"I'm going away for a while."
This was the first sentence he told Cleo four years prior in the empty room that once used to be her bedroom.
She'd been packing away for college; she was about to pack away the last box when she heard him say it.
She turns to face him, that tell-tale look of disappointment almost makes him defensive. He doesn't appreciate being judged.
"What is a while?"
She closes her eyes tightly and sighs like a mother who'd discovered her son's bad grades.
"You just couldn't stay away. Could you?" She bites out. The last box is sealed away and her back is turned away from him.
"I need you to do one thing for me."
"What is it?"
"I need you to stay loyal to me."
She looks over her shoulder.
"I know four years is a long time but...I need to know that you're not going to step out on me."
She snorts. She turns back away from him, her shoulders wound up in tension.
"Please." He says.
After a pregnant pause, she says, "Okay."
That was four years ago. Now that he's out, he lies in bed with her and wonders if she kept her promise all that time.
He should know better than to accuse her of being unfaithful; for someone like her she's as loyal as they come, condensation and all, but he can't help but let his mind wander. People have needs, he'd been locked up for a long time and they forbid conjugal visits. He remembers those days where when they talked over the phone he wanted nothing more than to touch her through that thick piece of plexi-glass when she presses her hand against it, the ring that he bought her still on.
Cleo moans in her sleep, rolling over to snore in his ear. He nudges her to her side of the bed. She snuggles over into her pillow, lets out a giggle, and a name slips out of her lips that makes his insecurities rear its ugly head.
"Celeste, baby, stop being mean."
What kind of name is Celeste?
The next morning, Oscar sits at the kitchen table while Cleo's cooking breakfast, his eyes staring into the back of her head as he sips his black coffee.
"Babygirl," he begins.
"Have you fucked anyone else when I was away?"
Silence. Her grip on the egg-covered spatula tightens.
"Oscar, I've told you..."
"I feel like you're not telling me the truth. The whole truth."
He's pressed up behind her, hands turning off the stove to stop the food from burning. Her body tightens and she shudders in a breath.
Guilty. Guilty than a motherfucker.
"I'm gonna need you to keep it all the way real with me," he says in her ear. With a soft kiss to her neck, he says against her skin, "Who's Celeste?"
When he sees her eyes light up in shock, guilt, and shame, he knew he's got her.
She couldn't lie her way out of a parking ticket.
In less than fifteen minutes, she spills her guts, telling him everything he needed to know including the graphic details he wished he hadn't.
Celeste is her classmate from art school that she'd had an affair with two years into his prison sentence and continued the affair until four months ago when she'd gotten word he was getting released. There had been other women: a Southern debutante she'd met in New Orleans one summer, a (failed) actress, and a jazz singer who dedicated an ode to her, much to his annoyance. But out of those women, Celeste was the most consistent and one she confessed to wanting something more with in case Oscar never got out of prison.
He didn't know what stung more; the fact that Cleo had cheated not once, not twice, but four times with four different women, or the fact she was going to leave him behind and move on to someone new, someone with a future.
Both were blows to his ego that he was not prepared for.
He wanted to yell at her, call her every name but a child of God. Hell, he wanted to slap her so hard she wouldn't be able to walk straight for a week.
He did none of those things.
Instead, he backed away from her, grabbed his keys, and left her apartment without another word.
What Cleo didn't count on was that Oscar got eyes and ears everywhere. He can find anyone at anytime.
He found Celeste in less than three hours; a name like Celeste gives way to a specific type of person that would name their child Celeste.
Those chicks with dream-catcher tattoos and their hair dyed all types of unnatural colors and a septum piercing. There's always one.
As if on cue, here she comes.
She's tall and built like she frequents the gym often, her arms showing multicolored tattoos that hide underneath her black polo shirt. She looks mixed; almond-shaped eyes and brown skin with her hair shaved on one side, exposing a mass of blue-green curls perched on her shoulder. The kicker? She got a fucking septum piercing. She's smiling and chatting among patrons, handing them their coffee and frappes.
Without thinking, he rises from his chair and makes his way to her.
She looks up, still in customer mode, and smiles.
"Hello, sir. What can I get started for you today?" She asks.
Her voice is...not what he expected. It's very soft and airy, a contrast from her butch physique.
"You know a Cleopatra Washington?" He replies.
A pause. Her warm and inviting demeanor turns cold.
"So," She begins.
"Why are you here?"
Cleo's eyes are bloodshot and her voice scraped raw.
"I met Celeste today."
She intakes a sharp breath.
"Why?" She grits out.
"I just wanted to size up who'd been fucking my girlfriend while I was behind bars, babygirl." He answers.
"She cleans up nicely. If you'd been fucking around with a skonka I'd be more pissed off than I am now." He snorts.
"Oscar. Look, I was wrong-"
"-I should've held up my promise but four years is a long time."
"I was behind bars for four years."
"Because of the shit you did. You knew what was going to happen if you broke parole. You had six months probation. Six months. All you had to do was stay out of-"
"You not once listened to me! You don't know what it's like in my hood! I'm a Santos. I'm Spooky. I got people looking up to me."
"You see that right there? What you just said? That was your fucking pride. Your ego. Your concern about other people's view of you landed you in prison for four years. Those people that looked up to you? Where were they when you were behind bars? Huh? Where were they?"
Her face cracks.
"You came to see me every day. Wrote me letters. Gave me phone calls. Put money on my books. I can't say you haven't been there for me in that aspect and I'm thankful. But you fucked other people. You were going to date someone else if I never got out of prison. Do you know how grimey that shit is?"
"So...you wanted me to hold the torch for you and not have a life? Like those...birds, waiting on their man who is doing twenty-five to life to come home and never faced the reality that they ain't coming home and they never will. I've seen my aunties and cousins wait on their men to come home. They kept waiting and waiting and never gave themselves the chance to move on."
"They were being loyal."
"They were being stupid. Because once that man comes out, it will never be the same relationship that it was before. You are still going to lie in bed, wondering if you'd wasted all those years waiting on a man to come home and for once, change. You do all that waiting and that man still slides into his old habits and gets sent back to prison."
"Is that how you feel?"
The moment of truth.
"Yes." she says after a pause.
"When I first started visiting you, I was fine. But months and months later, it wore on me. I'd cry every night. I kept expecting to get a phone call that you died. I kept up a smile but the shit wore on me. And those months turned into a year and frankly, I couldn't take it anymore. Seeing you behind bars in that jumpsuit made me too sad."
"So, you fuck other people instead of-"
"I had no one. You were insistent on keeping our...relationship if we calling it that...a secret from everyone. Even my own parents. I felt alienated from everyone trying to protect your privacy. Celeste was there at that moment in time. She was the shoulder for me to cry on. She was there. She supported me and didn't do stupid shit that could've landed her in jail. It just happened."
"What about the others?"
"They were flings. They were distractions and it worked for a while. Celeste and I kept fighting."
"I kept...inserting you into my life. I tried moving on, but I couldn't. I still put you first, and Celeste got tired of coming second and so, we broke up. She dumped me after she heard the news that you were getting out."
"Did you love her?"
Silence. Cleo's face twists in discomfort and she looks away. She walks into the kitchen and fishes out a glass.
"Answer the question." Oscar barks.
"I can't give you a straight answer."
"Because it's complicated."
Wine sloshes into her glass as her trembling hand pours it.
"Did I love her?" She asks herself softly.
"I loved her, but not the same way I love you. I'll never be able to love someone else the way I love you."
His stomach flips.
"You love me?" He repeats.
They lock eyes. Cleo's eyes start to water.
"Yes." She says.
"I never thought...we both agreed on..." Oscar falters. He grabs a chair and sits down. Cleo knocks back the wine in the glass and pours herself another.
"We've played this game for so many years. I'm damn near your wife without the ring."
"Do you love me, or do you love the dick?"
"If I only loved the dick, I would've left you high and dry the second you got locked up the first time. I wouldn't have put so much money on your books or beg you, time and time again, to make it official-"
"-I told you I don't do that boyfriend-girlfriend bullshit."
"But here you are, in my apartment, angry that I'm trying to find that with someone else."
"It's the principle."
"It's your pride. It's always been your pride. You don't want me enough to love me or claim me, but you'll be damned before you let someone else do it. And I let you. Even when I shouldn't."
She's on her third glass when Oscar grabs her hand.
"That's enough." He says.
"We're not in the bedroom. Now's not the time to be my daddy." She retorts, snatching her hand away and accidentally dropping the glass.
"Shit!" She curses.
She snatches a paper towel and tries to clean up the mess, but Oscar stops her.
"I'm sorry." He says.
He grabs her hand and thumbs it in soft circles.
Cleo softens, her hand losing its tension.
"Do you love me?" She asks him. He gives her hand a kiss.
"I don't know. I just...want you with me. We've been through so much shit together, it'd be different not having you by my side. I don't want to lose you." He confesses. He presses his forehead against hers and leans in for a kiss.
She resists before melting into it, wrapping her hands around his shoulders.
They kiss for a while before Oscar lifts Cleo up to his hips and lies her on the table, making quick work of her shorts and panties.
He's kissing her neck when he fingers her, her whimpers music to his ears.
He slides into her with a sigh, watching her body accommodate him.
He's burying his face into her neck when he fucks her, images he'd long pushed into the back of his mind rearing its ugly head.
Every moan she makes he sees her in a wedding dress.
Every drag of her nails makes him think of her smiling at him, holding a baby boy that's starting to form a face that resembles his own.
His kisses on her neck and shoulder are hurried and sloppy, trying to will away that ache in his chest.
He sees himself an old man, holding her hand as their kids grow older and play in the backyard.
He's whispering in Spanish against her skin, words of praise and curses of ache.
When he cums inside of her he sputters out a "fuck, I love you." against her neck.
He shudders in a breath before collapsing against her breasts, letting the tears fall as he pulls her closer.
"I love you." He repeats, ignoring her confused expression when he looks up at her. Grabbing her hand, he kisses it before locking his fingers with hers.
The ring he gave her is still on.