I blame rap music.
Not entirely, mind you. But that was the comment I wrote on Catherine's Facebook thread designed to shame my friend, Emperor Sun, a hood celebrity rapper who was her roommate. Emp had stopped paying his rent four months ago. Catherine was my girlfriend, and Emp's one-time best friend. He had been cornering Catherine with threats in a way he wouldn't dare with his male friends. She hoped the public airing on Facebook might force him to be accountable for the overdue rent and his shitty behavior.
Really, it forced me to consider where I was myself as a man, and began the unraveling of my hip-hop inspired attitudes toward relationships with women. A little while after I'd posted on the thread, I took an easy jab at Drake's emotive, blurry masculinity. "Nigga, you just like Drizzy," a friend told me.
How right she was, too. I had cribbed pages straight from the Aubrey Graham diary. Drake's love for women had nothing to do with the women themselves, and everything to do with his willingness to perform regret once the women had escaped his swiping claws. Drake needled with reminders of his fame as if to say, "Your loss, girl."
Far from famous, I was raised on "Fuck-Niggas-Get Money" and, alternately, "Fuck-Bitches-Get-Money." The refrain to one of my favorite songs implicated my generation in a trenchant, virulent war of the sexes.
Money Over Bitches. You Will Lose Money Chasing Pussy; You'll Never Lose Pussy Chasing Money. These adages—and their inherently false duality—informed how I chose to love, which was, much like Drake, not loving at all.
In order to uphold and protect my status as a Real G Ass Nigga, I adopted these mantras even as I donned the cloak of a progressive, thoughtful, kind, Educated Brother From The University type. My girlfriend selection process was terribly shallow. I treated it like a game of acquisition, so we would joke with one another about getting our status symbol women like rappers did, bragging in bar measures. I pull up in that Brownstone-Baby Cosby-Kid-Trust-Fund Black-Boheme-With-The-Braids. You could catch me in that High Yellabone bell-hooks-readin Two-Post-Grads Yoga-Mat-Sling Honey Sweet Gotdamn. When I told my boy, Marv, about the flighty, poetic half-black half-Jewish energy healer I'd met in the writers' group that month, the same month I knew I needed Catherine a in my life, he coined the nickname "Reiki Ellis Ross."
About six months prior, when memories of Mona meandered in my head, I inquired after Catherine. "She one of them righteous ho's," Marv said. "And the password to her Drawz 'rhymes with safari.'"
As in, Shomari, Dacari, and Amare had all landed The Drawz and if I played the Black Fist Comb Nu Africa Card right, I probably could land them, too. We dabbled in this crude alchemy, the men in my circle, because we couldn't imagine challenging the governing theory of Bitches Ain't Shit But Ho's And Tricks. The Drawz notwithstanding, I liked everything I knew about Catherine and pursued intently.
Showing up to her writers' circle was the first of many Literary Latrell maneuvers, as was slathering my bushy mane with shea butter, and name-checking Lavalle and Whitehead, Lorde and Guy-Sheftall. I learned quickly why obeying the opposite of everything Marv said was my best bet to find a great affair. Marv, who never met a woman he couldn't find a way to hate, believed that all women were all ho's and, once exposed would retreat to their Ho Habitats, leaving him to face himself. I listened to my intuition, instead of Marv, and fell hard for Catherine over the course of that year.
A few months into our joy ride, many of my latent and sweeping suspicions about women began to surface. Emperor Sun, had initiated his bizarre battle for territory within their three-bedroom space, mainly by refusing to ante up money for anything.
The rap phenom that he was, Emperor Sun did not believe that royalty should have to pay to live in an apartment. He languished in a permanent groove on the couch while their landlord warned Catherine of imminent eviction. Unable to reach Emp directly, I confided to Marv how bad it all was, knowing he had Emp's ear.
[Bonus Track 1 - Sam Cooke "Nothing Can Ever Change This Love"]
According to Marv, Emperor was refusing rent because Catherine had slept with too many or too-close of his friends. I listened on the other end of the line stunned, trying to identify the equation that tabbed his owed rent somehow to her sexual ledger.
There was none.
Catherine and I rumbled our way into a choppy New York break-up over the next five months.
Life With The Artist: We weren't a match made in convention. She couldn't cook up a peanut butter and jelly sandwich if you spotted her two slices of bread and the butter knife, just like I preferred the dimebags burning a hole in my pocket to a paycheck. Still, she taught me to craft decisions and art with equal deliberation. She had boundless love, bubbly charisma, and when my friend Emp suggested that her genital résumé was rightful reason to extort her, it sent me into a tailspin. Soon, every time we ran into a man she knew, I frenzied. Him too? Why she smiling at him like that? Noah, the short white dude at the Trader Joe's? That dark-skin motherfucker with the crazed look in his pupil at the engagement party? Is this nigga a poet? I bet he hit. And so on. Rather than accept the love she had to offer, which was immense and only multiplied by the hour, I taxed her silently, degraded her in arguments for failing at relationships, and slowly closed myself into a grimace. I have her to thank for the writer I am now.
High Times: Valentine's Day Scavenger Hunt on shrooms; debating the merits of Tina Fey's race humor versus Mindy Kaling's race humor; Hypothetical Band Names; Love Ninjas; Scrabble; biking everywhere; Sam Cooke and Alice Smith on repeat.
Low Tides: Shouting Matches In An Overpiced Basement Flat; moving her away from Emp's Reign Of Terror the night after my grandfather's funeral; spying her phone to see the name of her Young Guy among the Most Called; explaining to her why I was still speaking to Sara, though I'd claimed I wasn't.
Life With The Earth: Rooted, steady and light-hearted at once. Sara's room-blinding smile and generous nature was a shelter for every part that I kept hidden, and a sanctuary for my broken spirit. Although I hadn't learned to stop hurting people when I met her, I had come to accept that my problem was larger than my conscious acts told. She never judged me, but did push me to take hold of these stormy issues. Her spiritual foundation and openness to a new kind of humanity nudged us past the glaring differences in our skin color and background.
High Times: Cruising down the PCH in mid-April, stopping for fresh fish without needing to talk; the Appalachian Trail; sharing Shabbat dinner with the most diverse group of people I'd ever met; holding baby Jonah weeks after his birth, with her soft instruction floating into my ears.
Low Tides: Telling her that her race and religion were the reasons I could never walk down the aisle hand-in-hand; packing up that Bed Stuy apartment to avoid getting arrested; explaining how a sex tape I made with a secret lover had leaked and why I'd need a lawyer to fix that; running into Sara while on another secret date with another secret lover ... and stuttering my way through the genuine shock on their faces.
Life With The One: Every time I cheated, and we broke it off, I'd grovel and crawl and harass my way back into her life, and her apartment (where I also avoided due rent). Her mind was so fleet, I was anxious to find ways to amuse her, to create shared activity. Her contrary nature could turn any dinner party into an hours-long discussion forum. I was determined to lose Mona, all of our mutual friends, and most of my dignity. I have her to thank for a glimpse at true compassion, a model for hard work, and every belief I hold that the world can be fairer.
High Times: Negril Hot Springs; Sundays; debating the merits of Nas and Jay, hip-hop soul and liberation theology; taking walks; painting rooms; The Michael Jackson Tribute Party.
Low Tides: The e-mails that revealed my cheating time and again; my arranging a date with a co-worker when she went to her college reunion, and her reaction; standing at her window screaming and drunk until her brothers called me with poetic justice on their minds; running a New Lover out of her life with passive-aggressive anonymous phone calls; arriving together but leaving separately.
I left town after my break up with Catherine, unable to face the cosmic cost of my deeds or tiptoe across those burnt bridges. I'm wondering if reminiscing, or soundtracking our memories does anything to change ones behavior. Maybe it lends itself to a kind of emotional clarity, but that clarity seems to rarely nudge us closer to emotional depth or real reckoning. My charge is to mend the practices that had me lying and faltering, to atone for each violent act of degradation, and to commune with men, women, trans and queer friends who have been hurt by the way I instituted these practices for laughs, dates, affairs, and scars. I would be remiss if I said I knew exactly how to do this. I don't know much of anything. But I have entered counseling, and sought the advice of people far away from the circle of wolves that I once called my den.
I don't want the so-called love of My Homeys if it comes at the expense of women at large. There is no one who can judge another person's worth, or determine the meaning of her/his sexual choices. There is value in intimacy, and I hope to share that intimacy outside of some reckless hunt for The Drawz. I apologize to the people I hurt: I gave you less than I could have to preserve a false sense of security. That wasn't right. I thank you who gave me second chances, and the friends who saw my problems fester but refused to endorse my spite-loving. I heard your silence, and I dedicate these next steps to you as much as I do to myself and my family.
Next time I berate Drake for his narcissistic approach to love, I will re-direct that arrowhead at my own core: the infidelity, the immaturity, the insincerity. There is nothing worse than a poseur, a man parading as an Equal Opportunity lover who is really an Unequal Opportunist. I'd like to have a toast to that asshole, and put him finally to rest. Love, the kind I want to believe I'm capable of, honors vulnerability and shuns possession. Love creates power without trafficking in it. Love and hip-hop are in an abusive partnership. I'll remove myself from that custody battle because I'd hate to have to choose between them.
Andrew Ricketts is an artist from Brooklyn, NY who writes about the effects of culture on identity. He is currently the editor-in-chief of ihiphop.com.
[Image by Jim Cooke]