AND THEN THERE WAS ME
by Sadeqa Johnson
“And Then There Was Me is a well-written, thought-provoking novel that many women will relate to.” —Kimberla Lawson Roby, New York Times best-selling author of Copycat
“A story of one woman’s journey toward the life she deserves, with plenty of satisfying and surprising twists along the way.” —Kirkus Reviews
Bea and Awilda have been best friends from the moment Awilda threw her fourteen year-old self across Bea’s twin-sized bed as if they had known each other forever. Bubbly, adventurous Awilda taught sheltered, shy Bea how to dress, wear her hair and what to do with boys. She even introduced Bea to her husband, Lonnie, in college, who pledged to take good care of her for the rest of their lives. But philanderer Lonnie breaks that promise over and over again, leaving Bea to wrestle with her self-esteem and long time secret addiction.
Recently Lonnie has plopped the family in a New Jersey upper class suburb, which lacks the diversity that Bea craves but has the school district and zip code envy that Lonnie wants. The demands of carrying a third child and fitting into this new environment while pretending that her husband is not cheating on her again, is more than she can handle. And just when she thinks things can’t get any worst, the ultimate deception snaps the little thread that was holding her life together and all comes tumbling down.
And Then There Was Me is the story of love and friendship, heartache and betrayal. It’s the journey of a woman stripped down to her lowest point and needing to find the will to press on.
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Excerpt Chapter 1
Memorial Day Weekend
Bea hated the beach. The sun didn’t rev up her brain’s endorphins the way it did for most people. In fact, it had the opposite effect on her. She never enjoyed peeling down to her bathing suit. Always feeling hideous in whatever she wore. Most of her time at the shore was spent feeling envious of the pretty girls in the teeny, triangle-topped bikinis, with lotus tattoos on the hollow of their backs. Bea would watch them slip and slide in the sand spiking a volleyball, feeling round where they were flat, ugly where they were cute. It was even worst when she was pregnant.
The other half of her time was spent playing ‘find the shade.’ Bea wasn’t a woman who wanted a suntan, preferring her vitamin D in tablet form only. All day she had constantly moved her chair in search of relief.
“What’re you doing?” Awilda, her best friend, looked over the edge of her cat-eye glasses.
“Trying to stay cool.”
“Why in the hell you come to the beach to do all that is beyond me.”
Awilda was right. The effort it took to keep the sun’s rays from darkening her skin was draining: slathered sunscreen, dark umbrella, floppy hat, wide sunglasses, zinc oxide strip on her nose, and her feet tucked under a dry towel. Even with the prep, Bea still worried the ultraviolet rays were coming through the umbrella roasting her skin by the millisecond.
“The beach was Lonnie’s idea. Not mine.”
“Well next year you need to speak up.”
She had; he just didn’t listen. Bea preferred renting a house on a lake with a wrap around porch, where she could hide under an awning and maxi dress. It was her husband, Lonnie, who insisted on the beach. Spring Lake to be exact. With two miles of white, pristine sand, boarded by the longest non-commercial boardwalk in the State of New Jersey, Spring Lake was a magnet for families of all ages. But the price of the homes made it inaccessible to everyone, and therefore the perfect getaway as far as Lonnie was concerned. It was sanitized and quiet except for the corner Awilda occupied.
Awilda was the contrary to Bea, lounging without the protection of an umbrella in a bright orange, high-waisted bikini. Her hair was big and bushy, and every tune that crooned from her iPhone was her finger-snapping-sing-along-to-the-beat song.
Bea turned her seven-month baby-belly in Awilda’s direction, in time to catch her shoving a handful of cool ranch potato chips into her candy-pink painted mouth.
“You know there’s no eating on the beach, Wilde,” Bea chided.
Awilda knew this. There were signs posted along the boardwalk reminding folks to eat in the Pavilion areas only. In fact, coolers were forbidden and instead left on the boardwalk.
“What’re they going to do? Arrest me?” she smacked her lips.
“Might kick you off the beach.”
“I’d like to see that,” she shoved down two more chips. “We should be in DR instead of this snobby beach anyway. Your mama still have family down there?”
“Mami left Santa Domingo fifty years ago and has never looked back. I keep in touch with my cousins.”
“We need to take a girls trip down there and reconnect with your roots. After you drop that load. No kids, no husbands.” Awilda tilted the bag of chips to her mouth and swallowed the crumbs.
Bea sucked her teeth. “You could at least eat under the umbrella.”
“What’s got you so uptight?”
Bea didn’t want to give voice to what had been nagging at her, so she camouflaged with a lighthearted smile. “Probably just hormones.”
“Well, unwrap that towel from your feet girlfriend and have a little fun.”
“I am,” Bea said. Though fun had become foreign. Since they moved back to New Jersey a year ago, her life had become so tied to keeping up with her husband and two children; there was no space for anything remotely connected to fun. Though she did daydream, and carrying a healthy baby brought her some peace.
“Hold up, wait a minute. This is my song.” Awilda turned up her IPhone even louder than before.
Bea glanced at the older couple reading hardcover books, parked to their right. They were covered in as much stuff as Bea was. The wife looked up at Bea at the same time but didn’t smile.
“Pass it to me.”
“It’s too loud.”
“I can barely hear it.”
Beyoncé seemed to take front and center on their little sliver of beach. Yonce on her knees.
“There are children around, Wilde.”
“It’s the clean version.”
“Do you always have to go against the grain?”
“You’ve known my twenty something years. Don’t act new.”
“This place is conservative I know but…”
“Beasley, please with that mess.” Awilda laughed out loud. “You remember how we use to go to the skating rink on route 22 and dance until we couldn’t breathe?”
Bea’s shoulders relaxed. “Girl, we had to catch two buses. Your mother would have had a cow if she knew we weren’t listening to music in my room.”
“But we went and it was the highlight of our week.”
“Except for you having every girl in Union wanting to fight us.”
“Sis, please! When you started dropping it like it was hot, every boy in the room wanted your number.”
“Well, that’s because I do what I feel. Nothing matters if things don’t feel good. Take lessons, Bea.” Awilda pulled up her shades and caught Bea’s eye. I’m worried about you.”
Bea reached up and repined her bun. “I’m cool. It’s just growing pains. Staying home in the suburbs…it’s not who I am.”
“Sounds pretty cushy to me. I’d give up teaching those bad-ass kids in a minute to be a kept woman.”
“Stop,” she blushed shame.
“Don’t deny it.” Awilda squirted on another layer of suntan lotion.
“You might as well be slathering yourself with cooking oil,” Bea was grateful to be able to change the subject. “Why do you keep putting that crap on anyway? Haven’t you heard of skin cancer?”
“When I get to work on Tuesday, people need to know that I’ve been somewhere.”
“And you’re worried about me?” A mother with a toddler bent over to pick up a seashell in front of them. Bea reached inside her beach bag and tossed her ear buds to Awilda. She caught them in the air and flung them right back.
“Stop tripping, Bease, or you’ll have a nervous breakdown. But don’t fret. I’ll be there making sure you get your food through a tube.”
Bea crinkled her nose. “So funny.”
Awilda pulled her sunglasses back down over her eyes. “You like my bikini?”
“Yeah. It’s cuter than mine. I feel like a tub.”
“Got it online. I wasn’t sure it would fit. You know they don’t make bottoms for a real booty like mine.” Awilda rose from her seat and showed Bea the panties.
“Looks good on you. Glad to see your cheeks contained.”
“I know how to tone it down for a family beach. But when we get to DR, I’m going to let it all hang out,” she laughed.
“Help me up, Crazy.”
Awilda pulled Bea from her beach chair. Then she scooted her things further into the shaded corner and pulled out her sunblock. The saleswoman at Sephora had talked her into spending extra on the European brand because it contained Indian gooseberry extracts, an ingredient that was supposed to prevent tanning. Bea’s father’s African-American blood was enough tint to her skin.
Awilda played a pop song that Bea liked as she gazed down the beach in the direction of her children: Alana, age five, and ten-year-old Chico playing paddleball. The kids were in a rare tender moment, with Chico holding Alana’s hand and showing her how to hit the ball. It warmed her heart and she looked over to her husband to see if he was watching. Lonnie lifted his chin and winked at Bea. Warmth spread between her toes and she winked back. She liked it when Lonnie made her feel like she was the only woman in his world.
Her husband was one of those men who didn’t have to work hard at being gorgeous. God had given him all of the ingredients: amber eyes, buttered skin, and thick, curly hair. It was Lonnie who took it to the next level by living in the gym and wearing clothes that looked tailored to fit. Bea always felt that people were surprised when she introduced him as her husband. In the looks department, she was as plain as nonfat yogurt, a little short and too pear shaped for her own liking, with nostrils that flared too wide, especially during pregnancy. Bea knew that her saving grace was her hair. When it wasn’t pinned up it hung heavily, well below her shoulders in tight ringlets that curled around each other, creating a thick bundle that was full of body.
Bea was still admiring the kids when Lonnie puckered his lips and blew her a kiss. “That man.” She looked over at Awilda. “You know the fool wanted me to have sex in the kitchen over a sink filled with dirty dishes?”
Awilda removed her glasses and pointed them at Bea. “Your ass is stupid. I would do it inside the sink of dishes.”
“It’s sexy.” Awilda pressed her knees together.
“Still a horn dog.”
She fanned. “It’s been too long. Derrick better come correct tonight. It’s our anniversary. Amare’s staying with you. I don’t even want to talk. Just ram it in me.”
“A hot mess.”
“It’s been so off between us lately. I really need this anniversary to make things better. I’m tired, Bease.”
Awilda slipped into her rampage of what was wrong with Derrick but Bea didn’t have to listen. She had heard it all before. How Derrick’s sex drive had plummeted since he was diagnosed with MS. The problems they had living in his mother’s house.
“No matter how much I spend on healthy food, the man is still reaching for the crap that activates his MS.”
Bea nodded her head like she was with Awilda but at that moment it was hard for her to concentrate on anything but the hunger that seemed to swish down on her. It’s been like that through the whole pregnancy. One second she was full and then next she was so hungry she could eat a seashell filled with sand. Her mind started imagining how good a fish sandwich with extra hot sauce and mustard would be. She could taste the grease tinged with the red spicy sauce on her tongue making her whole mouth feel alive.
“You know what I mean?” finished Awilda.
“Yeah.” Bea replied, head in her beach bag. Alana’s goldfish stared at her. Bea wanted to sneak a few in her mouth but Awilda would enjoy it too much. She pushed herself to stand. Adjusted her hat and told Awilda to keep an eye on the kids.
“I’m in the middle of telling you something.”
“Sis, I’ve got to pee. The baby. Be right back.”
In every direction, the beach was packed with people; skinny teens in too small jean shorts, children wearing arm floaties, moms hiding under wide brims and dads napping beneath headphones. It was hard waddling over the sand in her condition and Bea felt self-conscious, like everyone was looking at her. When she reached the boardwalk she rested against the railing and looked out at the water to catch her breath. She could hear the call of the seagulls mixed with the ebb and flow of the waves lapping the shoreline. The vast blueness of the ocean seemed endless. The scent of the salty water made her craving for seafood more intense. She pulled down her beach hat and made her way to the snack shop in the South end Pavilion.
The lunch rush was over and Bea easily found a single seat at the counter. Two stools down from her sat an older man in a tank top watching the baseball game on the television hanging from the ceiling. Country music sounded from the speakers. The waitress nodded her head in Bea’s direction as she wiped the Formica countertop down with a stained towel. It seemed that her hand moved more out of nervous energy then actually trying to get the top cleaned. Bea inhaled the smell of grease.
“What can I get you?”
“Out of fish today. Sorry.”
Bea dropped her hand over her belly to soothe the baby who was kicking on her right.
“Got any shrimp?”
“Out of those too. We didn’t get our shipment this morning and it was a busy lunch. We have hot dogs, burgers, pizza, chicken tenders…”
“I’ll have two hot dogs with ketchup and relish and a large ice water.”
The waitress took a pen from behind her ear. “It comes with potato chips.”
“Hold the chips, please.”
“You can have fries instead.”
She hesitated for only a second and then nodded her head. She would only eat a few fries, she reasoned. Maybe wrap half up for Alana’s snack. Bea glanced up at the game. The Mets were playing the Braves. Baseball was never her sport and she was glad to see the waitress return with the food.
Ketchup went on everything. As she chewed, she looked out over the gorgeous Victorian homes and their manicured lawns that ran along the street side. Now that she was eating hot dogs, she would have to have two greens with her dinner to balance out her intake for the day. Her mind wandered over what she would make for dinner. Did they need to make a stop at the grocery store or was there enough cheese and buns leftover for the burgers? What would they have for dessert? Alana was going to ask. They could go out for ice cream at Hoffman’s. Maybe Lonnie would want to drive the kids to Point Pleasant for the amusement rides. Bea knew that she would be too pooped by nightfall to make the trip, but would she want to send him alone? All of that time away from her would open up the opportunity for him to touch base. But she had no proof. Was she worrying herself to death for no reason, or was Lonnie cheating on her again?
She wrapped her arms around herself and tried not to dwell on the latter. Kept reminding herself that things between them were fine now, and had been for a while, but the feeling gnawed at her. She ate the meal but could barely taste it as she searched for that click in her brain that brought her comfort. It didn’t come. By the time she looked up, her plate was empty except for the remnants of ketchup. All of the fries. Gone. The regret was immediate. Bea belched in her napkin, and breathed back the need to throw it all up. She fixed her eyes on the game, concentrating on the moves of the pitcher until the sensation past.
Bea moved down the boardwalk past the swimming pool. The baby pressed down on her bladder and it reminded her that she needed to pee. Damn it. She should have peed before she ate. It was on her list of rules to avoid the bathroom after she ate. The bathroom had a toilet that could flush away her secrets and shame without anyone being the wiser. But she would know. She had gotten better at keeping food down this time. After her last disastrous pregnancy, she had promised herself to get through this one clean. This one was her redemption and she had to make it.
The bathroom was tiny and full with mother’s changing diapers and teens checking out themselves in the mirror. A young woman wearing a jean jumper insisted the Bea go before her.
“I wouldn’t feel right making you wait in your condition.”
Bea thanked her, went in and did her business without looking in the toilet bowl, and came out clean.
“That was forever.” Awilda flipped through Cosmopolitan magazine. Pages were dog-eared and Bea knew that they were pictures of clothes Awilda wanted to make. She was a seamstress and designer, in addition to being a 6th grade social studies teacher.
“The baby made me eat.” Bea eased back down in her beach chair. The trip had tired her out. The sun felt like it was right on her shoulder and she reapplied more sunscreen.
“You know you’re only supposed to apply that every two hours, not every fifteen minutes.”
Bea readjusted her hat.
Awilda held up the page. “Look at this mini skirt. I’m thinking about giving it a try. I’m doing a street festival at Rutgers next month and I need some short, sexy, clothes that will appeal to college students. Something one size fits all. If I take this waist and add a strip of Velcro, I think it will fit most. What do you think?”
Bea glanced at the picture and nodded her head.
“Yes ma’am. I’m going to work my clothing line this summer.
“How’s Derrick’s job working out?”
“Well, he’s had this assignment with Tishman for going on five months. That’s stable in the construction business. Said it should carry him to Christmas so I’m not working summer school this year.”
“It’s been five years straight. I can’t wait for the break.”
Bea saw Alana running towards her and sat up. “What’s wrong, Butterbean?”
Alana flopped into her mother’s arms crying, flinging sand all over Bea’s neck and breasts.
“Sand. It’s in my eyes. Get it out.”
Bea reached for her towel and wiped at Alana’s face. Sand was clumped in her hair, on her arms and falling from her bathing suit top.
“Were you building a sandcastle?”
Bea rubbed until Alana stood satisfied.
“I’m hungry, mama.”
“Here, drink this,” Bea handed her a warm juice box from her bag.
“I thought there was no eating on the beach.”
“It’s just juice not a whole bag of chips,” Bea made her eyes big at Awilda.
“I want chips.”
Lonnie and Derrick walked up. Lonnie was bare-chested and his shorts hung low on hips. Derrick wore a tank top over the bulge of his belly and yellow trunks.
“How cold was it?” Awilda looked from one man to the other.
“Pretty cold.” Lonnie reached down and kissed Bea on the lips.
“Oh get a room you too.” Awilda scolded. “I wouldn’t even put my toe in before 4th of July.”
Derrick fell down in the seat next to her. “You just have to go right in. Don’t even think about it.”
Amare and Chico were still throwing the Nerf ball in the water.
Lonnie leaned back in his chair and tilted his face toward the sun. “It feels so good to just relax.”
“Work been busy?” Awilda looked over.
“This is actually the longest I’ve had my eyes on him in the past two weeks,” Bea linked her fingers with Lonnie’s. “Up before me, home after I’ve gone to bed.”
“Still coaching Chico’s baseball team?” asked Derrick.
“Yeah. I told them upfront I wouldn’t be there for everything. All the coaches look at the schedule and highlight the dates that might not work in advance. Most of the dads work in the city so we’re all in the same boat.”
“It’s good that you do it, our sons need to see us on the front line doing battle for them,” Derrick passed Lonnie a coke.
“Yeah it definitely feels good.”
“I coached Amare’s basketball team until he went over to AAU.”
“And you still coach from the stands. Shouting out plays for him, embarrassing the hell out of our son at every game.”
“That’s my boy.”
“I’m hungry, Mommy.” Alana interrupted from her place on the sand.
Lonnie patted Bea’s thigh. “Me too.”
She batted her eyes at his dirty double meaning, hoping no one else caught it. “Then we should go fire up the grill for an early dinner. The kids can play out…” Bea’s words stopped in her throat as Derrick took off toward the ocean. She looked and saw Chico bobbing and flailing his arms. The tide had started to come in and he’d gone out too far.
“Where’s the lifeguard?” Bea stood.
Lonnie had taken off too but before the men got to the ocean’s edge, Amare had plucked Chico from the water and dragged him to where he could stand with the waves at his waist. Bea and Awilda made their way down to the shoreline.
“Baby, are you okay?” Bea reached for her son.
“I’m not a baby,” coughed Chico, looking from Bea to Amare.
“Shh,” Lonnie instructed and patted his son’s back. “Let’s get you back to the house.”
“I’m fine,” he coughed.
Lonnie put his arm around Chico’s shoulders and steered him back to their things.
They had rented the same beach house for the past three Memorial weekends straight. It was a brick red Dutch Colonial home with a backyard and swing set. It was walking distance from the beach so Awilda and Derrick had parked their car behind Lonnie’s in the driveway.
“Thanks so much for letting Amare stay with you. Now I can dress up as the naughty nurse and be loud as I want,” Awilda whispered and then pinched Bea on her behind.
“Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”
“Then I might as well stay right here,” she teased. “Later, alligator.”
“Babe, we need gas,” Derrick reminded Awilda as she got into the car. Lonnie and Bea waved. Lonnie’s arm was around Bea waist.
“That was fun,” he held the screen door open for Bea to pass through.
The living room had big windows, wide planked hardwood floors and a wood-burning fireplace that they had never used.
He came up behind her in the kitchen, and kissed her neck.
“I want you.”
“Mmmm. You better fire up that grill before those boys come in here hungry as hostages.”
“Just kiss me first.”
Bea stopped and let Lonnie kiss her long and deep. “Now go,” she said pushing him toward the back patio. Maybe her instincts were all wrong and things were okay, she thought moving around the country kitchen, pulling food to prep from the refrigerator.
“Mama, can you help me on demand Dr. McStuffin,” Alana dragged her dolls by the arm.
“Sure,” Bea wiped her hands on a towel and then followed Alana into the television room and set up her show. The boys were on the side of the house throwing the ball. Even though Amare was a rising senior, he took great interest in Chico and treated him like a little brother. Bea liked that.
When she got back into the kitchen the whiff of charcoal burning down delighted her. Barbeques always made it feel like summer. The ground beef was seasoned and Bea rolled the meat around between her hands and then pressed out patties. While she worked, she peaked at Lonnie on the patio. He sat in the Adirondack chair with his shirt unbuttoned, grinning at his phone in his hand. He read, typed and smiled. Bea carried the burgers out to the deck.
“Who was that?” She set the food down.
“Something for work.” Lonnie flashed that politician charm that usually churned her into creamed butter, but it only revived her insecurity. Lonnie was good at tuning in to Bea, and held his arms out to her.
She sat down on his lap.
“Getting big, Baby,” he rubbed her belly.
“I can’t wait to have my wife back.”
“I’m right here.”
“You know what I mean.” Lonnie leaned in and kissed her. Bea could taste the desire on his tongue.
“Babe, can you make me a mock-tail?”
“Anything for you.”
Lonnie walked into the kitchen and pulled the screen door behind him. Bea reached for his phone and punched in the last passcode she lifted by looking over his shoulder. Locked. She tried it again. Locked. She tried another combination. Still locked. Bea knew that she could only try five times before the phone was disabled so she crossed her fingers and tried twice more, but neither gave her access. Bea placed the mobile where she had found it, slid the burgers onto the grill and told herself to stop worrying. But she couldn’t.
( Continued… )
© 2017 All rights reserved. Book excerpt reprinted by permission of the author, Sadeqa Johnson. Do not reproduce, copy or use without the author’s written permission. This excerpt is used for promotional purposes only.
Meet the Author
Sadeqa Johnson, a former public relations manager, spent several years working with well-known authors such as JK Rowling, Bebe Moore Campbell, Amy Tan and Bishop TD Jakes before becoming an author herself. Her debut novel, Love in a Carry-on Bag, is the recipient of the 2013 Phillis Wheatley award for Best Fiction. She is also the author of Second House From the Corner and And Then There Was Me. A native of Philadelphia she has recently relocated to a suburb of Richmond, which is a great place to raise children until it snows and schools close for a week. She is a motivational speaker, inspirational blogger, wife and mother of three incredibly busy children. For more please visit http://www.sadeqajohnson.net.
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