Countdown to 31 Days of Holiday Hooligans: Second Thoughts

Mitchell’s mom is sweet, but I’m happy to be away from her, and the rest of his family, and mine too.

The rehearsal went smoothly, but it killed me not to just say I do, kiss my husband and go home, to our home, and make sweet love all night long. Only, his grandparents have taken his bed. His mom and stepdad are in the guest bedroom, which only has a pullout couch—he never had a need to add more furniture since his only overnight guest has ever been me, and we’ve never slept in separate rooms. His cousins share an air mattress on the living room floor while he has tried to make himself comfortable on the love seat. but I can tell from his stiff movements that it has done nothing for his back.

“Let’s skip Renee’s,” I say in the car. “Go to a hotel. I’ll give you a massage and a hot bath.” He doesn’t know the hot bath is me, but he will. As soon as he sees the sheer negligee that Rita gave me at my bridal shower.

“He probably won’t know what to do with it,” she joked, but Mitchell is much more skilled than any of our friends know. There are things he’s made my body do that I could never dream of with any of the men I’ve been with before. Though, I can count their names on one hand, and we were also young and didn’t know anything. But I’d like to think that even in their 40s and 50s, they wouldn’t come close to bringing the weakness I feel in the pit of my stomach, in my inner thighs, just thinking about it.

I put my hand on his knee, run it up his leg, stop on his lap. He takes my hand and squeezes it. “Only one more day. You promise to behave yourself?”

“I’ll try.” But we both know I don’t mean it, and we pull over into an empty lot five minutes from Renee and Bryan’s house.

* * *

I’m sick of the pre-wedding festivities. All I want to do is to lie in bed with Mitchell and wait until the sun rises and we’re married at last. I keep readjusting my dress. Somehow I’ve gotten into it backwards. At least that’s how it feels. Maybe it’s the looks Rita gives me from across the table that make me uncomfortable. She sees right through me.

Rita has brought a new beau, and the surprising thing isn’t that he’s black, though that initially shocked all of us, but the second shock came when he told us his age—nineteen.

Renee dragged Rita into the kitchen so fast, she nearly yanked her arm right out of the socket. “You’re robbing cradles now?” she squealed.

Rita shrugged. “He’s legal.”

“Barely,” I said.

“You made me put alcohol in the eggnog and he’s not even old enough to drink it!” Renee said.

“Please. Like that ever stopped us when we were in college.”

Rita acts like she’s still in college. Maybe that’s why it’s so easy for her to fall for a teenager. And she’s fallen. Hard. Her eyes light up every time she sneaks a glance in his direction. I know they’ve seen every inch of each other. When they think no one is looking, he touches her with an expertise, knowing exactly where and how to make her swoon.

We’re a lot alike, Rita and I. I envy how she freely flaunts her sexuality. Mitchell and I must be secretive. We wear masks as if we are the ideal Christian couple, who have dedicated their bodies as temples meant for God, who make living in this sinful world and abstaining from all unholiness possible, who deny themselves daily for the Lord’s purposes, when in reality, we’ve let our desires take over so many times.

But in my heart, I know our love is pure. And I want to shout it from the rooftops, from the mountains. Who cares if we’ve had sex once, or twice. Or every night since the first night Mitchell told me he loved me. I’ve found the one whom my soul loves.

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In our last soiree before the wedding—with just the friends, no family members allowed—we sit around Renee and Bryan’s dining room table, a Christmas themed smorgasbord of finger food before us. Snowball meatballs smothered in a parmesan and white cheddar cheese sauce. A Christmas tree forest salad. Sprigs of rosemary line the inner edge of the bowl like Christmas trees, and the dressing is a rosemary and citrus vinaigrette. Lamb kebabs to remember that we celebrate the Lamb, who was born on Christmas. Flaked coconut covers the table like a bed of snow.

Renee wants to play a game: What is your fondest memory of Mitchell and Natasha’s love? Everyone jokes about how sappy Renee can be sometimes, a real Hallmark movie. But after the jokes and groans, they all participate in the sappiness, and I want to cry, because this is more than my happy heart can take.

“When you gave up drinking, for Mitchell,” Bryan says to me. “We all remember how you use to throw ’em back, Tash, so to quit cold turkey just because you want to be better for him—” He loops his arm around Renee. “It shouldn’t be so hard for me to do the same with my cussing.”

Renee leans over and gives him a light peck on the cheek. “I feel the same way,” she says looking at him, then turns to  me and Mitchell. “Your love inspires all of us. You’re both saved. You both love the Lord. And you both love each other. Anyone can look at you and tell this was a love only God could create.”

Under the table, Mitchell squeezes my knee. He’s tense like he was the night he made me leave his house in the cold.

When it’s Antonio’s turn, he clears his throat. “Y’all know the drama I’m dealing with, with Elise. For the longest time, I thought that was just what I was supposed to have. But seeing y’all together has shown me that my Ruth is out there somewhere, waiting. I know I have to better myself so that I’m ready for her when she comes.”

“Amen!” Renee shouts. She claps her hands and invites everyone else to clap too. “And we’re with you every step of the way.”

In the middle of the applause, Mitchell whispers something in my ear. But I can’t hear him.

“What?”

Before he answers, Rita speaks up.

“It was junior year.” She twists the napkin around her finger, picks up a handful of coconut flakes and sprinkles them back on the table. “You and Mitchell had been dating a couple months.” She keeps her eyes down, bites on her lip as if it will help her remember. “We were at Mother Goose’s, the three of us. I was the third wheel, and I guess I got drunker than usual because of that. And Tash, you started drinking too, just so I wouldn’t feel alone. But at some point that night, I had sobered up a bit, and you were completely wasted.”

I remember that night. And Mitchell’s car was in the shop, so we had to walk through South Tatum in the middle of the night to get back to our dorms.

“You saw something run off into the woods and followed it. I don’t know what black person sees something in the dark and goes after it, but you did,” Rita says and laughs. “So we went in after you. You must have tripped or something. You lost a shoe and fell awkwardly on your foot so that you couldn’t walk. And Mitchell picked you up and carried you all the way back to the dorm.”

She’s quiet for a few seconds. We wait for her to finish. Again she bites her bottom lip, blinks several times—I think she may be near to tears. Suddenly she pushes herself back from the table, stretches her neck, breathes in. “I don’t know,” she says. “Just the way you took care of her, didn’t try to take advantage of her just because she was too drunk to function. I know how most guys think when they’re with a drunk girl. Experienced it myself. But you, you were different. And, I don’t know, that just did something to me.” She wipes her eyes—she is crying—and rises from the table.

“Where are you going?” Renee asks.

“I just, I need to step outside for a minute,” she says with a sniff, and walks out the door without grabbing her coat, but I hear the jingle of keys.

The boy, the one Rita came with, I can’t remember his name. He forks a snowy meatball in front of him and shoves it into his mouth. He eats another, and while still chewing, says, “I should probably see if she’s ok.”

As he’s walking away, stumbling over his own chair, clearly uncomfortable to be around us without Rita, Mitchell turns to me, and in his eyes I know what he’s thinking; it’s the same thing I’m thinking.

The night Rita spoke of was the night he first told me he loved me, and while she was passed out on her stomach on the futon, he climbed the ladder to my bunk bed, and I, fully alert and aware of my every move, flipped the covers back, wiggled out of my underwear, and opened up for him, cleaved to him as one flesh. That night I knew I would belong to him, mind, body, and soul, forever.

But for the sake of appearances, after we were engaged, he made me promise that we wouldn’t do it again until we were married. I didn’t want to argue, because in my heart, I knew that sex within the sacredness of marriage was how God originally intended. I wanted to respect that. I knew once we were married, it would be even better, we would be even more blessed, we wouldn’t feel like sinners afterward, but justified, pleasing in God’s eyes. And we tried, we tried hard. We lasted six months, but no matter how honorable we thought we were being, we couldn’t tear apart what was already united. Even if we did do it out of order.

“We can’t start this marriage on a lie,” Mitchell whispers to me.

“What are you saying?” I ask.

“Yea, what are you saying,” Renee, who has the hearing of a dog, interrupts.

“Lemme stop you right there,” Bryan says, “because if this is about y’all getting busy the other night, we already know.”

“You, you know?” Mitchell asks.

“Tash told me,” Renee says.

“Renee told me,” Bryan chimes in.

“And Bryan told me,” Antonio finishes.

I hope that he will be more relieved by this, that there’s nothing to lie about, everything is on the table now, they know and it doesn’t change their opinions about us, they still accept us, just like God will accept our marriage, but he still shakes his head.

“But who told Rita?”

We exchange looks around the table. No one speaks.

We hear the chime of the front door opening. Thinking it’s Rita, Mitchell perks up. Will he tell her? After she’d just commended him for being a gentleman, for being the one man she knows who doesn’t only want sex from a woman?

But it’s Rita’s nineteen-year-old boyfriend instead. He rushes in, nearly out of breath, puts both hands on the back of Mitchell’s chair, and panting, says, “Rita’s gone.”

—Nortina


Part of Countdown to 31 Days of Holiday Hooligans
——
Previous: Bottom of the Pits
Next: At the Well

Countdown to 31 Days of Holiday Hooligans: Bottom of the Pits

Mitchell and Natasha decided not to have bachelor and bachelorette parties. Be in the world and not of it, they agreed. It wasn’t even a fight. They were too eager to be married to worry about sowing their wild oats on their last days of being single. And the only wild oats they sowed up to this point was into each other.

Those kinds of events were just invitations to sin anyway, though there’s nothing about a stripper that attracts Mitchell. Gyrating and slapping of thighs in his face—he doesn’t want to see another woman’s behind; he doesn’t want to see how fast it jiggles, how wide it opens, how deep a dollar bill can fold into it. The thought alone disgusts him.

Why don’t they have more respect for themselves? Don’t they know their bodies are temples for God? He weeps for those women—usually underage, college students, deep in debt, struggling single mothers—who think they have no other option. But their bodies are meant for God, not the sexual fantasies of strangers. Just because they can do something doesn’t mean they should, doesn’t mean it’s good for them. Only God knows what’s good for them, and He won’t hurt them, He won’t objectify them, He will show them they are worth more than just sex.

Mitchell should remind Bryan of this, because the minute he said, “We’re going to an all you can eat buffet that serves breasts, thighs, wings and biscuits, all for a couple singles,” Mitchell knew where they were really going.

It’s dark. It smells—a combination of cigar smoke, musk, and over-fried chicken. The music is loud and heavy; it invades Mitchell’s ears, drowns out his thinking, beats against his heart within his ribcage.

It’s barely evening and already the place is packed. There’s a pole coming down from the ceiling every five or so feet, a dancer on each.

One has her thighs wrapped tightly around the stainless steel, as if in a wrestling position. She hangs upside down, and the man in front of her juggles her breasts, a wad of cash in his mouth.

Another holds onto the pole above her head, and standing knees slightly bent, feet shoulder-width apart, she grinds against the pole, as if it’s a man taking her from behind.

And right in front of him, Mitchell is startled by a woman who suddenly drops from the ceiling onto the platform underneath her with a thud, flips over, and spreads into an open split.

“Goddamn!” Bryan shouts.

The thin string of fabric she wears barely covers her, and the more she shakes, the more it moves to the side. She has attracted quite the crowd, and they surround her like vultures, some of them sticking out their tongues—thoughts of something more than just a show heavy on their minds—and they throw dollar bills that flutter above her in the stifling air.

Mitchell’s stomach turns in his gut. He blocks the scene from his periphery with his hand and taps Bryan on the back for him to move along.

“Where’s the buffet?” Mitchell asks. “I’d rather just eat and go home.” Hopefully the food doesn’t include a striptease as a side dish, and if there was a carry-out option, that would be even better. He doesn’t want to see any more than he already has, doesn’t need that flooding his thoughts when he watches Natasha walk down the aisle on Saturday.

“Nah, man,” Bryan says. “You can’t come to a strip club and not get at least one dance.” He takes Mitchell by the wrist, drags him to an empty booth, then leaves to find a girl who’s not occupied.

Mitchell looks around. Most of the women are wearing the same garb as the one doing splits, some even less. He whispers to Antonio. “I thought strippers usually wore more clothes than this.” Wasn’t there a code? A stripper could only strip down to so much, any more would be indecent exposure? Would lead to prostitution—if a man’s seen that much, he’s sure to want more, right? Wouldn’t leave without it.

But maybe it was only in movies, those crazy romantic comedies and tear-jerkers Natasha makes him suffer through.

“It depends,” Antonio says. “Some clubs are classier than others. But Bryan brought you to the bottom of the pits. This place is always getting shut down.”

Mitchell doesn’t bother to ask him how he knows this.

When Bryan returns, he holds two beer bottles in one hand by their necks. He tosses one to Antonio, who’s reflexes are so slow it nearly knocks him in the head. Bryan keeps the other for himself, and the girl with him, he pushes toward Mitchell. Thankfully she is the most dressed Mitchell has seen, wearing boy shorts of a reflective chrome color and the matching bikini top.

She pops on the chewing gum in her mouth, blows a tiny bubble that bursts immediately, and rolls it around her tongue. “Is this the one getting married?” she asks in the high-pitched voice of a child who hadn’t yet hit puberty.

“Yep,” Bryan says. “Make my boy feel good.”

“No, really.” Mitchell doesn’t want to feel good. Nothing good could possibly come from this place, unless they serve hand sanitizer at the bar. But they ignore his protests, and the girl jumps right into his lap. He sees his own terrified reflection in the shimmering fabric that covers her breasts.

“Tell me what you want, baby,” she says as she beings to dance right on top of him. Are lap dances supposed to insinuate sex? If so, it makes him extremely uncomfortable, because it’s not Natasha doing it. He’d rather this girl just take her clothes off— No, no he doesn’t. He turns to Antonio on the couch next to him, whose head bobbles watching them. He looks up at Bryan still standing, who motions for him just to relax, taps his pocket to let him know that he’s paying for it.

Mitchell’s not getting out of this, it seems. So he closes his eyes, tries to enjoy it for Bryan’s sake—a wedding can’t be a wedding in Bryan’s mind without the prenuptial debaucheries, he supposes. He wonders if Bryan’s ever been here before, if he’s a regular, if Renee knows.

As the stripper continues to hump on Mitchell, feeling herself, feeling him, he thinks of Natasha, how they were in this same position just last night the car parked on the side of the road. It’s easier to imagine her when his eyes are closed, when he’s not looking at the girl but at Natasha. When the spontaneity of her movements becomes the spontaneity of Natasha’s, her quick pecks on his neck Natasha’s. When the touch of her skin reminds him of Natasha’s naked body pressed against him after they’d undressed each other and warmed their limbs by the heat they created.

His tension releases. He slides down the booth to get more comfortable as the girl puts more thrust into her motion, he lets her touch him with her hands, with her body.

“Atta boy,” he hears Bryan say.

But the experience is short lived, because the girl incessantly pops her chewing gum. She bounces on him like a hyper three-year-old on Santa’s lap. She moans, “Oooh, you like that, baby?” in that baby voice, and it takes Mitchell out of it. He opens his eyes, and Natasha is gone.

“How old are you?” He asks.

“However old you want me to be, daddy.” She gives him the puppy dog eyes with the pout, making her look even younger.

Mitchell draws back. She continues to wind and grind on him. He puts his hands on her hips to push her off, then quickly lets go and holds them in the air, not wanting to be accused of foul play.

“You can touch me, daddy. I don’t mind.”

“Dude,” Bryan says, “this is kind of her job. Just enjoy the fantasy.”

But Mitchell’s fantasy has already happened, and it wasn’t here in this den of Satan, but with Natasha, his future wife. The only woman he wants to sit on his lap, the only woman whose breasts he wishes to lay his head on, the only woman he’ll rise to the occasion for. Even now he feels nothing in his pants.

“Get up, please. I need to use the bathroom.”

“Aww, already?” she whines. She gets up, tiptoes to Bryan, offering him a dance instead, but he just hands her the money in his pocket.

“Where’s the bathroom?” Mitchell asks.

“I saw it when we first came in. I’ll go with you,” Antonio says. He looks about as sick as Mitchell feels.

Mitchell hesitates to leave Bryan, who out of the three of them seems to be enjoying his time here the most, but hopefully he has more self-control that the other men here. Mitchell’s surely not sticking around for another stripper come over and “treat” him with a dance.

He follows Antonio to the front of the club, where a lit-up arrow points toward a corridor behind the main entrance. They walk to the end of the hall. The men’s restroom is on the left, and the women’s on the right.

“I just want to say this was all Bryan’s idea.” Antonio says.

Mitchell sprints to the first open stall he sees, opposite wall where the urinals are mounted, and dry heaves into the toilet.

“Do you think I can get those wings and biscuits Bryan was preaching about now?”

The bathroom door bursts open and in walks Bryan with a booming laugh. “I gotta say, Mitchell, I didn’t think you’d go through with it. That’s twice you’ve surprised me now.”

“When was the first time?” Mitchell’s voice echoes in the toilet bowl above the rippling water.

Bryan either ignores him or he doesn’t hear him, but Mitchell doesn’t think that’s possible in here with these acoustics. Maybe outside in the club, but in here he can hear his own head throb, and a few stalls down, he can hear someone’s heavy breathing, and he doesn’t think that person is alone.

“So y’all tryna hit up Applebee’s or something?” Bryan says.

“Wait, we’re not eating here?” Antonio asks.

“Are you kidding? I was just joking about the buffet. Their food smells like straight up pussy! I wouldn’t eat a peanut here.” Bryan walks out just as a gurgling rises from the other stall, and Mitchell and Antonio, recognizing what the sound could only mean, hurry behind him.

“Told you this was the pits,” Antonio whispers.

The pits is right. When Mitchell gets home, he plans to take a long hot shower so he doesn’t have to smell like it.

—Nortina


Part of Countdown to 31 Days of Holiday Hooligans
——
Previous: Spiking the Eggnog
Next: Second Thoughts

Countdown to 31 Days of Holiday Hooligans: Spiking the Eggnog

Renee’s kitchen smells just like Christmas. If she knew fresh cloves and nutmeg made that much of a difference, she would have bought them whole years ago. There’s no telling how old the store-bought, ground varieties are anyway.

She usually buys her eggnog from the store too, but this year, she’s trying a recipe she found online. How often does your best friend get married on your favorite holiday? She has to make it special, memorable. There’s nothing worse than a beautiful wedding that’s ruined by terrible refreshments.

Of course, as soon as she mentioned eggnog to Rita, they had to take a detour to the ABC store so she could by a bottle of Brandy to go with it. The cashier called Rita’s name as soon as they walked in. It didn’t surprise Renee one bit that this was Rita’s second visit today.

“You’re definitely fasting alcohol the first of the year,” Renee said.

“Come one. Whoever heard of eggnog without booze? Even grandma was sippin’ in that ‘Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer’ song.”

Rita’s been listening to Christmas music all afternoon, currently singing “Let It Snow!” to Melody and the twins in the den. Renee put her on babysitting duty as soon as they got to the house, couldn’t risk her sneaking a splash of the heavy stuff into her simmer on the stove. Rita’s surprisingly good with the kids. It comes naturally to her–that is, when she’s sober, which, thank God, she is today.

Maybe this is the way to keep Rita clean. Then Renee can finally fire the neighbor’s absent-minded daughter, especially since, according to Melody the tattletale, she had her much older boyfriend over as soon as Renee and Bryan left. That kind of behavior will not be tolerated in her house, by anyone. And she’ll definitely be telling the hussy’s parents too.

Listen to her, Renee chuckles, she sounds just like her own mother.

The cinnamon stick stands up in the pot of nog like a straw, which gives Renee an idea as she whisks the liquid, tests for thickness, turns off the heat.

“Hey, Rita,” she calls. “How would you feel about drinking eggnog through a cinnamon stick?”

“I think I’d choke on the cinnamon.”

Oh, that’s right, Renee says to herself. Not everyone’s a fan of cinnamon. Oh well. Maybe as a garnish, then? With some of it grated on the frothy top, along with a bit of nutmeg?

She strains the eggnog into a bowl on the kitchen table. The recipe says to let it cool for an hour. That should give her enough time to wrap up the poinsettia centerpieces for the rehearsal dinner, finish printing off the name cards to place at everyone’s assigned seat, and fold the napkins into the Nativity scene napkin rings she bought on her most recent Christmas shopping spree. Bryan doesn’t know about that one. If he did, he’d probably take her credit card, but she bought his Christmas present on this particular run, so maybe he’ll overlook the fact that she went over budget . . . again.

When Renee looks up from her steaming bowl, Rita is standing at the door to the kitchen, balancing Aiden and Blake on both hips, while Melody sits on her left ankle hugging her shin.

“You know what would take that eggnog from like an eight point five to a ten?” Rita nods her head toward the brown paper bag on the counter next to the sink.

“You know Mitchell and Tash don’t drink.” Though it’s hard to say that convincingly when Natasha was clearly hungover at the bridal shop this morning, almost throwing up when they tried to zip her into her dress. And she flaked on the cake tasting, leaving Renee alone with Mitchell and Rita, who spent twenty minutes arguing over whether or not red velvet was really just chocolate with red food coloring.

“Come on,” Rita says. “We’ll split it up and spike the second bowl. I really don’t won’t Hank to think all my friends are uptight.”

“Who on earth is Hank?”

“Her boyfriend!” Melody sings, sticking her tongue through the hole left behind by her last fallen tooth.

“He’s not my boyfriend. He’s just this guy.” Rita tries to say nonchalantly, but her face, rosy as Santa’s big red suit, gives it away.

“Well, boyfriend or not, this guy’s clearly had an effect on you,” Renee says as she notices how Rita keeps the twins close her chest, leans at an angle so that their heads lie on her instead of tilt back, especially since Aiden is still a little top-heavy.

Motherhood definitely suits Rita, and with a new man in the picture, Renee wonders if more wedding bells could be in the near future. And children? Renee always wanted to be an Auntie. She doesn’t have any siblings, so she would spoil Rita’s kids to their heart’s content, and even more!

But she quickly comes back to reality. “Don’t you think it’s moving a little fast to invite him to the wedding?”

“Oh, god no! He’s not coming to the wedding. I don’t want to scare him away. But I did want to bring him to our little get-together after the rehearsal dinner. You said we could bring a plus one, right?” Rita says.

“Just curious. When did you meet him?” Renee asks. She talks to Rita nearly every day, and the only men she’s ever heard Rita mention were the work crush who’s having a baby, and the weed dealer she’s been dodging. Though she never told Renee his name. He was always “weed man.” Renee shakes her head. Please don’t let Hank be the weed man. She’d never get Rita off of drugs then.

“Would you judge me if I said last night?” Rita says.

If ever there was an answer worse than weed man. Renee drops her shoulders and rolls her head, annoyed at herself for thinking that Rita has changed one bit. “Lord, Rita. You didn’t sleep with him, did you?”

“Shhh.” Rita turns to shield the babies from what she calls Renee’s foul language.

They’ve heard worse come out of Bryan’s mouth.

“And for your information . . .” Rita says, “. . . maybe.”

“Oh, Rita. No man is gonna stay when you keep giving him the best of you on the first night.”

“Ok, I get that,” Rita answers, “but this guy’s different, and he wants to come.”

Renee sighs, looks down on Melody, still on the floor. “What do you think, honeybun?”

“Is he cute?” she asks Rita.

Rita winks. “Oh, yes.”

“Then I say bring him!” Melody hops in the air, coming out of frog stance, waving her arms, and she slaps the eggnog right off the table.

Renee saw it happen, even before it actually did. She saw it and was still too slow to save all her hard work. The glass bowl shatters on the floor. The eggnog that doesn’t get her own shoes, completely drenches Melody head to toe.

“Dang it, Melody!” Renee screams.

“‘Dang it,’ Renee?” Rita says. “Really? Not even a little slip of the tongue?”

Renee ignores her, scolds her daughter, who licks around her lips.

“Mmm, Mommy. This is good,” she says.

At least it’s not hot anymore.

“Make yourself useful and get the mop out of the pantry to clean this mess,” Renee says to Melody.

“Yes, Mommy,” Melody says, hopping away.

Renee rubs her head across her forehead. “This is gonna put me behind schedule.” At least she thought ahead and bought double the milk and eggs. She won’t have to make another trip to the grocery store, which is always a warzone right before the holidays, not to mention all the con-people following everyone around, asking for money. She feels like she needs a drink now. She swipes the paper bag off the counter, twists the top and takes a swig straight from the bottle while Rita watches with her jaw dropped like a cartoon character.

Fine, Renee will spike the eggnog just this once, for Rita, but this Hank guy better be as cute as she says.

—Nortina


Part of Countdown to 31 Days of Holiday Hooligans
——
Previous: Welcome to the Club
Next: Bottom of the Pits

Countdown to 31 Days of Holiday Hooligans: Welcome to the Club

“Ugh! Why is the sun so bright?” Antonio groans from the passenger seat of Bryan’s car.

“Bro,” Bryan says laughing, “it’s four o’clock. The sun is going down.”

“Not fast enough.” Antonio says. He takes off his coat, puts it over his head and reclines the seat all the way to the back, stretching his legs on the dashboard.

“Please, make yourself comfortable,” Bryan jokes.

“Thanks for the ride, man. I owe you one,” Antonio’s muffled voice comes from underneath the coat.

“You’re lucky Elise didn’t call the police on you. I’d be bailing you out of jail right now.”

“I’m just glad she didn’t call Mitchell. She would do some shit like that, you know. Just to make me feel like a disappointment. She knows I’m tryna get my life together.”

“Oh, nah man. She called Mitchell.”

“Damn.” Antonio slams his coat down on his lap.

“She actually called him first. But he was . . . preoccupied.” Bryan drops the hint slowly, hoping Antonio will catch it.

“Doing what? He was just with me at the bar?”

Ok, he doesn’t know, Bryan concludes. That or he’s too hungover to figure it out, but Bryan doubts Mitchell said anything, so he’ll tell Antonio for him. “Tash. Doing Tash.”

“What?”

“Yep.” Bryan wasn’t sure of it himself, at first. Natasha could’ve just been wet and naked from a cold shower when she answered the door last night, since she was apparently soo drunk. But when they got home, Renee told him all the dirty details, the real reason Tash had called her out to Mother Goose’s to “talk.”

He has to hand it to Mitchell. Not even he was able to get into Renee’s pants before saying those fateful words, “I do.” But it was well worth the wait. Right now he’s on his way to give Mitchell a firm slap on the back and a congratulatory “Atta boy! Welcome to the club! How does it feel to be a man now?” Because he’s sure Natasha was Mitchell’s first.

“Oh,” Antonio says.

“Oh?” Bryan expected a little more excitement in Antonio’s response, or at least shock—Bryan was shocked. Scratch that; no he wasn’t. As godly as Mitchell thinks he is, every man has a weakness. And if Natasha is any bit as frisky as Renee is when she’s drunk, not even Mitchell could resist that temptation.

But Antonio did just get saved, and Mitchell is his Christian mentor. “They’re getting married,” Bryan tries to justify, “so I guess it’s ok.”

“It’s not that.” Antonio massages the center of his eyebrows as a car with too bright LED headlights passes. “I just– From how she looked at the bar, I thought there might a little trouble in paradise.”

“Far from it.” Bryan rounds the corner into Mitchell’s neighborhood.

“You’re not taking me home?” Antonio asks.

“Nah, we gotta celebrate!”

“Celebrate what?”

“Well, for one, you not getting your butt whipped by Elise’s brother.” Butt? Bryan says to himself. Did he really just say butt? Ass, Bryan, he corrects himself. Getting his ass whipped. Damn Renee and her stupid curse word fast. It’s like she’s in his head now!

“What are you talking about? Elise doesn’t have a brother.” Antonio is saying.

“Oh, but she does.”

“I’ve known her for seven years. I ain’t never heard of no brother.”

“Well, she got one. Fresh outta fifteen year lockup too. And those J’s you threw up all over, were custom made.”

“Fuck.” Antonio slaps his forehead. Groans again at what Bryan can only assume is the resulting headache.

“Yep. Be glad Ryder didn’t see any of it.”

“Doesn’t matter. I’ll never get him back now.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure.” Bryan says. “You’ll get him. Elise isn’t that cruel. Remember she could’ve called the cops on you, but she didn’t.”

When he pulls into the driveway, Mitchell is outside throwing net lights over the bushes in front of his house. Bryan puts the car in park, leans back, rubs his hands together, looks at Antonio with a smile that’s full of trouble. “But first, we give Mitchell a little going away present.”

Antonio stares at him. “You’re taking him to a strip club, aren’t you?”

“Correction. We are.”

“You’re like the serpent in the garden, man.”

“First of all, I’m surprised you even know that.”

“That’s the one Bible story everyone should know.”

“Maybe, but Mitchell’s my boy. And I’ll be damned if I don’t give my boy the rite of passage deserving of every man before he gets married . . . Breasts and booty!”

At least now Bryan is confident Mitchell knows where they are.

—Nortina


Part of Countdown to 31 Days of Holiday Hooligans
——
Previous: Not Gonna Fit
Next: Spiking the Eggnog

Countdown to 31 Days of Holiday Hooligans: Not Gonna Fit

I’m fat. I’m fatter than fat. I’ve gained nine pounds since Mitchell proposed, and with the camera already fabled to add ten, I’ll be nineteen pounds heavier in all my wedding photos. Not to mention I won’t fit in my dress!

I should call Renee and tell her I’m not coming. But then, how would that look? The bride a no show to her own dress fitting. I was supposed to be there an hour ago, but Mitchell, he was so patient, attentive, smooth, gentle deliberate. He made love to me with such care, never rushing, always giving me exactly what I needed first, which satisfied him beyond a quick orgasm, just to hear me exhale and lie back, having had my fill.

God, I love that man. Who cares if I never put on the dress, as long as I’m at that altar Christmas day to say, “I do,” now and forever.

I wish he was still here as I stand naked on the scale, wet from the shower, and touch myself. As much as he wanted to stay and spend this day lost underneath the sheets, he had to get home—which in eight days will be our home, he reminded me—he needed to straighten things up for his family, who would be coming down to stay with him until the wedding, supposedly to make sure we don’t consummate too soon.

I laugh at this. If only they knew. I can already feel his seed germinating inside me. It makes me want him even more. I suck in my stomach and look down at the digital number displayed on the screen between my two big toes. Is there any way I can get this down between now and Christmas? Not with a bridal shower and rehearsal dinner still to come. Oh! And the cake tasting with the caterer! I completely forgot! They’ll definitely have to sew me into my dress after that—I can’t rely on a single bite to make my decision. Mitchell will just have to go by himself. I can trust him to choose the right cake. He remembers I’m allergic to strawberries, right?

My skin has managed to dry without a towel. I step off the scale with a sigh, conclude that it’s just lying to me. After this morning’s “workout,” I should have lost something. Sex burns calories, they say. And since I only had eggs for breakfast—the bacon burnt to a crisp—I should see some results.

But I can’t hide the fact that my stomach is looking fuller than usual, and the added girth isn’t fat that I can pinch, but solid and firm, bloated. Water weight, maybe? I pull my jeans over my hips. It’s a snug fit and my sides spill out over the top. I’ll have to stick to the stairs for the rest of this week. And avoid the carbs, which means no bread, no pasta. That’ll be hard with Renee planning the menus for all our wedding events. She doesn’t believe a meal’s balanced unless it has at least two starches— beans and rice, beans and potatoes, two kinds of potatoes, mac and cheese and potatoes. Did I mention potatoes?

But I remember that I also put on extra pounds just before my period starts. It’s close to that time, right? Though, I thought it was due to come last week. As long as it’s not next Saturday, because Mitchell and I have plans.

When I walk through the doors of Marinette’s Parisian Bridal Shop, I think Renee’s head just might literally explode. Her face as red as the quarter Cherokee blood she claims runs through her veins.

“Where the heck have you been!” As mad as she is, she still doesn’t curse. I have to admire that. I’m not always able to stay in character, but then she wouldn’t be setting a good example for Bryan if she couldn’t bite her own tongue.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “I lost track of time.”

“Doing what?” Rita asks. I’m surprised to see her here, that she actually beat me, and that she looks half-way decent before noon. Her skin is glowing, actually glowing, not dark and burnt from all the weed she smokes. This fast is doing her good. The teal blue jumpsuit she wears, accessorized with a large fuzzy white wool shawl, reminds me of freshly fallen snow. Her hair even seems to be sprinkled with a dusting of something white and sparkly. And is that makeup she’s wearing? The blue eyeshadow she repeatedly tells me is so middle school whenever I wear it? What has gotten into her? Or should I say, who?

“The next wedding party will be here in ten minutes. The coffee is cold. The macaroons are hard. Your mom and I called you twenty times. Where were you?” Renee is saying, practically shouting, almost crying.

I put my hands on her shoulders and shake her back into reality. “Renee, breathe. I’m the one getting married here. I can’t have you freaking out on me.”

“Never mind that,” Renee says, waving her arms around her head as if swatting away flies. “Now I have to find your mom. She’s trying to buy another dress last minute, and we’ve got to get you in yours before they kick us out.” She rushes off to the back of the store, disappears behind the fitting room curtains.

When we’re alone, Rita turns to me, folds her arms over her chest. Looking down on me—she has me beat by five or so inches—she says with a smirk, “So what were you really doing?”

“What do you mean?”

“Tash, you’re glowing, girl.”

“I could say the same about you.”

“Ok. You don’t want to tell me.” She shrugs, doesn’t acknowledge that I’ve noticed a difference in her too. She picks up a blue macaroon from the snack tray. It breaks apart and crumbles around her lips as she sinks her teeth into it. Chewing with her mouth full she says, “If I didn’t know any better, I’d think you were pregnant.”

My stomach drops in my gut.

“Tash, today!” I hear Renee yell. “We still have to see the caterer!”

God, I hope this dress fits.

—Nortina


Part of Countdown to 31 Days of Holiday Hooligans
——
Previous: Snowflakes Have Always Been Blue
Next: Welcome to the Club

Countdown to 31 Days of Holiday Hooligans: Snowflakes Have Always Been Blue

Snowflakes are blue. In Rita’s mind, they’ve always been blue.

Ever since she was a child, and she traded in her ice white crayons for a combination of navy, aqua, and baby blue to trace the snowflake designs on her Christmas wish lists to Santa, snowflakes have been blue. And Christmas was her favorite holiday of the year until she was eleven, when her mom banned the holiday because her deadbeat dad stopped paying child support.

“No money, no presents.” Her excuse.

But Rita still dreamt of blue snowflakes piling high in her front yard on Christmas morning—even though she grew up in southern Georgia, and the coldest temperatures she ever experienced were still in the upper 40s. When she peeked out of her bedroom window every Christmas, squeezed her eyes shut and wished for a foot or more of densely packed, blue snow—an hombre effect developing the deeper you went, from white on the top layer to an almost cobalt at the very bottom—she knew one day it would happen, all her letters to Santa would be answered. One day she would wake up to jingle bells, a front lawn covered in a blanket of blue, and her father standing on the porch, carrying a gift box, wrapped in red and gold paper, almost as big as he, with the oversized bow to match.

This was what Rita thought about as Hank’s head lay in her lap, his tongue in her flesh.

It wasn’t right. She didn’t want to take him home. Well, she did, but Renee’s voice in her head nagged her of her missed appointment with Jesus—prayer and fasting more important.

But he didn’t have  a ride when the store closed—she the last customer to leave. It was too easy. And with an unannounced visit from Jerome still a possibility, she felt safer having Hank there.

Plus she needed someone to carry all the paint she bought. She couldn’t remember what colors she picked; she just grabbed the closet can and slug it in her basket, kept it moving.

Hank’s tongue fluttered inside her, like a swimmer kicking the water as he paddled down stream. She went loose, tensed up to hold it a second longer, went loose again.

Hank looked up. “You good?”

She pressed his head back down. Less talk, more . . . mmmm . . . She twirled her hips underneath him, rolled her eyes to the back of her head as he drank her up, slurped her as if finishing off the end of an icie, and when he hit that spot, she screamed, “Oh, god,” and then, “Jesus Christ,” and then, “Stop.”

It wasn’t right. But she still waited until she came before she finally pushed him off of her.

And she didn’t want him to leave, not yet. Not while her walls were still white. She crawled over to the paint cans lined up by her door, examined the labels. Merlot red? No, that color pallet was too close to hell. She figured when she died, she’d probably end up there anyway; she didn’t need the reminder. Canary yellow? Hell no. Not even if she had a cat. It made her think of the short story she read back in high school. If white was driving her crazy, yellow just might make her kill herself.

With a sigh—she probably should have put more thought into making her selections—she spun the third can around, tilted it back and looked at it under the white moonlight coming through her window.

Cerulean. Blue. Perfect.

“Let’s paint these walls,” she said, a chipperness in her voice.

“Now?”

“Why else do you think you’re here?”

He shook his head. Maybe to get blue balls. To tease him even more, Rita jumped at him, fell on top of him back on the bed. She sat up on his lap, felt him lift through his boxers. His hand trailed down to the pocket and pulled out what she’d been craving, so she could see it, so she could go ahead and sit on it. She wanted to. She really wanted to.

And she did. But first, they painted.

Her room is brighter this morning. Brighter even than when the walls were white. It reminds her of Christmas, and she can’t remember a Christmas when the sunlight didn’t fill her whole room back home, as it does right now.

The paint still smells. They probably shouldn’t have slept in it. But when she considers how much sleep they actually got, she thinks they’ll be ok. She looks up at the walls. Horny and half-naked, they still managed to coat them evenly, and they didn’t get a single drop on the floor. But that may be because they spread and entire box of black heavy duty trash bags over every inch of the plush white carpet.

Under the suns rays shinning through her window, her walls are the perfect snowflake blue she always imagined as a kid. If the paint is still wet, she’ll straighten out a paper clip, or maybe just use the tip of her fingernail, to carve in the skeletal snowflake designs, like on her wish lists to Santa.

On the floor, one trash bag is smeared with paint from end to end like the frantic brushstrokes of an improvisational painter receiving his dose of inspiration in that very moment. This was where they collapsed, after laying the final coating, and then finished each other off in the leftover blue paint poured from the can.

She can’t remember how exactly she ended up back in her bed, however.

She hears a swishing to her right, looks over to see the blue shadow of Hank’s body printed in the sheets next to her, and Hank standing by the window, his pants already on, buttoning his shirt.

“You’re leaving.” She says it more like a statement than a question. She should be used to this. What’s to stay for? He’s gotten what he was after, even though it took all night to get it.

He spins around, surprised, almost frightened, by her voice. Who else would it be? She wonders. This is her apartment.

“Oh, I didn’t want to wake you.”

Too late.

He stands there, as if caught with his hand somewhere it shouldn’t be, not sure what to do or how to explain himself. His eyes shift from her to his shoes on the floor at the foot of her bed.

“Just go.” she closes her eyes. It would’ve been better if he’d left last night. Before the sun came in and brightened her day, filled her with a false hope that things would be different now, that she could be different. That her dreams as a child would finally come true, and it would snow on Christmas the color of the Disney castle in the opening credits of her favorite princess movies, and her prince charming would finally come, and stay forever.

“I’m sorry,” he stammers. “I just– I thought you would want–”

He rushes back to the bed, his shirt half unbuttoned, his skin hot when she touches his abdomen. It warms her through, and she leans in to kiss his navel, dip her tongue inside like it’s morning coffee and she’s testing the temperature. He sinks his hands into her hair, pulls her up, sticks his whole tongue in her mouth.

This is all she wants for this whole day. Him filling her every opening. She’s supposed to be meeting Tash and Renee for a dress fitting. How late is it? Is there enough time to slide him into her for a few minutes more? She’d promised Renee she wouldn’t be late, and she would help her set up for the rehearsal dinner afterward. But then, did Renee really expect Rita to keep her word?

Not when this man is giving her everything she thinks she needs.

—Nortina


Part of Countdown to 31 Days of Holiday Hooligans
——
Previous: Every Morning
Next: Not Gonna Fit

Countdown to 31 Days of Holiday Hooligans: Every Morning

Bacon sizzles in the pan. Mitchell opens the refrigerator, gets out three eggs, cracks them against the counter, scrambles them in a bowl. He turns back to the stove, flips the bacon. Grease pops his skin, and he slaps his wrist, brings it up to his mouth, sucks on the burn, the way she sucked on every part of Natasha last night, and before he realizes, his tongue is doing a somersault dance.

He shakes his head, returns to the eggs, adds salt, pepper, scrambles them until the yolks blend with the whites into a pale yellow liquid. He goes back to the refrigerator for cheese. He likes sharp cheddar, but Natasha only buys Parmesan, prefers the saltiness to it, that it melts better, but is lower in fat. So health conscious. He sprinkles a handful from the bag. He guesses he should get used to compromising now. A pang in his heart tells him he already has.

He returns the cheese, closes the refrigerator and notices the calendar on the door. Red and green X’s counting down to the 25th, which is double circled in yellow rings. Eight more days and this will be his life forever.

When he turns around, he finds that his bride-to-be has emerged from the bedroom, rubbing her eyes. She wears his wrinkled t-shirt, which looks ten times better on her than it ever did on him last night. The creases and ripples in the cotton fabric dip and stretch over the curves of her body at just the right angles, shaping her figure like how water surrounds and compliments an object partially submerged on its surface.

She slowly walks over to him, sliding her bare feet across the floor. She wraps her thin arms around his waist, lays her head on his chest, looks up with that smile, that same beautiful smile that made his whole world stand still the first time he laid eyes on it. Her cheeks radiate like the sun. He kisses them both, and she in turn kisses him where his heart stutters to beat.

“I love you,” she says softly, cooing like a dove.

Oh, god. He loves her too. He scoops her into his embrace. He kisses her neck, and up her neck, and along her jawline, and to her lips, lingers there, then back down to her neck, and her collarbone, and across her shoulder, and further down. He can’t stop kissing her.

He pulls his shirt up over her head. She’s naked underneath, and this only arouses him more. She rushes in, curls her fingers over the top and inside his slacks, drops them to the floor, hooks her arm around his neck, pulls him down to her, inhales his scent, laps him up. He cups his hands around the backs of her thighs, lifts her with a grunt, sits her on his hip.

Bacon in the pan getting crispier by the second. He’s cooked too.

“Tell me you love me,” she whines, desperate, like she’s pleading with him, like she’s in physical agony not to hear him say it.

“I love you,” he whispers, lips tracing the curve of her ear, and he can feel her smile, can feel her hold her breath and let it release.

And he releases all of him inside her. His insecurities about them, his hesitations to move too fast, his worries and cares. She accepts all of it and more, assures him with every kiss, every moan, that this is right, that to deny themselves this moment would be like death, the one needing the other just to breathe.

Oh God, If every morning is like this for the rest of his life, he will be complete, he prays.

But a faint voice in the back of his mind tells him he should have waited.

—Nortina


Part of Countdown to 31 Days of Holiday Hooligans
——
Previous: Not Drunk
Next: Snowflakes Have Always Been Blue

Countdown to 31 Days of Holiday Hooligans: Not Drunk

“This is a stupid idea,” Antonio mumbles, again and again, trying to will himself to turn the car around, go home, or at least back to the bar. Get another drink.

He’s not drunk. Nope, not at all, he tells himself. The speedometer needle teeters between 85 and 90 as he flies through the residential area. Lights whiz by him in a blur. One of them might have been red—he can’t tell, he can’t really see.

But he’s not drunk.

This is Renee’s fault, really. He should have left Mother Goose’s when Mitchell carried Natasha’s drunk ass out of there. But Renee lured him in with that “concerned Christian” act, even offered him the rest of her hot wings.

Antonio sucks on his tongue, smacks his teeth against the insides of his cheeks. He can still taste the cayenne, the smell of smoke flavor on his breath. It agitates the back of his throat, as if he’s just inhaled a huge helping of finely ground pepper. He coughs, heaves, feels like he’s choking, like his throat is constricting in a delayed allergic reaction to whatever that was he ate off of Renee’s plate. Those weren’t hot wings, more like hell fire on a bone. Tears start to stream down from the corners of his eyes. The glide across his face at diagonal angles to moisten his ear lobes. He’s not crying. It’s just the leftover burn from the food, like slicing a yellow onion or a jalapeño pepper.

He rolls down the window for a rush of cold air to cool him off. Maybe it’ll alleviate the headache that’s also been building since he stormed out of the bar after Renee took her “You’ve been on my heart. How can I pray for you?” speech a step to far by mentioning Elise.

“Fucking bitch. I hate her!” he screams at the top of his lungs. Not Renee. He knows she means well, but she’s gotta learn when she’s overstepped her boundaries. And quoting James 1:19 isn’t going to make his situation any easier. He should know; he’s read it ten times today.

…quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry…

Easy for James to say. He’s never had to deal with a spitfire like Elise. There’s no listening to her. She’ll make your ears literally bleed, the way she runs at the mouth. And she always shoots below the belt. Antonio has no doubt in his mind that she can make a cold-hearted gangster—with two first-degree murders and assault with intention to kill topping his long rap sheet—cry. And not just cry, but ugly cry. Snot running down his face, nose so red it lights its way through the fog like Rudolph leading Santa’s sleigh, eyes so puffy from all the waterworks it looks like a nigga broke out into hives.

Antonio has ugly cried twice for Elise. The first time was Thanksgiving of 2013, when she casually told his sister and brother-in-law at the dinner table, loud enough for everyone—who was still eating—to hear that he licked her ass and that she was a little suspicious about why he would go for the back  and not the front, like most men do—most straight men. He could have punched her right there in the neck. And of course she decided to omit the fact that she had asked for it, that he only did it once, that it would never happen again because the bitch farted in his face.

You don’t say that shit to a man’s family. You just don’t. They already knew he wasn’t a saint. And they’ve seen the ass on her, that it’s easier on the eyes than her actual face, even more so when she opens her mouth because she talks like she has a second grader’s education and a dukes of hazard upbringing. Clearly their relationship was primarily sexual, but she didn’t have to spell it out for them! And then to question his masculinity on top of that! Who does that? Who fucking does that!

But that’s Elise. She’s not her unless she’s bringing a nigga down to his knees. The second time was when he begged her not to leave him. He begged her. After he’d caught her cheating. After she’d told him there was a possibility that Ryder wasn’t his. After she’d called off the wedding, having cheated again with his best man. He still wanted that bitch!

“Sometimes we think that’s what we deserve,” Renee said at the bar. “We’re so deep in our sin and our mess that we think we’re not worthy, that God won’t forgive us. So we dig deeper into the darkness, instead of crawling out into the light. But God has bigger and better plans for you.”

He can’t see those plans right now, although the tears blot his eyes like cloudy fish scales. But he’s not crying, won’t give Elise the satisfaction of making him ugly cry a third time. And he can see enough to pull into the drive way of the condo she’s renting.

He stumbles out, the car still running, but he’s pretty sure he put it in park. He knocks on the door, bangs on it. He knows she’s still up. That bitch doesn’t sleep unless it’s with another nigga, usually to spite Antonio. Who is she with this time?

He knocks harder, kicks the door with all his strength but stops after the second time when he looses his balance. His knocks become more frantic, allowing less and less time between knuckle meeting wood. He leans all his weight into it, calls her name into the peep hole. When she finally opens the door, he nearly topples over at her feet, but he catches himself on the jamb, reflexes still working.

“Who the fuck you think this is? The police?”

“I want to see Ryder.”

“He in the bed. And you’re drunk.”

He’s not drunk. He’s not crying. He blows past her. There’s some nigga on the couch, probably was fucking her. Right there where his son lives. Where is Ryder?

“Yo,” dude says.

His voice sounds familiar. The same guy she cheated with? Not the best man—Antonio whipped his ass. He’ll beat this nigga too if he thinks he’s going to take his son from him like he stole his woman.

Antonio throws a punch, hits only air. This time there’s nothing to break his fall. He belly flops onto the carpet, arms flailing. The last thing he sees before he passes out is the skimpy Christmas tree, barely enough ornaments on it to fill in the empty spaces between branches.

Then he throws up. All over homeboy’s kicks. He thinks they might be the new Jordan’s.

—Nortina


Part of Countdown to 31 Days of Holiday Hooligans
——
Previous: Anything but White
Next: Every Morning

Countdown to 31 Days of Holiday Hooligans: Anything but White

The cashier is giving her the stink face. Rita checks the time on her phone. Screw you, bitch, she wants to say. Home Depot closes at ten, it ain’t ten yet. She flashes her a fake, “I wasn’t aware of the time. I promise I’ll be quick,” smile, but the woman’s not buying it one bit.

“Painting supplies?” Rita asks in her sincerest dumb blonde voice. She was blond once, for a season. Dated a blond too, for a few seasons.

The cashier points to her left behind her. “Aisle nine,” she says in a low, heavy accent. It comes out like a wet burp. Rita curls her upper lip. No wonder she has an attitude.

And her directions are of no help. Paint is all the way in the back corner of the store, hidden behind Home and Décor. She almost missed it for the bright ass brass light fixtures in the aisle ahead of it. She wonders how high their electric bill must be to keep an aisle full of lights on. And do they stay on over night? No workers around to start cutting them off, and it’s ten minutes til closing.

Standing in front of the rows of paint cans, she flips through the paint chart for the perfect color. Nothing white, or off-white. She won’t even look a beige, or pink, which is what she calls her co-workers in the office. Not to their faces of course, racial slur and all, and she needs her job, even though she hates it.

“Can I help you?” It’s the first face she’s seen since walking in and being rudely greeted by the woman up front. At least this one has a smile. It’s a cute smile too, revealing a pair of diamond-shaped dimples at the bottom corner of his cheeks between his nose and mouth.

And his mouth is the shape of a perfectly quartered melon, though not in a way that it’s tragically comical, like a minstrel performance, or that it pains him. His teeth are perfectly straight, too straight. Probably wore braces as a teenager. They’re a pearly white, not a yellow stain in sight. Rita likes this; it shows that he takes care of himself, believes in proper hygiene. At the very least, his breath smells fresh, and Rita finds herself leaning in a little closer to catch a hint of mint when he speaks.

She likes the fullness in his lips. Most guys she dates are flat. It feels too much like their knocking teeth when they kiss, like she’s swallowing their faces whole when she opens her mouth for something deeper. It makes her self-conscious, the big-lipped black girl sucking face with the poor, defenseless white boys. Duck-bill bandit, they used to call her in grade school. Kids are fucking assholes.

His upper lip rolls back slightly to show a sliver of gum. A plush pink. His gums, not his lips. His lips are brown. Brown like her. A light brown, but brown all the same.

She exhales a sigh. “I need to paint my room.”

“Okay–”

“Tonight.”

“Tonight? So soon?”

He stares at her, flashes that signature grin again, this time from the side. Dammit, he really is attractive . . . for a black guy.

“Just sick of the sight of it.” Rita’s eyes drift down to the name tag attached to his orange apron. “Hank,” she adds. Such an old name for someone who looks barely out of college. His eyes so wide and innocent, like those of a new born baby seeing the world for the first time. The thin strip of hair that curves down from his sideburns, across the bottom of his chin is perfectly trim. She’s not one for facial hair, prefers the smooth, razor bump-free skin, but this suits him. It outlines his structured jawline just right. Rita imagines how his face would fit in the crook of her neck.

She shakes her head. No, Rita, she reminds herself. You’ll just corrupt his innocence with all your baggage.

“Well, we have a lot of colors to choose from. I could even mix something up for you. But you seem like the type to just grab a can and go.”

Rita cringes at the type. She doesn’t want to be the type anymore. The smash and dash kind of type. The side chick kind of type. The type that’ll let a man swing by and hit, no strings, on his way home to the wife and kids. The type that’s never good enough to be a wife, to have kids with, because she’s too unstable, too crazy, good enough to brag about to the guys but not enough to introduce to the family, the 20 but not the 80, not the . . . type

But she’s so used to the label, so she shrugs her shoulders and says, “It is close to closing time.”

“We can stay open a little longer for you.”

Is he flirting with me? Rita wonders. Please don’t. I’m already lonely. I just might let you in. 

“What do you want?” His lips pucker when he asks. He says it like it’s pillow talk, like he’s already made love to her and now he wants to give her the world. It makes her want to stick around. She can see herself ten minutes from now, waiting in the dark parking lot after having made her purchase, watching for him to come out, to find her car, to get in the passenger seat and reach across the dash, cup her face in his hand, touch his lips against hers, the perfect ratio, pull her over onto his lap, not to take her clothes off for a cramped quickie, but to swallow her face whole, to touch and reawaken her numb body parts worn from abuse, from being prodded by the hands of too many eager men, to breath deep into her lungs and ignite a passion that has long lain dormant.

“What do you want?” he repeats. He’s nearly on top her her. They stand side by side, shoulders touching. She feels the heat coming from his flannel shirt. She glances down at his lips again. Full. Firm. Brown.

Like her.

“Anything but white.”

—Nortina


Part of Countdown to 31 Days of Holiday Hooligans
——
Previous: Freaky, Freaky
Next: Not Drunk

Countdown to 31 Days of Holiday Hooligans: Freaky, Freaky

Bryan glances in the rearview mirror as he turns the van out of the neighborhood. He watches Melody’s head lean to the right and stay there, hanging over her shoulder, as he straightens and continues down the road. Strapped in their carseats in the back seat, the twins share a similar position, necks hidden behind their chins sunken into their chubby chests. Bryan catches a glistening on the corner of Aiden’s mouth. The boy even has the nerve to be drooling.

Two minutes. They’re not in the car two minutes before the children are knocked out like light bulbs. Bryan cuts his eyes at Renee. “We could’ve left them.”

“It’s just the motion of the car. Trust me.”

She’s probably right. And the sizable knot on Melody’s forehead from running into the bathroom doorknob because Renee told her not to touch anything is all the evidence they need to tell them that another visit from the police department will surely land them both in jail for child endangerment. Last time, they got lucky, snuck in the back while the cops knocked on the front. But Melody’s older now, and the girl doesn’t know how to keep certain things to herself. Like the whole A-word business. What’s the point of paying her to be quiet with pizza if she still snitches? Lord only knows what will happen once the twins start talking. He’ll never be able to hide anything ever again. At least not for the next decade.

Bryan doesn’t know how he ended up with three kids. Well, he knows. Do-good-Christian that she is, Renee is still a freak in the bedroom, and she leaves him spent and drained every time. Had Melody gotten home from school just five minutes earlier, she would’ve caught them in a compromising position in the living room under the naked Christmas tree. They never made it to decorating it. One pinch on the left butt cheek from Renee as he bent over to plug in a string of multicolor lights, and that was it. Their naked bodies were entangled in the wire so fast, Bryan got rope burns on his back, and they broke more mini bulbs than there were replacements in the package.

But they have to be careful, because with Renee still nursing the twins, she can’t take birth control, and Bryan will be damned if she ever asks him to get snipped. The doctors said the chance of the next pregnancy being multiples again jumps fifty percent after twins. That’s enough to scare Bryan into pulling out just before he comes. He only hopes Melody doesn’t ask about the white stain on the carpet on Christmas day, when she’s crawling under the tree looking for hidden presents forgotten. But one can never be too careful, so he’ll make sure to tie the skirt around the base when they get back home, and maybe stop by the convenience store on the way to buy some condoms. Always magnum, the golden ticket. Renee should call herself lucky.

When Bryan turns into Mother Goose’s parking lot, the place is packed. A line of co-eds stand outside the doors, IDs in hand, waiting to be permitted in.

“Memories,” Bryan says and winks. “We should go in, take a shot, for old time’s sake.”

“With the kids in the car?” Renee says shaking her head. She bends over and take Natasha’s car keys out of her purse between her knees.

“Well, if Tash can do it.” Though it’s still hard for him to picture Natasha actually drunk, Mitchell having to carry her out and drive her home. Never had he seen someone do a complete 180 as fast as Natasha did after meeting Mitchell. Before Mitchell, her drinking was almost as bad as Rita’s smoking. Not that he judged her.

He actually admired that she could throw back shot after shot and still be able to hold her liquor, maintaining an essence of class. In the years that he’s known her, she’s never thrown up, never passed out, never slurred her words or made bad decisions. Even while drunk she was a good “church girl,” an honest woman. His grandpa would’ve liked her, probably would’ve convinced him to marry her over Renee, Renee being too “all about Jesus” for a man who never stepped foot inside a church until the day of his funeral.

But despite having the ability the chug down alcohol quickly will little to no effects—at least visually—Natasha truly is boring. She and Mitchell are made for each other. Besides, Bryan and Renee didn’t end up with three kids just sitting around reading the Bible.

Bryan immediately finds Natasha’s Hyundai in a sea of black cars. Maybe it’s true what they say about birds shitting on red cars the most. They’re easier to see, and from an areal view, Bryan imagines they look like moving targets for the birds to practice their aim on.

He climbs in. Temporarily sitting knees to chest, pressed against the steering wheel, until he can slide the seat back as far as it goes. Damn, is Natasha so short that she has to sit that close? Hasn’t she ever heard of people getting killed by the force of the airbags?

He follows Renee in the Sienna out of the parking lot, taking the long way around South Tatum. Apparently she saw a man dressed in a makeshift Frosty the Snowman costume earlier in the evening. And the demographics only get worse as the night wears on.

He turns up the radio, surprised to hear 90’s R&B hits instead of Kirk Franklin or Tamela Mann. “Say what, Tash? Liquor and R. Kelly? Mitchell just might get lucky tonight!”

He’s only kidding himself. When it comes to “living for God,” Mitchell is worse than Renee, always has to do things strictly by the holy book, no room for any mistakes. He probably never even kissed a girl before Natasha. Not that any of that is really a bad thing. In fact you probably should be trying to walk on the straight path if you’re saved. But living a little won’t automatically send you to hell, would it?

Narrow, narrow, narrow. The word rings in his ear. Fine, fine. He’ll stick to the narrow path, stay out of other people’s business, rely on Renee to keep him in check. She hears the Holy Spirit more clearly anyway. Sometimes he’s not sure if it’s God speaking or his own subconscious thinking a little too loudly. Maybe they’re the same. He shakes his head. Too confusing, too many spirits in his head. “One thing at a time, Bryan,” he tells himself. Focus on not cursing for the rest of the year, work you way up to the more spiritual matters.

They turn into Natasha’s apartment complex, and Bryan follows closely behind Renee, driving through the maze of high-rises. Renee pulls off to the side and flashes her blinker, directing Bryan to park in the empty space next to what he recognizes as Mitchell’s car.

As soon as he gets out of the car, Bryan stretches his legs, as if he’s just gotten off a four-hour road trip, when in reality, Natasha only lives five minutes from the bar. He takes long strides around the car to Renee’s window. “Should I leave the keys in her mailbox or something?” he asks.

“Just knock on the door. I’m sure they’re up.”

He really doesn’t want to, in case they invite him in, in case Mitchell needs a witness to whatever long-winded speech he’s currently giving Natasha about being a “kingdom woman” and abstaining from drunkenness.

He lets out a yawn reminiscent of a howling walrus. He really is tired. The second his head hits the pillow, he’s sure he can pass out like the kids. What all has he done today? Carried that heavy ass tree for Renee, which wasn’t so bad since she rewarded him with two rounds on the carpet that definitely needs cleaning now. But then he got stuck with babysitting the kids, having to answer Melody’s 21,000 questions, cleaning the kitchen and airing out the oven before Renee got home—he could have sworn the cooking directions on the box said heat the oven for 425—and she still smelled it anyway. He could’ve saved that elbow grease for later, for something a little more satisfying. Unless Renee has enough energy for a third round before bed.

He should ask if Renee had a little sip of whatever Tash was drinking on. Back in college, she always got a little aggressive when drunk, having her way with him, whether he wanted to or not. Sometimes he would just lie there and let her take it. Those were the times when she was really drunk and would pass out right on top of him. That would be the perfect way to end this night—ride him right on to sleep.

He lightly taps on the door. If no one answers after the second knock, at least he can tell Renee he tried. But just as he’s turning for the mailbox, he hears a jingling on the other side. The door cracks open, and Natasha pokes her head out just into view.

“Hey,” she says in a rushed voice.

“Brought your keys.” He twirls the chain around his index finger, and Natasha reaches out a bare arm to quickly snatch them back behind the door.

“Thanks,” she grunts.

“Everything ok?” Bryan steps closer. It’s dark inside the apartment. Not a single light on, as if she’d just walked in a few minutes prior and hadn’t yet turned everything on. But he and Renee live farther away, and it took them at least twenty minutes to gather all the kids and put them in the car.

And her hair—he has only the moon and the lamps from the parking lot to go by, but if he didn’t know any better he’d think she’d just woken up—all of her thick, wool-like hair matted down and pushed up to the top of her head, like she’s been tossing and turning on the pillow for the last hour. He catches a glimpse of her bare shoulder, the glistening of sweat on her forehead. Maybe she has.

But then it clicks.

“Where’s Mitchell?” he asks, almost teasing, biting his bottom lip, holding his breath, his abdomen flexing and contracting, all to keep from laughing.

She hesitates to answer, then narrows her eyes, says, “Mind your own marriage, Bryan,” and slams the door right in his face.

Mitchell might want to try again. She’s still a little tense.

He skips back to the Sienna. Renee has since moved over to the passenger seat. He can feel her staring as he puts the car in reverse, wondering what’s with the big goofy grin, so he comes out and says it.

“I think Tash and Mitch are in there gettin’ freaky, freaky.”

He gives himself a mental pat on the back for not saying what he really wants to say: fucking. Wouldn’t be a good look to drop the F bomb in front of the kids, although they’re sleep. They might not hear the word, but they’d definitely hear Renee’s clean slap across the back of his head. He waits to receive his commendation for keeping it PG, but when he looks over, Renee has just as wide a smile on her face as his, nothing but dirty secrets behind it, dying to be spilled.

“What? What did I miss?”

“You don’t even know the half of it.” she says.

—Nortina


Part of Countdown to 31 Days of Holiday Hooligans
——
Previous: Mommy’s Home
Next: Anything but White