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I expected to see her but I didn’t expect to feel anything. I was mentally prepared to sit through the service feeling anxious wondering if the rest of the congregation could feel the tension pulling between our chests. I’d planned on taking a seat on the last pew, out of sight and out of mind. But Chad caught me sliding in after dropping a tray of my grandma’s sandwiches off in the kitchen and he just so happened to be sitting on the one pew in the entire sanctuary that I didn’t wanna sit on.
Jada hadn’t aged a day since high school. Same flawless caramel complexion. Same sleepy brown eyes that didn't wake up unless she was upset. Same Coke bottle shape that could be imagined even when she was sitting. Same dark brown hair hanging down her back, pulled into a ponytail leaving her pretty face unhidden, void of makeup because she never did need it. The only thing missing, probably my favorite of all her features, was her voice, a soft but authoritative sound that had talked me into and out of more things than I could take to the altar on Sunday. It was harder now, even though she was attempting to be polite. The softness had been off limits for me, along with her heart and my high school class ring that used to hang from the gold chain around her neck. She had it tucked so I couldn’t tell if the ring was still there.
“I'm gonna go check on Boogie and Penny.” Jada leaned forward, looking right past me giving no acknowledgment as she spoke to Chad and nodded at Kerri. “It was nice meeting you, Kerri.” She gave a polite smile before grabbing her blue clutch and standing from her seat.
I could see Kerri's reaction to what must've been an awkward encounter to witness. But Chad wasn’t fazed at all. He’d been watching his sister avoid me for years.
“That was rude,” Kerri said to me before Jada made it to the end of the pew.
“They got beef,” Chad mentioned. “And fair warning, don’t ever let my sister hear you calling her rude or anything else, for that matter. We’ve all been baptized, but Jada’s didn't take.”
“Oh, sh—shoot.” Kerri’s hand went to her chest.
“So what're y'all beefing f—”
“Good morning, Tabernacle!” The booming baritone of the man who’d baptized me and nearly every person in attendance born after nineteen eighty, came roaring through the church’s speakers that my grandfather had installed before he passed away, pulling a smile to my face.
Pastor Fold was one of those people whose presence was etched in your mind forever. He was more than a pastor. He’d been one of the few constants in my life.
“This is the day that the Lord has made…” He continued, making his way down the center aisle, as usual, wearing the same blue robe that he’d been wearing since I was twelve and considered him a superhero the first time I saw him.
“We shall rejoice and be glad in it.” Myself and the rest of the congregation said in unison.
I panned my eyes to the left and saw that Jada had stopped and was standing at the end of the pew. It would be ill-mannered to leave the sanctuary as the Pastor was entering, even if you were his youngest daughter. I’d hoped she’d feel my eyes on her and turn to look my way like she used to back in the day. But she didn’t. Kept those browns straight forward, offering the same smile of admiration to her father as I had, when he stopped at the end of the aisle.
“Today’s a good day, Saints.” He spoke into the tiny mic that had been secured on the collar of his robe.
“I don’t think y’all heard me. I said today is a good day!” He repeated, louder this time, pulling scattered ‘Amens’ and ‘hallelujahs’ from throughout the congregation.
“Aside from the fact that my edge up is as perfect as the coming of the Glory of the Lord thanks to my man John the Barber, we got something to praise God about this morning.” The congregation laughed out loud as Pastor nodded at the local barber, John, who had just acquired his grandfather’s barbershop and was sitting on the second center pew.
“Amen.” Pastor smiled. “Did not John line me up like the Lord lined up man’s steps in Proverbs sixteen and nineteen? That’s a word, Saints.” He gleefully backed up his humor with the word of God like he always did. That was his superpower and the reason his flock had grown so much that he had to have a new church built to hold them all.
“Somebody’s up out there.” He laughed at himself as the congregation calmed down from laughing at his antics. “And I'm gonna speed this along before the water gets cold. We have a candidate for Baptism this morning.” He announced with so much pride in his eyes. There was always pride in his eyes on what we called ‘Dipping Day’.
“Yeah, Saints. We got another one joining The Fold, praise God.” He continued, turning around to walk up a set of steps beside the choir stand that led to the baptismal pool as everyone began to clap.
“I heard a word back in the study that my one and only grandbaby had been out here singing secular music.” He kept going sending a rippled mixture of gasps and giggles throughout the crowd.
“Yeah. Might have to dip her twice. Amen?” He emphasized, still sprinkling that signature humor as he made it to the top step and rounded the baptismal pool, joined by two deacons who’d been waiting on either side of the blue, silk curtains pulled open on either side of the pool.
The crowd quieted as Pastor Fold’s adorable three-year-old granddaughter, Patience, was escorted onto the platform, smiling so big you’d swear she’d been waiting for this moment all her life. And I didn’t doubt she had. The build-up to the day of your Baptism was a big deal at TDBC. There’d be a party the Friday before, held at the local park during warmer months and in the Church’s rec center when it was too cool or wet outside. And a tree wrapping ceremony was held that Saturday, where you’d pick a tree in the field behind the church and have your family wrap it with your favorite colored ribbon and Pastor Fold would bless it in your honor. To most kids, it seemed silly, wrapping trees and having parties, where the only music played, was gospel. But for twelve-year-old me, it was the best weekend of my life. I danced to Kirk Franklin and Hezekiah Walker with the same spirit that I’d danced to Junior Mafia.
But the best part of the celebration came after you’d been dipped and made clean. After church let out, they always served brunch for the congregation, and somehow, no matter how many people were in attendance, there was always enough to go around. And the candidates for Baptism got a special treat. A stack of three fluffy, homemade pancakes, topped with whatever your heart desired. I could remember my toppings like I’d had ‘em yesterday. Cinnamon, pecans and a load of maple syrup. Thank God I wasn’t born diabetic or I woulda definitely died that day.
“Paw Paw, is it time to talk to Jesus yet?” Patience’s tiny voice snapped me out of my thoughts. Her mother had just secured a plastic cap on her head to protect the two long braids draped over her shoulders.
“Yes, it is, baby girl.” Pastor replied with a smile. “I think Patience might’ve been the wrong name for this one.” He said, looking out into the laughing crowd.
The next moment, Patience professed her faith and was dipped into the warm waters of welcoming into The Fold. She came up and breathed new life, so little, yet so full. I clapped with the rest of the congregation, proud to have witnessed another rite of passage.
Everybody took their seats under Pastor’s instructions.
“Another thing I heard back in the office was that we have a visitor in the Tabernacle this morning.” He announced after kissing Patience on the forehead and handing her off to her mother, wrapped up in a warm towel.
“I use the term visitor loosely because I can vividly remember this young man eating over a fourth of my groceries at least six days a week.” He continued, eyes darting straight back to me.
“I knew he was gon’ do this.” I leaned into Chad who was already laughing. Kerri smiled at the exchange.
“Awe, don’t try to act shy now.” Pastor Fold narrowed his eyes. “Wasn’t nothin’ shy about you when I was asking where my leftover spareribs went.” He joked, and of course, everybody busted out laughing.
“I’m just messin’ with ya, Jet.” He shook his head. “But you know what would be a nice way to repay that dent you left in my deep-freezer?” He wasn’t done with me. Pastor Fold was never done with anybody fast.
I nodded because whether I agreed to it or not, I’d be doing what he asked.
“Don’t worry. I’m not gonna ask you for none of that ‘gold medal money’.” He chuckled. “We can handle that later. Put a l’il somethin’ on the Building Fund, if you know what I mean...” He slanted his dark brown eyes down at me and nodded.
“But seriously, my grandbaby wanted a song for her ‘Dipping Day’.” He said. “And I know we got the choir up here and everything, but it sure would be nice to hear you sing. It’s been so long.” He was practically begging. And at that moment, I’d never been so thankful for my dark skin or I would’ve been sitting on that pew turning beet red.
“Boogie, come on out and tell Uncle Jet what song you wanna hear.” He stepped down into the pulpit and approached the podium mounted at the center of the stage.
I stood from my seat and slid past Kerri and Chad. I hadn’t sung anywhere outside of my shower and my car in God knows how long. And I wasn’t nervous. Singing came as naturally as running to me. I just didn’t see it coming.
“I wanna hear the Superhero song by Kirby Fwanklin.” Patience grabbed the mic from her grandfather and spoke without an ounce of hesitation. “And I want my Auntie Jada to sing it too ‘cause it’s girls and boys in the song. Y’all gotta homonize!” She looked up at Pastor Fold and smiled, so proud that she’d almost nailed a big word.
“Well, you heard the baby. Jada Lynn, come on up here.” Pastor waved a hand toward his daughter, separating her name into two parts like he always did.
I’d made it to the altar and was about to go up the first step. Then I looked over my shoulder and saw the look on Jada’s face. She was smiling awkwardly, trying her best not to disappoint her niece, running her fingers underneath her necklace, exposing the ring I couldn’t see earlier.
And then she noticed me looking, seamlessly tucked the chain back under her dress, then stepped from behind the pew and started toward the stage. I waited to hold her hand as she ascended the steps and was surprised to the point of my heart skipping a beat when she actually touched my hand. A familiar warmth spread from my fingertips and up my arms, landing in my chest like a ton of bricks. She was as soft as I’d remembered, smelled as sweet as I’d remembered. All I’d forgotten was how good it felt to be standing this close to her. And I quickly remembered that too.
His eyes were too focused and the production crew was too swift for my liking, placing mics in our hands within seconds of reaching the top of the stage. I made a mental note to pinch Daddy as soon as I was within pinching distance. Drew was an innocent bystander, but my father knew exactly what he was doing.
As the choir stood on cue and the instrumental to Kirk Franklin’s most recent hit single was played by our seasoned pianist, Andre, my heart came alive in my chest and there was no denying my desire to sing. Standing so close to Drew that we might as well have been in the same pants leg, a familiar vibration settled in my soul. I didn’t want to admit how much I’d missed it, but it was probably written all over my face.
I hoped poor Kerri couldn’t see it…
The awkwardness of separation that lingered between us while occupying the same pew, somehow disappeared when the music came on. We’d sang together so often growing up that it was second nature, knowing who’d take the lead without uttering a word. Knowing who’d take the high and who’d take the low based on something as simple as body language. From the corner of my eye, I could see Drew's fist clenched loosely at thigh level. The same deep vein that I’d rubbed my thumb over more times than I could remember rolled up and down the spread of his palm, pulling moisture to the corners of my mouth. I blinked and looked up the slope of his shoulder straight into his eyes as he looked down into mine, and without another second left before the beat dropped for our entry, he nodded, and we began to sing.
“How can it be
That you love the most unlovable part of me
How could you see
Your life was the only gift I’ll ever need to be free?
It’s amazing with you, I win even if I lose
Everything’s working for my good for always”
For the stretch of that verse, our eyes connected and remained that way. And though I knew that for Kirk, those words were intended for the Lord, in that moment, they held truth for me and Drew. I collected myself in a millisecond, fighting the urge to slide my fingers under the necklace tracing my collar bone with Drew’s class ring anchored at its center. True to the art of performing, I could not and would not come unglued onstage. The crowd came to their feet as we entered into the chorus with the choir jumping in unrehearsed, still delivering perfect pitch. Patience had gone back down to sit on the front row with Angela, Chad, and Kerri. I turned my eyes to her to re-center my thoughts. I hadn’t allowed myself to be this close to Drew for a minute and now I was being reminded why.
“He saved the day
He will come through
He won’t fail
That’s not what superheroes do
No greater love makes my heartbeat
All I wanna do is make you proud of me”
Somewhere between the first and second repetition of “I don’t wanna love nobody but you” I felt the strings of my heart coming untangled, and a tear slid down my cheek that surprised even me. By the grace of God, I made it to the end of the song without being completely taken over with emotion. But I knew before I left the stage that I wasn’t sticking around for brunch. I needed to get home, get out of my clothes and cry into a bottle of wine.
“Jada!” I don’t remember thinking first. I just saw her rushing down the aisle and the next thing I knew I was rushing behind her.
“Jada, slow down, man!” I yelled again, following her out of the church doors and into the parking lot.
“Jada, I’m just tryna check on you. Would you—”
“I’m fine, Drew.” She stopped at her car and tried pulling the door open without hitting the unlock button on her remote. She almost never called me Jet like everybody else. And I didn't mind. Sometimes all I wanted to be was Drew.
“Lemme get it.” Her hands were shaking so bad she dropped her keys. I stooped down to pick them up while she stood there facing the car, still trying to ignore me.
“Look, I’m sorry about what went down in there. If I knew he was gonna call me out like that—”
“Nobody ever knows what my father’s gonna do.” She cut me off after I’d opened the car door. “He does what he wants, and we follow his lead.” She turned around and looked at me, eyes wet with tears that I wished she’d let me wipe away.
“Keys?” She reached out her hand, breath finally slowing after she’d power walked a good distance in a pair of heels that added nearly half a foot to her five-foot-six stature.
“How long are we gonna do this?” I asked. I hadn’t had the nerve to for four years, but I was standing too close not to at least try.
“Do what, argue over my keys? Not long.” She shoved her hand out farther.
I dropped her keys in my pocket.
“An Drew,” She broke my name into syllables like she did back in the day to emphasize how serious she was.
Damn, I missed that.
“If you think I’m above reaching in your pocket and taking my damn keys...”
“Would you just talk to me?” I stepped in closer. So close that I could see the chocolate beauty mark on her neck that had been the subject of all my adolescent fantasies. “Please?”
She folded her arms across her chest, breathing out as she rested her behind against the car.
“Thank you.” I pushed my hands into the pockets of my slacks. “How’ve you been?”
“Blessed. Now can you give me my keys?” She tilted her head to the side and extended a hand.
She wasn’t gonna make this easy.
“I see you still got the chain.” I mentioned.
“You want it back?” She snapped. And before I could respond she’d unlatched it and extended it in my direction.
“No.” I shook my head. “You really gonna leave without eating?” I asked. Jada never passed on Sunday Brunch. Neither of us did.
“I’m not hungry.” She blinked, rolling those pretty eyes up to the sky before returning them to me and shaking her head. “I’d like to go home now.”
“Alright.” I pulled the keys from my pocket and extended them to her. “It was nice singing with you again.” I didn’t release the keys
immediately. If it was the only way our bodies would connect, I needed to make it last.
“Yeah.” She chewed at her trembling bottom lip before snatching the keys, releasing the ring and chain into my hands, and turning her back to me and climbing into the car.
I watched with heaviness lodged in my chest, holding the abandoned jewelry in my hand as she drove out of the church’s parking lot and took off down the street.