Are you listening, god?
I'm just about sick and tired of all this sneaking around like I'm some two-year-old child. I mean, look at me. I'm twenty-six years old and still breaking out in a cold sweat because I'm afraid Daddy won't let me go out tonight. He's probably going to say something like I need to be in church where God can reach me better, or he'll break out into one of his holy chants. "Oh Lord, save this child," he'll say, closing his eyes and holding the palm of his hand to my forehead. "Make her see the error of her evil ways. She's headed for destruction in them streets, Lord. She don't know no better. You gotta save her." The Reverend Deems has a definite flair for the dramatic. By the time he's finished, I'll feel so guilty and ashamed that I'll get dressed in one of my homey little white dresses and follow right behind him to the summer revival at Holy Sight Baptist Church. Or at least that's what usually happens, but not tonight. Tonight I've got big plans, and nothing, not the good Reverend Deems, not even the Almighty Himself, is going to stop me.
I mean, my goodness, to hear Daddy talk, you'd think I was some sort of low-life tramp who hangs in the street all night. But to tell the truth, I'm just like every other young woman these days. I wanna hang out With my friends, go places, see things, meet people -- hell, have a little fun before I'm too old or too ugly or too tired from working or too depressed over what I don't have or too spooked by all the things I do have. And dang it, I'm entitled to a little fun. I get up every morning and go to school, make good grades, then rush off to my part-time job at Bullock's. Then I come home and clean up everything Daddy didn't have time to because he had to rush off to choir rehearsal or go to the hospital and pray for someone he doesn't even know or go help out at some other church auxiliary function. Next it's homework or studying for the next test or research, and if I'm lucky, I'll get about fifteen minutes to sneak a listen at Luther or En Vogue before I hear the clink-clink of Daddy's keys at the front door. What a life.
Okay now, let's see. I've got my hot curlers, my makeup kit, my good panties that I keep hidden in a pillowcase just in case Daddy comes peeping into my underwear drawer on one of his surprise scavenger hunts. He claims he'll be looking for a pair of his socks that might have gotten mixed up with my things in the laundry, but I know he's really trying to see if I have what he calls "demon material" hidden in there. Once he opened my drawer and found a romance novel and an Ice Cube tape, and I swear I thought the man was going to have a stroke. He went off into one of his holy trances and for the next month I was by his side every night at Holy Sight, praying for redemption. That man is too much. You'd think he'd be grateful. I mean, I could be a whole lot worse. I'm a college student, at UCLA no less. I work, I'm dependable, I'm smart, I can take care of myself, I'm kind to people, ambitious, clean, neat, careful, and have a high tolerance for putting up with bullshit or else I'd be out of his dang house by now. I could have turned out like some of the rest of these stupid girls running around here. I could have dropped out of high school, had about four or five babies, be on welfare, and sit around the house watching The Young and the Restless and Oprah all day. But nooo. I'm trying to do things the right way, and look at me -- still sneaking around trying to think of a good lie to tell the good reverend so he won't be suspicious.
Now where did I put those lace stockings? I've gotten so adept at hiding things from Daddy that I can barely remember where the heck anything is when I need it. Oop, here they are, under my mattress right next to my birth control pills. Ha, if Daddy knew I was taking the pill? I don't even want to think about how he'd react. His baby having sex? And she's not even married? Lord have mercy. By the time he would get finished with me, I'd be ripping out my own uterus. But it's not like I really use them anymore. The only time I took them for their intended purpose was when Dakota set me up with one of her cousins because she said I needed to be broken in. I was twenty-one years old and still a virgin and to Dakota that was like some sort of Guinness world record. Dakota's a dick-happy, borderline tramp, but hey, she's my best friend and I love her. So of course I did like she said and gave my virginity away to Boston, her stupid cousin who looks like a Bob Marley reject, with his long, messy dreadlocks that hang down to his butt and that goofy smile that makes him look like he's high all the time.
I did it partly because it was the thing to do and partly because I wanted to know just what the heck Dakota and everybody else was so crazy about. The whole experience lasted less than fifteen minutes, and I swear that boy didn't know the true meaning of deodorant or the pleasures of a long hot shower, but then again it was the middle of summer in L.A. and even the best of us get a little funky in one-hundred-degree weather. I had waited twenty-one years to do it so of course I thought my first time would be extra special, but it was nothing that I thought it would be. In fact it was pretty painful. Dakota said that it was just because it was my first time and since I hadn't done it before, I was just too tight and that it would take at least three or four times before I would experience any real pleasure. So Boston and I spent the majority of that summer twisted around each other, rubbing, poking, trying to get me to feel what everybody said I was supposed to be feeling, but it just didn't work. By the time I started my next semester at UCLA, I just gave up. The whole situation was just too dang awkward. I mean Boston was cool and everything, but he just wasn't my type, and I'm not one to put up with anything for too long that doesn't satisfy me to the fullest. Except for Daddy and that's just because I have no other choice.
Dakota says I'm weak when it comes to Daddy, but she just doesn't understand. "You need to leave the nest, Jazz," she tells me just about every other week. "You need to break away, do what you wanna do for a change. You're twenty-six years old and still running around trying to please him like he's going to put you on punishment or tell God to strike you down in a bolt of lightning."
"I know, I know," I tell her, but she just doesn't get it. She never had these type of daddy-daughter problems. I envy Dakota, I really do. She may not be the smartest sister, but she has her freedom. It seems like we're exact opposites, but I guess that's why we are the best of friends. I remember the first time we met at the beginning of twelfth grade at Harriet Tubman High. It seems the older I get, the more I like to reminisce about my last year of high school. Up until that time, life had been pretty boring, but twelfth grade was a time of change. In twelfth grade, there was Dakota.
It was the second week of school and by that time everybody had formed their cliques and posses and as usual, I was left by the wayside. Just another geeky-looking fat girl, with a face full of freckles, who was neither in style nor really wanted to be. While all the other girls were wearing their cropped tops and biker shorts, Guess? jeans and bomber jackets, I was in my homey, pleated skirt, penny loafers, and starched, white, button-up blouse -- looking neat and pure and like a virgin. Makeup was a no-no, according to Daddy, and my red, shoulder-length hair was plaited in one fat braid down the middle of my head. And pants? Please. The only pair of pants Daddy ever let me wear were some cream-colored slacks that he only let me put on in the winter or if it rained and got really cold, which was hardly ever in sunny Los Angeles.
Needless to say I was nowhere near the "in-crowd" and by that time I had convinced myself that I didn't even want to be. Oh sure, I envied the hot mommas, with their basket-weave braids, long sculptured nails, and tight designer jeans, walking around campus in their boyfriends' football jerseys or ditching school to hang out at Taco Bell or better yet, sneaking over to one of their boyfriends' houses to play grown-up games. But by the time the twelfth grade rolled through most of those girls were walking around with swollen bellies, spent most of the day cutting classes and smoking in the bathroom, or had dropped out to take care of their kids or might as well have dropped out because they had nowhere near enough credits to hope to graduate by the time June popped up. For them school was just a fashion show. A place to hang out, see who was wearing what, talk about those who weren't wearing the right thing, and screw a few football players so everyone would think they were so cool because they were doing the nasty.
That life wasn't for me. I was on a mission. I wanted to go to college and not just any college, a good college, so that I could make something of my life and get out of South-Central Los Angeles. And if I earned Daddy's respect along the way, that would make it all worthwhile. I spent class breaks and lunches by myself mostly, sitting on a bench underneath a shade tree by the girls' locker room with my head in a book. That was my private hideout. A place where I could get away from all the wanna-bes and the laughter and insults from all the boys about my less-than-perfect figure and out-of-style clothes. That's where I first met Dakota.
Dakota was the new girl in school and of course nobody liked her because of that. I had walked over to my hideout and there she was, invading my space. She had on a pair of faded blue jeans with holes in the knees, a white T-shirt, and a pair of high-top Jordans. She was sitting on the edge of the bench, trying to hide a lit cigarette behind a Vogue magazine. I sat down on the other end of the bench, quite upset that my space had been violated, opened my English book, and started reading. The fumes from Dakota's cigarette engulfed me and although I wasn't in the practice of bothering people who weren't really bothering me, I had no intention of letting this foreigner who had so boldly invaded my hideout choke me to death with smoke.
"Skuse me," I said timidly. "I can't breathe."
She took one last drag from behind her magazine and put the cigarette out in silence without even looking in my direction.
That upset me even more, because she didn't even know me and already she was being rude. Who are you, anyway? I wanted to ask her, but I already knew. I had heard some girls gossiping about her earlier. They said she had gotten kicked out of her other school for ditching and for smoking in the bathroom. They said she was weird and I could tell they were right. It didn't take a genius to know there was something different about this girl. Nothing really weird though, just different, odd. Whatever it was, it was getting on my nerves and I didn't want her around. The bench and shade tree were my places of solitude, and I wasn't going to give them up for some new girl with a pack of Newports and a Vogue subscription.
"If you wanna smoke, there's a secret spot behind the gymnasium. Nobody ever gets caught over there," I told her.
"Look, I put the cigarette out, okay? No harm, no foul, honey," she said and finally looked at me. She was cute in an offbeat kind of way. In fact, she looked like she could fit right into the in-crowd if she wanted to. "I'm Dakota. Don't ask me my last name' cause I don't have one," she said and laughed. "So who are you?"
"Jazmine Deems," I answered, trying to figure out if she was really interested or just making small talk. Ten minutes later, I guessed that she must have really been interested or either bored to death, because I swear the girl talked my ear off. By the end of lunch, I practically knew her whole life story.
Her parents, who she called by their first names, were musicians. Earth, her mother, was a drummer and River, her father, a bass player. They made most of their living doing session work for various blues artists and often went on tour across America and overseas, leaving Dakota here in L.A. by herself. That didn't seem to bother Dakota, though. "They're free spirits," she told me. "They do their thing and I do mine."
While Dakota's family weren't exactly the Huxtables, from what she told me they were pretty close. Their home was always filled with the sound of music like Ray Charles, Aretha, and B.B. King. All you heard at my house was some generic gospel group singing the same "Glory, glory, praise the Lord, Hallelujah" crap that amounted to nothing but a bunch of screaming and hollering. Not singing. The only group I really liked was BeBe and CeCe Winans, and I had to beg Daddy to let me play them at home because he insisted they weren't a real gospel group. He came home from church one evening and I had BeBe and CeCe blasting, filling myself with the spirit, and before I could catch my breath from the high note I had just belted out, he popped the tape from the stereo and flung it into the back of my head. "No secular music in this house, girl!" he screamed and began to pray and call the Lord.
"But that's the Winans, Daddy," I pleaded between his shouts of "Oh sweet Jesus" and "Lord have mercy on this poor child's soul." He finally came around though, after the church sponsored a bus to take the choir to see BeBe and CeCe and Take 6 at the Wiltern Theater. After that, he changed his mind, but I still could only listen to selected songs. Once I tried to sneak in a cut of M.C. Hammer's rap song, "Pray," but that tape ended up hitting me upside the head too. So I decided just to stick with the Winans, Take 6, and occasionally, Anointed.
Dakota enjoyed gospel music too, and after a week or so, she and I became tighter than Laverne and Shirley. I never invited her over to my house though. Daddy would have a fit if Dakota pulled out a cigarette in his holy house, and knowing Dakota she would do it just to start a controversy. That was Dakota, always pressing the boundaries. That was the way she was brought up. "Be who you be," she always says. "And never settle."
I remember the first time I went to her house. Her mother was walking around in a bikini singing some old Chaka Khan song. She was dancing around like she didn't have a care in the world. Dakota chimed in, off-key as usual, but didn't care, and I just sat on the couch watching the two shake and prance in the middle of their living room. "Come on, Jazz," Dakota said and grabbed my hand and pulled me up. Before I knew it, I was getting down right with them. It was so fun. "I'm every woman, it's all in me," I crooned. Then Earth and Dakota stopped and looked at me and I felt so embarrassed. I thought I was doing the right moves, but the look on their faces made me sit my fat behind right back down.
"Girl!" Earth screamed. "Where'd you get pipes like that?"
"I didn't know you could blow, Jazz," Dakota added.
"Oh, I sing every once in a while in the young adult choir at church, but mostly at home, when Daddy's not around." That was an understatement to say the least. I loved to sing. Church is where I first fell in love with music. From the age of six, I had been singing in the choir and by the time I was ten I was given my first solo. I had that church jumping. By the end of my selection, five ladies had caught the holy ghost and three had passed out. That was the first time I knew I had a gift, the first time I really felt God within me. I was amazed how the sound of my voice could excite people, move people, make them feel something. That was my first taste of power and from then on I couldn't live without music. Couldn't imagine a world without a song, a lyric, an octave, a chorus.
After that, I sang at any opportunity I could get, and the opportunities were endless. There was always somebody getting married at church, or a funeral, a baptism, or a revival, and if not I'd just wait till Daddy left home, grab my hairbrush, stand in front of the mirror, and belt out whatever song came to mind. It was usually "Amazing Grace," and I swear I found every way but the right way to sing that song. Sometimes I'd sing it in my chest voice, which is pretty low, then at the end of the first verse, I'd switch to my head voice, and boy, if I wasn't extra careful, I'd end up catching the holy ghost myself.
The power of my voice was almost scary to me. I mean, the way it made me feel and all. I couldn't understand what God was trying to do. Why did he give me, this little fat girl, such a gift? I often felt God was trying to tell me something, but exactly what, I didn't know. But other times, it felt like a curse. Daddy was always dragging me off to some church function so I could sing, which was okay at first, but after a while it was as if it was Daddy's voice. I had to do with it what he wanted, and if that meant going to the hospital and singing for some stranger who was on the church's sick and shut-in list, then that's what I had to do. After a while I started making up excuses. I faked colds, the flu, strep throat -- you name it, I faked it, but only if I really didn't want to sing or if Daddy got on my nerves in an extreme way, which was usually the case.
Through my voice, I could gain power over Daddy. If I knew some big church event was coming up and he wanted me to sing, I'd survey his actions toward me for about a week and if he irked me in the slightest way-I suddenly came down with something.
Dakota was the first to take my mind off gospel and introduce me to secular music. Her parents had a collection of albums and cassettes with everything from Nat "King" Cole to Public Enemy, Prince to Fleetwood Mac. Dakota taught me everything. How to curse, wear makeup, how to dress, do my hair, boys, the nasty, how to dance. She even taught me how to lose weight. "You're much too pretty to be warbling around here like a water buffalo," she told me and put me on a strict diet of less than eleven hundred calories a day, until my five-foot-five, one-hundred-and-sixty-pound frame dwindled down to a svelte one-hundred-and-twenty-five-pounds. That was the hardest thing I ever had to do in my life, but I must admit I had been out of control. Between Daddy and school and the mean little whispers everyone blurted out behind my back about how my thighs rubbed together when I walked or the rolls of fat that shook around my waist, all I wanted to do when I got home was raid the fridge, which was always stocked with potatoes, grits, pork chops, ice cream, four or five different kinds of cheeses, and strawberry-flavored milk. My favorite, though, was chocolate, and to this day I believe the stuff is addictive. I used to need at least three servings a day of some sort of chocolate. M&M's, fudge cake, chocolate chip cookies -- you name it. I was sprung on the stuff. But Dakota ended all that. "You can't be hanging out with me looking like a moose, honey. I'm sorry," she said. "Now if you think you're being the best you can be, fine. But if not, honey, make a U-turn and find a different way."
So that's what I did, and by graduation day when the principal called my name to come up and accept my valedictorian award, I felt young again. Not like some old, fat dork who couldn't wait to get her hands on a pack of Ding Dongs. I practically floated up the stage and Dakota, my savior, gave me a standing ovation. She was the only one. Daddy sat coldly in his seat, but I didn't care. Dakota stood by herself clapping and crying and before long the rest of the senior class joined her, pumping their fists in the air and growling like they were on The Arsenio Hall Show. I knew then that I had arrived.
That night Dakota's parents treated the two of us to a concert. I told Daddy we were going to see a young gospel group and he agreed to let me go if I promised to be home by eleven-thirty. Dakota and I had the time of our lives. We pulled up to the Forum in her parents' gaudy, yellow El Dorado and stepped out like we were royalty. Dakota had done my bright red hair in a mound of Shirley Temple curls that she pulled back on one side with a hot pink comb and let the rest fall over my right eye. She let me borrow a pair of black leather pants and a pink-and-white top that plunged down between my breasts, showing just the right amount of cleavage without looking slutty. On my feet were a pair of hot pink pumps that I tried my best to balance myself upon without looking stupid. Dakota had on a skin-tight black dress with gold trim and a pair of big, gold hoop earrings that hung down to her shoulders. Her short and wavy jet-black hair was freshly cut on the sides and in the back and the top was swooped over to the side like silk. She made both of our faces up with the Fashion Fair makeup kit her mother had let us borrow. We knew we were looking tough and so did everybody else. When we got inside we stood around for about half an hour so everyone could see how cute we looked. When we were satisfied that we had been seen enough, we took our seats in the first row of the sold-out arena. Everyone was buzzing, talking, laughing, seeing who was who, and sipping drinks. There were black people, white people, in-betweens, all smiling and getting along as if they'd known each other all their lives.
The women wore all sorts of shiny, glittered outfits that ranged from the very expensive to the downright gaudy. Nobody really cared though. They were too busy enjoying themselves and sipping their cocktails. And the men, woo! Fine, simply fine. Especially the black men, in their suits and baggy pants and fresh haircuts. I love a man with a freshly cut head. It was so exciting to see black men looking like they had something. And of course, Dakota was going crazy. Before we had even gotten adjusted in our seats, she was all in the face of some light-skinned guy with hazel eyes. They looked sort of cute together, him in his beige Armani suit and her in those spiked suede pumps. They looked like they were engaged, the way they carried on together. He whispered something in her ear and she broke out laughing. "You're so silly," she cooed and brushed her hand over his. He left after that and came back with two drinks and another handsome guy, equally suited in black and gray. "This is my friend, Craig," he said and handed us the drinks.
"Thanks," I said, trying to look cool and unimpressed by the fine hunk of a man standing by his side. "I'm sorry, I didn't get your name."r
"Oh, this is Jeff," Dakota broke in. "Jeff and Craig, this is Jazmine, my best friend."
"Nice to meet you, Jazmine," Craig said and flashed an unforgettable smile, and I swear it was all I could do to keep from puckering up my lips and kissing that angel. "Look, we're gonna get back to our seats before the show starts, but if you guys are up to it, we can go out for a drink afterward, okay?"
"Oh sure, we're up to it," Dakota said, coolly. "We'll meet you two in the lobby later."
What, Dakota? I thought. The show won't be over till at least ten-thirty, and if I'm late Daddy will go off. When they walked away, she turned to me as if she had been reading my mind and said, "Shut up, Jazz. You're grown now and it's about time you had some damn fun. Besides, I'm driving and unless you plan on walking home in those hot pink pumps, this night won't be over till I say it's over."
Before I could even open my mouth to protest, the house lights went off and the crowd began to cheer. A single spotlight lit up the middle of the stage as the sound of music began to fill the arena with an easy, slow groove. I could feel the crowd getting excited. Then a low, silky, smooth voice began to moan offstage. The crowd could barely contain themselves. The lady behind me began shouting, "Go on girl, sang that song." Then the man next to her stood up and started hollering too, "Sang, baby, sang it!" And then it happened. Anita Baker walked into the spotlight, standing less than five foot three, but seeming larger than life. "You're my angel, oh angel." That's all it took. By the end of the song the whole house was on its feet, clapping, swaying, and singing along with Anita. I was in awe. I sat straight up in my seat the whole time, barely able to move, unwilling to take my eyes off her. At that moment, I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to sing. I wanted to get onstage in front of thousands of people and touch them deep down in their souls the way Anita touched me. I wanted to make people yearn, make their hearts bleed, move them, make them go home and make love, make them smile, make them feel.
By the time it was all over, I was so excited I didn't know what to do. I hugged Dakota and broke out into tears right there in the first row. "What's wrong with you, girl? You messing up your makeup. You sick or something?"
"No," I said, "I just wanna thank you, D. Tonight was the best time I've ever had."
Dakota looked at me for a long time and I knew she knew what I was thinking. She always did. "You know you're just as good as Anita, honey. And you know I wouldn't tell you nothing that wasn't the truth." And that was no lie. Dakota was straight to the point, forget feelings. She said what she thought and if you didn't agree -- oh well. "But dry them tears, honey, we got some freak daddys waiting on us," she said and gave me another hug, then grabbed me by the arm and practically dragged me out of my seat.
The four of us ended up in Hollywood at Roscoe's Chicken and Waffles, but I couldn't eat. Partly because I was so excited that I had made up my mind about what I was going to do with the rest of my life, and partly because it was already past twelve o'clock and I knew I was gonna catch major trauma when I got home -- whenever that would be. Besides, I had just gotten my figure together and I didn't want to blow it with a bunch of greasy chicken and fattening waffles. But it looked too good and I couldn't help eyeing Craig's plate as he drenched his waffles with three cups of syrup. "You're not one of those salad eaters, are you?" he asked and stuck a forkful of waffles in his mouth.
"No, I just don't have much of an appetite right now," I lied.
"Are you sure?" he said, picking up another forkful and twirling it around in front of my face. "I don't mind sharing."
"Well, in that case, put some hot sauce on that chicken wing and hand it over," I said, feeling no shame.
Dakota and Jeff sat across from us feeding each other as if they were really in love or something. Dakota picked up a piece of waffle with her finger and swirled it in syrup before sticking it deep into Jeff's mouth. She laughed as he sucked her finger and all of a sudden I felt this overwhelming urge to throw up.
Craig was cool, though. He told me he and Jeff had just started working for the sheriff's department and had been best friends since their college days at Cal State Northridge. I was fascinated. Most black men I knew were too busy running from the police, and college never even occurred to the guys I'd known. But then again, aside from the stupid jocks in high school and Dakota's friends, I didn't really know that many men to begin with. "So what made you want to be a police officer?" I asked.
"Well, I didn't, really. But after graduating from college with a degree in business that I found didn't mean shit, especially for a brother, I didn't have too much of a choice. It was either this or working in the mailroom over at Pacific Telesis, and I tell you one thing, I didn't spend five years in college to come out making fifteen thousand dollars a year as a mail boy for the man. So I said fuck it. Gimme a badge and a gun. This way if I don't get any respect from the man, at least I have the authority to blow his fucking head off and collect thirty thousand a year for my troubles."
"Man, chill out, Craig, you gonna scare the girl," Jeff said and wrapped his arm around Dakota's shoulder.
"No, no. Let the brother talk," Dakota said, wiping her mouth and flipping chicken crumbs off her lap. "The brother's only telling it like it is. Hell, a black man's gotta do what a black man's gotta do." Dakota loved these kinds of conversations. It was almost like she hated white people, although she had been brought up around them all her life. But she didn't really hate them. Hate was something Earth and River had refused to teach their daughter. They insisted she love everybody equally regardless of race, but they also taught her to speak her mind and stand up for what was right. That's why no one in their family goes by their last name. "Deems? You think that's your real last name?" she asked me once. "That ain't your last name, honey. That's just some name the slave master gave to one of your ancestors when they bought them and put them to work on the plantation. River's last name used to be Blackman. Blackman. Massah just looked at River's great-great-grandfather and said, 'Let's see here, you sho-nuff black and I guess you sort of a man, although I ain't gonna treat you like one, so I guess I'll call you Black-man, boy.'"
Dakota has always been passionate about these matters and sometimes she gets so excited that veins pop out on her neck and her voice gets so loud, you think she's about to haul off and hit somebody. But the next minute, she'll be laughing and joking and talking about how fine that white boy Tom Cruise is.
I boldly checked my watch and gave Dakota the old evil eye. I guess Craig could see I was getting impatient because he offered to give me a ride home.
"Go on, girl, I'll call you tomorrow," Dakota said and I knew that meant: "Get lost because I'm about to get me some tonight."
"Are you sure it's no problem, Craig?" I asked, unsure if I should go off by myself with a stranger I barely knew.
"Sure, no problem. I gotta get home myself, anyway. My shift starts in about three hours."
"You mean you have to be at work in three hours?"
"Yep. So if I fall asleep behind the wheel of my patrol car, I'm gonna blame it all on you for keeping me up so late." He smiled that cover-boy smile, and I figured he was safe enough and dang sure cute enough to take me anywhere. Matter of fact, the way I was feeling at that moment, if he had asked me to go to the moon, I would've chipped in on the plane fare.
We got into his convertible Mustang and I swear he looked so good behind the wheel, I thought I would die. "Where to, sweetheart?"
Sweetheart, sweetheart, that sounded so good to my ear. "Baring Cross Street," I said.
"Oh, you live in the hood, huh?"
"I guess you could say that," I said, feeling sort of embarrassed now because of what I thought he had probably heard about South-Central. Or should I say, what the media has told everyone about South-Central. If you look at the news all you hear about are the bangers and the slangers. You never hear about a girl like me going to school and trying to make it. And anyway, where the heck is South-Central? You can't find it on a map. South-Central is just a catchall name the media made up to classify neighborhoods with a majority of black residents. Man, I was getting pissed just thinking about all this.
"I've got a lot of family in South-Central too," he said.
"Oh really?" I said, feeling relieved that at least he could relate. Then I almost gagged. This wasn't how the night was supposed to end. I was supposed to go back to Dakota's and change into my own clothes before I went home. Now Daddy's gonna really flip when he sees me in these pants. And oh Lord, my hair and makeup, and on top of all that, it was two-fifteen! Then I looked back over at Craig, who was humming the words to some rap tune I'd never heard before. Baby was fine. Clean-cut fine. Caramel-colored skin, clean shaven, and that diamond earring in his ear was just too sexy.
He must have felt me staring at him because he started to blush. "How old are you?" he asked, throwing me off guard.
"You tell me," I said, testing him, but he didn't take the bait.
"Do I look stupid? You women always trying to catch us guys with that how-old-do-I-look routine. No way, baby. You tell me."
"Okay, okay. Eighteen."
"Eighteen!" he said and stripped the gear on his stick shift. "You've got to be joking, right?"
"No, I'm serious," I said, thrown off by his obvious shock. "And how old are you?"
"Twenty-five and not in the habit of dating teenagers."
"Well, don't sweat yourself, babe. This wasn't a real date."
We drove the rest of the way in silence and by the time he pulled up in front of my house, I was ready to jump out of the car, but chose to take my time because I was in no hurry to rush into the wrath of Daddy, who no doubt would be waiting on me, belt in hand, prayer in mouth.
"Look, I didn't mean to sound so put off about your age. It was just a big shock. You act at least twenty-one and I never would have thought you were only eighteen."
I chose not to say anything. If he wanted to apologize, he'd have to do it all by himself.
"Look, what I'm trying to say is that I really enjoyed your company tonight, and if you don't mind, I'd like to call you sometime."
"Well, why don't you give me your number and I'll think about it."
"Oh, so it's like that."
No, it really wasn't like that, but if I gave him my number and he called when Daddy was home, I'd have a lot of explaining to do. "Yeah, it's exactly like that."
He pulled out a card from his wallet and handed it to me. "Use it," he said and looked at me as if he didn't know whether to kiss me or pat me on the head.
"I'll think about it," I said and got out of the car. Dang it. I should have kissed that angel, I told myself, and took a deep breath before walking to the door. I was about to get the crap knocked out of me, I thought, and let myself in.
But when I walked in, the house was dark. I fumbled around for the light switch and turned it on. On the coffee table was a yellow stick-it pad and I didn't even bother to read it. Daddy always left a stick-it note when he would be away at the hospital, praying over some poor lost soul. I almost felt upset that he wasn't home. Church always came before me. I hurried out of my clothes and got in bed. I laid there and prayed for about twenty minutes. "God, please help me start a singing career. Not for the money, not for the fame, but so I can touch people with my voice." Daddy always said everybody was put on earth for a reason, and for the first time in my life I knew my reason. I wondered if Momma had felt the same way when she decided to become a singer. That thought surprised me. I hardly ever thought about Momma anymore. If it weren't for old photographs, I wouldn't even know how she looked. I was so young when she died, too young to miss her, but for the first time in my life I felt a bond with her. For the first time in my life I wished she was still alive. I closed my eyes and rolled over to finish my prayer. "And, oh yeah, God -- I'm gonna marry Craig. Amen."
That was eight years ago and look at me now. Twenty-six years old and still waiting for my eighteen-year-old dreams to come true. But enough reminiscing, where the heck is my strapless bra? I swear, I don't know whether I'm coming or going. And where the heck's Daddy? He ought to be on his way home by now. The revival starts at eight o'clock. I stopped what I was doing, put my hand to my chest, and took a deep breath. What I need to do is sit down and relax and think of a good lie. Now let's see. I had a stomachache last Sunday, so I can't use that line again; and the week before, I told him I lost my voice, and....My train of thought was broken when the phone rang out. It never fails. Every time I get a moment to myself it starts ringing.
"Hello," I said, abruptly.
"Jazz, where the hell are you? The party starts in an hour and you still haven't gotten your black ass over here to get dressed."
It was Dakota, going off as usual. I don't know who's worse, her or Daddy. "I know, girl, but Daddy isn't home yet and you know I can't leave without telling him where I'm going."
"Forget the reverend. This night is for you, Jazz. Do you know how many strings Earth and River had to pull to get us tickets for this party tonight? I hope you're not getting cold feet, and please don't tell me you're gonna back out now."
"No, Dakota, I just gotta wait for Daddy. You know the deal." Of course she knew the deal. We go through this every time we get ready to go somewhere. And every time, Dakota tells me to forget Daddy and just leave, but I can't. As long as I'm living under his roof, I have to play by his rules. I mean, he is footing the bill for college, and although I do work, I don't make enough to move out on my own and pay a car note, groceries, credit card bills, and utilities. So I'm stuck. "Dakota, I'll be there as soon as I can, so just lay out my black velvet dress and pumps so everything'll be ready when I get there."
"Do you have your demo tape?"
"Yeah, it's right in my purse."
"Yes, D, I'm sure, dang." She can sure be a worrywart sometimes. But I love her and if it weren't for her I would have never gotten that demo tape finished. Her parents helped me out by setting up a recording session for me at this small studio in West Hollywood a few months ago. Her parents had the hookup on all sorts of things like that. They'd been in the business for so long that they knew just about everybody who's anybody, and practically everyone owed them a favor. They were good people, though. Once Earth found out that I was serious about singing, she gave me all sorts of tips, and River even helped me write the songs I sang on the demo. They had been more like parents to me than my own daddy, and sometimes, I can't tell who I love more.
"Just get your ass over here quick, fast, and in a hurry. Don't blow this, Jazz, I'm serious. Get back."
Dakota always accused me of dragging my feet when it came to my singing career. And I can't blame her really. I thought Dakota was going to flip out when I told her I was going to go to UCLA. She said I was just wasting my time, but I knew what I was doing. I couldn't just walk in one day and tell Daddy his valedictorian daughter was going to blow her education on some fantasy about being a singer. He'd flip. I had to take it slow. But after I got my bachelor's in liberal arts, I decided to go on ahead and start work on my master's. That really got Dakota pissed. I guess the decision to put off my singing career to work on my master's was just another delay tactic -- an excuse. But I'm scared. I mean, what if I can't cut it? What if I never get a contract? Or worse, what if I do get a contract and nobody buys my records? I can't deal with the possibility of putting all my hopes and aspirations out there for everyone to see, then taking the chance of nobody liking or believing in me enough to take that ultimate chance on me. These thoughts sent me to sleep with a stomachache many a night. But two months ago, I really began to pray on it. "God," I said, "if this is what you really want me to do with my life, then show me the way. Make a path for me, dear Lord. Guide me in the right direction and if it is your will, I will do whatever it takes to fulfill your master plan. You've blessed me with a glorious gift, dear Lord, and if you just show me the way, I promise I'll do the right thing."
I guess God heard me, because the next day, Earth called and told me she had some open hours at a studio and to come on over and lay down a couple of tracks. And today, Dakota called me up at work and said she had two tickets to Black Tie Records' annual executive party. "Everybody who's anybody will be there tonight," she told me, as if I didn't already know. "Network, girl, network," she said.
Black Tie Records is the foremost record company for black musicians. If I could just get my tape into the hands of somebody, anybody, at that company, I'd be set. Maybe they'd like it, maybe they'd think it was garbage, but at least then I could say I tried -- I really tried.
My heart stuttered when I heard Daddy storming through the house. Oh shoot, I thought. Get it together, girl. Get it together. He busted through my door without knocking, as usual, and stood there taking up the entire doorway with his big butt. I thought once I lost my weight that he'd take the hint and follow my lead. No such luck. He looked bigger than ever in that bland gray suit and off-white tie. Ugh! If he's nice to me, I'll hook him up with a nice silk tie from the accessories collection at the store. And if he doesn't put up too much of a fight when I tell him I'm not going to church tonight, I'll even get it for him tomorrow.
"Child, what you doing in that nightgown? We got to be at the church in fifteen minutes. Now come on, girl. Get a move on."
"Daddy, I'm going to have to miss tonight."
"Oh no you don't. Get on up here. You need to cleanse your soul, girl. Jesus been looking down on you and I know He don't like what He sees. I know I don't."
"What are you talking about, Daddy?"
"You been missing too much church. You ain't been in two whole weeks, and don't think I don't know what time you been tipping your fast little tail in here at night. Bullock's closes at ten o'clock and you been walking in here after eleven. Now don't give me no grief."
"Daddy, please. You know it's been hectic as I don't know what at the store with all those summer sales going on. I can't just walk out at ten o'clock. I gotta stay until the store is cleaned up and ready for opening the next morning."
"The Lord don't take excuses, Jazmine. You could at least have the decency to go fellowship in the name of your Father."
"Daddy, I just can't tonight. With all the work at the store, I haven't had any time to study, and tomorrow I have an exam in Pan-African studies. I gotta hit the books, Daddy. But I promise I'll go with you tomorrow."
He didn't like it but he agreed to go alone. But first he came over and knelt down beside me. "Shut your eyes and bow your head and give the Lord his due." While he knelt next to me praying, I wondered if he had always been like this. I know he wasn't always saved. I'd seen old pictures of him and Momma before she died and he always looked happy in them. He never seems happy now. I don't care how many Sundays he gets in front of that congregation and professes the word of God, he still comes home looking lost. In the pictures, he'd usually have on dark shades with a drink in his hand and his arm around Momma. They always seemed to be enjoying themselves. Then after she died he started preaching. I guess we all have different survival techniques. Daddy's doesn't seem to be working for him, though.
He finally got up and headed out. And with a final, "Lord have mercy on this poor child's soul," he was gone.
Round one goes to Jazz!
I slipped on some leggings and tied my nightgown in a knot at my waist. Then I grabbed the phone and dialed Dakota's number. "I'm walking out the door."
Copyright © 1996 by Sheneska Jackson