs. At least I’m in comfortable khakis. My legs feel great with enough room to breathe.
Griffin and Leanne are both nearing forty but they’re dressed younger than me. Griffin’s wearing a tight dark V-neck tee shirt with blue jeans and black boots. He looks like a ranch handling MMA fighter, to be honest. His pecs and biceps bulge with intimidating tone. Leanne is wearing a center knot blue denim shirt with a white body-wrapping blouse underneath. Her jeans sit low on those hourglass hips and they’re so tight that she has to carry the rental keys by hand.
Jessica is directly in front of me. She’s wearing a black tank top to showcase those smooth caramel toned shoulders. Her long silky black hair stops just above the groove in the center of her back and I can’t help but notice that she’s wearing a matching satin bra underneath. Her dark colored jeans sit low like Leanne’s, except I can see a thin tease of the dimples on her lower back each time her hips shimmied from side to side. I have to concentrate to keep from breathing hard.
We file into the corner booth with red padded cushions. It has a window view of the abutting brick buildings. The polished wooden table catches the light well. It mirrors the ice rattling in Griffin and Leanne’s whiskey glasses. In fact, the two of them are sitting awfully close to each other and while I’d normally shoot Leanne a cautionary glance, I’m too consumed with trying my best to maintain composure.
“Be cool. This is what normal people do. They go out and have a good time. Just be cool.” This is what I tell myself.
Jessica abstains from alcohol while Leanne orders my lime soda as a mother would to a child. She did this on purpose as a joke and I laugh it off just wanting to get the dinner over with. My looks, the way I’m behaving…I perform as if everyone in the dining area is watching me. They’re not, but I think they are.
Conversation begins with Leanne regaling over her production for the day. It’s boring police stuff that would make anyone wonder off and daydream but Griffin can’t get enough of it. It’s like Leanne’s doing stand-up over here. Oh god…a giggling Griffin shoulders into her. There’s a meeting of the flesh. Leanne’s heart flutters like a butterfly and that smile is showing way too much teeth.
Jessica’s laughing at their jokes but she keeps turning to exchange glances with me as if every shocking revelation deserves a jump of the brows. This is unbearable. Jessica is trying to ask me these deep philosophical questions to lure me into a conversation but it’s way too loud. There’s nothing more irritating than trying to talk about something deep and meaningful while competing with a ruckus. So I give short answers and quickly ask her for her opinion on the subject. She appreciates my attempt to engage and tries to reciprocate but I can’t hear a single word she says. I just keep nodding while throwing in clichés like, “exactly!” or “that’s so funny.”
After twenty minutes or so, our orders come out. Leanne’s lager is topped off. As a server sets sizzling steak fajitas down in front of Jessica, I reach under the shade of the platter and snatch up the keys to the rental car. Leanne squints at me. I squint back at her. Just like that, she switches back to a smitten schoolgirl as Griffin compliments the searing of her New York strip.
Opting for a lighter meal, I ordered lemon grilled chicken breast over brown rice. The rich citrusy smell is divine and uplifting, just what I needed. I’m salivating before I even pick up my sterling fork. And just as I hover the serrated edge of my knife over this tender chicken, I notice the tip of my blade is shaking. My nerves are tingling with a mild burning sensation seeping into my knuckles. My nostrils furl as I’m determined to steady my grip. I glance at Jessica to see if she noticed. So precious…She’s shoving a wrapped fajita in her mouth like a vacuum. She catches me looking just as she chomped down.
Laughter erupts with her turning away so bashful. “Why are you looking at me!? So creepy!” She snaps.
“Haha! Sorry. Hungry, eh?” I snicker.
“I haven’t eaten all day! Shut up! Eat!” She commands.
The meal is delicious. I finish it within three songs before sitting back and letting my mind return to the case at hand.
It enters my eardrum like an echo in a hollow cave. It’s nearing nine o’clock but it’s been sundown for over two hours. Why am I just now hearing Maggie’s creepy demands? I peer out over to the dance floor. A mass of bodies moves to a rhythm of the guitars. And hovering above them is a dark, almost organic smog. It wasn’t there when we walked in but I see it now. My gaze lifts to the ceiling. The place has been renovated over the past two years but the souls hovering above tell me that they perished in a nasty fire. Shadowy bulges of their faces press out from the smog as if they’re trying to escape but keep being pulled back in. There’s nothing I can do for them.
It’s been a while since I’ve seen a cluster of souls like this. The last time was during my visit to Charleston, South Carolina. There was an old pirate ship that also perished in a fire. Unlike the pirates, however, these souls seemed relatively complacent and calm. Sad and miserable, but not like the belligerent pirates.
I react as if to a mosquito bite. And just over my shoulders I catch a glimpse of Maggie scowling through the reflection of the window.
“You alright, Cloud?” Jessica asks.
“Hey! Let’s dance!” Leanne shouts with haste.
Leanne…She knew I was about to say how tired I was and she didn’t want the night to end. This girl had a playbook for her game and it was only halftime.
“Alright! Let’s do this!” Griffin shouted, like a bull about to bust out the gates.
An excited Jessica urges me out of the booth. Griffin escorts Leanne by the hand while Jessica is hooked on my arm. This isn’t good. My heart’s about to explode out of my chest. Vision is getting blurry. I feel faint. My eyes start to roll. My legs are heavy, like I’m carrying a hundred pounds on my back. My knees are about to buckle with each step. I swear the room tilts to one side. I fucking hate this.
“Jessica! If this is a test, you win. I’m still your slave. Always have been. But please! Please don’t drag me to that mess of people!”
I don’t say any of that. What I do say, in a sad pathetic whimper is…
We’re near the banister on the edge of the dance floor. My eyes are closed. My face is flushed and it feels like I’m about to collapse. Somehow I find the strength to open my eyes and force an uneasy smile. I encourage her to go on and I promise to watch. I know she’s concerned. I know she wants to be here for me, but her presence in this pitiful state would only drag me further to the brink of depression. Tapping into my inner thespian, I muster a cool, charismatic smile.
“Go on. Don’t worry about me! Just show me what you can do? You can still dance, right? This ain’t salsa, but I know you have it in you.”
The twinkle in her eye, its like a puppy begging to be played with in the park. So badly I want to oblige her but I’ve been down this road before. Anxiety disorders are real, but as a man, we can’t let our women see it. Men have to be strong. Especially when the woman of your dreams is watching.
“Seriously, I’m alright. You know I don’t like crowds. Just let me stand here and watch as my friends have a good time,” I shout over the noise.
“All right. If you say so,” she shouts back.
I lean against the banister and watch as Jessica blends in with the sea of happy faces. A petite blonde brushes against me. She’s with a group of her girlfriends. She points at me and back at herself, asking for a dance. I wave off, mouthing a humble thank you. Jessica’s still watching me. It isn’t until a tall gym trainer struts by that Jessica’s attention is pulled elsewhere. A bittersweet relief.
As soon as she takes her eyes off of me I close the curtains on the performance and deteriorate into a mess of drooping affliction. If not for the banister, I wouldn’t be able to stand. Watching my colleagues have such a great time makes me lonely and miserable. Everyone looks so blissful, so cool. Anyone from the outside looking in could easily call me scared. It’s easy to call me lame, or a coward for being one of those people holding up the walls. And all I have to say to that, is try living with agoraphobia and get back to me. The fact that I was able to get through dinner without a panic attack is a huge accomplishment in of itself.
I had hoped that being safe from having to dance would give me a chance to calm down, but all of my senses are heightened. The music is so loud. My migraine throbs with each pound of the kick drum. My skin is more tactile, hyper sensitive to the touch. The sweat under my shirt feels like burning acid. The smoke, the fumes of grease and alcohol invade my nostrils. And worst of all is my vision. The “out of sight, out of mind” philosophy goes a long way with me. In the five years Jessica’s been away, I’ve taken for granted the bliss of not having to deal with jealousy.
She’s literally bouncing between three different guys, all tall dudes who look like they’ve just jumped out of a men’s fitness magazine. One guy had her from behind. His hands were placed so low on her hips and, fight as I may, my eyes could not turn away. His hands are all over her ass. This son of a bitch pulls in on Jessica’s groin, grinding her. She likes it.
Jessica doesn’t at all look appalled. She smiles and looks over her shoulder with pleasant surprise. I fucking knew it. You haven’t changed one bit. You’re just as loose and hedonistic as I remember. Their hips rock in a continuous Heimlich maneuver while I stand watching like a jittery stalker as if they were nearing climax in a porno.
Then there’s Griffin and Leanne. I expected this from Leanne, but Mark Griffin is a married man with a wife and child at home. What’s he going to tell them? That he had to work an all-nighter? Deplorable! And here I am. The poster child for every reason why people smoke weed and get drunk.
“Just have fun, Cloud!”
“You need to relax!”
“Stop being a stick in the mud!”
“Stop being so antisocial!”
How can it be so easy for them? I’ve not felt jealousy in over five years. I’ve forgotten how painful it is. So useless! What am I supposed to do? March out onto the dance floor and wrap my arms around her and kiss her like there’s no tomorrow? Am I even really in love with her? It’s just lust! It’s been five years. I don’t know her and she doesn’t know me. So why am I jealous? Is it really just the sex? Am I really that weak? Am I a hypocrite in my own morality? THIS IS SO DUMB! I shouldn’t be thinking about any of this. There’s more important matters at hand, damn it!
You know what? Fuck this. I’m out.
Anger is a strong shield, a battering ram that moves people out of my way as I storm for the exit. Again, girlfriends are like turtles the way they recoil at the sight of me. Their territorial dates snarl at me and, at this point, I wish they would rise up and put their hands on me.
Orange tungsten washes over me from the street lamps. I look up and down Broad Street, deliberating which path to take. I could go straight to the motel or opt for a longer walk to clear my and cool my nerves. Ultimately my decision is based on the path with less people. It’s a three block walk to the motel and I only count ten heads as opposed to the fifty plus coming from the nearby parking garage.
An exhilarated Jessica Arroyo comes rushing out of the steakhouse. She’s laughing as she bumps into me. She’s not drunk, but she’s acting like it, no doubt stimulated by her dance partners. It’ll wear off shortly. Either way, I keep walking. I don’t want her to see me glowering. Unfortunately, she’s the type who has to lean over and locks eyes to make sure you’re okay.
“I saw you leaving. I guess that much hasn’t changed. It’s the same from back at UGA when you bounced from the social,” Jessica recalls.
I don’t care. I don’t respond. I keep walking.
“Wow, Leanne seems head over heels with Griffin,” she gushes.
“Yeah, well he is her type.” I grumble.
“What, tall, strong, and handsome?”
We stop in the middle of the paved sidewalk. Just like that, the mood sours as Jessica accurately assumes Leanne plans on taking Griffin back to her hotel room. Apparently, Jessica didn’t know Griffin was married. She’s inundated with a wave of regret and my dumbass presumptuously presumes it’s because she liked Griffin too.
“How’s Brody doing?” I ask. “Last I heard, you guys tied the knot.”
Brody Conners was a police officer Jessica dated for years when we were in college. Essentially, he was a simple-minded asshole who never realized his physical comedy was a soft-core form of bullying. Like Jessica, Brody assumed I was his friend when really, I hated the guy. He was just like everyone else, always thinking about getting wasted. The kind of guy Jessica thought was “fun” while I was buried deep in books.
In fact, on the night I met Maggie, I threw down with a few of his cop buddies. They beat me up and humiliated me in front of Jessica and a group of her sorority sisters. It’s one of the reasons why I can’t stand crowds. I hate congregations. I wish I was more like everyone else. But I’m sick and tired of trying to be and failing in epic fashion. Just thinking about it all and seeing Jessica here now pisses me off to no end. Fucking whore.
“Brody and I finalized our divorce last spring. Cloud, he used to beat me. It was really bad.”
The revelation hits me like a ton of bricks. Silence reigns. Just like that, my insides deteriorate. Overcome with guilt, I ball up my fists and clench tight.
She goes on to explain how they got married and moved to D.C. where she accepted a job with the Federal Bureau of Investigation. And because he struggled to adapt to a fast paced progressive culture that was foreign to his own Southern upbringing, Brody’s frustration converted to fits of rage that became increasingly violent. I bit my lip when she told me how he pushed her down a flight of stairs, which broke her arm. My cheeks convulse when she tells me he pinned her down and held a knife to her throat.
Jessica says she started taking self-defense classes and worked out to get stronger, but he was always stronger. He fought and beat her in their own home as if she was the intruder threatening the children they never had. She was pulled from field duty because her bruises reflected poorly on the bureau. Other agents tried to help, but Jessica was too afraid to let them…my Jessica…afraid…
She couldn’t sleep. Every time she heard a slam or slap, she’d flinch. It got to the point where she trembled like a traumatized dog every time he was in the same room with her. This was her life for four long truculent years. For four years this was her life and my punkass is standing here complaining about a single night of childish jealousy.
The brevity of her sad tale lasted for over twenty minutes where I remained silent and listened. She concludes by revealing the straw that broke the camel’s back. It was when he brought another female home after a night out at the bar. Apparently he’s been seeing this stripper for some time with Jessica suspecting the affair but too terrified to say anything. But when he brought another woman into her house and paraded her in front of Jessica without a care in the world, Jessica drew her service weapon and aimed it at both of them. If Brody didn’t leave, I’d probably be watching a Saturday night mystery about their double homicide.
My hands are in my pocket as I lift an emotional gaze up to a hazy sky. Now I see why Jessica’s smile turned upside down when I told her Griffin was married. She was a victim of adultery herself. Jessica must be thinking about Griffin’s wife and how hurt she’ll be when she finds out. Sensing my condolences, Jessica wraps around my waist for a firm back hug.
“It’s okay.” She whispers. “Therapy’s been great. I’m drawing closer to God. I’m much better, in a better place. That’s why I came back, Cloud. To be closer to family. I moved in with my sister. Angel. Remember her?”
I smirk. “How can I forget? She stole-”
“Your tassel during our graduation. Man, you’re never going to forget that one are you?” Jessica chuckles.
“Well, it was very frustrating. I was already the odd ball out and thanks to her I was the only one who couldn’t throw up his cap because your sister was running around with it.”
Jessica laughs. It’s amazing how resilient she is. I still brood at the very mention of someone talking about my mother. But in an instant, she’s able to pull herself together and shrug off the negativity of her past.
“Jessica, I’m so sorry you had to go through all that.”
“Aww! Let’s not think about it. It happened, but I’m still here. I’m barely thirty. I’ve got the rest of my life ahead of me. It was just a painful chapter and now it’s closed. All right!? Comprende!?”
“What about you? Don’t tell me you still have panic attacks. I hope that isn’t holding you back,” She asks we continue down the sidewalk.
I think for a moment. The past hour has been a roller coaster of emotions. I went from drooling over her, to hating her rotten guts, to having such pride in her ability to cope. And still, she remembers my “anxieties”. That’s a plus because I’ve been hard pressed to find a woman who can accept that about me.
“Well, I have had a few significant relationships over the years. Invariably, however, it turns out that every woman expects me to behave according to the trends of the times.” I say, trying my best not to sound like I’m complaining.
“Like what? Give me a for instance.”
“For instance, when I first meet them, they’re great. But give it four to five weeks and it’s always the same. Why don’t we go out and do stuff? How come you don’t have any other friends? You want to go to the football game? A concert? The baseball game? I know all that sounds cool and awesome and normal but it’s not me. I’ve tried. I’ve tried stepping out of that proverbial ‘comfort zone.’ It doesn’t work for me.
“I had this girl from Decatur. Her name was Amy. Amy was a philosopher of sorts, played guitar at a local hookah lounge. She had the most gorgeous brown eyes I’ve ever seen. I’d get lost in them. I swear, I could wake up every day at the sight of them. But even she got bored with me. She kept trying to push me out of my comfort zone. And to be honest, she was worth it. If keeping her meant my stepping out of my comfort zone, she was worth it. So I put myself out there.
“Just for her, I joined this group she was involved with. It’s basically an organization designed to help people with public speaking, to get them used to talking to other people. I went before an audience of fifty strangers and froze up. Amy joined me at the podium. She tried her best to talk me through it, but it only made matters worse. I only became more embarrassed and self-conscious. I never felt so small in my life and Amy was barely over five feet tall.”
“So you broke up with her?”
“Jess, I cried in front of everyone like a baby. It was so bad. In front of Amy and fifty nameless faces, I cowered down and wept behind the podium. And she just kept trying to get me to finish the fucking speech but I couldn’t. When I finally got the nerve to stand, I just grabbed my phone and left. She didn’t follow me. She didn’t come after me or ask if I was alright. She never called or texted again. And I never called her.”
“Wow…So, what? You plan on being alone forever?”
It’s always such an annoying question. I don’t know what the future holds so no matter what I say, the answer is pointless.
“We just gotta have faith, Jess. I don’t believe that someone out there is tailor made specifically for us, but I have faith that one day we’ll find someone who not only accepts us for who we are, but they’ll appreciate who we are. They’ll love that which makes us different. I truly believe that. Then again…I am the king of wishful thinking.”
Her black hair shimmers in the light as she turns to me and flashes a smile. She doesn’t need to say it but I know she’s proud of me. However, I’m now crossed as I stand at a junction in our friendship. There’s a moment of silence. This is the perfect moment to move in for a kiss or at the very least let her know about the unrequited love I’ve had locked away for years. But if she doesn’t feel the same, I could set fire to the beginning of a long and awkward workplace relationship. No. I need to make a move. When I see her with someone else, it makes me jealous. I can’t handle that. It’s better to live with the sting of rejection than to die never knowing.
Just as I open to speak, Jessica hits me with, “You know, I’ve always thought of you as a big brother. One day, you’re going to make a lucky woman the happiest wife in the world.”
“Damn straight.” I say with a crack in my voice.
We enter into our motel parking lot and I proceed to escort Jessica to her room. She gives me a goodnight hug and I barely hug her back. I don’t want to think about her warmth, her smell, the firmness in her back or her breath against my ear. So badly, I wanted to take her entire body and use it to mess up those bed sheets but I don’t. With a forced smile, I bid her goodnight and take a couple of steps back as she closes the door.
The rental keys are poking in my pocket. Between the stimulating images of Jessica and a demented Maggie haunting my thoughts, there’s no way I’m about to get any sleep. This is why I’m a workaholic. It’s as the great Teddy Roosevelt once said. “Dark care rarely sits behind a rider whose pace is fast enough.”