I was back home in Atlanta and my best friend, Janelle, and I were sitting at the table, talking in my parent’s kitchen. Janelle’s dad came inside and stood by me. We spoke. Although I tried to hide it, I was fascinated by him and it showed. He asked me if I was looking for an older, stable man and said he would introduce me to one. I declined. Janelle’s mom walked in, and she was well groomed and beautiful. My mom sat at the end of the table with her head lowered, her usual quiet self. Her eyes looked sad. I didn’t want to say anything to her. I felt guilty because I wanted to distance myself from her, so I ignored her. Then my brother and Dad walked in. It took me awhile to acknowledge them because I was so captivated by Janelle’s parents, their lives and their relationship. Suddenly it was time to go to sleep. Janelle and her family left. I stayed with my family. Our house was dark and gloomy, a mess. We had to sleep on the floor on worn mattresses. My dad was angry that we were around Janelle’s family, especially her dad, earlier that day. I heard somebody scream. It was Mom. She was lying on her mattress, covered with blankets. She covered herself because she didn’t want us to know she was hurt. I was afraid of what I would see if I pulled the covers off her, but I did it anyway. She seemed fine, but she was hiding something. I could tell. I told her that she shouldn’t try to hide things from us, because we could handle the truth.
I woke up worried and afraid from yet another dream that I didn’t understand. I tried to go back to sleep but spent the rest of the night tossing and turning.
I looked around the auditorium and spotted Janelle sitting in the audience. Seeing her made my smile even wider than it already was, if that was possible. I had attended her graduation the previous weekend at the University of Georgia. Seated next to her were my parents as well as my older and only brother, Brice, with his flavor of the week, Brianna. I heard my dad and Brice calling me by the nickname I had rejected as soon as I began high school: Ninu. I usually hated it when they called me that, but today I didn’t mind it as much.
My stomach fluttered as the dean of Arts and Sciences called my name, Nina Yvette Lander. As I proudly walked down the aisle and onto the stage to receive my diploma, my family yelled, “We love you, Nina!” This ceremony was a pivotal time for me. I was happy to have those I loved there to share this step toward my new, adult life. Seeing their expressions of joy, I couldn’t wait to join them in celebration.
After the ceremony my family, including Janelle, who was basically family because we had been friends since eighth grade, gathered around, congratulating me and taking pictures. It felt good to have them all together again. Tears welled up in my eyes. I hadn’t expected that, but I welcomed them, wanting to hold this memory in my heart forever, in what I called my “good times place.”
Mom was the first to hug me. “Congratulations, baby,” she said.
“Thanks, Mom. Can you believe your youngest is now a college graduate?”
“I knew you had it in you,” she replied. “I’m so proud.”
Janelle and I hugged. “Look at you, growing up and everything!” she teased.
“Okay, grown woman, like we didn’t just go through the same thing with you last weekend.”
“I know, but it’s different when you watch your best friend walk across the stage.”
“Yeah, I know!”
Brice broke us up and hugged me with a back-breaking dip, muttering, “Stop hogging my sister, Janelle. Dang!” To me he said, “Congrats, bighead! Mom wasn’t going to be satisfied until she had a college graduate in the family. Whew! Thanks for taking the pressure off.”
“Just trying to pull my weight in the family,” I replied.
“Hey, Nina, congratulations!” Brianna offered timidly.
“Why, thanks.” I smiled, wondering how long it would be before Brice discarded her.
My dad had been standing back, giving everyone an opportunity to commend me, and then he took his turn. He grabbed my hands. “My Ninu is all grown up now!”
“This is true,” I said. He looked at me with approving eyes. I felt proud of myself.
We hugged. “I’m so proud of you, even if it is a B.A. degree,” he said.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I demanded.
“Just hoping for a master’s soon,” he replied.
“One step at a time, big fella,” Brice said. He got between me and my dad and put his arms around our shoulders. “It’s time to get this party started. Let’s eat!”
We continued the celebration at my dad’s favorite steak restaurant. I thought back to the days when I was a freshman in high school and Janelle would stay at my house over the weekend. We’d sleep in the basement after watching a Brat Pack movie on the big-screen TV and devouring pizza, popcorn, and Pepsi. Brice, then a senior, would be in the living room with some girl. He always managed to date “ladies,” as he still refers to them, who had access to transportation and would sneak out and come over to the house.
It would be late at night and Mom would usually be upstairs sleeping. Back then my father always came in late and would catch Brice and his girlfriend “experimenting” on the sofa. He’d turn on the lights and ask the young lady, “Do your parents know where you are?” That was Brice’s cue to ask her to leave. After the “lady” left, nothing else was said about it. Even though he was caught red-handed, Brice and my dad would just sit up late and talk about sports.
I, on the other hand, wasn’t allowed to date, except for my junior and senior proms. And even then I was not permitted to be in any room in the house alone with my date. I resented my dad’s double standard. I always knew Brice was my father’s favorite, so I became a sports fanatic just to have something to talk about with my dad.
Now I’d be returning home to Atlanta in the next two weeks, and my family would become a part of my daily life again. My mouth began to water at the thought of the wonderful Sunday dinners my mother would cook. And I knew I’d be shaking up the Atlanta party scene with Janelle, or at least that was what she had in mind. I would be close to my family again, and that made me feel happy, safe.
“So, Nina,” my father broke into my daydream, “have you had any job leads since we talked to you last?”
I cringed. I had nothing to report to my father, who had just dished out four years’ tuition. I had a journalism degree but no job offers. In college I was sports editor of the campus newspaper and hosted a sports talk show that I developed for the school’s radio station, on which I interviewed our school’s athletes about both sports- and campus-related issues. I had also interned with a few of the local radio and news stations in the city, but my inquiries about any journalism positions in Atlanta had gone unanswered. “Not yet,” I responded.
“So, I guess you plan to live off me and your momma?” he joked, but I knew there was some concern behind his remark.
“No, Daddy. I have been sending out résumés. These things take time.”
“Well, your brother’s business is booming. Maybe you can work at the spa until something comes around for you.”
“Negative,” Brice interjected. “I can’t have Ninu working for me. She’d know too much about my personal life.” Realizing he had a part of his “personal life” at his side, he winced, then reached over and kissed Brianna on the cheek. “Not that I got anything to hide, baby.”
“I wouldn’t want to work for you anyway, Brice,” I retorted. “Daddy, I have some things lined up.” I was exaggerating a little. I only had one lead: Janelle’s boyfriend, Corey, and some of his associates had just purchased a small cable-TV station and were looking for talent to fill the time slots. I was confident about my abilities and looked forward to seeing how I could turn my love for sports and journalism into a career. Maybe this new station was a way, I hoped, but I wasn’t particularly comfortable with that idea because I wanted to be at an established outlet. I just needed a chance to get my feet wet, but I think my dad expected me to graduate and somehow immediately be at the top of my game.
An uncomfortable silence came over the table.
Mom came to my rescue. “Didn’t you enjoy the ceremony, Janelle?”
“Yes, ma’am, but it was much too long.”
“Oh, I agree. Smitty almost fell asleep,” she joked.
“Daddy!” I chided.
“Don’t believe your momma. She’s the one who was nodding off. I had to nudge her so that she’d be awake when they called your name.” Laughter filled the table. I watched as mom laughed. I could see why my dad pursued her. My mom dressed conservatively and her gray hair was trimmed low and neatly kept. Even after having two children, she still managed to keep her shape, and her eyes looked alive when she smiled. But when she wasn’t laughing, there were bags underneath those eyes and hurt behind them.
Dad’s voice was low and husky and he threw back his head when he laughed. He looked good for his age, and he was always well groomed, with nicely trimmed salt-and-pepper hair and mustache. Although my dad was a blue-collar worker, his hands were always neatly manicured. He was tall and had once been slim, but now he had a round stomach from drinking beer and eating my mother’s good cooking.
We finished our dinner without any further discussion of my career, thank goodness. I watched my mom and dad joking around. I had been worried about my mother after I left for college. She had seemed so depressed during my senior year in high school. Daddy was hardly ever around, and she was always making excuses for his absence. And when he was home, he was sometimes harsh with her. I never saw him raise his hand to her, but some of the things he said when he was angry at her made me ashamed to call him Dad.
Maybe now he’d appreciate my mom. From the way they got along that night, I hoped that Smitty Lander had decided to do the right thing and become a full-time husband to his wife.
• • • •
After dinner Janelle and I went back to my dorm room and dressed for a party. It felt like old times as we shared the mirror and helped each other with hair and makeup.
“Nina, try this new lipstick,” Janelle suggested. “It’ll look good with your outfit.”
“Okay.” I took the tube from her and smiled. Some things never change about a person. Janelle was still high-maintenance, with manicured fingers and pedicured toes, an expensive hair weave, and designer clothes. She still offered me beauty tips and looked the same, only more mature. I had always envied her exquisite looks: her flawless dark brown complexion and the full, thick eyebrows that were always meticulously arched. She could have been a model; she was thin, five feet seven, and had high cheekbones and a beautiful face. She hated her thin lips, but had mastered lining them so they appeared fuller—which she was currently doing with patience and precision.
“By the time you finish lining your lips, I’ll be all made up,” I joked.
“You know beauty can’t be rushed,” she said.
That was my problem—I rushed the process. My daily beauty regime consisted of a light coat of mascara and lip gloss. But on special occasions, like tonight, I embellished more, and if I must say so, I do clean up pretty well. I am the girl next door: five feet five inches tall, with a nice smile and medium brown skin; my shoulder-length hair is generally loosely curled, and recently I’ve dyed it light brown with honey-blond highlights.
“So what do you think, do I need anything else?” I looked straight ahead into the mirror so Janelle could size me up.
“Nice. The lipstick looks good. Just let me line your eyebrows.”
“Thanks,” I replied. “I never can quite get them even.” I sat on my bed while Janelle pulled out a liner and went to work on my brows. I began to mess with my hair.
“Be still, so I won’t poke you in the eye,” she fussed.
“I can’t help it,” I squealed. “I’m so excited. You’re gonna like the sorors here. We’re gonna have a good time!”
Once dressed, Janelle and I got into my car and headed off to one of the many graduation parties taking place that night. This one was off of the loop, which is the expressway to the city’s suburbs; my sorors and other friends would be there. On the way we swapped pledging stories. It was funny that what had seemed so serious while we were on line was now absurd. We caught up on old times and reminisced about high school. We both agreed that although the time had gotten away from us, it seemed like yesterday.
“Do you remember our high school graduation party?” I asked.
“How can I forget? It was off the hook! They locked us in the gym until the next morning. The deejay was great, and we gambled all night and won a ton of fake money at the casino they set up.”
“Oh, yeah, we had a ball. But the food was horrible.”
“It sure was. Remember the watered-down punch? And stale potato chips?” She squinted and frowned at the memory.
“You convinced all your boyfriends to give you their fake money so you could buy a VCR to take with you to college because your parents wouldn’t get you one.”
“They weren’t my boyfriends, but I do still have that VCR,” she said. “You were so in love with Cedric! You two hugged and held hands all night long. It was disgusting.”
“I was in love,” I agreed. “He was my world back then.”
“You always fall hard,” Janelle said.
Just then I saw a hubcap in the road but reacted too late. I drove right over it and my tire blew out. The car pulled to the left and I briefly lost control. Janelle started screaming, then I joined in. My life started to flash before my eyes. Damn, we were young and had just graduated from college, and now we might die. We shot past a car that swerved around, barely missing us. The driver laid on his horn. Another car veered around us before I was finally able to regain control of the wheel. I hit the brakes, stopping the car short of skidding into the soft left shoulder of the expressway.
Gripping the steering wheel with both hands, I looked around to confirm that we were still alive. I made eye contact with Janelle, who jumped out of the passenger-side door, leaned against the side of the car, and gave out a screech so loud that the sound moved down my spine. It was contagious. I jumped out of the car yelling, “Oh my God! Oh my God! OH! MY! GOD!” I’m not sure how long we screamed like hysterical lunatics, but eventually I regained my composure. I walked over to check the tire. It was shredded beyond repair. I shuddered, thinking about what could have happened.
“Okay, okay,” I said, trying to calm myself. “Okay, we have to do something.” I might as well have been talking to myself. Janelle was clutching her head and seemed to be in a trance. She must have been having an out-of-body experience.
“Janelle, snap out of it,” I pleaded. “We have to think of a way to get this car to a service station.”
She looked at me, but she still wasn’t comprehending.
“Do you have your cell phone on you?” I asked.
“Janelle, where’s your phone?” I said more firmly.
“Oh, I left it at your place,” she replied. Of course, I thought. What more could go wrong? “Where’s yours?” she asked.
“I don’t have one. So what now?” I knew I wasn’t going to get an answer from her. I looked around. Cars zoomed by, blowing gusts of wind in their tracks, but nobody seemed to notice, or care, that we needed help.
I walked behind the car and looked down the road to see if there was an exit nearby that we might have passed. I didn’t see anything, so I walked to the front of the car to check the road ahead and saw an exit that looked to be less than a mile up.
“I see an exit,” I said, walking over to Janelle. “Come on, let’s get back into the car.” I nudged her.
“I’m not getting back in that thing,” she said.
“Listen to me. We are near an exit. I promise you’ll be all right.”
“I can’t move,” she said.
“You have to, because if you don’t, I’ll have to leave you here,” I threatened.
“Then you’ll just have to leave me.”
“Get in the car!” I yelled. Then I opened the passenger door and forced her inside.
I got back into the car and drove on the shoulder, riding the rim to the ramp. Janelle prayed the whole way. Silently, I did too. Thank God there was a gas station/convenience store right off the exit. I slowly turned the wheel, and the sound of the tire shifting from side to side on the rim was so loud that everyone noticed our not-so-grand entrance.
There were two guys in particular whose attention we caught. As we pulled in, one was walking out of the store and the other was pumping gas. Apparently the ride had brought Janelle back to life, because when I parked the car she instantly jumped out and gave her best damsel-in-distress look. I rolled my eyes, got out, and walked over to see how badly I’d damaged my rim.
Before I was able to analyze the situation a deep voice said from behind me, “It looks like you could use some help.”
I turned around to see the guy who had walked out of the store.
“As a matter of fact we could,” I replied. “I hit a loose hubcap back on the highway.”
“Are you two okay?” he asked.
Janelle answered. “We’re fine now that you’re here.” They exchanged glances and smiled. For Janelle, there’s never a bad time to flirt.
“Do you know how to change a tire?” I asked.
“Yeah. Open the trunk, and I’ll get the spare out,” he said. We all walked to the trunk.
“Do you have a jack?” he asked.
“I’m not sure. As a matter of fact, this is my first flat tire.”
He pulled back the mat, rummaged through the trunk, and lifted out the spare. Luckily he found a minijack.
Janelle and I watched as he jacked up the front right side of the car. There was a smoothness in his demeanor. He was an attractive guy, at least six feet tall, masculine, with full lips, dark, marblelike eyes, and coal black, neatly groomed hair. He seemed to have an easygoing personality. I wondered if he was in college, a local, or just visiting the city.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Hand-me-down Heartache by Tajuana "TJ" Butler. Copyright © 2001 by Tajuana. Excerpted by permission of Villard, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.