Once the class was settled, Ms. Barbara opened the book & read:
“Later, all Freck could tell them was that Eenka had gone to market. For a wine to go with dinner to impress Freck’s mother, something to show that she was not simply a dusty, country girl. Freck’s mother lived in a province so large that you could fit Eenka’s village in it four times & still have fields left for planting. Freck & his mother’s people were prox-kin which meant that someone in their family, at some point in their history, was married to royalty. Therefore they typically married as closely to their bloodline as was medically advisable. But on a leisure trip to the outskirts for savage fashion (they were shopping for a costume party), Freck had seen his lovely Eenka & fallen in love. They were married quickly. Her family embraced him with warmth & sincerity despite the fact that he would be taking their dear one away to begin a new life in a strange place. Freck thought of his chilly compound & his mother’s moods. He decided to build their home amongst Eenka’s people instead. There was love here. By Eenka’s figuring, Freck’s mother would arrive tomorrow evening. Apparently she had been planning the trip for weeks, but the note announcing (not asking) her visit had only arrived this morning. Correspondence came maddeningly slow to the villages. Freck was calm of course, for his mother already loved him, but Eenka was a nervous wreck. Food wasn’t the issue- she had scores of meat, & reserves on grain. She had sugar, flour & spices. But she did want to dye more fabrics for the walls & have Freck build several more stools before their den could be called complete. And she desperately wanted something, anything that would impress Freck’s mother, so that she would stop speaking so poorly of her son’s new bride..."
As soon as Jakia and Tyrone had their very own door to close and lock behind them, they spent all day, every day, intertwined and stuck together, and when they weren’t making love they were looking at each other and thinking about it, wondering which positions and delightful tastes and sounds were yet to be explored. And why shouldn’t they make love all the time? It was their honeymoon after all, though there had been no wedding or white dress or loving glances or well wishes. No one said Congratulations, what a miracle, I swear to God ya’ll two make me believe in love. What they said was girl, is you crazy? How do you know that nigga won’t choke you in your sleep? And Jakia got very tired of defending her feelings and talking about intuition and magic and all that other sparkly shit when deep down she knew as well as anyone that only time would tell. And it didn’t matter anyway because a month later Jakia’s money was gone and the honeymoon was over. It was a real relationship now, the kind where one spouse has to say to the other what they don’t want to say but needs to be said. Which in this case was, Tyrone you need to get a job.
The morning Adam and Carlotta got into her tiny blue Corolla in search of the social services office, it was hot and bright and the sun beat down. Her car had air conditioning but she never used it because it made the car burn too much gas. They rolled the windows down but the traffic was slow and sweat beaded and rolled across their foreheads and armpits. Carlotta could feel a third pool collecting and spreading underneath her breasts.
She was tired of him and he was wary of her, and they could both feel an argument brewing beneath the surface of their shallow talk, lurking in the texture of their silence. When they got to the gas station, Carlotta pulled ten dollars out of her purse and walked inside to pay the attendant. She knew this would piss Adam off but she didn’t care. She was tired of handing him money so he could prove useful by doing things for her that she could do for herself. I can pump my own damn gas, she thought, as she unscrewed the tank cap and pushed the nozzle through. I don’t need you to fucking pump it, I need you to pay for it. Around her, people pulled in and out of the gas station enjoying the end of summer. She wondered if they were really happy, or if they were just hiding their misery like she was. Her stomach growled. She was hungry but she didn’t want to stop and buy any food, since that meant she would have to buy Adam food too.
Adam stared at her when she got back in the car but she ignored him. “What was that?” he asked.
“What do you mean?” she said lightly, knowing full well what he meant. She pulled the car out of the gas station and back onto the street. The needle rose from Empty to a quarter tank and she wondered how long that would last.
Adam sighed. “You know what I mean, Carlotta. Why didn’t you let me pump the gas?”
“I’m sorry baby,” she lied. “I didn’t even think about it.”
John didn’t go with Sonia to the County Hospital, even though it was all the way on the west side and the closest free parking space was three blocks away, even though she was so weak and tired she took a nap every time she sat still. He told her hospitals were full of germs and made him nervous, and that ever since his grandmother died they made him think of death. Sonia told him her grandmother died in a hospital too, and he should just get the hell over it. And he might have, but then they had a fight about the dishes. Sonia wanted a glass of orange juice but when she reached up to the cabinet, all the glasses were gone. Then she looked over at the sink. Every cup, plate, glass and bowl was present and filthy, floating in a grimy pool of sink water or stacked crusty on the counter top. Tiny flies orbited in frantic circles around the crumbs and hardened sauces.
Sonia stalked their four rooms until she found John in his usual chair, staring at the computer. The taste of their earlier disagreement clung to her tongue and she spit out all the bitter words she still held in her mouth.
“Um, are you going to wash the fucking dishes or what?”
“Yeah, Imma wash em,” John said, not looking up.
“When?” she asked, hand on her hip. “Before or after those flies make a million maggot babies?”
“Definitely before that,” he said, under his breath.
The first time Leonard and Judy went to the welfare office -- which was no longer called the welfare office, but the Illinois Department of Human Services-- they strolled in at 11am, fresh from a leisurely pancake breakfast at a lakefront restaurant. Judy still had a to-go cup of tea in her hands and she sipped it slowly, savoring the cinnamon spice and honey, the late summer wind in her hair. Leonard held open her door.
Inside, Judy’s eyes squinted to adjust. The tall windows were covered by thick, dusty gray drapes and the fraction of sunlight that dared filtered in was immediately drowned by piss-yellow strips of fluorescent light. People sat in tight rows waiting. The air was filled with coughs and curse words, baby cries and toddler whines. Every now and then, someone’s name was called.
Along the front of the room was a long, high counter. Behind it sat three employees and a security guard. Judy stepped up the counter slowly, the peace of her morning still clinging to her like a stray thread. “Excuse me,” she said. No one turned around but the guard. He had been telling the lady behind the counter – the skinny one with the tight pants and bright blue eyeshadow—about his dinner the night before. That bitch said she wanted pizza and I told her I ain’t buying no goddamned pizza. I just bought her ass groceries on Monday. I ain’t going to waste my money just ‘cause she don’t wanna cook. With her trifling ass. He almost looked at Judy but focused instead on her tea. “Ain’t no eating or drinking in here,” he said. And then he turned back to his friend. I bet you cook, don’t you? I bet you cook real good.Blue-Eyeshadow giggled.
Simon wanted to go with Maggie to her first prenatal appointment, but somehow they got their wires crossed and he scheduled a job interview for the same day. Maggie was disappointed that he wouldn’t be with her, but she was overjoyed that he might come home with a job. She tried not to let it show, however; she didn’t want to put too much pressure on him. She got up early, determined to make sure Simon had a good day. She cooked a big breakfast – fried potatoes, turkey bacon, toast with jelly, grapefruit, coffee. While she cooked she imagined how things might be with two paychecks in the house, how much money they could save for the baby once Simon started paying half the rent. Maggie looked down at her stomach. It was growing, but it looked like a beer gut, not a baby. There was none of the obvious firmness that her best friend Shay assured her would come later. Simon’s income would free up her money for a much needed shopping trip. All her clothes were too tight.
His interview was at eleven; she had the food on the table by eight thirty so he would have plenty of time to eat, shower and get dressed. She thought they could sit at the kitchen table and eat together, pray together, ask God to bless their food and the endeavors of their day. But when she called Simon to the table, he was busy on the computer. He asked her to bring it to him and she did, thinking he might be printing his resume or looking up the directions to his interview, but he was on Facebook. Maggie set the plate down.
It took a while for it to really sink in that this nigga is slicker than an oil stain. He’ll tell you he’s late on account of rain but when you look outside, the sun is shining. He’ll tell you after shopping that there’s still around $500 in the checking account when he knows good & damn well there’s exactly $350. He’ll tell you he has no clue why his female friend refused to make eye contact when he introduced y’all in the street, & of course he understands how that looks or how it must have made you feel. He’ll tell you that if you call any of the women you’re wondering about, they’ll say what happened was what he said happened, because, baby it’s the truth...
“And after all that, girl you won’t believe what happened next.”
“Shit, I can’t believe none of this.”
Ebony was at Erica’s house, feet propped up on her coffee table, a steaming mug of hot chocolate in her hands. The sun was shining through the window but there was a chill in the air. Summer was nearly over. Outside Erica’s window, a few of the green leaves held a hint of red and gold. Erica’s mother had taken her daughter Yemia to the park so Erica and Ebony were alone for a little while.
Ebony took another sip. “Girl I know, this shit is crazy. So peep this right -- about two hours after we finished talking, my phone rang again.”
“Don’t tell me it was her.”
“Fine, I won’t tell you.”
“It was her?”
“It was her.”
“What did she say?”
“So I pick up the phone – and mind you, I already knew it was her because her number came up on my cell phone, so I answered like I was real happy because I didn’t want her to think this bullshit got me pressed.”
“Aw boo… putting on your brave face."
“So she says, since I can’t talk to your man on your phone…”
“I’m ‘bout sick of this hoe…”
“Me and you both. So she says – get this – since I can’t talk to him, can you tell him to stop emailing me about how sorry he is? And can you tell him to stop asking me not to be mad at him? Tell him if he wants to talk to me for real, he knows my number. And then this bitch hung up in my face."
Brenda told Greg she forgave him but she didn’t mean it. She just wanted to win. If she couldn’t be the one who had been with him the longest, the one woven into his memories like summer songs, she could be the one admired for her goodness, honored for her unconditional resilience, rewarded for her sunny miles of patience and understanding. Yet hidden venom writhed in her sweetness, and her dealings with Greg became tinged with poison.
Like the time he told Brenda that he had to go to Martina’s house. Martina was going out and Martina’s mama was going out so Greg had to babysit his kids. Brenda watched him get ready from the corners of her eyes, paid special attention to whether he would spread oil on his wrists, on the soft of his neck, lightly rubbed in his hair. He didn’t, and she was relieved. When he left, she kissed him so hard that he broke away first.
“Damn baby,” he said. “You got that right,” she said, smiling.
He was gone five hours, then six. Then seven. Brenda knew he had his phone with him, even though it didn’t have any minutes. She wanted to talk to him. She wanted to know when he was coming home. She figured somebody had to be back now. If not Martina, then her mother. She kept seeing visions of him sitting in Martina’s apartment in his sock feet, Martina walking around in a t-shirt and shorts. Finally, Brenda used her credit card to put $10 worth of minutes on his pre-paid phone. She called him and he picked up on the third ring, surprised.
Before Aubrey could help herself, the words were coming out of her mouth. “Let’s get married. Don’t you want to get married?”
Dave didn’t shift his position but his energy changed. His body which was soft and pliable only a moment ago, now became rigid and tense. He closed his eyes and sighed. “Baby,” he started. “You know I love you. You know I’m not going anywhere. Can’t we just leave it at that for now? Marriage is a big step.”
Aubrey had been leaning into the crook of Dave’s arm but now she sat up straight and scooted away a bit, putting distance between them. “What do you mean marriage is a big step?”she asked. “How is it bigger than having a baby and living together? Why not make it official? When we met, all you could talk about was how you wanted to be with me forever. Has that changed? Do you not want that anymore?” She bit the inside of her lip to keep her eyes sharp and clear. She would not cry.
He looked at her kindly but did not touch her. “Of course I still want that,” he said. But what’s the rush?
The first time James proposed, Jean didn’t see it coming. She was driving, nine months pregnant with their son, their one-year old daughter strapped in her car seat behind them. He turned to her & said, “I was thinking...” and she gave him all of her attention because that’s what you’re supposed to do when people start sentences that way -- and then he said, “I want to get married.” And she said, “You mean you want to marry me?” And he said, slightly exasperated, “Who else would I be proposing to right now?” Jean just wanted to be sure. They’d had so many fights about James not wanting to get married that she had just resigned herself to being his baby mama. Regardless of their marital status, she’d begun referring to him as her husband because, like she told her mom “It's like we’re married anyway.” To which Mama said, “You ain’t married until you married.” Jean was quite hurt that this nigga really had her out here with 2 kids & didn’t want to get married, but she covered up her disappointment by pretending that the disconnect was her idea - “Marriage is just an institution anyway,” she said. “It's just a way to put the courts in your relationship. Plenty of folks get married and then get divorced, and plenty of folks don’t get married and stay together forever.” Then she got personal -- “It’s not like you married my father. Why am I supposed to be better than you?” Jean’s mom listened quietly, watched Jean try all her moves, & then with the same emotion as ordering a coffee- checkmate: “Sweetheart, be serious. Of course you’d marry him. But he didn’t ask you.”
You know how in movies when the woman delivers the baby & afterwards they always show the dad holding & cooing to their newborn while the mom sleeps? Well that had never been Hannah’s experience. Because Rob never offered to stay up with any of their children so she could catch up on her rest & dream. She asked him to, but he always says something to the effect of, all they want is your titties to keep them quiet. I can’t keep them quiet.