Department of First Stories

The Winner

by LaToya Jovena

I arrived early to get a good seat; unfortunately a lot of the women here had the same idea.

I guess this was to be ex-pected. We were a lot alike. African-American. Late teens to early forties. Carriers of middle-class paraphernalia.

The only perceivable difference was that they were dressed for the occasion while I was not. Thin or heavy, they were wearing dresses or carefully tailored pants. They clacked across the pale hardwood floors in high heels or left silent shadows as they moved through the soft pink lighting. I, on the other hand, was dressed more like the security, in my Air Jordan sneakers and baggy sweatpants.

None of this would matter to China. She was thankful for anyone who bought a ticket, and she always stayed to the very end. I followed her social-media accounts for long enough to know that.

A woman took the seat next to mine. Her deep brown skin was blemish free, and most of it was visible in a short, blindingly white, cap-sleeve dress. Not a strand of her waist-length black hair was hers. She was a China fanatic, the entire look was an imitation of her.

“Hi, I’m Violet,” she said as she shoved her manicured fingers in my direction.

“Angie,” I said. Her hand was soft and she smelled lightly of vanilla.

“Have you met China before? This will be my third time.”

She had a smile full of straight white teeth, but it fell when she saw the look on my face.

“What does China have to say that you would pay to see her three times?”

“I’ve learned a lot,” said Violet, tight-lipped. “I hope you learn your money’s worth today.”

“What exactly do you think I need to learn?” I hissed. “Which lace front to buy? Or perhaps how to spend my husband’s money, while convincing people that I’m more than a wife?”

Violet’s beautiful face contorted, turning her hideous. I looked down at my Air Jordans in shame. It wasn’t her fault she’d been fooled by China’s act. She didn’t have all the facts. She only knew what China wanted the world to see.

“I don’t mean to be rude,” she began, “but if you hate China so much, why don’t you sell your ticket to one of the people outside trying to get in? She gets paid for these events. Why support her lace fronts with your hard-earned money?”

It was a valid question. And though I had no intention of telling Violet, the answer was because China and I had history. I went to high school with her, not too far from where we were sitting at this very moment.

I dated a guy in our class, Patrizio. He was brown-skinned and funny. He had a famous smile and soft curly hair. And he was mine for an entire year, which was the equivalent of a decade by high-school standards.

Unbeknownst to me, he’d had a quiet, moderately close relationship with China before me. It was hard for me to care when he told me. I was happy. He was happy. And I didn’t even know her.

Things began to turn, slowly at first, then all at once. China, whore that she is, dated a few guys while I dated Patrizio. One was on the football team. He was heavy and understated. Then she dated another football player, a cute wide receiver, which caught Patrizio’s attention. Finally she ended up with a kid from New York. He was a tall peacock who seemed enthralled with her, and suddenly Patrizio was enthralled with her too.

They went to prom together. The peacock in a rented tux. China in a tacky silver getup she designed herself. It wasn’t really a dress, more like tin foil that she wrapped around herself so she wouldn’t get arrested for indecent exposure. She spun and twerked and laughed all night long. Patrizio followed her every move.

China had been completely oblivious of Patrizio for an entire year, but they were back together by graduation. The peacock was quickly discarded. A year into college, Patrizio suffered the same fate. He never came back to me. China had ruined him.

I never got over the loss, and searched for comfort in the arms of another man. The relationship was fleeting but my pregnancy was not. Our daughter is ten years old now. Her father, my ex-boyfriend, married someone else last year.

While I was busy losing everything, China was winning. She must have visited a dermatologist to clear her mucked-up complexion, and a plastic surgeon to take her from flat-chested and rail thin to buxom and round-assed.

She smiled at me from on high. The cover of More Than a Wife was blown up above the stage. Her face was contoured to perfection. Her eyelashes were donated by some animal that I’m sure was feeling a breeze. Her breasts were pushed up, her shorts were too, and she’d been Photoshopped by a digital construction crew. Underneath her pedicured toes and bejeweled stripper stilettos was the subtitle: How to be Mom, Wife, and Businesswoman Without Burning Out. There were copies of her book for sale at three different tables around the room.

After Patrizio, China supposedly fell in love with a guy she met in college. He just so happened to go pro, which is how she landed herself on one of those Desperate Househoes shows. She pretends to be the wise one. Every episode it’s, “No matter the situation, always stay classy.” Now she’s written herself a book.

*   *   *

A woman walked onto the stage and tapped the microphone.

“Good afternoon everyone,” she said. Her voice was familiar but I didn’t remember ever meeting her.

“Many of you know me from your drive to work in the morning, but for those of you who don’t, I’m Roxy Rhombus from WPYT.”

Now I remembered. Roxy gave advice to callers on her radio show on all types of issues. Some of it had helped me with Patrizio and my daughter’s father. How much had China paid her to be here?

“I haven’t had the chance to meet all of you yet, but I hope I will as China signs your books,” Roxy continued. “I’ll be set up in the back corner handing out PYT swag.”

Under normal circumstances I would have loved to meet Roxy, but not tonight.

“Someone I have met before, though, is China,” said Roxy. “She’s one of my closest friends, one of my biggest supporters, and perhaps the most inspiring woman I’ve ever had the pleasure of befriending. Without further ado, a woman who has mastered the roles of mother, wife, businesswoman, and friend . . . China Gillespie.”

The entire crowd stood and clapped, making it impossible for me to see China, because I refused to do the same. Then the screen where the cover of her book was projected became a video of her walking to the podium.

She wore a wig that cascaded wavy hair past each augmented breast. Her dress was snug and surprisingly covered her cleavage, but it ran out of fabric right under her ass. It looked to be made out of some cheap scratchy fabric. With all the money she was supposedly making, she should’ve been able to afford a better dress.

“Hi everyone,” she said when her groupies finally returned to their seats. “Thank you so much for coming out. It means so much to me.”

I believed her, because this was how she paid for her plastic surgery and hair extensions.

“I have to start by thanking Roxy for the compliment and apologize to all of you, because you are about to be disappointed. I haven’t mastered anything.

“I really didn’t write this book to sell it at first. I wrote these rules in my journal to help organize my thoughts, hoping they would help organize my life. While I was filming the show, I saw they could help my friends, so I started sharing what I learned as issues arose.

“When the first season aired, I started getting booked for appearances. Women would ask me all types of questions. I realized I had the answers to some of them, but I just didn’t have the time to explain it at my events.

“For example, one woman asked me how I managed to dress nicely before my husband went pro. She must have noticed some of my old pictures from the show. I have the answer but it’s a bit complicated so I rushed through it, leaving important parts out. I worried for days that I had sent that poor girl down the path to disaster.”

The current crowd of poor girls giggled like this was the funniest thing they’d ever heard.

“Anyway, I hope she gets my book,” China continued, now wearing a giant smile that showed every single tooth in her giant mouth. “I answered her question completely in the chapter ‘High-Low Living.’ For example, this dress is from Target because I’ll probably only wear it a few times, but my shoes are Louboutins because I won’t be taking them off until Labor Day.”

China’s entire speech continued on like that, lessons she’d learned and topics she’d researched, all of which were revealed in her book that happened to be on sale here. She concluded by saying: The only thing she would be signing tonight was her book.

I wasn’t prepared for the rush to her table, and try as I might I couldn’t make my way in front of Violet, who was carrying five More Than a Wife hardcovers.

The line wound around the room and moved about an inch every fifteen minutes. China took the time to get to know each and every person who came before her. I could hear women thanking her; for what, I didn’t know. Others told her where they were from, what colleges they went to, or where they worked. But the chatter was nothing compared to the constant flash of camera phones. I mean, they could see this girl on basic cable every day of the week. Why were they filling their phone’s storage with her face?

As I got closer to the table I could hear China more and more clearly. She told everyone to “Try one.” She meant one of the individually wrapped, brightly colored candies in a crystal dish on the table in front of her. Another sponsor, no doubt.

Being close enough to reach her made my heart thump. Her lips were pillowy and shiny with gloss. Her smile was sparkly white. Her fingernails were painted grey, matching her toenails.

Her husband had given her a ring with a boulder; it seemed to reflect light on the crystal bowl of candies every time she moved. This had to be a sign. The bowl was going to be my instrument.

“Thanks so much for coming,” said China to Violet. “Here, take one of these. They’re my favorite,” she said as she handed Violet a lilac-wrapped candy.


China made eye contact with me as Violet stepped away. Her gaze left my eyes and traveled to my unsmiling mouth, where it lingered. Her smile changed from all teeth to closed lips, as if she recognized me.

Her gaze continued down my torso to my empty hands. Her pouty lips shifted into a straight line.

She didn’t know who I was. She just wasn’t happy to meet everyone who came out, she was only happy to sign items that she made a percentage off of. Well, I didn’t come here to get anything signed. I came to give her her first loss.

“Hello,” said China. “What’s your name?”

I reached for the bowl of candies with my left hand. It was heavier than I expected. I pulled it towards myself slowly, so I didn’t alert her security.

China eyed the crystal bowl.

“I take these candies to all of my events because they’re my favorite. You can have one if you like.”

The plastic smile had returned. I couldn’t wait to knock it off her face.

I pulled the bowl closer. My plan was to empty it, grip it with both hands, and launch it into her face. I was going to make good use of the man muscles she used to make fun of in high school.

China knitted her perfectly plucked brows together as I slowly emptied the bowl with my left hand.

“Do you like that bowl? I’m not selling it today but I can find the link for you if you like.”

I dragged the bowl to the end of the table.

I began to lift it, slowly.

If I drew it back to my right shoulder with both hands, China wouldn’t have time to move out of the way when I threw it full force.

She didn’t say another word, but her lips did a perfect imitation of the smirking emoji. I was going to aim for that sassy-ass mouth and make sure she stayed quiet.

I was raising the dish, above my waistband, almost—

“Duck!” shouted someone from the far end of the table.

My gaze followed the sound. I saw Violet staring at me with a look of terror, clutching all five books to her chest.

When I looked back to where China was sitting, two giant men dressed in black had encircled her. Her fancy high-heeled shoes clicked away, but I couldn’t see an inch of her.

I felt myself being lifted off the ground. My arms were held down, completely immobile. My feet were still, but my body was moving steadily forward, towards a glowing red exit sign. People were staring at me. My face felt hot from the embarrassment, but it continued to feel hot because I was now outside.


Read the exciting conclusion in this month's issue on sale now!

Copyright © 2020. The Winner by LaToya Jovena

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