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Clint took a deep breath. His mind was racing with thoughts of his soon-to-be bride, the woman he'd spend the rest of his life with. He let a sheepish grin rise on his face when he pictured hers, overcome with emotion when she pulled the silver ribbon and opened the box to the book of love poems that said all that he could not.
That was one of the things he adored about her. The simplest acts of kindness brought joy to hertoast and coffee on a morning tray, an unexpected lunch date that neither one of them really had time for. He thought about the time he'd borrowed the out-of-production Angela Bofill album from a friend and made a tape, placing it in her cassette player so that "I'm on Your Side" would be the first thing she heard when she started the car. He had watched her as she tried to ward off the impending tears. He was proud to have that kind of power over her. To know so easily how to make her fall in love with him again and again was like being the richest man in the world. She didn't need master plans with attached instructions. Like Clint, all she wanted was to be loved unconditionally and, on occasion, to be shown how much.
He looked out on the audience that was gathering to witness their unity, sisters wearing brights and pastels on their various tints of dark satin skin, brothers walking around clean and polished like a brigade of Farrakhan soldiers, everybody trying to outdo everybody else. Even the babies were wrapped up like dolls in the toy store, wearing their little bonnets and pink ruffles. And him, standing in the sweltering humidity, dressed in black tails, glossy black patent leather shoes, and a grin-and-bear-it smile, making him feel like the lone black male model in the pages of the Sears catalog.
Clint shook the hands of relatives he didn't know by sight, repeating the same thing over and over because he didn't have much else to say except "thanks for coming" and "good to see you all." Kissing aunts who still called him Baby Blue, a nickname that reminded him of the shame he used to feel for being one of the darkest little boys on Ames Street. His just reward was that now his smooth midnight skin was deemed one of his best qualities; seductive, smoldering, even the word elegant had been used to describe him. He didn't like to harp on the flattery he'd received from women over the years, but it quieted the fires that would still erupt every now and then in his mind, the childhood memories of feeling inferior because of the blackness of his skin.
Clint shifted slightly. His lean tall body stood erect like the rest of the props, the pew, the arch with the fresh flowers. As he looked across the makeshift ballroom, he scanned the neatly aligned white chairs where his aunts sat patting the moisture from their plump necks with handkerchiefs that probably had four generations of owners before them. Fans were being whipped out and waved back and forth, actually increasing the perspiration they were fretting over. The electric fans set up in the tent were blowing the same warm air that everyone was trying to escape from outside. Near the entrance Kurt and Eddie were hovering around waiting for more guests. Marcell and Clint's brother, Cedric, had just seated three guests on the bride's side and were ready to take on new escort duties. It's comical, Clint thought, while watching them tussle over who would show the decent-looking ladies to their seats, then watching them spread like wildfire when a bad gene walked in, braids too thick, skirt too tight over an ass too wide.
Kurt was the only one being an equal-opportunity player. Swinging his long arm through theirs, striding them down the aisle in assembly fashion. Clint wished they'd all act with a little more sense and maturity. They were supposed to be his representation, his dutiful guards, posted to serve and protect. These were the ones who helped get him through a grueling bout of medical school. They'd be friends for life, no doubt, like comrades of war. They'd survived while many others had not.
Kurt waved at Clint to get his attention. Now what, Clint thought. Kurt threw his eyes in a jerky movement to the right of him. Clint's eyes widened when he saw her walk in. She showed up.
He couldn't believe it. Her chiffon dress skimmed every curve of her body, stopping at the point where her legs began. She looked his way. Clint gave her a nod of acknowledgment. He knew he could do no more than that. All questioning eyes were upon him. What's she doing here? The whispers were floating through the air. Or was it his imagination?
Clint didn't know what to expect when he'd personally dropped off the invitation in her mailbox. He didn't dare take a chance on the U.S. Postal Service. He wanted to know it had been delivered. If she didn't show up, he'd know it was intentional and not an oversight. But she had taken the high road and walked in here polished, radiating happiness.
"How ya holdin' up, man?" Cedric inquired, already knowing the answer.
"I'm all right." Speaking was painful for Clint. His tongue was glued to the roof of his mouth.
"You see who showed up?" Cedric let out a small laugh and slapped his baby brother on the back. "You look like you could use a drink."
Clint could feel the shirt underneath his tuxedo jacket stick to the spot where his brother's hand landed. It clung to his perspiring skin.
"Nah, man, just water."
"That's all I'm offering, my brotha. You can barely stand now. Don't worry, man. I'll make sure no catfights go down." His older brother walked away the same way he'd come, smiling and kissing babies like a politician. Cedric hadn't worn a suit since his own wedding ten years ago and was taking advantage of his day in the sun as the best man.
He returned with the same affable expression, carrying a large crystal goblet of water. "Here you go, man."
Clint took the ice-cold water and drank, sipping slowly to loosen up the parched edges of his mouth. He felt like a dying man, and this was his last drink of water . . . as a single guy. He had to admit to himself he was scared. After this day, there would be no more choices. No more contemplating, struggling for the right answer. No one should ever have to make the choice between two women. Especially when both were everything you could ever want in this lifetime. But it was done. He had chosen.
Clint shook himself a little to stay in the here and now. He took a few more quick breaths, but he was still in the smooth arms of the past. The music started playing a nondescript tune. The last available seats had been filled with more pastel hats, suits and ties. Clint tried to focus, refocus. He lost sight of her. He couldn't tell where she was sitting, if she was still there. Maybe she had changed her mind. Told herself, "after all he'd put her through, he didn't deserve her blessing."
But when he caught sight of her standing, the coral splash of color, the right amount of spice on her tangy light brown skin, greeting Cedric with a hug, for that moment it was Clint, there, in her arms. In his mind, he hugged her back. He could smell the airy sweet perfume she always wore, feel her lips pressed against his cheek.
The sound of the loud organ gearing up threw Clint back into reality. He eyed the full expecting faces sitting in rows, all waiting for the show, the unity of man and woman till death do they part. The pounding of the three chords reverberated through his feet and rose up in his chest. This was it. If he didn't stop this thing now, there would be no turning back.