If a man shot me in the gut I couldn't feel sicker. I stood outside the door, mortified. My upper lip glistened, my palms itched, and I was on the verge of crying. A woman motioned me in but I didn't move. Okay, I told myself. Patricia Conley, don't be such a wimp. Go on in and ask for it. All right. Pretend you're doing the equivalent. "I'd like to purchase a Beretta 950BS-N, twenty-five caliber." No, no. "I'd like a purse full of grenades, please." No, how about, "I'm interested in a vial of nitroglycerin and some fertilizer. See, I need it because I'm about to commit the most daring act of my life."

A man brushed by me, his shoulder grazing my arm. I checked my watch. I would be late if I didn't make my move now. Right now. I took a few breaths and walked in and up to the counter with my head down. This was not me. It couldn't be me doing this. I felt like I would die if the words came from my mouth. Okay. Enough of this bullshit. Either you're going to do this or you're not.

"I'd like to buy a corsage," I blurted out, never once looking up from the floor.

When I walked out with the orchid pinned to my dress I didn't even allow myself a smile. I knew the flower looked silly. Actually stupid. But I often dreamed of a whole row of photos. You know, the ones that everyone showed the next day in school. They're standing in long dresses grinning, a corsage on their front, beside their mother or father or both. The corsage became the symbol that made me aware of where I stood in the world. I didn't go to the prom or any other social activity in high school. I wasn't the ugly duckling; I was the tiger who spends its life alone. Now all that was about to change.

I glanced at myself in the storefront glass. A new me. All primped, a corsage on my chest and somewhere to go. I'd taken the final step when I'd toned down my cursing for this man. I, Patricia Conley, always tried to do the opposite of what any man wanted since Cripple Cooney. I was a brother's worst nightmare. Finally, I could let my guard down completely and share the scared-of-being-abandoned me with someone. I am finally free after thirty-one years of protecting, defending and fighting myself to stay alone. I checked my watch. Oh God. I was late.

At exactly 4 p.m., breathless and frantic, I raced to the counter of the Fulton County Probate Court at 136 Pryor Street. Kenneth Lawson was to meet me in front of the building at 3:30 p.m., and together we were going to Room C230. Knowing his usual penchant for promptness, I felt a tight knot in my throat when I didn't see him out front or in the waiting area.

Gasping for air and vowing to start jogging again I asked at the desk, "Have you seen a tall black man with a mustache and beard in here in the last thirty minutes?"

The woman gave me the kind of stare reserved for monkeys doing their business from trees, and then dramatically rolled her eyes slowly around the room.

I couldn't resist turning. I saw her point. Four tall black men with mustaches and beards were hunched over in earnest conversation with their ladies. I continued undaunted, "What I mean is, I was supposed to meet him outside and I thought--"

She shrugged before I could finish my sentence. So I shut up.

I collapsed on one of the plastic black and chrome chairs, crossed my legs and groped in my purse for a pen. Damn, everything but a pen. A journalist's nightmare.

I walked back to the counter, where a friendlier-looking woman stood. "I'm supposed to get married at the four-thirty ceremony today," I whispered. "You know, in the group thing, but we haven't bought the license yet because of a little glitch with my fiancé's ID. But he's getting it straightened out today and I, uh, suppose it took longer than he thought. So, I, uh, was wondering if I, uh, could maybe start filling out the form since our time is sort of running short."

She smiled warmly and handed me a clipboard with a pen on a string attached to it. I sat back down and read over it. My name, last name first. I ought to be able to handle that, unless of course my name was really "I, uh." Who the hell was that up there talking like some idiot barely able to speak?

Get a grip, Patricia Conley. You're losing it. You're only getting married for the first time. I continued comforting myself. Patricia, people do it every day. Some people do it more than one time if they're scamming. Get serious. Okay. Calm down.

Balancing the clipboard on my knee, I checked in my purse for the umpteenth time to make sure I had the proper ID. To be on the safe side, I'd brought it all. It's the one thing you learn quickly when you hit Atlanta. You can call up an agency as many times as you like, but once you're there, not a damn thing they told you will be right. Georgia Driver's License. Check. My newspaper ID. Check. My passport. Check.

While I ran through my checklist my mind marched on: Think about it. For the first time in your whole miserable life, you, Patricia Conley, will have the great American dream. A family. A real family. And all for the measly price of twenty-nine bucks.

Excerpted from What a Woman's Gotta Do by Evelyn Coleman Copyright © 1999 by Evelyn Coleman. Excerpted by permission of Dell, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.