Magic Carpet Ride

By Bryan Alston Patrick

Part 1

“There’s a voice here.” Rachel remarked while her eyes remained on the panels, studying the artist’s stylistic idiosyncrasies.

The drawings were beautiful, haunting black and white, pen and ink, mostly, with several frames in charcoal depicting the past with incredibly soulful smudge diffusion.

Eyes, faces, lips, hands, fingers, shoulders. Everything spoke.

Some of the backgrounds were detailed with signs, buildings, trees, leaves, cars, trucks, and supporting characters like the old Nigerian man in the newsstand kiosk or the prostitute touching up her lip gloss and eye shadow between clients. Others were smudged out of focus imitating narrow depth of field. Ousmane had grown up watching movies from Europe, America and Japan with less access to the kind of rich graphic novels he was now drawing.

Totally cinematic.

“Vision is one thing but, man, this is voice.”

“Thank you.” Said Ousmane.

Rachel looked up at him with just her eyes, without moving her head.

“I mean it.” Her eyes went back to the pages. She flipped back to the beginning, looking for images she felt the first time, wanting to see them again. “How did you wind up in Vancouver?”

Ousmane answered her question as he had practiced it countless times answering it for other people since arriving three years earlier in North America. First in New York City, which he quickly grew to love and hate simultaneously, then, via spontaneous road trip with one of his drug-dealing roommates who had decided to flee when he felt the heat on his back, out to Los Angeles. Ousmane loved LA but wound up drifting up the coast from one hipster artist collective to another until he had seen San Francisco, Portland and Seattle. The promise of universal healthcare lured him over the border in the trunk of his girlfriend’s Mazda 3, which was deceptively spacious in such a compact car, thereby cruising past Canadian Border Patrol without arousing suspicion.

“I flew in on a magic carpet,” he said with the chilled out smile that helped transport him across the continent from Williamsburg, Brooklyn all the way to Gastown. “The Land of Opportunity” thing had always sounded to him like bullshit but Ousmane was totally amazed by how true it could be if you landed in the right place. He had realized while driving a gypsy cab in Queens that the fuzzy-haired Asian, black and white kids with tattoos and deliberately damaged clothing were extremely open and accepting—more than accepting, actually, they were flat out attracted to him. They wanted him at their parties, crashing at their lofts, eating their food, drinking their wine and smoking their herb. Once any of them saw his sketches, he was an instant celebrity. That he washed up on the East Coast from war torn Africa was more than sympathetic to these people—it was heroic and transcendental. The ripsters of Brooklyn didn’t treat Ousmane as an equal, they saw him as better than themselves.

Keith laughed at the magic carpet remark and Rachel caught up with him, forcing a chuckle that came out weak but thankfully just loud enough to mask the growl from her gassy, cramping digestive track. The hangover that morning was the kind every budding alcoholic dreads. She had hoped the night before, after losing count and letting the bartender shove free drinks across the bar at her because he wanted to fuck her or use her in some way—the guy was good-looking and charming, probably an actor who had heard from someone but not correctly understood that All Natural Press had signed a deal with Rising Tide Media down in West Hollywood to develop three of their graphic novel properties into movies over the next five years—that she might get away with one, as occasionally happened. But it went the opposite way, crashing into a catastrophic, nearly immobilizing hangover that caused her to question herself again as to why she did this repeatedly, each time regretting and agonizing. Maybe it was childhood trauma—her mother’s brother had fondled her in her bathing suit when she was fourteen—even though it hadn’t seemed totally horrific at the time it could have left profound subconscious scarring in her attempts to repress the memory. But she had other relatives who struggled with booze and drugs too so maybe it was just genetic. Or maybe it was none of the above and she just liked to drink—a lot—despite the predictable consequences. But that didn’t fly either, because the consequences were fucking awful and worsening all the time. Her head spun chasing that same elusive answer one more soul crushing time. All she wanted to do was get back to the ladies’ room even after having been humiliated once that morning already when the Coordinator of Accounts Payable walked into the palpable stench of Rachel’s first caustic liquid dump as it wafted out of the toilet, past the partitions of her stall, filling the entire bathroom.

After getting to know Ousmane over the following months of working together and getting drunk together, she would recognize in him the same, or at least a similar, feeling of undeserved success, and be comforted by it. That first morning of their acquaintance, however, was pure self-loathing for Rachel. She had been given a break early on at All Natural by her old boss, Neal, who had co-founded the company and remained its publisher after 27 years (Rachel had gotten so drunk so fast at the 25th Anniversary party that she had to sneak out before the big toast and Neal’s speech because she couldn’t annunciate and felt on the verge of falling down and/or throwing up at any second and barely made it down one flight of stairs with double vision to a cab driven by a 20-year-old bearded BC stoner who offered to drop her at a hospital instead of her apartment) because he saw himself in her or whatever, and noticed Rachel was very sharp, had a great eye and totally sucked at the administrative support he needed from an assistant. All her faults had been virtues early on, the bottomless lack of self-esteem driving her toward the success that might finally earn her the right be loved, her natural fixation on aesthetics and inability to concentrate in nearly every other area of her life combined with ritual tardiness and the self-flagellating humility that aroused Neal’s compassion had put her on the fast track in editorial where she flourished early on before her drinking had really escalated.

Ousmane, on the other hand, had abundant self-esteem despite having been orphaned at the age of eleven (or so he suspects without knowing for sure the date of his birth) and forced into a group home run by religious extremists where he met his best friends Georges and Arikawe who later peer-pressured him into joining their gang of thieves who dressed like either terrorist gunmen, paramilitary thugs or revolutionaries depending on who they were robbing. For a year and a half, Ousmane was certain the gang’s capers would lead to his early demise at the hands of any of their countless enemies, most or all of whom, it turned out, had been completely fooled by the gang’s myriad disguises and schemes, many of which had been devised in part by Ousmane, whose eye for detail usually caught any mistake or oversight they had made in costuming before a heist. Georges was naturally tough and daring, loving the action and never afraid of confrontation. His confidence when called into question was unflappable to the point that he once intimidated the top lieutenant to a warlord called Le Pain into opening the door for the gang and letting them in to “sweep” an old mission in Le-Pain-controlled territory for improvised explosives planted by enemy combatants. Beyond superficially shaking it down for gold and firearms, the contents of the mission hadn’t been inventoried by Le Pain’s guys. Finding neither guns nor gold, Le Pain hadn’t instructed his lieutenants to guard it very carefully. That was where Arikawe came in with the intel and planning. He had Georges’ ballsyness combined with an almost preternatural greed that Ousmane would write and draw about later in his graphic-novelization of The Liberty Act, satirizing the world of private equity and the regulators who police it. Arikawe’s wiring, Ousmane concluded, was the same as that of the mercenary traders on Wall Street and the cocaine barons of South America, all of whom had become grotesquely rich yet only wished to make themselves even richer with no other goal beyond accumulating wealth. Ousmane would later read in the UN Quarterly that Arikawe had been elected president of the newly incorporated nation that had replaced their fragmented region of origin. He had accomplished this after massive land acquisitions and hiring competing warlords, paying them in effect to stop fighting each other and police all the land he owned.

“What color was the carpet?” Rachel asked with convincing whimsy, coming up with the save as she usually managed to do.

“Many different colors,” Ousmane said in his beautiful hybrid accent, “‘t’was a traditional Persian design.”

They all laughed a little more together, fueling each other, building to a collective guffaw. Rachel tried not to wince as her head throbbed from surging blood pressure. Her stomach shifted again. Somehow, she had to end the meeting immediately. She channeled Neal from her days as his assistant, remembering the way it felt when he let people know time was up.

“So,” she said, putting the breaks on her giggling, trying to hold out for another few minutes without puking on the conference table or wet farting. “I’m pretty much sold. Keith?”

“Um, yeah. I mean,” he glanced down at Ousmane’s panels again, the rich images, vibrant lines and thoughtful shading that suggested black and white photography by way of charcoal. “Your work is awesome. But, I guess, do we need a script with this too?” He deferred to Rachel as she hoped he would.

One of many things she loved about Keith: he was too afraid to make decisions by himself. He needed everything sanctioned by someone else. Making calls wasn’t a problem for Rachel. That’s why she and Keith were equals in editorial even though he had been at the company almost two years longer and they weren’t even equals in the eyes of their colleagues. Despite all of Rachel’s insecurities and self-loathing tied to her drinking, drugging and inability to manage her life the way she perceived the ability of others to “keep it all together,” she had no trouble calling shots, speaking her mind or making decisions about what made sense in terms of All Natural’s artistic and commercial direction. That’s the reason Neal promoted her in the first place—well, that and his desperate desire to hire another assistant who could actually “assist” him in his affairs. And it was her most valuable trait, especially in a meeting she needed to end posthaste.

Ousmane was about to answer Keith’s question when she interrupted. The move was so obvious she couldn’t understand why Keith didn’t see it—why she was almost the only person other than Neal who saw this stuff. “The script is in the drawings already,” she said, throwing Keith a polite glance. “Don’t you think?”

“Yeah,” Keith said, following Rachel’s lead. “There’s definitely story here for sure.”

“And lots of character,” Rachel looked across the table at Ousmane, “great facial expressions and body language.” She pointed at a series of panels on page 3 showing the two main characters who may or may not be married. “I feel like they’re unhappily in love.” She met Ousmane’s eyes for confirmation.

He nodded. “Yes. In a way, that is true. I had not thought of it that way but yes.”

“I feel like they’re deciding to stay or go because life is dangerous and complicated where they are but their love is new and passionate so they want to keep it going, give it a chance even though it would be easier for each of them on their own.”

“That is very good. I am impressed,” Ousmane told Rachel sincerely.

“No,” she said, “I’m the one impressed.” Her stomach growled loudly enough that she was sure Keith and Ousmane heard it but she just kept going. They were nearly done. Rachel was subconsciously grateful to Ousmane for having done such beautiful work that her decision was easy. Even if the editorial and marketing departments ultimately decided his book wasn’t right for them, his drawings were powerhouse to the extent she knew everyone would want him in the stable, illustrating for writers they already had under contract. She threw the warmest smile she could muster over knotted guts at Keith and Ousmane. “I think we’re done for the moment.”

“Yeah?” Keith asked, never fully confident. “Okay.”

She reached over to shake Ousmane’s hand. “Thank you for coming in. It was great meeting you.”

“Oh, thank you.” Ousmane shook her hand gently with both his hands. “The pleasure is mine.”
Rachel smirked flirtatiously, bashfully. “Do you know Jayden Ross’s work?”

Ousmane nodded. “I love the book she made about the garment district in New York.”

“I can see your style working very well with hers,” Rachel managed, imagining that her face had turned green. “If you’re into it, we can set up a lunch or have drinks or something. Yes?” Rachel was already out of her chair and on the move.

“I would like that, very much,” Ousmane replied.

“Excellent,” Rachel said from the conference room door. It was awkward and rude but she couldn’t help it. Her eyes were watering from holding everything in. She noticed the perplexed look on Keith’s face and would have said something meaningful if there had been anything to say. “I’ll let you two wrap up,” was the best she could do.
After nearly passing out in the stairwell, Rachel made it down one floor to production, barely reaching the ladies’. Normally, she would have glanced under the stalls but there was no reason—she couldn’t have waited or gone elsewhere. She had already bombed the bathroom shared by HR and finance one floor further down. There was no stopping. And she could tell without looking that she wasn’t alone. Spool noise was audible from one of the other stalls.

Just as Rachel made it to the open door of the corner stall, an assistant from the design department entered the bathroom in time to see her. Rachel hoped she had moved quickly enough to avoid identification but, again, there was nothing she could do. Most likely, dignity had been lost. Unless the young assistant—Rachel didn’t recall her name if she had ever heard it—was unusually compassionate or ambitious to the extent that she valued a potentially advantageous relationship with Rachel above all else, it was a near certainty that she would tell at least one other person about the sound and smell of what was getting ready to happen.

Rachel unfastened her absurdly overpriced jeans threaded with synthetic material that was shiny and elastic. She pulled them down along with the underwear she bought a week earlier at a new shop opened by her friend and drinking buddy, Tasha. Tasha had given her “friend” prices on several items. Rachel knew that meant a 500% markup instead of a 1000%. But it had been fun and satisfying to buy nice, sexy things to wear that felt personal, while at the same time helping out her friend. The good feelings that came with those new articles of clothing were noticeably gone. A cold toilet seat represented the absence. Her stomach was tight and bloated, her ass seemed huge and doughy, like it was oozing off the edges of the elongated bowl. Any body image improvements acquired with the new clothes had been wiped out with the ugly, hazy misgiving that she had looked ridiculous in those presumptuous, glitzy threads from the get. The withering thought that she might look cute enough to attract a nice guy made Rachel cringe at having entertained something so desperate and misguided. Hope got out of the way once again to make room for the embarrassment that was so familiar. She took a deep breath and tried to purge quietly with limited success. When she was pretty sure she had heard the other two women leave, Rachel wadded up some toilet tissue and cried into it.

A nice man named Kareem from the HR department at All Natural helped Ousmane get set up to work legally in Canada. The process was lengthy and becoming a citizen would take even longer but having work there would help make things happen. And that was huge because there were many big blanks he couldn’t fill in on the forms. He didn’t know his own birthday and had no passport or any other means of proving his identity. When asked the same old questions by the naturalization agents, he left out the quip about a magic carpet and went with a recycled story he had heard from Georges, about another kid from their group home who had reportedly made it to America loading and offloading cans on a ship. Nobody Ousmane shared the story with questioned him about having worked on a ship for cash with no credentials.

Part of that came from the sentimental thread in the narrative, which was actually original to Ousmane’s experience. His girlfriend, Nathalie, was a close friend of Rachel and less so of Tasha. When Rachel heard some of the anecdotes of Ousmane’s youth from Nathalie, she immediately started dreaming about an epic graphic novel or series thereof in Ousmane’s classic black and white style, depicting his mother’s adolescence and early adulthood when she met his father, an African-American soldier stationed in Nigeria as part of a UN security taskforce.

“But I never knew my father,” Ousmane told Rachel over drinks in New York City. It was his first time back to the Apple in over a year.

“That’s the most beautiful part, O.” Rachel had started calling him “O” at some point in their working relationship. It had just popped out and felt right. She wasn’t the first white person to do that but for some reason it didn’t bother him when she said it. “Creating this story could be a way to get to know him. Even if that just means imagining him.”

O sat back on his barstool that wasn’t actually a barstool but an upholstered high chair parked at a bar in a lounge on West 51st Street. Rachel’s words had once again stirred something in him. “This is very interesting,” he said, pensively. “Very interesting.”

Rachel used the caesura created by O’s rumination to order another appletini.

“You see,” Ousmane continued, “some tribal elders I know of believe that each person is all of his or her ancestors. I read a book by the Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hahn, where he says very much the same thing, but with a different, you know, um.”


“Correct. Yes. So, according to these respected teachers, I am my father, in some meaningful way.”

“Yes! I love it.” Rachel had already had too much to drink and Ousmane was used to seeing her that way but he also knew that she never talked shit about work no matter how drunk she got and she had never forgotten anything they discussed over drinks even if she blacked out shortly thereafter. “We have to do this book. It can be fucking epic. And Jayden can help write it, yeah?”

Ousmane shrugged and sipped his beer.

“You, what? Don’t you like working with her?”

“Of course, I do.”


“I was only thinking that Jayden and I have already done two books together.”

“Oh, I see. You want some new blood, yeah?”

“Maybe. I don’t know yet. I am, as you say, thinking out loud.”

“Right on, my friend. Go head and think as loud as you want. Just don’t get us tossed out of here.” She laughed at her own joke. “I’m pretty comfortable.”

Ousmane glanced at the screen on Rachel’s phone and saw the time was nearing midnight. “You have a panel tomorrow morning?”

“It’s not till eleven,” Rachel waved him off. “Come on, let’s hear some ideas. This is hot!”

“You asked me about my style before, you know, where it comes from, why I draw this way, etcetera.”

“Right, and you said you just draw that way because you drew with whatever you could get your hands on—a pencil or a ballpoint pen usually, right?”


“See?” Rachel pointed at her left ear. “I listen.”

“Of course, I know this. I am saying there is something else perhaps. You got me thinking about what I remember of my family. My mother lost our apartment when I was young. Too many bombs had fallen, too many explosives detonated near the foundation. We stayed there well after the electricity and water were gone and finally left when the building was beginning to collapse. Two flights of stairs just crumbled. We had to climb down the last couple of floors on sheets tied together from the window.”
An old Future Sound of London track shuffled up in the easy listening techno mix, creating an extemporaneous remix of Ousmane’s story, hypnotizing Rachel. She let herself go in the groove, making herself take a few sips of the water she’d ordered and ignored while ordering two more cocktails. And she was about to order a fourth, she thought, or maybe a fifth? And she kind of wanted a cigarette but Ousmane’s beautiful African voice riding the gentle, electric rhythm was too good to disrupt. Rachel was already imagining a series of web promos that would tease frames from the book over an atmospheric electro music bed with Ousmane telling little pieces of the story, in the spirit of early Orb records she remembered hearing in the car with her older cousins, Ye-jun and Ji-min, on the Korean side of her family, who took her along on their escapades occasionally while she lived in LA for a year in high school, where and when she met Nathalie in music appreciation class.
Ousmane had paused and sipped the last of his beer.

“And you said your mom was a doctor, right?” Rachel asked while signaling the bartender to re-up both their drinks before Ousmane had a chance to decline another beer.

“Yes. She was a pediatrician but for a time she was working on a base, treating children of military personnel and maybe various ambassadors and other politicians. I wish I recalled exactly. I wonder who might be able to tell me.”
“Maybe somebody at the UN could help.” Rachel felt drunk and stupid before even completing the sentence but it was already out there. “I mean, since we are in New York. What could be the harm in checking that out?”

“Hmm. That is also interesting. I had never thought to try that.”

“I mean, your dad was a UN peacekeeper over there, or something, right? And they met on the base?”

“Yes. Something like that. My mother said he was there in an advisory role but he was a soldier. He did go into hot zones. I assume that is how he was killed.”

“But you don’t know for sure?”

Ousmane shook his head. “No. Not for sure.”

“So, you could approach this as autobiographical fantasy.”
Ousmane’s brow went up.

“No, seriously. I’m inventing a new fucking genre right here and now.”

“What would be the point of that?”

“Because. You don’t know exactly where you came from. None of us does, really, maybe, I don’t know. But I think what I’m feeling is the power of imagination in terms of who we become, regardless of where we come from.” She watched Ousmane contemplate while she sipped her fresh cocktail, going slow on it, hoping maybe she could stop at that one if she just didn’t gulp it down. “You see what I mean, O? The idea of producing a semi-autobiographical work with conspicuously fantastical elements is a way of celebrating what we don’t know about ourselves rather than worrying about it. It’s a way of celebrating self-determination, in which I fully fucking believe, by the way.”

Rachel was getting all juiced up and she knew, and dreaded where things were headed. The momentum had her. For all her exhortations of self-determination, she spent about half her life serving the liquid in that martini glass. At least she was safe with O—the best—so sweet, so talented, so beautiful with his chiseled features and ultra-dark skin. There in the atmospheric lighting of a mellow NYC nightspot, he resembled an oxidized bronze statue dressed in clubby future fabrics. If he hadn’t been living with one of her best friends, Rachel thought, she would take him back to one of their hotel rooms and go all out on him, ravage him, do everything in total carnal abandon. High-end respect and affection mingled in her imagination with XXX-rated abject kinks.

“That is really something, Rachel.” He raised his beer bottle. “To you and your unique vision.”

Gratification and arousal shot through Rachel’s nervous in a warm, tingling wave. “To us,” she said, bringing her glass up to touch O’s bottle.

They clinked and drank. She took too big a sip—again—knocking down 40% or so of what remained in her glass. And once again, she was thinking about the next drink. She knew she shouldn’t. No good could come from it. But she was soaring off the cipher with O, as usual. She got along well with all her writers and artists but with O and Jayden there was magic. Each of them brought the best out of her and she loved them both more than she would ever get the chance to say. When Rachel and Ousmane talked like that, what came out of her was so fine she truly believed for as long as the moments lasted that she was good, maybe even great, and that strange, hungry beast that fed on her feelings of worthlessness was dormant, although never gone for good.

“Let’s have a cigarette,” Rachel said, getting up a bit too fast, instinctively reaching for O’s hand, which was right there to catch hers. “Then one more drink and then we’ll go?”

Ousmane shrugged. “Up to you, darling. I have nowhere to be until tomorrow night. You are the one with commitments in the morning.”

Rachel huffed. Inner conflict roiled. She loved and hated drinking too much and angered at thinking about it, at being challenged about it. “As long as I get eight hours I’m fine. I’ll be in bed by one,” she glanced at her phone and realized that wasn’t going to happen and wishfully revised, “one-thirty at the latest. Come on.”

She pulled Ousmane by the hand that helped her down off the tall chair, heading for the front door, out to the sidewalk, when he pulled back. He nodded at the backdoor to the small garden patio area where smoking was permitted. Still, she resisted.

“We should see the garden,” he told her.

“But all the action is out here,” she gestured at the pedestrians and vehicles travelling at varying speeds cross-town and downtown.

“All that is people bumping into each other, cars honking and homeless people asking for money.” He was steadfast.
Rachel capitulated and tailed Ousmane to the garden. They had the place to themselves late on Monday night when even nocturnal New Yorkers were headed home with real jobs to attend in the morning. All she had to do was show up at a comic convention and sit at a long table in the chair behind the name hump that read “Rachel Lee,” which had, in the past, led some attendees to speculate a relation to Stan Lee until they saw her and sometimes even after (“Stan could have hooked up with an Asian chick way back,” she once overheard one fanboy telling another). As long as she said one or two funny or arguably insightful things she would be invited back again the following year. It was nothing. She could drink all she wanted and still dial it.

Ousmane could see it unfolding. Every time he saw Rachel socially she drank way too much and often worried him. He wasn’t planning to attend the conference and thus had nowhere to be until the following night when he was scheduled to participate in a Q&A at the small premier of a documentary for which he had appeared in an interview. The director, Flick Jagger, had met Ousmane two years earlier at a Williamsburg soiree in a beat up, overcrowded artists’ loft on the edge of Bushwyck. They hit it right off and Flick couldn’t hear enough about O’s childhood and adolescence because he had recently begun shooting a high-def doc about the children of war zones.

“Ooh, plus,” Rachel blurted out a thought as it formed, “if you do go with the autobiographical fantasy angle, you could work in the magic carpet thing, maybe at the end, or at the end of part one or two if it’s going to be a series, which I could totally see as well.”

Ousmane was mildly stunned, first because Rachel even remembered the magic carpet remark from their very first meeting and second for other reasons he wasn’t ready to discuss. Even drunk and then some, Rachel could see she had said something inadvertently disconcerting. She took a final drag off her smoke and put it out.

“Are you, not feeling that idea, or?”

He took a second. “No. Maybe. I am not sure it fits. I would have to think about that.”

If Rachel thought she had all night, Ousmane really did and he planned to stay with her until he was sure she was safe in bed. One more round became two more rounds and then it was nearly 2am. Finally, Rachel agreed to call it a night, at least at the spot in that part of town. Her hotel was down in SoHo—not a good plan on Rachel’s part as she would have to get up mega-early to make the panel on the west-most edge of Midtown, which could have been avoided with a more practical hotel choice but she wanted to stay “somewhere fun!”

Ousmane was crashing with friends out in Williamsburg but was determined to make sure Rachel got home and got to bed. He had become obsessed with ensuring her timely arrival at the panel. By the time they were in the cab, he considered her his responsibility and knew that he would count it as a personal failing were she to miss her appointment at the conference.
It was in the hotel lobby that things got tense again for a second. The hotel was brand new and trendy with all kinds of sexy lighting and design elements going on to lure guests into the wildly overpriced bar-lounge-restaurant area. But Rachel was way past pricing. All Natural was buying and she was too drunk to care what her expense report was going to look like in a few weeks when she scrambled to get it submitted before the end of the quarter.

“You need to sleep, my friend.”

“Let’s just get a nightcap.”

Ousmane felt himself caving already. “It’s after 2am.”

“I know, bars in New York stay open till 4! It’s awesome.”
But it turned out the hotel bar was closing up. The bartender was getting ready for last call and let them sneak in for one drink. Ousmane was momentarily relieved but after their “nightcap,” Rachel was restless again. Had he not been there with her, she probably would have found one of the dive bars nearby and continued drinking until she passed out.

“I bet there’s a place nearby that’s still open,” she said to the bartender while leaving him a 40% tip.

“I bet there is too,” Ousmane said before the bartender could response, “but we will not be going there because we are done for the night, right?”

“Your friend sounds pretty smart,” the bartender told Rachel.

But she was eyeing the front doors when they exited into the lobby. “I’m sure there’s a place right around the corner,” Rachel said, “I’m pretty sure I saw it from the cab.”

“Come on,” Ousmane grabbed Rachel’s hand and tugged her toward the elevators.



“We’re having a great night, I don’t want it to end.”

“We had a great night, Rachel. Everything ends.”

“Ugggghhh!” She stamped her feet, regressing to childlike outburst.

Ousmane pulled her to him and whispered in her ear. “People are watching. You need to stop!”

Hardly anyone if anyone had ever spoken to Rachel so authoritatively. It got through. They went upstairs after stopping by the front desk for a duplicate room key even though Rachel’s was in her purse the entire time, she just couldn’t find it and Ousmane had no intention of going through it in the lobby where he might be misconstrued by hotel security as a pimp or a drug dealer or some other unsavory black stereotype. While most people could see Rachel’s Korean heritage up close, at a glance in low light she often looked white.

“Ooh,” Rachel said a few feet inside her suite, “you’re coming in, huh?”

“Yes, but only to watch you sleep.”

“That doesn’t sound like much fun.”

“You should start getting undressed.”

“Okay,” Rachel flirted, playing submissive, which might have been alluring had her words not been slurred and her look entirely shot. She slipped her jacket off “seductively,” almost losing her balance when her right sleeve backed up on her watch, causing Rachel to turn her head and shift her body weight just enough.

Ousmane caught her by the arm and lowered her on to a chair. He took her limited edition XK7 sneakers off and set them neatly, side by side, next to the chair. That left him on his knees in front of her. It was not the first moment of attraction they shared but it was the first time they had been alone in a hotel room on the other side of the continent from their home city. Under normal circumstances, neither Rachel nor Ousmane would have considered betraying Nathalie, not even for a second.

Nathalie had been the first girl in the Valley to make friends with Rachel when she started high school there, having just moved from Vancouver to Southern California. They had gotten close the way kids and teenagers do sometimes, in that seemingly magical way that feels like it was meant to be even though all it really takes is circumstance and the freedom from preconception that’s often lost in adulthood if not much earlier. Their friendship endured without incident for the next sixteen years, during which Nathalie and Rachel laughed, cried and partied extremely hard together. If there was an invisible force that brought or kept them together, it was perhaps a passionate love of the buzz.

Regardless, they stayed friends while everything else changed. When Rachel moved back home to Vancouver, after her parents had “worked things out,” which they actually hadn’t, Nathalie came to visit the following summer, something her mother and stepfather never allowed her to do again. So Rachel came to LA as often as she could and took Nathalie out with her and Ji-min, who had become a gorgeous Korean-American woman at around 19 and got into any club on her looks alone. Nathalie was cute too and developed beyond her age, easily inspiring most door guys to let her right in with no more than a lazy, superficial glance at her older sister’s expired license. Ji-min borrowed IDs from a couple of the slightly older Korean girls she worked with at the nail salon. Their broadly similar Asian features preempted scrutiny. Rachel felt unpretty around Nathalie and Ji-min but found after a couple of drinks that she didn’t give a shit. Plus, in big clubs, she generally got her fair share of attention from dudes and, over time, learned of herself that she just wasn’t as into sex or guys or whatever as her friends seemed to be. Rachel liked to drink, get loose on the dance floor and always believed, no matter how messy her life had gotten, that she was meant for something more important than being someone’s girlfriend or wife.

She looked down at Ousmane, who was still on his knees with his head generally between her thighs. Before thinking about it, her hand was on his cheek, stroking his face. Although Rachel had never thought herself capable of betraying Nathalie, it had occurred to her more than once that she and Ousmane shared something really important, that didn’t really involve Nathalie. After watching a documentary on John and Yoko, learning that their inaugural lovemaking happened early in the morning in the wake of creating music together all night, Rachel began romanticizing the connection she felt to Ousmane. She couldn’t help wondering what sex might be like as an extension of the uniquely powerful creative chemistry she and Ousmane had together.
And he, much less drunk than Rachel, was wondering very much the same thing, even without having seen the John and Yoko doc. Before he knew it, his arms were working their way around Rachel’s waist as he nuzzled her fleshy lower abdomen. Her breathing deepened, partially from arousal and maybe more so in response to the shock of transgression.

Ousmane had not lost awareness of his loyalty to Nathalie. He was not without intense compunction. But his body was taking over, having gone months without any real physical contact with Nathalie. They hugged and kissed regularly but her still recent job had wreaked havoc on their love life. Having dropped out of college and worked at a long list of unmemorable retail and service gigs, Nathalie’s prospects for earning real money were slim. Ousmane would have gladly supported her but his success in the comic world was just beginning to yield serious dividends. In the meantime, to help afford their nice apartment in an expensive city, Nathalie had accepted a job at a new company producing breast milk for the growing lactose intolerant market. She took the job before talking it over with Ousmane because she knew he would object. It wasn’t until her nipples were too sore from induced lactation and being “milked” by a remarkably gentle robot twice weekly that she fully disclosed her job duties to Ousmane and explained why he could not fondle, kiss, lick, suck or otherwise touch her breasts. His first reaction was the predictable demand that she quit immediately but then she told him how much money she was making and reminded him of what they owed every month in rent and bills, thereby persuading him to let her keep the job until he or she had a better way of earning enough.

Intimacy declined from there as Nathalie didn’t really want to be touched and Ousmane wasn’t into sexual charity, like the “favor” BJ or handy. Nathalie had been buxom from an early age but the induced lactation made her breasts unattractively large to Ousmane, who was more of a legs and ass kind of guy, though he never said anything about any of that to Nathalie. She was as beautiful a woman as he could imagine—more so, really—with a pretty, soft face, dark brown hair and a King Magazine booty. Not feeling attracted to her would have fallen outside his perceived realm of possibility prior to her tenure at Pure Breast.

And it wasn’t just the physical side effects of her work getting in the way. The relentless touch of the “tit-bot,” as Nathalie and her female colleagues had nicknamed it, juddered forth deeply repressed memories from her childhood that had been stored or trapped in tenebrous corners of her mind and body. Since Ousmane had been wide open with her about the most traumatic events of his own childhood, Nathalie designated him the first person in her life to hear about what had happened to her, and she suspected, to her older sister before her, at the hands of their stepbrother and stepfather. The truth came lurching out in teary, guttural installments abruptly unlocked by the combination of physical triggers at work and forced sobriety in her off hours (Nathalie had to follow a strict vegan diet and abstain from alcohol, tobacco and any other substance that might have facilitated ongoing denial while working for Pure Breast).

O’s lips were less than inch from Rachel’s when one or both of them changed direction, unable to go through with the betrayal. They landed cheek to cheek in a friendly, loving embrace that lasted for a good minute or so until O stood up and held Rachel’s hands while she got on her feet and walked with his help to the bed. She took the rest of her clothes off lying down while he grabbed the extra blanket from the armoire and cozied up in one of the plush chairs, waiting until he heard Rachel snore before he let himself doze off.