Saturday, June 29, 2013

Hearts of Steel: Chapter 4

When I stepped off the plane, I thought about all of those comedy movies and cartoons where the frightened passenger throws himself on the ground and kisses it - promising never to fly again. It didn't seem so funny to me then, or farfetched. If it weren't for having to lug these bears all the way down to the passenger pickup area, I would have been down on my knees, thanking the Maker for allowing me to come through in one piece.

I suppose, in a small way, I should thank Him for Jack Deneen, too. If it weren't for Jack talking to me, calming me down, and even on occasion making me laugh, I would have been a nervous wreck. Or worse, carried off the plane heavily sedated like that crazy guy from that Twilight Zone  episode who saw a gremlin, bent on mass destruction, harassing him on the wing of the plane.

I edged my way past the milling crowd. The family hugs of greeting seemed more emotional, more heartfelt. Kisses between loved ones seemed more passionate. Embraces of friends were less restrained. It was as if getting off that plane made us all realize just how close we'd come to never getting off another plane again. Humbling thought. A near-death experience can certainly put things in perspective.

"Over here, honey!"

"Aunt Rosa! What are you doing here?" I was surprised to see my aunt Rosa in the airport. She was actually my grandaunt, my grandma's older sister; but she never liked the sound of the word grandaunt. Said it made her sound unappealing. Seeing her here now was a pleasant surprise. She almost never flew. Her motto - if God had intended her to fly, she would have been born with wings.

"I thought Uncle Edward was going to pick me up."

"He is. I just came along for the ride. Actually. . ." She looked at me and winked. "Take a look at this." She reached into her purse, pulled out a wallet, and handed me a card.

"What's this?"

"What's it look like?" she said smugly.

"It's a driver's license. Aunt Rosa! You finally learned how to drive? Oh, my God. I don't believe it."

"Your uncle Efosan is still driving that old '75 Peugeout."

"You mean the big yellow one with the gray primer on one door and mismatched blue door on the other?"

"And the bobbing-head dog on the dash. Yes, that's the one. It's big enough and built like a tank. When he told me that he was coming to pick you up from the airport, I talked him into letting me drive. I figured out that was the best way to break in my new license without breaking my neck."

She grasped my shoulders and squeezed with warm hands.

"Let me take a look at you. Honey, what are they feeding you down in Ghana? When did you grow hips?"

"I didn't grow them," I corrected. "I think it was a drive-by 'hipping.' One night, I went to bed as a size-seven. The next thing I know, I'm squeezing myself into size twelves. I try to exercise, but I spend a lot of long hours on the job, eating fast food at my desk."

"Hmmmmph." Aunt Rosa then pressed her lips together and folded her arms. For a moment, she looked so much like my grandma that I started to hand over the bears to her.

"Don't you worry about it, honey. It looks good on you. I told your mother that you were too skinny anyway. 'Doris,' I said to her, 'that child isn't going to get enough to eat out there, all by herself. Once she is out there on her own, she'll forget everything we taught her about nutrition.'"

"I didn't forget," I quipped. "I just didn't apply what I'd learned. You'd think that after sitting all those days in the kitchen, listening to you and Grandma and Mother swap cooking stories, that I'd know enough to be a master chef by now. Besides, I'm not alone. I know you're just a couple of hours' drive away. Aunt Rosa, if ever I need you."

"Turn around. Let me get a good look at you."

I spun around slowly, taking the bears with me.

"You didn't call to say that you were bringing friends with you, so I can only guess that those are for Adesuwa and George."

"Uh-huh. What do you think of them? You think Grandma will like them?"

"That papa bear is a little on the thin side, don't you think?"

"Aunt Rosa!" I started to laugh.

"Come on. Let me take one of those off your hands. However did you manage on the plane with this 'burden', Priye?"

As I touched my hand to my hair, patting it gently, I said, "I've always depended on the kindness of strangers."

Aunt Rosa took Grandpa bear from me. As she turned away, heading for the parking garage, my eye caught a spot of color on her right shoulder.

"Aunt Rosa, I think you've got a smudge of something on your back." I dug inside my purse for the handkerchief that Jack had given me with the intention of wiping away the smudge.

Aunt Rosa looked over her shoulder and said, way too casually for me. "Oh. . .that. That won't rub off , honey. That's permanent."

"Permanent?" Funny. I'd never noticed before that Aunt Rosa had a birthmark on her shoulder. I peered closer, then gasped when I realized that the only thing permanent about Aunt Rosa's smudge was the ink.

"Close your mouth, honey, before you swallow a fly." She placed her index finger under my chain and lifted so vigorously my teeth clicked.

"Aunt Rosa!"

"What?" She said, sounding so innocent. But her dark brown eyes snapped and sparkled - like they always did when she was holding back a laugh at your expense.

"Don't 'what' me missy," I said, sounding older than she ever could. "What is that on your back?"

"It's an Egyptian cross."

"I know what a cross is," I said, wagging my hand at her. She'd given me a silver ring with an emblem of an Egyptian cross as a graduation present. "What's it doing back there?"

"Healing quite nicely. Don't you think?" She paused in midstride to examine the exquisite work. I had to admit that it was lovely. The symbol was edged in black.

"Does Grandma know anything about this?"

"Not yet."

"When did did you...why in the world...have you lost your mind?" I could only think to ask in exasperation. "Why would you put yourself at risk like that?"

"What risk?"

"You know tattoos don't just wash off. You could have gotten hepatitis, or cancer, or anything."

"You sound just like your mother. That Doris worries about every little thing."

"I'm afraid I'm going to have to side with Mother on this one, Aunt Rosa."

"I'm not some starry-eyed sixteen-year old, Priye. I'm eighty years old. I knew what I was getting into. I did my homework and checked it out completely before I went. Body Expression"s has a very good reputation - as far as tattoo parlors go."

"Body Expression? You got a tattoo from there?"
This was getting better by the minute. I'm sure my tone and my scrunched up expression conveyed my disapproval. But then I had to check myself. Aunt Rosa was a grown woman. A lot "growner" than I was - and had been that way for awhile. After all, who was the one carrying on, slaving over a couple of teddy bears? I was ready to punch a kid's lights out because I thought he was thinking too hard about those bears. How adult was that?

Who was I to judge her if she wanted a tattoo? The more I looked at it, the more it grew on me. It was a work of art. An expression of Aunt Rosa's boundless free spirit - a testimony for all to see of her passion for her life.

"So did it hurt when you had it done?" I asked, curiously getting the better of my prudish nature.

"It hurt more than a splinter and less than childbirth." Aunt Rosa tilted her head and regarded me with an imprish grin. "You know, he had this cute butterfly design that would look really sweet right about there."

She jabbed at a spot on the side of my right thigh.

"No. Never. Not me," I quickly denied. "With the way I'm spreading, that cute little butterfly will look like a pterodactyl mauling my leg in six months' time."

"Priye, you're not that big." Aunt Rosa insisted. "Don't get caught up in all of that superskinny, supermodel crap. You look good. If you're not eating right and not exercising, well...that I'm concerned about. With a little behavior modification, we can fix that, even if it takes me flying down to Ghana every week to check on you."

"You don't have to do that, Aunt Rosa."

"I love you like you were one of my own, Priye. I want you to take care of yourself."

"I will, Aunt Rosa," I said, making a mental promise to try to do better. I'd been in such a hurry to graduate and get out on my own, I'd forgotten how much strength I got from family and their support. They were always going to love me, whether I made it to the top rung of the corporate ladder or not.

We linked arms and passed through the doors leading to the parking garage.


I extended my arm, aiming the garage door remote in the direction of the control box inside. The batteries were going. It took a few seconds before the infrared beam activated the door. The door finally lifted, slowly, looking oddly like the huge maw of some prehistoric beast about to swallow me whole as I eased the nose of the Lincoln Navigator into the left parking spot of the two-car garage.

A quick flick of my wrist shut off the ignition. As much as I was glad to be in my Lagos home again, I just sat there, listening to the "un-noise" of interior of my SUV. The low whir of the radiator fan, still running to cool the engime after the drive from the airport, the subtle tick-tick-tick of the car keys swinging, clicking against the steering column. I could even hear the soft creak of leather under me as my weight settled into the seat. I pressed my fists to my eyes, saying a small prayer of thanks for the safe arrival from my trip.

I'd only been away for a few months, but it sure felt good to be in my Lagos home again. After a moment of silent reflection, centering myself, I gathered my traveling bag and my thoughts and headed inside.

Once inside, I sniffed. I could tell that Sandra had been doing a little extra cleaning. Automatically, my hand reached for the security control pad on the wall to enter my code and disarm the system. I threw open a couple of windows and turned on every ceiling fan in the house. The cross breeze felt good.

Sandra meant well, but to her, clean wasn't clean until your eyes burned from an infusion of cleaning chemicals. One of these days, she was going to blow my house sky-high with all of her creative mixing.

She'd conveniently sorted my mail into bills, junk mail, and letters from friends - which, I noticed, seemed to be getting fewer and fewer. Nobody took the time to write letters anymore. All of my friends were "webbing" it, e-mailing me jokes, scams, and scares as fast as any Web server could handle them. I tossed the stack back onto the table, resolved to go through it all, even the junk mail, after I'd settled in.

I headed for the refrigerator. Now that the contents of my stomach weren't churning around like smoothies in a waring blender, I was ready to break the fast. Sandra had been busy in there, too.

Though I'd given her a few months off while I was away, she'd prepared a few meals for me. She'd made the kinds of meals that always tasted better the second day as leftovers. Rice and chicken, spaghetti, salad.

"Thank you, Sandra. You're a true godsend." Literally, I think when God made the earth, he took whatever forces of nature were left over from the making and formed Sandra. She must be nearly sixty years old, having been with my family for almost fifty of those years. She was a little hard of hearing, especially when you asked her to do something that she didn't want to do or didn't think it wise to have done. You didn't give Sandra orders; you made suggestions, recommendations. Remember that, and she would take care of you with as much fierce loyalty as she had toward her own. She'd watched over my sister and me since we were old enough to pronounce her name. And when I had moved to Ghana, she relocated with me. And when I got a house in Lagos, Nigeria, she insisted on taking care of it for me.

Priye Cole, it was driving me crazy to know that I couldn't stop wondering why she wasn't interested in me. I've had women walk away from the before. Not many, but enough. I couldn't shake the feeling that this time, I'd lost someone different. Someone special$

I've got to get her out of my head before tomorrow's practice. I can't have my head stuck up in the clouds when my feet have to pound ground.

The next step was my home gym. Sandra calls the room the chamber of horrors. Every device in the room looks like the instrument of choice in a Salem witch-trial torture chamber, with its assortmment of carefully selected pulleys and weights, benches and racks. The left rear leads to the pool and hot tub. To my right, a small area lined with shelves holds clean towels, my workout clothes, and an assortment of natural liniment and rubs for when I overdo it. Not if, when. I always do. To my left, the entire wall is mirrored to help me monitor and correct my form. Am I vain? I don't think so. Just a consummate perfectionist.

I stripped out of my clothes, down to my underwear. That's when I caught my reflection in the mirror. I take pride in myself, in my appearance, and my abilities. As I stood there, nearly nude, I wondered what Priye would say if she saw me now. Would she roll her eyes in feminine disgust? Would she give me that noncommittal half smile? The smile that promised nothing, revealed nothing.

I flexed my arms and ran my palms along the bulge of my biceps. I did a half turn, watching how the muted light threw shadows across the planes and valleys of my abdomen. I thought about how small, soft fingers would feel around me, caressing my shoulders, down my back. My back arched as I imagined her perfectly manicured nails clutching me, raking across my skin as only a woman in the throes of passion would.

"Damn it, J.D. Cut it out!" I chastised myself, snatching my hands away before I could measure how aroused the very thought of her made me. This was ridiculous. Why was I driving myself nuts? For as much as I was able to discover about her, I might as well be dreaming about a fantasy woman.

I threw myself into my workout, determined to exercise my demons way. I reached for a jump rope to pump up the old cardiovascular system. The wooden handles had worn smooth through consistent use. The nylon cord was a blur as I made it hot pepper - a jump rope game my sister and her friends used to play. Sometimes I'd join in. Though admittedly at first to annoy her. Looking back on it, I suppose I have her to thank for my speed and sureness of foot. After a couple of times of having that rope, moving at lightning speed, slam against my ankles, I learned how to pick up my feet.

My feet skipped and shifted to the rhythm of a beat only they understood. My hands were held at my sides. My wrists flipped up and down to keep the momentum going. I spun the rope until every breath burned through my nostrils, until the rubber worn from the bottom of my athletic shoes threatened to make me slip.

Thwack! Thwack! Thwack! The nylon cord hit the hardwood floor until I thought I saw sparks fly.

Finally, pushed beyond an unspoken limit, I collapsed onto the floor, sucking wind and laughing aloud at my silliness. What was I doing? Getting all worked up over a woman - a woman I barely know. I hadn't been this sprung since my sophomore year in high school when I'd had a crush on a senior.

Languidly, I pulled myself to my feet, stripped out of my workout gear, and grabbed a towel. It was the hot tub for me now. The feel of the hardwood under my bare feet was replaced by the inlaid stone floor that formed a two-foot splash guard around the perimeter of the hot tub.

Good old Sandra. I could tell by the lingering scent of chlorine that she'd had the pool and hot tub serviced while I was away. I sat on the edge and adjusted the force and direction of the jet sprays churning just beneath the surface. As I treated my legs to a water massage, I stared into the boiling water and thought how adequately the water reflected how I felt.

My calm surface suddenly, explosively, was broken by inner churning. All for the want of a woman. Not just any woman. One woman. Priye Cole.

I slid off the edge of the hot tub and carefully eased in. The jet spray and heat soothed my aching muscles. Yet my mind stayed in turmoil. There was nothing that I could do about it but accept the feelings for what they were. . .whatever they were.

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