I shrugged and continued to ignore him as Stone drove us up the hill toward Convent Avenue. As we passed the grand stone Episcopal church on the corner, I spotted two large chartered buses with tinted windows conspicuously parked outside Alexander Hamilton's old home.
Chartered buses weren't an unusual sighting in Harlem. Churches and community centers held bus rides and weekend excursions to Six Flags Great Adventure or Atlantic City. Gram and her friends never seemed to miss a church bus trip to Atlantic City, even when Gram insisted that they didn't gamble too much.
But these buses weren’t transporting church groups instead they were tour groups that seemed to appear almost every weekend to ogle the historical architecture found on quiet tree lined streets with beautiful brownstones, pre-war buildings and magnificent stone and brick churches found in pockets throughout Harlem. And my section of Harlem just happened to be one of them.
That day, a group of tourists stood huddled together taking snapshots of anything and anyone of interest. They wore frumpy clothing, hats and sunglasses to cover their pale faces and digital cameras slung across their necks. It seemed as though they tried to be as nondescript as possible in what was a futile attempt to blend in with the natives. Almost as if it would stop them from getting robbed on what were the safest streets in Harlem.
“I see they're at it again,” Stone said.
We were both clear on what he was referring to.
“Yeah, those tour groups come almost every weekend to look at the churches and the architecture and what used to be,” I said with a yawn.
“Nah, Diamond. They come every weekend to see what Harlem could be. Babygurl, these folks want Harlem to change. So, I gotta get mine before that happens.”
“Change Harlem? What for? Everyone I know with money tries to move out of here or wants nothing to do with this place. I mean, I love Harlem and everything, but I can’t see any of these people wanting to live here.”
I'd been reading in the New York Times and Daily News that Harlem was on the brink of change and ripe with plans for new developments. Advertisements for new apartments and townhouses for sale had seemingly blossomed overnight. And yet all I could think about were the recoils and stunned stares of my teachers and classmates whose upturned noses wrinkled in the air when I told them I was from Harlem. It was either that or gazes of pity. My background was often questioned, more often behind my back.
I could still remember the whispers I heard from the girls at Bellmonte as I walked the halls my first year: What kind of person is that girl from Harlem? What does her family do? What family in their right mind would choose to live up there?
“You know Diamond I really thought you were going to be the one that had more sense. I thought you would be the one to see the mistakes that your mother and your sister made and to avoid them at all costs----”
“What mistakes Gram?”
“I'll tell you what mistakes. Your mother and your sister have given up their hopes and dreams for the wrong men. And this is why I have to caution you about men,” Gram said firmly.
I snorted at this and rolled my eyes.
“Yes, Diamond. You may think you know everything. You may think that you're a woman because you've been with a man and he's made you feel like a woman. But you are not a woman yet. No, you are not. You are not a woman until you are mentally capable of handling your business and taking care of your own.
“Laying down with a man is easy, but getting up in the morning and looking in the mirror and knowing that you are the mistress of your destiny, that you are the captain of your ship and the pilot of your plane, that is when you can call yourself a woman,” she clapped her hands at the end of this statement for emphasis.
I was stunned into silence.
“Yes, I said it. Men, they can love you but they can also hold you back. They can stop you from reaching your goals and keep you from accomplishing your dreams. It’s great to be in love and all that, but times are different. Men like your grandfather, are hard to come by. Was then, even harder now.”
“Just because I’m dating Stone doesn’t mean I’ll drop out of school, Gram. It’s not that serious,” I protested.
Gram stared at me deeply in the eyes. “That’s what you say now. That’s what I said and that’s what your mother and your sister said. Your Grandfather, God rest his soul, provided for us and took great care of us. But when he died, it was like the life was sucked out of us. We were so dependent on him that we fell on hard times, not as much financially as mentally and emotionally. You don’t want to be like that. You want to be able to stand on your own, Diamond.”
“You know Diamond, I wish I was in love,” Yvelisse said suddenly.
“Yeahhh...,” I answered, my thoughts immediately turning to Stone.
“Are you in love with Stone? You seem like it.”
“I think I am. I know that I love him and I love being with him.”
“Yeahhh, that's what I want.”
“But sometimes I wonder if that's enough. Or if I'm over my head. Sometimes being with Stone is overwhelming. He has a lot going on. He's a father, a workaholic and he has issues with his baby mama. Safia and I got into it on the phone and Stone actually took her side.”
“What?! How could he?”
I told her all about my argument with Safia and then Stone.
“He thinks that I could make it difficult for him when he goes to see his daughter. I don't see how my relationship with Stone could interfere with his relationship with his daughter. It's not like Safia doesn't have a man. A man that she left Stone for, I might add.”
“What is going on there? Why is she so angry with you and Stone if she's supposedly moved on? I don't know, girl. That sounds like a lot,” Yvie offered.
“Sometimes I think it is. Sometimes I wonder if my love for Stone and his love for me is going to be enough to overcome the drama. But then when I'm with him it's like I forget all about it. Nothing matters but how he makes me feel.”
“I hope it's worth it. I want you to be happy.”
“Mrs. La Rue, I was working! And I did want to marry Azalea! But you and your husband, may he rest in peace, punished me for it. You never did think I was good enough for your daughter. You didn’t even think my name was good enough for my kids.”
“If you wanted Diamond and Jewel to have your last name, then you would have done the right thing and got married to my daughter!”
“If you remember, Mrs. La Rue, we were gonna get married. But, it was you that talked her out of marrying me!”
“Where the hell was she supposed to marry you?! In the jail house?!”
“I sincerely doubt it. I’ve never seen either of you out at any of our society functions. And with names like Diamond and Milan, I’m sure I would have noticed you two,” Chantilly scowled.
“Besides, what kinds of names are those? I mean, I can understand the name Milan. It is a marvelous city in Italy. And being named for a city in France, I am one to talk. But Diamond---as a name---it’s so---well how do I say this politely---so urban,” Chantilly narrowed her eyes at me.
Urban meant “ghetto” in Chantilly speak.
“Excuse me?!” I felt my temperature rise.
“Yes, it reminds me of that stripper in that movie. Now what was the name of that movie again?” Chantilly pretended that she couldn’t remember the name of Ice Cube’s movie, with dramatic pause and hems and haws for added effect.
“I think the movie was called Player’s Ball,” Carter spoke up.
I gave him a look of disbelief and he shrugged his shoulders sheepishly.
“Yes, that’s it! You know I don’t usually watch those kinds of movies,” Chantilly clapped her hands like a dancing seal.
I glanced over at Milan who was silent, she nodded and mouthed “be cool” again and I followed suit.
“Well, it doesn’t seem like you know much Chantilly, but I don’t fault you for that. In any case, I shall remind you of the true definition of the word, Diamond. Diamonds are rare and precious stones with a special fortitude and spiritual depth. My parents chose my name and the name of my sister, Jewel, to reflect the strength and preciosity of diamonds and jewels and their spiritual connection to the Earth. I wouldn’t expect someone like you to understand that.”
Aunt Lilah stopped me. She grabbed a clump of bills from the coffee table and waved them in the air in front of me. My heart sank, I didn’t really want to deal with this now, and probably not ever.
“Not so fast. You’re telling me that you don’t know about this Internet bill. From what I hear, you’re the only one using it,” she persisted.
“Aunt Lilah everyone has the Internet at home now. And I need it especially for school. It’s practically mandatory,” I answered.
“And it’s expensive. It’s just another bill that Mama has to pay. And your mother isn’t helping out as much as she said she would. But I don’t have to tell you that. Are you telling me that you must have access at home? Can you not go to the library or school and use it there?”
“I HAVE TO HAVE THE INTERNET AT HOME, Aunt Lilah! It isn’t fair to make me go all the way to school or to the library when even you have the Internet at home---”
“Yes, well we can afford it” Aunt Lilah tossed her head back, her nose reaching for the sky as her words stung.
“Sis, I know you mean well but this is why I didn’t want you to date Stone. I know he’s fine and he’s going places. But he has too much going on,” she said.
“You are one to talk. You and Jazz have so many problems. He’s always cheating on you. He won’t commit. You don’t even live together as a family----” I retorted.
Jewel hugged me from behind. “I know, Diamond, I know. But I don’t want that for you. Please listen to me. Do you want to ride home with me and Jazz?”
Pia and Jewel were drinking and singing along to the music. Mary J. Blige was singing about a man who had denied his child and had destroyed their love. No one could connect to us the way Mary J. did. She didn’t just sing about our pain or our hopes or even our joy, she had lived it. Her truth was our truth. She had taught most of us about love and life long before we were really living it or as we were falling in love.
Mercedes sat down and we began playing Spades. The cards spilled from our hands as we took turns gossiping. We talked about the girls in our neighborhood, who was doing what and with whom, and all the love triangles and quadrangles that intertwined and separated friends and families in the neighborhood.
We talked about the fly girls, the girls who always looked good no matter what and had the right man or the right money to make it happen. We talked about the ones who weren’t so fly anymore, how and when they fell off and what they were trying to do get back on top.
We talked about the hot boys who were running the streets, the ones who had just gotten out of jail and the ones who were headed back. We talked about the old timers, the ones who were too old to be out in the street doing their thing but were still doing it anyway because the hustler in them would never die or they would never give up that street life. A life that none of us really belonged to nor could really claim to really know but one we saw everyday all around us.
We didn’t speak about ourselves. We said things but never really said the things that were truly bothering us. The things that were on our minds day and night. Our dreams, our hopes and our desires. We didn’t talk about not wanting to be alone forever. We didn’t talk about being or needing men who couldn’t really give us what we need and how empty we felt even when they were with us, holding us, cuddling and even making love yet feeling so very far away.
We didn’t talk about not wanting to be broke forever. We didn’t dare talk about what things we couldn’t get and the things we couldn’t afford but tried to get anyway. We didn’t talk about that treadmill that we were just climbing on, trying to figure out its mechanisms and how this life was going to work. We didn’t admit that we were not yet women, yet we were not children anymore. Some of us were mothers, working women with goals and dreams and children to take care of and some of us were still trying to find our way and trying to skip over the potholes on the roads while trying not to pass by every caution sign without being too cautious. No, we didn’t speak about any of those things. We had girl talk but we didn’t have any of that woman truth.
“Especially you Milan. Do you still ride around in that Rolls Royce? I think it’s so vulgar and unnecessary to be so ostentatious. But then again you aren’t from New York, are you?” Miss Stinger joined in then as though she had been silently tagged by Ms. Austin for a verbal tag-team wrestling match.
“Yes, we still have our Rolls Royce and our chauffeur. But these days, I much prefer to drive my own car. My Jaguar is parked only two blocks away,” Milan shrugged.
Ms. Austin scoffed then and shook her head vigorously. Someone else having luxury she could not afford was too much for her. I smiled at her unhappiness.
“Oh, Diamond. You’ll never understand. There’s nothing like having your own. Not having to answer to anyone, to be able to do what you wish whenever you want to and not have to please anyone to get permission. There is nothing like having that kind of freedom. We all want it. Even the rich.”
She was right, I didn’t understand. I was going to have to make it for myself. There was no one I would need to please or gain permission from other than myself and God. Still I thought that the bumpy and unsure road to success was a lot scarier than having to please anyone to maintain access to millions. If I had to pick my poison, I would have much preferred the trust fund.
“I don’t care what they think. You’re changing Diamond. Ever since you started hanging out with Milan, it’s like you’ve become someone else. Now I see why you’ve never called me to hang out with you all. You’re getting caught up in all of this.”
“Interesting. Your private party doesn’t move us. Diamond and I have other plans. As we always do. What does concern me is this? If you are indeed who you say you are, why are you so worried about us? You seem practically obsessed with our every movement and emotion. Why is that, Chantilly?” Milan queried further.
“I could care less about you two. You’re barely on my radar---” Chantilly started before I cut her off.
“I doubt that. It seems that wherever we go, wherever we are, you show up. And you seem to think that I want something of yours or something that you wish to have,” I said then.
“I only care about the company two of my dear friends keep. We are not from the same circles, though it may seem that way because we know some of the same people. I just want it clear that no one gets in my way and that my friends are not hurt,” Chantilly said.
“We have no interest in hurting your friends. We simply enjoy their company and they in turn enjoy ours,” Milan said.
“That is subject to change. Bryant and Carter are often fascinated with fresh meat. But as soon as they’ve had you both, they will quickly dismiss you and return to those of us whom they know are on par with them. I have seen it many times before,” Chantilly said dismissively.
“And experienced it as well, I’m sure,” Milan said with a smirk.
“Fuck you Milan! How dare you insinuate such a thing!” Chantilly growled at her.
“Why are you so upset if it weren’t true? The truth always gets a rise out of people. No one can handle the truth these days it seems,” Milan said in a mockingly sweet voice.
“I won’t waste my time on you Milan. You are one of many that Carter will fuck and leave behind. The only thing he cares about is being a rock star. As soon as he makes it, he’ll leave you for real working models and plenty of them. You’re the it-girl for now, but time is fleeting and like your modeling days, your role as Carter’s girlfriend are numbered.
“As for you Diamond, Bryant’s fascination and preoccupation with you is the same. Every man likes to play savior and they all want a trophy woman sometime. But eventually they see a real woman who can handle her own and comes from a similar background is always the best choice. There is no getting around that. You two are only play things! Your days are numbered. Beware!” Chantilly ranted.
Jewel rolled her eyes, obviously displeased. I struggled with the mixed emotions I felt. On one hand I wanted to see my mother, to hold her and kiss her and spend time with her during this holiday weekend. But there was another side of me that wished I could have taken a long trip for that holiday and escaped all of the drama in my life.
“I understand how ya’ll feel. And you have a right to feel that way. Your mother has made decisions that I haven’t agreed with. But I have made decisions that she didn’t agree with either. We’ve both made mistakes. The only thing I ask of you two is that you spend time with your mother over this vacation.
“Speak to her, listen to her, and try to connect with her. Don’t get all huffy and roll your eyes and give her attitude, the way you two know how to do. Because she’s hurting too. This distance is putting a strain on everyone, not just you two.
“I know you’re not children anymore. You’re young ladies. But we’re still your parents. And we make mistakes and we need forgiveness too. We’re only human,” my father said.