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The brass headboard thumped against the wall as he rolled off of her and onto his back. Maxine gritted her teeth and lowered her flannel nightgown back down to her knees then stared up at the ceiling and began to count silently. One, two, three, When she reached ten, she turned her face against the cotton pillowcase and glanced at her husband. Just as she'd predicted, he was sound asleep, his fifty-year-old, sepia-toned face looking as contented as a baby's after feeding. In another ten seconds flat, Curtis would be snoring loudly enough for the neighbors to hear. Whereas it would be hours before she would be able to get even a wink of sleep.
Maxine tossed the bed quilt aside and stood with enough force to shake a mountain, even though she knew Mr. Romantic After Sex wouldn't feel the bed move. You would think she'd be used to this dull-sex routine by now. She was forty-five, they had been married for twenty years and this wham, bam, good night ma'am routine had been going on for ten of them. For years it had been tolerable. She would just roll onto her side, fume for a few minutes and doze off herself. But for the past year or so, Maxine had been having a lot of trouble falling asleep. She was also gaining weight, having hot flashes and losing her eyesight. Not only was her sex life more depress-ing these days, her whole life was also messed up.
She grabbed a pair of black slipper socks from the floor near the bed and put them on. This getting older was no walk in the park. In fact, it was more like a walk through hell. It certainly didn't make life's ills any easier. She opened the door and marched out of the bedroom. What she needed was a good stiff drink. A nice glass of sherry, or better yet, Tia Maria.
She made her way down the carpeted hallway without both-ering to switch on a light. No need to make everyone else in the house miserable, too, by waking them. Besides, she had enough misery running through her pores at this moment for the entire household. She stopped abruptly at her daughter's closed bedroom door and stared at the orange neon Keep Out poster for a second, then twisted the knob and threw the door wide open.
Earlier that evening she had reminded Brandi for the hun-dredth time not to close her door as the fifteen-year-old rudely hopped up from the dinner table and stormed off because Maxine refused to let her go to a party that Saturday night. Maxine didn't like teenagers closing their bedroom doors. No telling what they were up to behind them. She hadn't allowed Brandi's older sister, Naomi, to close her door unless she was getting dressed and she wasn't going to start allowing it now.
Maxine hastily flipped on the light switch and walked up to Brandi's twin bed as the girl lifted her head and squinted against the bright ceiling light. Brandi rubbed her eyes, frowned deeply and looked up at her mother, a puzzled expression on her young tan face. She was clutching an off-white teddy bear, and a few strands of dark brown curly hair peeked out from a pink cotton scarf tied around her head.
Maxine struggled to keep her cool as she stared into the young girl's face, a face that her mother and others always said was the spitting image of her own. Maxine didn't see it. She thought Brandi was a lot cuter than she had ever been. "Didn't I tell you not to close your bedroom door?" Maxine said, hands planted firmly on her hips as she towered above the bed.
"I've told you a thousand times to keep this door open," Maxine said, straining to keep her voice calm. Why did kids suddenly become hard of hearing when they reached the teen years? Naomi had been the same way.
Brandi glanced from her mother to the clock on her night-stand and back at her mother. "It's one o'clock in the morning, and you woke me up to tell me that?" Brandi tightened her clutch on the teddy bear and buried her head beneath the pillow.
"If you kept the door open like you're told, I wouldn't have to wake you up."
"It's just a damn door!" Brandi yelled, her voice slightly muffled by the pillow.
"Don't you curse at me, young lady." Maxine smacked her lips, bent over and yanked a pair of blue jeans off the floor.
"And why can't you ever hang your clothes up when you take them off?" she snapped. She held the jeans out at arm's length.
"I pay too much money for this stuff that you have to have, for you to be throwing it on the floor. I'm tired of telling you that over and over again."
Brandi yanked the pillow off her head and sat up abruptly. "Get off my back, will you? I'm trying to sleep here. You have no right to do this to me just because you're having one of your senior moments."
Maxine glared at Brandi for a second and debated what to do. She was tempted to grab the girl and drag her out of bed. But Maxine did feel a twinge of guilt for waking her daughter in the middle of the night, at least partly because of her frus-trated sex life with her husband and partly because, well, Brandi was right. She was having a senior moment, one of those rushing to her head and it would burst wide open any moment. Maxine knew what that meant. A hot flash was coming on. Still, Brandi had no right to talk to her mother that way.
Maxine wiped the perspiration from her forehead with the back of her hand and threw the jeans across the seat of Brandi's desk chair. She backed out of the room and switched off the light. If there was anything more aggravating than getting older, it was having a smart-mouthed, ornery teenage daughter. Maxine had gone through this once with Naomi, now thank-fully away in her freshman year of college at Hampton Univer-sity, Maxine's alma mater. Maxine didn't like to admit it to Naomi left home. One less ungrateful brat to deal with.
She walked down the short flight of stairs of the split foyer and across the family room carpet to the kitchen. She opened a cabinet, reached up for the bottle of Tia Maria and poured herself a drink, then walked back into the family room and sat on the stuffed leather armchair. She put her feet up on the footrest, took a sip and leaned her head back as the warm liquid flashes come even more fast and furious, but so what. It also helped her to relax.
What a chore her life had become, she thought as she glanced out the patio door. It was pitch black, but she didn't need to be able to see to know exactly what was going on out there in this cookie-cutter suburban neighborhood. Nothing. Every house, every yard, every driveway was the same, down to the little nondescript trees planted at the curb in front of each dwelling. It was the typical Maryland suburb. It was quiet, it was safe. It was also dull, just like her life.
Sometimes she missed the danger and excitement of Wash-ington, D.C., and the early years of their family life. She and Curtis were struggling to save money to buy this house and better cars, but they were young and vibrant and always made time for dinner, dancing and outings with the girls. He regu-larly brought her roses and chocolates for no reason, and she made the effort to cook his favorite meals.
Somewhere along the way all of that had changed. She couldn't remember the last time Curtis brought home flowers or candy, and she hated to cook. It was hard to get up the mo-tivation to prepare a big meal when it went unappreciated. And no one appreciated her around here anymore. Not Curtis. Not the girls. All they cared about was having clean laundry and getting three hot meals a day. If she walked out of this house tomorrow, they could find a cleaning woman and never even miss her. Curtis could pop one his precious Viagra pills and hire prostitutes for his sex life for all the romance he showed his wife.
Her weight had fluctuated a lot since she reached her forties, as she fought against regaining the extra pounds she had carried around in her childhood. Curtis used to notice whenever she gained or lost a few pounds. He generally preferred her when she had a little more meat on her bones and was more "full-figured," as he called it. But over the past year she had slowly ballooned to one hundred forty-five pounds for the first time in her life, and Curtis hadn't said a word. Not one word. She had become invisible to him.
She had had a good relationship with Brandi until about two years ago. They used to shop together, cook together and laugh at each other's jokes. She had had good relationships with both of her daughters until they turned thirteen and discovered boys. Then they seemed to think they didn't have to listen to their old, hot-flash-having mama anymore. What a pity. She had worked so hard to develop open relationships with her daughters and not to be too controlling. But if Naomi and Brandi thought that meant they could run over her and do whatever they pleasedwhenever they pleasedthey were dead wrong. She was still their mother and as long as either of them lived in her house, her word was law.
Which is exactly what her mama used to tell her. Maxine exhaled loudly. Sometimes she felt that she had become a watered-down version of her mother despite all her effort not to. Even her mother was telling her to lighten up with the girls these days. Just last week, Brandi brought her report card home with a D in history. Her grade in math had dropped from a B to a C, so Maxine took her cell phone and grounded her until the next marking period.
Apparently, Brandi called her grandmother very soon there-after, because less than an hour later Maxine picked up the phone to hear her mother's voice. "Don't you think you're being too hard on Brandi, Maxine? I don't think I ever punished you for longer than two weeks and never for a report card." Maxine listened politely as her mother went on and on. She didn't remind Francis that she was never grounded for her report cards because she hardly ever brought home any grades below a B. She was too scared of what would happen if she did.
Maxine lifted her head to take another sip of Tia Maria just as the phone rang. She blinked and her thick eyelashes fluttered rapidly as she hastily placed her glass on the coffee table. Who would be calling at this hour? she wondered as she jumped up, ran into the kitchen and grabbed the phone sitting on the kitchen desk.
"Maxine," her mother said, her voice sounding high and anxious.
"What is it, Ma? Is everything okay?"
Maxine heard her mother sigh loudly and a chill ran up her spine. "Are you all right?" she asked anxiously.
"I'm fine. It's your Aunt Cassie. She had a heart attack. She" Francis paused and sniffed. "She didn't make it," Francis said softly.
Maxine caught her breath. "Oh, no!"