“That way, Jay! RUN!” a voice shouted from behind. It was Andre, running hot strides ahead of the rest of their crew. Behind them was a stream of faces fleeing in another direction as if under attack by a pack of hungry lions. As Jamal ran across the street he found himself frozen, suddenly gripped with fear from the sound of a mean skid as he stared into the business end of bright headlights. A lone shadow jumped out of the vehicle with a quick robotic steps then extended its arm. Three shots blasted and just as fast as Jamal noticed he wasn’t the target, a figure dropped on the sidewalk. In a slow motion instant, as the shooter jumped back in the vehicle it did a hard U-turn; Jamal noticed it was the same tricked-out Pearl Lexus GX that he saw on his block earlier. As it sped away, Jamal stared at the taillights, frozen by flashbacks of Justin’s death brought on a hint of death in the air — fried chicken from a Chinese take-out restaurant nearby. Before and after the funeral, the unforgettable aroma of perfumes, colognes and food lingered in the house from a steady stream of family, friends and well-wishers. It was yet another reminder for Jamal that death for the average Black family in America is usually followed by buckets of fried chicken. The close call kept his gaze stoic as he began to walk toward the vanishing taillights.
“Aye yo Jay!” Andre hissed and gestured for him to come take cover at the edge of the alley. “N**** get yo’ ass over here!”
Jamal returned to the alley then leaned against a garage door. “I can’t take this s*** anymore,” he half-whispered to Andre as the reality of the moment began to sink in. The part of him that hid the pain began to crack as his eyes almost dropped a tear. Andre caught a glimpse of how deep Jamal’s hatred for the streets had become since Justin’s death, so much that he felt his view of the streets begin to shift. As the rest of their crew approached Andre cleared his throat and nudged Jamal. An unspoken vow of silence passed between them as they straightened up and regained their street cool.
Jamal walked into his room, still dressed for church as he sat down at his desk and redialed Leila’s number. Tired of hearing her voicemail for the hundredth time, he turned the phone off. The laptop on the desk waited quietly waiting with a roster of homework due that coming week. He undid his tie and stared at the screen, thinking about everything that went down over the weekend; not many guys could endanger their jobs, almost lose their lives and a girlfriend in the same night. It had to be more than random chance that his pastor’s morning sermon focused on the trials and tribulations of Job. When he thought about patience and faith being the key to success, he tried one last time to reach her…
Leila’s phone vibrated in her purse as she climbed up the train station steps toward the street. It was Jamal again. She resisted the urge to answer as she turned her focus to the Sunday afternoon mellow of downtown Manhattan. The sidewalks weren’t packed. Taxis weren’t rushing to pick up fares with their normal reckless fury. As she walked along, part of her was tempted to turn around and head back across the bridge. Once Jamal found out what she had done he would probably freak out. He’ll just have to get over it, she thought as her destination came into view.
Except for a few tourists and several SoHo yuppies, the Starbucks was empty. Leila had no problem spotting Leslie — the only black woman in the place. Leslie had already spotted Leila coming up the sidewalk and pretended not to notice her until she was inside and standing next to the table. “Mrs. Smith?”
Leslie looked up from her newspaper with a smug grin, “Hello Leila… and it is Ms Smith.” The two politely nodded, like super-cool enemies in an old James Bond film. She slowly studied Leila’s face then continued. “Can I get you anything?”
The two walked over to the counter. Even with all of Leila’s preparation, once she met Leslie her mind went blank. She didn’t want to look stupid, especially since she was the one who arranged their meeting. Getting a cup of coffee gave her enough time to regroup her thoughts. When Leslie began explaining the coffee selections as if talking to a child, Leila briskly cut her off. “I’d like a Caramel Macchiato, venti.” The tension caught the cashier’s attention, particularly since Leslie was a regular customer. She and a few co-workers began to spot clean around the café in order to eavesdrop on the two women.
As Leslie began to comment about her Espresso, Leila took a sip of her drink then quietly said. “You need to stop trying to get with my man.”
“Excuse me?” Leslie replied with a mildly pleasant expression, “Did Jamal put you up to this?”
Leila shook her head, “He doesn’t know I’m here. I saw your number on his phone.”
“Then I suggest you talk to him and stay out of grown folks business,” Leslie replied with the spark that set everything off. Suddenly the polite air between them exploded into rolling necks, wild gestures and fiery blasts like Gangster rappers in a freestyle battle. Customers ran for the door like there was a fire. The cashier and her co-workers grabbed themselves cups of coffee and pastries as they settled in behind the counter to watch the show.
After a few minutes of slur and insult crossfire, Leslie finally slapped her hand on the table to squash the noise. “Look little girl, you don’t know me. I only agreed to meet because Jamal is a good kid. He’s brilliant and has got a lot of potential. I want to see him do well — despite his taste in women.”
“I know he has taste in women,” Leila retorted. “If he had taste in Geritol he’d get with you.”
Leslie chuckled and stirred her coffee. “See, a young hoodrat like you might mess things up for Jamal. Sistah girl, you just don’t know your place. You don’t understand his type.”
Much to Leila’s surprise her anger began to fade. From the moment she called Leslie to getting off the train, she wanted to be wall-climbing furious during their conversation. Somehow, through Leslie’s mannerisms and catty replies, at that instant Leila came to the conclusion that Jamal hadn’t slept with her. Ultimately that was what she wanted to know — and when she realized this, everything else became irrelevant. She stood up with steel in her eyes. “The next time you go looking for love in all the wrong places I suggest you stay away from Jamal. Go see Jerry Springer.”
As Leila walked out, Leslie rolled her eyes and gestured as if whisking her away from the table. Inside she was boiling mad. She couldn’t remember the last time she had been disrespected like that. Once upon a time she would have been quick to take off her jewelry, catch up to Leila and smack her down. Instead, she shook her head, sighed and took a sip of her Espresso as she resumed reading the newspaper. Eyes were still watching from behind the counter — she had to save face.
Back in the subway, Leila took her seat, not as relieved as she thought she would be. As the train ambled across the bridge she stared out at barges on the river. The confrontation made her realize that she was dealing with something bigger than just an older woman on the hunt for a boy toy. Jamal was on a fast track into another world beyond Queensbridge and college — one where Brooks Brothers, Saks and Starbucks replaced backpacks, student unions and step-shows. Even simple hallmarks of the cultured and affluent like a coffee house still felt just out of her range. Where she’s from, they only exist on television. The only reason she ordered the Macchiato like a Starbucks regular was because her old boss used to send her out to buy coffee for the Monday morning management meetings. The catty insults and question of her man’s faithfulness had already begun to fade. It was an older woman’s claim that she didn’t understand Jamal that stayed with her like sunburn.
Monday morning arrived without incident. Aside from everything that happened, the main thing that worried Jamal was not having returned Leslie’s call. She wasn’t the type to let anyone slide for two days without a callback nor did she leave a message. He knew that possibly meant trouble. Whatever excuse he told her had to be good, even though the truth was just as ugly as any possible lie. His game plan was to get everything straight with Leslie then with Leila. No matter how much he loved Leila, she was second — girlfriends don’t control hiring and firing situations.
Unable to shake his concerns, Jamal decided to stop by the office and check in with Leslie before going to class. The closer he got to the office, the more exaggerated his excuses grew. By the time he said good morning to the receptionist, his cell phone had fallen into a toilet, been dropped in a sink full of dishwater, accidentally left in his jeans then washed, run over by a gypsy cab and stolen on the ‘A’ train. Jamal stopped just outside of Leslie’s open office door to take a deep breath. He still didn’t know what to say.
“Good morning, Jamal,” Leslie said as she briskly walked past him from behind and into her office. “Come in, come in.”
Leslie gestured for Jamal to take a seat as she stood before her whiteboard. “You missed a good time on Friday. MoBay’s was jumping; good food, great band. Even had a spot at the table saved for you and your girlfriend,” she said. Her pilates-sculpted hips swayed slightly as she wrote formulas on the board in some weird shorthand. “By the way, how is she?”
“She’s fine; downstairs waiting for me. She said to tell you hello,” he replied. When he noticed there weren’t any panty-lines beneath Leslie’s blue dress he turned his attention to the window and the Manhattan morning skyline. With her voluptuous shape, it was only natural for any hetero male to take a look. He wanted to look. She wanted him to look. He also knew that she knew that he knew that she knew that he wanted to look — the driving reason that kept him looking out the window. “We were gonna come out but she had to work late.”
A thin smirk crossed Leslie’s lips. “We waited there until last call… whatever happened to calling to let someone know?”
“Right. Well, after she got off work we ended up staying home because she wasn’t feeling up to it. Female issues, y’know? I’m really sorry I forgot to call.” Jamal stood up. “Anyway, I’ve got to get to class. Just wanted to stop and check in, apologize for missing Friday, and to see if there was anything pressing I could get started on for tomorrow.”
“No, I think we’ve got everything covered here.” Leslie smiled. “Study hard. See you tomorrow.”
Jamal left the office with a little extra swagger in his step; smoothing over Friday’s no-show was far easier than expected. It bordered on painless. He was reminded of something he heard during a business lecture: in order to make business run smooth, good entrepreneurs end up having the equivalent of a Masters in Psychology because most of their time is spent defusing situations and misunderstandings between people. Given the events of the past few days, it felt good to know that he had those mental muscles to flex.
Back at her desk, Leslie pulled up the security camera console on her computer. She casually switched between feeds until she found the elevator Jamal was riding in. Sipping on a Starbucks Espresso, she secretly admired him all the way to the lobby, watched him wave to the security guards as he walked past the checkpoint and out of the building — alone. After a brief pause, she browsed through the office intranet then accessed the HR database. He’s still a good kid, she thought as she clicked on ‘Staffing’. Few things brought out the cold in her soul like a man saying things that questioned her intelligence.