Chris could hear her voice, drawing closer, lilting and animated, but he couldn’t tell who she was speaking to. Robyn seldom had reason to come to this floor but when she did, he only knew because he heard her voice, exchanging pleasantries with people in the office or laughing with the girl at reception whose name he could never remember. This was her sixth week on the job and she had not once stuck her head into his office to say ‘hello’ like she had the day when she’d first met with Frank. Now that she was a Scaife Enterprises employee, Robyn seemed to have adopted the same distance and caution where he was concerned that just about everyone else at the company did.
Since dinner that night at his place, the only contact they’d had was a message thanking him again, and then another when she accepted the contract and began the new job with Frank. Chris listened to her voicemail messages more than once before deleting them.
“Are you listening to me?”
Brought back to the here-and-now, Chris looked at the woman sitting across from his desk. Wearing a white long-sleeved organza blouse and skin-tight black lacy pants, her neck was festooned with a necklaces and in her ears were two-carat diamond studs.
Sheryl was still fine as hell, he had to give her that. Though pushing thirty-five she still looked about a decade younger. And just like the day he first met her, almost seventeen years ago, her hair was long and pin-straight. And like then, she wore it simply, with a part down the middle and falling in dark, sleek sheets on either side of her perfectly oval-shaped face. The only thing that stopped Sheryl from being beautiful instead of merely attractive was that she had a very ugly attitude.
She licked her burgundy-stained lips and twisted them, her head cocked to one side.
And she wore way too much make-up. There was that as well.
“You ain’ listen to one word I said, did you?” she demanded.
“No, I listened to them all,” Chris said looking her over impassively. “You’re getting married.”
“That’s what you came all the way down here to tell me?” he asked. “What? You want my congratulations? Well congratulations. And tell your man he has my condolences.”
Sheryl blinked at him. “Whatever, Chris. You know why I’m here,” Sheryl said.
Her voice was what he liked to think of as Ghetto-Twang—hard, harsh and like a nail across a chalkboard when he wasn’t in the mood to hear it. Which was basically always.
They stared at each other for long moments until Chris rose from his chair and went to shut the door to his office. As he did, he glimpsed Robyn near the end of the hall, wearing a dress the color of sea-foam, which complemented her nut-brown complexion. Just as he shut the door, she turned and glimpsed him, her face for a brief second lighting up as though she was about to say something.
“No I don’t. So why are you here, Sheryl?” Chris asked.
Instead of returning to his chair he perched on the edge of his desk, directly in front of her. From that position, they were no longer eye to eye, and she had to look up at him, which he preferred.
He waited but she said nothing.
“Even if I get married, your son’s gon’ need what he need.”
It would have been almost disappointing if Sheryl hadn’t brought the conversation around to money eventually. Hell, it had been years and no matter where they began, their little chats always ended up at the same place: dollars and cents. Chris almost felt like yawning.
“And he’ll keep getting what he needs,” he said.
“And when me and Andre get married . . .”
“I got other stuff to do, Sheryl. What exactly are you tryin’ to say?”
He knew what she was trying to say, but he just wanted to hear her say it. Sheryl was one of two women he had kids with. Their son, who Sheryl had insisted on naming Chris Junior—but preferred at age fifteen to be called ‘Deuce’—was his firstborn. His other two kids, Jasmin and Kaden were nine and five. Their mother, Karen, was less high-maintenance than Sheryl, but no less of an annoyance.
“I want to know if I get married you gon’ lower my allowance,” Sheryl said leaning forward. She opened her eyes slightly wider as though challenging him, daring him to say ‘yes’.
“What do you think?” Chris asked. “You gettin’ married to a grown-ass man. He can’t support you?”
“He does just fine, thank you. But not everyone can afford to pay Westchester money for the Westchester lifestyle, and . . .”
“So you marryin’ the wrong dude, and that’s on you,” Chris said. “Don’t he know how much you cost?”
“How much I cost?” Sheryl said. “What you tryin’ to . . ?”
“If he don’t know, he can call me,” Chris said. “I can tell him about the house note, the charge cards, the car. . .”
“None of which need to be any of your damn business if you would just give me the house, buy me the car, and settle up with a lump sum. You ain’t foolin’ nobody. You like holding all them strings, Chris. Just because you can.”
“If I gave you a lump sum, you would spend it in a year, Sheryl. And then come back with your hand out. This way, I can control the cost.”
“No, you want to control me,” she said, her voice contemptuous. “You get off on that shit.”
Chris looked her over, his eyes skipping past her face and down to her chest and eventually to her legs. “And you get off, too, let’s not forget.”
“Just because we fuck occasionally don’t mean nothin’ to me,” Sheryl said. “And you know damn well it don’t mean nothin’ to you. So pay me my money, and let me go.”
“Your money?” Chris asked, bemused. “You really think of it like that, don’t you? I’m the one in here seven days a week, bustin’ my ass, Sheryl. Me. All you do is lay on your back. And by the way, you tell your son about this . . . wedding plan you got cookin’?”
“Yes. And he’s our son, Chris. Not just mine. He likes Andre. He’s excited as a matter of fact. Thinks maybe he has a shot at having a Daddy for a change.”
Chris let the insult pass. There was no denying that while he provided amply for his kids, he was not their ‘Daddy’.
“So let Andre man up and take care of you too, then,” he said. “I’m not about to shell out money to support you and your man when my only obligation is to my kid.”
Sheryl’s defiant look dissolved for a moment. “Maybe that’s your only obligation, Chris, but don’t you just want to do what’s right? Just this one time? I mean . . .”
“Do what’s right?” he stood, so that he was towering above her. “Ain’t that some shit coming from you, Miss Holes-in-the-Condom.”
“I told you I didn’t do that shit!” Sheryl said, her voice a bitter hiss. “It’s been sixteen years. Why can’t you . . ?”
“What? Forgive you? Forget it?”
“It is what it is, Chris. We got a son, and you so obsessed with getting back at me, you punishin’ him!”
“I’m not punishing him. He has everything he needs and most of what he wants.”
“You really think, that don’t you?”
Sheryl stood so they were inches apart.
Whenever she was this close to him, Chris had the conflicting impulses of wanting to fuck her, and wanting to fuck her up. And since he would never hit a woman, he often wound up doing the former. The last time had been about a month earlier, when he stopped by to drop off a new laptop for Deuce. His son was at football practice and Sheryl was alone in the house, drinking a generous glass of pinot, wearing only a form-fitting black, sheer maxi-dress, which was practically an invitation since she knew good and well he was coming over and that she would be alone when he got there.
When she opened the door, she’d stood in the way so that he had to brush against her as he entered the house he paid for.
Four bedrooms, three and a half baths on an acre of property in Bedford, NY. Sheryl liked living in the affluent community because of how it sounded, but was bored there. So she drank and, Chris suspected, fucked around a lot. Whenever he came over, if she happened to be alone, she made a move, sometimes subtle, sometimes overt. This time it was overt and he’d taken the bait, fucking her in her kitchen, right against the oak cabinets, both of them keeping one ear open for the sound of their son returning from school.
Once he was done with her, Chris could never make himself stick around. The self-disgust was too powerful. Screwing around with Sheryl was a dirty habit he kept reminding himself he had to kick, but what made it easy to succumb to her wasn’t just the fact that she was physically attractive. The other lure was that, like him, Sheryl didn’t romanticize sex and never had. From the very first night they met almost twenty years ago, they’d realized that compatibility—for them, intercourse was recreational, and nothing more. But he still felt like a scum-bag using the mother of his son to get off, just because he was too busy, lazy or disinclined to try to sustain an actual ongoing relationship with a woman.
“I got work to do, Sheryl,” he told her now. “Thanks for the heads up about the nuptials.”
Sheryl shook her head. “Do the right thing, Chris,” she said one last time before flouncing out of his office and down the hall from whence she’d come.