Chapter 1 – Bliss
As I watched the raindrops falling heavily against my windowpane, I smiled. Leaning against the patio door, I slid it open gently as the rain pelted against the screen. Something about the rain made me feel refreshed. Looking out into nature also made me feel like God was refueling me. After the last few months, I could use the reminder that He was looking out for me, even in the midst of the torrential screams of this storm. After watching for another ten minutes, I closed the patio door, leaving it open just a crack to let some cool air in. I had to give it to Philly. Their heating systems were something else. I often had the ceiling fan on while my heat was also on. It would be Thanksgiving in two weeks, so I hoped that would change.
Even on a dreary day like today, I relished in the fact that I was finally settled into my new place. When Ellie first offered me the Airbnb, I thought I would need it for at least three months, but after only a month, God opened a door for me to be in my own place about thirty minutes from Ellie and her family. I walked toward my office and saw my phone lighting up. I could feel the adrenaline rushing through my body as I thought about how I’d been waiting for him to text me. We’d already had brunch earlier today, yet I was missing him horribly. I picked up my phone, but my smile quickly faded when I saw the text.
Hey, Queen. I miss you so much. I know you asked me to give you some space, but I can’t help but think about you constantly. Looking forward to seeing you at the movie premiere. Praying for you always. – Monty
What was Montez doing sending me a text like this when he knew I was seeing Ahmad? And why was I so bothered by it? We agreed to be friends.
Sighing, I sent Ahmad a text instead of responding to Montez.
Hey babe. Just thinking about you. Thanks again for this morning. The flowers still have me smiling. Can’t wait until our next date.
Just when I was about to put my phone down, my phone went off again.
Well, you won’t have to wait long if you agree to let me take you out to dinner.
Smiling from ear to ear, I quickly typed out a response. Just tell me what time to be ready.
I’ll be there at 7.
Great, I thought. That gives me time to get ready, and prayerfully, the rain would be done by then. The forecast said a severe thunderstorm would come between three and five. It was now four-thirty. Putting my phone on the charger, I walked into my bedroom to pick out an outfit. I knew Ahmad would only take me somewhere upscale, so there wasn’t a need to ask him where we were going. As I sorted through some of my cute one-pieces that would look great with a pair of boots, hoop earrings, and my new coat, I thought back over the last two months.
Ahmad and I met at Trader Joe’s in Plymouth Meeting, which wasn’t too far from Exton, where I stayed. When I saw him, I kept trying to avoid looking at him because, just like every other woman in Trader Joe’s that day, we all saw how good he looked. Even the white women were gawking. I don’t know if it was the dreads that were pinned back meticulously, his biceps that peeked out of his athletic t-shirt, or his beautiful, hazel eyes, but he was definitely putting on a show without even trying.
When I was checking out, he came over to me and asked me my name. He claimed I looked familiar, but I thought he was just trying to use some pickup line. Turns out, we actually had met before. He was an accountant and investment banker. When Ellie and Jeremiah had an open house at one of their new properties a couple of weeks before, he was there. With this property, they worked on the renovations and improvements for a year but wanted to sell it instead of turning it into another Airbnb. I showed up for support, and Ahmad showed up to buy a new home. Now, here he was, standing in front of me, looking better than Morris Chestnut on his best day. As we made small talk in line, letting others go ahead of us, we exchanged numbers and literally had been inseparable since. When I first told Ellie, she remembered him. There had only been sixteen or so people who were in attendance. He ended up passing on their home and opted for something smaller in Plymouth Meeting.
As I laid out my outfit, I got a new video tutorial done for my new website. I launched an online community called, Blended Beauty Queens, through Mighty Networks that allowed me to charge a monthly fee for free makeup tutorials, advice on breaking into Hollywood as a makeup artist, bible studies and prayers for women in the beauty space, as well as other monthly activities. Women could even book a private makeup session with me and receive fifty percent off as a member. This provided a great stream of income for me and the membership had only been live since September first, and I already had three hundred members. At thirty dollars a month, I was doing really well. I was most proud of the sisterhood we’d built and being able to help other women break into the industry.
Sitting at my makeup station, I turned on my ring light, set up my camera for the video, then put clips in my hair to pull it back. As I started with the primer, I hit record with the Bluetooth remote. As I walked through the steps, I talked about what I was doing, smiling, and adding my vibrant personality to the moments where I was changing brushes or explaining a step a little deeper. As I got into the groove, I cracked a few jokes and talked directly to the camera, letting the women know how my week had been.
As I grabbed the highlighter brush to put a little bronzer on my cheekbones, I couldn’t help but think about Montez’s message. I hadn’t heard from Montez in two months, ever since I started dating Ahmad. I was careful to let him know I didn’t want to cause any confusion and I wanted to see where things could go between Ahmad and I. Biting my bottom lip, I dabbed a little oil on my finger and cleaned up the eyeshadow from around the edge of my eye. If I was honest with myself, Ahmad was more than what I could’ve asked for… but there was something missing. I just hadn’t put my finger on it yet. I paused the video to take a breather.
I picked up my phone and re-read Montez’s text. He hated the nickname Monty, but he had always let me call him that. Signing his text that way definitely made me think about the days back on the set of the film we’d met on. It was the greatest four months of my life. That was until he took a nursing job in California that completely ripped away any vision I had created for us to grow in our love and see what God had in store for us. Just as I was about to respond to his text, I got another text from Ahmad.
Babe, I’m taking you somewhere beautiful. I can’t wait to see you.
I smiled as I read it. One of the things I loved about Ahmad was his consistency in planning dates and always going above and beyond. I sighed, then looked at my face in the mirror. I focused my attention back on the video, then hit record again to finish up. I closed my eyes as I added a little spray to my face to hold the makeup. No matter how much I tried to ignore the feeling, the truth was, I missed Montez. A lot. He had taken me places spiritually and mentally I’d never been. Our conversations were deep, and our prayers were fulfilling. Even when I wanted to worry about something, his prayers made me excited just to know God was listening.
Ahmad and I prayed together, but the prayers were quick and often felt forced. One of the mistakes I’m realizing I made with him was telling him what I needed in a man upfront. Some would say that was a good thing, but as a woman who had dated a lot, I noticed a difference in when a man naturally brought things to the table than when they were asked to bring things to the table. It was almost like they were doing it to keep you, rather than doing it because they understood the depths of what you needed from them. This was one of the reasons I hadn’t told Ahmad my love language. I wanted him to explore me and my mind to see if he’d figure it out. I also wanted to protect my love language until I knew God had cleared Ahmad.
So far, no red flags, at least not major ones, and nothing that told me he couldn’t be a great mate. I hated even feeling like I was comparing them, but it was hard for a woman in my position not to feel like she needed to scrutinize her love life. I was approaching forty in less than a year and I was constantly being reminded by social media, wedding dress ads, and my mother that the desire to marry still hadn’t been fulfilled. Growing up, I was never one to trip over finding the one and getting married, but over the last ten years, there had been an aching in my soul that I knew required a man’s touch to be soothed. I’m not talking about filling a void with a man because that was God’s place. However, I was talking about knowing that there was a certain thing missing in your life when that God-given king you’ve been praying for hadn’t arrived yet.
“The final look, as you can see,” I said, waving my hands over my face, “should look like this. The steps I provided should show you how to create this look effortlessly and with minimal makeup. You don’t have to buy up all of Sephora to create a great look for a fun night out with friends or a date night…”
My voice trailed off as a lump lodged in my throat and tears welled up in my eyes. I couldn’t believe this was happening now, but I needed to stop the video. Then, I had another idea. I wouldn’t share this with anyone, but maybe recording how I felt would help. I would edit this part out and save it for myself.
“If I’m honest, I really care a lot about Ahmad, but something still feels off. God, why is this so difficult? Why is finding and keeping love so hard?”
I wiped at a tear that was rolling down my cheek. Tired was an understatement for how I felt. How could I have what I wanted, yet feel like there was still something I needed?
“Ladies, have you ever been there before? You have a great guy, but you just know there’s something missing? You find yourself not wanting to overthink, because we’ve heard of and understand the eighty-twenty rule, right? But is it that we’re looking for perfection or just looking for our forever plus one?”
I laughed. “So many women would love to have an Ahmad on their arms. I know – great career, respectful, loyal, and outgoing. He loves God and can definitely be brought home to Mama… but… I don’t know. Man, I wish I could upload this to my social media and hear from you all, but I know I can’t. It wouldn’t be right.”
I dabbed at the corner of my eyes, trying not to mess up my face. “Well, I guess I’ll have to ride this thing out. You don’t know until you know.”
I sat in silence for a few minutes. Just when I was about to finish up the video, I heard a still, soft voice say, ‘be still’, so I did. I looked directly at the mirror, taking in my Asian features – the poignant cheekbones, narrow shaped eyes, and beautiful eyelashes. I reached up and touched my face, letting my fingers slide over the mole I never tried to hide. It sat perfectly under my right eye and I considered it a beauty mark. Smiling slightly, I looked at the woman who stared back at me with deep, green eyes and a haircut that would make Rihanna jealous. While my hair had been growing back at rapid speeds, I made Ellie keep cutting it the way she had the first time.
Lastly, I smiled, showing all my teeth, appreciating my baby gap that I refused to get closed and my full lips. I wasn’t sure what God wanted me to see, but I knew what I felt when I looked back at her didn’t match what I felt when I was with Ahmad. I felt sure, confident, and poised right now, the same way I had felt with Montez whenever we were together. But when I was with Ahmad, I felt obligated and wearied. Ouch. How would that make Ahmad feel if he knew that? Was I finally coming to terms with the fact that while this love had been fun, it wasn’t full?
If you trust Me, you’ll let go.
Over the last year, I’d matured in my ability to hear from God. I knew when He was speaking to me. Sometimes, He spoke to me through music and movies, but most times, His still, soft voice was easy to detect. I took one last look at myself in the mirror, then turned the camera back on to record the last part of the video, which was me just asking them to give me feedback on the look, what else they wanted to learn, and any questions they had. One thing about me, I never let love take me away from work. I cleared my throat, put a smile on my face, and hit record again. This time, I finished the video flawlessly.
“Dinner was great, babe,” I said, holding Ahmad’s hand as he drove along the highway. I looked out the window to admire the Philadelphia waterfront. I had to admit, I’d only been living in Philly for a few months and I still found this view breathtaking.
“I’m glad you enjoyed it, love,” he said. “Did I tell you how amazing you look tonight?”
“You did,” I said, turning back to him. “And I’m soaking up every compliment you give me tonight.”
Grinning, I stroked the side of his face. He kissed the inside of my hand.
“I was thinking, why don’t we take a little vacay? Nothing major, just two or three days to get a break from the rat race,” he said, kissing my hand again.
I swallowed. This wasn’t the first time Ahmad had brought up going away since we started dating. While I knew he would respect the idea of separate rooms, I just wasn’t ready to put myself in that position. I’d only been fully abstinent for seven months, and I wanted to stay that way.
“I’m still not ready for that,” I said. “But if I ever change my mind, I’ll let you know.”
I continued stroking the side of his face. I felt his jaw clench up. I slowly removed my hand.
“What do you mean, what? You know what? I’m not asking you to sleep with me, I’m trying to take my woman away, enjoy life a little. You act like I’m trying to get in your pants.”
I cocked my head. “I never said that, but you’re getting upset about a boundary I had up when we met. Nothing’s changed.”
He shook his head. “I’m not saying I didn’t know, but I didn’t think that meant we couldn’t go away together. Forgive me for not reading the fine print.”
Sighing, I cracked my window. While it was only thirty degrees out, all of a sudden, I was hot.
“There’s nothing we would do away, that we can’t do here.”
“You know it’s not the same. Don’t do that.”
I knew it wasn’t, but I was letting him know it wasn’t happening. I said what I said. As we sat in silence for the next few minutes, I realized this was what was off. It had been right in front of me the whole time. Ahmad didn’t see me. He was with me, he catered to me, and yes, he even prayed with me, but he didn’t truly see me. When I told Montez I struggled with masturbation and wanted to give it up so I could please God, he prayed with me, over me, and checked in with me to make sure I was staying accountable to myself.
He never judged me when I slipped up, but he helped me see what I could do differently next time. In the four months we dated, he never once tried to stay over or get me to do anything that would put me in a compromising situation. He didn’t just listen to what I said, he adjusted to it. I couldn’t ask Ahmad to be Montez and I would never expect him to be. I just had to decide if I was going to let him go now before my heart got anymore caught up, or if I was going to try to work through this thanking God that he at least provided safety and security in ways that I had never experienced.
Chapter 2 – Montez
My feet pounded the pavement with a sound that matched the way my heart was beating against my chest. Drawing in a few deep breaths, I continued running, turning the bend on Melrose Avenue, then sped up. No matter what I did to clear my head, I hadn’t been able to stop thinking about how Bliss ignored my text message. It had been three days since I sent the text and trying to enjoy my day off had become a chore. Normally, I would go for a run, come home and eat breakfast, then read, do some journaling and work on my videography company. Today, I couldn’t get her off my mind, which explains my one-hour delay in starting my morning routine. It didn’t help that I had written her a poem last night that reminded me of the four months we spent together back in Philly.
It wasn’t just your beautiful eyes and sassy attitude that caught my attention.
Thump, thump. Thump, thump. My feet sped up.
It was the way your love kept my heart in detention.
I loved getting lost in the rhythm of your soul, wanting to hold on and never let go…
I never thought I could fall so hard, mainly because I had this guard…
That I kept up to make sure I wouldn’t get hurt, but when you started to flirt…
Thump… thump. I slowed my pace as I neared a light.
I couldn’t resist, then it was our first kiss, man, what Bliss…
I stopped, catching my breath as I waited for the light to change. Breathe in. Breathe out.
When the light turned green, I continued on, but kept at a slower pace. I was wearing myself out for nothing. Maybe I had set myself up for rejection. Bliss made it clear that she was seeing someone else, and I wanted to respect that. I couldn’t be mad about it, but I have to admit, I hadn’t felt a sting like that since I got stung by an actual bee in the third grade. That’s when my family and I found out I was allergic. The way I felt that day, sick to my stomach and trying to breathe as my throat closed up, was the same way I felt when she said that. Now, my heart felt like it was on life support.
I turned my light jog into a walk, ready to make my way back to my apartment in Melrose Hill. I had only run four miles, but I would walk back. I needed to clear my head and focus. I still struggled with her not wanting to try long-distance dating. We already had a pretty strong flow going and I knew we could make it, but I had learned Bliss enough to know that while she was a hard worker and a hustler with a lot of heart, she didn’t like unnecessary difficulty. Who could blame her? She grew up having to be strong and faced hard challenges, so why would she want love to be hard? Still, it didn’t change my frustration. I missed her and… I wanted her back.
I was never one to step on another man’s toes, but I missed my baby. I grabbed my phone out of my arm band and opened my calendar. Thanksgiving was coming up. I had already put in for a week of vacation for after Thanksgiving. Since I was new, I didn’t have the seniority to get holidays off yet. I jotted a note in my phone, turned the music off, then put it back. I needed to hear what God wanted me to do, especially since the note I’d just put in my phone would change a lot of things for me. I’d been contemplating it for a while, especially since the new job was okay at best. It had only been three months and I was starting to see why they offered me such a high salary and relocation assistance. If they hadn’t, I would’ve said no.
Being a nurse had perks when it came to pay, benefits, and the work schedule. I could work three sixteen-hour shifts and be done for the week. My co-workers were cool and even the head nurse was everything I could’ve prayed for. But the politics, lack of patient support, especially for patients of color, and the hours were taxing. When I was a nurse in Philly, I found myself missing work whenever I wasn’t there. Now, I couldn’t wait to clock out for lunch. I chuckled at the idea that God was really pushing me out of my comfort zone.
I dibbled and dabbled in my videography business for years and, over the last year, had become a pretty popular photographer. I had a logo, the equipment, and the vision. I had enough credits and references under my belt to do the next photoshoot at the White House, but I spent more time renting my equipment out than I did actually using it. The note in my phone was a reminder that I needed to talk to my boss about a real leave of absence. Thinking about Bliss made me want to do it even more, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to take a leave of absence for a woman who hadn’t fought for me.
Son, why does she have to fight for you? You’re the man.
I chuckled again. God had His ways, but if I was honest, I knew that already. It was hard not to want to punish Bliss for choosing comfort over love, but I knew I wanted to fight for her. I just had to be bold enough to take this leap. This time, I was betting on my gifts and love.
“Mr. Armstrong, you just started. I was hesitant to give you a week off since you just started, but I cleared it. Now, you’re talking about a full month?”
I stared at my boss. Charlotte Grayson was nothing to play with and I knew I was taking a chance, but it was one I had to take.
“I need this time.”
She leaned back in her chair and took off her glasses. She squinted before she spoke again.
“Mr. Armstrong, I’m going to be honest with you. If you put in for a thirty-day leave of absence, I can’t guarantee your job. We paid a substantial amount of money to secure your position and paid for your relocation. I’m wondering if you did this on purpose.”
I raised an eyebrow. I would never disrespect somebody old enough to be my grandmother, but she had me chopped. I had integrity and would never do something just to do it. I’d been here for exactly fourteen weeks. The agreement was that if I left within the first ninety-days, I would have to reimburse the relocation fees. But it was literally two weeks over the ninety-days, so I could understand her concern.
“Mrs. Grayson, I can assure you this wasn’t some kind of plan or manipulation. I genuinely wanted to like this and make it work. I’m not quitting, I’m asking for some time so that I can go back home and…”
I looked down at my hands. Swallowing the lump that had lodged in my throat, I fought back tears. I couldn’t believe I felt this strongly about Bliss. I lifted my head and leaned back in the chair. When my eyes landed on Mrs. Grayson, she was smiling. She winked.
“What’s her name?”
My mouth fell open. Before I knew it, we were sharing a laugh.
“Is it that obvious?” I leaned forward, anticipating her answer.
“Not at first, but when you looked down, I kind of figured it out.” We sat in silence for a minute. “Let me ask you this,” she started. “Are you in love with her?”
She nodded. “Then go get her.”
I jerked my head back. I hadn’t expected that. I searched her face for answers.
“My husband and I have been married for thirty-two years. He left the military for me, and it’s something I will never forget.”
I blinked a few times before responding. “Really? Did he say how he knew you were worth fighting for?”
Sighing, she pursed her lips, then leaned forward, reaching for my hand. I placed my hand in hers. “He said something I’ll always cherish. He said, ‘I knew you were worth fighting for when I was more afraid of losing your love than how my commanders would react’.”
She squeezed my hand. “Montez, no need to put in your leave of absence. I can tell you now that if you’re leaving, you’re leaving for good. I have to protect my job and look out for the other nurses. Not to mention, there’s a waiting list for other black male nurses that want this job.”
I cocked my head to the side, noting the change in formalities. I didn’t even flinch. I understood.
“However, if you ever want to come back after you get married, you can reapply, and I will consider all the hard work you’ve put in these last couple of months.”
I smiled. “Married?”
“Honey, ain’t nobody traveling across the country for no boo loving. This is God.”
This time, I reached for her hand. “So, this is my official two-weeks-notice?”
“Well, sure, but you can take the one-week vacation pay and just work this last week.”
“You would do that for me?”
She stood up and walked around her desk. Leaning in, she grabbed my face gently.
“Son, I’m doing this for her.”
“So, cuzzo, you’re really gonna do it?” Parker asked.
“I am,” I said, throwing another pair of pants in my suitcase. I knew Philly would be freezing by the time I arrived, but I would have to grab a few new things once I landed. I was talking to my cousins, Parker and Raven, on three-way. While I was an only child, Parker and Raven had been the sisters I’d always wanted. Growing up in Baltimore together had been the highlight of my adolescent years. When my parents and I moved to Philly when I was twelve, I cried more than the girls.
“I’m proud of you for finally deciding to pursue photography and videography full time,” Raven chimed in, smacking in my ear. “But, I’m not really big on the idea of going for someone who has already moved on.”
I heard Parker suck her teeth and I covered my mouth to keep from laughing. While Raven was the older sister, Parker was the one that had an old soul and always spoke with wisdom and hopefulness. Raven could be a bit more of a realist and hated the idea of people overextending themselves for love.
“What?” she continued. “I mean, she’s already moved on and she may not even allow you to see her.”
“That’s why he said he checked in with God first, made it about his business venture, then added her to the mix. Relax. He’s not gonna marry her as soon as he gets there.”
I stayed silent. Actually, I was sort of going to try to marry her when I got there, but obviously there were steps involved. I just wouldn’t tell them, or anyone. In fact, this whole conversation made me realize that moving forward, I would have to protect this part of my life at all costs. My cousins were believers, just like me, and they valued waiting on God for a mate, but I didn’t need anyone putting their fingerprints on what God was building.
“Listen, ladies, I’m confident in my decision. I know God is pushing me to do this and Philly is where I’ve always wanted to be. It’s close to home and the prices for studio spaces are way more reasonable than out here.”
“That’s true, and it would be great to have you back near B-More again. Easier to keep up with our family trips that way. So, what are you going to do about your lease?” Raven asked.
I had already talked to the landlord and while I had to pay $2500 to break it, I was willing to. I used money from my savings and even offered to let him keep the furniture for the next person. Most of it I had gotten from consignment shops in L.A. or from OfferUp, so I wasn’t willing to pay top dollar to have it shipped across country. While I had given up my apartment in Philly, I had a home that I owned that I’d been renting out for the last couple of years. The family that was living in the house now lease would be up at the end of the year and they’d already given me their sixty-day notice. I could grab an Airbnb in the meantime.
“Already taken care of,” was all I said, not wanting to stay on the phone much longer. I had a lot to do. “I think this is going to work out just fine and no matter what, I’m willing to find out. It’s time.”
“I’m proud of you, cuz.” I heard Parker clapping in the background. “Way to go.”
I finally let out the laugh I’d been holding in. “You mean that?”
“Always. You’ve been sitting on this gift long enough. It’s time to show the world what you got.”
“I have to agree with baby sis here. You are one of the sharpest videographers I know. And your photography has been really good lately.”
Even if I had my eyes closed, I knew Parker was on the other end of the phone, giving Raven the finger. She hated when Raven emphasized the “baby sis” thing.
“Anyway, what do you need from us or for us to do?” Parker asked.
“For now, prayer. Lots of it. I can let you guys know once I get to Philly exactly what I need, but I think I’m good.”
“Well, let’s pray right now.”
One thing about Raven, she wouldn’t tell you she was praying for you, she actually did it. I closed my eyes as she went into prayer, thinking about the move I was about to make. When Parker jumped in where Raven left off with the prayer, I couldn’t hold back the tears any longer. I wasn’t sure what frightened me more: the idea that I was about to step into full-time entrepreneurship in a super competitive field or going to get the woman who had my heart and facing possible rejection.
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