Memory is a queer creature, an eccentric curator. I still look back on that night, although not as often as I once did. How long can you live with your face twisted over your shoulder? No matter what people may say, this was not a failure to remember. I’m not sure it is a failure at all.
When I say that I visit the Piney Woods Inn in my waking dreams, I’m not being defensive. It’s merely the truth. Like Aretha said, A woman’s only human. . . . She’s flesh and blood, just like her man. No more, no less.
My regret is how hard we argued that night, over his parents, of all things. We had fought harder even before we married, when we were playing at love, but those were tussles about our relationship. At the Piney Woods, we tangled about history, and there is no fair fight to be waged about the past. Knowing something I didn’t, Roy called out “November 17,” stopping time. When he left with the ice bucket, I was glad for him to go.
I called Andre, and after three rings he picked up and talked me down, sane and civil as always. “Ease up on Roy,” he said. “If you lose it every time he tries to come clean, you’re encouraging him to lie.”
“But,” I said, not ready to let go. “He didn’t even — ”
“You know I’m right,” he said without being smug. “But what you don’t know is that I’m entertaining a young lady this evening.”
“Pardon moi,” I said, happy for him.
“Gigolos get lonely, too,” he said.
I was still grinning when I hung up the phone.
And I was still smiling when Roy appeared at the door with the ice bucket extended in his arms like a bouquet of roses, and by then my anger had cooled like a forgotten cup of coffee.
“I’m sorry,” he said, taking the drink from my hand. “This has been burning a hole in my pocket. Think how I feel. You have this perfect family. Your father is a millionaire.”
“He didn’t always have money,” I said, something that I seemed to say at least once a week. Before my father sold his orange juice solution to Minute Maid, we were like any other family in Cascade Heights, what the rest of America thinks of as middle-middle class and what black America calls upper-middle class. No maid. No private school. No trust fund. Just two parents, each with two degrees and, between them, two decent jobs.
“Well, as long as I’ve known you, you have been a rich man’s daughter.”
“A million dollars doesn’t make you rich-rich,” I said. “Real rich people don’t have to earn their money.”
“Rich-rich, nouveau rich . . . any kind of rich looks rich from where I’m sitting. There is no way I was going to roll up on your father in his mansion and tell him that I’ve never met my daddy.”
He took a step toward me and I moved toward him.
“It’s not a mansion,” I said, making my voice soft. “And I told you, my daddy is literally the son of a sharecropper. An Alabama sharecropper at that.”
These conversations always caught me off guard, although after a year I should have been accustomed to this fraught song and dance. My mother cautioned me before I got married that Roy and I were from two separate realities. She said that I would constantly have to reassure him that we were, in fact, “equally yoked.” Amused by her language, I shared this with Roy, along with a joke about pulling a plow, but he didn’t even crack a smile.
“Celestial, your daddy ain’t sharing no crops now. And what about your mom? I wasn’t going to have her seeing Olive as a teenage mother, left by the side of the road. No way was I going to set my mama up like that.”
I closed the space between us, resting my hands on his head, feeling the curve of his scalp. “Look,” I said with my lips near his ears. “We’re not blackface ‘Leave It to Beaver.’ You know my mother is Daddy’s second wife.”
“Is that supposed to be some kind of shocker?”
“That’s because you don’t know the whole story.” I took a breath and pushed the words out fast before I could think too much more about them. “My parents got together before Daddy was divorced.”
“You saying they were separated . . . or?”
“I’m saying that my mother was his mistress. For a long time. I think like three years or so. My mother was a June bride at the courthouse because her pastor wouldn’t perform the ceremony.”
I have seen the photos. Gloria wears an off-white suit and a veiled pillbox hat. My father looks young and excited. There is no indication of anything but effortless devotion in their smiles. There is no evidence of me, but I’m in the frame, too, hiding behind her yellow chrysanthemum bouquet.
“Damn,” he said with a low whistle. “I didn’t think Mr. D had it in him. I didn’t think Gloria — ”
“Don’t talk about my mama,” I said. “You don’t talk about mine, and I won’t talk about yours.”
“I’m not holding anything against Gloria, like I know you wouldn’t hold anything against Olive, right?”
“There’s something to hold against my daddy. Gloria says that he didn’t tell her he was married until they had been dating a whole month.”
She explained this to me when I was eighteen, when I was leaving Howard University after a messy love affair. Helping me seal cardboard cartons, my mother had said, “Love is the enemy of sound judgment, and occasionally this is in service of the good. Did you know that your father had certain obligations when we met?” I think of this as the first time my mother had ever spoken to me as one woman to another. Wordlessly, we swore each other to secrecy, and until now, I had never betrayed her confidence.
“A month, that’s not a lot of time. She could have walked away,” Roy said. “That is, if she wanted to.”
“She didn’t want to,” I said. “According to Gloria, by then she was irreversibly in love.” As I told this to Roy, I imitated my mother in the tone she used in public, elocution-class crisp, not the shaky register in which she had shared this detail.
“What?” Roy said. “Irreversibly? The warranty was up after thirty days and she couldn’t send him back?”
“Gloria said that looking back on it, she’s glad he didn’t tell her because she never would have gone out with a married man and Daddy turned out to be the One.”
“I can get that, in a way.” Roy raised my hand to his lips. “Sometimes when you like where you end up, you don’t care how you got there.”
“No,” I said. “The journey matters. Let my mama tell it. My daddy lied to her for her own good. I never want to feel grateful about being deceived.”
“Fair enough,” he said. “But think about it 2.0. If your daddy didn’t hide his situation, you wouldn’t be here. And if you weren’t here, where would I be?”
“I still don’t like it. I want us to be on the up-and-up. I don’t want our kid to inherit all of our secrets.”
Roy pumped his fist in the air. “Did you hear yourself?”
“You said ‘our kid.’ ”
“Roy, stop being silly. Listen to what I’m trying to say.”
“Don’t try and take it back. You said ‘our kid.’ ”
“Roy,” I said. “I’m for real. No more secrets, okay? If you got anything else, spill it.”
“I got nothing.”
And with that, we reconciled, as we had so many times before. There is a song about that, too: Break up to make up, that’s all we do. Did I imagine that this was our pattern for all time? That we would grow old together, accusing and forgiving? Back then, I didn’t know what forever looked like. Maybe I don’t even know now. But that night in the Piney Woods, I believed that our marriage was a fine-spun tapestry, fragile but fixable. We tore it often and mended it, always with a silken thread, lovely but sure to give way.
From “An American Marriage” by Tayari Jones. Copyright © 2018 by Tayari Jones. Published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. All rights reserved.