Sitting in the minimalist furnished, church bridal room, Damita couldn’t help but outwardly chuckle at the numerous makeup items Carmella had left sprawled out not only on the long beige bench in front of her but also on the brown leather couch behind her. She looked in the large makeup mirror in front of her and the phrase less is more sprang to mind. Carmella had been her best friend since they were kids, but when it came to makeup and attire they were as different as night and day. Damita always assumed it was because Carmella was a hairstylist and she was an investment banker. She decided she would minimize some of the makeup Carmella had applied to her face.
As she thought of her life, Damita realized she was happier today than she had ever been. She was marrying her soul mate; the man she would spend the rest of her life with. She had always been blessed with the love of family and friends, but until now, she had never found that special man that would make her life complete. Through the years she had dated liars, cheaters and mama’s boys, that just wouldn’t grow up. On the rare occasions when she did meet someone that wasn’t textbook case dysfunctional, she found that they were in different places in their lives and often would most likely never be on the same level. There were times when she felt maybe she was too judgmental or too picky, but she remembered the advice her father had given her before he died; never settle. Neal was a successful architect, he was thoughtful and kind and he did something that most men she had known seldom did; he listened to her. They had been dating for little more than a year when he popped the question. They were having dinner one night at the Sea Grill at Rockefeller Center when he suddenly got down on one knee, in a restaurant full of people, and proposed. It was romantic and chivalrous; everything that Neal was. As far as Damita was concerned, it didn’t get much better than that.
The only thing that would have made this a happier occasion was if her mother, Karen, and Carmella were as elated as she was. Somehow, as charming as Neal was, he had gotten off on the wrong foot with both of them. They considered him to be pompous and a bit of a narcissist. They didn’t understand him the way that she did. He was gentle and kind and he cared for her, unlike anyone else ever had. He was all she had ever desired and he was hers.
On her wedding day, Karen stood in the doorway watching her. “You’re absolutely beautiful.”
Damita glanced at Karen’s reflection in the full-length mirror. Wearing the same wedding dress her mother had worn to marry her father thirty-six years ago, Damita couldn’t help but compare herself to her mom. At fifty-nine, Karen could have easily passed for forty. Her body was still in spectacular shape and her flawless mahogany complexion complemented her salt and pepper shoulder-length bob. She hoped to look as great as Karen when she was in her fifties. With the exception of Karen’s gray hair and Damita’s dark chestnut brown, the mother and daughter looked so similar to one another they were often mistaken for sisters.
“Oh, Mom, you startled me.”
“You know what your grandmother would say if she was here?”
“What would Grandma say?”
Karen walked over to help Damita adjust her veil. Instead of her usual long wavy hairstyle, Damita had opted for a classic updo to complement her veil, which included a dramatic headpiece on the top that skimmed just past her hairline. It was dramatic and the long elegant train enhanced her simple lace and satin stark white wedding dress.
“Well, first of all, she’d ask you whether or not the reason you were jumping was because you weren’t living right, and then she would probably ask you whether it was somebody else that wasn’t living right.”
“Mom, no, she wouldn’t.”
“How do you know she wouldn’t?”
Damita giggled. “Grandma wasn’t a busybody like you.”
“Hey, watch your mouth, girl. I’m still your mother.”
“You’re right. But, aren’t you the one that promised you would behave yourself today?”
“Yeah, yeah, I know. But, I wouldn’t be your mother if I didn’t ask you one more time whether you’re sure this is what you want to do.”
“I’m a hundred ten percent sure.”
Karen motioned toward the door with her eyes. “Mr. Brooks Brothers is outside barking orders to everybody. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a man take that much interest in a wedding in my entire life. He’s surveyed everything, including the doggone flowers. It ain’t natural, baby.”
“You should be happy he’s taking an interest. He’s only doing it because he loves me and he wants me to have the best wedding day ever. June second, two thousand one will be a day I will remember for the rest of my life.”
“Are you sure it’s not because he’s controlling as hell and he’s paying for the wedding? He wants to make sure he gets exactly what he paid for?”
“So, what’s wrong with that? Neal didn’t get where he is by squandering his money. That’s one of the things I love about him. He’s responsible and intelligent. He’s also a man, not some sniveling boy or a man who wants to behave like a woman. I feel safe with him; like I can count on a secure future.”
“Security comes from within, baby, not from a man or from money. Don’t let bad relationships of the past guide you out of the frying pan and into the fire.”
Damita was so wrapped up in her impending nuptials she couldn’t be bothered to truly pay attention to the importance of what her mother was saying.
“Yes, Mom, I realize that. You don’t have to keep telling me these things. You and Daddy raised me to be a strong, independent young woman. Falling in love doesn’t mean I’ve forgotten everything you both taught me.”
“It’s your choice of words, Damita. Words like security and falling in love. Words like that have always been red flags for me when it comes to relationships. Somehow the world has embraced the theory that love is something you fall into. That’s not love. That’s a temporary distraction and once the distraction is gone, what’s left?”
“I’m not you, Mom. You and Daddy were married for forty-two years before he died. Things have changed quite a bit since the days when you got married.”
“I’m a dinosaur, but I’m not so much of a relic that I don’t see you possibly giving up the better part of what makes you unique.”
“I promise you that’ll never happen.”
“I hope not.”
“Come on, Mom. This is supposed to be a happy occasion. I want you to walk with me down the aisle and I want you to be happy for me. Okay?
“Neal is everything I’ve always wanted in a man. I’ve got a great job and so does he and we both want the same things. You know my history with men; the narcissists, the unemployed, the cheaters. For a while there I was beginning to think there was a sign on my back that read ‘single black female seeks dysfunctional male.’
“I’m healthy and, dare I say, not unattractive, and I’ve got this perfect man so in love with me. Mom, I’m sitting on top of the world.”
“Just don’t forget that you’re still all of those things, with or without a man.”
Her mother didn’t want to point out her use of one of those red flag words: perfect. Instead, she decided to drop the subject.
The minister’s secretary opened the door. “Are you ready?”
“Yes, I am,” Damita responded emphatically.
Her mother wanted to be excited for her. She could see how blissful her daughter was. But, Karen knew within every fiber of her being that Neal was not the right man for Damita. But, oftentimes, the most any parent could do was tread softly in explaining their viewpoint. There were certain things that their children had to learn on their own. She hoped the lesson wouldn’t come with too great a cost. But, no matter what, she would be there to cushion her daughter if she fell.
The moment Damita heard the soulful sound of “You for Me” playing she knew she had chosen the perfect song to walk down the aisle. She thought of the words to the song: “It seems like forever that I have waited for you.” She had waited for a man like Neal her entire life. Now, it was finally happening. She glanced at Karen and smiled. As much as she missed her father, she was happy that her mother could be there. When she was making wedding plans she considered accepting her lifelong friend, Brandon’s, offer to walk her down the aisle, but the only person that could take her father’s place was her mother.
The familiar scent of African Violets greeted Damita as soon as she entered the church. As she walked toward Neal, the vibrant beauty of the purple flowers filled the room and reminded her of their first date. She could remember being impressed with his unique choice. Ever since she told him how much she preferred the sensuously purple flower to roses, he bought her nothing else. Everyone she cared about was in attendance. Carmella and her coworker and friend, Wendy, were her bridesmaids. They were wearing simple, royal blue, satin sheath dresses. She wanted both of her friends to be able to wear the dresses again, so she had chosen something subtle. Despite the fact that Carmella and Wendy’s complexions couldn’t have been more different, they both were equally vivacious in their dresses. Carmella’s reddish-brown color against the blue hibiscus flowers in her hair brought out the rich bronze tones of her skin. Damita looked at her and smile. Carmella was such a small girl, at only five-foot-two, but she had a body that wouldn’t quit. Even in the understated dress, her thirty-eighty D-cups and more than ample hips could not be concealed. Wendy, on the other hand, was at least seven inches taller than Carmella and was as flat as a pancake, both in the front and the back. Although Wendy identified herself as Black, she was biracial. Her olive skin and dark eyes were due to the combination of her African-American father and Italian mother and what their union had produced.
While she walked, Damita surveyed the guests and the church with a smile. Once they were at the altar, Karen turned to her daughter and kissed her lightly on the cheek.
“I love you,” she whispered.
“I love you, too.”
Damita couldn’t help but realize that it was moments like these when you missed your loved ones the most. Despite the fact that the church was packed with family, friends and coworkers, the absence of her father was ever-present in her mind. However, the moment she looked at Neal, she forgot about what she was missing. He was unbelievably handsome in his black tuxedo. The great care he took of his body could be easily seen, even through the tux. Once she joined him, his lips spread into a smile, revealing his deep-set dimples and the quiet intensity of his darkly mysterious eyes. At six-foot-five, Damita still had to look up to him, even in her four-inch heels. She stood there gazing into his eyes, hoping the moment would never end.
“One look at these two and you can feel the love between them,” the minister began.
“When I spoke to the groom, he was so eager to be married to his bride, his only request was to keep the ceremony short. So, that is exactly what I am going to do.”
“Dearly Beloved, we are gathered together here in the sign of God and in the face of this company to join together this man and this woman in holy matrimony, which is commended to be honorable among all men; and therefore is not by any to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly but reverently, discreetly, advisedly and solemnly. Into this holy estate these two persons present now come to be joined. If any person can show just cause why they may not be joined together, let them speak now or forever hold their peace. Who gives this woman in marriage to this man?”
“Her family and friends do,” Karen said.
“Do you, Neal, take Damita to be your wife, to live together after God’s ordinance, in the holy estate of matrimony? Will you love her, comfort her, honor and keep her, in sickness and in health, for richer, for poorer, for better, for worse, in sadness and in joy, to cherish and continually bestow upon her your heart’s deepest devotion, forsaking all others, keep yourself only unto her as long as you both shall live?”
“Do you, Damita, take Neal to be your husband, to live together after God’s ordinance, in the holy estate of matrimony? Will you love him, comfort him, honor and keep him, in sickness and in health, for richer, for poorer, for better, for worse, in sadness and in joy, to cherish and continually bestow upon him your heart’s deepest devotion, forsaking all others, keep yourself only unto him as long as you both shall live?”
“What token of your love do you offer? Would you place the rings in my hand?
“May these rings be blessed as the symbol of this affectionate unity; these two lives are now joined in one unbroken circle. Wherever they go, may they always return to one another, may these two find in each other the love for which all men and women yearn, may they grow in understanding and in compassion, may the home which they establish together be such a place that many will find there a friend, may these rings on their fingers symbolize the touch of the spirit of love in their hearts.”
The minister handed the first ring to Neal.
“Neal, in placing this ring on Damita’s finger, repeat after me. Damita, you are now consecrated to me as my wife from this day forward.”
“Damita, you are now consecrated to me as my wife from this day forward,” Neal repeated.
“And I give you this ring as the pledge of my love and as the symbol of our unity and with this ring, I thee wed,” said the Minister.
“And I give you this ring as the pledge of my love and as the symbol of our unity and with this ring, I thee wed,” Neal said.
The minister then handed the second ring to Damita.
“Damita, in placing this ring on Neal’s finger, repeat after me. Neal, you are now consecrated to me as my husband from this day forward.”
“Neal, you are now consecrated to me as my husband from this day forward,” Damita repeated.
“And I give you this ring as the pledge of my love and as the symbol of our unity and with this ring, I thee wed,” said the Minister.
“And I give you this ring as the pledge of my love and as the symbol of our unity and with this ring, I thee wed,” Damita said.
“May you always share with each other the gifts of love, be one in heart and in mind, may you always create a home together that puts in your hearts love, generosity and kindness. In as much as Neal and Damita have consented together in marriage before this company of friends and family and have pledged their faith and declared their unity by giving and receiving a ring, are now joined. You have pronounced yourselves husband and wife but remember to always be each other’s best friend. What, therefore, God has joined together, let no man put asunder. And so, by the power vested in me by the State of New York and Almighty God, I now pronounce you man and wife, and may your days be good and long upon the earth. You may now kiss the bride.” Neal’s kiss took Damita’s breath away.
Once the ceremony was over, limousines were waiting outside the church to take the wedding party to The Waldorf. The Grand Ballroom was opulence at its finest. The recreation of the Court Theatre in Versailles, reminded Damita of her and Neal’s quick visit to Paris six months earlier. She had been so busy with work while planning the wedding that Neal had taken over many of the details, including choosing the venue. Every detail was a reminder of their incredible courtship.
“Is all this really for me?” Damita asked.
“I promised you I’d give you the world, didn’t I? Besides, this place is an architectural dream.”
Neal and Damita kissed once again.
“Thank you, baby,” she said.
Not surprisingly, the reception was everything Damita dreamed it would be. Everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves, but none more than she was. When it was time for the couple to have their first dance as husband and wife, Neal was as gallant as she expected, as he danced her around the room to the tune of “Unforgettable.”
Karen watched as her daughter and son-in-law danced and instinctively knew what her daughter would soon think of: her father.
“May I cut in?” Karen said.
Damita put up her hands as if to dance with her mother.
“I’m here to dance with my son-in-law, not you,” she said teasingly.
Neal was fully aware of the fact that Karen only tolerated him, so he was understandably surprised. Karen was not only thinking of her daughter but also her son-in-law. His parents were deceased and she couldn’t bear thinking of either of them having anything but good thoughts on their special day.
The moment the two started to dance, Damita’s friend, Brandon, appeared to act as a substitute for the father-daughter dance. Damita looked at Brandon and smiled.
“Are you here to save me again?” she asked.
“From the looks of it you don’t need saving. I’m here to fill in for old man Whitmore.”
“My dad would have loved that. Remember how he used to call you a pretty boy and tell you how many girls you were going to have. My dad was never wrong, was he?”
“I plead the fifth,” Brandon said.
Brandon was movie star handsome. He had naturally curly hair, cappuccino-toned skin and a slim athletic build that women loved. Damita couldn’t resist on commenting on his attire for the evening.
“You must have been cursing me out when you got dressed today. I know how much you hate wearing a suit and tie.”
“Yeah, I’m more of a jeans man. And, don’t worry, the tie is coming off as soon as it looks like everyone is too drunk to notice.”
Damita laughed and continued dancing with Brandon as the music changed from “Unforgettable” to “Insane in the Brain.” As the floor filled with guests eager to dance to the upbeat tune, Damita and Brandon enjoyed their walk down memory lane, as they sang along.
While Brandon and Damita laughed at the guests and he joked about how hot her mother still was, Neal watched the pair intently.
“I think old boy is jealous,” Brandon said.
“No, he’s not.”
“He hasn’t stopped staring at us since we started dancing.”
“He’s not staring at you. He’s staring at me. I’m just that beautiful,” Damita assured him jokingly.
“Okay; whatever you say. I still think we should end this little dance now, before I go home with a busted lip.”
“My baby doesn’t have a violent bone in his body.”
“That’s nice to hear.”
After everyone had eaten and all the toasts had been made, they were all dancing and enjoying the party. Damita spotted Neal heading toward her with what appeared to be a scowl on his face.
“What’s he doing here?” Neal asked, pointing across the room.
“You know exactly who. What is your ex doing here?”
“My ex? Who are you talking about?” Damita asked, laughing.
“Don’t laugh at me.”
“Okay, baby. I’m not laughing at you. I’m just not sure who you’re talking about. There are no ex-boyfriends of mine here.”
“What about him?” Neal asked, pointing in Brandon’s direction.
“Brandon? Is that who you’re talking about? Brandon is my play brother,” Damita responded, in an amused tone. “I can’t believe it. We’ve been married all of two hours and you’re jealous already,” Damita teased.
“Damita, I’m not joking. Who invited him?”
“My mom . . . and me,” she added, not wanting Neal to resent her mother.
“I figured it was your mother. All I want to know is why she despises me so much. I have been nothing but cordial and respectful to the woman. Yet, she likes that nobody better than she does her own son-in-law.”
“Brandon is like family. My whole family . . . and I have known Brandon since we were both in kindergarten together.”
“How would you feel if I invited one of my old girlfriends to our wedding? You wouldn’t like it very much, would you?”
“Neal, you’re not hearing me. Brandon is just a friend. Okay, I understand. I’m sorry. I probably should’ve explained to you that Brandon was a part of the family. I didn’t think it would be that big a deal. We’ve both been so busy working you haven’t had an opportunity to connect with everyone.”
“It’s a big fucking deal!”
It was the first time Damita had heard Neal curse or even raise his voice. It was something she hoped she wouldn’t hear often. It also seemed so unwarranted.
Standing in the middle of the ballroom, Damita silently reminded herself of where she was and what her life was going to be like. She looked around the ballroom, gazed up at the ornate chandeliers that hung high above her and she smiled. It was going to be a good life. Marriage, like anything else, wasn’t always perfect, but her marriage was going to be as close to perfect as anyone’s could. She was sure of it. Her wedding day in all its splendor was sure to be a sign of things to come.
The wedding reception continued without event. Damita tried her best to steer Brandon clear of Neal. With the two hundred or so guests in attendance, her task wasn’t too difficult. She considered enlisting the aid of her best friend, Carmella, but that would mean giving an explanation. And, the last thing she wanted to do was lend credence to everyone’s doubts about her new husband, especially Carmella.
“Girl, you okay?” Carmella asked.
Damita sighed. “I’m good. I’m a little tired.”
“I knew it! That’s why your ass got married. You’re pregnant, aren’t you?”
Damita put her finger to her lips, cautioning Carmella to be quiet.
“Shhh; now why do you want to go starting rumors? No, I’m not pregnant. But, I do plan on trying as soon as possible. Neal is anxious to start a family. After all, I’m thirty-five years old. I’m not getting any younger and that clock of mine is ticking away.”
“That’s not why you got married, is it; because of your biological clock?”
“No, Carmella. I married Neal because I absolutely, positively adore him.”
“I’m sorry, girl. I just don’t see it,” Carmella said, frowning.
Carmella glanced over at Neal, adjusting his tie so that it was perfectly straight. She didn’t mention it to Damita at that moment, but it occurred to her that he had all the earmarks of a serial killer, with all that fidgeting and adjusting—the perfection. Then, as if on cue, he did what he always did, stared directly at Damita.
Damita and Neal had been dating for over a year, but from the very first time she met him, Carmella always noticed how he never, ever allowed Damita to get too far away from his bird’s-eye view. Damita considered it endearing. Carmella thought it was plain ole creepy. She had known her share of obsessive, controlling men. And, in her experience, relationships with men such as Neal always ended badly.
As Carmella observed Neal watching Damita, she sensed something different in him. There was a certain air of cockiness that was somehow more intense than it had been before. He seemed to be standing even taller and speaking with even greater precision. That’s when it occurred to Carmella what it was. He had won the prize. He no longer had to play the role for Damita’s family or friends. She was now his wife and there was nothing any of them could do about it.
As Carmella and Neal both eyeballed one another, neither of them willing to admit defeat, Brandon joined Carmella and Damita on the other side of the room.
He grabbed both Carmella and Damita around the neck simultaneously, hugging them to him. “So that leaves you, Carmella. This one here has broken my heart and married someone else, so I’ll have to marry you.”
Carmella giggled. “Uh, uh, I’m no one’s booby prize.”
“Naw, naw, it’s not like that. All these years I’ve been biding my time, getting cozy with Damita in order to get to her hot, Latina friend.”
“I know that’s right,” Carmella agreed.
Although Carmella didn’t think Damita, nor anyone else noticed, Neal’s response to Brandon’s presence was unmistakable. She watched as Neal’s jaws clenched tightly.
On the Other Side
On the surface, Neal Westman is a charming and successful architect, a man most women would swoon over. But as his fiancée, Damita, prepares for their wedding, she discovers that Neal isn’t the man she thought he was. One night, he beats her so badly she can barely walk. Somehow, Damita manages to show up for work the next day in the World Trade Center—on September 11, 2001. With the help of a man who appears, seemingly out of nowhere, she runs from the building as quickly as possible. When they both make it to safety, she turns to find he is gone, but hears the words, don’t worry, I’ll meet you on the other side.
When Damita gets home, still covered in dust, she’s met by a drunken Neal—and he wants to finish what he started. Instead, Damita defends herself, leaving Neal senseless on the ground. Suddenly, a brilliant idea strikes: She could run far, far away, and no one will ever know she’s still alive—or what happened to her husband, especially if she becomes a suspect for murder…
Damita settles into a new life in Seattle without contacting anyone, but it seems that her past isn’t completely wiped away. Anonymous, threatening notes mysteriously appear on her doorstep, and Damita becomes convinced she’s going to prison—or worse, when she finds out who’s behind it all.