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Authors: Terry McMillan

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

Getting to Happy (7 page)

BOOK: Getting to Happy
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By seven o’clock, Bernadine lies across the bed to take what she likes to call a nap.

“Mom, where are you? I’m home! You better not be in bed! It’s only eleven-thirty!” Onika yells as she and her girlfriend barge into Bernadine’s bedroom. She thought she’d heard them running up the stairs, but by the time she’s able to slide her head from under the pillow, the two girls are standing over her. Bernadine rolls over and tries to open her eyes but they flutter and close again.

Sleeping pills will do that.

“Mom, wake up! We’re here!” Onika says even louder this time, and starts rocking Bernadine back and forth.

“Hi there, baby girl,” Bernadine mutters as she slowly sits up and gives her daughter a peck on the lips. She knows she looks disastrous, because she can see from the mirror her hair is smashed flat on the side she’d been sleeping on, the mascara has given her black baseball smudges under her eyes and to top it off, she still has her clothes on: a white wifebeater and goldenrod capris.

“Hello, Mrs. Harris,” Onika’s friend says. “I’m Shy.”

As Bernadine combs her fingers through her hair and gets up, this young lady is towering over her. Onika looks even more petite than her five feet two inches standing next to her. “You don’t have to be shy around me, sweetheart.”

“It’s short for Cheyenne,” she says.

“That’s a pretty name. And since you’re my daughter’s best friend, you can call me Mom if you want, or Auntie’s fine with me, too.”

“Thanks then, Mom!” Shy says as she bends down and gives Bernadine a soft kiss on the cheek. “And thanks for having me. I’ve heard a lot of amazing things about you.”

“Well, O’s prejudiced. Even though I’m not her real mother, I love her just the same.”

Shy is obviously taken aback hearing this and glances over at Onika.

“I’m just teasing. Very nice to meet you, Shy.”

“Whew!” she says.

Bernadine can now tell that Shy’s dreadlocks are bright red. It also looks like she’s probably mixed with something. Her skin is the color of sand. She’s pretty in an odd sort of way. She also looks athletic. “Well, you sure look like an athlete,” Bernadine says, mostly to see if her assumption is right.

“Soccer it is,” Shy says, proudly.

“When did you cut your hair off?” she asks Onika, since it’s almost as short as Bernadine’s was centuries ago when she chopped it off close enough to see her scalp. She did it to piss John off after he’d told her he wanted a divorce. He never liked short hair on women, especially his wife.

“Shy cut it for me, last week. We were just fooling around. Do you like it?”

“I do.”

“Look, we didn’t mean to interrupt your zees, and you do look tired. I just wanted you to know that we got here okay. Didn’t you get my messages?”

“No. When’d you leave them?”

“Right before we got on the flight. A few hours ago.”

“I haven’t checked the voice mail at home and I can never hear that cell phone because I always have it on vibrate.”

“It’s all good, Mom. We couldn’t get on three flights. Standby from Oakland to Phoenix is really hard. We couldn’t even get seats together, but we made it.”

Onika smells like blueberries. Bernadine spots the new tattoo on her forearm. It looks like Chinese but she doesn’t want to ask her what it means right this minute. It can wait. Besides, she knows Onika will tell her anyway. There are rings on eight of her fingers. Thin and thick silver bands of various shapes. Onika’s fingers are short, too short for all this jewelry. But she’s young. Bernadine reminds herself to keep her middle-aged, maternal thoughts to herself. “Aren’t you guys hungry? I’ll fix you something really quick.”

“No, it’s okay, Mom. We had a slice at the airport. We’ll find something to snack on. I want to show Shy around the crib. And our killer view. This is her first time ever in Phoenix.”

“Okay, but if you change your mind, let me know. I could stir-fry something. It’d only take a few minutes.”

“Go back to sleep, Mom, we’ll see you in the morning. We’re pretty wiped out, too. Six hours in that airport was taxing. Every college student in the Bay Area was either going skiing or heading home.”

Bernadine looks at her daughter. She can’t believe her baby is going to be a junior in college and she’s old enough to buy booze. From the time Onika was in high school she’d told Bernadine she knew she wanted to go to a woman’s college. At first it was Barnard and then Smith but she wanted to be close to home so she chose Mills. She’s majoring in social anthropology with a minor in book art. “It’s really about the fine art of bookmaking,” she’d said. She’ll never get a job, but Bernadine wouldn’t dare say it.

“Thanks anyway, Mom,” Shy whispers, and puts both hands on Onika’s shoulders and slowly shuffles her out the door.

After Bernadine watches the news she remembers she forgot a few items she needed to make Onika’s favorite omelet: fresh crabmeat, sour cream, tomatoes, black olives, scallions and yellow and red bell peppers. She’d been so busy thinking about dinner she forgot about breakfast. She brushes her teeth and washes her face and hears Jay Leno saying something about Katie Holmes and Tom Cruise getting engaged. “It’ll never last,” she says, turning to the screen.

She leaves the TV on and runs downstairs. It’s freezing in here because she forgot to turn the heat up after she’d finished cleaning. She grabs a bottle of sparkling water from the fridge, and on her way to the garage spots the girls’ backpacks leaning against the door. They look like penguins.

God, she envies them. Being able to dream about their future. Do whatever they want to do. That their biggest worry is their GPA. Bernadine hopes her daughter and son cherish these years. John Jr. is a first-year graduate student at MIT. His primary interest in life fits into urban studies and planning. Bernadine has had to sit and listen to him lecture her about this stuff as if he’s a commentator on CNN or like he’s explaining what happened on
. He’s headed for Washington. She can feel it.

When she gets back from the grocery store, she puts everything away and spots the washed and folded towels she bought for Onika still sitting in the laundry basket. She forgot to put them in her bathroom! She tiptoes upstairs, and since Onika’s door isn’t completely closed, quietly pushes it open with her hips. She’s not sure at first if her daughter and Shy are just lying very close together or if they’re in fact wrapped in each other’s arms. As she walks past the bed, she can see that this is exactly what they’re doing. Holding each other. Out of all the times Bernadine used to sleep over with her girlfriends, she’d never held any of them like this. In fact, they’d always fought over the blankets.

She must’ve been standing there longer than she realized because the girls break apart as if they suddenly feel her presence. She knows why they were holding each other this close. She’s not stupid. And she’s suspected this about her daughter for years. Onika has never had a real boyfriend that she was ever aware of, and Bernadine never asked why. She always assumed that if her daughter wanted one she would’ve gotten one.

“I didn’t mean to wake you two,” she says after she sees their eyes pop open. “I just wanted to put these in your bathroom, O. Go on back to sleep.”

They sit up straight. Like soldiers at attention. Now, they’re leaning against the headboard and wearing a fearful look. Bernadine sees they’re trying to inch away from each other without making it apparent. It is apparent. There was no space between them and now there is.

“I sleep very hard, sometimes, Mom,” Onika says.

Shy looks scared shitless, like a child used to being abused—as if Bernadine might hit her or something. Shy decides to play it another way. “We’re just used to sleeping in those twin beds at school. It’s really tight.”

“I didn’t know you two were roommates.”

“We’re not, but we will be in the fall,” Onika says.

“You two like each other a lot, then, don’t you?”

“Yes,” Onika says.

“Yes, Mom, I mean Auntie,” Shy says.

“Look, girls, I just want you to know I think it’s healthy when you acknowledge who you like.”

They look a little surprised and not sure if Bernadine is saying what they think she’s saying as she heads on into Onika’s purple and sky blue bathroom, places the purple and blue towels over the rack, picks the damp ones off the floor and tosses them into the basket.

“Mom, why aren’t you like freaking out?”

“Why should I be freaking out?” she says, standing in the doorway.

“Well, just because.”

“Just because my daughter happens to like girls?”

“Yeah, my parents would flip,” Shy says.

“Well, I’m not going to flip or freak out. Plus, I wasn’t born yesterday, Onika.”

“I can’t believe you’re not angry or anything.”

“What’s to be angry about? Just don’t get too comfortable. I’m still your mother. Now go back to sleep. I’m making your favorite omelet in the morning. Shy, I thought you were going to call me Mom while you’re here?”

“I will. I mean I am, Mom.”

“Are you a vegetarian, too?”

She shakes her head no. The two of them look as if they’re the ones who’re thunderstruck. As she turns to leave, the girls sit there frozen in place. Bernadine isn’t shocked. In fact, she’s grateful this is finally out in the open. Maybe now her daughter can feel good about who she is and stop hiding it. After she closes the door, Bernadine wonders if John knows.

At nine-thirty the following morning Bernadine drags herself out of bed, goes to the grocery store then stops by the lender to pick up a set of loan documents. Thanks to James, she’s almost broke. For the past couple of years she’s been living on the fumes from her divorce settlement, and what was left of her investments is almost depleted. Bernadine has never been in this position before. She has just enough money to cover her expenses for nine or ten months. She’s scared.

If the bank doesn’t give her a loan or she can’t come up with a major source of income between now and then, she may be forced to put her home on the market. She’s lived in this house for twenty-five years. Her kids grew up in it. Of course, she’s been thinking about downsizing since they went away to college and only come home for holidays, and not even full summers anymore. She doesn’t need all this space. But what if she were to get grandkids?

The court had granted her title to the house free of all encumbrances on top of almost a million dollars. John could afford it. He owned a software company. Still does. The settlement allowed Bernadine to quit her job as a controller at the real estate investment company where she’d worked for years. And rather than start the catering business she’d thought about having one day, she used a good share of the money to open a café: Bernadine’s Sweet Tooth. She invested the rest. But that was fifteen years ago. Before James/Jesse.

She doesn’t miss her café. For fourteen years, Sweet Tooth thrived. She’d served the finest coffees and teas and personally baked most of the soulful specialties: blackberry cobbler, peach cobbler, sweet potato pie, bread pudding, banana pudding, rice pudding, lemon meringue pie, Seven-Up and Sock-It-to-Me and Red Velvet cakes.

After James/Jesse, her attitude toward Sweet Tooth changed. The baking became monotonous. There was no more joy, no delight in running the café. It was hard work. There was also no room for variation: a sweet potato pie was a sweet potato pie. A peach cobbler had to be a peach cobbler. As much as she was grateful for all the years it was profitable, Bernadine closed the café four months ago. Business had been steadily falling off. With four years left on the lease and the rent at $3,800 a month, it no longer paid for itself. Times had changed. People were more conscientious about what they ate. She was selling sugar.

When she gets home, Bernadine is surprised to find the girls already gone. Onika has left a note: “Mom, thanks for understanding about me and Shy. You have
idea how good this makes me feel. After you left my room last night, we were both blown away by your very cool attitude about us. I love her. And she loves me. We’ll see you later. Love, O.”

What the hell is she talking about?
I love her. And she loves me.
Bernadine is wondering if she went into Onika’s room last night, what in the hell it was she witnessed. She honestly couldn’t remember anything except getting up this morning to go to the lender. She’d seen their backpacks and assumed they made it in okay. Yesterday evening, when she hadn’t heard from Onika by seven, she remembered taking a sleeping pill and lying down to take a nap so she’d be awake by the time they got there.

It was that fucking sleeping pill.

Now she feels shaky. Apparently she’d acknowledged to her daughter she was fine with her being a lesbian—which she is. Bernadine has suspected it for years, but didn’t want to ask Onika. She always felt if it was true, then Onika would tell her when she was ready. Now she has. And Bernadine missed it. All because of a stupid sleeping pill?

Bernadine is ashamed and afraid because all this self-medicating has turned her into a different person. Where’s she headed if she keeps living like this? She does not want to entertain that thought. She wants her life back, that much she does know. The one she’s in charge of. She’s tired of keeping the pain of the past present. Doesn’t want to keep missing out on the good things. Bernadine begins shaking her head back and forth until she feels dizzy. When she stops, an image of John Jr.’s stupid guinea pigs pops into her head. The ones she accidentally left out in the sun. They spend their whole lives running in place. Bernadine shakes her head one last time. She has no intention of ending up like them.

BOOK: Getting to Happy
8.27Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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