You may have gathered that we’re also pretty excited about this book—for lots of reasons. Considering what’s happening in the economy today, Tee’s story couldn’t be more topical—and relatable because if you’re not having a hard time, you know someone who is. AND What Doesn’t Kill You, our sixth novel, is our very first adventure in telling a story in first person. We know ya’ll always want to know how we write a book together and even with our YouTube video (http://youtube.com/watch?v=W7zB01MdqEE) it’s still one of those things that even we don’t completely know how to explain. But in this book it’s two of us writing a single character’s voice for the whole book—and we had a ball. We absolutely LOVE Tee—her ups and downs and most of all her self-deprecating sense of humor and we hope you’ll be fond of her too.
So here’s Chapter 1—Merry Christmas, Happy Kwanzaa, Happy New Year!!
Copyright © 2009 by Virginia DeBerry and Donna Grant
What Doesn’t Kill You
...all you can do is mop up the aftermath, dump it in a giant personal hazmat container and move on.
I shoulda known better. But I guess life would be boring if we had all the answers. How about half the answers? Maybe that would have kept my butt out of the gigantic sling it ended up in.
Who am I kidding? No, it wouldn't. Anyway, until the day after my daughter's wedding -- and all that champagne -- I really thought I had a handle on my life. Then it broke off.
But if you can't drink champagne at your daughter's wedding, when can you? Amber's wedding -- it's been two years and it still seems impossible she could be married. My little girl looked so beautiful I had to pinch myself to keep from boohooing. That day she and J.J. -- Baby Son-in-Law I call him, because he still has a face like his fourth-grade picture -- made a whole bunch of promises to love, honor and put up with each other's mess. Then she wasn't my little girl anymore. She was J.J.'s wife. My own vows didn't hit me that hard.
In the limo after the ceremony I popped the cork on one of those cute little champagne splits to calm my nerves. Not that I was nervous like test-taking nervous, but your only daughter's wedding does fall into the major life-change category -- those events that give us gray hair and stress us out, like moving, losing your job, grinning and bearing it while dealing with your ex-husband and his wannabe diva girlfriend for three whole days without slapping either one of them. Besides, I knew the bubbly would help me smile through all the picture taking even though my feet sizzled like raw meat on a hot grill, thanks to those very cute, very high shoes Amber talked me into because they looked so sassy with my lilac dupioni silk suit. And I looked damn good, thank you very much. Better than J.J.'s mother in that tired blue ruffled muumuu, and let's not even discuss that woman Amber's father paraded around. I mean, who wears a miniskirt and thigh boots to a wedding? Don't take my word. Check out the video. I looked great -- way too young to be the mother of the bride. Except for that corsage.
I hate corsages. They're for old ladies who wear mink stoles and musty dusting powder. That will not be me. Ever. The last thing I needed was a big, sloppy orchid planted over my double Ds. Why do you think I wear this minimizer harness? But Amber just about had an ing-bing at the florist's -- you know, one of those fits like she used to pitch when she was two and she didn't approve of my day-care wardrobe selection. Ever try explaining to a two-year-old that the pink flowered pants are in the dirty clothes and she should be thankful she has something clean to wear, since Mommy has been featuring the same tired black skirt every other day for two weeks and scraping together enough quarters to hit the Laundromat by the weekend because the check for the used-car-dealer jingle Daddy wrote is still "in the mail"? And that she needs to get her skinny behind dressed, since Mommy is ready to scream because she doesn't want to be late for work again? You can't. So somehow I'd manage to tease, trick or threaten her into her clothes and I'd wash out the pink pants that night by hand, which pretty much guaranteed the next day she wanted to wear her jeans with the stars embroidered on the back pockets. We sure came a long way from those days.
So I wore the corsage, because Amber has always had first-class taste, thanks in no small part to good home training, because I love her more than anybody in the world, and because arguing with my daughter can be like convincing a pit bull to let go of your leg -- which isn't a bad quality. Early on I made sure she learned how to stick up for herself. Besides, it was her wedding. OK, their wedding.
It's just that I wasn't ready for anybody's wedding. Oh, I was used to the two of them hanging around the house, from the time they were in high school, and all through college, listening to the stereo, watching TV, playing games on the computer. By the time they were in tenth grade, he'd dropped the "Mrs. Hodges," and since he had sense enough to know not to call me Thomasina, he invented his own name for me. "Yo, Mama Tee, what's for dinner?" He'd ask this while taking inventory in my refrigerator, just as big and bold. "Did you ask your mother?" I'd say, but by then he'd be setting the table -- placemats, silverware, napkin folded just so. He was always sweet, and I figured he'd be around until Amber chewed him up and was ready for the next flavor. Shows you what I know. Either he is the right flavor, or she hasn't chewed the sweet out of him yet.
Anyway, in the fall after they had both graduated and found their first jobs, I was up early one Saturday, getting ready to go get my hair done, and the doorbell rang. Amber came flying downstairs, wearing the white blouse, tweed skirt and black leather Minnie Mouse pumps she'd put on when she was trying to look sophisticated. I knew something was brewing, since it was only a little later than the time she usually got home from Friday night. Before I could say anything, she yanked open the door and J.J. strolled in wearing a navy blue suit. A suit? On a Saturday morning? It made me dizzy. J.J. kissed her, handed me a box of still-warm doughnuts and a bouquet of red and white carnations wrapped in that shiny green tissue paper. That's when my knees went to Jell-O and I almost missed the seat of my chair as I sat down. The two of them plopped on my sofa, all bright-eyed and shiny-faced.
"What's wrong?" I said, which I know is not what you're supposed to say when somebody gives you flowers and doughnuts, but it's all I could think of. The next thing I knew, he was down on one knee, holding a black velvet box. "Oh no," is what came out of my mouth, which wasn't exactly what I meant, but really, it was. I dropped the flowers all over the floor. J.J. swiped at a tear on his cheek after he slid the twinkling half-carat diamond on Amber's finger. "Look at it, Mama!" Her hand was shaking when she showed it to me. Then she finally remembered to say, "Yes." And I ate six doughnuts -- I don't know what flavors -- then went to the hairdresser, because what else was there for me to do?
Later, when Amber and I were alone and I could speak in complete sentences, I sat next to her and took her hand. At first she thought I wanted to examine the ring, but I covered it with my other hand. "You two are so young to get married. You just graduated from college. Your whole life is ahead of you." I must have read that in The Fools' Guide to Motherhood, because those words never came out of my mother's mouth.
"Not as young as you and Daddy," she informed me and snatched back her hand.
So I pointed out the obvious. "You see how well that worked out." But the "case closed" look had come over her, like when she just had to have the Chinese symbol for luck tattooed on her left thigh for her eighteenth birthday. I said, "To my knowledge no one in our family is Chinese," and she informed me she was eighteen, she could vote, so she could decide what to do with her body. I said, "We used to be able to drink at eighteen too. There's a reason they changed it." Ultimately I let it go. Her left thigh was her business, and I guess getting married would have to be too. After all, J.J. had an education and a job. He had a good head on his shoulders and to the best of my knowledge, he wasn't a drug addict or a serial killer -- these days you never know -- so the rest was on her. One of the great jokes of life is that by the time you're old enough to recognize how little you know, all you can do is mop up the aftermath, dump it in a giant personal hazmat container and move on.
Next thing I knew, I was up to my eyelids in bridal magazines and sample menus. I had no idea there were so many banquet halls and bridal shops within a fifty-mile radius of home. Or that there would be so many decisions to make -- calligraphied envelopes for the invitations or Mom's lovely penmanship? Edible, potable or savable favors? Tall, see-through or short, see-over centerpieces? Hotel choice for out-of-town guests? Rehearsal dinner, breakfast the day after or both? Or that it could possibly cost that much to get married. But it sure was fun, and it turned out just like Amber and I planned -- picture perfect. I mean, J.J.'s parents are lovely people, but their idea of decoration was crepe-paper streamers and balloons, and my daughter's wedding was not going to be that kind of affair. Besides, his father had gotten transferred to Dallas a few years back, so it's not like they could keep up with all the details. I acquired some shiny new platinum plastic, with a limit high enough to pay for a very nice car, in order to sponsor the occasion. It would be the only bill in my long history of bill paying that would make me smile every month when I wrote the check. Isn't that why I went to work every day? So I could afford the nicer things in life? Anyway, whatever it cost to make my baby so happy, I was willing to spend it. Except it made me remember how happy her father and I looked that Friday we ran off to city hall, all hope and expectation.
I had shed my usual stonewashed Jordache for a green silk dress with bat-wing sleeves and shoulder pads the size of throw pillows and pulled my hair into a Jheri-curl ponytail with a big black clip-on bow. He had hair back then, long as mine, and it was cut in an Afro shag that bobbed when he played keyboard. Folks used to say he looked halfway like O.J., back when that was cute. He had rolled up the sleeves on his rented tuxedo and wore the ruffled shirt open so you could see his gold chains and the curly hair on his chest. Mercifully, there are no pictures, but we had it all figured out. He was the music man -- the next Stevie Wonder. And I would be right by his side -- his fan, his muse, his manager. We were gonna light everybody's fire. It made sense to me at the time. Love can make you a first-class fool.
But none of that mattered on Amber's wedding day. It was the most perfect October day I ever hope to see. We had made it through corsets, crinolines, upsweeps and the first big crisis of the day when they sent the white stretch limo instead of the white superstretch SUV I paid for. Amber got on the phone, turned into the Bride of Frankenstein, and thirty minutes later we had the right car.
By the time we arrived, the church was full. The bridesmaids arranged themselves in their six degrees of purple gowns. Dad, looking very dapper in his first-ever purchased tuxedo, was about to walk Mom, elegant in amethyst, to their seats when she reached up, patted my cheek and said, "You know, Tootsie, you're getting old." That's what I love about my mother. She captures those sentiments you won't find on a Hallmark card. After that, I gave Amber a kiss and a final fluff, trying hard not to look like I was losing my last friend, which is kind of how it felt. Anyway, I snapped out of it when she took her father's arm, because that made me mad. Why should he get to give away somebody I raised? But she wanted it that way, so before I got madder, I let the best man, Baby Son-in-Law's cousin Ron, escort me down the aisle. I squeezed his arm so tight I probably stopped the poor man's circulation, but he winked and smiled and whispered, "It'll be fine." And for some reason, I believed him. So I vaguely remember grinning as we marched in, but really I couldn't feel my face, or my feet touch the floor, because I couldn't figure out how twenty-one years had gone by, and my child -- the one I grunted and pushed to deliver without the benefit of drugs so I remember every blasted, blessed moment -- could possibly, legally, be getting married.
At the reception, people from the job just didn't know what to say. I couldn't wait for them to spread the word on Monday -- tell the others how together Tee was. You know, some people think we don't have anything or know the proper way things are done. I wanted them to see that Thomasina Hodges was -- and always would be -- a class act, especially that snake in suede loafers. He sent regrets, but his assistant showed up and fell all over herself telling me how fabulous the wedding was. So I smiled, said my "thank yous" graciously, had another sip of champagne and watched as she took one more California roll from the passing tray. After that, Julie, who had been the receptionist on executive row, and the only other brown face, came up and said, "I don't know how you can look so calm." I told her sometimes the commercials get it right. Never let 'em see you sweat. We clinked our glasses on that, hugged and I buzzed off, ready for my next post receiving-line meet and greet.
My best buds from the neighborhood -- Diane, Marie, Cecily and Joyce -- our kids had been in school together -- nodded their collective approval and congratulated me on throwing a stellar wedding. We called ourselves the "Live Five" and we toasted to my good taste. Twice.
Then I had to get through the first dance, and the song Amber's father wrote especially for her. All that ooohing and aaahing about how sweet it was just pissed me off because he always did know how to upstage me. I pay for the whole soiree, but he gets over with a song. OK, he offered to chip in on the wedding. I just couldn't bring myself to accept. I mean, he wasn't a deadbeat dad -- just a deadbeat husband. I never had to hunt him down or get the states of California and New York involved in making him cough up child support. Sure, in the beginning he almost never saw her -- LA was way more than a chunk of change away, and his monthly contributions barely kept Amber in juice boxes and sneakers, but it came regular as the IRT, which is to say sometimes it was late, but it always arrived eventually. After he finally started making some money as a musician, he'd take Amber with him during the summers when he toured -- Budapest, Sydney, Johannesburg...And even though food on the table and new school clothes every fall doesn't leave quite the same impression as your very own frequent-flyer miles, a visit to the cockpit, getting pinned with your very own wings (which my darling child wore every day for six months) or seeing a kangaroo in its native habitat -- at least the man was present in her life. But tattoo and all, Amber had been a great kid -- not a nickel's worth of trouble -- as long as I don't count her adoration of her father. So her wedding -- exactly the way she always dreamed about -- I wanted to give her those memories. All by myself.
But wouldn't you know it? After his serenade, Dear Old Dad presented the happy couple with a big fat check toward the down payment on a house -- guess he must've sold a couple of songs -- finally. That brought the room to its feet. Terrific. OK. I guess it wasn't like we hated each other. But it didn't take long after we parted ways for the reasons we got together in the first place to seem like they had been written in the sand. I guess we both loved each other once upon a time -- that was a whole 'nuther happily ever after. The only thing we still had in common was that we both loved Amber, so we agreed to be civilized about our daughter and not to bad-mouth each other in front of her, and after I made it clear that as far as I was concerned it was not then, nor would it ever be, OK for him to have put his dreams first and his family somewhere farther down on his list, he gave up trying to convince me we could be friends. So the good thing about him singing was that I didn't have to dance with him, because I don't know if I could have managed to glide across the floor, like when we used to do the Hustle --
-- so I sucked down another glass of champagne, kept my mother-of-the-bride smile firmly in place and watched from the sidelines. And even though I thought I was doing a pretty good job, my bad attitude must have been showing just a little, because both my mother and Julie came over to ask if I was OK -- I assured them I was.
The maître d' kept my glass full. Frankly, he was supposed to. As much money as I laid out -- including the coconut shrimp and mini lamb chops during the cocktail hour, beef Wellington and sea bass for dinner and the Viennese table with the chocolate fountain -- he should have been at the door of my complimentary suite with a rose and a mimosa the next morning. But now we're back to shoulda, and that woulda killed me for sure.
Anyway, my problems started the next day when I woke up, and shoulda, coulda and woulda did not stop the train wreck in my head, or keep the elephant from tap dancing across my aching body. I mean, I'd probably had more to drink in one night than I had consumed in the last decade. My mouth felt like I'd been sucking vintage sewer water and I wanted to call room service or 911 for an Advil and orange juice IV because I could not remember where the bathroom was or imagine dragging myself to it and trying to find the pill bottle in my toiletry bag. That would have meant I had to open my eyes. I had tried that already. The little bit of light sneaking through the drapes made me want to vomit.
Then he coughed. And my heart about exploded out of my chest because I didn't know he was there. Or who he was.
Read the rest of Chapter 1 of What Doesn’t Kill You at http://deberryandgrant.com/