“Hey goofball, you got lipstick on your teeth.” Gene said.
Mara ran her finger across her mouth and stared at herself in the bathroom mirror. Nothing good was staring back. It was always hard meeting new people for the first time, when she was with her family. It was much easier for Gene because he had nothing to prove. Mara on the other hand had to remember exactly how to act in public so that no one in her family was offended or disgraced. It was a good thing that Gene caught the lipstick tragedy or she would have been smiling during service with pink teeth and no one would have said a word.
“Let’s Go”. Grandma May shouted from the mudroom.
Mara wished that she could just disappear and wake up somewhere else.
She imagined that when she opened her eyes that she was standing on the south lawn of a Grand English Manor, surrounded by lush green rolling hills, dressed for a quick game of croquet and tea with Mrs. Agatha Christie.
“Thanks for coming with me, Gene.” Mara said. Gene shrugged his shoulders.
They both sat in the car behind their grandmother as she drove the car toward the city.
Mrs. May June Parker was not a small woman, in the slightest. She commanded respect in several ways; first of all being a short rotund woman, many lankier people moved out of her way for fear of getting pushed over by one of her massive hips. You could also smell her approaching. May June had worn the same perfume for over thirty years and when it was sunny out and her body sweat, the smell oozed out of her pores all over everything. Fried chicken was masked by her scent. And as lovely as Grandma’s cologne was, it felt more like a warning, that Mrs. May June was headed in your direction, so watch out.
Grandma May also didn’t take no shit. Her attitude was very frank and very rarely would she step outside of herself and use a derogatory term or curse word. She didn’t have to. She chewed you up and spit you out in the most polite of ways, like an old Chinese woman or a classic Southern Belle. Her hair and nails were always immaculately attended to since she clearly had no control over what was going on in the middle. The funniest thing was that May June often referred to herself in the third person as the lady, which Gene never ceased to think was hilarious.
Grandma May prayed for everyone she saw as they drove.
“Lord, the lady just wants to lift up those homeless people over there so they seek you out father and find a church to go to today.” She said.
While they drove, Mara imagined that she was sailing away into the darkness, a stowaway on a dangerous pirate ship and when she was discovered by the crew, they dragged her to the Captain who decided that to prevent the bad luck a woman brings to a ship that he would keep her for himself and make love to her in his chambers with the door open so that all of his mates could see and hear her scream out in ecstasy and understand the sacrifice he was making for their safety.
As they pulled up to the foreign church building Mara’s heart pounded harder. It was nearly show time. Mara was the chosen one and she could not let Grandma May down like her own children had done. Miss May June had produced five disappointing offspring; a son, named after his father, Kenneth Hudson Parker Sr., who only visited once a year on her birthday to deliver a new bottle of the cologne that she adored so much. Much of the rest of the time he was being an “easy rider” as she called it, living off the kindness of desperate women who preferred an attractive looking man on their arms over a useful one. Most of the time, unbeknownst to Grandma May, Uncle Kenny got the money for the fancy cologne from one of his lady friends anyway.
Then there were her twins, Melody Joan and Maddy Jane, who could never remember exactly which one of them was born first. They had both been blessed with beautiful faces but neither one was very fond of school. They both simply wanted the flip side of the same coin. Melody wanted a husband and Maddy wanted a sugar daddy. Melody had made a fine life for self in spite of not graduating high school, with three lovely children and a hardworking husband, a house and two cars. Grandma May was disappointed because her husband was hard of hearing and a cheating swindler and no matter where she moved, they always lived in the house next door to her so they could borrow money. Unfortunately Maddy, the wild child of the family, played the role of aimless black sheep. She was flirtatious and spontaneous, and for Aunt Maddy the thought of settling down with anyone other than a rich play boy or a rock star was akin to death. Mara used to love to dress up like Maddy when she was younger, wearing black lipstick and black eyeliner around the house. Grandma May said she was not allowed to see her anymore after she found out about it.
The youngest daughter, Amanda Jean, known as Mandy, used to be the family prodigy and was well on her way to the coveted pedestal status Mara was endowed with until around her 11th birthday when Mrs. May June’s eldest child, Melissa Joy, became a mother. Melissa was only 18 at the time, unmarried and did her best to get an abortion before it was too late. But as soon as May June found out it was set in stone, right then. It became official. May June’s eldest child had given birth to her eldest grandchild, Mara Kelly Brown. MKB. The heir apparent.
Being in this position was very uncomfortable for Mara. Everyone was jealous of her even though they never said so directly.
“Well, before you came, my momma loved me the most.” Aunty Mandy would say from the kitchen, shucking corn and pointing to all of her awards from high school cluttering the walls.
“It’s not your fault,” Aunty Maddy would add smiling at Mara, “Momma always has a favorite.”
Aunty Melody would hug Mara and say, “I wasn’t ever good enough to get her love but, your momma was, so you can too, you hear? You’re the oldest. Make sure you enjoy it, honey.”
Aunty Melody’s family had already pulled up to the church lot and as this was their first time in the new church as well, they were primping in the parking lot, waiting for us to arrive as we pulled up alongside them instead of going inside to wait. Better to be in a group of your own, Grandma May always said.
There were so many Black people all in one place that Mara was overwhelmed. Even at her high-school, which was a predominately black inner city school, she still hadn’t ever seen this many Black people all at once. Nice looking ones too, Mara thought. As a safety precaution when around a bunch of “colored folk” as Grandma May called them, a lady should always check to see if there are any ne’er do-wells lurking about. None of these people looked particularly dangerous. The one thing Mara would never admit that she hated about being around a bunch of Black people was that because she was Black too, she didn’t really stand out. At school in her gifted student classes and at her old church being the only one, had its advantages. It wasn’t that difficult when you were the only one to be impressive. Also, from what she had heard and seen on movies and from Grandma May, a bunch of Black people together usually meant a crime was or has recently been committed, someone was on drugs or a thief and someone was being bullied or molested every five minutes.
Probably a girl.
Probably a girl who looked just like Mara.
Probably a girl who would be glad to see her. The girl who would finally get some relief from the torture, not that fresh meat had arrived.
Mara put on her plastic fake grin, re-wiped her teeth off and slowly walked inside the chapel. It was extremely uncomfortable. Mara felt like the roundest, ugliest, overgrown human cow pie in the entire world failing to blend in next to all of the high society, high yellow beautiful kids at this new church. They all had long hair it seemed, or curly hair, or high cheek bones. They all looked to be wearing expensive church clothes and jewelry. They all looked mixed. It was like a television sitcom. This church was too pretty.
Everyone in it was too pretty.
Mara immediately wished that she had taken Gene’s advice and played sick. She leaned over to tell Gene how horrible it was but his eyes had grown big like saucers and it looked as if he were drooling a little.
“Aye, Mara, look at all the bitches in here man!”
Mara said shhh to him and tried to fight back the inappropriate laugh welling up under her breath. No laughing in the chapel.
“I’m serious MK, I’m in heaven!” Gene said, walking away. He had made it known to Mara a long time ago that he thought that light skinned Black girls were the prettiest. And he had no problems getting them to follow him. Little cousin Gene was a good looking kid and favored Uncle Kenny’s style a lot. Mr. young easy rider. Plus, Gene was fearless. Mara never knew how he did it every time. He wasn’t even old enough to own a car and even though he had no special talents or skills he would just look at girls and they would simply melt. Without saying a word, they crowded around him, vying for his attention. Didn’t matter how old they were either.
He was lucky. Mara often called him “lucky” when no one else was around. And he would call her MK.
Mara on the other hand was terrified, all the time. Even though she too had no special talents or skills that had emerged yet, her family had made it almost a traditional game among themselves, to fantasize about what she might grow up to be.
“I’m sure she will be a doctor, Aunty Mandy said, that’s what I wanted to be.”
“Nawl, she will probably be a professor somewhere with those glasses, she looks real smart.” Aunty Melody and Maddy said in unison, “Probably win a Nobel Prize.”
It was Uncle Kenny who had pinpointed for the rest of the clan, the sad truth-that although Mara might not be all that pretty she was smart. And the fact was that there were lots of things a girl can do in this world now days, he would say, if she is at least smart. “And Mara is always writing those stories and poems and songs,” He reminded them, “she probably gonna write songs for Michael Jackson and never speak to none of us again.” Kenny said.
For a split second, Mara believed too. She imagined that she was sitting in a chair with her name on the back of it, wearing a beret and smoking a cigar, seated right next to the Director’s chair on the set of a major motion picture preparing for filming, running through a list of scripting errors that simply had to be corrected before she would ever let them make the masterpiece based on her words. Some assistant would run toward her saying, Line one is for you Miss Mara, it is someone from Indiana. Mara would shoo the assistant away with the command,” take a fucking message”.
This church, the new church, had a choir. All of her cousins had gone off to meet and mingle with the pretty long haired light skinned kids and Mara had sat down in the pew alone to watch the choir get ready. She loved singing. If she had any shot, that was going to be her shot. She would join the choir, and get to stand up in front of everyone every service and get noticed. Grandma May would be so proud. But what if she had to audition? What if she had to be able to read music, Mara thought. She had always been able to play it off at school and with her family, but what if these people demanded more than the ability to sing by ear? Black people were known to be demanding, according to Grandma May.
Gene came over and whispered in Mara’s ear, “Oh, MK, Ima invite JP next week to come with us, man, this is finna be good!”
Mara had no idea what he was talking about. JP was their second cousin and all Gene and JP ever did when they got together was fight over things. They competed for everything. Who would be the first to finish a Popsicle? Who could stay up the longest? She really didn’t get what they could compete for at church but, whatever, Mara thought.
Everyone was settling down. The choir was taking their places. Mara thought, maybe they had a youth group here, just like the old church did. If so, Mara would join and pretty much simply take it over. She almost had to seeing what she was working with if she was going to stand a chance here. She had settled in on the fact that she was never going to be as thin and light and pretty as all the girls floating around this sanctuary, all these girls who had giant breasts and tiny waists and expensive colognes and shoes and purses. None of whom had on slips under their dresses, either. She wasn’t in their league so outsmarting them really was the only way. The only chance that she even had for talking to any of them was Gene’s little sister, Samantha.
Samantha was only 11 but she had a body that was built like a 17 year old woman. It was simply ridiculous that she was so shapely, so young. Samantha had pretty long hair and had a fairly light complexion and she couldn’t move two steps without some little boy, or teenager or grown ass perverted man shamelessly saying, wow, you’re beautiful. She couldn’t go to the ladies room without some little girl or woman going, gosh you sure are pretty. The only problem was, Sammie couldn’t hear any of the compliments, and she could only read their lips. Sammie was born deaf and drop dead gorgeous. Grandma May said it was because no one can have everything. Grandma said god had to give you a reason to need him. It’s the reason she said that Sammie couldn’t hear and be beautiful too. It’s the reason the lady was born Black. It was the same reason that Mara was more than anything else, very smart.
When Mara looked back into the crowd in the foyer, Sammie was already been fawned over by some middle school boys and her big brother, Gene, was already putting numbers in his pockets and the service hadn’t even started.
The air smelled like spearmint gum and patent leather shoes. Mara watched the crowd move toward their regular placements and noticed that to top it all off, apparently the pretty girls at this church were all allowed to wear real make up and not just lipstick. They had on heavy eye shadows in bright colors and layers of mascara. Mara was so jealous she closed her eyes and pretended to pray. The “high yellows” all knew each other too, like they had been going to that same church their whole lives and they really didn’t seem to have room to get to know a new girl.
Especially not a new girl who went to public school.
Not a new girl who didn’t even have a new car of her own at the beginning of junior year.
Not a new girl who was a classic nerdy virgin, which none of them appeared to be.
And not one of them came over to say hello either. It was like they didn’t even see her. As mad as she was, it was still a kind of relief. So instead of trying to befriend them, Mara would do what she had always done. She would just be smarter than them. Just outshine them. Adults loved Mara. She was so well mannered, so well behaved and such a fucking goody two shoed, non-threatening, ass kisser that after meeting her every parent told their own child, you should be more like Mara. It was the sure fire way to get in good with god again. She knew that she had to get back on god’s good side before her 16th birthday the next month. She had been imagining more and more lately about erotic things. Her normal fantasies about tea with authors and directing a summer blockbuster were being overshadowed by many of Mara’s day dreams that were a lot more like the pirate scene, where she was being ravished by some unapologetic mystery man, dark and dangerous. She had been spending a lot of time replaying events with Mean and just super imposing other people’s faces and hands over his.
School had just started and Neil was a freshman. He looked the exact opposite of Mean. He was skinny, super hungry thin, with long piano playing fingers. He could sing his ass off in their choir class and he stared at Mara all day long. And he was brown, really brown, genuine Black man brown; with finger waved hair like Leon wore in Mara’s favorite movie, The Five Heartbeats. Mara was absolutely enamored with Neil but speaking to him was not allowed. Grandma May had warned her that if a boy wanted to talk to her, he would make the first move. If he wanted to call then he would be the one doing the dialing. Ladies never ran after men, period.
So Mara spent that whole first week of school after meeting the little freshman fantasizing about the way his kiss must feel and taste; wondering what her soft thick lips up against his big brown shiny ones sounded like. God was not going to be impressed with any of this, and Mara knew that she was already skating on thin ice trying to pull off this good girl/Christianity act. She really just needed god, if he was real, to help her reach one very simple goal.
And that was the moment that she looked up from her pretend prayer and saw him.
He looked just like the actor, Leon. Neil and Mean, had vanished from her psyche.
She could feel her heart trying to lift out of her dress.
And it was settled. The wedding bells were ringing in her eardrums.
She had just seen her future husband.
The whole game, was changed.