After a decent day in rehearsal, I decided it best that instead of inviting Shana to my hotel, I'd take a chance and get to know the real her by visiting her place. At first, she was nervous, telling me that she had to tidy up a bit. But after thinking it over for a while, she decided it was okay for me to come over. I'd probably never take her to the ranch since Shayla frequents there more often than not. Maybe one of the hideouts, but if she ever wanted to come over to one of my properties, I wouldn't mind it.
Shana decided she would cook, and we'd have a relaxing dinner in her humble abode. I didn't know what to expect when I pulled up to her apartment complex. But being a semi-struggling actress, I don't know why I expected anything more. Especially since LA is so expensive.
I knocked on her apartment door and waited. The walls of the apartment complex were a dull beige. It was pretty clear that this place hasn't had a paint job in a while. Spiderwebs in the top corners of the building blew as the slight breeze of the evening swept through. Her place wasn't too shabby, but it also wasn't something I was expecting.
"Hey!" Shana beamed as she opened the door and wrapped her arms around my neck and kissed me. The inside of her apartment looked so much better than the outside. As she led me in, I couldn't help but scope out the place. This one bedroom, probably one bath apartment, felt and smelled warm and inviting. Candles were lit in the living room, the dining room that lacked dining furniture, and on the counter in the kitchen. I wonder if she did all of this for me or if this is how her place always is. The sweet smell of pumpkin pie emitted from the candles gives the place a warm, familiar ambiance. I guess that's what she really liked about the candles because it too makes me feel at home.
"Remember how I told you I was making dinner?" she asked.
"Uh-huh," I nodded, still scoping out the tiny apartment.
"So, I decided against it since you were coming so soon. So...I ordered KFC. Hope you like it! I was really craving some fried chicken."
"I'm a vegetarian."
Her smile faded away, "are you serious?"
I smiled, "except when it comes to KFC. I hope you got some macaroni and cheese with that."
She sighed a breath of relief, "oh, thank God! I was worried there for a second. I dang near spent my last buying that."
"It's LA," she shrugged, rolling her eyes at her own remark.
I pulled out my wallet, "you shouldn't have spent your last."
"It was for dinner. Besides, it was my treat. It's no big deal. I get paid soon."
"Here," I pulled out twenty one hundred dollar bills. "Don't spend your last like that again, okay?"
She looked at the cash then back at me, "Michael, I can't accept that. It was for dinner. A girl has to eat. And she has to be able to feed her man. Put the cash away. I don't need it."
"No, here. I can't let you not accept it. You need it more than I do." She looked at the cash again then back at me. She really did not want to accept this money. But I'd feel bad if she didn't accept it. "I insist. I'm not leaving here until you take it." She pressed her lips together and took the money, sticking it in her back pocket.
"Thank you, baby," she pulled me in for a hug. Who am I to let someone I care about spend her last? On me at that?!
Shana prepared two plates for the both of us and turned on a film that she had starred in, "House Party." The lack of dining room furniture brought us to the living room couch. And in all honesty, I actually preferred it that way. I felt comfortable and normal like this.
She kept her apartment in proper order. Some artwork hung from the walls. What captured my eye the most was that she had a record player with an entire crate of records in the living room corner. She was very much so into the arts and film. Something I would have never known if we had continued to stay in the hotel.
"Why are you single, Shana? You're so beautiful and intelligent..." I wondered.
She giggled and finished chewing her food, "what do you mean?"
"I mean, you're in LA. You're in the entertainment industry. How have you not been spoken for yet?"
She giggled again, "um, well, first of all, I'm extremely picky, and no one has remotely come close to the guy I've been seeing." For some reason, a slight wave of jealousy rippled through me. Had I gotten in the way of her and this other guy? And even if I had, I don't get why I feel so territorial over her. Why am I even entertaining this girl?
"Who is that?" I'm curious, but I don't care...
"The guy I've been seeing?" I nodded. If she's had her eye on this guy, why even take the opportunity to get involved with me? "You."
"Me?" I pointed to myself.
She smiled a little. "Don't look so surprised. I thought you knew this already."
"Not in the slightest bit. I thought we were just friends, Shana..."
"Oh," she looked down. "Well, you've been pursuing me since 'Ghosts.' I figured you liked me, and you already knew I wanted you, then we took it to the next level..."
"No..." I shook my head.
She nodded, "yeah, I've had my eye on you for quite some time. But I never did anything because of Shayla. I never wanted to disrespect such a beautiful union. But then you came to me on set showing interest, so I figured we had something there."
"You were one of the only people I felt really comfortable with," I admitted.
"So... All this...This meant nothing..."
"No. It means everything to me. I just didn't know you thought we were together."
"I only started thinking that when we had sex. Did that mean anything to you or am I just-"
"It meant a lot to me."
"But how does that not mean we're together?"
"Because I'm married, Shana," I held up my hand, bearing my wedding band.
"I didn't forget that. But it's clear you have. You kissed me on set. Not the other way around. I may be... slightly younger than you, but please don't insult my intelligence, Michael. I thought we had something special, not platonic." Okay. Maybe it was a mixture of both. She's right. I'm the one who kissed her. And I'd be lying if I said I didn't expect anything when I invited her over. I bought those condoms for a reason.
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to insult your intelligence like that. I guess It's just hard for me because I'm so happy with you, and I feel like I'm betraying Shayla." While she's having my children at that...
"You'd be betraying yourself if you didn't act on your emotions and did what made you happy. If being in that marriage is making you unhappy, why even stay? What's keeping you?" Nothing was keeping me before, but now those children need me more than anything. I can't tell Shana that though.
I shook my head, "nothing."
"Shayla, please tell me you've still been taking care of yourself during this pregnancy." Mom sighed once she saw me out of breath from running down the stairs.
"What do you mean?" I tried pulling my shirt down. Guess it's about that time I start purchasing maternity clothes.
"Have you been working out?"
"Uh... not recently. I'm kind of on vacation," I said as I pulled a jacket out of the closet.
"I don't recall hearing you were coming all the way out here for a vacation. Do you, James?"
"Keep me out of it, Angie," Daddy continued to watch TV without batting an eye.
"How about after I get back from my outing, you and I go for a jog, mom?"
"Better hurry up because once them streetlights come on, you can kiss that goodbye." I laughed, shaking my head as I opened the door to see Roland and Layla-Marie waiting in their truck. This ought to be interesting. I'm still trying to figure out why I even agreed to do this, but whatever.
"Hello!" I said in a sing-songy voice as I opened the back door. "How is everyone?" Layla-Marie looked back at me like she couldn't believe her eyes. Like she couldn't even fathom that I was in her car. And yet, just like that, I went from feeling normal to becoming a celebrity, as per usual.
"Please don't take this the wrong way, but you look so much better in person." I did not expect such a strong southern drawl from each word she spoke.
I waved off her comment. "I get that all the time. The camera makes you look ten pounds heavier."
"But I heard that that's a myth." Her accent suddenly made the short sometimey short vowel "y" longer than it should have been.
"Far from it. Roland has only told me so much about you. Where are you from?"
"Nashville, Tennessee. You couldn't tell?" She giggled.
"My first guess was Kentucky."
"Oop! Yep! I'm so glad you ain't say that. We would have gone off on the wrong foot, and that would have really hurt my feelings because I am such a big fan."
"So, I've heard. Where are we going again?" I asked her, but I was directing my question toward Roland.
"Well," he finally started to pull out of the driveway. "Layla thought you'd like to go out to Blue Ash."
"Is that okay with you?" She asked me. I swear she was me but with a deep southern drawl, and it was starting to creep me out.
"What's in Blue Ash?" Surely, they weren't taking me out there because of the expensive shops.
"Well, I kinda figured you'd like to go to the Taste of Blue Ash. You done already missed the Taste of Cincinnati. Blue Ash is the next best thing." Her suggestion actually made me smile. How sweet... But God, how creepy that I would have done the exact same thing!
"That sounds lovely."
"Eee! Yay! I just knew you'd love it!" Layla clapped excitedly. "I knew we'd get along just fine. I've been telling Rowie that I always felt like you and I were twins of some sort. But tell me... you won't be bothered with allem people, will you? I be seeing you and Michael Jackson with allem crowds. People will do anythin' to be near y'all. You think you'll have anything like that at the Taste?"
"Nope," I pulled out a pair of sunglasses and put them on. "We won't have none of that."
The Taste of Cincinnati and The Taste of Blue Ash were the exact same event yet complete and polar opposites. Right in the heart of the city, local food vendors from across the area would come and serve the best they had to offer over a three-day weekend. Beer, ribs, and chicken are among the most purchased foods throughout the events. Whether you were buying food or not, it was always good to just go out in the summer heat and be a part of the madness. You might even come across someone you hadn't seen in years and find yourself talking for hours until the other person saw someone else they knew.
Although Blue Ash was a mere eighteen minutes away from Cincinnati, they acted like two different cities. Because of the act of redlining neighborhoods, which dates back to when my parents were growing up, white folk flocked there, making it one of the white suburbs in the area. Growing up, my brothers and I couldn't visit St. Bernard because it was one of those white areas that black people couldn't be caught in unless you wanted to wind up dead. Imagine that, when you're literally in walking distance of a whole neighborhood. However, Blue Ash was the exact same way. Because of that, The Taste of Cincinnati was always incredibly diverse, but The Taste of Blue Ash is and always will be lily-white. And the food vendors reflected precisely that.
I've probably only been to The Taste of Blue Ash twice in my lifetime, and each time I stuck out like a sore thumb. This time wouldn't be any different.
"So, how did you go about meeting Michael Jackson, Shayla? Is it okay to call you that?" Layla asked me as we walked down the busy street filled with people and food.
I pursed my lips and looked at her. "What do you call me when I'm not around?"
"Then go ahead. I don't mind."
"Good!" She gushed. "'Cause saying your full name is just too much. You can call me 'Layla' by the way. Ain't nobody got time to say 'Layla-Marie' all the time."
"That's fine," I laughed. "Wait, Layla, didn't you and Roland watch the interview? You should know how I met him."
"Okay, okay! Well, what is it like being his wife?"
"Exhausting," I rolled my eyes.
She gasped as Roland laughed to himself. "No way!"
"Yes, way." I'd say she's a tad bit more enthusiastic than me. Guess that's why they say don't compare yourself to others. But the fact still remains that Roland somehow managed to find my twin.
"Well," Layla twisted her lips to the side. "You did look over it whenever paparazzi just so happened to catch you all together. I kept telling Roland you hate that man."
I tried to stifle my laugh only to fail miserably. "I don't hate him."
"Could have fooled me! I'm not gonna lie, I was slightly surprised when Rowie told me you all had feelings for each other. But after the news about the fight and then two years later, the interview dropped and clarified everything, I couldn't even be mad at it. Sorry about the miscarriage, by the way. I know that had to be tough."
I pressed my lips together. "I've gotten through it. I'm having twins now."
"Twins?!" She squealed. Just as quickly as I said it, I wish I hadn't. She's one of the first people outside of my circle to know. Lord, I hope she can keep a secret. Roland shook his head in disappointment. Mmm. Guess not.
"Layla," I stopped walking and faced her. "You can't tell anyone, okay? I've only told a few people. I can't have the whole world knowing."
"Oh, my God. You're asking me to keep a secret for you." She held her breath and placed a hand on her chest. "Baby," she faced Roland. "She wants me to keep a secret for her!"
"Yeah, I know, babe. I know," he rubbed his scalp.
She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. "How long do you need me to keep this a secret? News is gonna get out before ya know it."
"At least for six months. I'm sure it'll be out before then."
"Oh, my God. I have vital information about Shayla-Elizabeth Jackson," she tried to squeal quietly to herself. Roland and I looked around to make sure no one had heard that last bit. Luckily, no one had. "Oh, my God! Shayla, you have to let us treat you to something to eat! Anything you want. We'll get it for you." I guess that was one of the perks of being pregnant. People are so willing to help you with any and everything. Especially when it comes to food.
"Thanks, Layla. I'll let you know." She started up about something, and just like Roland, I just went ahead and tuned her out for a second.
One thing about sticking out like a sore thumb in a lily-white area, you don't have to worry about people not looking at you. They stare at you, trying to figure out what you're doing here the same way they did when I was growing up. And they said Ohio was progressing in the nineties. I guess.
In LA, I'm a celebrity. People are staring at me because they can't believe it's me and they want an autograph. That's mostly from the tourists though. Natives of LA might see me once or twice and ask for a photo and an autograph, but I'm just a regular person by the third time. I'm lucky if I even get a wave, but that's it. Natives don't care about celebrities. But here? I'm a black woman walking with another black woman and a man that obviously comes from a mixed background but couldn't pass for white. Because of that, he's automatically considered black because of that racist one-drop rule from yesteryear. So, they're wondering why we're even here. To enjoy good food. Why else?
I can't lie. It's been a while since I've had a man pull his wife a little bit closer to him because of the color of my skin. Sometimes my celebrity protects me from silly stuff like that, and it's disgusting that it has to be that way.
"...anyway. That's why The Artist is better than Michael Jackson. No offense, but all offense. What do you think? Rowie hears this all the time." Layla shrugged. I didn't even hear a word she said.
"Umm...you know you can't really compare them, right?" I tore my gaze away from the endless food vendor filled street and looked at her.
"Michael is Pop. Prince is Rock mostly. You can't really do that. Prince's best contender is probably Lenny Kravitz. Not Michael."
"Oh, ho ho ho!" She laughed like I had just started something that I couldn't even finish. "The Artist has covered just about every other genre out there. He's the best contender for Michael. And oh my God, don't get me started on when he changed the game on the LoveSymbol album. And his newest album, Chaos and Disorder? To die for!"
"I still think it's unfair to compare the two when they're not even in the same genre. That's not me being biased either. I'm a fan of Prince's music too. Even-"
"'The Artist Formerly Known as Prince,'" she called herself correcting me.
"We're friends. Surely, he doesn't want me calling him all that over a meal."
"Oh, yeah! Sorry. I get a little defensive sometimes," she blushed red in embarrassment.
"Anyway, even Prince doesn't want to be compared to Michael. It isn't fair. They're in two separate lanes."
She gasped. "He said that?!" I nodded. "Oh! Wait 'til I dead all that noise on the message boards! Did Roland tell you I'm a moderator on a website for The Artist?" I shook my head no. "The only problem is Prince doesn't use the internet. One of these days he'll notice me though," she smiled to herself. I take it "Rowie" didn't tell her that I'd tell Prince about his biggest fan. How kind of him to keep that a surprise for her... Layla-Marie really has a good man. I'd be lying if I didn't say that. Shoot, I wonder what Michael has bought for the twins. That must be a surprise for me because I haven't spoken to him since I left.