“I want to know why I’m thirty-six years old and still single. This shit is not right. What ever happened to the good old days?”’
“What good old days?” Gloria wanted to know.
“You know. When a man saw you in a crowd, smiled at you, flirted, and came over and talked to you. Not one has asked me for my phone number since I’ve been here. Why not? There’s nothing wrong with me. Shit, I’m smart, I’m attractive, I’m educated, and my pussy’s good, if I do say so myself. What happened to all the aggressive men? The ones that arent scared to talk to you? Where the fuck are they hiding?”
“They’re not hiding. They’re just scared to make a damn commitment,” Robin said.
“They’re with white women,” Bernadine said.
“Or gay,” Gloria said.
“Or married,” Savannah said. “But you know what? They’re not all with white girls, they’re not all homosexuals, they’re not all married, either. When you get down to it, we’re talking five, maybe ten percent. What about the rest?”
“Stuck in the sixties.”
“Too gotdamn old and set in their ways.”
“Stop!” Savannah said.
“Well, shit, you asked,” Robin said.
I never in my wildest dreams thought that the subject matter in this book, especially conversations like the one above, would make it’s way into my conversations with friends, associates, and random people on the internet. I especially didn’t think I’d have the same complaints…not the first time I cracked open this book, back when I was 12 years old.
With the recent release of Terry McMillan’s highly anticipated novel, Getting to Happy, I thought it would only be fitting to re-read Waiting to Exhale. I hadn’t read the story of Bernadine, Gloria, Savannah, and Robin’s friendship since I was 19, in college with no real idea of how their situations might be similar to my eventual life as a grown ass Black woman. It was just fiction, entertainment, something to past the time. Back then, never did it cross my mind that one day I’d identify with these characters. But that seems to be why Waiting to Exhale was such a hit back in 1992. As I stated in my intro, I remember Black women gushing over how much they enjoyed this book. My mother had it. Her friends had it, but it wasn’t until I saw Kimberly from “A Different World” walking around with it on campus, did I ask my mom could I borrow her copy. I don’t quite remember my reaction to the book, other than it resulting in me wanting to read everything else Terry McMillan had ever written (my mother let me read her copy of Mama. my favorite by her, but drew the line at the adult content of Disappearing Acts; I then turned to my dad who didn’t hesitate on buying it for me…he didn’t know any better lol).
I don’t quite remember my reaction to the book during my college years either. I do remember seeing the movie and feeling like Whitney was not fit for the part of Savannah. She was my favorite singer at the time, but Savannah was sassy and sometimes belligerent. Whitney didn’t quite fit the character in the book, but hey…you do what you have to do to sell movie tickets.
This time around, I’m 29. I’ve had my share of grown up experiences, relationships with Black men being high on my list. So I wondered, would I receive the story as just entertainment, or would I see myself in some of these characters?
There was Bernadine, reeling from being smacked in the face with the news of her husband cheating with his white secretary while secretly storing away money, property, and assets to prevent her from getting more than their house in their divorce. The pain of being thrown into single motherhood without consistent support after having given up her dreams of having her own catering business because her husband wanted her home with the kids, set her off on a new beginning that started with a new haircut and an irresponsible affair with a married man.
There is Gloria, an overweight single mom who can’t remember the last time she has been touched by a man, who gives all of her time to her salon, her teenaged son, and food. We meet Gloria as she prepares to welcome her son’s father into her bed for a tune up, if you will, only to find out that his strong hesitation is rooted in the fact that he is gay.
There is the youngest of the bunch, Robin, who doesn’t make a move unless her horoscope says so; in love with a handsome dirty rotten scoundrel, and in an attempt to get over him, trying to step out of the box and give someone who doesn’t fall into her “type” a try. “Lately, though, I’ve had to ask myself some pretty tough questions, like, What am I doing wrong? And why do I keep picking the wrong men to fall in love with? I don’t know what I’m doing wrong, to tell the truth, but I do know that one of my major weaknesses has always been pretty men with big dicks. And Russell definitely fit the bill. I’ve been trying to figure out a way to get over this syndrome, but it’s hard, especially when that’s all you’re used to.”
And lastly, there is the aforementioned Savannah, recent transplant from Denver to Phoenix, the setting of the book, who is giving herself one year to find a man in Arizona, or she is off to another location. “Then as corny as I know it is, I actually found myself thinking about a few resolutions of my own. On the top of my list is finding a husband. I promise myself that in 1990 I will not spend another birthday by myself, another Fourth of July by myself, another Thanksgiving by myself, and definitely not another Valentine’s Day, Christmas, or New Year’s by myself.”
My side eye put it in a lot of work during the first few chapters. These women were making mistakes in their mid thirties that I wouldn’t dare make in my late-20s. Savannah jumped at the chance to allow a man she barely knew to drive with her from Denver to Phoenix during her move, only to find out that he was just using her for a ride, and had every intention to move in with her once they arrived. She then stumbles into an affair with an old love, who happens to be married. Robin falls head over heels with a man before he even takes her out on a real date. She finally cuts it off with him once she realizes he is a drug user, after having already slept with him multiple times. Bernadine cheats with Herbert, helping to destroy another woman’s marriage in the same way that her own failed. And Gloria tops it off by trying to convince a man who obviously is disgusted by her, to sleep with her.
Reading of these circumstances at this age with a more mature perspective had me wondering, “What the hell is wrong with these women? Where is their common sense? What was Terry thinking?”
But, as I delved deeper into the story of these four women, I realized that behind all of the mistakes and bad decisions, was a desperate urge to be loved. And not just any old way. They wanted consistency and respect and strength behind the love that they craved. And much of this seemed to be right out of their grasp.
Throughout most of the book, I felt like I had nothing in common with Robin but I finally identified with her when she decided to give Michael, the good, safe guy, a chance to win over her heart. “I knew I wasn’t attracted to him physically, but maybe that’s what I needed: the kind of man every woman wouldn’t be drooling over. Somebody decent and ordinary.” I can’t even count how many times I’ve had conversations with friends and associates about settling with the guy we aren’t passionate about, but who we know would keep our hearts safe and sound, treat our hearts gently, and live to make us happy.
And there was Bernadine, who ran into a stranger at a bar on the night she went to celebrate the finality of her divorce. A man who she fell in love with right there, that night, who restored her faith in men, which helped her start off feeling free and happy on her first night as a single woman. “In the house, she sat down on the couch and, out of habit, reached for a cigarette. But she didn’t have the desire or the need, and didn’t smoke it. She sat there, smiling, replaying the past night in her head for hours. It didn’t matter if she never saw him ever in life. It didn’t matter at all. She was alive again.“ I loved this part of the book, how it helped Bernadine resolve her issues with men without having been saved by a knight in shining armor or some other ludicrous fairytale ending.
I identified the most with Savannah and her brokenness after having met a man from San Francisco at a professional conference in Vegas for her job. They spent a week of bliss together, sharing secrets, learning each other inside out, even went as far as to read the Bible together. He spoke of the future with her, shared his past, and convinced her to open up to him. It ended when they returned to their respective homes and he forgot she ever existed. She was crushed. “I’ve got feelings. And right now they hurt. And he’s the cause of it. All I want to know is this: What happened to all the pride, the tenderness, the love and compassion, black men are supposed to show us? I thought we were supposed to be a prized ‘possession‘. How are we supposed to feel beautiful and loving and soft and caring and gentle and tender and compassionate and sensitive, when they treat us like shit after we surrender ourselves to them… I can’t afford to do this shit anymore. It costs too much. And besides, being lonely has never made me feel this damn bad.”
I don’t tend to say those words out loud, but they definitely run through my head every now and then. The hurt and pain of getting one’s hopes up and the disappointment of it all being a lie was captured superbly in this storyline.
By the end of the novel, where they’d all found a little bit of peace to hold on to, I was able to recognize this story for what it was. A very well written, extreme version of the struggles with love that a lot of Black women deal with. Many of us have made huge mistakes in trusting too soon, or putting our own happiness on the back burner for others, or using our bodies to get the attention we crave, or destroying our bodies to distract ourselves from the love that we lack. Some of it may have been exaggerated for entertainment purposes, but much of it happens in the every day lives of Black women all over the country.
The most important part of the book though, was the friendship that she created amongst these women. So many of their conversations, though brash and vulgar, reminded me of hilarious conversations with my girlfriends about love, life, jobs, and everything in between. McMillan captured the definition of Black woman kinship and stretched it into a novel. They were there for each other to lean on, assist, tell each other off when they needed to, and to stop each other from making fools of themselves.
I now see why this book resonated so well within the Black community. Terry showed the world how badly Black women want to be loved and how deeply we cherish our friends. And she hit the nail right on the head.
-Nakia M. White