La Toya Hankins

_____ She was the living embodiment of her name.
_____Neal and I were at our usual Saturday nightspot on a balmy April evening at the only black gay club in town. He and I sat side by side at the bar in our usual positions, close enough to the door to see the flow of the patrons but not in the way of people trying to get their drink on before they headed downstairs to the dance floor.
_____After getting our first drinks of the evening we decided to head downstairs to get caught up in the house music the DJ was spinning.
_____I was nursing my first drink of the evening and Neal was barreling down his Corona as fast as he could so we could head downstairs. He had seen his ex flounce past about five minutes ago with his new thing and Neal wasn't about to take that sitting down.
_____"I don't know who he thinks he is, coming in here with a boy half his age. I am just going to have go downstairs and show Ms. Bitch a thing or two," Neal said, landing his beer bottle down with a solid thunk on the black marble bar. Kelly, the bartender lifted one eyebrow as she stepped over to make sure we didn't need anything.
_____"Alright Neal, don't start nothing tonight. Butch is in a bad mood tonight and just itching to throw somebody out. Since the two of you are some of my best customers, I would hate to lose out on my tips," she said, smiling in my direction.
_____I smiled back but didn't say anything. Neal always brought the drinks so whether he tipped her or not was his concern
_____ "I'm cool Kelly. I'm not going to cause any trouble but I can't believe the gall of Derrick coming in here. He knows Jade and me always come here on Saturday. When we dated, he acted like this was the pit of hell."
_____"Y'all been broke up for two months so I guess he just wanted to show that he is over you," I said, finishing the last of my drink and sliding off the blue cushioned bar stool.
_____"C'mon let's go down stairs and check out the scene. Hell, he came here to see you so let's not disappoint him."
_____Linking arm and arm, Neal's 6'2 lithe dancer's body and my 5'4 former track runner shape climbed down the winding metal staircase to arrive in the club's dim basement. Since this was the first warm night of April, the place was packed. Hard-core butches were representing wearing their hiking boots, hockey jerseys and jeans dragging off their asses. They were the lesbians who felt in order to be a lesbian they must look and act like men. This included wearing their hair cut close or braided back like pro basketball players. Those that were solo clung together like a group of junior high school boys at their first dance, eyeing the girls on the other side of the room and cracking loud jokes that weren't really funny.
_____The studs, as my friend Caren would call them, that did have girls propped them on their laps like ventriloquist dummies stroking their assess like they were rubbing a genie's lamp. These were the femme lesbian or super women I called them. They had to broadcast their femininity with dagger long nails, back length weaves and enough make-up at home and on their face to open up their own counter. The girls with their $60 hairdos and $120 dresses and 4-inch high shoes that matched their clothes didn't care. Hell, they knew how to play the game of being the woman in the relationship even though nine times out of ten, the stud had more breasts than their women did
_____On the flip side of the club equation were the queens or sissy men, as my mother would say. They were the ones who had to over emphasize their female tendencies and actions just like the butch women downplayed theirs. Their permed hair were always tight and they had mastered the art of trying to outdo each other without really acknowledging each other's presence. Their faces were always made up flawless and their shrieks of showing how much they were having a good time filled the air like a flock of rare tropical birds.
_____While Neil's eyes peered through the smoky haze to find Derrick, I just looked around to see whom I could see. I wasn't trying to get my mack on tonight. I had gotten my ex Diane finally out of my system and I just wanted to have fun tonight with my best male friend and work out the week's troubles on the dance floor
_____That was when I saw her sitting there in a corner smoking a cigarette, body shifting in her seat to the thumping beat of DMX. I almost stopped breathing as I caressed her pecan colored complexion with my eyes. From the three-person length I was away from her I could see that her eyes were closed as she rocked her head to the beat of the song. She was sitting at a table, so all I could see was that she was wearing glasses and had shoulder-length hair. She was sitting by herself but I could see there was another chair in front of her. I thought to myself, she probably has someone, I don't have a chance.
_____Neal saw me staring at her and nudged me to go over and talk to her. I shook my head like I know she is cute but I don't want to start anything I can't finish. I mean, hell, her girl could be in the bathroom or getting a drink at the bar. He shrugged his shoulders and reached into his pocket and pulled out a cigarette. As he inhaled on his Camel, the song changed to a song by Puffy, which marked a change of guard on the dance floor. It was then the girl stood up and as if it was a dream, began walking toward us.
_____"Excuse me. . .you got a light," this husky voice asked Neal. She was about 5'8" and was posed almost in front of me. I could smell her perfume and it filled my head with possibilities.
_____"Sure," Neal said, handing her his lighter. As she moved the lighter to her unlit cigarette in her mouth she smiled at me through the flicker of the butane flame.
_____"My name is Epiphany. what's yours," she asked.
_____"I like that," she nodded. Neal feeling his service was no longer needed but not wanting to abandon his lighter cleared his throat. She handed it to him and nodded her thanks.
_____"You want a beer," asked Epiphany.
_____"Surprise me. I'm open to whatever possibilities you are offering."
_____She raised her eyebrows slightly, then walked to the bar.
_____"You go girl! I'm getting ready to mingle since you seemed to be taken care of," Neal said then walked away. He got about five steps then turned back and leaned down and whispered in my ear.
_____"Don't get too caught up and leave my black ass."
_____"You know I wouldn't do you like that."
_____"Sure," he said over his shoulder as the crowd swallowed him up.
_____Soon Epiphany was standing beside me handing me a Bud Light. We stood in silence sipping our beers and moving to the beat. She was even better looking up close. Her broad shoulders and tight stomach made her red shirt a target for my eyes. Trying not to be so obvious, I looked behind to see what her caboose looked like and was pleased when I saw baby got back.
_____"Listen, this music and those queens on the floor trying to vogue are giving me a headache. Do you want to go into the lounge and talk," she said, turning her head in my direction.
_____I nodded sure and followed her into the side room, which were filled with soft plush sofas and chairs for people to take a load off of their feet and minds.
_____We sat there and talked for hours about art, music and books. She was 30 and worked as an engineer. She had done a stint in the Air Force, following in the footsteps of her older brother and dad, a plus for her because I love a woman in an uniform. After her tour in the service, Epiphany received her undergraduate degree from NC State -a plus for her, since I also love a woman with a degree. As she moved her lips and told me about growing up in Louisiana, all I could think of was damn; I'm glad I came out tonight. If nothing else came from this meeting I was happy just to be in the presence of this fine educated black woman.
_____She told me that after graduating from State she decided to make Raleigh her home. I told her my reason for being in the capital was because I was born here, the only child of two Shaw University professors who couldn't understand why I haven't gotten my master and still prayed that I would come to my senses and find a husband. They forgave me for going away to Wake Forest in Winston-Salem and not Shaw to get my business degree but they couldn't get my coming out as a lesbian during my first year out of college.
_____"After all, Pumpkin, you're not getting any younger and Poppa and I would like to enjoy our grandchildren," I said mimicking the slow sugary drawl of Marian Water, Ph.D. of English, my esteemed mother.
_____Pif, as she asked me to call her, just smiled at my mockery of the first woman that I have ever loved and my heart sang a joyous chorus. Jade, this could be the start of a beautiful friendship, I thought to myself as I replayed the final scene of Casablanca in my mind.
_____"Jay girl I have been looking all over for you. Derrick is going to get me a ride home so I will see you at church in the morning," Neil said coming over to me and giving me a peck on the check.
_____"Don't forget, the men's choir is supposed to be singing and I'm doing the first solo so have your ass in your favorite pew on time
_____Neal's parting words seemed to bring the evening to a close as I looked at my watch and realized that it was close to 4 a.m. and my bed was beginning to call me.
_____"It's late so I guess you will be heading out soon to go home," Epiphany said while staring into my appreciative eyes with her deep cocoa brown eyes that seemed to consume my entire body.
_____"I know. 11 a.m. will be here before I know it. I better head on to the house," I said not wanting to get up and leave her.
_____We sat there for about five minutes each waiting for the other to offer their number. Then as if on cue we each reached into our pockets to hand each other business cards.
_____ We walked outside together, and in a fit of divine justice encountered my ex walking into the club. The ashy girl with the bad dye and weave job didn't look no where near as good as Epiphany with her tight DKNY jeans shorts and tennis shoes. I saw Diane's store-bought hazel eyes flash a storm of jealousy. But she was civil and hugged me and wished me well.
_____"So I'll give you a call later this week and maybe we can have lunch or coffee," Epiphany said as I got into my Saturn.
_____"Sure. I would like that,"
_____She smiled and walked away as I sent up a silent prayer to God for sending her my way. Epiphany was the first woman to really spark my interest since the break up with Diane. She had been my first serious relationship since coming out in the world and since our break-up wasn't on the best on terms; I was a little shell shocked about exposing myself emotionally to another woman.
_____At church, Neal couldn't look at hymnal for giving me eyes. As he poured out his soul in the stand of Wake Baptist Grove, I could tell he was dying to find out what happened at the club. His curiosity had to wait however until the next day when we met at our usual lunch location to swap tales of Saturday night.
_____I told him how sane Epiphany seemed in comparison to psycho-bitch (his term, not mine) Diane. He in turn told me how Derrick, that low-life, son of a bitch, (my term, not his) had begged his forgiveness for accusing him of infidelity and casting him aside.
_____"Girl, he actually got down on his knees at my house when he dropped me off and asked me to get back with him," Neil said taking a bite of his Veggie Burger. Neal had been a vegan since his freshman year at Florida A&M.
_____"So what was your answer?'
_____"I just fucked him instead and sent him home."
_____"I have taught you well, oh grasshopper," I said bowing my head to him and clasping my hands in front of me before we broke out in laughter. I had done the same thing to Diane after we had broken up when she came begging me to take her back. Even though the sex was good, it wasn't enough to make me forget the heartbreak she had caused me.
_____Work required me to be out of town for the week so it was a welcomed surprise when I got back on Friday to a message from her on my machine. I guess she had gotten the business card which had my home number written on the back. She had left her home number on the answering machine so after taking a hot shower to wash the road off of my body and pouring a glass of iced tea to settle myself, I picked up the trusted cordless and let my fingers do the walking.
_____"I thought you were not as impressed with me as you seemed to be last week," she said when I called her back. In the background I could hear Nina Simone and that registered a big plus sign in my head. I love my powerful black female singers who made you feel what the music -- Nina, Aretha, Patti, and of-course the triumvirate Billie, Sarah and Ella.
_____"Nah, chick, work beckoned so I had to head to Charlotte for three days. And yes, I was very impressed by you or else I wouldn't have given you my home number."
_____"And me you. You were so nice to talk to and to be honest, those jeans were really fitting you well," she said in a husky voice that poured over the telephone lines into my ears.
_____"I don't go out clubbing that much, between my job and volunteering with the battered women's shelter, I don't have the time. But after meeting you I think the trip to the Looking Glass last week was well spent."
_____When she said the battered women's shelter, my eyebrows raised. I mean it's cool for the girl to have a caring streak but the battered women's shelter? Where that one came from I wondered but I figured if we keep talking, the reason for her choice in causes would come up.
_____We talked on the phone for about an hour before I had to admit road fatigue from driving the three hours back home. We agree to meet for brunch the next morning and continue our conversation.
_____Well, let me just tell you, that brunch at Sally's was one magical meal. From that meeting over bacon, French toast, and fruit began a whirlwind courtship that lasted three months. She wooed me like I had never been wooed. She sent flowers to the job, cooked my favorite foods and wowed the panties off of me in the bedroom.
_____In fact, the first night we had sex at my house it blew my mind to the point that I didn't even bother to clean the kitchen after we decided that dessert was going to be each other. For me to leave food sitting out when I am known to be the most anal-retentive cleaner was high praise of how much she blew me away.
_____"Neal, it's like she is a lesbian fantasy come true," I said over dinner at his house. It was a rare weeknight when I wasn't with Epiphany. We spent most of our nights together either at my house or at hers. We took lunch together during the day which often led to sex because she was like a never ending source of good vibrations and always managed to turn me out by simply kissing me in the right spot. That meant that outside of church and occasionally running into him at the club, when I was with Epiphany, I rarely saw Neal
_____So of course, before we could sit down I had to endure my mild tongue lashing about how I have neglected him, receive the tour of his apartment and marvel at his new bric a brac he had purchased to make his house a home.
_____"She is the bomb in bed, intelligent during conversation and Daddy Warbucks when we go out. Did I tell you she sent me a dozen orchids at work then took me out to that fancy restaurant that received four dinner forks in "The Pink Pages" for being a good "family" place to eat an entertain. Plus, this weekend, we are going to Savannah for a romantic weekend."
_____"And what are you doing for her," he asked as he poured wine into our glasses and I put the folks on the table.
_____"I am doing an Anita Baker -- giving her the best that I got. We talk for hours and I always pick up something special for her when I travel on business. She collects cat figurines so whenever I see something cute, I buy it for her. I cook for her since she loves my Bayou recipes and I let the freak nasty part of me run wild when we are sexing. It is so nice to finally be with someone that I don't have to dumb down for or hide that I like a good spanking every now and again."
_____"Damn, girl, I'm jealous of you," Neil said placing another helping of his famous veggie lasagna on my plate after we said grace over our food.
_____"Well, girl you deserve to be happy with someone that seems to be good through and through and treats you like you deserve to be treated. Damn, baby, you and I both know after Diane, Epiphany is a welcomed change."
_____Diane broke my spirit slowly and steadily. She limited my friend and made me choose between my family who wasn't comfortable with a lesbian daughter and her. If I went home too many times, she accused me of not spending time with her and when I didn't go home but called to say hello, she would pick that time to kiss on me.
_____She belittled me when I told her of my plans to develop my artistic talents and become a sculptor. She even doubted if I was really gay, after all, I did have a very active heterosexual life before meeting her. My tears and pleas of my love for her didn't work. In the end, when Diane walked out of our one bedroom apartment, leaving behind a high ass phone bill and the scent of another woman on our bed, I was a wreck who existed only to go to work, come home, and maybe go out to the club with Neal. I gave up a lot for my first lesbian love affair. For the three months after Diane left me I doubted myself as someone who deserved to be looked upon as being an object of stimulation, both mental and emotional.
_____Epiphany fed my mind with stimulating discussions on diverse topics like the slow revocation of affirmative action and the cultural impact of Florida Evans's utterance of "Damn, Damn, Damn James!" on Good Times. She showed me she cared by giving me respect for who I am and for what I wanted to do with my life and for that I am thankful.
_____But in the end, I had to let Epiphany go her own way without me. For all her good things, she had problems that I couldn't solve. One night after making love she began crying. When I asked her why, she revealed that her mother had been a battered woman and that she had to flee to a shelter one night with her children and the clothes on their back when Epiphany's father had pulled out a gun on her and threatened to kill her. Her mother's crime, Epiphany said through watery eyes, she had burned the chicken for dinner. Growing up seeing her mother bend over backwards to please someone who didn't seem to appreciate it, she had vowed never to get too close to anyone or else they might hurt her. She told me that night as we lay on her purple satin seats and held each other close, she could feel I was breaking through the wall she had erected around her and it scared her to death.
_____Growing up in a family full of love where both parents would spend hours talking to each other to avoid going to bed angry, I couldn't relate to her feelings. But once again, I stepped into the role of nurturer and supporter to help her.
_____But soon that began to wear thin and wear me out. She would swing between wanting me to be with her and support her, and then switch to wanting her own space when she felt like I was crowding her. It left me confused, angry and sad; emotions I swore after Diane no other women would put me through that again.
_____But the funny thing was, those times when she put me on a platform and pampered me with kinds words and actions helped me deal with the low points. Epiphany showed me that I shouldn't measure my self-worth by how much I gave to other people but rather of what I give to myself. I am a beautiful woman who deserves the best because I am the best. By me always putting her needs in front of mine, I was shortchanging myself. In order to be an asset to someone else, I had to be my own best supporter. After three months of the seesaw, Epiphany took a vacation to visit her father and talk with him about her feelings. Before she left, we had a long talk and decided that it was best for both of us not to see each other for a while until she could get herself together.
_____Going our separate ways was hard because I had grown to plan my days around seeing her, talking to her, touching her. Many nights I would hold the stuffed white cat she had given me and cried for wanting to be with her. But just as the dawn follows the darkness of night, the light of understanding what I need and what I can offer flooded in my existence. The bottom line was I was going to be OK, with or without her or anyone else in my life. I didn't need a better half to be complete.
_____So that October night, as Neil and I sat side by side at the bar in our usual positions, close enough to the door to see the comings and going of the patrons but not in the way of people trying to get their drink on before they headed downstairs to the dance floor, I felt at peace. I was nursing my first drink of the evening and Neal was barreling down his Coronas as fast as he could so we could head downstairs. We had came to dance and have a good time and we weren't going to delay the fun any longer than we have to.
_____ "Long time no see," the voice behind my head said. I knew who it was before I turned my head. As I swung the chair around, a smile dawned on my face.
_____"Hi Epiphany, how are you?"
_____"Fine, and you?"
_____"You want another beer?"
_____"No, I'm fine," I said smiling.
_____"You want to go downstairs and dance?" she said.
_____"Nah, I'm going to wait. Maybe later."
_____She smiled, nodded her head and walked away.
_____Neil swung his chair around to me and bowed with his hand clasped in front of him.
_____"I have taught you well, grasshopper."
_____"Nah, I just had an Epiphany in my life"


Copyright © 1999. Used by permission of author. All Rights Reserved.

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