I Left My Back Door Open, page 1
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PRAISE FOR THE NOVELS OF APRIL SINCLAIR
Coffee Will Make You Black
“A funny, fresh novel about growing up African-American in 1960s Chicago … Sinclair writes like Terry McMillan’s kid sister.” —Entertainment Weekly
“Whether she’s dealing with a subject as monumental as the civil rights movement or as intimate as Stevie’s first sexual encounters, Sinclair never fails to make you laugh and never sacrifices the narrative to make a point.… What is clear is that Stevie is a wonderful character whose bold curiosity and witty self-confidence—through Sinclair’s straight-talking words—make her easy to love.” —Los Angeles Times
“Heartwarming … Memorable … Told with earnestness and humor … A coming-of-age story with a twist.” —Chicago Tribune
Ain’t Gonna Be the Same Fool Twice
“Hard to resist … The freshness of Sinclair’s voice makes both the familiar and the unfamiliar an adventure worth smiling about.” —The Miami Herald
“This tale has verve and readability.” —The New Yorker
“A hoot … High-spirited and entertaining … A disarmingly upbeat novel about race and sexual preference.” —San Francisco Chronicle
I Left My Back Door Open
“A Bridget Jones’s Diary for black women … Readers will respond to this novel’s honesty, to its colloquial humor, and to its exacting exploration of Daphne’s relationship woes.” —The New York Times Book Review
“Any sister who has felt unlucky in love will identify with Sinclair’s smoothly written tale.” —Essence
“Snappy, entertaining.” —The Washington Post Book World
“Sinclair’s jazzy new novel is her best yet. Her syncopated rhythms and her cool, bluesy tones make her Ella Fitzgerald’s literary rival.” —E. Lynn Harris
I Left My Back Door Open
This book is lovingly dedicated to my niece,
Lyndsey, and my siblings, Marcia, Byron and Nina.
I am not young, or thin, or white or beautiful. I’m a slightly thick sista, but I know how to fix myself up. And I’m on the radio. My name is Daphne Dupree, and I play the blues.
I liked everything about speaking into a mike. I even enjoyed positioning my mouth in front of one. And I loved the way my voice sounded, so rich and full, when it came out. Maybe I just liked to hear myself talk.
“We opened the set with the incomparable Etta ‘Miss Peaches’ James doing ‘At Last.’ That was by special request from Dianne, a blue-eyed soul sister who knows that when you make a potato salad, you don’t leave out the mustard.
“Speaking of food, we’re gonna be broadcasting live from Taste of Chicago, in Grant Park next Saturday. I hope to see some of my listeners. You know I’m gon’ sho’ ’nuff be tastin’, too. ’Cause, honey, there’s no such thang as a black anorexic!” I laughed. “You heard it here first.”
I kept right on b.s.in,’ ’cause I was on a roll. And I was in control. “Y’all remember, last year, my boyfriend didn’t hit me, but he up and quit me? Yeah, he said, ‘Dee Dee you too big,’ sho’ did. The brotha didn’t ’preciate my meat. He wasn’t no natchel man. Finally had to tell ’im, I was built for comfort, not for speed!”
I paused for air. “You know, it’s funny, there was a time when a skinny woman was almost looked at as deformed. She damn near had to run away and join the circus.” I sighed. “When I was a child, nobody wanted the woman with the skinny legs And don’t let her have the nerve to be flat-chested, with no booty, too. You had to have something to shake back in them days.”
I noticed a lighted button. “I got a call coming in on the board. Somebody out there must be feeling my pain.”
“Girlfriend, you need to come on back home to the soulful South Side,” the voice on the line urged.
“It sounds like my friend, Sarita.”
“Yeah, it’s me, girl. Anyway, it’s plenty of men on the South Side who like full-figured women.”
“Sista, you say I’m just dealing on the wrong side of town? You think that’s what it is?”
“I know that’s what it is. You drive around the South Side, and you see big behinds everywhere. And it ain’t keeping nobody from getting no man, or putting on no pair of shorts, either.”
“Big behinds are all over the North Side, too,” I insisted. “You need to get out more. Big behinds are everywhere now, and they come in all colors. And they’re coming to a theater near you.”
“Girl, you crazy! We don’t have no theaters around here. I’m calling you from the ’hood.”
“It was just an expression.”
“Anyway, Dee Dee, you need to come on back to church, ’cause, honey, there’re plenty of women heavier than you. In fact, they’d run and bring you a plate of food, girlfriend. Try to fatten you up.”
“All right, I’ll be in your church on Sunday. So save me some pew. And give some sugar to my play nephew. I just can’t help but rhyme, almost every time.”
“Okay, then, you put on Koko Taylor for your good girlfriend.”
“A request for the reigning Queen of the Blues is always good news! But, first, it’s time for the tips, and I’ll shoot ’em from the hips. If you want your holiday to be a blast, when you barbecue, put your sauce on last. You can baste it with vinegar, you can baste it with beer. But, Koko fixin’ to pitch a ‘Wang Dang Doodle,’ then I’m outta here! That concludes this edition of Deep Dish Blues on WLUV, 98.6 on your FM dial. And I’m your hostess with the mostest, Dee Dee Joy, born in Alabama and raised in Illinois.”
I’d taken off my headphones and unglued my hips from the one-size-don’t-fit-all swivel chair. Jade was at the mike now. I listened to her sultry voice as I sauntered through the air-conditioned state-of-the-art studio on Chicago’s waterfront.
“Welcome to the world of Belly,” Jade said mysteriously, in her Chinese accent. “Slip on your finger cymbals. Toreador your veils. Put your camels to bed. We’ve got two hours of Egyptian pop ahead.”
I swayed to the beat as I entered the spacious but deserted reception area. My ears were filled with the moaning of Egyptians, but my eyes were drawn to the view of the cluster of boats navigating the lake. Outside the picture windows, people strolled along the water’s edge or sat in open-air cafés. On summer nights like this one, a jazz band played below a Budweiser sign. Navy Pier was a tourist attraction, pure and simple. But I admired the colorful Ferris wheel lit up against the darkening sky.
Suddenly, I felt someone’s presence and my body jumped. I turned around. It was Rob, the station manager. He looked like Mike Moore, the guy who made the movie Roger and Me.
“I didn’t mean to startle you,” Rob said, apologetically.
“I didn’t know you were still here,” I answered.
“Yeah, I’m still pushing papers.” Rob sighed. “Anyway, I got your memo,” he continued. “But, guess what, you don’t have to worry about doing that stinking fund-raiser this year, you’re off the damn hook.”
“I didn’t mind doing it,” I answered. “It was for a good cause. Besides, I can think of worse things than emceeing an event at the Four Seasons. Plus, they’ve always requested me.”
“Yeah, and all these years you’ve been a trouper.” Rob patted me on the shoulder.
“Well, what happened?” I asked, confused. “Have they decided not to do it this year? It was always so successful.”
“They’re still gonna do it, all right,” Rob assured me. “But this year they just decided to try a different angle, g
“A different crowd?” I asked, wrinkling my forehead.
“Yeah, a younger bunch.”
“I don’t know, I guess twenties and thirties.”
“Rob, I’m in that age range, more or less,” I said, trying to sound calm.
“How old are you now, Dee Dee, thirty-nine?”
I swallowed. “Close, I just turned forty-one.”
“Ouch, I thought we were the same age. Damn, you’re getting up there.”
I sighed. “It’s not that serious.”
“You’re right. You’ve got quite a few years left before you’ll need dentures. By the way, happy belated birthday.”
“Thanks. So, who are you going to get to do the fund-raiser?” I asked, turning and staring out the window again.
“I’m gonna run it by Jennifer.”
“Jennifer!” I wheeled back around. “But she’s just an intern!”
“Yeah, but she’s bright and perky. Really perky,” Rob added, making animated gestures. “I think that’s the type they’re looking for.”
“What am I, iron-tired blood?” I asked, rolling my eyes.
“Not at all. You did a great job all these years. Everyone says that. They just want to appeal to the damn yuppies, you know, Wicker Park, Lincoln Park …”
“Bucktown,” I added.
“Yeah, exactly, those types. You understand.”
“Yeah, I guess,” I said, trying to sound like a team player.
“Good. By the way, your show was great as always. Now, go home and put your feet up.”
That’s not what you would tell Jennifer, I thought. You would tell her to party like it’s 1999.
I pressed the button for the elevator. When I was a child, forty seemed older than God. I could more easily imagine myself dying in a car crash at thirty-nine than living to see forty.
But, somehow, I had managed to reach forty. And as if that hadn’t been traumatic enough, last week, I turned forty-one. Nobody told me that forty was just a dress rehearsal for forty-one. Now I was in my forties. And a whole decade was harder to deny than a measly year. I stepped into the empty elevator. At least on my last birthday, I still had a boyfriend. Now I was all alone, except for my cat.
I nodded to the security guard in the downstairs lobby. Freddy’s chocolate, moon-shaped face greeted me with a smile. His front gold tooth gleamed in the fluorescent light.
Freddy wiped his bald head and leaned against his desk. “Have you met the new dude in management yet?”
Dude. I cringed. Freddy was still stuck in the seventies. “We don’t have any new manager,” I answered.
“He was wearing a suit,” Freddy informed me. “And he was with y’all’s station manager. Rob told me he ain’t need to sign in, he was working wit’ y’all.”
“Oh! You must be talking about the mediator.”
“You met him yet?”
I shook my head. We’d only exchanged memos. But I’d agreed to meet with him next week. I figured that the mediator just wanted to touch bases with me about Jade’s sexual harassment case against one of the engineers. Bill had made a crude pass at her after she performed a belly dance at the Christmas party last year.
When Jade told me about it, I confided that Bill had made a few sexually improper remarks to me about a year ago. Such as, he liked his women the way he liked his coffee—hot and black. When Bill’s comments had gotten raunchier, I had put him in his place. And that had been the end of it.
Jade said she had explained to Bill that belly dancers were not sex objects. She had told him that belly dance was a disciplined art form with a spiritual base, that it had originated as a dance of empathy by women, for women in labor. But Bill had refused to be enlightened. He’d continued to hit on Jade, well into the new year.
Last month, Jade had decided it was time to complain to management. She’d asked if I minded her sharing my experience with Bill, in order to strengthen her complaint. I’d told her that would be fine. I’d even offered to go with Jade, so they could hear my story firsthand.
While listening to our accounts with a poker face, Rob had rearranged his chunky frame several times in his desk chair. Finally, he’d pulled down on his Cubs baseball cap and assured us that Bill would be ordered to stop harassing Jade immediately.
Rob had gone on to say that he liked to think of the radio station as a family. “My definition of a dysfunctional family is one in which the important stuff doesn’t get talked about,” he’d said. He asked us if we’d be open to mediation. Jade said that if Bill agreed, she’d go along with it. Rob had said that Bill wouldn’t be given a choice. I’d told Rob that I didn’t have a need to mediate with Bill. I’d simply shared my own experience to establish that this guy had a problem with more than one person, so that Jade didn’t come off looking like some feminist nut.
“Anyway, I put in a good word for you,” Freddy said, interrupting my thoughts.
You really have delusions of grandeur, I thought. Like management cares what a security guard thinks. Freddy folded his arms and sat on top of the desk.
“Thanks, but I don’t think I’ll need it,” I answered politely. “Like I told you, he’s not a manager. He’s a mediator.”
Freddy looked like he didn’t know what the hell a mediator was. But it was safer for me not to go into an explanation. Freddy had loose lips. I couldn’t talk about the sexual harassment case to him, or anyone else at the station. There were even rumors floating around that this conflict resolution guy had been called in to run diversity and tolerance workshops. Some of the white guys at the station were jittery, even the so-called liberal ones.
“Don’t be naive,” Freddy insisted. “There’s always reason to worry. Don’t forget, you in a business. You think they hired that Negro for nothing?”
“Yeah, he’s one of your people.”
Freddy had recently disowned his race. He was robbed at gunpoint last winter. Two gangbangers were waiting outside his car after he left a church bingo game. They took Freddy’s winnings and pistol-whipped him. Freddy was hospitalized for a day. There was even a small write-up in the Defender, Chicago’s black daily newspaper.
“I forgot, you don’t consider yourself one of us anymore.”
“’Cause y’all don’t know how to act. Y’all act right, I might consider coming back into the fold. But I’m still in your corner, Dee Dee. ’Cause you a credit to the race.”
“A credit to the race,” I repeated. “I haven’t heard that one in a while.”
“Anywho, I ain’t saying they gon’ go country/western or nothing like that. Although I did put in a word for disco,” he said, rubbing his chin.
“Disco! Don’t even go there.”
“Well, I do smell change in the air.” He sniffed. “Mark my words.”
“We’re such a unique station, though,” I protested. “And that’s what makes us special. Why would anyone want to mess with that?”
Freddy raised his eyebrows in disbelief. “Money, that’s why. Unique and special don’t pay no bills.” He shook his head. “I just hope you’ll be playing the blues instead of sanging ’em.”
“Don’t worry, I won’t quit my day job.” Actually, my day job really involved a lot of evening work. I facilitated consumer focus groups for product advertisers. It paid the mortgage, but my heart was in radio.
I ducked under Freddie’s arm as he held the heavy glass door open for me and caught a whiff of the masculine odor that seeped through his deodorant. I thanked him as usual and headed for my car.
Even old steady Freddy was taken, I mused. He and his wife were going on a long-saved-for cruise in August. I fantasized about weekend getaways and a cruise on the Love Boat myself. But I was a single occupant in a double occupancy world. And, although I’d mastered eating meals alone in restaurants and going to movie matinees by myself, I certainly wasn’t brave enough to sail solo.
Everybody tells single women that there are plenty of decent guys out there. We just have to be willing to compromise.
For example, “Don’t judge a man by what he does or how much education he has. Sista, just ’cause you head of the E.P.A. don’t mean you should reject the brotha who cleans the toilets. Don’t be no snob. Black women have always had to marry down.”
And how about this one? “You say you a lawyer. Damn, you in the catbird’s seat. You must come in contact with a lot of eligible criminals. And don’t overlook death row. Hey, most marriages don’t last as long as the average condemned inmate’s appeal process. You could have a lot of years of matrimony ahead.”
And sistas have even said to each other, “Girl, you can always get sex.” And we nodded our hot-combed, permed, afroed, braided or dreadlocked heads in agreement. Because we believed it was true—a woman could always get sex. And although we might take comfort in that knowledge, we made it clear that we would never settle for just sex. No self-respecting woman under forty-one would. And I had been no exception. I convinced myself that I had a little black book chock-full of men’s names who would gladly answer my “booty calls.” That is, if I were to make them, which of course I never would, because I wasn’t that kind of girl.
But this morning, when I woke up alone at the age of forty-one on my expensive Swedish mattress, it occurred to me that there wasn’t one special man that I could just casually call up and ask if he wanted to have sex. Except nerdy-ass Bill, the engineer, I chuckled grimly. Of course, I did have admirers who called my show and sent me fan mail. But I tried to maintain a separation between my public persona and my private dilemma.
Most of the men who I actually knew were either married, involved or church types who would trip out if I made such a brazen request. In other words, I was too well-respected.
I imagined that even if I phoned my philandering ex-husband, which I never would, he would gloat, “I knew that one day you’d eat humble pie. But it’s too late, you know I have two kids to consider. Where are your family values? I’m trying to be faithful in this marriage.”