It’s 1992, Brooklyn, New York. All of the girls had bamboo earrings—at least two pair. Charisse Hawkins, adored and admired by her best friends and one of the smartest and most sought-after girls in high school, has dreams of becoming a doctor. Her mother, who works tirelessly to support her, is proud she’s on the right path.
Then she meets him, Jamal Butler, a part-time college student who lives at home and works an obscure job. Too old, not her type, and certainly not part of her plan, Jamal wants Charisse for nothing more than to please his ego and he is willing to use any tactic to gain the affection of a naive Charisse. He offers what she’s never known before—the love of a man.
Or so it seems. Life takes a sharp turn when Charisse spends her graduation day giving birth to their premature daughter. Her priorities change and so does Jamal. Suddenly Charisse’s world is turned upside down and truths are exposed about her family and friends. She begins a journey of tough life lessons as she struggles to come to grips with her role as mother and ultimately having to accept one of the simple rules of life: You Get What You Play For.
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The next month or so was supposed to be that “brand-new” relationship period with Jason that I had always been told would happen when you started dating someone. The stage where you stay on the phone 21/7, and that’s because the other three hours you spend smiling in each other’s damn face. Jason never officially asked me out, but I didn’t think people did that anymore. He just started referring to me as his girl, and when guys asked me if I had a man now, I told them, “Yes.” The only problem was, I didn’t have a man, a boyfriend, a buddy, or even a pen pal 99.9 percent of the time. I could only imagine what women who dated, or were married to, NBA players went through. I was just dating a high school star and between the games, practices, recruiters, interviews, and campus visits, I barely spoke to Jason, much less saw him. When Jason did manage to fit me into his schedule, his beeper would go off every five minutes.
Jamal, on the other hand, was Mr. Persistence. I could count on getting two I’m just checking to see how you’re doing phone calls a week, and at least one No disrespect to your man, but I saw these flowers and thought of you appearances at my school. At first I was like, Whatever. I wish Jason would show me a little of this attention, but after a while I started looking forward to Jamal’s calls and after school visits. Jamal played the friend role to a tee. He was so attentive and seemed interested in what I was thinking, what I was feeling, and no matter how much I vented about my frustration with Jason, he never tried to put him down. We actually got into an argument about it one night on the phone.
“Damn, Charisse, that dude is just trying to do big things. You need to be more supportive of your man,” he said.
“I am fucking supportive! The world doesn’t revolve around his basketball career. If you want to be with somebody you find time for that person,” I replied with an attitude.
“I hear you. I don’t want to argue, and I’m on your side,” Jamal responded.
I didn’t even realize he was setting me up, pretending to defend Jason, but really he was just using that to hit a fucking nerve and use my own insecurities against me. He was taking everything I told him as a friend and giving that shit right back to me in a pretty box, just like the earrings. He transformed himself into everything I told him Jason wasn’t.
I started getting addicted to the attention from Jamal. That shit was like a drug to feed my ego. I was the center of someone’s universe, and I wouldn’t have to share the spotlight with a team, a basket, or a bitch named Spalding.
That Friday night Jason and I had made plans to go to the movies to see What’s Love Got to Do with It, and he had promised me no matter what came up, nothing would interfere. I knew when I answered the phone at four-thirty that day and Jason was on the other end that he was about to break another promise.
“Charisse, you’ll never guess what came up, baby,” he said excitedly.
I didn’t even ask what, I just kept quiet to avoid cursing him the fuck out.
“One of the reps from the Adidas basketball camp got me tickets to the St John’s game tonight at the Garden,” he added.
“Jason, I really wanted to go to the movies, but if we have to go to this game … all right,” I said in an attempt to be supportive.
He got really quiet, I knew he wanted to say something, but he knew I wasn’t trying to hear what he had to say.
“We are going to the game, right?” I asked.
“Charisse, tomorrow night it’s me, you, the movies, and BBQ’s … I promise,” he replied.
For some reason the anger that was ready to explode a moment ago went away. I didn’t even stress it.
“That cool, Jason. Enjoy the game,” I said before hanging up the phone.
About five minutes the phone rang again, but I didn’t answer it.
“Charisse! Telephone!” My mother yelled from downstairs. “Any other time you answer it before the damn thing rings.”
I figured it was Jason calling back to tell me he was taking me to the game. He knew I was upset with him.
“Yes, Jason?” I said as I picked up the receiver.
“Survey says … wrong answer,” Jamal said jokingly. “I figured I would catch you before you went out, tell you to be safe and have a good time,” he added.
“You can’t be much safer than in your own muthafucking house,” I responded sarcastically.
“I thought you were going to the movies,” he said.
“So did I, but St John’s is playing somebody at Madison Square Garden, and your man can’t miss it.”
“So why aren’t you going?” he asked.
“That’s a good goddamn question, but Jason can kiss my ass,” I replied.
Jason and I weren’t having sex yet. I knew he wanted to and we had discussed it, but I wanted to wait. He said he was cool with it, but I started wondering if he didn’t make time for me because we weren’t fucking, or because he was fucking somebody else.
“So let’s go to the movies,” Jamal came out and said.
“No, I don’t think that’s cool,” I replied, before thinking about it for a second. “You know what, fuck it. What time are you picking me up?” I asked.
I wanted to get back at Jason and this seemed like the best way to do it. I also didn’t want to sit in the house on a Friday night. I knew if I told my mother I wasn’t going out with Jason I would have been on lock down, especially if she found out it was a twenty-three-year-old, so I didn’t say shit … don’t ask, don’t tell.
Jamal took me to the Metropolitan movie theatre on Fulton Street to see What’s Love Got to Do with It, and then he took me to Junior’s for a piece of cheesecake before driving me home.
“I had a really good time, Charisse,” he said as we drove down Flatbush Avenue.
“Me too. Thanks for taking me,” I replied.
Jamal started laughing to himself.
“What’s so funny?” I asked.
“I was just curious as to how you’re going to tell Jason you went out with me,” he said.
“How do you know I’m going to tell him?”
“Wasn’t that the whole point of going? I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m glad I got to spend some time with you, but give a nigga a little credit. This was about getting back at Jason.”
I felt really bad because he was right, and the fact that he was so cool about it made it even worse. When we got back into my neighborhood I looked out the car window when we stopped at a red light right near the bus stop. There were a group of girls about my age or a little older waiting for the bus. I saw how they all stopped talking and tried to see who was in the car as Jamal turned up the music just loud enough to grab their attention. I liked the feeling of these chicks sweating me, and Jamal knew it. He looked at me and smiled as he did his “gangster lean” in his seat.
I couldn’t really describe Jamal in one sentence. I mean if you asked me to describe Jason I would tell you, “He’s a good dude who’s into sports and school,” or if you asked me about my friend Giovanni I would say, “That nigga is a thug to the core. His future will definitely include changing his government name to a number.” Jamal seemed to be a little bit of everything; it was like he didn’t know whether he was a street cat, a scholar, a playboy, or a hustler. When we were in the theater he was acting regular, but I noticed when we left that whenever he saw a guy who looked hard, or like a hood, his whole shit would change up, his walk, his talk, and even the look on his face. I thought that shit was funny, like I was walking down Fulton Street with Dark Kent and he kept turning into Super Thug.
When we got to my block I told him to drop me off on the corner. The last thing I needed was my mother or Ms. Blackmon seeing me get out of his car. I just wished Jason could see me. Jamal kissed me on the cheek and said good night. He watched me make it home before pulling away from the corner. When I got inside my mother was sitting in the living room watching The Tonight Show.
“This Jay Leno guy is pretty damn funny … they never should have cancelled Arsenio Hall, though. He was the black people’s Johnny Carson,” she said.
“Yeah, who’s on the show tonight?” I asked, trying to make small talk.
“Julia Roberts, I think, and Patti LaBelle. That’s who I’m waiting for,” she replied. “So how was the movie?” she asked.
“Good … I’m tired though. I’ll see you in the morning,” I said as I started walking upstairs.
“Jason called. … He said he was sorry he didn’t take you to the movies, but it was important for him to go to this game. He said he’s decided to go to St. John’s to play ball, so he could be closer to you.”
I thought she was about to start yelling and screaming, but she didn’t raise her voice or move from her spot.
“I was sixteen once, Charisse,” she said calmly. “I remember thinking I was grown. Back then the big thing was smoking cigarettes. You were afraid to smoke in front of your parents. And even though you knew smoking was bad for you, and you heard all the stories about lung cancer and emphysema, you did it anyway, and you felt like it was your choice. I’ve always tried to teach you to make good choices, Charisse. That’s all a mother can do,” she went on to say.
The next day was Saturday. It was a really beautiful day outside, the fall chill was in the air, the sun was shining bright. This was my favorite time of year. I called it “Fly sweater and leather weather.” I spent the majority of it doing homework and laundry. Jason had called me about one o’clock and apologized about the night before; he also told me about his plans to attend St. John’s.
“I had a chance to talk to Coach Mahoney, and he really wants me there,” he said. “And obviously St. John’s is one of the best academic institutions in the country.”
“My mother told me,” I responded. “But isn’t your dream to play in the NBA? The other schools are better for basketball, right?”
“The NBA is a long shot. I mean, I’d love to make it, but I can major in political science at St. John’s, then go to law school after my career if I’m lucky enough to get drafted. And just so you know, Mark Jackson, Chris Mullin, Jayson Williams, and Malik Sealy all came out of St John’s,” he stated.
Part of me wanted to go out with Jason that night. But I was also hoping that Jamal would call, now that I knew my mother trusted my judgment and I wasn’t restricted. And since technically Jason never asked me out, technically I wasn’t his girlfriend. Jamal was just my friend. Later on that day I was sitting in my room watching television and waiting for him to call, not Jason, but Jamal. I started to wonder, Did he really have a good time last night? Maybe he’s not feeling me. I wonder what it is about me he doesn’t like? All these things were running through my mind. Jason called me three more times to see what was up for the night, but I kept telling him I wasn’t sure if my cousins were coming over. I was really trying to see if I was going to get a better offer, or at least the offer I was hoping for.
About six o’clock I took matters into my own hands and called Jamal, he answered on the second ring. I could tell someone was in the car with him, a female someone.
“Are you busy?” I asked with a slight attitude.
“Nah, I’m just heading out to the city with a friend,” he replied.
“A friend like who?” I asked.
“A friend friend,” he responded. “You better save that third-degree shit for Jason,” he added.
I was so fucking mad I didn’t know what to do. I felt like he was cheating on me and he wasn’t even my man. All I knew was he was giving my attention to some other bitch and I wanted him sweating me, and only me.
Later on Jason and I walked over to Kentucky Fried Chicken to get something to eat. Every word that came out of his mouth was about basketball, the St. John’s Redmen, Alumni Hall, how Lou Carnesecca used to be the coach. I wanted to tell him, “Shut the fuck up! Please!”
“You sure went to bed early last night,” he said as we stood in line at KFC.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked.
“Nothing, I’m just saying you went to bed early, that’s all.”
“Don’t accuse me of anything,” I said sharply. “If you want to ask me something, come out and ask me.”
“Charisse, what the hell are you talking about?” he asked with a confused look on his face.
“Maybe if you didn’t take your ass to the game last night, I wouldn’t have had to go out with somebody else,” I blurted out.
Jason took a second to process what I said before responding.
“You went out with somebody else?” he asked, almost in disbelief.
“Yeah, you didn’t have no time for me.” I said. “And he’s twenty-three with his own whip.”
“So that’s how you get down?” he asked. “I’m at the Garden checking out a game to see if I want to play for St. John’s so I can be closer to you, and you’re out with the next man,” he added.
“I didn’t ask you to go to St. John’s. All I asked you to do was take me to the movies,” I responded.
“So is that where you went? You know what, I don’t even want to know. What difference does it make? He has a car, right? Now I know why you wanted to come here, it’s only right that a chicken head would love chicken.”
“Fuck you! Go talk to some of those dumbass cheerleaders who think you’re a big fucking deal,” I said before walking away and leaving him standing there in line.
I should have been honest with Jason and just told him that I wasn’t sure how I felt at that point. He deserved that much, especially after I found out he was only considering St. John’s because of me in the first place. Instead I chose to alienate a person I really did like and ruin a friendship because I felt like I wasn’t getting the attention I needed. Jamal had got me hooked on that shit, and the only way he would continue to give me that attention was if I made myself available to him, and I couldn’t do that if I had a boyfriend.
When I got back to the house I called Jamal’s car phone again but it was off. He had the kind of phone that was actually hooked up to his car and sat in between the driver and the passenger. I remember being impressed when I saw it. I didn’t know too many people who had a mobile phone. Finally Jamal answered his phone about nine-thirty that night.
“Damn, you and your friend must be having a good time,” I said with a major attitude.
“Shouldn’t you be out with Michael muthafucking Jordan?” he replied.
“We broke up, or should I say I broke it off.”
Jamal got really quiet for moment, like he was thinking.
“What happened?” he asked curiously.
“Look, you call me when you’re not with your friend.”
“I dropped her off a while ago. She really is just a friend. I took her to the city to pick up something,” he replied.
“I know you got girls. Don’t play yourself,” I said.
“I got friends, some of them are female, but I don’t have a girl,” he responded. “Let me call you when I get to the crib, this phone is mad fucking expensive,” he added.
Jamal called me back about an hour later. I wasn’t stressed for time, or looking over my shoulder because my mother was working a double overnight shift. We stayed on the phone for almost three hours, until damn two a.m. talking about everything, music, clothes, school … and sex. I didn’t tell him I was a virgin but I think he knew. I found out that he was an only child and went to Queens College, and lived with his parents in Jamaica Estates. The more we talked, the more I liked him. The night we went to the movies he didn’t really say much, but I felt like I was really getting to know him now.
After two weeks of seeing him everyday after school I felt like I was falling in love. He would pick me up, take me to get something to eat, or to buy something if I wanted it and drop me off before heading to night classes. The goodbye kisses were getting longer and longer, and while I was little afraid, I started wanting to take it a little further.
Jason and I hadn’t spoken since the day I left him at Kentucky Fried Chicken. I wanted to call him to apologize, but I also felt like he should apologize for calling me a chicken head. I told my mother we had broken up; she didn’t really say anything one way or the other.
“At your age you shouldn’t be dating one person exclusively,” she said. “Same goes for Jason. If it’s meant to be it will be. Right now school should be your damn boyfriend or girlfriend.”
I didn’t want to hear that bullshit. What I wanted to do was tell my mother about Jamal, but I already knew the speech she was going to give me about staying in my lane and all a twenty-three-year-old could want from a sixteen-year-old is sex ’cause you don’t have shit else to offer at your age. It’s like she hadn’t been in love in so long that she forgot what it felt like, and I think my father destroyed her faith in love and men in general.
Jamal picked me up after school on Friday and for the first time took me to his house in Queens. He lived in a really big house on Hoverdon Road that looked like a small mansion. It was ironic because I always used to tell people I was from Jamaica Estates, even though I had never even been there.
“You didn’t tell me you came from a rich family,” I said as I looked at the shiny black BMW 740 in the driveway.
“We’re not rich. My pops is a superintendent for the transit authority and my mother is the head nurse at Elmhurst hospital. They do all right, but if they were rich I’d be driving a Porsche and not a 4Runner,” he said modestly.
The inside of his house was fly as hell. The basement was furnished. They had a pool table, a bar, and a real Pac-Man game. The house had five bedrooms and three and a half bathrooms. I was open, and it looked like the house I envisioned myself living in one day. Jamal took me up to his room, which was the first time I had been alone with a guy in his bedroom.
“Sit down, make yourself comfortable,” he said as he handed me a newspaper. “So your ex changed his mind, huh?” he asked.
“What are you talking about?”
“Oh my bad, you didn’t know? Read the article,” he said.
I sat down on the edge of the large wood queen-size bed and looked at the paper. The headline read, JASON TUCKER HAS A CHANGE OF HEART and went on to say that Jason had decided not to go to St. John’s, and had committed to UCLA in Los Angeles.
“Jay going out there with them Cali chicks, mulatto dimes, Asian dimes, Sunset Boulevard … and he’s going to get the star treatment … wow,” Jamal said, as though rubbing it in.
Jamal came and sat down next to me after he turned on the stereo, he didn’t waste any time getting started. He put his arm around me and started kissing me.
“Fuck Jason,” he said in my ear. “He didn’t know what to do with a woman like you.”
I still had my jacket on and was clutching my purse against my chest. Jamal was trying his best to get my jacket off, but I didn’t want his parents to come in and think I was some little ho disrespecting their house.
“Stop,” I said without really wanting him to. “What if your parents come home?”
“They went away for the weekend,” he replied.
Jamal suddenly stopped and moved a few inches away on the bed and put his hand over his face.
“This is crazy, Charisse. I haven’t even known you all long, but, but … I love you. I’m always going to be here for you and I’ll never do anything to hurt you,” he said, while his eyes welled up with tears.
I gave my most prized possession away to Jamal Butler on Friday, November 12, 1993. It was painful pleasure, but this wasn’t how I envisioned losing my virginity. It was supposed to be on my wedding night, or at very least in the college dorm room of my future husband. I put my underwear back on and curled up in his bed that now smelled like sex and Cool Water cologne.
“What’s up, princess?” he asked as he rolled over and put his arms around me.
“I love you, too.”