It took a lot for me to come see her that night. I knocked on the door to the podcast studio and moments later a gangly, scruffy dude snatched the door open.
“Wassup bruh? May I help you or some’?”
“Yeah. . .” I swallowed the lump of nerves that built up during the elevator ride there. “Is Layla here?”
His gaze lingered on me suspiciously, but I gestured for him to hurry up. He stretched his long neck behind him and yelled, “Layla!”
“Yeah?!” She sounded exhausted.
“This dude wanna see you. . .” He kept his ear tuned for her response as I suddenly took more interest in the patterned carpet beneath my J’s.
“Who is it, Tyler?!”
The dude—apparently named Tyler— turned his attention back to me. “Aye, whatcho name, dawg?”
“Man, just tell her Khalfani here.” I was growing impatient. Today was a long ass day and the last thing I needed was for Layla to be difficult. This was already difficult enough.
“It’s dis dude named Khalfani!”
A few seconds ticked by. . . “Let his sorry ass in,” Layla giggled.
I clenched my teeth and momentarily closed my eyes, wincing at the pain of her harsh nonchalant tone. Layla was always honest about how she felt; she never held back for anybody.
As I mentally prepared myself, Tyler cackled, “Aye man, what kinda name is Khalfani, anyway?”
I kissed my teeth. “Man, it’s Egyptian for leader. Now move, bruh.”
“Aye man, I ‘on’t want no kinda trouble,” he chuckled, surrendering with his hands up. He stepped aside, revealing the small studio. I flipped him the bird and walked inside, finding Layla posted up in the doorway to her cozy booth. “Aye, Lay, Imma go. You good?”
“Yeah. Thanks, Tyler. I’ll lock up.” Tyler peace-signed her farewell, grabbed his shit, and left.
“Heeeyyy,” her voice stretched out the word. Not gon’ lie: that shit was sexy— titillating even. It was just like Layla to tease me. I hated that she knew me so well . . . knew what got to me. She raised her arm higher on the doorframe, making her light-pink sweater ride up and expose her hip. Flexing my jaw, I quickly averted my gaze as my heart sped up.Layla was definitely making this more difficult.
Shaking her head, Layla giggled as she sauntered to the small round table in the corner of the booth to refill her wine glass. Then she toed off her slippers and reclined on a tufted grey suede chaise all while delicately holding her glass. Her slender, toned body fit perfectly in the curve of the chaise. She looked comfortable— in her element.
Stuffing my hands in the pockets of my sweatpants, I cleared my throat to refocus on why I was here. “Wassup? . . .”
She side-eyed me before sipping her wine. “Hey. . .”
I nodded repeatedly to bring myself to say the words I’d been afraid to tell her.
“Khalfani, I’m really not in the mood right now for whatever the fuck you want. Your wedding is in two weeks. I’ve been here for three hours after work so I’m exhausted! You bein’ here is actually annoying thee fuck outta me, and why are you waltzin’ around like we in a ballroom or some—,”
“I told her everything.” Pause. “And the wedding’s over.” I stood still for a while, keeping my eyes to the ground so I didn’t have to see her reaction. I stood in it: my lying, my deception, my fault. “I fucked up, Lay. I really fucked up.” I finally found the courage to look at her: her eyes were wide at my confession.
“Don’t call me that,” she said definitively, her voice deepening in seriousness. She rose up, placing her wine on the little table and stood right in front of me. “You don’t get to call me that, anymore. I am not Lay,” she mocked me, “I’m Layla.” She sounded on the verge of tears, like her overwhelming emotions choked her, gargling her words.
Honestly, it was hard to swim in her big, doe-shaped eyes. The same eyes that I’d stared at for years, apologizing for the same shit.
An uncomfortable silence hovered over us for a few minutes as we just continued searching each other’s eyes, trying to grasp onto things we hadn’t said yet. I stood there trying to anticipate the rest of this conversation.
“S-she told Harry, too— and he fired me,” I swallowed whatever dignity and pride I had left and finished, “in front of everybody.” I’ll have to move again cuz Harry pro’ly told all his contacts in the city not to hire my ass.
Emotion erased from Layla’s bronze-brown face. . . Bronze, like the medal for third place. Looking into her eyes, I realized that Layla has always been third place in my life when we were together. I came first, my career second, and she finished third. Damn. I guess that’s what she meant when she said I didn’t make her a priority and didn’t take her seriously.
The silence and awkwardness were slowly killing me. I needed her to say something—react—something! She always had something to say. “I just thought I’d let you know.”
Layla’s gaze seemed to peer past me . . . or through me—I couldn’t tell— as she seemed to allow herself to sit in whatever she was feeling.
“Say somethin’. Please,” I pleaded. At this point, I didn’t know what to expect.
Layla began to shake her head and started clapping . . . that slow, mocking clap.
“Congratu-fuckin-lations!” She downed the rest of her wine before refilling it and resumed her position on the chaise. Has she started drinkin’ drinkin’? I grimaced at the harshness of her voice even though it was honestly what I expected. She’s back. “You owned up to your shit . . . like a grown ass man should. And guess what, Khal? You got what you deserved.” So she gets to call me Khal and I can’t call her Lay? . . This some bullshit.
I flexed my jaw, contemplating every word she said. She’s right. Her crazy ass is actually right. “Yep,” I agreed tiredly, rubbing the sides of my chin.
Layla admired her white-polished fingernails. “What exactly did you tell her?”
I sighed. “Everything. Why I moved, the job, the lying,” my breath hitched, “us . . . everything.” I sat in the armchair that was in another corner of her spacious booth then rested my head in the palms of my hands.
“Ain’t it funny? The cheated-on becomes the cheated-with. . ,” she scoffed, letting it hang in the air before sipping her wine again. “So, is that all?”
Layla fidgeted to get more comfortable. “Okay. So why?”
I gulped the lump that formed in my throat as my heart raced. I told her how after I graduated, I was offered a full-time position at the firm I interned at. How I was only promoted twice in six years, whereas others were getting promoted more frequently and with higher positions. How I worked my ass off to get upper management’s attention. How I asked my boss why I hadn’t been promoted like the “other guys” and how he believed I “wasn’t ready.” How I quit, moved in with my best friend Max in New York City, and began jobhunting, ultimately getting hired by Erin’s father’s company. “I met Mr. Ross and noticed he kept talkin’ bout his baby girl”— I put in quotation marks—“and how after losing his wife, he just wants to see his daughter happy. Then, at that company gala a year ago, Erin and I met and that’s when I got the idea. . .” I released a heavy breath, relieved to finally tell Layla the whole truth.
“Wow. . .” Shaking her head, Layla took a sip of her wine.
“Yeah. . .” All of a sudden, the back of my head began to itch. Everything was truly a lot when I said it out loud.
“You know what’s funny? . .” Layla trailed off, staring at nothing in particular. “I got you into commercial construction. I told you it would make you a lot of money . . . and you were all for it.” Pause. “So, I guess . . . maybe this is my fault.” Pregnant pause. “But I’m done apologizing. It was time for you to own up to your shit. Right, Khal?” She paused. “It’s not my fault we broke up, it’s yours. You got greedy. You wanted other women and me on the side when you felt like it— or when you wanted to be a little bit more comfortable. Apparently, I wasn’t enough . . . and neither was Erin. You wanted a promotion— no, you needed a promotion. Your little career was sinking, and you needed a life raft.” Damn, she read me like a book. She stood up and slowly walked over to me, trapping me in the corner.
“You must’ve forgot that I’m not the one who needed athletic ability to go to school with a full-ride. I got it all up here.” Her index finger tapped her temple. “You needed something, though . . . a step ladder, something to get you up there— shit, you being black, athletic, and attractive was your ticket to anywhere you wanted to go. And you definitely used that to your advantage until it couldn’t open anymore doors for you.” Her eyes peered into my soul.
I cleared my throat. “I’m—,”
“No, don’t apologize. I don’t know why I’ve put myself through hell trying to hold on to your miserable ass. Your sorry ass. You are one sad example of a man— No, you’re alittle boy.” Everything she said ripped to shreds the remnants of my dignity and pride . . . but only because it was true. I guess I had just been denying it all along.
“You just play with things until they’re broken: my heart, Erin’s heart, your career. . .” A labored breath crawled out of her twitching mouth, telling me she was about to cry. “You played me so good. I kept runnin’ back to you— anytime you called, anytime you came over. I knowingly betrayed my friend, my best friend, my best friend for nine— nine, nine fuckin’ years!” She pounded her fist into her palm to drive her point across. I looked down. I didn’t want her to see the hurt in my eyes. Damn, Layla sure knows how to make you feel like shit. “Wow, you really did it. You really manipulated innocent people to leverage your career. You’re selfish. You make me sick.” She mushed me in the head as she went to retrieve her wine glass. I guess I deserved that, but it still didn’t minimize the fact that she got a heavy-ass hand.
She completed a few breathing exercises as she laid back on the chaise. “Get out, I don’t wanna see you. Don’t call me— Matter fact, Imma block ya number, and if I see you tryna contact me, I’m gettin’ a restraining order. So, take this as a warning: I don’t want to see your sorry ass, no mo’. You hear me?”
I clenched my jaw and nodded my head. With my hands stuffed in my pockets, I left the booth. I walked right out of the studio and walked right out of Layla’s life . . . just like she wanted.