31 - Destroy Me
“Ay! Ay! Ay! Check it! Whose smart black ass got into NYU?”
“Black excellence, y’all. I’m servin’ black black excellence.”
“Who passed all them exams, runnin’ circles ’round these foos?”
“Black excellence, y’all. I’m servin’ black black excellence.”
Cheryl laughed, clapping her hands from her bed as she watched her two children dance and spit rhymes.
“Blaaaaack excelleeeeeeenncce. We servin’ blaaaaaack excelleeeeeeeeence.”
“BREAK IT DOWN NOW!”
“Girl, I did just break it down,” Dante said, looking at Tiana. “Didn’t you hear that alto?”
“Nigga, what alto?” Tiana said as Cheryl burst out laughing.
“I’m so proud of you, sweetie,” Cheryl said, struggling to her feet. “Come give your mama a hug.” Tiana cheesed as she helped her mother up and leaned down to hug her. Her body had grown frail, but there was still some strength in her grip. “The lord done blessed me,” Cheryl said, clapping her hands. “Both my children are healthy and on their way to becoming such a success. Thank you, Jesus! Won’ He do it! MHM! Praise him!”
“Aight, ma, you about to start church up in here,” Dante grinned.
“PRAISE HIM! THANK YOU, LORD!” Cheryl said, shaking her body. “Boy, put on some T.D. Jakes! I need to dance. Yes ah! JEHOVAH JIREH! MY PROVIDER! WON’T HE DO IT!”
“Look what you did,” Tiana smirked as she put a praise song on her phone.
“Done went from Ja Rule to Kirk Franklin,” Dante said. “Welp.” Dante started slapping his knee to the music while his mother worshiped.
Tiana chuckled as her mom walked up to her and grabbed her face between her hands. “Your father would be so proud of you, Tiana,” Cheryl said with tears in her eyes. “If James could see his little girl now.” Tiana swallowed hard as she felt her throat tickle.
Dante stopped dancing and looked over at his emotional mother and sister. “Hey, come on, come on,” Dante said, walking up to them. He wrapped his arms around his small family. “Pops is here. He’s watching us all right now, right ma?”
“Yes, he is,” Cheryl said. She kissed both her children on the cheek.
“And he’s gonna be there when you graduate,” Dante said to his baby sister as he clutched her shoulder. “We all are. Me, moms... and pops. We gone be the loudest black ass-”
“Boy, watch yo mouth!” Cheryl said.
“Sorry, mama,” Dante grinned as he looked at a chuckling Tiana. “We got your back sis.”
Tiana smiled as she hugged her mother and brother. “What would I do without my family.”
“It looks good on you, boo.”
Tiana stared at herself in NYU’s campus bathroom mirror. Her eyes roamed over the royal purple of her NYU graduation cap and gown. Several girls around her giggled and chatted as they took selfies of themselves in their graduation attire. But Tiana had tuned them out. There was a dry hardened lump in her throat that wouldn’t go away.
“Let me fix your hair again...”
Shae felt like she had been talking to herself because Tiana had yet to utter a word. While Shae’s parents had traveled all the way from the south to see her graduate... Tiana had no one.
“You wanna send your mom a pic?” Shae asked. “Maybe she’ll remember...” But Tiana still said nothing as she stared at the mirror. “T...??” Shae grabbed Tiana’s shoulders and turned her around. Her throat tightened when she saw the startling blank expression on Tiana’s face. “Tiana, you’re scaring me, boo,” Shae said worriedly. “Please say somethin-”
“I’m fine, Shae.”
Her words came out monotone and emotionless. Shae let Tiana go and quickly pulled out her cellphone. In seconds, Owen came barging through the bathroom door wearing his cap and gown as several girls screamed.
“Hello! This is the girls’ bathroom, you perv!” one of the girls snapped at him.
“Oh, really? Then why are you in here?” Owen said ignoring her as he headed straight for Tiana.
“She’s barely said a word since this morning...” Shae said to Owen.
Owen furrowed his brow as he walked up to Tiana and gently grabbed her by her arms. “T... baby, look at me,” Owen said softly. Tiana’s eyes slowly shifted from the mirror to Owen before they welled up with tears. Owen immediately pulled her into his arms. As if a dam broke, Tiana cried hysterically into Owen’s shoulder. She clung to him like a lifebuoy and let out heart-wrenching sobs that could be heard down the hall.
Owen looked at Shae as he held a trembling Tiana in his arms. Since the doctors reported that Tiana’s mother was showing signs of significant brain damage, muscle paralysis, and memory loss with little hope of repairing, Tiana had become numb. She wouldn’t eat. She couldn’t sleep. And she consistently asked to be alone.
Owen, Tyler, and Jason grew increasingly worried about Tiana’s regressive state. Even Jason and all his jokes could barely get a chuckle out of her. Shae recommended therapy, but Tiana refused. Hearing her laughter had become rare.
“All graduates please head to the main stage!”
The rest of the girls rushed out of the bathroom as Shae looked at Owen holding Tiana. ‘What do we do?’ she mouthed to him.
Owen thought for a moment as he rubbed Tiana’s back that shook with her sobs. “What do you wanna do, baby?” Owen asked. “If this is too much for you... we can go home. They can mail us our diplomas. We don’t have to do this. You don’t have to do this...”
Tiana tried to wipe the tears and snot from her face as she clutched Owen tighter. She hadn’t even lost her mother, and yet the pain was unbearable. Every time she breathed, it felt like a crank wheel was crushing her ribs. Her mind couldn’t comprehend the thought of losing the last of her family. It was hard enough her mother didn’t recognize her face. But she didn’t think she could handle her mother’s death.
They were the first emotion-filled words Tiana uttered that whole morning. “It hurts... so fucking much...” Tiana pulled back from Owen. Her eyes were bloodshot and her face was stained with tears. He felt his heart breaking into pieces as all he wanted to do was cradle her in his arms. “But, I have to do this,” she choked out. “For my dad... my mom...D-Dante...”
Owen raised his hand to her face and wiped a few tears from her cheek. “Okay...” he said softly. “We’re with you, baby. You’re not alone.”
Tiana tried to smile, but it only came out as a grimace. She nodded and turned to Shae. “Can you fix my makeup?” Tiana asked.
“Of course, boo,” Shae said. “I’ll make it quick.”
Owen stepped outside to give them some privacy when he walked into Tyler and Jason both wearing suits. “Hey,” Tyler said anxiously. “We got your message. Is she...”
“No,” Owen said, shaking his head. “She’s not okay. But she’s pushing through.”
Jason swallowed his anxiety and frowned as he looked down at the bouquet of roses he was holding. “Was... was she crying? Did she speak? What does she need? What can we do?”
Owen sighed as he fixed his graduation cap. “Shae is fixing her makeup. Right now she just needs our support. To be there for her. There’s not much else we can do. Just... be sensitive to how she’s feeling.”
Tyler and Jason nodded when they saw the bathroom door open. Tiana stepped out with Shae next to her. Shae had done a great job fixing Tiana’s makeup, but it was still very obvious that Tiana had been bawling her eyes out. “Wow! You look... You look amazing, baby girl,” Jason said.
“You look perfect,” Tyler added.
Tiana gave them a small smile. “...thanks...”
The two of them stared at her not knowing what else to say. Her pain was palpable. “We got these for you,” Jason said abruptly as he handed her the roses. Tiana grabbed and sniffed them. She looked up at them and smiled without saying a word. They desperately longed to hear her voice, and they hadn’t seen her smile in days. But when she did, it made their hearts beat twice as fast.
“Well, we have to go get the most expensive piece of paper we’ve ever worked for,” Shae said, grabbing Owen and Tiana’s arms.
“Right,” Tyler said. “We’ll see you in there.”
Tyler and Jason watched as Shae, Owen, and Tiana walked arm-in-arm down the hall to the main stage. “She looks bad, Ty,” Jason said apprehensively. “Like really fucking bad. I can’t stand to see her like this. It hurts like hell. Should we hold off on our surprise?”
Tyler shook his head as he kept his eyes on Tiana. “No... I think our surprise couldn’t have come at a better time.”
“Remember when we pulled that all-nighter during finals,” Shae said as she stood in the processional line with Owen and Tiana. “And we basically binged Netflix and ate Taco Bell as our sustenance to keep us awake.”
“Oof. Talk about bad life decisions,” Owen chuckled. “Shae, you stay being a bad influence.”
“Bitch, please. You know you needed that Taco Bell. And then Tiana made us drive all the way to fucking WESTCHESTER for pancakes at like 3am,” Shae smirked.
Owen and Shae looked at Tiana, hoping to spark a reaction. “Okay, but those chocolate banana pancakes were life,” Tiana smiled.
Owen and Shae looked at each other and breathed a sigh of relief. “Girl, we got stopped by the NYPD for those damn pancakes!” Shae laughed.
“Yea, well, we just barely escaped police brutality thanks to Owen’s white ass,” Tiana smirked.
“What’s the point of having white privilege if I don’t use it properly,” Owen joked.
“White privilege?! Bitch you flirted with him!” Shae laughed.
“He was cute though,” Owen grinned.
“He was kinda cute,” Tiana chuckled.
“Hey!” Owen snapped at her. Tiana genuinely laughed, and it brought a huge smile to Owen and Shae’s faces. Owen wrapped his arm around Tiana’s shoulder and pulled her close as he kissed the top of her head. “I love you, T,” he said to her.
Tiana looked up at him. “I love you too, O.”
“WHAT ABOUT ME?!” Shae blurted. Owen and Tiana laughed as they joined together in a group hug. The trio got to their seats and stood with the other graduates. “Can you believe it?” Shae said excitedly. “We made it!”
Tiana gave a sad smile. “I just wish... Dante...”
Shae gave Tiana a sympathetic smile as she grabbed her hand. “He is here, T...” she said. Tiana saw the sincerity in Shae’s eyes and hugged her best friend. She watched as her two best friends walked up to the podium to get their diplomas. She could hear Joey, Anna, Darren, Tyler, and Jason cheering in the crowd.
Tiana turned her head and saw her brother sitting next to her. “Dante?!”
“Shh, don’t be sayin’ my name all loud. People might think you’re crazy,” Dante chuckled.
“Uhhhh, clearly I am crazy if I’m seein’ your ass,” Tiana blurted.
Dante chuckled as he leaned over and grabbed her hand. She shook at his touch and looked at him in shock. “You’re not crazy, sis. You the smartest motherfucker around. And I’m so damn proud of you.”
Tiana looked at her brother and felt a tear slip down her cheek. “This isn’t real. You’re not real.”
“I’m real to you, ain’t I?” he shrugged. “That’s all that matters.”
“Oh god, maybe I do need to see that therapist,” Tiana said, cradling her head. “Or a psychiatrist. Holy shit, I’m seeing ghosts!”
“Tiana! Chill, sis!” Dante laughed. “All in all, I’m just a figment of your imagination. Usually brought on by severe mental trauma.”
“Oh great, I have another form of PTSD,” she groaned.
“Or...” Dante smiled. “Just another way for you to find closure...”
Tiana looked at Dante but he had already disappeared. She looked around frantically until her name was called.
Her feet felt like led as she hesitantly stood up from her chair and walked towards the stage. She could see her crew on their feet as they whooped out loud. “FUCK YEA! THAT’S MY GIRL!” Jason was clearly the loudest.
Tiana walked up to the stage and looked into the crowd. She spotted David in his graduation attire sitting in one of the rows. He gave her a sympathetic smile. She hadn’t spoken to him since he re-confessed his feelings. It was part of why she had such a hard time coping. She couldn’t afford to lose any more people she cared about.
She turned to the Dean who handed her the rolled-up paper as he shook her hand. “Congratulations, Ms. Morris,” he said.
“Thanks,” she said. She walked to the end of the stage and took a deep breath as she headed back to an elated Owen and Shae.
The moment Tiana stepped outside, she heard tons of people cheering before she was swooped up into Jason’s arms. “MY BABY’S A FUCKING COLLEGE GRAD!” Jason shouted as he spun her around. He pulled her into a deep kiss as he held her tight.
“Thank you, Jason,” she said when he finally let her go. She felt someone tug at the back of her gown and looked up to see Tyler giving her a crooked smile.
“May I?” he asked. She smiled as Tyler pulled her into his arms and cradled her neck as he passionately kissed her. “Congratulations, baby,” he breathed against her lips.
Tiana stumbled out of Tyler’s arms and glanced at Shae who was preoccupied with kissing Joey. “We should go get something to eat,” Anna said. “I know a nice Cuban restaurant not too far from here.”
“That’s a good idea. What do you say, T?” Owen asked her.
Tiana’s eyes darted as she anxiously searched the crowd. A frown came to her face. Until she saw him. “Would you guys... give me a sec?” she asked. Tyler’s mouth twisted when he saw Tiana beeline for David who was talking to Miles. “Hey,” Tiana said, walking up to David.
David turned around in his cap and gown and gave a small smile when he saw Tiana. “Hey...” he said softly.
Miles sighed impatiently as he took out his phone and walked away. “Wait for you in the car,” he muttered.
Tiana frowned as Miles disappeared. “Is he..-”
“He’s just in a bad mood. You know Miles,” David said.
“...right...” Tiana sighed as she looked from Miles to David.
“Did you need something?” David asked.
Tiana frowned. “I... I just wanted to say congratulations...”
“Oh, thanks. You too,” David said.
Tiana was put off by his shortness with her. But considering they hadn’t spoken to each other in a while, it wasn’t hard to see why. “Okay, well... bye,” she said, sadly turning around.
With a sigh, David quickly grabbed her arm. “Tiana, wait.” She turned around and looked at him. “I’m sorry, I’m just... it’s been a rough day.”
“Your parents didn’t come?” she asked. David shrugged without saying anything as he looked down. “I’m sorry, David...” she said comfortingly as she touched his arm. He looked at her hand on his arm and then at her. “I miss hanging out with you,” she said.
“Yea, well, I miss kissing you,” he replied quickly. Tiana looked at him startled as she removed her hand. David chuckled ironically. “Sorry. Guess Miles’ unfiltered habits are rubbing off on me.” Tiana just blinked at him. “How’s your mom?” he asked. Tiana shook her head and David frowned. “I’m sorry,” he said.
“Remember what you said about helping me with her medical records?” Tiana asked, looking up at him.
David frowned. “To be honest... it hurts to be around you, Tiana. I need... time.”
Tiana’s brows furrowed as she watched David check his phone. “David...”
“I have to go,” he said. “Maybe I’ll see you around. Congrats again.”
Tiana swallowed hard as she watched David walk away. She didn’t know why it hurt so badly to see him turn his back on her.
At dinner, Tiana barely ate. Shae and Owen exchanged concerned looks, wondering how they managed to go back to square one when she seemed okay before. Everyone else seemed so happy and cheerful, but Tiana remained quiet as she picked at her food. As they paid the bill, Tyler gave Joey and Darren a suggestive look. “Um, so I’m gonna go meet Shae’s parents,” Joey said, getting up.
“You are?” Shae asked, startled.
“Yea, they gotta meet their future son-in-law,” Joey teased.
“Bitch, you tried it,” Shae said, standing to her feet. She leaned over and gave Tiana a kiss on the cheek. “I’ll call you later, boo,” she said. Tiana merely nodded.
“Um, Anna,” Darren said quickly. “I wanted to show you some design logos I made for your dad’s company.”
“Really?” she said surprised.
“Yea... Come on I’ll show you back at base,” Darren said, standing from his chair. The guys watched as the four of them left before they nodded to each other.
“They’re not subtle,” Tiana said suddenly. “What are you guys planning?”
“Jason, is this really necessary?” Tiana whined as Jason carried her on his back into an elevator lift.
“The utmost necessity,” Jason said. “You aren’t peeking are you?”
“No, I’m not peeking,” she sighed.
“I don’t know. I think I saw her eyes open a little,” Tyler smirked.
“I’m not peeking!” she squealed.
“Yea, I think I saw it too,” Owen snickered. “Shame on you, T. You’re gonna spoil the surprise.”
“I’mma hurt all y’all,” she threatened them. The three of them chuckled, relieved that she was actually engaging them in conversation. Her moments of involvement were fleeting, and they didn’t plan on letting this one moment go.
“We’re almost there,” Jason said as the elevator lift came to a halt. Tiana heard their footsteps as she kept her eyes covered.
“We’re here, babe. You can open your eyes,” Tyler said as Jason let her down.
Tiana uncovered her face as Jason nudged her forward. Her eyebrows furrowed in confusion at the large open space populated with furniture before her. She turned to Jason, Owen, and Tyler standing behind her. “What is this?” she asked.
“It’s our new home,” Tyler said.
She further furrowed her brow. “Our?”
“You, me, Owen, and Tyler,” Jason said. “We put together our funds and got ourselves a loft. It looked way dingier than this, cause you know, New York. But... we put a lot of work into fixing it up.”
Tiana looked at them in shock. “But what about everyone else? Shae? Darren?”
“We already spoke to them,” Owen said. “Joey is moving in with Shae. Darren wants to stay at the warehouse. This is just... for us.” Tiana blinked at them as she tried to take in the gravity of their words. “Tiana?” Tyler asked worriedly when she hadn’t said anything.
“I just... I wish you guys had asked me first,” she said, scratching her arms.
“It wouldn’t necessarily be a surprise then,” Jason chuckled nervously.
“This is just the next step in our relationship, T,” Owen said.
“It’s a pretty big freaking step!” she blurted. The three of them looked at her startled as she tugged at her braids. “I’m sorry,” she said, looking down. “It’s just... What if I didn’t want this?”
Tyler swallowed anxiously as his heart beat fast. “You mean what if you didn’t want us?”
Tiana groaned. “That’s not what I said, Tyler.”
“It kinda sounded like it,” Tyler said with a tinge of irritation.
“Ty.” Owen gave his brother a look of warning. Tyler swallowed down his frustration and nodded his apology. He backed up slightly as he stuffed his hands into his pocket. “T,” Owen said, stepping up to her. “You’re right… Maybe we should have asked you first before jumping to this. We just thought... we were doing something good for us. For you.”
Tiana looked up at Owen as she bit her lip. She looked around at the large loft that was very nicely decorated. “If... if you don’t want this...” Jason said apprehensively, rubbing his neck.
Tiana looked at him and frowned at the forlorn expression on his face. “You guys put a lot of work into this place, didn’t you?” she said. “When did you have the time?”
“Well... you’ve kind of been... emotionally unavailable...” Jason said softly. “...so...”
Tiana’s throat tightened as she thought back to how many times she had locked herself in her room. To think they were working on this for her while her soul was aching. “Well, you guys did a great job,” she said finally. “This place looks really nice.”
Jason’s eyes glimmered and a smile came to his face at the speck of hope Tiana had given him. “You haven’t even seen the best part!” he said quickly, grabbing her hand. Tyler and Owen exchanged concerned looks before they followed Jason and Tiana.
Tiana stumbled into a brightly lit room with large windows and warm, rustic decor. “This is your room,” Jason said. “Anna and Shae helped with the designs. It looked like something out of a horror movie before we started working on it. Bout to give them Property Brothers a run for their money.”
Tiana felt tears come to her eyes as she glanced around her new room. “...it’s… it’s beautiful..” she breathed out. Jason pulled her into his arms and held her tightly within his embrace. “Where are you guys staying?” she asked.
“You mean when we’re not in here?” Owen grinned. “Outside your glass wall, Tyler’s on the left, and I’m on the right. Jason is down the middle.”
“So, you all get a bird’s eye view of me,” she chuckled through her tears.
“Obviously,” Jason smirked. “Why do you think your bed is so big?”
Tiana chuckled as she wiped the tears from her face. “This is beautiful, you guys. I don’t really know what to say.”
“You don’t have to say anything,” Jason said. “You’re worth all of this and more.”
Tiana felt like her chest was going to explode as she started to panic. “Tiana?” Tyler asked when he saw her face change.
“Is there a bathroom?” she asked quickly.
“Yea, just right over there,” Tyler pointed.
“Thanks,” she said, heading for the door.
“Babe-” Jason started as he tried to follow her.
“Do you guys mind if I just... have a few moments to myself? Please?” she asked. They quickly nodded and watched her rush into the bathroom before closing it shut behind her.
Tiana looked around the rustic bathroom and shoved herself into a corner before she burst into tears. She grabbed her dad’s dog tags in anguish as she slid to the bathroom floor. She used her graduation gown to stifle her sobs as she soaked the royal purple garment.
From the outside, the guys could hear her sobs through the door. For a moment they had no idea what to do as her heart-wrenching cries mauled at their core. “I can’t do this,” Jason said, grabbing the handle. “Baby-”
“No, Jason,” Owen said, pulling him back. “She said she wanted to be alone.”
“Owen, she’s in fucking pain!” Jason snapped at him.
“We have to respect her wishes. If she wanted us with her, she wouldn’t have gone elsewhere to avoid us. We have to give her space and time. When she’s ready, we’ll be here,” Owen said firmly.
Jason choked down his worry as he looked back at the door. He could still hear Tiana crying. He shrugged Owen’s hand off and stormed away.
Tyler stared at his beer bottle, watching the condensation roll down to the table. His fingernails scratched at the wooden table in their new kitchen as his mind became consumed with the heartbroken woman he loved. As far as he knew, she was still crying in their new bathroom on her graduation day in her cap and gown.
There were several pains he had felt in his life, but only a few of them really hurt. Watching his father beat his mother, watching his father beat his brother, watching his mother sent off to prison, and finding Dante’s lifeless body.
Now he’d have to add Tiana to that list.
“I have to do something,” Jason said, using his dagger to carve into the wooden table. “We have to do something. We can’t just sit here. I know you said to leave her alone, Owen. But this... how could you hear her and not want to be there for her?”
“We are there for her,” Owen said. “It’s about patience. And letting her heal on her own terms. Not ours.”
Jason put his head in his hands as he groaned in frustration. There wasn’t much he knew about reading people’s emotions, but he showed his love and comfort through physical affection. He didn’t understand how leaving someone alone was helping them. Tiana had become such a huge part of his life, and he never felt more distant. It was draining.
“I have an idea,” Owen said, looking at Jason. “Why don’t you go pick up her other gift. I just got an email from the jeweler that it’s ready.”
Jason nodded with a sigh. “Alright...” He headed to the door and stopped to look at Owen. “Text me if she comes out.”
“I will,” Owen nodded.