And Then There Was Me
By Sadeqa Johnson
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2017 Sadeqa Johnson
All rights reserved.
MEMORIAL DAY WEEKEND
Bea hated the beach. The sun didn't rev up her brain's endorphins the way it did for most people. In fact, it had the opposite effect on her. She never enjoyed peeling down to her bathing suit. Always feeling hideous in whatever she wore. Most of her time at the shore was spent feeling envious of the pretty girls in the teeny, triangle-topped bikinis, with lotus tattoos on the hollows of their backs. Bea would watch them slip and slide in the sand spiking a volleyball, feeling round where they were flat, ugly where they were cute. It was even worse when she was pregnant.
The other half of her time was spent playing "find the shade." Bea wasn't a woman who wanted a suntan, preferring her vitamin D in tablet form only. All day she had constantly moved her chair in search of relief.
"What're you doing?" Awilda, her best friend, looked over the edge of her cat-eye glasses.
"Trying to stay cool."
"Why in the hell you come to the beach to do all that is beyond me."
Awilda was right. The effort it took to keep the sun's rays from darkening her skin was draining: slathered sunscreen, dark umbrella, floppy hat, wide sunglasses, zinc oxide strip on her nose, and her feet tucked under a dry towel. Even with the prep, Bea still worried the ultraviolet rays were coming through the umbrella, roasting her skin by the millisecond.
"The beach was Lonnie's idea. Not mine."
"Well next year you need to speak up."
She had; he just didn't listen. Bea preferred renting a house on a lake with a wraparound porch, where she could hide under an awning and maxi dress. It was her husband, Lonnie, who insisted on the beach. Spring Lake to be exact. With two miles of white, pristine sand, bordered by the longest noncommercial boardwalk in the state of New Jersey, Spring Lake was a magnet for families of all ages. But the price of the homes made it inaccessible to everyone, and therefore the perfect getaway as far as Lonnie was concerned. It was sanitized and quiet except for the corner Awilda occupied.
Awilda was the contrary to Bea, lounging without the protection of an umbrella in a bright orange, high-waisted bikini. Her hair was big and bushy, and every tune that crooned from her iPhone was her finger-snapping, sing-along-to-the-beat song.
Bea turned her seven-month baby-belly in Awilda's direction in time to catch her shoving a handful of cool ranch potato chips into her candy-pink-painted mouth.
"You know there's no eating on the beach, Wilde," Bea chided.
Awilda knew this. There were signs posted along the boardwalk reminding folks to eat in the pavilion areas only. In fact, coolers were forbidden and instead left on the boardwalk.
"What're they going to do? Arrest me?" She smacked her lips.
"Might kick you off the beach."
"I'd like to see that." She shoved down two more chips. "We should be in DR instead of this snobby beach anyway. Your mama still have family down there?"
"Mami left Santo Domingo fifty years ago and has never looked back. I keep in touch with my cousins."
"We need to take a girls' trip down there and reconnect with your roots. After you drop that load. No kids, no husbands." Awilda tilted the bag of chips to her mouth and swallowed the crumbs.
Bea sucked her teeth. "You could at least eat under the umbrella."
"What's got you so uptight?"
Bea didn't want to give voice to what had been nagging at her, so she camouflaged with a lighthearted smile. "Probably just hormones."
"Well, unwrap that towel from your feet, girlfriend, and have a little fun."
"I am," Bea said. Though fun had become foreign. Since they moved back to New Jersey a year ago, her life had become so tied to keeping up with her husband and two children; there was no space for anything remotely connected to fun. Though she did daydream, and carrying a healthy baby brought her some peace.
"Hold up, wait a minute. This is my song." Awilda turned up her iPhone even louder than before.
Bea glanced at the older couple reading hardcover books, parked to their right. They were covered in as much stuff as Bea was. The wife looked up at Bea at the same time but didn't smile.
"Pass it to me."
"It's too loud."
"I can barely hear it."
Beyoncé seemed to take front and center on their little sliver of beach. Yoncé on her knees.
"There are children around, Wilde."
"It's the clean version."
"Do you always have to go against the grain?"
"You've known me twentysomething years. Don't act new."
"This place is conservative, I know, but ..."
"Beasley, please with that mess." Awilda laughed out loud. "You remember how we use to go to the skating rink on Route 22 and dance until we couldn't breathe?"
Bea's shoulders relaxed. "Girl, we had to catch two buses. Your mother would have had a cow if she knew we weren't listening to music in my room."
"But we went and it was the highlight of our week."
"Except for you having every girl in Union wanting to fight us."
"Sis, please! When you started dropping it like it was hot, every boy in there wanted your number."
"Well, that's because I do what I feel. Nothing matters if things don't feel good. Take lessons, Bea." Awilda pulled up her shades and caught Bea's eye. "I'm worried about you."
Bea reached up and repinned her bun. "I'm cool. It's just growing pains. Staying home in the suburbs ... it's not who I am."
"Sounds pretty cushy to me. I'd give up teaching those bad-ass kids in a minute to be a kept woman."
"Stop." She blushed in shame.
"Don't deny it." Awilda squirted on another layer of suntan lotion.
"You might as well be slathering yourself with cooking oil." Bea was grateful to be able to change the subject. "Why do you keep putting that crap on anyway? Haven't you heard of skin cancer?"
"When I get to work on Tuesday, people need to know that I've been somewhere."
"And you're worried about me?"
A mother with a toddler bent over to pick up a seashell in front of them. Bea reached inside her beach bag and tossed her earbuds to Awilda. She caught them in the air and flung them right back.
"Stop tripping, Bease, or you'll have a nervous breakdown. But don't fret. I'll be there making sure you get your food through a tube."
Bea crinkled her nose. "So funny."
Awilda pulled her sunglasses back down over her eyes. "You like my bikini?"
"Yeah. It's cuter than mine. I feel like a tub."
"Got it online. I wasn't sure it would fit. You know they don't make bottoms for a real booty like mine." Awilda rose from her seat and showed Bea the panties.
"Looks good on you. Glad to see your cheeks contained."
"I know how to tone it down for a family beach. But when we get to DR, I'm going to let it all hang out." She laughed.
"Help me up, crazy."
Awilda pulled Bea from her beach chair. Then she scooted her things farther into the shaded corner and pulled out her sunblock. The saleswoman at Sephora had talked her into spending extra on the European brand because it contained Indian gooseberry extracts, an ingredient that was supposed to prevent tanning. Bea's father's African-American blood was enough tint to her skin.
Awilda played a pop song that Bea liked as she gazed down the beach in the direction of her children: Alana, age five, and ten-year-old Chico playing paddleball. The kids were in a rare tender moment, with Chico holding Alana's hand and showing her how to hit the ball. It warmed her heart and she looked over to her husband to see if he was watching. Lonnie lifted his chin and winked at Bea. Warmth spread between her toes and she winked back. She liked it when Lonnie made her feel like she was the only woman in his world.
Her husband was one of those men who didn't have to work hard at being gorgeous. God had given him all of the ingredients: amber eyes, buttered skin, and swimmer's hair, the silky kind that dried straight from the water, no blow-drying necessary. It was Lonnie who took it to the next level by living in the gym and wearing clothes that looked tailored to fit. Bea always felt that people were surprised when she introduced him as her husband. In the looks department, she was as plain as nonfat yogurt, a little short and too pear-shaped for her own liking, with nostrils that flared too wide, especially during pregnancy. Bea knew that her saving grace was her hair. When it wasn't pinned up it hung heavily, well below her shoulders, in tight ringlets that curled around each other, creating a thick bundle that was full of sheen and body.
Bea was still admiring the kids when Lonnie puckered his lips and blew her a kiss. "That man." She looked over at Awilda. "You know the fool wanted me to have sex in the kitchen over a sink filled with dirty dishes?"
Awilda removed her glasses and pointed them at Bea. "Your ass is stupid. I would do it inside the sink of dishes."
"It's sexy." Awilda pressed her knees together.
"Still a horn dog."
She fanned. "It's been too long. Derrick better come correct tonight. It's our anniversary. Amare's staying with you. I don't even want to talk. Just ram it in me."
"A hot mess."
"It's been so off between us lately. I really need this anniversary to make things better. I'm tired, Bease."
Awilda slipped into her rampage of what was wrong with Derrick but Bea didn't have to listen. She had heard it all before. How Derrick's sex drive had plummeted since he was diagnosed with MS. The problems they had living in his mother's house.
"No matter how much I spend on healthy food, the man is still reaching for the crap that activates his MS."
Bea nodded her head like she was with Awilda but at that moment it was hard for her to concentrate on anything but the hunger that seemed to swish down on her. It had been like that through the whole pregnancy. One second she was full and the next she was so hungry she could eat a seashell filled with sand. Her mind started imagining how good a fish sandwich with extra hot sauce and mustard would be. She could taste the grease tinged with the red spicy sauce on her tongue, making her whole mouth feel alive.
"You know what I mean?" finished Awilda.
"Yeah." Bea replied, head in her beach bag. Alana's goldfish stared at her. Bea wanted to sneak a few in her mouth but Awilda would enjoy it too much. She pushed herself to stand. Adjusted her hat and told Awilda to keep an eye on the kids.
"I'm in the middle of telling you something."
"Sis, I've got to pee. The baby. Be right back."
* * *
In every direction, the beach was packed with people: skinny teens in too-small jean shorts, children wearing arm floaties, moms hiding under wide brims, and dads napping beneath headphones. It was hard waddling over the sand in her condition and Bea felt self-conscious, like everyone was looking at her. When she reached the boardwalk, she rested against the railing and looked out at the water to catch her breath. She could hear the call of the seagulls mixed with the ebb and flow of the waves lapping the shoreline. The vast blueness of the ocean seemed endless. The scent of the salty water made her craving for seafood more intense. She pulled down her beach hat and made her way to the snack shop in the South End Pavilion.
The lunch rush was over and Bea easily found a single seat at the counter. Two stools down from her sat an older man in a tank top watching the baseball game on the television hanging from the ceiling. Country music sounded from the speakers. The waitress nodded her head in Bea's direction as she wiped the Formica countertop down with a stained towel. It seemed that her hand moved more out of nervous energy than actually trying to get the top cleaned. Bea inhaled the smell of grease.
"What can I get you?"
"Out of fish today. Sorry."
Bea dropped her hand over her belly to soothe the baby who was kicking on her right.
"Got any shrimp?"
"Out of those too. We didn't get our shipment this morning and it was a busy lunch. We have hot dogs, burgers, pizza, chicken tenders ..."
"I'll have two hot dogs with ketchup and relish and a large ice water."
The waitress took a pen from behind her ear. "It comes with potato chips."
"Hold the chips, please."
"You can have fries instead."
She hesitated for only a second and then nodded her head. She would only eat a few fries, she reasoned. Maybe wrap half up for Alana's snack. Bea glanced up at the game. The Mets were playing the Braves. Baseball was never her sport and she was glad to see the waitress return with the food.
Ketchup went on everything. As she chewed, she looked out over the gorgeous Victorian homes and their manicured lawns that ran along the street side. Now that she was eating hot dogs, she would have to have two greens with her dinner to balance out her intake for the day. Her mind wandered over what she would make for dinner. Did they need to make a stop at the grocery store or were there enough cheese and buns left over for the burgers? What would they have for dessert? Alana was going to ask. They could go out for ice cream at Hoffman's. Maybe Lonnie would want to drive the kids to Point Pleasant for the amusement rides. Bea knew that she would be too pooped by nightfall to make the trip but would she want to send him alone? All of that time away from her would open up the opportunity for him to touch base. But she had no proof. Was she worrying herself to death for no reason or was Lonnie cheating on her again?
She wrapped her arms around herself and tried not to dwell on the latter. Kept reminding herself that things between them were fine now, and had been for a while, but the feeling gnawed at her. She ate the meal but could barely taste it as she searched for that click in her brain that brought her comfort. It didn't come. By the time she looked up, her plate was empty except for the remnants of ketchup. All of the fries. Gone. The regret was immediate. Bea belched in her napkin and breathed back the need to throw it all up. She fixed her eyes on the game, concentrating on the moves of the pitcher until the sensation ended.
Bea moved down the boardwalk past the swimming pool. The baby pressed down on her bladder and it reminded her that she needed to pee. Damn it. She should have peed before she ate. It was on her list of rules to avoid the bathroom after she ate. The bathroom had a toilet that could flush away her secrets and shame without anyone being the wiser. But she would know. She had gotten better at keeping food down this time. After her last disastrous pregnancy, she had promised herself to get through this one clean. This one was her redemption and she had to make it.
The bathroom was tiny and full with mothers changing diapers and teens checking out themselves in the mirror. A young woman wearing a jean jumper insisted that Bea go before her.
"I wouldn't feel right making you wait in your condition."
Bea thanked her, went in and did her business without looking in the toilet bowl, and came out clean.
* * *
"That was forever." Awilda flipped through Cosmopolitan magazine. Pages were dog-eared and Bea knew that they showed pictures of clothes Awilda wanted to make. She was a seamstress and designer, in addition to being a sixth grade social studies teacher.
"The baby made me eat." Bea eased back down in her beach chair. The trip had tired her out. The sun felt like it was right on her shoulder and she reapplied more sunscreen.
"You know you're only supposed to apply that every two hours, not every fifteen minutes."
Bea readjusted her hat.
Awilda held up the page. "Look at this miniskirt. I'm thinking about giving it a try. I'm doing a street festival at Rutgers next month and I need some short, sexy clothes that will appeal to college students. Something one size fits all. If I take this waist and add a strip of Velcro, I think it will fit most. What do you think?"
Bea glanced at the picture and nodded her head.
"Yes, ma'am. I'm going to work my clothing line this summer."
"How's Derrick's job working out?"
"Well, he's had this assignment with Tishman for going on five months. That's stable in the construction business. Said it should carry him to Christmas so I'm not working summer school this year."
"It's been five years straight. I can't wait for the break."
Bea saw Alana running towards her and sat up. "What's wrong, butterbean?"
Alana flopped into her mother's arms crying, flinging sand all over Bea's neck and breasts.
"Sand. It's in my eyes. Get it out."
Bea reached for her towel and wiped at Alana's face. Sand was clumped in her hair, on her arms, and falling from her bathing suit top.
"Were you building a sand castle?"
Bea rubbed until Alana stood, satisfied.
"I'm hungry, Mama."
"Here, drink this." Bea handed her a warm juice box from her bag.
"I thought there was no eating on the beach."
"It's just juice not a whole bag of chips." Bea made her eyes big at Awilda.
"I want chips."
Lonnie and Derrick walked up. Lonnie was bare-chested and his shorts hung low on hips. Derrick wore a tank top over the bulge of his belly and yellow trunks.
"How cold was it?" Awilda looked from one man to the other.
"Pretty cold." Lonnie reached down and kissed Bea on the lips.
"Oh get a room, you two," Awilda scolded. "I wouldn't even put my toe in before the Fourth of July."
Derrick fell down into the seat next to her. "You just have to go right in. Don't even think about it."
Amare and Chico were still throwing the Nerf ball in the water. (Continues...)
Excerpted from And Then There Was Me by Sadeqa Johnson. Copyright © 2017 Sadeqa Johnson. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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