“Still My Baby” by Lori D. Johnson

Issue 24 / Winter 2021 / Special Issue: Pleasure

Thursday 9:47 p.m.

Her phone rings. She contemplates ignoring the call, but a second before it rolls to voicemail, she picks up. “Hello.”

“Hey baby, it’s me. How’s it going?”

She smiles and shakes her head. “I’m fine, Darrell. How are you?”

“I’m great, babe, but then, you already know that.” His laughter is longer and louder than the joke warrants. “Listen, I want you to go to this party with me tomorrow night.”

“Sorry, I’m not—”

“Hold on, let me finish. A lot of important people are scheduled to be there. I could introduce you to some very influential—”

“As I was about to say,” she says, her agitation obvious. “I’m not interested. I already have plans.”

He’s silent for so long, she wonders if he’s hung up. Finally, he says, “You know, I could do things for you.  You want to take a trip? I’ll send you anywhere you want to go. You need clothes? Shoes? Furs? You name it, I can get it for you.”

“I bet,” she says. “In exchange for?”

“I’ve got a Jag,” he says, leaving her question hanging. “A nice apartment, a nice bank account and lots of friends in high places. I mean, what more could any woman ask for?”

“A little humility might be nice,” she says. “Besides, since you already seem to have everything you need, what could you possibly want with somebody like me?”

“Now we’re getting somewhere,” he says, his voice rippling with excitement. “You and I are two of a kind, babe. You’ve got something that makes people blink once, look twice, and think again. But it’s raw and uncultivated, and I don’t think you even know how to use it to its full potential.”

While flattered, she knows enough, even at the unseasoned age of 23, to be wary. “Pardon me for saying it, Darrell, but you sound an awful lot like a pimp.”

“Seriously, you really do piss me off sometimes babe. When have you ever heard me say I wanted you to make money for me?”

When she fails to respond, he says, “You know what? I gotta go. I’ll call you back later. But hey,” he says, dropping his caustic tone for a gentler one. “As cold-hearted and uncompromising as you are …you still my baby.”

“Bye Darrell,” she says.

 

Three weeks earlier / Monday 6:50 p.m.

She’s seated at a desk in the foyer of Robert Hall waiting for her graduate level economics class to begin when she notices him about 30 feet away, leaning casually against a wall. Even from a distance, she can tell he’s a pretty boy. The type she seldom bothers to look at twice. Too much ego. Too high maintenance. Besides, she’s never known his type to be attracted to smart women. She adjusts her glasses, crosses her legs, refocuses her attention on the contents of her opened textbook, and doesn’t look up again until beckoned by the clearing of a throat.

She lifts her gaze and is surprised to discover him less than a couple of feet away. He’s even prettier up-close. Caramel-colored. Well-dressed. Muscular build. His exquisitely trimmed mustache and goatee form an invitingly plush carpet around an absolutely gorgeous mouth —full lips with a slight pucker and a mesmerizing sheen.

“Don’t mean to interrupt,” he says. “But I was wondering if you had any tissue.”

She opens her purse and searches every crevice. “Sorry, apparently, I’m all fresh out.”

“That’s okay,” he says, his smile so sweet and seductive she nearly turns to see if he hadn’t been talking to someone behind her all along.

He crouches next to her, close enough for her to breathe in a hint of his cologne—Blue de Chanel—she’d learn later. “The truth is, I really don’t need any,” he says. “I was just looking for a good excuse to talk to you.”

“Interesting approach,” she says, unable to restrain the winding creep of a smile across her face.

“Glad you liked it,” he says and extends his hand. “I’m Darrell. And you are?”

“Danese,” she replies, sliding her palm against his and feeling an immediate current slither up her arm and explode in her armpit before radiating, like venom, throughout her body.

“Well Danese,” he says. “I was hoping we’d have time to chat, but looks like my class is about to begin. Can I get your number and call you sometime? If you could write it down, that would be great. The battery in my phone is running on E.”

Although a voice in her head screams, “Noo! Don’t do it!” her fingers aren’t listening. She scribbles her number on a sheet of notebook paper and hands it to him.

He glances at the paper, then crumples and tosses it, jump-shot style, into a nearby trash can.

She looks at him, her eyebrows raised and lips pursed.

“Oh, don’t worry,” he says and taps his middle finger against his temple. “I’ve got a mind for things like this. I’ll call you. Tonight.”

And he did.

 

Friday 7:10 p.m.

The snap and pop of the chewing gum in Carla’s mouth fills in the spaces between her words. “So, let me get this straight. He’s single, 29, no kids. He’s an independent camera operator who works weddings, corporate events and the like. He’s close to finishing up an MBA. And he’s good-looking?”

Danese drops her head and whispers into the phone, “Not just good-looking, girl. The man is gorgeous. Hear me? No lie, dude is blessed with the kind of looks that leave you speechless one moment and take your breath away in the next.”

“Aww damn, girl! So, what you gonna do?”

“I’m not gonna do anything. I’ve got a man, remember?”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. And when all is said and done, you and I both know Brad is still gonna be there. Hell, don’t nobody want his tired, goofy behind but you.”

“Wow,” Danese says. “Next time just be brutally honest, why don’t you?”

“You know what I’m saying, girl. Given all that ‘on-one-day-and-off-the-next’ crap you and Brad be doing, what’s the harm in you sneaking out there just this once and getting you a little something on the side? Hell, if it was me, you know I would.”

Danese laughs. “And that’s why your fast tail ain’t with nobody now.”

“Hey, I’m just telling you what I know,” Carla says. “Men are like panties. You got to change them bad boys every now and then if you wants to keep that shit fresh.”

Danese sighs. “I don’t know, girl. There’s something about this brother that bears watching. Did I mention that it wasn’t more than a couple of minutes into our first phone conversation that he stopped calling me Danese and started calling me baby? Yeah, he kicked the proper and polite to the curb real quick. And I wish you could hear some of the things he says, girl. Hell, I’ve barely known the man three weeks, but the way he talks to me you’d think we’d been hump buddies for years.”

“So why you keep talking to him? I think deep down Danese, a part of you has been secretly aching for a little taste of the wild and dangerous. This guy Darrel might just be the one to escort you on over to the other side.”

“Right,” Danese says. “And be just my luck to get my big butt over there and not be able to get it back.”

 

Friday 8:47 p.m.

Her phone rings. It’s him again. “What’s my baby doing now?”

She dabs a towel against her neck. “If you must know, I just got out of the shower.” She can feel the burn of his grin through the phone.

“Oh yeah?” I’ll be over in five minutes,” he says with a laugh. “Damn babe, you know what you’ve got me doing now, don’t you?”

She has a fairly good idea, but little interest in voicing the thought aloud.

“Fantasizing about those long, brown legs of yours,” he says. “And just how good they’re going to feel wrapped around my—”

“Look Darrell, I’m getting ready to go out and I really don’t have time for this,” she says. “Besides, aren’t you supposed to be at some party tonight?”

“Right,” he says. “The party. The one I’ve gotta go to all by my lonesome because you’re still playing hard to get. You know, you treat me like shit, baby. But like a fool, I just keep coming back for more.”

She doesn’t respond, but can’t help but think: Obviously, I’m the real fool for continuing to indulge your crazy ass.

“Come on, baby,” he says. “I’m saying, just this once, play along and tell me what you like. There’s nothing I enjoy more than making my lady happy. I know this married chick who’s crazy about me ‘cause I’m willing to give it to her the way she wants it, the way she likes it, which just so happens to be rough. You following me, babe? Now, her old man, he’s too square to want any part of that. But check this out, she’s giving me all her money and a nice chunk of his just to rata-tap-tap that ass. What you think about that baby, hmm?”

Danese manages to choke back her disgust and offer a, “Umm, yeah, quite…impressive,” through gritted teeth. “Good-night, Darrell.”

He laughs. “Bye baby.”

 

Saturday 7:45 p.m.

She’s at a table in a popular midtown restaurant, talking and dining with friends, when in walks Darrell. On his arm is a woman whose flawless beauty nearly matches his own. Tall and sundress-wrapped. Her skin a swirl of soft brown sugar and toffee. The confident strut of a runway fashion model in her walk. The keen features and poise of an Alvin Ailey Dancer evident in the tilt and turn of her head.

“Damn, would you get a load of this?” Danese says.

“What?” Carla asks as she and the other women at the table, Angie and Freda, shift their gazes to the restaurant’s entrance.

“Oooh yeah, girl,” Carla says, reaching over and patting Danese’s hand. “That’s what I’m talking ‘bout. Brotherman is Fine with a capital ‘F.’”

“Yes, well, in this particular instance, you might want to add a capital ‘D’ for the one and only Darrell,” Danese says, enjoying the roll of the letters in his name across her tongue.

Angie bats her eyes. “Wait a minute. Is this the guy who’s been all but begging you to go out with him?”

“Ain’t she crazy?” Carla says. “Hell, a brother that fine wouldn’t have to take me nowhere but back to his place or mine.”

“You need to quit,” Freda says, shaking a greasy finger at Carla before refocusing on the plate of hot wings in front of her.

Danese’s grin fades as she watches Darrell ditch his date and veer in her direction. “You all best hold tight to your seats,” she says, leaning forward in her chair. “‘Cause there’s no telling what’s liable to come out this man’s mouth.”

“Evening ladies,” Darrell says, extending each woman a quick nod and a flash of his dazzling smile before honing in on Danese. “Hey baby. Just wanted to assure you that despite appearances, everything’s still cool between you and me. Remember that chick I was telling you about the other night? Well, that’s her.”

Darrell squats next to Danese and tosses two crisp one hundred dollar bills on the table. “And this baby, this is her money. Treat yourself to something nice with it.” He winks and rises with a grin.

Danese grabs the bills and waves them at him. “Uh-uh, Darrell, I can’t—”

“No, no, baby,” he says, backing away from the table. “Don’t sweat it. There’s more where that comes from. And there’ll be plenty of time to thank me later.” He points a finger at her and blows her a kiss before walking away.

While a dazed Danese sits with her mouth open, Carla snatches the greenbacks from her friend’s still outstretched hand and holds them up for inspection. “Damn girl, they real, too.”

“But is he?” Angie asks. “And if he is, can you handle it?”

Carla slaps the bills on the table. “Later for the questions. What you’d better do is jump on that quick fast and get as much as you can while the getting is good.”

“What say you, Ms. Freda?” Danese says, giving her hot wing-eating friend a nudge. “Since everybody else is volunteering their two cents. What you think?”

Freda wipes her fingers with a napkin. “Well girl, I’m going to tell you like my grandmamma used to tell me—dogs draw lightning, much in the same way that a pile of shit draws flies. And if you ask me, don’t neither make for good dinner conversation.”

Angie and Danese fall out laughing, while a straight-faced Carla wrinkles her nose. “Lord, there she go with that old country-ass logic. I done already told you what you need to do.”

Freda picks up another wing. “Seriously, I can see how you might be tempted. He’s a damn pretty something and his game is strong. But take it from someone who’s been that route before and has the road burns to prove it—six months from now, when you waltz past Mr. Pretty Boy in the street, don’t be surprised when he acts like he doesn’t even remember who you are.”

Did she dare? A part of Danese—that part she’s learned to keep hidden, the part that had been badgered into submission and forced to conform—desperately longed to climb into a cart on that roller coaster if only for the sheer thrill and terror of it.

“An art major? For God’s sake, be realistic, Danese. How on earth will you ever support yourself?” her father, the always conservative and practical banker, demanded when she’d timidly shared her plans for college. He’d been equally adamant, if not a bit more outraged upon learning of her interest in a boy named Kendrick. “Girl, have you lost your ever loving mind? You really think I’m going to allow you to go anywhere with some roughneck who already has a damn record?”

While Danese had made peace with the abandoned art career, she still held a slew of regrets about the boy who’d been her high school crush. Kendrick, a wild-haired boy of few words who rode motorcycles, drove fast cars and had earned himself both a rep and a stint in juvie for tagging walls with cans of spray paint.

Rugged build. Coal black skin. Almond shaped eyes that willingly treated the bravest of onlookers to irises blessed in a tantalizing burst of hazel. She’d admired him from afar for two years. Her senior year, they’d ended up at adjoining tables in the same advanced art class. Still, they never managed to exchange more than a couple of words until the day she’d turned to sneak a peek at him and noticed him already staring at her.

Rattled to her core is how she’d felt when he’d approached her after class. “Hey Danese, I was wondering—I mean if you don’t already have a date—if you’d like to go to prom with me?”

On recovering from the shock that he even knew her name, she’d quickly offered an enthusiastic “Yes!” only to have her father shutdown the idea altogether with an even swifter and more unyielding, “No!”

Distraught and embarrassed, rather than tell Kendrick the next time she saw him in class, Danese had cowardly shared the news in a handwritten note. Days passed before she’d summoned the courage to approach him in the student parking lot. Mounted on his bike, he’d been on the verge of making his usual noisy after-school exit when, with her good friend Angie in tow, Danese had called out, “Hey Kendrick, wait up!”

“Listen, I’m really sorry about my dad and the prom and everything,” she’d told him in a breathless rush.

He’d shrugged. “It’s okay. Your dad’s probably right. A nice girl like you doesn’t have any business hanging out with a bad boy like me.”

“I wouldn’t say that,” Danese said. “Personally, I think all of that good girl / bad boy business is a bunch of hogwash.”

Danese wouldn’t soon forget Kendrick’s laughter and the immense pleasure she’d felt about her role in creating it.

She’s almost positive she stopped breathing for a few seconds when Kendrick patted a spot on the seat behind him and said, “So, you wanna go for a ride?”

“Go ‘head, girl” Angie said, giving Danese a light shove from behind. “I’ll watch after your books and things until you get back.”

Danese remembers passing her personal items to Angie and even placing her hand atop Kendrick’s on the bike seat. But in the end, she’d balked and backed away with a sheepish, “Thanks, but I’d better not.”

She can’t help but occasionally wonder and fantasize about all that might have been. Not just the motorcycle ride and the exhilaration she might have experienced snuggled up behind her crush, clinging tenderly to his waist as they cruised up and down the city streets. But the prom she didn’t attend. The light press of his hand in the smooth curve of her back as they slow danced. The first kiss that never was. The opportunity she’d forgone to partake of the wondrous sink of her fingers into the naturally curled tangles and twists that adorned the almond-eyed, soft-spoken boy’s head.

What Danese’s overly cautious father failed to understand about people drawn to the excitement of roller coasters was that all of the hard swerves, curves, and dramatic drops were to be expected and being afraid was half the fun. It wasn’t like you intended to spend your entire life locked in such a state. Just one good spin or two was all you really craved. When the ride finally coasted to the track’s end, hopefully you climbed off unassisted, and went home with both great memories and all of your wits still intact.

 

Monday 6:45 p.m.

She’s seated in her usual spot in Robert Hall’s foyer, reviewing her notes and waiting for her 7 p.m. class to begin when a familiar voice graces her ears. “Hey baby, put those books away. I’ve come to take you away on my magic carpet. I hope you’re ready because it’s bound to be the ride of your life.”

She looks up with a smile. Occasional crassness aside, there’s no denying that, aesthetically, he’s both beautiful and borderline charming.

“You have a good time Saturday night?” he whispers, his voice tinged with amusement. “I know I did.”

“I’m happy for you,” she says, stiffening in anticipation of what may spill from his lips next. “But do me a favor, okay, and spare me the gory details,” she adds while repositioning her glasses to a perch on top of her head.

A tall blonde standing nearby turns and makes a face. “You know this guy?” she asks, her dark blue eyes twinkling as she addresses Danese. “If not, allow me to warn you, he is nothing but trouble. Though, I haven’t quite decided which description fits him best—psycho or sociopath.”

Danese manages to sustain a pleasant expression, even though she isn’t sure what to make of the woman or her humor-wrapped assessment.

Darrell playfully reaches for the blonde, feigning an attempt to place his hand over her mouth. “Stop trying to fill my baby’s head with lies. You’re just jealous because you can’t have me.”

The woman laughs and side steps Darrell’s grasp. “Ha!” she says. “I wouldn’t have you if they were giving you away.”

Standing on her tiptoes and peering over Darrell’s shoulder, the woman aims a smile at Danese. “Wanna know what he said in class the other day? No, I don’t even want to repeat it. Tell her what awful thing you said during the discussion in class last week Darrell.”

Danese quickly gathers her things and rises. Whatever he said must have been truly vile. The last thing she wants is to hear it.

Darrell smirks and pushes the laughing blonde aside. He seizes Danese by the arm and whispers, “Come on, baby, let’s get out of here. This empty-headed bitch and her jungle fever are one second away from getting on my last nerve.”

Against the stern advice of the voice in her head, Danese accompanies Darrel to an upstairs student lounge, reassured by his light-hearted chatter and the intoxicating blend of peppermint, jasmine, cedar, and sandalwood emanating from his cologne. Like a gentleman, he extends an arm and ushers her inside the vacant room. But no sooner does she enter that he takes out a key and locks the door behind them.

Fear, like a hairy spider with extra legs, creeps up her neck, but she plays it off, refusing to openly acknowledge that she’s willingly walked into the devil’s den.

On depositing her book bag in an empty chair, she takes refuge near a wall of windows. His smile radiant, Darrell strolls over to where Danese is precariously perched on the wooden sill, her back pressed against the pane.

“Finally,” he says. “I’ve got you where I want you…alone…with me.” He chuckles. “You’re not scared baby, are you?”

She crosses her arms, then stands, and turns toward the window. “I don’t know. Should I be?” she asks, calmly pondering if she should break the window and then scream or vice-versa.

“Well baby,” he says, dancing his fingers down her back and lightly over the curve of her behind. “You have placed yourself in a position to be taken advantage of.”

She sighs and with a nod says, “That I have.”

Darrell leans against her and places his mouth next to her ear. “But take advantage of you is something I’d never do. Know why?”

“Why?” she asks, her voice calm but her heart slamming against her chest in a three-quarter beat.

“Because,” he says, reaching around her and placing the key in her hand. “I prefer my women open, wet, and willing. So…”

“So?” she repeats, turning and finally daring to look him in the eye.

He touches her cheek. “So, are you gonna kiss me or not?”

She looks down at the key, her avenue of escape, then back at Darrell’s face, where a maddening mix of merriment, mischief, and mystery is on full display. She hesitates, knowing the next move will decide who wins and who loses.

Damn you, she thinks while leaning forward and gently pressing her mouth to his. A peck is all she intends, but his lips are so soft, full and inviting, she’s reluctant to let go. In the slow spin and swirl of his tongue against hers, she tastes the sweet and creamy ooze of chocolate covered cherries.

But when they break for a breath, a chilling thought, like a dropped cube of dry ice, splashes into the warmth of her subconscious with a hushed crackle and pop and just the barest wisp of smoke.

When he leans forward to kiss her again, she raises her hand and places two of her fingers against his lips. “Darrell, let me ask you something,” she says, her voice soft and syrupy sweet.

He opens his eyes. “Yeah baby, anything.”

She smiles and gently fingers the contours of his well-defined and bearded jawline. “What’s…my name?”

Darrell’s long eyelashes flutter a couple of times. He laughs. “What kind of game you playing baby? That’s supposed to be my line.”

She shakes her head. “You really don’t know, do you? Man, I don’t believe you. You’ve already forgotten my freaking name.”

Her astonishment quickly turns to amusement at both his outlandish audacity and the ridiculousness of the situation. Her smile widens as she backs away from him. “You wanna guess? Go ahead. I’ll give you one guess.”

He steps toward her. “Baby—”

“Ha!” she says, throwing up her hands. “No Darrell, I’m sorry, but that ain’t it.” She snatches up the book bag she’d deposited near the door.

He frowns. “Hey, come on now. You my baby and that’s all that matters. I’ve got plans for us, baby. Big plans.”

“Uh-huh, I bet you do,” she says. “For me and every other nameless woman you manage to entice into your bed.”

She unlocks the door and throws the key at him. “Do me a favor, huh? Don’t call me anymore. I really don’t want to expend the energy it would take to block your ass.”

“All right. Fine!” he says, trailing her down the hall and to the stairwell. “Do me like that. But you know something?” he shouts after her. “You know what?”

Halfway down the stairs, Danese stops and looks up at him. “What, Darrell? What?!”

He smiles. “Hey…you still my baby.”

 

 

Lori D. Johnson has an M.A. in Urban Anthropology from the University of Memphis. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Midnight & Indigo, Arkana, Arch Street Press, The Root, and Mississippi Folklife. She lives in Charlotte, NC, but considers Memphis, TN home.

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9 Comments

  1. Tony Montahna

    Good story. Darrell definitely progressed from flirt to pimp to at least one of the paths in the three weeks between first meeting and last call. Based on the title, expected a sappy love story, but this was a pleasant surprise. Kudos!

    Reply
    • Lori

      Thanks for reading. Appreciate the feedback. I’m not a fan of “sappy” love stories either. 🙂

      Reply
  2. Blanche

    Great story! I liked the twist because I thought for sure she was hooked. Glad she resisted him and his wiles. Hope you consider continuing the story.

    Reply
  3. Lori Johnson

    Thanks! Several people have wondered if there was more to the story. Not at the moment. But you never know, I could have a change of heart. 😉

    Reply
  4. Sharon Jefferson

    “What Danese’s overly cautious father failed to understand about people drawn to the excitement of roller coasters was that all of the hard swerves, curves, and dramatic drops were to be expected and being afraid was half the fun.”

    That is so true. Great story Lori! Danese made the right decision.

    Reply
    • Lori Johnson

      Glad you enjoyed! Thanks for reading.

      Reply
    • Lori Johnson

      Thanks Sharon! Glad you appreciated Danese’s decision.

      Reply
  5. jr

    So true to life and thankfully Danese was able to see right through him in spite of.

    Reply
    • Lori Johnson

      Glad you enjoyed! Thanks for reading.

      Reply

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