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1In the hour since she’d first walked through the doors of her old high school gymnasium to attend her thirty-year high school reunion, Phyllis Neville had consumed two dirty martinis, six olives, and gushed (or pretended to gush) over at least half a dozen photographs of ugly children, approximately twelve reasonably attractive grandchildren, and one great-grandchild who bore a striking resemblance to Bert from Sesame Street. Thank God for name tags and bifocal contact lenses, because without both, she wouldn’t have known who any of these people were.
Life-size photographs from the yearbook of their former, teenage selves flashed across a giant screen—er, bedsheet?—against one of the walls. Old and bloated bodies swayed from side to side on the dance floor, looking more like one giant wave of movement than individual dancers ebbing and flowing to the music of “Use ta Be My Girl” by the O’Jays blaring from the speakers, and balding heads reflected colored light under the giant disco ball twirling up above.
She’d just gotten here but had already decided that she would spend the next half hour working on the drunk-to-end-all-drunks before it was all said and done.
Why in the world had she decided to come? She wondered, frowning at the question posed in private. She had never come to any of the reunions, but for some unknown and mystical reason, she’d made the conscious effort to shop for and actually purchase a dress and shoes, get her hair done, and even get a mani-pedi, all in preparation to come to this event, which she knew she’d hate as soon as she’d walked through the doors, and dammit—she was right.
“This is stupid,” she muttered under her breath, deciding right then and there that she’d had enough. Phyllis would finish this third martini she’d just ordered and these last three olives and sneak out without a word to anyone, stealthy and unnoticed, like a ninja. She chugged down her drink like it was milk and gobbled up her olives, then she happened to glance across the room. Her heart sank into the souls of her Christian Louboutin pumps, and she nearly choked to death on that damn olive when she saw him. Marcus. Her ex-husband, Marcus, and the father of her child. In fact, that child, their daughter Abby, had been the one to let it slip that Marcus would be here tonight, which was the real reason Phyllis had decided to come to this thing in the first place, despite her incessant denials.
He spotted her, too, and the expression on his face was indescribable, and not necessarily good. Phyllis made her way through the crowd toward him.
Marcus scratched his head. “I uh . . . didn’t expect to see you here.”
Phyllis tried not to stare, but even after three decades, he was still the finest boy in the school. He wore his hair cut so close to the scalp that if it weren’t for the gray sprinkled throughout it, he’d have looked bald. The fine gray-and-black texture of his hair continued down the sides of his face to a perfectly trimmed beard, and dark, penetrating eyes complimented his smooth cocoa brown complexion, but other than that, he looked alright.
“I thought you didn’t dig things like this,” he continued, unknowingly breaking through her trance.
“I—well, uh . . . ,” she stammered. “I don’t, normally.”
He nodded. She nodded. He shifted. She shifted.
Finally, he broke the awkward silence between them. “You look good, Phyllis. Nice.”
She smiled. Hell. She blushed, but not a lot. “Thank you, Marcus. So do you.”
He looked better than good. He looked delicious.
They had been inseparable from the time they’d met as sophomores in high school until their senior year. The world came to a screeching halt for Phyllis when they broke up. After that, she swore, in her melodramatic teenage way, that she’d never love again. If she couldn’t have Marcus, then Phyllis didn’t want anyone. Four months after graduation, they saw each other on the campus at Colorado State University and quickly rekindled their old flame. Phyllis had been blessed by the gods and ended up with the man of her dreams after all. At the end of their sophomore year, they got married, and it was bliss. Six months later, Phyllis was pregnant. That was where things got a little murky for her. From that point on, the life that she’d planned for herself—getting her BA, then her MBA—all sort of went south, and all of a sudden, ambitious, career-driven, future first African American female president of the world was somebody’s wife and soon to be somebody’s mother, and looking back, she really hadn’t prepared herself for either.
The haunting lyrics of “their song” echoed through the tunnels of her memories.
You’re still all I need to get by, Marcus.
The words were on the tip of her tongue, like they were every time she saw that man. Of course pride wouldn’t dare let her repeat what she felt. Pride, and of course, what’s-her-name.
“There you are.” The new Mrs. Neville practically tackled the man, wrapped her overtoned arms in a vice grip around his waist, planted a slick, saliva-sloshing kiss on his lips, and glared at Phyllis with her evil python eyes. “Phyllis.” It was a statement. “Wow. Abby said you weren’t coming to the reunion.”
Abby is about as clueless as her father, Phyllis wanted to say, but thought better of it.
Phyllis smiled and stuck out her ample chest. Wifey was as flat as a board. Yeah, the woman might’ve very well had a six-pack underneath that dress, but she knew as well as Phyllis that Marcus was a breast man. “Well, here I am. Good to see you too, Sharon.”
She was younger than him—them, by ten years. In those cheap sling-backs, she stood nearly as tall as he did, and that was the only reason, Phyllis had always concluded, that the woman didn’t look more like a linebacker. Phyllis sipped from her glass and sized up the homegrown weave, grimaced internally at the atrocious shade of pink that cow had spread across that gaping hole on her face that she called a mouth, and shuddered at the ill-fitting and tasteless sheath she’d thrown on for the occasion. Walmart? Target? Ross. Yes. It had to be from Ross. Not that she’d know anything about that personally. Phyllis only shopped at places like that for bedding and towels. Never in a million years would she have been caught dead actually wearing a cocktail dress from a place like that. But then again—she wasn’t Sharon.
Standing there with the two of them canoodling like they were, Phyllis felt any ounce of love she still had for the man slowly starting to slip away, sort of like the bead of sweat rolling down the middle of her back and dissolving into the band of her thong. It was a nasty, nasty feeling, and the time had come for her to leave.
“Well, I hope the two of you have a lovely evening,” she said, sounding smug. “I uh . . . I’ve gotta pee.” She smiled.
With that she turned and headed straight for the ladies’ room, and after that, she was getting the hell out of this joint.
It was her. Freddie Palmer had thought she’d seen Phyllis earlier, but it wasn’t until she spotted her talking to Marcus Neville that she knew for certain.
“Jesus,” she mouthed, watching as Phyllis made her way through the crowd toward the ladies’ room.
“What?” Don, her husband, asked. The two of them had been shaking their groove things on the dance floor when Freddie suddenly stopped.
Her lips moved, but it took a moment to answer him. “Phyllis,” she said, stunned, still staring in her direction.
Don leaned closer and shouted over the music. “Who?”
“I think I just saw Phyllis. Phyllis Whittaker,” she managed to shout back.
“Oh! Well, come on,” he tugged on her elbow. “Let’s go say hey!”
Freddie’s feet felt like they were planted in the wooden floor and she didn’t budge. Doubt stopped her. Uncertainty stranded her right where she stood, and her thoughts began bumping into each other as she agonized over what she’d say to the woman.
“Hello, Phyllis. It’s me, Freddie. Say, do you ever think about that kid we dropped off in that emergency room that night?” Or, “Yo, girl. Whassup? So about that baby . . . you know the one . . .”
Guilty tears clouded her eyes and broke her heart. Freddie had done a damn good job all these years, putting the past behind her. She’d gone on with her life, married her high school sweetheart, had kids, even had grandchildren now, without so much as skipping a beat about that night she shared with her two best friends more than three decades ago. And shame on her. Shame on all of them for what they’d done.
“What’s wrong? Come on, Freddie,” Don insisted.
Panic quickly set in and Freddie realized that she needed to get rid of Don before she started to look like a crazy woman. “Can you go and get me a glass of wine, honey?”
He looked confused. “You okay?”
She nodded and smiled. “I just need a glass of wine, Don.”
He shrugged and disappeared into the crowd.
Freddie slowly turned around and stared straight into the eyes of the woman behind her. It took a moment to actually recognize her, but when she did, the sight of her took Freddie’s breath away, because the woman hardly looked like her former self at all. It was her smile that gave her away.
“Renetta,” Freddie said warmly.
Neither of them spoke for what felt like an eternity. They simply stared at each other, reached out and took hold of each other’s hands, and squeezed appreciatively.
They hadn’t seen or spoken to each other since before graduation, and after school ended, they’d each gone their separate ways without a word.
“How have you been?” Renetta asked with tears in her eyes.
Freddie grinned. “I’ve been good. Good. And what about you?”
Renetta nodded and then laughed. She hadn’t realized how much she’d missed Freddie until now. Her memories skipped past the darkest moments of her life and lighted on happier times shared between two young girls laughing, playing, gossiping, and loving each other more like they were sisters than friends.
“Was that Don I saw you dropping it like it was hot with on the dance floor?” She laughed.
Freddie shook her head. “Girl, yes. I dropped it just fine, but he had to help me get it back up.”
Renetta stared sincerely at her friend. “I’m sorry I missed the wedding.”
“Me too,” Freddie said softly. “So, what about you?” she examined Renetta’s left hand. “I don’t see a ring on your finger. Not married?”
“Not exactly,” she smiled.
After studying her face for a moment, Freddie concluded that now was not the time to probe.
“It’s complicated,” Renetta went on to say.
“Sometimes, I guess it is.”
Despite the fact that it had been years since they’d seen each other, Renetta could always read Freddie like a book. The light in Freddie’s eyes seemed to fade, and it didn’t take a rocket scientist to know why.
“I know what you’re thinking,” Renetta said, smiling, and blinked away her own tears. “Believe me, I know, but now is not the time, Freddie,” she warned gently.
“When is the time, Renetta?”
Renetta sighed. “How about never?” She smiled sheepishly. “Too much to ask?”
“You know it is,” Freddie responded.
“I know, but not tonight, Freddie, and not here. There’s so much to catch up on. Good things, like . . . Did you and Don go overseas after you got married? Tell me about some of the places you’ve lived. How are your folks?”
Freddie didn’t respond.
“We can talk about it later,” Renetta said calmly.
“It’s late enough already, Renetta. It’s been thirty years, and we’ve never actually spoken about what happened.”
“Talking about it’s not going to change it.”
“No, it won’t but—”
“Call me.” Renetta reached into her purse and pulled out a business card and handed it to her. “We’ll get together, Freddie. And we’ll talk until we lose our voices, okay?”
Renetta was about to walk away when she spotted Phyllis coming out of the ladies’ room. Freddie turned in time to see her, too, and the three of them stood frozen, staring back and forth between each other. Freddie walked toward her. “Phyllis,” she mouthed, smiling and as happy to see her as she’d been to see Renetta. “Phyllis,” she called out again.
Phyllis turned quickly and hurried out of the building without ever saying a word.
No! No! No! She was not going to be dragged back into that mess! Phyllis drove home, clenching the steering wheel. Screeeeeech! “Oh!” she gasped, coming within inches of hitting another car at an intersection. Tears suddenly streamed down her cheeks. Phyllis composed herself enough to pull over to the side of the road to try to catch her breath. Tonight hadn’t been her night. But that was putting it mildly. Seeing Marcus with his wife had been bad enough. Seeing Freddie Banks and Renetta Smith—
Phyllis had made up her mind a long time ago to stay away from both of them. Too much had happened . . . terrible things had happened, and she’d promised herself to leave the past where it belonged.
Phyllis took slow, deep breaths to calm herself and clear her thoughts. Thank goodness she’d seen them before they could get to her. Thank goodness she’d left before either of them had a chance to say a word to her. The three of them had gone their separate ways years ago. Thank goodness for that, too.
Excerpted from Take Your Pleasure Where You Find It by .
Copyright © 2010 by J. D. Mason.
Published in March 2010 by St. Martin’s Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.