Authors: C J Howard
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #United States, #African American, #Romance, #Hispanic, #Multicultural, #Hispanic American
I shook my head so hard my ponytail holder fell out. "No. I love Benito. No way in hell is this check getting cashed. Not even to help the kids."
Realizing Elza had me so rattled I was talking to myself in an empty kitchen, I dialed Tasha's number, desperate to talk to her. But she didn't answer, and there was a knock on the door.
I flew over to it and yanked it open. "Mrs. Fabriccio, if you don't leave me alone, I'm --"
"Huh?" Tasha stood in the hallway, holding a foil-covered pan. "I made up some strawberry-rhubarb Brown Betty and just thought I'd pop on over and check to see if you were home. But maybe this is a bad time. 'Cuz you clearly in some sort of freak-out mode where you thinkin' I'm your boyfriend's mama."
I apologized and then ushered her in, thanking her for bringing the Betty but saying that I didn't think I could eat any at the moment. "I'm sorry, Tash. The other shoe just dropped. I was absolutely right to be nervous this morning."
"Sorry; never mind. Something really terrible and upsetting just happened, and I'm just completely and totally rattled."
"Too rattled for Brown Betty?"
"Yeah. Sorry. My appetite's just about at a negative ten."
"Well, what happened?" Her eyes narrowed. "Homeboy's mama givin' you drama? She give you a hard time last night?"
"No -- last night, she was actually amazing. She was so wonderful, and warm, and caring. I kind of thought she'd become my own Mrs. Chen."
"So what happened to change that?"
"Well, she just came over; she only left a minute or so before you got here. She was so cold, and rude, and -- here. Let’s go sit down. This may take a minute."
We went out to the kitchen, and Tasha asked if I minded if she dug into the Betty. I said go right ahead, and she grabbed a spoon and joined me at the table.
She lifted the lid off the foil and breathed in deeply. "Been waitin' a week for this."
She scooped up a big bite right out of the pan, and I asked her if she wanted a plate.
"Nah, but thanks. I'm 'bout ta really get into this, and I don't even wanna know exactly how many servings I'm havin'." She took another big bite and chewed and swallowed quickly. "Sorry, 'Lecia. Continue on with your story about Mrs. Fabriccio's rude ass."
Over the next several minutes, I told Tasha everything, and she listened quietly, chewing large spoonfuls of Betty. But when I got to the part about the final check, she finally put her spoon down, her eyes wide.
"A hundred thousand dollars?"
I nodded, flipping the check over in the decorative dish so she could read it. "A hundred grand -- to never contact Benito again."
Tasha's eyes got even wider.
"And you said -- what?"
I snorted. "What do you think I said? I told her to get out. I love Benito, and I can't be bought. I didn't even think about taking the money for a split second."
Immediately realizing this wasn't exactly one hundred percent true, I flushed, heat rising to my face.
"Well, I mean, I guess I thought about it for a
second. But that was it."
"Well, hell, girl, I don't even blame ya."
"But it only crossed my mind for that split second because I thought about the kids at school, and what the money could do for them. What it could buy to help them learn."
"Well, it'd sure buy a whole lot of notebooks; that's for damn sure."
"Yeah. It sure could."
I got up to get a bottle of water out of the fridge, and Tasha twisted around in her chair.
"Yo, can you score a homegirl a lil' milk while you in there?"
I grabbed my water, her milk, and a glass and returned to the table.
Tasha filled her glass with milk and then drained it in one long, thirsty series of gulps. "Ah. That hit the spot, for sure." She set the glass on the table and looked at me. "So -- what you were sayin' about takin' the money for the kids. Are you for sure, sure, sure not doin' that, or?"
A warm breeze blew in through the yellow-curtained windows, lifting the check out of the decorative dish. I didn't return it, not even wanting to touch it again.
"Yeah. I'm absolutely positive. Sure, I'd like to help the kids, but I can't lose Benito to do it. He means everything to me. I love him with all my heart."
"Well, just let's just think this all the way through. Because I don't think you have."
I glanced out the window at the suddenly darkening sky. "There's nothing to think about."
"But hold up, though. Just hold the hell up."
"Why? You can't seriously think that I should take the money and run."
"I'm just sayin' slow down. Think about this. Now, I know Benito the Billionaire's a good dude. I know he treats ya good. I know you love him. But a man's mind can change in a flash. In a flash faster than lightning. And I just had it happen to me too many damn times to think this ain't true. Men be all lovey-dovey on ya one day, all flowers and dinner and trips and attention, but then somethin' happens. Maybe some new chick catches their eye. Maybe somethin' just changes inside of 'em. Maybe they just ain't forever type of men. Maybe who the hell knows what. But the point is, men ain't forever. And they usually ain't. And you know I'm speakin' the truth, 'cuz of what happened with you and Dwayne just a few months ago."
"What Benito and I have is different. What we have is real. And I don't think he'll ever stop loving me."
Tasha shrugged. "All right. You know him better than me. I'm just sayin’.
Consider this scenario. Two months down the road, he ain't returnin' your calls. He ain't returnin' your texts no more. He's duckin' ya whenever he sees ya in public. Somethin's changed, and it's a sad thing, but y'all have broken up. And you sittin' up here at home, kickin' yourself, thinkin' about all the stuff that hundred grand woulda bought for the school."
I stared at tiny blue swirls in the center of the decorative plate, thinking of the teenage girl who'd painted them. And all the other kids at my school like her. Some kids who couldn't even afford backpacks to take their homework home in.
Tasha poured herself some more milk. "Just think about how fast a relationship can be over. Just think of how much good that money could do for the kids. And, hey -- ... you wouldn't have to spend it
on them; you could keep a little to do some good for yourself, too. Maybe some new shoes, or jewelry, or--."
"I wouldn't keep a penny of it for myself."
Tasha frowned. "Not even for a new handbag or somethin'? Or maybe a pair of them new expensive jeans? Just one?"
"It would all go to the kids. I'd donate it anonymously. The school computer lab could buy all new PC's. Which, as you know, are desperately needed. New paint in the cafeteria, maybe a colorful mural, so that students wouldn't have to look at that flaky, gray mess anymore. A free coat voucher program in the winter so that no kid has to walk to school cold."
Tasha shoveled another bite of Brown Betty into her mouth, nodding. "There you go."
I thought about how else the money could benefit the school, my mind drifting. I wondered if some of it could be set aside to start a college scholarship program for some of the most impoverished kids.
But after only a few moments, I gave my head a sudden and hard shake. "No. Why am I even thinking about this? There won't even
any money for the school. Because I'm not taking it. Period. Final. End of story."
"How could I even consider taking it? I love Benito more than I've ever loved any man before. Ever. His love is worth more than all the money in the world to me."
" Tasha looked up from the nearly empty dessert pan, a few crumbs scattered across the front of her shirt. "Are you sure that's your final, final answer?"
"Positive. I can't be bought."
"Well, then, you know what you gotta do."
"You gotta go see your boy and tell him all what happened. You gotta tell him what a total freakin', sneakin' witch his mama is."
Tasha soon left, leaving her dirty dessert pan in my sink, and I changed out of my cleaning clothes and got into a cab while thunder from an approaching storm rumbled. I called Benito on the way to his apartment, just to make sure he was home. He was, and asked what I was up to.
"Well, I'm actually on my way to see you right now. I need to talk to you, and it's important."
"Is everything okay? Are you all right?"
"I'm fine, and there's no emergency, but no, everything's not okay." I rested my head against the cab window, watching raindrops slide down its surface. "Everything
is -- everything's so messed up, Benito."
He told me that whatever it was could be worked out and that everything would be fine. "But please tell me what's got you so upset."
"I can't. I'm sorry. It's just too complicated. I'll tell you everything when I see you."
Benito said that was fine and that he loved me.
I pressed a finger against the window, tracing the line of two plump raindrops as they fell, side by side. "I love you, too. More than any amount of money. More than anything."
When I got to his apartment, I let him hold me while he asked if I was okay. But soon I pulled away, thinking about his mother's glaring, hateful face, anger rising in me once again.
I pulled the check from Elza out of my pocket and gave it to him. "This was hand-delivered to me by your mother earlier. Turns out she's
okay with you having a non-Italian girlfriend. Very not okay, in fact. She said I'll never be accepted into your family, and I'll never be welcome. The money is to pay me off to never have anything to do with you ever again."
Benito studied the check, his face a mask of complete shock. "Is this some sort of a joke?"
"I wish. That's what I asked, too, at first."
"But my mother never would --"
"Oh, she would. And she did."
"But this is just so out of character for her. She --"
"How well do you really know your mother? Because she seemed pretty authentic to me today."
He raked a hand through his hair. "Look. I know from experience that at times, when she wants to get her way, my mother can be a little manipulative and hostile. But I just can't believe that she would do a thing like this. I just can't believe she'd sink so low. I just have to believe this is some sort of misunderstanding."
"Well, I didn't misunderstand anything when she told me that I'm now to address her as
. Because we're not friends anymore, I guess. Oh, and I don't think I misunderstood anything when she handed me the check and said, 'Do not ever contact my son again.' Pretty sure I understood that crystal clear."
Benito scrutinized the check again. "This just has to be some sort of...bizarre misunderstanding. I just can't believe it. I just can't believe my own mother would do this. Are you sure that every single thing happened exactly as you're saying it did?"
I folded my arms across my chest. "Think I'm lying?"
Benito looked into my eyes, his expression unreadable, and then sighed. "No. No, I don't. And I'm sorry if I made it seem as if I were suspecting you of that. I know you're telling me the truth. I guess I'm just in shock, grasping at straws." He sank down on the plush cream-colored couch. "I think my mother has done this before. I suspected her of doing some sort of meddling at the time, but I eventually gave her the benefit of the doubt and moved on. And now this."
I sat down next to him on the couch and took the check from him. "Let's rip this up right this second."
Benito took my hand to stop me, chuckling. "No, don't. I want you to cash it and do whatever you want with it. Use some of it on your school kids and some of it to spoil yourself. Or do whatever else you'd like with it, doesn't even matter. This way, my mother will lose twice for hurting you and trying to meddle in my life."
He suddenly stood and pulled his phone from his pocket, the muscles in his strong jaw working. Thunder rumbled in the distance.