Broken promises built the walls of Sola’s abode. The maze of rooms in various stages of being remodeled had been abandoned by Roger months ago and walking up the last flight of stairs to their apartment she always held her breath. It was counterproductive but she couldn’t help it. Never knowing what she’d find once she opened the door took its toll on her. Draped in a peach and teal saree, Sola made her way up the last flight of stairs. Before she could conquer the last few steps the apartment door flew open and Bethany, Adam and Viola came running out, their rainbow of faces each mirroring a different emotion.
“Mom, Bethany won’t let me watch the TV.”
“He took the remote and he won’t give it back!”
“Can I have some peanut butter?”
Sola nodded peacefully as she caught her breath at the third floor landing. The baby in her arms looked about wildly, trying to get a better idea of the family he was about to be thrust into.
“Can I at least get in the house before you hit me over the head with everything?”
“What took you so long?” Bethany folded her arms across her teenage chest, watching unsympathetically as the twosome struggled through the front door. “Well? Daddy said you’d be home on Sunday. It’s Tuesday. How am I supposed to watch everybody? Adam doesn’t even listen to me.”
Sola held her tongue, figuring the last thing she should say was the truth. No matter how many times Roger lied, Bethany found not only a reason for it but also a way to blame her mother for it. When the girl was six, Roger promised her a puppy. Made no difference to the man of the house that all residents were forbidden from having pets in the flat, so when Sola had to break the news to a hopeful little girl it was the beginning of an endless chain of events. No matter what went wrong, what Roger did or didn’t do it was his wife’s fault.
“I was a little busy. Adam, here take your baby brother for me.”
“Can I watch Power Rangers?”
“Bethany, go do something else!”
With a narrow sigh, Sola let her daughter’s frustration roll off her back. The teenager wasn’t happy unless she had something to complain about so listening to her stomp down the hall and growl like an animal made Sola feel like she done her job.
“Mommy, peanut butter.” Viola nudged her with one hand while clutching tightly to her blanket with the other.
“Right, okay let’s go.”
The front door took its time closing and didn’t shut completely until she leaned on it and threw the dead-bolt at the same time. It was just one more of those things that Roger told the landlord he’d fix but never really got around to it. They were able to negotiate a reduced rent because he was so handy or at least he was supposed to be.
The kitchen didn’t look too bad, which meant somebody had been cleaning it. Sola began searching for evidence as to who but quickly gave up when she saw the impatience on her baby’s face. Vy was a sweet girl, the exact opposite of her big sister. She cried easily and loved tenderly. Sola spent many nights wonder where Vy came from, most of the time she was sure that it wasn’t from her.
“Peanut butter … come out come out where ever you are.”
“It’s in there.” Vy pointed to the tight corner that doubled as a pantry.
“Mmhmm. What do you want to go with it? Celery or crackers?”
Sola moved cans about, fumbling in the dark shelves for the familiar feel of the big jar. The overhead fluorescent had never been enough to light every nook and cranny of the kitchen, so they just made do. Soon enough, a smile grew from mother to daughter as Sola closed in on the destined jar. But the smile was short lived and replaced by huge eyes and an unbridled scream that sent them both running in the opposite direction. With eyes squeezed shut, the mother of four jerked her hand towards the floor as if to rid it of extra sticky molasses.
That was all the invitation that Lyle needed to pop up from whatever corner he was hiding in. Small for his age, everything from clothes to his glasses seem to engulf him.
“It-It ran … Under the-the ….” Sola panted, once again out of breath.
Vy clutched her mom’s legs so she didn’t have to see her brother claim yet another bug for his collection. Lyle was without a doubt the most eccentric eight year old on the block. He was blessed with perfect vision but insisted on wearing a pair of glasses they found at a thrift store. They were so old the prescription had faded to nothing. The seal popped on the buggy jar and the little guy held it up to the light to see how his new addition was taking to the others.
“J-Just get it outta here.”
Sitting at the round card table that acted as their kitchen table, massaging her forehead Sola worked to sum up the courage to venture back into the pantry. She’s always been faint of heart, afraid of most of life’s little quirks. The big bad world was a scary place and it just got worse as she got older.
“Mommy I don’t have to have peanut butter.”
“Ma? MA!” Adam hollered from the living room. “THE BABY’S WET. WHERE’S THE DIAPERS?”
“BY THE DOOR!” She answered and slapped her hand unintentionally on the kitchen table. “Okay, let’s do this. Get me the flashlight outta that drawer.”
Vy jumped into action with a whimsical expression. Proving that it was a miracle she managed to live in this world at all. With her father’s baby blue eyes and sandy blonde hair, she was more like a magical little sprite than a human being. Unlike the others she resembled Roger physically and in spirit. And it was her spirit that Sola was determined to protect. If Viola wanted peanut butter then she was getting peanut butter. Sola pulled around the closest chair so they could sit side by side, spreading thin layers of peanut butter over stale crackers. Vy’s feet swing back and forth under the table and for a moment all was calm, all was right.
But it only lasted for a moment. Bethany reappeared leaning against the stove in a completely different outfit from the one she answered the door in. “Where’s daddy?” She wanted to know. It was a standard question in their household to which there were only a handful of responses. “Is he working?”
“Yeah. He’ll be home later.” Sola lied to her first-born with the ease of a box cake. It would likely be morning before the girl would question her again.
“Good cause he said he was gonna bring home some ice cream. I’m starving.”
“Umm … why don’t you have dinner first? I’ll make whatever you want.”
“We have to eat. It’s your turn to pick. So what do you want?”
Sola held her breath, hoping that Bethany didn’t say ice cream. Holding out for dessert was one way to make sure that she didn’t eat.
“Ham.” Bethany’s sneer had become so common place that Sola didn’t even bat an eye.
“We don’t eat ham in this house.”
“You said I could pick. I want ham.”
It was of little consequence that she’d never actually had ham before … Or bacon … Or any pork by-product. Bethany was still determined to see her mother squirm. But with a small wave Sola dismissed the irate teen, exhaling through pursed lips.
“Daddy lets us eat ham.”
“No, he doesn’t.” She’d snapped before giving it much thought. It was possible that Bethany was telling the truth about that but Sola refused to even entertain the thought in front of her daughter. “We don’t eat ham in this house.”
“Just cause you don’t eat it don’t mean the rest of us can’t!”
“WE DON’T EAT HAM IN THIS HOUSE! WHEN YOUR BEHIND TURNS EIGHTEEN YOU CAN DO AS YOU DAMN WELL PLEASE BUT AS LONG AS YOU’RE LIVIN’ UNDER MY ROOF …”
Sola didn’t need to finish that sentence. Bethany stormed off in her usual huff and Vy jumped at the sound of their bedroom door slamming shut. If Sola had been her own mother none of that would’ve happened. From the outside, it appeared that Mama was a laissez-faire Muslim woman since she married a son of the south, but Mama was strict about two things – respect and Islam. And the two only seem to strengthen her marriage.
“Mama, how come we don’t eat ham?”
“Cause it’s bad for you. Now finish your peanut butter.”
“Grandma says it’s the devil’s meat. Is it his meat?”
“No. It’s just … better if you don’t eat it.”
“Daddy eats it.”
“Your daddy is … he’s … he’s not a very good example, okay? Listen to mama.”
A quiet scratch at the back door solidified the silence in the kitchen. Focusing her studious gaze on the chipped blue paint, she attempted to make a quick mental list of anyone that might be on the other side but no one she knew would sneak around to use the back door. Just then Bethany stuck her head into the hall and Sola smelled trouble. The girl had changed into her third outfit of the day and French braided her hair until it wavered at her waist. She was too young to have boys popping up outta nowhere. Sola slid off the chair, snapping her fingers abruptly to stop her daughter’s excuses. She may have been in her thirties but she remembered what it was like as a teenager. It wasn’t that long ago.
“Don’t. Go back to your room.”
Bethany huffed and puffed but stayed put. The heavy wooden door swung in within seconds of unlocking it and Sola expected to find a boy half his size. With a complexion as bright as the moon, most people assumed Michael George was albino but he was just a fair-skinned black man who was born to smile at lonely women.
“Sola! You’re home?”
“I am. Roger’s not here.”
He nodded knowingly. It was more likely that he knew exactly where her husband was than she did. The two men had been joined at the hip since high school.
“What’s wrong with using the front door?”
“I was on this side of the building so I just thought … hey, is that my little miracle?! This girl just gets bigger every time I see her!”
“Hi uncle Mike,” Bethany responded suddenly sweet as pie.
“Go to your room.” Sola broke up the touching moment with the business end of her stare. “And take Vy with you.”
She waited patiently until she was sure they were otherwise occupied in the room at the end of the hall and then turned back to her company. Uncle Mike was anything but to the younger kids. Bethany was the only one that paid him any mind and it was mostly to irritate her mother.
“Roger said you would be back days ago. I was sorta lookin’ for you.” He took a seat opposite Sola and tapped a pack of smokes on the unsteady table. “Any idea where he’s at?”
“You know why.”
“No, I don’t. If you don’t know where he is then what makes you think I do?”
“You his woman, ain’t you?” Mike’s sly grin offered her a slim stick of sin as if dangling bait in front of a fish. “I think most women know where they man is on occasion.”
She patted the silk peach scarf, hiding her dark locks and eased one cigarette from the pack. Just its presence on her lips invigorated the debate. It was just one of several secrets between them. Mike sat back in his chair to enjoy watching her inhale the poison.
“I really don’t know where he is.”
“You know when he’s coming back?”
“No. He’s your friend. Why don’t you just call him?”
“I ain’t really come to see him.”
Their eyes became quiet in the dim light of the kitchen and he waited patiently for her to finish the lonely cigarette. It was a necessary bribe for what he truly wanted. There was no way she’d give it to him otherwise. She smothered the cigarette into the leftover crackers and in one smooth motion, Sola spun out of the chair and sighed as his footsteps followed behind hers. She’d almost convinced herself that it was no big deal but by the time they stepped into the sun filled living room everything in her begged for her to resist. Adam looked up from the television for only a minute but she knew that he’d already seen too much for a boy his age.
“Shhh,” Sola nuzzled the sleepy baby before placing him gently in Mike’s arms. “I named him Tyler.”
Mike studied the little one with a prideful grin. “Yeah?” He lifted the tiny hand so that it rested against his index finger.
“Tyler Penton. I’m going back to my maiden name.”
“Why’s that?” Mike’s thick lips parted long enough to nibble on the innocent little arm but the baby barely stirred. “He’s kinda sweet. Roger know about that?”
“About how he tastes?”
“About his name.”
“He knows.” She admitted with a hesitant glance to her oldest boy. “Adam go watch TV in my room.”
The responsible son rose from his spot in front of the TV with malice in his heart. “When’s daddy comin’ home?”
“Later. Now please do as I say.”
Mike took a silent breath and waited for the boy’s hardened gaze to make its way down the hall. “He doesn’t like me very much huh? I remember when me and him was friends. Guess we wasn’t the best of friends … Not like you and me.”
“Things change Mike.” Sola’s scarf inched away from her hairline and she immediately pushed it back in place. “Nothing stays the same.”
“Yeah I guess so. Here you go changing your name like it ain’t no thang-.”
“I never said it was nothing.”
“So then it’s somethin’?” Mike’s eyes settled on hers and he gave her his full attention for the first time since she placed Tyler in his arms. “What you doin’ Sola?”
“I’m avoiding creditors. It’s just easier this way.”
“Avoiding creditors? You a married woman you can’t go changing your last name just cause some people keep callin’ here. What people gonna think? They gonna think you and Roger ain’t together no more. That what you want?” His dark eyes zoomed in on every breath that passed her lips. Her chest rose and fell a few times before Mike was sure he could tell the difference between her excitement and her nervousness. “I hope you know what you doin. Some things you can’t take back … once it’s out there.”
“I think that’s enough.” Sola motioned for him to hand over the tiny new bundle. “I’ll tell Roger you came by looking for him.”
“But I didn’t.”
“But that’s what I’m going to tell him. I’m going to tell my husband that his best friend came over and was disappointed since he didn’t get to see him. If you have a problem with that then maybe you shouldn’t come back.”
“Alright Sola, have it your way. I’ll see ya.”
He said the words and even handed over the sleeping infant but he didn’t make a move towards the door. Instead, he kept both eyes fixed on her – specifically the place where she and the baby met. She was soft enough before but as he stood there watching her with Tyler the mystery of what went on under the yards of fabric around her started to eat away at him. Even to get just a hint of skin would’ve been better than nothing at all. No skin at all prompted the kind of thoughts he wasn’t supposed to have … Mike shook them loose.
The first time he saw Sola she was already engaged to Roger and Mike just knew she was some kind of exotic princess. He promised himself he’d do whatever he could to make sure his idiot of a best friend made it down the aisle. Opportunities like her didn’t come around very often and Mike just knew that marrying Sola would change Roger’s life. And he was right. He just didn’t know how it would change Sola’s too. That became evident a little later on and the ladies’ man took it quite personally.
It began casual at first. Roger worked the late shift so Mike would come by to check on them. Roger was so forgetful that Sola would ask Mike to take out the trash, run to the store for milk or bread or honey. And after a few years of that Mike grew tired of hearing her explain to the kids why they couldn’t have this or that. He would “accidentally” leave bills tucked between the sofa cushions for her to find. And Sola spent most of it on food and things but she tucked some away in her special hiding place. And before either of them knew it, they had a whole system worked our right under Roger’s nose.
“You need anything?”
“Aight, well … you know how to reach me. You gonna call me, right? If you need anything?”
“Mmhmm.” Sola turned her head to the side so he could kiss her cheek.
Mike wasn’t as bad as most women thought. Well, at least not to her he wasn’t. She’d heard stories of what happened to the women that fell for him and she pitied them. His faults are bright red and open for all to see but those pitiful broads were still taken by surprise when he did what men like him do. Sola, of course, was immune to all the drama but that wasn’t to say that she didn’t take his affection to heart.
“Yeah, I’ll see ya later.” He lingered at the front door for a second. Turned back and scrunched his nose like he did whenever something was on his mind. “I … I ain’t mean to be all up in your business. I just worry is all.”
Sola smiled and moved quickly to the door. Another quick peck on the cheek was all it was meant to be but when Mike turned his head an inch or two to the right her lips land on the corner of his mouth. Gazing at one another, they waded in the shallow end of the ambiguity. It was obviously an accident. Not even a real kiss.