We’re cruising around in Brice’s maroon jeep. It was brand-spanking-new, a high school graduation gift courtesy of his wealthy father the chiropractor, details that Brice is all too happy to share with anyone who will listen.
It’s our eighth loop through the town center of York, Nebraska. The song “There She Goes” from the So I Married an Axe Murderer soundtrack is playing. Brice turns up the volume to full blast. Although I like the sunshininess of the song, my ears feel assaulted. Aaron, who’s sitting in the back seat is more concerned with his product-laden hair becoming mussed by the afternoon breeze. Aaron has no idea that he needn’t worry, that every strand of the thick hair on his head is sufficiently frozen in place.
As we enter our ninth go-around, it occurs to me that absolutely no part of the scenery has changed between the first eight times and now. The cobbled streets are the same; the scanty, thin trees lining the sidewalks are the same. Even the floating aroma of pizza coming from the local pizza joint is the same. What if anything are we expecting to be different this time?
Actually, I had asked myself that question a few times throughout the year. The answer was a simple one, we were bored. We were just three college freshmen who managed to fill our weekends, circling the square of the provincial town of 8,124. To be honest, I feel embarrassed, but not enough to give me pause from participating. Driving around in circles doesn’t mean half as much as the brotherhood I’m a part of.
Brice turns off onto a side road that winds us back to the start of our route. “There She Goes” has just finished, and I’m suddenly aware how much I appreciate the quiet. I only have seconds to enjoy it because Brice rewinds the cassette back to the beginning. I turn to the open window and expel a sigh into the air; after all I can’t complain---it’s not my car. I know that Brice means nothing by it; he’s trying to keep things upbeat and light, although he’s well aware that things haven’t always been good between us. They still aren’t, but neither of us want to end the year bitter, so we play along to get along.
Brice is turning the corner again, driving past Joe’s Pizza. Aaron sticks his head out the window like a puppy. He’s trying to be inconspicuous, but I can tell he’s inhaling the food-scented air. He’s hungry. Aaron’s always hungry. Makes me think how uncomfortable he must be sitting directly behind me. Aaron is stout, and despite my having brought the seat forward as much I comfortably can, I know he’s uncomfortable.
Aside from Aaron’s extra pounds, he is quite handsome. He dresses up both nicely and expensively. One would think if you shelled out a fortune for clothes that they would look nice, but the two don’t always go hand-in-hand.
Aaron would tell you that his hair is his best asset, though I would argue that his luminous, saucer-like eyes, full lips and goatee are what give his baby face character.
Brice is the one with the conventional Hollywood it-boy looks. Square-jawed with perfectly trimmed five-0’clock shadow, piercing blue eyes all under a mop of shiny, dishwater blond curls. He has an athletic build with an odd indentation in the middle of his chest. Looks-wise, I think that he will be in perfect company if and when he decides to follow his dream of becoming a special-effects make-up artist out to L.A.
“There She Goes” is playing again. I so badly want to push the stop button, but I don’t. Instead I stare forward, wondering where I fit into this menagerie. Anytime Brice is around I feel grossly inadequate. I’ve never told him this, so I don’t necessarily blame him. I’m not bad-looking. Thin before heroin chic was a thing. My face is both weathered and angular. I have cheek bones and eyelashes many women envy. With my hair having been freshly cut to the scalp, I happen to think I look the way R. Kelly looks in a picture hung on my dorm room wall. There aren’t too many black students on campus, and absolutely zero in the town of York. The seven of us black students are exotic just by existing.
When I glance over at Brice, his eyes are beyond happy, almost manic. He doesn’t have a care in the world. He’s got life in Wichita, Kansas to look forward to, and that life is a good one. His on-again-off-again girlfriend, Emily, called to say she wants to give their relationship another go. Brice knows that it’ll only be for the summer. First time I ever saw Brice not get exactly what he wanted. But I’m not worried for him. He’s got daddy’s money to numb any sting the real world can give him.
And I’m jealous. I doubt Brice will look beyond his own excitement to care that I wish I had someone to offer me their summer.
“Anyone besides me hungry?” Aaron shouts over the music.
Brice turns the volume down, and I am glad for this. “I could eat something,” I say.
“What do you guys want?” Brice asks.
“Well, you’ve driven past Joe’s about a hundred times now. Safe to assume I could go for a slice.”
“I dunno, guys. I sorta had a hankering for tacos.” Brice says, smiling suddenly.
I know this smile. The smile says that since Brice is driving, he’s running the show.
“Dude, you can’t possibly drive past a pizza joint a thousand-frickin’ times and not want pizza,” Aaron reasons.
“Yeah, but dude, you can get pizza anywhere. This is the last time we can get those fried potato thingies. They don’t have those in Wichita.” Brice looks at me for support. But I continue staring forward.
“Buddy what do you wanna eat?” he asks me, trying to make me part of the conversation whether I want to be or not. Truthfully, I couldn’t care less what we eat, but I know Aaron is set on pizza, and I know that Brice has an entire summer in Wichita of getting what he wants to look forward to.
“I’m with Aaron,” I say, proud to be the deciding vote. But I know that in the end, Brice’s asking me is merely a courtesy. He’s ultimately going to do whatever the hell he wants to do.
We’re driving down the street. The taco place comes into view. I hear Aaron grunt behind me. I imagine him petulantly folding his arms over the width of his chest. Brice looks at Aaron through his rearview mirror. He must have received visual confirmation of what I envisioned.
“I tell you what, guys. I’ve really gotta have those potato thingies. Why don’t we stop here first, and I’ll take you guys to get your pizza on the way back to the dorm? Promise.”
I decide to disconnect from the conversation. Brice pulls into the long line of cars snaking up to the drive-thru. Now that Brice is getting what he wants, he’s more than happy to wait in line. We’re still far enough from the menu and microphone that I can see there is virtually no customers inside the restaurant.
“Why don’t you get out and order inside? There’s no line.”
“No, we’re fine right here. Look, the cars are moving.”
Each car moves a fraction of a pace.
“You guys should start thinking about what you want so we can just order when we get to the menu,” Brice instructs us. He’s somehow forgotten his earlier promise to swing by Joe’s Pizza on the way back to the dorm. Sitting in this line is his way of rubbing our noses in it.
“I believe we told you what we want to eat,” Aaron says.
“Yeah, I know, but we’re right here. And anyway, I really need to get back to the dorm. I still have a boatload of packing to do. I’m sure you guys still have things to pack up.”
Aaron punches the seat behind me. Though the fabric and stuffing act as a buffer, I can feel his knuckles in my back. “Do what you want, Brice,” Aaron says, refusing to conceal his anger. “You always do.”
We finally make it to the menu. Brice brings the music down again, and leans out toward the microphone..
“Okay, my treat, you guys. What do you want?”
I can’t decide whether Brice hears what he wants to hear or if he’s deaf. I’m staring at an oversized glossy picture of las papas deliciosas, and have to admit that they look scrumptious. They don’t exist back in Minneapolis either. The scent of seasoned taco meat drifts inside of the jeep. My stomach has begun to eat itself because I’m so famished. But Aaron is pissed, resenting how Brice seems to make up the rules as he goes along.
When Brice finally pulls a white, greasy bag into the jeep, the smell kills me a little. Aaron didn’t order anything, and despite the fact that I’m starving, neither did I out of solidarity. Those potato thingies Brice just had to have aren’t even the first thing he pulls from the bag. His bite into a soft shell taco takes off half the taco. Lettuce and cheese disappear into his mouth like a paper shredder.
Brice takes a different way back to the dorm in order to avoid passing Joe’s Pizza. He doesn’t turn the music on. I can feel Aaron’s anger smoldering in the backseat. I, too, have nothing to say, so the three of us sit in awkward silence. Though I doubt anything is too awkward for Brice. He has nothing to be upset about. And why should he? He just got what he wanted.
When Brice pulls into his parking spot behind the dorm, I wait until he shuts off the car to get out. I get as far as opening the door when I feel a tug on my arm. I turn toward him only because he’s still holding on to me. I hope my look of scorn conveys that I don’t appreciate being touched by him. He lets go of my arm, but he’s wearing a baffled expression on his face.
“Guys wait. I mean, come on. You’re not gonna let the year end on a sour note are you?” he asks.
“Well, you seem perfectly okay with it,” Aaron says.
“I am not,” Brice says incredulously.
I wonder if this is all you get when ordering the Brice special---he gets to behave entirely the way he wants to, then gets to act as though he has no idea why you could possibly be pissed with him.
“I can’t speak for anyone else, but it didn’t take me a frickin’ year to realize that you know exactly what you’re doing,” Aaron says unashamedly.
Brice’s face contorts. It’s the first time I’ve seen him look unattractive. He looks like a small child who thinks he’s being picked on. It’s a rare morsel of realness from a guy who’s always pretending and trying to convince everyone that he has his shit together.
“You can speak for me, Aaron, because I agree with you,” I say.
“I don’t believe this. I try and have a moment with the people that I thought were my friends and you dog me.”
“Yeah, something like that,” Aaron says, completely checking out. “May I get out now?”
I unbuckle my seat belt and climb out. I push the lever on the side of the seat that allows it bend forward. I take a glimpse of Brice, as he sits with his head bowed. I can still make out a look that’s both miffed and mystified through the shadows on his face. He clutches the rumpled, greasy, white bag of half-eaten food sitting between his legs.
“That it, then?” he asks.
I stand to the side, allowing Aaron space to exit the car. Neither of us answer him.
“All righty then,” he says as I close the door in his face. We continue on, the two of us. In my head, I’m waiting to hear the sound of his jeep door opening and closing. But I never do. He’s probably waiting for one or both of us to turn back to show we care.
I’ve never been so happy to return to my room, though by tomorrow afternoon it will no longer be mine. I sit on my bed. A rush of exhilaration passes through me, like someone grateful to have barely escaped with their life. My eyes dart about the room, my brain races to take inventory of everything that’s left to be done before whoever is coming to take me and my things back to Minneapolis shows up.
Maybe it’s a good thing that Brice brought us back as early as he did. Brice. The name lingers like a burn on the tongue. And I’m disappointed with myself that I’ve allowed it to. The guy has a way of getting into the nooks and crannies of my mind.
Both he and I began the year as ardent children of God. Well, my faith was shaky by the time I showed up. But I looked towards Brice’s bright light to show me the way back to Christ. As soon as I began to feel stable in my spiritual walk, Brice began to question his faith--- probably for no other reasons beyond intellectual boredom and enjoying the attention he got from people who thought he was “falling away.” Thus began our spiritual ebb and flow. Today, I’m spiritually crippled, while he’s got his mojo back. Suddenly, he’s sitting on top of a mountain of sanctimony, wagging his finger in the face of everyone else’s iniquity. As far as his brush with the dark side and personal challenges, he acts as if he doesn’t know what you’re talking about.
My head hurts, as it often does when my encounters with Brice don’t go well. I lie back on my bed. Dinner is in a couple hours. A nap is the perfect exit.
I’m awakened by a knock at the door. Hardly seems that I slept as long as I did.
I sit up, swing my legs out so that my feet touch the floor. “Yeah?” I call out, trying to shake off my discombobulation.
Aaron opens the door. “Hey, man. Was wondering if you wanted to grab some chow.”
I’m tickled that anyone actually uses the word “chow.” I rub my index finger and thumb between the inner corners of eyes. I look at Aaron. He looks clearer to me. Crisper. I notice his hair is wet. It’s no longer the stiff helmet it was before, rather, now it falls naturally on his head. He’s changed his clothes, too.
“Sure. Looks like you went to a lot of trouble just to go to the cafeteria.”
Aaron shrugs nonchalantly. “Took a shower,” he says before hitting me with, “Brice been by your room?”
“Not unless I slept through it.”
“Consider yourself lucky.”
“he showed up about fifteen minutes after we got back. Figure he thought he should give me some time to calm down.”
“And did you?”
It’s my first time hearing Aaron curse. He sounds as though he’d been holding it in like a belch the whole year and needed to let it out. Tension left his face like a slowly deflating bicycle tire.
“Wow.” Is all I can offer.
“The guy’s a jerk. Can’t believe I put up with his shit for an entire year. Tell you what, next year, I’m making a better effort to make new friends.” Aaron always looked so intense. Now, he looked as though he’d just been set free. His rant was accompanied with a smile. I can’t remember the last time before that I saw him smile. “You decided whether or not you’re coming back in the fall?” he asks me.
It hits me out of the blue. I don’t have the heart to tell Aaron that the decision isn’t up to me. “The deal was that my grandparents paid the first year. I already know my ma hasn’t saved up any money.” I feel bad lying to Aaron. He deserves the truth, and I think he’s man enough to take it. But the reason why I came to Friend Christian College in the first place isn’t something I’m ready to share with anyone. I’m still bitterly swallowing it all myself. “You go ahead. I’ll meet you over there,” I say finally.
“Okay. I’ll save you a seat.”
I wait for Aaron to leave before I give in to wreck this conversation is doing to my body. My heart is palpitating. I place my hands on my head. I can feel my brainwaves rippling like waves; like the time I smoked some weed that tripped off my paranoia. Right now, I’m panicking in the worst way.
I didn’t want to start thinking about what brought me here. But thanks to Aaron, I’ve got no choice. Accepting the flood of memories that breach my mind, I close my eyes. Unfortunately, I can remember it all like it was just yesterday…
Pastor Elrick Cotton knows what he’s walked into. However, a rumor has traveled through the church with such ferocity he has no choice but to address it. His wife, Lorelle, is noticeably absent. She chose to return to Atlanta. As far as she was concerned, the good pastor was on his own.
He stands before his congregation, clutching his bible, drawing strength from it. As he peers out at the stretch of faces, he’s met with looks of disappointment and disgust.
“Brothers and sisters of the church, I have sinned.”
Hisses and groans erupt throughout the auditorium. Summoning courage, Pastor Cotton plants his feet firmly and stands tall.
“For the last six months, I’ve been engaged in a consensual, yet, inappropriate relationship.”
“And don’t forget homosexual?” Someone yells.
An older woman; a respected beacon of wisdom in the church, pushes on to her feet. Even with her frail frame, she holds a bulky purse, which swings in her grasp as though she wants to hit the pastor with it. “And you call yo’self a man of God? You need to be ashamed of yo’self!”
. She has the entire crowd with her. “Leviticus 18: 22!” the woman’s Sunday wig shakes as she stomps up and down through cheers of familiarity with the verse. “‘Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is an abomination!’ Read your bible, Mistuh!”
Pastor Cotton looks as though someone has spit in his face. But he regains composure to say, “In light of what’s happened, I can’t effectively pastor this congregation. Starting today Deacon Matthews will act as your pastor until a permanent replacement is found.”
Ma stands up. “You just had to choose my baby, didn’t you?”
I recoil in embarrassment. I feel every eye focusing on my mother and I. I feel heat crawling up my neck, sweating my back. I want to grab her by her arm and yank her down to her seat. But I don’t have the nerve.
“He’s still a baby!” Someone exclaims. “You should be trying to show him the right way to live, but instead you over here trying to tangle him in your web of sin!”
“Yeah!” the worshipers scream, sounding increasingly like a lynch mob.
Elrick puts his bible on the podium and lifts his hands to the crowd, palms out. Tears fall from his eyes in thin, neat streams. I begin to cry on his behalf. I warned him not to do this. Now he’s up there, vulnerable. Judgments and cheap shots are being fired from every direction. He flinches with each hit. I want to go up there and hold him. Maybe all the hate in the room will ricochet off of us. It’s not our fault we fell in love. I stand up and look at him. Our eyes meet. Ma tries to yank me down in the way I wanted to yank her earlier. But I too stand firm.
“He was old enough to consent. He wasn’t a baby,” he says.
“He’s my baby!” Ma yells.
Elrick closes his eyes, puts his hands to his aching temples. He expected this; to lose the church he helped build and grow in membership. He expected to lose the respect of its members. That must hurt worse than the financial loss.
But it will all be over soon enough.
He looks frustrated; there’s a desperate need to finish what he wants to say. It won’t change their minds, but at least he will have gotten to say his piece. “I have shamed God. I have shamed this church. I have shamed my wife. And I have shamed the young man I’ve grown to love over these past months.”
There is hissing and groaning from the congregation.
“I’ve shamed myself. I apologize with all of the love I have for each of you as your brother in Christ…”
More hisses. More groans.
Elrick walks from behind the podium. He faces the angry crowd, outstretching his arms as though he’s given all he can to them. The noise coming from the twenty-five hundred members sounds venomous. Both Elrick and I have already been bitten. He slowly descends the pulpit. Each step seems to take longer than it should.
Midway through the aisle, he turns to face my mother and I. They lock eyes before I get what’s left of his sad gaze. It’s a brief moment; his eyes are puffy, wet, and apologetic. Ma eyes us both with a stare that’s cold enough to bring down the temperature in the auditorium. He reaches out to me. I long to absorb his distress. But the congregants standing nearest to us swipe their hands at him; like they’re shooing away flies. They shield Ma and I from him. They have no clue that I want to feel his touch or that I t’s vital to me.
Elrick continues on his way. He makes it through and out the church. I want to go after him. Sensing my intent, Ma grabs hold of my shirt arm, pinching the skin beneath. The look in her eyes chills me.
“I wish you would,” she sneers.
My heart thumps and my brow sweats. The air inside feels like it’s going to dry me up until I shrivel into nothing. I try to step away, but Ma won’t let go, and my feet feel like massive cinder blocks. Time passes slowly. Each second drips by. All I can do is watch everyone lose their minds around me. I watch the members of the church pile against themselves in the doorway; shaking their fists, seemingly foaming at the mouth, then slowly return to their seats. This army Elrick had sought to build for Christ has turned on him.
The Deacon finally comes forward to try and calm everyone down. I receive a tap on my left shoulder from someone in the pew behind me. I turn around to find my grandmother glaring at me. She beckons me with her index finger to come closer.
“I just want you to know that you and that man did this. I hope you both are satisfied,” she whispers directly to me. Granddaddy, who’s sitting next to her, won’t even look at me. I turn forward to find Ma giving me side-eyes, before she rolls them.
Time still moves glacially. I try to drown out the nonsense being said from the pulpit. I just want to figure out how I will see Elrick again.
Before the benediction, I begin to rise. Ma pulls me back down before I have the chance to fully stand up. I feel like a five-year-old being kept from running off.
“Where are you going?” she asks.
“To the bathroom. Am I allowed?” I quietly hiss.
I get up and make my way down the aisle toward the exit. I do my best to ignore every single stare. But, instead of veering off to the right to go downstairs to the restroom, I continue out the front door, on my way by foot to meet Elrick at his house.
By the time I get to Elrick’s I’m sweaty. The entire walk I imagined his car parked out front as the perfect reward for making the trek. I’m disappointed to find that car isn’t there. I look around, hoping to see it turn the corner. My impatience fuels my steps as I walk to the corner to peer down the block. There’s nothing of interest to see. More importantly there’s still no sign of Elrick. I return to his front step. I have no choice but to sit and wait. In the time I sit there, all I can do is think of the bedlam we created. I wonder if I had been the other woman as opposed to the other man if the church would have responded as vehemently. I sincerely doubt it. After some time, I recline against the screen door and fall asleep.
I’m awakened by a gentle tap.
“You shouldn’t be here, Lawrence,” Elrick says to me.
I have no idea how long I’ve been out waiting in front of this man’s door, but he’s a welcomed sight. “I can’t help it,” I say, rising to stand. “I had to see you.”
Elrick stands there. I notice a glassiness in his eyes. There’s a slight sway and a gust of booze coming from his breath. I didn’t know he drinks. Didn’t know pastors were allowed to.
I’m scrutinizing Elrick hard. Uncomfortable, he moves to open the front door.
“I understand that you only did what we talked about, but I still don’t understand why you let these people dictate your life. You saw for yourself how little they care about you. They obviously will never understand!”
Once we’re both inside, Elrick turns to look at me. He smiles at what he perceives to be
my naiveté. “You know what? I think I’m seeing for the first time just how young you really are.”
“But, you told me age doesn’t matter. You said what matters is how we feel about each other.”
“You don’t get it, do you?” Elrick asks. He looks emotionally spent, like he’s too wound-up to have this conversation with me.
“So what are we going to do now?” I ask.
“We aren’t going to do anything. You’re going to go home and try and patch things up with your mother.”
“I ain’t got shit to say to her!”
“She blames me for all of this. That’s why you still have a chance to fix things with her.”
“I’m staying right here with you.”
“Sweetheart, Angel, now isn’t the time.”
“Elrick, we have nothing to be ashamed of. We fell in love. If people can’t understand that then tough shit. They’ll be all right.”
Elrick smiled. “You know, you’re much too intelligent to have such a dirty mouth. There’s plenty of other ways to get your point across.”
“Do I look like I came here for a lecture?”
“No, you look like you’re going home.” Elrick kisses me on the forehead. A long sigh pushes through his lips. “Listen, now isn’t a good time for me. I’ve lost a lot. I can’t be bothered with your mess, too.”
“Yes, Lawrence, you’re not helping. I just want to be alone.”
“Will you call me later?”
“I don’t know. Probably not.”
“Are you breaking up with me?”
Elrick’s eyes begin to tear up again. “As much as it breaks my heart to say…yes, I’m breaking up with you. We had no business getting involved in the first place.”
“Yeah. Okay. Whatever. Go ahead…spend the rest of your life trying to make everyone else happy. You’re ridiculous!”
“I can’t give you what you need. Especially now. But I know there’s someone out there who can.”
My eyes fill with tears off my own. Right now I don’t just want Elrick to hold me. I want him to take me into his bedroom and make love to me. I know it’s not going to happen. “You better call me later,” I say, my voice trembling. I head towards the door and open it. I want him to tell me to stop. I want him to fight for us.
“I’m not going to promise that.”
“Fine. Go fuck yourself!” I scream before slamming the door behind me. I stand outside, staring at the door. I’m giving him one last chance to come through that door and beg me to come back in. I need him to show me that all we went through this morning isn’t for nothing. But, the door never opens, so I back away. There’s nothing left to do except head home.
As I open the door I find Ma standing there. She’s probably been waiting there the entire time, still wearing her church outfit. She greets me with a slap across the face.
“I have never in my life been more embarrassed than I am now to call you my child!”
Her words have slapped me a second time. I utter a feeble, “Ma..”
“Get the hell outta my face!”
I didn’t think what my mother had to say or thought would matter as much as it does. I feel shaken. Another second and she’ll strangle me with her contempt. I have no fight left in me. Elrick gave up on us and so do I. I do as I’m told and walk away. My brother Plez Jr. shakes his head as I passed him on my way to my room. I close the door and change into some jeans and a t-shirt. Then, I crawl into bed, not knowing what to do next.
Later, I can hear Ma talking angrily. I pick up the extension to see who she’s talking to, praying that she doesn’t catch on that I’m listening.
“I don’t know, Mama. Maybe Plez was right. Maybe I was doing the wrong thing by accepting Lawrence that way. Watch, he’s gonna mess around and catch AIDS just like my friend Clayton did. You mark my words.”
“Well, why in the hell are you just sittin’ around actin’ like you have no control over this situation?”
“What am I supposed to do, Mama? He’s eighteen!”
“I already told you what to do. Let your daddy and me pay for Lawrence’s first year. But if we do this, he’s going to Friend Christian College. Being around God’s people is where he needs to be if you want to rid him of this demon.”
“Where is it again?”
“It’s in York, Nebraska. As heartland as you’re gonna get. I doubt it’s the kind of place he’s gonna find anybody to act out with.”
Ma sighs in a way that lets me know she’s not fully on board. “I don’t want him to get out there and feel like he’s in prison or something.”
“So what if he is? He’s already shown you that he can’t behave on his own. Now, that’s my grandchild, so I’ve tried to be understanding. But I told him to at least be discreet. He couldn’t even do that! Embarrassed our family by flaunting that way of livin’ as he pleases.”
“I know it.”
“Look, Cheryl, you’re his mama. I’m sure you’ll do what you think is best. But I already know that you don’t have the money to send the boy off to college. I’m saying that if you expect us to pay for his schooling, then the boy is going to Friend Christian College. Now, ain’t no two ways about it!”
A call-waiting click interrupts the call.
“Mama, I gotta go. Someone’s on the other line.”
“All right, I’ll let you go. Just make sure you think long and hard about what I said.”
“I will,” Ma says before clicking over. “Hello?”
“May I speak to Cheryl Greene, please?”
It’s Elrick. I try to maintain my composure so that Ma doesn’t get wise to me listening in.
“This is she.”
“Hello. This is Elrick Cotton.”
“Why are you calling my house? I have nothing to say to you!”
“I was just calling to see if you were home. I’m glad that you are. I wanted you to hear this…”
Both my mother and I hear the sound of a gun going off in our ears. Then, we hear nothing at all.