Love in the Time of Shell Toes


Springtime in the Bay always gave Terrence a certain passionate swagger. The air smelled like blooming roses and fresh weed, the sky had lifted its fog blanket to reveal a beautifully naked sun, and the whole city seemed like one long linoleum floor waiting for Terrence to put his new pair of Adidas to good use.

Next time, Terrence thought. He would love nothing more than to dance up and down the hills of San Francisco, but right now he was on a mission.

Today was the big day: April 25. It was their fifth anniversary, and like any good boyfriend, Terrence had waited until the last possible moment to find a gift. Alex, who was not necessarily a better boyfriend so much as a more strategic one, had wisely decided that his present would be to cook dinner. Which he was currently doing at their apartment back in Vallejo.

They hadn’t celebrated any of the previous four years with anything other than a glass of wine and a kiss. But last week while driving across the bridge, Alex had turned off the radio and said, “Fuck it, Terry, I want to celebrate this one.” And for once, Terrence agreed. Now he just needed to live up to his promise.

* * *

Quickening his two-step down Potrero, he noticed a middle-aged couple, white and newly urban, holding hands as they sat at a café on the corner. Terrence didn’t see the ring on her finger, but he knew they were married the same way he knew the woman would clutch her purse tighter when he walked by.

Alex had always joked, “Whenever you’re ready, just remember: I don’t even like rings. I’ll take a nice engagement Kangol any day.”

And Terrence would reply, “Whenever you are ready, I’ll say yes. And then steal that Kangol right back from you so it can be worn with someone with actual style.”

Walking past the couple at the café, Terrence thought about what type of ring or hat Alex might like. Or maybe there was another alternative, as he noticed an old tattoo parlor at 18th and Missouri. Terrence thought about it for a moment: coming home with a red heart painted on his chest and the words written in black cursive: “Unchained and Two-Tone.” But Alex always told him to think about their future together, and he figured it might not be so fresh to have his and Alex’s b-boy names still inked on his skin when they were b-senior citizens who could barely touch their toes, let alone do a cross-legged flare.

Terrence smiled, remembering their first conversation at that house party exactly half a decade ago today. It was a hip-hop benefit for AIDS patients, and both their crews were in the battle. After the winner was crowned (an all-Filipino drag crew called Queenz of the Night), Terrence noticed a tall, light-skinned dancer who’d wowed the crowd with his head spins in the last round, walking towards him.

“Hey,” the dancer said, as he looked Terrence directly, invitingly in the eyes. “You were really getting it out there. What’s your name?”

“Unchained,” Terrence said, giving his breaking alias.

“Unchained, huh? Let me guess…because you’re a sexy revolutionary breaking through the chains of bullshit beats and mainstream misogyny, right?”

Terrence grinned, thinking that this might be a fun dance. “Well, that. And the fact that I take off this chain every time I battle,” he said, taking out his gold necklace from under his track jacket.

The dancer laughed, revealing a pair of dimples that Terrence couldn’t help but notice. “Gold chain? Boy, what do you think this is? 1989?”

“Well, the DJ wasn’t playing nothing past Bambaataa, so that’d actually be a time trip forward.”

The mention of music reminded Terrence they were still at a party, standing right next to the speakers . He started moving to the beat, getting closer to this new possible partner.

“So, what’s your name, Mr. Man?”

“Well, out here they call me Two-Tone, but my friends call me Alex.”

“I guess I’ll be calling you Two-Tone then.”

Alex winced. “Ouch.”

“Just fucking with you, b-boy,” Terrence said. “So why do they call you Two-Tone? Cuz you got a little Caucasian in those strong African features?”

“Well, that,” Alex said. “And there’s this.” 

With a quick grin and a hydro-electric slide, Alex moved into the middle of the dance floor. He got the crowd going into a soul clap as he started his six-step. Getting into it, he flipped over and went up on his hands, doing a series of hand-hops with his legs in the air kicking out the beat. As the song headed towards its climax, Alex, toes still to the ceiling, reached up and pulled down his sweatpants, mooning the crowd.

The party erupted into a sea of laughter and catcalls. Getting a good look himself, Terrence had to smile. Sure enough, Alex’s ass was exactly two tones lighter than the rest of his body. And just as cute.

* * *

Terrence turned up 16th, heading towards Mission. He walked into Urban Mecca, an almost-cliché hip-hop clothing store where he used to steal Kangols and shelltoe Adidas. On the front door, he noticed a flier for an upcoming compilation album featuring Bay Area artists.

“Fifteen rappers,” Terrence thought, “and not a single black dude.”

Terrence went to a lot of shows – he wasn’t one of those b-boys who hated emcees because they “stole the spotlight from the other elements back in ’81, yo.” Nor was he one of those who went to shows only to break and get the crowd’s attention, wanting to steal the spotlight back. Terrence went to enjoy and support the art, the lyricism, the community.

“But damn,” he thought. “Where’s the love for my community?”
In the last month, Terrence had gone to a Filipino hip-hop show, a Mexican hip-hop show, even a small Egyptian hip-hop show. But it’s like they won’t even book black emcees no more.

“Or maybe there’s just none left.”

Terrence looked around. On a sidewalk bursting over onto the street with passersby, he was the only black man around. A little different than when he was a kid.

Growing up in Potrero Hill was different than the city’s main black neighborhoods, the Fillmore back in the day or the Bayview now. From the first day of kindergarten, Terrence understood what the word “minority” meant, but he never felt alone. It wasn’t until after he graduated college, and tried to find an apartment back in the neighborhood that he felt the city no longer wanted him. The office for his graphic design internship was less than a mile from the house he grew up in, but there was no way he could afford to live anywhere close to either one. So much for San Francisco being artist-friendly.

Still, Terrence loved the city, the people, the sounds and most the smells. Walking out of Urban Mecca wearing his new brown Kangol (paid in full, this time), he remembered his first date with Alex other than the movies.

“You’re taking me golfing?” Alex had asked, not believing it for a second. “In San Francisco? In Potrero Hill? You sure don’t know much about me – or your own city, for that matter.”

“Trust me, Two-Tone,” Terrence said. “You’re going to love it.”

Carrying two clubs and a backpack of golf balls, Terrence led Alex through mural-covered back streets, alleys behind new condos, over a chain link fence, and finally up six flights of rusty fire-escape stairs.

“Damn, man,” Alex said, trying to catch his breath. “Are you trying to make me a graffiti king here, jumping over buildings with a backpack? I’ve already got enough reasons to run from the cops.”

“No more running,” Terrence said, ignoring Alex’s fake claim to criminal activity. “This is it.”

“This? What’s this?”

Standing on a rooftop staring at apartments and billboards in every direction, there was not a sand trap or putting green in sight. Oblivious to it all, Terrence pulled out two golf balls from his bag and placed them a couple feet from each other near the ledge.

“This, my friend,” Terrence said, “is the P Hill projects. My boy Kenny used to live here. When we were kids, we’d sneak up here when his mom was out. We didn’t have a country club, we didn’t have a fairway. But we did have a freeway.”

And with that, Terrence swung his club and a hit a ball 150 yards or so into the rush hour traffic of I-280 below.

Alex chuckled. “You’re crazy, do you know that?”

“Yeah,” Terrence said. “Do you like it?”

“I do.”

Not to be out done, Alex picked up the other club and walked over to the second ball. He swung his full weight – Whoosh! – and missed completely. His momentum pushed him so far forward, Terrance was afraid for a second he’d fall off the roof.

“So much for beginner’s luck, ” Alex said from the ground, embarrassed but still excited. “Let me try again.”

Trying not to laugh, Terrence said, “Here, let me show you.”

Helping Alex to his feet, he led him back to the ball, sitting there unmoved and unafraid. Terrence stood behind Alex, close enough that their two shadows became one on the rooftop.

“Here’s what you need to do,” Terrence said. “Put your left hand over your right one. Like this.”

After a couple a couple practice strokes, they swung together and Pow! pounded the ball onto an unsuspecting Toyota Corolla below. Laughing hysterically, the two men spent the next three hours on the roof, talking shit and shooting golf balls over 280, as the sun slowly moved in to the kiss the bay in the distance.

* * *

Terrence looked at his watch. 3:30 in the afternoon. He needed to buy this present quick and get over the bridge before rush hour. Getting hungry, he noticed an ‘Asian fusion’ restaurant down the block, and remembered when he took Alex out for Thai food for his birthday. Alex was 27 now, so that must have been two years ago. Either way, that night was the reason they now stayed in to celebrate big days.

The restaurant was packed. It was more expensive than their usual fare (the El Pastor taco truck), which led to the initial tension. Terrence had lost his main design gig last month, and he’d been rejected for three proposals since.

“You know, we could go somewhere else,” Alex said, looking at the menu prices. “I’ll take burritos over Pad Thai any day.”

“Yeah, but today’s not any day,” Terrence said, leaning forward. “Let me treat you for once.”

After they ordered (Terrence noticing that Alex had selected the cheapest item on the menu), Terrence broached the subject that had sparked several long, heated conversations over the past two months. “So, have you thought any more about this Guatemala thing?”

Alex shifted his weight in his seat. “Do you really want to talk about that?”

“I asked, didn’t I?”

“Yeah, you did. Well, I’ll try to answer then. But don’t get mad.”

Whenever Alex said that, Terrence automatically got mad.

“So this is what I’ve been thinking,” Alex said. “If I really want to learn Spanish, and I do – I mean, most of my students speak Spanish – I need to get out of the U.S. and just do it. And it’s only a year.”

Terrence could hear his heart beating through his jacket. “Just a year? So that’s it, I guess.”

“No,” Alex said, his own heart catching the faster rhythm too. “That’s half of it. The other half is, if I really want to spend my life together with you, which I do more than anything – more than teaching, more than breaking, more than I can fucking explain with words – then I’m afraid that with a year apart, we won’t come back together.”

Terrence’s heart froze midstep. He hated the idea of Alex leaving, but he hated the idea of holding him back even more. He knew Alex wanted him to commit, to say, “Go to Guatemala, boo. Or don’t go. Either way, I’ll still be here, your love, your partner.”

But Terrence was a breaker. Always on the move and ready to split. The longest relationship he’d had before Alex was two weeks, and he was still only 24. He’d never even left the Bay, but where else would he and Alex live? A multi-racial gay hip-hop couple? They couldn’t afford New York.

Alex leaned forward across the table to interrupt Terrence’s thoughts. “Are you even going to say anything?”

Terrence took a deep breath. “Look, Alex, I love you. Te amo. That’s all the Spanish I know. I wish I could come to Guatemala with you, but I can’t. I wish I could ask you to marry me, but I can’t. Obviously. I’m sorry I can’t be your perfect little post-b-boy husband, and settle down and stop breaking like you…”

“Wait, hold up,” Alex interrupted. “What’s me not breaking anymore got to do with anything? Just because I’m tired of dancing to all these homophobic-ass songs, and I’ve got better things to do than just battle…”

“Like what? Teach kids the dances you used to hate as kid?”
“Maybe I just appreciate more now. Dance can be more than just a battle, Terry. You don’t always have to win.”

“You can say that because you’ve never really know what it’s like to lose.”

“Trust me,” Alex said, his voice shaking. “I know what is like to lose something.” Dropping his drink on the table, Alex got up and marched out the restaurant, almost hitting the waiter carrying their food on his way out.

* * *

“Honey, I’m ho-ome.”

Terrence walked in the door of the apartment. It smelled delicious, like Mexican soul food, if such a thing existed. “Anything but Thai,” he thought to himself, smiling.

“I’m in here,” Alex shouted from the kitchen. “Come give your sugar some brown sugar.” 

“Just a sec.”

Terrence put the present in the combined living/dining room, behind the TV. He walked into the kitchen, and gave Alex a kiss from behind.

“Look at all this,” he said. “Is today a big day or something?”

Alex kicked him in the ankles. “Come on, fat boy, let’s sit down. It’s ready.”

At the table, Terrence raised his glass. “Okay, seriously. I want to make a toast. To five years. To two sexy ass men. To us.”

Alex took a long sip and smiled. “We did it, Terry. We lasted longer than the Fugees.”

“I never thought I’d say this,” Terrence said. “But I think I love you more than Wyclef.”

“Well, then you’ll love this.” Alex lifted the top off the main course. It was a fritanga, a spicy rice, beans, and squash dish that he had learned to cook in Guatemala.          

Alex ended up going after all, on a compromise from Terrence (more promise than compromise, according to Alex) that he’d go for only six months, and they’d move in together once Alex got back. The time apart was hard of course, but looking back, Terrence recognized that it’d actually been better for their relationship in the long run. Alex got to pursue his dream of living abroad, while Terrence took the time to learn a language of his own (Java script) and found that web and graphic design skills together got him twice the gigs.

More important, the two learned new ways to communicate. Through letters, emails, and phone calls twice a month, they told each other childhood stories, politically incorrect jokes, sexual fantasies, and other topics they’d never been brave enough to share face to face. When Alex came back, Terrence was there to pick him at the airport, with a huge kiss and a set of keys to their new apartment in Vallejo.

“Man, if I knew you were going to learn how to cook this good,” Terrence said, taking another bite, “I would have told you to stay down in Guatemala another six months. That was delicious, Alex, for real. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. I’m just glad we could spend the night at home, and not have to go out to the city. I mean, what gay couple would want to hang out in San Francisco?”

“Speaking of San Francisco,” Terrence said, “I was walking around Potrero today, and I got you a little something. Close your eyes.”

Alex clapped his hands in excitement. “Oh no, you didn’t get me another graphic design book, did you?”

“Shut up, that’s what you always get me. Now close your eyes.”

Getting the present from the hiding place, he came behind Alex and wrapped his arms around him, holding the gift in front.

“You can open your eyes now.”

Alex did, and he saw at the circular, poorly wrapped package, which he proceeded to rip open like a seven year old at Chuck E. Cheese.

Seeing the top of his prize, Alex smiled, “You got me a record?”

“But not just any record…”

“Oh shit.” Alex laughed, seeing the title. “No you didn’t!”

“Yes. I. Did.”

Alex leapt off the seat and crashed into Terrence with the least graceful, most loving bear hug he’d ever given.

“I can’t believe you got me ‘Move On Up,’” he said, his eyes tearing up.

“Well, you know I had to get you the first song we ever danced to together,” Terrence said.

Sure enough, the Curtis Mayfield classic had come on at that very first house party right after Alex had showed off his assets. A b-boy masterpiece, the song was full of the fast beats, ’70s instrumentals, and great lyrics that appealed to both of them. And at six minutes, it was long enough to give Terrance and Alex a chance to show each other what might be possible.

“Let’s do it, my man,” Terrence said, grabbing Alex’s hand. “This song wasn’t made for hugging.”

He took the record and put it on the player, still dusty from when he bought it at the garage sale last month. Placing the needle at the start, the beat came in and Curtis’ voice took over, as strong and inviting as ever.

“Come on, Two-Tone,” Terrence said, smacking Alex on the chest. “I know you’re retired, but…you down for one last battle?”

Alex took off his sweater. “I think I could handle one more.”

The two got down on the hard wood of their apartment, six-stepping across from each other in perfect unison. No flares, no headspins – this here was about the foundation.

A couple minutes into the song, Terrence took a break and looked at his partner across the room.
“You know,” he said. “I passed this married couple on the street today. I was thinking about marriage, about me and you and what we should do.”

“Oh yeah?” Alex said, trying not to lose the rhythm by saying too much.

“Yeah. I was thinking, with all this gay marriage, Prop 8 stuff, who knows whether it’s gonna be legal or not. But fuck it, I don’t even care about what they call it. I want to be with you. That’s what I know. Does that sound okay?”

Alex blushed as much as his brown would allow. “Yeah, that sounds okay, Terry.”

“And shit, maybe we should go ahead with the adoption thing. Have a little b-boy of our own, you know?”

Terrence dropped to the floor, spun on his shoulders, jumped back up, and froze in an exaggerated pose.

Alex’s face was a joyous sea of sweat and tears. All he could do was laugh. And cry. And dance.

So move on up
and peace you will find
into the steeple
of beautiful people
where there’s only one kind…

The song reached its close. Making sure neither of their hearts had a chance to slow down, Terrence walked over to the record player and put the needle back to the start, to where it all began, and joined his partner on the dance floor.