Monday, September 23, 2013

Hearts of Steel: Chapter Sixteen

I didn’t want to go, but Mother insisted as only mothers could. Insisted was just a nice way of saying threatened. As I sat in the living room with my feet propped on the table, the remote to the satellite dish permanently attached to one hand while my other hand burrowed into a bowl of heavily buttered popcorn, she said in crisp, unarguable tones, “Get up, Priye.”

I looked up at her. It wasn’t as if I had a choice. She’d positioned herself directly in front of the television. Her arms were folded resolutely across her chest. I bit my tongue to keep the smarty-pants remark from popping out of my mouth. If we’d been kids and that had been one of my brothers standing in front of the television, he would have definitely gotten a remark about “bottoms not made of glass.”

Instead, I said respectfully, “Mum?”

“Get up off the couch. You’re coming with me.”

“Where are you going?”

“Not me – we. We’re going to the botanical gardens. I’m on the schedule to volunteer today, and I want you to go with me.”

It was on the tip of my tongue to ask her where on the schedule I was, but I didn’t. If I didn’t want my tongue to be pulled from my head, I’d better keep it civil.

My shoulders slumped farther into the couch cushions. It was bad enough that I was giving up my weekends to help with the family reunion planning. I didn’t complain because all I had to do was take meeting minutes, hardly enough work to break a sweat. I’d cracked a nail or two as I typed on my computer keyboard, but nothing that a quick trip to the manicurist couldn’t fix.

That wouldn’t be the case if I went volunteering with Mother today. I’d seen what they made some volunteers do. Imagine willingly putting yourself in the position of weeding, pruning, and tilling. It wasn’t for me. Not on a Saturday afternoon.

“Do I have to?” I felt all of twelve years old, whining to my mother. I just wasn’t in the mood.

“Yes, you have to. Come on. You might enjoy it.”

“Digging, weeding, and pruning. Yes, Mother, that ranks very high on my list of things I’d rather be doing on a Saturday afternoon. It ranks right up there with getting a root canal without the benefit of anesthesia or having bamboo shoots poked under my fingernails.”

“No bamboo shoots under your fingernails today, Priye. If you’re in the gardens, you’ll be wearing gloves.”

“You don’t know what a comfort that is to me,” I muttered.

Mother reached behind her and switched off the television.

Ah-ha! I had the remote control. All I had to do was angle the infrared beam around and behind her just so and . . .

That’s what all of the television-watching was really about – avoiding those feelings.

It had been four weeks since I’d said good night to Jack. Good night had really been good-bye, because I hadn’t called him before I’d gone back to Accra. I hadn’t returned his call when he’d left a message with my parents. I’d screened all of my calls through my answering machine at my apartment.

It didn’t take him long to figure out that I wasn’t going to return his calls. Not quite two weeks, almost ten days, and his calls had stopped coming. I didn’t know whether to be relieved or angry that he didn’t try harder. It was my game; but he wasn’t playing by the rules. A man who’d obviously been around as much as he had should have a pretty good grasp of the rules. He just wasn’t playing by them.

To keep from feeling the pain, I filled my head with pulp fiction. With over three hundred channels brought conveniently into my parents’ home via satellite, it was easy to lose myself in melodrama rather than believe I’d lost a perfectly good man. No, not lost. Thrown away.

“Turn that thing off or I’ll take out the batteries and hide the remote,” Mother threatened.

“When I grow up and have kids of my own, I’m going to let them watch television until their brains rot out,” I announced.

“I should live so long.”

“To see your grandkids?”

“For you to grow up,” Mother retorted. “Now, go upstairs, and change into something a little less comfortable.”

“What’s wrong with what I have on?” I teased, pulling at my T-shirt.

“I’m not going to be seen with you in those jeans. Look at them. Cut up nine ways till Sunday. More holey than righteous, is what they are.”

“These aren’t holes, Mum. They’re a specially designed ventilation system.”
“Ventilation system? Now that’s just plain nasty. I wouldn’t go around telling people that you need a ventilation system around your bottom, Priye.”

“Mum!” I tried to sound shocked, but I couldn’t. I was laughing too hard.

“You brought it up,” she reminded me. “Now, for the last time, go upstairs and change. Why don’t you put on that pretty sundress your grandmother bought for you?”

“The one with the huge sunflower print?” I said with a neutral face. Sure. Why not? I shrugged fatalistically. “I don’t want anyone to accuse me of not getting into the spirit of the botanical gardens. I have a better idea. Why don’t you stick me in a flowerpot and let me wave to the guests as they tour the facility?”

“You’re wasting time. I don’t care how you stick your lip out. You’re going. And you’re going to enjoy it.”

“I will? How do you know?”

“Call it mother’s intuition.”

“Do you get mother points for saying that?” I asked. But I trudged toward the stairs anyway.

“Hurry up, Priye. The shop opens at ten. I want to pick up a few things before we have to check in.”

It was only eight in the morning, but as I told you before, Doris Johnson Cole hates to be late.

“I’ll be down in a minute, Mum,” I promised. “I just want to jump in the shower.”

“Priye, we don’t have time for that.”

“Do you want me to show up on time and funky or five minutes late and smelling like a rose?”

“Use the body wash in the guest bathroom.” She suggested.

“I thought so,” I muttered.

It didn’t take as much time to get ready as I’d thought. Once I was finally up off the couch and moving around, I could convince my body that it wasn’t a weekend, laze-about kind of day but a midweek, oh-my-God-I’m-late-for-work-kind of day. I cut corners from my usual morning routine wherever I could.

As the water ran in the shower, gradually warming, I slathered on facial cream and added a dollop of toothpaste in my toothbrush. I brushed my teeth in the shower, spinning around three times to let the water splash all over my body. Spat down the drain, opened my mouth to rinse, and swiped off the facial cleaner at the same time.

You have to be careful to time the spitting and rinsing the coordination is crucial. If you don’t rinse your face well enough before you open your mouth to wash the toothpaste away, you wind up with a mouth full of facial cleanser. And if you don’t rinse your mouth well enough, you could wind up having your face tartar-controlled with minty-fresh toothpaste.

I stepped out without completely drying off and smeared cocoa butter all over to seal in the moisture. Extra lotion to my elbows, kneels and heels – notorious trouble spots of dryness on my body.

I’d just stepped into my underwear when I heard my mother’s distinct call.

Bommmmp! Bomp-bomp.

She was already outside, tapping on the horn with her trademark impatience.

“All right. All right. I’m coming!” I could let myself sound as irritated as I wanted to. With the sound of the bathroom exhaust fan whirring, I knew that there was no way she could hear me. Then again, there were times when I thought she couldn’t possibly hear me and she busted me away.

I shimmied into my dress and reached behind me for the zipper. The dress was sleeveless, with a scooped neck and full, flowing, A-line skirt that fell an inch above my knees. I twisted my hair off my head into a loose ponytail, swiped honey-glaze lipstick across my lips, and I was ready to go. All I needed was to slide my feet into a white leather mules and I was ready to go.


Stubbornness. Nothing but pure bullheadedness kept me from picking up the phone and calling Priye. I’d already tried that, and she’d made it very clear that she didn’t want to have anything to do with me. Fine. If that’s the way she wanted it. But the least she could have done was told me to my face – not hid behind the formidable wall of her relatives.

I don’t even know what I could have done to make her shut me down so hard. One minute we’d been at Big Dog’s, enjoying the music, enjoying each other, the next – nothing.

“Take me home, Jack.”

Just like that. No warning, no preamble, just “take me home.” It wasn’t even the kind of “take me home” that led me to believe that she wanted to leave to restart that private party of our own. That’s where I’d thought we were heading once I’d started to slow-dance with her. I could tell by the way that she moved with me, against me, that she’d been feeling the mood as much as I had. Her body, supple and suggestive, had molded perfectly against mine. When she’d pulled away from me, I’d had to do some creative standing to keep everyone else at the party from knowing what I’d been thinking.

Priye had only been gone for five minutes. Maybe ten. Something must have happened in that time. But she wouldn’t tell me. Wouldn’t talk to me. She’d ridden home in silence, with her arms folded across her chest, her face turned toward the window.

“Priye, what’s the matter?”


I hated that “nothing” crap. Why did women do that to me? Don’t sit there and tell me nothing when it’s obvious that isn’t the case.

“Nothing” doesn’t put that scowl on your face that broadcasts to the world that I’ve screwed up – though for the life of me, I can’t figure out how.

“Nothing” doesn’t make you pull away when I reach out to take your hand.

“Nothing” doesn’t make you slam the door and jerk your head aside when I try to kiss you good night.

“Nothing” hurts.

As I stood in front of the mirror, preparing to shave, my hand started to tremble. At first, I believe it shook with suppressed anger. No one wanted to be blown off, to be cast away without an explanation, no matter how brief the acquaintance. I’d thought she was feeling me as much as I was into her. Could I have been so wrong? Could my instincts have been so off?

As my hand continued to shake, so violently that I had to clench my wrist to stabilize it, I had an inkling that my tremors were something more than mere emotion. I sat on the end of the porcelain, claw-foot tub, collecting my thoughts and massaging my hand as the trembling subsided and numbness set in.

I pressed hard into my palms with my thumb, sliding it up and down the center for several moments until I realized that I couldn’t feel my thumb working. I only knew that I pressed one hand into the other because I saw it happening with my own eyes. I heard the soft hiss of skin against skin. But I didn’t feel it.

Five minutes passed. Maybe ten. I’m not sure how long I sat there, trying to get feeling back into my hand. I sat there long enough until I felt my rear starting to numb, too. But that was no mystery. Sitting on the small lip of the tub as it dug into my bottom, no wonder at all that it started to numb.

I got up when I heard the phone sitting in its charger start to ring.

“Yeah,” I answered, my voice surly, uncooperative. Whoever this was, I didn’t feel like being bothered.

“And a blessed good morning to you, too. Mr. Deneen.”

It only took a second to recognize the voice and the phone number. The caller ID indicated that the call came from the same phone that called me to invite me to Mrs. Johnson’s anniversary dinner. The voice was distinctly Mrs. Johnson’s. Strong, stern, and unmistakable.

“Mrs. Johnson?”

Why in the world would she be calling me now? Something had to be wrong. Something had happened to Priye.

That’s why she hadn’t returned any of my calls! That had to be it!

But the casual question that followed crushed my hopes that something serious had made her turn away from me like that.

“How are you, Mr. Deneen?”

“How am I?” I echoed like an idiot. How did she think I was? She didn’t seem like the woman who’d appreciate sarcasm. . .that is, she wouldn’t appreciate it directed at her. There was no problem with her dishing it out. Still, she struck me as a woman who did nothing casually. She’d called for a reason. If I wanted to find out what it was, I had to keep her talking. I kept my tone as neutral as possible.

“I can’t complain.” That is, I wasn’t going to. She knew that I was hurting; otherwise why would she call? That didn’t mean I had to behave like a punk and let her know how deeply that wisp of a woman had dug into me.

“And how are you, ma’am?”

“A touch of arthritis, but, if the Lord is willing, I suppose I’ll make it.”

“I’m sorry to hear you aren’t feeling well,” I responded. Inside, I felt like screaming. What was the point of this conversation? If she wanted to exchange information about injuries, I could go on, pain-for-pain, until she threw up the white flag.

“Mother, give me that phone!” I heard someone in the background call out.

“Let me do this!” Mrs. Johnson’s voice was muffled, as if she’d placed her hand over the phone.

“Let me talk to him before you scare him off.”

“I’m not going to scare him off. Let me handle this, please Pammie!”

Moments later, Mrs. Johnson was back on the phone. Not a trace of her earlier annoyance was evident in her tone.

“Aren’t you wondering why I called, Mr. Deneen?” she asked pleasantly.

“Of course I am. I was trying to be polite and wait for you to offer an explanation.”

“You’re running out of time! They’ll be leaving soon, Mum?” Priye’s aunt Pam said loudly. She must have been standing very close to Mrs. Johnson, directing her words into the mouthpiece.

“All right. All right, Pammie. I couldn’t think of a single, reasonable way to be subtle, Mr. Deneen, so I’ll just come right out and say it . .”

“You need to get your lovesick bottom over to the botanical gardens today. This very afternoon.” Aunt Pam’s order came out loud and clear over the phone.

“And why is that?” I asked, not sure which one I was talking to now.

“Why are you asking me so many questions when you could be talking to Priye?”

Priye! She was in town and hadn’t called me. Instead, I was talking to her relatives.

“I don’t think that’s a very good idea,” I hedged. She didn’t want to see me. If she did, she would have called me instead. I wasn’t going to go chasing after her.

“That’s the problem with you young people. You think when you should be acting and run off half-cocked when you should be firing your brain cells instead. Are you going to tell me that you don’t want to see my granddaughter again, Mr. Deneen?”

“Of course I do, but. . .”

“But nothing. She’ll be at the botanical gardens all day today working. It closes at four, so you have plenty of time to figure out why you were so foolish in the first place as to let a wonderful girl like Priye slip away from you.”

“Yes, ma’am.” I said dutifully. “Closes at four. I’ll be there.”

But I had a split second of indecision. What if Priye and I managed to patch things up? What if we eventually married? What if we ever argued and she ran to her relatives for support? I could see that no matter what the case, I would always be the villain. They would always take her side over mine, her word over mine. Even knowing that, I still wanted to be with her.

“I’ve also taken the liberty of making dinner reservations for you at six-thirty.”

“I don’t know what to say,” I admitted.

“That’s why I’ve called you so early in the morning, Mr. Deneen. I’ve given you plenty of time to study up on ways to impress a woman – assuming, of course, that after flexing your muscles, you’ve exhausted your repertoire of ways to attract them.”

“Flexing is a good start, though, Flash,” Aunt Pam interjected. “Don’t stop doing that.”

Good old Aunt Pam. At least someone was on my side.

“Another piece of advice, Mr. Deneen,” Priye’s grandmother continued. “When you go calling on Priye at the botanical gardens, don’t bring flowers. Your gesture might go unnoticed in light of where you are.”

“I’ll try to be more creative.” This time, my own sarcastic bent slipped out.

“Something about one carat in a marquise cut shows a hell of a lot of creativity, Flash!” Aunt Pam suggested.

“Don’t be crude, Pam.” Mrs. Johnson chastised.

“Just trying to help the man, Mum.”

“Goodbye, Mr. Deneen.”

“Goodbye, Mrs. Johnson. And thank you. Both of you.”

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