Fried Chicken and Real Joy
by Jubilee Johnson
Somehow, the fried chicken that Joy made was sweet. And it tasted good—was hot. It was exactly what I wanted at this odd hour of the night while Joy was at my kitchen stove, cooking barefoot in a long dress that reached her ankles. I’m sure it was a maternity dress, but she wore it regularly, like some household frock. That’s why it fit her loosely, and swished from side to side every time Joy moved. The rest of the chicken kept popping in the skillet, which she tended to with a fork. I wanted her to cook with a pair of tongs, something not so flimsy, but Joy insisted she’d been making fried chicken this way since she was eleven, and so I guess that made it okay.
“I can’t believe this is what you wanted to eat.” She was talking without turning around. One hand was at her hip, and when I didn’t speak back she turned around to see if I had heard her. “Yeah, well it must be good, huh?” She smiled and I nodded, chewing like I’d never tasted food. I had a juicy thigh in my hand. It was my second piece, and I still wanted more. As soon as we got home that’s what I asked Joy to prepare, and she had whipped it up quickly, not really asking why fried chicken had been on my mind. She had kicked off her shoes, washed her hands, and turned on the stove.
“Are you going to have some?”
“It’s for you. I’m not too hungry, anyway.” She turned off the flame and set the extra pieces in front of me.
“Let me have a bite.” I raised the thigh to her mouth, she bit down. “Mmmhmm.”
“You’re going to bed?” Joy was standing, wiping grease onto her hips.
“I’m gonna shower first.”
“I feel fine.”
“Alright.” I grabbed her by the waist and said thank you. She put her hand on my head, briefly, then walked out of the kitchen.
By the time I finished eating, I heard the shower turn on. I put aluminum foil over the plate of chicken I hadn’t touched. After placing it in the refrigerator, I went to the bedroom and started undressing. I left everything on the floor and stepped into the shower. Joy was leaning against the wall, letting water run over her. She smiled so big: “Hi.”
My favorite thing about the shower is its size. It’s big, and has a window in it. There’s also enough space for both of us to lean against the walls and face each other without touching. Joy is on her side, her shoulders relaxed, looking like this is the first time she’s had a break all day. And at this point, the day is over.
“Hi.” I tell her back. Her braids are tied on top of her head. The only thing that dangles from her body is the gold chain around her neck—the name plate she’s had since she probably learned her name. It actually says Destiny, but no one calls her that. Except her mother, who probably bought her the jewelry to remind everyone that Joy was really a Destiny.
But Joy, the name I recognized her by, glistened as resiliently as her chain. She shined the color of boiled yucca mixed with mahogany brown. That’s Joy’s complexion, smooth and perfect in the dimness of a lackadaisical moon. I loved seeing her naked, it always excited me and made me nervous. Simultaneously, I couldn’t tell whether to react with action or resignation. Where to start? Touch her, or continue to stare like I’d never seen her body beneath clothes? But if I touched her, would I feel anything tangible? It’s like being in the desert, trying to come to terms with if half the things you observed were real or mirages. I saw two dark areolas, or were they something else? I saw brown hips, stretch marks, dimples, bones, and lips parting.
“You full?” She reached out and felt my stomach. Taking one step forward, there was hardly any distance left between us.
“Yeah. I think I ate too much.”
“It’s good to feel that full sometimes.”
We were embracing with cool water laving our bodies. Imagine if the water were viscous, something cohesive that could unite us. Sticky like nectar, we probably wouldn’t have been able to peel apart. But I wouldn’t have minded. I wouldn’t have tried to strain against me absorbing Joy, and Joy absorbing me.
“How was your day?”
“Tell me about it.”
While we scrubbed one another, lathering with soap, exfoliating, rinsing, repeating, Joy told me about her day. I told her about mine. We kept laughing, bumping elbows, acting like this was a long time ago—when we had first gotten together. It really use to be like this—exactly like this. Only we were both shyer. We were uncertain if we could stare as openly, enchanted by the way we looked up close, what the texture of skin was like, how it tasted. Sweet.
Exiting the shower, I felt immaculately clean. We were purged of the smell of fried chicken. I wrapped Joy in a plush towel. We moisturized together, brushed our teeth, and rushed into our night clothes. Joy picked out a cotton nightgown, cool and diaphanous. It concealed nothing, her whole body greeting me from the other side of the distressed fabric.
I was in bed first, waiting for her to join me. Always, always, before sleeping Joy had to put on her fragrance, some essential oil blend that made her smell botanical. “Come on, girl.” She turned away from the bureau, where she kept all her products in the top drawer.
In the dark, we felt for each other. Even if it wasn’t as zealous, we always reached out with a sense of urgency, as if our lives depended on meeting when we couldn’t see. Joy felt so warm, smelled so good, the euphoria I felt could have led to my perdition. And I would have accepted it with pure ignorance, only because this feeling remedied my fear of loneliness. Only because as I was squeezing her tightly, I already felt like I had to rejoice in my immediate pleasure that I could only define as real Joy.