Harriet took one last breath of freedom before gingerly stepping across her mother’s threshold.
“Hey sis, how goes it? You should have called. I would’ve picked you up.”
“Hi Josh, I’m fine. I uh, took a cab because I didn’t want to bother anybody.”
“Oh woman please, you’re my sister! Now stop acting like a stranger and give me a hug beautiful!”
Harriet smiled despite herself and relaxed. They embraced and then walked into the front room arm-in-arm. She saw Richard and parted her lips to speak, moving to hug his neck. Her sister’s sour voice suddenly rose from the corner.
“Well, well, well, if it ain’t Tinkerbell. All the way from Never Never Land! So kid, tell me what’s it like in La La Land?”
Harriet froze, startled by the attack. So, Rachel had decided to come. Damn! She must have been her room delving into her stash of liquor. Mother never kept liquor in the house. Harriet sighed and turned to greet Rachel, choosing to ignore the loaded remarks.
“Hello Rachel, glad you could make it.”
She hoped that Rachel would not hear the insincerity or see the distaste clouding her eyes. Rachel’s face writhed and then contracted with gales of angry laughter. Hatred spilled out of her cold, hazel eyes. Rachel uttered a screeching imitation of her sister.
“H-hello Rachel, glad you could make it. Sheeit girl, you never could lie! As a matter-of-fact, you never could do anything right! You’re nothing but a…”
Joshua cut in, “Shut up Rachel. Nobody wants to be bothered with you right now. Go sit down somewhere!”
Rachael started to reply, but Harriet jumped in.
“Oh, that’s okay Joshua. I know she’s drunk. It doesn’t bother me. I’m okay.”
“See Joshua, I’m not bothering her. I’m just trying to make small talk. Soo Harry, is there much call for monkeys in Paris or are you the only one?”
Rachel fell against the fireplace, toppling a religious statue, as she laughed hysterically over her mean-spirited joke. Harriet bit her bottom lip to stay the tears that stung her eyes, hating herself for succumbing to the childish digs. Richard’s voice suddenly split the air.
“If you don’t shut up right now, I’m gonna lodge my foot so deep that your breath will smell like shoe polish for a month! Now apologize to Harriet and don’t ever let me hear to talk to her that way again or I will slap you toothless, hairless and senseless!”
All eyes were on Rachel, whose first instinct was to counterattack. Her eyes shot to his, but her arsenal was temporarily dismantled by the glare that burned the very insults from the tip of her tongue. She flung a “sorry” in Harriet’s direction, exchanged her glass for her purse and stormed out of the house.
Bastards! Rachel stalked out to the front porch and paused long enough to take stock of hair and clothes; carefully smoothing both. Laugher erupted from behind, pelting Rachel’s defeated back and driving her off of the porch.
Forget them! She would be damned if she would waste a Saturday night closeted with those wet blankets. What was the big deal about Harriet anyway? Rachel was just having a little fun. She was sick and tired of everyone making such a big deal over Miss Prissy. Even their mother had started throwing that girl in her face! Well, Rachel would simply have to take that heifer down a peg or two. Just wait until she caught Harriet alone without their brothers to protect her!
Rachel remembered the night Harriet ran away ten years ago. Their mother was so angry, she beat Richard until her arms were tired because he knew where Harriet was and refused to tell. He stuck to his claim that he didn’t know but they all knew that was a lie. Harriet always told Richard everything.
Four years later, after winning a scholarship to attend a prestigious college in Paris, Harriet finally contacted their mother. Harriet had attended a private performing arts high school in New York and living with relatives of her dance teacher.
Their mother wouldn’t reply to her letter until the next year, after stories of Harriet’s achievements began reaching the town. Then their mother welcomed her with open arms. She knew that guilt would be the perfect device with which she could control Harriet. So they resolved their differences (more or less) and their mother took credit for everything.
Richard had protected Harriet then and he was still doing it now. Why? He could give less than a damn about anyone else. What was so special about her? His threats had been the only things that kept Rachel from tearing Harriet apart back there. Richard had meant every word and Rachel knew it.
Richard was a lot like her husband Timothy; both were quiet men. At times, she found that silence unnerving because it was like the quiet before a storm whenever they were displeased. Their anger always struck without warning for Rachel and in those moments, it was fierce and uncompromising. Headlights flashed against the darkness and Rachel moved to the side of the narrow road.
“Issat who I think it is? Naw, it can’t be. I only see Beyoncé in my dreams!”
Rachel instantly recognized the voice. Her face opened with a smile for Carl. Trouble fell away from her mind. She danced over to the car and leaned in.
“Would you like my autograph?”
“Why queen bee, I’d be honored.”
“What would you like?”
They shared conspiratorial grins and then resumed their act.
“Oh, something short and sweet.”
Rachel gave him a quick kiss on the tips of his lips.
“You forgot to dot the I.”
Surrendering to the laughter that tickled her belly, Rachel stammered.”
“C-C-Carl, you’re a mess!”
“Where are you headed gorgeous?”
“Over to the Peacock Lounge.”
“Want some company?”
He flashed his irresistible grin.
“Great, get in sweets. So what brings you home?”
“Oh, mom’s having another one of her fits.”
“That time again already huh?”
“I’m afraid so.”
“Say, where is that husband of yours? Why isn’t he taking you up here?”
Rachel shifted in her seat, suddenly uncomfortable, trying to gauge the tone of his voice. She knew that she was being silly. How could he possibly know? Her sister and brothers didn’t even know. Rachel looked away from Carl, watching the darkness settle on the other side of her window.
“He um, had to stay home and oversee some detailed construction.”
“Oh yeah, that’s right. Your old man owns a construction company. Business must be booming for him to let such a vision of loveliness out of his sight!”
Rachel grinned and rolled her eyes, loving every minute of it. She was relieved that the conversation lightened up so quickly. That was what she loved most about Carl; he couldn’t stay serious for more than a minute. Rachel fished a lighted compact out of her purse and checked her makeup.
“Here we are,” Carl announced a moment later.
Rachel bent her gaze upon the storefront lounge, tapping her fingers to the rhythm that floated out. He parked and they danced their way across the sidewalk. Automatically, the couple paused before the entrance. All kidding was temporarily put aside. Beyond that door lay Rachel’s domain. Here, she Aphrodite was sovereign.
There were no Harriets to dim her beauty with virtue or trivialize her illustrious spunk with accomplishment. Carl opened the door. Ceremoniously, Rachel took his arm and they stepped across the threshold. All eyes acknowledged their arrival. Enthusiastic greetings rose above the music. Carl shooed away Rachel’s admirers with a promise to share her later. He propelled her towards the bar.
Seated sideways on her throne, she began to exercise power. A crossing of those shapely legs, slight arching of the svelte back and graceful tilt of the elegant head drew all eyes unto the queen. Rachel surveyed her territory while conversing with Carl. A sudden crash sounded from a small room behind the bar, joined by the sound of breaking glass. An angry voice erupted behind the beaded curtain.
“Gina? Gina, where are you?”
“Out here standing in my shoes. Where else would I be? Someone had to pick up your order or did you forget? I swear, it’s a wonder you find your way home at night!”
Rachel turned towards the entrance and saw Gina sauntering in carrying a package, her other hand planted on her hip and a cigarette clenched between ruby lips.
“Come in there a minute Gina. I want you to see the mess you made!”
“The what that who made? Now I know you are not talking to me because, chances are whoever is standing in the mess is the one who made it.”
Unable to contain herself any longer, Rachel threw her head back and laughed. She missed those two most of all. They had been friends since freshman year of high school when Gina’s family moved into town. Gina and Robert weren’t married but they argued as if they had been married for years. Rachel had never seen anyone else argue with as much love as the two of them. Their shenanigans were so common that none of the patrons even batted an eye.
When Rachel laughed at her friends, it was an expression of happiness; for her friend’s good fortune in love and for being blessed with the two of them as friends. This laughter was also a sigh of relief. As long as those two were together the world made sense to her. They were her constant. For them to separate would surely mean that the world was coming to an end. Recognition blossomed on Gina’s face.
“Could that be…is that my friend-girl Rachel?”
Gina walked haltingly towards Rachel, feigning uncertainty. Their grins were identically bright. They embraced like sisters. Rachel was the first to pull away, wanting a good look at her friend. Robert’s voice rose again.
“Gina? Gina! What in the hell is taking you so long to get back here?”
“Why don’t you come see for yourself?”
“Will you just get back here?”
Gina rolled her big eyes and sighed. She opened her mouth to shout a reply and then closed it. Another sigh. Then in her best childish accent:
“I’d better go see what wittle Wobwert wants, befowa he has a conniption.”
Rachel laughed and watched Gina disappear behind the curtain, still shaking her head. Remembering Carl, she turned in time to see him drop a coin in the old jukebox. He leaned forward to select a song. Rachel started walking towards him out of curiosity. The music began, bringing on a wave of memories.
“Yep, let’s dance sweetness.”