David Haynes “strikes out from the Waiting to Exhale formula” (Newsday) in a “hilarious” (Publishers Weekly), “consistently on-target” novel (Kirkus Reviews) about faithless boyfriends, spoiled siblings, preteen beauty queens, and Whitney Houston wannabes.
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I was on my way to what I hoped would be the romantic vacation of my life, off to Door County for a whole entire week of sweet sane rest. More rest. I needed more rest.
You know Door county, don't you? It's that cute little finger of Wisconsin that sticks up into Lake Michigan like a pointed penis. Littered with quaint country inns and cute shops and scenic vistas, everything there practically drips love and happiness. I was in the car, Calvin driving, traveling east on I-94. We'd been on the road for about an hour when Calvin, who I'd been messing around with for the previous eight months (a post-college record!), dumps me. I tell you this sad story by way of explaining how a person such as myself could end up spending the better part of the summer, of what on the surface seemed a competent adult life, living in the guest room in the basement of her mother's house. Athena Deneen Wilkerson, a college-educated, hardworking professional woman. Advertising phenom, friend of the earth, an owner of major appliances. Yes, this happened to me.
Katrina, who introduced me to Calvin in the first place, warned me that he was a chump, but I didn't trust her. She is the sort of person who tells you she has a great guy for you, and then a few days after you go out with him for the first time tells you what a chump she thinks he is. If he was such a chump, why did she introduce us in the first place? Either she wanted to see me fixed up with a chump (maybe), or else she really wanted him for herself and, for whatever reason, was having trouble putting out the right bait (probably). So, she introduced us, and, as happens in such stories, one thing led to another. I'd rather not get into that part--the dodging and feints, the courting and wooing. Those performances led eventually to my taking a week of the months of vacation they owed me at Waltershied, Williams and Caruthers, packing my things, and tooling along the interstate in Calvin's painfully conservative 1996 Toyota Camry Sedan. The radio was playing that perfectly awful "I Will Always Love You" as performed by Ms. Whitney Houston herself. Now, don't get me wrong: the sister's got great pipes. But to me this song has always sounded as if somebody let the rocker down on the cat's tail. I can't stand this damn song. So what did I do? Me, a person who has been asked at baseball games to please speak rather than sing the words to "The Star Spangled Banner," I opened my mouth and I started singing along with her, like it was me in the movie who'd just had all that good white-boy loving. One thing me and Ms. Houston have in common: if you can't sing it right, girl, sing it loud. I looked over at Calvin. I expected him to be cringing and covering his ears. He stared straight ahead, as if Whitney and I had been leaning across the back fence exchanging recipes instead of engaging in a soulful duet. No expression on his face at all.
So, I resumed looking out the window. Looking back at me was some of that fine Wisconsin scenery. You know how exciting that is. Look: a tree. Look: a billboard. Look: a herd of buffalo. A herd of buffalo!!!
"Calvin," I said, "There's a herd of buffalo over there."
He didn't say anything.
"Did you hear me? What is a herd of buffalo doing in the middle of Wisconsin?"
"I think we ought to break up," he said.
I guess I don't have to tell you that such is not the answer to the question about what a herd of buffalo is doing in Wisconsin. I swiveled my head over in the nigger's direction to make sure I'd heard him right. "I beg your pardon?" I said.
"I think we ought to break up," he repeated, and I said, "Oh."
I guess he couldn't have been more direct, could he? Still, it left me sitting there on my vacationing behind with a whole lot of questions. Like: Why? And: Why are you telling me this now? And: If that's how you feel, why is your car still going seventy-one miles an hour away from the city where we both live? But, you know how sometimes you get the feeling that in the play you are performing everyone but you has somehow missed their cues, that whatever your next line is supposed to be isn't readily apparent? Yes, I had fantasized a whole lovely story about our trip. I had imagined such charming sentiments coming from my mouth as: "Wisconsin sure is beautiful in the summer," and "Don't you just love the way the waves break over the rocks," and "Why don't we stay right here in this bed all day long." I had not imagined that on my romantic vacation I would be responding to bullshit like this. And, while I consider myself to be both mentally quick and verbally agile, at the moment the best I could come up with was that pathetic and thinly aspirated, "Oh."
Calvin kept driving. As if all he had done was announce the score of a Timberwolves game. I sat there trying to cook up a more appropriate response.
The thing is, when you are in a car traveling somewhat over the legal speed limit, dressed in a cute summer outfit (in my case, an adorable Hawaiian print shirt I found at Lane Bryant--liana leaves and orchids in the most delicate earth tones you could imagine; and white tennis shorts, cinched in the middle with an old Boy Scout belt), with a man who has just dumped you and who also, as it happens, knows a lot of personal information about you, such as the location of various moles on your body and the specific brand names of the feminine hygiene products you use (who happens to have a whole routine of not particularly funny jokes about "things with wings"), I think it is vital to respond appropriately to being unceremoniously dumped. The unceremonious part is important. Maybe if he had hired a brass band or some out-of-work actor in a gorilla suit to present me with the bad news, I'd have had a more cogent reaction. As it was--presented with this sound bite as coolly as if he were asking me to try a new brand of mustard--I was unsure how to respond.
One might, I imagined, begin weeping. Silently would be nice--though my preference has always been for full-throated out-and-out wailing. There is much to recommend this approach, the first and by far the most important advantage being that men are completely incapacitated by tears. Tears are to men what kryptonite is to Superman: they have the capacity to turn the most intelligent rational he-man you know into a sniveling wimp. My previous relationship, Robert--the Black Ninja Sumo Monster--had an attack of conjunctivitis that he claims was caused by my crying because he refused to escort me out of a kick boxing match at the St. Paul Civic Center. It was our second and last date. I'll not speak of his crazy butt again. Still, for the most part, I am not a crier. It's a cheap trick--lazy, demonstrates a lack of ambition--and must only be used for the most dire emergencies, such as finding yourself trapped at a kick boxing match at the St. Paul Civic Center, so that leaving on your own would require fighting your way to the exits through throngs of drooling, domestic beer-poisoned men. So crying was out.
I thought about getting physical. I recall thinking that I should look in my purse to see if there was anything to cut him with. A fingernail file. A pair of cuticle scissors. Despite what many people think, as a black woman, no, I do not carry a switchblade. Just one of those hair picks with the sharpened metal tips--maybe I could ram it into the motherfucker's side. Just kidding. The only "ethnic hair care" (as they call it at K Mart) item I had was one of those pink brushes with blunt black knobs on the end. Lacking possession of anything sharp, I would have had to resort to pummeling him. I could work him over with the brush--leave for the police a body with evenly spaced grids of circles all over it. Give forensics something to puzzle out. But, no, something big and blunt would be better. My fist--or a brick maybe! I gave assault some serious thought: the pure adrenal joy of just beating the shit out of him. I know that many of you sisters share this particular fantasy. I have to confess that when I was growing up, one of my heroines was Aunt Esther on Sanford and Son. Girl, when LaWanda Page pummeled Redd Foxx with that big old purse of hers, it made my day. Calvin, he is one of those scrawny men (scrawny and thin everywhere, if you know what I mean. More on that later). One good swipe, I could've knocked his narrow behind through the windshield. Of course violence breeds violence, and while I had no knowledge or experience of Calvin the abuser ... well that's the problem, you see, I didn't know. He sure didn't look like one or act like one. But, then again, he never looked or acted like the sort of man who would dump his girlfriend on the way to their vacation.
I thought about reaching over and twisting his ear off or yanking out a hank of his nappy hair. Or just slapping him. Hard. Having earlier ruled out killing myself, I figured it probably wasn't a good idea to start duking it out with the driver of the car in which one is a passenger. And, yeah, girls, for a minute there I did think about killing myself. But only for a minute. Pills is the only way I'd even think of doing it, and, expecting a week in paradise, I'd neglected to pack for this contingency. The best I could have done would have been to open the door while the car was moving and get out. My luck, I'd survive. My ample booty would have bounced a couple of times and all that would have happened was I'd get some nasty cinders in my knee, ruin a cute outfit, and people back in Minneapolis would point at my ragged and bruised body and say things, such as, "There's that girl who tried to kill herself over a man." They would shake their heads and make clicking noises with their tongues. Personally, I hate a public spectacle. More importantly, and as we all know, nine times out of ten, that's what they want, these men. They want you to do something crazy so they can sit around the bar and tell their friends, "See, I told you the bitch was sick."
An update: We were still going seventy-one miles per hour down I-94 in Wisconsin. There were some more trees and some more cows.
I knew I was going to have to talk my way through this. I only needed to come up with the exact right words.
I could have been rational. I could have gotten myself very quiet inside and put on my nurturing voice, full of New Age tones, sweet, the one I use when I want Mr. Waltershied, Senior Partner of Waltershied, Williams and Caruthers, to calm down before we pitch an ad campaign to a new client. (Mr. Waltershied has the inner peace of a hyperactive seven-year-old.) "Calvin," I could have said, "Baby, can we talk?" Or, "Sugar, I'm having just a bit of trouble understanding why you're saying such a thing on our vacation. Can you share your thoughts? Sweetie? Please?"
I spent a few minutes shopping around that store, but you know how it is. The merchandise was cheesy and picked over. Nothing in there I'd be caught dead saying.
And I knew what he was going say. He'd say: "I'm sorry. It's just the way I feel," or "Can't we be friends now," or "You see, there's this woman who...." And we all know that bitch: "This Woman Who." Why do we always have to find ourselves in the middle of this same damn conversation? You can't win. It's as if every one of these dogs out there has the same damn script. I bet that in sixth grade, while the hygiene teacher was showing us girls that simple-ass Girl to Woman movie, the gym teachers took their ornery butts down the hall and handed out condoms and wallet-sized cards with this crap already printed up on it.
I wasn't playing that scene again.
So I figured I'd just cuss his black ass out. Call him every kind of low-down, filth-sucking, son-of-a-tree-stump-motherfucker I could come up with. That sure would feel good.
But you know what? Men like it when you call them names. They do. Especially dirty names. It gets them all excited. Also, you have to be mad to do a good cuss out. Red hot mad, and when I thought about it, I wasn't that upset. I realized that even though I had agreed to go away with this man for a week, I couldn't say that I was particularly attached to him. I couldn't find any feelings for him at all, to tell the truth. In that sense, cussing him out seemed awfully pathetic. It would be almost like begging. I'm the sort of woman who would have slapped that Diana Ross--for a lot of reasons--but especially in all them movies when she was groveling around after old slick-headed Billy Dee Williams for some attention. Please. I thought to myself, pickins would have to get pretty slim before I'd beg this nigger for shit. I ought to have dumped his ass myself.
Which was my next plan: to say, oh yeah, well, I dump you first, or I dump you back. As if this were junior high school all over again. I have to tell you that it pissed me off worse than a sticky toilet seat that Calvin got to dump me before I dumped him. Wasn't that always the way? Hadn't it always been the way? Why was that always the way? Why?
I sat there in silence and I watched the trees roll by. I remember that I felt as if I had been encased in a padded cocoon, the same way I felt the time I had taken two antihistamine tablets by mistake, as if God had adjusted the eyepiece on the scope through which I had always viewed the world, as if everything were blurred ever so slightly, every sensation muffled, every feeling numbed.
I wasn't so much upset that it was this man, or that it was this man in this particularly bizarre set of circumstances. I was thirty-seven years old. I had had my first date when I was twelve. Rather than this specific bad day, I think it was my realization that I was at the back end of about a quarter of a century of Calvins.
I reviewed all my options and chose to do nothing. I decided that this was as good a time as any to begin my nervous breakdown.
I can't say that I can pinpoint exactly the moment when my breakdown began. It's not as if I was riding along I-94 and I thought to myself: I will have a nervous breakdown. I do, however, think that decide is the correct word.
I remember sort of oozing back into the bucket seat and running my fingers around the soft gray upholstery. The cushion felt like my stuffed bunny, Crinkles, and I thought to myself, I'll dissolve into this seat and disappear. Dematerialize, like when they got beamed up on Star Trek. I had no thought of reassembling in another place, like on a tropical island or in the arms of another lover. I thought how nice it would be to have fragments of my essence wandering the world, silently but generously dispensing loving goodwill, like the maiden aunt on a soap opera. At the same time I was aware that outside my window there were more trees and more cows. And that I had still not responded to whatever it was that had been said to me a while back.
I believe that an hour or so went by. We had come through that part of Wisconsin where the landscape looks like breasts in cone-shaped bras. I imagine it must have been awkward for Calvin, sitting in a car with someone who had not responded to something as provocative as he had put forward. Please believe me when I tell you that at the time I was about as worried about how Calvin felt as I was about the price of eggs in Taiwan. His feelings just didn't happen to cross my mind. As to his tossed-off remark, the gauntlet he'd thrown, somewhere in the interim the words had lost all meaning and presently denoted nothing. As far as I was concerned he could have said, "See Spot run."
Aha! Denial, you pop psychology fans will say, and I have certainly watched enough episodes of Oprah to recognize the symptoms. In fact, somewhere out there in the haze of mush that had become my brain, I had a vision of myself standing in her audience. Draped across my back was Oprah's powerful arm--I could feel it, muscular and fleshy and warm, through several layers of thick luxurious silk--both Oprah's and mine--drawing me to her, hugging me to her. I could hear her say, "Girlfriend, you're gonna have to deal with this." Mushy and hazy because at the time I had an idea--a vague one--that my brain was busy filing away my troubles in a box. This is the actual image I had: a small wooden box, the size of a three-by-five card, decoupaged, the kind one picks up at the endless craft fair at the Har Mar Mall, and on the front of the box, instead of saying "Recipes," it said "Deneen's Troubles," and I saw those troubles--career troubles, man troubles, my so-called biological clock, this ongoing and nagging inability I had to find an attractive nonmaternity jumper--organizing themselves on index cards and drifting into place in the box.
So it would make perfect sense, wouldn't it, that the next thing out of either of our mouths would come from me, and it would be me saying, "Shall we stop for a snack?"
Calvin took the exit at Tomah and we went into McDonald's.
When you have your nervous breakdown, let me know if the following happens to you. It seems that while my mind was busy packing for a long stay at the Happy Valley Convalescence Center, the rest of me--like my appetite and my taste buds--got the message that they now had free run of the joint. It's like they were the teenagers and mom and dad were out for the weekend, and they were ready to par teee. I kid you not: this was the best damn Big Mac I ever ate in my life. Honey, it was almost as if Jesus had discovered the recipe for secret sauce that they use up in heaven and had stirred up a big batch with His own blessed hands--can I get a witness? I was greasing on that Mac. Went up and got me another. Got me some more fries, too. Mmm, mmm, mmmp: I was making the same noise that those big gals in my mama's club used to make whenever she fed them.
Calvin picked at his food. He was never a big eater--which is why he weighed all of 150 pounds, if that. That was another reason we were doomed. How was a woman like me, who loved nothing more than a sumptuous and rich gourmet meal of many courses, supposed to make a life with a man who was perfectly satisfied heating up a can of tomato soup for supper?
"These fries are kind of greasy," he said. First thing he'd said to me. Since that other thing.
"Pass em over here. I'll eat em."
He did and I did.
Then we got back in the car and continued on our way, east, toward our dream vacation in Door County. You're probably thinking to yourself: Now wait just a damn minute. You mean to tell me you went through with this vacation? You didn't tell the nigger to turn the car around and take you home?
Well, back in the haze (remember the mushy haze, my brain?) there were a couple of different voices I heard. One was asking me what in the hell did I think I was doing. And another one was telling me to just play along with it, see how weird this shit was gonna get. But I really want you to understand that by this point I had embraced Mother Madness with both arms. She was a strong, big-hearted black sister, and she made me feel as if I didn't have a care in the world. All I had on my mind was trying to remember how Katrina said you got to that fudge shop in Wisconsin Dells. I couldn't remember whether she said to get off by the Yogi Bear Campground or to get off by the dog track. Not that it made any difference. They have fudge shops in Wisconsin Dells the way they have pawnbrokers in Las Vegas. I bought me a pound of maple and a pound of rocky road and ate most of both boxes before we got to the inn.
We checked ourselves into a beautiful old house in Ellison Bay, or rather Calvin checked us in--I was busy feeling up the furniture and the draperies, all of which were elegant and decadent. I don't know what name he used or how he identified us. Perhaps I had just become Mrs. Calvin Colechester. We took a room overlooking the lake, and out the window through lace as delicate as moths' wings I saw shimmering water the deep blue color of a car my daddy had while I was growing up.
Enough, you say, you talk about this the same way a naive bride talks about her honeymoon. It was nothing like that. I remember thinking, this is what it's like when they hook up couples on those TV dating shows. You get sent off with a guy you hardly know to a beautiful place, and maybe it works out and maybe it doesn't. I remember looking over at Calvin every now and then and thinking, who the hell is he? Which is to say, his card had already been filed away, honey, and deep.
He, by the way, hadn't said a word since we left McDonald's.
So, there we were, and this is how we spent a week: wandering the shore, skipping stones, going from antique shop to craft boutique. I searched through the pottery in one gallery for an hour and a half, fingering a white porcelain pitcher, drooling over a rough and exquisite raku vase. I chose a green, hand-built platter, pieced together from jagged triangles of clay. You could see the fingerprints in the work, and there was something about that that caused my American Express card to leap into the salesman's hands.
Up and down the highways there were signs announcing "Fish Boils." Calvin stopped at one our first night, but I had been unable to leave the car, unable to clear my mind of the image of Charlie the Tuna covered with infected white pimples. After that we stopped only at the finest inns. And eat we did. We ate walleye cheeks in aioli butter, roast duck sauced with fresh raspberries. Trout wrapped in pastry, coq au vin, and prime rib. And the desserts. Oh, God!
And, I know you are wondering, so, no I did not sleep with him. We slept side by side, as chastely as brother and sister. I have to confess, however trashy this sounds, that I wanted to. I really did. I thought to myself: Here I am in a lovely room, and I could hear outside the window the sounds of the lake against the rocks. Crisp linen sheets blanketed us in a bed that seemed to be made for sex. Here was a man who was not at all bad looking and had the right equipment, which I knew for a fact was in full working order. It seemed like such a waste. To be quite honest with you I fully expected to be fighting him off, or putting up a good fight and then giving in. Or something like that. I mean, you just don't think about a man not being doggish enough to take advantage of a situation like this. I've always understood, ever since sixth grade when Steven Barr had me backed up against a bookcase at his mother's house in Richmond Heights and his ding-a-ling popped right out the opening of his shorts, that basically those things have minds of their own, that there's some sort of little brain in the tip of it, and, despite what men would have you believe, that brain isn't connected to the other brain in any way, and given a circumstance such as this--a healthy young man in a romantic country inn with a lovely, Rubenesque young woman--he would have no choice but to ... follow his instincts. (That's what they call that other little brain: their instincts.) But, we just lay there. Night after night, for a week. Somehow, within the logic of this trip, it made sense. It was as if we were two people transported to another planet where the gravity was different and you breathed something other than air: it took a few days but eventually you got used to it. I lay there some nights, and in the moonlight I could see the sharp bones of his narrow back as they moved with his breathing and the golden tones of his skin in the dark, and I would restrain myself from touching him, from running the tips of my fingers across his skin.
Yes, there was even moonlight.
Instead, I touched myself. What I began that one night there on the Door Peninsula of Wisconsin would carry me through my summer of madness the same way an eyeless stuffed toy carries a child through the terrible twos. I touched myself. I masturbated. It's too bad we women don't have a better word for this. Something with all the violent charm of jack off. A word that captures the transcendence, the spirituality of it, the fact that it is a kind of worship. I'll say that, then. I worshipped.
It's not my intention for this to sound as if it were an unusual act, because, as a matter of fact, the history and frequency of my worshipping are entirely beside the point. The point is that inside my newly disordered head, the act had taken on a fresh and exotic quality. Whereas before my worship had served as a mild tension reliever between the opportunities for real sex, I now felt the same rush and shock as the very first time I stumbled into self-stimulation. Into the void left by the absence of reason flowed this previously unknown pleasure, multiplying and expanding. Each night, as I lay there, boldly, in the wake of the heat of a man for whom I felt almost nothing, alongside the joy, I also discovered a sorrow--a cold blue sadness at the cheat, the loss of all the years of self-knowledge Where had pleasure been? Why had I been denied? Why had I denied myself? I bit my lips and tore with my teeth at the corner of a pillow to keep myself quiet. Later in the week, remembering from somewhere in my previous life that Calvin slept as if he were drugged, I let it all out, moaning and writhing and sweating as the spasms quaked through my body.
In the morning we would greet each other cordially, Calvin and I, he in the slow morning stupor of heavy sleepers, and myself as bright and chipper as a squirrel in spring. Off we'd toddle to another day of chilled civil fun.
I don't recall a single conversation. I don't believe we talked at all. It was as if we had been sitting across the breakfast table for years and had run out of things to say to each other. Without knowing it, we had reached the hard-earned compromise of a long-married couple, worn down by decades of bickering and losses that seemed greater, really, than the matter at hand. We rarely disagreed, always accommodated, politely took turns. My "Shall we stop at the state park?" seamlessly alternating with his "Let's eat here."
On Sunday morning we got into the Camry and reversed our way through the trees and the cows. I entertained myself by inventing a game that required one player to close her eyes and count to a thousand and then open them and imagine what might have been missed in the darkness. I played the game with myself, thinking it would be better someplace more interesting, like in the city, or through the mountains. In hindsight it sounds silly, but at that point it was quite as stimulating as chess.
We stopped at the same McDonald's. I didn't ask, but, as we approached Tomah, I was thinking about how good those Macs had been, and how I would sure like to have me another. Calvin took the exit and pulled in.
Just before dark we crested the hill coming up from the St. Croix valley, passing the Minnesota Welcome Center on the right. And Calvin said,
"The thing is, I think I'm attracted to men."
"Oh, I see," I said. My brain, which by this point I imagined resembling an abandoned shopping mall--trompe l'oeil storefronts with locked and vacant interiors--didn't even bother searching for a response. I do remember thinking, "Well, that's sort of a down note on which to end a vacation." Just then, for some reason I don't quite understand to this day, I thought of my mother. I thought of my mother's house. I wanted to be in my mother's house.
"Do you think you could drop me off at the airport?" I asked. He sighed, but it sounded like a large deflating balloon. Not long after that he pulled up in front of the Northwest Airlines entrance. Inside I would buy a ticket to St. Louis.
As I fished my bags from the trunk and handed them to a skycap, I wasted the last flash of sanity that would light my world for many a day on the following thought: Maybe this is what Katrina meant about Calvin being a chump.
Reading Group Guide
1. When Calvin dumps her, Deneen considers knocking his narrow behind through the windshield, cussing him out, or saying "talk to me sugar." Why does she choose none of these options? Do you think that getting dumped by Calvin is the real source of her depression or is there more going on?
2. Deneen says that Reina is not the mother she remembers. Can she accept the mother that Reina is now? Why do you think her mother doesn't demand an explanation for her visit? Why does she let her daughter hide in the cellar? Deneen has avoided her family for years. Why does she go home now? How does Reina finally help her come upstairs and out into the world again?
3. Are Deneen's outrageous eating habits a sign of her depression or does she simply appreciate a good hors d'oeuvre? Do you think Deneen is happy being a big, buxom woman in a time when thin is in? Our heroine most surely does discover her sexuality in St. Louis. Why now?
4. What is Ciara's problem? Is this child a typical pre-teen or the kind of brat who would trip a fat girl to win a beauty contest? Does Ciara deserve to have her hair cut off in the middle of the night or is Deneen out of control? Is some of their conflict just plain old sibling rivalry? Is Deneen right about Ciara being bulimic?
5. Deneen describes herself as a successful advertising maven, so why do you think she takes the money from her mother's wallet? Is it possible that she's reliving a little of her rebellious youth? When Reina tells her that Ciara is stealing the money, Deneen doesn't admit the truth right away. Why do you think she finally does?
6. Deneen says that just when she's close to getting an answer to what life isall about, "it dissolves into a puddle of contradictions." She's against beauty pageants, yet in her business, she uses women to sell products. Do you think this is a contradiction? What about her relationship with Mark? How can she date him knowing his involvement in the American Dream Girls Franchise?
7. Besides the fact that the feminine hygiene ad campaign is hilarious, what is the significance of working on this particular product for Deneen? Why is she so against her boss's idea of using blonde women running on the beach in the ad? How does this ad campaign relate to her view of herself? Do you think Reina's reasons for allowing Ciara to be in the beauty pageant are understandable?
8. Besides giving her Tina Turner hair, how does Hawkins help her? Do you think it's believable that Deneen would become friends with Calvin when she finally returns to her own home? Do you think Deneen's sense of humor is a defense against being hurt or is she just a funny woman? Why can Deneen finally return to her life?
Copyright (c) 1999. Published by Harcourt, Inc.