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A Love Story
By Denene Millner
New American LibraryCopyright © 2005 Denene Millner
All right reserved.
Chapter OneNina and Aaron,
Only thirty-three minutes separated their emergence into the world, one thousand nine hundred and eighty seconds of elder wisdom that Nina would lord over Aaron for the next three decades. Already mocha brown with a thick thatch of jet-black hair, a brand new Aaron greeted his audience with an endearing whimper, eliciting a joyful noise from his exhausted mother, his exuberant father, and even the slightly indifferent resident who stepped in when it became apparent that Mom's obstetrician wasn't showing up for the big event. Eighteen miles away from Aaron's well-received entrance in Brooklyn, Nina was already swaddled tightly in the nursery in Queens, discovering the addictive taste of her own wrinkly knuckles. Nina's audience-even Mom-had been all too happy with her banishment to the nursery because the delivery room was still pulsing from the startling decibels reached by her maiden voice. The girl was loud, insistent, and, to all who observed, apparently angry about this new development. Nina, for years to come, would never live down the fuss she raised. Her mother would remind anyone who listened, whenever she had reason to note her daughter's aggressive volume, that "the girl been screaming ever since she got here."
Aaron was brought home to a smallBrooklyn apartment whose rhythms hardly were altered by his arrival-though the space instantly was squeezed to a maximum, which wasn't a pleasant change in late July's summer swelter. His mother Josefina Simmons was still the same patient soul who could go months without ever raising her voice-even when challenged by the everyday outlandishness of her firstborn son, Carney, who seemed intent upon waking every morning to find a new way to ruffle all feathers in sight. Josefina's patience combined with her husband Ray's gentle humor to create a household that could easily rival the idyllic domestication of Josefina's favorite show, The Brady Bunch. Josefina was twenty-eight, born in postwar Harlem, so it didn't escape her notice that the world of Carol and Mike Brady was glaringly bereft of colored people. But she tried not to let tiring demands of racial consciousness intrude on her television viewing. After all, she thought, if you got worked up over things like that, you'd never have any peace. Peace was the goal in the Simmons residence, even in the early 1970s, when there wasn't much of it around them. Their goal was to achieve that airless, settled calm that one would normally associate with senior citizens-certainly not a home with two young kids. Pictureless walls, plastic sofa covers, dark-beige carpet worn thin not by footfalls but by excessive vacuuming. It was a place that could be lifted whole and deposited in the Smithsonian or the Museum of Natural History, in a wing entitled "Americana Living Quarters: 1970s." Aaron's father was a Manhattan doorman. His whole day was defined by adhering to decorum, overreacting-or not reacting, period-to nothing. Years later, after he left his parents' house, Aaron escorted a grieving friend to a funeral home and was startled by how comfortable he felt in the company of the dead-or at least in their sitting room.
Nina was carted home by a family that couldn't have been more different from the Simmonses. The home in Jamaica, Queens, was a cluttered mess, throbbing with so much intense energy and filled with so much stuff that the place always seemed about to explode in a shower of black militant outrage. The family's central theme, in fact, told much of the story: Nina's father Willy was a Black Panther who had spent the last two years in hiding. The NYPD believed, with good reason, that Willy Carruthers-also known as "Baby Ruth" by party loyalists-had played a key role in the botched robbery of a Department of Transportation parking meter collector. The idea, hatched a week after an unpopular fare and toll hike, was to take back the public's money and stage a very public redistribution-even giving some to white people-thus attracting attention and thousands of converts to their cause. But Baby Ruth and three accomplices wound up breaking the man's arm-for about $35 in quarters and a permanent APB with their names on it. Willy was just the driver-but unfortunately was using a car registered in his name. The public redistribution idea was shelved. Didn't take the police long to get to his momma's apartment in Harlem. Consequently, Nina's birth certificate read "Nina Andrews." It would take her twelve years to discover that the name really wasn't hers.
Willy Andrews-ni Carruthers-spent most of his days poring over outdated, yellowing Panther literature, harassing his wife and claiming to look for work as a freelance auto mechanic. He wore a brooding scowl as his morning greeting and rarely found time-or inclination-to offer anyone a smile, including his wife Angelique. As a defense, she had long ago gone on the offense, berating him for his many faults whenever she got the chance. But still they clung to each other with a passionate desperation. And they seemed to find many opportunities to display that passion. It was a union that confounded all who knew them.
But as far as unions go, none was as surpassing as Nina's and Aaron's. From the first meeting, they became nearly the same person. It was no surprise to friends and family when eventually their powerful friendship turned into something more. Everyone just wondered what took them so long.
It took twenty-six years to build it up, fine little pieces of selflessness, layered on top of one another like the strongest brick mansion in the neighborhood. Twenty-six years of empathetic embraces, three-hour-long phone calls in the gloom of the night, bold and dramatic acts of courage with no thoughts of one's own well-being, jokes-oh, so many jokes-of such brutal wit that their bellyaching laughs would rumble into the next century; twenty-six years of plenty, of so much love and affection that they could smear jealousy over all who observed them like toddlers spreading a cold virus; two decades plus six years of a friendship for the ages.
And it was all over in exactly thirty-three seconds. Splintered by the same demons that had damned all of their individual attempts to forge meaningful love relationships with the opposite sex: the haunting presence of another woman, a creeping lack of trust, and the nasty drama of indictments and incriminations. Her name was Cocoa-and Nina just couldn't let her go.
"Why can't you just trust me, Nina?" Aaron asked his girlfriend, his voice cracking in exasperation. "Why, all of a sudden, are you trippin' over the dumbest little things? No wonder you couldn't ever keep a damn man!"
Nina removed herself from the kitchen and walked toward the living room, where her boyfriend was breathing heavy and wearing a scowl. There were veins visible on both sides of her neck. It looked like a long wiry creature was trying to escape by way of her throat. She clutched a pot in her hand so hard it trembled. It contained string beans. They were still frozen.
"Well, it turns out that every man I've ever known has been a lying, no-good snake," she said. Her voice was barely louder than a whisper, but she might as well have shouted from the rooftops. They stared, almost as if they saw each other for the first time. Aaron shook his head sadly and headed for the door. He turned around just before exiting. When he looked at her face, he believed he saw unwavering rage and resentment. He did not see the tears in her eyes.
After the fight Aaron became a squatter on his best friend's couch, drifting through his days in a prolonged stupor, agonizing through nights at the club. He didn't even pick up a camera-there was too much of Nina attached to the camera. Nina became a worker bee, pressing herself into her job with the manic energy of a mental ward escapee. Her coworkers noticed her new single-minded passion for her job, but no one questioned her about it-after all, how do you query someone about suddenly becoming a good worker without subtly deriding their prior work ethic? Once she returned to her empty Lower East Side apartment, she'd collapse on her couch and stare at the images on the TV screen without seeing anything at all.
But then Nina started getting worried about her health. She couldn't keep down any food; she Didn't even have an appetite anymore; she found herself dizzy and winded after scaling just the first flight in her walk-up. She didn't know heartache could pack such a wallop. By the end of week two, her worry was building into a torrent of grief, remorse, and panic. She felt like her body wasn't her own, as if some bogeyman had invaded her bedroom while she slept and stolen the real Nina away. She stopped doing her hair; she even wore the same outfit two days in a row. Sensing that she was losing her way, that her control over the order and sense in her life was slipping, Nina summoned the courage to pick up the telephone. She had to overcome shame, to step over pride, to spin away from ego, in order to lift the receiver, which suddenly felt like a twenty-five-pound barbell.
"Aaron?" she said, her voice cracking from the effort. It was past midnight. Aaron was still in the club, but preparing to leave. He pressed the cell phone closer to his ear, thinking that the voice must be an aural mirage, his mind tricking him.
"Nina?" he said.
"Aaron, I need you to come over here. It's important," she said, still shaky.
Aaron could hear the trembling. He felt a pain in his chest, a footprint of fear. He couldn't even hazard a guess what went wrong. A dozen questions crowded his mind at once. Was she sick? Was she hurt? Was she dying? Was she in danger? It was almost an involuntary reflex on his part to rush to Nina's aid-he'd done it so many times that his body could act without deliberation. "Nina, what's wrong?" he said, already rushing toward the club exit. But he heard nothing. "Nina? Nina!" His cell phone was dead. He ran.
I think I made a mistake. As a matter of fact, I know I made a mistake. And it wasn't the insignificant kind that you forget about a day later-like forgetting to put the gas cap back on after you fill up, or walking away and leaving the ATM card in the machine. Those aren't the kinds of mistakes that can tear your heart out of your chest and leave it hopping around on your living room floor like a doomed fish. That's how this drama with Nina has me feeling. Why did we have to leap off this cliff anyway? From the moment I first opened my eyes the morning after the consummation, I had been grappling with this dread smacking me in the back of the head. Why couldn't we just leave it alone? Wasn't a friendship crafted by the angels enough for us? What was it about the human condition that made wanting more so inescapable?
Nina was the kind of friend that most men never even dare to dream of-smart, funny as hell, tough, competitive, and as loyal as a Labrador. She had been in nearly a half dozen fights over three decades in some way defending my ass. Most of us don't think we'll be lucky enough to get half of those qualities in a friend-I've had them smart and funny and I've had them competitive and tough. I've even had them loyal-but so dumb that you'd be tempted to pick the Labrador in a battle of wits. But in her I got it all-and the fact that it was wrapped in a beautiful package added something to the mix, but in retrospect I'm not sure it was something good. Her beauty just confused me. Well, if I'm being honest here, confused probably isn't exactly right. The confusion came in after that other thing-I believe it's called lust.
What do you do after you sleep with your best friend, a woman you have loved for more than twenty years as if she were a part of you-the way you love the strength of your hands or the curve of your calves-who has been your life's most dependable part? In our case, we began what had to be the craziest, most intense love affair the world has ever seen. Or at least our friends and family had ever seen. A love affair for which I'd regularly sleep in the hall outside her apartment door, awaiting her return. (Nina despised cell phones.) A love affair in which she once lay in the bed for three days straight, holding me tight as my feverish body shook from the ravages of what turned out to be pneumonia. A love affair during which her irrational suspicions and hefty baggage pushed her to track my every move, like some kind of curvaceous TV detective on CBS.
And what happened to our friendship, you might ask, this precious thing that seemed to breathe a purer form of oxygen and radiate in its own self-sustaining photosynthesis? In fact, that's a damn good question-I'm still searching for the answer. Before our troubles, Nina might have told you the friendship was still going strong, enhanced now by the drug of sexual exploration and physical intimacy. And I would have to agree that the sex was, indeed, earth-shattering, like some New Age tantric gymnastics that could only be achieved after years of emotional dependency and physical familiarity. But if this thing doesn't make it, if the jagged edges we keep tripping over manage to induce permanent bleeding and injury, will we emerge as best friends still? Somehow I don't think so. Something tells me that my lover will bring the same passion to discarding me that she now brings to loving me-that she brings to every single thing that she does.
I want to tell you about my lover; I need to. But first I have to unburden myself about the power of friendship. If you've never had a true friend, this might sound foreign to you, unbelievable even. But if you've been as lucky as I, you'll likely find yourself nodding in hearty agreement.
Probably the first necessary ingredient in forging one of these Hall of Fame friendships is that it start as early as possible, preferably in childhood. Only the youngest souls are free of the instinct for self-protection and the latent jealousies that eventually doom most human relationships. After we've been around for a while and seen the pain that humans easily inflict on one another, how can we fail to put up every barrier and wall in our reach to fight off a stranger's probing interest? To put it simply, people are fucked-up. They do incredibly foul things to each other, often in the service of some objective as trite as excitement or as ugly as ambition. In a world where stressed-out mothers drown their children and bored teenagers torch homeless men, where hungry ghetto thugs murder Chinese food deliverymen for an order of pork fried rice and absentee fathers pretend their children don't exist, how consoling it is to know that your flank is always covered-you shall never be alone. That's what a true friend brings. Companionship, a kindred soul. In fact, the word friend doesn't even feel adequate enough to get the point across.
Excerpted from A Love Story by Denene Millner Copyright © 2005 by Denene Millner. Excerpted by permission.
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