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The Things We Do For Love



I've thought this through all night. I'm keeping the baby." Vanessa's voice had backbone as she said those words. A tremor escaped between a syllable here and there, sure, but that only made sense, given what was at stake. My son's mother was trembling with fear, but her tone told me she was unquestionably up to the task.

Sliding another notch lower into the leather driver's seat of my BMW sedan, I pulled my cell phone back from my ear before responding. "Vanessa, slow down," I said, my eyes darting across the dimly lit, vacant alley. Her statement filtered menacingly through my soul, which hummed with the words you knew this was coming.

I cleared my throat before saying, "I didn't understand you. What did you just say?" Odds were, she'd just repeat herself, but you never knew. In my B.C. (Before Christ) days, I'd backed many an indignant sister off me by simply daring them to repeat the very line they'd saved up for weeks, the one they'd thought would devastate me for sure: I already had the abortion. I know you're seeing that tramp. He was better than you, anyway. Sometimes even, She was better than you, anyway. No matter how seemingly powerful the line, I usually found their delivery weakened with repetition, until I finally turned it around on them to get the outcome I wanted. And now more than ever, with my wife's mental and emotional health on the line, the outcome Vanessa was talking about was 100 percent unacceptable.

"I never wanted this child before," Vanessa replied, stealing some of my fire right off, "but that was before he started growing inside me."

I decided to play it cool, stifling a chill as I began applying the same charms I'm told my daddy employed on his many women back in the day. "It's a miracle, isn't it?" I asked, my tone hushed. "I can't think of clearer proof of God's work."

"Oh God, Jesse," Vanessa said, sniffing back what sounded like a tear. "You know me --- a cynic to the end, a scientist before all else. Before now, the science of maternity was academic --- I didn't really get it, not the way a mother does. But having this little life inside me . . . I know I'll never be the same. I might even be a better doctor when all's said and done."

"I don't doubt that, Vanessa, I really don't," I replied, my heartbeat quickening as the bright headlights of a red Mazda 6 lit up the opposite end of the alley. "You're going to grow as a result of this experience," I said into the phone, though my gaze focused on the slowly approaching vehicle. "We all will. You, me, and Dionne too." My precious wife's name had a metallic taste whenever I spoke it in front of Vanessa; may God forgive me, but I had gradually convinced myself that she and Dionne occupied two mutually exclusive realities.

"I'm not looking for a fight," Vanessa said after a few moments of unbearable silence. The Mazda had rolled to a stop less than fifty yards from me, but thanks to the tinted windows on the driver's side, I had no clue who was inside. "I know you and Dionne will make perfect parents to the right child someday, but, Jesse, this is my baby. Nothing we've agreed to the past few months changes that --- "

"This is our baby, Vanessa," I said, cutting in before her statement could take root. In truth, I felt the child belonged to Dionne and me exclusively; left to her own devices, Vanessa had nearly sacrificed this developing life on the altar of her demanding medical career. "We have to decide his future together, okay? That's all I'm asking."

"I'm not going to promise I can just walk away from him," Vanessa replied, her words now forceful again. "I'm not the same woman you started sleeping with six months ago. I get it now; this is a real human being inside me, one who should grow up knowing his true mother's love."

My attempt to come off disengaged was betrayed by the vibrations in my voice, and I struggled to keep my tone level. "The baby will have Dionne's mothering love," I replied, turning away abruptly when the Mazda's driver's side door popped open suddenly. "He won't lack for anything. Trust me."

Vanessa's weary sigh almost made we wish my son could have two mothers. "It's not like I don't appreciate all you two have been through." During the several weeks in which Vanessa and I had battled over how to handle the pregnancy, I had reluctantly shared the spiritual trials Dionne and I endured throughout our six-year attempt to become parents in the way we'd thought God intended. The rigidly scheduled sex routines and positions, the humiliating fertility checkups; the shattering diagnosis of Dionne's conception-blocking health complications, and, finally, the four near-miss adoptions, most of which fell apart during that harrowing period when a birth mother could still change her mind. Now we were in a place I'd never imagined in my worst nightmare, and even still it looked like this child --- my own flesh and blood --- might slip away. But then, I wasn't going to let that happen.

As I massaged my heated brow, I decided to wait another day to nudge Vanessa back to the other side of the line. The harder and more immediately I pushed, the more I'd just get her back up. Better to bide my time, especially given how many practical facts were on my side. Between her remaining years of residency and the fact she had no extended family willing to help her, single parenthood would severely complicate Vanessa's hard-earned path toward a medical practice.

"Why don't you get some sleep," I said to her, my tone suggestive but subdued again. I finally risked a turn back toward the Mazda and was oddly relieved to see the exact person I had expected, Angie Barker. "The guys and I have to catch a plane to the Stellar Awards in Nashville tomorrow," I said to Vanessa while waving to Angie. "I'll call you from the airport, okay?"

"Okay," Vanessa said, the tightness in her voice softening. "Good luck in Nashville." She paused, then sheepishly said, "Even with all I know, Jesse, I still believe in what you guys do." My contemporary gospel group, Men with a Message, was up for five Stellar Awards and there were rumors about Grammy nominations.

I heard Vanessa's compliment, but stifled any response. She was too smart not to know how much the contrast between my "calling" and our clandestine relationship wounded me. No, her words were a warning shot across my bow: getting my son from her wasn't about to be easy.

Angie was leaning against her driver's side door when I emerged into the chilly night air, her arms crossed, though her full lips were spread wide in a wicked grin. "Ooh, somebody's gotten up in your grill for real," she said, eyeing me with a look of amused intrigue. "You got that look in your eyes from the old days, Jesse, like that time you pulled your nine on Tony Jefferson and them at Chicago's." She stepped forward and pinched at the left shoulder of my bomber jacket. "Should we, uh, do this another time? I don't want you to hurt a sister."

My emotional mask sliding into place, I popped a stick of Big Red into my mouth before extending a friendly hand. "This is the perfect time, Angie," I replied. "You know whenever you call, I come running."

"Oh sure," she said, edging closer into my personal space. Even from underneath her black suede coat, the rise and swell of her healthy breasts were noticeable. Sizing me up from the shelter of her stylish black-framed glasses, Angie touched a hand to my cheek. "Haven't seen you up close in years, old friend, just been reading --- and occasionally writing --- about you. You look good."

Even with everything weighing on me --- tomorrow's high-profile trip to Nashville, Dionne's upcoming, high-stakes interview for a ministerial position at a megachurch in Columbia, Maryland, and, of course, Vanessa and the baby --- my human flesh was eager to return Angie's compliment. Mentally calling on Christ for restraint --- an exercise I still required several times a day, even after years of mostly monogamous marriage --- I settled on a safer route. "How about you?" I said. "You look like you hit the gym regularly yourself. I bet folks fall out when they hear you have a twelve-year-old." If memory served, Angie had gotten pregnant about a year after our breakup, when we were a couple of punk teenagers.

"Aw," she replied, grinning and placing a gloved hand to my chest before respectfully removing it. "That's so sweet of you, now, Jesse." At five foot eleven, she was just an inch shorter than me, but she crooked her neck as if struggling to make eye contact. "Is the industry gossip true? Has Jesus really changed you?"

My heart did another flip as I gave a false smile. "It may not make the most entertaining story for an award-winning journalist, but it's the truth." Angie broke into music journalism by trailing top gospel performers across the country. In the early days she'd stalked the likes of Kirk Franklin, Hezekiah Walker, and Commissioned, from coast to coast, getting in their faces with a warm but determined smile until they gave her a few minutes of time. Eventually she developed a wide network of contacts and a reputation for publishing deeply personal and provocative profiles of artists from not just the gospel world but rap, R&B, and jazz. Her talents had been displayed in Ebony, Essence, Billboard, Savoy, even Rolling Stone.

As a result, when I'd told the other members of Men with a Message --- Coleman, Micah, Frank, and Isaac --- about her six voice messages, they'd forced me to return her call. "You treat her real nice, now," my boy Micah had told me as they stood over me earlier that same morning. Generally the most mature group member and our most prolific producer, Micah's eyes had a strangely giddy quality when Angie was on his mind. "What she can do for our career --- or, I mean, what God can use her to do for our career! J. Law, you cannot mess this up!"

Micah's attitude might not have been so enthusiastic if he'd known the rest of the story. Angie wasn't just an objective journalist interested in a young, increasingly popular gospel group; she and I had what you might call "history." We'd met as teens illegally hitting the DC club scene. She ran with a group of fine, wannabe-down sisters from suburban Virginia, while I hung tough with what I'll call a shadowy group of brothers from my Northwest DC neighborhood. At the time I was the equivalent of crack to a black girl trying to escape the shackles of suburbia, so I had Angie's number --- as well as my hand up her shirt --- within minutes of our first meeting.

Angie startled me out of my thoughts when she suddenly armed her car's alarm system. Hopping in place at the sharp, chirping sound, I yanked my car door back open. "Why don't we talk in here?"

The sound of Angie's alarm hadn't just scared me, because right then a dog two stories overhead began barking to beat the band. Casting a gaze toward the dog's yips and yaps, Angie crossed her arms again. "You ashamed to be seen with me?" She swept an arm toward the other end of the alley. "You know, I realize you're still a bit famous in your own right, but most of the kids out there are trying to have fun on a Friday night. Ain't nobody looking at you, Jesse Law." The alley was at the west end of the popular U Street Corridor, an area populated by a stew of college kids, twenty-something professionals, and locals who weren't disgusted by the sight of spoiled, pampered kids.

"Refrain from the very appearance of evil," I said, shaking a finger playfully, and knowing she'd catch the scriptural reference. "All it takes is one mouthy fan to spread rumors of seeing me hanging with a beautiful woman other than my wife. No sense encouraging mess."

"So what angle would you take if you were writing a profile of your group?" Angie was in my passenger seat now, her legs crossed at the ankles and a BlackBerry device in her lap. "There's so many directions we can go --- the amazing sales numbers of you guys' last two CDs, the secular radio play you've been getting down South, and then there's, of course, everyone's personal stories." She bit her lower lip in a slow, tempting fashion that made the filthy man in me wish we'd actually slept together back in the day. At the time my only experiences had been with Ms. Melissa, an older divorced woman at my church. For the three weeks that Angie and I dated, I guess we were too busy juggling other dates and dodging our parents' discipline to make time for sex.

"The most intriguing story, of course," Angie said now, "is how you made the transition from solo R-and-B star to member of a gospel group. That's a very rare career path."

"Only in God's plan could it make sense," I acknowledged, laughing for the first time in what felt like days. Although I had grown up in a house full of gospel performers, I was the rebel. For five heady years I'd been perched a couple rungs below where Bobby Brown was before me, and where Usher has since prospered. Three platinum CDs, one People's Choice Award, five American Music Awards --- not too shabby. The end of the road, of course, had come quickly and cruelly, and by twenty-two I'd pretty much been handed my walking papers.

"So that's what I'm envisioning for the story," Angie said. "We'll get the widest audience this way, a combination of the group's gospel fans, as well as fans from your ?worldly' days. You're the hook, Jesse: how a bad boy became good."

I fought the urge to kick my old friend out of the car right then; her constant references to my blighted past had me thinking my fears and paranoia about her intentions might be justified. I decided to shortstop the suspense, cut to the quick. "Is there something on your mind, Angie?" I asked, turning and facing her head-on. "I mean, let's get to the point. I'm not even the group's real star. Why did you call me instead of Coleman?" Built like a linebacker, Coleman had an overpowering, penetrating voice that matched his intimidating size. In baseball terms he was Men with a Message's cleanup batter, our home run king. Put him in front of a live audience, and he'd have any haters subdued in seconds, literally blown over with emotion as he rocked them with exhortations of God's power and grace. He was the group's only indispensable voice; if he ever accepted any of the solo deals being thrown his way, we'd be in major trouble.

Angie was still considering my attempt to call her bluff, her hands folded in a way that made her look oddly submissive. "I don't know how much I should say at this stage of the interview," she said, her eyes on her lap for the first time. "I don't want to come off like I'm threatening anyone. I want to base the story around your own journey, in the most positive way possible." She finally raised her gaze back to mine and placed a hand on my knee. "Okay?"

Emotions raged and warred inside me. While I caught the hesitation in Angie's voice when she mentioned the idea of "threatening anyone," I knew she had a platform God could use to tell the story of my salvation. It had been quite a path, a transition from a youth spent fleeing the hypocrisies of the Christian faith --- ones my late father embodied simply by fathering me with a drug-addled white woman half his age, while my stepmother and half siblings slept peacefully a few houses away --- into a life-changing relationship with Dionne that seeded, watered, and nurtured the presence of Christ into my very soul.

While my salvation was a very personal matter, Dionne was the unmistakable catalyst. The lasting mystery for me will always be that it took that third time we met, at a conference in Atlanta, for me to realize just how beautiful she was.

By the time I stole Dionne from her boyfriend, I not only had prayed to accept Christ, I felt the first frightening stirrings of a call to use my musical talents again, though this time for a more noble purpose. I wasn't really built for the gospel industry --- my singing voice has always had a soft quality that's more Ralph Tresvant than Johnny Gill, more Babyface than Luther. When I really look at my role in Men with a Message, my voice is secondary; it's the lyrics of the songs I write that touch people's hearts. Not that I keep score, but I've noticed that while people fall out in the aisles during Coleman's songs, they're more likely to come forward for prayer when I'm front and center. As a result, I'm at ease being the pseudoheartthrob (yes, even "saved" women notice a handsome man) and the brother who peels away my listeners' outer shells, the one expressing the fears and scars they're tempted to hide from others.

Once I'd poured out most of this history to Angie, I peered over at her as she furiously typed shorthand into her PDA device. "We should wrap this up soon," I said, feeling spent both from reliving the past and from anticipating my next phone call with Vanessa. "I have an eight-thirty date with my wife. She's expecting a romantic night, since we'll be apart for the next week." After the Stellar Awards taping, the group was hitting the road to a couple of Gospel Fest concerts on the West Coast.

"That's fine," Angie replied, shrugging and still typing. "Are you okay finishing up via phone?"

"Sure," I replied. Clearing my throat, I tapped her left wrist. "Before I give you a formal go-ahead on all this, though, there's still the question of what you meant earlier."

Angie had gone shy again. Her chin still tucked toward her bosom, she asked, "What did I say earlier?"

"Something about threatening the group?"

"I wanted to save it for last," she said, gripping me with a steely stare now. "I have no intention on being shallow with it, Jesse, but someone in your group is facing some pretty explosive issues in his private life."

My fists clenching defensively, I began to picture Angie's article on the screen of my mind, and it was all about me. All about how I'd soared to the top of the record charts during a rebellious youth. All about my proclaimed salvation and years spent singing God's praises, for paychecks that were whispers of what I'd once earned. All about my betrayal of my wife, fathering a child with another woman and planning to pass him off as our adopted son. It was a pitch-perfect "Whatever happened to . . ." tale, a story of how I just couldn't get right after tumbling from the spotlight and the "real" record charts.

None of the more humanizing elements of the story --- my shift from a youth spent sexing any female who had two legs to my years of fidelity with Dionne, the unpredictable way in which my relationship with Vanessa had developed, the fact that I'd ultimately saved a life she was ready to extinguish --- would make it into print. I would be neatly and cleanly exposed as a sham, another hypocrite, just another faded star who'd sought face-saving solace in religion's questionable bosom. In one fell swoop I was sure to lose Dionne and the baby, while capsizing the careers of my brothers in ministry. Eight years of Christian living, up in smoke.

I was choking. I don't know on what, but something was lodged in my throat and I couldn't get it out. Slamming my fists on the dashboard, tears squirting at the edges of my eyes, I saw Dionne's face flash across my mind, followed by Vanessa's and a vision of what my son might look like when he was born. Something kicked inside me and I pushed out a violent cough just as Angie reached for me.

"I --- I'm fine," I said, jerking away from her as I wiped spittle from my mouth. "Get out of my car," I said finally, once I had caught my breath. My stare pinning her where she sat, I held on to my steering wheel as if my car were being rocked by an earthquake. "I'm not playing with your ?gotcha' journalism." I'm not sure that I meant it --- given the stakes, I'm sure I had my price. At that moment, though, I was in no mood to negotiate.

The car was deadly silent for what felt like hours before Angie sighed several times and opened her door. Shifting away from me, her voice still low, she didn't even look back as she spoke. "So you know," she said, her voice a near-whisper, "I wasn't even talking about you."

Excerpted from The Things We Do For Love © Copyright 2012 by Xavier Knight. Reprinted with permission by Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.

The Things We Do For Love
by by Xavier Knight

  • paperback: 306 pages
  • Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
  • ISBN-10: 0446582387
  • ISBN-13: 9780446582384