A great debate had broken out in the backseat of the car. Cornel quietly observed the theatrics through glances in his rearview mirror as he pushed a cassette tape into the car’s stereo deck. Dee, in the front passenger seat, looked on as the three young boys in the backseat—Tad, Terrance, and Lamonte—argued over who among them should be Hazel, the leader of the group of refugee rabbits in Watership Down, the matinee movie they’d just seen at the Bethany West Theater, the soundtrack of which was now emanating throughout Cornel’s Chevy Nova.
Finally, Terrance, the oldest at six, raised his hand and settled the matter:
“I’m Hazel because I’m the biggest. You,” he said, poking a finger into three-year-old Lamonte’s chest, “can be Fiver, Hazel’s little brother.”
“I wanna be Hazel!” protested Lamonte.
Tad, feeling left out, patted Terrance on the arm. “Who am I, Terrance?”
Lamonte smacked his other arm: “I wanna be Hazel!”
“Shhh, Lamonte, I’m thinking,” said Terrance, his hand cupped to his chin. Suddenly his face brightened. “Tad, you can be Kehaar! You’re a seagull!”
Thrilled, Tad lifted his arms aloft and gracefully flapped them in perfect time to the lilting alto sax of Kehaar’s Theme playing on the car’s tape deck.
“I soar! I glide! I circle!” cried Tad.
“Fly, Kehaar!” shouted Terrance.
Entranced, little Lamonte stopped smacking his big brother’s arm and watched Tad’s graceful performance with a mix of awe and envy. When the song ended and Tad’s winged flight was over, Lamonte smacked Terrance’s arm anew, shouting:
“I wanna be Kehaar!”
The group’s daytime outing had started out picture perfect: Cornel with his two sons and Dee with Tad, all huddled together in the back row of the theater enjoying Watership Down in the relative privacy and anonymity of the darkened movie house. But, now, at the Dairy Queen where they’d stopped for an after-movie treat, Dee felt the chill of disapproval from other patrons as the five stood together at the counter. The white, matronly server at the counter cast a condescending eye upon Dee, then an oh-so-subtle sneer at Cornel as he placed their orders. When it came time to pay, he handed her a ten-dollar bill, but the server passively refused to take the bill from him, leaving Cornel to set the bill on the counter and slide it at her. Only after he retracted his hand from the bill did the woman finally reach for it and stuff it in the register; she gave him the change he was due in the same insulting manner.
Visibly upset, Dee snatched their orders from the counter and fled to a corner table, trying, in vain, to ignore the derisive scowl from the white-haired codger who stood in line behind them. Cornel followed close behind, herding the boys to the table before helping each into their seats. After he pulled up his chair, he and the boys dug into their ice cream delights while Deirdre sat, just staring at hers. She thought about Eli and their time together at the State Fair and how differently people had reacted toward them—she wasn’t aware of any disapproving looks when she was with Eli. So why now, here, were people acting so outwardly cruel towards her and Cornel? Perhaps Eli’s light complexion and local celebrity afforded him some level of immunity from the passive-aggressive racism she and Cornel were eliciting. The cold regard and looks of condemnation that now assaulted the blended group of five transported Dee right back to Hope, Arkansas, and the toxic bigotry of the all-white church community she’d grown up in. She had thought Phoenix would be different.
Cornel reached across the table and lightly touched her white-knuckled fist as it gripped her spoon.
“Just ignore them,” he said, gently.
“How?” asked Dee, through clenched teeth.
Cornel plucked the black cherry atop the whipped cream of his banana split and held it aloft, as if a prized delicacy to be cherished and savored. “Don’t let their ignorance ruin our fantastic day,” he said. “Let’s all just enjoy our ice cream.” With that, he slipped the fruit into his mouth, closed his eyes and relished its sweetness.
Dee looked down at her own dish, a scoop of snowy white vanilla ice cream topped with a deep, dark and decadent chocolate sauce, intriguing in its contrast, both in hue and flavor. She relaxed her grip on the spoon she held, lifted it and sank it into the sundae, extracting a heaping spoonful, one far bigger than her mouth could possibly hold; yet she devoured it in a single, unapologetic bite as chocolate sauce seeped from the corners of her lips and dribbled down her chin—much to the amusement of three wide-eyed, but otherwise oblivious, kids who were now howling with joy.
Cornel followed suit with a supersized spoonful of his own, wholly untroubled by the spectacle he was making with the whipped cream mustache and goatee he now sported, and it was all Dee could do in that moment to keep herself from crawling across the table to lick the whipped cream from his profoundly beautiful face.
As the kids dug into their own dishes and stuffed their mouths beyond capacity, making wonderful messes of themselves, Cornel and Dee looked across the table at one another in a wordless exchange of understanding, both sets of eyes brimming with mischief and rebellion and a heedless frivolity that Dee had never before experienced, but had, she now knew, longed for all her life.
This, she thought, is what happiness feels like.
In spite of the chattering and giggling of the boys coming from the back seat, the drive back to Dee’s apartment was one of quiet reflection. She and Cornel both sat in silence during the drive, exchanging prolonged glances and soft smiles every so often, neither feeling the need or want to speak, as if each feared the sound of their spoken words might shatter the inner peace and contentment they were both feeling after a spending their first full day together.
Dee couldn’t help but compare Cornel to Eli. In every respect, the two couldn’t have been more different. While Eli’s flirtatious, talkative, and energetic style had initially seduced her, it was Cornel’s quiet, calm, and comforting demeanor that made her realize it was substance she longed for in a man, not style. Eli was that new pair of stilettos that made your arches ache and rubbed blisters on your heels but you wore them anyway, in spite of the pain, because they were flashy and made your legs look good. Cornel was that favorite pair of jeans, made soft and comfortable by a hundred trips through the wash cycle, and faded to perfection by the afternoon sun after countless hours spent flapping in the wind on the clothesline—jeans you practically lived in because they made you feel at home no matter where you were.
Dee ran a hand down the soft denim of her jeans, her favorite pair, then glanced over to Cornel, who caught her look and returned it with a smile before turning his eyes back to the road. A bit of a ruckus erupted in the backseat, pulling Cornel’s eyes to the rearview mirror.
“Boys, settle down now.”
“He keeps hitting me!” cried Terrance.
“Lamonte, stop hitting your big brother.”
“I not hitting!” yelled Lamonte as he smacked Terrance against the side of his head.
“See?!” cried Terrance.
“Lamonte, I said knock it off. Keep your hands to yourself,” Cornel admonished, in a calm and measured voice.
A moment of quiet fell over the back seat…only to be broken by a loud and explosive—and stinky—fart.
“Oh, pew!” said Tad, holding his nose.
Terrance waved his hands about. “Open the windows!”
“Who did that?” asked Cornel, smiling at the boys in the rearview mirror. “C’mon, now, fess up…”
Tad and Terrance both pointed at little Lamonte whose raucous giggling declared his guilt.
Dee watched the fun with quiet contentment, her heart filled to the brim with a sense of family and belonging. She was in her favorite jeans and here, in this moment, at this time and in this space, she felt blissfully at home.
When the group arrived at her apartment complex, Cornel walked Dee and Tad to their door as his two boys waited in the car. Dee unlocked and opened the door, then ushered Tad inside. “Tell Cornel ‘thank you’, Tad.”
“Thank you for the ice cream,” said Tad, still holding on to Dee’s hand. He reached out across the threshold to take Cornel’s hand, bridging the distance that separated Cornel from his mother.
Cornel and Dee lingered, each holding onto Tad, neither wanting to say good-bye, neither wanting this day to come to an end.
“You sure you won’t stay for dinner? You and the boys are more than welcome.”
Tad looked to Cornel, his eyes beseeching.
“I’ve got to get the kids back to their mother. She’s expecting them by six. If I’m late, I’ll never hear the end of it.”
“I thought you had them for the whole weekend,” said Dee.
“I’m supposed to. But she’s always got some excuse for me to bring them home early. Tonight, it’s a birthday party for her cousin, the boys’ godmother. Weekend before last, it was because her best friend was in town. It’s always something. It’s like she doesn’t trust that I can take care of them for a whole two days.”
“Or maybe it’s her way of manipulating you, through the boys. Either way, it’s really unfair to you.”
“Yeah, I know, but what can I do?”
Dee stepped closer, narrowing the space between them, and touched a consoling hand to Cornel’s cheek. The three stood for a long moment, fixed in time and space as Tad looked up at the two whose hands he held, both of whom were looking deep into one another’s eyes. The moment was pregnant with the expectation of a first kiss. Instead, Cornel gently pulled Dee’s hand from his face, returning it to her. Her disappointment was visible.
“I’m sorry. My life is such a mess right now, all I can offer you is friendship. I need to keep things—us—strictly platonic. You see, my wife doesn’t want the divorce. She’s fighting me on every front and trying to make my life so miserable, I’ll give up and go back to her. If she thought I was involved with someone else, she could really make things ugly, even threaten to take the boys away. I just can’t risk that right now. Besides, it wouldn’t be fair to pull you and Tad into our little war zone.”
Inside, Dee’s heart was breaking, but she understood his reasoning and accepted his terms, albeit with remorse. “I understand,” she replied. “I’m happy to return your friendship and to keep things platonic…if that’s what you want.”
“It’s not what I want, but it’s what’s best,” said Cornell. He glanced down at Tad: “For everyone.”
Dee nodded, knowing he was right. “You should get going, before Lamonte takes your car for a joy ride.”
Laughing, Cornel squeezed both their hands before releasing them, then turned to leave, throwing a question over his shoulder as he departed: “Can I call you later tonight, after I’ve dropped off the boys?”
Dee called after him: “I would love that.” She had barely uttered the words, and Cornel was still well within eyesight when she realized…
She missed him already.