Read an Excerpt
Back to Life
By Wendy Coakley-Thompson
DAFINA BOOKSCopyright © 2004 Wendy C. Thompson
All right reserved.
Chapter OneAugust 1989
The party raged in the Simons' living room. People dressed in all their summertime finery were either chatting or off dancing on the enclosed patio to the funky, blistering sounds of Soul II Soul's "Back to Life" blasting through the speakers. Caron Wheeler's mellifluous voice floated on Jazzie B's fat beats and the sweaty, sexually charged air. Caron sang, and bodies gyrated in an arcane groove.
Lisa stared at all the people from her vantage point: a stool at the bar. She was wearing her best elegant black party dress and black pumps. Her face was beat to near perfection. And she was convinced everyone was digging the fete but her. She turned to Tim-tall, black, handsome, mid-thirties-who was pouring a concoction into a tall glass behind the bar.
"How can someone be in a crowded room and still feel alone, Timothy?" she asked, bobbing her head to the music.
"You're not over Bryan yet?" Tim offered. "Even though you guys split up over a year ago."
Lisa scoffed. "I'm over Bryan like the sky," she declared, then looked out at the couples kissing and slow-dragging on the patio. She couldn't even remember the last time a man touched her like that, so lovingly carnal. "It's just hard," she sighed. "Being alone after five years."
"Nina and I have been married for nine years, and I couldn't imagine one second without her," he said knowingly.
Lisa forced down the nagging instinct, the irrational sensation every black woman felt when thinking about a black man with a white woman, particularly the trophy blonde. It was even more irrational, since Lisa's own grandfather was a big white Englishman with an ocean of love for her. "That's sweet," she said sarcastically. "I think I'm getting a cavity."
Tim laughed. "I'm trying to be that sensitive, post-eighties guy." He handed her the glass with a frothy tan liquid over crushed ice. "Madam, your Long Island iced tea," he said with an affected British accent and a quick head bow.
Lisa took a sip. It tasted cold, sweet, and lemony. "You're like Tom Cruise in Cocktail."
He laughed. "Thanks, but I'm not throwing shit around. That's just plain showing off!"
"And we all know that men don't show off!" she giggled.
Slowly, though, the laughter died. The CD changed, and the first few beats and the breathy, come-hither vocals of Guy's "Baby Don't Go" came through the speakers. Slow-dragging on the patio began in earnest. Lisa stared at them, sucking on a bitter combination of melancholy and envy. "You're going to have to hose them down," she laughed bitterly.
Tim touched her arm. "Hey," he said in his classic everything's-gonna-be-all-right, Tim Simon voice. "Forget about Bryan. In three months, he'll be ghost, and you'll be free to get your head on straight."
She forced a laugh and raised her glass. "To New Jersey no-fault divorce!"
Tim looked past her. "Aw, shit," he whispered. "Here comes my wife the pimp with some suit-and-tie dude."
"Damn!" she cried. "Is it too late to run?"
Tim cleared his throat and faked a smile. "Honey!" he exclaimed. "There you are!"
Lisa turned and saw Nina, working the low-cut red minidress on her statuesque frame. She had a model's great looks, and with her long, flowing blond hair, she looked like a refugee from a shampoo ad. In tow, she had an attractive, nervous-looking black guy in an Italian suit and glasses.
"Tim, are you taking care of our little Lisa?" Nina asked, and Lisa marveled at how strange her accent was, because she was Swedish but raised in Britain.
"Yup," Tim assured her. "Mixed her a good, stiff drink."
"Perhaps she could use a good, stiff something else," Nina snickered, elbowing Lisa in the ribs.
Tim and Nina and the suit-and-tie dude laughed like they'd heard the world's greatest joke. Lisa didn't laugh.
Adding fuel to the comedy of errors unfolding before her, Nina pushed her friend forward. "Lisa, this is Lance Killingsworth," she said. "He's a lawyer in the City."
As if on some polite reflex, Lisa and Lance shook hands. He had a limp handshake. Lisa could only guess what else was limp. "Hi," she said, warily sizing him up.
"Nice to meet you," Lance said, and almost instantly, Lisa could see the glint of an ambulance-chaser in his dark eyes. "Nina tells me you're going through a divorce."
"Yes. I have a lawyer, though. Jaye Barraclough."
Naked admiration replaced the ambulance-chaser look. "Oh man, she's good!" he laughed. "She'll have your husband shaking in his shorts and will take them off him when she's through."
Lisa smiled brilliantly. "Cool."
A smile of self-satisfaction played at the corners of Nina's mouth, as if this was evidence of a love connection. "Maybe we should leave these two alone, Tim," she suggested.
The prospect of being trapped for the rest of the evening with yet another bland fix-up with a flaccid handshake was more than Lisa could bear. She rocketed up off her stool, almost spilling her drink on the bar. "Actually, I've got to go ..." she said hastily, then her brain cramped. Go and do what? "... powder my nose. Nice to meet you, Lance."
Lance looked confused, like a man who'd been promised a sure thing and then had been unpleasantly surprised. "Yeah," he mumbled. "Same here."
Lisa rushed away, convinced she could feel the eyes of Lance, Tim, and Nina boring into her back.
She picked her way through the four corners of the Simons' house, looking for a moment's peace. It seemed, though, that in every corner, people were talking, or smoking, or making out. Drunken, smirking men rubbed up against her under the guise of passing through the hall. Their women gave her catty glances and snatched their men away. Right then, all she wanted was to peel off her entire party facade and curl up in bed with her cat and flannel pajamas. "Fucking parties!" she swore under her breath.
When she saw the next inebriated guy headed her way with his gaze on stun, she ducked through the nearest door, shut it, locked it, and leaned against it. She sighed, looking around her. The room was comfortable and inviting, filled with stuffed chairs, a sofa, glass coffee table, pictures of Nina and Tim and their children, and trophies from trips abroad. An ad for Lethal Weapon 2 played at a low volume on the big-screen TV in front of the sofa.
Suddenly, Lisa realized she wasn't alone. Seated in one of the stuffed chairs, a white guy, rocking the spare black tee under a black suit, held a telephone receiver to his ear. He nodded and smiled periodically. He must've realized that he wasn't alone, either, because just then, he trained on Lisa the bluest eyes and the whitest smile she had ever seen and waved hi.
Lisa didn't usually go for white boys. In her experience, they only looked at black women when they had a brief taste for the antidote to that whiny, white-girl sense of entitlement. They went back to their side of the fence when they realized that black women weren't biologically different from their white counterparts. They usually didn't have the stomach for the path of most resistance. That aside, she could certainly appreciate a tall, hard body and striking blue eyes set in a ruggedly handsome, tanned face.
She made a phone sign with her hand to her ear. "I'm sorry-you're on the phone," she whispered. "I'll go."
He shook his head and waved her in. To the person on the phone, he said, "Yeah, I'm at a party at a friend's house."
Lisa tentatively approached the couch and sat, all the while watching him watch her. He watched her, all the while carrying on his conversation. "Make my day, Linley-tell me how'd Goombah do on the first day on the shelves," he said, all the while smiling at Lisa. Nod, nod. "That's great. Isn't it a little early, though, to be thinking book signing?" Nod and laugh. "Okay, okay, keep 'em on, Lin. I won't even pretend to tell you how to do your job." Nod, nod. "All right, pencil me in." Naughty laugh. "I'm always a very good boy for you, Linley."
Lisa looked away at the TV and rolled her eyes in disgust. So, he needed an audience to be a player.
"Okay," he said finally. "I love you, too. Sleep well."
With that, he hung up the phone. "I saw that," he said.
"Saw what?" she asked.
"That perfectly timed rolling of the eyes."
"Look, I didn't mean to eavesdrop on your conversation, but you were laying it on a bit thick, weren't you?"
He came over and sat next to her on the couch. Instantly, she threw her guard up. "Maybe," he conceded, "but Linley loves it, and I aim to please."
"Who's Linley, your wife?"
He laughed. "Linley's a sweet, fifty-year-old, Southern black woman."
"You're Evasive Man, aren't you?"
"When it's called for, I can be quite direct. Like now. I think you're hot. I also think the way you wear that dress is making me dizzy. There. That wasn't evasive at all, was it?"
She looked at him, disgusted. "So you're Smooth Evasive Man."
He laughed. "Linley's my agent."
"You're a writer."
She knew that each and every one of the Simons's friends had an interesting story of how they met them. She wondered what his story was. "How do you know Nina and Tim?" she asked.
"I'm an assistant professor at SCNJ Montclair. Nina and I work together."
Interesting enough. "Oh. I'm taking a class there this fall," Lisa said. "I thought you just said you were a writer, though."
He leaned in; on reflex, she leaned away. "I'm allowed to do both," he said. "I'm sure you've heard of 'Publish or perish.'"
Dick! "My experience may not be as vast as yours, but somewhere in there, I've heard about 'Publish or perish,'" she said tersely.
He moved away. "You could be nicer."
"Look," she said, pissed. "I've been here for almost four hours. Nina thinks my divorce means I'm chum for every single guy in the room. I've been pawed by drunken yuppies, and my feet are killing me!"
"Aha," he said knowingly. "Pavarotti Woman."
"What does that mean?"
"Me me/Me me/Me me me," he sang, operatic fashion.
She wanted to laugh in his face. "Oh, please!" she cried. "Who could be more self-obsessed than you?" She affected a sleazy, smooth manner. "'I'm on the phone with my agent.' 'I'm a writer.' 'Linley loves it, and I aim to please.' Give me a break!"
He laughed sheepishly, shaking his head. "I thought I was being as charming as hell," he said. "Chalk it up to performance anxiety ... overcompensation ..."
She softened. "Overcompensation for what, lack of sexual prowess?"
He feigned wounded macho pride. "Hey, I'm Italian. That's for other guys."
They laughed, relaxing. He extended a hand. "I'm Marc," he said.
She shook the hand. "Lisa," she said.
"Give me your foot."
Marc patted his lap. "Your foot," he prompted. "I give a mean foot massage."
He looked harmless enough. Still leery, though, Lisa kicked off her shoes, exposing soft, manicured feet. She wiggled toes with square, red-lacquered nails, and eased her right foot in Marc's lap. "My mother would have a hissy fit if she knew I let a stranger give me a foot massage," she said.
"I just told you my name," he reasoned, "and you already know I'm a friend of Nina's. That means I'm not a stranger."
"Male logic in action," she said sarcastically.
Marc laid his hands on her bare foot. Lisa closed her eyes briefly, savoring the feeling. He then expertly massaged her right foot, her aching heel, her painful arch, the top of her feet where her sandal straps had cut into her flesh. His touch was warm but firm, innocent but sensual at the same time. He worked his thumbs against the reddened ball of her foot. The last time a man's touch felt that good, she was naked under him. She moaned involuntarily.
"Good?" he laughed.
"Very," she shuddered.
Inane TV white noise filled the moment for a few minutes, until the urge for someone to say something became palpable. Finally, Marc said, "What I meant about overcompensation? I've been out of the game for a while myself."
A kindred spirit, united in heartbreak. "Divorce," she guessed.
He nodded. "A little over a year."
She let out an exasperated sigh. "No one seems to have the right perspective on how to get through this. Nina and Tim are so fucking cutesy together. To my mother, all men suck. My lawyer looks at Bryan-that's his name-and sees dollar signs."
"Sorry to say this, Lisa," he said, sounding quite like the old sage, "but divorce is like any shock-to-the-system, first-time kind of experience. It's different for everybody. What worked for one person won't necessarily work for you."
"Well, what worked for you?"
He sighed, massaging and avoiding her probing, questioning gaze. "Well, the first three months, I was pretty sick, so I was trying to recover from that. The next eight months, I ... 'dated,' for lack of a better word, a lot of women, finished my book, stayed drunk, and was generally an asshole to anyone who had the misfortune of meeting me. The past month or so has been pretty slow."
What woman would leave him? "Sorry," she said.
His smile was pained. "Don't worry. She's in the next book." He touched her knee. "Left foot."
Obediently, she slid her left foot into his lap, and he worked at massaging her foot like it was another job. She looked down at his head, which was framed with short, dark waves. "You're good at this," she laughed tentatively. "I should take you home with me."
"Tease!" he chuckled. "Your turn to share."
The last day that Bryan came over to visit flooded her mind. She felt every muscle in her body painfully clench. "He moved out after he decided that 'til death do us part was a bit too confining for him. But he'd invent reasons to come over for ... you know ..."
His blue eyes were glacial. "Great," he remarked.
"So I got a cat, I moved into a studio apartment, and I put the house up for sale."
"Being okay with the hand you've been dealt is the best revenge. That's what worked for me in the long run."
She stared incredulously at him. "As simple as that," she concluded, disbelieving.
"Yup," he said confidently.
On the TV just then, the theme music from Channel 4's News at Eleven came from the television. After the signature, amped-up opening of the show, replete with dramatic music and swirling chyron darting across the screen, an attractive, black, intelligent-looking anchorwoman and her classic, anchorman counterpart appeared on the screen at the theme's final crescendo. The chyron flashed the date-August 23, 1989-at the bottom of the TV screen.
Excerpted from Back to Life by Wendy Coakley-Thompson Copyright © 2004 by Wendy C. Thompson. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.