Seven days. Seven days, my period lasted, and each day was a heavier than usual flow. I went through an entire 36-count box of tampons, bought extra panty liners when I realized my tampons weren’t holding—but I would not go a size higher—and I had to toss three pairs of panties that I didn’t feel like scrubbing. It was so unusual, in fact, that I even made an appointment to see my doctor first thing in the New Year.
But this morning I woke up (Hallelujah!) dry, and I wanted to pounce on my husband right then and there!
Yes, my husband. The butterflies still flutter in my stomach when I think of it—I am married. I sit up on my elbows and watch him sleep, study his steady breathing, the slow rise and fall of his chest, how his nostrils sometimes flare when he inhales.
Does he know how much I love him?
I lift my left hand to caress his cheek, and my eyes are immediately drawn to the gold band around my ring finger—I am married. I feel like I’m floating, swimming in the love that is desperate to flow out of me and into him. I don’t want to touch the ground.
But I do come down, tip toe across the cool hard wood of his (our)—I am married—bedroom floor to our bathroom to freshen up.
I find myself giggling hysterically as the steam rises from the shower. The last time I was this giddy was ironically when I had my first period. I was nine years old and so excited to finally be a woman, to be able to make a baby. I saw the blood between my thighs and squealed in delight. I washed my panties in the sink while my mom talked to me about the difference between tampons and pads and which one would be more comfortable for me to use. When I changed my first pad, I wedged my finger underneath the sticky lining an slowly peeled it back from the cotton, like peeling an orange, and the sound, like Velcro, was music to my ears. I rolled it in up in toilet paper, tossed it in the waste basket attached to the stall, the only one in Lincoln Elementary School bathroom.
It lasted three days, and those three days I walked about nose in the air, shoulders drawn back, flat chest perked up and out, as if I had grown boobs overnight. No one could tell me anything. I had surpassed all the other girls in my class. I could do something they couldn’t. I was like my teacher who dressed in prim pressed white blouses and pencils skirts, like my principal who wore her shiny, blue-black hair in a low bun and stomped down the halls in Stiletto heels. I was a woman.
And when my period didn’t return on its scheduled 28-day cycle, I knew I was pregnant. I made that announcement to my mom over breakfast that she would be a grandmother, and she cocked her head at me and asked, “Have you let a boy touch you?” which confused me, because while our class was the guinea pig for the new sex education program, the instructors only taught us about out parts, how they worked, not how to make them work.
But I know how to make them work now. And tonight, I will touch a boy, and he will touch me back, and as I put my hands in my hair, tilt my chin toward the shower head and let the hot water cascade down the curves of my body, I hear the door creak, a light tapping on the frame.
“Tash,” Mitchell says, “what’s so funny in there? You woke me up with all that laughing.”
I peek from behind the shower curtain, call him in with the curl of my index finger. He follows, like a cartoon character that is lured by a sweet-smelling aroma. When he is in front of me, I grab his hand, my eyes locked only on his lips swooped in a side smirk, and whisper, “Take off your clothes.”
This concludes Countdown to 31 Days of Holiday Hooligans! Thank you so much to those who stuck around (through this month, last month, and even last December when the first nine chapters were originally posted) to the very end! I have truly fallen in love with this story and this cast of characters, and while I plan to take a break from it for a little while, I do hope to return soon to edit and possibly self-publish it just in time for Christmas next year. Thank you so much for all the likes, comments, shares. It means the world to me. I wish you a wonderful, wonderful New Year, and a successful, productive, and prosperous 2018! ¡Besos! 🙂
Rita gathers her thick mane of hair to the top of her head, analyzes her profile in the mirror from the left and then the right. Deciding against an updo, she lets it fall back down to her shoulders, the corkscrew curls bouncing into place. Only the cluster of springs at her temples and along her edges remain resilient, trying too hard to imitate bangs but appearing like an 80’s mullet gone bad instead. No amount of curl control gel will tame them, so she lets them spread out wildly across her forehead.
It looks cute—in a chic throwback rock sort of way. She hates cute, hasn’t been cute since her first training bra. But cute beats sexy, and the last thing she needs to be right now is sexy. Sexy always leads to her panties being tossed in a corner somewhere, her knees being separated for a temporary houseguest, and since her New Year’s Resolution for 2018 is to be celibate, sexy is no longer an option.
She can literally feel herself drying up between the legs as she thinks about it. It was only a month ago that she gave up smoking weed, but this, this is much harder, because she’s getting ready to go on a date with Hank, and Hank has touched places, kissed and licked parts of her body most men don’t get to see on the first date.
And it’s not only the date with Hank that’s got her anxious. What if it goes bad? She doesn’t want to fixate on whether or not he could be the one. She’s not even sure if she wants that now with so much change happening in her life. She isn’t the same person she was a week ago when she slept with him an hour after meeting him. If that’s what he’s hoping to get tonight, she hates to disappoint him, because she likes him, a lot, definitely more than just a one-night-stand.
She’s not a slut. She knows how it looks, with the way things started with Hank. But she doesn’t sleep around; it’s always with the same guy over and over again, until he grows tired of her. True, it’s usually some random guy she met at the bar, or online, or, when she’s really feeling low, Jerome. The affairs never last long, but they quell her of her temporary loneliness, and however brief, she can hide her pain underneath the pleasure she feels when that man, whoever he may be—a bar hopper, a Tender suitor, a weed dealer, a Home Depot employee— clings to her, pushes deep inside her, breathes heavy on her tongue.
She likes to be filled, wanted, needed, useful for something, even if it’s just a quick nut. Sex does that for her. It gives her a purpose, a release, an escape. She doesn’t know what she is without it.
Actually, she does know. Alone—that’s what she is—and she has a vague memory of a sad, stupid girl who quit medical school because some idiot broke her heart, left her in the dust his rear tires kicked up after he dropped off her clothes and $300 for an abortion.
It terrifies her that she could still be that girl.
But just as she’s about to give up on her vow of celibacy before the New Year even starts, she is reminded of something Reverend Murphy said to her—that she has so much God-given potential bottled up inside her. Taped to the upper left corner of her mirror is a list of scriptures he gave her to read, to guide her through the beginning steps of salvation. She’s read a few of them. Jeremiah 29:11 —God has plans you. Romans 12:1-2 — Renew your mind. 1 Corinthians 6:18-20 — Your body is a temple for God. She’s heard Renee say that once. She thinks she’ll call her about it after her date with Hank. And she knows Tash has been through it—the struggle to be as perfect as you can yet still falling short. But she recovered. She got back up. She and Mitchell are happy, and married, and Rita would like to think their love is even stronger.
Even though they fell.
She checks the time. If she wants to meet Hank at the arcade by seven, she should be leaving now. He says he has a ride—a relief for her—it’ll be less tempting not having him in her car. It feels kind of childish, that he’s chosen video games as their first date over dinner, or a movie, reminds her again that he’s not yet old enough to drink, which might not be a bad thing since she’s given that up too.
Will this date end in something serious, or fizzle out like all the others? Rita can hope, but whether it’s Hank or any other man, she knows before she can consider a relationship, she has to discover her new self first, figure out who she is in Christ, which Reverend Murphy calls the most meaningful pursuit in life.
Tash is doing it, and Mitchell. Renee’s the best at it, and maybe one day she’ll get Bryan there as well. And Antonio, even Antonio is trying. Rita must try too. Fellowship, Reverend Murphy says, it’s the best thing any new Christian can have, Rita’s got that in her amazing group of friends who drive her crazy and inspire her all at the same time.
If things go south with Hank, she knows she can count on their support, that they will help her to get back on her feet and back on track in the direction she needs to be.
Ryder’s head feels like five pound weights lying across Antonio’s lap. His breathing is slow, constant. It didn’t take much to put him to sleep. Antonio had barely finished chapter one before the snoring began.
Snoring. His eighteen-month-old son snores. Nothing too loud and obnoxious, like the Chewbacca noises Elise swears she doesn’t make. It reminds Antonio of the sound a small handheld fan makes when the motor is about to go dead. The rise and fall of the boy’s breath sooths him, and he imagines it could be recorded as a sleep track for people who suffer from insomnia. It even starts to lull him, and for a brief moment he forgets that this is the first time he’s ever heard his son snore.
His eighteen-month-old son.
As much as he wants to, he can’t make himself hate Elise for this. Even though she’s tried so hard to keep him exiled from their lives, and for a split second at the wedding, he feared Ryder wouldn’t even recognize him—it’s been that long.
But when he walked into the Fellowship Hall, one of the first people to arrive after the ceremony, and spotted Elise and Ryder sitting alone at a table toward the back corner of the room in front of the “bar” that only served sparkling cider—though he’s pretty sure Bryan and some of the other guests were sipping on something a little stronger—Ryder jumped to his feet, ran—more like wobbled, he’d only learned to walk a month ago, another milestone Antonio missed—arms outstretched, screaming, “Daaaaaddddy!”
And for the third time, Antonio ugly cried, standing there in the middle of the Hall, holding his son as wedding guests filed in looking for their assigned seats. He wouldn’t credit that to Elise, but to Ryder, how much he loved him, how much he missed him.
“I will always fight for you,” he whispered in Ryder’s ear, squeezing him even tighter, as if he feared the boy would slip out of his hands.
Looking back on it, Antonio realizes he didn’t let Ryder go that entire day, not until he strapped him into the car seat to take him home. At the reception, he sat Ryder in his lap as they ate boneless chicken wings and red velvet cake. He held Ryder’s hand on the dance floor and taught him how to slide. He even took the diaper bag from Elise and changed Ryder in the bathroom, which proved tricky to do since men’s restrooms don’t have changing table.
It was the first time—yes, the first time—he’d ever changed his son’s diaper, and it was the stinkiest, wettest, fullest diaper if ever there was one. He wouldn’t doubt that Elise intentionally skipped a few changes just to spite him, but he didn’t care. He sat Ryder in the sink and wiped him down with a smile on his face, a pained smile, but a smile nonetheless.
With Ryder nearing two, he knew he wouldn’t have many more moments like this, and no amount of dirty diapers could make up for the eighteen-months worth he’d missed. So if this was the most disgusting diaper he had to touch, if his pinky finger accidently grazed the soil, if Ryder peed on him will he tried to get the new diaper on, if it resulted in a diaper rash, he’d welcome it all.
And when it’s time to potty train him, Antonio will show him how to aim, teach him to shoot from a distance, be a man. Elise can’t take that from him. He thought she could, but now he knows she can’t. And she can’t teach Ryder to be a man either, not like a man can, not like Antonio can. Now that he has Ryder, he’s always going to be there for him, won’t let months lapse between seeing his son again. He can’t be lazy anymore, blaming Elise for everything he doesn’t have with Ryder. There are enough lazy fathers in the world, who blame the mother for why they don’t have relationships with their children, when they themselves won’t make an effort.
Antonio lightly pets the back of Ryder’s head, and Ryder snuggles closer to his leg. Antonio knows now he’ll always make an effort for Ryder, because he wants more nights like this—lying in bed reading bedtime stories.
And what better story than the original Christmas story? As many times as he’s heard it told, in movies, in songs, every Christmas Eve at Renee’s, he’s never actually read it himself. Now, though Ryder sleeps, he continues reading, fascinated by the whole thing—the virgin birth, the proclamation of the angels, the prophesy of the Messiah who came to save all people, His name, Immanuel, which means God with us.
Antonio’s only been saved a few weeks, has made a mess of it most of that time, but in the peace of his bedroom, Ryder by his side, the Word in his lap, he holds onto hope. The same hope of the shepherds, the wise men, the prophets, all who witnessed one little baby, born in a manger, who grew to change their lives, forever.
When Renee hired DJ Milly Beatz for Mitchell and Natasha’s wedding reception, she made it clear—no secular music, period.
Marriage is a holy sacrament, created by God, and with it being Christmas also—Christmas, she made sure he heard her emphasis on Christ—it’s important that they remember what they’re really celebrating, that without Him, none of them would even be here. There’d be no wedding reception to plan. Shoot, there’d be no wedding either!
Of course, Beatz rolled his eyes, claimed she was limiting him, and she retorted that there were plenty of gospel artists who sang about love, about God and marriage. She asked him had he ever heard “Alabaster Box” by CeCe Winans. He shook his head. She liked to’ve slapped him, but she kept her composure.
She could only blame herself for waiting until the last minute to find a DJ. Music was the least of her worries when she still needed to confirm the menu with the caterer and go over again with the photographer the correct time he was to arrive at the church, especially after she’d read all those bad Yelp reviews online—couples who paid for four hours of service and only received two.
If it’d come down to it, she would’ve just hooked someone’s iPod up to the loud speakers, but a week before the wedding, Rita gave her a name: Milly Beatz, a hip-hop DJ.
All Rita listens to is mind-numbing rap—nothing but drugs, money, and women. She claims she can vibe to it whenever she’s high, it calms her down.
Hopefully that’ll change, now that Rita’s changed.
Renee on the other hand, has never liked rap, not even when she was unsaved, and figuring that Milly was a play on the word “million,” she wondered how many of his “million beats” were appropriate for a “church” wedding. If the row of bejeweled gold teeth in his mouth was any indication, Mitchell would want his money back before the guy could even play the first track. But Renee teaches her own children never to judge a book by it’s cover, and in any case, it was too late to try to find a Christian DJ. She had to make due with what she had.
So she handed Beatz the latest William Murphy album, circled track four in red Sharpie on the casing, “I Have Found,” featuring Tasha Cobb. “Play this the moment the newlyweds enter the Fellowship Hall,” she instructed. When he asked her about the “turn up,” after everyone’s had their first dance and all the slow songs are over, she gave him a playlist she wrote up, all of her favorites, artists who could crank things up to another level better than any rapper, turn the reception into a true Holy Ghost party—Tye Tribbett, Travis Greene, Fred Hammond, Tamela Mann, Kierra Sheard, Israel & New Breed, Hezekiah Walker, Casey J.
And yet, after all that hassle, the wedding party and guests still found a way to do the Electric Slide to Kirk Franklin’s “Jesus Is the Reason for the Season.”
“My people, my people,” Renee sighs.
Bryan takes her by the wrist, pulls her up to her feet. “C’mon, babe, you’re the only one not dancing.”
She looks around, spots Melody and Rita in a corner behind the buffet table. Melody follows Rita’s lead in the four-count step. To the right, to the left, take it back, step forward, step back, pivot, turn, skip, step, repeat. Melody catches on pretty fast, and Renee notices, thank goodness, that the white skirt of her dress is still void of spilt food. How much longer would the reception continue; could she make it another hour spotless?
Renee lets Bryan drag her to the dance floor, which is just a small, empty section of linoleum between the head table, where the wedding party sat, and the DJ both to the left of it. They squeeze into the crowd, move in sync so as not to disturb the flow. They make the next turn to face the DJ booth, the head table behind them.
Bryan raises his knee, gives it a slap, bites his bottom lip, and half grunts, half barks at Renee. He’s always so over the top, but it loosens her up, and she starts to add a few extra moves of her own to the basic line dance. She shimmies her shoulders, claps her hands. When they step forward she bends over, smacks the ground. Bryan sticks out his tongue, leans into her, whispers something incoherent over the music but most likely filthy in nature. She has to remind him this isn’t their wedding. And as if, just to convince herself of that, she looks over the sea of heads on the next turn, scanning for the happy couple.
Instead, she catches a glimpse of Antonio and Elise, together, dancing, holding hands–well, Ryder is between them, on his tippy toes, feet barely grazing the floor, swinging as he holds onto his parents. It’s the first time she’s seem them cordial toward each other in months, and not just cordial, but, dare she say it, having fun, smiling, laughing. It’s a Christmas miracle.
Bryan whispers in Renee’s ear again.
“Stop it!” She swats at his chest. Now he’s just teasing her. He misses the cue for the next turn, and facing him now she notices his tongue loose, his eyelids low. He’s drunk! Where on earth did he get the alcohol? He wraps his arms around her waist, and while everyone is stepping back, he hauls her off the dance floor, to their table, sits her in his lap.
“And what do you want for Christmas, little girl?” He breathes heavily into her ear, nibbles on her earlobe, curling his tongue around her dangling chandelier earring. His hand on the small of her back is warm, makes her sweat.
She’s got to hand it to him. He’s managed to seduce her without saying a single four-letter word. She kisses him, and he puts his hands in her hair, slips his tongue between her lips. She tastes the champagne. He had to have snuck it in. She’ll get him for that later.
She turns her attention back to the dance floor, drawn in by the beam on little Ryder’s face. He’s so happy that his parents are getting along. If even there’s no chance of them getting back together, Renee believes that they’ll find a way to co-parent peacefully, for Ryder’s sake.
At a distance now, she finally sees Mitchell and Natasha. Tash looks shorter—she must have taken her heels off—and Mitchell, poor Mitchell, they’re on their sixth turn and he hasn’t conquered the dance yet, still tripping over his own feet. Renee guesses now the reason why he never wanted to go dancing with them in college—he has no rhythm. Tash knows it and laughs at him, hugs him, kisses his cheek tenderly, the entire left side of his face red with her lipstick. Whatever happened in that choir room earlier today, it’s good to see that it’s helped them to overcome this recent testing of their faith and find forgiveness. Now pure euphoria gleams in their faces, and Renee can’t wait to see how these two grow together as a married man and woman of God.
As for Rita– oh, Renee is still in jubilation! Her heart leaps in her chest as she remembers those three joyful words, “I got saved.” It gives her hope that the same could happen for Bryan one day, and for this, she must celebrate.
She takes his hand, leads him back to the dance floor. Seeing the good time everyone is having, the DJ has started the song over again, and she has a few more dance moves up her sleeve.
“I’m so bloated,” I moan. “Look at how my stomach is poking out!” I frown at my reflection in the mirror as my mom zips me into my dress and pats my non-existent hips. Meanwhile, the chocolate diamond-studded gold mermaid dress she wears perfectly hugs her, making her look twenty years younger that her actual age, and making me wonder who was really getting married.
“Well, honey, if you had just let Marinette adjust it for you–“
“So I can look like I’m dressed in a tent on my one-year anniversary?”
“Oh, honey, wedding dresses get smaller as the years go on, not bigger.”
Easy for her to say, she shrinks with age too. If I had been in my right mind at the fitting—not hungover, thinking about the morning with Mitchell, and the night before—I probably would have said no to the idea of her buying a new dress. Not to say that the first dress wasn’t hideous, that ruffled tail attached to her behind made no sense whatsoever, but it was appropriate for a mother-of-the-bride. Now I feel like I’m being one-upped by my own mother. Even her boobs look bigger than mine!
Still barefoot, while I am in my three-inches to keep from tripping over the front of my dress as I walk about the choir room that we’ve temporarily converted into a changing room, she curls her fingers around the back of my neck and pulls me down level with her eyes. With her other hand, she twirls one of my ringlet curls—courtesy of Renee’s longtime stylist, who also did my make up earlier that afternoon—around her index finger, tucks it behind my ear, then lightly pulls part of it out to loop down the side of my cheek and shape my face.
“Maybe you should have checked your menstrual calendar before setting this date, hmm?” she says smirking.
“I thought I did!”
We both laugh, because we know how ridiculous we sound, how much I’m overreacting. Mitchell has loved me drunk. He’s loved me sober. Even through our moments of shame and unworthiness, we have stuck it through for each other. And while last night didn’t end they way I wanted it to—only a kiss on the hand and a see you at the altar—I know Mitchell would do anything for me.
He’s the very embodiment of Christ’s love. “Husbands love your wives as Christ loved the church an gave himself up for her,” Scripture says. And I have no doubt that Mitchell would lay down his life for me, that he would sacrifice anything to make sure that I am the best reflection of his love and God’s. And after tonight, when we are united in holy matrimony, nothing will ever separate us. As with the love of Christ, I’m convinced neither death nor life, angels nor demons, present nor future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth.
And certainly not a dumb period.
“This is just great! Of all the days to be late!” Renee stomps down the raised platform of the choir stand, blows past us, and flops with a huff on the stool pulled from underneath the piano that has been pushed against the wall, along with all the other instruments and furniture to make room for the dresses, shoes, curling irons, make-up kits, and everything else spread out all over the room. For it to be just the three of us, we’ve created quite a sty. And here I thought the choir room would be too big.
Renee plants both elbows on the black and white keys of the piano with a harsh, crashing chord never to be played again, and groans even louder.
“What’s wrong?” I ask, though I’m nervous to hear her answer. If it’s anything but, “Mitchell is waiting patiently for you at the altar,” I’d rather tune her out. I have enough on my mind already.
“My husband,” she starts, and I breathe sigh of relief. Bryan doing something crazy to give Renee a panic attack? That’s nothing new. But then she continues. “And your groom. They’re missing.”
“What!” Now it’s my turn to freak, but my too-tight dress stiffens my movements. I feel like I’m going to pop. I reach behind me, clawing for my zipper. My arms are suddenly too short, like a T-Rex. “Help me,” I say to my mom. I need to breathe, I need to scream, I need to change my freaking tampon!
My mom puts my spirited hands at my side and tells me to inhale. She gulps in the air with me, then lets it out. We do it again. And when my heartbeat is back to normal, I ask Renee, “Where are they?”
“I’m sure they’re on their way,” Ma says. “Probably just stuck in traffic.”
“The wedding is in twenty minutes!”
Renee stands and starts to pace. She comes back to the piano and drums her fingers on the polished wood of the lid, which is almost level with her shoulders. “Apparently, Mitchell had to make stop first. It couldn’t wait.”
“What is so important?”
She shrugs. “I don’t know, but if this is some kind of bachelor party crap Bryan is trying to pull, I’m going to kill him.”
“Not if I kill him first,” I say, especially since Mitchell and I had an agreement— no bachelor or bachelorette parties.
“Ok, ok. Let’s try to real in our emotions. No death threats on your wedding day,” Ma pleads. She guides me to a chair not covered in clothes, garment bags, or foundation bottles, and again urges me to breathe, as if we’re practicing for labor pains. This wedding will be a pain if Mitchell and Bryan don’t show up soon.
Meanwhile, Renee is still pacing about the room. She looks up, spins around, as if noticing something else amiss. “Has anyone talked to Rita!”
“No need to send out a search party.”
Talk about speaking someone into existence. Rita stands in the doorway leading out into the hall. She wears only a pair of jeans and a fleece jacket, and waves awkwardly as Renee and I rush to her, dragging her inside.
No one has seen her since she left Renee and Bryan’s last night, and Renee unfortunately had to take poor Hank home when it became very obvious that Rita wasn’t coming back. It bothered Mitchell the most, her leaving, because she left believing a lie, that Mitchell and I had been celibate this whole time. It should have bothered me too. It did, eventually, when he dropped me off at my apartment, not wanting to come inside to tempt fate again. And I was left alone to my thoughts, and the conviction brought on by the Holy Spirit of everything I’ve done wrong that I’ve tried to convince myself is right and good, and not for my own selfish pleasures.
But how do I tell her that? So I look down at the box she’s holding, wrapped in red paper and tied with a golden bow. “What’s that?”
“Oh,” she says, as if she’s just noticing it. She hands it to me. “It’s for you. Actually, for Mitchell. Call it a Christmas present, wedding present, whatever. I saw it in the store and thought of him.”
“You thought of him?” Renee says. Repeating it doesn’t make it sound any more believable to either of us.
Then Rita takes the gift back, puts it down and grabs both my and Renee’s hands. “Guys,” she says, her voice low, in an excited whisper, “I got saved.”
We stare for several minutes, trying to comprehend what she’s just said, if we heard it correctly, what exactly it means, did she know what she was saying.
Finally Renee breaks the silence, her facial expression slowly morphing to elation until she’s through the roof. “Oh. My. God– Praise Him!” she shouts to the high heavens and pulls Rita in for a bear hug, nearly strangling her as she hooks her boney arm around Rita’s neck. “I knew that fast would work!”
“Congratulations,” Ma says, resting her hand on Rita’s back, her lips curled into a distant, gratified smile, as if she’s looked into the future and has seen how much Rita’s life will change for the better and is now content. Since college, she’s been like a surrogate for Rita, especially since her real mother lives so far away, and to this day none of us have ever met her. But today, a mother is proud. She’s been praying for Rita, for just as long as I have.
And yet, here I am, my jaw still hanging when I say, “How? When?”
“Here. Last night.” She reaches up to hug me. I’m still in shock. What could have changed in that time after she left the party last night? And is it guilt I feel that her salvation may have something to do with her false memory of my and Mitchell’s first night together? But then, who am I to judge the power of God? Only He knows just what Rita needs to turn her life around, right? If He could use a talking donkey, nothing should come as a surprise.
Still, I’m lost for words. In my heels, I’m nearly half a foot taller than Rita. I kick them off, wrap my arms around her waist and hold her tighter. Renee drapes her arm over both of us. Rita’s joy is contagious. Her wide grin making a mold into my bare shoulders as she clings to me, beings to cry. For the sake of my make-up, I tilt my head back to hold the tears.
If anyone could steal the thunder from my wedding day– But it reminds me what and who is truly important on this Christmas. “I love you,” I say, to Rita, to Renee, to my mom, to God, and I thank each of them, my heart pounding in my chest—but there’s something else I need to do.
“Good, you’re both here.”
The tears in my eyes blur my vision, but I don’t have to see him to recognize his voice.
Either he’s interrupted a private moment, or he’s come just in time. Either way, he’ll take the risk, but Renee looks like she could murder a cat. Eyes bulging, cheeks inflated—if she were a cartoon, steam would be coming out of her ears.
“Mitchell! Don’t you know it’s bad luck to see the bride before the wedding.”
Mitchell rolls his eyes at her. She of all people should know they don’t believe in luck, only the favor of God, and God’s favor comes by being obedient to Him. Nonsensical wedding traditions and superstitions go out the window; there was something more important he needed to do before walking down that aisle.
“Renee, do you mind if I talk to Tash and Rita for a minute? Alone?”
As if wanting to make sure she’s the only Rita in the room, Rita points to herself, “Me? What would you have to talk to me about?”
Mitchell doesn’t answer, keeps his eyes on Renee. “Please?”
Renee throws her hands in the air. “Oh, alright,” she says.
Natasha’s mom follows her out into the hall. She looks dressed for the red carpet instead of her daughter’s wedding. Mitchell mouths, “Sorry,” as she passes. She shakes her head.
“Make it quick. We have a wedding to attend.” She winks, squeezes his arm, then shuts the door behind her.
Both Rita and Natasha wait for Mitchell to speak. He’s silent for a moment, noticing the amplified acoustics of the mass choir room, how he can hear the echo of his own breathing, his heart beating through his tux. Even with the three of them standing there, amongst the instruments, the folded metal chairs, the clothes and shoes spread about—too much for four women, and Rita looks like she’s only just arrived—the room feels empty. The silence strips the room bare, just as this secret, he feels, will do to him.
But he who covers his sin will not prosper, so Mitchell closes his eyes and repeats the word God gave him to say the night before. “Rita, I need you to forgive me.”
“For what?” There’s a hint of a laugh in her voice, which surprises him. He looks up, but still ashamed to meet her eyes, lowers his gaze to her feet instead, sees the rectangular gift box on the floor. Rita bends over and scoops it up. “Here,” she says. “For you.”
He shakes his head. “I can’t take this.”
“Please, I insist.” She shoves the gift into his gut, but he blocks it with is hand, pushes it back to her.
“Rita, I’m not the man you think I am.”
“What does that mean?” Her tone changes. She puts a fist on her hip, shifts her weight to one leg, lowers her head waiting for clarity.
Before Mitchell can answer, Natasha steps in. “Rita, we have a confession to make.”
“It’s about last night,” Mitchell interrupts, finding his voice again. “Before you left. When you were saying how you admired me for not taking advantage of Natasha while she was intoxicated.”
Natasha slips her hand into Mitchell’s. With a squint of the eyes and a nod, she tells him all he needs. This is something they have to do together, how they will start their marriage off right. They interlock fingers and he holds tightly to her hand until the whites in his knuckles show, siphoning her strength, her resolve, so grateful that he doesn’t have to admit to his short comings alone. She truly was created to be a helpmeet just for him, his better half, and he thanks God for her.
“The truth is,” Natasha says, “that night didn’t end the way you think it did.”
“Oh my god.”
Mitchell winces, prepares for a barrage of curses, or worse. He waits for the insults. Rita’s never held back on him before, never sugarcoated her disdain toward him. He expects nothing less now. He holds Natasha even tighter. But Rita only laughs, and again he has to open his eyes to be sure he’s not imagining it.
“Oh my god,” she repeats, grinning from ear to ear. “You guys are too cute.”
Mitchell frowns in confusion. He almost wants to ask what’s wrong with her. This friendlier, happier Rita is something he’s never experienced, not even on the first night he met her. He’s not sure if he should welcome it, or be afraid.
“I know you two had sex.”
“You know?” Mitchell and Natasha say in unison.
Rita scoffs. “Is that really a surprise? I know the after sex look better than anybody.” She smiles, opens her arms, and Natasha lets go of his hand, now hugging and laughing with Rita again, as they were when Mitchell first entered the room. But he’s still not convinced that all is forgiven.
“So why did you say those things if you already knew?” he says.
Rita exchanges glances between Mitchell and Natasha. She looks down at her present, holding it with both hands, and stretches out her arms to give it to Mitchell. This time he accepts it.
“It wasn’t about you having sex, or not having sex,” Rita says, “but what happened after.” She doesn’t elaborate. She walks out of the room, saying nothing more, closing the door behind her and leaving Mitchell and Natasha by themselves to linger on her words.
“What happened after?” Mitchell asks, more to himself.
“Oh sweetie.” Natasha holds his face in her hands, pulls him down for a light kiss. “I love that you’re so naïve.”
Then it clicks. What happened after, and what is still happening. That he’s about to marry Natasha, a woman who wasn’t just a college fling, or a one night stand, but who quickly became the love of his life, who will soon be the only woman in his life.
There was only one thing keeping that from happening…
As he did eight months ago when he proposed, he holds the tips of her fingers in his hand, like a manicurist evaluating his work. “Natasha,” he says, “do you believe that prayer is the answer to everything? That a family that prays together stays together?”
Mitchell drops to one knee, then lets the other leg go from under him. She looks radiant from down here. The ceiling lights hit the rhinestones outlining the bodice of her dress in a way that they sparkle like diamonds, the color spectrum reflected in her eyes. Angelic. She is his angel. He lifts the hem of her dress and searches underneath through the ruffles and tulle until he finds her legs, smooth like cool porcelain. He cups his hands behind her knees, beckons her down. “Pray with me,” he whispers.
She balances herself on his shoulders, rises on her toes, and his arms trail further up her legs, curl behind her thighs, pick her up, hold her close to him, pull her down to the floor, as her dress billows around them.
They clasp hands, bow their heads until their foreheads touch, and Mitchell begins, “Our Father in heaven…”
“Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today, on this Christmas day, a day when we celebrate the birth of a King, to witness the union of this man and this woman in holy matrimony before God…”
She’s so late. Good thing she’s not the matron of honor. She left that burdensome title all on Renee’s shoulders. Renee can handle it—mom of three, and all. Besides, Rita felt no ill-will toward Tash when she made the offer to Renee without considering her first. They both know how irresponsible Rita is– was.
But maid or matron, old Rita or work in progress, how tacky would it be for her to be late to he best friend’s wedding? Especially after the way she left last night. She’s sure everyone’s still worried. But they don’t need to be, not anymore, not when she tells Tash the news. Renee too. When they see her, they’ll understand, and she can’t wait.
Rita remembers, when she was growing up, how her mom used to warn her against making faces at people, said her face would freeze in that expression, and she would forever look like her own cruel, mocking joke. Now she glances up at her reflection in the review mirror. She hasn’t stopped smiling since leaving the church. Her cheekbones high and pronounced, a touch of natural blush on them. At the dress fitting, Tash mentioned she was glowing, now she actually sees it, her skin radiating like a light bulb is shinning from within.
“I hope it always feels like this,” Rita says, and as she speaks, a single flurry drifts across her windshield. She’s felt it all morning, in the brisk, chilly air, the sting in her cheeks, the overcast cloud cover—the Christmas snowfall she’s prayed for since childhood has finally come, not the foot she was after, just a few swirling specks in the wind that could easily be written off as dust in the eyes, but she’ll take it!
Rita turns into the Macy’s parking lot. It shocked her at first, when she heard on the radio that Macy’s would be open for Christmas. But then, the chain practically invented the holiday—Miracle on 34th Street, and all—at least the shopping part of it, and as she skips over the threshold, parting the sliding doors, she’s thankful that Macy’s is the only store open, because right in front of her, hanging off a men’s wear mannequin, is the only thing she came in to buy. Burgundy red, ridged fabric, crisp lapels. It’s almost identical to the one likely tossed in a landfill somewhere, still smelling of Skittles, stomach fluids, and beer.
She swipes a size large off the rack in front of the mannequin and rushes to the check-out counter. There’s not a soul in sight. Did they really think many people would be out shopping on Christmas Day? Or maybe they opened just for her. She lifts her head to the ceiling, mouths a “thank you.”
“Would you like this gift wrapped?” says the cashier, surprisingly chipper despite being at work on the one holiday most people have off to spend with family.
“Absolutely.” Rita matches her attitude, and with a smile adds, “Merry Christmas!”
Antonio is almost tempted to ask, “Who is this?” The voice too calm and rational to belong to Elise, even though that’s what his screen said when he picked up the phone to answer.
“I was thinking you can have Ryder for Christmas.”
Now he knows he’s talking to someone else, because Elise would never willingly give him Ryder, not even for a day, not without a fight.
“What do you want?”
He hears her lips smack, there’s a long pause, and then she says, “Look, do you want him or not? ‘Cause I can change my mind.”
It still feels too good to be true, but he fears if he says no, he’ll never get an opportunity like this again. There’s only one problem–
“I have a wedding today.”
“I know, dumbass. I’m going to the same wedding.”
And just like that, that calm feeling is gone. He hates to see it leave, that it was so short-lived. He almost enjoyed talking to Elise without her voice raising two decibels. It briefly reminded him how he first fell in love with her— what seems like ages ago—but nasally, filter-less, snarky bitch Elise is what he’s used to now. A nicer version of her is just too cynical, too unpredictable, scarier, even for Elise.
He’d rather not see her at the wedding. Sometimes he forgets that she was once part of his circle of friends—the perks of dating him for seven years. She and Natasha are still pretty close, even after their breakup, though not close enough for Natasha to invite her to be in the wedding. Then again, if he wasn’t one of Mitchell’s groomsmen, he wonders if that would have changed.
“I’m bringing Ryder with me. I packed him a bag. You can keep him for a couple days. That’s if you want to,” Elise continues.
He’s still waiting for a catch. He knows one is coming. Like she’s expecting some guy over, and she doesn’t want to be tied down with the baby. Or she wants Antonio to buy new shoes for the guy he’s still not convince is her brother, after he throw up on old ones. Or he’s not allowed to come to her house unannounced anymore. Or he has to stop drinking and show her proof that he’s taking AA sessions or she’ll file a restraining order so he can’t be 1,000 feet near her or Ryder again.
But she’s quiet on the phone, and something tells him that he should accept this unexpected gift. This is all he’s wanted since the day Ryder was born—the opportunity to be a dad, to be allowed to be a dad.
“We’ll talk at the reception,” he says, and hangs up before she can change her mind.
Today is the big day, and this morning I woke to stained red sheets. I suppose I should feel relieved, especially since I checked my calendar and discovered I was two and a half weeks late.
“Be happy you’re not pregnant,” Renee said when I called, crying for her to postpone the wedding, at least for another three to five days. “I was a little worried when your dress didn’t fit.”
The dress fitting was a disaster. I nearly ripped it at the seems trying to pull it over my hips. It felt like I was being squeezed into a corset when they tried to zip me up, and all I wanted to do was throw up the eggs I had for breakfast that morning.
“It’s only going to be tighter now.” Especially since I said no when Marinette offered to let out my dress. I refused to accept that I had gotten bigger since she first took my measurements.
“Well, sweetie, you’d better drink plenty of water, because you are getting married today. No ifs, ands, buts . . . or periods.”
I don’t find her last remark funny at all—a cruel joke—and, to further mock me, the gas I’ve been holding tight in my lower gut all morning finally escapes, and my room smells anything other than that of a bride about to be married. Then I catch my breath. Oh lord, what if I fart again will walking down the aisle, or when I say “I do,” or when I’m having my first dance with Mitchell, or . . . later?
As if reading my mind, Renee says, “Just calm down. You’ll get through it.”
“And what about tonight?” I’d been looking forward to my wedding night with Mitchell since the day he proposed. There was something magical and alluring about having sex for the first time as man and wife. While we were no strangers to one another’s nakedness, had learned each other’s inner delicacies, became skilled at making the other erupt, making love after marriage was on a whole other sphere.
To consummate our love, our eternal bond; to literally come together as one, fitting perfectly into each other, as one body, one mind, one soul, one love, from this first night, into forever—it sent chills down my spine. I wanted that ethereal feeling. I wanted Mitchell to put it deep inside me, with every kiss, every stroke, every breath of air. I wanted to open my eyes and see my life in his—this night, and every night after. Tonight wasn’t just supposed to be about making love, but making life, a new life for us, together.
“If it had only come a week later.”
“Then you would’ve spent all day and all night worrying over if you were pregnant because you did things out of God’s order.”
I know Renee says it out of love, but it still stings.
“Consider this your retribution. You’ll have that all-consuming, so-this-is-what-love-is, locked-in-the-room-for-three-days, husband and wife sex time with Mitchell. And when you do, it’s going to be everything you ever dreamed and more.”
I closed my eyes, thinking of it in that moment. Mitchell’s eyes searching every inch of me, his fingers roaming over my curves, his warm body pressed against mine, his lips, succulent yet firm when they kiss me, and the ultimate exhilaration when he releases his entire soul into me—
“But not tonight,” Renee said. “So stop your moaning, get dressed, and be at the church by noon.”
Today is the big day, and all Mitchell can think about is Rita. She disappeared during Renee and Bryan’s get-together after the rehearsal dinner, and no one has seen or heard from her since.
“You know, going to another woman’s house on the day of your wedding might give off the wrong impression,” Bryan says.
Mitchell knows he’s only joking, but he shoots him a look that makes Bryan turn his attention to the line of house that zip by his window. He’s only quiet for a few seconds.
“I don’t know why you feel you have to tell her about you and Tash. We all know, and we’re cool with it.”
Mitchell keeps his eyes on the road, trying to remember which street to turn on—Maple or Chestnut. He thinks it’s Chestnut, but does he turn right or left?
“Rita’s different,” he says, settling for a right on Chestnut. He remembers how Rita was last night—before she left the house in a hurry—nearly crying as she recounted the only time, he presumes, that she ever experienced an honorable man, and now he has to tell her that what he and Natasha did afterward was anything but honorable. “She’s delicate,” he finished.
“Delicate?” If Bryan’s eyes could rise any higher, they’d be off his forehead. “Are we talking about the same Rita?”
Mitchell starts to reconsider bringing Bryan along. He’s asking too many questions, and Mitchell still needs to figure out what he’s going to say when he sees her. How will he explain himself, and will she even listen?
But then he remembers Matthew 10:19, and then Luke 21: 14 and 15, which he read before calling Bryan. The Holy Spirit will give him the right answer in the right moment. Was there any doubt in Mitchell’s He wouldn’t? After all, it was the Holy Spirit who sent him on this assignment in the first place.
He feels ten pounds lighter now that the weight of he and Natasha’s sin is off his shoulders. Although, he didn’t experience the full relief of it until he got home last night. The temptation to be with Natasha was still there. With everyone already knowing, Natasha felt freer to kiss him deeply under the mistletoe as they left Bryan and Renee’s. And outside of her apartment, her roaming, desperate fingers tugged on the collar of his coat for him to come inside for one last night.
It’s not her fault, really. She’s a passionate woman. He loves that about her, and he knows he’ll love it even more after they are married. So he pried her hips off of him, kissed each hand goodnight, left her at her doorstep and drove straight home.
As soon as he closed his front door behind him, he heard a voice. No, it wasn’t his younger cousins fighting over leftovers in the fridge, or his mother yelling from the guest bedroom down the hall for him to show her house to work his “dumb” smart TV. This voice said one word: Repent.
And he dropped to his knees, fell into worship right there on the floor. He asked God to forgive him of his sins, of every lustful thought he ever had—with Natasha, at the strip club—he thanked God for His love, His mercy, His grace to overcome; He prayed for a clean heart, a renewed spirit; he asked that God never take away His presence, something he feared had happened after the first time he and Natasha made love— when the voice suddenly went silent. Lastly he asked God to bless their marriage, that they would be fruitful, not only physically but spiritually, producing the goodness, holiness, love, that as Renee had said, could only come from God.
When he finished, he was nearly out of breath, crying happy tears. He felt lighter than air, and he threw his head back, arms lifted, his tongue rolling in his mouth, spewing a foreign dialect as he begun to praise God in his prayer language, but the voice cut him off, very clear on what was to happen next.
Ask Rita to forgive you.
Outside of Rita’s apartment, Bryan leans against the staircase banister as Mitchell continues to knock on the door. He didn’t think to wear gloves— wasn’t planning to be outside this long. His hands are starting to go numb, and still no answer.
“Here’s a thought,” Bryan says, “maybe she’s already at the church, like we should be.” He turns and descends the stairs leading back to the parking lot. “Take it from a guy who’s been married longer than you,” he says over his shoulder, “you don’t want to be late!”
Mitchell sighs and looks toward the sky. But, God, he says silently, you asked me to be here. What was the point if she’s not home?
Rita’s thirsty, but alcohol won’t satisfy her. Renee didn’t put nearly enough in the eggnog for it to be noticeable. Even Mitchell took a sip of it and barely flinched—probably thought the tang was from too much cinnamon.
Alcohol is dehydrating anyway. What Rita really needs is water, clean, fresh, saturating water. That’s where she’s going. To the store to buy water. She turned off her phone after Natasha and Renee called for the fifth time. No need to worry, she’ll be back, she’s only getting water.
But then, if it is simply water that she’s after, she could’ve easily gotten some at Renee and Bryan’s house. They always keep a pack of bottled water in the basement—never trusted the tap. Though, if she isn’t particular about where her water comes from or what might be in it, the tap is also an option. And Rita is far from picky; history proves that she’ll drink anything. She swallows back bile as she remembers all the unpleasant things she’s let glide down her throat.
She’s passed three convenience stores with the neon “open” signs flashing but keeps driving, with dry mouth and parched tongue, muscle memory taking her to a place it hasn’t yet communicated to her brain.
She doesn’t know why she said all those things to Mitchell. In the years she’s known him, she never said one nice thing about him, even threw up on him the night they first met. Ruined the ugliest corduroy jacket she’d ever seen in her life. Now the thought arises that she never apologized for that jacket. Maybe while she’s out looking for water, she should buy him a replacement, as a wedding gift. She bought Natasha sexy lingerie but nothing for Mitchell.
And why is everything always about sex with Rita? She’s used to it. Her mom was a slut, the other woman in an extramarital affair with her dad, who eventually chose his first family over them, the white girl who was only supposed to be a taste of forbidden fruit, not a full-on diet, and their frizzy-haired, freckle-faced bastard baby.
Rita’s never told anyone that she’s half-white. Wouldn’t make a difference; she looks mostly like her dad anyway. And white or black, she’s learned that all men are the same. Their love is conditional. It lasts only until they cum, or they sober up, or there’s a baby involved—even though she went to the clinic to have it aborted, started back on birth control, all for him, the one she gave everything to, he still tossed her in the trash like a soiled, wrung-out condom.
It’s only a matter of time before Hank does the same. Nineteen. She had no idea he was that young until Renee asked him his age—Rita never did. She probably should have—get to know him before she screws him. Now it scares her. When will his love run out, like all the others?
The truth is she wants what Mitchell has, what he and Natasha both have, a steady, constant, free-flowing love, that never runs dry.
So she’s parked her car in front of the doors of Revelation Christian Center, because she heard of another’s love that is like a never-ending well.
“God,” she says, looking up at the roof, “was it stupid for me to come here?” The clock on her dashboard says 11:47. Would the church even be open this late? Would anyone be around to unlock the door and let her in? Tash and Renee tell her all the time that she doesn’t have to come to church to be close to God; God is everywhere. Rita took that as an excuse to stop coming to church all together—avoid the hypocrites and judgmental stares—but she never tried to find God anywhere else, always sought solace in the weed, the booze, the men, which have become less and less satisfying. The weed fast has shown her just how empty her life is. And as much as she likes Hank, if she wasn’t having sex with him would he even still be around?
She wants a love that will never leave her, a love that she’ll never have to fear waking up in the morning to find gone. One that lasts forever, is never ending, never failing. One that is constant, like a spring of water.
She can’t remember the last time she opened a Bible—her mom never took her to church growing up—but she’s memorized one scripture that Tash and Renee have quoted to her several times over the years.
Draw near to God and He will draw near to you…
So this is her taking the initiative, coming to church in the middle of the night, because she could never open herself like this at home with Hank in her bed—she’s already missed that appointment with Jesus twice. She walks up to the double doors, presses her face against the glass, peers into the dark lobby. Another verse from Renee comes to mind.
Call to Me and I will answer…
She takes a deep breath, exhales, fogs the glass, says, “I need you,” but doesn’t feel she means it. She’s afraid. She’s freezing—tonight has been the coldest all winter, and she only wears a denim jacket. She’s not thinking clearly, because every man she’s ever needed has only hurt her. “Show me things can be different.”
Inside she sees something move. It startles her at first, and she tries to write it off as a shadow from outside, or her eyes adjusting to the night, but there it is again, and then the lights come on, and she sees that it’s Reverend Murphy, rushing to door to twist the lock and let her in.
“Sister Rita, what brings you here so late?” he asks.
“I–I didn’t think anyone would be here.”
“It’s not often that someone visits the church when I’m not around. Even afterhours. I basically sleep here.”
“Why?” Rita still hasn’t stepped inside. She’s not a regular member like the others. She’s not sure if she can trust him yet.
“A pastor’s work is never finished,” he says.
Is this why I’m here? Rita wonders. Renee always tells her that nothing happens by chance or coincidence; God is always in control. Rita looks at Reverend Murphy, who waits for her to speak, but she says nothing. Does he know? He talks to God everyday, surely. Did God tell him she would show up tonight? Is that why he came to the lobby, turned on the lights, opened the door for her so quickly? Is that why he seems happier to see her than she is to see him? If God answered his prayer, will He hear hers too?
A gust of wind forces her inside, and she drops to her knees onto the tiled floor. “I don’t know,” she says, beginning to sob.”I don’t know,” she repeats. Nothing is enough. When she sees Mitchell and Tash together at that altar tomorrow, she’ll realize nothing will ever be enough. The weed, the booze, all the sex in the world won’t make her forget what she doesn’t have.
The tears flow heavier now. She snorts to keep the snot from dripping from her nose. She breathes in short, quick gulps. She didn’t realize how hard it would be to admit it, that she needs God, that He is that one constant missing from her life. Maybe it’s enough that she’s here, crying in front of this man who truly is a stranger to her. But she has to hear herself say it. When she says it aloud, then she’ll believe it, it’ll be real for her, she’ll have that inner peace everyone always talks about when God speaks to you, when He finally accepts you. And she wants to know what that feels like, to be accepted finally, as someone’s own.
“Jesus, please!” she cries. She puts her head between her knees, stretches her arms out on the floor.
“Oh, sister,” Reverend Murphy’s hand is on her back, rubbing back and forth right on top of her bra strap. “I’ve waited so long for this moment.”
It puzzles her at first, because in the middle of her confession, a voice in her head says no man is different. What the reverend really means is that he’s waited for a moment to get her alone and vulnerable, and it’s literally fallen in his lap. She’ll look up and find his dick in her face, hard-on and ready for slutty Rita to do her best work, because she can’t change, God won’t love her, she might as well get up and leave now.
It’s the devil talking, it’s the devil talking. Get of my head! Rita clenches her fist, pounds on the floor. “God, I need you. Don’t turn me away,” she says over and over until the thoughts are gone.
When she opens her eyes, there’s no naked male genitalia in her face. Reverend Murphy is fully clothed. His eyes are warm, moist. If eyes could smile, that’s what they’d be doing right now, and she sees that inner peace she craves inside them. He takes her hand gingerly, as if about to propose with a ring, and asks, “Sister Rita, do you accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?”
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.
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.
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.”
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.