"You look like that girl from 'Thriller.' That girl that played alongside me. Ahh... What was her name?" I snapped my fingers, trying to remember. Shana was dressed in a schoolgirl costume that resembled my previous castmate in the "Thriller" video, but I couldn't remember her name for the life of me. "I actually found her in a Playboy magazine. When I saw her, I knew she was the one. Dang. Why can't I remember that girl's name?"
"Ola Ray?" Shana suggested.
"Yes!" I snapped and pointed in her direction. "Yes, her! You look just like her in that costume." How could I forget her name? At the beginning of my marriage, Jermaine's now ex-wife Hazel made it a point to try to ruin my marriage by mentioning a previous fling with her. She wasn't important enough to remember then, just as much as now, I guess.
She twirled around. "You really think so?"
"Yes," I laughed. "That's crazy, isn't it? Someone must have looked at 'Thriller' for inspiration or something."
She shook her head and laughed. "Aren't you hot in that fat suit?"
"You think I'm not?" I laughed. "I went to visit my mother in this, and she about freaked out."
"Oh, my God... I can't believe you scared your mother like that."
"I didn't mean to scare her, really. But I sure did get a kick out of it. This costume really has its advantages."
"Like what?" She sat down beside me.
"Well, for one. I can drive without people staring at me. I can walk around without people wondering if it's me or not... You know you have a lot of freedoms that I don't have. I have to experience all that in a costume of a white man that I'm impersonating." I laughed, trying to lighten the now somber conversation.
Shana searched my eyes and pushed strands of the wig away from them. "Is it really hard being you?"
"It is. It may not seem like it, but it is. I'd give anything to be normal. That's why I did my best to shield Shayla from it."
"That's why you kept her out of the public eye for ten years?"
"It may sound absurd, but I did. I didn't want her to have to experience what I've had to go through all my life. And because of that, I actually fear for my children. I'd hate for them to be subjected to the spotlight simply because I'm their father. I want to protect them as much as I can."
"When are you and Shayla having children?"
I shrugged and tore my gaze from her. This conversation wasn't nearly as tough to me as it was to Shayla, but it definitely brought back what happened. "I don't know anymore. We've tried and we're still trying, but it never works."
"If you don't mind me asking, why did you all wait so long?"
That's a great question and I've always had a great answer for it. I know why I waited. Shayla knows why we waited so long. I don't regret waiting at all actually. But sometimes, I do wonder if it would have been better had we started when she was younger. "We were both working on our careers. We simply wanted to enjoy ourselves, our new marriage, and our lives before bringing children into the world. But even when we were ready, it's been tough for us..."
"The miscarriage..." I looked her in the eye to find understanding, sympathy, and kindness. Only a few people have sympathized with me over that. Shayla got more sympathy than I ever did. I mean, people told me they were sorry for my loss and whatnot, but no one thought to comfort me the way they were comforting Shayla. And here Shana was showing me that she cared. "That really hurt you, didn't it?"
"Of all days, it happened on my birthday. Right when I was already warmed up to the idea of celebrating that day. When that happened, I was reminded why I shouldn't celebrate."
She pressed her lips together and placed her hands on mine. Even in this ridiculous costume, she could see me. See right through me, it seemed. "I know you wanted to give everything to that child."
"I would have given them the world." I sighed. "You know, sometimes I wonder if it happened because we waited too long. I mean, there was so much going on at that time. So much... But when we found out she was pregnant, that was after all the hysteria. So, everything should have been fine, right? I guess not..."
"I don't think you've really healed from that."
"I never really talked about it, so no. I didn't heal from it. And she went through so much after it happened. So much. I guess I was the cause of all that, but even after that, she was still picking up the pieces. I tried to help, but she would only let me help so much. And when I wanted to try again, it was always too soon. We're in our thirties now, Shana. I've heard the older you get, the more complicated it gets. I just want my wife to get pregnant and go full-term. That's all. I love her a lot. I do, but... Sometimes I wonder if we should have had children when we were younger so we wouldn't have to encounter this fertility problem." I shook my head. "We should have had children when Shayla was younger... like you." I looked Shana in the eye.
I could tell that she didn't know what to say. In fact, in all her seriousness, she was blushing. She didn't know what to say to that. I didn't mean anything by it. I was just stating the truth. If Shana was to get pregnant right now, she wouldn't have half the problems Shayla is having. That's just a fact.
"Your time will come. I know it will. God knows how badly you and Shayla want children. It'll happen in due time." She finally said.
"Yeah." I sighed. "You've got a point there." My mobile phone rang. "Hello?"
"We need you on set," Stan answered.
"Gotcha. I'll be down there." I hung up. "Thanks for the chat, Shana." I helped her up.
"Anytime you want to talk to me, I'm always here for you, Michael. You know that."
"You're a true friend." I helped her down the stairs.
"Thank you, Michael. That means a lot coming from you."
"No, seriously. You're amazing. Why did I-" I shook my head. "Never mind. Let's get on set before Stan rips me a new one."
"When's the last time you've been in an arena and you weren't the star?" Robert asked Michael as he came back down our aisle to sit. Michael took some time off from filming to fly to Ohio with me so that we could join my family's caravan to Nashville. Robert gifted Daddy a new RV a couple of months ago and with all that excitement of finally being able to drive it, Daddy somehow managed to turn a four-hour drive into three hours and fifteen minutes. That man will road trip like it's no problem and dare someone to pull him over. It amazes me how much energy he still has.
David, Audrey, and DJ flew over as well, which actually caught me by surprise, but I was glad to see him, nonetheless. Andy couldn't keep her hands off of little DJ no matter how much she tried. I'm assuming it was her first time seeing her new cousin. It's always amazed me how well she was with children, but it made sense with her being the eldest of five. Seeing Andy grow up has been a real treat. She's almost like a mini Mariah, but not as bad. To be honest, she's probably what Mariah could have been if there wasn't a fifteen-year gap along with being spoiled rotten. Even then though, she's still so close to Mariah no matter what. And I wouldn't be surprised if Mariah takes her under her wing when Andy graduates high school.
"I still can't believe Michael wore that ridiculous costume. He couldn't find anything else to wear?" Mary asked me.
I sucked my teeth. Out of everyone, she's been the main one having an issue with the way Michael decided to come to the graduation. "How else was he going to get in here unnoticed?"
"He could have worn something else. Now everyone is going to think you're married to some fat white guy. And poor Mariah is going to have him all in her photos lookin' a fool."
"If Mariah doesn't have a problem with it, why do you? She doesn't care. As long as she looks good in the photos, she doesn't have a problem. What is it with you, Mary? Dang!"
"It's hot. The ride down in that motorbus or whatever you call it was long. I can't wait to get out of here. It's been an hour already. When are they going to call her?"
I ignored her and tapped Michael on the shoulder. "How you doin', baby? You hot?"
"Nope. I'm fine!" He sat back and rested his hands on his prosthetic belly. I could tell he really enjoyed being in this costume. It made it easier to walk out in public for sure, but I can only wonder how long he's going to be able to take it in that suit. I looked down at my pager to see '121 911.' "You alright?"
"Yeah," I pulled out my phone. "Carol just paged me." I dialed her number and waited for her to answer.
"They found LaToya." She answered.
My eyes widened in shock. "Who found her?"
"Randy! He found LaToya and he's bringing her back home as we speak." She cried. "Randy said when he found her, she was so bruised up, Shayla. Is Michael with you? Tell Michael his sister is okay."
"I will... I'm so glad she's okay. Where will she be?"
"Randy is taking her to Hayvenhurst once they get back. Katherine is bawling, Shayla. It's been years!"
"I know, I know..." I sighed. I wondered how Michael would take the news. Surely, he'd be glad to know that his sister was okay, but after she said all those nasty things about him on-air, I don't know if their relationship will ever be the same. "I'll tell him. We're at my sister's graduation right now, so I'll call you when we get to the hotel tonight."
"I'm sorry. Oh wow! Tell her I said, 'congratulations!'"
"I will. Talk to you later, girly." I hung up and put my phone in my purse.
"What's going on?" Michael asked me.
"LaToya's coming back home."
"She is?" He answered a little too quickly. After realizing his own excitement, he toned it down. "Oh. Well, is everything alright?"
"Randy found her and he's bringing her to Hayvenhurst. Carol said she has bad bruises on her. I'm sure he'll get her checked out. I'm just glad she's okay." He sat quietly for a moment. Aside from the crazy things she said about him, that's still his sister, so I know he's glad to hear that she's doing well. But I also know that he's definitely thinking about how she also had a share in trying to ruin his career.
"I have to see her for myself." He finally said. "I want to make sure she's okay. You know, make sure she looks the same. Make sure she's the sister I've always known her to be." I'm sure she's changed over the years. From the Playboy spread to releasing an awful book about the family to even the allegations... She's been through a lot and I'm sure that's taken a toll on her. All those years away from her family and now she's coming back. This will be an interesting reunion.
"As soon as we get back, we have to go visit her," I suggested.
"Yeah, we do."
I looked up at the stage to hear that they were getting closer to saying Mariah's name. A Bachelor's in the Arts. I couldn't be any prouder of her. My family now has three college graduates. It's amazing to see how the three youngest got college degrees, but the two oldest didn't. They didn't have to either. You don't need a degree to be successful. As a baby boomer, college wasn't a choice. And when it was mentioned as a choice, people shot that down immediately. I'm glad my parents were against the grain. They raised us in the way we should go, the best way they knew how, and we grew up successfully because of that.
"Mariah Elise Johnson." The dean announced my sister's name over the microphone. We all stood up and shouted praises for my sister as she walked across the stage and accepted her degree. She beamed as she paused for a moment and looked out at the crowd, frantically waving to us.
"I did it, Ma!" She shouted, causing nearly everyone in the stadium to laugh.
"That's my baby sister! Y'all better give it up for Mariah Elise, now!" Matthew clapped louder than everyone it seemed as he continued to congratulate my sister. Rachel sunk down in her seat in embarrassment at her husbands' antics. She must not be used to his mess yet. Even after all this time. I'm sure MJ is going to turn out just like Matthew. That's going to be a sight to see.
After graduation was over, we all migrated outside and waited for Mariah to join us. Michael was starting to get hot and couldn't wait to get to the hotel. DJ and MJ were getting fussy. Nate, Kyla, and Nova couldn't stop running all over the place. It was pretty fair to say that everyone couldn't wait to eat and relax after this.
"Daddy!!!" Mariah ran over and gave my father the biggest hug. "I got a degree now! Y'all can't tell me nothin'!" She laughed and showed us her degree.
"I'm so proud of you, baby!" Mom couldn't stop her tears for some reason. I guess it was the fact that her baby was finally all grown up and would officially be out on her own for good. I was the last child until Mariah came and now, she can't help but cry about her last baby. Understandable. I guess I'd be bawling all over the place if my official last child was all grown up too. "My baby is all grown up. What am I gonna do now?"
"Mom, cut the waterworks." Mariah sucked her teeth. "All these grandchildren you got. You don't need to cry, come on now. You have eight more graduations to go to. You'll be a'ight." She laughed and waved mom off. "Guys, I want pictures! Come on! Darius!" She shouted for one of her friends. "Can you come over here and take our picture?" He hurried over and grabbed Daddy's camera as we all situated ourselves around Mariah. It's funny because these photos will really have Michael in his costume... Lord. It'll be a funny memory though. And Mariah did say she didn't want Michael to take away all the shine at her graduation. Darius took a couple of photos of us and handed the camera back to Daddy. "I just know I better look good in those pictures, Darius," Mariah warned.
"Mariah, you know you looked good. Quit playin'." He shook his head and went about his way.
"Thank y'all for flying over. It means the world that y'all came." She came over to hug me and Michael. "Even though you look absolutely ridiculous in that costume." She laughed and looked Michael over.
"You don't think I look dashing?" Michael spun slowly for her to see his attire. "I've got to admit, I'm hot as all get out though."
"I'm sure! Imagine what my friends will say when I show them this picture. This is gonna be epic."
"Mariah, we're about to do our stroll, come on!" One of her sorors came over and grabbed her arm.
"Alright, I'll be over there. Give me one second."
"Mariah, Shayla, and I wanted to give you a little graduation gift." Michael went into his pocket and pulled out an envelope.
"What is it?" Mariah smirked.
"Open it and see." He handed her the envelope and watched as she hurriedly opened it. She covered her mouth as she pulled out a check.
"What is it, Mariah?" Matthew wondered.
"Thirty-thousand G's!!!" She squealed and pulled both of us in for a hug. "Ahh! Thank you, Michael! Thank you, Shayla!"
"Mariah! Come on!" Her soror insisted.
"Oh my, God... Coming!" She hurried to put the envelope in a pocket and handed me her gown. "Y'all gotta come watch me stroll. Come on." We followed behind her as she led us to the front of the stadium where she and several other sororities and fraternities would be performing. "Skeeeeeeeeeeee-wee, skee-wee!" Mariah held her pinky up and twirled her hand in the air as she lined up with her sisters. Kudos to Mariah for following through with her dreams and becoming what she always wanted to be. I could never see myself in a sorority, but I will say that I missed out on that HBCU experience. That's an experience that can happen once in a lifetime. Something that shouldn't be taken for granted. I mean, at least I got a degree, but that HBCU life is something you can never get out in the real world. Mariah knew we were proud of her. She's truly blessed to have a family that will be there for her every step of the way and who's willing to help her out despite it all. Now with that, $30,000 she just received from us, she better put that to good use, because I'd hate to see all of that go down the drain.
"Stroll? What's that?" Michael asked me.
"You're about to see." The ladies of Alpha Kappa Alpha lined up in a single file line and stared straight ahead, presumably waiting for whoever was to lead. Lo and behold, Mariah started to sing for the audience to get ready for the "Alpha Train." Her sisters joined in and followed behind her lead as they stomped and clapped along with the beat. They sang about their appointed colors and the style and grace that comes along with being an AKA. Once they were in a newly formed line, "C'mon and Ride it" by the Quad City DJ's came on. The ladies danced accordingly and once the song was over, they immediately began to perform their stroll. An intricate combination of stomps, claps, and arm movements. Mariah and her sorors belted out their "skee-wee" call again as they continued to dance.
"You mean to tell me; Mariah can dance and do this?" Michael watched intently, studying the ladies' movements.
"Why do you think she wants to be a dancer?"
"We are the ladies. Of pink and green. The prettiest ladies. You've ever seen! One, one, one, one, nine... Oh, eight, oh, eight, oh, eight! Skeeeeee-wee, skee wee!" They stood tall and waved their pinkies in the air as everyone clapped and hollered.
"Mariah, that was something!" Michael told her as she came back over to us.
"What? You ain't never seen a stroll? That was nothing for real." Mariah waved off the thought.
"My baby is growing up, James!" Mom wailed and hugged Daddy. Lord...
"You're gonna have to show me some of that, Mariah. That was something!" Michael shook his head in disbelief.
"I think you'd be better of learning from the frats, Michael. The Que's... While they're nasty... They put on the best stuff. I know a couple of them. I'll put you in touch."
"Thanks, because that... That was black ass! I loved it!"
"Mmmhm. Where are we going for dinner? I'm meeting up with all my friends after dinner with you guys, so we don't have to worry about pictures or anything."
"You tell us." Daddy suggested. "You know more about Nashville than we do."
"Ooo! Let's go to Monell's! Y'all gon' love that. They got chicken and a seafood buffet... Mmm! My mouth is watering just thinking about it."
"How are you holding up, baby?" I asked Michael.
"I'd really like to get out of this costume," he fanned himself.
"Before we go, Michael's got to get out of these clothes," I told everyone.
"He isn't gonna blow his cover, is he?" Rachel asked.
"At this point," Mariah interrupted. "I don't care. Let's just eat!" I guess that settles that then.
Authors Note: I am not an AKA. I'm not apart of Alpha Kappa Alpha, Inc. Therefore, I do not claim to have made up the AKA call or the pinky hand sign. I just wanted to reflect HBCU Sorority life in my book as I saw fit; especially since I didn't get to experience HBCU life for four years. Maybe this will give you as readers a glimpse into the life as well.