Dee woke to find herself laying face-to-face with Cornel, his eyes shining brightly in the dark as he stared back at her.
“How long have I been asleep?” she asked.
“Awhile,” he whispered as he ran a hand up and down her back.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“Don’t be. You were obviously tired, and I loved watching you sleep.”
“You haven’t slept at all?”
Cornel shook his head. “How could I, with this beautiful woman lying next to me?”
Dee stroked his face, feeling in the dark the angles of his strong jawline and the taut, smooth skin covering it. Her hand slid to the back of his head; she pulled his face to hers and whispered, “Thank you.”
Cornel lightly kissed her lips then asked “For what?”
Just the thought of it made Dee tingle. “Paradise.”
He flinched at her reply, a reaction Dee interpreted as confusion.
“You know…for last night,” she explained.
Cornel laughed. “Oh, that.” He rolled her onto her back and eased his body atop hers. “I’ve got news for you, this night is far from over.”
It had been a night of unabated lovemaking, the depth and breadth of which Dee had never known. His hands, deliciously slow and sensitive, had gently caressed her body, every inch of it, taking the time to commit her form to tactile memory. His mouth, so hungry, had devoured her whole, covering her nakedness with warm, wet, wandering kisses, in places both high and low, in places hidden and forbidden. And, oh god!, his tongue, how it pleasured her in ways no man had ever done before, bringing her to climax over and over again, gifting her with indescribable sensations she didn’t even know existed.
Dee’s legs tightened around Cornel’s muscular thighs as he rocked himself slowly back and forth atop her body, slipping his erection into her and filling her completely.
‘Well-endowed’—that would be the polite way to describe Cornel. He was big, at least compared to both Eli and her ex, Newt, the only other men she’d been with. And, unlike Eli and Newt, Cornel knew how to use his sizeable gift, how to move both with her and within her: Slow, deep, and deliberate when she craved a gentle build-up; fast, hard, and pounding when she begged for release. She’d never before been with a man who was so in sync with her body, a man who catered to her desires, her needs, her every want. They not only moved as one. but came as one, and after, inhaled and exhaled, as if for one another.
As dawn approached, Dee came yet again; Cornel followed a gasping breath after, both crashing sublimely and defenselessly, their bodies spent and limp as they lay in each other’s embrace, silent but for the beating of their hearts.
Cornel began to stir. Dee tightened her arms and legs around him. “Not yet. Stay inside me a little longer.”
“I should probably go,” he whispered, “before Tad wakes up.”
“Tad will sleep ‘til noon if I let him. We’ve got time. And you must be exhausted; you haven’t slept all night. Please stay.”
This time it was Cornel who asked, “Are you sure?”
She answered with a long, deep kiss, at the end of which she told him, “Sleep now.”
He surrendered to her command, letting his eyes slowly close as his muscles melted over her like warm butter.
Dee lay beneath him, stroking his back to lull him deeper into slumber. The warmth of his body, the first rays of morning’s light, the peace she felt within, all combined to make for a brief moment of splendor, one she prayed would never end.
A newfound hope rose inside her—she could feel it; it was palpable and real, as real and as sure as the sun that now rose over the horizon as it signaled the start of a bright, new day and a lifetime of bright, new days sure to follow. Cornel, this beautiful, strong, and giving man, was, she knew, her raison d’être. She’d been waiting for just such a man her entire life. He was everything she’d ever dreamed of: Her Captain America, Prince Charming, and sexy Valentino, all rolled into one. Her hero. Her prince. Her lover.
In Cornel, not only had she found a reason to exist, she’d found Utopia, a secret, private haven known only to the two of them, a place of beauty, tranquility, and erotic bliss.
As memories of their night together floated ethereally about in her head, the weight of sleep descended upon her. She closed her eyes and willingly succumbed, eager to join Cornel in blissful slumber.
The instant Dee’s eyes closed, Cornel’s opened. He lay still and quiet atop her, watching her intently as she drifted off. When he was sure she was out, he lightly kissed her forehead, then cautiously rolled off and onto his back, careful not to wake her. He needn’t pretend to be asleep anymore.
And there he lay, eyes wide open, staring at the ceiling, missing his boys while trying in vain to ignore that solitary word stabbing at his brain, the word Dee had so innocently uttered, the word that made him flinch.
Cornel had only contempt for the word, thanks to his patrol partner, Don ‘DJ’ Bannon, a veteran officer who regularly referred to Phoenix as a festering hell-hole, and to its million-and-a-half residents as braindead maggots who existed only to make Bannon’s life miserable.
The sneering disdain Bannon held for the citizens he’d been sworn to protect was the result of twenty years of working the streets, two long decades of dealing with, in his words, ‘bums, bozos, and bitches.’ And the darker the skin of Joe Citizen, the greater was Bannon’s disdain. He wore his racism on his sleeve; made no secret of his hatred for the yellows, reds, browns, and blacks on his beat – openly and gleefully using whatever slur words he thought appropriate when addressing them.
Cornel’s uniform offered him no immunity to Bannon’s venom; the bigot took pleasure in poking fun at Cornel’s dark pigmentation and calling him ‘boy’ whenever he felt like putting Cornel in his place, which was often. Cornel silently put up with him—he had to. Bannon’s seniority and years of brown-nosing to the brass accorded him a free pass when it came to bad behavior. He was untouchable and he knew it; the gross misconduct he got away with, both on and off the job, was legendary among the force: Accepting bribes from detainees—drugs, money, sex. Groping young women during traffic stops and forgoing citations for blowjobs. Beating up vagrants just for fun and marking a notch on his baton after each assault.
Cornel emerged from every shift with Bannon feeling soiled and repulsed, feeling his insides rotting away as Bannon’s violent, bigoted outlook slowly rubbed off on him. Every shift with the surly S.O.B. ended with the routine of Bannon exiting their cruiser, pausing to stuff a wad of tobacco in his lower lip, and sneering as he looked out over the city. “Just another day in fuckin’ paradise,” he’d say. Then he’d give his holster a solid slap and hocked a loogie into the air before heading into the station.
So when Dee uttered the word ‘paradise’ after thanking him for a night of lovemaking, Cornel’s brain conjured Bannon, like an evil genie suddenly loosed from his lamp, setting into motion a mental mudslide of all the ugliness Cornel had come to associate with the word: the indelible grime of the city and its people, his thankless job, and, most of all, Bannon—it was as if his partner’s ghost had breached the inner sanctum Cornel had reserved just for himself and Dee, sullying the purity of their love, making it feel dirty and cheap.
As Cornel lay staring at the ceiling, he felt as if he were being ripped apart by two diametrically-opposed worlds: Bannon’s jaded, hellish paradise and Dee’s innocent, idyllic paradise. The question plaguing Cornel as he lay awake in his tortured thoughts was which ‘paradise’—Dee’s or Bannon’s—would win the tug-of-war for his soul.