She looks like she's just fine.
Terry McMillan has stepped from the stockroom into a Bowie bookstore packed with hundreds of black women who have waited hours to lay eyes on her, their favorite author. They've come to hear her read and sign her latest book. They listen as she is introduced as a "literary legend and giant" who has "laid the groundwork for so many African American writers."
And that's all true, but mostly, they have come to make sure she is still strong. Years back, they were thrilled when McMillan found delicious, defiant love with a handsome island man 23 years her junior. They knew all about her romance because she told them, in great detail, in her best-selling novel, "How Stella Got Her Groove Back." Last month, they were shocked to learn that man was gay, and McMillan was denouncing him as a deceitful gold digger. They know all that because the pending divorce is spectacularly, publicly messy. She did the "Today" show; he did "Good Morning America."
Inside Karibu Books, here's the grandmother sitting down front, leaning on her cane. Here's a woman in a purple hat, a cowrie bracelet ringing her ankle. There are the nurses still in their blue scrubs, the mother still in her office suit, losing patience with her bored 2-year-old, the girls in their Hampton T-shirts, a Berkeley native in tie-dye, a man and woman celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary, aunts who brought nieces, daughters who brought mothers.
Outside, across from Dress Barn and Famous Footwear in Bowie Town Center, hundreds more fans line the sidewalks. They buy the new novel, "The Interruption of Everything," right out of a box near the curb and take a number.
Inside, McMillan reads a passage in which Marilyn, a 44-year-old well-off woman who has raised her children, goes back to her mother's house to find her slipping into Alzheimer's and her sister lying about being hung up on crank. It is trademark Terry, raw and sad and sardonic and funny, plenty close to the bone for her readers, which always has been the key to her incredible success.
When she's done, and the cheers have died down, she takes off her striped reading glasses with a flourish, and her green earrings move like Calder mobiles. Her hair is cropped close and dyed red. Her dress is long and sleeveless and green. Her high-heel mules are striped. There is no wedding band, nor that lighter tanless stripe to show where it once would have been.
"Not nary a question about my marriage, or my divorce, or homosexuality, or I will ignore you," McMillan instructs, shaking a finger. This is the head-held-high attitude the crowd came to see, and the room erupts into laughter and cheering. "And anyway," she adds, "it's apparently all on the Internet."
"What kind of advice would you give a woman turning 40?" someone calls out.
McMillan looks perplexed. "I don't know," she begins. "When I was 40, 13 years ago, I was having a good time," and there are amens to that. "I'm no guru," she says, but then she gives in. "Take care of yourself. If your kids are grown, and your teeth are terrible, get yourself some new teeth on somebody else's credit card," and the women whoop with laughter. "Make your world rock."
"Will there be a sequel to any of your books?" shouts someone else.
"No! No way! No how!" McMillan answers. "I won't be going back to Jamaica. Ever. I don't never need to see that island again."
"How long does it take you to write a book?"
"Well, this time I had a few distractions. There were interruptions."
And that is how the dialogue goes between Terry and these strangers who aren't really strangers, full of knowing laughter and shared references. Waiting in line to get their books signed, the women don't gossip about her at all. It's as if that conversation was finished a couple of weeks ago: How could she not have known he was gay? Did you hear about how they each had to get restraining orders? Can you imagine the humiliation?
Instead, they talk about how good she looks, and how damn funny she is. When they get to the table, they bring her phrased gifts: "We really do wish you well." "Thank you for being so open and honest." "You are making history." They pose for pictures, using cell phones, disposables, digital cameras, fancy-lensed units with self-timers. She mugs and smiles. By the time the night is over, Karibu has sold more than 500 books. McMillan signs every book presented to her, not finishing until 10:30 p.m.
"You want some Twizzlers?" McMillan offers a small boy in a football jersey. "Yes, ma'am," he says shyly. "You don't have to 'yes ma'am' me," she says. "Oh, yes, he does," says his mother. They both laugh.
A short middle-aged white man piles a whole stack of McMillan's books on the table. He has his "special book," a galley of "Stella," which he has laminated, and he wants her to inscribe a quote from the book -- "My funky little California mansion -- Terry McMillan" on the frontispiece. She fixes her eye on him.
"Sure," she says and shrugs, "as long as you don't scrawl in 'We did it in' and sell it on eBay." She cackles. He picks up the signed books and scurries away.
"Darlene and Arlene?" she asks, when two women present themselves to her. "Both 45? Wait. Are you twins?" And when they shush her, she yells to the whole store, "Darlene and Arlene! They're 45!" They giggle like crazy.
The dress she's wearing used to be boring and drab, an old beige color that tired her out. She plunged it into a vat of acid green color. "I dye everything, honey," she says as she signs in her big loopy letters. The hair. The lampshades. She had a manic crafts phase and now some 200 shades sit in her garage.
Little red flecks of Rit powder dot the dress. "I like those red dots," McMillan says. "Except they look like spots of blood."
Then she narrows her eyes and grins a very wicked grin.
"Maybe," she says, ominously, "they are!"