Chyna didn’t like change and she didn’t like the unfamiliar. Moving into the lofts had been a matter of space, for the cats and the library she’d always wanted. There were many benefits to moving, better delivery options being one of them. Yet she found the benefits hard to remember while standing in the lobby of her new building and clutching Sheba, her Russian Blue, to her chest.
Closer to the city and only three units in the building, the loft had appealed to Chyna because of its large windows and loft space made accessible with a metal spiral staircase. When checking out the property online, Chyna could see herself creating art among the exposed brick walls. There was another room separated from the main living space by a sliding metal door that seemed like the perfect space for Sheba’s cat tree, litter box, and another kitty accessories.
Her dreaming had failed to include the nearly four-hour drive from her apartment in the valley to her new loft closer to downtown. An uneasy tension had settled in her stomach the second the moving vans arrived and it hadn’t gotten any better on the drive over. Chyna felt trapped in a near constant state of paranoia. She fought back nausea to smile at the movers who carried up box after box of her books in the mid-July heat without a word of complaint.
There was an elevator in the building, an old croaking thing that was newer than the building but not new enough for the movers to trust it to make multiple trips up to her apartment. The loft itself was shaped like one long rectangle starting at the back wall with the door and ending several feet away in a wall of windows. What had attracted her to the unit was the size, definitely, but also the striking visual of the exposed brick against the sterile white of the floor, cabinets, and ceiling. Movers stacked boxes in the room with the vague order from Chyna to leave it wherever and she’d get to it once they were gone.
“Have you even gone inside yet?” Jasmine stepped off the elevator holding box of donuts and Chyna’s favorite tea. She was dressed for work in a tailored pantsuit and a sleek blowout despite the early hour. In short, Jasmine looked perfect. Meanwhile, Chyna was still in her moving clothes.
“Sheba gets real anxious whenever I get near the door,” Chyna stroked the soft, downy ears of her cat. “I don’t think she likes this place.”
Jasmine sighed the trademarked long-suffering sigh of best-friends who are tired of this shit. With what few fingers she could spare she poked at Chyna’s back until she literally pushed the woman into her own apartment. The main living space still felt cavernous even while stuffed with boxes that held her entire life.
Chyna found it easier to move further into the space she’d been planning to live in for months once in the doorway. Jasmine rushed past her and kicked off her heels. Chyna still stands in the entryway while Jasmine makes her way to the kitchen.
“The kitchen is nice,” Jasmine’s voice breaks the silence of the room from where she’s digging through a box. In moments she’s found Chyna’s flatware and her tea mug. “I hope you invested in a mop because Sheba plus these white floors will be trouble.” With practiced movements, Jasmine has transferred Chyna’s tea from its paper cup confines and into the familiarity of her orange ceramic mug.
The kitchen was nice, one of Chyna’s favorite parts of the space. It was a galley kitchen with cabinets made of some yellow wood and white countertops that made the whole room seem a part of the main living area. The second Chyna saw this kitchen she was picking out pastel-colored appliances to add a cute touch to the counter space. Adjusting her grip on Sheba, Chyna approached her new kitchen. Jasmine smiled at her knowingly and handed Chyna her mug.
“Maybe you should put the cat down before you scald yourself.” Jasmine’s smile stays in place but she’s polite enough to hide it behind her cup of coffee.
If Chyna puts Sheba down what will she do with her hands? She has no idea where the litter box is she couldn’t let the cat loose in an unfamiliar place. Chyna put the mug down and gripped Sheba tighter, “I think I’ll hold on to her. She still hasn’t gotten used to this place.”
Jasmine shot Chyna a pointed look, “How can she get used to her new home if you have her in a death grip?”
Chyna was holding Sheba a little close but she did not have a death grip. The cat was content to lay in her owner's arms, accepting of her affection and content to be rubbed.
“Drink your tea, Chy’.” Jasmine’s tone was still pleasant, but her eyes stared pointedly between Chyna, the mug on the counter, and Sheba. “It’s getting cold.”
With a sigh Chyna lets Sheba fall from her arms to land on her paws on the cement floor. A part of her wishes the cat will linger at her feet, whine to be picked up, give any indication that she’s as anxious about being in a new place as Chyna is. Instead, her cat, ever the huntress, catches sight of a dust mote or beam of light over by the wall of windows and arcs off in that direction. Stranding Chyna with Jasmine.
“Traitor,” Chyna calls after the deserter. Jasmine’s eyes when Chyna can finally bring herself to meet them, are sympathetic. Chyna’s always likened her friends' eyes to cow eyes. Long lashes and this shiny brown depth that makes you trust her and feel trusted in turn. Looking into those eyes reminds her of why Jasmine was here in the first place.
“Thanks for getting me in the door,” Chyna says into her mug. The words are distorted but Jasmine understands them anyway.
“No problem. All you needed was a push, you did the rest yourself.” The moment ends with a wink and a loud sip of coffee.
Jasmine divides the main living space into four quadrants then they tackle the most important areas first. Chyna is sent to organize the bathroom while Jasmine tackles the kitchen. Once those areas were cleared they’d move onto Sheba’s room, Chyna’s room, and then her office. It went without saying that she would handle her office on her own, but Jasmine added it to their overall list of duties anyway.
Chyna’s speakers were packed away somewhere in the mountain of boxes marked ‘Office’ so they worked mostly in silence. From time to time Jasmine would stumble across something, a wine cork from the bottle they opened when Chyna found out she’d made it onto the bestseller list, the blender she’d broken during their juicing phase, Sheba’s first collar. Chyna never threw away anything. Everything in life had a memory, some little bit of history that she wanted to keep in some way. Jasmine suggested she get into scrapbooking if she was gonna keep things that most people would throw away after a month. While the idea of scrapbooking appealed to her there was nothing Chyna enjoyed more than that feeling of discovery and remembrance whenever she came across one of her ‘mementos’.
They worked until Jasmine demanded food or mutiny. They put in an order for a familiar Chinese food chain with all of Chyna’s favorites. When the food arrived, they ate sitting on boxes marked BOOKS facing the windows and people watching for lack of anything better to do.
“I still think Karl is fucking Vaegar.” Jasmine spoke around an egg roll in her cheek, “All the signs are there. That’s gonna be the big reveal next week.” The woman was so sure of her assessment that she punctuated her sentence by spearing a piece of orange chicken with her chopstick.
Chyna rolled her eyes and swallowed her chow mein as quickly as she could, “I’m telling you Vaegar is Karl’s sister! She’s the lost princess. The fact that you ship them is disgusting.”
Jasmine shakes her head, “He watched her in The Bathing Pools of Elloria. No brother of mine has ever done that.” At Chyna’s disgusted scowl Jasmine grins, “And you saw how quickly he knighted her when he though Earl Oren wanted a piece.”
“To protect her! Because she is his sister!” Chyna nearly shot beef broccoli out of her mouth trying to defend her theory.
Arguments over books, tv shows, and movies usually devolved into shouting matches between the two of them. Jasmine was a contrarian by nature, she loved to debate and more than anything she loved winning debates. The friendship started online through a shared love for the fantasy soap opera The Royal Houses of the High Realm. Ridiculous costumes, royal intrigue, illegitimate heirs, and elf ears brought them together since they were the only two black girls in the fandom. Thirteen seasons later and their friendship was still going strong. Jasmine was her best friend and shield against the weight of the world.
Chyna finally got through all the food in her mouth and started to shoot Jasmine’s ship in the foot when the other woman’s eyes latch onto something outside the window. “Oh hello,”
Jasmine sets her food aside and creeps closer, “Why didn’t you tell me your neighbor was so…”
Chyna turns to see what’s caught her friend's eye. A man stood next to Jasmine’s car in the parking lot, a Benz idled in the street behind it. The man looked annoyed, at least as far as Chyna could tell and she could easily see what had Jasmine squirming in her seat and biting her lip. Rich brown skin stretched over biceps that looked cut even when he wasn’t flexing. His entire body exuded power and strength even as he stood staring down Jasmine’s Toyota as if it’d personally offended him.
“He looks rude. There are a million other places to park on this street.” Chyna decided then and there to give him a wide berth. Attractive men were nothing but trouble. Chyna knew better than to let one man get into the life she’d carefully crafted for herself.
Jasmine didn’t share her beliefs. “You know what we’re about done here anyway, I can go move my car.” Chyna couldn’t move to stop her friend before Jasmine’s keys were out and she was moving to the door.
“Jas are you serious?” Chyna stayed seated, she still had an egg roll and half her soda left. No reason to leave a perfectly good meal.
Jasmine smiled at Chyna, the one that made her beautiful from within. A glow lit her skin and her cows' eyes looked especially trustworthy, “I’m just gonna say hi. We both know I’m going to be the only person he sees around here.” The jab wasn’t quite painful, but it made Chyna feel guilty. Jasmine shuts the door with a smile and a wave, oblivious to Chyna’s shame.
New apartment, new Chyna. She could be neighborly. She was a delight, her last neighbors loved her. Of course her last neighbors didn’t look like this guy.
Outside Jasmine and the Neighbor stood close together in front of Jasmine’s sedan. The Benz still blocked off most of the street, not that Chyna’s neighbor cared. In front of Jasmine, he was smiles. And oh what a nice smile he had. From her seat on a box of fiction, Chyna could see his confident wide-legged stance in jeans that sagged on noticeably trim hips. His long sleeve shirt had a v-neck that gave a mouthwatering view of the warm, brown skin of his chest. When Jasmine made a joke one large hand came up an rubbed at the neat scruff of a beard on his jaw. He was the picture of masculinity. Sexy and hinting at a power and strength that was inherent. Jasmine, cow eyes and sharp tongue, had him laughing where be stood. Chyna had always thought that people looked their best when they laughed and her neighbor was no exception.
Chyna could go out there and see that smile for herself if she wanted to. Despite what Jasmine liked to insinuate Chyna wasn’t a complete hermit. She left her house more often than she liked but it still counted. Besides this was just in front of her house.
Before she could talk herself into it Chyna watched as Jasmine and Hot Neighbor wrapped up whatever they were talking about with a wave. Hot Neighbor hopped back into his ridiculous car drove off, much to the relief of the four cars trapped behind him.
After that first day, Hot Neighbor became a nonfactor in Chyna’s life. The apartment building was large but there were only three units. One owned by Chyna, the other by Hot Neighbor and the third was vacant. Chyna never left her apartment so any chance of meeting him by accident in the lobby or hallway was pretty slim. It annoyed her that she wanted an excuse to run into him. He dressed like a fuckboy and thought it was ok to hold up traffic over a parking space. She told herself it was new home jitter and forced herself to focus on clearing the boxes in her living room.
A few hours later Chyna was dying of boredom. Jasmine was gone. Off to pick up dinner and probably get a break from Sheba’s hot and cold roughhousing. Chyna briefly considered starting the setup for her library and office but until her bookcases arrived she couldn’t move any other furniture in. She had several deliveries due today and no tv or internet to veg out with. She eventually tried playing with Sheba until she had wifi.
When the cable guy came over to install the wifi Chyna had a chance to meet Hot Neighbor herself. Jasmine was still gone and Sheba had decided she wanted to sunbathe in a patch of sun on the floor. The doorbell rang even though Chyna had left the door slightly propped open because of the heat. She opened the door with the vague thought of looking out for Sheba in case she made a run for it. Maybe she’d have to get a baby gate. All that flew out her window the second she recognized Hot Neighbor at her door instead of her bookcases.
The noise she makes when she sees him is in between a squeak and a curse. Whatever it was the high pitched noise attracts Sheba who materializes out of thin air to wind herself around Chyna’s legs. Hot Neighbor is dressed for a workout, basketball shorts that sit sinfully low on trim hips and an MIT shirt stretched taut over his chest. His chest was all she could see since at five four she was eye level with the most defined and cut chest she’d ever seen in real life.
Chyna managed to rip her eyes away from the spectacular sight of his chest to look into his eyes. Warm, chocolate brown eyes that twinkled with both intelligence and amusement. When Hot Neighbor smiled, he revealed two dimples and even, perfectly white teeth. The fucker had dimples. His cologne hit her a second later, something masculine and spicy. Chyna wanted to bury her nose in his shirt.
“I didn’t get a chance to introduce myself when you moved in, I’m Erik” He extended one strong looking hand and the stretch of his shirt became obscene. All Chyna could see was the flex of his biceps and the impressive width of his shoulders. The man was built like something out of a movie and Chyna lived for descriptions of tall men with perfect bodies. She’d made her living off of it.
The part of Chyna’s brain that wasn’t dissecting the man into an attractive collection of parts grabbed his hand with a smile. She may not have dimples but Chyna’s smile was easily her best feature. She had her mother to thank for the shape and fullness of her lips, and four thousand dollars worth of dental work to thank for her teeth. Erik’s smile turned appreciative and he brazenly looked her up and down, keeping his strong but gentle grip on her hand. At that moment she wasn’t standing in her house clothes with her braids pulled away from her face in a sloppy ponytail. The warmth of his touch vibrated from his palm to hers. Chyna didn’t want to let go. It wasn’t the first time a man had looked at her with such open desire but it was the first time she looked back at said man with the urge to… Chyna snatched her hand out of his grip and tried to high the move by picking up Sheba.
“I’m Chyna, and this nosy girl is Sheba.” True to her nature Sheba preened under Chyna’s attention. Rubbing Sheba’s ears gave Chyna the excuse to look away from Erik and all the temptation he represented.
Erik reached up and scratched behind Sheba’s ears and their knuckles brushed, “Sheba? Is she a queen?” Again, their eyes caught and Erik smiled like he’d planned it that way. A tentative swarm of butterflies was kicking up in Chyna’s stomach. She couldn’t look away from the heat in his eyes, from the power he exuded. Even standing in front of her door, rubbing her cat and giving her bedroom eyes he looked prepared at any moment for action. It was something in the tension of his shoulders.
With smooth movements, Chyna turns back into her apartment and let Sheba fall to her feet on the floor. The cat whines but slinks off further into the loft. Chyna suspects she’ll find a clawed up pillow on the couch tonight. “She certainly acts like it.”
Erik is all eye contact when she turns back to face him. She’s wearing nothing but shorts and a t-shirt yet his gaze never strays from her eyes, “I bet she gets it from her mother.” The words from anyone else would have Chyna rolling her eyes. Erik had the kind of swagger and charm that made everything that came out of his mouth sound tantalizing. He had one of those voices too, Jasmine called them phone-sex voices. It was low and sexy and languid.
Chyna can’t stop the smile that spreads across her face, nor does she try to. The result is the two of them, standing in her doorway smiling like a couple of fools. That’s how the delivery guy finds them. His appearance is both a blessing and a curse but Chyna jumps at the chance to escape from Erik’s magnetism. With a wave and another smile, Chyna retreats into her house to let the delivery guy in.
Any normal person would take the dismissal with grace. Erik, of course, had to get the last word in, “Alright then, Queen Chyna. I’ll see you around.”
Later on, talking with Jasmine Chyna relayed every detail from their first meeting. “He just has this...swagger this confidence this heat. I couldn’t even look at him the whole time. It was like staring at a sexy embodiment of the sun.”
Jasmine made a noise but Chyna was already off again, “And the way he looked at me. That was no ordinary look.” Thinking of his face, that slow sexy smile and his dimples, had Chyna reaching for her glass of wine.
Per Sunday night tradition Jas brought over wine and Chyna cooked the two of them dinner. The episode didn't start until ten so to kill time while her potatoes roasted Chyna suggested they start shelving her hundreds of books and talk about Erik. Chyna couldn’t get him off her mind and it was frustrating. She’d already decided she didn’t want anything to do with him. It didn’t escape her notice that he was all she could talk about for the last three hours.
“Are you gonna see him again?” It’s the first word Jasmine has been able to get in since Chyna brought him up.
Chyna makes a face and shakes her head, “Not if I can help it. He reminds me of the guys I went to school with.” Which is exactly why she shouldn’t go anywhere near him.
Though sheltered from the realities of living in the hood, Chyna still grew up in the hood. Erik was like the men her mother brought home during her childhood. Smooth talking players with the confidence and the brazen arrogance needed to have a woman dropping her panties in seconds. He even dressed like them. The thing about men like that is that they always brought misery to the women who loved them. Erik looked like the kind of man who could ruin a woman’s life.
“Fine,” Jasmine dramatically rolled her eyes and took a pointed sip of her drink, “Don’t fuck that fine black man literally a hallway away from you. It’s not as if I’m trying to live vicariously through you or anything.”
“Why not go after him yourself if it means that much to you?” Chyna counters. She pretends to be focused on alphabetizing the bookcase she’s dedicated to her YA books. If Jas goes after Erik it will take his attention off her long enough for her to figure out the best way to avoid him.
Jasmine snorted, “If he was a few years older, maybe.”
Chyna changes the conversation and Jasmine lets her. The episode starts, their meal finishes cooking, and the name Erik isn't mentioned once. Jasmine helps Chyna break in her new home with too much wine, too much food, and good tv. By the time midnight rolls around Chyna feels more at home than she had all day. Sheba's on her lap snoring, Jasmine laying at her side snoring only slightly louder than the cat. It's a sight Chyna's used to and the action of depositing Sheba in her cat bed and giving Jasmine a blanket from the hall closet is just a familiar to her.