Running Out of Time?
It’s another exciting Friday night, and I’m curled up in bed--alone, of course--propped up by a sea of pillows, still in my lab coat, the sash so taut it’s suffocating the purple silk dress beneath it, but I don’t care. After a grueling day of back-to-back patients, I’m a few minutes away from being comatose, but I’m also hungry, which is why I’m channel-surfing and waiting for my pizza to get here. I stop when I come to my favorite standby: Law & Order: Criminal Intent, even though I’ve seen almost all of them--including the reruns. These days I usually just watch the first five or ten minutes, long enough to see Detective Goren stride onto the crime scene in his long trench coat, tilt his head to the side while he puts on those rubber gloves, rub the new growth on that beautiful square chin, and bend down to study the victim. It’s at this moment, before he utters a word, when I usually pucker up, blow him a kiss, and then change the channel. I’ve lusted over Detective Goren and yearned to be held against shoulders like his long before my second marriage bottomed out.
Truth be told, over the years I’ve fallen in love every Wednesday with Gary Dourdan’s lips as CSI Warrick Brown, and even though I was no Trekkie, Avery Brooks’s deep baritone and sneaky smile made me say “Yes” aloud to the TV. I also let myself be seduced for hours in dark theaters, hypnotized by Benicio del Toro’s dreamy eyes, even though he was a criminal. By Denzel’s swagger when he was a slick gangster. Brad Pitt as a sexy young thief. Ken Watanabe as the most sensual samurai I wanted to ride on a horse with, and I wanted to be a black geisha and torture him until I finally let him have all of me.
I hate to admit it, but if I had the energy, I’d kill to have sex with the first one who walked into my bedroom tonight. I’d let him do anything he wanted to do to me. It’s been centuries since I’ve had sex with a real man, and I’m not even sure I’d remember what to do first should I ever get so lucky again. In fact, I think I’d be too uncomfortable, not to mention scared of getting all touchy-feely, and don’t even get me started on him seeing me naked. Hell, this is why I sleep with the remote.
When I hear the doorbell, I glance over at the broken blue clouds inside the clock on the night table. I’ve been waiting forty minutes for this pizza, which means they’re going to owe me a free one! I roll off the bed on my side, even though the other side has been empty for years. I walk over to the door and yell, “Be right there!” Then I grab my wallet out of my purse and beeline it to the front door, because I’m starving. That is so not true. I’m just a little hungry. I’m trying to stop lying to myself about little things. I’m still working on the big ones.
I open the door, and standing there sweating is a young black kid who can’t be more than eighteen. His head looks like a small globe of shiny black twists that I know are baby dreadlocks. His cheeks are full of brand-new zits. His name tag says free.
“I’m so sorry for the delay, ma’am. There was a accident at the bottom of the hill, and I couldn’t get up here, so this one’s on the house.”
He looks so sad, and I’m wondering if the price of this pizza is going to be deducted from his little paycheck, but I dare not ask.
“I don’t mind paying for it,” I say. “It wasn’t your fault there was an accident.” I take the pizza from him and set it on the metal stairwell.
“That’s real thoughtful of you, but I’m just glad this is my last delivery for the night,” he says, leaning to one side as if he’s pretending not to look behind me, but of course he is. “This a real nice crib you got here. I ain’t never seen no yellow floors before. It’s downright wicked.”
“Thanks,” I say, and hand him a twenty.
He looks as if he’s in shock. “Like I said, ma’am, this pizza is on the house, and I also got some drink coupons you can have, too,” he says, pulling them out of the pocket of his red shirt.
“It’s a tip,” I say. “Is your real name Free?”
“How do you feel about it?”
“I dig it. I get asked all the time about it.”
“So how old are you, Free?”
“I’m eighteen.” He’s still staring at the twenty but then quickly shoves it inside the back pocket of his jeans in case I come to my senses and change my mind.
“Are you in college?” I’m hoping he says yes and that he’s taking English so one day soon he’ll stop saying ain’t.
“Almost. That’s why I’m working. You really giving me this whole twenty?”
I nod. “Do you know what you want to major in?”
“Mechanical engineering,” he says with certainty.
“Your husband rich?”
“What makes you think I’d have to have a husband to be rich?”
“Everybody that live up in these hills is. Even them two dykes that live next door. And they married.”
“Those dykes aren’t just my neighbors, they’re also my friends, and they’re lesbians.”
“A’right. My bad,” he says, flinging his arms up like Don’t shoot. “I didn’t mean no harm.”
“I know. Anyway, I’m divorced. And I’m not rich. But I also don’t struggle.”
“You cleaned him out, then, huh?”
Then he gives me the once-over. “You some kind of doctor?”
I look down at my lab coat. “Yes. I’m an optometrist.”
“Which one is that?”
“I help people see clearly,” I say, so as not to complicate it.
“Who helps you?” he asks with a smile, which throws me off completely. What a loaded question to ask a woman old enough to be his grandmother. “Just fooling with you, Dr. Young. No disrespect intended.”
“None taken, Free.”
Who helps me see? See what?
“Cool. Well, look, I gotta dash and get this car back to my cousin, but major thanks for the mega-tip, and I have to say it’s nice somebody black gave it to me. Most of the white folks up here ain’t big on tipping, except for them lesbians.”
What he just said was a little on the racist and sexist side, but I know he meant well. He runs down the sidewalk and jumps into that raggedy car of his, removes the pizza sign displayed on top, and disappears down the hill. I lean against the doorframe watching him go. I really should’ve praised him for working to pay for college, and if he hadn’t been in such a hurry, I would have loved to tell him that he might find his calling in college and he might not. But I’d also tell him to search until he did. Otherwise he could end up doing something he just happened to be good at, something respectable that might guarantee him a nice income, but one day, when he’s older, like, say, fifty-three soon to be fifty-four, when his kids have grown up and he’s twice divorced and bored with his profession and his life and the thought of trying to change it all--or even where he lives--scares the hell out of him because it feels like it’s too late, I’d tell him to please figure out a way to do it anyway, since I’m an excellent example of what can happen when you don’t.
I turn off the porch light, close the door, and I can’t believe all of this is flooding in. I walk across these cool yellow concrete floors and sit on these cool metal stairs and look out at the light jutting up through those soft navy blue waves in the cool black-bottomed pool, and I look up a flight where both of my daughters used to sleep, and I look down to where the library and the guest room are, and I sit here and eat this entire cheese-and-tomato pizza.
I am full of regret.
Monday mornings are the worst, which is why I left a little early. The freeway is still slow going. But I’m used to it. I crack my window, although it can’t be more than fifty degrees. The dampness coming from the bay can’t eclipse the clarity of this morning as thousands of us slowly descend around a curve, and there waiting for us like a giant postcard is the Bay Bridge and right behind it the San Francisco skyline. This is a beautiful place to live.
But then, as typically happens at least once a week, the traffic suddenly comes to a screeching halt. I can see the reason up ahead. A four-car pile-up is blocking two of the five lanes, and everyone is trying to move over to make room for the fire trucks and ambulances I now hear. I just pray no one is hurt. I roll my window all the way down and put the car in park. Some have already turned off their engines. I leave mine running and call my office.
When my cell phone rings, I know who it is before I even glance at the screen. “Hello, Miss Early,” I say to my mother, for obvious reasons but also because her name is Earlene.
“Hello back to you, Miss Georgia.”
Of course I was never any Miss Georgia, because I was born in Bakersfield, where she still lives, and I was named after my late father, whose name was George. There’s hardly a day that goes by when someone doesn’t ask me if I’m from Georgia. In college I just started lying and said yes: Macon. But then they wanted to know why I didn’t have a drawl.
“What can I do you for, ma’am? Are you feeling okay?”
“I’m probably healthier than you. Anyway, I’m calling for two reasons. I’m going on a cruise for seniors with my church.”
“That’s nice,” I say, trying not to laugh, because I’m thinking this is going to be one wild and scandalous cruise.
“That’s all you have to say?”
“I’m thrilled for you, Ma. I know you go to one of those megachurches, but are there enough seniors in the congregation to fill a whole cruise ship?”
“Of course not. There are ten churches, and we’re not going to be the only older people on it.”
She’s eighty-one. Soon to be eighty-two.
“When and where are you going?”
“We leave two weeks and one day from today. For ten whole days! We’re going to four or five islands in the Caribbean that I can’t remember right now. One of them is the Grand Cayman.”
“That’s a whole lot of numbers, Ma, but it sounds like so much fun. It’ll be good for you.”
“I know. I still miss your brother and your dad, and I get lonely in this condo, and I’ll just go on and admit that I get tired of going to church just so I can have a social life and I don’t have to get dressed up to worship at home. Anyway, I’ll be doing a lot of praying standing in front of those slots.” She laughs.
“Okay, Ma, what’s the other thing? Because I’m stuck in traffic, and it looks like it’s about to start moving.”
“Well, you know it’s almost time for my annual eye exam, and my cruise conflicts with the date I have on my calendar.”
“Ma, it’s not set in stone.”
“I know. So I’m hoping to get a rain check to see if we can make it after the holidays, unless you think I need to have it sooner.”
“Ma, you don’t have to have the test on the same day every year, but around the same time is just smart to do at your age.”
“I’m not senile yet, Georgia.”
“I’m not even going to respond to that. And who is we? Please don’t say Dolly.”
“Well, it’s not safe for me to drive that far alone anymore, so Dolly is willing to do the driving.”
Why me, Lord? Dolly is my older second cousin, whom I love but don’t like that much, because she’s got a nasty attitude and never has anything nice to say about anybody, especially me. I know this to be true, because gossip travels faster within families. She has convinced herself that I think I’m hot shit because I went to college and live in a nice house with a pool. Some relatives I can live without, and Dolly’s on the top of that list.
“The boys want to come, too. They haven’t seen you in years, and they’ve been having a hard time finding work.”
The boys are over thirty. And haven’t worked in years either. Last time they were here, they smoked marijuana in the bathroom and tried to drink up half the liquor in the bar.
“I’m about to start remodeling, so there’ll be no place for them to sleep,” I lie.
“Well, it’s about time. And I hope you tone it down some. I feel like I’m walking into a rainbow every time I come through your front door.”
“Gotta go. Love you.” I usually give her smooches, but she just hurt my feelings, so I don’t much feel like it.
I rush past the tall wall of windows, and Marina, our six-foot Japanese receptionist, waves at me. She’s on the phone, sitting behind the long maple counter. In the four years she’s worked here, she’s worn black every single day--including on her fingernails. From here you can see only her shoulders. She waves, then gives me a slow thumbs-up that all is fine. I wasn’t really worried, but I don’t like to inconvenience patients, even though the situation is more often the reverse.
Unlike home, the office is serene. The walls are a pale gray, a warm yellow, and one is white. My mother approves. Nine chairs are white, except for one that’s yellow. Four oblong purple tables are scattered around the area meant for fitting eyewear. Almost every inch of wall space is filled with frames and sunglasses to suit almost every taste and price.
One of my most annoying but favorite patients, Mona Kwon, rushes to open the door for me. “Thank you, Mona!” I say, and head on over to Marina. Mona sits in her chair; the one next to the door if it’s empty, or else she’ll stand. She’ll be seventy-five soon. She only needs strong readers but claims she can’t see the tips of her fingernails when she holds them out in front of her. She comes in to have her glasses adjusted at least twice a month. She has forty pair and counting. The techs think she’s probably suffering from dementia. I think she’s just lonely. She also doesn’t like the techs to warm her frames; she insists I do it. After lifting them out of the hot sand and slipping them behind her ears, I watch her stare into the mirror a few minutes too long, as if, or until, she’s satisfied she looks like whoever she wants to be.
Copyright © 2018 by Terry McMillan. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.