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Table of Content
Thanks To: Eddie Edward Springer for loving me
‘because’ I had faults to love.
To: Donnie K. Nabors for being the catalyst of pain for me to learn lessons that no one else ever got close enough to teach me.
Thank you all for allowing me to be who I am today.
I send much love to each of you from all that am and hope to be.
The Plastic Face
Jessie Solomon grew up with parents who enjoyed a strong, stable relationship that outlasted most connections. So why was the oldest of their three daughters flailing through her life, completely unstable? Why couldn’t she see the forest for the trees? Her two sisters, Jelly and Jerry, were progressing and succeeding in life with few issues; but at every turn, Jessie seemed to drive herself into one brick wall after another. When would her life come together? Would she ever live happily ever after?
Darren, tall dark and full of wonder, swaggered into her life, wanting to right all the wrongs that she encountered. He wanted to be better than the husband she lost in an ATM robbery. However, he consistently fell short of every target he aimed for to impress her. Darren had his own past to sort out, and as long as he kept his secrets she would love, respect and trust him.
The one thing that held his attention was her amazing smile. Despite how hectic or chaotic either of their lives became, her smile knocked him off his feet. Her single dimple drew Darren in to her world – with no escape.
They wanted to make a life that outsiders would envy and mimic. Darren could not understand how Jessica could smile, no matter how dire the situation or circumstances. Jessie was an enigma. Darren loved her but he just could not figure out who or what she really was, or what she really wanted.
Unfortunately, that made two of them.
McCarran International Airport
Las Vegas, Nevada
March 18, 2004
As I sit here at the gates, I am amazed at the turns my life has taken. How did I get here from there? Well … the history is amazing, not always pretty and often painful. Have I learned anything from the past – recent or otherwise? When do we really learn? How do we learn? Some only learn through pain and suffering; others, through watching others’ mistakes and/or rise to success. How do I learn that love is not for everyone and that healing really takes time? How much time does it take one human to love, hate or despise another? When is enough, enough?
The next seven months are tedious and stressful at best. Planning a wedding is no picnic; it is planning a wedding, which is work. When I married the first time, I missed all the hoopla of planning and stressing. My family did all the work, and I showed up with bells on. I didn’t even have to pick out my dress. Is this why they have wedding planners? I guess so. I send out a lifeline for help: a co-worker who loved Eddie to death – what a play on words. She is out of work because of an injury to her shoulder, but has a flair for parties. This wedding is destined to be a party, a big party; no, a massive party. Five hundred guests are expected, but seven hundred invitations are mailed. In actuality, the room can only seat four hundred fifty, keeping room for the band and caterers. Still, Darlene insists it is an obligatory courtesy to send out invitations to all family, friends, and Darren’s political cronies. I do not like having politics mixed into my private life from day one. This was supposed to be my – well, our - wedding day; instead, we will be sharing it with two United States Senators, a Governor, a raft of state legislators, the Mayor, his father, and four other council members seated at key tables which should have only family there. However, these are on Darren’s side, so he calls those shots with only a slight rebut from me. Darlene says it is a good idea, that they will bring money and that that is the most important thing about a wedding. Darren says that much “juice” at his wedding will only enhance his reputation and political prestige. I say crap, crap and double crap: it is about romance and two people committing their lives to each other. Darlene says I live in a fantasy world when it comes to my personal life.
“Think about this as a merger, think about your marriage as you do your professional life, and you will find yourself happier than you have ever been. You are not marrying Eddie again, you are marrying Darren; two different people, for two different reasons,” she explains.
“That is the same reason I am marrying Darren.” I am adamant. Darlene glares. “No, I married Eddie because I loved him, I love him, yes, and I still love him and miss him tremendously.”
“You are confused and delusional. Get it together quick or you are headed for self-destruction.”
Little did I know that those sage words would be the only thing this woman ever said to me of any value in her lifetime!
Five months later, it all becomes so clear to me that these are in fact two different men, with two different agendas, and I really did not see the forest for the trees. I am positive Darlene did not realize what she had prophesied, or the magnitude her prediction would have on my life.
We are down to three weeks before the wedding. Darren schedules a lunch date, books a room, and makes reservations for dinner. He schedules us to pick up the marriage license and take professional pictures before dinner, then spend the last romantic night as an engaged couple. We sat for engagement pictures six months ago, so I am so confused about this professional set of pictures we are doing now. As far as I’m concerned, we are sneaking away in town, which is splendid. Darren insists on going to the room early to drop off the luggage. He is acting strangely. He is a romantic at heart, or my flights of the imagination want to believe he is. Maybe he is getting cold feet; I know I’ve had my own doubts. When we get to the room, he carries me over the threshold. Okay. Maybe he is just horny. It has been a few days. Our schedules just do not meld like they used to, and the kids came up from Tennessee last weekend, filling the house with activity. Darren gives the bellman a tip, orders a bottle of champagne, and then starts the tub. He knows I love my baths.
“Baby, my divorce may not be final before the wedding day. There, I said it.”
My face is blank, but my eyes are watering. I feel nothing; yes, I am numb; and yet this rage is boiling from within me, making me want to throw things and scream to the top of my lungs. White girls always lock themselves in the bathroom; now I understand the reasoning. My feet will not move; my brain races at a thousand miles an hour. How do I comment on a bomb being dropped on me like this? The nerve of him bringing me here to Union Station in the middle of the afternoon to say he is married. When did he get married? Is this the wife with the kids in Kentucky? What the hell?!
“Excuse me?” I smile.
“Well, I thought she had signed the papers because I filed them, but ….”
“No. Excuse me. I said get out of my way, and step aside. I must pass you. I need you out of my sight!”
I walk into the bathroom and watch as the tub almost runs over before I have the strength to turn the knobs. I cannot stay in here all night. At least he has learned to give me my space. He only knocks on the door once; I think I hear the television. How can he watch television at a time like this? Who is this retarded man? I do not know what to do or say. My cell phone is in my purse; my purse is on the bed. I pick up the phone in the bathroom and call Raven. “Hey girl.”
“What’s up with you?” she replies.
Before I can answer, she goes on.
“When is the bridal shower? I have not talked to you in days. How is everything going with your plans? I picked up my dress from the post office, it is beautiful, and I am not bringing my husband.”
Raven goes on for about four minutes before she realizes I have not said a word. She stops talking.
I do not have the heart to tell her. I am so embarrassed that I cannot share this with anyone. I am engaged to a married man. Invitations sent, my last fitting done, the hall booked, caterers paid, honeymoon waiting and no husband.
“Just getting cold feet, needed a dose of home. The shower is next weekend at Darlene’s house. I will give you directions; no, I will have her call you tomorrow. Call you later, gotta go. Smooches.”
Raven Madison is my oldest friend from Chicago. Raven and I graduated high school together; we even write real letters to each other when the mood hits us. She is in the wedding, but not my maid of honor. I think this is a bone of contention for her but she is keeping this to herself. She is separated and may even be divorced by now; she hasn’t told me the details or even the ending. She is pretending to be supportive, and I’m good with that for now.
Sitting in what is now a steam room, my brain wonders around the ballroom of the Sheldon Concert Hall housed on the third floor. The skyline of the city, the decorations, the menu, the open bar liquor list and the seating arrangements for the big day. I scan in my mind my checklist for the hotels available for out of town guests, the trip to the zoo the day before, and the tour of the city the day after the wedding. This is quite an event; therefore, a formidable brouhaha must accompany such a monumental affair to even out the universe. I can feel myself calming on the outside; I can also feel the volcano stirring in my gut.
The problem is that when I lead with my gut, bad things happen. Trying to think good thoughts is futile, even when I squeeze my eyes shut. Closing my eyes produces red streaks of blood with my fingers around his neck. I am envisioning Darren’s eyes popping out with him screaming apologies and throwing diamonds at my feet. Yep, the calm is here as these characters in my mind have turned in to anime, which brings a smile to my lips.
Leaving the bathroom, I put on a calm, cool, and collected mask. When I am ready, I speak softly with this fire burning inside me.
“I know you have lost your mind. You are completely insane, having proposed to me and planned this huge wedding, when you are married to someone else.”
My voice is silken. Sometimes I wish I could sound like my mom or even my sister, but I have the ability to enunciate and that makes an impression. Close enough.
I see fear, no, terror in his eyes. The best part is he gives himself away through his stuttering.
“I, I, I really thought she signed those, uh, the papers.”
“So when you never ever received a copy of your final divorce decree, you were not the least bit suspicious? When did you even think to check, and why so fucking late in this ball game are you checking on a game that has already ended?”
Still I never raise my voice, and that should signal to him the depth of trouble he, no, we are both in here.
“She, she told me when I dropped the boys off last week that, that, that I couldn’t get married. She said it was her punishment for me leaving her.”
“Listen to me. I do not want the details of your obviously twisted relationship with your wife. Instead, you better think of some way out of this and think of it quick.”
I am smiling an eerie smile and my eyes are glassy. The furnace boiling inside me is so close to eruption I can hardly breathe.
“Where is the photographer?”
“He is still downstairs waiting.”
“You need to get rid of him for tonight. You need to find a solution to your problem before day break. If I leave this room without a solution, the marriage is off. As a matter of fact, I am trying to imagine my life with you, problem solved or not, and it is blurry as hell. My trust in you, for you, is scraping the bottom and digging a hole.”
“What, what do you want me to tell them?” He stammers.
“Tell who what? I don’t care what you tell anyone. It appears you have a knack for evading the truth, speaking in riddles and entrancing audiences. But then, you are a politician, aren’t you?”
My temper finally erupts.
“I strongly suggest you figure it out! Now get out.”
Darren uses the room phone and reschedules the photographer for next week. He takes a credit card and two hundred dollars, lays them on the table in the middle of the room. As he looks at me over his shoulder, I hasten him out by opening the door to the room. I refuse to make eye contact and I smirk to myself.
Now that he is gone I sit on the bed and cry, I cry, and cry some more. What have I done? What am I going to do? What just happened? I want to kill him, that’s what I should do. Let him stay the night and kill him in his sleep. I stop crying and start to laugh at the thought hysterically. I instantly remember Jelly’s advice to me years ago when I couldn’t figure out what to do about Eddie. Marry him and make him pay. I only need to figure out exactly what I want and/or need that I cannot get on my own. My own business, a contract with the city, a position in politics. All these things he has access to and only a fingertip away from my reality. This could play out well or he, we can muck it up if I’m not careful.
I call Jelly. She is the expert in these things; she will tell me how to handle this or at least keep my secret.
“Jelly Beans,” I say, hating the note of desperation creeping into my voice.
“Sis, we are packing the car right now. What did you forget what do I need to bring?”
Her voice is winded as if she’s running.
“Why are you coming so early? The shower is next weekend.”
“I need to get away. I am bringing the baby and we are camping out with you until the shower is over. So make a list of everything you need done.”
“This is awesome. I have a list and I can’t wait for you to get here. I’m at the Union Station Hyatt, Room 1420; I will order another bottle of champagne and something to eat. What do you have a taste for?”
She laughs her low seductive laugh.
“I don’t care what you order me but Jocelyn needs a fruit plate. Why are you in a hotel? Did you leave him already?”
She is still laughing when I cut her off.
“I am making plans, now I need you to help me in person and I can keep my phone bill down. Hurry up.”
We hang up. I order three bottles of champagne, a Brie & crackers plate, two fruit plates, a hot tea set up, whole-wheat penne rigatoni tossed with grilled vegetables, fresh basil, and tomato sauce for me, and smoked chicken pasta with fresh fusilli, garlic cream sauce, roasted tomatoes and baby spinach. If the kitchen closes before we are done, the bar will take care of anything else we may need. If she is truly getting on the road now she will arrive in about five hours with the baby in the car. Will I finish these bottles off before she gets here? I call down and order one more just in case.
I wonder how long I can stay in this room on his dime. After all, I told him I wasn’t leaving this room until he comes up with a solution. I could work from here for two days at least; so that’s five days of just relaxing while he figures it out. What exactly are my aspirations other than being a piece of arm candy for an up-and-coming politician?
Jelly will know; she really is my big sister, far more than my middle-child little sister. At one point we debated on purchasing a small fleet of trucks. Instead, about four years ago, she opened a small beauty shop and promptly got married; Major turned it into a chain as soon as he found out she was pregnant. Now they own nine salons in the Chicagoland area. Jelly refuses to be a simple housewife, or a man’s kept woman. I get that; none of us can sit still, and none of us can be chained. Jerry is working on her second Master’s degree, but she changed her major halfway through the curriculum for the second time. Amazingly, she now has a double major and a minor. What will she do next? Amazing how my mind is contemplating my sisters’ lives when my own life is topsy-turvy. I feel the effects of the alcohol and I cannot stop smiling and laughing to myself. Where is Darren, and what the hell is he going to do to get out of this mess? In reality, if he calls his attorney this should all just go away. Find out what she wants, and give it to her. Crap! That is NOT the point. Why did he wait this long to tell me? Darren sat on this for at least a week, what the hell?! He had better take care of my dog; maybe Reality will bite him. My hysterical laughter takes over again. “Reality bites,” I say out loud, laughing at the pun. All his intrigues about a weekend away, just to chop me in the throat. On the one hand it’s kinda sweet; on the other, it’s deceitful as all hell! This is the second time he has proven himself completely untrustworthy: first going through my purse, now this. I can pick ’em, can’t I? Forgiving him is starting to be a habit, not a choice. I should seek professional help.
After flicking through the television channels and trying on everything I bought today, I calculate Jelly is still three hours away. What can I do until she gets here, besides getting drunk as a skunk? I decide to start making my plans. I love my job, tracing titles and clearing them for people. I could start purchasing the property that people walk away from because they are impatient and won’t wait for the title to clear. Is that a conflict of interest? If I incorporate myself, then it won’t seem so obvious. That’s one plan. Or I can expand my investments; I have two single home investments and a one-third ownership in a commercial property. I can become a mogul; I will purchase, renovate, rent and/or sell what I can, and travel. Darren can finance it all, and he can use his connections at city hall to help me locate blighted properties so I can start immediately. Jelly will like that I came up with this all by myself. Where is she? Oh … and a pre-nup; we must sign a prenuptial agreement. If he wants in on my investments and all my hard work, he can use his own funds to buy in, and he cannot invite or include any of his cronies on my deals. In fact, he can’t even tell anyone about my deals.
I can remember when Darren and I first started hanging out. The trials were in full effect, he called me every day to monitor my well-being. One day the Judge cleared the courtroom so a witness’s testimony wouldn’t taint other witnesses. Before we were allowed back in the courtroom, Darren was there, making sure I was all right. Ensuring my physical and emotional safety. I am not sure how connected he is with the inner workings of City Hall, but on the surface, it looks deep. I crack myself up - on the surface it looks deep. I had better stop drinking now. Just take a short nap and collect my thoughts.
Jelly wakes me from the lobby. Apparently, they have knocked on the door for 15 minutes. I’m up now, but the baby is asleep, poor thing. We put her on the sofa and we curl up on the bed. We put the Brie and crackers between us with a glass of champagne each. I spill my guts.
She laughs so hard wine comes out of her nose. At first, I am pissed that she is laughing until she says,
“Your men do want to control you, and you don’t know why?”
“I have no idea,” I retort. “Enlighten me.”
“Because you never tell them what you are really thinking. You tell them what they need to hear to get what you want. So they don’t know how to approach you on the real.”
“What are you saying? That doesn’t make any sense. We spend hours talking, sharing. I know exactly who he is and what he wants and we have planned a life together.”
“You listen, they talk, you figure them out, but you never let them in. They have no idea who you really are – only what they want you to be.”
I am quiet; I smile at her listening to her synopsis. She about jumps off her side of the couch to spring at me.
“Don’t try that on me, girly, I know you. Tell me what you want to do with this man, this wedding, your life!”
Batting my eyes, I try not to cry again. I hate that she is right, but I don’t know what to do at this point. Letting him in at this point is counterproductive because my level of trust for him is too low to measure.
“So, my dear, what is the alternative to letting him in to my head?” I ask.
“You gotta at least let him think he knows you! He is scared all the time, so he keeps falling all over himself to please you and screws up more; after all, he is a man. Men only think about three things: sex, food, sports, and what it takes to get sex, food, and sports; and that is money. Okay, so four things. So, what are you going to do?”
I go in the bathroom and blow my nose. When I return I tell her what I was thinking before she arrived. Real estate investment: family, commercial and apartment complexes. On the other hand, moving dry goods and furniture. Or paralegal: real estate, of course, with an occasional divorce case thrown in.
She decides if I am going to become a mogul. In fact, she says, if we are going to go into any business together, we should wait until she has her second child. I do not explore this statement, but grab a pad of paper. We write various scenarios for each of the business plans. We outline the corporate structures, attempting to make my dreams a reality. We decide to structure a family trust no matter the outcome. We don’t want to deal with probate court again. The memories are fresh and raw in both our heads. Three hours later, we have cleared the bed, placed all the empty bottles of champagne on the cart, and pushed it outside into the hall. We keep the fruit plates inside so Jocelyn can eat without us when she wakes up. We are both sure she will get up before us.
While we prepare for bed, my brain kicks in to her last statement regarding a baby.
“When are you planning on having this other kid?”
“Oh, 23 weeks, give or take a day.” She pauses, waiting for my reaction.
I know her so well, I simply say,
“Congrats. Boy or girl?”
“Don’t act like you were expecting me to say that.” She smiles.
“I am a li’l surprised, but it’s about time, you’re not getting any younger.”
I duck because I know she is going to throw the pillow she has in her hand at me. We turn out the lights and the television, and curl up in the bed. We talk until we both fall asleep. At least I have a semi-plan, but I have no idea what Darren has planned for after our wedding. I really have no idea if there is going to be a wedding. It doesn’t matter; Jelly is here and I am content with my plans. I go to sleep smiling. All is right with the world.
Darren calls early the next morning, I tell him I can’t talk right now, but I promise to call him back as soon as I can. He tells me he is downstairs. I explain that Jelly and Jocelyn are here and sleeping. I assure him I will call him later. He pushes for a time to see me. I am as evasive as I can be without hanging up on him. I am pleasant but firm. Finally, he hangs up.
“You’re still doing it,” Jelly says. “Let him in or let him go.”
She turns over and goes back to sleep, leaving me to decide my next move for the day. Who asked her anyway? I just told her my situation; I don’t need her to psychoanalyze me; well, I do, but she doesn’t have to get cocky about it. There is only one thing I am sure of: as soon as Jocelyn wakes up, we are going for a train ride downstairs. This is the extent of my plans for the day. I head to the shower smiling. This day is beautiful. My head is killing me from the alcohol; still, all is right with the world.
The grandgurl is up and raring to go. She loves her T-T Krazzy, and oh how I adore her. Before we head out, leaving her mom sleeping, I am able to convince her to eat some fruit. She’s an amazing child with a vocabulary beyond her years. But, what I love most about her is looking in to the mirror by looking into her eyes. We stand in the window overlooking the city.
“Do you want to stay inside or go outside to play?”
“Outside, T-T, outside.”
“Do you see the curvy building? That’s the Arch. I think we should go to the top, what do you say?”
“The Arch, yes, let’s go. Can I put on my shoes now?”
“Good idea, we are getting outta here quick…let’s go!”
Our day is full, fun and exhilarating. She understands the most important part of T-T’s wedding are the flowers thrown down so THE BRIDE can walk on them. Jelly is practicing with her every day and I am not sure who is more excited: Jocelyn, Jereline or me. I guess, deep down inside, I know I am going through with this wedding. It would, however, be great to know how this colossal task will be accomplished in the time we have left. I really wanna call my daddy and let him tighten Darren up a teensy weensy bit, but I am afraid my dad will not know when to stop.
When we return to the hotel room, Darren and Jelly are chatting about the wedding as if there is no possibility that anything can go wrong. My niece and I are very tired; we have both eaten too much junk food and we need our naps. Jocelyn runs to her uncle D and jumps in his arms. Their hug lasts a full minute or more, Darren closes his eyes and holds on for dear life. It is a postcard moment. We are all smiling at the love shared in these few precious seconds.
“We are going to take a nap.”
“I have a solution whenever you are ready to hear it.” Darren passes Jocelyn to me, all while hugging us both in the same motion and whispering in my ear.
“I will call you when we wake up,”
I coolly say to him.
“See you later.”
Jocelyn and I go into the bedroom to sleep. The preliminaries of shoes off and using the restroom are quick. Within five minutes, we are both knocked out on top of the bedcovers.
Her mom looks in on us two hours later and cannot believe we are still sleep. Jelly wakes us up to have dinner and report her progress on the wedding to-do list she received late last night. The Grandgurl is wide-eyed, bushy-tailed and curious to know what our next outing will entail. I love this child’s adventurous spirit.
“T-T, can we go on the train yet?”
“Your T-T has things to do, so we will let her make some calls while we go,”
Jereline tells her.
“Let’s wash your face and get our jackets.”
“Yay, mommy, can we call daddy too?”
“Not yet. When we come back. Now hurry.”
“You’re gonna tell me to call Darren. What did he tell you, and why haven’t you called Major? Did you run away from home?”
“He hasn’t told me anything. Well, yes, he has. You will love your honeymoon. It starts in Miami for nine days before your cruise. He asked if we could join you guys on the cruise. He wants Miami to himself.”
“Does Major want to come on our honeymoon? Miami, huh? Well played, sis, excellent homework.”
“Mommy I’m ready. Miss you T-T.”
Jocelyn drags her mom’s hand and pulls her towards the door. I pick up the phone to call Darren. I don’t have the words but I know they will come. The show must go on. I am getting married. Before I call him, I finish the contract, map out the plan for my life, and banish myself to a life of disappointment as my punishment for a crime I have yet to commit.
“All right, what’s the verdict?”
“I love you. In 72 hours, I will be divorced. In 84 hours, I can get a marriage license. I will ask you all over again to marry me. They say third time’s a charm. We can live happily ever after. I need you and you know it.”
“Hummm, well … I will wait until you ask before I answer. Who knows what else could go wrong, right? Let me get dinner and some rest. I will check out tomorrow, but Jelly is staying the week at least. I have some information I need you to look over sometime this week. Talk to you later.”
“You sound better. We still have our entire lives ahead of us. Maybe we can move someplace warm and start over for real.”
“Good night, sweetheart.”
This school year is going to kill me and if it doesn’t, I will kill someone. Too many hours spent redoing things that should have been done right the first time. Being a mom, as well as being pregnant, is not a piece of cake. Clarisse came to live with us two months ago. That’s how I became a mom.
Six days after we pick Clarisse up from Atlanta, I go in for my yearly ‘well woman’ exam, only to find out I am pregnant. Nine weeks pregnant, to be exact. It was at this point I understand why the drive that I once loved seemed more tedious than any other trip. Clarisse is thirteen now, so when the baby arrives she will be primed to help me. (She will also be boy crazy by then.) Timing is everything. Eddie thinks this is a huge blessing, he wants another girl, but I want a boy. My child will be the second in my nuclear family, so it should be male, since the first is already a girl. Intellectually, I will just be happy if it is healthy. I believe Eddie ultimately will not care. He keeps harping on me to get rest, eat right and be still. With my promotion, I have so many eyes on me: I am the youngest branch manager in the mid-western division, one of two African-American managers and one of five females in all of North America. Me, rest? Out of the question.
Three months later, we both take the day off to go to the doctor for my checkup. I am getting really fat, really fast, but food is not my friend. I can only smell certain foods for short periods of time and most of my food returns to the scene of origin excessively soon. This kid is picky, picky, and pickier about what it wants to eat. I bet it is a girl because boys eat anything you put in front of them. Goodness gracious, there are a lot of fat women here. I feel a lot larger than I really am, but officially, I am not the fattest person in the room. Eddie says he cannot tell “yet;” ; however, he and I both know that he is stroking my ego. The doctor makes us wait, as usual, and Eddie goes to sleep. I thought I was supposed to sleep more. His body i sympathetic to the pregnancy I guess. I wake him because I think the nurse will call us soon. Of course, it will be an invitation to wait some more in the next room – only there, I will be cold, half-dressed and all.
Finally, the nurse comes in, followed shortly by the doctor. The ultrasound shows two heads, four arms, four legs and a penis. I am elated I am having a boy and devastated I am having twins. Most importantly, we hear two heartbeats – and they are strong. Three kids in one year! We have to move out of that townhouse into a real house. We figured one baby could share our room until next year, but two more children in the house with three adults … I am already mentally suffocating.
I am obsessed with a previous conversation about my quitting my job. I love my job. I will not quit. As we are leaving the doctor’s office, I tell Eddie,
“Please don’t tell me to quit my job right now. We need the money more than ever with Clarisse in private school, and now having twins and us needing to move into a bigger house, we cannot afford for me to quit.”
“Honey, I wasn’t going to tell you to quit, as a matter of fact I was going to suggest you try to get your second job back at the clothing store for the employee discount, ‘cause you’re getting pretty big.”
He starts to run to the car because he thinks I cannot chase him. He is laughing so hard! Boy, is he going to get it whenever I catch him. We tell Clarisse the news when we pick her up from school; she is so excited and wants to name her new baby brothers. Her older brother Rick will be excited too, she thinks aloud. Eddie thought women would outnumber him; now the sexes can stay even. It never ceases to amaze me how children think. Outnumbered, huh? Clarisse already has names picked out before we get home: Jon’tee for the girl and Jon’Quinn for her little brother. Eddie thinks the boy will be bludgeoned to death with a sissy name like that, but won’t offer any suggestions. With a ton of prodding and poking at him, he gives way and tells us that Edward is an honorable name. I laugh so hard I now have to pee.
“Please make this light, we need to get home quick.”
I continue to laugh.
I am thinking about making the initials J. E. S. like my parents did for all their girls. I do not share this with anyone; it is just a thought for now. Many thoughts I hold near and dear to my head and heart as I feel these two lives form inside me. A few nights I wake up from dreams of bright lights, remembering of a life taken not so many years ago. Carrying these babies gives me hope for a future I never imagined. My life has taken many turns; I love where it has landed me. In about four months, we will go from two children to four. Eddie seems as excited as I am about these additions. The Solomon sisters have planned a baby shower next month. I have a property that has finished inspection, if we rent the furniture for the house. Everyone can stay there and have some privacy. The children can all stay in the room opposite the office area. How much of this do I want to take on while I cut my hours at work? This is something Clarisse would enjoy, and it will burn the extra energy until the babies arrive. I will make her a list and give her Jelly’s’ phone number, then sit back and let them work it out. Delegation is a wonderful tool.
We decide to go house hunting this weekend. I let Clarisse call the agent and tell her what we are looking for in our new home. She is so responsible. I am tired. I lie down for a while and let the father-and-daughter team fend for dinner.
“Make sure you turn on all the fans! I don’t want to wake up gagging because the brats don’t like what you’re cooking tonight.”
“Yeah, yeah. The girl is making you sick, the boy is making you eat,” Eddie says.
“Call them by their names,”
“They will become better citizens that way. I learned that in school.”
My eyebrows go up; this child is serious about her siblings that are nesting inside of me. This melded family can work. No, it is working. When Rachael and I worked together in Huntsville, I remember thinking that a family would just tie you down and demand you take tons of separate vacations to keep your sanity. Now, this family is exactly where I want to be. This is home and it is comfortable for me. Rachael tried her best to explain it to me, to no avail. She loves her family and they are the poster card for togetherness.
Now, can I make it comfortable for everyone here? The twins are not of the same mind; they do not want me lying flat on my back, and I do not want me lying flat on my stomach. So pick a side, girl, just pick a side. I doze off with a smile on my face and contentment in my heart. If only that contentment could have lasted.
Soon after – just six months ago – my home was bustling with the commotion of school, work, and family. Clarisse, with the guidance of Jelly and the invasion of Jerry, hosted a beautiful baby shower. Eddie took excellent pictures, and then used them to find a renter for our investment property. Plans were in place for a great Thanksgiving dinner at our new house for the second year in a row. The twins’ room was almost decorated and Clarisse was as excited as I was about her new brother and sister entering the world.
I have not accomplished much; only sat in the tub and washed a load of dark towels. My house is cold not from the weather but from the emptiness I feel. Eddie is gone, really gone; he left me like a thief in the night. My body is trying to re-coup from the surgery and my stepdaughter is reunited with her birth mother.
On Wednesday, September 1, Clarisse and Eddie left home around 8:45 p.m. to return movies to Blockbuster two days after the due date. Earlier, they surprised me by picking me up from work so we could ride home together as a family. Eddie could not understand why I was working so hard. He wanted me to delegate more. I didn’t argue with him anymore; I just worked from home two days a week to alHaggaiate his concerns. He was having trouble sleeping when I worked such long hours, coming in after he was in bed. He said he needed me next to him so he could fall asleep. He missed me. I thought that was crazy, 1) because he was snoring every time I came to bed, 2) because he talked to me a hundred times a day. Reminding me to eat, drink my water, and take my vitamins and a plethora of other things. My promotion was so new I needed to make a good impression. He acted as if he got that when we talked about it, but he still kept telling me to slow down, cut my hours.
“You are the incubator, you can’t move around so much; let my babies sleep once in a while.”
I never felt tired, and these kids did not sleep. However, when I finally lay down, I dropped into a deep sleep within minutes. Today I lay awake for hours trying to forget that night.
On that night, Eddie pulls up to the ATM at the bank branch six blocks from our new house. Clarisse is on the passenger side. They have tried two other drive-up machines and found them out of money, because it is the weekend. Finally, this third machine allows a transaction. Before Eddie can reach for the $20.00 dollar bill, a thug snatches the bill out of the machine while holding a nine-millimeter handgun in his other hand. Clarisse turns to see another thug standing to her right side attempting to open her door then the back door; he is leering down at her through the glass. Now he steps slightly behind her, speaking to the armed assailant. Eddie is attempting to negotiate with the armed man on his side of the vehicle. See, there are five accounts at this bank, a joint account for family funds, one for the children, Clarisse and each of us holding individual accounts. We rarely keep any more than the minimum in the family account; it’s only for bills and household junk, plus it happens to be the day before payday. Eddie just wants to go into his pocket and get another card for his personal account. The gangster doesn’t want to hear what he is saying and really doesn’t like his movements. Bang, bang, bang. The gun fires three rounds in succession then a fourth in the direction of Clarisse. Because Eddie never places the car in park when he pulls up to any drive thru teller, once the first shot hits him; the car starts to drift forward down the inclined driveway across the one-way street and onto someone’s lawn. The second and third shots hit him in his back, through his heart and his right lung consecutively. Clarisse is hysterical as her father falls limp in her lap, bleeding profusely.
“I love you,” he tells her, his last words.
When the car finally rolls to a stop, the homeowner emerges to assess the damage. The owner of the property sees Eddie dying and calls 911.
How he gets our phone number from Clarisse is beyond me. The call is unbelievable and I dismiss it with prejudice. “Do you know where your husband and daughter are?” He asks.
“Who is this?” I ask.
“You need to come, ummm, check on them,” the voice says.
“Let me speak to him.” I say very nonchalantly.
“Well, they are both outside,” the voice continues.
“Your daughter is very upset,” the man says.
“How did you get this phone number?”
“Your daughter gave it to me,” he says.
“Okay, thank you.”
I hang up the phone, waddle to the bedroom, flip on the television, and snuggle up in Eddie’s recliner. I pull out a folder containing printouts of properties with convoluted titles. I need to go the courthouse in the next few days. Getting the most bang for my buck is wise, so I can spend the least amount of time walking those halls and standing in lines.
The news blurts out that a robbery at St. Louis Community Bank has taken place in our neighborhood, at our branch. The camera pans past a car: our car. My plate of veggie croquets with sweet and sour sauce and ranch dressing hits the floor, the pickle still hanging from my mouth. I am dialing my mom hundreds of miles away in Chicago. I am watching this take place from outside my body, where my spirit now resides. I relate the incidents to her, as I know them, I think. My heart is tight, I have no feeling in my legs, and for the first time since I have known I was pregnant, I can’t feel the babies move. All of my homework is now ruined, covered with food. Why do I notice this detail, of all things? I am kneeling, my mom is praying. I now realize I do not have transportation; Eddie picked me up from work. My car is in the office parking lot; Eddie is in the other car. Oh yeah, I should probably put on clothes for public viewing. I hang up. The phone rings again. My girlfriend, Tamie Persons, is on her way across the river to take me six blocks from my house. She lives in East St. Louis, about 30 minutes away. Tamie arrives and I waddle out to her SUV so we can figure out what happened tonight. Why didn’t I wear a jacket? I see a frenzy of activity. Seven, maybe eight police cars, two ambulances, and police tape blocking off a city street. I duck underneath the tape, almost falling, to get a closer look. A police officer halts me. After I identify myself, three other officers emerge from the pack and bundle me into an ambulance. A driver, two detectives, Clarisse, and a nurse, already squeezed into this space, now adding three other officers and my-huge-self. I start to feel claustrophobic. I feel nauseous and cannot breathe. Clarisse is wedged in between an officer and the nurse covered from neck to toe in evidence. I reach to hug her, only to find myself halted yet again.
A stern voice says.
“She has something to tell you.”
I sit on the shiny steel bench, catty-corner from her needing air. The story starts to unfold in this roar in my brain. Finally, I hear the climax.
“He’s dead, they killed him.”
I am speechless. The tears are pouring down my face, but I feel nothing.
“How many months is she?”
I hear in the background.
Somehow, I lose consciousness; too many people, so little air, not enough space.
“Excuse me, I need to leave,” I say.
I think it is Clarisse talking.
“Lady, lie still.”
I feel some contraption on my stomach, another on my arm and why do they think they can remove my clothes?
Without knowing how much time has passed, I open my eyes again. My nightmare is back. It’s not the same as before, but it leaves a bad taste in my mouth. My eyes hurt but I keep them open this time. I can see the outline of my feet and my belly is flatter than it’s been in a while. My head is killing me, my mom is holding my hand, and I can’t sit up.
“Hey babygurl, how ya’ feelin’?”
“Mommy, where are the babies? Where am I and why are you here?”
I drag out of my dry throat with parched lips.
“You’re gonna be okay, try to rest. Clarisse is doing well; she went home with Tamie and her daughter Apple.”
Ronnie wipes my lips with a lemon sponge swab. That feels so good, but I want some water. A nurse walks in, so I am not dreaming I am in a hospital, I am no longer pregnant and I don’t see my babies. Somebody is crazy, but it’s not me.
“Mom! Where are my babies?”
My voice is hoarse and I’m screaming with what little breath I have.
“Darling, they didn’t make it. I am right here. We will get through this together. Let’s sing a song and pray.”
Before I can respond out loud, because I am cursing inside, I feel the drugs taking effect. The nurse injected something into my I.V. while my mom was giving the worst news of my life.
This is my punishment for having an abortion five years ago. Mommy doesn’t even know that that happened, but I know I am being punished for it nonetheless; that’s why I lost my husband and my babies within 24 hours of each other. I am squeezing my mom’s hand and the grip loosens, as I now know I am more alone in the world than I have ever been before. I am zapped mentally, emotionally, and psychologically; but most of all, I am alone.
I am out of the hospital. Clarisse doesn’t want to go back to Atlanta; I don’t want her to go back to Atlanta. My mom doesn’t want to go back to Chicago; I don’t want her to go back to Chicago. But they both leave within hours of each other. While I am at the airport with Clarisse, mommy hits Interstate 255, north to Illinois. Life must go on. I can’t leave this God-forsaken state of Misery – Missouri – because I have a job, a house, and when will they catch the guys who killed Eddie and my babies? I will start looking for a new job. Where I don’t know, but away from here for sure – for sure.
As I start to make funeral arrangements and fly Eddie’s body back to Atlanta, I feel overwhelmed. I go to my office to reassign properties before I take an extended leave. Can I really call this a vacation? What will I say to these people, everyone really loved Eddie? He had a heart of a warrior king and I miss him so much already. I don’t want to have this discussion with my co-workers, or his co-workers for that matter. I don’t want to discuss any detail of what happened with anyone. Yet I need to talk to someone.
While I’m in my office my boss calls me.
“Why are you in the office?” he asks.
“Just clearing my calendar for the next month, closing out a few files to make a smooth transition for whoever picks them up, and turning the Murphy property over to someone. Anyone who wants to deal with crazy people. Who do you suggest?”
Larry laughs a hearty laugh.
“You have a great sense of humor, no matter the circumstance, lady. Send the Murphy file to me, don’t worry about it anymore. A month, hummm?”
“Is that too long? Because I can quit so you can fill this slot,”
I snark at him.
“No, no, that’s not what I was implying. How do you know you won’t need more time? Right now, do you even know what you need? Have you called the number I left on your machine last week?”
He has ignored my snarky, sarcastic tone; he is genuinely concerned. I change my tone and attitude.
“I appreciate the gesture, but I don’t need a shrink,” I state matter-of-factly. “I need my family back intact. I need Eddie.”
“You are a big girl, so I will leave you to your own devices. You have the number, you have the time, and I will see you in Atlanta in a few days,” he answers patiently as he hangs up.
I sit there wondering if I really should quit. I love the research, but I don’t like the travel as much as I once did. I was in a settling down mode, I had purpose but now ….
“How long are you here, or should I ask if you’re taking calls and/or visitors?” says Candy.
“No more calls, no visitors. I am leaving you some files with post-it’s on them. You know what to do; you really don’t need me to make notes on files anymore, do you? The only thing I am concerned about is getting the Murphy file distributed before Friday. Please stay on top of that and follow it from beginning to end and keep Larry in the loop. I believe if you pull this off by yourself, Larry will accept my recommendation for your promotion to Associate. The intern is leaving soon. I know I don’t want to hire him, and I am sure he doesn’t want to stay.”
I take a breath.
“I can’t even believe you are here, worrying about the business end of your life when your personal life is in shambles. Your organizational skills are not going to heal you. Take some time and miss him.” Candy looks sad.
I smile the brightest smile I can muster.
“I will see you in a month. Then you can start interviewing a new assistant for us, how about that?”
Candy gives me a weak smile and a shrug.
“I always have your back. Thanks for the recommendation. I won’t let you down.”
I pat her on the shoulder as I leave the office and head to the funeral home to pick out three caskets.
I’ve been out of the hospital for five days now. As much organization, planning and execution has taken place as one human can accomplish in this timeframe. Ronnie arranged for the transportation to and from the airport for me and my three caskets, then from the airport to the funeral home; transportation for all of us from the funeral home to the hotel; transportation from the hotel to the church and burial site, then back. Another irrelevant thought: if we count the cost for all the transportation we need, we could buy a really nice used vehicle. Nevertheless, we need what we need, so let’s make it happen. We watch the caskets roll up the conveyor belt and into the belly of the plane. Then we board. I believe this is the longest trip of my life. All I can think of is how it feels to be comfortably numb. I order two glasses (boxes) of wine from the perky blond in the Delta uniform. Then I sleep like a baby: no dreaming, no waking up, and just straight unadulterated sleep.
When we land, the weather is beautiful. My mind goes immediately to when Eddie and I first met. I called him the “deaf and dumb guy.” My running buddy Rachael and I laughed for hours about our two-week stay in Hot-lanta. Those were great times. I wonder if Rach’, Peter and her family will make it to the funeral; she was one of my bridesmaids when we married, and now the circle is complete. A lifetime in five years: from the day we met, to the day I must bury him, it’s just over five years. We were cheated, all were cheated, Eddie, Clarisse, Rick, the babies and me; and no referee to call foul. I want him back, I want our lives back, I want to be dead with him, and I just don’t want to live through this alone. No human is hearing my thoughts. I am not sure anyone cares how I feel; everyone seems comfortable with death and dying, with this death and dying.
We are whisked down the ramp to watch the caskets exit the plane, loaded into two hearses. Our luggage follows, loaded in the trunk of a car that takes us behind the hearses to the funeral home. I stay in the car while arrangements are completed. An older gentleman comes to the car with a clipboard and a zillion forms for me to sign. I initial where he points. He smiles, thanks me and disappears back into the mortuary. I am left alone with my thoughts. My thoughts are running dark. My time with Eddie was the first time I was truly happy and did everything right. What is my motivation for doing anything right ever again? I see the driver exit the building alone. I lay my head back and try to recapture the serenity I had on the plane. When I awake this time, we are in front of the Atlanta Hyatt on Peachtree. This too brings back memories, which I bury because this will only cause pain. “This too shall pass” will be my mantra until I leave Atlanta.
We check in to the hotel. Mommy and Daddy, Jereline and Major, Jerrica, Jocelyn and I stay in a beautiful three-bedroom suite.
I ask the Grandgurl if she wants ice cream, and of course, she does.
“I want something to eat also, can I see the menu before you call downstairs?”
“Would you just order for all of us an order of onion rings, two bottles of wine, a rose and a strawberry sundae for Jocelyn; and whatever you decide?”
Jerry is poised by the room phone to call in an order.
“We should order more than two bottles. I think you will swallow those all by your lonesome.”
“I said order whatever you want, put it on the room. Eddie had substantial insurance and we can afford to be sad.”
“Then I am ordering dinner.”
“Mommy and Daddy are going out to dinner; you know Daddy is going to take you.”
“Major is letting the baby stay with you tonight?”
“Yes, I asked and they want a night alone. This is why I am giving her ice cream. It is T-T’s job to spoil her most precious niece. “
“You used to spoil me like that.”
“You know you are an adult now, right? Have we discussed this before? I think we have, and we’re done.”
“Eddie picked up when you refused to baby me. He loved me, he loved this family.”
“I know he did, we always talked about it. I told him to tell you to get a job.”
“You sound like Ronnie. I have a job, I am good at my job so I don’t have to work as hard as you. And I am carrying a 4.0 on a double major with a minor, so there. I deserve to be spoiled, thank you very much.”
“Still your brat.”
“Order, just order. My head needs a reason to hurt, now it’s just hurting because it can.”
“I’m sorry, I on it right now. Is the baby up yet?”
“She hasn’t been asleep, she’s laying here watching me be sad. T-T wont be sad forever. At least I don’t think I will. Now we are going to eat ice cream, and everyone loves ice cream.”
The baby is smiling and saying words, but not complete sentences. At 21 months she is amazing to me. The memories start again. I hold Jocelyn tighter and let the tears flow without words. We stay like that until the ice cream arrives. What a day. Tomorrow will be more difficult. It will include people, people who will remind me of the pain. The exact pain I am trying to drown out tonight.
The funeral service begins short, but the tributes go on and on. The minister cuts them off at just under an hour, requesting the remainder of the speakers wait until the repast directly after the burial. The family is allowed to view the body first. We leave the front of the church, where the three cars sent by the funeral parlor are waiting. All fourteen of us pile in and head to the cemetery. More mourners want to follow in the procession than there are FUNERAL stickers to go around for their windshields. Confusion ensues, but it’s a quiet, uncomplaining confusion. Three coach buses join the procession. Who are these people and where did they come from? I get it already, Eddie was loved. I cannot, will not shake hands, hug and kiss this many people. As soon as the caskets are lowered into the ground, I make for the car. Instantly I am grateful for the dark tinted windows. I move to lie down across the back seat. I do not cry; I just lie there. When the driver reaches the car, without asking if anyone else is ready to leave the cemetery, I ask him to take me directly to the hotel. On the way we stop at a package store. I buy a fifth of Martell Cordon Bleu. Alone in my room, I try to finish the bottle in one sitting.
Hours later my sister, mommy, and daddy sit with me in the hotel room, talking about Eddie. Ronnie will not let anyone ask me why I left them at the cemetery. My family starts reminiscing about the roles Eddie played in their lives. Johnny joins me for a few glasses of Martell, while the rest drink juice and water. No one else notices Jerrica is still drinking wine left from last night. Major arrives after a couple hours to take Jelly to their room and retire for the night. Jerry sits on the floor by my chair with her head in my lap. This is how we wake up the next morning.
I knock on the door to Jereline’s room. Major is not happy but lets me in anyway. I give him my key to the suite so he can get comfortable with the rest of the family and check on his child.
Jelly wakes up to see me staring at her. “What’s up duck?”
“Just remembering the day I found out my family was marrying Eddie.”
“You weren’t sure you could be a ‘perfect’ family. And he was sure you were perfect for him. Our families did well together.”
“How did something this horrible come out of something so beautiful?”
I shrug my shoulders and sit up.
“I remember when you talked me out of the bathroom at the restaurant. My biggest fear was Eddie would realize how dysfunctional my family was before I got back to the table. But when we left, my mind was just the opposite: how dysfunctional was the relationship I was marrying into going to be?”
When we got back to the house that night, after all the hoopla of dinner and the anti-climactic lack of drama of our families’ melding together, it ended up having been a pretty good night. I recall how Eddie and I came to a meeting of the minds and turned my moving in to a marriage proposal. I am not sure if any wedding was pulled together faster than that one was, and all in the subsequent two weeks.
Some things had already been in place before I ever agreed to marry him, but his confidence powered him to claim me as his wife. I was not as amazed as I would have been if Ronnie were not involved. I was surprised that Johnny had not appeared out of the woodwork to give me away. His oldest girl, the one holding the ‘birthright,’ was about to get married. With his permission, of course – but where was he?
My strongest, most vivid memory is the night when I finally opened the surprise he had waiting, already there when I arrived at his house from Huntsville. The thought was beautiful, but seemed fruitless once we returned home from dinner. I walked into the living room and sat down. Eddie put the doggy bags away in the kitchen, turning on every light as he moved through the house and not turning any off ….
“Why are you sitting in the dark?”
“Trying to recover from being bamboozled.”
“It is true, love. So there’s no bamboozling here. This something we both want. Now we know our families want it too! So it works for everyone.”
“I do love you, I think this is moving really fast, and there is an element of manipulation that disturbs me. You are driven and that excites me. It is a blessing and a curse, because being driven can hurt us if our communication is not open and honest. So, can you tell me that you have been honest with me? No, you can’t say that, because that in itself would be, oh, um, what is the word? ~ Dishonest.”
“Now who is being a brat? If we both want the same thing, does it really matter what road we take to get the same satisfaction? As I recall, you were purring and you were satisfied before dinner. So if you open this box, which I know you are dying to open, maybe you can give me that gorgeous smile and move past the pouting that you do ever so well.”
His arms are extended to me, the box between his big hands.
The box is … not light, but not heavy or its size, either. The weight is evenly balanced. I open it ….
Inside is a white satin gown, a wedding dress. How non-traditional for my groom to pick out my wedding dress. Isn’t this a sign of bad luck? This relationship is doomed. Why? Because he is a crazy man, certifiably, card carrying, off his meds crazy!
“Darling, you are aware that you are not supposed to see me in my wedding gown before the wedding?”
“First off, I have not seen the dress. I only know it’s white. Second off, your sisters and mom picked out the dress. And finally, you are not wearing it.” He sticks out his tongue at me and leaves the room.
I am left with my thoughts of how truly romantic this is and how awfully manipulative he is and how beautiful this dress is …. My family has its many faults; but man, do they have great taste in clothing, and this dress proves it. I may not like their methods, but I will look good, no, amazing in this dress. This is something I would pick for myself; it is something I am going to enjoy wearing. I like this man’s style, and maybe he is a li’l manipulative, and maybe there has been too much assistance from my meddlesome family. Since the very beginning, he has arranged situations to fit his wants, and then figures that he can bring me around afterward. Is this really how love and marriage work?
I vow to call my dad and have a heart-to-heart with him about how things should really work. Our “dating talk” consisted of Johnny telling me that ‘discretion is the better part of valor’ and if I “didn’t like a guy enough for him to father my child, then I shouldn’t sleep with him.” Great advice, but nothing substantial enough to send me out into the world prepared for this guy. No wonder I so easily fell for him – and it was a long steady drop.
“If you could see your face when you talk about him, it is a softer side of you. You try to be hard and cold with no feeling, but he took all of that out of you and smoothed you out.”
“Now he’s gone .…”
“But his memory will live in your heart forever. Hold on to that.”
We decide to go to the suite making sure the baby has breakfast.
“You girls are up early, did you sleep at all?”
Mommy made it to the room before we did.
“She slept like a log, I think she is hung over, but of course she won’t admit it. We should get packed so we can have breakfast before we leave. Come on sista, get a move on.”
“Let me get your dad up and about. Would one of you check on our reservations and get a bellman up here?”
“I don’t want breakfast,” I say. “I will pack and clean up after I soak in the tub.”
“I will order you something. You need to eat, yes you do!”
“Fine. Eggs, toast and a mimosa, thank you.”
“See, Mommy and ya’ talk about me. Wow.”
“Whatevah, just order, I’m headed to the tub. Please and thank you.”
I pull her aside.
“Please don’t tell your sister or Mommy, but I don’t want to leave yet,” I ask. “Will you stay one more night? Major can breathe without you for one night, right?”
Jelly is incredulous.
“Why would you want to stay here a minute longer than you need to?”
“This is important stuff. I want to go to our special spot. I do not want to go alone. I want to cry. A real cry without people looking at the snot coming out of my nose and taking pictures. Just stay with me, please, please, please. A real big sister would stay.”
“Oh, now I’m the big sister. You are full of shit. Let me talk to Major and I will let you know. Go get in the tub already. You can’t afford to stay in this suite, even if he lets me stay here another night.”
“Thank you, I will owe you and you like it when I owe you.”
“Why aren’t you in the tub yet, child?”
“I’m goin’, I’m goin’.”
Major is not happy but he is a good man and understands family comes first. Jelly stays with me one more night. We go to the restaurant where the family converged on me years ago. We go to the park where Eddie first hinted that we could be a couple, where we talked of children and building a house and building a family and grandkids of our own.
Jereline is patient and compassionate, listening to me get it all out, about a lost love and deceased husband; the twins who never saw the light of day; and my stepdaughter who is now home with her birth mother. She is very disappointed that I do not want to share any of the things we talked about with anyone else. She keeps asking me if I think I am going to die – I think she really means, if I think I might try to kill myself – and why I do not see myself as a survivor.
I hate rhetorical questions.
It is time to leave Hot-lanta for good.
Johnny and Veronica had a wonderful life if you based your assumptions on their three girls, average house and two-car family. However, deep in the back of Johnny’s mind was the child he left in Italy with her mother, Claudine. It was way in the back of his mind because that relationship – well, not relationship, but a frequent tryst over the two years he spent at the Air Force base just north of Venice – happened too many years ago to recall.
Not thinking about that time and place was easy, since his three girls right here in Chicago kept him busy. There was his oldest girl, Jessica, with her sports, volleyball, cheerleading and skating. The middle girl, Jereline, had her fashion shows, plays and modeling classes. Finally, Jerrica – his baby girl – just wanted to travel. On every trip the school hosted – field trips, mission trips, explorations for archeology – she wanted to go; she begged to go; and, yes, she went. Johnny’s wife Veronica – Ronnie – called Jerry a destination junkie; she called herself an explorer.
Today, Jerry is studying three languages – Spanish, Italian and Portuguese – and progressing well in all three. As they were closely related – sisters, if you will, in the Romance family of languages – Jerry finds it easy to excel in them. Jerry also took Latin for five semesters, but could not master it. The issue at this point is, how will Johnny and Ronnie be able to afford to send her abroad again to Italy, Spain and Portugal to ‘practice,’ as she slyly comments from time to time? This is her second Master’s Degree, and yet she doesn’t work a real job.
“I need to practice so I don’t waste all the money you have spent on my education,”
She pouts whenever the subject comes up.
The closer it gets to the end of the semester, the more often the subject hovers over the dinner table. Ronnie remembers when she could hardly bear the thought of her “baby” leaving home so early in life, to travel so far without a chaperone.
Jelly and Jessie refuse to broach the subject because we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that Jerry will get her way as she always has in the past. Here it goes again, the travel swindle with no accountability for the youngest sibling. But this time is slightly different. What none of us know is the research Jerry has done on Johnny’s military career and the family he left behind. She has not said one word to any of us here in the States, but she knows she has a half-sister out there and she wants to meet her face to face.
“Sis, can I spend the weekend?”
I can see the pout on Jerry’s face through the phone and thousands of miles from me.
“Spend the weekend? Who is on your nerves?” I ask.
“No one. I just wanna get away. Ronnie doesn’t believe I will ever finish school and leave home; then Johnny wants to put me in a stroller and take me everywhere he goes. I am tired of them treating me like a baby.”
“You are always welcome to spend time with me and Darren. Who’s buying the ticket this time? And how long are you really going to stay?”
“I have a credit card. I’ll pay my own way out there and I’m going to stay until these grown-ups realize I am a grown-up too.”
“Call me when you are leaving Chicago and tell me what time you will get here. If you decide not to come, call me back. And if Ronnie or Johnny don’t know you’re coming, don’t come.”
I sigh harder so she can hear me this time.
“Fine. I won’t come out there then.” I hear the pout, louder.
“Hey, grow up. Stop pretending to grow up and just do it already. Smooches, bye.” I hang up. In the back of my mind I decide she won’t show up; but just in case, I need to move things around in the spare room upstairs. Upstairs, I can hear her coming and going, even if I can’t stop her from playing grown-up.
Jerry comes home for dinner, walking straight to the kitchen where Ronnie is pulling macaroni and cheese out of the oven.
“Mommmeeee, I was thinking of giving you and Daddy some space this weekend. Jessica wants me to come to Vegas to stay awhile. I told her I would ask you. I know how much you miss me when I travel,” she rattles off quickly.
Ronnie looks at her out of the corner of her eye. Her youngest child really thinks she is slicker than snake shit.
“So you think running away from home will solve all your problems. Every time your dad tells you anything you don’t want to hear you are off to ‘see the world.’ If you want to go, go. But grown folks don’t sneak, they just do.”
Ronnie keeps her voice silky smooth for that lecture. Jelly sounds a lot like her when she gets upset.
Jerry pouts, not verbally responding to Mommy. Instead, she snatches a plate, fills it with mac and cheese, and stomps off to her room. Ronnie laughs as she fixes Johnny a plate, thinking that child of mine! Will she ever grow up? Johnny, the connoisseur of all foods, spends dinnertime talking to Veronica, the love of his life, the conductor of his soul; he goes on and on, knowing that before they go to bed, she will tell him what is bothering her. Ronnie soaks up his talk, knowing that as long as she is quiet and smiles, he will take care of her ego. Clearing the table in synchronized movements, Ronnie and Johnny don’t speak again until all the dishes are washed, dried and placed in the cabinet. Johnny is proud of the kitchen that Ronnie always keeps immaculate. She demanded her girls did the same when they lived at home. No kitchen of hers is clean until the counters are wiped clean, cabinets are wiped down, and the floor is swept. This was a routine that didn’t take long for her girls to acclimate to as they grew up; they didn’t always like it, but they usually followed through. Now that they are grown and gone, Johnny finds the cleaning ritual a way to pick extra goodies from the kitchen and snack while keeping his wife company.
Ronnie reaches for the light switch; Johnny places his hand over hers, circling her waist with his arm.
“Let’s watch television in our room tonight.”
He swings Ronnie around and takes her out of the kitchen in the opposite direction. Ronnie doesn’t protest; she just smiles and purrs, remembering why they have been married for so long. It’s nights like these, yes; nights with no kids anymore, just her romantic Johnny making his increasingly less and less subtle, but always welcomed advances.
When they reach the upstairs balcony, Johnny kisses her neck.
“Gonna say good night to the brat. Right behind you, babe.”
He heads down the hall and knocks on Jerrica’s door.
Johnny sticks his head in and says,
“Good night, brat. First thing in the morning, apologize to your mother. I do not want to know what happened or what was said, just do it. And thank you.”
He closes the door and heads to his own bedroom, to remedy whatever damage his youngest child has inflicted on his heart of hearts.
When Ronnie and Johnny get downstairs in the morning, Jerry is gone. It’s not unusual; she is often up and out earlier than these two old retired folks. They eat a light breakfast and decide to visit the Museum of Science and Industry, with lunch in Hyde Park. The weather is beautiful, and they walk hand in hand from the museum to the lakefront and back before lunch. When they finally reach home, sometime after dark, they see the note Jerry left on the couch table in the corner:
“Gone to grow up, call you when I get there.”
Ronnie’s reaction is completely contrary to what Johnny expects.
“I hope you get there soon, child of mine.”
Johnny is furious: not because she is gone, but because she is acting so immaturely. Jerry is almost 23 years old, with no direction. It’s not that direction is not given; she simply seems unable to find her way from the beginning of a project to the end. She just floats from one project to another, aimlessly incomplete. Unless it regards her grades and schooling, she is oblivious to the world. The worst part is that she expects everyone else to clean up her messes.
He takes Ronnie’s lead and keeps an outward calm. “Putting in a movie, do you have a preference?” he asks.
“Whatever you want, sweetheart,” Ronnie says, smiling. “We have the house to ourselves. We didn’t finish our movie from last night, if you want to go upstairs and grab it.”
The next two days are uneventful, but Jerry is not the center of attention she expected to be once she left. She had hoped to start a crisis in two states, Nevada and Illinois. She never called Jessica back to tell her sister about her change of plans; she just got on a plane to Italy to ‘grow up’. Grow up she would do.
Veronica is the youngest of ten children, eight boys and two girls. She and her oldest sister Francis sandwiched the eight boys, which makes Ronnie the baby and spoiled rotten. Before she had her last child, she thought she had escaped the horrible cliché of what goes around comes around. Hummmm, no. Her last child, Jerrica Solomon, ended up spoiled rotten, her daddy’s babygurl with all that that entailed. The house revolved around her moods. It didn’t make it any better that she was smart, quick as a whip, athletic, trilingual by age nine, and pretty as a picture. Now she is out of the house for good. And no matter what Johnny says, she cannot live here anymore. That is that.
“Good morning sugarplum, how did you sleep last night?”
Johnny is really chipper this morning. Ronnie is wondering if he has heard from their wayward child and keeping it to himself. She smiles, offering her cheek to Johnny for a morning peck.
“I always sleep well with you by my side. How did you sleep?”
Johnny knows her all too well; he takes a step back from her. She is a beautiful woman. She hardly looks forty, but she is pushing fifty-seven, and he knows better than anyone does what she has gone through in her life. For a dozen years, she raised his kids alone while he traveled the world for the Air Force. His sweetheart of forty-two years is very concerned about something, probably Jerry and her shenanigans again.
“Have you heard from the baby?”
“We don’t have any babies,” Ronnie replies.
“Jerry is twenty-two years old and acting like she did when she was fifteen. Have you heard from her? Have you called the other two girls and found out which of the two she ran to? I’m guessing Vegas, since she talked to Jess a week or so ago. She wanted to spend the ‘weekend’ out there. When is she going to get a real job, make a decision and get a life? You baby her too much, and I am sick of it.”
As with Jerry earlier in the week, Ronnie never raises her voice; it’s a sultry, low, stern voice, it demands action, and Johnny feels the raw emotions beneath its smoothness and calm.
Johnny didn’t expect this outpouring of emotion this early in the morning. He doesn’t respond verbally; instead, he pours a cup of coffee, walks out of the kitchen, and picks up the phone. Johnny wants his house back in order, and quickly.
First he calls his middle child.
“Hey Jelly, is your brat of a sister there? She’s been gone over a week.”
“Daddy, you know if she were here I would make her contact you or Mommy. Every time she runs away, I make her call you. A week, huh, did you call Jessie? You know how Jessie spoils her too. They are probably out shopping up a storm, putting you guys through drama for no reason.”
“She went west last time,” Johnny replies, “and since I only see two suitcases gone, I figured she stayed close to home this time. Called you first hoping I could just take her to lunch and mend the rift between her and her mom sometime today. Ronnie is a bit peeved with her, and I like my main squeeze happy. Right now it’s not a happy home.”
“Yeah, you all are brats in your own way. I will call Jessie just to make sure she’s there. How is my grandbaby, I haven’t held her in two whole days. Bring her over to see her Big Papa after your last appointment today.”
“Dad, I don’t have time for your spoiling tactics. You need to get Mommy in a good mood using your own methods and not my daughter. That’s the only real reason you want me to come over there, so Ronnie can hold her ‘Grand’ and forget about her spoiled rotten, over-educated, smart-mouthed half -employed child with no purpose in her life. Right?”
Jelly takes a breath, sounding very much like her mother in voice, cadence and thought.
Knowing he is beaten, Johnny just sighs.
“Can I see my grandchild, or do I need to come kidnap her?”
Jelly sighs back at him.
“I will drop her off and you can bring her home when Ronnie gets tired of running around after her. See you around eleven. Love you, bye.”
Johnny hangs up and flips through the Rolodex on the living room table. He refuses to go through these numbers this time. Only one more call to his oldest, most responsible child; then he is done.
“Jess, how are you guys doing? Is Darren in town?”
“Daddy! How are you, I miss you so much.”
Johnny beams, this is his first-born holding the birthright and making her his first favorite. At some point in their lives – probably from birth to four years old – every one of his girls had his favorite; just at different times in his life, but all for the same reason. The girls were competitive with each other inside the house, vying for his attention; but when they left the house, it was all for one and one for all. Until Jerry was fourteen they always left the house together and came home together. If they got into any trouble all of them said, “I did it.” Johnny usually could tell which one was the culprit, but they stuck to their guns through thick and thin. Then all his girls were gone for a while. Jerry graduated from Oakwood University at twenty and came back home. He was ecstatic to have her home, but she would intentionally rub Ronnie the wrong way. Yes, she was a brat but this was his babygurl, and she was home. Then she was off again for one year, at the University of Illinois at Springfield, for her first Master’s degree. She graduated and came home again. Now she is studying at the University of Chicago, working on her second Master’s – or is it her Ph.D.?; no one can keep up. If he could, he would keep her here as long as it takes to find herself.
Now Jessie is telling him about a huge deal she just brokered for some land that the Clark County School District would soon need for a school. She is so happy, and he is missing most of it drifting down Memory Lane. The one thing he does hear is that Jessie just got back in town from Reno. So where was Jerry?
“Did you take Jerry with you to Reno?” he interjects.
“Jerry?! No. She was supposed to call me back about spending the weekend, but she never did. She ‘ran’ away again didn’t she, brat! If I hear from her, I will tell her to at least call home. How do you put up with her, Daddy? Jelly and I would never get away with the stunts she pulls.”
Johnny laughs his baritone belly laugh.
“You two were so close in age that you didn’t get caught when you pulled your stunts, so hush up child. I am not worried about her, but I know your mother is; and when your mother is unhappy, my house is not in order. I want my house back in order. Find her. Ensure she is okay. She hasn’t used any of the family credit cards yet, so I have no idea what she is up to. I will call you next weekend, or you call me sooner if she comes to you. Love you.”
“Smooches daddy, bye.”
Jessie hangs up, knowing he is right; they have all gotten away with murder at some point, but technically Jerry is on her own, with no support system to help her stay out of trouble or assist her in her shenanigans. Her sisters assist when and how they can, but Jerry rarely needs any assistance. She just comes, goes, and does as she pleases. Ronnie will not tolerate this behavior in her house. Johnny, on the other hand, loves having at least one of his children at home.
Wearing a smile, Johnny sits down at his kitchen table to a great breakfast of French toast and eggs, with grits and turkey sausage. The best part is the peach compote from scratch that Ronnie always makes to prime him for something or another. He will enjoy the meal and wait for the other shoe to drop. She has tons of things to do today, and still took out the time to make this huge breakfast. Whatever she wants is going to be a doozy; and whatever she wants, she deserves.
“The grandgurl is headed our way; I know you have errands, so we are going to the park. Meet us there when you are through. I will take us to lunch. This is the last year before she starts school and we have her willy-nilly. Soon King will take up the time Jocelyn does now.”
He says this as more of an order than an invitation.
Ronnie smiles and agrees, of course.
“I guess you haven’t found the wayward one and you are filling the empty space with Jocelyn. I like that you are filling your life with your grands and letting Jerry start to build her life without us in the middle. I want to be her cheerleader, not her mother. Can you do that Johnny? Can you let her go and let us travel a bit?”
She tilts her head to the side, waiting for Johnny to digest the food on his plate and the request she has made.
“Honey, we will always be parents. ‘til death do us part, for you, me, and them.”
“This is going to be harder than I thought.”
Ronnie makes this statement out loud, but not really to Johnny. She smiles her famous smile and clears the dishes from the table, spooning the leftovers into containers and making a small plate for the Grandgurl, as everyone calls her. Jocelyn is a smart, intelligent, beautiful child; her dimples are deep and classic. No one on her mother’s side of the family has dimples that deep. On the other hand, her father Major has three that cover his face: one in each cheek, and one in his chin. She possesses her mother’s full lips and her grandpa’s huge beautiful brown eyes. Oh, Johnny, why do we keep visiting this struggle about our youngest? We have gone through many struggles much harder than this one and stood the test of time. Why, oh why does this fight have to be harder than all the rest?
“Sweetheart, what time do think you will get to the park? I may bring a snack when I come.” She changes her mood, because this changes the mood of the house; she does it only because she knows Johnny likes his house in order.
He flashes his celebrity smile at her, believing the battle is now over.
“I think 2:30, maybe three; we will be waiting for you. No snacks, we are eating out.”
He pats her on her tush and leaves her to finish the kitchen alone. Through the living room window, he sees Jelly pulling into the driveway. Johnny heads out to meet them. Leaning in the driver’s side window, he pecks her on the cheek. He opens the Lincoln Town Car’s back door, freeing the baby from her seat. She jumps out as he reaches across and ruffles his grandson’s hair. Closing the car door, Johnny swings Jocelyn up in the air. “Grandgurl, are you hungry? We have French toast sticks in the kitchen, let’s go.”
“Thank you Daddy, see you later. Have fun, little one.”
“Get that boy potty-trained so he can hang out with us more often.”
“He is almost there, Papa.” Jocelyn waves good-bye.
Inside, Ronnie is brushing her hair, preparing to leave on her errands. Her mind slips back to childhood and carefree times. She and Johnny have earned a comfortable life. The rewards are many, and her memories are rich and subtle. She smiles to herself, thinking how grateful she is for the wonderful family she has raised.
This skinny kid moved to the neighborhood when Veronica was in third grade, four blocks away from her small house where the last five of ten children still lived. Johnny William Solomon pulled her hair every day and ran home after school. Her older brother Huge beat him up eight times for pulling her hair, but Johnny liked Ronnie and refused to be discouraged by a couple of black eyes and a sore chest. Plus Johnny got a crisp new dollar when he put the tooth under his pillow that Ronnie’s other brother, Barry, knocked out of his mouth. By that summer, Ronnie was used to him and their families became close because of the kids’ friendship. They went to grammar school together for the next two years, but different schools when they reached junior high. Ronnie would see him from time to time at functions, and every weekend at church. Every day she would walk home, with him carrying her books and all the junior high school kids teasing Johnny for being ‘stung out.’ When they started as freshmen in high school, it took him a week to find her and ask her to the freshman dance. She avoided him for another week until she made up her mind about whether there were any other boys that she wanted to go to the dance with. Only then did she let Johnny know her schedule. When she told him her schedule, he changed three of his classes so he could swoon over her the first year. Johnny made up his mind in his junior year that he would marry her when he graduated. Unfortunately, he didn’t foresee the war that rearranged his plans, or his life. He gave her a promise ring before he was sworn-in, and then swore to her he would return.
Thirty-plus years later, Johnny is just as stubborn as he was then. This will not be an easy battle to win. Ronnie, on the other hand, is very easy to get along with; no one would ever call her stubborn. It’s simply righteous living that always gets her, her way. Things just come to her, falling in her lap. Some would say she has lived a charmed life; others would say she knew how to make her breaks and take full advantage of them. While Johnny was away the first tour, she dated here and there, but she went to school and was the first in her family to achieve her associate’s degree in writing. Everyone was so proud. When Johnny came home from the service, it was only a year before they were married and eleven months before Jessie was born. Not satisfied, Ronnie went back to college, taking secretarial courses. And before Jessie was in kindergarten, Jelly was on the way and Johnny was called back for a second tour. Neither Johnny nor Ronnie had a plan for this; now, three years later, Jerry was born. Ronnie decided she was done; no more children. In between Jerry and Jelly, Johnny received orders for active duty again. Then he was off on his third tour, leaving his family alone for the last time. Veronica understood finishing the last 18 months he still owed the military. He ended up doing a full four years when this time, in Europe. First, he was stationed in Germany, at the Air Defense Operations Center next to Ramstein Air Base. After a year, his orders sent him to Italy for the remainder of his tour, doing a different job. In the four years he was gone, he came home three times. Once for three months. For years, Johnny begged Veronica to join him and bring the children. However, Ronnie did not want to raise her children abroad. She wanted American hospitals, American schools, and her family around her.
When Johnny finally finished his obligations to the military, the only work he could get was as a longshoreman. Every holiday, all the overtime allowed, he was there. He continued school at night to achieve the certifications he needed to start his own company. It felt to his family like Johnny’s deployment was now extended Stateside; but his long hours were all for them. This sacrifice made him proud and warm inside. His family would benefit later, but not much later. A few times each week, Ronnie and Johnny would run into each other without sleepwalking. Both were grateful for his engineering classes in and out of the service. At Johnny’s graduation, both families attended. Months later, they also attended the opening of his own business. The celebration lasted the whole weekend.
Ronnie never gave up on him; she enjoyed babysitting other children while he was overseas, and their bills got smaller and smaller. Once her girls were in school, Ronnie herself went back to school to finish her bachelor’s degree. She was primed to manage Johnny’s financials five months after the opening.
Johnny took on a partner and two students within four years. His big break was reconstructing the basement of Chicago’s City Hall. While Johnny and his interns worked the technical side of the business, Ronnie loved seeing him in his GQ suits. She also loved taking him home and rumpling him up. Having the freedom to leave work at-will left little freedom for Jerrica. Her mother being home every day when she got home from school put a cramp on her social life.
Johnny’s brothers-in-law laughed and teased him, not knowing this was the foundation for his business to prosper. In less than ten years, he turned the business over to the two student interns as managing partners. His company still acquires thirty percent of the minority business available to his industry sector in the city of Chicago. He knows it happened because Ronnie earned her degree and took over managing Johnny’s office.
Major reached out to her when her daughter’s business started out. Jessie never seemed to need their advice or their financing; she seemed so stable and independent. After all these tussles, she and Johnny are now part-time consultants and full time grandparents. Ronnie keeps these memories close to her heart and slips back almost every day to compare how different things are now to then.
Johnny always said,
“This is the way it was meant to be” before he went into the Air Force.
Nevertheless, since he had to delay his life, he was grateful God gave him three such beautiful distractions.
These distractions grew like weeds, into everything; sports, music, cheerleading, linguistics, gymnastics, art and singing. Most of these activities were sponsored by their school, so they were all in one location most weeknights. This gave their parents the liberty to transition from work to school to home, only leaving them alone for an hour or two every other night. Then on the weekends, everyone sat at the dining room table with books and homework to complete assignments and share the triumphs of the week. Various projects and coursework discussed, completed and polished as a family; this gave everyone a piece of pride when the grade came back.
One project Jereline undertook was tracing the family tree. Many nights she asked questions and took notes about her parents’ and grandparents’ lives and pasts. She cherished this information, using it much later in her life to trace her half-sister in Italy. She listened as Johnny weaved tales of his exploits when he was attached to the 7207th Air Base Squadron in Aviano Air Base Italy. Jerry learned that that base was located about twenty miles north of Perdenone, Italy and approximately fifty miles north of Venice. She daydreamed of visiting, just her and her Papa. Her sisters rarely asked questions about his travels. They always asked about his childhood, brothers, sisters, grandma, and G-pa. It was as if he and Ronnie were always together, if you let Johnny tell it. Daddy seemed to have a life before her mom became his wife and trapped him. He shouldn’t have to be tied down in America; our family was meant to travel near and far. I will wake this family up, break the cycle of stagnant humanity. But now I will take a nap. Next stop, Florence, Italy; next plateau, Rhodes Scholar.
Jereline has been in Italy a week, not having the courage to introduce herself to her older sister. She has been productive in filling out the required information for her stay at Oxford. She combs the three periodicals for available affordable living provisions. A furnished apartment is the primo planning arrangement, but it may be nice to purchase furniture and be an adult. There is an apartment available on Benson Place in Oxford, about a 12-minute bike ride from the building where most of her classes are scheduled. It fits the stipend promised, eliminating the need to work. Best of all, she will not need assistance from her estranged family. Officially, she could do a few weekends here with Jemma, since it is only a 16-hour drive. Maybe, just maybe, Jemma could go with her to check it out, and maybe help decorate.
How can Jemma agree to go, if Jerry cannot talk to her face-to-face?
Jemma is now her oldest sister. She wonders what Jessie will think about not being the boss of everything. Now Jerrica won’t hafta listen to anyone tell her what to do with her life and how she keeps screwing up everything and not finishing anything and oh, like, she is growing up too fast or too slow. When would Jemma ever say mean things to anyone? Plus, both of them are grown; and equals.
Jerrica starts thinking aloud: Guess I will at least call her today.
Nope, I am going to see her.
Breakfast first …. This hotel has only 2½-stars, but they have pretty good food. The best part is that the food is pretty and it is cheap. This tray of breads is delicious; it has almost fifty little treats on it. The sweet breads and mini-Danishes are off the chain. She guesses she can order one more tray and a full breakfast to conserve her money. Then off to see what she can see at the Università, as they say in Italian – no, as we say in Italian. She wonders: can I think it in Italian, or will I always think in English first and translate each word?
“Buongiorno, potrei avere servizio in camera, per favore? Stanza 412, posso ancora ordinare la colazione o è troppo tardi? Sì ho dormito tardi stamattina. 2 crepes formaggio e pollo, un vassoio di pane dolce, un piatto di fette di arrosto scuro 4 caffè di Turchia pancetta e no, questo è tutto per ora. Quanto tempo prima di venire, ho voglia di saltare nella doccia, grazie.”
(“Good morning, may I have room service, please? Room 412; may I still order breakfast or is it too late? Yes, I slept late this morning. Two cheese egg and chicken crepes, another tray of sweet breads, a pot of coffee – dark roast – and four slices of turkey bacon, and no, that’s all for now, thank you.”)
How long before they come? She always gets it wrong. She wants to jump in the shower. They always show up sooner than she expects, but she will surprise them this time. The shower is perfect, and the time slips by unnoticed. Walking into the sitting room, still brushing her hair, she didn’t hear anyone come or go. When she is dressed and enter the suite, she sees the table set with silver serving trays, a rose – and orange juice? Did I order orange juice? This arrived without her hearing a sound. These Italians are sneaky and a little tricky, hmmmmmm. She decides it was that one guy who’s always smiling at her and talking to her as if she doesn’t understand Italian.
She knows her Italian is great – yes, better than great, better than most Italians’. He stares too much. Enough about him. She needs to finish this and start her trek through these hills and valleys. She hates getting lost, but all these vineyards look so much alike.
Jerrica rents a two-wheeler, 8- or 10-speed. Roy Matthews II is an American who stayed when his military parents left. He draws her a map, offering to take her to dinner when she returns from the college. She blushes and thinks about the guy who brings her breakfast. Of course, the comparison is made in her psyche. There, she also imagines the disapproving look from Johnny regarding either or both of these guys.
Never mind, she’s on a mission. Either of these guys will only hinder her trip.
“Thank you, should I tip when I return the bike?” She is back in the present. “What if I need it all week? Is there a weekly rate?”
“There is a weekly rate. I can re-write this contract if you want.”
“I don’t know yet. I will let you know when I get back tonight.”
“Then the contract will have to start tomorrow, is that okay?”
“That’s fine. I don’t know when I’m leaving. I think I am going straight to Oxford from here.”
“That is too far to ride a bike, but it’s doable.” Roy chuckles, flashing his Hollywood smile at her.
“Funny, I will let you know tonight. Bye for now.”
When she finds the town, she will make this trip work, keep her courage high and call her big, big sister to see who and what she is .… her letters were nice, but when do you really know someone? She don’t even know herself right now. I will send Jessie a telegram while I’m there, she tells herself. She is sure Ronnie is krazzy wondering where she is, and Daddy is worried sick. Serves them right trying to restrict my movements, I am grown after all.
Hill after hill of grape vineyards … okay, maybe some are olive groves; but who cares, the scenery is beautimous. Why didn’t Johnny bring us here to grow up instead of the concrete jungle with all the noise that goes along with city life? Even their public transportation is pretty.. She can’t get enough of the simple beauty of this entire country.
Looking at her sister is like looking at her mother. A million miles to get away from Mommy and voilá, here she is, twenty-three years younger. Jerrica can’t help but wonder: who does Jemma’s mother look like and what was Johnny thinking? She still has no idea exactly what to say to Jemma, but still she walks to the café table and sits down.
“Hello, I’m Jerry; well, Jerrica, from the United States. I have your letters.”
“Jerry, I’ve waited so long to meet you, I didn’t think you would come. I was going to leave; I have class in twenty minutes. You come with me; no, you will come with me. I want you to meet everyone. I have told my whole family of your coming to meet me from the United States.”
“You are still in school, you are still in University?”
“I am a professor of English, and English Writing.”
Jerrica remembers now.
“I haven’t decided yet what to do with my own career. Of course I will join you.”
She holds back the news of Oxford until after class.
They both stand. Jemma pulls Jerrica close. They exchange a huge bear hug and smiles that radiate pure happiness. Jemma grabs Jerrica’s hand, pulling her towards the cobblestone walkway.
They take about eight steps before Jemma asks
“No, no, I’m good.”
Jemma rattles off some of the names of her students for this course and gives a brief synopsis of their characters and writing styles. She stops walking and exclaims how exciting and important it is that Jerrica is in Italy to help her with her next portion of the curriculum. She wants Jerrica to give her student’s names of American students who are willing to write letters, to share their experiences as students and university life: The ins and outs of socialization, the American way, dating, study groups, and all the things the two of them have shared with each other over the last six years.
Jerrica is almost speechless because Jemma has no idea why she is really here. Not sure if she should wait until the course is over, or explain the hidden mission before they go in to the building. Jemma starts walking again and reaches for her hand. Jerrica’s thoughts, now scattered, make her miss the window of opportunity to say anything.
The halls are busy with bustling students, all headed somewhere with a purpose. Jerrica should have attended this college straight out of high school. She feels like knowledge is in the walls. The professors don’t need to speak; the information is absorbed by osmosis. She loves to learn, they both do; it is in their blood. They feel anyone who stops learning should die to get out the way of those who are willing to advance their brains and expand their minds.
Jerrica must have missed the introduction because this man is speaking to her, and she is in a daze. His beautifully bronzed, innocent face is spewing information about the school:
“The University of Trieste (Università degli Studi di Trieste), is a relatively young Institution, only eighty years old compared to other Italian universities. It is a medium-sized university in Trieste in the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region of Italy. So where are you staying while you visit La Professoressa?”
Apparently, her sister doesn’t have a name; she is affectionately and simply known as La Professoressa. Jerrica stutters, wanting to answer in her best Italian and keep her anonymity, but coming up short.
“In a villa, right outside of town. It’s a short bus ride. A longer bike ride.”
“How long will you stay?”
“I’m, I’m not sure.”
“She’ll be here until we let her go,” says La Professoressa. “Come on ‘sis.’”
Jerrica is flabbergasted she knows … she knows, I can’t figure out how she knows. Now they are in the lecture hall, with a hundred or so seats, and going down a million stairs to the very front of the room.
“Hello, friends. We have a visitor. My sister from America is here, and she will give us an overview of American social customs – all the ones that television and magazines will not share with us here.”
There is laughter from her attentive audience.
One of her students raises his hand.
“Is this the sister you wrote to for years and only knew of when your American dad came last year to visit?”
Jemma is beaming now.
“In the beginning, we didn’t know we were sisters. My mom wanted us to be friends. She knew my dad would introduce us eventually, so she made it easier for us to get acquainted.”
Jerry sits in silence wishing she could disappear. Her mind goes back to the last time she saw her father heading this way. She dropped Johnny at the airport and picked him up. She even begged him to take her; she brought her passport and a small overnight bag just in case he gave in to her whimsical foolishness. Johnny flew Space-A (Available) in the military, often doing turn-arounds to spoil Veronica on special occasions, birthdays and holidays. Ronnie has forty-five pairs of shoes if she has one, directly from Italy’s swap meet: Ferragamos, Pradas, and makers known only to locals. She also has tons of pretty soaps; some she only allows guests to use, while others are too pretty to use. Some of the shoes are in the same style and multiple colors because Johnny usually did not know which color would go best with “whatsanever” outfit she might wear to this place or the other. Johnny called Jereline from Italy to tell her he was staying one more day. Jerry hated to re-arrange her schedule for anyone, but if she wanted to keep her daddy wrapped around her little finger, she had to do what she had to do. That night she buckled down and finished her final paper for the semester. She would turn it in before she headed to the airport to pick Johnny up in the early afternoon.
There are 35 packages from that trip. The wrapped gifts are in larger boxes; smaller ones, in decorative bags; and still others, in strange colored boxes but not wrapped. Johnny picks her up and swings her around, kissing her on the top of her head. The smallest bag has a beautiful tennis bracelet about three carats total weight (eyeball guess). She knows this is a bribe; Daddy knows it is a bribe; but neither of them states the obvious fact.
Johnny jumps behind the wheel. He adjusts the seat, rear view mirror and of course changes the radio station to ‘smooth jazz’. Jerry has lost this argument more than she’s ever won it; so due to the gorgeous piece of jewelry on her wrist, she backs down and concentrates on the secret trip – no, the secret extended trip.
“Daddy, why do you go to Italy so often? Forget that question. How come you won’t take me on your secret rendezvous? Are you cheating on mommy? Are you a spy? Oooh, oooh, are you a 007 undercover?”
“My children make me very proud in everything they accomplish. You, my crazy, spastic, undisciplined munchkin, have an overactive, out-of-control imagination. I beg of you to find a venue – I don’t care what it is – and begin your own life. You are brilliant, imaginative and often practical in your bubble you call a life. But you are way too involved in my life. Go find yourself and get a life.”
Jerry retreats, pulls her infamous pout until Daddy notices and apologizes. This time it backfires; as a matter of fact, lately, her pouting is lost on her mom and dad. Veronica keeps sending her to her room “if she’s going to act like a brat.” Maybe it is time for a new approach to accomplish all her goals.
She sees an envelope poking from Johnny’s overnight bag in the back. Jerry waits for the light to turn green and pulls it out:
Thank you for always being there for Jemma and me.
We will always love you.
“Daddy, who is ‘C’? Is this my Jemma? Are we keeping this from Mommy?”
No chuckle this time.
“Stay out of my bag. You have always been precocious, but you’re an adult now. Stop acting like a child. Grow up for God’s sake, do something with your life. Now put that back and focus. What are you doing this summer? For you, not anyone else?”
“Nothing and I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Fine. No answers, no questions.”
Jerry tears off the address corner of the envelope and places the note back in his bag. She sits back and reconvenes the pouting until Johnny notices. Unfortunately, his youngest immature daughter does not draw Johnny in, even though he notices the silent tantrum. It takes twenty-five more minutes before they reach home. Johnny does not notice the time; but for Jerry it’s excruciating.
Johnny drones on the entire way about how beautiful the countryside of Italy is. He promises to take all his girls in the winter because the wine tasting season makes grown men cry. “You will love riding your bike there; the hills in between the vineyards have dirt paths where you can disappear for hours. With your earbuds and music box, you will ride for hours without being disturbed.”
“When is this magical day going to arrive? You’ve promised to take me to Italy since I was in high school. I remember you gave me a pen pal for a Christmas present, who lived in Italy. Is this the same Jemma?”
“You ask too many questions, little one. It will happen soon. Now grab some of these boxes. My wife misses me.”
Veronica stands at the top of the stairs with an unrevealing smile. You could never read her mind through her expressions. Still, her eyes tell Johnny what he dreads to see. With his gift of gab and his ability to woo her for all these years, this is no challenge. His heart is heavy because he knew he has disappointed her again. He loves to hate these trips; he hates to love these trips. One week a lifetime ago has caused so much pain, for so many, for so long. There has never been any way to fix the mess he created; but he can, and will, make everyone understand how everyone can get along.
“Hey gorgeous, you miss me?”
“You stayed an extra day”
Ronnie says in that even, silky, deadly tone.
“This is the third time this year you stayed an extra day. What aren’t you telling me? When did we start keeping secrets? Do I need to make some secrets of my own or are you going to end these trips to Italy every four months?”
“Are you tracking me, woman? I haven’t been to Italy three times this year. And, when I went late last year, I was back before the holidays. You looked fabulous for Christmas, and for New Years. You wore original outfits, from your undies to your hats. Tell me you love me, and how happy we are, compared to anyone else on this planet. Then give me a kiss like you missed me for real.”
Johnny swirls Veronica around in a circle, lifting her off the ground, finishing in a dip with a deep kiss. Ronnie catches her breath and winks at Johnny while letting her bathrobe slip past her shoulder. She starts towards the bedroom with an extra strut in her step, not looking back but convinced Johnny is following her. She feels confident she still has him whipped after all these years. There is no doubt that if he is slipping out on her, he definitely knows his way home. Despite the gifts he brings her, she really looks forward to his trips away. They always give her a night or two to herself, with no questions. She always spends the morning after he leaves getting the full treatment at the first salon, and then the evening with her two grandchildren. Johnny is such a man, as if he is the only one with secrets. Yeah, right.
“Mom, Dad, I’m outta here. All the stuff is out of the car, on the living room couch.”
There is no answer from her parents. Jerry knows they are acting like rabbits, but she hates to think about them together, together like that. Maybe she should find her own place. Never gonna happen. The older they get, the more they lock down in the bedroom. Twice this year, she has walked in on them rumpled in the kitchen and den. Yuck. She needs a vacation. She heads for the college campus. She wants to see her grades. With this Master’s degree, she wants Honors and Distinctions. She has worked really hard this semester, and happy it has come to an end. She is going to accept the Rhodes scholarship for next year; this year, however, she will spend her summer in Italy. She will call Jemma today. Jemma will love to see her. Maybe she will tell her who “C” is and how she knows Daddy. Johnny is really a hypocrite, telling her there is nothing she can’t tell him because he loves her unconditionally, while here he is, hiding two women from her mother. Most of this is Mommy’s fault for trusting him so much, Jerry decides. Doing everything he says and waiting on him hand and foot. How can a woman put her husband before her children? Catering to his whims, idiosyncrasies and demands. Jerry cannot even remember how many times they just ran off, leaving her with my sisters, while they traipsed around the world. Literally the entire globe, but somehow Johnny managed to keep her out of Italy. Now she know why. With mommy she will need proof. Johnny can do no wrong according to her, and neither can she according to him. This is exactly what she gets for trusting him too much and being tied around his finger.
Jerry can never find a parking spot on this campus. She ends up walking for miles to accomplish anything. She wonders how many parks she has passed in her absorbed state of mind. I should have brought my niece to keep me company, she thinks. She rarely stops asking Jerry what this or that is, and why does this do that; she is a brilliant child. She keeps Jerry on her toes and makes her concentrate on the here and now. Occasionally, Jerry still drifts off into her plans for the future. Jocelyn the Queen definitely takes after her aunt; she loves planning things, and asking questions, of course.
Its official: Jerry can officially state she has a Master’s Degree in Linguistics. With her scores, she doesn’t need to worry about her scholarship being revoked. She wants to visit her professors at the Oxford University Press. Maybe she will see her counselor about the scholarship while she is here. Jemma is still asleep and has classes first thing in the morning, given the time difference of seven hours. If Jerry calls her before she goes to bed, she can catch her before she starts her day. Jerry will stop by the travel agency also. She is sure she can be there before August. So much to do and just enough time. She can rent a car when she gets there; no, rent a bike like Johnny said. She will ride all over the campus without having to look for a parking space. She feels exceptionally smug right now. To celebrate, she heads to the lakefront to relax with her thoughts. Maybe later, she will call some people, but she does not want to go home to the old rabbits bouncing around the house. When they come up for air, they will nag her about what she plans to do with this degree. Or why she is relaxing instead of getting real-life experience by working or volunteering more often. None of her family members considers the laundry, travel arrangements, inventory or ordering of supplies for nine salons a job. Every week it seems their operators want to try a new product or travel arrangements for a conference somewhere. Who does the research? Who checks out the companies’ financials? Who makes sure the conferences are legit? Who makes sure the new product is available in all the salons, not just available to the one operator who thought it was a good idea?
Jelly will miss her most of all. Major will miss his baby sitter. Jocelyn and Jeremy are, like her left out of their parents’ lives. They are dropped off like stepchildren to be babysat; they are left behind while their parents gallivant around the country. Any self-respecting grandmother would love to spend time with her grandchildren, except she is usually gone also.
Today is a good day, Jerry decides; she is going to treat herself to ice cream and let some dude treat her to a drink later tonight. She may even tell her family that she is now a Rhodes Scholar. Johnny making her play volleyball in her freshman year helped. Jessie inviting her on a mission trip to Belize did not hurt her application either, and she decides that working at the Salon gave her the pocket money she needed to stay focused on school.
Her family does not suck; but seriously, she thinks, I did this, not them. In addition, they could have been much more supportive than they are, or have been. After all, she has an Associate of Arts, majoring in Spanish; an Associate’s of Science majoring in Italian; and a Bachelor’s of Foreign Languages. Now she adds a double Master’s in Linguistics and Philology, with a Minor in Latin. Finally she will complete her education as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, where she can achieve her Ph.D. in Language Science.
Now that she is finally here, this is not what she expected. On the other hand, this is great: A beautiful sister, a scholarship, and a life that everyone keeps telling her to go get. She has finally achieved it without trying; well, without planning. Her sister is great, but she needs to share this with her other sister.
She calls Jessie.
“Jess, I need you to come to Italy as soon as you can.”
“What? Where are you?”
“I’m in Italy with my – no, our sister Jemma – and her mother, who looks so much like Mommy. Please come see us. I have a ton of things to tell you and you need to meet her.”
I feel the wind kicked out of me as I descend the moving stairs at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas, Nevada. I am blind with grief, people are talking down to me; I must be on the floor.
My cell phone? Where is my phone? I was speaking to my Aunt Francis.
“Hi Hauntie; what’s shakin’?” I chirp.
Her voice is deeply saddened as she whispers, “They found your father in his apartment dead.”
“Oh my God! Daddy, Daddy, Daddy, why?”
I scream. Those were the last words I remember and without an answer, I collapsed.
As I regain consciousness, I am fit to be tied; no, not fit for anything. In actuality, I do not know what I am, or if I even exist at this point. I feel like I have lost so much, so often, that I have no desire to continue to breathe. Yet I do not have the ability to stop breathing. Oh, my goodness, Daddy is dead! I cannot hear, I cannot see, I cannot feel anything. Did I tell Hauntie I wasn’t sitting down? I don’t think so, but at this point it just doesn’t matter. Everything is distorted around me. What are they saying to me? I need to move, but I have no ability. I feel myself being lifted; something is now covering my eyes. It’s soothing. Has it been seconds, minutes or hours that have passed before my senses are capable of functioning at any capacity again? My aunt wanted me to call her when I got home, but it is the weekend and free minutes are for talking as much as you want anyway. I disconnect from the voice mail and hit speed dial; shouldn’t have done that. Because now I won’t make it back to my house; I am going straight back to Chicago, where I just spent a week running interference between my mom and dad.
I am returning home to a shell of a marriage, one that I was determined to make work despite the rocky start. I never really forgave him for his deceit mere days before the wedding, five years ago. Before that, I spent three months in Italy with my baby sister Jerry, who refuses to leave Europe. She now has a BS, an MA, an MS, and tons of dreams; her explorative spirit has allowed her a freedom that neither Jelly nor I will embrace. I am very proud of her accomplishment in earning a Rhodes scholarship. I barely touch down on Nevada soil finding out my presence is demanded in Chicago, again. Johnny and Mommy split about a month ago. Now he is dead. It couldn’t have happened before Thursday? I need to call my mom; she must be devastated. I let her know I am turning around.
It is finally over; the smell is deafening. I can see evidence of blood, feces, urine, and something else unidentifiable. What else do humans have inside of them? What could have come out of my father? We always said he was full of it. I guess “it” is the unidentifiable substance on the floor of his studio apartment. The maintenance technician is talking to Jelly; she seems to have intelligible answers for him because they continue to speak cordially. The police are also interacting with her verbally, but looking in my direction. I cannot hear a word they say, and it seems that each one of them is moving in slow distinct movements – almost choreographed. My sister touches my arm, gently pulling me away from the now-opened door where the officers have removed the ‘Crime Scene’ tape, allowing us to enter. I stand frozen at the door. This is all that is left of sixty-one years of life? This is the place where a man with four girls, a wife, a secret mistress, eleven siblings – nine of which are still living – all of whom loved and cared for him, expired? He laid here decomposing two, maybe three days, before anyone found him. Alone; what a state of affairs. Explain to me, please, how someone expires in the first place. Did he forget to put a coin in the meter, so therefore he could no longer hold membership in this exclusive club called life? Was the renewal on his membership for life lost in the mail? Where is the love?
“Are you okay?”
I look up. I can hear again.
“Yes,” I respond. “I will be, eventually.”
The tears start then and I wonder if they will ever stop. I smile.
“Big girls don’t cry.” I say to myself under my breath. I am still smiling as I walk to the bedroom. But stop they did; every smile line in place, with perfectly outlined lips, left that building thinking of all the great times my father and I spent together during his lifetime. It is normal for parents to leave before their children. It is unnatural for children to precede their parents; so how blessed was I to have him around for this much of my life? Keeping a smile for the rest of the family is more important than any grief I could feel at this moment. His brothers and sisters are heading this way; they do not need to worry about the family. Hold yourself together, I tell myself; that will hold the family together.
“So now we head to the VA hospital to check out the benefits he had there. Ready to roll?”
I say cheerily to Jelly.
“How’s Darren?” she asks as casually as she can.
“Still in love and not wanting me to leave him.”
“How’s Vegas?” She asks, keeping the conversation going.
“All flash and no follow through. I think I am going to have an affair. I met a really cute guy; ya know I love them tall, dark and bald. He’s relatively young; well, seven months older than me and more than successful. Why haven’t you asked me about Italy?”
“Why ask about the brat,” she says. “So how long are you going to stay in Chicago this time?”
This conversation is going nowhere and I want it to end. “Two weeks. We should have everything wrapped up by then. I want to take Johnny with me when I go. If that’s okay with you?”
“Fine, the thought of keeping his remains in my house is not appealing,” she croons. “Did you see all that junk in the drawer? We should make Jerry sort through it, since she missed the great part of cleaning out the apartment.”
I chuckle, thinking of the lifelong competition they hold. “What’s up with Major? I haven’t seen him since I got here; well, before I got back here either. Darren is traveling again. I didn’t tell him about Johnny yet. I’m going to wait ‘til we set a date. You know him; he will catch the first plane home. Like I did?”
“Yeah, Hauntie says you just landed in Vegas, and you stayed at the airport ‘til you could get a flight back. Did you even call Darren and let him know you were home?”
“Nope … left here thirty-six hours ago and I’m back; and yes I will call him eventually. I’ve never forgiven him for the fiasco before we got married and we have lived separate lives in the same house for six years. Our anniversary was three months ago and we had our standard celebratory dinner. I got on a plane and went to Italy to see Jerry the next day. Stopped here three weeks ago, decided to go home Sunday, left Wednesday and I was back here Thursday. I have no idea what he is up to, nor do I care.”
“Do you love him or not?” she whispers.
“I never got to find out; he screwed it up before I really knew.”
We pull up to the Veterans’ Administration building on the West Side.
JESSIE BROWN VETERANS ADMINISTRATION BUILDING
~ Employee Parking Only ~
“Metered parking everywhere,” Jelly observes. “How does this work exactly?”
“We decide how many hours we are going to stay in here, then feed the meter a million quarters,” I laugh.
“Here, put this sign in the window. We won’t be long.”
Jelly hands me a white placard with purple, orange and green writing that says DELIVERY – CITY OF CHICAGO EMPLOYEE PARKING PERMIT. My mind wants to ask, but my brain is too crowded to accept any information, so I just hang it on the rear-view mirror of her 2005 Mercedes-Benz E36 AMG and park.
“Do we want to do this today?” I ask her.
“Better than procrastinating, plus we have no idea what getting a flag before his funeral will entail. Come on; let’s get it over with, sis,” she cajoles. I smile.
A text message tells me Jerry is in Chicago. So, straight from the VA to O’Hare International Airport.
She gets off the plane complaining about the length of the flight and asks how is Johnny. Jelly and I look at each other, wondering who told her what, and why she thinks Johnny is still alive. After she rattles for what seems like hours, I interrupt her and say,
“Johnny’s dead.” I continue to drive.
Jelly turns around in her seat, grabs Jerry’s hand and tells her all she knows, ending with the information about the burial flag presentation from the Veterans’ Administration. Actually, the lack of a presentation: we can pick it up any day next week during business hours. She continues to explain all the drama of cleaning Johnny’s apartment, and I smile as she flatly tells Jerry that she will be spending her night sorting through Johnny’s belongings.
As she ends her speech – I am thinking it was rehearsed – she says, “We missed you so much. Why you don’t you move back to the United States?” I keep on my game face; inside I am laughing so hard – yes, even at a time like this – because of the manipulation I am witnessing, and loving the smooth criminal sitting next to me.
Jerry seems completely calm, but we all know better. Jelly and I are waiting for the explosion of emotion. I have no idea exactly what form the display, tears, screaming, and other hysterics will take, but I know it’s coming.
I am shocked when she says to me, “Jess, why did you leave me in Italy? I thought you came to bring me home.”
“Huh?” Jelly chuckles.
“Did you hear anything I just told you?”
“Whatever. Jessie left me.”
“Bring it up again and I will put your secret on a billboard,” I tell her.
“Drop it. You have a life and you are doing well. Grow up.”
“Nothing, it’s nothing.”
We drive the half hour to Jelly’s house, bypassing the party house where all our cousins have gathered to mourn Johnny’s death. Because we would much rather be alone amongst ourselves, we do not stop by, or call them to let anyone know that I am in town, or that we have picked up Jerry from the airport. We have everything that Johnny took when he left his home of thirty-five years, when he left Mommy. We are still curious as to Jerry blowing her top; not just when, but how. I wonder if she understands that she is the cause of Johnny’s dying alone in an apartment, versus his own home.
After we drag all this junk in to Jelly’s sub-basement, we remind Jerry she is on sorting detail. Without a word, Jerry starts going through the green and black plastic bags of junk we brought from Johnny’s one-bedroom apartment. None of us girls really know what was said the night Johnny left. We do understand that the Babygurl, Jerry, is behind this horrible break-up that ended in Johnny’s tragic death.
Jerry is halfway through one bag when she shows Jelly a gold locket with a picture of a lady that looks like Ronnie on one side and a picture of a baby girl that looks a lot like me. When they turn the picture over, there are numbers that we assume are a date. But more important is the piece of paper behind the pictures. None of us have seen this locket or these females before, or have we? Think, think! But Jerry and I have met both of these women, and keep this information to ourselves for the time being. Under close examination, we find writing on the paper that is strategically placed behind the pictures.
There are six rows of numbers: fifteen-digit numbers with letters behind each set of numbers:
VES CH93 0076 2011 6238 5295 7
JCS CH93 0079 2785 4253 9587 5
JES1 CH93 0084 7589 4567 4567 5
JES2 CH93 4674 4554 6255 6382 5
JES3 CH93 8645 5645 6489 9870 3
CC CH93 1569 5969 7735 6589 1
Do we really need a mystery at this point in our lives? Nothing is as it should be, everything seems so convoluted and out of place. How is it even possible that Daddy could keep a secret of this magnitude from the people he always said were “nearest and dearest to his heart”? Do I need to reclassify my dad with the Darren’s of the world? Shit, I still need to call Darren, goodness gracious.
Running is my life, so what is the difference this time? Johnny’s death was an excellent excuse not to stop at home. Telling Darren why I didn’t stop is the kicker, especially since I haven’t talked to him in over a week. I’m not accustomed to explaining myself to him, and I don’t intend to start now. Except this is an excellent reason versus my usual excuses of why I can’t or won’t come home; or why I only come home when he is not in town. When he finally gets here, we will put on the perfect family face for all the relatives; smiling and touching at the right times so no one will know that I don’t trust him. It’s been five years of marriage and one year of togetherness. How time does fly. The longer I prolong making this phone call, the worse it will get.… I don’t know how to play this. The helpless wife? The distraught daughter? The professional strong woman? Aauugghh! I am too tired of this marriage to even figure out what role to play for him.
“Darren, Johnny is dead.”
“Where are you? You said you would be home yesterday; I postponed my trip to California to meet you at the airport. You didn’t call, were you even on the flight you told me?”
“Did you hear me?”
“Yes, Johnny who?”
“My dad, he passed away and the police are calling it suspicious circumstances.”
“Wow, I’m sorry babe, are you okay? How is Ronnie, does she know yet? She is going to be distraught.”
“Ronnie knows and the family is waiting on you to get here to set the day of the funeral. Are you going to make it? I know how busy you are these days.”
“Make it? Of course. I know you need me, I know how important family is, and you are my priority. I will be there tonight. Don’t worry about picking me up, I will rent a car.”
“Sure, um, I am at Jelly’s and Jerry is home from Europe.”
“When did she get there? Never mind, I am moving in that direction, see you tonight.”
“Okay, be safe, bye.”
“Love you, bye.”
I hang up without responding and wonder if he knows what love really is? No, I wonder if I know what love really is? Johnny and Ronnie were together for thirty-nine years, including grade school, and everyone knew they loved each other. But my youngest sister managed to separate them long enough for Johnny to expire alone. From my understanding they separated for fifteen days; fifteen days apart after nearly forty years of life together. I can’t imagine spending forty straight days together with Darren. I need to put my smile in place and help with the arrangements. I need to go hold my mom’s hand and tell her everything is going to be all right. I need to fix her life; this way I won’t need to look at how screwed up mine is, and wonder how it got so far off course. In addition, when Eddie passed, she never left my side.
“Mommy, Darren is on his way here. I guess that means we can have the services on Thursday if you want .…”
“Jelly is going to the funeral home to take the suit,” Mommy says. “Do you know they told me not to bring shoes? I never even thought that he would need shoes. It’s amazing what you learn when you’re faced with adversity. Did we take shoes for Eddie? I cannot seem to remember.”
“We will get through this. You have all of us, plus Major; and Darren is on his way; and even Jerry is back. We cannot replace Daddy but it is good to have your family around you. Remember what you told me when Eddie was killed? That you were going to be there for me? So I will not leave your side, until you want some air.”
“I remember, baby, it’s all in God’s hand. I know this to be true in my heart of hearts, but I have missed him for the last two weeks. I haven’t slept without him by my side since he was in the service twenty years ago. I never thought I would be alone in this house without him. Of course, Jerry is going to want to stay home now that he is gone. You know that’s what we argued about and caused him to leave. I want to redo our last conversation, I want a redo of our last night together, I just want a redo. We could have done so many things differently and made things so much better for each of you and for each other.”
“Life must go on, mommy; you can grieve and then push on.”
Neither of us hear Major enter the room. I wonder if Jelly knows he is home. “Ladies, how are you? I brought pizza, chips and ice cream to lighten the mood. I’m going to crank up the music so we can dance. Johnny loved a party and until the rest of the family gets here, we are going to celebrate life, Johnny’s life. What do you say?”
“Major, you are a sight for sore eyes, where have you been?” I ask. “Jelly said you were out, but a party run? Who would’a guessed you would bring all this stuff?”
“Good food, great people, excellent music. Johnny would have loved that we are all here together. We can’t have the grandgurl walking around mourning her Papa when we are telling her she will see him again in heaven. And King is at the age where he questions everything. This will confuse them. And I need my wife happy because we are having another boy, a strong, healthy, positive male addition to this family. Johnny left big shoes to fill. It’s a challenge my boy will take on.”
“You know you are full of it, right? What music are you playing in honor of Daddy? Where is your wife anyway, she needs to hear this ca-ca .…”
Mommy laughs for the first time since I have arrived in Chicago. Her eyes are sad but her laugh is genuine. I hear people somewhere else in the house, but I can’t tell where or who they are. I’m not in the mood for any drama or dancing. What I know for sure is my mom is out of whack. And I’m not knowing what to do to help her in this situation, since I jumped straight into denial when Eddie died and I haven’t left that safe place yet. This is where I don’t feel but half of life, one third of the time. My mom was so blessed to have Johnny all these years. From the beginning, she knew he was the one and only man for her and vice versa. What is she going to do? I am going to stay with her until she is okay and can deal with this void in her life. Now all I need to do is tell Darren when he gets here.
Darren is not as easy to get along with, as he was when the marriage began, because he thought he was lucky I did not call the marriage off a few days before the ceremony. However, after years of struggling to live down a mistake that he never calls “his mistake,” he has come to grips with my throwing myself into my work and traveling as often as allowable without stepping out of the marriage altogether. He smiles and plays the romantic suitor more than he performs as a husband. I believe it is only to gain sexual favor. When I am in town, I go to bed after he does, get up before he does, leave the house and often turn around and come back after he is gone to work. Then work at home to avoid most interaction with him. Over the last year, I have made our monthly ‘date night’ ten out of twelve times. He should consider himself lucky; lucky he is not stuck with his ex and her shenanigan’s.
We could be doing worse; we could argue, fuss, fight and scream daily, but we enjoy the silent avoidance. We attend all the right functions, wear the right things, are polite to each other and donate exactly enough for the proper tax deductions each year. There is not a soul that would believe we do not have a marriage. The perfect couple, the perfect partnership, with no dreams that connect or intersect with each other’s aspirations. As long as others can see exactly what he wants them to see so he looks good, all is right with his world. In my naiveté, I thought marriage was about sharing everything and enjoying each other in every possible way. Stupid theory, stupid me.
Darren rings the bell and the grandgurl is quite excited to see her Uncle D. The interaction between niece and uncle is comical, adorable and makes me jealous. I enjoy watching Darren with his children, and his love for all munchkins is evident wherever they are together. Seeing my niece’s huge smile at getting tickled makes my womb turn over, requesting some attention of its own. Losing my children before I remarried made me desire being a mom more than I ever had before in my life. After our marriage turned into a corporate arrangement, the thought of ever having children was lost.
“Hey you, welcome back to the country. Sorry about your dad. I wish I could kiss all the pain away. How about dinner after everyone goes to sleep and we can rekindle our….”
“Hey you back, you really did take the next flight,”
I answer, cutting him off.
“Feels like I just talked to you on the phone. Did the airline drop you on the front lawn?”
Darren pulls me closer, realizing nothing has changed as I redirect the tone of our conversation to include everyone in the room.
“No, dear, but when family is hurting, you drop everything and run to be by their side. You are my wife and I love you, I miss you, I want you.”
He has dropped the baby in Major’s lap, wrapping both arms around me. The last words whispered in my ear send chills down my spine. I realize it has been almost a year since I felt anything towards him, at least anything sexual towards him, although we have an unwritten sex date that follows our monthly date night. It is all out of control at this moment, and I blush in front of my family and push him away slightly, teasing him more from embarrassment than anything else I feel. He simply drops his hands to my waist and continues the close contact and whispered tones.
I am grateful to see Jeremy run across the room and propel himself into Darren’s arms. Darren continues his quest by lifting him over his head and making airplane noises. “Unkl D I lub you. Com’ see my twucks.”
“In a minute, little man. Hold on.”
“Jeremy, I want you to eat first,” Jelly calls. “Come upstairs and eat, now.”
Darren puts Jeremy on the floor and up the stairs he runs, a complete bundle of energy from the time he opens his eyes until he passes out.
“Johnny was a good man,” Darren says, taking back the conversation (and wisely steering it away from the direction he knows I’m not interested in going with it). “I am sorry we lost him so soon. He’s given me sound advice over the years. Last month I almost made a horrendous business decision, but Johnny steered me clear of that fly-by-night company. Its president’s indictment will go public soon. I loved that man, plus he gave you to me. So Jess, what can I do to make this easier on you, on your family on our family?”
Always the politician, I pull free of him, a little confused by the open communication between him and my dad that I obviously was unaware of, ever. I thought Johnny disliked him as much as I do, did.… I hate when he taps my hormones and stirs the pot. Every time I think I am immune to his chicanery, I get duped.
His fingers brush the side of my neck and I spring up before I sit completely down on the arm of the chair.
“Major brought junk food, who wants some?”
Darren sits on the couch and after I fill the first glass, he pulls me to his lap. “You guys have no idea how much I miss my wife. She is always globetrotting. I am grateful to have her home for an indefinite period. I truly wish the circumstances were different.”
Ronnie is making a list, taking in all the activity in the room. Always so practical and efficient, she hands it to Darren.
“Pick as many of these tasks you want to complete, and leave something for someone else to do so you can have time with your wife. Once you get things rolling, the others will jump in. Everything must get done before the services.”
Then she leaves the room. My mom is smooth; she is signaling everyone to go upstairs with her and leave us alone. Darren catches her eye and smothers my mouth with his, as the last of my family sabotages me again. They leave me with my husband, his determination, my confusion and my smile. It feels like a make-out session in high school; except we are grown, and I am his wife, and could, no, should enjoy this attention. I am melting, enjoying his hands rubbing key spots on my body to elicit the exact response he remembers. In his attempt to be G-rated, he is forcing me to act as the aggressor. My body is leaning and straining, attempting to feel the required pressure to feel the essential sensation. He is intentionally skimming my skin, playing me like a violin. We have never ever had any problems in this area, but I cannot and do not trust him. I feel safe here in my sister’s house; my mom’s here, my sisters are here, and more family will soon arrive. In addition, oh, how I have missed his touch.
The funeral did not go as expected. Seriously! Each day I realize I have control issues, because how does one have expectations for a funeral? Tuesday, I will make an appointment with my therapist. I am getting close to the edge. I refuse to have a complete breakdown, and it is getting harder and harder to convince myself that I am happy, no matter how well I fool outsiders. It seems, however, that I exist on an invisible edge of reality – just out of reach of this fantasy that is my life. In time I am sure the two will merge; I see myself happy and carefree, without any key hiccups in my day. Somehow, every step I take, I need a drink of water to cure the nonexistent hiccups in my day. In my morbid mind, I see Darren crying uncontrollably, not able to function and eventually having a nurse come in and take care of him because he is so overwrought with my death. For the life of me, I cannot remember when I got so obsessed with death. Not that I am looking forward to dying; but I am not apprehensive, nor do I shy away from the thought of my own death. Well, if I could just lie down and go to sleep and keep sleeping, then I am okay with death. Being burned up or in an accident – wow, my mind keeps taking these turns without warning.
I’m riding in the back of this hearse; actually, it is a limousine from the funeral home. However, I have labeled all black cars in funeral processions with this morbid name since I was knee-high to a grasshopper: that title, “hearse.” Maybe I am obsessed with death; it could actually be true that I have long been obsessed with death and did not realize it until recently. I completely love the silence in the car; everyone is sad, but I am relieved part of the drama is over. Daddy is gone and there is nothing anyone can do to bring him back. All I need to do now is calm Mommy, and disappear back into the fantasy that is my life.
The woman who stayed so long at the viewing last night and cried so hard during the ceremony today is not here at the repast. Jelly wanted to talk to her, wanted to know who she is and how she knows my dad. She is very curious who the chick with her is; she is younger and looks like she may be a cousin maybe, maybe not.
Darren is super attentive; I am inclined to think he misses me. “Yes, I would love another glass,” I tell him. “Put something hard in this one, thanks.”
“I understand you’re sad, but can you slow it down for me?”
“Slow what down for you? My alcohol intake? Are you effin’ serious? Get away from me before I embarrass you for real.”
“I understand your sadness. It won’t last forever and soon you will feel like your old self again. I promise to make your pain go away. Let’s leave here and have a moment alone. You went to sleep last night before we had our talk or our dinner. Let’s do it now, come on.”
I sling my bag over my shoulder and follow my husband to the far door. His rental is bright red. I wonder if this was by design or was it just a coincidence; of course, all the funeral cars were black. All flash with no follow through is what this man is made of, as shallow as humanity can possibly reach. He opens the door for me, and I smile as I slide into the front seat.
After a few seconds of awkward silence, Darren catches me off guard by asking,
“What are you going to do with your account? Do you know how much is in it?”
“What account? What are you talking about?”
“Johnny left each of you money in an account in Europe; I bet he had one for your mom too. I can’t believe he didn’t tell you.”
“Obviously he told you something.”
“I thought that’s why Jerrica went to Italy last month. Isn’t that why you went to ‘rescue’ her? She found out and gave you a financial way out of this marriage. I know you want out. Say it, jes’ say it! You don’t come home, we only have sex once or twice a month and only on your schedule, if you feel like it. You refuse to have my child. You said you forgave me. You married me, but in name only. When are you going to be my wife, are you ever going to be my wife? I shouldn’t need to travel halfway across the country to see my wife because she refuses to come home, and it shouldn’t take her father dying, either.”
“I like it when you get all ballsy and set me straight,” I answer.
I hear Ronnie’s tone and cadence, honed to a razor’s edge.
“Make sure you have me presentable when we’re in public. Make sure I don’t embarrass you or your family. Not sure which family, since the quick hush-hush divorce may or may not be legal. So hubby, you may or may not really be my hubby. We really need to take a look at that situation while you’re questioning our current arrangement.”
Arriving at his hotel in Matteson, five or six miles from Jelly’s house, he pulls into the valet. My door is opening. I smile at the young man in his starched red vest. He is quite handsome: a bit thin for my taste, much younger than I dated when I was that age. I snicker to myself. Darren takes my elbow.
“I’m glad you find our situation humorous. I want you to tell me if you are leaving me before you tell anyone else.”
When the elevator door closes, he smashes me into the back wall and buries his tongue in my throat. My bag is heavy and I only wrap one arm around his neck. It has been a couple years since we had a knock-down drag-out. We have resorted to fighting with silences and absences usually, which is comfortable and non-invasive. When there is no communication, the imagination is free to make whatever excuses needed to continue, with no confirmation. This is the first time we have had anything close to make-up sex; only I have not attempted to make up. The elevator doors open, I hear voices, and the doors close again. Darren does not stop the assault on my mouth, and I have successfully taken off his tie. The elevator is moving upwards again, so apparently we have not reached our destination.
“Fall in love with me. Fall in love with me like you did when I first left the military. Tell me how to earn your trust again; I will never break it again. Have babies with me. Let’s live the dreams we talked about before the wedding. The dreams we had before I screwed up so bad. Let me back in, please.”
I smile bat my eyes and say,
Darren breaks into a shit-eatin’ grin, sweeps me up and carries me into the room like he should have on our wedding night. Unfortunately, I did not allow such romantic, retarded ideas to enter this marriage. Now it has been a little over five years, and although I do not hate my life, I do not feel married. Well, outside of the one obligation of our once or twice a month date. Every opportunity that I can I turn the weekly meeting into a business date by inviting a client or vendor or even a potential client to keep from dealing with Mr. Man, I do just that.
Our lovemaking has not changed since the first time he touched me. Our sexual antics are epic, stellar, and even monumental. This time is no different. He takes my breath away, makes me forget any and every mishap, wrong or lie he ever told me; because as long as he is touching me and doesn’t say anything to remind me he never met the truth in his life, I am floating on air. He really knows how to use that tongue to please me and even when I need him to stop, I want him to continue until I cannot breathe. Afterward, I want him to start over again so I cannot breathe again. I feel myself dozing off, more content than I have been in months. This time I think he put some effort into it, most of the times he plays me like a fiddle with no encores. Tonight he is different, gentler, loving and meaningful. Maybe he has changed and I have been running so fast that I missed any changes in his character. We can talk about it tomorrow. I feel too good to interrupt my sexy thoughts with reality thoughts; they do not go together. Damn, that was good lovin’.
I see Darren reading over papers, but watching me sleep without my knowing. I don’t open my eyes all the way. I contemplate what to say to him. I make a mental list of things not to talk about. I am not sure if I want to eat or not, and I am concerned that I haven’t told anyone where I am. Most importantly, I don’t know how long I have slept. Should I attempt to turnover and eyeball the clock, or just face him head-on?
“I called Ronnie to let her know you were staying with me tonight, so she wouldn’t worry about you.” Ever smooth, Darren has anticipated my concerns. “I am sure she told the rest of the family. You seem exhausted; so you can sleep, get up, eat something, talk to me, or ignore me. You have options. If you are interested in what I want to do, let me know.”
“Uhhumm, thanks for letting me sleep. What time is it?”
“9:30 pm local time. Ready for round four?”
“Round four? You still keep score. How old are you, twelve?”
“It’s easier than you think. I count seventeen total for the year, and three of my touchdowns were tonight. Help me make two dozen for the year?”
“What exactly did you tell my mom? What are you doing being all family-oriented? When did you start having heart-to-hearts with my dad? He hated you. Okay, maybe not hate, but he did not like you. And why do you have information about accounts that none of us know about? And what exactly do you know?”
I pause for a moment, thinking all I really wanted was more sex and instead he had to start with the crap. Technically it wasn’t him, it was me; I am still really angry at him and I don’t know if I can ever release this anger. I thought I was his happily ever after. I thought I was the most important person in his life. I felt every word he said to me was truth, only to realize it was like three percent and dropping. I never doubted one word he said or did, until right before the wedding. I removed every bump, bruise and distraction from my life before I even accepted his proposal. I planned a wedding with very little input from him, because of his busy schedule. Finally, I found out that most of our relationship had been a lie. Most ridiculously, he wanted credit for the last four months before the wedding. I made many sacrifices, discarded friends with sexual potential and a few with financial potential, who threw away more cash at their fingertips than we have now with a dual income. Every time I hear his voice, I hear him say,
“Ummm, yeah, I think I’m still married, baby”.
Sometimes I hear what he actually says, but mostly I hear this big reveal, over and over and over again. I know I need to get past this, but we are not too far from the seven-year mark so then we can get divorced. Now here he goes, screwing up my perfect plan again. I could sit up on the bed, let the covers fall and he will forget everything I said. And I can go back to my sex plan.
“I don’t know why I wake up crabby, I always have.”
The covers fall, Darren closes the folder while standing up. In a step and a half, he is sitting on the bed nursing like an infant. All forgotten on both sides for the moment except what may sexually please the other, which in turn pleases oneself. Each stroke, breath, turning, writhing: the closest thing to love we now share. Why am I wondering what he is thinking? I just want to enjoy this; I just want him inside me again. I just want to turn my brain off again. Nevertheless, as familiar as his touch may be, it is different and seems permanent. He is making love to me as if he means it, as if he loves me, as if I am really his wife. This seems more intense than any time before – and our sexual encounters have always been great. There is a warmth to his lovemaking today that is unprecedented; most importantly I am enjoying the extra intensity. Will I spend the night? I always wake up before him anyway. I could be gone before he recovers from this last go-round.
I call Jelly.
“Can you break away and pick me up? I had no intention of spending the night but I am waking up now and I need to leave.”
“Major isn’t here, so no. Go back to sleep.”
“Where the hell is Major? Do you know what time it is?”
“None of your business and yes I do. I am hanging up now. I love you and seek help as soon as possible.”
She hangs up on me. I call right back.
“Will you come pick me up? I am in Matteson.”
“Are you serious? Where do you want to go?”
“I want to leave, are you coming or not?”
“No, we are all in bed, is Darren there?”
“Yes, that’s why I want to leave. Get dressed.”
“Let me see if your mother is awake, I’m not bringing the babies. Can’t you just go back to sleep?”
Darren is outside the bathroom.
“Who are you talking to?”
“Jelly, she needs me.”
“Whatever she needs will hold until morning. Come back to me, we are not done yet. We have a lot of time to make up for, I like having my wife back. Hang up.”
“Never mind. Hello? Hello?”
She hung up already.
The next day I pull Jelly aside as soon as we have a moment.
“Thanks! A lot of help you were last night. I don’t believe you hung up on me twice. In reality I guess I should thank you, but I won’t. We talked – well, I talked quite a bit this morning. And we are doing what is necessary to make this thing work, whatever this thing is that we have. You know we just had an anniversary – five years of foolishness, now we can work on making up for the mess we made.”
“I’m glad you guys are doing what it takes, and I’m glad you are leaving. I am not used to people waking me up in the middle of the morning for no reason. Major is enough with his insomnia to deal with; Mommy’s downstairs trying not to let me hear her cry; and you calling wanting taxi service. I need to grieve for Daddy too.”
“Darren told me about the accounts. Apparently your mom knows about them already. Did Jerry tell you about Jemma and Claudine? Or Oxford? When did this family start keeping so many secrets?”
“Your sister didn’t stay here last night, she stayed in her room at mommy & daddies. She told me she was packing to move to Italy and go to school in England. I am not geographically challenged; so I let it go for now. I know I will take her to the airport and get the real story. As far as your mom and the accounts, yes. I knew she knew about money abroad. She gave me some to pump into the shops two years ago. No, I didn’t tell Major; his ego would explode. Now who is Jemma?”
“Jemma is your sister, our oldest sister. She is eleven months older than me. Daddy left her there when she was one month old and came back here and married mommy. Now check this out. Mommy knows about something going on in Italy but she never said anything, especially nothing about daddy’s trips.”
“I gotta wait until she is better before I talk about this drama. Once upon a time we were a normal family, what happened?”
I love my big sister; she watched enough mistakes to teach me some things, although I have always felt the responsibility to teach her some things, too. I appreciate her in so many ways; this is one more reason to thank her. I am leaving her here with the fallout. Mommy refuses to let me stay with her and Darren won’t let the two of us have more than five minutes alone together. I think that is by design. My mom gives me some sound advice: to save my marriage or walk away. Darren assures her we will be together forever. I smile and say, “Yes ma’am.”
Leaving my mom alone so soon after Johnny died was not easy. Being home with Darren for two months straight without one argument is significant. He is more attentive now than when we were really dating. He appeared to love the hunt, but once he caught me, he lost his perspective. I remember painting garages in the ‘hood on the weekend and having lunch at the Waffle House. It took hours to remove the graffiti before we painted them, but it was so much fun. Laughing for hours at the secrets politicians keep from their families, as well as from the public. You would think these were the same secrets but in reality, they are polar opposites. Council members having affairs (sometimes with each other), their clerks getting high, of course the obstruction of any and all justice, tickets fixed and contracts handed out to buddies all on the people’s dime, with no accountability. Pick any one and tape it on the donkeys at city hall; you have a fifty percent chance of being accurate. I find it interesting that neither age, nor race, nor gender is a determinant of likeliness to commit these crimes against humanity, oh, and of course the taxpayers. The only constraint for any of these offenses is opportunity. Darren spent many a day convincing me that his run at the mayoralship would be different. He was so different; open, honest, for the people, etc. I swallowed it hook, line and sinker. So here we are five years later and nothing is as it should be, and I trust him less than I did before I knew him; before he convinced me to trust him the first time. The crazy part is that he is my husband, my other half, the father of my unborn child; the one child that may actually make it into the world. I need to confirm that I am pregnant before I get all outta whack and start attaching myself to Darren again.
I am settling in to the new routine of having breakfast together with small talk; then later, meeting for dinner or going to bed together as if we were a real live family. It’s kinda been Fantasy Island for the last two weeks, and not in a bad way. I branch out a wee bit and ask Darren to meet me at Albertson’s before we head home this Friday night. I am preparing a special meal; for the life of me, I cannot pick out a lobster. I refuse to transport one in my car after an incident while dating Maurice many years ago. Darren agrees. We both shop for specialty items to make this a very romantic dinner. I love scented candles; he picks out a special wine. We part in the aisles to reunite at the checkout line. I arrive first, standing near a register. I pick up a magazine. I spot a woman almost running towards the front of the store. Her pace is determined and fierce. She is obviously upset with someone about something important. My assumption is that this skank does not realize we are together. If she does realize we’re together, she does not care, due to her determination to verify this man is indeed Darren.
“Where have you been?” she cries.
“Why haven’t you returned my calls or text? Are you ignoring me? Are you seeing someone else?”
I step in. “Yes, he is. He is seeing his wife and whatever you once had is now over. We can end this now amicably or we can both wait for bail money a few hours from now. Your choice. I am accepting either option or anything in between that you have to offer.”
“Darren is not married. So who the hell are you?” This heffa will not quit.
“I am the wife of the unmarried Darren.”
Darren tries to step between us.
“Ladies, you are causing a scene.”
I say, once again channeling Ronnie in my tone
“You can take care of this here and now or I will. Johnny is not here to tighten you up, but I still have uncles who can fill that duty for him.”
Darren’s expression is priceless, but he does not respond audibly.
“You lying sack of shit!” she screams at Darren.
“I knew you were shady. Honey, you can have him, he’s not that great in bed and he’s cheap.”
“Honey, I already have him, and all his assets are tied up, so there’s nothing to spend outside my house. Leave now with the strand of dignity you have left.”
Darren finds more words.
“You’ve lost your chance to intercede here, I already got this.”
The cashier, flabbergasted, stops working to enjoy the sideshow. The woman in front of us does not mind that he is not ringing up her items. This gives her an excuse to stare without being too obvious. I deprive them all of the free show, going back to my magazine as if it is just another day in the neighborhood. Darren is embarrassed. I know he is spinning a tale to spring on me once we get home. He has no idea I do not care; I really do not care. I was sure he was not faithful for the last two years. This is not the proof I wanted, but it will suffice for the time being. I do not think this one is his favorite. And, I don’t think this one has been around very long. She does not know me, or even that I exist. Ergo, the real one is still out there and she knows I’m home, for a while anyway. Sooner or later, his real mistress will show herself. I need to decide what my plan of action and/or reaction will consist of, up to and including divorce when she rears her beautiful head. Darren won’t want divorce; it will cost him too much socially, financially and emotionally, because I believe I am pregnant and I don’t plan to tell him anytime soon.
Dinner is unremarkable. We took our separate cars home from the store. Neither of us spoke of the incident once we got home. We cooked together while I drilled him about the accounts overseas. It seems Daddy told Darren about the bank accounts. Johnny set the accounts up for us girls, but why tell Darren? Did he tell Major also? While he was in Italy, he consulted for an engineering firm on electrical jobs while on tour, but off duty. His ability to draw a schematic quickly and accurately, especially on older structures, was uncanny. He could not put the money in an American account, nor could he send it to Veronica, because all of the airmen’s financial movements were monitored for posterity’s sake. Later it gave him a reason to travel back and forth without interrogation from Mommy. I know I need to say something to Mommy; how, exactly, I don’t yet know. I double-bake three white potatoes, adding cheddar and cream cheese, bacon bits and sour cream, while he makes Hollandaise sauce for the asparagus. I make garlic butter with honey, and he splits and butters the rolls for toasting. This reminds me of our dating exploits when we were in St. Louis. We left there to start over; it did not work, or did it? I know he knows it too. Why is he holding on to this relationship?
After dinner, I put on a movie, something to distract Darren from today’s fiasco. My interrogation is far from over; either he doesn’t realize it, or he is embracing the attention and doesn’t care. ‘Wild Orchids’ starring Mickey Rourke is one of my favorites. The movie has a sexy overtone we both enjoy. I wonder if he will remember watching this movie when we dated. It will not matter; the outcome will be the same.
The next day I call Jerrica to see what she has told Ronnie, and find out when she is leaving for school. I find out she is already at Oxford and loving the atmosphere of European living. My next call is to Jereline to get a barometer on Mommy since she is the only one still in the city, only to find out she is in the hospital with at least one broken rib. Mommy has a distraction, no two, Jocelyn and Jeremy. She will call me back. Major is at the hospital and keeps answering the room phone. I am antsy; no one can tell me what I need to know. I am the oldest; they cannot keep me out of the loop. I turn to Darren.
“I am heading to Chicago to check on Jelly. She’s in the hospital. Major won’t let me talk to her in the hospital, Mommy has the babies, and Jerrica is in England. So, I’m leaving firest thing tomorrow morning. While I am there, I will check on the property on Drexel. I think we are down to two original tenants left in the building.”
“Make the reservations for two, we can drive up to Milwaukee. Johnny has investments there he left us as co-owners. He wanted us to work for a lifetime. I need to leave later in the day, I have a meeting first thing in the morning.”
“No,” I tell him, “I am leaving as soon as I can. There are no flights tonight; that’s the only reason I’m not leaving now.”
“No, we will leave together tomorrow afternoon, rent one car and be a couple. A family, an example to your sisters. We are the patriarchs of the family now. So we both need to grow up.”
“The latest I will leave is 2:00 pm because it’s a three-hour flight and they are two hours ahead of us. So that means we won’t get to Jelly before visiting hours are over. Try to cancel your meeting. Please?”
“I will see what I can do. I’m running late right now. Are you going to be here when I get home this evening?”
“I will not leave today.”
“Will you pack for me? You have a better idea of our itinerary than I do. I just need to take my gray suit and at least two pair of jeans.”
“If I get back before you do, I will take care of it.”
Darren gets to the door and turns around. By now, I am on the phone with the airline. He kisses me on the cheek and leaves. I decide not to leave today, and I decide I will pack his luggage. I finish making the reservations for 12:10 pm PST, nonstop to O’Hare tomorrow. It is as close as I can get to the compromise we made this morning.
I hurry, scurry to CVS, picking up three pregnancy tests. Confirmation is mandatory. Six hours later, I can finally head home after my half day at the title office. We successfully cleared four titles, one I will eventually own as an investment all mine. The secret corporation I set up last year will be put to use for the first time. SG, Inc.; it stands for Solomon Girls, Incorporated. My sisters are board members unbeknownst to them. I should add my mom. Reaching the house, I do not see Darren’s vehicle so I park in the garage. I grab the pregnancy test and lock myself in the basement suite bathroom. When I leave that bathroom I am relieved to be not pregnant, leaving me with more options. I tie everything up in the bag, take it to the garage garbage, and shove it under another bag. I grab my portfolio, snacks, and head into the house to cook and pack.
During this time, I am able to finally hear Jelly’s voice. She sounds strong.
“I’m heading to you in the morning gurlie. I hate to see the other guy if you’re all laid up.”
“You know I have always been clumsy, now I’m taking it to a new level. You have not been home long enough to come back this way. I cannot argue with you because it hurts. Major will be back soon and he is taking care of me. Don’t worry, I will be fine.”
“I know you will be okay, and we will be there tomorrow.”
“We? Okay. See you guys then. I need to hang up.”
“Love you, smooches.”
When Darren gets home I have dinner cooked, bags packed and am ready to fly out tonight. I barely keep my cool all evening. I want to bring up the meeting he has scheduled for the next day. He does not mention it and I know he knows I want to know if we can leave early. He loves the power and control. I don’t mind giving him the power and control; it just seems that every time I do, he misuses or abuses it and I come close to killing him. This only reiterates my love for him, because I would not care if I didn’t love him. And boy, do I hate him sometimes. I chuckle. He looks up from his plate.
“You want to leave first thing in the morning? I can try to get the reservations changed before we go to bed. I canceled my meeting. You are right, family comes first.”
I do not respond intentionally. Inside I am dancing and turning cartwheels. But I don’t even smile. I decide then and there, we will stay with my mom in my old room, in the basement. Close, but not too close, and this will keep him minding his P’s and Q’s. When my mind settles, I look up, smile, and say yes. He is pleased with himself. All I can think of is his whore allowed him to reschedule his time. I must take time to look over our finances to see where he’s hiding her money. It’s probably with the kids’ maintenance, or maybe his gambling budget. It won’t matter where he puts it, his impulse spending doesn’t allow for meticulous bookkeeping. His need to transfer money three and four times a week says he is being shady about something. We set an allowance when we started planning for our wedding years ago. With each property, we both get an increase of fifty dollars a month. We are around eleven hundred a month of individual disposable, unexplainable money, but he dips into our joint account too often. He always makes it good, but something ain’t right. I know it’s her. I head for the tub while he pats himself on the back. He knows I am pleased and takes credit for doing the right thing.
“Thank you, going to take a bath.”
Darren clears the table out of habit of being in the house alone most of the time. He heads to his office to confirm the changes to the reservations he made earlier and print out the boarding passes. When he opens his email, he sees the distress email from Carla Robinson:
“If you cancel tomorrow, we are finished. You keep saying you are going to leave her but you are always doing what she wants. I hate you.”
Tired of women telling him what to do, he simply deletes it and continues with his task: to make one woman happy, for one night. He decides he will be a good husband and father since Jessie is pregnant. As the printer hums, he wonders when it happened. Probably at her dad’s memorial. He needed to change his act. He would call the boys as soon as Jessie told him. They were going to be a “white picket fence” if it killed them both. Why did she hide the test in the garbage anyway? She could have told him at dinner. Maybe she is getting used to the idea. He remembers she lost the twins. Maybe she is serious; she doesn’t want children now. It doesn’t matter, it’s too late now. She can’t kill his baby and he will make sure he doesn’t leave her alone one moment for the next nine months to make sure his heir is born healthy.
Soaking in the tub, I contemplate having children for real. I could not travel like I do now. And, I would need to have a more than amicable relationship with the dad; I guess I should call him my husband. We really need to work on the relationship if we are going to parent. There are more than enough psychopathic children running around terrorizing the planet without our contribution. Well, he would need to get rid of his whore, and I guess I would need to perform my wifely duties. Physically, it’s an easy task; mentally it’s touchier. I think of all the things I “say” I’ve forgiven him for, but I haven’t and still want to kill him for it, so I don’t want him to touch me. Oh, but when he does …. he performs magic for an audience of one.
“The boarding passes are printed. The bags are in the car. Your carry-on is in our room if you want to add anything to it.”
“This is your way of saying sleep with you tonight?”
“This is my way of saying, let’s stop fighting a war you won when you said, ‘I do.’ ”
“Why should I when you didn’t mean it? You still live single.”
“I’m more committed to us than you are. I’m home every night and I want you to do the same. When we travel, we should travel together. We are better as a whole than two halves.”
Darren comes to the tub and massages my shoulders. He continues his campaign; he really believes he is a politician, able to convince anyone of anything with no proof. His personality is the only tool needed to change the world in two seconds. Oh and, of course, his killer smile.
“If you try to trust me from this point forward, I will trust you. This could be our fresh start. We can have children, take another honeymoon and buy baby clothes. Our parents will enjoy visiting more often. Let’s be one again.”
“I’m not pregnant. The tests were negative; I don’t know how you think you know I am pregnant. I guess you could have gone through the garbage.”
Ronnie is speaking through my mouth again.
“I happened to see the two test in the garbage, and both were positive.”
“I saw the test first. And all three were negative.”
“Seems like a doctor should confirm; we could make it guaranteed tonight.”
“We have a six-o’clock flight in the morning.”
“If you call your mom, she could make you an appointment. She would love confirmation before we head to Milwaukee. You know she will love this. Embrace this, enjoy it, and relax so our baby can grow in a primo environment.”
“I will not argue with you. Thank you again for the change of flights. I want to see Jelly as soon as I can. She was a little clumsy but in the last eight years, she has had so many injuries. I wonder if she has an inner ear problem. And I am not going to the doctor while I’m working. This is a working trip, not a vacation. And to close the subject, I am not pregnant.”
“I agreed to the change of times so can we compromise and have a doctor confirm I am a father.”
“I confirm you are a father. Your oldest called this morning so listen to the messages.”
“Finish up here, I will return some calls and meet you in the bedroom. Tonight we will celebrate. We are officially a family again.”
“Derrick will be happy if you are right. Donald will be a bit peeved, he likes being the baby. But I am sure I am not pregnant. I saw the test, I took the test, I am not pregnant. The water is cold, soooo… please hand me a towel?”
Darren wraps the towel around me and hugs me to him while he kisses my neck. The hug feels really good. I love the feel of us. I don’t trust my feelings and I know I will regret this one day, but not today.
“Hey, it’s chilly standing here, and you have things to do, mister.”
“I’ll be waiting.”
I decide to call my mom; the munchkins should be sleep by now. Maybe she can tell me what she knows about the accounts. For some reason I keep putting off the one phone call that could make me financially secure for the rest of my life. But somehow, it doesn’t seem as important as the drama that is my life.
“Hi Mommy. How’s everything going?”
“Sweets, I am great. The grands are enjoying the house and filling it with sound and motion. Please tell me you are not worried about me. None of us will live forever. Have you talked to Jereline yet?”
“Yeah, I am worried about you, I know no one lives forever and yes, I talked to Jelly. We will be there tomorrow to hug and kiss her.”
“You just left, sweetie.”
I am putting lotion on my body wondering what kinda of mommy I could be if I am pregnant.
“I know you are thick as cement and will always be okay. Question, what do you know about the accounts in Italy?”
“Child, you all think you have secrets, but Johnny and I had no secrets. And quiet as it’s kept; none of you can keep a secret either.”
Mommy goes on to tell me how she and Johnny breathed through the pain of his infidelity while she was pregnant with me. She continues to tell me how all the accounts were set up for each of us, linking to an American trust so we all had a nest egg. We are not rich, but we couldn’t lose our homes or businesses without a net to land on. Ronnie never met the woman, but she knows she was at Johnny’s funeral and so was her daughter. Jerrica only applied to Oxford because she wanted to meet her sister, and Johnny fed her curiosity from third grade by giving both his daughters a pen pal. Bottom line, there is no way their marriage could have survived this long with secrets. I change the conversation by interjecting questions about my marriage. Darren taking phone calls only when I am not around. Deleting texts and going to the garage after I am in bed. I know he is having an affair and I am giving him a chance to get rid of her so we can start over.
“Are you pregnant again, baby?”
“I don’t think so, but I have taken three tests. They were all negative, but Darren went back and looked in the garbage and they were positive. I don’t know how this really works.”
“When you get here you can see my gynecologist and she will tell us in a few minutes.”
“Mom, I don’t wanna.”
“Don’t argue with me, I don’t have time. Listen, one of the grands is up; I need to go see which one and why. Then I’m going to bed, we all need sleep tonight. I will see you at the hospital. Tell Darren he is on babysitting duty. Love you so much.”
“Love you more, smooches.”
I head to bed that night full of hope, a tad bit of frustration and more trust in my marriage than I had on my wedding night. I do not care if I am pregnant or not. I do not care if Darren makes a clean break or not. I have a plan, I will work my plan and if Darren does not get with the program, he will regret it more than she will. I hear the garage door open and close. I do not know if he is going or coming, but I am going to sleep. Early flight and a plan formed without Jelly’s help. She would be proud. I am suspicious of her falls. She did not say if the baby was okay. I have more questions about my sisters’ lives than I have about my own, for the first time in years.
I have felt like an adult for over ten years, not really concerned about anyone’s opinions outside my immediate family. But now, I am feeling confident that my life may just turn out okay. I wish Daddy were here to tell me he was proud of me. I am missing him more every day. Tomorrow is another day and I will spend my day with family and helping them with whatever they need.
Life is good. With my family around me, it will only get better.
Keep up with the Solomon Sisters
The Plastic Face Part one
Released June 2013
The Plastic Face Part two
Released November 2015
The Plastic Face (Paperback)
Released November 2015
Arms of Steel
Released June 2016
Feet of Granite
Coming December 2016
While you wait
Pick up your copy of:
Fasten Your Seatbelts
About the Author
A precocious child from birth, who rolled over at three months, walked at seven months, talked at 11 months; graduated with honors from high school at 16 and always knew what she did and did not want, whether she got it or not. It is no wonder that JESSie, who is an avid reader and pacesetter, began her writing career while in a mid-life crisis. Although she earned an AA in Fashion Design and a BA in Business Administration concentrating in Computer Technology, she has always made her own way, not asking anyone else to endorse her choices, but ever ready to be an endorser and supporter of others.
As the first born of three girls, JESSie has exampled independence, compassion, teamwork, sportsmanship, and citizenship to her siblings and friends. She has not always been a saint, but she has sought to become one in the last few years; and although her works intertwine bits of sensual, suggestive encounters, it is her way of debriefing her thoughts during this spiritual transition.
JESSie has vocationally tried her hand at many things, which include, but are not limited to Head Hunting; Telecommunications, Project Management, Program Management and finally retiring as a Supervisor for Homeland Security. Yet none of these has equaled the enjoyment and sense of fulfillment writing brings. She is generous to a fault, subtle, energetic, pointed, deep thinking, funny, sarcastic, and a lover of games. All of which is seen in her writing style and her approach to her characters’ development. Her wit and charm will entice you to read further into the adventures, which envelope her characters and will seduce your senses and challenge your intelligence. You will not readily put down any of her books, but will rather develop a taste for the sensuous, delightful and transcendent.
She is a name to be remembered, a force with which to be reckoned, a new kid on the block with stories that will move you for a lifetime!
Arms of Steel
Arms of Steel
Veronica Euniece Solomon affectionately known as Ronnie is a widow with three adult daughters. Her oldest Jessica Esther Solomon Chandler (aka Jessie) is married and lives in Las Vegas, NV. She is pregnant for the third time, but this is the first possible successful pregnancy.
Her second oldest Jereline Elianna Solomon Cartwright (aka Jelly) is also married with two children a girl and boy respectively (Jocelyn Queen and Jeremy King) with a successful chain of salons with every amenity possible for men and women to be relaxed and beautiful. The people in the Chicagoland Area use “The Grand G” as a household word. Of course, Johnny Solomon, Ronnie’s husband named the salons after their first Grandchild.
Then there is her youngest Jerrica Eloise Solomon (aka Jerry), who is not spoiled but more entitled than any Rockefeller heir. How she became so entitled no one in the family can quite understand. Jerry has been abroad eight times in ten years and now she is inviting her mom to spend a month meeting her husband’s mistress from 26 years ago. Jerry has not shared her plans to stay in Italy after she completes her studies but she is insistent on this family reunion of sorts. She has not told anyone of her Rhodes scholarship offer. Her decision is not written in stone, but she thinks she will spend the time getting to know her illegitimate sister.
Unfortunately, Johnny is not here to supply any explanations to any family member legitimate or illegitimate. Nevertheless, no matter how you slice this, we are family and Johnny may or may not have foreseen a meeting of the families. However, Jerrica was making this happen and no time like the present.
Pictures, letters, emails and phone calls are exchanged, travel arrangements made and most of all schedules manipulated by four families in America to meet in Italy a year after Johnny was buried. Ronnie is okay with having all her children together again in one spot. Dealing with the rebelliousness of her youngest is always challenging. Looking betrayal in the eye after so many years of living a lie is surreal. This excursion promises to be interesting even if it is not fun. Johnny what have you done? If you were still here, could you fix this or was this your plan from the beginning?
From the outside, it appears this family is dysfunctional. On the inside, the family is closer that most can fathom. The sisters think there have secrets, but mom knows all. She will let them know what they need to know when it’s time.
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Jessie Solomon grew up with a mother and father that have a strong stable relationship that has outlasted most connections. Why is the oldest child of three flailing through her life and completely unstable? Why can’t she see the forest for the trees? Her two sisters Jelly and Jerry are progressing and succeeding in life with few issues but on every turn, Jessie seems to hit a brick wall. When will her life come together and she can finally live happily ever after? Then Darren tall dark and full of wonder swaggers into her life wanting to right all the wrongs that she’s encountered. He wants to be better than the husband she lost in an ATM robbery. However, he consistently falls short of any target he strives for to impress her. Darren has his own past to sort out, and as long as he keeps his secrets she will love, respect and trust him. Jessie is an enigma, he loves her but he just can’t figure out who she is or what she wants. Unfortunately, that makes two of them.