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It was a warm September night in New York City -- too warm and too nice to be in an apartment that really didn't want her company, Regina Harris decided. The apartment longed for a respectable young Jewish couple like the one who lived a floor below, who were originally from Long Island and had coffee and bagels each morning. Instead, Apartment 2A in the corner building at 71st Street and West End Avenue was stuck with Regina, formerly of Harlem, who breakfasted on home fries and sausage.
Regina felt the apartment's disappointment, and spent a lot of time trying to reassure it that she was good enough to reside in an expensive one-bedroom flat on New York's Upper West Side. She bought beautiful silk drapes, exotic plants and even a salt-water aquarium with a rainbow array of fish, but the apartment would have none of it. Even after living there for three months, she still opened her eyes each morning and struggled for a few seconds to remember exactly where she was. The apartment simply refused to be her home.
So Regina gave up trying to win it over. Since it refused to be her home, she turned it into her castle. She bought Nigerian sculptures that she placed on wicker tables, and hung framed posters of Malcolm X and Nelson Mandela on the walls. She considered buying an elaborate painting of Louis Farrakhan, but decided against it. She just knew that if she tried to hang it in the snooty apartment, the walls would crumble. The apartment still did not like her, but it finally resigned itself to the fact that she was there to stay.
But on a mesmerizing September night like this, Regina didn't care about the apartment. It was a perfect evening for roaming the streets on the Upper West Side. Peeking into darkened store windows at the latest fashions from Paris, browsing through bookstores to read a few pages from some novel on the New York Times bestseller list, or huddling in coffee shops surrounded by other young professionals sipping cappuccino while congratulating themselves on being young professionals. It was even a better night, she decided as she walked down the stairs, to catch the uptown Number 3 train and head to Harlem, to hang out with her childhood friends.
Regina stopped in the lobby to look at herself in the wall-length mirror, and briefly considered going back upstairs and changing her clothes. She wore a lightweight, powder blue dress that flared at her tiny waist, but failed to conceal the wide hips that were as much a part of her heritage as her caramel-colored skin. Her navy blue shoes were comfortable, but still boosted her actual five feet one inch height by an additional two inches. Her brown shoulder-length hair, which usually softly framed her oval face, was pulled back in a ponytail, making her almond-shaped eyes all the more noticeable. She decided that she wasn't dressed appropriately for a nightclub, but she was certainly presentable. She headed out the door and toward the subway.
Fifteen minutes later she emerged from the 125th Street station and breathed in the Lenox Avenue air that carried the tempting scent of fried chicken from the fish and chips joint on the corner and the clashing voices of Luther Vandross and Snoop Doggy Dog from competing music stores. She walked briskly along the sidewalk, ignoring the crackheads searching for a hit, and the God-fearing ladies wearing their Sunday best as they headed to Friday night sermons at the Pentecostal churches. She grew up in Harlem, and was so accustomed to the sights that she no longer saw them?though inwardly she craved them: The honking cars that didn't seem to realize pedestrians have the right of way. The young men on the corner catcalling out to the fly young girls. The winos on the stoops cradling their hard-earned bottle of Thunderbird. The Muslim brothers selling The Final Call in the middle of 125th Street. The vendors hawking bootleg videotapes of movies that premiered in theaters just the day before. It was all part of Harlem, and Harlem was in her blood.
A few months before she had called her father at his latest drug rehabilitation center and mentioned that she was considering buying a cherry red sports car. "Red," he snorted. "You can take the nigger out of Harlem, but you can't take Harlem out of the nigger."
She fumed when she heard his words. Half Puerto Rican and half black, he often assaulted others with insulting stereotypes of blacks as if to repudiate his own African ancestry. Forget the fact that he married two black women, though he later abandoned both. Still, Regina decided against buying a car. She barely shed a tear when she heard he died of a heroin overdose three months later while visiting distant relatives in San Juan.
"Well, well, look what the cat's dragged in!" Yvonne exclaimed when she opened the apartment door for Regina. "Girl, what you been up to?"
Yvonne grabbed her in a warm hug, as Regina smiled at the savory aroma of curry chicken coming out of the kitchen. Mama Tee was home and doing her thing. The three young children running around the middle of the living room floor playing tag stopped and began jumping up and down when they saw Regina.
"Aunt Regina, come play hide-and-seek with us," cried a four-year-old girl with four long, thick braids and a runny nose.
"Oh, Sissy, maybe later," Regina replied as she bent down and gave the wiggling little girl a hug, trying unsuccessfully not to get snot on her clothes. "Is your mom here, too?"
"Hey, girlie! What's up?" cried an excited Tamika as she emerged from Yvonne's bedroom wearing a robe, her face half made up, her hair in curlers. Puddin' was right behind her, wearing a hair weave that flowed almost down to her buttocks, and waving her hands to dry the polish on her long, tapered fingernails. "Yvonne didn't say you was coming out with us tonight. Darren, go wipe your sister's nose for Mommy."
Regina had forgotten it was a Friday. Five years ago she, too, had been in Yvonne's apartment readying for a night of clubbing.
Her brush with death had made her reevaluate her life. Hanging out with dope dealers and gamblers willing to pay good money to have a "pretty young thing" on their arms and in their beds, had been profitable -- but the bullet that had entered her shoulder that night could just as easily have pierced her heart. It was while she was recovering in the hospital that she decided there had to be a better way to make a living. College, then long hours promoting her freelance writing career, had replaced Harlem after-hour spots in her life.
She had known Yvonne, Tamika, and Puddin' since elementary school, and the four had started hanging out when they reached their early teens. Tamika was the youngest by just a few months, but there was a childlike quality about her that made people want to cuddle her. She was the sweetest one of the crew, always quick to find the bright side of a situation.
Puddin' was the opposite of Tamika. Tall and lean, she imagined herself a Whitney Houston look-alike, and she was indeed gorgeous. The problem was her attitude. Guys were attracted to her because of her stunning looks, but after they slept with her a few times they grew less tolerant of her smart mouth and gold-digging ways. She even got on her friends' nerves with her constant primping and sarcastic remarks, but she had some good qualities. If you were outnumbered in a fight, Puddin' was the one you wanted by your side. It didn't matter if you were right or wrong, Puddin' would snatch off her wig, reach into her pocketbook for a roll of pennies to stash in her gold-ringed fist, and be the first to throw a punch on your behalf.
Regina walked back into the kitchen and gave Mama Tee a kiss. The curry smelled even stronger in the kitchen, and Regina's mouth began to water, even though she had stopped for a slice of Neapolitan pizza just an hour before. Her mother, like Mama Tee, was Trinidadian, and the smell of curry was always in the air while Regina was growing up.
"Oh, come see Mama Tee after all dis time, did you? I beginning to tink you don't love your mama no more," the gray-haired woman said in her thick Trinidadian accent before grabbing Regina in a bear hug. "You know you family, Regina. You like me own daughter." Mama Tee motioned for her to sit down in one of the aluminum chairs with red padded seats. The kitchen was spotless as usual, unless you counted the old yellow grease stains over the stove that were too high for Mama Tee to reach now that she was getting older. Potholders and red gingham dish towels hung on the green enamel walls, and fruit-shaped magnets decorated the refrigerator. Mama Tee continued to bustle around the kitchen as she told Regina -- yet again -- how proud she was of her for getting her college diploma and starting a career.
"You were always smart, just like my Yvonne. I'm so glad you didn't get caught up in the streets and get a bunch of babies by some no-good man," she said as she added chili powder to the pot of curry chicken that simmered on the gas-burner stove.
It had broken Mama Tee's heart when Yvonne had popped up pregnant at sixteen. Yvonne had always done well in school, and her mother bragged to friends that her daughter would get an academic scholarship to a big university. But Yvonne dropped out of school in the eleventh grade, although she eventually got her G.E.D.
"At least she's got a job and earns an honest living." Mama Tee sighed as she gingerly placed slices of yellow plantain in a large sizzling black skillet. "But dat girl's too smart to be somebody's secretary. She should have her own business. She should be a boss with her own secretary."
"Who says I won't be, Mama? Just give me some time," said Yvonne, who had suddenly appeared in the kitchen. She kissed her mother on the cheek, then popped one of the already fried plantains into her mouth.
"You better marry yourself a good man who will take care of you and your child and pay for you to go to college," said Mama Tee as she swatted Yvonne's hand away from another of the plantains. Disappointed though she was, Mama Tee loved her only child dearly, and spoiled her as an adult as much as she had done when Yvonne was a child.
"Come on, Regina. Let's get out of this kitchen before Mama starts giving me another one of her lectures." Yvonne smiled as she pulled Regina by the hand.
"You still got Mama fooled, girl. She just doesn't know what a ho you are," Yvonne whispered to Regina as the two walked down the narrow hallway. "Of course, now that you've got a degree it's different, huh?"
"It is different." Regina giggled. "Now I'm a ho with a journalism degree."
"Yeah!" Yvonne giggled. "Educated pussy!"
Yvonne was the logical one in the group. She was extremely intelligent, articulate, and had all the social graces -- the mark of a good West Indian daughter. It was one of the things she and Regina had in common, being raised by Trinidadians. Unlike Regina, Yvonne was an only child with a doting mother. Growing up, she had all of the hottest toys and wore all of the latest fashion, but she was never a snob. She was Regina's closest friend, and the unofficial leader of the crew. Her home became the starting and ending point for their party nights.
The four girls crowded into the small bedroom Yvonne shared with her ten-year-old son, Zegory. A smoking electric curling iron was perched precariously on the edge of the old wooden dresser that was covered with perfume bottles and makeup jars, as well as nail polish stains and cigarette burns. The walls were decorated with a large tattered poster of Brian McKnight and pictures of Mariah Carey and Puff Daddy that had been torn out of magazines. Dynamic as Brian, Mariah, and Puff were, they couldn't hide the fact that the room, like the rest of the apartment, was badly in need of a fresh coat of paint.
Regina pushed aside some clothes and sat down on the twin bed, while Yvonne grabbed the curling iron and began making Shirley Temple coils in her long red hair.
"So, where are you guys going?" Regina asked.
"Perks," Tamika said excitedly in her squeaky little-girl voice from where she sat on the windowsill. "You coming, right? We ain't all hung out in like, forever. Come on, this'll be fun!"
"Yeah, you should come along," Yvonne said as she frowned in the mirror at a strand of hair on the top of her head that insisted it didn't want to curl. "Tamika's right, you haven't hung out with us in ages, and Perks is going to be jumping tonight."
Regina had never been to Perks, one of the more popular clubs in Harlem, but she had heard a lot about it. They had live jazz bands during the week and sometimes a blues act. On the weekend a deejay played a combination of R&B and hip-hop. It was one of the few places in Harlem that had a cover charge on the weekends, but people paid it because they knew they'd find whatever it was they were looking for -- a good time on the dance floor or a bunch of new telephone numbers for their little black books. The patrons during the week were usually older, between thirty and fifty, but on the weekends the club attracted a younger group, but not a wild crowd. The two big bouncers who kept watch over the place made sure of that.
"Girl, you know Regina's too good to hang out with us now that she's a buppie," Puddin' said in her cool, sarcastic tone.
"Wrong as usual," Regina replied as she casually flipped through the latest copy of Jet magazine. "I've always been too good to hang out with you guys."
That got an uproarious laugh, as the young women started talking about their many adventures hanging out in clubs together, and playing on guys who tried to pick them up.
"God, we used to get into so much trouble," Regina said wistfully. "Remember the time that crazy dude at Lickety-Split spent all of his money setting up the bar trying to impress Yvonne, and then got mad when she wouldn't talk to him after he ran out of cash? He said he wasn't going to let us leave. That one of us was going to have to give him some pussy."
"Yeah, Regina," laughed Puddin'. "It's good thing the guy you were making goo-goo eyes at all night was a cop, else we weren't getting out of that bar that night. He got up and said he'd take care of you, and told us to wait outside, and then the two of them started arguing."
Puddin' started giggling so hard Tamika, in her tiny, squeaky voice picked up the story, although she was struggling to keep from laughing herself.
"Yep, and then this other guy pulls up in a Caddie and asks if we wanted a ride and we drove off with him to an after-hours spot. We get there and he pulls out all this coke and reefer, and he just knew he was getting in Puddin's pants with all that coke she was sniffing. Then when he got drunk, she rolled him for seven hundred bucks and we jumped in a cab and went to another spot to see if we could catch up with one of Regina's boyfriends and -- "
"And we run right smack dab into the crazy guy we had been trying to duck in the first place. Turns out he was the bouncer at the spot," Regina cut in, though doubled up with laughter. "I thought Yvonne was going to die when she saw him. She took off so fast she broke her heel and fell facedown in a puddle of mud. She started hollering. Tamika started crying. Puddin' put up her dukes, and I was so stoned I didn't know what to do, so I stepped out in the street and tried to hail a cab."
The four friends roared with laughter at the memory. Tears rolled down Regina's face as she slid down the bed. Puddin' and Tamika were laughing so hard they had to struggle to catch their breaths. The kids started banging on the door trying to find out what was so funny, and Yvonne had to open the door and wave them away with her hand since she was laughing so hard she couldn't even speak.
"I don't know how we managed to get through that night without getting killed," Puddin' said, when she finally regained her composure. "Thank God the guy who owned the spot came out and recognized you, Gina. The only reason he stopped the guy from kicking our ass was because your boyfriend was a big-time spender, and he didn't want to lose his business."
"Oh, God, we were crazy," gasped Regina.
"And lucky," added Yvonne.
"But we had fun," said Tamika, and the foursome doubled up with laughter again.
Two hours later they were out the door and headed to Perks, but not before eating a big plate of curry chicken, beans and rice, plantains and avocado salad at Mama Tee's insistence. She wasn't going to let her girls go out drinking -- and she knew they were going out drinking -- without some food in their stomachs, she said. Mama Tee also made it a point to remind them that she was not the neighborhood sitter. She already raised her own child; she was not going to raise Yvonne's child, too.
"Oh Mama, don't worry, we're not going to be out too late," said Yvonne as she hugged her mother good-bye.
"Mama Tee, I understand if you're not up to watching Darren and Sissy. I'll just take them over to my aunt's and pick them up in the morning," Tamika said meekly.
"You'll do no such ting, child. Tat woman don't even like children. You know dese babies are welcome in dis house anytime. You go out and have a good time," Mama Tee said indignantly, contradicting her earlier declarations as if she were being insulted.
"Just don't make it a habit," she shouted after them as they headed down the hall. "And Yvonne, don't you come in dis house drunk tonight, you hear?"
It was early, only 11:00 P.M., when they arrived at Perks, but there was already a line of people waiting to get into the club. One of the bouncers, a short but husky man with a gold tooth, gave Regina an admiring look as she handed him ten dollars for her cover charge. She pretended not to notice his leer, but she was appreciative. She had been worried about going out dressed so simply, especially since her friends were dressed to kill. Yvonne wore a tight, low-cut black dress that showed off her large bosom, and Tamika wore a tight purple miniskirt and a sheer violet blouse. Puddin' had on electric blue spandex pants and a pale blue camisole top. Tamika, ever the sweetheart, had offered to let Regina wear another outfit she had brought over to Yvonne's, but Regina declined, saying she was five inches shorter than her friend. Puddin' wickedly added that Tamika was also twenty-five pounds heavier, but Yvonne and Regina soothed Tamika's feelings by assuring her that the weight was in all the right places, which was true.
Perks had two levels. On the ground floor was a bar and restaurant, and a number of small tables where people sat and looked good while checking each other out and deciding who they wanted to wind up with at the end of the night. Women sexily swayed their heads and shoulders to the tempo of the music, pretending that they didn't notice the men standing at the bar or against the walls looking their way. The men struck their best poses, trying to look cool or mysterious as they struggled to catch the eye of the woman of their choice.
Once a match was made, the couple would go downstairs, where there was another bar, along with a coatroom, rest rooms and a large dance floor ringed by a few small tables, and continue the flirting game.
The girls sat down at one of the ground floor tables, and Regina bought the first round of drinks. They were only there for a few minutes when they noticed three guys at the bar checking them out. One was about six feet five, with cream-colored skin, hazel eyes and curly hair. Another was almost as tall, a bit on the husky side, with a chocolate complexion, and a goatee and large white teeth that he kept flashing in the girls' direction. The third man was thin, about six feet tall, with medium-brown skin and protuding ears. Regina noticed that he was the most sullen in the group, and showed no interest in checking out the women. When the hazel-eyed guy raised his glass toward their table in a mock toast, his sullen friend made a remark and turned toward the bar. Regina couldn't hear what he said, but his body language communicated that it wasn't flattering. She decided she didn't like him.
The guys didn't look like they were from Harlem; they were preppy and clean-cut. Although they appeared too old to be college students, they had that university look about them -- the look that said they thought they had more on the ball than anyone in the place.
Tamika was excited and giggly. But then she was always getting excited about attention from men, which was pretty funny, since she never gave any of them her telephone number. Tamika's boyfriend, Chink, was in prison, and although she still liked to go out, Tamika was faithful. But Regina noticed that Yvonne and Puddin' were slyly checking the guys out. They looked like they had money and jobs, and that made them hot prospects in Harlem.
The trio waited until Yvonne paid for a second round of drinks before they approached the table, a fact that did not go unnoticed by Regina.
"Mind if we sit with you young ladies?" the hazel-eyed man asked. Yvonne shrugged her shoulders; Regina could see she was intending on playing it cool until she got more information, but Puddin' gave them the go-ahead. Regina twirled the stirrer in her rum and Coke and said nothing. She had told her friends that she was only going to stay for a couple of drinks anyway, and since there were four women and only three men, she decided to do everyone a favor and even the number as soon as she finished her drink.
She had to prepare for a meeting with an editor from Cosmopolitan in a few days, and she needed to get up early to do some research on the Internet. She remained aloof, slightly turning in her chair and occasionally looking at her watch, alerting the guys that she was uninterested and unavailable.
The hazel-eyed guy's name was Robert, and he seemed to be the spokesman of the group. The goatee guy was David, and the sullen man was introduced as Charles. Charles smirked as the girls introduced themselves in return.
"What did I tell you?" he said to David.
"Our friend here is clairvoyant. He said he knew one of you girls was named Tamika," said Robert with a laugh. That brought a laugh from everyone at the table except Regina. While at school in Philadelphia, she had heard the guys refer to girls as "Tamika-babes," meaning fly but stupid street women. She hadn't heard the term used in New York, but she was sure the meaning was the same.
It turned out the men were graduate students at Columbia University, and were just out on the town for the evening. They were subtly letting the girls know they were men with a bright future -- good catches -- and they got the reaction they expected. Yvonne leaned over in her seat so that her cleavage showed a bit more and began to playfully flirt with Robert. She had always been attracted to light-skinned men, so Regina knew he was going to be her pick. Tamika was giggling and laughing with David, who seemed pleasantly surprised at the attention. Puddin' was doing her best to strike Charles's interest. She crossed and uncrossed her legs. She licked her lips as she talked. She made suggestive remarks, accentuated by knowing looks. But Charles acted bored, occasionally looking over at his friends as if to say "How long do we really have to stay?" Regina decided she really didn't like him.
She tried to get up to leave, but Yvonne pulled her back down in the chair, and whispered for her to stay a little longer. She looked at her friend inquisitively, but Yvonne offered no explanation. She was hitting it off with Robert, and Tamika's little-girl style seemed to appeal to David, but Puddin' was still making no headway with Charles. He answered questions when asked, but initiated no conversation on his own. Then she said that he looked a little like her father. Charles smiled and asked if she considered her father handsome, and grateful for the little bit of interest shown, Puddin' began to loudly gush about how much she adored her father. Suddenly Charles guffawed loudly. "Great. An Oedipus complex."
His friends all started laughing, and Puddin' and Tamika laughed along, although they didn't catch the joke. Yvonne did, though, and she looked none too pleased. Finally, Tamika asked what an Oedipus complex was, and Robert explained that Oedipus was a Greek hero who was the only man clever enough to solve the riddle of the Sphinx.
"Look at that. I guess he's saying you're smart," Tamika told Puddin' with a smile.
"An Oedipus complex refers to a man who is in love with his mother," Regina said icily.
"Well, that, too," admitted Robert.
Tamika still didn't get it, but Puddin' did.
"I said that I adore my father, not that I'm in love with him," she said to Charles with a pretty pout designed to appeal.
Regina coolly picked up her pocketbook to leave. All evening she had noticed the sideways glances between the guys when one of her friends used a word incorrectly, something Tamika was famous for doing. It was painfully apparent that the men thought she and her friends were easy pickups, and it bothered her that the women were confirming their beliefs. Yvonne, who obviously knew what was going on, was still flirting with Robert. Tamika, who probably didn't have a clue, was prattling on to David, and Puddin' was still trying to talk to Charles even after his insulting put-down. Regina decided to leave before she said something that would ruin everyone's good time, but at that moment Charles announced that he was leaving because he had to study for an examination. Regina paused briefly, then smiled seductively, leaned over and lightly placed a hand on his arm.
"I don't mean to bother you, but could you do me one small favor?" she asked in a low husky voice lightly brushing her fingers over his muscled bicep.
"What's that?" Charles asked, finally with some interest in his voice.
"Would you wait five minutes before you go? I'm leaving right now, and I don't want anyone to see me walk out the door with someone too ignorant to know the difference between an Oedipus complex and an Electra complex."
Charles's mouth dropped open, and his friends started to laugh, which started the girls laughing.
"Yeah, that's right, Sir Brainiac. Only a man can have an Oedipus complex. A woman in love with her father has an Electra complex," said Robert in between gulps for air. "I think you just got a lesson in humility."
Regina stood up, and walked out the club without looking back, so that no one would see the big grin on her face.
And the score, she said to herself with satisfaction, is Harlem, 1 -- Preppyville, 0.
Copyright © 2000 by Oshun Publishing, Inc.
Copyright © 2001 by Karen E. Quinones Miller