Tisha reached for my hand, pulling me next to her before letting my hand go.
Kari cleared his throat. “Umm…I didn’t think you would still be here. I’m here to pick up my baby.”
Tisha responded, “I thought Kam was coming later?”
“I missed my muffin while I was gone, so I came straight here from the road. Kam doesn’t know I decided to come here first.” He still stood in the door.
I said, “I’m about to leave anyway.”
Kari frowned. “You don’t have to leave because I’m here.”
“Technically I’m not leaving because you’re here. I’d just told Tisha I need to catch a flight back home.”
Tisha nudged my side. “Don’t you want to see Lacy first? She should be home any second.”
I inhaled and exhaled knowing that I would be considered a shit for not staying to see her daughter, who was Kam’s Goddaughter, and by default, she had been mine for years. Kam and I always sent her birthday and Christmas gifts. When I stayed with Kam during her pregnancy, Lacy and I grew closer and she would confide in me about issues she had about her mother and dating. “Is she really coming home soon? If she’s not, I really do have to make sure I can catch a flight out of here tonight.”
“She’ll be home in a minute, sit down and find your flight now.” She then looked at Kari. “Are you just going to stand out there? You’re letting the cold air come in.”
Kari walked into the apartment slowly his expression wary.
“I’ll go get Kari together. I just put her down for a nap.” She touched my arm reassuringly before she left us alone.
I moved to sit on the overstuffed chair rather than the sofa and picked up my phone to start searching for flights. He eased down on the sofa next to the chair. I kept my eyes on the phone though I spoke first. “Baby Kari is getting so big. She’s a sweetheart and so smart, you must spoil her rotten.”
“Thank you. Ka…um…I do spoil her too much.”
Trying to treat this awkward moment as normal as possible, I searched for a flight and quickly found a non-stop leaving within a couple of hours and Tisha lived forty minutes away from Hartsfield-Jackson. I purchased the flight and then looked at Kari. “By the way, you can say Kam’s name around me. I’m sure Kam told you I don’t feel the same for her since she tells you everything.”
He nodded, rubbing his thighs nervously. “I don’t know what to say around you.”
I shrugged. “We can keep it at a family level. We both have families now. I ask about yours, you ask about mine and keep it going. Since most of the time we’ll ever interact is around our parents.”
Kari sighed deeply, clearly annoyed with my answer.
Refusing to budge on my stance on how we deal with each other, I asked, “Did you see Dominick before you left Tallahassee this morning?”
“Yeah, kind of felt like I needed to stay and check on him since you left so suddenly and upset.” His tone seemed accusatory putting my teeth on edge.
“Judging me is not the way to mend our relationship.”
He tilted his head, flashing his dimples. “Oh, I thought you said, you would never forgive me.”
I reminded. “I also said I would be respectful but feeling like everything I do is being judged by you is the quickest way for me to fuck everything I said the other day and we never need to speak.”
Kari’s expression went from taunting to serious. “I’m not judging you.”
“You sure? Because you act like you this man above reproach, that you never make mistakes, just because you’re more in touch with your feelings than me.” I moved to the edge of my seat. “I spoke with my son when I left, and he was good. Plan to spend a week with him for Spring Break, want him to live with me if that’s what he wants, so don’t act like I left my son hanging. Bet you anything this morning, he was fine, am I wrong?”
Kari clenched his jaw before speaking, “Yeah, he good.”
“And don’t think I didn’t see how you looked at me and Tisha. She’s my friend and I care about her.”
He leaned toward me and lowered his voice. “You were just with Vonni.”
My voice remained the same volume because I had nothing to hide from Tisha. “And? She fucked that up, not me.”
He scratched the side of his face as his beard itched. “Nothing happened, Aaron.”
I twisted my lips. “Because you stopped it, she would have been bout it, trust me.”
His forehead furrowed. “You’re not mad at me about Vonni?”
“No. I’m not mad about shit when it comes to you anymore.”
He gestured between him and me. “If you’re not mad, then what’s this hostility that bounces off of you when I’m around.”
I waved my hand dismissively. “That’s your guilt. I haven’t seen you in over a year, I’m fucking uncomfortable. If I was so hostile, how did we manage to have a good time with Vonni’s family yesterday? Even when we had dinner on Friday even though I asked you not to come, I was cordial to you. I don’t even recall snapping at you until I found out about Vonni hitting on you.”
“As soon as you saw me today, you frowned up and were ready to ghost.”
“I wasn’t lying when I said I was getting ready to go when you knocked on the door. Your disapproving look was what pissed me off like you have a say in who I decide to be with.”
“She has a man and they’re serious, Aaron.”
“I know that. But why are you so concerned?”
“Because…” His voice faltered.
“Because what? Because you care about Tisha? What?”
“Dewayne is his friend. That’s how he and I met,” Tisha finished as she walked in holding a still sleeping Kari.
“Tisha good enough for your friend, but not me?” I responded quickly though I was stunned because I didn’t know and had never imagined she’d met Dewayne through Kari. I rose from my chair needing to get away from yet another blow. “On that note, I think I’m going to go.
He asked snidely, “Now, who’s the runner?”
I jabbed my finger at him. “Fuck you. If Kam and I had gotten back together before you returned from overseas, we would hardly see you now. At least I finally realized that we’ll have to be around each other for the sake of our parents, and it didn’t take me ten years to realize it.”
Kari jumped up only a few feet from where I stood near the door. “I made a promise to God that if I get to see my family again, I would be different. It didn’t matter to me if Kam waited for me or went back to you, I wanted to be a part of our family. I wanted to be a better brother to you, but you’re not giving me a chance. Getting all mad and shit because I’m just looking out for Tisha. She doesn’t need you to mess with her mind.”
Tisha admonished, “Bakari, leave him alone. You don’t get to have an opinion about who I choose to be with, just because Dewayne is your friend.”
Kari explained to Tisha. “I wasn’t doing that. I know my brother…”
I interjected angrily. “No, you don’t know me. Because if you did, you would know that I’m falling for this woman deeply. And that I would never do anything to hurt her, which is why I’m leaving before I forget my common sense that I can’t give her what she needs, that her man apparently can.”
“Oh, Aaron.” Tisha’s eyes welled up.
I looked at her, my own eyes aching to release. “You and I are good. I’ll call you once I get back home tonight.” I turned to Kari. “Why do you even care if I forgive you, huh? You obviously don’t think much of me. You damn sure don’t have loyalty for me.”
“I am loyal to you.”
Moving closer to him, I growled, “That’s a fucking lie. You already taking the side of your friend over me.”
“That’s not what I was doing. I was thinking of Tisha and I didn’t want her to be hurt.”
“Because all I’m capable of is hurting women?”
Kari’s nostrils flared. “Fuck it. No matter what I say it’s wrong. Just like when we were kids. If I dared correct you or say you were wrong, you had a way of twisting it like I didn’t have a fucking clue what I was talking about.”
“You didn’t and you don’t know now.”
“Still dismissive of me.”
I yelled, “What the fuck ever? You can stop with all that bullshit that I didn’t care about you or your feelings. My whole life I looked after you whether I wanted to or not. When we were adults, I reached out to you over the years trying to make sure you were okay that you weren’t in a dark place. That you wouldn’t fucking be a coward again and try to kill yourself.”
“Aaron…please calm down.” Tisha touched my arm lightly still cradling baby Kari who surprisingly hadn’t woken up with the raised voices around her.
Kari’s angry glare focused on me. “No, Tisha let him speak.”
Clapping my hand for emphasis, I continued, “You were my responsibility for years and because I wasn’t there, you tried to kill yourself. I wasn’t there to keep an eye on you, I wasn’t there to make you angry enough you wouldn’t get sad. You don’t think I blamed myself that I wasn’t around enough, that I chose a university so far away from you.”
He snapped, “You never blamed yourself. You were too selfish and embarrassed by me, by how emotional I would get. Don’t change the narrative now that you’re older and have some perspective, some fucking maturity.”
“You don’t think I saw how easy it was for you to cry, to break? I wasn’t embarrassed about your emotions I just didn’t know how to fix it. I was embarrassed that you weren’t like the other kids because of your weird science fixation instead of sports. That you preferred to be alone than with the other kids, but never about your emotions.”
“Then why did you tell me to suck it up, stop being a cry baby, a pussy?”
I stepped closer to him and lowered my voice, “Because I wanted you to fight, and not just fucking give up. I might have been too hard on you, wrong to call you names but I didn’t know what else to do when I was a kid myself.”
Kari hit his chest, the veins in his neck bulging. “I didn’t want to fucking give up, but at the time I felt like I had no choice. I didn’t know how to be what everyone else wanted me to be. Everyone wanted me to be you, the golden child with charisma, outgoing, smart, popular. I couldn’t stop the sadness, I couldn’t stop the dread that began its attack from the moment I woke up in the morning. I hated the way I felt every single day for as long as I remembered. And then I watch you, laughing and smiling, getting along with everyone, never a cloud for you.”
“My cloud was you,” I answered honestly and closed my eyes to block the image of his sad eyes at my quiet admission, an expression I witnessed too many times when we were younger. “Why haven’t you told anyone that I was the one who walked in on you that day? That I was the one who knocked you down from that ceiling fan?”
“What are you talking about? Ma found me.” He sounded surprised.
I opened my eyes. “You really don’t remember? Even after all this time?”
“Ron…Aaron what are you talking about? Mama was there, not you. You never even came to see me at the hospital,” he finished bitterly.
Frustrated, I tapped the middle of his forehead and he flinched from my touch. “For once fucking remember that I was the one who saved your ass! I’m sick and tired of our parents and you thinking you didn’t matter to me, that I wasn’t as devastated as everyone else when I was the one who stopped you from making the biggest mistake of our family’s lives.”
Kari’s eyes grew wide and he started shaking his head side to side. “You saved me? I blocked that day out. That day is still fuzzy to me…I didn’t know.”
“Unblock it. And when you do, maybe you and I can really have a heart-to-heart talk. Maybe you can better understand why no matter how hard I try I can’t seem to forgive you.” I bent over to kiss my now fidgety and still drowsy niece’s cheek and gently kissed Tisha’s lips. I looked into her eyes. “Tell Lacy, I’m sorry I missed her. I really do need to go. I’m not running, I just can’t give more to him than what I’ve already given.”
As I opened the door, I looked back at a crestfallen Kari. “Kam told me you won’t marry her without my forgiveness. You really do need to reconsider that stance…you already have a beautiful family. And if you’re having nightmares from being over there, you need to talk to Kam and get some help. She doesn’t need to worry about you like I used to.”
I closed the door behind me, hating that Kari had ruined the peaceful afternoon I had with Tisha. I’d felt normal, almost like the old me. Now I was back to emotional overload with little outlet. I know she had questions for me after dropping that bomb on Kari, I had a few choice ones for her. Like why she never told me that Dewayne is a friend of Kari. Kari was always more a loner though his good looks and aloof manner often attracted people to him. So, if he considered Dewayne a friend then they were probably close. He and Kam had probably gone on double dates with Tisha and her man, something that would never happen if she chose to be with me. Shit.
The minute I landed back in D.C, I called my mother dreading our necessary conversation.
I could hear the worry in her voice. “You’re back?”
“I was hoping you’d call. Dominick said everyone had a good weekend though you left last night. Please say you and Kari talked.”
Pulling my carry-on luggage behind me as I walked through the empty airport. “We did and he knows the truth.”
“The truth? What are you talking about?”
“Sorry, Ma. We had more words. We didn’t fight, just argued.”
“What did you say?”
“I told him that I would always love him, and that I wouldn’t avoid family gatherings just because he and Kam are there, but that I couldn’t forgive him…and I told him that I was the one who found him.”
She grew silent.
I headed to my car in the airport short-term parking lot, holding the phone, wondering her thoughts. I’d always loved my mother as deep as any son loves the woman who brought him into the world. I always searched for her approval that rarely came after Kari was born. I’d learned to accept that my mother loved me, just my brother more. The strong and feisty woman I’d known all my life became a shell when we first heard the news about the explosion. My father and I took turns being with her, watching over her, worried that she would soon die of a broken heart. When she refused to get out of bed, I would read books to her, both fiction and non-fiction, anything to bring light to her face again. Over the course of that time, Ma and I had grown closer. I visited her daily and would even pick her up and bring her to church hoping her faith would lift her spirits during that horrible time.
When I lived with Kam to help Kam through her grief, I would call my mother daily. The hardest part about being there for Kam while she was pregnant was that I had to leave my mother. Our closeness, the bond we’d finally engendered out of grief, began to fade once Kari returned and she wanted her sons to become close and I’d been reluctant. Now, I wondered if I’d lost my mother altogether for revealing the truth, she’d never wanted to share.
I then heard her sobbing.
Alarmed, I practically yelled on the phone, never liking my mother to cry. “Ma, Ma…please don’t cry. He doesn’t remember.”
With a shaky voice, she responded, “Yet. He doesn’t remember, yet.”
I defended, “Well, he should’ve known the truth for years.”
Ma said almost angrily, “You shouldn’t have told him. You let your mouth and anger get the best of you as always. I may lose him again.”
I opened the door and slid into my car before speaking again. “Ma, I swear to all that is good and holy, that I love you and would do anything in the world for you, which is why I allowed you to keep this lie at the cost of my brother and father thinking I didn’t care about Kari. But we can’t keep lying about anything anymore. Haven’t we learned from my lies about Dominick and Kari and Kam lying about their relationship? We don’t have the perfect family, we never did, and trying to maintain that we don’t have problems has hurt us as a family. I’m not lying, keeping secrets, withholding the truth about anything anymore. If that means you don’t want to speak to me again, do whatever you feel you must do. I am learning to live without a brother, I can learn to live without you.” I bit the inside of my jaw to prevent my voice from cracking. “Bye, Ma.”
“Aaron, you hang up the phone and I swear I will beat your ass like I did when you were a little boy.” I could hear her rapid breathing. “You will not learn how to live without me, because I can’t live without you. You are my son. My firstborn. Kam told me that I’d been neglectful of you over the years and she was right. She also told me the same thing you just did when I first found out about her and Kari and I’d been furious with her about their affair. She told me she can learn how to live without me, too. I never thought I would hear those words from you. Not you. No matter how unfairly I might have behaved toward you, you’ve always been there for me. And I’ve taken your loyalty and love for granted. I don’t want to be on this Earth without either of my sons. Yes, I can’t imagine the pain of losing your father, but my sons…the babies I carried inside of me for nine long months, I wouldn’t wish that pain on my worst enemy. I almost died without my baby boy, and if anything happens to my oldest baby before I leave this earth, I know I’ll die. So, don’t ever say anything like that to me again. Do you hear me?”
I wiped my eyes furiously. “Yes, Ma’am.”
“Now, we’re going to give Kari time to see if he remembers on his own and if he doesn’t remember I’ll tell him the next time he and Kam visit. He deserves the truth and I’m sorry that you had to carry that burden all these years. We need to be in person when we talk about that day, so I can touch him, reassure him that nothing has changed. I just have to have faith that he’ll forgive me.”
“He will. He needs you as much as I need you. I love you, Ma.”
“I love you more.” And for the first time ever, I believed her.