I UNDERSTAND THE GAME
by Howard Williams
My boyfriend deals drugs. And the entire life that we’ve built together has come at the cost of it. But after two years my perspective of the world outside our apartment is viciously sobering.
We live in a spacious studio with exposed brick walls in downtown Washington, D.C. not too far from Georgetown University. When we first moved in I didn’t know how I’d fill the spaces, but I managed to transform the room into a home. On one of the walls I painted a huge graffiti mural of various black figures from Malcolm X and Martin Luther King to Audre Lorde and James Baldwin all compiled in the continent of Africa. The rest of the walls have paintings hung on them created by some friends of mine. Potted plants sit in front of the windows to add a little earth to our environment.
We have only a few pieces of furniture to speak of, placed about like islands in a parquet sea. It makes it look less cluttered. Our mattress lies close to the mural on a box spring on the floor.
One thing I enjoy most about the mornings besides the soft sun spilling in is watching Trey sleep. It’s when he’s most peaceful. Despite me bringing meditation to his life that I like to think has been a balm to the rage inside him when we first met, the edginess I thought was long gone has returned.
He was so mad at the world back then. God knows he had every right to be. He found out shortly after his mother died when he was twelve that no one in this world cared whether he lived or died. It’s a reality that breaks most people, but it hardened him.
He rolls over in the billowing white sheets and gently opens his eyes.
“Morning, queen,” he says through slits in his eyes. He smiles, revealing a perfect row of white teeth.
Now I can leave the bed. I walk around the room, picking up clothes and pulling back the curtains at the wall opposite the bed. The fully awakened sun enters the room.
I look over at him checking his phone for missed messages, his eyes still adjusting to the shock of light.
He’s known how I feel about the game ever since he first told me. At the time we had just started dating and I didn’t feel it was my place to say anything about it, but because he pressed me for an answer I told him. After that he managed to keep it so far from me it was easy to forget at times.
I fell in love heart-first, long before my head had a chance to catch up. And even though I tried to keep that part of his reality where he left it, loving him didn’t allow me to just accept it. I was compelled to help him.
“What you got goin’ on today?” I ask him once I hear his phone lock.
“I’m goin’ out for a little bit.”
“Where you goin’?” I press.
He gets up from the cloud of sheets, spilling some on the floor before crossing over to me. He wraps his arms around my waist from behind, and kisses me on the back of my neck. It still surprises me how strong he is despite his arms being as spindly as they are. He offers his embrace to distract me. Unfortunately it works.
“I just got some places to go a little later. But for now…” He kisses my neck again. “…I’m chillin’. What you got goin’ on?”
“Are you sellin’?” I ask.
He sighs deeply.
“Don’t ask questions you don’t want the answers to, Kamalah.”
He loosens his grip from my waist, but I hold onto his arms.
“I was just askin’.”
He kisses my neck a third time.
“What you makin’ for breakfast?”
“What you want?”
“We don’t have much. I gotta go to the store.”
As I’m cutting up some fruit for smoothies he places two crisp hundreds on the counter. That’s how I’ve come to communicate my need for anything. I only need to mention it and in no time he fulfills it. He never asks how much. And if I do throw out a number, he doesn’t flinch. He just peels off a few bills from his bankroll and gives it to me. If he doesn’t have it he says, “I’ll get it to you later.”
Where I’m from drug dealers aren’t uncommon. Most girls don’t get to the age of eighteen without dating at least one or two. One of my friends won’t date a man who doesn’t. Men who deal drugs scare most women, especially professional ones. I’ll admit it’s difficult being with one who does. It’s easy to get caught up in the romance of all the danger until he gets caught or ends up dead. But the moment his life bleeds into yours you realize his problems are your problems. Even if you can get past that you’re still up nights worrying about his safety. Any whiff of news about someone dying sends your heart into a frenzy. I was lucky he didn’t sell anything harder than marijuana.
I give him his smoothie and sit down beside him on the couch. He finishes rolling up a blunt and hands it to me. I flick the blue lighter and wave the flame up and down the length to seal it. It’s a ritual we’ve practiced since we started dating – as sacred as communion. It’s when some of our deepest conversations have taken place.
Normally, when I’m finished with sealing it, I’d light the end and inhale until it glows a full orange before giving it to Trey. This time I hand it back to him and cross the room to tie a shawl around my waist, desperately hoping to prolong even further the topic that has burned in my conscience for the past two weeks.
“You said you wanted to tell me something yesterday?” he asks as I return.
He tries a second attempt at handing me the hand-rolled blunt for me to light. I pretend not to see it until he puts it directly in my face.
“I don’t feel like smoking right now.”
He scrunches his brow in disbelief, searching my face for an answer. I’ve never rejected it before. I may as well be desecrating a sanctuary.
He flicks the lighter a few times and holds the flame to the blunt before putting it to his lips to inhale.
“I’m pregnant,” I say. I refuse to look at him as I await his answer. I hear him exhale and get quiet.
“How far along?”
“How long have you known?”
“A couple weeks.”
My eyes are still on the table in front of us when he gently places his hand on my arm. I turn to look at him smiling.
“You for real?” he asks.
I reflect his smile like the sun’s light on the moon.
He leans down to place his head on my belly, which hasn’t yet begun to swell. I don’t even think there’s anything there to hear and yet he listens intently.
“Damn,” he says. “I’m a father.”
“Yeah, you are.”
He slides my thin shirt up and places the tenderest kiss he’s ever given me on my belly. I fall in love again – heart-first.
It was on our southern Virginia college campus where I first met him. (Later I found that his full name was Tyler Tremont III.) Somehow we had missed each other for the first three years until a business class I’d been putting off converged our paths. He got me with a trick I should’ve been hip to by the time I was a senior: he asked me if I wanted to study. I was desperate. As a fine arts major, I had no interest in any class outside my discipline. And being that he was a business major, I was at the mercy of his knowledge.
He had a way of walking, of talking, of being, that was earned by hard living. Every movement of his body was like a jazz lick, expressing the essence of the most forgotten members of the black experience.
I was relieved that as we began our sessions, exclusively in the library at first, he didn’t come on too strong. Given the ease with which he explained every concept he didn’t have to. If it was his goal to get me from the beginning then he’s a genius because it wasn’t just his understanding that intrigued me; it was his confidence in it.
As the semester went on our conversations digressed into the details of ourselves. I found it harder to resist telling him everything about myself to the point where our talks were more like confessionals. It’s how I came to discover that he sold drugs.
“What you think about that?” he asked me after his confession.
“Who am I to judge?”
I had told him so much of my truth by that time but in that moment I was having trouble telling him how I felt. Vulnerability is a tricky thing. One wrong gesture or ill-timed pause can cause a quick retreat back to the mask we wear for the world.
I could tell how weighted the question was for him. Perhaps it was fear that forced me to answer his question with a question, but it was the only way to evade it for a time while preserving the tenderness of the moment.
“Why are you here?” I asked him.
“What you mean?” he shot back. I didn’t realize how my question sounded before I asked it.
“What made you wanna come to college?”
His eyes brightened in a way that made me realize he’d never posed that question to himself. He looked up at the night sky as we walked down the lighted campus sidewalk. There was a crisp stillness suspended in the air.
“I figured, why not,” he told me.
Then he smiled at me. It was the sort of smile someone has when they mean more than what they say – like they’ve given you a riddle to solve.
I like to think coming to college was his way of telling the world to kiss his black ass – that he controlled his destiny. Beyond that it didn’t mean much to him. He could have left at anytime; that he was there at all was enough of a victory. And yet he graduated right along with me anyway. I couldn’t have been prouder.
“You never answered my question,” he said beneath the starry canopy.
“What do you think of me dealin’?”
“I can’t say I like it.”
“I know there’s more to that. Speak your mind.”
“Well, I’ve never seen an old dealer. It’s not like I’m one to judge, but I don’t see it turning out good one way or another.”
It seemed my answer was sufficient enough for him. As we continued walking in silence the contented smile on his face never went away. All he wanted was my honesty. And in the following years he continued to value it.
I watched him transform at the behest of my suggestions. In addition to meditation, I introduced a vegetarian lifestyle to him and helped him form his dreadlocks. He exchanged his plain clothes, which had only served the purpose of cover his naked body, for eclectic thrift store finds: denim jackets and forgotten vests, aviator sunglasses from another age, fitted jeans and khakis.
He even began reading the books I recommended. Eventually we read them together and discussed them during our marijuana communion. To see his mind expand before my eyes allowed me to delve deeper in my love for him. Not to mention it turned me on.
I enjoyed watching his metamorphosis, to see enlightenment wash him anew. But still he persisted in dealing. It was the part of him I could never seem to reach. I knew and still know he’s equipped to forge his own legitimate path, but something nevertheless binds him to the game.
“Do we need to get a bigger place?” he asks me.
“How much space do we need?” I can’t help laughing a little. “We don’t wanna have too much space. Not yet.”
“Just let me know what you need.”
“I think I’m gonna get a job.”
“What? Why you wanna start workin’ now?”
“I’m not talking about working some retail job or being stuck in an office. I was thinking about getting a job as an art teacher. There’s a rec center hiring one for an after school program. The kids had their art program cancelled at their school. It’s only a few hours in the evenings.”
“I guess that’s cool.”
“Or I could be a sip and paint teacher. Brittany works at one over on 14th. She might be able to put me on.”
He finishes the last of the blunt, taking sharp quick inhalations before putting it in the ashtray on the table.
“Why you wanna work all of a sudden?” he says.
“It’d be nice to get out of the house once in a while.”
“It’s not like you don’t ever leave.”
“I just wanna do something else with my art besides just sell my pieces. I think I wanna open my own art school one day.”
“That’s dope. I could see you doin’ that.”
I hear his phone vibrate on the couch. He looks at it, answers, and puts it back. He walks over to our bed and puts on his red, green, and black poncho hoodie.
“You leavin’?” I ask.
“Yeah. I gotta go.”
“Do you have to?”
“Why you actin’ brand new?”
“How long are you gonna keep doin’ this?”
“What is you talkin’ about?”
“This. Actin’ like you don’t have any other options.”
He looks around for something. The look on his face says he’s ignoring me, but I know he hears every word.
“Why do you keep doin’ it? Don’t you realize it’s a risk every time you step outside the door?”
Growing up he was in and out of jail for possession, but he was never there for more than a month. It was about a year ago when he very nearly went to jail for intent to sell, which would have landed him eight to ten years. Luckily, he was able to afford a decent enough attorney to get the charge dropped to simple possession, resulting in a fine – a reasonable slap on the wrist.
“Don’t you realize everything we got is ‘cause of what I do? I don’t hear you complain when the rent’s paid.”
We never realize when we reveal our truth to our lovers how and when they’ll use it to sting us. Regardless of how much I’d like to smack him across his face for what he’s saying, I know he’s right. I’m complicit in all of it.
I feel the tears behind my eyes, though I can’t exactly say why they’re there. Maybe fear. Maybe anger. Maybe both. Either way I try with all my strength to hold them back.
“Don’t you wanna be around for your baby?” I plead. “Will you feel comfortable telling them what you do?”
My feet have taken me to within a foot of him without me even knowing.
“You can’t keep doin’ this, Trey. Not anymore. You got so much loyalty to a game that don’t give a damn about you. It was here before you and it’ll be here long after you’re gone.”
I take one of his hands and press it against my stomach.
“This is your way out, babe.”
He holds up his bag with his free hand.
“This is all I know how to do. The only thing I ever been good at. I ain’t talented like you. And I cain’t work no square job somewhere. I’m not built for that. It’s who I am.”
He’s as on the verge of tears as I am.
“If only I had met you back in high school,” he says.
He leans down and kisses me on my forehead. Then he turns and walks out the door.
Moments like these make me wish I didn’t love him so much, though my love isn’t what keeps me with him. It’s the fact that I don’t know how I’d face the world without him. I’ve grown accustomed to life with him. I’m sure I could make a living, get a job, and build a life without a single shred of evidence that our lives had ever converged as though it had all been make-believe.
But I do love him. And I don’t think I could ever rid myself of him, even if I tried.
Howard Williams is a relatively new writer. He was born and raised in Columbus, OH. After growing restless, he threw what he could fit in his car and moved to the D.C. area, where he now resides.