Enemies No More by Jimi Gaillard-Jefferson
She’s the illusive part of a dream.
Blink and wonder if she’s real. Can beauty be that vivid? Can a mind be that sharp? A mouth that bold?
She’s everything I’ve ever been denied.
She’s everything I’m too afraid to say I want.
She’s here. Panther eyes. Hands on mine. In mine.
She’s better than a dream.
Because she’ll stay
If I give it all up.
He’s the man I liked too much to pity and wanted too much to ignore
A harp played, a woman moaned her agonies and luxuries into a microphone and
He had chocolate and Scotch in his hands when I told him I wanted him
It was better than I imagined.
He wants to hide us and everything we’ve become.
Family, money, occupations, and career paths.
There’s too much at stake, he says.
I am supposed to be his lifelong enemy. Not this.
But I am me, and I am his
Sacrifices will have to be made.
I was in the third grade the first time I saw her. The classroom, the school, was a wild place. If you were smart by the time you finished your first semester there, you understood power. You understood that your parents spent more on vacations than your teacher would likely make that year. You understood that your parents didn’t care what you did as long as it didn’t affect their business, but they did care whether or not the teachers did their real job of keeping you away from them, educating you, while they made their millions and engaged in petty gossip, and arguments, and affairs.
She came in the spring semester and wasn’t like us. The Black girls knew to straighten their hair. The Black boys knew to code switch and to save their thirsts for victory and validation for recess and PE. Her hair was long, wild, soft. It wasn’t straight. It wasn’t pulled back into a severe bun. It just…floated around her. Her uniform wasn’t in carefully constructed disarray. She was neat in a way that made me think about pushing her into the dirt. Her eyes slanted like a cat’s. No, not a cat’s. You could pet cats. You could gain a cat’s trust and, eventually, its affection. She couldn’t be bought or tamed. She had eyes like a panther.
The eye contact she made with all of us made me second guess myself. New kids never made eye contact. They looked at their shoes or their hands. They looked at the teacher that couldn’t save them. She looked at each of us until we looked away.
It made my skin feel hot and my fingers curl into fists I knew I couldn’t use. It made me narrow my eyes. My parents told me who she was, who her family was. Her family didn’t care about light skin and light eyes. They didn’t care about separation and distinction. They didn’t care about being other. They were Black and didn’t change the way they spoke. They were Black and didn’t care about being invited into white spaces. They were Black and didn’t hide from the sun. They didn’t hide at all. And they were celebrated for it.
My father hated them. He hated every time he opened the paper and saw their name and picture. He hated every award they were given for opening another business that benefitted the community. He hated that they didn’t just do one thing.
Her mother was a doctor. Her father was an investor. He invested in…all of it. He started in day trading. He moved into long-term investment. He started a fund-an all Black fund. He invested the profits into brick and mortar business owned by Black people around the country, and he watched over each of those businesses, grew each of those businesses, like they were his own. From hair salons to hospitals, he invested.
“You can’t trust a man that doesn’t care about the natural order of things,” my father said. “You can’t trust a man that thinks the only opinion that matters is his own.”
I didn’t understand hypocrisy or irony the first time my father said that to me. I did understand family loyalty and if my entire family hated her entire family, I would hate them too. I would hate her- Angelique- too.
“Why’s she so…little?” One of the girls whispered it as Angelique made her way to the desk the teacher assigned to her.
“Why’s she here?”
She unpacked her book bag. The teacher turned back to the chalkboard.
“Wait, please,” Angelique said. Her voice was all childhood innocence.
The teacher turned.
Angelique stood beside her desk with her hands loose at her sides. She looked at us all again. “I’m not little. I’m four. This is the size I’m supposed to be. I’m here because I’m smart enough to be. I’m strong enough to be here too.”
We all stared.
She smiled. “In case anyone would like to try me later.”
One of my classmates-a Black girl-smiled at her. Angelique smiled back and looked at us all again before she sat.
She nodded at the teacher. “That was all. Thank you.”
No one tried her later.
* * *
I went to the Elephant when I left my father’s office. No one questioned it. Only an idiot stayed in the office with my father after they lost a case.
The office was often empty.
The Elephant was the place to be, had always been the place to be, when what you wanted most was atmosphere and to be understood. There was no menu. They brought you what they knew you needed, and you were pleased to have it. There was no ban on smoking as long as what you smoked was a cigar. There were no large tables. No more than four people could sit together, and the tables were so small that you couldn’t posture. You had to talk. You had to be yourself. There was always live music. No one introduced the artists. No one clapped for them. We all listened. We all remembered their sound. Artists fought to get into the Elephant. It was an almost sure-fire ticket to a record contract and stardom.
There was velvet but it wasn’t tacky. There were chandeliers. They sparkled in a way that made you brighter not the room. The carpet was thick. The table cloths were white. The stage was small. The bar was long and the glasses-wine glass, shot glasses, rocks glasses, snifters, champagne flutes-were polished and heavy. You knew they would be heavy and make you feel lighter before you touched them.
A woman moaned into the microphone. Behind her another woman that had to be her sister plucked at a harp. It shouldn’t have worked but it did. It made me feel cooler than I was. So did the Scotch. I could smell the peat before I picked it up. Dried fruit and nuts came with my first glass. A steak came with the next glass. It was lightly smoked. There was some kind of vegetable under it. I didn’t eat the vegetables. I was an adult, and I lost. I didn’t have to eat vegetables if I didn’t want to. Cheese followed the steak- an aged cheddar. Dark chocolate came next. I ate that fastest so they sent me more. Every time I had more scotch, I had more chocolate. That was nice. That was right. They understood me.
How was it that a restaurant, a place tucked away in the City, could manage to understand and accept me and my own family couldn’t? Oh, I forgot. In that place, with the office that had be waiting for me since I was seventeen, in that place where my father gave his real self and his love to a woman that wasn’t my mother, I didn’t have family. I had my failures.
When had it become this? Was my last day of freedom that day in my convertible? Should I have rebelled before college? Should I have told my father I saw him? Should I have-
“You look pathetic.”
“It’s nice to see you too, Angelique.” If I weren’t so drunk I would have known she was beside me sooner. No matter how drunk I was, I didn’t have to look up to recognize her. I could always smell her.
In elementary and middle school it was soap. French-milled like my mother’s but lighter. It made me think of sunshine. In high school, it was vanilla. She wore it on purpose, I thought, to drive us crazy. In college it was rose and smoke and bergamot. She smelled like late nights and early mornings and made me ball my hands into fists the way I did on her first day of school. Grown woman Angelique smelled like-It started with the bergamot I remembered and morphed into fig, orris root, and violet the longer she stood beside me. Sandalwood, vanilla, cedar and amber wood would follow and trail behind her when she walked away.
I didn’t know those individual smells at first. The nice lady at the perfume counter told me the day I went to her, pretended I had a girlfriend, described Angelique’s scent, and smiled. She handed me the bottle and I smiled when I read its name. I laughed. I bought a bottle and took it home and wondered what the hell was wrong with me. I buried it deep in my closet and knew I wouldn’t forget it was there.
“Does losing hurt so badly?” She sat down at the bar beside me.
If the question wasn’t genuine, if she wasn’t curious because she’d never lost at anything in her life, I would have been angry. I would have snapped at her and known without looking that she would smile with delight before she said something so spot on it would hurt more than anything my father ever did.
“Losing doesn’t hurt. The talk that comes after does.” I still didn’t look at her, but I pushed my little plate of chocolate her way.
“No. I couldn’t. Champagne.”
Of course there would be sparkling, dancing bubbles for the winner.
“It’s not your fault, you know,” Angelique said. Her voice wasn’t childhood innocence anymore. It wasn’t even kind. It managed to be matter-of-fact and breathy-to promise you and punch you in one go. “Your firm shouldn’t have taken the case. It wasn’t one-”
“I know.” But I don’t make the decisions, I thought, I never have.
I looked at her because I was a masochist. As usual when I saw her panther eyes, floating hair, dark skin, and darker eyes, my skin felt two sizes too small for my body. As usual, it irritated me.
“Why are you here?” I looked at my Scotch. I swirled it and hoped it would wipe the sight of her from my eyes.
“Because you look pathetic. I said that already,” she said. “Come sit with me. Talk to me about something besides today.”
Did I have anything else? “Sit with you? You know why I can’t do that. Our families-”
“I’m going to tell you a secret.” She leaned closer. That perfume… “Every time I see you or talk to you or whoop your Black a$$ in court I always wonder the same thing.”
Her words hung between us. They were darker than my chocolate and probably just as bitter, but…masochist.
“What do you wonder?”
“When in the fu*k are you going to get over this ‘bitter enemies’ thing so I can fu*k you?”
Like an idiot I looked at her. I straightened from my slouch so fast my back and shoulders pinched. “What?”
She wasn’t looking at me. She traced a finger over the rim of her glass. Even though she wasn’t looking at me I knew she wasn’t afraid. “It would be good between us. I’ve always thought that. Better than good.”
I just looked at her and-I just looked at her.
“Come sit with me.” She finally looked at me. “Bring your chocolate.”
I stood before she did.
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