Beads of sweat formed on Catara’s nose as she moved quickly around her tiny Brooklyn brownstone apartment. Her place was in shambles, and she had only an hour to get dressed and leave for her date.
Depressed during the past week, she hadn’t been motivated to pick up around her place. Sketches of her latest designs were thrown all over the dresser, covering her cosmetics, which she’d refused to wear the last few days. Clothes were scattered from the living area to the sleeping space. After a long day of work, Catara would simply undress in whichever spot on the floor was clear, and then walk away, leaving yet another pile. Because the studio was low on square footage, it didn’t take much for the place to have a cluttered feeling.
After Rondell had called, Catara was struck with energy and determined to clean her entire apartment. But there was no time. The phone had rung five minutes after she walked in after a long day at Saks Fifth Avenue, and he’d asked her to meet him that evening. It was now six p.m. on a Friday night, and she had to leave at seven.
Whenever Catara called Rondell, he was usually in a rush to get off the phone. After the initial pleasantries, he’d make some kind of excuse to hang up. But when he’d called this time, he was different. He wasn’t abrupt and to the point. He actually tried to put a little bass into his voice and seemed careful with the words he chose. She almost hadn’t known who he was when she’d picked up the phone.
“Hello,” she’d panted, attempting to catch her breath after dashing to answer the phone.
“Hey, lady, how’s my girl doing?”
“I’m fine,” she’d answered, a little hesitant. “Who is this?”
“Ah, baby, I’m crushed. You mean to tell me you don’t know my voice?”
“Oh,” she’d responded. “Rondell, is this you?” Her heart began to race as she clenched the receiver, pressing it close to her ear to make sure she’d heard right and that Rondell was actually on the other end.
“Yeah, it’s me.”
Catara didn’t know what to say. Experience had proven that Rondell wasn’t interested in spending time on the phone with her. She usually wrote down what she wanted to say to him before she called. Without her script, conversations with him were a complete disaster, and she’d hang up feeling distressed that she hadn’t had the opportunity to say everything that she needed to during their brief talk.
She’d felt off-guard and panicked until she realized that if he had something to say, he would eventually say it. No matter how painful it would be to her, Rondell always said his piece.
After a few moments of awkward silence, he spoke. “Hey baby, I was thinking, maybe we ought to go to that bar and grill that’s around the corner from my place.”
Is he asking me on a date? she asked herself.
“So what’s up?” he asked. “Are you down with seeing a brother?”
“That would be cool, Rondell,” she’d responded.
“Dig it,” he’d replied. “Why don’t we meet there around eight p.m.?” Catara was not in the mood to get back on the subway. If she’d had at least a day’s notice, she would have been able to arrange things differently. She had a good friend who lived in his neighborhood, so she could have gone to her friend’s place after work and prepared for her date there. Rondell never allowed her the opportunity to be anything more than a friend, but she was still attracted to him. If seeing him meant getting on the A train, then that’s what she was going to do.
“Okay, Rondell.” The thought of being treated to dinner by a man was a refreshing change from her mundane schedule. Catara hadn’t been on a real date in a little more than a year. “I’m looking forward to seeing you.”
“Me too,” he said and hung up the phone.
Anxious, Catara set out to find something in her collection of By TARA Originals, a line of clothing she had designed and sewn for herself. A graduate of the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in Los Angeles, Catara had relocated to New York to find a designer under whom to apprentice, but somehow found herself working at Saks as a personal shopper. Although there were few things in that store that were in her budget, Catara was an expert at helping others find just the right clothing to create their own unique style. However, in order to find her own, Catara designed her fashions from scratch.
She pulled out the outfit she hoped would not only keep Rondell’s attention focused on her through dinner but also convince him to take her back to his apartment for the night, which he had done only once before, in the early stages of their “friendship.”
Rondell was a musician, a guitar player. His aspiration was to play for a major act, touring the world with a band and playing nightly at stadiums holding thousands of screaming fans. He had been chasing that dream for eight years, but it continued to elude him. When Catara met him, he was picking his guitar, making pennies at a small coffee shop in the Village. Now, two years later, he was still working at the same place. Sometimes, when he was really hard up for money, he set himself up on a subway platform, opened his guitar case, strapped on his guitar, and played his heart out, while praying to God that enough kind souls would appreciate his music and drop enough change for him to eat that night, pay a bill, or get across town and back.
Although Rondell was usually broke and mostly distant, Catara thought he was talented and gorgeous. And when he did allow Catara inside his world, he could be quite charming, passionate, and sensitive. He stole her heart when he played a song one night at the coffee shop and dedicated it to her. It was the sweetest thing any man had ever done for her. Because of that song, Catara was more forgiving of his moments of inconsideration than she would have normally been.
After laying out her ensemble, Catara turned on the shower and allowed it to warm up while she undressed. The only mirror in her bathroom was on the front of the medicine cabinet, and she turned her back to it as she undressed. She didn’t want to be confronted with the rolls of flesh that were now hanging from her once curvaceous and sexy body. Over the years, her underactive thyroid and love of food had somehow added sixty-five pounds to her five-foot-five, 135-pound figure.
She stepped into the tub and allowed the water to hit her body. As she quickly washed, she thought about what she would say to Rondell and how he would react to her when she walked into the restaurant. She was going to do her part to look good. She knew that she had so much to offer him if he’d only give her the chance. She was smart, witty, and thoughtful, and Rondell would be a fool to pass her up.
As she moved the soapy sponge over her breasts, stomach, and thighs, she couldn’t help but wish she were thinner. She didn’t want to be fashion-model thin; she only wanted to be thin enough not to have to strain when she put on her shoes, or small enough around her waist so that when Rondell hugged her tonight, his hands would connect around her with no effort. But there was no time to pout. She couldn’t make any drastic changes in her weight before her date, so she had to work with what she had. Her hands moved back to her breasts. She cupped them and smiled, thinking, Lots of women wish their breasts were as voluptuous as mine. I am a beautiful woman, and Rondell has finally recognized what he’s missing.
Catara rinsed off and got out of the shower, dressed, put on her makeup, and freshened her shoulder-length, naturally curly hair. She smacked her lips together and smiled. You look damned good, girl, she thought. Now, go handle your business!
When she walked into the restaurant, she looked around for Rondell. A couple of tables were filled with people, and there were a handful sitting around the bar. Her heart raced and her palms, nose, and underarms began to perspire. Snow was on the ground, with temperatures below twenty degrees, but Catara had bundled up so well that she had begun to sweat. She took a deep breath and walked over to the redheaded hostess, who seemed overeager to greet her.
“Welcome! We have over twenty-five ales and the best steak north of the Ohio!” she said.
“Hi,” Catara said calmly as she pulled off her gloves and unbuttoned her coat. “I’m meeting a friend here.”
“I bet you’re talking about Rondell. He told me to keep an eye out for you. Nice guy. He’s over in the corner booth.”
“Thank you,” Catara responded, and then rubbed her sweaty hands together. “Would you happen to have a napkin?”
“Sure!” the hostess replied. She walked over to the bar and grabbed a few, then bounced back over and handed them to Catara.
“Thanks,” Catara said, then patted her nose.
“By the way, the ladies’ room is to your right. You can stop in and freshen up if you’d like before you go over to meet Rondell.”
“Thank you,” Catara responded, grateful the hostess had keyed in on her need. She walked into the ladies’ room and stood in front of the mirror, checking to make sure her face was still made up. Usually when she wore makeup, she applied it lightly, and when it wore off, she didn’t fuss about reapplying, but tonight was different; she wanted to make a good impression.
After touching up her makeup she still felt musty, so she unbuttoned her shirt, got a paper towel, wet it, and patted under her arms. She caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror and couldn’t help but find humor in her actions. The things we do for men! She laughed, then reached in her purse and pulled out a trial-size deodorant and body spray.
She put everything back into place and went out to get her man. As she approached Rondell, she reminded herself again just how special she was: I am big and beautiful, my hair is fly and my breasts are luscious. I am a fashion designer, and even if Rondell doesn’t see my beauty, the world soon will through my clothing line.
“Catara. Hey lady, you made it,” he said, and got up from his seat, waiting for her to come close. He stood six-foot-one and was thin and lanky, with a wild, unkempt sandy-brown Afro, and he had on his signature black pants and white tank top. His leather jacket was draped over the back of the chair.
She walked up to him and smiled wide. “Rondell, it’s been too long!”
“I agree,” he said and reached out to hug her. She had forgotten how he towered over her. Instead of reaching around his neck to hug him, she opted to squeeze his waist.
“I’ve missed you,” she said while in his embrace.
“Let’s sit down,” he said as they pulled away. They took their seats. “I’m starved,” he said, and flipped through his menu. “I already know what I want.”
“I’m really not hungry,” she replied. A combination of being with Rondell again, worrying about what events the evening would bring, and wanting to seem appealing had taken away her appetite.
“You mean to tell me you’re not hungry?” he said, sounding surprised and just a tiny bit frustrated.
“Positive,” Catara replied with confidence. “But I’ll get a side salad and soda.”
“Salad?” he shook his head and frowned. “Dig it. Well, it’s on you. When the waitress comes you can order for both of us. I want the artichoke and spinach dip appetizer and the rib and fries for the entrée. I’ll be back. I need to take a leak.” Rondell shoved his fingers in his mane, picked through it, and slid out of the booth.
As she watched him walk away, she remembered just why, when he’d stopped calling, she didn’t try to contact him. Why should he be any different tonight? she thought. She went ahead and ordered for the both of them when the waiter came. She asked if she could have a side salad as her entrée. The waiter rolled his eyes and said, “A side salad must accompany a meal. Only garden salads can be purchased as entrées.”
“Well, I only want a Coke!” she replied matter-of-factly. “Add a side salad to my date’s meal.”
“Whatever you say,” he responded, grabbing the menus from the edge of the table and walking away.
Several minutes passed, and the waiter came back with the appetizer, saying, “I brought two plates so you and your date could share.” He looked over at the empty seat, snickered, and walked away.
What a jerk, she thought. And just where is Rondell?From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Night Before Thirty by Tajuana "TJ" Butler. Copyright © 2003 by Tajuana. Excerpted by permission of One World/Strivers Row, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.