We’re gazing at the midnight sky-ceiling of the Fernbank Museum atrium. Champagne flutes in our hands. Neo-soul playing in the background, courtesy of the playlist I made for Abeba. It’s her company’s July Fourth party. I don’t understand why we’re not outdoors. Trust Abeba to throw a cocktail party for Independence Day, a holiday celebrated with Confederate flag t-shirts, barbecue binge-eating, and Budweiser.
Over the rim of my champagne glass, I glance across the room. Abeba sits on a stool at a bar table, surrounded by Ken dolls. They all have the same teeth-whitening-strips smile, Garnier Fructis hair. One of them shifts and Abeba disappears from view. She is always swallowed by Kens in settings like this.
He says something while I am distracted. I replay his inflection in my head and guess that it was a joke. I laugh hard and give him a look that says, “You’re so hilarious.” There’s a little, “You’re cute,” in there, too. If I don’t stop myself, there will soon be some “God I like you so much,” and then everything will be ruined.
I smooth the front of my cocktail dress. “Shouldn’t we be watching fireworks somewhere?”
He looks at me, his eyebrows raised in shock. “You mean they’re not doing fireworks in the ceiling? Fuck kind of party is this?”
“I know.” The champagne tilts my gaze to his right breast-pocket, where a striped red handkerchief sticks out. He is wearing a black blazer, white Oxford, and blue tie. Huh. He’s kind of a Ken, too.
“Let’s play a game,” he said when he introduced himself to me at the bar.
“Um,” I said, looking around for the friend he must have mistaken me for. “Oh-kay?”
“It’s called ‘Past, Present, Future.’” He pointed to himself. “Past: Econ at Emory. Present: McKinsey Associate.”
I suppressed an eyeroll. I knew there would be consulting types at this party, but I hadn’t expected them to be proud of it.
“Future: Idris Elba stunt double.”
I burst out laughing, my brows bunching together. “That’s a joke, right?”
“Not at all.”
I searched his face. He was pretty much the opposite of Idris: light-skinned, with a longish face and cheekbones that made him look like he was sucking in air. “So you’re supposed to say… your fantasy job?”
“You’re supposed to say what you would do if you could do anything. And nobody cared. No parents to impress, no former classmates, no significant other...” The term made me giggle and look away.
“Hmm, okay. Uh, past: school in Connecticut. Present: Emory Med.”
“Yeah. Ha ha. Um. Future doctor.”
He squinted. “I don’t think you understand this game.”
I shrugged, raising my untouched glass of wine. “I just want to help people.”
He smiled. “Jerome Williams,” he said, reaching for a handshake.
“Hi Jerome Williams. Kaodi Akudu.”
“That’s beautiful. Is that Nigerian?”
“How’d you know?”
“Y’know, us JBs know about these things sometimes.”
“Oh, ha ha.”
Jerome sat down at the bar. He told me his parents were former government employees, retired now. He volunteered at an animal shelter on weekends. I told him my parents were strict Nigerians and I made Spotify playlists for everything: my moods, studying, friends who didn’t fully appreciate Frank Ocean, etc.
“Where’d you go to school in Connecticut?”
“Yale?” Jerome raised his eyebrows. “You’re not sure? You’re just like, ‘I may have gone to Yale, I’on’t know.’” I giggled. “Yale. Damn.”
“I mean, Emory...”
Jerome grinned. “Just take the compliment, girl. Yale is fucking impressive.”
I hid my smile with my glass and realized my wine had gotten warm. Jerome suggested we order champagne. We downed it fast and ordered another round. We’re halfway through our third. Jerome is giving the constellations in the ceiling fake names.
“And that one there, as you’ll know, is Serenavenusia.”
“Is that next to Beyoncé Orealis?”
“Precisely. And just north of Beyoncé Orealis is the most impressive star ever discovered by man. The Sun’s sun. Kaodilius Major.”
I fight the smile creeping across my lips. “You’ve successfully made me sound like a reptile.”
Jerome lifts his elbow. “Feel like seeing some real stars?”
I take his arm and suddenly become aware of his biceps.
We step out of the atrium into the foyer full of dinosaurs. My phone vibrates.
I type Out. AutoCorrect changes it to OK. I toss my phone back in my clutch and take Jerome's arm again. I’ll explain later.
“Kaodi?” I turn around. Abeba, in little black dress and lots of red lipstick, is rushing out of the atrium. “Hey. What’s up? Stepping out?”
I let my hand fall from Jerome's arm. “Yeah, just going out for a bit.” I feel him slip his fingers through mine, and warmth shoots through my veins. I focus on looking calmly at Abeba, but I suddenly want to see fireworks more than anything in the world.
Abeba nods slowly, her soft hair brushing gently against her shoulders. “You’re not gonna wander off, are you?”
“No,” I say too quickly. Abeba has her big-sister face on. We’re not going to do anything, I think. We’re just going to hang out.
“I just want to make sure you’re good,” Abeba says, cocking her head. “You good?”
“Yep.” I smile. “Totally fine.”
“Okay.” Abeba whirls around and is gone. I give Jerome an apologetic look.
“Good friend,” he says as we keep walking. “Not letting you leave with a stranger.”
I stop, drop his hand, and pull his face toward mine. When we come up for air, his lips are slightly glossy and my face and pelvis are on fire. His eyes flit from my eyes to my lips to my eyes again.
I tilt my head as if I am going to kiss him again, then smile and walk to the parking lot.
“You live in Druid Hills?”
“Yep,” Jerome says, taking a right into an apartment complex. My head falls against the headrest. “I must drive past you every day, Miss Emory Med.”
“How am I just meeting you?” I say, and smile as if I am being funny.
Jerome keypads us into his building and lets me into his apartment. As I circle his living room, I imagine it as our apartment. See my textbooks on his shelves. Photos of the two of us between his framed diplomas. I waltz over to where they sit on the fireplace mantle.
“Your middle name is ‘Abiodun’?” I ask, peering at the certificate from Marietta High School.
“Yeah,” Jerome says, bent over a set of iPhone speakers.
“Yeah.” He looks up, grinning. “Afrocentric parents.”
“If only they’d picked an Igbo name,” I say. “We could have convinced my parents you were from our tribe.”
A song I recognize floats into the air.
“No,” I say, crossing the room. “I didn’t think any straight men listened to Frank Ocean.”
“How do you know I’m straight?” Jerome says. He rubs my back. I feel each of his fingers on my spine, feel my back arch.
“I love this song,” I say. Jerome cradles my face and kisses me.
When we pull away, I murmur, “I have to tell you something.”
I exhale. “I never do this.”
Jerome rubs his thumb softly against my chin. “Do you want to?”
I don’t think “yes” or “no.” I think: Abeba’s next company party. Some stiff gala dinner or all-white brunch. Arriving with him. Arm-in-arm. The subtext of introducing him. The implication of being introduced. I run my fingers over Jerome's face, feel them warm as they meet his high cheekbones, his spray of stubble. I press the striped red handkerchief. Champagne bubbles fizz all the way to my brain. Beneath them, my mother’s voice, muffled, warns about this. Before the party, Abeba said, “You want someone who’s gonna stick around,” a tube of red lipstick going around and around the O of her mouth. I think about how “never do this” means “have never done this.” If I do, will he stick around?
Jerome wraps his arms around me. My back evaporates into fireworks. I kiss him back.
Afterward, we are splayed out on the carpet, a tangle of his pants and my dress and legs and gently moving fingers.
We talk about moving to the bedroom. “I can’t believe this is your first time and we’re on the floor,” Jerome says, his head on my chest.
“It’s fine,” I say. “This rug is unbelievably soft.” I stretch and clutch him when I feel him start to shift. I feel awake and warm and worry that if we move, the vividness of this—this new thing—will blur.
It’s quiet. The album has ended. Jerome lifts his head and kisses my nose, then eases his tongue into my mouth, reawakening the space between my hips. He rolls onto his back, pulling me along. As I settle on top of him, he says, “You know what would make this even better?”
“Oh. Yeah, sure.”
We sit up. Jerome retrieves his phone from the speakers and makes a call. When he hangs up, I tell him about the first—and last—time I smoked.
“It was freshman fall at Yale and my friends happened to be Britt Kagan and Gordon Ansley who, you know, happened to be pot enthusiasts. One night they decided to induct me into their little weed club. I coughed through the entire joint, then they decided we should go for a walk. Yale has these security guards who come out at night and, apparently, I was so attracted to their jackets, these neon yellow jackets, that Britt—she was a dealer, so she had her business to think about—had to restrain me physically.”
“Ha ha ha ha—”
“I’m serious! It was the worst.”
“Well, this is not going to be the worst. This is gonna be—”
His phone rings and he picks up. “Hello? Cool, man, thanks. Yeah, I’m coming down.” He leans over and nuzzles my neck. “Be right back.” He pulls on his shirt and leaves.
I lie down and close my eyes, trying to recreate the feeling of his weight on me. A light glides across the window, like a car has pulled into the parking lot. I feel self-conscious and snatch my dress from the couch, wriggling into it on the floor. I climb onto the couch. My clutch is lying on the seat, and there is a stream of messages from Abeba on my phone. As I scroll through them, a firecracker goes off somewhere nearby.
I glance at the window. Is he stuck down there? I reach for my purse, wondering if he needs more cash—weed is expensive if I remember correctly. What if he’s just catching up with the dealer and has forgotten all about me? I imagine myself taking my dress off again and going downstairs completely naked. I giggle. My laughter sounds awkward in the empty living room. I find my shoes, slip back into them, and leave.
Outside, a row of cars sits tidily before me, moonlit and silent. I put my hands on my hips in disbelief. Did he leave? I look from one end of the parking lot to the other. No one. What is this, some kind of stunt guys pull after casually sleeping with a girl? Call their “dealer” and ditch? Come back after she hobbles home? I ignore the pang in my throat and focus on the anger boiling in my stomach. I march between the cars in front of me. On the other side, I see a huge bundle lying on the ground. It looks rumpled, like a bundle of clothes. It is clothes, wrapped around some sort of—
My hands spring to my mouth. I step toward, then away from the thing on the ground and shiver even though it’s hot tonight, is hot every night, is July. It’s the dealer. The dealer is lying on the ground [...]