“Sharee, you need to stretch more,” the voice carried through the small studio, over to where a young girl struggled to pull her body upright. Her teacher smiled, moving over to her, through the lines of teenage girls that were practicing with a worn ballet barre.
“Aw, Ms. Ashlie, I’m not all graceful like you,”
Ashlie Sanders was tall and willowy looking. With cocoa colored skin and bright hazel eyes. She did move gracefully, a testament to the years she’d spent devoting herself to dance. She wore blue leggings, with a gray, cowl-neck sweater, her bare feet hardly making a sound against the soft hardwood floors.
“Don’t worry, Sharee, you’ll be better than me if you keep practicing.” Ashlie helped the girl move into the correct position, “See, that feels better, right?”
“Yes, Ms. Ashlie.”
Ashlies’ studio wasn’t big, but it was all hers and that was just how she liked it. Once all the students had left for the day, she took to cleaning the big wall of glass mirrors. When she bought it six years ago,the studio had been a dump. If not for all the loving people that had made donations of money, or even their own hard work, Ashlie knew she wouldn’t have ever gotten started.
Three times a week, Ashlie held free dance classes for the kids that otherwise couldn’t afford the classes. On the other days, she taught dance to boys and girls that ranged in age from 5 to 18. Another instructor worked with her, helping Ashlie run her business smoothly: Keisha, her friend from college. She was a firecracker of a woman, who had a “no nonsense” policy when it came to dance and all manners of money making. Keisha’s strict teachings, and Ashlie’s love for the craft made them the perfect business partners.
“Girl, I swear if Carlos’ dad looks at my ass one more time,” Keisha said, walking into the studio with her hands on her hips. “I mean, I know it looks good, but damn.” The other woman was a bit taller than Ashlie, with curvier hips, and skin as smooth and luscious as dark chocolate. The pair had been roommates all through college. Both women had a passion for dance that was borderline obsessive. Ashlie liked the fact that Keisha understood her need to give back to the community that had helped to raise her.
“You know you like him lookin’ at it.” Ashlie teased, as she sprayed down the mirrors with glass cleaner.
“He’s okay,” She said, moving to help, “But his crazy ex isn’t. Comin’ in here giving me the eye. Don’t let the college degree fool you, bitch.”
“You’re crazy,” Ashlie laughed. “Is Tina still having that kickback later?”
“Yeah, supposed to start at 8, but knowing her she won’t be ready until 10:30.” Keisha paused, “Wait, you’re actually going to come to one of Tina’s parties?” The disbelief on her face was comical.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
Keisha scoffed, “Ever since Mr. No-Job, you’ve been sitting at home watching Jeopardy.”
“I have not!” Ashlie tried her best to sound hurt, but the reply came out as a laugh instead.
“Ashlie, yes you have; Jackie nearly forgot what you looked like,” Keisha finished her side of the mirrors, then moved over to a large desk by the front door. She shuffled through a few papers, turning on the sleek laptop that sat on the desk.
“Ugh, I liked him,” Ashlie protested, regretting the words the second they left her lips. Keisha was more than vocal when it came to her relationships. Though she kept a friendly perspective on things, Ashlie felt like she overstepped at times. Keisha was opinionated: coupled with her forthright attitude, it caused her to appear a bit mean at times. Ashlie tried not to let it bother her most of the time.
“Girl, he lied to you about his job!” Keisha yelled. “What kind of man does that?”
“He was just embarrassed…”
“Embarrassed, his ass should’ve been embarrassed.” She shook her head, he curls flying loose from the bun at the top of her head. “I just want what’s best for you, sweetie. Five years ago you wouldn’t even look at a guy if he didn’t have his shit worked out.”
“Yeah, and where did that get me?”
“Don’t settle, that’s all I’m saying.” She put a hand on her hip. “You’re always trying to see the best in people. I’m just here to tell you that some people don’t have a best.”
Ashlie sighed as she reached up to undo her bun. “Some guys just need a little push, ya know. Need a fire lit under them.”
“Yeah. That doesn’t mean you have to be the one to light it. You treat boys like this shop: Fixer-uppers. You don’t need someone that needs fixin’. You need a man that’s going to take care of you.”
“I can take care of myself,” pressed Ashlie as she moved to lock the doors. “I just think it’s about time I settled down.”
Keisha shook her head, throwing things into a duffle bag and picking up her keys. “Let’s find you someone tonight then,” she said firmly. “Wear something cute, bitch. We about to get chosen.” With that, she was gone, leaving out the back door. Once she was alone, Ashlie went about making sure the studio was locked up tight. She’d picked a location that was closer to the suburbs than she’d originally planned. Ashlie had only gone to look at it because of near constant hounding from the real estate agent.
“You’ll love it,” He’d insisted.
In the end, the studio, with a little apartment above it, turned out to be exactly what she needed. Her family home back in the city was now near overrun with her sister’s family. Brittanie, her husband, and their three kids lived in the small house willed to them by their father. While it had been home for a long time, Ashlie felt that Brittanie needed the space more than she did.
That apartment was her sanctuary. It was a small piece of heaven that she could retreat to whenever the world became too much. As much as Ashlie loved her studio: It was her’s after all, the apartment was where she felt most at home.
Inside, the walls were painted either a gentle blue, or a relaxing green. The furniture soft looking, though minimal. Everything had a place, and Ashlie liked to keep her home neat and tidy. It was a mirror to how chaotic her life could be. She worked two jobs in order to finance her dreams; Sometimes it left her feeling out of control. At home, she could have things how she wanted, place things where she wanted, all while not having to worry about anyone else’s input.
She went into her bedroom: The lonely space that had been devoid of any action for months now. Ashlie wasn’t the kind of girl to mope, though. She was pretty and smart: Any guy would be lucky to have her. The issue came down to the guy being enough for Ashlie. She didn’t want someone that just worked for her. Ashlie wanted a man that could compliment her. Whose desires, ambitions, and hopes mirrored and enhanced her own.
Sitting down on the bed, she kicked off her shoes, curling up on the soft duvet. There were a few hours until she had to get ready for the party, perhaps enough time to get a little nap in.
Ashlie thought she was past the age where house parties were a regular occurrence. Yet, through some miracle, every weekend, Keisha was telling her about some party or another,
“It’s not like how it was at school,” she would insist. “Everyone’s real mature, older, and all the guys are experienced.”
Just like their school days, Ashlie walked into the house and felt immediately out of place. The dress she wore suddenly felt too short and the matching heels felt much too high. It wasn’t that Ashlie didn’t go out: She just made it a point to try to grow out of things. She was pushing thirty for goodness sakes!
“Hey, girl!” Keisha was on her in an instant, and Ashlie was instantly calmed by her presence. A cold bottle of beer was pressed into her hands: Ashlie took a deep swig, before turning to her friend. Keisha looked amazing in a purple sheath dress. It was accented by glittering beads and rhinestones on the collar, a line of which dipped down to show off her chest. The entire outfit was capped off with matching pair of heels.
Ashlie could see a few guys staring, even wished for a moment that she possessed her friends nonchalant attitude toward hook-ups.
“Any cute guys here?” She whispered.
“One or two,” Keisha replied. “You-Know-Who asked about you earlier.” And her eyes moved over to the corner of the room. Right past a group of good looking guys, when Ashlie saw who she was looking at, she nearly fell over. Sitting on a couch, talking to a small group of people Was a tall, dark-skinned man. He was dressed casually, but something about the way he was holding himself made him look much more dressed up. “Girl you know I like the bad boys. I would be all over that man if he had a job.” Keisha fanned herself. “Why are all the good ones obsessed with the game?”
“Jerome is fine, though,” Ashlie said. The man had lived near them once. One summer, Ashlie spent an alarming amount of time dodging questions from his friends about who she was dating. Jerome was exactly the type of man she was trying to avoid. He was dedicated to nothing but making money. And from what Ashlie heard, he didn’t really care how he made it. He wasn’t a thug, but he certainly wasn’t a guy she wanted to get involved with.
Still, it had been a while since Ashlie had even talked to anyone. Maybe a quickie to get back into the game would help her relax and be accepting when the right guy came along.
Ashlie turned away from Jerome, moving her body so that it was up and just right. Since she was a dancer, she knew what made her look long and sinewy: Knew the right way to move to make any man not just look at her, but notice her.
Jerome had most certainly noticed. He walked over to where Ashlie stood, drink in hand, eyes fixated on her. He had the most startling brown eyes. They were a light brown, nearly hazel: Big, wide eyes, that at first, were much too innocent for his face. But they mellowed out, giving him a look that was more mischievous than innocent.
“Hey,” Jerome said. “How’ve you been?”
There was a pause as Ashlie considered her answer. She wasn’t sure what she wanted from him. Jerome wasn’t her type. Ashlie told herself every time he flashed those sparkling white teeth of his. He wasn’t stable, wasn’t the kind of man she wanted. Yet, she wasn’t sure if she just wanted to sleep with him. He’d always been a nice guy: A little rough around the edges, but he was polite and driven: Ashlie could see the potential in him from miles away.
“How are things going at that school of yours?” he asked, his voice smooth. “My lil’ cousin Fay goes there on Thursdays.”
“Fay is very talented.” Ashlie replied, staring into the depths of her drink, “how’ve things been with you?”
Jerome shrugs. “Just trying to stay ahead of the game. Hard out here. But I’m doin’ alright.” He opens his mouth, then goes to stare at the contents of his cup. “How much your classes cost?”
“How much. Fay likes ‘em. I wanna try and get her in the real deal.” His dark eyes wander to the far side of the room. “She’s a good girl, I wanna do something nice for her, ya know. With her birthday comin’ up…”
“I’ll see what I can do,” Ashlie said, sitting down on the couch beside him. “It’s nice that you care for her: Not many guys would do that, even for their own child.” It was nice: Refreshing to hear. Ashlie felt herself leaning forward, almost wanting to put a hand on his knee: Men that cared about kids were her weakness.
He shook his head. “Her dad and I are real close. Besides, I wanna give her the chance no one ever gave me. Let her do stuff the right way.” There was a pause, “And it’s an excuse to come see you.”
She looked at him, lips turning up into a half smile. “What do you want to see me for?”
“Gorgeous girl like you? There’s might be a couple of thing I’d want to see you for.” He flashed those white teeth again, looked at her with those wide, almost innocent looking eyes.
Ashlie gulped down half her drink.
Ever since her father’s death four years ago, Ashlie had been very erratic in her dating habits. While she swore up and down that she wanted a guy with a good job, she hardly ever got more than the grocery store manager.
A small part of her liked the ‘projects’ she called them. They were good guys with wayward dreams or bad guys she thought she could nurture into perfection. After the last disaster, Ashlie had made a promise to herself that the next guy she dated would be a man she and her father could be proud of: One she wouldn’t have minded bringing home.
“Oh…” She said slowly, stopping the flirting, “that’s nice.”
“What, you seeing somebody?” Jerome sits up. “Your girl said you was single”
“I am but-”
“So there’s no reason for you not to go out with me,” he presses, reaching up to adjust the brim on his snapback.
Ashlie looked at him, her face fallen into a look of disbelief. “What if I don’t want to go out with you?”
He looked at her, that same playful smile on his lips. For a moment, Ashlie didn’t see the danger he could pose, and she forgot the whispers she’d heard about him. He’s made her laugh, made her smile and feel comfortable and warm.
“Come on now. Every time we talk we hit it off.” He held up his hands. “The only reason I never asked you out before was because you always seein’ somebody. Thought you might wanna get to know me better.”
“I know all I need to.”
“Let me take you out,” And Ashlie would never admit she found his persistence cute. “For real. Coffee, dinner, whatever, you name it. I’ll even make a reservation somewhere.” In his hand was his cell phone, he extended it to her.
She did like talking to him. They’d always chat at barbeques and cookouts, he wasn’t like the rest of the neighborhood boys that just wanted a pretty girl on their arm. He exuded a strong confidence that ensnared Ashlie.
“You know what, fine,” Ashlie took the phone. “I’ll give you my number, and we can decide on a day and a time over another beer.”
Four afternoons a week, Ashlie helped out at a private school in the city. While the extra work made for some long, hellish days, the extra money allowed her to keep offering free classes at the studio. Plus, the kids were great.
It was an awesome community to work for: The school was very diverse, and catered to a huge population of gifted children, a lot of them coming from homes that usually wouldn’t have been able to afford such a top tier school.
Ashlie worked with the younger kids, leading an after-school study program. In the mornings she worked at the studio, and then at three she would go to the school for a few hours.
It was at the end of one of those long days, she and Jerome had agreed to meet up. It wasn’t ideal for her, but the students had a recital coming up, and the school was having conferences, so she wouldn’t be free again for weeks.
“I cannot believe you are going out with him,” Keisha said. The woman was perched on one of Ashlie’s bar stools, brushing coats of polish over her nails. “I thought you said you were going after something different this time.”
“He is different,” said Ashlie, waltzing out of her room in a tight pair of jeans, and a blush colored blouse. “What about this?”
Her friend looked up, shaking her head, “Your girls are out to play.” A small grin turned up the corner of her lips, “Unless you wanted him to get a little sneak peek.” She turned serious again, “Really though, Jerome? All those fine ass men in that house, and you decide to go out with Jerome?” Keisha scoffs. “Why’d you even spend all last year ignoring him?”
“I was dating Daniel…” Ashlie reminds her as she wanders back into the bedroom to change.
“Now, I liked Daniel,” she capped the bottle of nail polish and hopped off the bar stool. Keisha found Ashlie in her room, struggling into a pair of even tighter jeans. “I just don’t want to see you hurt, Ash.”
“How can one date hurt?” Ashlie looked up at her friend. “If it goes bad I delete his number. No harm done.”
“I’m just saying, I don’t want him turning into another one of your projects. Some men don’t want to be fixed. He’s grown as hell, walking around telling people he ‘hustles’ for a living.”
“Yeah, that’s not ideal,” said Ashlie with a violent cringe. “I’m hoping he’s just putting up a front.”
“God, I hope so, or else he’s gonna be asking you to put up bail money.”
Keisha left twenty minutes before Jerome was supposed to show up. Only a few minutes after her car had pulled off into the street, Ashlie’s phone buzzed.
Gonna B Late
Staring down at the text in awe, her mouth hanging open, and her face contorted in anger, Ashlie was sure at that moment she didn’t look too attractive. A text. He was going to be late for their first date and he sent a text. It was all she could do not to throw the phone into the nearest wall.
‘Calm down, Ash, she told herself, wishing that she’d made Keisha stay, ‘he could have a flat.’
But the minutes ticked away, and after a half an hour, Ashlie thought about calling him. How desperate would that look? After an hour passed, she considered letting Keisha know what happened. The idea of the gloating vengeance her friend would dole out made her a bit queasy. Instead, Ashlie kicked off her shoes, peeled herself out of her jeans, and made herself a cup of lavender tea.
She would not cry: Her tears were much too good for a lowdown man like Jerome. Still, Ashlie couldn’t help the feeling of sadness that overpowered the anger building in her gut.
She’d been excited, that was the truth. Now that the possibility of ‘what-if’ was gone, she couldn’t help but feel down. Ashlie drained her cup of tea, letting the scent of it relax her into the cushions of her couch.
The next day, as she was helping a curly haired girl do a proper plie, Keisha walked up to her, shaking her head.
“Someone’s here for you,” the woman said, a sly smile on her face.
“Who is it?” Ashlie stepped away from her student to look through to the waiting room. It was empty, except for a few parents waiting for their children.
“Girl, Jerome is outside,” Keisha breathed, sounding more excited than Ashlie had ever heard. “It must have gone really well for him to be comin’ to see you at work.”
It had taken everything in her not to tell Keisha what happened. When she’d come into the studio that morning, it was all she could do to avoid the questions.
Ashlie made him wait. Which was only fair considering he’d been the one to stand her up in the first place. Once the studio was empty, and Keisha had ducked away to go over some paperwork, Ashlie went outside, hoping that Jerome had gotten the message. The thirteen missed calls on her phone she’d woken up to hadn’t been enough to appease her. Neither had the long voicemail she’d deleted without listening to. As far as Ashlie was concerned, anything that could have been with Jerome was now not a possibility.
Right in front of the studio doors, was Jerome. He was leaning against the door of a sleek, black sedan, wearing a crisp white button down, and a pair of jeans. Ashlie rolled her eyes when she saw him, not even wanting to go outside. A bouquet of red roses were tucked beneath his arm, and he held them up when he noticed her in the doorway.
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