What did it say about the sad state of her life that she was at her father's funeral, and all she could think about was her sex tape? Okay, it wasn't a "tape," but an infinite network of links that popped up right when potential employers were searching her profile. "Nasty Nora" still made the rounds seven years after her boyfriend posted it. But what really immortalized her was the freeze-frame shot of her grimace after her boyfriend asked if she'd finished.
People attached her face to all kinds of dubious truths:
Did you remember to defrost the chicken? Nora's face.
Do you like my new jacket? Nora's face.
Her mentions would calm down until someone rediscovered the meme's origin, and then the video would trend. Most recently, MBO did an explosive exposé on the adult industry and highlighted her video on the rise of amateur "disruptors." It was exhausting, which is why she had to get out of this dangerous crush of people.
This was a sizable crowd for such a private man. The enormous poster of him, positioned on an easel, looked more like a shrine to seasonings. A garland of thyme and baby's breath was draped elegantly around the photo. Her father had founded Dash of Love Seasonings right here in Maryland, so it fit that they would memorialize him with mountains of Old Bay, crab hammers, and hot sauce crammed like Tetris pieces on a slick wooden table. Nora searched her bag and huffed in victory when she found a salt-and-pepper packet from a month ago. She moved through the line and solemnly added it to the teetering tower. She swore she saw her dad's eyes twinkle. In this picture, he looked a lot like her little sister Yanne, with his sandy skin, smooth hair gelled back, and myopic greenish-brown eyes that kept her younger sister in prescriptions since she was five.
Her phone buzzed in her hand. Yanne, with an excuse.
Late. Like I knew she would be. Yanne had an infuriating habit of never being there when Nora needed her. There was always some poetry reading, love of her life, or social injustice that took precedence over everyone and everything else.
Slipping her phone down into her purse, Nora noted all the exits and bathrooms. Did she imagine the quick glances at her? The whispers behind funeral programs? She smoothed the black pleated crepe of her Balenciaga dress. It was the most expensive thing she owned. Her father had bought it for her when she'd won the women's hundred-meter hurdles at the Penn Relays. Right before he'd stopped talking to her.
You're drawing negative attention to yourself, he'd complained. At least a prostitute gets paid for showing her ass. The last time Nora saw her father, he was throwing hundreds at the floor demanding that she pick them up.
Nora had applied for a job that very day and sold her Land Rover for a Nissan. She'd almost sold this dress on eBay, but it was too beautiful. When she heard the news about his death, her anger lost its power. She'd tried so hard to be more than the girl in the video, but standing in the middle of these murmurs and stink eyes made her feel like she would never get away from that image of herself.
There was a time, pre-sex tape, when she would have welcomed the attention. No one would know it to look at her now-working at the CVS so she wouldn't have to talk to her father, obsessed with HGTV so she wouldn't have to fix anything real in her own life-but Nora had been lively, bulletproof, and bold. Back when she was semi-famous for her athleticism and record-breaking races, every step she took was the right one. She had even graced the cover of Track and Field magazine. It was easy to think nothing could touch her. The arrogance of a world-class athlete who thought her youth, strength, and money would protect her from the nasty parts of the world. But it didn't protect her from her father's rejection, his disgust. Even his funeral seemed like an indictment of her. She and her sister were not even on the flickering slideshow.
She didn't frequent many funerals, but this one seemed particularly strange. Everyone looked too damned good, for one. Everyone here, the high society of the DMV, treated the event like Easter Sunday-decked out in their best black, exchanging cards, and speculating on the price of her father's mahogany casket.
Were these her father's friends? How well-known was he? Nora had never actually thought to google him. Was he more than a dreamer with plans to move his family to some lobster farm up north? More than a punctual deposit in her bank account every Friday?
Who are these people?
She even saw the Beverly Bennett. Her mother's gossipy over-the-top girlfriend, who regularly screamed her daughters' net worth to the rooftops. Beverly Bennett patted her mother's back, and a ring the size of a traffic cone glinted on her finger. To think the relatively well-off Dash women used to buy handsewn dresses from those "poor Bennetts" out of pity. The world had turned upside down.
It was like someone flipped her dad upside down and shook him, and out tumbled all of these people she'd never even met. Somebody's nephew was playing an up-tempo high school marching band rendition of "When the Saints Go Marching In." Nora decided right then that there would be no upbeat numbers at her funeral. I want that shit sad. Not jazzy and vaguely sexy like this one. Even stranger, she and her mother, the chief mourners, were being aggressively ignored. No bereaved aunties and uncles coming up to her. No one gave them their thoughts and prayers or handed them lukewarm potato salad. Just Bev holding Mom's hand between flashing pictures of her granddaughter and speaking loudly over the band music. She knew her mother was not on good terms with her father's family, but this was downright cruel.
Nora felt a light tap on her shoulder and jumped a bit too high. She was terrified of that tap. That someone in a crowded room was going to squint their eyes and walk toward her. A man sucking his teeth, saying, You look so familiar. Have I seen you somewhere before? And, of course, the question was rhetorical.
Of course they had seen her. All of her. She used to blow kisses after every victory, soaking up the limelight draped in the University of Maryland flag. She couldn't take a wrong step.
Now, every tiny little action Nora engaged in always, always had outsize consequences. Which is why she liked to minimize her mistake footprint altogether. It was simple. No risky decisions equaled no traumatic mistakes. She was the poor kid in that If You Give a Mouse a Cookie book.
Here's what happens when you make a hot sex tape with your college boyfriend:
1. First, do not make a hot sex tape with your college boyfriend. He will be your boyfriend for three more months. Tops.
And if you are incredibly ridiculous and say yes, don't be the supercool girlfriend when he suggests you put it online.
Don't say, "Yeah, it's cool." It's a little sexy to be watched, right?
It won't be sexy. It will only make you infamous in the DC-Maryland-Virginia area for an excruciatingly long time. You'll learn fast that you're not bulletproof.
2. Because of the morality clause, you'll lose your track scholarship. (You loved track more than you loved your boyfriend.)
3. You'll get a nickname like Nasty Nora.
4. You'll drop out of college nine credits shy of your degree.
5. Instead of being a hot PE teacher at a progressive artsy elementary school, you'll be lucky to get a job as a pharmacy tech at a big chain drugstore.
TL;DR: boldness doesn't pay. Stay in your lane.
Another tap on the shoulder, this time more insistent.
"Are you Shenora and Maryanne Dash?" A twitchy, round-faced white man gave her a thick cream card.
An estate lawyer. This should be interesting.
"I'm Nora, and this is my mother, Diane. My sister hasn't arrived yet."
"Mrs. Dash would like to speak to you in the offices upstairs."
The plump, brown-skinned woman’s upturned mouth dropped like a stone when she saw Nora enter the office. She sat at the head of the table like a Mafia don. Fur coat, thick gold rings, a soft cotton halo of shoe-polish-black hair. Nora saw that she had white teeth like piano keys when she spoke.
"You have a lot of nerve showing up here, Diane," the woman hissed at Nora's mother.
"Excuse me?" Nora asked. Sure, her parents weren't married, but what was this, the 1950s?
Mom rolled her shoulders. "It's not about me. It's about my girls. They have the right to pay their respects."
Nora couldn't seem to stop blinking. "Mother, don't respond to that. Of course we do."
Mom didn't meet her eyes. "Nora, please."
Nora, please? Why was she allowing this woman to talk to her like this?
Mom looked behind her at the door. "Nora, this is Mrs. Dash."
So? Why was some auntie allowed to talk to her mother this way? Nora locked arms with her mother and moved to push past the threshold when her mother froze.
"Mrs. Dash is your father's wife of thirty-five years."
Your father's wife.
Nora couldn't push enough air out of her lungs to speak. Everything rolled over her in slow motion. She gasped and stumbled like she had missed a step on an invisible stairwell. She felt streaks of hot and cold panic roll around inside of her. Her stomach threatened to spill the ham sandwich she had for lunch. Her hands shook with impossible tremors.
My mother was a mistress? Don't you have to be sexy and mysterious to be a mistress? Do mistresses bake pies?
Her panic attacks had gotten worse in the past year. She could feel them coming but was powerless to stop the crippling panic from washing over her. Everyone in the room was looking at her. So many eyes.
Her father, already a hazy, distant man, was coloring himself even further out of the picture. He had always been obscure, mercurial, chronically late, and impossibly charming. He had winked after telling a bawdy joke and never made it to a single sporting event she was in. Her father, on top of being all of those things, wasn't even only her own and Yanne's.
The constriction of Nora's throat intensified. Maybe she would suffocate to death right here at her sexy mistress mother's feet.
"Nora! Have some water! Nora!" She heard their distant alarm but couldn't reach out to them. She just stood there, compulsively swallowing and sweating through her lovely dress.
Oh, another reason not to make a sex tape with your college boyfriend:
6. You'll develop an inconvenient panic disorder that makes even the smallest tasks seem impossible.
"Oh, get ahold of yourself, Shenora." The real Mrs. Dash flicked her wrist dismissively. "If that little bit of thirty-year-old news has shocked you, you're going to need a stretcher for this next part."
Half an hour later, Nora's sister Yanne tumbled into the room in a cloud of weed and floral perfume.
"Someone said you guys were up here?" Yanne pulled off her long, puffy jacket, leaving the thick scarf wrapped up to her chin. Her sister was wearing black, and her sandy locs were bound up in a regal-looking bun. She had opted for enormous glasses instead of her contacts. The resulting look was a plump Lisa Bonet as a goth substitute teacher.
Nora pulled her sister aside. "Mom has been lying to us. Dad has a whole other family." She gestured to the people in the room.
Nora knew how she should feel. She should clutch at her chest, reeling and breathing into a paper bag. Even righteous fury at her mother's lifetime of lies failed to breach the protective film of Lexapro. Instead, all she could feel was the slow, heavy dullness of an exhausted fight-or-flight system.
Yanne, traditionally more excitable than her older sister, would have to be the fireworks show today.
"Well . . ." Yanne crinkled her face in a half apology.
Nora gasped. Yanne knew? How long? When did she find out? Who told her?
"Can we get to business, please?" A petite woman with a short haircut and a pert air of authority shook her head. In the right light, she could be Halle Berry's younger sister.
Yanne waved a benevolent hand. Her bangles tinkled noisily, and the petite woman who just spoke looked mesmerized by the tiny tattoos of the phases of the moon spread out on the base of her sister's palm.
"It's important to honor your emotions, my sister." Yanne bowed dramatically. "But I can't really be a part of your low vibrational energy right now. Your mother invited my sister and me." The woman's lips tightened, and for a second, Nora thought she would make a scene, but she only shot a frustrated look at the real Mrs. Dash.
Fake Halle Berry reached out and squeezed her mother's hands. "You humiliated my mother at her husband's funeral, and you have the nerve to show up in a seven-thousand-dollar dress?"
All the stares suddenly made sense. It wasn't because of the video; they all knew who she was to her father.
The room suddenly had the mysterious vibes of an Agatha Christie novel. Everyone gathered in a small space, each one with a simmering dislike. There was even a twitchy lawyer. Nora expected someone to accuse her of murder at any moment. Yanne, sensitive as she was to "energies," must have picked up on the change in mood.
"If I may?" Yanne's voice was soft and honeyed. "Mrs. Dash, this is a time for uterine unity, not phallic falsehoods. He was dishonest with us too. But it doesn't make any of us, including our mother, bad people."
Mrs. Dash's eyes lifted from Nora for a merciful minute. It was her first time seeing Yanne, and Nora watched the recognition wash over the woman. Yanne looked the most like Daddy, with her beachy skin, briny seawater-green eyes, and soft curls. Mrs. Dash had to see that. Nora could see her veneer cracking. A slow tear slipped down her cheek.
"Are you the sick one?" Mrs. Dash asked.
Yanne recoiled and pushed out her soft belly. "I can assure you, I'm the picture of health."
"He said one of you girls had it like him. Sickle cell. Is it you?"
Yanne flinched. "Oh, I-I do suffer an occasional bout of that most painful affliction. Why do you ask?"
Copyright © 2024 by Nikki Payne. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.