A messy divorce threatens to overshadow Terry McMillan's latest book tour. But the audience that recently crowded into a Harlem bookstore applauded when the best-selling author said she'd take no questions about her personal life.
Yet even the author noted the irony of her latest novel's title: The Interruption of Everything. It's about a pre-menopausal homemaker who discovers that she's pregnant and struggles to put her own needs above others.
The author of Waiting to Exhale and When Stella Got Her Groove Back tells Michele Norris about the new book and the revelations about her personal life which emerged during its writing.
"There are things that can be somewhat autobiographical that don't necessarily mean they happen to you," McMillan says. "And sometimes the beauty of writing is that you don't even know what you feel until you actually write it down."
Following is an excerpt from The Interruption of Everything:
Book Excerpt: Chapter 1
The only reason I'm sitting on a toilet seat in the handicapped stall of the ladies' room is because I'm hiding. My break is just fifteen minutes long and I'm trying to decide with the help of a book on the subject of "the change" if Paulette was really on to something when she suggested I get a blood test to see if my hormone levels were diminishing. And if it turns out to be true, I might want to get them replenished with something besides the Good & Plenty I've been eating by the handful for the last seven or eight months and I don't even like licorice. I'm also sitting here with an old issue of Bead & Button trying to figure out if I should've played it safe and used plastic instead of glass beads since I just had to make my very first jewelry attempt a gift, and because sometimes I do think that more is better, just had to add three strands more than the instructions called for and now I don't know how to close up the ends. I'm not used to asking for help.
Paulette claims I've been showing enough symptoms of a perimenopausal woman to warrant further examination, which initially irritated me. She merely closed her eyelids over those hazel contacts and sucked her tongue across those shiny white veneers and whipped over one shoulder all five hundred of those individual braids that are way too long for a forty-eight-year-old woman who is no Donna Summer and said, "I know what I'm talking about. You remind me of me four years ago."
Experiencing something once does not make you an expert on the subject.
The rampage I went on last week about Leon may have added more fuel to the flames. Perhaps my reaction to my husband's forgetting to set the empty water bottles out was a little strong, but it was totally symbolic of a lot of other things he neglects. Ten minutes into my rant, Paulette just said, "Girl, you need to hurry up and have that test so you can be restored back to full sanity. Assuming you once were! But seriously, you need to do something because your circuit-breaker is not working. On a lighter note, don't forget: Pity Party next Friday at Bunny's. I can't wait to hear your latest bull——, if there's anything left to tell. And as an FYI: Bunny's taking another online course, girl. This time it's psychology. So be prepared. She's probably going to be Freud's little sister. Just try to be nice, Marilyn."
"Nice" has been difficult for me lately. Paulette has also been kind enough to point out that all those who land in my path of wrath (as she calls my unconfirmed Pause Personality) deserve a break, especially Leon, and Arthurine, his nosey mother who has eyes in the back of her head and lives with us along with her handicapped dog to whom I have the luxury of being a private nurse. I wish I could take all of them on a one-way cruise out to sea and then sail back to shore alone. This does sound mean, but some days I can't help it.
I have to admit that I have experienced quite a few of the symptoms Paulette was sweet enough to bring to my attention. But I didn't tell her. She loves being right and I hate being wrong. I snap the book shut. Should I break down and spend even more money on French wire and Bali silver cones to close up the ends of this damn necklace? Trying to achieve true beauty can be expensive. But Bead & Button seems to imply that using inferior (or cheap) materials will help deter that dreaded question: "Did you make that?"
I'm making this damn thing for Bunny, my other best friend, for her thirty-seventh, thirty-eighth, but most likely her fortieth birthday. I've got close to a month before she turns the big hand on the clock. But even with my 20 percent discount, we're still talking about explaining to The Husband Who Is Not at Sea why these sums are necessary when they appear on the Visa or MasterCard bill. And if I do mess up (or — just say it, Marilyn — if you f—- it up), since one never knows one has even made a mistake until after one has made it: at what price, friendship?
Not that Bunny would notice.
Class is something she doesn't respect, understand, or care about. "What can you do with it?" she's asked Paulette and me over the years. Particularly when we've tried year after year to persuade her to trade in that Atlantic City-looking 1989 red Corvette she insists on driving; we dropped major hints that she might want to try going to a real furniture store to purchase real furniture one or two pieces at a time instead of decorating and designing her entire condo in a single trip to IKEA where they may as well have airbrushed the four showrooms directly into her crib; and we encouraged her to reconsider always having on display her recent purchase of a D cup. But Bunny has consistently ignored us. "It's all good," as one of my sons would say.
Tonight I'll be stretched out on her make-believe sofa with thirty minutes to pour out my suffering soul after we've eaten takeout at her little table for two and she and Paulette will say whatever it takes to lift my spirits to a level of clarity since I've obviously had difficulty doing it on my own.
The ladies' room door bangs. S—-! It's them. The crazy women I'm hiding from, the ones who always want me to take part in their thrice-weekly reality show. I have been ordained Craft Staff Supervisor here at Heavenly Creations, and these two are not only the store's very best customers, they also purportedly work here and provide live entertainment.
Now Maureen shouts: "I'm just so outdone! I'm going crazy, Trudy! I mean really frigging crazy! I can't believe he did this! To me! After fourteen years of what I thought was a good — no, great — marriage and out of the blue he just decides to tell me he's found a new torch that's been turning his low flame into a forest fire and that according to Dr. Phil he's been in denial for five years about how bored he's been with 'us' and the whole suburban lifestyle and he said he didn't want to hurt me and the kids by coming clean but there was no getting around it and by the way her name is oh who cares what her name is!? Trudy, I feel like such a fool! I mean, what am I supposed to do without a husband and three kids all under the age of twelve?"
"You really think you're extraspecial, don't you, Maureen? That's your whole problem. Well, welcome to the pool of pain millions of women have been swimming in for years, sweetheart."
"You're not making me feel any better, Trudy. I thought I could confide in you."
"You are. But let me finish my thought. It's a miracle to me just how well some of us have managed — those of us who are the unfortunate beneficiaries of out-of-control husbands. I truly believe that the women who were only given fifteen minutes to adjust to their newfound fame as Single Mothers and only used six or seven of them, have been touched by an angel of some kind because how else could any one human being adjust so quickly and handle so much responsibility without a quick stint in the Loony Bin? You and the kids are probably going to be better off, if you think of the odds."
"What odds?" Maureen asks.
"Let's face it. How much do husbands really do? I mean, what role do they really play around the house? Go ahead and say it, Maureen! Not much. I've managed to marry three cut from the same exact mold. Go figure. They think their paychecks and their penises equal making a physical contribution, which is why we're always too tired to f—- them. Am I on track here or what?"
She had a point, and I squirmed on the hard seat. Leon would certainly fit in if they were to take a group photo.
"I hadn't thought of it like that before, Trudy. But even still, I'll take his paycheck and his penis any day over nothing."
Maureen and Trudy are both what I call Craft Junkies because in the year and a half I've been working here, they've taken just about every three-hour and five-week class offered as long as it didn't involve fire, food, or fumes. They're also "repeaters" because they took my beginning pillow-making class so many times that once I realized theirs were actually better made than mine, I got the owner to hire them to help with the setups. HC (as I call it) is small enough that it feels intimate. Here, nothing is locked behind glass or steel cabinets except of course the spray paint, but that's only because of the teenagers. Other than this, nothing suffocates under plastic that we aren't happy to unwrap. You can touch anything we sell at HC and we carry the very best high-end arts and craft supplies available in the United States. And I should know, because I'm a junkie, too.
Trudy and Maureen often forget to pick up their paychecks, which they seem to think of as weekly gift certificates. I do not have the nerve to ask but I'd sure like to know where they put all those damn pillows. They think they're hot stuff because they can make up to twenty different kinds of knots that they learned in Stephania's — the spinster from Israel — Beauty of Knots class. Lord knows they've made enough floral arrangements to cover ten fake funerals; so many gingerbread houses that some of our Olympian ants stopped trying to penetrate them; and enough of those Little House on the Prairie year-round wreaths that ten years ago were like status symbols on front doors across America but now don't even generate a comment when a stranger rings their bell.
Trudy washes her hands then hits the dryer button. I'm starting to slide off this toilet seat. I lean forward and swirl these black-denim hips around like they were thirty-six instead of forty-four inches as quietly as I possibly can while lowering my sneakers to the floor, but when my cell phone starts vibrating in the uniform pocket above my left breast, the magazine and book fall off my lap and hit the floor. S—-!
"If he thinks I'm leaving without putting up a fight, he's got another thing coming."
"I wouldn't jump so far ahead of myself," Trudy says. "Take a deep breath."
I hear Maureen inhaling and swallowing air.
"And another. One more."
"Trudy, I won't be able to breathe if I keep taking breaths! Now I'm standing in front of you with a busted heart so cut me some slack on the breathing, okay?"
"Okay, okay. Just trying to help you relax and not blow a gasket. We're at work, remember?"
"But we're not on the clock." Maureen blows her nose and then starts washing her hands. If I was really interested, I would wonder what they're doing here at this hour but it's anybody's guess. Sometimes they come in here to kill time between drop-offs and pickups at any number of sport venues for adolescents.
Trudy and Maureen would be the first to admit that making things that are unnecessary is not only fun, they're happy to have something to do that gets them out of the house. Something that has nothing to do with children or husbands. They aren't particularly fascinated by art or beauty, just grateful for the distraction: this is precisely why they had designers decorate their homes and gave them carte blanche. They wanted to avoid feeling overwhelmed by having to make too many conflicting decisions at once: from hardware to fabric, carpeting to faux finishes, to where the trampoline would be safest. They wanted to be surprised when they moved in.
"He cheated cheated cheated!" Maureen blurts out again as if she's trying to remind herself of it.
"But don't you worry one bit because he'll pay for it. Big time," Trudy says a little louder. I'm not sure if she's talking about karma, child support, or alimony.
"But I don't want a divorce!" Maureen slurs, which just means the Xanax she's "required" to take must have kicked in. Now she's crying. "I just want things to be back the way they used to be! Exactly, precisely like they were! Normal!"
I press the magazine against my chest like it has some kind of healing properties. Twenty-some-odd years ago, I was drunken-in-love with Leon and life, and with all the possibilities my future held. I can't remember when the dreams stopped being real and reality wiped out the dreams. When everything that took up my time was always something tangible. How do you lose so much and not notice when it starts evaporating? Why does it feel like I missed something or that I forgot to do something? It feels like all I've been doing is shaking out wrinkles. Tears are rolling down my face because I realize how comfortable I've gotten with this numbness.
I just want things to be back the way they used to be. Exactly. Normal. I feel like yelling out to Maureen that nothing can ever be the way it was. We just long for whatever was once good. It's the longing that makes us slide into a nostalgic coma. It's a way of resisting what is happening right now. I loved raising my kids but I wouldn't want to go through it again. They're finally out of the house and off at college. If the truth be told, I crave the exact opposite of what Maureen wants: to go forward — not backward. I'm just not sure how to get there. Which is probably why I'm now bawling my eyes out.
Trudy knocks on the stall door. "Are you all right in there?"
"You wouldn't think so, Trudy," I say, gathering my composure and reading material before I open the door like I'm stepping into the light.
"Marilyn, what in Sam hell are you doing in the handicapped stall? I should give you a ticket! Are those tears in your eyes? What is this, the Tear Factory? I suppose you heard Miss Maureen's good news so we can pretty much label her tears, but what are yours for?"
"I honestly don't know. I think maybe it was hearing about your situation, Maureen. I suppose."
"It's a situation all right," she says, as if a thickness is coating her tongue.
"How many years have you been married now, Marilyn?" Trudy asks out of what seems like the blue.
"That's entirely too long," Trudy says. "What I mean is, it's too long for you not to be just as miserable as the rest of us. So come on Miss Pillow Perfect, tell us you're on the one-Zoloft-a-day-diet like the rest of us and we've got ourselves a club."
"Sorry, Trudy, but I don't think I qualify. I'm not exactly bursting with joy but I'm not miserable. You could say I've been living somewhere in the neighborhood of Mediocrity but have been waiting for a reserved parking space to open up in Happy Hills."
"Where? What are you talking about?" Trudy asks.
"It's not important. Anyway, I'm really sorry to hear about Roger, Maureen."
"It's fine. I'm fine. We'll all be fine. If he thinks he's going to just walk out of my and the kids' lives because he wants to live on Fantasy Island, I mean, hello? I didn't hear you flush, Marilyn. What were you doing in there?"
"I'd already flushed. But once Maureen got going, I didn't feel right opening the door."
"No worries!" Maureen says. "Look, we were here for the bread-making class, but I just can't handle it today."
To show that I understand, I nod. "Wait a minute! You did just say 'bread making,' correct?"
"Yes. We're evolving. Out of the fire and into the pan or something like that," Trudy says. "Come on, Mo, let me treat you to a mocha nonfat latte with no foam and one Equal?" She winks at me. "See ya next weekend for a little trim, Marilyn."
After they leave, I drop the book and magazine on the dry part of the sink and put my hands under the faucet. I look down at the silver stream that gushes out, but can still see a shadow of myself in the mirror above. If I look up, I'll see the truth in my eyes. What the hell am I doing? Here. Not in this store? But here: in this world, in northern California, in February 2004? Worrying about my hormone levels? Not only. I need to breathe. To stop pretending.
What I do know is that I'm forty-four years old. That I have been attached to my husband and kids for so long I need to find out what kind of person I'm capable of being as Marilyn Dupree and not just as Marilyn Grimes: mother and wife. But how do you make changes in your life without upsetting everything and everybody around you?
I'm scared. But I have to do something or the spirit I still have left is going to petrify. I just can't believe that I grew up and became one of those women who got married and had kids and forgot all about my personal dreams. At first I just tucked them away and then as the years passed, they got buried and I felt embarrassed or ashamed to have had them in the first place. I figured after I finished raising my children I'd at least get the interesting man I married back (didn't happen) and reacquainted with my other self and pick up where I left off.
They call us housewives. But contrary to popular belief, we're not all trophies like Maureen or as uneducated as Trudy, no malice intended. In fact, I did more than go to college. I got a degree, although I've almost forgotten what I majored in. Might as well have been Intro to First Husbands 101 (Gordon) the soul mate I let get away, and after two summer sessions of nothing close to intimacy, was coerced into repeating the class and enrolled in Second Husbands 101A (enter Leon). But then, after I'd barely flipped my tassel and was taking a one-year sabbatical before heading back to grad school because I thought being a social worker would help me steer as many unfortunate folk — black folk in particular — as far from self-destruction and poverty as they could get, but then surprise, surprise, here comes what I thought was only going to be a temporary interruption: Daughter 101 (Sabrina, a.k.a Isn't-She-Cute-and-Smart-Those-First-Eleven-Years, and then The-Rebellious-I'm-Already-Grown-and-Having-Sex-and-Getting-an-Occasional-Buzz-I-Could-Strangle-Her-Teenager-Years), who is now twenty-two and did a 360-degree turn. She became a vegetarian, got spiritual, and may be her generation's Iyanla. Next came Fraternal Twin Boys 202 (Spencer and Simeon, nineteen): straight up and down computer and math nerds like their dad, who makes sure buildings are built properly so they won't buckle during earthquakes. Leon helped build our house a century ago. It's big and boring. It's up in the Oakland Hills in what has been renamed The Fire Area since in 1990 almost all the homes up here were lost when some idiot set some eucalyptus trees on fire. Sometimes, I wished ours had burned to the ground so we could start all over. But it didn't. We only had minor smoke damage. Leon planned on doing the renovations himself, but fourteen years later, I stopped holding my breath.
Being a lifetime wife and mother has afforded me the luxury of having multiple and even simultaneous careers: I've been a chauffeur. A chef. An interior decorator. A landscape architect, as well as a gardener. I've been a painter. A furniture restorer. A personal shopper. A veterinarian's assistant and sometimes the veterinarian. I've been an accountant, a banker, and on occasion, a broker. I've been a beautician. A map. A psychic. Santa Claus. The Tooth Fairy. The T.V. Guide. A movie reviewer. An angel. God. A nurse and a nursemaid. A psychiatrist and psychologist. Evangelist. For a long time I have felt like I inadvertently got my master's in How To Take Care of Everybody Except Yourself and then a Ph.D. in How to Pretend Like You Don't Mind.
But I do mind.
"Marilyn? Are you still in here?" Trudy asks, sticking her head in the door. "Your fifteen minutes have come and gone, sister, now get your behind out here and sell some beads or something! And you've got a phone call."
"Did they say who it was?" I ask, pretending to fluff my flat hair. Leon's out doing seismic studies in a desert down in southern California where his cell never works and he won't be home until Monday afternoon, which also means he's golfing. He rarely calls me at work because I'm usually busy demonstrating, hunting for, or explaining something to someone. And ...
"It's your favorite person."
"Say it out loud. I don't mind."
"Line three. Have a nice weekend, Marilyn. I'm outta here."
I walk behind the framing counter and press the blinking red light. "Hello, Arthurine. What's going on?"
"Well, you know I wouldn't bother you at work unless it was important..."
"Has something happened? It's not the kids or Leon, is it?"
"Hold your horses, chile. No. No. The Lord says..."
"Arthurine, I have a pretty good idea what the Lord had to say about being patient, but could you just get to the point, please? I've got customers waiting."
"Well, you didn't ask if something could've happened to me or Snuffy?"
"Well, you're in good enough shape to call me so how bad off could you be? And if it was Snuffy I'd think you'd sound sadder."
"You've got a point, except what if I ... Oh, never mind. Your doctor called and said you should call her."
"You want me to say it louder?"
"Did she say why?"
"They don't usually say why unless it's a matter of life and death and we both know you aren't dying. So think about it for a minute and call her."
"Did she leave her number?"
"You want me to dial it for you and make this a three-way?"
"Never mind, I forgot I've got it stored in my cell. Thanks for letting me know."
"You're welcome. What time will you be getting home?"
"The same time I always get home, Arthurine. In plenty of time to pick you up from Bible study, but I'm going over to Bunny's tonight to play cards."
"Didn't you all just play cards last month over at Paulette's?"
"Why don't you never want to play with me when I ask?"
"Because you only like to play solitaire, Arthurine, and it's hard to play with another player."
"Well guess what?"
"Peggy's daughter is being a good Christian and has offered to bring me home after Bible study."
"Well, that's nice," I say, trying not to sound too relieved.
"I sure wish I could manage to cook something but my arthritis been acting up all week long and it's hard for me to open a can."
"Well, I wouldn't want you to strain yourself. I'll pick up something on my way home."
"Could it possibly be Mexican or Chinese?"
She's giggling when I hang up. She gets on the nerve that runs directly from the left and right sides of my brain. But God don't like ugly and I'm trying not to let ugly register anywhere near my heart or mind because Paulette probably has hidden cameras watching me. When I take my cell phone out of my jacket pocket I realize that it was my doctor who'd called while I was in the bathroom. I hang up and press "calls received" on my cell and get her office. "Yes, this is Marilyn Grimes and I'm returning Dr. Hilton's call. Is something wrong? Was my blood test abnormal or something?"
"No, no, no," the receptionist says, almost giggling, which makes me feel a little better. "The doctor just thought you might want to come in to talk about the results of your blood work, that's all."
"How about Monday?"
"She could see you between two and four."
"I'll be there about two fifteen. And you're sure I'm not sick?"
"No, you are not sick, she just wants to explain what your test results mean and then let you weigh your options."
"Then it's pretty clear that I'm going through menopause? Are my hormones disappearing?"
"The doctor will explain all of that to you when she sees you, so don't worry, Mrs. Grimes. You have a nice weekend."
I hang up the phone. If I get in there on Monday and find out I'm dying, I'm going to strangle this bitch.
From The Interruption of Everything by Terry McMillan, Viking Books, 2005.