An Ordinary Woman
By Donna Hill, 1st ed.
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2002 Donna Hill
All rights reserved.
It's the first Sunday in June. The tiny room behind the chapel is filled with the elegant beauty of calla lilies. Their petals are like silk, their stems held together by delicate threads of green ribbon. Light from the high- noon sun floats through the stained-glass windows, casting a kaleidoscope of radiant color that washes the white satin-and-lace gown in a rainbow of brilliance. The oval mirror reflects the beauty of the bride.
Everything is perfect. As it should be. Lisa Holden and Ross Davis are made for each other. Everyone says so. Everyone.
"Asha, I'm scared," Lisa says out of the blue. "Happy and scared out of my mind."
I step up behind Lisa to fasten the pearl buttons of her dress, and my heart aches in a way that I don't quite understand. For so long we have been friends. Friends since grade school. Real friends, not the kind who come and go, but friends who dream together, laugh and cry together. We even dreamed this day. Nothing has ever come between us, not even our differences. Until now. This moment. The realization saddens me so deeply I feel its weight in the pit of my belly, a hollowness in the center of my chest that I'm not sure will ever be filled. At least not in the same way.
Change is not easy. I know that, understand it. I understand what Lisa and I have will evolve and become something else — new, different — maybe even better.
I'm happy for her. Really I am.
Lisa turns toward me, and oddly, I'm not surprised to see the shimmer of tears that make her light brown eyes sparkle, catching the sun. After all, today is a big day, a joyous day, perfect for tears. Besides, Lisa is good at crying. She cries at comedies. She's quirky like that.
"I understand happy But scared — of what? Tripping over that six-foot train, forgetting those two simple words, 'I do'? What, hon?" I laugh, hoping to ease the tense expression from her face.
With a tissue I quickly dab at the corners of her eyes before her perfect makeup job is ruined. I search her face for a hint of what is troubling her. A part of me knows, and I wonder if she sees the secret I try to hide behind my lowered lids.
The swish of her gown as she sits suddenly reminds me of a small boat casting off from the shore, buoyed by the gentle embrace of the waves that carry it out to unknown destinations. I can almost see her drift away until she takes my hand and pulls herself back — if only for a moment.
Lisa holds my hands between hers as if its I who need comfort. Maybe I do. She sniffs loudly and releases a giggle. She does that when she's nervous.
"I love Ross," she confesses as she's done hundreds of times. "I know I do. Love him like I've never loved another man in my life besides my father."
She pulls in a short breath of air and exhales her response on a puff of peppermint-tinted sweetness. "It's just that I've never been a wife before."
I want to laugh — maybe from relief that it wasn't something worse — but I know how serious she is, and it would only cause another crying jag.
"It's a lot of responsibility," she continues. "I don't want to fail Ross. And for the first time in my life, I feel so incapable."
"You?" Surprise at her admission lifts my voice a notch. "You're the most capable person I know, Lisa. You're the one the family turns to in a crisis — and me, too, for that matter. You're the one who stuck it out in school and got a full professorship before you hit thirty-five. You breeze through life and never let anything deter you from your goals. Lisa-"
"This is different, Asha," she says in that precise, enunciating-every- word-way she has when she is upset. "This is not something I can figure out, create a lesson plan for, study in school, or write a few letters to straighten out some corporate error. This is my life — meshing it with someone else's, my dreams and my hopes. There is no right way to do it, no plan." Her pencil-thin brows draw into a tight line across her otherwise smooth forehead.
"But isn't that part of the joy, the excitement?" Reluctance to explore new horizons is a trait in people that has always been difficult for me to understand. Especially in my dearest friend. After all our years together, one would have thought that some of my zest for life would rub off on her.
"I'm not like you, Asha. I can't walk into a strange room and make it mine. I can't get on a plane and land in some out-of-the-way place and know just what to do. And I'm scared. Scared that I'm going to screw this up." She blinks back a fresh set of tears and looks directly at me. "I'm afraid of losing you as my friend."
The memories float between us, unanchored, within the shimmering pools of her eyes. And I wonder: How does she know it isthat possible loss that is the demon I've been wrestling with since she announced she was getting married? How does she know that her big, glorious day keeps my ever-ready smile from being fully in place? That I feel my anchor being lifted and I'm being cast forever adrift? But of course Lisa would know. Nothing is secret between us. Not even thoughts unspoken.
I look into her eyes and try to convince her and myself with the words I've practiced in my head over and over. "You'll never lose me as a friend, Lisa. Never. So forget that, okay? You and Ross are going to have a great life together." I smile and squeeze her hands between mine. "And I get to play auntie to that house full of raunchy kids you're gonna have."
"Really? Do you really believe that, Asha?"
She sounds so much like a child, I think. A child needing reassurance. Yet I know, too, that the imploring wide-eyed look is an Oscar-winning camouflage for the steely resolve that rests beneath. I'm sure it's the magnet that drew Ross to Lisa: his need to nurture and protect, and her ability to project the illusion of helplessness. A perfect pair. They give each other what they need. And as her best friend, it's my job to convince her, make her believe something even I'm uncertain of.
"Yes, I believe it from the bottom of my heart." I smile reassuringly. "And I know you do, too."
Lisa glances away from my half-truth, quickly searching for an explanation that would make it whole, then turns back to me with the answer on her lips. "Wedding day jitters?"
We both laugh — hard and long — relief, sadness, joy, and pain erupting in wave after wave of almost giddy exaltation. A release, a balm — a veneer. By degrees, the merriment, the moment of reprieve subsides.
"Come on." My voice is still shaky. "Let me touch up your makeup and get this veil on you. Don't want to keep that man of yours waiting."
Lisa leans toward me and kisses my cheek. "I love you, Asha."
"Love you, too, girl. You're going to have a wonderful life with Ross. Believe that — in your heart."
"I know." She giggles again. "I know."
The church is packed with family and old friends, the air ripe with the scent of fresh flowers mixed with perfumes, colognes, and oils. The magnificent altar ahead is braced by rows of white tapers, the yellow flames dancing with the joy of the moment.
The sound of the organ pumps through my veins, giving purpose to my step, a holy quality to the gathering.
I make my way down the aisle, just as we practiced in rehearsal, smiling at the sea of faces that instantly blurs into a myriad of colors. Taking my place on the opposite side of the aisle, I face Lisa's brother, Clifton, the best man, and smile encouragingly at Ross. I wonder if he and Clifton had a similar man-to-man talk behind their closed door.
Something tells me no. Ross Davis is anything but unsure. He loves Lisa the way women dream of being loved — totally, without question, unequivocally. There are no doubts in Ross's mind. No uncertainty. And if there were, he would never voice them. That much I've learned about Ross in the brief year that he's been in Lisa's life — that we've all been friends — the times I've observed them together. I wonder if Lisa realizes this about her husband-to-be? Or has she been swept up in the romance of it all? Ross, her handsome knight who came along at just the right time to soothe her old heartaches. Hmmm. But aside from that, its easy to see why Lisa is attracted to Ross Davis. Though he's not magazine-cover material, he's attractive in a solid way — from the ruggedness of his milk-chocolate brown face to the solidness of his body. Ross's very presence in a room gives one a sense of security, of being protected — much like Lisa's father does. I think those are the things that draw Lisa so tightly to Ross, beyond the sincerity in his brown eyes or the way he can make his mouth stretch into a tight line when upset, or fill with warmth when he smiles. Yeah, anyone can see why Lisa would want a man like Ross Davis. Or at least I could.
All eyes turn toward the back of the church as the white-jacketed ushers open the heavy wood doors.
There stands Lisa, framed in a moment of absolute perfection. Behind her, the sun blazes, seeming to surround her in an ethereal glow. The congregation gasps in a collective voice of awe as the organist begins the strains of a wedding march.
For all of Lisa's earlier protestations and moments of doubt, she has lived for this moment — as most women do. And she takes it, making it totally hers, from the demure turn of her head, the almost catlike gait down the carpeted aisle, to the way she lightly pats her father's hand as he escorts her to meet her soon-to-be husband.
As I watch her, all I can think about at this very moment is the day we first met. Not how important right now is, not how it must be momentous for her, but how important that other time was for me. A time that brought us to this place — together.
* * *
It was the summer of 1976. I was almost twelve. Funny how that date sticks in my mind. But I suppose it would. It was two years after my father left us. My mother moved us onto Putnam Avenue — in the Bedford- Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn — said she wanted to start over, which was fine with me.
I was sitting on the stoop, fooling around with a beat-up camera I'd found in the basement, when I looked up and noticed a girl staring at me from across the street. I tried to ignore her, but it was as if I could feel her gaze on me, burning through the top of my skull, hotter than the sun.
I stood up, my red shorts high above my knobby knees, and I put my hands on my nonexistent hips. "What you starin' at?" I shouted.
She just turned her head and ignored me, acted as if she didn't hear a word I'd shouted. But I knew she had. Slowly, like in one of those scary movies, she turned to stare me down again.
"Nothing," she'd said.
Nothing! Well, what was I, a fig-a-ment of her imagination? I snatched the beat-up camera from the stone steps, marched right down them and across the street without looking, I was so mad.
I gave her one of my meanest looks — from the other side of her gate — just in case she had a dog and said, "Whatchu say?"
She did that thing again with her head, turned it just so — far enough away that she looked like she wasn't looking, and just enough that she could catch me from the corner of her eye.
"I said — n-o-t-h-i-n-g," she uttered from the side of her mouth, and that's when I noticed the slight drawl in her voice.
She propped her fists beneath her chin and kept staring at whatever she was staring at — like I wasn't there. But I was there, and I wasn't gonna be ignored. I had enough of that at home, enough of being treated like I didn't matter, like an afterthought.
"You don't know who you talkin' to."
"I'm speaking to you," she said in that tone only grown-ups used, like they knew something you didn't.
"You betta not be," I tossed back, working really hard to maintain my edge. Whoever this girl was, she wasn't scared of me. "If you wanna get along around here, you betta ack right," I warned.
"I'm not going to be here long," she said in that proper tone again. Finally she turned and looked at me, and her eyes were all shiny like she was about to bawl. Her bottom lip trembled. "I don't want to be here." A single tear ran down her cheek. "I want to go home."
All of a sudden I felt really bad for her, kinda sad, in a way. Up close she didn't look so prim and proper, all stuck-up and tough. She reminded me of an Indian, the kind we learned about in history class, with her high cheekbones, slanted eyes, and long black hair parted down the middle and braided just past her shoulders. Looked the way the Indians must have looked when they saw their villages burned to the ground and their land taken away from them.
I stepped a little closer, not wanting to be so mean anymore. "Where's home?" I asked.
She sniffed. "North Carolina."
I'd heard of it. Somewhere down South. I imagined kids running around without shoes, on dirt roads with fat bugs and wild animals always chasing them, and couldn't understand why anyone would want to live there. And I thought I remembered hearing the adults talk about how white folks didn't like us too much down there, anyway.
I frowned. "Why would you wanna go back there?"
She sniffed again, harder this time, and wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. "All of my friends live there. My family. My school. Everything," she said, sounding as if she was really ready to start wailing.
"Can't you make no friends here?" I looked up and down the black- tarred street and concrete sidewalks, at the kids running, hollering, and playing. Then I turned and stared at her, trying to understand what her problem was.
"I-I can't," she muttered and turned away again — just so.
Now I was really confused. Maybe folks from down South had some strange rules about making friends that wasn't in our history books.
"Why?" I asked.
Two more really fat tears plopped onto her cheeks and then ran down to the corners of her mouth.
"I don't know how."
I started to laugh, but then I realized she was serious. "You kiddin', right?" I asked just to be sure.
She shook her head and started crying for real.
Well, I'll be damned, I thought — something my mother always said when she was taken by surprise. This is a dilemma — another one of my mothers favorite lines.
"You want us to be friends?" I asked, not knowing what else to do. All her crying was making my stomach feel funny
She shrugged her thin shoulders, then said, "You want to?"
I shrugged my shoulders back at her. "I guess."
"You go first, then," she said, wiping her eyes with the back of her hand, then her nose with the hem of her shirt.
"Whaddaya mean, go first?"
She straightened her shoulders. "You tell me your name first — then I'll tell you mine."
Well I'll be damned, I thought for the second time in less than five minutes. Even then she'd honed her powers of passive manipulation. "Asha," I said sticking out my chin. I put my hand on my hip and leaned back on my legs, the way only bow-legged people can do, my grandmother used to say
"Lisa Holden," she said, as if it should mean something to me.
"Hi." I peered around her. "You got a dog?"
She giggled, and it reminded me of a hiccup. "No. Don't like dogs. They make me sneeze, and cats." She screwed up her face.
"Me, too," I said, feeling a sudden kinship.
I took a step inside the gate — now that I knew it was safe — then another until I was right in front of her. I noticed that her eyes were a light brown. I'd never seen eyes like that on somebody so dark before.
"My brother is always begging for a dog," she offered, before scooting over on the step.
I sat beside her.
"Do you have sisters and brothers?" she asked, sniffing back the leftover tears.
I shook my head. "Wish I did sometimes, though," I confessed.
"It's no big deal. You're better off without them," she said in that grown-up voice again. "The older ones tell you what to do all the time, and the younger ones always want you to play with them when you don't feel like it."
I laughed. She didn't.
"I have an older brother and sister, Clifton and Sandra, and a younger sister, Tina."
We sat quietly for a few minutes.
"I'll be your sister ... if you want," she said.
I turned to look at her. No one had ever offered that to me before: not Tracey, or Stephanie, or Glenda, or any of my friends.
"That's my mom. Gotta go." I stood and immediately headed for the gate. My mother didn't like it when I didn't come right away. "See ya."
"What's that?" she asked, stopping me in my tracks.
I turned toward her. "My camera."
"Sisters!" she said.
I raised the camera and clicked. The flash popped, and Lisa smiled.
Just as she's smiling now. The hot white light from the photographer's bulb dances behind my lids, momentarily blinding me as that first day on the stoop fades into the background. The words of the minister drift toward me as in a dream.
"... Do you, Lisa Holden, take Ross Davis to be your lawfully wedded husband? ..."
The words, words that I've heard so often in movies and on television, take on new meaning today. They settle deep inside me, stir something within me. For the first time, I think I truly understand the power of these centuries-old words. This standing before God and man and pledging your love and fidelity — and how much love it must take to want to give that much of yourself away to another human being. I wonder if I ever will. Ever could. (Continues...)
Excerpted from An Ordinary Woman by Donna Hill, 1st ed.. Copyright © 2002 Donna Hill. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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