My name is Deja Blue, and I’m a sax player. My dad was a sax player too. You might’ve heard of him. The late, great Noah Blue. He’s the one who named me. When I asked him why he named me that, he said, “When I first saw you, you reminded me of a sad feeling I’d once had.” Whatever that meant, I have always had a melancholy soul. My mom told me that I never smiled as a child. My dad told me that he never noticed whether I smiled or not, just that when he beat my ass I cried. He was a chickenshit motherfucker, but he could sure blow a horn. And so can I.
I was my daddy’s son, but I was my mama’s boy. My dad taught me the horn, and in his own way how to be a man. But it was my mom who taught me how to be a gentle man. When I was growing up, whenever I’d screw up, my dad would get mad and beat my ass. I just stayed out of his way.
I was a melancholy ghost at home who bit my nails, cuticles, and fingers until they were bloody, and would swell up like sponges when dipped in water. I was eating my fingers. Once in high school at lunch a really cute girl I had a crush on looked at my fingers and called them “monkey fingers”, and yet as ashamed and embarrassed as I was, I still couldn’t stop biting them.
I wasn’t able to stop biting my nails until I was 23 years old by sheer force of will, and I consider it my proudest achievement. Because it was hard man. Real hard. I had to be aware of every time I would put a finger to my mouth and force it back down, every second of every day for months—even though I was still just as nervous as ever. But I did it. If you happen to see a copy of my first album “Vagabond Jazz”, and look at my hands on the sax, you’ll see my long grotesque untrimmed nails, but to me they were beautiful because they were the first finger nails that I had ever had. Later I learned how to cut and trim them, and now I never think about biting them. But goddamn that was hard.
Race. Inescapable race. Encompassing all. I’m determined to exist outside that realm. But in America they won’t let me do that. They—ubiquitous they. Black and White they.
I’m Black. Or African-American. But not colored or Negro. God how I hate that word Negro. Even as a child I didn’t like it. It seemed to me to connote us as aliens. Penetrating to the essence of humanity, all those different names are irrelevant. Aren’t they? I don’t get my personal sense of identity from my ethnicity, nationality, or occupation. I’m totally indifferent to all that. I get it from me, and in my heart of hearts I simply consider myself Deja—a vagabond vessel taking on cargoes of universal human experience.
It’s August, and I’ve been in Edinburgh, Scotland for a week playing at The Edinburgh Jazz and Blues Festival. Then it’s on to Munich, Berlin, Amsterdam, Paris, and Copenhagen which’ll wrap up a tour that began in Australia. Tomorrow, I’ve got a date for a drink with Collette, a henna-haired lady Scot with an accent sweet enough to put in coffee. Collette is gay. She made that quite clear to me from the start, so there’s nothing happening there. But that’s cool. I don’t understand same-sex attraction at all. But you can’t change the way you’re sexually wired is the way I see it. I didn’t choose to start looking at girls a different way when I was fourteen. I just started looking at them that way. I could’ve easily started looking at boys that way if I’d been wired that way. Then I would’ve been both black and gay in a world intolerant of both. What a minefield that would’ve been.
Anyway, coffee with a pretty woman with an accent, gay or straight always makes the day better, and I need to feel less blue about Afia, a lovely, funny, classical and contemporary dancer of Ethiopian descent that I met in Melbourne at the start of the global tour.
I met Afia on a Thursday at a club I was playing called Jazz Alley. My set had been a hard one. My tenor sax was leaking, and I’d had a real struggle keeping my tone. The crowd didn’t seem to notice, but for me it’d been drudgery. After the show I was at the bar sipping a glass of champagne, twisting in the wind when I spotted her profile across the room. Damn it was
striking. A beautiful brown curly explosion of hair accompanied by a cocoa colored face, jeans, and a lean, tight figure–ensconced in brown ankle high boots with pointed toes. “Has anybody ever told you that you’re a truly stunning woman?”
She turned to look at me, this strange dreadlock wearing man who hadn’t even said hello, and said “No, not that I can remember.”
“Well I think that’s a travesty. You should be told that every minute of every day.”
She stared at me, her liquid brown eyes tentative, then boldly exploring, then cocked her head to the side and said, “I think you really mean that. My name is Afia.”
She had an Ethiopian father, and Australian mom in Perth, and Afia meant “born on Friday”.
“Would you like to go with me to see a film at The Astor…the art house revival theater?
“I’d love to.”
The next day we saw “Lantana” and went for drinks afterwards. While we were waiting at the tram stop for the #96 to St. Kilda to take her home I asked, “Can I go home with you?”
“If you don’t mind a messy apartment.”
And so it began. I don’t care how beautiful a city is, it gets a lot prettier if you explore it with an interesting sexy woman. Only then does it begin to live and breathe. She was a retired ballerina now studying photography. “Dancing was the only time I really felt alive,” she said, and she still had the dancer’s walk. A straight back, and strong stride filled with vitality, energy, and purpose. She’d bounce off the #16 tram and run across the street to Flinders Street station with her scarf flapping in the wind to meet me drawing admiring looks from both men and women. But in bed it was a different story. She was a snuggle bunny of the first order. Soft and cuddly, and filled with gentle sighs, and mumbles. And a deep-throated musical laugh that caused a hard man to care. One day she was in the shower with her hair pulled up soaping her small supple body listening to me say that I wasn’t the jealous type, and then stuck her head out and asked with total dismay, “Not even a little bit?” with her face scrunched up in such an endearing way that my stubborn heart immediately capitulated, and forced me to say, “Yes, I would be jealous with you.”
How she loved her sleep. Afia could sleep all day, whereas I was that rare jazz musician who liked to get up early, read my newspaper, have a cup of coffee, then do a couple of hours of practice. I like the morning quiet.
“You know if you got up two hours earlier each day you’d get a head start on the day, and by the end of the you’d have about 720 hours of time saved up,” I’d tease when I got up each morning.
“To do bloody what with?” she’d say, pulling the covers over her head. That was our daily routine until the morning before I left Melbourne. I got up early as usual and started in, “You know if you got…”
“Will you please stop with that shit,” she snapped.
I shrugged and walked out.
15 minutes later while I was in the sitting room drinking a cup of coffee, she came in nude dragging her blanket like a little girl lost.
“Don’t tell me you got up early to start saving time.”
“No way. It’s just that it’s no fun sleeping late without you next to me,” she said. Then she kissed me, jumped on the couch close to me, working herself into it’s crevices, and in a moment was fast asleep. For two hours I silently practiced my fingering and watched her dream.
It’d been a beautiful month that was over before I knew it, and for the first time I felt truly sad about leaving a woman. But I didn’t tell Afia that. I was trying to take my time with her and not rush, but deep down I knew…I knew. All I said, when I kissed her goodbye was “You’re very special Afia, let’s stay in touch, and I’ll be back after the tour.”
The plane was two hours out of Melbourne, and I hadn’t said two words.
“You need to marry that one,” said Slim, my then bass player. “You won’t ever be the same if you don’t.”
Good old Slim. His real name’s Lester, but we called him Slim ’cause he’s fat—like a giant black buddha. He’d been married for twenty years to Estelle. She’s fat too, and they’ve got two fat kids. You’ve never seen a family more in love with each other—and food.
“She’s great, but it’s a little too early to be thinking that way”.
“It’s never too early to be thinking like that when love’s involved”.
“And just what makes you think that love’s involved?”
“That two hour vacant stare out the window wasn’t about the clouds. I’d bet my whole tour salary on that.”
I thought my weekly calls would be enough to keep Afia close to me till I returned to Melbourne, but suddenly all I would get was her voicemail, and no call back. Then while I was in Edinburgh, she Dear Johned me—by text. She was sleeping with somebody else now, or as she delicately put it, “Nothing happened at first, but it’s now become a relationship.” I read it 20 times, and the thought of Afia in the arms of another man drove me mad–and I was on the other side of the world for the next six weeks.
“You didn’t give that girl enough to hold onto when she got lonely,” said Slim as we ordered breakfast in an Edinburgh cafe. “Nature abhors a vacuum, and so does a woman’s heart.”
“I told her she was special to me.”
“Special” he sneered, as they put his eggs in front of him. “Women gotta hear that word love. Then they know they’re special. Men love with their eyes, but women love with their ears.”
“What would your fat ass know about what women need to hear?”
“Well, to answer your question, I know enough about what women need to get one to marry me, and to be able to keep her happy for 20 years. Can you say that?”
No I couldn’t. But I wouldn’t want his grocery bills either.
I don’t know how other musicians feel about their instruments, but I can’t imagine expressing myself with anything but a saxophone. It’s a direct connection to my soul and when I play it I feel that I’m blowing out my deepest feeling and demons. When I’m feeling blue, my playing becomes something special, and the last few nights in Edinburgh had been my best playing in years. Women sighed and waitresses stood still when I soloed each night. I was pining but I couldn’t get the pain out no matter how much or how hard I blew. After one show I was packing up my horns when Slim walked into the dressing room.
“You’re sounding real good Deja. That last solo told a beautiful story about your feelings for Afia. You ought to put that solo in a letter to her.”
“You mean send her a tape of the song? That’s not a bad idea.”
“No, not a tape of the song. Open your heart and put that solo into words. I guarantee you it will say everything she needs to hear and know about you. I’m not saying it’ll change your situation, but she needs to read that,” said Slim as he walked out into the Edinburgh night.
When I left the club to walk back to my flat, a strange thing happened outside the club. A drunk-off-her-face Scottish woman of witch-like appearance walked over to me, got two inches from my face, and said, “You’re the one I’m meant to meet. And I scream like a lady.” When I tried to walk away she grabbed me, and slapped me hard across the face. I grabbed her hand as she swung again, and twisted it hard behind her back until the club security guard grabbed her. I left Lady McBitch to him and walked up Lothian Road with her Scottish curses ringing in my ears puzzled, and amazed at the cold fury in my chest. I’ve never hit a woman, and yet I’d almost hit her.
Lothian Road was bustling with people out on the town. I passed an African man on a mobile phone while his wife and small son stood nearby.
“Hello, hello,” he said in an urgent voice. “We’re lost. We don’t know where we are.”
A homeless man was sitting on the ground, and I wondered if he’s happier or sadder than I was. His body had no house, my heart had no home. “Say ma’am got any spare affection?” he says with a slight laugh to a woman passing by. She shook her head no, and kept walking through the mist of her life.
I had the route down. Lothian Road to Fountainbridge, past the brewery, to Viewforth, to Horne Terrace, to Thistle Place, the cul-de-sac–where my depressingly dark rented flat was. The orange street lamps gave the night a dreamy enigmatic feel.
Deja, Deja, Deja, are you an enigma? Think hard man. It’s time to figure you out. You think you know what you want, but do you want what you know? At the end of the day are you the great saxophonist Deja Blue, or just another solitary man headed to a lonely flat?
When I got home I was tired, but couldn’t sleep. I kept seeing images of Afia in my mind’s eye. I stared into the darkness for hours before I heard it.
“You oughta put that solo in a letter to her,” came Slim’s voice. I turned on the light and looked around till I found some stationery. I grabbed a pen, sat down on the bed and closed my eyes. Nonsensical, unrelated thoughts flooded my mind, Coffee, the coolness of rain, the whiteness of snow, herbal teas that I like. Shards of thought. Lightning flashes with no illumination. Then I pulled out the tape of that night’s show and played it. The music washed away the extraneous, and slowly I began to write.
When I finished writing it was light outside, and I was soaked with sweat. I laid back against the pillow, read the letter and then fell into a deep sleep.
I woke up around two, got dressed and walked to the post office on Frederick Street mailed the letter Swift Aire and headed back to the flat to practice. The day was beautiful. The sky was crystal blue, and cloudless, and the winds had the breezy crispness of autumn. As I walked down Fountainbridge, I saw a beautiful woman coming towards me with a gorgeous full head of curly brown hair that was blowing in her face. Slim, with her midriff exposed, tight wraparound dress, and open-toed high heels, she walked with a natural seductiveness that I hadn’t seen in a Scottish woman thus far. The flow of her hips demanded notice and initiative.
“You make me wish I had a camera,” I said as she drew near. This was the first time I’d used that line. It’s a good one, and it became one of my top go to opening lines over the years.
She pointed to her eyes and then mine, and said with a smile “You do.”
My eyes focused, set the shutter speed and clicked.
“Well, can I get a name for the caption of the picture I just took of you?”
She laughed. And it was dangerous.
Her name was Reina. Short for Salvareina. From Sardinia, Italy, and the self-admitted black sheep of the family. November born, she was an olive-toned Scorpio with the feline moves and provocative attitudes they all possess. We had coffee the next day. Then we went back to her place and smoked a joint. She had just broken up with her boyfriend a few weeks before.
“Do you miss him?” I asked.
“No, because when the love go, the love it is a gone. And I a need some time to think, because right now I feel flat.” She took a hit on the joint. “So do you have a woman?” Her English was broken but the attraction was clearly understood.
I told her about Afia and my regrets.
“I don’t know why you men never go for it when you have the moment,” she spat out. “Why do you not go for it when you in the moment?”
“I like a passionate man,” she said. “If you have passion then you making love. If not, you are just a fucking.”
Each day Reina spoke only English, but at night she came in Italian. We had two passionate nights before I left Edinburgh. I thought a hot lusty affair with someone as gorgeous as Reina would put enough in my tank to lift my spirits. But I was wrong. We gave each other temporary comfort in a large, lonely world. Nothing more, nothing less.
The next day I was sitting on a bench in the town square playing my soprano sax to help blow my demons out, and a teenage Scottish boy about sixteen who resembled Jonny Lee Miller came over and listened for awhile. When I finished my song he said “You remind me of my father.”
“I do. How so?”
“We can always tell when he’s feeling melancholy cause he takes his clarinet up to the hill behind our house and plays for a long time.”
“Is that often?”
“No. But he only plays when he’s feeling blue. That’s how we know. I hope you feel better,” he said and he left.
I called and texted Afia from London, Munich, Berlin, Amsterdam, Paris, and Copenhagen, and each time got no response. She knew how to reach me and hadn’t tried.
I called her from Melbourne airport and left a message that I was back and wanted to see her. She called that night and we agreed to meet for coffee the next day. Her voice was friendly, but nothing more. As I dressed for our meeting, I worried about how I would feel. Not upon seeing her, but when or if she walked away. I took my soprano saxophone. I was going for it.
We met at the Vineyards in St. Kilda near the beach. It was a pretty day with the feel of winter. Cold blue sky splashed against dark gray clouds. She was wearing the red Doc Martin boots I had bought her for her birthday. She was even lovelier than before so my heart both leapt and sank at the same time. Without saying a word I took my horn and played her a solo like I’d played each night of the tour. When I finished the people in the cafe applauded.
“You’re still a silly, crazy man,” she said, looking embarrassed but happy.
We caught up on the mundane things—her job, her photography classes, her still prattling mom, her Ethiopian father who didn’t understand her artistic desires, Lady McBitch. We talked, laughed and joked with the same warm rapport that used to culminate with us in each other’s arms. The music of her laugh once again made my heart dance. It was strange. Surreal really. Nothing had changed between us, but yet in reality, everything had changed. It wasn’t till we took a walk on the pier that we started to talk seriously.
“I read your letter from Edinburgh. It made me cry.”
“I just told the truth. The whole truth, and nothing but the truth.”
She stroked my arm and said, “It’s okay. You’re not on trial.”
“Too little too late?” I floated.
“Better late, than never,” she said, bringing my question down to earth.
I stopped and gave her a kiss on the lips. She started to give her tongue to me, but then abruptly pulled away saying, “I’m sorry, but I’m committed to Ian.”
Her new man had finally made his appearance. An actor friend of a few years.
“So tell me about this man who’s forcing me to live without you in my life.”
She paused for a moment and then began. “I got very sick, and the doctors couldn’t figure out what it was. I couldn’t move. It took me an hour to get from the bed to the bathroom. I had no family here in Melbourne, you were on the other side of the world, I didn’t know where you and I had left things, and my friends had their own lives to live. Ian came by, looked after me, and took me to my doctor appointments. We started spending time together and found we could talk for hours, and then I guess things happened. He’s a good man and when I needed someone he was there.”
“Well, I’m here now,” I said, knowing immediately the inadequacy of that remark.
“I know, but you weren’t here when I needed you.” Seeing the pain in my eyes. “You didn’t do anything wrong. It’s just the way things worked out.”
Her eyes told me that there was no reprieve, and yet I asked, “Don’t you care for me?”
“Yes, I care for you. But I care for Ian more.”
“What is it about him that’s swept you off your feet?
“Oh Deja, don’t ask questions like that. What can I say? It works.”
I took a deep breath. “Afia, I want you in my life. I have to see you, no matter how little the time. An hour, a minute, a second. Anyplace, anytime. Just say the word and I’ll be there.” She sighed and shook her head no. “I can’t. I can’t,” she said, taking a step back from me.
“I better be going, I’m sorry.” She kissed me on the cheek, then turned and walked away with her scarf flapping in the wind. As she strode away with her dancer’s walk, after 50 meters she turned back to me, waved, and then turned back around. I watched her become a distant figure. I thought about her walking into a future without me, and into another man’s arms and bed and I now had the answer to how I would feel. When I could see her dancer’s walk no more, I turned to the sea to collect myself–sad like Norwegian saxophones.
Franklyn Ajaye is a Black American actor (“Carwash”, Bridesmaids”, “Deadwood”), television writer (two Emmy nominations for comedy writing), musician, a stand up comedian with four comedy albums, who has appeared often on American television shows, and done successful one man shows at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, and Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and author of the book, “Comic Insights/The Art of Stand Up Comedy”. He now lives in Melbourne, Australia.
1. Non Fiction book – “Comic Insights/The Art of Stand Up Comedy – https://www.amazon.com/Comic-Insights-Art-Stand-Up-Comedy/dp/1879505541/ref=sr_1_1?crid=2CND93OXLY2W6&dchild=1&keywords=comic+insights+the+art+of+stand-up+comedy&qid=1621459483&sprefix=comic+insights%2Caps%2C419&sr=8-1
2. Flash Fiction Short Story – “Hard Work” – http://matterpress.com/journal/2021/05/11/hard-work/
Social Media – www.Youtube.com/franklynajaye – Comedy and music performances
Image by Jean-Dominique POUPEL at Pixabay
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