2018. október 7.

Exkluzív beleolvasó - S.L. Jennings: Rhythm & Blu

I fell in love with a boy whose laughter was the soundtrack of  my  heart. And I played it on repeat until life’s streetlights  flickered on and stole him away. Riot Blu. Top 40 f*ckboi. Paparazzi player. Trashy reality TV trainwreck.

But once upon a time, he was the boy next door. Once upon a time, he was every note in every song on every mixtape he had ever made for me. Now he’s back. A lot more arrogant. A little more tortured. And more gorgeous than any memory I held dear could do justice.

I know no good can come from being anywhere near him. But Seattle is only so big, and if I’m going to get the exclusive of my career, I have to swallow my pride, take that dreaded walk down memory lane and agree to his terms.

Move in with him. Immerse myself in his life—the life he left me to build. And try not to fall back in love with the man who ripped my world in two.


Track One
Before two minutes ago, there were three definitive times in my life when I felt more conflicted than I do right now.

The first was when Hazel Figaro, my best friend since grade school, butchered her hair to look like T-Boz from TLC. Somehow, the hairdresser selectively heard, “Make me look like Mr. T.” I spent the remainder of the school year and most of the summer reassuring her that it wasn’t that bad as it grew out.

Oh, hell fucking yes, it was that bad. Hazel looked as if she had been caught in a waterfall instead of chasing one.

The second time was the day I had to break down and tell my parents I wanted to put the kibosh on my plans for med school and pursue music. My very traditional Korean father and West Indian
mother, both highly respected MDs in their chosen specialties, were not trying to hear that shit.

“Music is not a career,” they said. “It’s a hobby.”

“But it’s what I love…what I’m passionate about,” I countered, feeling even smaller than my already pint-sized five-foot-one stature.

“Passion doesn’t pay the bills, Roxanne. And neither will we if you don’t finish your education.”
And while I’ll only admit it to myself, on days when I’m feeling particularly self-deprecating, they were right. Because music wasn’t paying my bills. And since they had made good on their promise and stopped funding my apartment, car, and expenses, I had to swallow my pride and get a real job. While it was shallowly related to my passion, it didn’t nourish my spirit and sing to my soul.

And the third time? Well, that’s come back to slap me in the face hard enough to make me taste a decade worth of regret.

As I sit here staring at my laptop, rereading the email my editor just sent, I have to remind myself that rent is due on the 1st. And even though I traded in my ride for public transportation and a good pair of kicks, I can’t damn well survive off of rice and beans for much longer. These hips can’t take it.
He wanted me to do what?

I turn down the music pumping through my MacBook’s speakers,and I pick up my cell to scroll to his number. Surely Bari’s email was riddled with typos,and I don’t want anything else to be lost in translation.

“This is Frost.”

I have to bite down on my snort.

Frost is not Bari’s last name. It’s Feinstein. But…ok. These days, everyone has a moniker.

“Bari, it’s Rox. Can you clarify your email for me?”

“What clarification do you need? I’m certain the assignment details were clear.” I hear the squeak of his worn leather desk chair in the background, and I can almost envision him reclining back in it, imagining that he’s the king of the fucking world and not a prematurely balding dude caught in the hamster wheel of a mid-life crisis. Don’t get me wrong; Bari is a decent boss. He tries to throw me a bone here and there. But he doesn’t hear much outside of his own voice and his own self-indulgent bullshit.

“You know I don’t do these types of pieces. Wouldn’t this be a better fit for one of the Lifestyle writers? Or even Celeb Gossip?”

“Aren’t you our resident music expert?”

“Well…yes, but—”

“And is he not a musician?”

“He is, Bari, but he’s not the type of musician I usually cover.”

He snorts in that condescending prick-ish way that’s always followed by something snide. “What? Grammy award-winning artists are beneath you now?”

“Of course not, but—”

“Look, Rox. You asked for a shot. I’m giving you one. An incredible one at that. This is a huge deal for The Seattle Tea, so take it or leave it. But I promise you—a chance like this won’t arise again. Most writers would be willing to suck their own dick forthis opportunity,so you should be grateful I’m even trusting you with a piece of this magnitude.”

I heave out a frustrated breath. I’m not going to win this one. I could fight this until I’m as bald as Bari, but when it comes down to it, he’s earned that raggedy ass desk chair in his corner office at The Seattle Tea. I’m still scrounging for stories, covering local bands and basement-dwelling artists that I’d hope the public would deem noteworthy. But truth is, the Seattle urban music scene hasn’t been hot since Macklemore. And that’s saying something.

However, beggars can’t be choosers,and my broke ass has been begging for a shot at a featured piece for the past year.

But why does it have to be him?

Of all people. Of all musicians. Why do I have to cover him? He’s not even considered a local artist. Not since he ran off and sold out. But now after a stunt six months ago on one of those trashy reality shows on VH1 that damn near killed him and his career, the prodigal son wants to come home? Please.

“So what am I supposed to do? Interview him?”

Bari chuckles. He’s fucking with me. He knows how I feel about this assignment and the subject in question.

“Not quite. I want you to fully immerse yourself in his world. He’s moved here to reinvent himself—to reclaim his sound. I want the scoop on his creative process, his goals for this next album, what he does to get inspired. Find out who he’s listening to, what he’s watching on Netflix, who he’s banging. Shit, I want to know what his favorite breakfast cereal is and if he likes it with whole or skim milk.”
I bite my tongue. Because I know he loves Captain Crunch but always picks out the green Crunchberries because he claims there is no such thing as a green berry. And he’s strictly a 2% kinda dude.

As for who he’s banging? I’m not touching that. No way. No how.

Out of habit, I bring my fingers to my chest, imagining the phantom coolness of metal against my skin. I’d worked too damn hard and for too damn long to bury that ghost. I wasn’t about to resurrect him. But this was the real world,and I had a real job that paid me just enough to pay my very real bills. I had to be an adult about this, haunted memories be damned.

“Anything else?” I ask, cosigning my own demise.

“That should be it for now. First meeting is tomorrow. I’ll text you the address.”

“Fine,” I huff before hitting End. I don’t even bother with the social nuances of a goodbye. That’s reserved for people who aren’t currently planning how to fake their own death just to get out of an assignment.

Car accident? Nah. Too public. And one would actually need a car for that.

Gruesome home invasion-turned-murder? Hazel would kill me if I got blood on the furniture.

Mysterious disappearance? My parents would have my ass on every milk carton in the country if I don’t call at least three times a week.

Dammit. Even my fake death can’t get its shit together.

I’m still staring at the screen when Hazel comes bustling in, arms overflowing with fabric samples in an array of colors and prints. She chucks her purse and keys onto our tiny kitchen island and tosses the swatches on our already cluttered dining table.

“How do we feel about his and hers matching dresses for spring?” she asks by way of greeting.
I shrug half-heartedly. “If Jaden Smith can wear a dress, I don’t think it’s too far off. Although I think matching couple ‘fits in general are tacky enough, but what do I know?”

“Agreed.” She flops down onto the couch and kicks off her Hunter boots, still speckled with rain, before snatching off her beanie. Loose, dark curls tumble down around her shoulders. “Apparently, being boo’d up excuses fashion faux pas. I don’t care how good the D is, if I catch my man rummaging through my closet for something to wear, his ass will be ghost. He’s not about to be stretching out my hard-earned couture with his hairy man-thighs!”

She cackles to herself for a good twenty seconds before realizing that I haven’t budged, still too hypnotized by the words—or better yet, the name—staring back at me from the computer.
“Girl, what’s wrong? You look like you’ve just seen a ghost.”

“I have,” I deadpan, meaning it. I sigh. “I got a job today.”

“Aw, shit! That’s great, Rox! We should go out and celebrate. I just got a dress so tight that it requires Crisco to get into.” She busts into a shoulder shimmy reminiscent of the Bankhead Bounce circa 1995. Which takes me right back to my current dilemma.

“Yeah. Great.”

“Then why do you look like you’re mentally preparing for anal with a cactus?”

Unable to vocalize my disdain and overall frustration, I merely nod at the screen, prompting Hazel to climb to her feet and sashay her way over to my Ikea work desk. It only takes a quick glance to catch his name amongst the jumble of useless assignment details, as if it’s outlined in bold, blaring neon yellow instead of flat, black Helvetica, 12pointfont.

Riot Blu. Top 40 fuckboi. Paparazzi player. Trashy reality TV trainwreck.
And heart-crushing life ruiner.

Ruiner ofmylife, to be more specific.

“Holy shit, Rox.” Hazel takes a step back and brings her fingers to touch her lips to conceal a gasp.

“I know.”

“Did Frost know about how he—”

 “No. He only knows I don’t care for his music, which is true.”

“But he doesn’t know that you—”

I shake my head. “He doesn’t know anything.”


We both take a beat to reread the name that feels like a shank to my gut with every syllable.

“Well, we can still go out…” my roommate comments quietly.

“Do you not get what this means, Haze? Riot-fucking-Blu. I’m freaking out!” I snap with more venom than I intend.

“I know. I know. But you see…this dress. I was really hoping to get penetrated tonight. And we don’t have to celebrate. It can be a last-night-before-the-end-of-the-world type of occasion, with booze and carbs abundant. My treat?” She bats her fake lashes and smiles in that way that looks like she’s trying to feign innocence and hold in a fart at the same time.

She’s going to get her way. That’s how it’s always been. Everyone gives into Haze one way or another.

Plus carbs and booze sound pretty damn good now that she’s paying.

I roll my eyes. “Fine. Whatever. But I swear to G-o-d, Haze: no scrubs. You are not sticking me with the broke, ugly friend to entertain while you get those cobwebs knocked outta your coochie.”

“Cobwebs?” she scoffs. “Girl, bye. My shit is made of unicorn glitter and rainbow sprinkles.”

I make a face and gag. “Sounds like a yeast infection to me.”

The mood temporarily lightened, I heave out a breath and push away from my laptop. I can stew about Riot Blu later, after I’m properly sauced and am happily slipping into a carb-induced coma.

We shower. Dress. Pre-game.

Hours later, we’re breezing into our favorite nighttime haunt in the heart of Pioneer Square. The upside of rolling with Haze? Always knowing where the party is. The downside? The party is most likely her.

As a fashion blogger and self-proclaimed former hoe (her words, not mine), Haze knows everyone who is anyone in Seattle. And if she doesn’t know them, she isn’t shy about forced friendship. Which is precisely how she foiled me into becoming her best friend of almost two decades.

I was the quiet girl with braces and Coca-Cola bottle glasses that would much rather spend her lunch period with a Walkman and a mixtape. And Haze, all tanned legs and brazen attitude even back then, was the new kid, meaning she was a magnet for attention, the very thing I was hoping to avoid.

Apparently, headphones were no deterrent for the California native, because she insisted on talking.

And talking.

And talking.

Until I finally got tired of pretending to read her pouty, pink-glossed lips and pulled off my headphones.

She never stopped talking, and I admittedly found myself listening. And soon enough, I was conversing with the super cool new girl at school whose parents let her wear eyeliner and baby tees that exposed the tease of her navel.

Not much changed from then. I got a little bolder, she got a lot louder, but the dynamic pretty much stayed the same. I was the Kelly to her Beyonce. The JoJo to her K-Ci.

Until Riot. Then…everything went to shit.

We sidle up to the bar, bypassing the pub tables and high-back chairs that are quickly filling up with patrons. It’s Ladies Night, meaning two-for-one specials and plenty of men banking on cheap well liquor.

“So,what are we drinking?”

I don’t even know why she asks. Since before we were even old enough to drink, our spirit of choice has always been vodka. Tito’s, to be exact. I only have to give her a pointed glance before she turns
towards the bartender to flag him down.

“Hey, you!” she coos, batting her falsies and painting on a saccharin-laced, flirtatious grin. “I didn’t know you were working tonight. I haven’t seen you in a minute.”

“What’s up, Haze? Where you been hiding?” Manbun, beard, flannel. Typical PNW kinda guy. The bartender is easy on the eyes, with his emerald-hued irises and fit build, but he is so not Haze’s type.

“Oh, you know. On my grind, always. It’s so funny though…I was just thinking about you.”

I bite down on a laugh and roll my eyes stealthily. Haze wasn’t thinking about this dude. She can’t even remember his name. Hey, youis code for, Shit, who are you again? And I feel bad. I always feel bad for the unsuspecting men that fall for Haze’s charms. Her presence is magnetic and alluringly dangerous. It’s like looking into the endless obscurity of an eclipse, knowing it’ll scorch your eyes. And time after time, guy after guy, she renders them all blind.

She finesses us a couple double tall vodka sodas with lime before we claim a sofa and table set-up nestled on the other side of the lounge. It’s dark enough that we have a veil of privacy yet gives us a view of the whole space. We’re not ready to be seen yet—at least I’m not. By our second round, the place is packed,and the DJ on the ones and twos has the whole crowd vibing to the latest club bangers. Although I usually abhor anything on heavy rotation on the radio, I don’t even recoil when

Haze grabs my hand and tugs me towards the dancefloor.

There’s something to be said about that moment when the rhythm slips inside you and sinks its hooks into your soul. Hands in the air, eyes closed, hips swaying and dipping to the groove, I am merely a marionette to the music. A slave to the riffs and melodies that flow through my veins like the liquor sloshing in my cup. This feeling…it’s like a drug to me. I am weightless, boundless. A speck of glitter floating amidst a humid, smoke-veiled universe where each star is a dazzling note that ignites my soul with brilliant beams of rainbow light.

I’m so wrapped up in the moment that I don’t even notice when our little party of two becomes a party of four. However, Haze is already welcoming the intruders—erm—newcomers back to our table. She turns to introduce me to her new friends just as I finish off what’s left in my glass and attempt to flag down a cocktail waitress for a refill.

“Rox, this is Dane and Kaz. Guys, this is my girl, my ace, my bottom bitch, Rox Lee.”

I flash a nervous grin and extend a palm, anxious to get the awkward intros over with and return to the carefree oblivion of booming basslines. But Haze gives me that look…that look that tells me that her dress has lived up to its promise of getting dickmatized tonight, so being anything but hyperaware is out of the question. I should have known the moment I spotted them. Dane is right up her alley.

Tall, dark, and tatted up, with enough labels on his body to give Haze a fashion boner. He has skin the color of sunbaked sand and his eyes appear to be clear blue, almost gray under the strobe lights. He reminds me of Jeremy Meeks, the Fine Felonwhose mug shot went viral after he was arrested. He’s pretty, that’s for damn sure. A little too pretty for my taste but judging by the way he’s sizing up my
roommate, he’s already spoken for.

“What are you drinking?” the other guy, Kaz, asks. He’s as tall as his friend, a little less muscular, and is much more conservative in denim and a black Henley with the sleeves rolled up to showcase tan, chiseled forearms. He’s got a baby face, clean-shaven, and his golden-brown hair is messily styled, but probably cost few bills to achieve its perfect waywardness. I’ll never understand the notion of paying good money to look like you didn’t do a damn thing other than roll out of bed and rake a hand through your hair, but I have to admit, it looks good on him.

While Kaz is admittedly neither broke nor ugly, I should have specified that I wasn’t down with playing babysitter toanyfriend, scrub or otherwise. I have no doubt in my mind that Haze knew that these guys would be here tonight. She looks way too cozy with Dane while tucked under his arm, close enough to his lips that she could probably taste what he had for lunch.

I hold up my empty glass and shake it, the sharp tinkling of the melting ice cubes cutting into the mellow groove the DJ throws on next. “Nothing now. But…vodka.”

“We’ll have to do something about that.”

Kaz signals the female server, who hurriedly comes over donning a wide grin paired with what I can only describe as a starry-eyed gaze. Her interest is obvious, but Kaz is all business when he orders a bottle of top-shelf vodka and all the appropriate mixers. The cocktail waitress nods and smiles in response, then in a much too obvious way that verges on desperate, straightens her back to make her perky tits even more noticeable in her low cut, midriff-baring tee. However, Kaz politely thanks her and turns his attention back to me. Nice of him, but not necessary.

“So, Rox Lee, what brings you out tonight?”

“My funeral.” He lifts a brow, perplexed as expected, so I tack on, “I got the job of a lifetime, which is ironic, considering it’ll kill me.”

“Sooo…I’m guessing you’re a lion tamer? Snake charmer?”

I shake my head and sigh. “Writer.”

“Huh. Didn’t know words could be hazardous to your health.”

“Yeah, definitely. Ever get a papercut? Tragic.”

“Oh, the horror. And I bet carpal tunnel is a bitch.”

He laughs, and I notice that he has a gorgeous smile, complete with dazzling white, straight teeth and sensual, full lips. Ok, definitely not the broke, ugly friend.

The waitress brings over our bottle of booze and fresh glasses, and before I can go in for a refill, Kaz begins to fill two glasses. He hands me one and holds his own towards me for a toast.

“To a beautiful funeral for a beautiful woman.”

I nearly choke on a laugh.

“What?” Kaz asks, an alluring smirk gracing his lips.

I shake my head. “Dude, that was…lame as hell.”

“Too much?”

“Hell yes.” I pretend to flag down the waitress and call out, “Excuse me, can we get some wine with all this damn cheese?”

Kaz laughs again, and I find myself just as tickled and feeling less awkward about being obligated to entertain a complete stranger so Haze can get her mack on. And after a few more drinks, I find that I’m really enjoying Kaz’s company and am not at all thinking about the fate that looms just beyond the dawn.

That is, until the DJ cuts the music to make a special announcement. Consider it my eulogy.

“Aw, shit!” he hollers into the mic. “We gotta special guest in the building! Ya boy has returned home! Riot Bluuuuuu!”

On that cue, the DJ puts on Riot’s biggest club hit from his last album, Shades of Blu, but it’s completely drowned out by the raucous cheers and screams from fans storming the dancefloor.

I can’t do this. I can’t. I knew I would have to face him, but I thought I had one more night before it all came crashing down…one more night to prepare myself to confront the person I had vowed to never speak to again. He’s already stolen so much from me already, yet I can’t escape him. He’s on my television, on the radio, in every fucking magazine that I flip open. I can’t even have one last night before Riot Blu intrudes on my life, only to leave it in ruins once more?

This is bullshit.

“Huh? What was that?”

I don’t even realize I’ve said that last thought aloud, so I shake my head. “Nothing. I gotta go.”
Kaz looks confused and turns towards the stage, and I imagine he spies the person that’s currently invoking my overwhelming urge to crawl out of my skin. I’m not certain because I refuse to even look in that direction.

“Rox!” I don’t even notice that Haze has mustered the strength to tear herself away from her new boo. She grasps my shoulders and all but pulls me into her bosom. “I swear, I didn’t know. You ok?”

I nod, but follow with, “I need to get out of here.”

I try to step away, but end up stumbling on my own heels, right into Kaz’s chest. My head is foggy, and I’m not sure if it’s from the vodka or the fact that I’ve just been battered with a past I’ve worked over a decade to keep buried.

“I’ll get her home,” he pipes up. Haze and I both shoot him an unforgiving glare, prompting him to raise his palms as a sign of innocence. “That’s all, I promise. The Square is about to be crazy once everyone finds out who’s here. Neither one of y’all should be rolling alone.”

Haze looks at me. “I can come with you now if you want. Just say the word.” I know she means it, but I also know she doesn’t want to leave. I can’t ruin her night, especially since it took an act of God and a jar of Vaseline to squeeze her into that dress. And just because my love life is pretty much bankrupt,that doesn’t mean I should deprive her of a little momentary bliss.

I kiss her on the cheek and muster a smile. “Have fun, girl. I’m good.” I peer over to Kaz who pretends to not eavesdrop. “I’ll be fine.”

I follow up by simply touching the bridge of my nose, which Haze mimics. It’s been our unspoken signal since high school house parties, telling the other to stay alert, and if need be, use the pepper spray tucked in each of our purses.

Honestly, I can’t get out of there fast enough, and I can tell Kaz is surprised by the way I power walk through the crowd to the exit. The crisp night air tastes of sea salt and impending rain, and I suck in as much as my lungs can take, hoping to sober myself.

“Damn, girl. Not a Riot Blu fan?”

I shake my head without looking up and pull out my phone to call a Lyft. “You could say that.” I start walking towards a well-lit area towards the street.

“I’m surprised,” Kaz remarks, following closely beside me, yet tryingnot to come off as intrusive.

“Most women love him.”

“Don’t believe the hype. This woman definitely doesn’t.”

Head down and preoccupied with summoning my ride, I lose my footing on the ridiculous heels Haze insisted I wear to complete my ensemble of tight ripped jeans, lacey black bra top, and coordinating lightweight blazer, which sends my cell flying from my fingertips. Kaz plucks it out of the air before it collides with the pavement while also catching my forearm before I do the same. Clearly, he’s some kinda circus freak with octopus arms and can handle his liquor much better than me.

“Thanks,” I mutter. He hands me my phone then pulls out his.

“What’s your address?”

“For what?” I snap.

Noting my tone, he peers down at me, his expression pinched. “For your ride. They need to know where we’re going.”


“I told your roommate that I’d get you home, and I meant it. I’m not leaving your side until I know you’re safe.”

Too tipsy to argue, and admittedly a little touched by the chivalry, I tell him. In the few minutes it takes for our ride to arrive, I learn that Kaz is an only child, originally from Colorado, and a Pisces. Over the short car ride, I tell him that I have an older brother who serves as a doctor in the military, grew up in Redmond, and am a Virgo. By the time we pull up to my apartment building, I decide that he’s cool. At least cool enough for me to invite him up for coffee.

I throw on a chill R&B playlist and go to prepare our hot brew while Kaz checks out the cluttered shelves of books and music.

“Holy shit. You still have CDs?” he calls out, his tone touched with mirth. “Do they even manufacture CD players anymore?”

I grab our mugs and make my way over to where he’s inspecting my coveted collection. “Hell if I know. I’ve had the same stereo since ’98.”

“You’re kidding.” His eyes are wide as he takes the offered drink.

I shake my head. “No bullshit. Sure, I’m a big fan of modern technology and all; I’m not a dinosaur. But there’s nothing like opening that CD jacket, reading the lyrics and discography, and remembering the excitement of hearing the new Jodeci or SWV or 112 for the very first time. Then playing it on repeat until every lyric feels like it was dedicated especially to you. And just like that, you’re thirteen again, transported to your very first dance, and the way your date’s hands felt on your body as you rocked and swayed to a slow jam. You relive those butterflies, those sweaty palms and the exhilaration of falling in love. Music is memories. And these are my photo album.”

I don’t even realize I’ve let my eyes fluttered closed until I open them and find Kaz staring down at me, the look on his face so thoughtful yet intense.

“That’s…” he begins, his tone raw. “That’s fucking beautiful.”

I don’t know if it’s the vodka, or the quick trip down memory lane, or knowing that after tonight, my entire life will forever be altered, but I respond, “I think you’re fucking beautiful too.”

And as his hand snakes around my waist to pull me closer into his body and his mouth covers mine so his tongue can lick silent questions and taste my responses, I know that it’s a combination of all three.

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