Authors: Yona Zeldis McDonough
ared Masters stood on the corner of 117th Street and Lenox Avenue, lighting one of the elegant, gold-tipped Black Russian Sobranies that he'd recently started smoking. His clients Brandon and Isabel Clarke were late, but that was nothing new. Of the thirteen such appointments he'd had with the Clarkes, they had been late for all but one. Sometimes it was just ten minutes, but once they had kept him waiting more than an hour and had barely apologized when they finally showed up. He would have blown them off entirelyâproperty up here in Harlem was selling briskly; he could have lived without their businessâbut he had a soft spot for Isabel, one of those fine-boned little blondes he'd had a taste for ever since he'd first encountered them in prep school. In fact, she reminded him of Carrie, the blonde to end all blondes; there was something about the eyes, or was it the mouthâ
He turned, and there Isabel was, actually hurrying down the street. Brandon lagged a few paces behind, gaze trained on the iPhone in his palm.
“Brunch ran late,” she said, huffing adorably as she came up to him. “So sorry!” For a brief second, her handâpale and splayed like a starfishâtouched his chest. This gesture, combined with her uncharacteristic apology, melted any lingering annoyance.
“No sweat,” he said, tossing the cigarette to the sidewalk and stubbing it out. “I really want to show you the place. I think you're going to like it.”
Brandon caught up to Isabel and greeted Jared with that stupid fist bump white guys always seemed to think was necessary to demonstrate how cool they were, and the three of them walked down the block. “Take a look,” Jared said, waving his hand at the newly restored facade. “Twenty feet wide, built in 1910, totally gutted in 2006. It's got central air, a washer and dryer in every unit, video intercom, and individual security systems.”
“Nice!” said Isabel. She wore a sweater tied around her slim waistâthe day had really warmed upâand some pale blue gauzy thing that made the outline of her small breasts plainly visible. That, plus the way the dress's thin straps kept slipping off her shoulders, was highly distracting. Forcing himself to look away, Jared lit another cigarette. Isabel turned to Brandon. “It's wider than the houses we've been seeing,” she said. “It won't have that shoe-boxy feeling.”
“Uh-huh.” Brandon was still mesmerized by whatever was taking place on the screen.
“It gets even better. Let's go inside.” Jared took one last drag on the barely smoked Sobranie, then led the way. He'd
already sold a condo in this buildingâone of fiveâfor a cool million two. Now he was determined to sell this one, a garden-floor duplex with a fully landscaped yard, to the Clarkes; he thought it had everything they were looking for.
“Great kitchen,” Brandon said, running his hand along the granite counter.
“All the finishes are high end,” Jared said. “Brazilian cherrywood cabinets, Sub-Zero fridge, Miele dishwasher.”
“And look at the garden!” Isabel breathed. “Just think of the parties we could have hereâthey'd be legendary!” They all walked outside. The yard was looking especially spiffy; Jared had come over himself this morning to make sure that the leaves were all swept and that none of the neighborhood's legion of stray cats had left any unwanted deposits on the slate paving stones. Harlem was still oscillating between the old and the new, and sometimes bits of the former overlapped with the upscale aspirations of buildings like this one.
“You could plant bulbs out here, babe,” said Brandon as he strolled around. “Tulips, daffodils, all that stuff you're so crazy about.” His phone trilled and he answered immediately. “No,” he said, frowning. “I
him that already. If I told him once, I told him
times.” He strode out of the yard and back into the house.
Isabel looked at her husband's retreating form and sighed. “It's hard to keep him on track,” she said.
“Come on,” Jared said tactfully. “Let me show you the upstairs. You'll love the master suite.” There were two other bedrooms up there, and he knew from experience that since each had its flaws he should show them first. Then the master suite would look even better by comparison.
“Wow!” Isabel said. “It's gorgeous!”
She was right. The large, light room faced the back and the double-wide windows overlooked the yard. There was a mantelâpurely ornamental but a nice touch just the sameâand admirably restored herringbone wooden floors. The en suite bath was done up in marble and white subway tile; there were his-and-hers sinks and a freestanding tub. Isabel cooed and oohed as she touched this, inspected that. Jared watched as she primped in the large mirror over the sink, fussing with her hair and making a pretty pout at her reflection. For a brief but electrifying moment, their eyes met in the glass. Then he quickly looked away and walked out of the bathroom. Isabel followed a moment later.
Downstairs, Brandon was still on the phone. “The guy's a jerk,” he was saying. “Total a-hole if you ask me.”
“He's so busy all the time,” she said apologetically. “But how can I complain when it's his hard work that's going to buy us”âshe waved her arm to indicate the roomâ“something like this.”
“Listen, if today's a bad day, we can schedule another viewing,” Jared said. Damn, but he wanted
substantial out of this visit. Why couldn't Brandon put down the phone and pay attention?
“It won't be any different another day,” Isabel said. “He's like this all the time. I swear, I once caught him looking at that thing when we were making love.” Then she clamped one of those tiny hands of hersâhe could see the megawatt diamond glittering on her fingerâover her mouth like a small child. “I guess I shouldn't have said that.”
“It's okay,” Jared said. “I'm used to it. People are always telling Realtors stuff like that. We're like therapists. Or priests.”
“I can see why,” she said. “You really listen. And you don't pass judgment.”
“I try.” He moved toward the door, uneasy with the direction this conversation was heading. Jared liked the ladies and the ladies certainly liked him. But he never mixed business with pleasure. Especially
Isabel was too quick for him. In seconds, she had crossed the room, reached up to pull his face down and close to hers. “Thank you,” she said softly. Then she kissed him, her lips as light as a moth. Jared allowed his fingers to graze the skin of her bare shoulders before he stepped back. “Let's get Brandon and show him the master suite,” he said. She seemed to recover quickly enough because she only nodded and followed him out.
On the way back to his apartment, Jared smoked yet another cigarette. So much for trying to quit. He didn't have another showing today, and he was annoyed by the way this one had gone down. He had not closed the deal on 117th Street; the Clarkes had said they needed to think about it some more. And then there was that kiss. Had there been something he'd doneâa look, a tone of voiceâthat had given Isabel the invitation? But even if there had, how could he have helped it? He
attracted to her, and attraction was hard to mask, especially for him.
Everyone always be knowing your business,
he could hear his mother say. She was forever telling him that he needed to disguise his feelings better; she worried about what might happen to a black boy whose heart was not on his sleeve but plastered all over his face.
He walked first west and then downtown. The trees that lined the streets were having their brief, gaudy moment, and here and there a window box exploded with early spring flowers. The 'hood was looking good, which meant business was good too. Even though Harlem had become his turf, Jared had not actually grown up here, but in Queens, the only son of two
solid, hardworking parents. His mother ladled out hot food in a school cafeteria and his father had been a motorman with the MTA. They had died, within eight months of each other, more than a decade ago, but at least they had lived to see him awarded the scholarship to Saint Crispin's Academy in Maine, and after that, the full ride at Haverford.
“I want you to go places,” his mother had said, “but not forget where you came from.” As if. Even all these years later, he could still remember the pressure of her hand placed on his forehead when he felt feverish, the aroma of her baked chicken and dumplings wafting through the hallway even before he got to the apartment, and the collection of hats, each one more wacky and embellished than the next, that she kept on wooden stands, ready for church. She'd been proud of him.
He wondered if she'd be so proud of him now. Yes, he was successful at his work, and he made good money at it too; he was considered up and coming in his world. He'd sweet-talked Athena, his boss at the agency, into offering internships to neighborhood kids who otherwise wouldn't have known how to even get near such opportunities, and he was personally overseeing two interns, Diego and Tiffany, right now. And he had plenty of friends, a great apartment; life was good. But while his work in real estate was lucrative, it wasn't what she'd had in mind for him. She would have been the lone black woman in America not made happy by Obama's election.
It could have been
she would have said.
have been you
. At thirty-three, he was unmarried and unattached; ever since Caroline's death, there had been no one special in his life. And even when she was alive, Carrie was not the kind of girl you brought home to meet your mother.
An ice-cream truck was parked on the corner of his block,
and the kids in the neighborhood, a mix of black and increasingly white, were milling around as the lilting music from the parked truck pealed out into the spring air. Carrie would have insisted on stopping. She had a sweet tooth, that girl did, but she only liked the cheap stuff. The one time he'd bought her some fancy imported chocolates, she'd nibbled on a couple and left the box on the living room radiator in her apartment, where it had quickly turned into a molten, if costly, expanse of brown goo. So he'd taken to keeping his pockets filled with the crap she craved: SweeTarts, Skittles, Almond Joy bars, Hershey's Kisses. Her candy habit never seemed to catch up with her though; she was as delicate as a girl and had to buy her jeans in the kids' section of the Gap and have all her dressesâthe skimpy little numbers she wore clubbingâtaken in.
Thinking of her made him too restless to go home. He was meeting some people later, but a quick look at his watch confirmed that he had at least four hours to kill. He turned back around and headed uptown, to Minty's, one of his favorite uptown watering holes. Stepping in from the spring sunshine, he was momentarily blinded; when his vision cleared, he scanned the sparsely filled space with its portraits of famous abolitionists hanging over the bar. For as long as he'd been coming here, crepe paper chains in faded red, blue, and yellowed white had been draped limply over the frames and a boldly defaced Confederate flag had held pride of place on the wall. At the far end of the bar, seated almost directly under an outsized photograph of Harriet Tubman seated regally in a chair, was his boss and the agency's owner, Athena Neville. Minty's was just around the corner from the office, and they often came here together for a quick one after work; had he wanted to run into her?
“I'm assuming One Hundred Seventeenth Street was not a slam dunk,” she said when he'd slid onto the stool beside her. “Or else I would have heard from you.”
“They have to think it over,” Jared said. The bartender had brought a mug, but he sipped his beer directly from the bottle.
She considered the wine in her half-f glass. “What's your sense? Will they bite?”
“She's primed; she's ready,” said Jared.
In more ways than one,
he thought but did not say. “He's the sticking point.”
“Uh-huh.” She took a sip from the glass. “How can we get him unstuck?”
Jared shook his head. “It just has to happenâor notâin its own time. You know that.”
Athena's phone buzzed before she could reply. She was a good-looking woman, tall and full-bodied with hair that had been woven into an intricate series of narrow braids that articulated the shape of her skull. She wore a long, loose dress the color of a grasshopper, some chunky thing around her neck, and big gold hoops in her ears. His mother would have loved her.
Don't let this one get away,
she'd have said.
Smart, strong, and built for
What more could you want?
Jared shifted on the stool. Athena was a prize. She'd grown up in a Bronx project, gotten herself first to Stuyvesant High School, then to Smithâscholarship kid, just like him; she had opened her own boutique real-estate firm before she turned thirty. And he knew she liked him; she'd made it clear enough, though not so clear that they couldn't ignore the elephant in the room and carry on in a purely professional vein. There was nothing wrong with her, not one single thing, except she didn't make his heart stop, not the way those white princesses did. All those impossibly pretty princess girls, with their
smooth hair and straight teeth, their cashmere sweaters, their white-girl ease in the world, finally culminating in the prettiest white-girl princess of them all: Caroline Alexa Highsmith.
Athena finished her call and laid her phone down on the bar. “You're right,” she said, as though they hadn't been interrupted. “You're right, and that's what makes you such a good salesman. You know when to step back; you don't push.”
“I was groomed by the best,” he said, lifting the bottle in her direction.
“Flattery will get you everywhere.” Athena signaled for the check. “What are you doing later?” She had taken out a small mirror and was using it to apply a deep, rich colorânot unlike the wine she'd been drinkingâto her generous lips.