I was standing there looking at my father, wishing he didn’t pick now to have a family reunion. We hadn’t spoken in three years, since I’d graduated from college, and he chose today to show up.
“Jade,” I said again, waiting for her to answer. “How do you know my father?”
She responded, but never took her eyes off my father. “You didn’t tell me your father was a police officer. You said…you said…” she stuttered. She finally looked at me.
By now, I knew what her mad looked like. But I could also see fear in her eyes. She was pleading with me in a silent way.
“I said he was a cop, but that I didn’t want to talk about him,” I said, trying to reason with the idea that we both had obviously hidden something from each other. “That part is true. I thought you were an interior designer.”
I prayed that she wasn’t doing some kind of undercover work. But what would she have had to go undercover for in reference to me? I wanted to know that she hadn’t blatantly lied to me.
“I am. I was a cop.”
She kept looking at her friend Melissa, like she was waiting for her to come to her rescue. But I knew Jade would eventually square her shoulders back and take whatever was about to come. Jade had my full attention at this point. I knew the kind of man my father was. I knew the kind of man he was with my mother, so I could only imagine how he and Jade had crossed paths. I was determined not to get annoyed before hearing the details, but the next comment my father made didn’t make that easy.
“So you traded in those shiny shoes for some sneakers I see?” he said.
“Dad,” I said with an icy tone. “Chill.”
He stepped closer to me. “I see you still haven’t learned a lot of respect.”
Jade came up on my other side. “Can we talk? Please.”
I gently snatched my hand away from hers.
“I have a speech to make,” I said, walking off. I walked toward the center of my store where Jade had gotten a small stage put in. It could lower into the floor when it wasn’t being used. I swallowed the lump that was lodged in my throat and grabbed the microphone from the DJ.
“What’s up good people?” I said. “I really had no idea what I was doing when I opened this store a year ago. In fact, up until six months ago, I thought I had made a big mistake.”
I watched as my father walked closer to the stage. I wasn’t sure why he was coming this way, but as long as he stayed quiet, I didn’t care.
“I’m excited that Sneaker Nation has become what it is, excited for what’s next and looking forward to serving my community. I want to help a college student who may be going through some of the same things I went through during my early years.” I paused. I tried not to look at my father. “Please see my assistant, Sheree, to inquire about the program we’re looking to set up in the next few months.”
I looked for Jade. I didn’t want to switch up the program. This was the part where she was supposed to speak. When I didn’t see her in the crowd, I looked over to my side and realized she’d come up on stage from behind me. I shouldn’t have expected anything less than for her to be on point. After this, I’m still done. A lie is a lie.
“Now, I want to introduce everyone to the person who gave this store a much needed makeover,” I started.
“Much needed,” Ron quipped from the side. The crowd laughed.
“She worked effortlessly to make sure that it would not only be ready in time, but that it would fulfill the vision I needed,” I continued. I gently wrapped my arm around her waist. I hated what was happening right now. And I hated the way I was feeling. “You saw what I didn’t and brought it to life. Thanks, J.”
I kissed her cheek, whispering in her ear at the same time, “We need to talk in the back after your speech.”
“Thanks, Corey,” she said. She didn’t reply to my comment, but I knew she heard me. I also knew we needed to make sure nobody could hear us when we went back there to talk. Between my anger level and her fire attitude, I knew there’d be a yelling match.
“So, I just want to say thanks to the man that gave me an extra push to fulfill a passion I’ve been focusing on for the last nine months,” she started, holding her champagne glass up. I saw a tear inch out the corner of her eye. She coughed and straightened her back. “All the jobs I had previous were spaces similar to this – businesses. I wanted to focus on homes. But every time the phone rang, it was a business owner looking for my expertise,” she paused to sip her champagne. “Now, this store was true grunt work. Last minute grunt work also.”
She looked over at me with an accusing eye. I forced a smile.
“Nonetheless, we did it and we did it together. I’m proud of that and everything that’s to come for the store.” She looked at me. “More important, for everything that’s to come for us.”
She signaled for Melissa to come on stage. I watched as Melissa brought a box with her. I frowned. Her eyes darted between me and Melissa. I saw Melissa give her an encouraging smile. I looked down at the box that was now lying at Jade’s feet. She signaled for me to come to her.
“So I had this crazy idea that I wanted to put a smile on this man’s face in front of a room full of people I don’t know,” she joked. “Silly me, right?”
There were a few chuckles. I rubbed the back of my neck and looked down.
“I got this right after I started working on the store,” she continued. I saw her look over at my father and I squinted, trying to make out their silent communication. Nothing.
“Drum roll, please.”
The room filled with people making drum roll noises. Jade handed me the box. I slowly grabbed it. Even if though I didn’t want to in that moment, I smiled. It was hard to turn off the way I felt. It was going to be even harder to break it off with her.
“Thanks, babe,” I said. I slowly unwrapped the bow, almost dropping the box. More chuckles came from the crowd. I sighed and opened the box. I looked at Jade for what felt like an eternity before looking at the crowd again. I slowly grabbed the mic from her.
“So, this gift is very personal and special,” I said, fighting back emotion. “I know you guys are curious, but I’m going to keep this one to myself.”
Everyone groaned. I handed the mic to Melissa while checking the audience for my father again. I didn’t see him. I grabbed Jade’s hand and headed to my back office with her. When we got there, I locked the door.
“What the hell is going on, Jade?”
“Can we pray first?” she asked. I noticed her voice was even. Didn’t she care that she could possibly lose me? “Please?”
I sighed, but grabbed her hands.
“Father, I know that I was wrong for not telling Corey about my past as an officer. I know I was wrong to start what we have without telling him everything, but I felt like I did what was right.”
I tightened my hands around hers. Was this really a prayer? Is she justifying her actions?
“I’m asking you to help me tell Corey what I need without leaving out any details. I need his support. I need your help and I need your protection. Please God. In Jesus Name, Amen.”
“Corey. Listen. Please.”
Her voice was quivering a little. I sat on the edge of my desk. This was a part of her I had yet to see. She was vulnerable. As much as I wanted to scream, I didn’t want to jump knowing she was about to open up to me. I needed to hear her out.
“I joined the force almost three years ago. I just did it, without a second thought. The economy made me rush into something that I honestly had no idea would end up scarring my life forever.”
She paused and looked at me. The tears streaming down her face were pulling at my heartstrings. I inched off the desk, but still couldn’t move.
“What I’m about to tell you can never, ever leave this room. I don’t care if you never speak to me again,” she said, sputtering. “Corey, you can’t say a word.”
I nodded. I grabbed one of her hands. “I promise. Just tell me everything. And I mean everything.” I forced a smile. “That’s the only way I’ll know if this is worth fighting for.”
She nodded in understanding. I wiped her face. “Come on, snotty nose. Out with it.” I said half joking.
“First, with all due respect, I hate your father. To be honest, we both have hesitations about continuing on.”
I frowned. “I’m nothing like him.”
“Which is probably why I’m still finding it hard to believe. But…” she shrugged. “Whatever. When I first joined, I was happy. Everything was the way it was supposed to be. A year in, and things started to change. Or maybe they were always there and I just chose to ignore them. Either way, I feel cheated. Corey…”
She hesitated. I grabbed her other hand for reassurance. Just when she was about to continue, there was a knock on the door. She turned her head, but I put my hand up before she could say anything. I walked to the door and peeked out. Ron stuck his head in.
“You guys okay?” he asked.
“We’re good. Do me a favor? Don’t let anybody else knock on this door. Give us about twenty minutes,” I said. I looked back at her. “Maybe more.”
He nodded and closed the door, no questions. I turned back to Jade. “Go ahead.”
“Corey, can we go somewhere else?”
“Okay, okay,” she said, throwing her hands up in surrender. She rolled her neck side to side and pulled on her hands. “Okay.”
I walked her over to the two large chairs in my office near the window. I sat her down and sat right in front of her, still holding her hands. She smiled and wiped her eyes again, which now had fresh tears in them.
“I can’t say anything…you have no idea what this could cost me,” she whispered. “My life included.”
“That’s why you prayed that God would protect you?”
She nodded. “Your father knows.”
“I’m going to tell you this,” I said. “You didn’t buy me that gift because you think I’m somebody you can trust. You bought it because in just three months, we know we can trust each other.”
I grabbed the box and pulled out the small painting. My mother had the same one on her wall, just in a larger size. There was a picture of it saved on my phone. It was a Marl Jackson painting. I’d told Jade what the painting meant to me, but the artist had passed away back in the sixties and all his paintings had been sold by his family. It was the perfect example of a family that took over an estate and didn’t know what to do with it. It was rare to even get ahold of one of his paintings, but my mother had won hers at an auction. The little boy in the picture holding his mother’s hand had resonated with me since I was twelve.
Jade had been listening to more than my voice when we met. She was listening to my heart. Even at twenty-four I could honestly say if it hadn’t been for my mother’s love and support, I wouldn’t even know if what I felt for Jade was love. How she got her hands on the painting wasn’t even my concern. The fact that I knew she went through hell to get her hands on it was what mattered. My father couldn’t tell you what my favorite color was, let alone a painting. For that, I had to listen and I would do my best to help her. She just had to let me. I grabbed her face in between my hands and kissed her.
“Jade, you are the first woman I’ve actually agreed to wait to have sex with. I need to know. You owe me that much,” I joked.
She laughed, causing more snot to shoot out of her nose. “Ewww, this is so gross.”
I handed her some tissues and watched her as she cleaned up her face. Sighing, she clenched the tissue tight and continued.
“Something changed with the one-year anniversary date of me being an officer. Not just in me, but at the precinct. It’s like they were waiting for me to be initiated.”
“The first year is always a hazing process,” I said. She flinched. “Just being honest.”
“Let me finish before I lose the guts to tell you again,” she said, pinching my arm. “Lacey Givens. She was my partner. We both graduated from the academy on the same day. I had no idea we’d end up at the same precinct, but we did. When we became partners, I was happy. My first year partner was kind of crazy.”
“Most cops are,” I said.
“Your father took me under his wing. He made it seem like it was so innocent. Lacey had a bad feeling about him, but she didn’t speak on it much. She just wanted to be committed to the job,” she said sarcastically. “The job is what killed her. It almost killed me.”
I waited. I rubbed the back of her hand.
“We went to a house call one night. It was about two months after Lacey came and it was her first domestic situation. When we got there, another unit had already responded. We saw the car, but we assumed the officers were inside. Somehow, wires got crossed and they had no idea we were coming. There should’ve been a dispatch, something. But,” she swallowed, “nothing. When we entered the house, Lacey ran upstairs, I covered her and we stopped at the middle room. There was a low noise coming from inside.”
She slowly stood up and walked around me. She stopped and turned around. “I saw the gun on the stand, but I didn’t see anything else. Lacey signaled to me to keep going and that’s when I saw the woman lying on her back behind the dresser. She was moving, so I checked for a pulse.”
She put her head down. I walked over to her and gave her hand another reassuring squeeze. “Babe, it’s okay.”
I watched the tears continue to stream down her face as she started talking again.
“Lacey moved around to see if anybody else was in the room. There wasn’t. But then, I heard a noise coming from the bathroom a few feet away. That’s when I saw the badge on the other nightstand. I froze. The bathroom door flung open and before anybody could move or say anything, his gun was raised. It was a .22. He aimed it at me, then at Lacey. His wife started groaning and moving again, so I walked over to her. I took my eyes off of him for a split second. I heard the first shot fired.”
She broke down and slid slowly to the floor. “I turned to see him stumbling back against the wall. Everything happened in slow motion. Lacey stood there, shocked. I could see the smoke coming from her gun. The other officers burst in. Five minutes later your father and my captain came in. All everyone saw was Lacey standing there with a gun and a dead police officer.”
“Baby, she was doing her job. She protected you and that woman,” I said, trying to understand.
She glared at me. “If life were that easy, Lacey would never have killed herself three months later.”
I didn’t move or say another word. Why would Lacey kill herself? There were pieces missing. I waited.
“They were protecting him. The whole time. His guys knew he was beating his wife. They knew what he had been doing night after night after night and nobody stopped him. Because of his badge?!”
She was raising her voice. I put my hands on her shoulders so she could calm down.
“Baby, relax. We don’t want anyone to hear you right?”
She slowly nodded. “After everything settled down that night, Captain Lansky asked me what I saw. I gave him my version. Internal Affairs showed up and everybody gave their version. But when they got to the officers who were first on the scene, they told a different story. They said that she’d been drinking and hit her husband with a baseball bat.”
“Was there a bat near her?”
She shook her head. “I didn’t see one, but it could’ve been. We were just trying to save her. That’s the job. Victims first. Suspects second.”
I nodded. “Okay. You did your job.” I knew I sounded redundant, but I was trying to keep it positive. It was clear she was beating herself up about something.
“It was our word against theirs. And because there was no real paper trail, who do you think they believed?”
“The wife never pressed charges?”
She nodded, her face now dry. Her nostrils were flaring. “She did. They were just never filed. How do you press charges when the person you live with is the law? You go to any precinct in the city and give his badge number and he wins. It doesn’t matter if he’s black, white or yellow, they protect their own. Lacey and I soon learned that it was the men against the women. Unless…”
“Unless we went with the flow. We had to tell the same lie. The same story. Lacey didn’t want to, but she was new. I felt I had…like I had no choice.”
I walked her back over to the chair so she could sit down. “They used their trump card. Loyalty.”
“That I owed it to them to stand on my precincts side. This guy had been with the force for fifteen years. His seniority meant more than protecting a citizen? Even with all the things this world is going through in regards to law enforcement and society, the last thing we need to be worried about is the people who go home to live with the officers.”
I nodded. “I know babe. But, the system is jacked up on all sides. The sad part is, she probably wanted to leave, but she knew he would just find her and –”
“Kill her. Exactly. The worse part? She pulled through. During the trial, she barely had a bruise.”
“They had to have believed her.”
Jade laughed. It was chilling because I could hear the mockery. “Not if she wanted to get his pension? Why would she turn on him now when it could benefit her the most?”
“That has no bearings on someone getting their spouse’s pension.”
“She was stupid. She stayed with an abusive cop whose whole team manipulated her for years. They could tell her that her hair was red and even though it was black, she’d believe them.”
“They’d brainwashed her by then.” I shuddered at how well versed I was in putting the pieces together.
“Extremely. I just thank God there were no children involved.”
I wiped the corner of her eyes. I didn’t want to tell here to stop crying. She needed to let it out. If she’d been holding onto all that for nine months, it was a wonder she was able to smile the day I’d met her. All I remember is how her smile lit up the entire sneaker store. It definitely hadn’t been the smile of a woman who was carrying a heavy load. Then again, that’s why I loved black women. They could have a whole war going on in their lives and still smile.
“Because Lacey had no idea what she’d gotten herself into, she filed a complaint with Captain Lansky.”
“And he had to take it to the top.”
“Exactly. Truth is, he knew. He tried to protect me to an extent.”
“Babe, I don’t understand. If you were willing to go with the flow but not Lacey, how does that affect you?”
There was a knock at the door. I looked at my watch and realized we’d been in there for close to forty-five minutes. I sighed and rubbed the back of my neck, hanging my head. She put her arms around my neck and pulled my face up.
“Babe, it’s okay. Tonight is your night. I didn’t mean to get you off your game.”
I shook my head. “That’s not what I’m mad about. I just wish you would’ve told me.”
She leaned back in the chair. “Let’s say I would’ve told you and we ended up realizing that your father and my arch nemesis is the same person. We wouldn’t be here right now.”
I frowned. “On whose part? Remember, I hadn’t talked to the man in three years.”
She stared at me. “Three straight years?”
“We had four exchanges, all courtesy of my mother. Who by the way, divorced him, in case you forgot.”
“You guys have different last names.”
I swallowed. “Ellis is my middle name. I’ve always gone by that instead of McLaurin.”
“And you left that out because?”
“I hated the association.” At this point, she had one up on me. Everything says Ellis except my driver’s license. But I should’ve told her.
She cut her eyes at me. “Either way, can you honestly say you would’ve still dated me had you known?”
“I can’t say. You never gave me the option,” I said. She gasped. “Wait. I’m not saying you didn’t tell me on purpose. But from what I’ve heard so far and the fear in your eyes when you saw my father, I can imagine what happened next. So, I get why you tried to bury that part of your life.”
“I’m not staying for the rest of the event.”
I stood up in such a hurry, I almost knocked her down. “What? Why?”
She stood up. “I’m done with the drama. Whenever he’s around, there’s drama. Come by when it’s over and I promise I’ll finish telling you.”
“No. No way. I won’t let you leave like that,” I pleaded.
She put her hands on her hips and sighed. “Let me say it differently. As long as he’s in this room, I refuse to stay. Period. Nothing against you.”
Her nostrils were flaring again and she was squinting at me.
“Jade, I’ll protect you. You can trust me.”
She turned and started toward the door. She opened it slowly and looked out, then closed it again.
“You know where I grew up?”
“Yes. Twenty-ninth and Diamond.”
“Do you know that I’ve been in all of four fights in my entire life and only one was with a girl?”
I chuckled. “I can believe it. It’s probably why the force was so attractive to you.”
“Your father would be my fifth fight if he pushed the right buttons tonight.”
I stood there, not sure whether to be angry that she was threatening my father, or turned on that she was so damn feisty and even thought she could take him.
“The fear you saw in my eyes was fear of what I would do to him. Not the other way around.”
She walked back over to me, holding me around the waist. “The truth is: I fear him and I fear being around him. But it’s not a punk fear. It’s an alarming fear. Danger.”
She stopped talking and shook her head. “What am I doing? He’s your father. No matter what you say, you will support him. Flesh and blood.”
“I’ll be honest with you. If you went out there and jumped on him, I’d stop you,” I said. She threw her hands up. I grabbed them mid-air. “But, I believe you. I believe that something went on that night that nobody knows but you and your team. I also know what went on plenty of nights in my own home.”
She stared at me for a long time. Sighing, she grabbed my face in her hands and leaned against me. “I have to go.”
I wanted to pull her back toward me. But I knew she had to leave. She’d already made her speech and fulfilled her obligation. I didn’t want to make the rest of the night hard on her. I felt my knees growing weak. Swallowing hard, I cleared my throat and straightened up to head back to the crowd. Leaving your own party for almost an hour was at minimum, rude. That’s how I knew that I was falling for Jade. I walked back out and looked for Ron. I don’t know when he walked away from the door, but I didn’t see him anywhere in sight. After a few minutes of skimming the crowd and shaking a few hands with people I passed, my eyes locked with my father’s.
The smirk on his face made me narrow my eyes and glare back at him. When I was twelve, I was intimidated by that look. It wasn’t a regular smirk – it had his signature stoned face attached to it, which made ninety percent of the people he came across cringe. It was hard enough growing up as a black man in a society that marked us as being animals. My father found it a pleasure to prove them right, even as an authority figure. I don’t know when he started walking over towards me, but the moment I felt his hand on my shoulder, I blinked and came to.
“So, what do you think? Have I made you proud yet?” I asked. The sarcasm dripping from my voice could be heard a mile away.
“Son, I’ve always been proud of you. You have my blood running through your veins,” he said. “I just think you could make wiser choices. The fact that you keep company with Jade Robinson tells me you still don’t.” He patted my back.
I felt a throbbing in my head. I knew he wanted me to react. I wouldn’t give him the pleasure. He started smiling and he leaned in closer to me.
“I spoke with mom the other day. She seems to be doing quite well,” he said, more relaxed.
The change in my father’s tone made me shudder on the inside.
“She’s doing great. Still pursuing her degree. Going after her dreams,” I said.
“As she should. I’m really proud of her. Seriously.”
I smiled at someone behind him and waved. The party would be ending soon. Everyone was still dancing and having a good time. I finally saw Ron dancing with a woman.
“Dad, why did you come here tonight? You’ve never supported my dream of opening up a store like this.”
“Son, that’s not fair. I don’t agree with the choice and I don’t understand why you wouldn’t just enter the force after college, but either way, you are my son.”
I looked into his eyes. Is that sincerity?
“Walk with me.”
We headed toward the door. I stopped.
“Dad, the party is about to end. Can we just wait until then?”
He looked around. “Of course. Finish up.”
An hour later, I finished with my guests. Ron helped me clear everyone out and Sheree handed out gift bags. A part of me wanted to lag behind and help with the cleanup, but whatever my dad had to say must’ve been important for him to wait around, especially since being downtown at this time of night was a magnet for trouble – the kind of trouble he liked. I was more concerned about anyone he could have an encounter with than him being out there alone. After a few more goodbyes, I made my way outside to him.
“Did you buy any sneakers?” I joked.
He chuckled. “A few pairs.”
I stood there silent. He grabbed the back of my neck gently as we continued on.
“So, son. How long have you been seeing Jade?”
“About three months. How long did you guys work together?” I asked, keeping in mind what Jade told me.
“Two years. She left us almost a year ago.”
Okay. So far he’s telling the truth. “Why did she leave?”
“Something between her and Lansky,” he continued. “You know how he can be.”
“Yeah. I remember the stories you used to tell.”
“To be honest, I was surprised she left.”
I slowed down my walk. “Really?”
We nodded at two police officers passing us by. My father shook one of their hands.
“Yeah. She didn’t tell you?”
I swallowed. “Tell me what. She said she was on the force with you for two years. What more is there to tell?”
I was fishing, but I wanted to see if their stories matched up.
“It was a lot deeper than that son,” he said. “A lot. Jade wasn’t the most stable. Did she tell you about Lacey?”
I started to relax a little. Honesty?
“It depends.” I felt my shoulders tightening.
“Son, let me say this. I love you. Despite our differences, I have always loved you.” He stopped walking and dropped his eyes. He looked back up at me. Is that fear? “Even though things were rough between your mama and I, I would never let anyone hurt either of you. Ever. I’m only going to say this one time. Stay away from Jade Robinson.”
I didn’t respond for a few minutes. He couldn’t be serious. We hadn’t talked in three years and he wanted to give me a demand the first time we had a real talk?
He put his finger up to shush me. “No, son. Listen to me.” I thought I was daydreaming, but the tears in his eyes were real. “She is not good news. There was a lot going on the last year she was with us. It was some stuff that I’d never experienced in my twenty plus years on the force. I promise you, I’m not playing. Trust me, son.”
His placed his hand on my shoulder. I looked at it. It was shaking violently. Then it hit me.
“You just said you were surprised she left and it was Lansky that wanted her to leave?”
I narrowed my eyes at him. He didn’t budge.
“I said I was surprised she left and that she wasn’t the most stable. That part is true. She had a strong case though. Because of her instability, I thought she would win.”
I was very confused. “Win what? There was a case?”
He shook his head. “Not a legal case. You know, the regular internal affairs stuff.”
My phone started to vibrate from inside my pocket. I pulled it out slowly. It was a test from Jade.
You okay honey?
I looked back up at my father.
I nodded. “Dad, I know you’re concerned, but I promise you I can run my own life.”
“Son, listen to me. Do what you want. But don’t get serious about her. And don’t let her tell you anything bad about your old man. You know me.”
He was breathing heavy and sweating a little. It was the norm for when he didn’t get his way. I’d seen that look a thousand times over throughout my twenty-four years on earth.
“I know, dad. And that’s what scares me.”