Romantic Comedy

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Ties That Tether

Chapter 1 

Culture is important. Preserving it, even more important. It’s the reason I’ve always abided by one simple dating rule.

Tonight, I’ve broken that rule.

It all started when he kissed me, when his silken lips and skilled tongue moved against mine with a perfect and sensational mixture of tenderness and force. It was the kind of kiss that rid me of all my wits and made me act spontaneous and reckless for the first time in my life.

That kiss brought me here—­to his hotel room.

We stagger through the door. Our bodies, entangled, navigate blindly, attempting to reach the bed. He slides a hand into my blouse and, in one swift movement, unhooks my bra.

This wasn’t where I envisioned my night going. A few hours ago, I was having dinner at Louix Louis, located on the thirty-­first floor of the St. Regis Hotel in downtown Toronto. My date was not the man currently undressing me, but Richard Amowie, the engineer my mother referred to as “husband material.” Like me, he was Nigerian—­of Edo descent. He was also a Christian and, from the series of questions he had been asking, the kind of man who believed a woman’s single purpose was to breed babies and cater to her husband. Was I surprised by his archaic mentality? Not at all. My mother’s matches usually have this trait in common. As well as being Edo—­the most important trait of all.

“What do you do for fun?” he asked, slicing through a well-­done steak. “Do you like to cook? Are you a good cook? Do you know how to make Edo food?”

Despite the glamorous restaurant with a glistening coppery interior, I was not on a date. I was being interviewed for the position of dutiful Edo wife by a man who couldn’t chew with his mouth closed. The sight of his jagged teeth breaking apart the wine-­glazed beef made nausea tickle my throat. My appetite morphed into disgust, and I had no desire to finish the walnut-­crusted salmon on my plate. I looked through the large window, at the stunning view of downtown Toronto—­clusters of high-­rises invading the sky with height, the sight of Lake Ontario spread out in a vast expanse of shimmer and blue, and the CN Tower posing majestically as the city’s greatest beacon.

“Well?” Richard asked, one eyebrow raised. “Do you? Do you cook?”

“Yeah. I do.”

“Edo food?” This specification was important to him.

“Yes. I learned when I was a kid—­back in Nigeria.”

His brow dropped, defusing the tension on his massive forehead. “Good. Very good.” His lips stretched and widened, hitting his cheekbones and exposing his teeth.

It was official. I had advanced to the next round.

“Want to know my favorite?” he asked. “Black soup with fresh catfish. I love it.”

“Yeah. So did my father.”

“He died, right? When you were back in Nigeria.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Before my family and I moved to Canada. I was twelve at the time.”

“Oh.” He chewed his dinner with the temperament of a ravenous goat, not taking a moment to offer a gesture of condolence. “But you’re twenty-­five now. So, it was a long time ago.” He made the statement with a casual ease as if referring to a childhood pet rather than my father, a man who died too young and agonized on a hospital bed before he did. “So. About your job,” he continued. “What is it you do again?”

“I’m a creative director at an advertising agency.” At that moment, curious about his follow-­up question, I pulled a lock of my box braid behind my ear and leaned into the table.

“Impressive. But you would quit once you had a family to take care of, right?”

I chuckled, amused and stunned by his idiocy. “No. I absolutely would not quit.”


“Yeah. Really.”

His gaze was stern and steady on me, an intimidation tactic I fought by conveying the same look, but with a hint of disdain to go with it. It occurred to me then that if looks could seal fates, he would have ignited to cinders.

“Well.” He blinked rapidly, his glare quivering under the strain of mine. “You’re stubborn.” He knifed the steak again. “Your mother didn’t mention that. Personally, I prefer my women to be a lot more . . .” He pondered, eyes narrowed and darting as if considering some vast complexity, and then his stare stilled on me, and he said: “Submissive.”

At the utterance of that word, rage seethed inside me. “And I prefer that my men weren’t chauvinistic pricks with the brain and table manners of a caveman!”

It was a statement loud enough to capture the attention of the diners at the nearby tables. Inquisitive eyes shifted between me and Richard, inspecting, speculating, and then concluding.

The date or interview was officially over. I stood and grabbed my trench coat. “It’s obvious we aren’t a good match.”

“Yes,” he said. “Very obvious.” Because of the attention he had gained, he was trying to portray a composed facade, but his straight lips kept reverting to a tight frown. His fingers rolled into fists that trembled, the guise of the perfect husband shedding to reveal his true nature.

“Goodbye, Richard.” I left him alone at the table with strangers eyeballing him and offering silent and likely accurate judgment.

It was past eight at the time, and I ended up in the hotel lobby, heading for the lounge instead of the exit. A drink made by a professional seemed more enticing than anything I could mix at home.

The lounge had a more relaxed vibe than the restaurant; the beige-­and-­gray palette, cushioned seats, and electric fireplace created a modern and cozy ambiance. I ordered a whiskey sour and sipped with relief. The alcohol unwound the tension that had accumulated throughout the night. My back slacked, and I leaned into the comfortable chair, but the thought of my mother made my spine spike up straight again. She would blame me for how the date ended. At the realization, I emptied the sweet cocktail in my mouth. The flood of alcohol warmed my insides and made my eyes close.

I racked my mind for a solution—­a way to either survive or avoid my mother’s wrath. I considered multiple possibilities, including hopping on a train to Montreal. While still contemplating, a deep voice broke through my thoughts. I opened my eyes, turned to the seat next to me, and saw the man who had spoken. He was looking at me, waiting for my response, but I had no clue what he had asked.

“Excuse me?” I said. “Did you say something?”

“Yeah. I was just wondering if you were okay.” He smiled, and a deep blush snuck up his cheeks, staining his white skin. “You downed that drink pretty fast. And for a minute, it looked like you were sleeping . . . at a bar.”

“What makes you think I wasn’t meditating?”

“At a bar?”

I shrugged.

“Well, if that was the case, I apologize for interrupting your meditation.”

“Apology accepted.” I turned to my empty glass, and he turned to what looked like scotch. I watched him from the corner of my eye, sipping his drink and working his thumb against his phone. “I wasn’t meditating,” I confessed, no longer able to ignore the guilt of lying.

“Oh.” He switched his attention to me. “Then you lied. And accepted my apology.”

“Yeah.” I smiled, a playfulness suddenly bubbling inside me. “I could give it back if you want.”

“No.” His blue eyes dashed across my face, a quick examination. “Keep it. On behalf of whoever upset you tonight, I apologize.”

“And how are you so sure someone upset me?”

“I just am.” He lifted the tumbler to his lips and drank. “Am I wrong?”

I shook my head.

“Who upset you?”

“Um . . .” The question was intrusive. I didn’t owe the stranger an answer, but somehow, he put me at ease. “My date.”

“And what did he do?”

Another intrusive question I could have dismissed, and yet, my loose lips offered the answer without restraint. “He was a sexist ass.”

“Those still exist?”

“Yep. And my mother knows exactly where to find them.”

“Your mom set you up?” Amusement curved his flushed lips, which stood out against his pale complexion.

“Yeah. It’s kinda her thing. This one didn’t work, so she’ll probably arrange another for next week and another after that if necessary.”

“Sounds like torture. I think that warrants a second drink.” He waved the bartender over, and I ordered another whiskey sour. He insisted on paying, and I objected a few times before giving in.

He was a gentleman, and as I recall, a well-­dressed one, sporting a navy-­blue blazer over a white button-­down and black dress pants. His hair had a perfect side part that separated the dark, wavy strands into precise proportions. The strong angles that structured his square-­shaped face were made soft by the calm blue of his eyes and the gentle fullness of his lips. He had an elegance about him that was neither intimidating nor arrogant.

“I’m Rafael,” he said, extending a hand.

“Nice to meet you, Rafael.” I gripped his hand, and he gripped mine. It was a standard gesture—­simple, nothing intimate or remotely profound—­and yet, it stirred a reaction from both of us. His jaw tightened as if he were fighting some frustration, and my heart raced, triggered by an indefinable thrill. “I’m Azere.” The motion to separate our hands was reluctant.

“Azere,” he said, uncertain, my name a foreign flavor he had yet to acquire a taste for.

“It’s A-ze-­re,” I repeated, enunciating and emphasizing the distinct Nigerian rhythm paired with the name.

He gave it another attempt, and although the pronunciation improved, his Western intonation remained inflexible. “It’s a beautiful name.”

“Thank you,” I said. “So. You know my deal. What’s yours? What are you doing here, drinking at a bar alone? Did you have a crappy date too?”

“Actually, I’m staying in the hotel. I came in from New York for an interview.”

“And how did it go?” I watched his lips for the answer.

“Well, I hope it went well. If it did, then I’ll be moving back to Toronto. My family lives here. I used to too before I moved to New York.”

“And you’re moving back because you miss your family or because—­”

“Because New York has too many memories,” he said, his stare far off.

“Memories of what?”

He opened his mouth to answer but then sealed it. Or memories of who? I wanted to ask, hoping he was as liberal with information as I had been, but he changed the subject. The conversation quickly transitioned to less personal topics. We moved to a settee adjacent to the fireplace. The mood felt light and the conversation effortless. I was utterly fixated on him, paying no attention to the thinning crowd or midnight’s quick approach, only aware that I had been touching him as we spoke, my hand falling on his arm and his shoulder and his leg. Each touch sent a zing through me that rattled my core. It was a warning, telling me I had encountered something dangerous and had to proceed with caution. And so, I did.

Moving forward, I forced my hands to stay at my sides, to twirl a lock of my braid, to tug on the hem of my short skirt. Although that was a mistake as it drew attention to the faux leather that clung to the curve of my hips and revealed my chestnut-­brown skin. Rafael’s gaze instantly dropped to my thighs. When he looked up again, his stare was deep and prolonged. My heart raced.

“We’re closing up.” The bartender’s voice boomed through the lounge, capturing the attention of the only remaining people—Rafael and me.

We stood in sync. He held my coat as I slid an arm through each sleeve. When I faced him, our eyes connected. For seconds, verging on a minute, I stared at him, inspecting his eyes. They weren’t simply blue, but an ever-­evolving tide of blues—­sapphire, azure, violet, and periwinkle—­all intricately woven together, circling dilated pupils.

It was during this moment, while I was studying his eyes, that it happened. He kissed me. It was unexpected. Yet, somehow, I had been waiting for it since he offered an apology for the mistakes of someone else.

Sweet and forbidden—­that’s how I remember it tasting. It was everything I wanted and couldn’t have. There was a rule I had to obey, and it was simple: never get romantically involved with a man who isn’t Edo.

The rule rang in my head. Though, as his lips worked against mine, I felt the rise of defiance. For the first time in my life, my heart was putting up a fight against my mind. Intense sentiments contended with forced reason, and I knew I wanted him. There was no denying it, so I clung to him and kissed him fiercely.

Again, the bartender urged us to leave. We ignored him and pressed our bodies tightly together, the need to feel skin intensifying with each stroke of our tongues and exchange of our breaths.

“Seriously, guys!” He stood in front of us. “It’s past midnight. We’re closed.”

Rafael initiated our separation; I didn’t have the willpower to.

“Sorry about that,” he said to the bartender, whose face had turned red with irritation. “We’ll go.” But he didn’t make a move. His focus was strictly on me. His lingering stare implied he wanted more—­so much more than the feel of my lips.

“Yeah. Whatever. Why don’t you guys take this to one of the many rooms in this place?”

The suggestion was the push we both needed to take things further. Rafael grasped my hand and squeezed it, a silent request I responded to by bobbing my head. He led the way, and I followed, each step rushed until we finally reached seclusion.

Now, in his hotel room, rumpled sheets snake through our limbs and conjoin our naked bodies. His breath is warm and feathery against my skin, like a wisp of summer air. Sex with a stranger. It’s a new occurrence for me, something I never thought I could do. Somehow, it isn’t what I expected. He isn’t indirectly asking me to leave with excuses of having to get up early in the morning. He’s holding me—­my back to his chest—­and pressing kisses along the curve of my neck.

“You’re beautiful, Azere.”

Azere. He hasn’t mastered the Nigerian rhythm paired with my name. Though, the way his Western intonation caresses each syllable creates a new rhythm that’s just as lovely.

“It’s late, Rafael. Maybe I should go.”

“Stay,” he says. “I want you to stay.”

“Okay.” I twist to look at him and trace his handsome features with my fingertip. “Sure. I’ll stay.” Because I want to more than anything else.

“Good.” He smiles, wide and genuine. “You know, I turn thirty today.”



“Well, happy birthday, Rafael.”

“Thank you.” He brings his lips to mine and takes his time exploring my mouth. “I swear, Azere, I could kiss you forever.”

“Well, maybe not forever. Just for tonight.”

Because tonight, for one night only, I am not the obedient daughter of a conservative woman who is adamant on preserving her Nigerian heritage. Nor am I the daughter of a patriotic man who feared his family’s departure to a foreign country more than the cancer that was killing him.

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Eighty Days to Elsewhere

chapter one


Image: Bookshop Reflections


IG: Romy_K [NYC, March 14]


#TwoOldQueens #ShopWindow




13 P


Almost there.


I type the last few letters of the caption, hit the upload button, and flick the app closed. Glancing at the time, I see I'm late, but only a little. Still, it's at least a week since I've uploaded anything to Instagram, so it had to be done.


It's been a long morning already. Up since before six, I've been toiling over the bookshop's social media accounts. Two Old Queens Books & Tea has been operating in this same unfashionable East Village location since long before I was born. Since before my uncles were born, in truth, though in those days the name over the door was different. Bagshaw's Books, maybe? I think there might be an old photo somewhere in Merv's back room. I should try and find it. Might be a nice visual counterpoint to the piece I added this morning. But not today. I'm late enough already.


Luckily, I don't have far to travel to work. My studio apartment is three flights of stairs above the shop. I've lived here almost two years, since the-literal-professional clown who used to rent the space disappeared overnight, leaving behind a disturbing number of popped balloons and sprays of confetti.


At least, I hope they were balloons. That's what I told myself as I cleaned them up off the floor, and out of the tiny closet. And from inside the shower drain.


Anyway, this morning I got caught up posting a few new acquisitions to the shop's #Bookstagram account, and lost track of the time. Generally, I agonize how to best present the latest book, shoot a few dozen possibilities, then narrow it down to my favorite. I post the shot first to Instagram, which auto-feeds it to Facebook, and then I post it separately to Twitter and Snapchat, so the full image appears, and not only a link. All of this takes time, but it drives more traffic to the bookshop's site, and ultimately to the bookstore. At least that's what I tell myself. And Merv.


Right about the time I graduated from college and started working full time at the bookshop, I promised my uncle that a few decent social media accounts would help us build our community. He grumbled that pictures in the ether didn't sell books on the ground, but I know it's made a difference.


But this morning? It's only made me late.


Trying to keep the sound of my heels to a minimum, I hurry down the back stairs. These lead to the lane behind the building, but also to the rear door of the shop, which is always kept locked. Going this way means I can't avoid the smell of the dumpster parked outside the back door, but it also means I might be able to sneak past the unblinking eye of Uncle Merv's partner Tommy, who is never averse to pointing out my shortcomings.


As I slip into the back room, the warm aroma from Tommy's old coffee urn supersedes the dumpster stench, and-bonus!-there's no one around. Immediately, I hurry over to finish a job from last night: sorting through a pile of books bequeathed to us by an old patron.


This happens a lot at the Two Old Queens-somebody dies, and their kids or grandchildren aren't readers, so they dump all the family books on our doorstep. Most of what comes our way in this fashion we can't really use. I mean, we already have a full shelf of Jacqueline Suzanne paperbacks with lurid seventies covers, right? So, as low girl on the employee totem pole, it falls to me to sort out the dregs, and then take any titles that appear even moderately appealing to my Uncle Merv for the final decision.


By the time I finish culling the pile, I'm feeling pretty pleased with myself. I've got social media locked in for the bookstore, finished my assigned task, and mapped out my plans for the week in my bullet journal, all without being called out by Tommy for showing up a little late. There's a long workday still ahead of me, it's true, but tonight I've got a plan for a night in. It involves a giant bowl of pho and a Black Panther DVD I found in our discard pile, loaded with outtakes of Killmonger with his shirt off.


Don't tell me I don't know how to live.


Flipping open my bullet journal again, I cross off all the tasks I've accomplished for the morning. Then, making a careful largest-to-smallest pile of books to take out front for my uncle, I ass-backed my way through the swinging door and onto the sales floor.


I need to pause here to give a sense of what it is to work in the Two Old Queens. I mean, if you peer in through the glass of the front window, I guess it looks normal enough. There's a lovely wooden sign depicting Queen Victoria gazing disapprovingly at Queen Elizabeth-who stares serenely back-in the transom above the door. The store's located on a corner within sight of Tompkins Square, which is pretty much the center of the East Village in New York City. This means we're far enough off the tourist trail to be generally pretty quiet, and not close enough to Soho or Greenwich Village to be hip. Our window display, courtesy of my uncle's partner Tommy, changes seasonally, and sometimes even monthly, when he's feeling creative. You might also spy the wee tea bar, tucked into one corner; leaf tea only, darling. And there's the standard cash desk, mostly filled by an old register with buttons so stiff it hurts my fingers to press them.


The register does, however, make a satisfying cha-ching when I complete a sale.


Supervision is provided by Tommy's cat, an elegant, aloof, green-eyed tabby called Rhianna. Literally all the boxes ticked for a self-respecting indie bookstore, right? But where Two Old Queens sets itself apart is in our merchandise. You know how in the library, they refer to the bookshelves as stacks? Hey, don't mind me, I'm only heading over to the stacks to look up a book on paleontology.


Well, when we talk about the stacks in our shop, it's literal.


Every surface is stacked high with teetering piles. Until they stop teetering, and tumble-usually Rhianna's doing. When this happens, everything comes to a halt, and all hands converge until a new pile appears once more. Faster when a customer is underneath, of course.


It's a chaos with which I've battled as long as I can remember. I have spent my time-So. Much. Time.-trying to organize Uncle Merv and his systems. Whenever a tiny bit of progress is made-I find a new computer program for arranging book intakes, or an inventory system relying on something more comprehensive than the alphabet-inevitably, the wheels fall off again.




The shop is always warm. Every reader is welcome. It smells of old books and sweet tea and the heady scent of ten thousand stories, trapped between the covers.


And a little bit of cat.


Currently, the front of the shop boasts a dozen 'book pillars'; floor-to-ceiling spirals of new acquisitions. I've been laboring over them for weeks, and have managed to work my magic and stack three of them from largest to smallest. Still, with having to sort Merv's most recent acquisitions, it's been slow going.


By the time I take a final pivot around the waist-high stack of family bibles-there's been a run on funerals in the neighborhood recently-I stop in surprise to find two men standing beside the cash register with my Uncle Merv.


As noted, our little shop is definitely off the beaten path. We have what I like to think is a pretty typical amount of foot traffic-mostly regulars, and once in a while the odd tourist gets lost and stumbles in. Business has been a bit brisker since the Starbucks down the street relocated elsewhere, but we're never remotely crowded. It's rare to have two customers in the shop at one time, unless it's Christmas or one of the local book-clubs decides to do a Jane Austen reread.


However, as I stagger up to the desk, the two-man element of this scenario is less surprising than the expression on Merv's face. Merv came of age as a gay man in 1970s New York. He's survived bashing, the AIDS crisis, and Tommy's histrionics when I set the table and forget to put the forks on the left. Merv's live-and-let-live ethos rules his life, and explains a lot about the condition of the bookshop. There's not much that can knock him off his stride.


So, when he looks worried-there's usually a good reason.


I pause, chin resting lightly on my stack of books, and take a closer look at the two men standing by the desk. The first is a short, overweight man with bleached hair and a spray tan. His camel overcoat is crumpled, and he's left a trail of dirty snow all the way from the front door. I can't help glancing around for Tommy, who will have an absolute bird when he sees this, but thankfully he's nowhere in sight. The orange man is clenching the soggy nub of a well-chewed, but blessedly unlit cigar between his thick lips.


Uncle Merv is at least a head taller than this guy, but as he catches my eye, his expression doesn't relax.


"Ramona," Merv says quietly, "this is Mr. Frank Venal. Apparently, he is the new owner of our building."


"Ya got that right," Frank Venal says, his New Jersey accent thick as buttah. "Won the whole buildin' last night on two pair and a cement poker face."


He squints in my direction, and with his thick tongue, moves the cigar to the corner of his mouth.


"Ramona?" he asks, glancing at one of the papers in his hand. "As in, Ramona Keene, suite 2B?"


I take advantage of his moment's distraction to slide my pile of books onto the sales desk. As I do, Venal's companion shuffles his feet uncomfortably. He's closer to my age, and taller; with tawny skin and wavy dark hair that just brushes his shoulders. I know instantly I've seen this guy somewhere before. He's attractive enough that under normal circumstances, I'd be wracking my brain to remember where.


But at the moment, the circumstances feel pretty far from normal.


All the same, I slide sideways a little to try to catch the young guy's eye. When I do finally manage it, he glances away, maintaining a carefully blank expression.


"That's right," I answer, at last. "I'm Romy Keene." I look past the younger man and exchange a worried glance with my uncle.


"Well, as of midnight last night, doll, this building is mine," Venal says smugly. "And seein' as nobody in their right mind reads books anymore, I'm guessin' this place don't pull its own weight. Consider this your official notice. You pay what I'm askin', or you got forty-five days before the wreckers come in."


He turns and bares his teeth at the younger man. "I'm thinkin' micro-condos, Dom. Them things are the way of the future."


He waves a piece of paper that reads 'Property Deed' in Merv's face.


Merv takes a step back, and Venal clutches the younger man by the arm.


"This is my-ah-nephew, Dominic," he says. "He'll be by to collect the rent every month."


"We always pay by direct deposit," Merv says, but Venal waves this away with a menacing chuckle.


He slaps a new lease agreement on the counter.


"I prefer the personal touch," he says. Except he pronounces it poisenal. Then he marches out the front door.


The taller man shoots a startled look at Venal's retreating back, pausing as the bell jingles on the front door. "He's not my uncle," he whispers, then hurries out onto the street.


Merv slumps on a stool behind the counter, looking stunned. This act in itself shows how upset he is, since he has always equated sitting behind the cash desk with the most contemptible laziness. At this moment, Tommy, swathed in several scarves and with a large Soviet-era fur hat on his bald head, comes bustling in the front door, laden with patisserie bags.


By the time he's got his coat off and the pastries under the glass display domes on the tea counter, Merv's told him the whole story. Tommy bursts into tears at the news.


This is no help at all.


In the end, I tuck Tommy into the comfy sofa in their tiny apartment behind the bookstore. I leave a cup of tea, a plate piled in chocolate Žclairs, and his favorite telenovela on to distract him. Hurrying back into the shop, I find Merv has summoned our neighbor, Mrs. Justice Rosa Ruiz, in the interim.


Mrs. Justice Rosa-seriously, that's what we call her-is eighty-six, and a retired circuit court judge. She's among our regulars, stopping by weekly to pick up her copies of the Times and Hola Latinos, a cup of tea, and whatever sweet treat Tommy can entice her into. Today, she's wearing a tracksuit in vivid magenta and a pair of Birkenstocks that show off her turquoise pedicure.


It's hard to decipher some of the document's legalese, but once I find her a magnifying glass, Mrs. Justice Rosa lends us her thoughts and we determine the extent of the bad news.


The new lease spells out that since Venal's acquisition has negated historic rent controls, he will now be charging triple the rent, something the bookshop can never sustain. Two Old Queens needs to pay up by May 1st-less than seven weeks away-or face eviction.


I spend the rest of the very long day running back and forth between the cash desk and the little apartment behind the shop, bearing fresh cups of tea. Mostly this is in aid of keeping Tommy calm, as his inclination to burst into tears is upsetting to Merv.


Tommy and Merv have run this Lower Manhattan bookstore together for more than thirty years, and the thought of losing it is horrifying to all of us. After Mrs. Justice Rosa leaves for her daily nap, the two of them huddle in the back, knees together on one of the overstuffed sofas, reading and rereading the new lease document in hopes of finding something the old lady judge has missed.


When the midafternoon lull hits, I tiptoe into the back to see if the uncles have made any progress. I peek around the corner to see Tommy has fallen asleep, head tilted against the back of the couch, mouth open. Rhianna is curled on his lap. Merv is still holding the document, but he's not looking at it. Just staring blankly into space.

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