Rhapsody & Remorse Part 4
In the previous chapter, Raven suffers an experience similar to being slugged in the solar plexus. Merci, who she has known half her life, grossly and deliberate snubbed her at her wedding. To read this account, please visit this link:
What do I do when lightning strikes me, and I wake to find that you're not there?
~ Elton John, "Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word", 1975.
“Happy belated birthday, Raven” my brother Jacob greeted me over the phone. “Sorry this is late, but I couldn’t reach you Saturday or yesterday. You really should invest in an answering machine. Where were you?”
“Oh.” My disappointment was so great, it didn’t register that my only solid family member was calling me from the East Coast.
“What’s wrong?” Jacob asked, alarmed.
“Oh – hi, Jacob. Thanks for calling and wishing me a happy birthday.”
“What’s the matter?” he asked again.
No sense in beating around the bush. “Merci got married Saturday. That’s where I was, on my birthday.”
“Wow, that’s great! It seems like only a short while ago, she was in high school worrying about who to date. How was her wedding?”
“Horrible!” I plunged right in, telling him all that had happened, about her blatantly snubbing me even after I had caught the bouquet.
“Well, Merci has a long hard lesson in front of her,” he said, after I’d finished.
“Yeah, whatever,” I groaned, referring to what the teachers at my public junior high used to claim about the bullies who tormented me. It was just an excuse for them to turn their backs; the kids were jealous, uneducated, etc. I knew even then it was B.S.; why should anyone envy a foster child, and just how educated was a 7th grader supposed to be?
“No, I really mean it,” insisted Jacob. “That’s no way for a bride to act at her wedding. How did her new husband take it?”
“He was better behaved that she was!”
“But what did he think about the kind of life he was going to live, marrying someone with that type of conduct at her own wedding? How would you feel if your groom treated a friend of his this way?”
“Wow – I’d probably call it off. But he didn’t seem the least bit upset.”
“Oh, really? Why do you suppose that is?”
“I – I don’t know…” I stammered. I’d been too devastated to consider the matter.
“Think about it,” Jacob stated bluntly.
A long silence followed, during which my mind drew a blank. Then I recalled the second time Merci had looked horrorstruck, when Kevin was laughing with his friends while they teased him about “playing it smart”. I filled Jacob in on that scene.
“I figured that,” he said.”
“You don’t seem the least bit surprised about this. Why?” I asked him.
“For two reasons. First, while we were in Livermore, I attended high school with Merci and her sister Patti. I know their family somewhat. Personally, they all strike me as phonies.”
“Really?” I was puzzled. Obviously I knew them better than he did, since I was the one who paid them all those visits over the years. They didn’t seem artificial to me at all. Since Patti and Norma had no problems getting dates, the only phony must have been Merci herself; most likely her younger sister marrying and having kids goaded her into rushing the wedding. I told Jacob this.
“Ok, you have a point,” he conceded. “But here comes my second reason. As a married person myself, I need to tell you something. It’s very important to pay close attention to how the person you’re dating treats others, because once you’re married, that’s how he’ll treat you. You haven’t dealt with Annalee much, have you?”
“True I haven’t,” I answered. The only time I’d spent with his wife was on a couple of camping trips.
“I’ve noticed a lot of women see marriage as a trophy,” Jacob went on. “They put on an act until they get that Golden Ring, then they reveal their true selves. “Remember the state of our place, whenever you visited us?”
“Uh – yes,” I answered. Annalee wouldn’t exactly win the Good Housekeeping award. I also recalled she was a lousy cook – whenever she did it, which wasn’t often.
“Well, things are a lot worse now. Neighbors in our apartment complex are even complaining. Do you have any idea how embarrassing that is for me, being a Med School student? Also, can you imagine how hard that is to live with? I know you and I aren’t exactly spic-and-span, but we have limits. I’d rather not go into details, but if neighbors are complaining, you know it’s bad.”
“Oh.” I didn’t know what to say.
“There’s a lot more to my story than that, but I’ll hold off on it until later. I just want to tell you that Annalee pulled that stunt on me, and I’m paying for it. In the case of Merci, it looks as if she’s the one who’s going to pay. Her new husband – what’s his name again?”
“That Kevin guy has something up his sleeve. He may have been well-behaved, but his friends sound like rednecks; that says something about him. As a minority marrying into that situation, Merci is in BIG trouble.”
“Well – her father is a cop…” I ventured.
“Just wait and see what happens,” he told me. “I have to leave now. You’re not going to work, are you?”
“Yes,” I answered.
“You sound too upset. I think you shouldn’t go in today.”
“Sure,” I said uneasily.
“Think about what I said, ok?” he told me. “Try not to take this too hard. Remember, Merci’s the one with the problem, not you.”
This album became Elton John's trademark.
After we’d said our good-byes, I went back into the bathroom and looked in the mirror. My eyelids were so swollen, I almost didn’t recognize myself. Jacob was right; I couldn’t show up at work looking like this. Yet as a temp worker, I wasn’t eligible for sick pay. Things were bad enough without Merci costing me a day’s wages.
I put on false eyelashes to hide the swelling. Then I dressed for work. I got in my car and began driving the familiar route to work. John Denver’s “Follow Me”, the song Merci had originally wanted me to sing at her wedding, began its haunting, mocking replay in my mind. I turned on the radio; the station was KBLX, where I had last left it. I cringed, what if some romantic Luther Vandross song was on the air? Perhaps one Merci and Kevin were listening to right now, in their honeymoon suite? Fortunately, the station was playing an instrumental.
After looking carefully, I merged onto the freeway. A horn blasted behind me, then a car zoomed past in the next lane. Apparently my precaution wasn’t enough. Jacob was right; I should have stayed home. But it was too late now.
I stayed to the far right the whole way, afraid to change lanes. My heart had barely recovered from my near accident when the music ended, causing it to race again. Would Luther Vandross sing, now? If so, I’d have to turn off the radio, but then the ridiculing songs in my mind would resume. By sheer luck, another instrumental came on. It was rare for KBLX to play two in a row; I would have to hurry, so I could be at work before this one ended.
The tune drew to a close just as I was turning into the industrial park. Then a singer came on. It wasn’t Luther Vandross; it was Whitney Houston. “Didn’t we almost have it all…”
I LOST IT.
Screaming and flailing around, I screamed, “GOD, NO!!!” I lost control of the car. My hands hit the windshield; if it had been the passenger window, I might have broken it. It took nearly a minute before I could turn off the radio. After the storm subsided, I found my car within a few inches of someone’s Cadillac. This was the second time this morning I had a near accident.
My false eyelashes had loosened, so I removed them. I parked at a distance from others; driving was like steering a canoe on a choppy ocean. Entering the building through a back door, I stopped in a restroom to wash off what remained of my makeup, then marched to my station. A tiny pile of data entry awaited me. I gave it my utmost attention.
Julia was holding court, as usual. I was grateful for this, because no one would notice the state I was in. “"You Mexican Catholics don't recognize divorce, so you don't have the same problem," she was telling the room, "but I had to assure Ted he’d never be able to get rid of me. See, he was married once before, to a Jewish American Princess. When he lost his job, she walked out on him. So he’s really paranoid. That’s why it’s taken him so long to propose.” Apparently she’d gotten engaged over the weekend. Good for her, especially since she and Ted had been shacking for 5 years. Dimly I wondered how Ted could have been married to a Jew; Losoya had met him, and told me he was an even worse bigot.
I realized the room had gone dead silent. Looking up from the computer, I saw Julia standing over me. “You seem really upset,” she said quietly, though the whole room could clearly hear her. “Wanna tell me about it?”
I burst into tears yet again. “Thanks for caring,” I managed to mumble, before fleeing the room.
The second album of the late great Whitney Houston skyrocketed up the charts, and contains many classics still heard regularly today. Yes, she almost had it all.
I was intercepted by Mirtha near the restroom entrance. “What’s wrong?” she demanded, grabbing my arm and leading me to her desk. There I told her the whole story, feeling like an idiot 10-year-old the entire time. Mirtha is a struggling single mother who had to divorce her husband because he was cheating on her (highly dangerous in the age of AIDS), and here I was, bawling like a kid over a lost playmate!
“So you let it out,” she said, regarding my mini-breakdown in the parking lot. “Now let her go.”
“Dump someone I’ve known half my life?”
“Yes. It sounds like she was never much of a friend in the first place.”
“But she was, though!” I went on to describe her letters.
“That sure was nasty of her!” snapped Mirtha. “Doing all that mess on your birthday! Having written you this long, she knew what she was doing! You say she lives right here in Redwood City? Where?”
“They live on Clinton Street, in a condo.”
“I know where that is. I have friends there.”
“I bet it’s a really nice neighborhood, isn’t it? And here I am, still stuck in a boarding house!”
“Be glad you can live in a boarding house! I can’t! Besides, what if her husband cheats on her after they have a kid? She’ll want to live in a boarding house then, but won’t be able to!”
I’d stuck my foot in my mouth again.
“I say, just forget her. No deserving friend would put you through this.”
I remembered the Whitney Houston song from earlier, and how I'd reacted. What if they’d played it while I was still on the freeway? One thing for sure; the ride with Merci was not worth the fall.
I stayed in Mirtha’s cube for half an hour, until she had calmed me enough to return to data entry. Back at my station, Julia announced, “I know it’s hard for black women to find someone decent to marry. But don’t worry; you’ll find a man.”
“That’s not what it is,” I told her, starting in on work again.
“What is it, then?” asked Losoya.
I gave the room a brief synopsis of Merci’s wedding.
“You caught the bouquet? That means you’re next!” Losoya rejoiced.
"But what about the ice-cold way she was treating me?”
“Oh, she was probably drunk. Forget it.”
“Is she that church fanatic?” scoffed Phillipa. “They’re always doing that. Now that she scored the Prize, she thinks she’s better than you. Her husband will probably beat her every night; she won’t feel so superior then!”
“W-what makes you think her husband will beat her?” I stammered.
Phillipa looked at me as if I were the idiot 10-year-old I’d felt myself to be, when I told my story to Mirtha. “Wife beaters flock to those marriage-mill churches. They know they’ll find desperate, submissive women there. Anybody who knows anything knows that.”
“Actually, this is the first I’ve heard of it,” I told her.
“Of course they’re not going to come right out and tell you. But you can see for yourself, if you bother to pay attention. I don’t let no church tell me what to do. I use birth control, ‘cause I don’t like little kids. I decide the size of my family, not some church.”
Phillipa had made that statement about disliking children before, in the presence of her one daughter. It was at that time I first felt rancor towards her. However, her term “marriage mill” made me recall the yellow rose the receptionist had pinned to my dress – the same type of flowers that had made up Merci’s bouquet – and I envisioned a giant mill cranking out brides with yellow rose bouquets. For the first time since Friday, I smiled. Though Phillipa treated me like a moron, I had to admit, she was knowledgeable about lots of things of which I knew little.
“Congratulations on your engagement, Julia,” I said, before returning to my data entry. Freed from guilt, she resumed holding court. I finished the pile within a few minutes, then left the room to find someone else to help. No one had anything. I ran into Mike, the good-looking Vietnamese guy Mirtha often flirted with, and he was eager to show me something he had developed on computers. It was a way for two people to communicate on separate terminals; a precursor to Instant Messaging. We spent the rest of the day conversing that way. He told me all about life in his home country, and how he had immigrated to the US.
Don't let the handshake and the smile fool ya. Take my advice, I'm only trying to school ya.
~ Undisputed Truth Band, 1971.
Sixteen year old Raven Quincy stood timidly at the wooden rail of the pier. Close by, at an outdoor café table, sat Carolynne, Helena, and Peg. All three were Hollywood stars; they were planning their Hanukkah / Christmas / Kwanza holidays, which would be spent at Cathedral Spires ski resort.
‘I need to discuss Merci’s wedding with someone,’ Raven thought to herself. ‘That’s right, Helena’s Mexican. Maybe she has some insight.’
As if on cue, Helena looked at Raven. “Come and join us,” she invited, and Raven shyly took a seat. The waiter brought her a highly caloric linguini dish, the same type the others were having. Unlike most celebrities, none of them believed in diets; they ate all they wanted and worked it off.
“So what did you think of this wedding fiasco?” Helena asked Raven.
“I was just wondering what all of you thought,” Raven answered back.
“I think it’s perfect fodder for the tabloids,” declared Peg, an African American from New York City. “When Merci looked horrified at the altar – excellent cover shot!” She mugged a variety of expressions, ranging from criminal to crime victim, and the other two roared with laughter. Peg usually played bad guy roles, but in real life, she was actually more like a goody-goody two shoes.
“The singer’s rendition of ‘On Eagles’ Wings’ was highly interesting,” intoned Carolynne. “It sounded more like buzzards to me.”
“I don’t think this is a laughing matter!” cried Raven. “I’m really blindsided by this! I want to know why it happened! Do any of you have insight?”
“Hmm,” emoted Helena. “Let’s see. There is the way Merci’s mother acted at her bridal shower. Though we have to take into account that it is standard in Mexico for the mother of a new bride to sit resignedly in a corner. On second thought, let me consult Montezuma.” She put her hands together in a prayerful position, and the other two cracked up.
“No really!” Raven wailed, her eyes growing teary.
Helena put her hands on her hips and looked Raven squarely in the eye. “Look, you’re making way too big a deal of this,” she told her. “Any kindergartener is aware no one can treat people the way Merci did you, and expect to keep them as friends.”
“But I want to know what led up to this! It’s all totally unexpected!”
“You have a point,” said Carolynne, in her usual quietly dignified manner. She was a singer, a Native American from a reservation in the dark dank Pacific Northwest. Though she was in her mid 30’s, her presence was a strange mixture of overawed teenager and someone older and wiser, a reincarnation from the pre-Columbian era. “After all, the two of you didn’t go to school together. If you had, most likely you would have seen aspects of her that you missed as pen pals.”
“Like the reason she wasn’t invited to the Prom,” inserted Peg. "In spite of joining the committee, she still couldn’t get a date.”
“Oh,” Raven pondered, remembering Merci had written extensively about that in her letters.
Carolynne told her, “Even though you two were pen pals, I believe you still saw some signs. After all, you did visit her. What about that time when you spent Easter weekend there, and they had a Sonrise Service. Though Merci praised your musical talents, she blatantly refused to let you participate in the production. In fact, there was one song where you knew all three verses, but she wouldn’t even let you lead the singing. Someone else did, and the congregation sang the first verse five times.”
There followed a long silence, during which multiple memories rushed back into Raven’s mind. Highly uncomfortable memories…
“H-how can someone from Salt Shaker act like this?” she finally stammered.
“Did they screen the people who went there?” Carolynne asked.
“Uh – no. They can’t.”
“Wise observation,” continued Carolynne. “Plus, I’d like to add that Salt Shaker has been defunct for ten years. It has to do with an incident far more serious than this one. I understand its President stole away Jerry DeCou’s fiancé. This, after Jerry had overcome heroin addiction and worked so hard to support the ministry.”
Another silence followed, this one shorter. “What are you remembering, Raven?” Helena finally asked.
“Well – uh – to tell you the truth, the first time I visited Merci, as warm as her letters were, I was surprised at how cold she was in real life. She snubbed me quite a bit during that visit. I had a crush on John Denver then, and kept trying to talk about him with her, but she’d just cut me off. Later, I overheard her tell some of her friends she couldn’t stand John Denver freaks. This, even though they kept playing his records on the stereo! To tell you the truth, I almost dumped her then. How I wish I had, now!”
“Very good. Anything else?” Helena continued.
“Well – uh – one time in her letters, she said no one at school talked with her but the geeks. She added in parentheses that she knew it wasn’t nice to say, but how else could she say it?”
“That most likely explains why she couldn’t get a date to the Prom,” Peg told her. “Generally, if you treat someone like a geek, they’re less inclined to ask you out. Others see that, and are reluctant to do so as well.”
“Why do you keep saying stuff about the Prom?” Raven asked Peg.
“I find it highly interesting that she had such trouble getting dates when her house was a teen hangout,” Peg responded.
Raven gasped. “That’s right!”
“Any more revelations?” Helena went on.
“Actually there are. A lot of times, when I was over there, Merci would have me do a bunch of typing for her, because she hadn’t learned yet. For some reason - I don't know why - I felt like a flunky, but I didn’t want to admit it to myself. Also, I noticed whenever I told a joke, she’d look at me as if I were dumb, yet anytime someone else did, no matter how lame it was, she’d laugh. She’d also hold these therapy-type sessions, asking me what was wrong. I believe she wanted horror stories about my life as a foster child. Whenever I tried to discuss my feelings of unease regarding her, she’d cut me off and change the subject. This happened several times. I just didn’t want to admit someone from Salt Shaker could act this way.”
“As I said before, Salt Shaker is long dead and gone,” stated Carolynne.
“So what do I do now?” Raven asked them.
Helena answered, “We all agree you shouldn’t waste another iota of time and effort on Merci.”
“But I’ve known her half my life! She’s my oldest friend!”
“Who’s you second oldest?” asked Helena. “That person is your oldest, now.”
Though best known for their megahit "Smiling Faces Sometimes, The Undisputed Truth produced many songs the Temptations made famous.
It was 5pm, the end of my workday. I dreaded leaving. No matter what I did to put it off, I would eventually have to go home and face that hated bouquet in the solitude of my room. Maybe I should hang out at Stanford campus again, or try seeing another movie in a theater…
Carolynne quietly appeared in my mind. “Go home, Raven,” she told me. “When you get there, before going upstairs to your room, I want you to take two large grocery bags from the kitchen. We’re going to have a conference about Merci’s wedding. You nearly had a car accident twice today, one of them risking your life. You also could have severed an artery, if your hand had gone through the passenger window instead of hitting the windshield. This is serious. Do you think you can drive home ok?”
“Sure,” I answered.
“Good. We’ll meet you in your room. Remember to bring the two grocery bags.”
I made it home without incident. I even managed to still the taunting music in my mind. In case you’re wondering, I have an inner world of friends. It’s a coping mechanism I’ve used since childhood.
I entered my room. Carolynne was seated with Peg and Helena, all three of them blocking the bouquet. Peg began the conversation; unlike their meeting earlier, she wasn’t the least bit cool.
“Raven, a long time ago, we agreed not to interfere with your outside life unless we felt it was absolutely necessary,” she said. “Well, this is one of those times. NO!!!” She jerked both her thumbs down. “You are to dump Merci right now!”
“Ok,” I answered dully. “But first, I’m wondering if you have any idea what is going on here.”
“I don’t,” she replied, bluntly. “I know who does, though; Merci. She knows the whole score, and she won’t fill you in on it until she’s good and ready. And no one’s paying you to wait around until such a time!”
Carolynne, seeing my startled reaction, spoke up. “To tell you the truth, I’ve never liked Merci. She always seemed so artificial. She also didn’t appreciate Salt Shaker. Remember whenever you tried to talk about it with her, she’d say something like, ‘yeah it was a place to go besides the streets’, quoting the public service announcement about the Y?”
“This socially astute Mexican has something to add,” said Helena. “You’re aware that hanging out with losers can lead to your being one yourself, right?”
“I’m already a loser!” I cried.
“Oh really? How’s your knee?” she asked me.
“Fine,” I answered, puzzled.
“You realize it's likely Merci did not injure her knee during the move? That it happened afterwards?”
“Wait – how do you know?”
“It’s mere speculation, but I find it highly significant that in spite of the way Merci was acting at the wedding, Kevin was not the least bit nervous. In fact, he was joking with his friends. Remember what Jacob told you this morning, about them sounding like rednecks?”
“Well – uh…” I sputtered.
“It’s much worse than that, Raven. Merci has always said she doesn’t believe in divorce, but now that she’s married, it’s not all about her anymore. What are Kevin’s beliefs regarding such matters? He could divorce her, or make her life so miserable she has no alternative. Merci comes from a wealthy family; since her father is a public servant, most likely he wisely saved and invested his money, and her mother helped in that area. Kevin could gain access to that money. He could also run up her credit cards and drain her savings. If they divorce, he could even sue for palimony. She had it all – a county job, freedom – and she blew it. Her life may very well be ruined. She was snubbing you because she knew what she was doing, and your presence was a reproach. As a foster child from the inner city, you’re the one who was supposed to do something so stupid, not her.”
“But how come it was ok for everyone else to be there?” I sobbed.
“Excellent point,” she responded. “Apparently they were friends of the family who decided it was none of their concern. Her wedding was just another party to enjoy. By the way, I strongly believe Kevin knows exactly what he is doing.”
Carolynne stated, “When you were at Merci’s house Saturday and she asked you what was wrong, you told her you had too much to drink; this, when you’re a teetotaler. Why was that?"
“I – I have no idea,” I stammered.
“I believe you do have an idea. It’s because this whole relationship was based on lies. The signs of what Merci was truly like were there all along; you just blocked them because you refused to believe someone from Salt Shaker could be that way. You have to accept the fact that Salt Shaker isn’t perfect. It has been closed for ten years, and for good reason. Also, if you had gone to school with Merci, your friendship with her most likely wouldn’t have lasted a week, because you would have seen a lot more of her phoniness. Regarding her first fiancé, Phil – notice how she had nothing good to say about him? She said he was immature, and his parents didn’t like her.”
“Yes, I remember,” I responded.
“Now you see their reason. As for his being immature, that explains why he was with her in the first place.”
“Look, this conversation has gone long enough,” Peg snapped. “You’re fully aware, a game is going on. All you have to do is decide whether or not you want to play. Do you?”
“No,” I told her flatly.
“Then that settles it. I see you brought the grocery bags. One is for the bouquet. Put it in there, and toss it to Julia tomorrow. The other is for Merci’s letters. You are to shred and burn them in the backyard.”
I gasped in horror. “Burn thirteen years of letters?”
“Why not? What else are you going to do with them? Torment yourself by reading them over and over?”
I stood transfixed. My gaze fell on 16 year old Raven, sitting in another corner. She wore an expression I'd never seen on her face before. "You won't hear any protest from me," she growled. "I'm the one who spilled the beans in the first place!"
The three stepped aside, exposing the bouquet. “You don’t have to destroy the letters tonight,” said Peg. “You do it only when you’re ready. But for now, you need to put them and the bouquet in the bags. You think you can toss the bouquet to Julia tomorrow?”
“Sure,” I answered. “It’s certainly better than having it sit here, glaring at me.”
I placed the bouquet in one bag, leaving it on top of my desk. Then I went into my neatly organized letter drawers and removed the giant sections that comprised Merci’s letters. There were so many, they could have filled an entire drawer on their own; since I file in alphabetical order, I had to divide the ones from her. They wound up reaching the brim of the second grocery bag. This I placed under the desk, out of sight.
“Very good,” reassured Peg. “There’s still time to go to a movie, if you want. Or you can hang out in Stanford’s pub or International Center, and meet people.”
“I’m tired,” I sighed. “I think I’ll just go to bed.”
The next morning, I arrived at work calm and collected with my makeup intact. Julia stopped mid-sentence, giving me a guilt-ridden look. “Here, Julia – catch!” I threw her the paper bag.
She took out the bouquet and gazed at it puzzled. “W - why are you giving me this? Didn’t you catch it at your friend’s wedding Saturday?”
“Yes I did. But obviously you’ll be getting married before I do, so you may have it.”
“Wow – thanks!” she exclaimed, beaming. “So my being engaged doesn’t bother you?”
“Not in the slightest,” I answered her genuinely. “Best wishes to you both!”
Losoya approached me later, giggling. “That was good – tossing Merci’s bouquet to a racist when she apparently married one herself,” she told me quietly.
I hadn’t thought of that. “OOH!” I shrieked with laughter. From my inner world, Helena and Carolynne also giggled, and Peg winked.
It may seem odd to you that Raven would resort to this childlike way of dealing with the situation. Did it work? To find out, please visit this link:
© 2015 Yoleen Lucas