HANGING ON A STRING
Marcus Claremont opened the door and walked into my office, closing the door behind him. I rose to greet him, and we shook hands, rather ceremoniously, over my desk.
“Please sit down,” I said, in an attempt to show that I was not at all fazed by our earlier conversation.
Once again the attraction that I felt for him gripped me as I stared at his handsome face. He looked great ... and the wide smile with which he greeted me was warm and inviting. I didn't understand the effect he was having on me. I'd met many handsome men, but no one, not even my ex-husband, had caused me to feel such a strong and immediate attraction.
“Thanks for seeing me on such short notice,” he said as he sat down in the same chair he had yesterday.
I sat down as well, and we faced each other, my desk providing the dividing line. I watched as he placed one strong brown hand on his knee and had a vision of that hand being somewhere else far more intimate.
Clearing my throat nervously, I said, “Detective, I'm extremely busy.”
He smiled at me. “So you keep telling me. Are you always this direct, Miss Spain?”
“Absolutely,” I replied. “I don't believe in playing games. Call me Jasmine. The only people who call me Miss Spain don't like me.”
“Well,” he said, looking straight into my eyes, “I certainly don't fall into that category.”
He was flirting with me again, and what's more, I was beginning to enjoy myself. I needed some sort of intervention. I needed someone to talk some sense into me.
“Well, if I'm going to call you Jasmine, then you'll have to call me Marcus.”
This was definitely not the kind of intervention I needed.
“Fine,” I replied, hoping to get this conversation over quickly. I wanted to leap across the desk and fling myself at him. I most definitely needed a vacation.
When most folks looked at Chester Beauregard Jackson III, they saw a good-looking man who was the color of smooth, polished mahogany. When I looked at Chester, I saw the devil, or at least a close relation. Chester was six feet six, with a body that still heralded his glory days playing football for Yale University and then with the New York Jets, until he got sidelined by a knee injury. The combination of expensively tailored suits, a face composed of a strong jaw and high cheekbones that came straight from the motherland, and a healthy bank account proved to be irresistible to most women, including me. Chester was the epitome of the man most women would love to take home to Mama, after they had taken him home first. Once we'd been friendsâgood friendsâand once we had been lovers. Big. Mistake.
After my divorce, I rebounded with Chester. Our relationship was brief, and for a few months, he helped me deal with the demise of my marriage. After our relationship ended, we never regained the friendship part of it. My sister, Thea, who is never wrong about anything, had warned me to stay away from him. “He's trouble with a capital T,” she'd declared on more than one occasion. Chester had gone to Yale with her, and although I suspected he'd had a serious crush on her, she'd wisely kept her distance from him. I, on the other hand, ran headlong into disasterâthat is to say, into a relationship with a man who was known to be, shall we say, unfaithful. My friendship with Chester had made me think I would be immune to his general bad treatment.
I learned the hard way that in his eyes, I was no different from dozens of other women who had preceded me.
Those who knew about my history with Chester attributed my strong and vocal dislike of him to the bitter breakup. He faxed me a good-bye letter, which was read by most of the office before it was hand delivered to me by one of the office messengers. In his letter, he listed my shortcomings in numerical order:
1. Loud. 2. Bossy. 3. Not willing to be adventurous. 4. Still in love with ex-husband.
While I agreed with numbers 1 and 2 on the list, number 3 stung. Hurt my pride. Not adventurous? I grew up in New York. In Manhattan, where every day is an adventure. I called him up to tell him that it was time for him to commit himself to the nearest psychiatric ward, because I was certain he had lost his mind, but by the time I called, he'd left the city for a vacation with the woman who would shortly thereafter become his wife, Sherrie. As for number 4, I'd stopped loving my ex-husband a long time agoâeven though at times I still missed him, much the same way that one misses a bad habit.
Why hadn't I listened to Thea? Theadora Marie, my older sister by five years, is usually right about everything. It drives me crazy, but Thea is the one who has that gene my parents claim is missing in me, their other childâcommon sense. “He's no good,” Thea had cautioned. “He runs through women like water,” she'd stated. “He's indiscriminate,” she'd warned. That was the closest Thea would come to calling Chester a ho. Then, when it was clear that I wasn't listening to her, she'd shaken her head and said, “Don't say I didn't warn you.” I didn't care. I was in love. I ignored what turned out to be wise counsel. Inside there was a little voice that I habitually ignored, which told me Thea was right again, but there was another voice, a stronger voiceâone that usually got me into troubleâa voice that urged me to throw caution to the wind. Go on, girlfriend, it urged. You just funeralized your marriage. Have a good time. You deserve it.
Thea was the child who was the answer to my parents' prayers. She got good grades in school, didn't date until she was twenty, and then ended up marrying the first guy she went out with (after a few flings in between). She sang in the church choir; willingly attended social gatherings with my mother, including the lawn parties in Sag Harbor; dressed conservatively in expensive clothes that came from Fifth Avenue ... and she was beautiful. Drop-dead gorgeous. Deep chocolate-colored skin, large eyes fringed with long eyelashes, full mouth, high cheekbones, dimples, and a perfect oval face, framed by thick brown hair, which she refused to cut. Thea, like my mother, had a striking appearance.
I've been told we look alike, and it is true we share similar featuresâthe same chocolate brown skin, oval face, brown eyes, full mouth, and pug noseâbut I did not inherit my mother's dimples or my father's high cheekbones. My hair, which I regularly cut (to my mother's eternal shame), is now in a short bob, with bangs that are always a little too long. On a good day, with the help of make-up, I think I look okay, but Thea's beauty, like her common sense, came naturally. I spent a childhood in which I was often compared to my sister. Although there were times when I was secretly jealous of Thea's perfection, my love for her always overrode whatever resentment I may have harbored.
If Thea was the golden child, I was considered the child that kept my mother awake at night, at least that's what she used to tell me. The only thing I did that my parents approved of was get good grades and marry Trevor. Like Thea, I excelled at school. Everything else about me, however, either annoyed, frustrated, or bewildered my parents. They did not understand why I hated going to their parties in Martha's Vineyard. They could not understand why, with the exception of my ex-husband, Trevor, whom they adored (my mother cried more than I did when we divorced), I couldn't find a suitable boyfriend (i.e., Ivy League educated, preferably Baptist, with parents who knew my parents). They couldn't understand why I dressed the way I did (in the universal New York uniform of all black unless I had to go work), listened to the music I did (rap, but progressive rap, nothing that puts women down or brags about cars, jewelry, etc.), lived in the apartment I lived in (a brownstone garden apartment in Harlem), and worked in the law firm that I adored, Bustamante & Johnson. My father, a law professor at Columbia, had urged me to go into academia. My mother, a partner at a midtown New York labor and employment law firm, wanted me to come work with her.
Neither of my parents could understand why I wanted to work at Bustamante & Johnson, a small, predominantly African American firm that specialized in high-profile criminal cases. My parents viewed what I did as little more than ambulance chasing. B&J, as the firm was known in New York legal circles, was one of the few successful predominantly African American law firms on Wall Street. All but one of the partners were African American. Of the thirteen associates at B&J, nine were African American, two were Hispanic, one was Native American, and one was white. B&J was a firm comprised solely of litigators. You name it, we litigated it. From breach of contract issues to employment disputes, white-collar crimes, even divorces. If we thought the client had a good case, we took it.
As I did with most of their advice, I ignored them and went to B&J, where I prospered. Even after I became a senior associate, with an eye on partnership, my mother would occasionally still ask when I was going to come and work in a real firm. Before you get too hard on my mother, I can only say in her defense that her attitudes in life are a direct result of her upbringing. But that is another story. In any event, luckily for my parents, they have at least one child that never caused them to lose a moment of sleep.
Thea's prediction that things would not go well with my relationship with Chester was right. However, when Chester broke up with me, she didn't point her finger at me and yell, “I told you so.” Instead, she simply gave me a hug and said, “Let's go out to Serendipity's and have a tub of chocolate ice cream.” This is one of the many reasons why I love her.
Unlike most of my other disasters in the romantic arena, my ill-fated relationship with Chester didn't get shelved in the place where I put memories I didn't plan to visit too often. No, Chester didn't gracefully fade away as I had hoped. Instead, shortly after his marriage to Sherrie, he received an offer from the same law firm where I worked. We had to work together. Worse, he was being hired as a partner, which meant he now had a right to pull rank over me.
“I hope this won't be a problem for you, Jasmine,” he'd said smoothly after he came on board. “Not at all,” I had replied, determined to be the strong woman everyone always assumed I was. But it was a problem. I wasn't pining for him or for the illusion of what could have been. I have always been of the firm belief that if someone isn't interested in me, then disinterest becomes mutual. But I still had plenty of bad feelings about how the breakup went down, and the sight of Chester's smiling face on a daily basis was definitely not good for my constitution. I wanted him to at least have the good grace to look like he regretted the day he let me go. Instead, he only seemed to thrive and prosper.
I never thought about leaving B&J, although I'm sure Chester expected me to turn tail and run. But even though it took a long time to get used to the discomfort I felt whenever Chester was around, B&J had been my home for eight years, since right after law school. I had my eye on partnership, and I wasn't about to run away. So I remained at the firm, with my head held high. We didn't work together on many cases; however, whenever we did work together, our interaction was always professional. Sometimes there were times I thought I caught him gazing wistfully in my direction, but more often than not, I thought, as the Temptations sang so well, it was just my imagination. Recently, he'd assigned me to a case involving the defense of a policeman, Lucius Pileski. Officer Pileski, as he was known before the New York City Police Department decided they no longer wanted him among their ranks, was accused of beating a black teenager who'd had the misfortune of encountering said policeman on a dark and deserted street in Harlem. What followed was hotly disputed by both sides, but the end result was an honor student named Daniel Brown, on his way to Morehouse College, spending three days in a coma, with a bullet in his spine.
Our client claimed Daniel had had a gun in his hands, a gun that the young man refused to drop, despite New York's finest making repeated requests to do so. “Self-defense,” said our client. The problem with this scenario was that the alleged gun was nowhere to be found, something Officer Pileski and his partner had great difficulty explaining. Daniel was recuperating in a rehabilitation hospital on Long Island, with the very real possibility he might be paralyzed for life.
Daniel was suing the City of New York, as well as my client, who, as it turned out, had a rich history of using excessive force in his several encounters with young black males. The City had already fired him, so Officer Pileski was on his own when it came to legal counsel. How he came up with the money to afford our law firm and the services of the very expensive Chester Jackson remained a mystery, but Chester took the case, despite the reservations expressed by several members of the law firm, including me.
Two days before, I had suffered through a status conference with Chester, Officer Pileski, the lawyers for the City of New York, as well as the lawyers for the Brown family. Also in attendance was Daniel's mother, Mariah Brown, a woman whose understandable outrage at what had happened to her son erupted during the conference, when she stood and screamed at Chester. “How can you defend this man!” she screamed. “It could be you next time!”
Chester had ignored her words, but they echoed my own feelings about my presence at the conference, and my work on the case. How could I, a black woman, defend a man who had been charged with almost killing another person because that person looked like I did? “Who's your next client?” the mother raged. “The Grand Dragon?”
Innocent until proven guilty.
The words that justified my duty as a lawyer were not enough that day, as I looked into the mother's eyes. I sympathized with her, and there was a part of me, a strong part, that felt guilt in knowing I was involved in this drama, and for once, I wasn't sure I was on the right side. The judge had removed her from the courtroom, but not before she issued her final pronouncement.
“Your end will be bitter,” Daniel's mother predicted as the marshals escorted her out of the courtroom. I don't believe in premonitions as a general rule, but at that particular moment, a feeling of impending doom gripped me and would not let go. I had a strong and very bad feeling something terrible was going to happen.
On the few occasions I complained to Thea about some horrible assignment I was working on with Chester, she would try to calm me down by telling me that maybe one day Chester would leave the firm for greener pastures. However, I had often told Thea that Chester was doing so well at B&J, the only way he'd leave the firm was feet first.
I later remembered those words as I sat in a hastily called staff meeting one afternoon. I knew that whatever had gone down was not good as unplanned staff meetings generally heralded bad news. The last time I attended a surprise meeting, four of the partners had left the firm and had taken a substantial number of our clients to their new practice. Looking around the room at the other worried faces, I had an uneasy feeling.
Raymond Bustamante, the managing partner, who is also my mentor and close friend, glanced at me when I walked in and gave me a tight smile. Definitely not a good sign. Raymond was ten years older than me and was in large part the reason for B&J's success. A refugee from the State Prosecutor's Office, he and his law school roommate, Darrel Johnson, had started B&J ten years ago. Together they had beaten the odds with their wildly successful practice. These days, Darrel was moving away from being actively involved in the firm. He spent most of his time polishing up his golf game and hanging around country clubs or other exclusive places that had denied him access before his ascent into the realm of politically connected man with a lot of money. I didn't begrudge Darrel his lifestyle. The way I figured it, he had earned the right to play lord of the manor. He ran in the same circles as my parents, and as a result, he was friendly with me, but we never did much work together. By the time I was hired at B&J, Darrel was winding down his practice. Raymond was different. This firm was his life, and he was not about to loosen his tight grip on the reins. He was still the man in charge, and he made sure that no one forgot it.