Today . . .
It was stifling hot on the Metro platform. Graham felt sweat make a little river down his cheek. He couldn’t wipe it, because he didn’t have a napkin or sanitizer, and the Metro was like one giant petri dish of cold, flu, and crud germs. So the little river ran.
One glance up at the monitor for the Green and Yellow Line trains told Graham he had just missed one and would have to wait eleven minutes for the next one. Eleven minutes would feel like eleven hours in this heat. A tributary started from the little forehead river.
Graham’s eyes swept the train platform looking for a distraction from the heat, something to occupy his mind during the eleven-minute wait. Then he saw her. The most gorgeous distraction ever, standing right next to him.
She was petite, but not tiny. Curves filled out every inch of her jeans and T-shirt. Graham noted her shoes—flats—like every other sensible woman waiting for the train. He imagined she had business attire and high heels in her bag.
As if she sensed his gaze, the woman looked at Graham. Bright pink lips were a contrast to her caramel-colored skin. Natural curls escaped the bun on her head and mingled with the little river on her face. Graham wanted to push her glasses up on her nose. They were perched near the tip and threatened to slide even farther down.
She’d caught him staring at her, drinking her in like the refreshing beverage he wished he was holding. He had to say something; otherwise, he’d seem like a creep. And he cared what she thought.
“You waiting for the Green or the Yellow train?”
She gave Graham a confused look as if that wasn’t what she’d expected him to say. Graham was similarly flummoxed. He had no clue why he had said something so stupid as his opening line.
“Which one are you waiting for?” she asked in return.
“Oh. I am waiting for the Green.”
“You have a longer wait than I do.”
Graham glanced again at the monitor. He had nine minutes, and she had ten. Nine minutes to spit game and get digits.
“Man, it’s hot,” Graham said this with emphasis, and added bass to his voice. He’d read that women were naturally more attracted to men with deep voices.
“What’s funny?” Graham asked, extra bass gone.
“I’m sorry. I was laughing at me. When you announced that it was hot, I wanted to call you Captain Obvious. But that would’ve been rude, so I didn’t. Then I laughed, and you thought I was rude anyway. I’m sorry. I’m having a bad day. The worst, actually.”
“You should’ve said it. I would’ve laughed with you. Never censor yourself.”
“Oh, trust me. I am a person who needs censoring.”
In that moment, Graham needed censoring, or at least his thoughts did. It had something to do with how she moved her lips while speaking. It was sensuous, and Graham was almost sure that the effect was accidental.
He extended his hand for her to shake, and she hesitated. She looked at his hand the same way Graham looked at random Metro riders’ hands. He threw his head back and laughed.
She touched his fingertips with hers and laughed too.
“I’m Onika. Pleased to meet you.”
Graham wasn’t surprised that she had an exotic-sounding name. It was fitting. Onika. A rare name for a rare beauty.
Graham glanced up at the display. He had six minutes, and he was nowhere near getting her number.
“On your way home from work?” Graham asked.
She hesitated again, but this time he wasn’t sure why. She glanced up at the display, too. Was she counting the minutes until he disappeared from her space?
“Um, yes,” she finally responded, her tone irritated and impatient.
“I’m going to Busboys and Poets for open mic night. Have you ever been?”
“No. I don’t think so.”
“If you ever make it, try their shrimp and grits. It’s amazing.”
“I don’t eat grits.”
“You don’t? I’ve never met a black person who doesn’t eat grits.”
She smiled. “Now you have.”
He was encouraged by her smile, but he only had three minutes left, and he didn’t know how to close the deal.
Graham knew his friends would be mocking him right now. They’d say he had no game. And they would be right. Graham didn’t have game.
All of his long-term relationships had been woman-initiated. He had been chosen every time. He’d never done the choosing.
He knew he was good-looking. Tall, but not so tall that he towered over petite women. Dark with smooth skin, which was greatly enhanced by his goatee and dimple. Big, expressive eyes and a decent body.
He wasn’t insecure about his looks at all.
It was the connecting that was hard. How to let the woman know that he was sincere, kind, and God-fearing, all in ten minutes or less without seeming like a creep.
Two minutes left. It was time for a last-ditch effort.
Graham reached into his wallet and took out a card. He placed it in Onika’s hand. She grimaced. Damn. But she wrapped her hand around the card. She didn’t throw it down.
“My train is arriving, but I would love to see you again. I know it’s forward, but can I call you some time?”
“I . . . I will call you. This is your personal number on the card?”
Graham nodded, although he knew it was pointless. She wasn’t going to call.
He waved good-bye as he jumped on the train. With a faint smile on her lips, she waved back.
Onika watched the train as it rolled away through the tunnel. When it was out of sight, she looked down at the card and crumbled it in her hand.
The woman standing next to Onika on the platform frowned.
“That was a handsome, polite, young man with a job. That’s why you young girls don’t have husbands—you turn down the nice guys.”
Onika sighed but didn’t reply to the woman. She was right. Graham seemed like a great guy. Polished and fine. Nice shoes and watch.
He would probably be perfect for someone, but guys like Graham didn’t date homeless women.
Onika let the crumpled card fall to the floor.
Ten years ago . . .
Onika’s hands trembled as she opened the letter. She’d done exactly as her guidance counselor had instructed. She’d taken advanced placement classes and gotten all A’s. She’d joined the Key Club and was elected to Student Council. She’d even run for class secretary and won. So she wasn’t worried about the response from the elite, all-women’s Robinson University, the top college on her list. She was worried about the after.
What would happen after she told her mother and grandmother?
Tears rolled down her cheeks as she mouthed the first word on the page. Congratulations.
She kept reading, and when she got to the words “full-ride scholarship,” the sobs came strong and fast. Uncontrollable.
She was going to be a Robinette. She was going to stroll on the yard wearing her sorority colors of pink and blue (because she would only pledge Epsilon Phi Beta). She was going to law school, where she’d meet her future husband. Or maybe she’d meet him at a brother college because he was going to medical school.
Onika played and replayed her fantasy in her mind as she took the ninety-seven steps from her grandmother’s mailbox to the house on the corner, where she would find her mother.
Onika made her way up the dusty path to the front porch of the dilapidated shack. One good North Carolina tropical storm could probably blow it over. Onika never remembered there being grass. It had always been only dirt, rocks, and glass. And she’d been walking these ninety-seven steps her entire life.
She pushed open the unlocked front door. No need to lock the doors to hell. No one would go in willingly, except a kindred spirit to the wretched souls already inside.
Onika knew the place well. She knew every room and, unfortunately, every corner. She knew the regular inhabitants, and she knew when there was a visitor. The visitors were dangerous. They didn’t know that Judy was her mama, or worse, they knew and didn’t care. After a few narrow escapes from being molested, Onika avoided the strangers in the house.
The scent in the house was hard to describe, but Onika thought it was something like melting crayons. It was a little sweet, hot, and desperate. The whole house smelled like decay. Not death, but the rotting stench of the barely living.
“Judy,” Onika called, “where are you?”
Onika hoped that her mother, Judy, was either down from her high or that she hadn’t taken her first puff. If she was in the middle of a full-blown high, sharing her news would be pointless. Onika wanted to see the look on Judy’s face when she learned that every curse she had ever hurled at her baby girl was canceled.
Onika heard a grunt that she recognized as her mother’s. She followed the sound to the back bedroom.
Judy sat on the edge of a ragged, threadbare mattress in only her panties. Her breasts hung to her waist like two ebony pendulums. Judy’s wig rested beside her on the mattress and next to a naked, sleeping man.
Judy looked up at her daughter. “What you doing here, Onika? Didn’t your grandmama tell you to stay out from around here?”
“I came looking for you.”
“I ain’t got no money.”
“I’m not looking for any money. I came to tell you that I got into Robinson University, and I get to go for free.”
“Where’s that? Raleigh?”
Judy shook her head and stomped her feet as she cackled.
“You ain’t going to no Atlanta.”
“How you doing that?” Judy’s cackle got louder.
“I got a scholarship.”
Judy slapped her male friend on the thigh. “Cole, wake up. My daughter going to college in Atlanta.”
Cole grumbled and rolled over on his back, giving Onika a full view of his man parts. For some reason, Judy found this funny but threw a dirty blanket over him that she found on the floor.
“You think you something, going away to school, huh? Well, you ain’t no better than me. You’ve always thought you were better, but you ain’t.”
Onika looked at the floor and dropped the hand holding the letter to her side. “I don’t think I’m better.”
“You do. ’Cause you’re light-skinned and got that curly hair like yo’ Puerto Rican daddy.”
Judy always talked about Onika’s father with a hint of a bragging and a haughty air. Almost like she was proud of getting pregnant by him when she was a dark and overweight woman, with dry, kinky hair. Somehow, she’d been able to pull a Puerto Rican pimp, and he’d put his seed inside her.
He hadn’t stuck around to see the flower bloom.
“Mama, you need to come home. Grandma is gonna be looking for you in a little bit.”
“She knows where I am. She ain’t gotta come looking for me.”
Onika’s grandmother, Earlene, refused to accept that her daughter was a drug addict. She always just said that her daughter was sick. Whenever anyone mentioned rehab to Earlene, she’d say Judy needed a touch from the Lord. Onika watched her grandmother go up for prayer every Sunday at their church. She’d prayed and fasted. Fasted and prayed. And then when Onika was old enough, Earlene made her pray and fast, too.
Onika remembered being on her knees at the altar, next to her grandmother. Earlene had crafted a little prayer, and she’d taught it to her grandchild. Onika knew the prayer before she knew her ABCs.
Jesus be a balm. A balm in Gilead. Heal her by your stripes. By your stripes she is healed.
For hours they’d pray. If Judy had stayed out all Saturday night, all Sunday afternoon Earlene and Onika offered up prayers. Long after service let out, the two of them would stay at the altar, saying their prayer. No. Chanting the words. Until it sounded more like an incantation than a prayer. Until the old wooden church floor splintered beneath Onika’s knees. She’d wanted to cry out every time, but she was afraid that, if she broke the prayer, Judy wouldn’t be healed.
Onika kept going to the altar until she was twelve years old.
That’s when she’d stopped believing a healing was coming.
But for some reason, now Onika whispered the words of those childhood prayers as she watched her mother examine a piece of debris on the floor, probably checking to see if it was a crack rock.
Jesus be a balm. A balm in Gilead. Heal her by your stripes. By your stripes she is healed.
She didn’t know why she suddenly had the urge to pray. It was the strangest thing. But nothing had changed. The prayer was as ineffective as ever.
Judy finally found a bit of the drug hiding in the filthy carpet. Long past the point of being ashamed in front of her daughter, she scrambled to her pipe to take another hit.
Onika vowed to never say that prayer again.
Click to purchase: (Kindle) or (Paperback)
Excerpted from Her Secret Life by:Tiffany L. Warren Copyright © 2017 by Tiffany L. Warren. Excerpted by permission of Dafina Press/Kensingston. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.