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Authors: Terry McMillan

Tags: #Fiction, #African American, #Contemporary Women, #Family & Relationships, #Friendship, #streetlit3, #UFS2

Getting to Happy (6 page)

BOOK: Getting to Happy
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“Want me to prove it?”

“How?”

“I can do a three-way. I really am finally glad to bust him because he’s been doing this shit a long time and he needs to be stopped.”

“Is he close by?”

“He’s just across the bridge in D.C. I’m in Alexandria. Virginia. Just stay on the line and I’ll click back when he’s on, but promise me you won’t say anything until you can hear for yourself what a sleazy human being he is, okay?”

“Okay.” It felt like her heart was about to explode. While she waited, Bernadine ran downstairs to the kitchen and got a Corona out of the fridge. She drank half of it in one long swallow. When she sat the bottle on top of the center island, her hands were shaking and she knocked it over. The gold liquid flowed over the edge of the counter and between her toes. Bernadine grabbed a dishtowel, dropped it on the floor, stepped on top of it and just stood there.

This whole ordeal was downright frightening. This was the kind of stuff you saw in movies or on soap operas. Not in real life. Not in her life. Not in anybody’s life she knew. Of course there are the cheaters, like her ex-husband, John—but this kind of deception and betrayal was light years beyond cheating. This was just plain evil. And if it turned out all of this was really true, who in the hell did James think he was and what gave him the right to use her life like she was a damn coupon?

John had been bugging her for years about something being a little “off” about James. That he fell too hard for her too soon. That his civil rights work was suspicious, especially since she’d never been in his local “field” office because she couldn’t get “security clearance.” His so-called
required
travel back and forth to D.C. twice a month. Why it purportedly took him a year to take the Arizona bar. It had taken a few years for her to realize she had confused his sense of self-importance for confidence. John may have been demanding, but James expected her to prove her love by how much she was willing to tolerate. Ironically, John was the one who insisted Bernadine not marry him without a prenuptial agreement. James signed without any qualms.

“Hey, baby,” she heard Belinda say.

“Hey back.”

“What time do you think you’ll be home?”

“I’m running a little behind schedule. It’s been crazy. Are the girls asleep already?”

“I’m putting them to bed in a few minutes. You know what I’ve been meaning to ask you, baby?”

“I’m listening.”

“Where are you thinking of taking me for our sixth wedding anniversary?”

“I don’t know. That’s five whole months from now. You pick the place this time. How’s that?”

“That’s fine. Let me ask you something else, baby. Do you know a woman named Bernadine Wheeler?”

“That name doesn’t ring a bell. Why?”

“Because she called me.”

“What do you mean, she called you? When? About what?”

“She said you’re her husband.”

“That crazy bitch lives out there in Phoenix, and she’s been stalking me ever since I started going out there for work. I think she might even be locked up somewhere. Did she call you from a pay phone? If so, it means she’s finally in a facility. Don’t believe a word that bitch says. And how’d she get your number?”

Bernadine took a breath. “This crazy
bitch
didn’t call your wife, James or Jesse, whatever your real name is! She called me. I don’t even believe this shit is really happening. I don’t—”

“What the hell is going on here? You mean to tell me both of y’all broads have ganged up on me? What kinda bullshit is this? Bernie, don’t believe a word—”

“You know what, James, I’m going to let you in on a little secret. Bigamy is a felony. Which means you can go to prison for it. So, I’ll tell you what. I dare you to bring your lying ass anywhere near the Arizona state line. I dare you! Try it and you’ll be behind bars in a New York minute. I still can’t believe this is happening, but thank you, Belinda.”

“Thank you Belinda?”

“You’re welcome,” Belinda said in a warm voice, as if she was giving Bernadine a high five through the phone. “Women need to stick together and stop sorry men like Jesse from getting away with so much. They want us to be enemies, when they’re the ones who try to pit us against each other. You okay, girl?”

“I’m fine. What about you?”

“Now y’all getting chummy! What is this shit?” James yelled, but then the pitch in his voice changed to nice, a falsetto, the one he’d used the entire time he’d been married to Bernadine. She could hear it as plain as day now: the phoniness. Why hadn’t she noticed it before?

“Look, baby, I’m leaving the office right now and I’ll be home in about a half hour.”

“I don’t think so,” Belinda said with conviction. “Your key doesn’t work, and, I’m filing to have this bogus marriage annulled in the morning. Bernadine, you know you can do the same. I already looked into it.”

“You can’t do that. We’ve been married too long.”

“Hey,” Bernadine said, “since you’re the big-time lawyer, James, you should know how this works.”

Belinda was laughing again.

“What’s so damn funny, Billy? And what about my kids? You can’t stop me from being with my kids. And plus, that’s my house you’re living in. My car you’re driving.”

“You want me to cut it all down the middle and give you your half, is that what you want, Jesse?”

There was complete and utter silence. He was in a corner and he couldn’t lie or whine or cry or weasel his way out of this one.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “To you both. I didn’t mean to hurt either one of you, can’t you understand that?”

“I’m sorry, too, Jesse James, sorry I ever met your lying ass. You really should be ashamed of yourself. God made a huge mistake when he wired you.”

Bernadine hung up.

This happened six years ago. To Bernadine, sometimes it feels like yesterday. “Fuck!” she says when she opens her eyes and looks around her bedroom. A wave of fear paralyzes her and she can’t move. Her heart is racing, as if she’s been running. Her forehead is wet and so are her pajamas. It’s not from night sweats. She finished with that almost two years ago. Her hands are tingling but she can’t shake them. Not yet. She can blink, which she does until she’s batting her eyes—anything to send the pain of the past back where it came from. She doesn’t dream about the whole ordeal anymore. Occasionally, it just shows up and jumps inside her. When it does, she waits the five or ten minutes it takes for her breathing to slow down and she can feel the blood flowing into her fingertips.

Right now, the sun is peeking through the space between the shutters. Bernadine knows she needs to get her act together because her daughter and a friend are flying in from Oakland this evening. They’re students at Mills College, and it’s Martin Luther King, Jr., weekend. They’re coming to interview for summer camp counseling jobs in Tucson.

She counts to three, rolls on her side and opens the drawer to the night table. She reaches for two prescription bottles. Swallows the Zoloft dry. She almost doesn’t know why she still bothers taking it every morning, because her spirits don’t seem to have gotten any higher. Next, she grabs the Xanax. When she shakes it, nothing rattles. Her doctor prescribed them years ago to help her get through episodes like this. She doesn’t usually take them every day, but she feels better knowing they’re here.

She could use one now. “Shit!” she says, pulling the drawer all the way out, hoping there might be an old bottle lying behind the others. But she knows this isn’t the case. She speed-dials the pharmacist for a refill, and without taking a shower, slips on a T-shirt and some shorts, then decides to brush her teeth and wash her face. In less than ten minutes, Bernadine is standing in line behind a little redhead girl who she takes to be about three. Her pale legs are dangling through the slots in the grocery cart. She has a black baby doll squished between her belly and the metal bar separating her legs. She’s sucking her thumb. Suddenly, she pulls it out of her mouth and it falls on top of her baby’s curly head. “Hi,” she says to Bernadine, smiling, her small teeth already protruding.

Braces are in her future, Bernadine is thinking as she smiles back. “Hi,” she says to the little girl. Her dad, a stocky guy on the verge of being fat, is at the counter, paying as well as listening to how best to administer this medication which is clearly for his daughter.

“I haven’t seen you in a long time!” the little girl says to Bernadine. She is smiling as if they go way back and she’s delighted to see her.

“I know,” Bernadine says, knowing she has never seen this little girl before. “How have you been?”

“Fine,” she says. “You need medicine, too?”

“Yes, I do.”

“Me, too. My belly is always hurting. Does your belly hurt, too?” she asks.

“No, my belly doesn’t hurt but I sure hope yours feels better soon.”

“What hurts for you?” she asks.

“Emma,” her dad says to her. “Just say bye-bye to the nice lady.”

“Bye-bye,” she says to Bernadine.

“She’s very friendly, as you can see,” the dad says. “She says the same thing to everybody. Have a great day.” He pivots the cart to Bernadine’s right and whisks down the pet food aisle.

Bernadine is still mad at herself for marrying James before the ink had dried on her divorce from John. She was feeling like an empty parking space and James simply pulled in. John was her first husband. They were married eleven years. Fell in love in college back in Boston. Had two children: Onika and John Jr., both now in college. Back in I989, Bernadine was taking hot rollers out of her hair because they were getting dressed to go somewhere, though she can’t remember where, when out of the blue John told her he wanted a divorce. She does remember snatching those rollers out of her hair and hurling them at him after he told her it was Kathleen, his bookkeeper, who was ten years younger than her, and white. For years, Bernadine hated John for the premeditated way he slung this news in her face. They had made a pact in college that if their feelings toward each other started to deteriorate they would let the other know before either of them cheated. John obviously broke his side of the promise. It made her feel like a homicide victim. But there was no funeral.

This felt like the second time she’d been killed.

Her friends had a hard time accepting all of it. Belinda Hampton kept her word and sent Bernadine all the legal documents proving she was indeed married to James, too, and not long afterward, Bernadine’s marriage was annulled. She removed James Wheeler’s name from everything and was surprised to find out how intertwined their lives had become during the six years they were married. It was about this same time Bernadine discovered James had been systematically robbing her for years. That she had paid for all those trips back and forth to D.C. This was when she went to see her doctor. She started having trouble falling asleep. Having anxiety attacks. In the beginning she worried if he hated her enough that he might try to harm her. It took years for her to stop worrying, but by that time, she was mad at herself for having been such a fool. She has not seen or heard from him since.

Pills have helped her fake it. Helped her to smile when she was supposed to, to hold back tears when they were inappropriate, to forget she hasn’t been kissed in six years, not been touched in six years and not had an orgasm in six years. All this trying to forget only made her remember more. That she’s lonely. That she often feels like she weighs a ton.

Today is one of those days she has to put the bullshit on the back-burner, which won’t be hard to do because her daughter is coming home tonight. For three days Bernadine will be happy. She’ll be a hands-on mother and her smiles will not have to be manufactured. Over the next nine or ten hours, Bernadine will clean all the rooms the housekeeper ignores—especially the nooks and crannies in the kitchen—and she’ll give Onika’s room extra-special attention. She’ll spend hours in Bed Bath & Beyond where she’ll buy an espresso maker she can’t afford, but it’ll be a surprise since Onika’s always having one at Starbucks. She’ll also buy new towels and a matching rug for her daughter’s bathroom. She’ll go up and down every aisle in the grocery store just to be sure to get all the ingredients for some of Onika’s favorite meals. She hasn’t cooked for her daughter since last Christmas.

BOOK: Getting to Happy
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ads

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