“Girl, Mary just be know’n.”
Blanketed in cigarette smoke, heartbreak and empty wine cooler bottles, that was Keonya’s way of declaring that once again, Mary J. Blige had hit our drama on the nose. Providing the soundtrack for an era heavy-laden with messiness, we stayed in the mix of something. Boy drama, friend drama, neighborhood drama, our drama. Whenever the consequences of our actions showed up, Mary J. was our bandaid. We’d cry, laugh, sing every song out loud and on repeat, lick our wounds and do it all over again. I can’t recall one dull moment with Keonya. We were never bored. We didn’t keep still long enough to be. The next day’s convo after one of our night capers always began with, “Biiiiiiiiiiiitch!” followed by that infectious laugh of hers as we recapped the antics of the previous evening.
Our Friday or Saturday nights – whichever night I couldn’t conjure a babysitter for my daughter- with Mary were standard. In my living room, with my little Fingerhut purchased high-fi, 12-disc cd changer and a double-cassette player. My mom had gifted it to me when I first moved in. We were in our very early twenties. From our problems to OPP, MJB kept us sane. Or at the very least, helped us validate our crazy.
We shed many layers over spilled-milk-men in my living room, with so many of those songs providing the backdrop to our nonsense and immaturity, and inexperience. Never did I imagine I’d be listening to those same songs, the ones that gave our voiceless selves voices and helped make sense out of senselessness, shedding tears over the loss of my good, good girlfriend. My good to me, good to anyone who knew and loved her girlfriend. My splash of color in this dull, dank ass world. My Yonya.
She’s gone. I say it so harshly because it feels like my heart has been ripped to shreds by some invisible claw. What a life to take. I have to say it harsh, because my mind is insisting that this isn’t real but it is. Too real.
The last time I saw her was three months ago when I was darting across a parking lot to run into a store. “Jann! You need a jacket on!” I turned without missing a beat and ran in the direction of her voice, yelling YOOOONYA! We talked for a good while in that parking lot. I told her she looked amazing. She told me she was sick, but feeling better. I said, “Oh, we’re not doing this though, right? We ain’t claiming a thing.” She said, “God has been so good to me. The only thing I’m claiming is life.”
I met Keonya when I was about 6 or 7 years old. Her grandmother lived on the row behind my mom and I so we played together often. We moved from the neighborhood when I was 8 but years later, I returned with a one year old in tow. Keonya was my first visitor. I can still see her clear as day, trotting down the sidewalk, “You live down here now?? Awww shiiiit.” Aww shit indeed.
We weren’t always friends. There was even one point during our late teens when we’d see each other and exchange heated words FOR NO REASON AT ALL. Influence is a trip. It had more to do with the company we kept. You know how it was back in the day, whoever your friends at the time had beef with, you did too. The beef was always about boys.
In our later years though, it was less about boys, or men at that point, and more about poor decisions and knowing better. I can recall one of our hurtful moments, when I was was still clinging to tattered remnants of what could possibly be called a marriage. I was upset because she had a very blunt opinion about me tolerating his bullshit again. I called her and let the cuss out rip from my tongue with fire. I remember her response clear as day. “What you need to worry about is not what I said but what type of man you got around your daughter.” That was Keonya.
Let me tell you who else she was.
I loved a man for ten years. He was the one who got away and I would drunkenly profess this every chance I got. One day, she decided she was over it. She got her Infiniti washed and waxed (she’s the reason I love Infiniti’s to this day), sat me down at her dining room table with scissors, her portable hair dryer and a jar of perm, and several outfits from her closet. She made my face up and we went cruising through the city naively preparing to go and knock on the door of a man I hadn’t seen in ten years.
We parked in front of his house, no information at all about it being his current residence and she said, “Go knock on the door.” I said, “And what if he’s married now?” She paused and gave me side eye, and asked me why I waited until after she did my hair to say that. I said well, why didn’t it cross your know-it-all-ass mind that this man might be married now? She said Bitch, he’s your man, not mine! I said he ain’t my man, his wife is gonna whip my ass if I knock on that door!
We laughed so hard. I’m surprised no one came outside to see what all the commotion was. I didn’t knock on his door that night but a few years later, not only did I find him but we found out that his cousin had lived in Keonya’s building on the bottom floor for several years, but that we had also missed running into each other quite a few times.
Things weren’t always like that between us. Sometimes it was heavy and dark. Even as I type this though, I’m remembering all of the ways that we still managed to let some light shine in, no matter the circumstance.
She was the friend who knew the depths of a secret I carried and how bad I wanted to be free from it. My twin’s dad didn’t know that they existed. We had a thing and when I told him that I was pregnant, I also told him that I was going to have an abortion. He disappeared. When I found out that I was having twins, I changed my mind about terminating the pregnancy. I told myself that he didn’t need to know and when our daughter passed, I buried the thought of telling him about his children with her. It was Keonya who said hell no, he needs to know. It was her who walked outside after a local party, to the end of a parking lot with him and told him about his children under the moonlight. It was her who put her hand on his shoulder and explained one of the most complicated decisions I’ve ever made. It was her who sat in my living room with me when I cried and said “Let me tell Deucy (her little brother) to go and grab my hair bag.”, on the day that he came to meet his son.
That was Keonya. That is who she will always be. The one who stepped to the front of the line while heads turned and wondered who in tf she thought she was. The one who could enter any scene, alone, and steal the show. No matter how many summers we missed and no matter how many phones went unanswered or calls were left unreturned, there was not one dance floor where I was getting my life, completely in my zone without feeling that familiar tap on my shoulder, hearing her holler, HEEEY JAAAAANN!! as we squealed and hugged and quickly proceeded to break it all the way the down as if we were the only two on the floor! She’d sashay her way through the crowd and that was it. That was our thing. I can’t believe I won’t ever see my girl on a dance floor again.
The confidence and style she insisted on pouring into me, that was her love language. From black lipstick, to blonde hair, to the brightest yellows, deepest blues; it got to the point of her picking out the outfits for me and meeting me at the register. I insisted on a budget and she insisted on covering the difference because, “These jeans have to go with this top and your ass won’t put it together right with another pair.”
Double-dates and double trouble. For all the secrets her ass couldn’t keep to ones that never went pass the stains on the walls. Keonya was my tandem jumper. My little big sister who lead me to the edge of so many planes but never let my hand go. She insisted I jump out of every one of them but never alone. We jumped together; me kicking and screaming and her holding on tight with laughter at my crazy ass. Us both landing safely and her saying, didn’t I tell you we would?
She helped me find the confidence to wear half shirts and heels, taught me how to kill a sheer top with some distressed jeans. How to tighten up the roughest look or make a formal look pop with some Ruby Red lipstick. And hair? Oh honey, it grows back. Cut it, dye it, shave it, grow it or sew it in, because that’s your business. She taught me how to never let the man approach first if I’m interested, you better make your presence known before someone else does. My girl gave me Game.
In living, loud color, we lived. And oh did we laugh! She would set me up on dates and we would fuss like crazy about it, but I’d always give in because I knew it would involve a head to toe makeover and I would sell her my soul for a free hairdo and outfit that I’d forget to return.
One of the funniest memories was her introducing me to this one, cornball dude. He was really sweet, not too bad on the eyes but he was so extra and geeky! You know the type, they attempt to crack jokes about everything. Ugh, the memory just gave me a headache.
Anyway, a really nice guy that she actually met first and was like, I think you’d like my girlfriend better – true story! So she introduced us. He really wasn’t my type either but Keonya felt that it was time for me to have a boyfriend and he was employed, single and suitable. Who in the world did she think she was?? And I just went right along with her plan!
I gave in and he grew on me a little. But, our first intimate encounter was horrific. I called her on my way home and she insisted it was nerves and to give him another chance. I did. I was leaving her house with a fresh hairdo and she had given me the keys to the Infiniti and told me to have fun and be nice. I told her that if this second encounter were anything like the first, I’d call her before he could climb off of me.
She screamed into the phone so loud that she woke her daughter up when I actually did it.
“Now, what does that tell you?” I asked dryly into the receiver as he shuffled into the bathroom. We laughed about that for years.
Mommy-hood softened and slowed us down, rooted us and made us pay attention to the world around us. God went from a thing way up there to a power deep within us, so our capers evolved into conversations about life, love and forward motion. I thanked her for everything during a few hours of conversation a few years back. She cried and said, “Jaaannnneell, I love you.” Yes, she did.
I’m so glad that I got to share that with her randomly and while she was healthy. I wasn’t inspired by the thought of loss to thank her for helping me learn to live. I was led by love. A love that she gave me abundantly. My little big sister loved me. She is love. Radiant and alive, what a legacy of absolute beauty.
The friend who pushed me out of every box I owned. From style to men, Sis gave me the playbook. Confident and unapologetic, I’ll say it again: her presence brought air to every space she entered.
My heart is broken, but I’ve been listening to Mary for three days straight and I’ve danced and laughed more than I’ve cried. So many experiences with you, Keonya. I love you, I love you, I love you …. more than all of the outfits I never returned. For every sing along, barreling up and down highways, Thank you, my friend, my sister, for loving me.
All those pretty memories
I know you can hear me now
For the record: I love you, I love you – MJB