He left her for a black woman. Eva called first thing Saturday morning to make sure I heard it from her first. Punk Ass Nigga.
She lay on the couch, butt cheeks wedged between cracked leather cushions, knees pressed into her swollen breasts. It was this position she hated most -- being twisted into a pretzel by 4:00 A.M. sweats and contractions riding each other piggyback across her abdomen.
With the windows shut, the room held the musty scent of unstirred air. The smell nauseated her. Mingus swallowed the acid in the back of her throat and made her way down the unlit hall to the bathroom. A vanilla candle rolled in coffee beans sat next to her perfume tray. She grazed her fingers across the cold porcelain counter, locating a book of matches. The candle flame illuminated her flat stomach and cast dancing shadows across the knee imprints on her breasts. She leaned in toward the mirror. Fuzzy ringlets of almost black hair tickled her lips. With both hands, she parted the hair like a curtain down the middle of her face, making a clearing for her eyes. She could feel them coming on again. Contractions with sharp bony fingers burrowed into the walls of her pelvis. The blood would start to flow soon.
Mingus kicked the cotton underwear from around her ankles and lowered herself into the tub. Water gushed over her unpainted toes. Massaging currents gathered between her thighs. The water was soothing, but it was no consolation for seventeen years' worth of periods. She was empty again.
The roundness of her breasts buoyed in the water. Mingus rested her head against the green tiled wall and clasped her hands over her naval. Her stomach was warm like freshly cooling muffins. Pressing her fingers into her belly, she felt energy stir below the surface. She hoped it wouldn't come this time. Even though Keith was the wrong one. Even though they used protection. Even though they broke up almost a month ago, when he decided that moving back to New York, without her, was best for his career. She splashed her face. I'm not gonna cry, I'm not gonna cry, she repeated in a quiet breath.
A heavy procession of blood moved down her uterus. She felt it coming. Mingus crossed her legs; her vaginal lips pulsed from the tightness of her hold. Blood pooled at the entrance of her womb. She looked down. A thin stream of crimson ribboned under her thighs. She watched as it dissolved slowly in the slight sway of water. Her vision blurred from the tears filling her eyes, but not one fell. She uncrossed her legs. The color of ripe beets flooded the water. Within moments, she sat in a uniform shade of pink. Empty.
The water was lukewarm when the phone rang. Mingus threw her bathing sponge past the bathroom door into the hallway. Suds splattered the wall, leaving drip lines on the flat latex paint. Ring. There was no one she wanted to talk to. No one who could save her from splintering. She groped the sides of the tub and vertebrae by vertebrae stood up. Pale sudsy water ran down her legs. She stepped onto the lime green floor mat and pulled a towel from the brass bar. The towel was rough against her skin. She rubbed it over her breast, onto her stomach, between her legs. She rubbed hardest between her legs.
Mingus walked past the couch to her desk with the blood-stained towel in her hand. She sat, her nude spine curving like a newly wilted flower toward the phone. What if it was Keith, she thought. It made sense with the hour time difference. Maybe he missed her. Maybe he realized he'd made a mistake.
The phone rang again.
Mingus didn't answer. She bunched the towel to her mouth and tried to steady the dampness in her voice.
"Sound like you busy or somethin'. You got a nigga over there?"
Her breath was hot and moist at the same time. Heat radiated through the towel into her cupped fingers.
"You may as well tell it, dick is a good thing. You ain't got to be shame."
"It's none of your business, Eva."
"Ooooh, you nasty this morning. He musta stood you up, huh?"
Mingus ripped a sheet of paper from the spiral notebook in front of her and began to pick off the broken edges. She didn't know why her relationships kept blowing up like this. She'd thought she'd done things right this time. Made him wait a few months before having sex. Didn't fuss about his schedule. Only called a couple times a week. This one was supposed to be different.
"And you playing the silent treatment," Eva said, rattling her attitude like a fast-flying epithet. "I didn't have to call you. Shoulda left your ass in the dark, that's what I shoulda did -- M'Dea wasn't going to tell you nothin' no way."
It never amazed Mingus how easily Eva switched from kind to cold; it was Eva's mention of their mother that made her nervous.
"You sure you wanna know?"
"Don't play with me Eva, all right. Not today."
Eva smacked her lips and let out a heavy sigh. "You know how Carl's been trippin' and stuff right?"
"Yeah," Mingus said, not knowing what Eva was talking about.
"Well, looks like he does have another woman."
Mingus felt the muscles tense in her forehead. "I don't know why you keep making stuff up, Eva. He's your father. Don't you get tired of this?"
"He's your father. And you're a damn fool if you can't see what's going on. The man don't come home for days at a time. What you think he's doin'?" Eva smacked then paused for dramatic effect. "Only difference between then and now is that this time we got proof. M'Dea found his letters in the tool shed."
There was surety in Eva's voice. Mingus tore another sheet of paper from the notebook and began to doodle inadvertently.
"She's sure it's another woman?"
"Didn't you take logic or something in law school? What else could it be, they've been married thirty-five years. You know what they say, new puss -- "
"I gotta go."
"Whatever, but if you planning to call M'Dea, which you are, you may as well hang it up. She ain't answering the phone."
Click. Mingus sat at the desk with the unhooked receiver pulsing a dial tone between her thighs. Her mind was full. A salad spinner gone mad with no lid. She reminded herself to focus on what she could control. Stop sleeping on the couch, Mingus, she thought. She grabbed the pillow from the couch and headed into the bedroom. On tiptoe, she outstretched her arms and placed the plain white pillow above the stacked sheets in the utility cabinet. One by one she pulled the perfectly folded sheets onto the floor. Comforters to the floor. Pillowcases to the floor. They needed to be restacked. All of them. Refolded and restacked. The coffee cup. Mingus grabbed a pillowcase from the pile at her feet and walked over to the bed. An empty coffee cup sat on the nightstand. Kenyan roast dripped hardened chocolate lines down the curves of the cup, leaving a circle on the blond oak. She covered her index finger in a corner of the pillowcase and began to wipe the stain. The softness of the fabric made it smooth. Smooth so that its hardness rounded but didn't disappear. She could have scraped it away, let the sugary brownness collect under her nails, but it wouldn't have changed anything. She was alone again. And after thirty-five years, M'Dea's bed was now empty.
The house was the color of mustard seed, tucked behind tufts of pine and sweet gum trees on County Road 320. Beyond the trees, visible from the kitchen window, was a small lake stocked with catfish and Gasper Goo. The tires kicked up dust as Mingus curved around the gravel driveway past the lake. The house looked the same. She hadn't expected it to. Pink and fuchsia zinnias lined the flagstone walk. Spanish-style brick laced in ivy arched the double door entrance.
With brass knocker in hand, Mingus closed her eyes and breathed. Knock. Knock. The initial relief of no answer grew unsettling after six knocks.
"M'Dea, it's me. Mingus. Let me in, please...I know what happened."
A key was under the back door mat. Mingus walked across the damp grass. As she neared the side gate, the front door cracked open behind her. A layer of tension peeled from her body. Car keys clutched to thigh, she walked back over to the front door and pushed it open with her fingertips -- M'Dea was nowhere in sight.
Mingus placed her sandals next to her mother's plastic gardening boots outside the door and stepped in. The house smelled unfamiliar. She had crossed that threshold a thousand times; today seemed different. There was no pot roast or cornmeal fried catfish smell coming from the kitchen, but that wasn't it. Something else was missing.
"I'll be right out; I'm just getting out of the shower," M'Dea yelled from the hall bathroom. Her voice sounded normal. Maybe a tad more inflated than Mingus remembered.
She picked a piece of candy from the crystal dish on the end table. With both hands she rolled the tips of yellow cellophane between her thumb and index finger until the piece of butterscotch landed in her lap. She used to love butterscotch when she was a kid. Used to sneak two pieces to bed with her every night. Suck hard and slow until sleep came. Even now she didn't like sleeping, especially in bed. Something about the quiet and inactivity made her stir-crazy.
Mingus flipped the candy with her tongue as she looked around the room. Baby pictures and three-inch porcelain people lined the fireplace. She hadn't noticed them in years. Crystal animal figurines competed fiercely for space on maple-stained bookshelves. Her mother's knitting basket sat cozy in thick gray strings of carpet, two feet from her father's dingy green recliner. Mingus would have thought they were happy if she didn't know better. They'd been happy-looking for a long time, made her wonder how long the lie had been going on.
Eva's front-toothless, open-mouthed grin caught Mingus's gaze. She stared. Eva's eyes were still the same, almond-shaped teardrops that never fell. Her flat chest jutted out so far she looked uncomfortable. There must have been sixteen barrette-clipped ponytails in her hair. Mingus remembered the security of sitting between M'Dea's knees, playing with the small red and yellow rubberbands, while her hair was being twisted into the same style. She walked over to the console and picked up a picture of herself. She was wearing her favorite white lace Easter dress and narrow patent leather shoes. The shoes wrinkled when she walked, like the space above a frowning nose. She was five. Cute. But even approaching thirty, Mingus couldn't figure out what Eva saw in her back then that made her hate her so much. Whatever it was, it didn't disappear with time; Eva learned how to mask it better and Mingus pretended she had learned not to care.
"You want some lemonade?" M'Dea's voice trailed from the hallway into the kitchen.
"Yeah, I can get it," Mingus said, pushing up from the couch.
"No, you sit, I changed the cabinets around a few weeks ago. I'll be out in a second."
M'Dea was avoiding her. Mingus walked into the kitchen and leaned her shoulder against the doorframe. M'Dea had piled half a bag of cheese puffs onto a clear plastic tray. She stood at the counter, wiping her nose with a checkered dishtowel.
"M'Dea," Mingus said, watching the back of her mother's towel-covered head, waiting for her to turn around. M'Dea didn't say anything. Just grabbed the two glasses of lemonade and brushed past Mingus without making eye contact.
The cheese puffs were left sitting on the wood cutting board that extended from above the silverware drawer. Mingus didn't want any cheese puffs. M'Dea doesn't either, she thought. Mingus took the tray into the living room and placed it in the center of the coffee table atop the magazines. The tray sat between them: Mingus on the loveseat, her mother on the couch.
M'Dea reached over and grabbed one of the white linen napkins from the tray. She fluffed it with a single snap of wrist and let its triangular form drape her crossed knees.
"You came," she said, head lifted high, gaze falling just pass Mingus's right shoulder.
Mingus flinched. M'Dea's anger was perfectly articulated in her demeanor. The length of her erect spine, the intentional avoidance of Mingus's eyes. The subtleties of war are cruel, Mingus thought. She felt like a child again. Knowing she couldn't cross over because sides had been chosen a long time ago. Mingus was her father's child.
"I'm sorry about what happened, M'Dea, but please, don't take it out on me. I didn't know. I swear. I found out from Eva."
"Have you spoken to him?"
"I haven't talked to him in weeks."
Mingus watched her mother's eyes dart toward her and away.
"You usually take his side," M'Dea said.
"That's not true. It just seems like you always want me to choose."
"I make you choose?"
M'Dea looked her directly in the eye.
"Yeah," Mingus said, her voice turning soft. "It's like I can't love the both of you the same. Somebody always has to be loved more. And somebody always has to get their feelings hurt or the other one isn't happy. You guys do it to me and Eva both. Then we end up mad at each other."
"You chose your father because you love him m -- "
"You don't believe that, M'Dea, I know you don't."
She looked deep into her mother's face. The hard lines that didn't soften around her tight jaw and nonblinking eyes said that she did mean it. Mingus swallowed the guilt in her throat.
"I don't love him more, M'Dea. I just think we get along better most of the time. Like you seem to get along better with Eva. And really, in the last few months, I haven't spoken much to either of you. I'm sorry about that. You know how hectic this time of year gets for me. Taking on new cases, working late nights at home. Only getting a few hours sleep, then starting over again."
M'Dea's squared-off frame matched the rigidity in her face. Mingus breathed hard through her mouth and found her gaze lowering into the gray strings of carpet. It wasn't work. It was Keith. It was everything that was supposed to be right and wasn't. It was taking work home at night because she couldn't concentrate during the day. It was her life falling apart and not wanting anyone to know about it.
Mingus scooted to the edge of the loveseat and leaned toward her mother. She spoke delicately, her words diffusing into the somberness of the room. "I love you, M'Dea. You're the only mother I have and I'm not here to take sides. I want to be here for the both of you."
With unspread fingers M'Dea systematically smoothed the imaginary wrinkles from her smock. Mingus knew where Eva got it from. The protective meanness.
"I don't deserve this, M'Dea. I know you're hurting, but you can't take this out on me. I didn't do this to you."
"Sometimes you can't have both. You try. You try to love two people the same and you can't." She paused. "It's nothing anyway. Your father's just going through a phase. That's all it is. It'll pass like everything else he's latched onto over the years."
"It is something," Mingus said, extending her hand to her mother's knee. "You can't pretend it's not."
M'Dea reached for the glass of lemonade closest to her on the table. She pursed her lips tightly around the rim as she drank, then lowered the glass to her lap.
Mingus felt an overwhelming sadness settle in her stomach. She looked at her mother in the faded pastel smock, a green-and-white striped towel wrapped around her head. She hadn't been in the shower. Her hair was parched.
Mingus lowered herself to the carpet and knelt on both knees in front of her. She unwrapped the towel from M'Dea's head. Red strands of hair fell stubbornly to her back. Mingus stared into her mother's eyes. They looked like storm clouds, twin clusters of gray, threatening rain at any moment.
"It's all right, M'Dea, it's all right."
Mingus took the glass of lemonade from M'Dea's lap and hugged her. She could feel heaving spread throughout her mother's chest. She hugged tighter. M'Dea fell into her like a stack of laundry that was piled too high. Tears dripped into Mingus's neck.
M'Dea's sobs were heavy, like ripe fruit before it snaps from the vine. There was no turning back for either of them, not after a cry like that.
Punk Ass Nigga. Mingus felt like he had done it to her. Cheated on their relationship. They were close. Best friends. Mingus had never thought of her father in the same no-count fashion in which many women referred to their husbands and fathers. He was different. This was never supposed to happen to him.
M'Dea awoke from her daze when she felt tears melting onto her shoulder. Mingus cried for her mother, but more so she cried for herself: for not seeing the signs, for what her family had become, for being empty again. M'Dea grabbed the linen napkin from her lap and began to wipe Mingus's face.
"Shush," she said, blotting Mingus's eyes. "I didn't want you to have to go through this. That's why I told Eva not to tell you."
"What happened, M'Dea?"
"I don't know." M'Dea wiped her nose with the back of her hand. "I've tried so hard to figure it out. I just keep coming up with untouched meals.
"It was slow at first. 'I'm not hungry right now. Only a little bit,' he would say. Before I knew it, he was catching bites on the way home. Saying he had to work late. I was left with a refrigerator full of foil-covered meals and Carl was with another woman."
She made it sound so simple. Clean. Mingus sat on her knees looking up at her mother. She wanted to say something, tug at M'Dea's smock and ask some question that would help her understand. All that manifested was silence.
"Believe me, Mingus, I wondered what he did those nights. But every time questions popped into my head, reasons popped in right behind them. It's a new business. Endsbrook is forty miles outside of town. It made sense to me that Carl was on site a lot, at least until he hired an attendant -- right?"
"I don't know," Mingus said, lips barely moving.
M'Dea flicked her middle finger against her thigh and took a deep breath.
"By the time the meals started piling up, it was too late. He often told me it was too late. Too late for sex. Too late for a movie. Too late for talking. It took everything in me to admit what was going on. It sounds crazy, but I could have accepted an affair. I just never thought he'd love someone else more than he loved m -- "
"That's not right, Mama. How do you just accept another woman?"
Mingus plopped down Indian-style, letting her hair swing into her face. Stringy brown ringlets shielded her eyes from her mother's stare. M'Dea had a way of reading Mingus's mind when she looked into her eyes. And sometimes, like right then, Mingus didn't want to hurt her.
"You called me 'Mama.'"
Mingus sat on the floor looking at the strings of carpet gathered between her thighs. Water dripped from her nose and collected in the crevice between her lips.
"It's just nice to hear sometimes." M'Dea rested her hand on the top of Mingus's head. "That's what I used to call my mother. Mama."
Her nose was stopped-up. Mingus breathed slowly through her mouth to stop the aching in the back of her throat.
"This type of thing creeps up on you slow, Mingus," she said, smoothing the wildness of Mingus's hair. "You catch on at the end, when it's way too late. The little signs just make you hope the big ones never come. You make yourself think it's all in your head. It's never all in your head. Don't let anyone ever tell you that. You don't know your father, Mingus, not the way I know him. Your father and my husband are two different men, always have been."
Mingus raised her head, her eyes met with M'Dea's waist.
"Do you realize I've never had my own car? Thirty-five years and he's never mentioned me having my own transportation. He leaves the keys to that work truck just in case I need to go somewhere. I can't drive that big ole thing; he knows it. He doesn't even want me to. Just makes it seem like I have an option."
Mingus thought about the fact that whenever M'Dea came to visit her, her father dropped her off or she picked M'Dea up herself.
"I found the cards in the tool shed. One was from his birthday last year."
M'Dea closed her eyes to stop the tears from falling. They didn't stop. Tears rolled down her face and mixed with her words as she spoke:
" 'For my sweetheart on his birthday. Loving you has taught me so much... You've shown me what it is to really care, how it feels to put another first... With you I have learned so much about myself and my feelings... With you I have discovered love. You have my heart, Me.'"
Mingus imagined M'Dea in the floral smock she'd been wearing for days straight, sitting in the dim light of the tool shed, reading intimacies written to her father by another woman. She felt helpless. M'Dea knew every word. Mingus wondered how many times she'd read it.
"She thinks she's smart. Signing everything 'Me.' Her name is Glenda."
The saliva had dried up in Mingus's mouth. She reached over her shoulder for a glass of lemonade. The ice cubes were melting into smooth glassy ovals. Mingus drank it, imagining it was vodka.
"I found her business card in his glove compartment. Four or five of them. You know how he throws stuff in there. One of them had her home number and 'call me' on the back. Same handwriting as the birthday card. 'Glenda Stewart, Lexus sales representative.' Glenda."
"Glenda," Mingus said quietly, seeing what her name felt like on her tongue. It tasted soft but bland. She had expected a name with sting like Sybil, or Rhoda, or Eva, for that matter.
M'Dea leaned back into the couch and hugged a burgundy-and-blue striped pillow into her stomach.
"All I can do is ask myself what she has that I don't. What she looks like. What color her hair is. What color she is."
M'Dea stared at Mingus with an odd awareness. She'd never looked at her that way before.
"I don't want her to be black, Mingus," M'Dea said, looking Mingus dead in the eye, seeming sad for having to say it. "She could be anything. Chinese. Indian. I just don't want her to be black."
Mingus wished she would have said something to calm her mother's fears -- "Color doesn't matter...an affair is an affair...don't blame yourself for his mistake" -- but she didn't. One thing popped into her head.
"You should divorce him, M'Dea," she said, her voice cracking. "I can write the petition. We can start compiling a comprehensive list of assets. You already have tangible proof, layered with the fact that you're a dependent spouse and you've been married for thirt -- "
"Let me help you," Mingus said, tears starting to well in her eyes again.
M'Dea patted the cushion next to her with her left hand. Mingus noticed the worn wedding band on her finger. There was no engagement ring.
"I appreciate you wanting to help me, really, but I'm not going to let you do this. This is between your father and me. You're not in the middle, you understand? I'm sorry if I've made you feel that way. It wasn't my intention."
Mingus nodded. She was in the middle.
"And I'm fifty-three years old. I'm not sure divorce is the answer for me anyway. I'm used to being a wife -- taking care of my kids, cooking meals, making sure the house runs properly."
"Eva and I have been gone for over ten years. Dad's not here. There's nobody for you to take care of anymore. You have to think about yourself now. This house is dead. And you can't live your life for a house or for a family that's not here."
"That's not true," she said, her voice thick with conviction. "Eva just moved out again two and a half months ago. She stops by a lot. Your dad comes through. And I like it here, this is my home."
"I'm not telling you to give it up. But I am telling you to understand every single penny it takes to support it. I meet women like you all the time, M'Dea. Their husbands earn all the money, pay the major bills. Invest. Dad owns and leases out several real estate properties. I bet you don't even know what they net or how much they're worth."
M'Dea took her hand from Mingus's lap.
"Look," Mingus said, "I'm not downing you. I appreciate everything you've done for me. I mean that. But you have to protect yourself. And I'm not saying that Daddy would screw you, but just as often as I meet women who are trying to learn about the holdings of their estates and their husbands' businesses, I also meet their husbands who are wanting to liquefy assets and set up untouchable accounts."
"It's not important to me, Mingus. I've survived this long."
Mingus got back down on her knees and held both of M'Dea's hands between hers.
"That's fine, M'Dea. That's fine. I just want you to know your rights. If you don't want the information right now, just give me authorization and let me check Dad's -- "
M'Dea pulled her hands away.
"Do you hear yourself? Plotting and carrying on? That is your father. And I'm not leaving my marriage, Mingus, and that's that."
"So, you're just going to stay here and let him hurt you like this?"
"I can help yo -- "
M'Dea motioned to her and pulled Mingus into her chest. Mingus pushed away.
"I have to go to the bathroom."
She locked the door behind her and sat on the toilet with the lid down. The cramps were coming back; this time near her spine. She tried to breathe deeply, but surges of anger and hurt cut her breath short. She needed some air. The bathroom felt tiny with all the emotions floating around inside her. Mingus looked at the wall in front of her. It was perfectly white. No smudge marks around the light switch, no dirt. The standing ashtray next to the toilet had no ash. That's when she noticed what was missing. It wasn't fried food or freshly cut flowers; it was the cigar smoke. Her nose finally caught on. Daddy is gone.
Copyright © 2001 by Jenoyne Adams