Remember, no one can make you feel inferior without your consent.
-- Eleanor Roosevelt
Krista Yvette Love held her breath and waited for Raymone’s labored breathing to fall into a familiar rhythm. Her cocoa brown eyes moist from hours of crying, Krista wore sadness so close it fit like a second skin.
Lying there picking out shapes in the textured white ceiling, Krista’s mind wandered down well-worn paths that she had traveled again and again. She always made the same mistake: She let her imagination outrun reality. Even with interesting detours along the way, the end remained the same.
A dead-end. A defeated cliff. Nowhere Ville.
I hate him, Krista thought to herself. I hate him. I hate him. I hate him. God, why do I love this man so much?
Lying in bed with him now - more than 10 months after their first kiss - Krista tried to remember how passionate Raymone used to be when they first met. It seemed like ancient history now. Biblical times almost. The memories were foggy and out of focus.
Those tender moments were back when Krista was too naïve yet to flinch whenever Raymone stretched his hand toward her. Back when Raymone was still her Pooh Bear and she, his Double Stuff. Back when he still talked in whispers and teased her in a way that made her laugh and not cry.
I want to stop time. Time. Time. Time. Stop!
Krista turned her head and settled her shoulder-length braids deeper into the side of the silk-covered, body-length pillow. She listened to the night settling in with a eerie quiet that clawed at the bars outside her bay window. It was fall, her favorite time of year. The lingering cool gave her an excuse to cover up with enough baggy clothes to hide her flaws. During the tender newness of Krista and Raymone’s relationship, Raymone used to go out of his way to make Krista comfortable with her body. Especially since he demanded she sleep in the nude. But right now, she had only a thin blue blanket and not-so-fond memories of her man’s warmth.
Tonight, Raymone had made love to Krista fiercely, almost violently. She shuddered as she watched him lying there on his stomach; his body naked and glistening with sex-funky sweat. His chiseled, handsome face, finally at peace with itself, was turned toward her. Droplets of drool teased the edges of his mouth.
Krista stared at Raymone’s sleeping form and absentmindedly picked at the dryness peeling off her bottom lip. She ripped the thin layers of translucent skin until she tasted the familiar salty sweetness of her own blood. She sucked her lip for a moment, then swept the red-tinged droppings off the edge of the bed with the back of her hand. A nervous habit. She had been doing this a lot lately.
Time. Time. Time. Time. Stop!
Krista snuck another look at Raymone and flinched when he suddenly sucked in his breath in a half-snore, half-cough. Even asleep, he was intimidating. At six-three, he weighed nearly 245 pounds. He was the only man Krista knew who could pick her completely off the ground and carry her around in his thick arms like she was a 10-pound sack of potatoes.
Krista waited to see if Raymone would make any more sudden moves. Then, she stretched her swollen fingers just above the shape of his tight ass, perfectly round, mountainous and still holding slight imprints of her fingernails. She tenderly admired his naked form and a tingle erupted in her sweet spot, which hadn’t yet settled down from its contented throbbing.
There is a reason why he pronounces his name Ray-moan.
Krista took note of how Raymone’s color contrasted with hers. He was the reddish brown of maple syrup, shimmering in the sunlight before it dropped onto a tall stack of buttermilk pancakes. She was the same thick, yellowish color as chicken-broth gravy and just as lumpy.
Krista had struggled with her weight since age 16, the year her high-powered attorney father, Maurice Boudreaux Love, moved out of the family house for good. The year her twin, Krystal Ellen Love, started grabbing handfuls of fruit-flavored condoms from the high school clinic every week. And the year her mother, Brenda Mae Livingston Love, started medicating her pain with salt and vinegar potato chips and cheap Russian vodka.
Given the two options of coping with life’s tragedies, Krista fell into her mother’s pattern of coping, minus the alcohol. To this day, her hips suffered the consequences. If Krista wasn’t water bloated or was halfway successful at her latest attempt at a low-carbohydrate, low-fat, low-protein or any other kind of low-satisfaction diet, she could squeeze into a size 16 pair of jeans without the snap unsnapping in systematic defiance.
Krista simply embarrassed herself. When walking past picture windows in downtown Portland, she imagined the pale-faced mannequins silently taunting her with their showy fashion statements, which never seemed to come stocked in Krista’s size. If she caught any of the shiny glass panes reflecting her image, Krista quickly turned her head and counted the cracks in the sidewalk until it was safe to gaze up and not be burdened with seeing herself looking back.
In social settings, though, facing strangers’ eyes that were more forgiving in their judgments, Krista took great care to emphasize her attractive traits. Her hips were wide but her waist was thin. Her Sade-like lips were plump, naturally red and perfectly kissable. And her wide, melted-chocolate eyes were large and encouraging.
Krista decorated her eyelids with liquid, shiny brown lining that made her irises pop out at you from across the table. Ever since Krista was told that she had sexy bedroom eyes, she batted them like it was the second strike, last inning and bases full. If she could get a man to notice her face, she quickly discovered, he would be more likely to tolerate her flabby body.
So, Krista worked hard to let men know that her beauty account was overflowing with assets, for what it was worth. Yeah, Krista wasn’t ugly. She just didn’t land too far on the right side of pretty. And every now and then, she believed, men needed a little reminding of her potential to be pleasing to the eye. But, that kind of reassurance wasn't dropping off Raymone's lips lately.
Krista stared at Raymone’s sleeping form and absentmindedly picked at the dryness peeling off her bottom lip. What did I do wrong, she asked herself. What could I have done to not make him get so so mad?
As she replayed tonight's earlier conversation, she ripped the thin layers of translucent skin until she tasted the familiar salty sweetness of her own blood. She sucked her lip for a moment, then swept the red-tinged droppings off the edge of the bed with the back of her hand. A nervous habit. She had been doing this a lot lately.
Time. Time. Time. Time. Stop!
Krista remembers smiling weakly at Raymone when he barreled through the door that night, 45 minutes later than expected. His navy blue, post-office uniform was rumpled and hanging out of his pants, which had long lost any hint of the crease Krista had worked on all morning.
“Man, I’m hungry as hell,” he announced.
Earlier tonight, Krista had whipped up a homemade meal of some of Raymone’s favorite things to eat. The best way to a man’s heart was through his stomach, her mother used to tell Krista. But make sure his beer is cold, just in case.
But, when Raymone sat down, he took only two bites of his fried chicken breast. He didn’t even touch the extra serving of garlic mashed potatoes piled on his plate as high as Mt. Hood. And he absentmindedly flicked the kernels of sweet corn around on his plate.
“What’s wrong with you tonight, hon,” Krista asked, biting into a buttered roll. “You seem kind of preoccupied.”
“Those assholes been fucking with me at work again.”
Oh-oh, Krista thought to herself. Here we go, again.
"You remember that tall white dude, Steve,” Raymone asked. “I used to play basketball with him sometimes.”
“Yeah, he came over once or twice. He seemed nice.”
“Yeah, real nice,” Raymone said, raising his voice. “Until he stabbed me in the back so he could get my fucking job.”
“The day shift supervisor position?”
“Yeah. That job was mine, man. I was the one who trained that mothafucka. You hear me, I trained him. And he ended up with my promotion. I can’t believe that shit.”
“Did you ask your boss why you didn’t get it?”
“Pssssshh,” Raymone said, blowing air out of his closed lips. “He was talking about I have too many lates on my record.”
“Well, honey,” Krista said, gently, “sometimes, you do take your time showing up for work sometimes.”
“That ain’t got nothing to do with nothing,” Raymone shouted, pushing himself away from the table. “They just didn’t want me supervising no white boys. That’s the deal!”
“I don’t know, Ray.”
“Whatchu mean, you don’t know.”
“Well, baby, don’t you think your boss has a right to expect you to show up for work on time?”
“Fuck that,” Raymone said, slamming his fist onto the table so hard, a startled Krista dropped her chicken leg onto her lap. “If that wasn’t it, they’d be making up some other shit. Of course, you don’t know nothing about that, right? Your world is so goddamn perfect, you make me sick.”
Raymone stormed upstairs to Krista’s bedroom and turned on the television. The volume was loud enough for her to hear a car insurance commercial in full stereo surround sound snake its way from the bedroom down the hallway, skip over a flight of stairs, through the living room and into the dining room-slash-kitchen, where Krista sat at the table in stunned silence.
What in the hell just happened?
Krista never predicted this abrupt end to her perfectly planned evening. She stared at the candles’ dancing flames and sighed all the air from her body until even the cinnamon-scented candles left her lonely.
No sex this week, either? Doesn’t he feel horny, too?
Lately, Raymone doled out his affection sporadically, like he was saving it for an emergency. A sexual penny jar.
Time. Time. Time. Time. Stop!
“I have to figure out how to fix this,” she mumbled.
Krista used the back of her hand to remove evidence of her tears. Raymone didn’t like it when she got emotional. So, Krista gave herself a few minutes to compose, then she warmed the rest of Raymone’s unfinished dinner in the microwave. She positioned the warm plate on a wicker serving tray with an unopened, chilled bottle of Heineken.
Kill your enemy with kindness, her Sunday School teacher always said.
Krista tiptoed up the stairs like she was sneaking up on Santa Claus. She knew only too well what it felt like to be on the wrong side of one of Raymone’s unpredictable mood swings. Krista didn’t want to make the mistake again of showing up before Raymone was ready to deal with her again.
Her bedroom door was open. Raymone was lying on his stomach near the front of the bed, his face inches from the TV. Krista’s favorite pillow was folded in half and tucked under his chest. The male voices of ESPN commentators rambled above the slippery sounds of shoes sliding across a basketball court.
Krista took a deep breath, put a smile into her voice and held the dinner tray before her like a prize.
“Honey, I brought you the rest of your dinner,” she said. “I know you must still be hungry. Do you want me to open your beer?”
Raymone grunted but never looked her way. Krista placed the tray on the bed and sat near the headboard. She picked at her lip but stopped as soon as Raymone turned slightly in her direction.
“Salt and pepper,” he barked.
“Sorry, baby. I’ll go get it.”
Krista ran down the stairs, grabbed the shakers out of the kitchen cabinet, sprinted back into her bedroom and placed them on the side of the tray. She sat again and pretended to watch television.
Raymone never touched the salt and pepper. He gulped the mashed potatoes and noisily sucked on the naked chicken bones. After chugging his beer, he wordlessly pushed the tray in Krista’s direction.
She picked up the tray and waited. But the “thank you” she was hoping for was left unuttered.
“Let me know if you need anything else, OK,” Krista asked.
Still, no response. She shrugged, rolled her eyes and left the room. Krista set the tray on the top of the stairs and headed toward the upstairs bathroom, where she spent what seemed like an eternity under her massaging shower head. It was her island amongst the chaos. Warm, refreshing, cleansing.
After drying off, Krista slipped into her animal print silk nightie and robe. No underwear. A pinch of perfume on her ear and wrists. A touch of clear, chocolate-flavored lip gloss. Krista peeked into the bedroom again. Raymone still ignored her.
She picked up the tray and returned downstairs. She set aside three pieces of fried chicken to take to her neighbor, Jack Carroll, an eccentric widow with too many cats and not enough visitors. She added corn, mashed potatoes and two rolls and snapped the rectangular plastic lid closed. Mr. Carroll’s dinner tomorrow. Unlike Raymone, he often complimented Krista’s cooking and he loved her company.
Krista washed the dishes, mopped the fried chicken grease from the floor, and made sure her two-bedroom condo was locked up for the night. She passed the time by writing in her journal so she wouldn’t get in Raymone’s way.
Poetry was Krista’s solace. When she couldn’t find a way to express herself, even to Angie, the words found her. On nights like this, she gave them room to escape from her pen:
the stars that flicker
in the sky at night
remind me of yr eyes
when u look at me
& i look at u
& i feel love swell
in my breasts
that u tenderly caress
when we make love
the endless waves of
expectation & longing
feel like butterflies
whispering their wings
as i am sitting still
thinking of u
always. unending. ever more
yr gentle touch
sampling me everywhere
makes me tingle
& curl my toes
& utter guttural sounds
that are birthed
from a deep & unfamiliar place
when u leave the room
my whole being aches
for the salute
of that strong soldier
that i like so much
it’s too much
i try not to think about it
but i just can’t help myself
“Krista,” Raymone shouted. “Come up here!”
She hid her red leathered journal between the pages of this month’s Essence magazine and slipped the package underneath the couch. Like a playful puppy, she answered her owner’s call, arriving breathless, happy, anxious to please.
She stopped in the doorway and listened. Outside, the rain started fiercely beating against the roof. Inside, the air was heavy with the erotic sounds of a voluptuous blonde on television simmering on the verge of an orgasm.
I should be so lucky, Krista thought to herself.
Raymone was on his back in the middle of Krista’s bed. He was gently rubbing his thumb and middle finger around his erection.
“I need some relief,” Raymone announced.
Krista climbed onto the bed and crawled between his legs. Like any well-trained puppy, she met his needs. And then swallowed. Unquestionably obedient to her master’s will.
When Raymone rolled over with a contented sigh, Krista pulled massage oil from the top drawer of her nightstand. She turned off the television and clicked her clock radio to the smooth jazz station. She patiently warmed the coconut-scented oil between her palms, then gently kneaded the knots in Raymone’s shoulders until she could feel his muscles relax.
“You feel better, baby?”
“I don’t know why they just can’t let a black man be.”
Krista’s wavering self-confidence stumbled and lost its way. She rolled her fists down his spine. What do I say next?
“White, racist bastards.”
“Baby,” Krista said gently. “What makes you think this has to do with race?”
“Because it is always about race. The world is racist.”
“Maybe your boss has a point, though, honey. Maybe you should try harder to give him what he wants.”
Raymone raised up suddenly.
“And maybe you should stand by your man.”
Krista, sitting on his back, wasn’t prepared for the sudden movement of Raymone leaving the bed. She twisted her right leg when she fell onto her side. She silently rubbed her leg as Raymone paced the floor like a dog in heat.
“Why you always gotta side with the white man?”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
Raymone imitated a nasally whining voice. “Why you take everything so personally, Ray? Maybe, Mr. White Man just had a bad day, Ray.’ Bullshit!”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Krista stuttered.
“I don’t know. I don’t know. What the fuck do you know? Can’t you keep up with the conversation?”
“It keeps changing.”
“We talking about racism, Mary Poppins. Just ‘cause your daddy got bank don’t mean everybody got it so easy.”
“My life is far from easy, Ray.”
“Please! You got a problem facing reality. I bet you can’t even relate to most black people. You too busy kissing the white man’s ass. ‘Yessah, massah. Whatever you say, massah.’ You know what, Krista? You ain’t nothing but a white girl with a black face.”
“That’s not fair,” she answered, pouting.
“Neither is the way black men are treated. Black women get promoted in a heartbeat over a black man. But me, no, I’m a threat. Those white boys must think I’m gonna go home and fuck their daughters and wives or something. Let them know what some real loving is all about,” Raymone said, wagging his limp penis.
Krista fought back tears. She wanted so badly to take Raymone into her arms and hug him until his pain slipped away. Make love until it didn’t hurt anymore. Kiss him until he remembered how deeply her love for him ran in her veins. But, Krista mostly kept her thoughts to herself. It was just too painful to say them out loud and know that it would not make any difference to Raymone at all.
“I know racism exists, Ray,” Krista said, careful not to seem like she was challenging him. “I just don’t see it under every rock, nook and cranny like you do.”
“That’s ‘cause you not a black man,” Raymone said, raising his voice again and slapping his chest twice. “You have no idea what life is like for a dark-skinned black man. I know racism when I see it. And I see it everyday. Every fucking day.”
“I see it, too, Ray.”
“Every time I walk out of my fucking house, I have to think about being black. And the day I forget I’m a dark-skinned black man, the world reminds me. Ain’t that something? It lets me know I’ll never get ahead in this white man’s system.”
“Babe, let me finish your massage. Come lie down.”
Raymone continued pacing. Krista noticed his hands clench and then release. Clench and release. His scowl was so drawn into itself, she could barely see his hazel-brown eyes.
“That’s what that shit at work was about: A nigga wake-up call,” Raymone continued. “They let me know that they see me for what I am - just another black man. Another nigga.”
“C’mon, back to bed, babe. I can make you feel better.”
“Are you even listening to me?!”
“Of course, Ray.”
“Then act like you care about what I’m saying. You don’t know what I go through. They fuck with me on the job. They taking over my fucking neighborhood. You expect me to just take that shit? Pretend like it doesn’t exist?”
This time, Krista doesn’t answer his questions. She doesn’t want to widen the wedge between them. They have this discussion at least twice a month. Raymone gets so frustrated about somebody doing something to, against or around him that he works himself into an emotional frenzy.
His lectures usually involved how black people in the Pacific Northwest are a bunch of Uncle Toms who are blind to oppression because they think sitting next to their white bosses at the annual Urban League of Portland dinner means they’ve arrived.
“Shit woman! When you gonna recognize that a black man got it hard in life,” Raymone said, his fist punching the air. He was too far away to reach her, but Krista still flinched.
“Every day is a fucking struggle for us. Black women don’t wanna hear that, though. They don’t wanna support their black man. They think we don’t got no feelings.”
“I care about your feelings, Ray. I do.”
“Black women say they want a strong black man and then when the going gets a little rough, they wanna leave and take half his shit. You know that’s why we go to white women, don’t cha? ‘Cause they easy. They are so fucking easy.”
What does dating white women have to do with his job?
Krista was so distracted trying to figure out the deeper meaning in what Raymone was saying that she didn’t notice that his rage was more focused now. Sometime in the moments between here and there, he was no longer upset with his white co-workers. The problem was now all about her.
“Shouldn’t you,” Raymone asked, his voice exercising a low growl, “be on a diet?”
Krista suddenly yanked her silk robe closed. She needed a shield against the way Raymone’s glare was penetrating through the fabric in search of her lumps. He had an edgy way with words that made Krista’s stomach turn somersaults into her kidneys.
“I am on a diet,” she said, defensively.
“The way you was chomping down on that chicken,” Raymone said, “it sure didn’t look like no diet to me.”
“I..I only had one piece, Ray. I went downstairs again to clean up. That’s all, I swear. And I’ve been doing other stuff, too. Those kelp pills speed up my metabolism and I drink only diet Cokes. I think I’ve lost about five pounds.”
“What’s that,” Raymone sneered. “About one half of one percent of your body fat?”
Krista bit her bottom lip to keep it from shaking. She didn’t trust her voice not to quiver. She needed to pull the wagons around her emotions.
Raymone sniffed as he walked to the other side of the bed.
“It’s those pills,” he announced, still sniffing.
“Those pills are making your breath stink.”
“What,” Krista asked, confused about where he was headed.
“It’s your breath,” he said, coolly. “It smells like death.”
Krista couldn’t decide whether she should be mad or offended. She looked at Raymone with soggy eyes.
Why can’t I make you happy?
“I ain’t trying to be mean, Krista,” Raymone said, more softly this time. “But your diet is obviously not working. You don’t look any smaller than you did a few weeks ago.”
“I...I thought it didn’t matter,” Krista said, ignoring her resolve and allowing the tears to cascade down her face. “I thought you liked my child-bearing hips. That’s what you said. Remember, Ray? You said it didn’t matter.”
“It matters,” Raymone said evenly, his dark tone oozing contempt. “You’re getting too fat.”
Tell me something I don’t know, asshole, Krista thought.
A few seconds later, he did.
“You’re starting to disgust me.”