“[A] nuanced, Edith Wharton-style treatment of the upper reaches of black society…[Little] is an arbiter of that insular world.” —The Washington Post
Abra Lewis Dixon is the envy of the fashionable, professional women of her well-heeled social circle. She leads a charmed life—having attended all the right schools, married the right man, and started a successful film production company with her best friend, Natasha Coleman—and seems like an ambassador from the world of perfection. It is only when her impeccable marriage turns suddenly shaky that her utopia is left in pieces…
Chapter One Sometimes it's the easy way that's hard. Abra Lewis Dixon had carefully sculpted her exterior existence. She paid close attention to her physical environment -- the trunk formation of a Japanese maple, the many red shades that came before its brilliant autumnal crimson. She regularly consulted her Farmer's Almanac so she could better predict the weather; she liked to be prepared. The interior stuff, however, was too unwieldy, unpredictable, and difficult. She left that unattended, willing herself to believe it insignificant. She sat at the oak vanity her mother had given her as a housewarming gift, looking at her reflection -- so much like her mother's -- noticing for the first time that parentheses had formed around her mouth, adding to the diminutive lines under her eyes. Her skin was parched. She twisted open the gold-rimmed top on the heavy smoked-glass jar, scooping out a mound of precious skin cream with her finger, smoothing it over her cheeks, forehead. A different potion, squeezed from a tube, was dabbed under her eyes. Looking at herself again, waiting to see a change, Abra ran her fingers across the grooves of the antique vanity, the one she'd always loved. She tried to imagine her face covered with wrinkles, her hair the color and texture of cotton, but she couldn't. Childhood was much closer, a blink ago. When she was a child, she'd lose herself at her mother's vanity, playing in all her mother's makeup and perfumed creams and fine talc in cardboard containers; her neck wrapped with her mother's best leopard-print silk-chiffon scarf and her pubescent face made up with lipstick, rouge, and Groucho Marx eyebrows. She'd pulled her eyes back, stretching them toward her ears, and taped them. "Who are you, darling?" she'd say in a loud, dramatic voice. She'd breathe in and pause. She never knew the answer. That was when she learned to stop asking the question. Slits of light fell across the blue-as-a-robin's-egg carpet; they were the only sources of illumination in the apartment. Her mother kept the windows sealed. Abra would walk across the room, turn on the TV, open the blinds. After she had checked under the beds and in the closets, she'd pile two faux-leather and aluminum kitchen chairs as well as an empty footlocker against the door. There had been a time when her mother would leave a snack -- sometimes a tuna sandwich with a pickle and sometimes an ice-cream sundae in the freezer. The phone would ring once, stop, and then ring again. It was safe to answer because it was Mommy calling from work. "Just me. You all right?" Odessa would say every day, and every day Abra would assure her mother that she was, even though she was scared most of the time that someone was waiting for her under the bed or in a closet. There was a number for the building manager right near the phone; that was supposed to make Abra feel safe. She'd create herself a tent of an umbrella, pillows, and blankets in front of the TV -- another fortress she designed to make her feel secure. Abra looked down at the tray of potions in beautiful bottles, makeup, brushes, hair things, knowing she needed to get ready for dinner. She looked beyond the mirror, through the window that provided a view of the sprawling side yard and more trees than she'd ever seen on private property. She thought about the actual conversation she'd had with Cullen, which was merely one of the dozens of maintenance types married couples have all the time, mundane dialogues with mundane concerns: Don't forget to go to the cleaners. Do we have any beer? What are we doing this weekend? This conversation was just to confirm that Cullen would meet her tonight at Sherry and David's at seven. She smiled at the thought of her life.
Dinner parties at the Steptoe-Warrens were a significant part of Abra and Cullen's social life, and, as often happened, the men ended up in one room; the women in another. Abra and Cullen were friends of the Steptoe-Warrens and acquainted with the other regulars. There were friends and there were couple friends, who all got along as long as the evening's subjects remained superficial. Abra sat in an ancillary room, a den off the living room, observing the men who spoke in loud Black American dialects reserved only for each other. She watched Ray through the glassless window in the living room as he talked about the Million Man March, acting out with his hands and arms the emotional impact of the event and what it had meant to him. "First, I wasn't gonna go. Then I don't know why, but that mornin' I just jumped up, pulled on my jeans, and headed to First Baptist, where I knew I could jump on the van they had goin' down there." The others, sitting in a semicircle of cane-backed chairs, ottomans, and a love seat, looked at him, nodding, understanding his feelings because they, too, had struggled with the idea of going. All of them, except Cullen, had decided finally to go, to make the emotional pledge with brothers from around the country, to atone, to do better by their families, even though every brother in this room was living America's wet dream. These men were members of America's upper class, the top 2 percent wage earners -- going to work in thousand-dollar suits, doing deals in the high-seven and eight figures, living with their intact families in fantasy suburban spreads or enviable co-op apartments. They were all functioning schizophrenics, held master degrees in ruling-class customs, which meant checking anything ethnic at the door. All these men bonded on the duality issue. At their high-paying professions they had to do two jobs: the one they were hired to do and the other unspoken one -- to adopt landed White-boy mannerisms. These brothers needed a march to band with other cultural schizophrenics. "You know, it was like the greatest thing I could've done, man. When the radio alarm went off that mornin', Coltrane was blowin' and y'all know, to me he is what Jesus Christ is to Christians. I took that as a sign," Ray said. The others were nodding between gulps of Cristal or Coronas with lime, snacking on bean dip, salsa, and blue corn chips, the precursors to the catered buffet dinner. Abra searched Cullen's eyes to see if they revealed sadness for what he'd missed. She didn't detect any. No one asked him if he'd gone, and he didn't volunteer anything. Cullen graduated Howard, summa, a reformed nerd, and the most focused person she'd ever met. Abra had recognized him as a swan even before he did, and now she was the envy of most women. "This White guy at my office asked me why I went. He said he could understand inner-city Blacks marchin' for jobs and education and shit, but he just couldn't get what I'd get outta somethin' like the march," said Ray, a tax lawyer at a Wall Street firm. "I told him, 'Man, you see me here, doin' my thing, tryin' to make partner, but when I walk outta here at night, I say a little prayer of thanks for the car service home. You know why?' I said to him. 'Cause I'm a Black man first, and the moment my feet hit the pavement, the average White person out here is assumin' I'm gonna knock 'em over the head, and I can't get a cab.' The dude kinda looked at me, like he was seein' me for the first time, and he just nodded. I don't know if he got what I was tryin' to say, but I think he thought about it." Sherry Steptoe and David Warren liked to entertain in their generous pre-war apartment on West End. The two other couples, like the Dixons, had opted for suburbia. Yet David, because of Sherry, held on to their life in the city. David and Cullen had gone to college together. David was a lawyer, but he worked for a record company, on its business side. He was nice but about as interesting as iceberg lettuce. Sherry, on the other hand, had a lively disposition and was a copywriter at the same record company, which is where she and David had met. She was unlike all the women David had gone out with, and she had a kid to boot, a child who was an infant when they first started seeing each other. David fell hard for Sherry and her son, and they got married at a small affair of about thirty people at a cafe in Greenwich Village. At the wedding Sherry couldn't stop crying, and everybody said it was because she was still postpartum, but a few of the couple's inner circle always wondered if she had married David just to give little Jack a daddy. Sherry had told Abra that the main reason she didn't want to leave the city was that moving to suburbia would make David too central to her life, and she didn't want that. In the city she still had all of her friends, her work, little Jack's play groups, and enough distractions. In the suburbs she'd become Jack's mother, David's wife, and then a career person. She ran her fingers through her thick red-brown hair and wrinkled her nose at the thought, "Eeooh, no thanks." Abra, on the other hand, had gone peacefully into the land of leaf blowers because she didn't want to argue with Cullen, and he was central to her life. Where they lived wouldn't make a difference. Abra looked around the room at the other couples and tried to figure which ones were really in love and which ones had simply settled for the best deal. Ray and Hanna really loved each other, but they seemed to be like that couple in the movie Annie Hall: Woody Allen stops and asks them what the secret to a happy relationship is. The woman says, "I'm very shallow and empty and have no ideas and nothing interesting to say," and the man says, "And I'm exactly the same way." Hanna was a dentist, "an orthodontist," she would say. They were supposed to be waiting until she had established her practice before having kids, but now that Ray's partnership looked like a done deal, he was putting pressure on her to quit and start a family. Bert and Lisa operated in parallel universes, with neither compromising courses. She was pregnant and telling everyone that as soon as she had the baby, they were getting divorced because Bert was disappointed in her. She had failed to live up to her resume, which was replete with Ivy League degrees, and she held a job about as well as a sieve holds soup. Bert was pissed and would tell anybody who'd listen that he had thought he'd married a partner, not a siphon. Everyone felt sorry for them. After dinner, David and Sherry's live-in, Consuelo, put coffee, tea, and assorted fruit tarts on the breakfront in the dining room. Abra was tired and didn't want coffee or tea, but she also never wanted to do anything to upset any custom -- people drink coffee or tea after dinner -- so she doused her coffee with Sambuca. She chewed a piece of the blueberry tart and watched Lisa and Bert go at it over when Lisa should begin her maternity leave. Abra looked over to give Cullen the "exit" sign, but he was in rapt discussion with David. She couldn't hear what they were talking about, but they both looked serious. She guessed accurately that they were discussing work, complaining about the demands. They were leaning against a built-in mahogany bookcase. Cullen looking fresh out of business school, wearing his English loafers, button-down, oxford-cloth shirt rolled up to the elbows, and blue-and-green rep tie loosened. Abra sighed to herself at how contentedly in love with him and their life together she was and pitied Lisa and Bert for not knowing what marital bliss felt like. "So how's the dessert?" Sherry asked, sitting down next to Abra and cutting off a piece of strawberry-kiwi tart. "Great. Did Connie make them?" "Nah, I picked them up at Pascal's. So how's the business going?" She pulled her chair closer. "Good, at least the TV part is. We've got a film script in circulation, but so far, no bites." "Now Natasha does just the film part in L.A.?" "No, she runs the TV production stuff, too. We both do TV and film. I go out there as often as she needs me to, and she comes here sometimes. Actually she's coming in tomorrow." "So is she more the creative..." "Kind of. I'm in charge of more of the business." "I just love the name." "Thanks. Some people think it's stupid," Abra said. "Anybody in this room?" Sherry smirked and looked in Cullen's direction. "No, I'd be surprised if he could even tell you the name." "Hmm, is there trouble in paradise?" "No, not at all, I just know that my business is not at the top of my husband's agenda. In his mind, he's the breadwinner and my work is like the Junior League," Abra said. "Puhleeze, these guys," Sherry said, then sipped her tea. "I'm exaggerating, slightly, but it doesn't bother me." "Well, you're a better woman than me." "Look, we're talking about ten years together. We've got this massive house to decorate, we're trying to have a baby, his making partner, me running a business -- there's only so much my little sweetie can deal with at once," Abra said, putting the blue-willow patterned china plate on the coffee table. "You should have a party for your anniversary, I mean ten years -- " "Ten total, together. We've been married almost five." "Whatever. It's still nothing to sneeze at. I'm not sure we'll make three." She laughed a hollow laugh and Abra smiled sympathetically. "My wedding day was the happiest day of my life," Abra said. "You really love Cullen, huh?" Sherry asked, looking at Abra as if she'd just revealed a row of jack-o'-lantern teeth. "Yeah, I do. He's the most important thing to me." "You're lucky." "I know." "Most married people I know are just, you know, going through the motions. Like look around this room." "Sherry, you really think that?" "I know that. The women probably wouldn't have gotten married at all." Abra looked around Sherry and David's apartment. Spanish jazz echoed through their eclectic home, which they had filled with antiques and African art. The picture of Buppie perfection. How could they not be happy? It was predestined, like DNA -- these were the people happiness was meant for. Cullen tapped Abra on her shoulder, and Sherry got up. "You ready to go?" he said, sitting down in Sherry's chair. Abra leaned toward him and kissed him with an open mouth. She held his face in her hands. "Do you know how much I love you?" "Um, I think so. How much have you had to drink? I saw you hittin' that Sambuca." "I'm not drunk. I just love you." Cullen shifted in his seat, hoping no one was watching them. He wasn't one for PDA. "Me too. You ready to go?" "More than," she said, and smiled a lecherous smile. Abra ran her hand over his thigh. The weave of his pinstriped trousers so intricate, it was sensuous. They said good night to Sherry and David at the elevator and walked the few blocks to the garage, holding hands. "You know we have an anniversary coming up?" Abra said. "Course." "So do you want to go away or do something?" "Well, sweetie, I would, but I don't think I'll be able to get away right now. Things are really busy and -- " "I know not now, but what about in a few weeks? Maybe we can go back to St. Bart's?" "Ah, that would be great. We'll see, okay?" The attendant pulled the car around, Cullen tipped him, and Abra got into the driver's seat. She checked her flawless lipstick in the rearview mirror before she drove off. "Did you have a good time?" Cullen asked, changing the radio to the all-business news station. "Yeah I did, but I just wish Bert and Lisa would just stop fighting." "I know. I feel sorry for him." "What about her?" "Well, they're both our friends." "I know. I just want everybody to be happy. Do you think the others are happy?" "About what?" "Their lives? Their relationships." "Why wouldn't they be? They have everything, they're successful. What could be wrong?" "Well, Sherry's not in love with David, and Hanna and Ray, well they're in love, I suppose." "Well, there you have it; two out of four are good marriages. We're the cultural norm." Abra steered the 740 onto the West Side Highway and switched on a Will Downing CD. Cullen had leaned back onto the headrest and would be asleep within seconds. Abra bobbed her head to Will Downing's crooning as it washed over the percussion. She looked over at Cullen sleeping, his mouth open, his glasses half-cocked, and she sighed, reminding herself that she'd structured her life, and it was as close to perfection as possible. Theirs was one of the two good marriages. She let that reassure her on the drive home.
Benilde Little is the bestselling author of the novels Good Hair (selected as one of the ten best books of 1996 by the Los Angeles Times), The Itch, Acting Out, and Who Does She Think She Is? A former reporter for People and senior editor at Essence, she lives in Montclair, New Jersey, with her husband and son. Her daughter is away at college. Follower her on Twitter and Instagram @BenildeLittle and read her blog, Welcome to My Breakdown, at BenildeLittle.Wordpress.com.
Veronica Chambers Newsweek Little has a talent for the comedy of manners.
Brad Berry Jr. The Philadelphia TribuneThe Itch is a witty and cerebral portrayal of young African Americans who seem to have it all and the turmoil that ensues when they fail to pinpoint the causes of their individual angst.