Chapter 1: Tamar 1 Columbia, South Carolina, Present Day TAMAR
YOU KNOW WHY FAIRY TALES suck? Not because they create unrealistic relationship ideals for girls, even though they do; it’s because Cinderella and those other hags just sat around and waited for something to happen. They waited and talked to birds and wished and hoped, and eventually some handsome kidnapper appeared out of the blue sky and set their life in motion. In real life you have to actually do something. You have to get off your butt and send Prince Charming a text if you want a chance at happily ever after.
“Mirror, mirror, on the wall. I wish I didn’t look like shit before the ball.”
Fay pulls my hand away from the passenger-ceiling mirror and kisses the back of it. My palm presses against his palm, and my fingers fold into the soft warmth of his grip. He doesn’t disagree with me, and for that I’m grateful. That whole back-and-forth about how beautiful I am when I know I look like day-old gas-station chicken Alfredo is tiring.
I close the mirror, my fingers brushing against Fay’s rosary beads, a gift from his dead father that he loves more than clear skin on picture day. He never goes anywhere without them, despite the fact that he doesn’t like to talk about his dad, ever. I’ve always assumed it’s just too painful. They’re hanging from the rearview mirror and swish with every turn the car makes. I settle back into my seat and watch as the ribboned citrine sky filters through the windshield, glimmering and aggressive. It’s the kind of light that outlines moments so they can’t be lost to time. Six thirty p.m. As perfect a moment as it gets these days.
Fay makes a sharp turn, and a freshly graded report slides across the dash. I pick it up and read the cover: REINCARNATION ACROSS ANCIENT CULTURES BY FAYARD DANIELS, WORLD CIVILIZATION. I flip through, scanning the essay, and I have to give it to him—it’s pretty good, and with more than double the pages he needed to turn in. He got an A. Mr. Sato even tucked in a brochure for the Museum of Natural History in DC, glossy and inviting with a little sankofa bird superimposed over the building for some new excavation exhibit. The seniors class is supposed to be taking a trip there during spring break. Just another thing I won’t be attending.
I throw the report in the back seat and adjust the heat to ninety, then turn the vents so they blow in my direction. I can see the little beads of sweat building on Fay’s temples, but I can’t help it. I need the heat on blast, even though the temps are climbing to over sixty in February. My body is like a Volkswagen Beetle climbing Mount Everest with a faulty engine. It’s trying hard, but it’s just not happening. I’m still cold.
“I know you had to study, but Andrea’s tiat threw the sickest Super Bowl party at their neighborhood clubhouse. You remember Rick from Mock Trial regionals, right? He’s got that gray patch on the back of his head?” Fay says.
“From Richland Northeast?” I ask, trying my level best to sound upbeat and interested in whatever the hell Rick did at yet another party I missed.
“… and then we sacrificed a cat. It was lit!”
“What about a cat?” I ask, and he just smiles at me. I’m caught. “Ha-ha,” I say dryly. “I have perfect pitch, remember? I hear everything. I was listening.” I don’t sound very convincing.
“No, you weren’t, but it’s cool. I ignore you sometimes too,” Fay says, and winks.
“You do not. You hang on every word I say.”
“Psssh! You make me sound whipped. And your boy is never that,” Fay chides.
“Take me to Krispy Kreme,” I say, and he doesn’t even respond. Fay just makes a U-turn like it was the direction we were supposed to be going this entire time.
The red neon sign in the window glows to let us know the doughnuts are hot and ready, but we turn down the drive-thru instead of going in. Fay turns to place our order. “Can I get two decaf coffees, one black, the other with four sugars and two creams; one blueberry doughnut and two plain.”
I fake the sound of a whip cracking. “How ’bout that,” I say, fighting back the grin spreading across my face.
“Now, now, that’s just me being an accommodating date. Besides, when is a little doughnut break ever a bad idea?”
Fay hands me my coffee. I wrap my hands around the steaming cup and let the warmth rush into my skin as the track changes to “Smooth Operator” by Sade. Fay places the bag of doughnuts next to me and slides his coffee into the holder, then switches to the next song and gives me a pitying look. He knows it’s my absolute favorite melody to play on the saxophone, but my lungs can’t handle the exertion anymore. Now my instrument sits in its case in the corner of my room gathering dust.
Fay backs into a spot right by the front door so we can watch all the other couples on cheap dates. There are at least half a dozen cars in the parking lot, with more in the drive-thru, but the cutest pairs are the older folks sitting inside by the windows.
“Those two are on a date,” I say, pointing my stirrer at two middle-aged guys in New Balance sneakers and fraternity sweatshirts standing in line. “The guy on the left is recently divorced, and the other just moved back to town to take care of his elderly parents.”
“You take point if the Q orders and pays. If the Sigma pays, the story changes.”
I draw in the rich scent of the coffee beans and blow out a breath. “Why?”
“?’Cause the two organizations have fundamentally different personalities. Q’s gotta be the alpha, no pun intended.”
“My granddad would beg to differ, but you’ll find out once Morehouse sends you that acceptance letter,” I say, and stick out my tongue to one side, imitating the countless Omega Psi Phi members I’ve seen strolling at barbecues, weddings, and at least one funeral. He doesn’t laugh like I expect him to.
Fay turns his head and looks out the other side of the window. He’s been avoiding the college conversation but won’t tell me why. I decide not to press him today.
“What do you think they’re talking about after forty years of marriage?” I ask, turning my gaze, and attention, to a couple who look to be in their sixties. Dressed in matching red polo shirts.
“Well, he’s just retired from the post office, and she’s just sent the last of their six children off to college. He’s talking about how he wants to relax, and she’s dreaming about seeing the country. She’ll let him talk a bit, because she’s learned how to let the old man tire himself out after all these years, before she springs the RV plan on him. He won’t say too much about it now, but he’ll bring it back up in a few days like it was his plan all along, and she’ll let him believe it was,” Fay narrates, his voice full of warmth.
“Wow! That’s very detailed.”
“It’s a love story. That’s us in fifty years,” he adds.
I snort. “Let me stop you at six kids.”
“What I wouldn’t have done for a little brother. I hated being an only child,” he says before inhaling his second glazed doughnut in a single bite. The pastries are pillowy soft when they’re warm, but the plain ones make my stomach hurt now. It’s one of those things I’ve only had to tell Fay once.
“But you got all your mom’s attention,” I say, slightly jealous.
“I don’t know about that,” he says sadly.
“So, it’s your only-child powers that allow you to see into the future of Krispy Kreme’s patrons?”
“Nope. I’m psychic.”
I open my mouth wide to sneeze—“Bullshit.”
We both laugh. Fay switches the music to a playlist we made together sophomore year for a songwriting elective. He was the only non-band member taking the class. It was almost two years ago, and even then, people assumed we were together. “Boyfriend” has always seemed too light a word for him—thin and arbitrary, like wrapping paper. “Girlfriend” is even worse. It comes with expectations. I don’t like labels. I just like him. The playlist is full of super old-school cuts our grandparents love, like Sade, Prince, Donny Hathaway, stuff like that. Love songs.
My gaze settles on the horizon. All that’s left of dusk is a coin’s sliver of gold in the distance. The lo-fi rhythms are like a sun-warmed lake lapping the shore, calming and perfect. And, just like that, I don’t care that I’ve got a purse full of inhalers or that the dress I bought only a month ago is a little loose. I’m just happy to be alive and seventeen.
My eyes are closed and I’m grooving to “All this Love” by DeBarge when sugar-scented fingers tenderly glide against my chin, urging my lips toward a boy with soft eyes; he tastes like lemon glaze and sweet urgency. Someone honks next to us, and he pulls away with the biggest smile on his face. I smile back.
“You’re not getting into my panties tonight,” I tease.
“So you say. I’m the panty wizard,” he jokes as he settles back into his seat and starts the car again. We slowly drive out of the parking lot. It’s better to pop the sexual-tension bubble early. Otherwise we’ll be playing the will-we/won’t-we game all night. Not that I don’t want to, it’s just… complicated. Fay would never urge me to do something I wasn’t wildly excited about doing. I guess I take sex off the table so bluntly more for my benefit than for his. “Isn’t that what they called that guy who was sneaking into people’s houses in Winslow and stealing dirty drawers?”
“I’m a hustler, baby. You know how much lightly used panties go for on the internet?” he says as he gives me a wink, his face fighting to stay serious, one hand perched at the bottom of the steering wheel and the other hand squeezing mine tight.
I laugh so hard a tear winks out of my eye and I have to clench so I don’t wet myself. We finally pull up to the school, and I can hear the bass from the gym as soon as Fay parks and turns off the engine. Seniors usually sit out the Valentine’s dance so they can save up for prom, but May is so far away, and given how I’m feeling, there’s really no telling…
“Back up in the spot!” Fay yells as he opens the car door and a whoosh of February air sends goose bumps across my skin.
“Ayo!” DeAndre calls from across the parking lot, expensive camera in hand. Fay and DeAndre have got a YouTube channel that’s really getting up there in followers. They’ll be filming all night.
Fay closes the car door to dap up his friend, and Selena waves to me from the sidewalk. I wave back and pantomime a chef’s kiss to let her know I like her dress. I should get out of the car now. That’s what I want to do, but my body needs just a few more seconds of the vehicle’s warmth. How am I going to get through this night?
“You all right, bae?” Fay asks, face right up against the window.
“Yeah!” I lie, and I bite my lip getting out of the car, covering up my wince as sharp pains shoot from my sternum and radiate to each and every one of my ribs. I blow out a grateful puff of air when I’m finally on my feet. I pat myself on the back for deciding to wear my church flats instead of my damn-she-look-good heels. Like Nana used to say, A girl can be stupid but she can’t afford to be simple.
Fay’s talking so fast and laughing so hard I don’t have to join in. I’d think he was completely preoccupied if he didn’t slip off his blazer and drape it over my shoulders. I nearly melt from the residual body heat. I love these moments when he can read my mind. Selena joins us on the way in, and we find a table with some of the other kids from Mock Trial and Model UN.
“We missed you at regionals. Pilar tanked as the star witness,” Selena yells over the bass of some song I haven’t heard yet. I nod my head to the beat, making a mental note of it so I can flip it on my beat machine when I get home. When Pilar snatches Selena from the table to join her on the dance floor, Selena reaches for my hand. I wave them on. “Nah, I’ll sit out. That’s that lame dance for underclassmen,” I joke, and they both roll their eyes.
I pay close attention to the moves, trying to memorize them in my head. I’ve been so preoccupied with doctors’ visits I’m not up on the latest dances. I’ll look it up online later so I can perfect it at home in the privacy of my bedroom—with the door locked. Jokes go over my head too—I don’t get the references—but I don’t want to think about that now.
My phone buzzes in my purse.
A: Hope you’re having fun.
Crap. If she knows I’m gone already she must have nosy-ass Ms. Valdez next door watching the house. My sister always works double shifts on Fridays. She can’t be home yet.
T: I am u know.
I wait for some snarky remark that never materializes and slip the phone back in my purse.
“Bored already,” Fay teases, and reaches for my purse. “Maybe you texting some other dude. Telling him how lame this all is.”
I roll my eyes. “Yup. He’s gonna bring me some special brownies and Chinese takeout once all this is done.” I wave my hand in the air like this is just the raggediest little backyard kickback instead of the most fun I’ve had in a year.
“Cool, cool. Tell him I like chicken lo mein and veggie egg rolls. He can get that thick-ass fruit punch, too, ’cause I’m coming along. You promised me the night, and you owe me for flaking out the last ten times.”
“It wasn’t ten times. Maybe… five.”
“Uh-huh. You know I’m cool just sitting on your couch. We don’t have to go out. I know you ain’t always up for this.”
His smile widens in that Cheshire cat kind of way and he kneels down in front of me so he can wrap his arms completely around my waist while I’m in the chair.
“Can I tell you a secret?” he asks, his breath hot against my ear.
“Do I have to keep it?” I say, my lips drawing up into a small smirk as he leans back to check my expression.
He looks shocked for a second, and I pinch his elbow.
“You know I’m good for it. What?” I coax.
“Valentine’s Day is my favorite holiday.”
“For real? What about Thanksgiving? I mean, ’cause you can put it away.” I laugh.
“You know my family is super small. I’m the only child of an only child. My dad’s people are in the islands and we don’t talk. Our Thanksgiving isn’t ever like it is on television. I only get that when I’m at DeAndre’s or that one time you invited me over with your fifty-leven aunties.”
“Okay, then, why not Halloween or Christmas?”
“Halloween only knocks when you can still trick-or-treat. Christmas is cool, but it’s kinda the same deal as Thanksgiving.” He stops and studies me. “What’s that look?”
“I know why you like Valentine’s Day,” I sing, teasing him a bit. “You’ve been getting valentines since kindergarten, haven’t you? Who sent you a card? I know you got some candy cups at school today.”
Fay is a flirt. He can’t help it. It’s less about attraction, but more how he relates to people. He’s genuinely interested in them, and girls eat that stuff up with a spoon. There is no way that he didn’t get some candy today, maybe even a few cards, with girls taking their shot while I’m away. He winces like he’s been caught with his hand in the cookie jar. “I got you one. I was hoping you’d be back by now,” he says, sadness tinging his voice.
“Yeah, me too. Online school is—”
“She’s baaack!” Joo croons as she walks up to the table with her shadow, Brianne.
“Hey, Joo,” I say. She’s in a cherry-red bodycon dress with clear heels that are an inch shy of being fit for the stripper pole. As always, she’s nothing but smiles as she tucks one of her jet-black strands behind her ear with a pointy, acrylic-tipped finger. We’re friendly, but not really friends. She’s smart and nice enough, but we’ve never clicked. I’d have to really think about it to say exactly why. She looks good and she knows it. I glance down at my home manicure and slide my hands under the table.
“Sup?” Fay says as he unwraps himself and stands to his feet.
Joo paints on an exaggerated frown and bats her lashes at Fay. A performance more for me than for him.
“So you not gonna say thank you?” she asks.
“Thank you?” I say.
“Oh, not you, T. Fay.” Her eyes never leave Fay’s face.
Now it’s my turn to paste on a fake smile. I shift my gaze up at Fay with my best I told you so face. Fay and I aren’t official official (my call, not his), but anybody with eyes knows the deal. Most people have manners, home training, that sort of thing—they know enough to keep a distance and be respectful—and then there’s Joo.
“You sent him a Cutie Cup, right? Let me thank you on his behalf,” I say with as much sincerity as I can muster.
Joo’s fake frown turns to a real one.
“He told you?” she asks.
“Oh, girl, I assumed. Everybody loves Fay. All kinds of… people send him valentines. Friends, thirsty girls desperate for a chance, you know how it is. Oh, I didn’t mean you. I’m sure it was just friendly. I’m sure you got a few too, right?” I say matter-of-factly. The more I talk, the more irritated Joo looks.
Brianne, who is the yes-man of yes-men, presses her lips tight, and her eyes go wide. I can’t tell if she’s holding in a laugh or waiting for a cue from Joo to throw the first punch.
I hold my expression. I may be a lot of things, but a punk ain’t one of them. The DJ switches the track from a slow bop to something more fun, and a ton of people rush the dance floor.
Fay, eager to break the tension, opens his mouth to say something, but I rise from my chair and immediately need to sit back down.
“Y-you know, Joo. Why don’t you and Fay go dance?” I say. I quickly glance away and close my eyes tight, trying to stop the room from spinning.
“What you trying to do, T?” Joo says as she sets her purse on the table. I’ve disrespected her and she knows it, but it can still go either way.
“Chill, Joo,” Fay says.
“Yeah, everybody chill. Why is it so tense in here?” I joke and turn back to look at them. “Fay, go dance with Joo. Brianne and I are gonna go to the bathroom.”
Brianne, eager for an out, nods enthusiastically and hops from Joo’s side to mine.
Fay squints as his body involuntarily moves to the beat. “You sure?”
“Yeah, you gotta thank her for all that sugar, right? We’re all friends—right, Joo?”
The ball is in her court, and she knows she’ll look stupid if she turns this into anything more than words.
“Yeah. C’mon, Fay,” she says with all her teeth, but I catch her eyes cutting to mine a few times when Fay isn’t looking, searching for the real reason behind my acquiescence.
I watch as he spins her twice before they make it to the writhing crowd. She laughs at something Fay says, and I take heartbreaking notice of how good they look together.
“Bri, help me get to the other side of the building. I don’t feel too good,” I say, and lean hard on my friend since Girl Scouts, hoping against hope she knows how to keep her mouth shut.