Carmel heard the thunder rumbling as she quick-stepped to the corner store. She wore a light denim jacket that barely protected her from the chill in the air. Her umbrella sat on the kitchen floor in the apartment, but Carmel figured she’d be back before the rain came. Lightning sparked across the evening’s dark sky above, scaring her for a second.
Her steps picked up speed to an almost-run. She turned a corner and saw the lights of the store across the street. Carmel ran across the road, stepping on the curb just in time to avoid a black sports car whiz by. The driver blew the horn that lost itself to the noise of a bus stopping outside the store.
The only customer inside wore an Army jacket with jeans tucked haphazardly into her combat boots. The dark-skinned woman leaned on the counter sharing a joke with the clerk. Her laugh broke the monotony of the hum from the store’s appliances. Carmel recognized the clerk from having visited the store before and smiled. Deepa smiled in return but continued her conversation. Carmel couldn’t hear Deepa’s soft voice and cared little about her gossip. She had to get back before the rain started. That’s all Carmel had on her mind.
She heard the customer ask, “So what did he do then?”
A moment of whispers was followed by a throaty laugh. Carmel walked to the back of the store and found the beer section. She dragged a six-pack of Schlitz malt liquor out of the icebox, took it to the counter and gingerly stood behind the tall woman engrossed in conversation with the clerk. The pair erupted in laughter once again before Deepa beckoned Carmel closer.
“Oh, my. You are too much for me lady,” Deepa said, her native Eastern Indian accent lilting every word. She smiled and shook her head while ringing up the price of Carmel’s beer.
“Will that be all?” she asked Carmel, who nodded her reply.
“Girlfriend, you ought to hush,” the dark-skinned woman said, slapping the counter. “That man of yours is a trip. You need to hang him out the window and shake his ass.”
“I’ve been telling Nikki, here, stories of my husband and our new baby boy,” Deepa explained to Carmel. “He can’t figure out anything without me there to show him. Men are useless things. That’ll be $8.24.”
Carmel smiled weakly and dug into her tight jeans pocket for money.
“Yeah, you can say that again,” Nikki said. “I don’t mess with men no more. They ain’t nothin’ but trouble.”
Carmel fumbled with scrunched up dollar bills from her pocket and dug deeper for change. A thin gold band on Carmel’s left hand glinted under the fluorescent lights.
“How about you?” Nikki asked, nodding at Carmel. “Don’t tell me you’re married, too?”
Carmel laid eight singles on the counter and placed a quarter on top of the bills. “Keep the penny.” She turned to Nikki. “Yeah, ’fraid so. Biggest mistake I ever made.” She looked at Deepa feeling her cheeks burn. Why would she say such a thing to a perfect stranger? “I mean, it’s beautiful when it works and I’m sure everything’s going great for you guys, but you can run into troubles sometimes.”
“Then dump him, I say,” Nikki yelled, her large white teeth flashing. “Kick his ass out and find something better, like a four-legged dog instead of a two-legged one. Or better still, get a goldfish.” She chuckled.
Carmel smiled broadly at the woman’s humor. “Yeah, maybe I should.” But she knew she wouldn’t. His ass wouldn’t get kicked, and he was probably having a fit right now because she wasn’t back with his beer.
“You got kids?” Nikki asked.
Carmel shook her head. A sound like the world had been ripped in two startled them, and all three looked toward the window. Instantly, the storm hit the street and rain battered the pavement.
“Aw, shit!” exclaimed Nikki. “Now you know I ain’t got no umbrella. You guys got one?”
Both Deepa and Carmel shook their heads in unison.
“I thought I could get back before it started,” Carmel whispered to herself.
“Well, if you don’t mind Deepa, I’ll camp out here till it stops,” Nikki said.
“You’re more than welcome,” Deepa replied. She sat back on her stool to watch the small television set twittering quietly under the counter. Nikki stepped out the door and stood under the green and white canopy.
“Oooh, girl, it feels good out here. Come on, sit here with me till it stops.” She beckoned to Carmel and rested her behind on the store’s thin windowsill. “What’s your name?”
Carmel moved slowly toward the door and leaned in its frame and introduced herself. “Leroy’s gonna kill me if I don’t get back with his beer.”
“Forget him! Sit your ass down here. He’s just gonna have to wait.”
“I really don’t have far to go.” Carmel hesitated at the door.
“Going across the street will get you soaked to the bone,” Nikki said, “and you’ll catch your death. Si’down. It’ll pass over in a minute.”
Nikki patted the slim edge of the sill.
Carmel shivered. The air felt cold to her but, despite herself, she sat down next to Nikki anyway. The woman was right; the rain would be gone in no time.
“Yep. Men just ain’t worth it,” Nikki said. She pulled out a candy bar from a hidden pocket inside her jacket, peeled off its wrapping and offered a piece to her companion. Carmel shook her head.
“So who is this Leroy, anyway?”
“Just my husband,” Carmel answered softly.
“Yeah, well, I figured that much. I mean why you still with him if your marriage sucks?”
“It’s not so bad,” Carmel said. “We’ve been married almost ten years. We dated about a year and after a while, sometimes, you know, it just kinda has its ups and downs. He manages that video store on Eighth Street.”
“Yeah, that one. It’s a pretty decent place. We watch videos all the time.”
“Have you seen ‘Waiting to Exhale’ with fly Angela Bassett? Ooh, that woman is gorgeous,” Nikki shrieked. “Man! That is such a great film. That scene where she’s throwing out all his stuff and then burns his car. How many times have you wanted to do that?” She laughed, deep and strong.
“Yeah, it’s pretty cool.”
Carmel enjoyed the conversation moving to something else. She didn’t want to talk about Leroy, and she feared going back to the cramped apartment. She’d been gone almost half an hour and they lived only ten minutes from the store.
“No kids, huh?”
Carmel shook her head. “We did try, but then I had some troubles and kept losing the babies. Now everything is broken inside me. That’s what Leroy said.”
Nikki stared into the rain for several moments. “You know this man of yours ain’t the be all and end all of your life,” she said. “You don’t have to go back to him. Take charge, girlfriend. Right now. Don’t go back.”
Carmel grinned. How exciting. She could imagine his face contorted from the pain of life without her, his tears flooding their tiny home, drowning him to death. Defiance rose inside her like a bear waking from a winter’s sleep. Maybe Nikki was right? Maybe she didn’t have to go back? The city was big enough. Surely, he would never find her if she changed her name.
Carmel watched the raindrops make tiny explosions all over the ground, like sparks of inspiration that don’t quite know how to hold together to become something wonderful.
“You ain’t even listening to nothin’ I’m saying are you, girl?”
“Oh, I hear you. I’m hearing you all too well that I just might not go back.”
She felt her blood rush to her cheeks and her heart began to race. Could she do it? Not go back to Leroy?
Nikki crumpled the candy bar wrapper into a ball and stuffed it into another of her many coat pockets. “What d’you want outta life?”
“Happiness,” Carmel replied. She thought for a moment. “Peace.”
Nikki sighed loudly. “How come every sucker wants peace? World peace! World peace! All those fancy Miss America’s want world peace, like that’s even possible. Yeah, they can take their empty heads to Bosnia or Rwanda and say, ‘Okay, like my name is Angie, okay, and I want you nice folks to stop fightin’. Okay?’” Nikki laughed at herself. “They all say world peace but they don’t really give a shit who dies for a piece of land as long as they get their crown.”
Carmel shook her head. “I’m not talking about world peace. Maybe I sound selfish, but I want my own peace. My peace and quiet.”
She took a breath drawing in the wet air and holding it for a moment before exhaling heavily through her mouth. “What’s it like to have someone hold you,” she said. “Just hold you. No groping and poking. Just two warm people together exchanging happy thoughts and dreams. No noise. No TV. Just peace. No banging inside my head.”
She stopped, afraid she sounded weird. Maybe she had said too much to this stranger. Although, Nikki wasn’t a stranger. Not anymore. Nikki leaned close to Carmel and wrapped her fingers around her companion’s left hand and almost breathed the words into Carmel’s ear.
“That sounds like you and me, girl. That’s just what we’re doing right now.”
They didn’t look at each other but sat on the windowsill outside the store, enjoying the rain.
“Talk to me, Nikki. Tell me about you. I’ve never seen you here before. I’m sure I’d’ve remembered someone like you.”
Nikki laughed her deep laugh that Carmel found contagious. Nikki had large dark brown eyes, big teeth that protruded slightly and dimples in her cheeks when she smiled. Her shaved hair revealed a perfectly round head and three gold hoops shimmered in her right ear. Her dark coffee-colored skin had a touch of milk, and Carmel figured sugar surely filled her soul because despite her hard appearance, she was the sweetest and kindest person Carmel had met in a long time.
“I ain’t nobody,” Nikki said, removing her hand from Carmel’s. She glanced down at her steel-toed boots. “I come here sometimes and get me a candy bar.” She looked at Carmel and grinned. “I ain’t nobody.”
The urge to touch Nikki’s round cheek overwhelmed Carmel. As she raised her hand, a bus whooshed to a stop in front of them. A man in a brown raincoat climbed down and stood for a moment in the street. He nodded almost absently at the two women sheltering under the store’s canopy. He made several attempts to light a cigarette as the bus pulled away, then, unsuccessful, wandered down the sidewalk and disappeared around a corner.
Carmel stared at her new friend and asked, “Were you ever married?”
Nikki roared with laughter. “Me? Married? Uh uh. Not for me.” She paused as if contemplating married life then said, “I sold myself to men for too long to ever want to marry one of them.”
Carmel’s eyebrows came together. “Sold yourself?”
Nikki’s brown eyes blinked slowly at Carmel, a faint smile on her lips. She whispered, “I used to be a hooker. Walked the streets wiggling my ass for money.”
Carmel’s eyes widened. She’d never met a prostitute before and didn’t know what to say. She turned away not wanting to stare.
Nikki laughed. “No, I don’t do it no more if that’s what you’re thinking. That was a long time ago.” Her eyes searched the gray rain and Carmel felt embarrassed by her shocked reaction.
“At least it feels like another lifetime,” Nikki said. She sucked her teeth and stared at the wet pavement. “My momma, she died when me and my brother were real young. OD’d on heroine. So I took to the streets. My way to survive. Ain’t no big thing.”
“Do you ever see your brother?”
“Nah. Never saw him again after they separated us. I think he went to a nice family, though. He was just a baby and babies get taken quicker than older kids like I was then.”
A cool breeze made Carmel shiver. She couldn’t imagine being a hooker and having her mom die from drugs. Nikki must be a real strong woman going through all she had and still being able to laugh. Carmel smiled at her new friend. She wanted to touch her arm, hug her maybe, reassure her that her brother was doing just fine. But Nikki knew all that already. Carmel could tell. She was the kind of woman who wouldn’t let any man hurt her and wouldn’t let anything get her down. Nikki had the longest eyelashes. They curled smoothly upward as if she had curled them herself, though Carmel knew they had to be natural. Clearly, Nikki wasn’t the type to fuss over her lashes in the morning. There was something mesmerizing about this woman. Something exciting and liberating. Nikki had defiance written all over her and Carmel wanted to touch it, to bathe in it.
She wasn’t going back to Leroy. There, the decision was made. She wouldn’t go back because she didn’t have to. Nikki had made her see the light – her voice inside Carmel’s mind urging her on, “To hell with him.” Carmel’s heart began to race and her insides shivered.
Why had she gotten married?
“Oh Carmel, darling, you look so beautiful.” Carmel’s mother fluffed the train of the wedding dress around her feet.
“Maybe I need some air? This dress feels very tight.” Carmel tugged at the lacy collar.
“Caaarmeeeel, sweetheart.” Her mother took her face in her hands. “Everyone gets nervous. You look gorgeous. Everything is going to work out just fine.”
Carmel gripped her father’s arm as they marched up the aisle. She saw teeth bared at her but couldn’t see one face in the crowd of family and friends all lined along the pews. She heard the piano playing and saw the lips move on the preacher’s face. She said, “I do,” on cue and saw Leroy grinning back at her, and she prayed to God they would be happy together.
Then Leroy hit her.
Carmel couldn’t recall why they had argued. She remembered the flat of his hand stinging her cheek and leaving it red for hours afterward. Her mother had told Carmel that sharp tongue of hers would get her into trouble one of those days. He had reacted because Carmel had pushed him too far and she shouldn’t have said whatever it was she had said. If she would just love him more then he wouldn’t get so angry. Men are fragile. That’s what her mother said. “Women are the stronger sex emotionally, so we have to protect our men and not push them over the edge.” That’s what mother had said using make-up to cover her own bruises.
Carmel had to go back. He would find her. The city wasn’t that big. He would find her and kick the shit out of her. Then he’d kill her. Carmel knew he would. He had told her so more than she cared to admit. She shuddered at the thought of him then stood up, pulling the six-pack up with her.
“I gotta go, Nikki.” She couldn’t look at her new friend. “Leroy’s been waiting a long time and I’m in for it now. I’m really in for it. I’m sorry.”
Nikki shook her head slowly from side to side. She grabbed Carmel’s hand and squeezed. “Why you gotta go running back to his sorry ass?”
“Because . . .” Carmel knew she didn’t have an answer that would satisfy Nikki. She just wasn’t brave like Nikki. She could feel her friend’s judgment, the you’re-the-problem-with-women-today look, and it almost felt worse than the back of Leroy’s hand on her cheek.
“It’s funny,” said Nikki, “you can marry an asshole like that and they say it’s normal, but marry another woman, like me, and they say it’s against God. Being scared of him and still going back, that’s what’s against God.”
The rain stopped but the water, draining from the streets into the sewers underground, continued to make loud crashing noises around them. Carmel frowned and looked at Nikki’s strong fingers wrapped around her own small hand. She stood motionless, staring at the streetlights reflecting in the wetness. The air whipped around her as another bus pulled up to the stop. Four young girls flowed into the street and giggled their way along the sidewalk. Nikki’s grip loosened, releasing Carmel. The weight of the six-pack in Carmel’s other hand dragged her arm downward. Bending over, she let the beer pull her torso down and she laid the cans on the ground. She hesitated, her hand hovering over the cans until finally, she plucked one then another from the plastic holder before straightening up and leaning back, adjusting her hips on the windowsill.
She held out a can to her friend. A short hiss hit the air as their cans popped open at the same time. Carmel inhaled deeply, ignoring the hammering inside her chest, then raised her drink as if to salute the moon and clinked cans with Nikki.