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Lessons of a Lowcountry Summer
By Rochelle Alers
All right reserved.
Wine comes in at the mouth and love comes in at the eye.
-- William Butler Yeats
Hope stood at the steel door, cradling a bouquet of flowers under her left arm. She tightened her grip on the decorative shopping bag containing a card and a bottle of champagne. Searching in the pocket of her slacks, she took out a key and inserted it into the lock, turning it until she heard the tumblers click. The door to the expansive loft opened silently, and she went completely still. The smell of bacon lingered in the air.
She frowned while moving quietly into the entryway. She had come to Kendall's apartment a day earlier than his scheduled return from Las Vegas to leave the flowers and champagne as pre-celebratory gifts. Her step was determined as she made her way toward the kitchen. Had Kendall returned and neglected to call her?
She heard his voice, then another voice over the music coming from a radio in the kitchen. Curious, she took half a dozen steps until she stood several feet beyond the arched entrance to the gourmet kitchen.
Kendall stood with his back to her at the cooking island...with another man. The tall, slender stranger sported a tank top and a pair of spandex biker shorts that clung to his toned buttocks like a second skin. Kendall was butt naked, the stranger's arm around his trim waist.
They shifted, facing each other while sharing a smile. The stranger reached down and fondled Kendall, who groaned and rolled his naked hips against the groping hand. Hope took a step backward, unable to pull her gaze away from the erotic coupling.
Swallowing back the bile rising up in her throat, Hope turned and practically ran across the living room to the door, the rubber soles of her running shoes making tiny squeaking sounds on the wood floor.
Somehow she found the strength to close the door quietly, and she left as silently as she had come. Tears blurred her vision the instant she reached the sidewalk. Reaching into her shoulder purse, she took out a pair of sunglasses to cover her tear-filled eyes. She walked slowly, placing one foot in front of the other, along the Esplanade, heading toward the Brooklyn Bridge.
Hope glanced at an elderly couple, sitting on a bench on the Esplanade and staring into each other's eyes. Everlasting love, she thought. As she neared them, she handed the flowers to the woman and the bag with the champagne to her companion.
"Here's a gift to love." She did not register their shocked expressions as she quickened her pace.
She walked until she reached the bridge's pedestrian roadway, then continued onward, walking past City Hall, Chinatown, Little Italy, and Soho to the West Village. Hot, exhausted and hungry, she stopped at an outdoor café and ordered lunch. She thought it odd that she could think of eating when all she wanted to do was scream at the top of her lungs. Scream and cry until she exorcised the sharp pains in her chest.
After taking a few bites of food, she pulled the cell phone from her purse and called her car service to take her home.
Hope arrived home and stripped off her clothes. Leaving them on the floor in the bathroom, she filled the bathtub and retrieved a bottle of wine from the kitchen. She climbed into the tub, sat in the hot water, and put the bottle to her mouth and drank deeply.
The water had cooled by the time she emptied the bottle. The tears came so quickly that she couldn't stop them. They streamed down her chest, heaving breasts, and into the water. Using her toes, she pulled the lever to empty the tub and sat staring at the water as it swirled down the drain.
Time ceased to exist for her. She tried to get out of the bathtub and failed. A wave of dizziness hit her. The sensation was similar to the dizzying pull of the ocean tide she had experienced at the age of ten, the year she'd learned to swim. Her grandmother had warned her about going into the water because of a tropical storm off the coast of South Carolina's Lowcountry. All of the residents on McKinnon Island had stocked up on supplies, then they'd waited to see if they had to evacuate before the storm hit the islands.
But she was not a ten-year-old curious girl spending her summer on McKinnon Island, ignoring a direct order not to go swimming, but a thirty-eight-year-old psychologist sitting in a bathtub in a Harlem apartment, too intoxicated to get up without falling.
Once she'd realized the folly of her self-destructive behavior, she laughed. She refused to think about Kendall, his lover, or her fear that Kendall may have infected her with a sexually transmitted disease.
An hour later she managed to get out of the tub in a drunken stupor and stumble to her bedroom on wobbly knees. She lay facedown across her bed in a haze as the sun shifted its position in the sky, sinking lower, below the horizon. The soft chiming of the telephone on the bedside table and the sound of callers leaving messages on the answering machine went unheard and unanswered as she slept. Then the sun rose in the sky to signal the beginning of a new day, and still she slept on.
It was more than twenty-four hours after she had walked into Kendall's apartment that Hope woke and stared up at the ceiling as if she had never seen it before. Suddenly all of it came rushing back -- what she had seen, how she had reacted. She closed her eyes when the designs on the ceiling blurred, then she scrambled off the bed and raced to the bathroom to purge her stomach. She was sick, sicker than she had ever been in her life. The smell of toothpaste caused another bout of dry heaves as she brushed her teeth.
She felt a bit more in control of her reflexes after she'd showered and dressed. As she made her way slowly to her kitchen, the telephone rang, and she decided to let the answering machine pick up the call. After four rings, a familiar male voice came through the speaker.
"Hey, baby, I just got back."
"Liar!" she screamed at the machine.
"I miss and love you like crazy. Call me, sweetheart, when you get the chance."
"I don't think so," she mumbled under her breath. All she wanted to do was eat something to settle her stomach. No, what she needed was comfort food: grits, biscuits, and soft scrambled eggs. What she actually wanted was grits and fried fish like she used to eat on Sunday mornings on McKinnon Island.
It was the second time within hours she had thought about McKinnon Island, South Carolina. She had spent her childhood summers there in the small, one-story house that her maternal great-grandfather had built with his own hands. Shaded by tall pines, hickories, gums, and oaks, it was surrounded by thick underbrush and stood less than two hundred feet from the Atlantic Ocean. Her grandmother, who knew Hope loved summering on the island more than her sister and two brothers, had willed the house and property to her. It had been more than three years since she had visited the island even though she had had the house renovated and paid an elderly man to inspect it several times a year to make sure it did not fall into disrepair.
The house and the island were a part of her family's history and legacy. Her grandmother's people had been descendants of former slaves from West Africa, who had populated the Sea Islands. They were known as Gullahs. Grandmomma talked funny, but after spending several summers with her, Hope had come to understand the Gullah she spoke. Her mother understood the dialect but refused to speak it, and she forbade Hope from speaking it, too.
Hope gathered the ingredients for her breakfast. The aroma of grilling beef sausage patties mingled with the smell of freshly ground coffee beans and baking biscuits. She whisked two eggs until they were a fluffy yellow froth and poured them into a skillet minutes after the golden brown biscuits came out of the oven.
Carrying her gastronomical feast to the table in a corner of the large eat-in kitchen, Hope savored her meal without a care for the amount of calories it contained. Just once, she wanted to let go -- to not care what she ate or where she needed to be.
Despite her intentions, she ate only two of the half dozen biscuits. Before she had become Dr. Hope, she would've eaten all six. Something in her head would not permit her to relapse into eating the copious amounts of food that had once pushed her well above the two-hundred-pound mark. The extra weight had compromised her health, and as she neared middle age, maintaining good health had become her number one priority.
Breakfast concluded, she cleaned up the kitchen and headed back to her bedroom. She remade her bed and climbed into it, reaching for a book on the bedside table. Kendall called twice while she read, leaving messages that she should call him. After he called a third time, she turned down the volume on the answering machine so she wouldn't hear the two-faced, lying, deceitful snake, and drifted off to sleep.
Several hours later Hope stirred, coming awake slowly at the feel of warm lips caressing her cheek. Her eyes widened when she realized Kendall was perched beside her on the bed.
Hope forced herself not to react, or she would pick up the bedside table lamp and smash it against Kendall's head. He wasn't worth her being arrested or serving time for assault.
Forcing a smile, she said, "Hey, yourself. What are you doing here?" She pushed herself into a sitting position.
Kendall angled his body to face her. "I came over because you weren't answering your phones."
"I'd turned down the volume."
"Put my keys on the table and I'll tell you."
"You heard me, KC. Give me my keys." Her dangerously soft voice held a silken thread of warning.
He shifted, pulling a set of keys from the pocket of his slacks and placing them on the table. His expression changed from shock to distress as he watched Hope reach into the drawer of the nightstand and withdraw the key to his duplex.
Reaching for his hand, she dropped it into his open palm. "Now we're even."
Kendall's hand closed over the metal. "What the fuck is going on here?"
His reaction amused Hope, because it was on a rare occasion that Kendall said the four-letter word. She angled her head. "Did you really think I was going to marry you when you are fucking a man?" He went completely still and tried to speak, but only garbled sounds came from his throat.
"I saw you with your lover yesterday," she said, deciding to press her attack. "You didn't see me because you were getting your jollies off. I left before I could see anything else."
"It's not what you think," Kendall said in his defense.
"Are you calling me a liar?"
The endearment snapped what was left of her fragile self-control. "Don't 'baby' me!"
He pulled back his shoulders. "Okay, Hope. It's not what you thought."
"And don't tell me what I think!"
"Otis and I are not lovers."
"And I'm five-two, a size four blond with blue eyes."
"I swear on my dead father that I've never slept with him."
"Then what the hell was he doing at your place? You told me you wouldn't be back until today, yet I saw you yesterday with a man who had a good old time jerking you off. And it must have felt good because you were groaning before you put your tongue down his throat." Her voice quivered. "I trusted you, Kendall, and you betrayed me. I can compete with another woman for you, but not a man."
For an instant a shadow of wistfulness stole into Kendall's expression. "I was curious, Hope. I've been curious about other men for a long time, and yesterday was the first time I acted on it."
She left the bed and sat down on the padded bench at the foot of the wrought-iron bed. She could not bear to be close to him. "Why didn't you tell me? Why did I have to find out like I did?"
Shaking his head, Kendall stared at the twisted sheets. "I didn't think you would understand."
"Understand!" The single word exploded from her. "Did you forget that Dr. Hope has an answer for everyone!" she practically shouted. "If you had told me I would've let you go. I'm not saying it wouldn't have hurt, but not as much as finding out the way I did."
Kendall met her angry gaze with one that pleaded for understanding. "You were never Dr. Hope to me. You are the woman I've fallen in love with. The woman I want to marry and have my children."
"It's too late for that, KC." Her voice had softened. "I can't marry you because I don't trust you, and I refuse to wait for you to assuage your curiosity while you engage in a same-sex relationship."
"Why...why did you come to my place yesterday?" he asked.
"I wanted to surprise you. I'd planned to leave a bottle of champagne and flowers, because I had decided I wanted to become Mrs. Kendall Clarke." She blinked back tears. "Now, please go. And you don't have to worry that I'll tell someone about your double life. Your secret is safe with me."
Kendall lowered his head. It was a full minute before he pushed off the bed and left Hope's bedroom. Without a word, he opened the front door and walked out of Hope's life.
Copyright © 2004 by Rochelle Alers
Excerpted from Lessons of a Lowcountry Summer by Rochelle Alers Copyright © 2004 by Rochelle Alers. Excerpted by permission.
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