Characters: John Reese, Joss Carter, OC
Warning: Sexual imagery
Word Count: 3,400
Summary: When Carter brings Reese to meet her friend Daro at a Harlem museum, more than just the art is on exhibit.
Note: This story takes place about four weeks after the events in the story “Girls at Night” and about five weeks before the case described in “Skin of Ice, Bones of Jade.” You don’t have to read those stories to understand this one, but I think doing so will enhance the experience.
Girls at Night
Skin of Ice, Bones of Jade
“It’s a lie! It has to be!”
Daro scrunched her face into a pout and twisted her head so that her golden braids flew out of her wife’s fingers.
“There is no way that Joss’s story of her first dinner with John is the truth!”
“That may be, dear.” Barbara’s tone was soothing and her voice dripped with honeyed logic.
“But if you keep twisting and turning like this I will never get your plaits in order and then what will you look like when you meet them at the museum?”
Daro was a poet whose words and emotions rose to the surface with an ease that would daunt a lesser individual than the woman she had married.
Barb, with her pale placid face and halo of black curls, rode the tides and tempests of her partner’s outbursts with unconcealed affection and a rare patience. Even at the tail end of a two-week bout with the flu, Barb retained her even disposition and cheery outlook.
In preparation for a Sunday afternoon coffee date with her best friend Joss Carter, Daro had asked Barb to fashion her shoulder length micro-braids into a facsimile of the three-plait style traditional for little black girls across America: one large braid gathered on top, two longer ones trailing down the back.
Daro knew that the style was juvenile; it suited her quirky personality to project just such a combination of sultry sexuality and unbridled daffiness.
“Remember when I asked Joss to give me a blow-by-blow account of that date with her mysterious stranger? Well, she told me that they had gone to a fancy-schmancy French restaurant a few blocks from his Wall Street office.”
Daro waved her hands in the air and pointed her elegant nose to the ceiling to indicate the level of snobbery required for admission to this particular restaurant.
“She told me all about the appetizers, the pate, the entrees, the salads and the cheese course, the extravagant dessert cart and the not-one, not-two, not-three, but four different wines John ordered to accompany each course. I was half drunk and all fed up just listening to her story!
“Little Miss Smarty Pants went on and on and on. But I don’t believe she told one word of truth. You know why?”
The question was rhetorical, since Daro had worked herself into a lather and had the answer all ready.
But Barbara the Wise dropped in a simple phrase that summed up the missing ingredient in the tale.
“The story was all sauce, no stuffing!” She exclaimed merrily.
“Exactly right! All filet, no fucking!” Daro clarified.
The two women burst out laughing at their friend’s improbable story.
“I saw the way he was devouring her with his eyes that night at Sugar’s. No chance on this green Earth a man like that was going to let Joss get away with a simpering little good night kiss on the bottom step.
“No way in hell!
“Blue-eyed soul brother got him some tail that night. For sure! Or I’ma hafta turn in my Ph. D in human nature!”
“Well, I’m sure that won’t be necessary, dear.”
Barb went on in her most calming inflection.
“I’m sure if you speak kindly and sympathetically, just asking the two of them how it all went in a friendly way, you will quickly get the truth of the matter in no time.”
“I swear, Barb. Sometimes you sound just like that mealy mouthed little Melanie Wilkes, the most hateful character in ‘Gone with the Wind!’”
Daro scrunched up her nose at the idea of her own wife imitating that limp, gentle foil to the grandly grotesque Scarlett.
“Oh, I’ll get the truth out of them, don’t you worry about that one little bit.”
Shimmying her slender hips, the poet slipped on a pair of blinding white leather jeans to match the skin tight white cable-knit turtleneck sweater she had donned before the hair-styling began.
She twirled theatrically in front of the full-length mirror to admire the view.
Ass high, tight, and pretty fine for a forty-five year old. Breasts a little too demure perhaps, but no one had complained yet.
Her butterscotch pumps were a shade darker than her own skin tone and the perfect match for the oversized leather tote bag she slung over her shoulder as she headed for the door.
Pirate-sized gold hoops, gold rings on each index finger, and her signature twin cuffs of solid gold completed the museum-trawling outfit of the city’s most outspoken cultural voice.
Daro already had a hand on the door of her white Prius when Barb burst from the entrance to their home, running down the stairs into the icy midday sunshine.
“It won’t spoil your look too much to at least carry this coat, will it?”
She handed over a white wool pea jacket.
“It may turn colder before the afternoon is done, you know.”
“Sure, babe. Thanks.”
“And please do give my love to Joss, will you?
“And to John too.”
The Tanner-Catlett Art Museum of Harlem was the community’s newest gathering spot.
Its ambitious architect had fused the remnants of West African adobe mosques, tropical thatched huts, shot-gun houses, sugar shacks, tobacco barns, and cold-water tenements into a bold structure. Many people were intimidated by the unconventional building, some were infuriated, others shouted out with jubilation.
Daro was among the latter. She loved the T-CAMH inside and out for its controversy and its inspiration.
She said she learned something new with every visit.
And she approved of the sweet potato pie and chicory-infused coffee featured at the museum’s bouncy café, Doretta’s. Dressed like an old-style juke joint, the café had rough graying pine boards covering the walls and oval tables with red linoleum tops scattered across its floor.
Sitting under the peaked glass ceiling, with the crowd buzzing around her and the silverware clattering against the heavy porcelain, she felt connected and peaceful.
She had arrived early so that she could be settled and posed before her guests arrived.
She ordered a slice of spinach quiche and a bottle of Perrier from the mini-skirted waitress with the shaved head, who was prompt as well as cute.
When the waitress sashayed off, Daro fished a tiny bottle of vodka from her tote bag and added its contents to the sparkling water.
Just a dash of spirits to make the afternoon go smoother.
As she threw the empty bottle back into her satchel, she spotted Joss and her escort turning the corner into the long nave of the café.
They hadn’t seen her yet so Daro could stare undetected for a little while as they made their way down the aisle toward the rear of the room where she was seated.
John was taller than she remembered. The shoulders broad, but not remarkably so, the chest and arms muscled but not grotesquely bulging; legs long enough to make Joss have to take two steps to every one of his strides.
Nicely set up for a man.
And then there was the face. Beautiful, even with a lazy Sunday stubble. Guarded and careful as he searched the café patrons looking for her.
As she watched him, Shakespeare’s gorgeous pun-laden sonnet drifted through her mind:
And for a woman wert thou first created;
Till Nature, as she wrought thee, fell a-doting,
And by addition me of thee defeated,
By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.
But since she prick'd thee out for women's pleasure,
Mine be thy love and thy love's use their treasure.
Not for this woman’s pleasure, alas.
But at least his snug jeans did ample justice to that one thing, packaging it in a most flattering way without being the least bit ostentatious.
Joss saw her at last and waved happily, her red cardigan flouncing around her body.
Daro thought her friend looked good, maybe a pound or two heavier. Fuller in the breasts and rounder in the hips perhaps, but still with that damned narrow waist.
Free of makeup, her face was satiny and her hair was smooth.
So John was doing good by her, it seemed.
The new bangs were cute. Now if only he could convince Joss to lose that pony-tail, so dumb even a maiden librarian would be embarrassed to be seen wearing it!
Sparkling new chips flashed from Joss’s ear lobes: at least he had replaced those boring silver hoops she always wore.
But were these studs from the stud real? Were they diamonds or were they Diamonex?
Joss leaned across the oval table to embrace her, planting a soft kiss on her cheek while John hung back a split second, studying Daro just as she had him.
She felt he was coolly appraising her, but she was unsure of his verdict.
He extended a hand finally and she took it, squeezing a bit harder than she usually would. The callouses said he didn’t spend all his time crunching numbers at a desk.
As the two settled into the wooden chairs opposite her, the clean scent of white soap wafted from both of them, enveloping her in its tangy freshness.
They had showered together.
She imagined them that morning. Water sluicing off their glistening limbs in torrents; the tiles foggy white, obscured by steam. Condensation blending with perspiration into a thick cloud of desire.
He would lather her brown breasts, frosting them with foam, mounding up meringue peaks of the soapy froth until he stepped out of the spray to rinse her bare again. She would grip his prick, a dusky blunt thing straining against her fingers, transforming it into a purposeful cock filling with his hot blood because of her. For her.
Daro wanted to preserve these images. They would serve as a trellis for the poem cycle she felt blooming in her mind.
She reached into the tote bag for her black leather book. And while her guests placed their orders with the attentive waitress, she scratched the quick phrases in pencil.
Black coffee plain for John, a cup of the famous chicory for Joss plus a cranberry muffin.
Daro noted that he used his size like most men do, taking up as much room as possible at the table, making sure his long thigh pressed lightly against Joss’s leg.
He sprawled in studied ease, his arm draped over the back of Joss’s chair, she leaning forward, eager to argue about the exhibitions they had glimpsed before arriving at the café.
The two girlfriends babbled in high voices; interrupting, volleying, challenging each other, laughing, content to be in each other’s company once again.
Though he remained silent, Daro didn’t think John was brooding exactly, nor distracted, but the dark overhang of his brow made it hard for her to read his expression clearly.
So instead she watched the steady throb of a blue vein that pulsed at the curve of his throat. The powder blue t-shirt peeking from underneath a black cotton sweater complemented his face in an unfussy way.
His high contrast coloring and bone structure were cinematic, reminding her forcefully of her Barbara’s: the dark framing the light, the soft abutting the sharp.
Suddenly John leaned forward and pinned her with a chilly stare.
“O.K. Look. You didn’t ask us here to chat about Romare Bearden’s prints or Faith Ringgold’s quilts, did you?”
He had done his homework. She was impressed.
He continued without waiting for a reply.
“You want to know about me. About us. Joss may have told you something, but I doubt she told the truth. She may have woven some pretty tale to throw you off the scent, but it was a lie for certain.”
His face was composed, his confidence pressing down on her in waves.
“So here it is straight. I’m going to tell it once and it’s all you’re going to get. So maybe you want to pull out your little leather book to take notes again.”
Daro wasn’t one who embarrassed easily, but now he had her squirming just a bit. To cover, she took a long draw from her Perrier, the ice clicking against her front teeth as she drank.
Joss’s eyebrows rose toward her bangs, but she said nothing.
Still not waiting for a reply John plunged forward with the story, looking straight at Daro.
“About a week after we met at Sugar’s, Joss phoned me and we talked. I asked her out to dinner. She said yes. So I picked her up at her apartment the next night. She said she liked the car, called it a ‘panty-peeler.’ “
Joss snorted at that, but didn’t offer a contradiction. Without blinking, John continued.
“So we went for a long drive. All the way to Connecticut. We stopped at a White Castle outside of Darien that I like and I ordered a bag of those little square hamburgers. She ate three of them, I ate the rest. We washed it all down with 100 proof root beer.”
The clipped sentences marched on; his low voice sounding like a warning.
“We drove back to the city and I took her to my apartment. She seemed to like that too, so I asked her to stay. We had sex. A lot of sex. Pretty amazing sex. The next morning we woke up and had some more sex.”
Joss sputtered; the fingers at her lips didn’t manage to hide the curving smile there.
But when John paused, he continued staring at Daro.
“Did you get all that. Am I going too fast for you?”
Daro gathered herself enough to offer a rejoinder.
“No, I got it. You like sex. And in particular, you like sex with Joss.”
“Exactly. Now what else do you want to know?”
This was the only chance she was going to get.
So, as Joss took a breath to intervene with a diversionary comment, Daro tossed out a question.
“Well, who are you, for starters? What do you do?”
John flashed his teeth in a real smile for the first time.
“Easy ones? O.K.”
He placed both palms flat on the table between them. His hands were as broad as the plate cradling Joss’s uneaten cranberry muffin.
“My name is John Roland. I am a financial analyst working in risk assessment for a private equity firm you’ve never heard of.”
Joss took a sharp intake of breath that turned into a gust of air across the steaming cup of coffee she held up to her lips.
“I am single, white, and over twenty-one. I am six feet one. I haven’t weighed myself in four years so I don’t know how much I weigh. You can put down 175 if you need something for the record.”
Daro thought his voice lightened as his narrative rolled on.
“I have less formal education than either of you. But I speak more languages than you do. And I cook much better than Joss.”
This last claim won a frown from Joss, but her expression seemed indulgent rather than disapproving.
“I golf to meet clients and I pump iron for fun. I’m allergic to wool, if you are thinking of getting me a present for Christmas.
“And I’m ambidextrous.”
He drawled this last as if it were a great carnal gift, rather than a mere coincidence of genetics.
John leaned back, satisfied with an important accomplishment it seemed.
“Do I get to ask more questions, or is the press conference over?” Daro was ready to jab a bit now.
“You get two more questions and that’s it. Make them good.”
“Who are you supporting for president next month?”
John’s eyes lost their laser focus as he looked at the rough-hewn boards of the wall behind her head.
Daro thought his eyes seemed to spark for a minute and then take on a paler cast as he pondered his answer.
“I have never voted in a presidential election. Ever. And I don’t intend to start now. But understand this: I am proud of this president. And I will be just as proud of whoever wins in November, no matter which way it turns out.”
A comfortable hush wrapped the three of them for a moment.
Daro got what he was saying and she liked it.
She didn’t want to press further; she wanted to brighten the mood now so she skipped to another question, one much further down her long invisible list.
“What color are your eyes?”
“That’s what you waste your last question on?” His mocking tone made Daro warm inside.
“Yeah, that’s what I want to know. So, go on. What do you call it?”
“My driver’s license says they’re blue. So I guess they’re blue.”
He pulled out his wallet, found the laminated card, and laid it in front of Daro with a flourish.
His wolfish grin made it seem as if he were playing the winning trump in a final round of bid whist.
As she reached to slide the card closer, Daro heard her friend’s hissing intake of breath.
The license was issued by the State of New York to John Roland. Next to a hoodlum photograph of the man, it did indeed proclaim that his eyes were blue.
“But it says here you’re six foot two. Not six one like you told me.” She poked her index finger at the discrepancy with impatience.
“Well, I guess you found me out, Daro.” He palmed the license and returned the billfold to his pocket.
“Looks like I lied to the State of New York.”
Was he taunting her, testing her? If it was a tease, she was sure Joss would intervene in her defense.
But if, as she now suspected, John was drawing a bright impermeable line around their relationship, then she knew that Joss would defend that frontier with her life.
The dutiful little waitress reappeared at that moment with their bill.
John swiped the tab before it hit the table top and unfolded his legs to stand over them.
Without a word, he moved toward the cashier’s counter, wrestling the wallet from his jeans pocket again as he retreated.
Daro pressed her fingers around her friend’s wrist and shook her slightly for emphasis.
“Joss, baby girl. He is real.
“Hold on to him as best you can.”
“I’m trying, Daro.” The sigh she exhaled sent a melancholy thrill along Daro’s shoulders.
“I’m trying my best.”
The two women sat for a long minute in silence, hands clasped.
Just as John approached their table, Joss spoke in a stage whisper, touching her ear with two fingers.
“And speaking of real, these babies are real too!”
Daro knew that this was her way of bringing John up to speed on their conversation. Somehow he would understand what had passed between the two friends without being told directly.
Their afternoon interlude was over, new stories woven, old friendships stitched closer together.
John and Joss said good bye quickly, more kisses and handshakes all around, leaving Daro sitting at the table as they had found her, wrapped in her thoughts.
She wanted to stay in the museum a little longer, she had said. Maybe take in another gallery before she left.
As she watched them walk away, she found another miniature bottle stowed in her vast tote bag; this time it was gin rather than vodka. No matter.
She poured the contents over the melting ice cubes drifting in her glass and finished the burning concoction in two gulps.
She watched as the couple walked up the long corridor, shoulders grazing, hips touching occasionally even though their eyes were trained straight ahead. She didn’t think they were talking.
Suddenly John touched a finger to his ear. Knitting his brows, he turned to Joss, speaking a few words into the air over her head as she studied his expression without responding.
He lifted a hand to cup her face and drew his thumb along the curve of her jaw, tapping it once on the point of her chin.
She smiled thinly, he did not. Then he turned and disappeared alone down a hidden hallway to their left.
Alone, Joss rotated on her heel and started walking slowly back through the café toward Daro.