I picked up my cell phone to call Charlaine and right outside my window, there it was: smiling pink lips, pale-blue eyes and slim, white hands folded in prayer. Above a golden halo was the words “Virgin Mary Speaks to America Today.” Underneath the hands was a telephone number with the instruction, “Call 1-800-555-MARY.” I stopped dead in my tracks and laughed before I got mad. I spent at least ten minutes with my hands on my hips and my eyes all squinty, trying to figure out what that billboard was doing in my neighborhood. I was used to the ones that sold Kool cigarettes and Boone’s Farm wine, and I wondered how much Madison Avenue planned to charge for salvation.
She looked like the models on those other billboards: size 10, thin, pretty in a washed-out, Eurocentric kind of way. I snorted. What a loony tunes world! The Black Madonna is front and center in many Polish churches, and here is a white Madonna on top of the Nation of Islam’s mattress factory. Go figure!
Maybe I wouldn’t have been so irreverent if she looked more like the women I knew, but that blonde hair and those blue eyes were a bit much to swallow in a neighborhood where most folks ranged from café au lait brown to pitch purple-black with soft, dark eyes and lots of too, too solid flesh.
“Too, too solid flesh.” That’s Shakespeare. It’s from Hamlet. I always liked it because I’ve been trying to melt my too, too solid flesh for too, too, too many years.
I was 250 pounds and counting when Oprah Winfrey went through her weight thing. She got into those size 10 jeans, strutted on stage, and I gave it up for her. “You go, girl!” I screamed. “You go for all of us!” Then she had to drop the size 10 when she ballooned back into sizes 16 and 18. I was crushed. Finally, she hired a personal chef and a trainer, and found a happy medium. I was happy for her, but I couldn’t afford a personal chef or a trainer, so I called 1-800-94-JENNY. I tried Nutrisystem, Weight Watchers, and Overeaters Anonymous. I did the grapefruit plan, the protein plan, and the low-fat plan. I sweat to the oldies, took pills, and even paid a three-month visit to Mama Rue’s fat farm in the Caribbean. For a New York minute, I thought about having my stomach stapled. But I dumped that idea and gave up trying.
The breakdown did me in. I sat around the apartment watching TV and talking to Charlaine whenever I could get a word in edgewise around her advice about what I should be doing with my life. Charlaine is my best friend, you see, and we used to talk on the phone during The Oprah Winfrey Show, swapping opinions about her diets, hair, clothes, and guests. Delores and Charlaine: two sister friends passing the time.
The last time had we talked, I could tell she was all kinds of upset with me.
“Dee,” she said, “you have got to pull yourself together. I’m all outa advice. I don’t know how else to help you.” She sighed. “And you know I want to. We’ve been ride-or-die friends since the third grade and if you can’t dig yourself out of this hole, you leave me no choice but to figure out how to hold an intervention on your behind!”
The breakdown? Oh yeah, that. Well, I went off one day in the cafeteria at work. I cussed, shook, and howled something awful. Next thing you know, I’m in a straight jacket at the local loony bin, popping Valium like aspirin. The shrink they sent me to didn’t have a clue so, as soon as I stopped raving and sank into depression, they gave me a prescription for antidepressants and let me go.
They didn’t know what was wrong. I did. I felt unloved. Sure, Charlaine and my family loved me, but their love was the safe love that families and friends are supposed to have for one another. I was missing that bone-deep, accepting love: the kind that wraps around your life and bursts your heart. And it wasn’t about men. Many had declared their love for my soft eyes, my ample curves, my southern fried chicken and sweet potato pie. I felt their arms and heard their words, but I never believed they were really meant for me.
Anyways, my depression and I holed up in my apartment. When I needed to talk, I called Charlaine. When I needed food, I called Stop & Shop.
My job had given me a six-week medical leave to get myself together and go back to work. With three weeks to go, I was nowhere near ready and really bummed out. Giving up my job as a systems analyst and not working at all was scary, but going back to work and facing everybody made my insides quake. I knew I couldn’t make it on welfare. Too humiliating. I felt like Mount St. Helens before her big bang.
The Mary billboard was just another irritant. And that irritant started to watch me. Her eyes followed me around my living room. They reproached me when I ate, pleaded soulfully with me when I watched TV, and got a hopeful glint in them when I talked to Charlaine. I could feel those eyes glued on me like white on rice. The feeling persisted even when I pulled down the shade.
So that’s how it was the morning I woke up with three weeks to go before my day of reckoning. I heaved myself out of bed and waddled past the window to pick up the remote control. I was going to watch the Today show and try to ignore Mary like I usually did, but that morning something pulled my eyes to the window and glued them square on the billboard. My jaw dropped. Her eyes had changed color. Now they were brown: a soft, warm, sparkling brown. I shook my head and looked again. No mistake. Strange, I thought. Why would they come back and just change the color of her eyes? The next day, her blonde hair turned dark brown and started to curl. After that, her skin darkened, her nose broadened, her lips widened, her hair kinked up, and she started gaining weight. I sat by the window night after night trying to catch the midnight painter, but in spite of NoDoz and extra coffee, I never saw a soul. Yet each morning, Mary looked more and more like a fat Black Madonna with a ‘fro. Her mouth still wore that lush, glowing smile, and her eyes continued to haunt me.
Many times during those days, I felt an urge to pick up the phone and make the call. Many times my hand reached out, and many times I snatched it back. I knew the billboard didn’t make any sense from a rational standpoint, and I am basically a rational, intelligent person. Except for my breakdown, I tend to carefully plan my idiocies. I knew I wasn’t hallucinating because I had flushed all the drugs from the hospital down the toilet. Reality was bad enough without drugs. I was depressed and dysfunctional—not stupid.
Finally, when I couldn’t stand it a minute longer, I pulled my hand out of a bag of double chocolate macadamia nut cookies, pushed the bottle of Diet Coke aside, grabbed my phone, and punched in the numbers: 1-800-555-MARY.
I heard it ring on the other end and I started to sweat. It rang again and I began to panic. It rang a third time, and I was about to hang up when someone picked up and a voice filled with enough warmth to melt frozen butter in a nanosecond said, “Hello-o-o.”
“Uh, hi. Uh, can I speak to Mary please?”
“Oh sure, honey. Is this Delores?”
“Uh . . . uh . . . uh, yeah, this is me,” I said as I peered around my apartment. “Listen, am I on Candid Camera?”
The voice chuckled. “No, sugar. This is for real. Hang on a minute, will you? She’s just getting off the other line.”
The other line? Why, I wondered, did this feel like a call to the Psychic Friends Network? I looked around for Dionne Warwick.
“Listen dear, you will hang on, won’t you?”
Well, really, what did I have to lose? “Yeah, I’ll wait,” I managed to croak.
There was something disturbingly familiar about Mary’s voice when it came on the line. In a way it was like listening to the women in my family. The cadence, pitch, tone, and accent were right on the mark, yet it was different somehow. I couldn’t place it and it unsettled me.
“Delores, what took you so long? I’ve been waiting and waiting to hear from you.”
“You have?” My eyebrows shot up to meet my hairline.
“Yes. We’ve been trying to get through to you for weeks.”
“Really?” I put my free hand on my hip, popped it out, and sucked on my teeth.
“Yes! We tried reaching you through your family and Charlaine. You weren’t listening. You know, Delores, you’re running out of time. We had to resort to something dramatic.”
I rolled my eyes. “Uh-huh, and you thought a billboard of the Virgin Mary would be just the thing to get my attention?”
“Well, we send out the word as best we can, but it doesn’t always get through the way we intend it. The veil between us is very thin, dear, but it can cloud up.”
I sighed. What kind of scam was this woman running?
“The billboard designer and Father O’Leary didn’t get the image right. We had to alter it to make our point. I hope it didn’t upset you too much.”
It didn’t compute. Maybe I was having some kind of post-drug hallucination. Discomfort and confusion coalesced and turned into a nasty hunch. I felt it form. The hair on the back of my neck stood up. My head felt poufed like cotton candy. Suddenly, I knew why the voice was so familiar. It was woo-woo time.
“Your name is not really Mary, is it?” I whispered.
“No.” She said softly.
“Who the hell are you?” I rasped.
“I think you know.”
“Maybe, but I want to hear you say it.”
“My name is Delores and I love you.”
The weight of those words knocked me off my feet and sat me down on the couch. I was talking to myself! I was talking to the part of me that had never given up; the part I ignored and shunted aside; the part that knew the truth about my inability to feel love, about my feelings of insecurity, vulnerability, and pain; the part that sent me off the deep end, hoping I’d find a way to climb back.
I sniffled. “Yes.”
“Are you still listening?”
I gulped. “Yes.”
“Can you love me back?”
“It’s hard,” I gasped. “I…I don’t know how.”
“Too hard to love yourself? Oh dear, maybe I’m too late after all. Should I hang up?”
“Nooooooo!” I screamed into the phone. “Noooooo! Nooooooo!”
“Way to go, dear. I think you need a little more time. How about two weeks?”
Two weeks later I went back to work and rejoined the human race. I recycled the Diet Coke bottles, started drinking lemon water and added fruits and vegetables to my Stop & Shop deliveries. Delores-Mother-Mary-Me was right. I’m working on loving myself as I am: big, black, and bodacious. It’s slow going but I’m making progress, and I’m still giving it up for Oprah. If she knew about my struggle, I know she’d give it right back and scream, “You go, Delores! You go for all of us!”