Albert and I got together the old-fashioned way: A mutual friend introduced us at a summer house party. We were hovering near a kitchen counter laden with red Solo cups, handles of Hennessey, bottles of mixed fruit juices and a spread of Blow Pops.
We didn’t say much during that first encounter. I kept stealing glances at his amber eyes, curious smile, plump lips and meaty hands. He seemed to be well equipped for a good fling (my first), someone I could use for uncomplicated sex.
After the party, I asked our mutual friend to hook us up. She agreed but said, “I think he’s cool, as long as you don’t want anything serious.”
“Perfect,” I thought. I had no intention of taking him seriously or even seeing him beyond that summer. He wasn’t my type.
Albert was a hustle man: a trade student of construction; an owner of a very small, local entertainment company; a manager of his friends’ novice rap careers; a designer and seller of graphic white T-shirts with illustrated phrases in gothic script. He was also a “baby daddy,” having had two children by two women, neither of whom he was serious with at the time.
We did have some things in common. Albert was less than a year older than me, had been raised less than 20 minutes from where I grew up, and was also a product of the Los Angeles public school system. Nonetheless, we fetishized each other based on our differences, perceiving the other through the lens of stereotypical Black tropes.
To be frank, I reduced Albert to a “hood dude.” And in his eyes, I was a nerdy, light-skinned girl who spoke English with the proper resonance and idioms for seamless assimilation into white-dominated spaces. He often called me “whitewashed” and made fun of my desire to attend predominantly white institutions of higher education, to travel to foreign lands and to be a rule follower.
I was about to enter an era of my life where I thought I would be remiss to have never experienced at least one casual sexual relationship. I wanted that summer to be a demarcation in my life before I began my buttoned-up vision of respectable adulthood. A summer where I allowed myself the pleasures of living life off script.
I was 23, newly single and back in Los Angeles after having spent a year living in Hong Kong on a prestigious fellowship. I had returned home to submit my law school applications before heading off to the international destinations that beckoned a second gap year. I wanted something to do between practicing logic games and drafting statements about why I thought going to law school in New York City would be a fruitful endeavor.
Albert filled those moments in between. He became my something.
Initially, we were fine keeping things shallow and embodying the labels we placed on each other. I wanted good sex from Albert — a lot of it — and little else.
He seemed to understand.
“So, let’s say I decide to have sex with you tonight,” I said. “Then what?”
“Then I hope we can do it again and again,” Albert said.
Unknown to us at the time, his words were a spell that locked our chain firmly in place.
Our emotional distance allowed us to be vulnerable and unrestricted in ways we couldn’t be with anyone else. We were honest with each other. There were no games.
To my girlfriends who criticized my involvement with a man who didn’t have a degree or a profession with a sexy job title, I made it clear that our fling would be fleeting and our intentions were mutual.
I didn’t care about Albert’s ego. I didn’t care about his feelings. I felt free to tell him what I wanted and didn’t want. He was willing to oblige my curiosities because I dared to share them with him.
We spent any free time we had that summer feverishly entwined, usually in his bedroom at his uncle’s house. Albert would meet me outside and tell me where it was safe to park my blue Mustang. He would take me out to lunch at Subway when we needed a break. When we felt the need for outdoor exercise, we would run in the sand dunes by Manhattan Beach.
When we were apart, he would call to check in on how my applications were progressing. With every kind and thoughtful act, I felt our emotional boundaries begin to melt away.
After that first summer, my something with Albert followed me around the world and back — for the next 12 years. He became my beau, my inamorato, my on-again, off-again lover.
When we were on and I was afar, I sent him emails and texts with pictures of me partying in Rio de Janeiro, drinking beer in Barcelona and sunbathing in Haiti. I would send him detailed instructions spelling out which numbers to press on his phone to reach my pay-as-you-go cell. We exchanged many messages with the subject line counting down the time until we would be together again: “Only 49 more days — ”
He was the first person I would notify when I visited Los Angeles, even if just for a few days, and we would always make time for catching up.
When we were off, it was typically because I was in a serious relationship. In-person meetups for me and Albert were strictly off the table, and our emails and texts would dwindle to clichéd greetings: “How’ve you been?” “Happy Birthday!” “I trust you and your family have a great holiday season.”
We reverted to polite, friendly exchanges again when I moved back to Los Angeles indefinitely at 30. I sent him an email telling him I was in town, adding, “Unless fate has us crossing paths by accident, meeting up in person isn’t going to be feasible right now.”
“I’m still one of your biggest fans,” he wrote, “and I hope you are happy as well.”
I couldn’t get together with him because I had started dating an old friend from undergraduate school whose résumé paralleled mine: a child of Black immigrants, an Ivy League graduate, an exemplar of corporate advancement. I thought I would marry this high-achieving man. I also thought I had finally severed the tie that bound me and Albert.
I thought wrong on both accounts.
Last year, four months after I’d broken things off with that man just months before we were supposed to get married, Albert and I reconnected in person — again — along Manhattan Beach. We were finally in the same place and both single at the same time. And things felt different because they were different.
At 34, I was no longer practicing corporate law, had been betrayed by love and was unemployed. The shock, embarrassment and sadness of having to cancel my wedding and uncouple my life from my ex’s was just beginning to ease. My recent experiences had put my life script through an industrial shredder.
I learned that life had taught Albert similar lessons.
“I don’t have a family,” he said flippantly when I asked how they were doing.
He told me he was focused on expanding his moving company and being a good father. He’d had another daughter with the mother of his second child, and although they had tried to make a life together as a couple, they’d broken up and decided it was best to co-parent. We were both healing from relationship traumas and done living lives of pretense.
Albert said I had been running through his mind over the last four years. “You’re exceptional,” he said. “I loved my Sheila, just didn’t know how to treat her. Now I know how.”
I told him that he was partly responsible for my personal growth between long-term relationships. Our tie was a constant reminder that there was someone who existed who could make me feel free and open and with whom I could be unabashedly honest. Even during my relationship with the man I had planned to marry, my connection with Albert often reminded me that I deserved someone with whom I felt safe to reveal all of myself — the best of myself.
Neither of us were in a rush to fuse ourselves together into a new relationship that required labels.
“I want you to take me out,” I said to Albert. “I want us to go on a date-date.”
“Whatever time we do spend together,” he said, “I’ll try to make it worth it.”
We parted that day with a long hug, a kiss on my neck and an arm squeeze.
Albert and I are done being tethered to our roles as unsuitable partners, deliciously amiss in the other’s life narrative. After 12 years of casual, it’s time to see if we are something more.
Sheila Ongwae, a writer and attorney in Inglewood, Calif., is writing a memoir.
Modern Love can be reached at [email protected].
To find previous Modern Love essays, Tiny Love Stories and podcast episodes, visit our archive.
Want more from Modern Love? Watch the TV series; sign up for the newsletter; or listen to the podcast on iTunes, Spotify or Google Play. We also have swag at the NYT Store and two books, “Modern Love: True Stories of Love, Loss, and Redemption” and “Tiny Love Stories: True Tales of Love in 100 Words or Less.”