In December 1995 the film adaptation of Terry McMillan’s bestseller Waiting to Exhale was released. There was much excitement and fanfare leading up to the release but I didn’t share it. The novel it was based on was critically acclaimed, but I was never too impressed by it. At the time I wondered if I was the only fan of contemporary African-American fiction who was not moved by it. It wasn’t that I disliked McMillan’s style of writing. I loved her first novel, Mama, as I could relate to it. It was easy for me to laugh and cry along with her protagonist, Mildred, because I knew women like Mildred in my family and wider church community.
The characters in Waiting to Exhale, however, were different. With the exception of Bernie(played by Angela Bassett in the film) I found it difficult to sympathize with them. Savannah, Robin and(to a lesser extent) Glo all earned spots on Team Bad Decisions. Though I felt the movie remained to true McMillan’s novel, I wished that either Mama or Disappearing Acts received the silver screen treatment instead.
While I was less than enthusiastic about the film the soundtrack was something else! On the Waiting to Exhale soundtrack Babyface perfectly blends the old and new schools of R & B music. Legendary soul divas like Aretha Franklin, Chaka Khan and Patti Labelle appear on the album along with younger chanteuses Mary J. Blige, Chante Moore, Faith Evans and Brandy. I eagerly purchased the CD at Sam Goody and kept it in rotation. Though I felt every song on the album it was Brandy’s “Sittin’ Up In My Room” that stood out for me the most because it made me think of Chris.
In the spring of 1996 I spent many an evening laying on my back in my room, thinking of or talking to Chris. Chris was a fellow sophomore at my high school, a recent transplant from Mississippi whose baritone voice still had the distinctive drawl of his home state. Chris was brilliant, and his sharp mind was one of the traits I adored about him.
Chris was the type who was cool with everyone but didn’t have an entourage of his own. Indeed, when our paths crossed in the halls after second period he was usually solo, easy to spot as he towered above everyone else. I should have taken the western hallway to get to my third period class. But I took the long way instead, just to see him stride down the hall; his blue leather Pelle Pel jacket hanging just right off his lean 6’2 frame and his right pants leg rolled up to his knee.
Chris would look at me and say good morning, and each time I returned his easy smile. My friends soon noticed this exchange and teased us, yelling salacious comments at us as we talked. We cut our interactions short to shut them up. I’d walk on to my next class, smiling. I was content in the knowledge that Chris still looked as I walked away and that when we spoke on the phone later my friends wouldn’t be around to interrupt.
By 7pm every night, with my homework complete and my Grandma preoccupied watching Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy, I would take the phone into my room(shout out to the ten foot long extension cord that made that possible) and talk to Chris until his Mama or my Grandma realized it was late and made us hang up. Neither Chris nor I paid attention to time when we talked! On those spring nights we talked about our classes and music. And though we belonged to different denominations-Chris was COGIC and I was Baptist-we found common ground in our struggle to follow our religious beliefs while facing peer pressure at school to go against them. Like me Chris was still a virgin, a fact that made him quite different from his peers and made me comfortable with him.
It wasn’t that he didn’t have the same urges as other boys his age. The day I managed to evade my Grandma’s watchful eyes (with the help of a long cardigan I removed as soon as I got to school) and wear a form-fitting dress that stopped right above the knee, Chris had a hard time remaining focused when we talked after second period. When he called that night he said he needed to admit something to me.
“You know you have really nice legs, right? And your hips too…MAN…when I saw you today all I wanted to do was pick you up and-“he paused. “I should stop there, I don’t want to be disrespectful. But you have a pretty shape!” I thanked him, we laughed and continued our discussion.
I remember him coming to me with his dilemma about his music collection. Chris was a huge hip-hop head, and he had the massive CD collection to prove it. That spring he bumped Tupac’s “All Eyez On Me” with the same fervor that I played my “Waiting to Exhale” soundtrack, and he knew Pac’s lines from “2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted” by heart. But as he began to take his faith more seriously Chris was increasingly bothered by the sex, drugs and violence glorified in the genre he loved.
“I can’t do it anymore”, he said to me as we talked after school one day. I was confused.
“You can’t do what?”
“I can’t listen to Pac anymore. I can’t listen to any of it D. I’m throwing my all of my Dre, Pac, Snoop and Dogg Pound CDs this weekend.”
I was shocked. “Really? You are seriously going to get rid of them all? Even Pac’s albums?” Tupac was like a hero to Chris, so I knew it was a big deal for him to cease being a fan.
“Yes, I’m gonna do it. The Bible says a man can’t serve two masters, right? That’s what I’ve been doing all this time.”
Chris did just as he said and dumped those CDs, but his R & B collection was safe. On a night towards the end of the school year I was dominating our conversation when he interjected.
“Mo”, he said, using the abbreviate form of my middle name which was his pet name for me, “I want you to listen to something”.
I wondered what he had in mind, but I was down. “Okay, sure.”
I heard the sound of Chris shuffling on his bed. Within a minute my ears were filled with the opening chords of “Lady” by D’Angelo and I grooved along in my bed :
When the song ended Chris returned. I was moved by the sweetness of his gesture but before I could respond he started speaking.
“You hear that? That’s how I feel about you.” I had an inkling, but that was the first time he was that direct. I pushed further.
“So is that our song now Chris?”
“Yeah it’s our song”. The sound of the word ‘our’, and the heavy emphasis that he put on it, gave me butterflies.
From that time we were a couple, and we spent the first half of the summer hanging out and holding hands. Everything was cool and copacetic with my teenage love until I met his friends. His closest friend didn’t like me at all, complaining to Chris that I wasn’t pretty or popular enough to be with him. The boy I thought I knew became cold and distant after his friends expressed their disapproval of me. By August my summer love was over.
That month Eric, my pastors’ grandson and former-crush-turned-best-male-friend, would be my shoulder to cry on. At the kids’ table we were banished to when our church clique went to Sizzler for dinner that day he listened to me vent. When I got to the part about being stood up on my birthday Eric’s nostrils flared.
“D do you want me to break his nose? I have no problem putting hands on him. I REALLY want to hurt him for treating you that!”
There was something about the sight of Eric, fresh out of church and still immaculately clad in his Sunday best, threatening to inflict violence that amused me. I laughed.
“Eric I appreciate the thought but no, please don’t hurt him. What you can do, however, is go to the salad bar and bring me another plate!”
“I don’t understand how you stay so little when you eat so much”, he said, laughing as he rose out of his seat to get my food. As he walked away I took another bite and smiled. My puppy love may have gone away, but I still had Eric ready to stand for and avenge me if I wanted him to, and that was enough.