Whether it’s Mildred from Mama (NAL), Savannah, Gloria, Bernadine and Robin from Waiting to Exhale (Signet) and Getting to Happy (Signet), the Price family from A Day Late and a Dollar Short (NAL) or so many others, Terry McMillan’s invented folks become real-life friends in our heads and hearts. She does it once again with Georgia Young, a Bay Area optometrist revisiting her past to move forward with her future. Here, in this exclusive excerpt from I Almost Forgot About You (Crown, $27), we check in on the wise doctor, who is slowly checking out on life.
It’s another exciting Friday night, and I’m curled up in bed—alone, of course—propped up by a sea of pillows, still in my lab coat, the sash so taut it’s suffocating the purple silk dress beneath it, but I don’t care. After a grueling day of back-to-back patients, I’m a few minutes away from being comatose, but I’m also hungry, which is why I’m channel-surfing and waiting for my pizza to get here. I stop when I come to my favorite standby: Law & Order: Criminal Intent, even though I’ve seen almost all of them—including the reruns. These days I usually just watch the first five or ten minutes, long enough to see Detective Goren stride onto the crime scene in his long trench coat, tilt his head to the side while he puts on those rubber gloves, rub the new growth on that beautiful square chin and bend down to study the victim. It’s at this moment, before he utters a word, when I usually pucker up, blow him a kiss and then change the channel. I’ve lusted over Detective Goren and yearned to be held against shoulders like his long before my second marriage bottomed out.
Truth be told, over the years I’ve fallen in love every Wednesday with Gary Dourdan’s lips as CSI Warrick Brown, and even though I was no Trekkie, Avery Brooks’s deep baritone and sneaky smile made me say “Yes” aloud to the TV. I also let myself be seduced for hours in dark theaters, hypnotized by Benicio del Toro’s dreamy eyes, even though he was a criminal. By Denzel’s swagger when he was a slick gangster. Brad Pitt as a sexy young thief. Ken Watanabe as the most sensual samurai I wanted to ride on a horse with, and I wanted to be a Black geisha and torture him until I finally let him have all of me.
I hate to admit it, but if I had the energy, I’d kill to have sex with the first one who walked into my bedroom tonight. I’d let him do anything he wanted to do to me. It’s been centuries since I’ve had sex with a real man, and I’m not even sure I’d remember what to do first should I ever get so lucky again. In fact, I think I’d be too uncomfortable, not to mention scared of getting all touchy-feely, and don’t even get me started on him seeing me naked. Hell, this is why I sleep with the remote.
When I hear the doorbell, I glance over at the broken blue clouds inside the clock on the night table. I’ve been waiting 40 minutes for this pizza, which means they’re going to owe me a free one! I roll off the bed on my side, even though the other side has been empty for years. I walk over to the door and yell, “Be right there!” Then I grab my wallet out of my purse and beeline it to the front door, because I’m starving. That is so not true. I’m just a little hungry. I’m trying to stop lying to myself about little things. I’m still working on the big ones.
I open the door, and standing there sweating is a young Black kid who can’t be more than 18. His head looks like a small globe of shiny black twists that I know are baby dreadlocks. His cheeks are full of brand-new zits. His name tag says “Free.”
“I’m so sorry for the delay, ma’am. There was a accident at the bottom of the hill, and I couldn’t get up here, so this one’s on the house.”
He looks so sad, and I’m wondering if the price of this pizza is going to be deducted from his little paycheck, but I dare not ask.
“I don’t mind paying for it,” I say. “It wasn’t your fault there was an accident.” I take the pizza from him and set it on the metal stairwell.
“That’s real thoughtful of you, but I’m just glad this is my last delivery for the night,” he says, leaning to one side as if he’s pretending not to look behind me, but of course he is. “This a real nice crib you got here. I ain’t never seen no yellow floors before. It’s downright wicked.”
“Thanks,” I say, and hand him a twenty.
He looks as if he’s in shock. “Like I said, ma’am, this pizza is on the house, and I also got some drink coupons you can have, too,” he says, pulling them out of the pocket of his red shirt.
“It’s a tip,” I say. “Is your real name Free?”
“How do you feel about it?”
“I dig it. I get asked all the time about it.”
“So how old are you, Free?”
“I’m 18.” He’s still staring at the twenty but then quickly shoves it inside the back pocket of his jeans in case I come to my senses and change my mind.
“Are you in college?” I’m hoping he says yes and that he’s taking English so one day soon he’ll stop saying ain’t.
“Almost. That’s why I’m working. You really giving me this whole twenty?”
I nod. “Do you know what you want to major in?”
“Mechanical engineering,” he says with certainty.
“Your husband rich?”
“What makes you think I’d have to have a husband to be rich?”
“Everybody that live up in these hills is. Even them two dykes that live next door. And they married.”
“Those dykes aren’t just my neighbors, they’re also my friends, and they’re lesbians.”
“A’right. My bad,” he says, flinging his arms up like Don’t shoot. “I didn’t mean no harm.”
“I know. Anyway, I’m divorced. And I’m not rich. But I also don’t struggle.”
“You cleaned him out, then, huh?”
Then he gives me the once-over. “You some kind of doctor?”
I look down at my lab coat. “Yes. I’m an optometrist.”
“Which one is that?”
“I help people see clearly,” I say, so as not to complicate it.
“Who helps you?” he asks with a smile, which throws me off completely. What a loaded question to ask a woman old enough to be his grandmother. “Just fooling with you, Dr. Young. No disrespect intended.”
“None taken, Free.”
Who helps me see? See what?
“Cool. Well, look, I gotta dash and get this car back to my cousin, but major thanks for the mega-tip, and I have to say it’s nice somebody Black gave it to me. Most of the White folks up here ain’t big on tipping, except for them lesbians.”
What he just said was a little on the racist and sexist side, but I know he meant well. He runs down the sidewalk and jumps into that raggedy car of his, removes the pizza sign displayed on top and disappears down the hill. I lean against the doorframe watching him go. I really should’ve praised him for working to pay for college, and if he hadn’t been in such a hurry, I would have loved to tell him that he might find his calling in college and he might not. But I’d also tell him to search until he did. Otherwise he could end up doing something he just happened to be good at, something respectable that might guarantee him a nice income, but one day, when he’s older, like, say, 53 soon to be 54, when his kids have grown up and he’s twice divorced and bored with his profession and his life and the thought of trying to change it all—or even where he lives—scares the hell out of him because it feels like it’s too late, I’d tell him to please figure out a way to do it anyhow, since I’m an excellent example of what can happen when you don’t. I turn off the porch light, close the door, and I can’t believe all of this is flooding in. I walk across these cool yellow concrete floors and sit on these cool metal stairs and look out at the light jutting up through those soft navy blue waves in the cool black–bottomed pool, and I look up a flight where both of my daughters used to sleep, and I look down to where the library and the guest room are, and I sit here and eat this entire cheese-and-tomato pizza.
I am full of regret.
Monday mornings are the worst, which is why I left a little early. The freeway is still slow going. But I’m used to it. I crack my window, although it can’t be more than 50 degrees. The dampness coming from the bay can’t eclipse the clarity of this morning as thousands of us slowly descend around a curve, and there waiting for us like a giant postcard is the Bay Bridge and right behind it the San Francisco skyline. This is a beautiful place to live. But then, as what typically happens at least once a week, the traffic suddenly comes to a screeching halt. I can see the reason up ahead. A four-car pileup is blocking two of the five lanes, and everyone is trying to move over to make room for the fire trucks and ambulances I now hear. I just pray no one is hurt. I roll my window all the way down and put the car in park. Some have already turned off their engines. I leave mine running and call my office.
I rush past the tall wall of windows, and Marina, our six-foot Japanese receptionist, waves at me. She’s on the phone, sitting behind the long maple counter. In the four years she’s worked here, she’s worn black every single day—including her fingernails. From here you can only see her shoulders. She waves, then gives me a slow thumbs-up that all is fine. I wasn’t really worried, but I don’t like to inconvenience patients, even though the situation is more often in reverse.
Unlike home, the office is serene. The walls are pale gray, a warm yellow, and one is white. My mother approves. Nine chairs are white, except for one that’s yellow. Four oblong purple tables are scattered around the area meant for fitting eyewear. Almost every inch of wall space is filled with frames and sunglasses to suit almost every taste and price. One of my most annoying but favorite patients, Mona Kwon, rushes to open the door for me. “Thank you, Mona!” I say, and head on over to Marina. Mona sits in her chair; the one next to the door if it’s empty, or else she’ll stand. She’ll be 75 soon. She only needs strong readers but claims she can’t see the tips of her fingernails when she holds them out in front of her. She comes in to have her glasses adjusted at least twice a month. She has 40 pairs and counting. The techs think she’s probably suffering from dementia. I think she’s just lonely. She also doesn’t like the techs to warm her frames; she insists I do it. After lifting them out of the hot sand and slipping them behind her ears, I watch her stare into the mirror a few minutes too long, as if, or until, she’s satisfied she looks like whoever she wants to be.
“Although it’ll soon be afternoon, good morning,” I say to Marina as well as to three other patients I know are waiting for Lily, my partner, who doesn’t come in until 11. She parties a little too hard, and even though she dresses like a hooker under her lab coat and wouldn’t be caught dead in heels less than four inches, she’s a damn good optometrist.
“So,” I say to Marina, “what’s the verdict?”
“You’ve only missed one appointment, and I rescheduled.”
“Thank you much. Is someone in my chair?” I ask without looking over the schedule.
“A newbie. And not to sound corny, but she really is Black and beautiful. First name Cleo. Last name is Strawberry. How cool is that? We must thank our lovely florist for the referral. Cleo just wants new contacts, and Ms. Kwon has made it very clear she’ll wait. You need a tall Peet’s?”
“It won’t help. But thanks, Marina.”
She hands me my appointment list and the patient’s folder. Strawberry? I head to my office, grab a clean lab coat from the closet, slip it over my boring blue dress, then sanitize my hands. I read over her chart quickly and head two doors down. I tap lightly on the door. When I hear an energetic voice say, “All is clear!” I feel better already. Marina was right. She looks like a Black princess. Probably in her mid-twenties. She closes the Dwell magazine in her lap like a child who’s been caught reading something illicit. She reaches over to set it on the instrument table but knows that’s wrong, so I hold my hand out along with a smile and take it. She looks up at me and smiles back.
“Good morning, Ms. Strawberry. I’m Dr. Young, and I’m so sorry I’m late.”
“Good morning to you as well. I was probably right in front of you, because I just got here about 15 minutes ago. So no need to apologize, Dr. Young. I just pray no one was seriously injured.”
“I hope not, too. Apparently we’re going to have to thank Noelle for the referral. Her floral arrangements are like sculpture. We never know what to expect from one week to the next. So. Your last name is Strawberry. That’s not a very common name.”
“No it isn’t. That’s why I like it!”
“Eons ago, when I was an undergrad, I had a good friend with that same last name.”
“My dad went to UCSF for undergrad, too!”
“I graduated in “76.”
“He was the class of “75! His first name is Raymond.”
I can’t believe what she’s just said. Ray Strawberry and I always thought of each other as Best Friends with Benefits, because his girlfriend was at Harvard and he was madly in love with her. I wasn’t really attracted to him at first. Ray and I were both studying our butts off and lonely and needed some relief, so we made a pact that we would call each other up for sex with no strings attached, which at first we did once a week, but then it got up to twice weekly and then whenever we could steal a half hour. All was going well until his girlfriend came for spring break and I realized I was jealous, because unbeknownst to me I had accidentally fallen in love with him.
Reprinted from I Almost Forgot About You. Copyright © 2016 by Terry McMillan. To be published by Crown Publishers, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC, on June 7.