This short is from The Womanish Trilogy
We Made a Deal
Shanice Montgomery met Claiborne Philburn by chance. She was a graduate student and he was the Chair of the English department and never taught her. She majored in International Business.
Racing from her late class to her job at Starbucks she ran into him and her bag fell, spilling on the ground. Her eyes actually filled because she was running late and was on probation. She needed her twelve dollar an hour job. Her parents paid for undergraduate but told her she was on her own for graduate school. They were both successful and felt she should work a few years before taking on more classes. But she insisted and worked six hours, four evenings per week to supplement her scholarship.
"Damn!" She hissed in frustration and Claiborne's brow rose. He was a tall man with swarthy skin, blue eyes and light brown hair. He wasn't traditionally handsome but there was something arresting about him and intelligence burned in his eyes.
"My apologies. You were moving too fast. I'm sure it isn't that serious."
"It's extremely serious. I'm going to be fired if I'm late and I need my job. Please excuse me." Scooping up her things, Shanice hurried out, not realizing she dropped her driver’s license. Claiborne picked it up, sliding it in his pocket. There was something about the tall, lean women with wet eyes and wild hair.
Leaving her shift, Shanice was exhausted. She had one more semester and hopefully she would be gainfully employed and no longer in the struggle. She had a couple of job prospects and in one year, at age twenty-four she would receive a significant inheritance from her deceased maternal grandmother. She could have borrowed against it but needed to prove to herself and her parents she could do it on her own and she had but she was exhausted. She needed a shower, wine and sleep. Tomorrow was no school and no work.
Startling awake at the sound of the doorbell ringing, Shanice squinted at the clock. It was nine am and she groaned, rolling over. Her intention was to ignore it but it rang again and she sprinted up, grabbing the damp towel she kept near her bed. Wiping her mouth and face she made her way to the door, snatching it open. She was astonished to see Claiborne standing in her archway. Holding up her license he smiled at her.
"You dropped this last night and I knew you would need it and I wanted to personally return it. I would also like to purchase breakfast for you." His eyes roamed over her and she realized she was dressed in a tank top and boy shorts. His look wasn't especially suggestive but she felt naked. Defiantly, she reached for her license but he stepped back.
"Breakfast with me... "Claiborne said, smiling.
"No thanks. I appreciate you finding my license and even waking me up to return it. However, you could have returned it to the school. It's actually a bit off you returned it here."
"If I returned it to the school I couldn't take you to breakfast."
"You're a professor... I'm a student, this is improper."
"Breakfast is never improper and you aren't my student and never have been. My motives are actually quite pure. I need an assistant for something I'm working on. It is months of work and twenty-five dollars an hour. I checked and you are a stellar student."
Shanice wanted to snatch her license and slam the door but that proposition was too nice to ignore.
"I guess breakfast is okay. Give me few minutes." Closing the door, she left him standing on the porch. He could only smile and take a seat until she was done. Fifteen minutes later she strode out, her hair in a huge pouf, wearing baggy sweats and smelling of peaches.
Shanice followed Claiborne to the Maple Street Biscuit Company. He wanted to drive her but she insisted on driving herself. After ordering, he mentioned her car which was a three-year-old BMW.
"You have an excellent car."
"It's very excellent. Thank you." She said before biting into her sandwich which was fried chicken, bacon, cheese and apple butter in the signature flaky biscuit. Claiborne had three biscuits covered with sausage gravy and over easy eggs. "Are you asking how a poor black, working college student can afford an excellent car?"
Claiborne's brow shot up and he laughed at her dry toned question.
"Not at all. I just think BMWs are excellent machines. I know how well you are doing in school but have no idea of your personal background, though I'm interested. I know you work only because you told me, and I thought of how we could assist each other. I have lots of research and some editing. Much of this you can do from the comfort of your own home and on your schedule."
"Consider it fate. I bumped into you, you looked near tears and tired, rushing to a job and you dropped your license at my feet. After looking you up, I decided you would be perfect. "
Not to mention I consider you to be stunning and sexy and I want my hands in your hair and your legs over my shoulder. Claiborne thought. Claiborne was forty-nine, divorced three years with a grown son in Massachusetts and he was lonely. After his wife left, he spent months serial dating but for the past few months he was working on new courses and a book and wasn't interested. He knew Shanice was the same age as his son; maybe younger but she fascinated him and there was something about her that seemed settled and mature.
"Let me think about it. I'll let you know by Monday." Shanice said. Standing, she offered Claiborne her hand. He stood and took it and something passed between them. Snatching her hand away, Shanice grabbed her purse. Smiling, Claiborne handed her the license he was holding hostage and watched her walk out.
He probably has jungle fever or something but I can handle that but working from home is very appealing. Shanice thought and she loved research.
Shanice was one of my favorite young women. She was brilliant and worked hard but in my opinion made things harder than they had to be and she had absolutely no personal life. She had incredible resources but preferred doing things the hard way. She was almost done with graduate school and was planning to work abroad for a year in Dubai or Saudi Arabia. Her languages were Spanish, French and Arabic in addition to English. I watched her walk into the room, dropping her oversized bag on the table before working with the students she tutored. The two of us tutored once per week and always tried to work on the same day.
At the end of our two-hour session she asked if we could walk to A Tea Place. She knew I loved tea and conversation with her.
"I have a new job." Shanice announced after we were seated and the tea poured.
"Don't be like that. It's only for the next twelve weeks and it's mostly at home. Professor Philburn hired me for research and editing. He's publishing papers and a book and it pays better than Starbucks."
"You know how I feel, but that's better than racing around serving coffee. Claiborne Philburn is an excellent professor. He once taught African American literature and history and there were waiting lists for his classes."
"Really?" Shanice asked incredulously.
"Yes, white professors can teach AA lit as well as black professors can teach mainstream literature. That's very short sighted."
"I know. Good for him."
"His ex-wife is African American as is his son if you buy the one drop rule."
"Interesting." Was all Shanice could manage. Very interesting.
For three weeks, Shanice worked on research and editing for Claiborne and was fascinated by his writing and the way his mind worked. His papers and book covered Native American history and there was a significant amount of history about free blacks living in the northern states. Her job was to check and research to ensure that his work was accurate. As a result, she learned a great deal. Even better she wasn't as tired and was eating and sleeping better. Often after leaving the coffee shop she was wired and had homework but working from home allowed her time to do her work and her job. She and Claiborne hadn't had much contact but he expressed his pleasure with her work. They were meeting in a few hours.
Watching Shanice walk into the room, Claiborne was entranced by her. He had only ever seen her dressed casually but that day she wore a fitted black dress, just above her knees and her hair was in a wavy look that touched her shoulders. Her face glowed and there was dark red color on her lips. When she neared the table the scent of peaches filled his nostrils.
“Thanks for meeting with me Shanice, your work is impeccable and I thank you. Has it been of any benefit to you?” Claiborne asked.
“It has been great. I am not working as hard and I have learned a great deal, doing your research. What is your interest in Native American and freed slaves?”
“My grandmother, my mother’s mother, is Native American, was Native American but after marrying my grandfather she assimilated into the majority culture of my grandfather and I was the only child of her only child and she spent many hours talking to me about her life and culture. I loved what she told and wanted to know more. I studied African American history extensively and was intrigued by the contributions of freed slaves of which there was a great deal. My ex-wife was born in Maine and her ancestors were freed slaves who owned land, business and her grandfather even had a few trademarks. As an instructor I wanted accuracy in what I taught. Do you have a boyfriend, Shanice?”
The question surprised Claiborne and she looked up at him.
“What does that have to do with anything?” Shanice asked.
“Nothing and everything, I am very attracted to you and though I am much older and probably not your type, I thought you should know that.”
“So, hiring me was ruse to get with me?”
“Not at all, hiring you has been hugely beneficial to me. Getting to know you or getting with you would be above and beyond all of this. So do you have a boyfriend?”
“I do not and I don’t have interest in a boyfriend, currently. I want to graduate and travel and work abroad for a couple of years. Those are my goals. Just that.”
“What about pleasure, companionship, someone to talk to…” Claiborne asked, his eyes holding Shanice’s. “I am not asking for marriage or long term commitment, I just want to know you and share experiences.”
“Hopefully…” Claiborne said honestly. Reaching for Shanice’s hand, he held it firmly and she felt a frisson of desire shoot through her before pulling her hand away. She hadn’t spent much time with Claiborne but she was already attracted to his mind and his honesty also appealed to her. It had been a long time since she took time for pleasure or companionship. Slowly removing her hand from his, she glanced up at him.
“This is very unorthodox, professor.” She said.
“It is. Let me take you out tomorrow. There is music on the beach, there is a fusion of jazz, reggae and classical, all of which I enjoy and I am sure you will find something in there to respond to. We can be friends if nothing else. I am giving you a couple nights off.”
“Great, it’s a date. I will pick you up tomorrow at seven.”
Shanice considered canceling several times but when Claiborne showed up she was dressed and ready. He was wearing jeans and a polo shirt and she had chosen a casual summer dress and flat sandals.
“You are so lovely.” He said as he led her out to his car, opening the door and being a perfect gentleman.
When they arrived at the venue, Shanice noted Claiborne had reserved seats for them in the VIP section of the amphitheater and she also noticed the stares. She knew she looked her age and Claiborne looked his not to mention she was African American and he was white. Mixed raced couples were not that rare but the AA woman and white man were still the rarest combination and seemed to draw the most stares. Claiborne seemed oblivious.
They took their seats and quickly became immersed in the music. Shanice quickly forgot everything going on around her and was enjoying herself. Springing up to dance she was surprised when Claiborne joined her and was quite good. She smiled at her own prejudices. During a reggae session, he placed his hands on her waist and danced completely in sync, causing desire to build in her. A knowing smile, covered his lips as her felt he relax and give in to the music and the moment.
After the concert, he took her back to his place; a moderate sized home, facing the beach. It was sparsely furnished and there were books and papers throughout.
“Your place looks like you, with all these papers and books.” Shanice said as she perched on a stool in the kitchen as he poured glasses of wine.
“This place is more like me than any place I have. I have a more traditional home that my wife and I lived in. After the divorce she lived there and I bought this place but she decided to move to California and I bought her out of the other home. It is more traditional.”
Placing both glasses on the counter, Claiborne approached Shanice, placing his hands on her face before pulling her lips to his and kissing her passionately. Responding with her own passion, Shanice relaxed into the sweet kisses. She didn’t implode with feeling but he created waves of desire in her and she wanted what he was offering.
After several minutes of kissing, Claiborne pulled away.
“I want to make love to you Shanice. More than anything I want that. I am safe and disease free and I have a vasectomy several years ago but I have condoms if you prefer.” Saying nothing, Shanice stood and offered Claiborne her hand. He led her to his bedroom where he undressed her and she could see his desire and admiration for her body. He spent his time getting to know her physically and she responded to his sure, sensual touch.
“Are you okay?” Claiborne asked as Shanice lay next to him.
For weeks they settled into a routine of work, events, lovemaking and conversation. Claiborne spoke of his marriage, his son and Shanice told him about her parents, her inheritance and her plans for the future. They were great companions but Claiborne was falling in love with Shanice.
I sat with Shanice’s parents the night she graduated and I could see how proud they were of her. I felt their challenge to her had been more to push her to do what she had done. As parents with money, they had wanted to insure their daughter never felt entitled and they had accomplished that. Shanice was one of the hardest working young women I encountered and she was not one of those who felt the world owed her a living or anything. She shared with me that in a month she was taking a job in Dubai and she was telling her parents that night. I knew instinctively they would be proud and happy for her. I knew Claiborne Philburn would not be. She had not shared their connection with me and I hadn’t asked but I had seen them out and about on a few occasions and his feelings for her were clear and apparent.
I watched her approach her parents and the way they swooped her up, hugging and congratulating her.
“We are so proud of you.” Her mother gushed and her father nodded in agreement. “I know we didn’t seem to be but we are and it is wonderful what you have planned.” Shanice’s brow rose and she glanced at me, I shrugged in confusion.
“The job you are taking on has been doing a background check dear and they called us and several of our friends who know you. There are no secrets in the world.”
“Oh wow… I was going to share tonight. Are you really happy for me?” Shanice asked.
“We are thrilled. It is a wonderful opportunity. You are young, vibrant and brilliant.” Her mom said and the pride was so clear in her voice.
“It is a wonderful opportunity.” Claiborne said as he approached and his lips were smiling but his eyes were not. A look passed between him and Shanice before she introduced him to her parents.
“Mom, dad, this is Professor Claiborne Philburn, I have been working with and for him for several weeks. Claiborne, these are my parents, Charles and Vera Montgomery.”
Something sharpened in the look Vera gave Claiborne but they were all courteous before Claiborne nodded and walked away into the crowd. I hugged and congratulated Shanice again before leaving Shanice with her parents.
Once they were settled in at a restaurant for dinner, Vera immediately asked her daughter about Claiborne.
“What is that man to you Shanice?” Charles groaned but he knew Vera couldn’t be stopped.
“He is my friend more than anything.”
“With benefits, that white man is my age!” Vera said.
“Is the problem that he gets benefits mom, that he is five years younger than you or that he is white?” Shanice asked. Charles pushed back his chair and walked away from the table. He was not at all interested in hearing about his daughter’s sex life.
“I know you get benefits at your age but does he have to be old AND white?”
“Mom, Claiborne is a wonderful man who I have shared time and conversation with. He has also taught me a great deal by working for him. I will always be grateful to him.”
Vera exhaled at her daughter’s words. She could hear clearly that Shanice wasn’t serious about him or the relationship.
“I am not being prejudiced but I just think you should have lots of wonderful experiences with men closer to your own age…”
“I didn’t say that but I hear those Arab men really love black women.” Vera said and chuckled. Shanice could only laugh, her mom was her mom.
“When were you going to tell me you had applied for and gotten a job in Dubai.” Claiborne asked Shanice later that night. He had phoned, asking if he could come by.
“Today, I planned to tell my parents last night and you this morning. I had no idea I would get the first job I applied for. I am very excited.”
“As you should be, I’m happy for you but sad for me. I guess I will soon need another assistant. I got used to how you work.”
“But we both understood this was temporary. I told you I wanted to work abroad a couple of years…”
“And you should. I heard you with my ears but my heart didn’t listen and my heart is very involved with you Shanice. I love you.”
Her eyes widened at his profession of love. They had grown into great friends with good conversation and sex but love?
“Right… I know you don’t love me.” Claiborne said.
“Claiborne, I admire you and respect you and…”
“Please don’t add any more descriptors… I know what we are and what we have. I am an older man who fell hard for a younger woman who had plans and goals and never once deviated from that. I am at a place of winding up my career and you are just starting… we made a deal?”
“Yes Shanice, a deal. You agreed to work for me and then you basically agreed to go further… now I must agree to walk away.”
Swallowing down a lump, Shanice was unable to respond. Claiborne stood, kissed her forehead and made his way out the door of her apartment. She wasn’t sure how things were supposed to go but the way it did pained her.
Shanice filled me in on her relationship with Claiborne and how it transpired.
“Do you love him?”
“No but it never felt like that was what we were doing. I came to know him through his writing and I admired his mind and who he was as a person and professor. We went out and became intimate and to me it was like an extension of our friendship more than anything else. I admire him, like how he thinks and his mind is unmatched but falling in love never occurred to me.”
“That’s the thing sweetie, falling in love doesn’t ‘occur’ to us. I could see the few times I saw you two out and around that he was very enamored with you and I could also see you were not as enamored but comfortable. I also agree with your parents. You should explore and live more. Claiborne is a grown man, he will be okay.”
“My intent wasn’t to be hurtful.”
“Of course not but sometimes life and love hurts and he had to know. Sometimes we simply hope for that which isn’t real.”
“Should I reach out to him, again?”
“No, I think things are as they are and it is best to leave them there. There is nothing you can say to make this easier for him or for you.”