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The annoying gnat was back. Flying closely to his face, but too quick to swat with his hands. It seemed to be right in front of his eyes but disappeared each time his right hand drew close. The gnat hovered about three feet from him, then dove in, and repeated this action for what seemed like hours. 

Jalen jerked out of his sleep, laughed a little, realizing the gnat was simply part of his dream. However, Chanel was there hovering over him, his cell phone in her hand. The look on her face said it all; she was trying to unlock his phone with his facial ID. 

“Who is texting you at two in the morning?!?” her voice filled the bedroom and finished the job of waking Jalen. 

“How am I supposed to know? I was sleep” 

“Unlock your phone!” 

She waved the phone in front of his face at several distances in three seconds. The phone didn’t open and Jalen never moved. He stared at her, watched her skin redden with anger and wondered how he had gotten himself into this mess. Again. 

“I’m sick of your shit Jalen!” 

Her voice continued to rise, tears started streaming down her face and she was walking in tight circles. 

“You think you can run around and do what you want to do, and then have these little bitches texting you while you’re laid up in my bed? No, I am your girlfriend, not your fool.” 

She threw the phone at Jalen’s face, but his reflexes kicked in and he caught it. He could see the disappointment on her face, so he braced for an attack. It never came. Instead, more tears. He didn’t know whether to comfort her, sit as still as possible or unlock the phone and have the inevitable conversation about his infidelity.  

He was sure he texted “sanctuary” to Tia, their codeword for when he was with Chanel. Once that text was sent, there was to be no further communication unless he initiated it. Sanctuary was the name of the club where they’d met last year.  

In fact, he was there with Chanel for Tiana’s birthday party. He didn’t even want to go. He hated clubs, but Chanel was on him about not doing the things that were important to her. Tiana was her friend and it was her birthday, so there was no room for him to say no. 

He spent most of the night at the small bar in the VIP area, nursing his latest drink of choice, an old fashioned. That’s how the conversation with Tia started, she asked what kind of old man drink was he letting the melting ice kill. He was met by her smile when he turned and lost the words he was looking for.  

It was the eyes that took him. They were grey, and huge, set against dark brown skin. It almost looked like something out of a comic book, the chick Halle Berry played in the X-Men movies. Her eyes were mystifying. He must have been staring a little too hard because she gave him a look that explained this was a look she had to give a million times. 

“Yes, they’re real.” 

“I’m sorry. I..I...” 

It was the stuttering that disarmed her. Her lips curled into a smile and Jalen relaxed a little. The nervous stutter was a residual from a speech impediment that practically debilitated Jalen as a child. He was in 7h grade when Mr. Showers, his science teacher, recommended to his parents that he see a speech pathologist.  

After a few months with Mrs. Sheridan, Jalen was able to calm down the blocks and prolongments that plagued his speech. It would take nearly three years for the repetitions to get under control, but once they did, Jalen blossomed in the classroom and socially. His grades improved dramatically in 10th grade, he made the basketball team and started going with Nicole, his first “real” girlfriend. Amazing what a little confidence can do for a young man. 

Fast forward nearly twenty years and he channeled his 15-year-old self as he started a conversation with Tia. He pointed out Chanel as she Tiana and others danced on a couch. He talked about his work, his desire to leave Atlanta and stared into her eyes the entire time. She was new to the city, having made her way from Philly with two friends in search of something more. Something better. She worked at Emory Hospital and planned on going back to finish her degree. The Atlanta dating scene hadn’t been too friendly to her. A lot of first dates, very few second. 

They laughed a lot in those twenty minutes. When she went to the bathroom, he took a bottle of water over to Chanel, still standing on the couch, yelling the lyrics of a song he didn’t know. This is why he didn’t like going out to certain places with her. She transformed when her girls and tequila were involved. She was not the same woman he loved. He understood her need for release, but wish she did it without rhyming about being a real ass bitch and lying about her purse holding six figures.  

She took the bottle, kissed him on the cheek and went back to her performance. He gave her an exasperated look that said he was ready to go, but she was didn’t notice. The truth is, she never seemed to notice what he was feeling until it was too late.  

She missed the depression he went through when his mom was diagnosed with breast cancer two weeks after his favorite uncle, Mike, died from a massive heart attack. True, she was there with him, but he felt alone. It was during this time he reconnected with Nicole, new to Atlanta and missing the comfort of home.  

She sent him a DM on Instagram to let him know she made the move. They met at Happy Hour once or twice, had brunch, went to a Hawks game and the next thing you know, they were having the sex they missed out on in their teenage relationship. 

If Tiana hadn’t spotted them holding hands, smiling like teenagers at a Mexican restaurant in Little Five Points, who knows where the relationship could’ve gone. He was unhappy with Chanel for sure but didn’t want to end the relationship for reasons he couldn’t define. 

That was the last time a phone was thrown at his head. It was Chanel’s after he listened to Tiana explain what she saw over FaceTime. She didn’t break up with him, blamed his behavior on everything going on with his family. He had to block Nicole from Social Media and get a new phone number. But she promised there wouldn’t be a next time. 

Next time. 

He walked back to his corner stool and found it nestled between Tia’s legs. 

“I figured I’d save your seat.” 

She smiled.  

He felt bad decisions. 

“How did you know I was coming back?” 

She released the stool from her vise grip, then used her feet to nudge it a little further from her. For some reason, this action made Jalen smile. He sat on the stool a little too fast and realized that he may be a little drunk. He finished two drinks in the time he talked to Tia, two more than he planned on drinking. 

“I know men.” 

He knew a stutter would accompany whatever he replied with, so he turned and noticed a drink waiting for him. He looked up and formed a question that died when he saw her smile. 

He doesn’t remember asking for her number, but she was in his contacts the next day. And then she was there the day after, sitting across from him at the same Mexican restaurant it all went to shit with Nicole. He hated that he was such a creature of habit. He hated that he was a cheater. He hated himself. He loved Tia’s smile. He loved the way she made him laugh. He loved staring into her eyes. 

The code was her idea. She seemed to have no problem with sharing him for the time being. She figured it would last a month, two tops, but here they were creeping up on a year. She knew she would have a man of her own by now. She knew she would grow tired of the sneaking around; Jalen would lose interest or, Chanel would catch him. “Sanctuary” was her way of protecting herself; she wouldn’t text or FaceTime him when he was with her girl, she would remain anonymous. She instructed him to scrub all of their communication each day once he sent the code. 

It wasn’t long after suggesting “sanctuary” that Tia realized that Jalen was the man she wanted. There were a couple of guys that showed interest in her. Guys that were her “type”, but there was no spark with any of them. Nothing like she felt with Jalen.  

She had fallen in love with the man she wasn’t supposed to have. He was boring, practical, safe. Nothing she wanted in a man, but she found herself waiting to speak to him every day and grateful for the two, maybe three days a week she was able to see him. Aside from his relationship, their schedules often clashed due to her work schedule and the two classes she picked up.  

They purposely didn’t follow one another on Social Media, stopped going to all of the places he loved to go, she usually took an Uber to their meets, the code was the last step in securing their relationship wasn’t found out.  

It didn’t bother her that he was in a relationship as much as it bothered her that she fell for him. She didn’t know if a relationship would work for them, she figured the excitement of the clandestine relationship kept her going.

But she wondered... 

Sitting on the edge of the bed, Jalen felt like he was perched on a cliff. He was telling himself it was time to end this relationship. They were in year four and he didn’t feel any closer to marrying Chanel than he did when they first met. He was unhappy. Perpetually. If he told her about Tia, there would be tears, then a few punches and probably some shit thrown around. She would yell and cuss and call Tiana, of course.  

He hoped she did all of this while packing her clothes.  

The thoughts ran through his mind. The words hid. He couldn’t find the courage to tell her. He figured he would unlock his phone and let her see the evidence for herself. He was tired of hiding what he felt. Tired of being unhappy. Tired of Chanel and her selfish ways. 

“Here, look for yourself.” 

He flipped his phone over and typed in his passcode, he changed from facial recognition months ago, he knew she would try to unlock it when he was sleeping one day. 112099, November 20th, 1999, Tia’s birthday was his new code. 

He turned the phone to her, relief settling into his chest and waited for her to read the texts from Tia. Instead, he saw a smile forming on her face. Then she laughed. What the hell was so funny? He turned his phone and saw the notifications filling his screen. 

“Holy shit, Oprah Winfrey retweeted you!” 

He slammed his phone down on the nightstand and laid down.


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