“We've had five marriages and three children between the two of us. That's why, this time, we need to make it work.”
The woman in the tailored black suit and high heels spoke as the man sitting beside her nodded. He wore a tweed brown sports coat paired with dark blue jeans, and a cologne that would intoxicate any living, breathing woman from ages eighteen to eighty-one.
The two held hands.
What were their names again? I stole a peek at the notepad in my lap.
Jenellis Walker and Brayden Moore.
“So, you want to make this work,” I echoed, crossing my legs and putting on my most sincere I-really-care-and-I-am-here-to-help-you look despite the fact that the clock was ticking closer to 1:00 p.m. Roman's flight left in three hours.
Clinical social work 101.
Empathy. Even when it was inconvenient.
The man, Brayden, who'd been quiet the entire walk from the waiting area to the loveseat sitting in front of me, exhaled and settled back into his seat. With a square-shaped head, slight shadow of a beard, and a knotty afro that on another man would have looked sloppy, but on him looked wildly refined, he was the perfect blend of cocoa-flavored fine and sexy. Jenellis, for her part, was all curves, tasteful bling, and high-quality weave.
Even without the obvious money between them, they still would have looked like a beautiful power couple on the cover of an
“Thank you, uh, Ms. St. James.” Brayden glanced for the third time at the framed diploma that hung over my plush armchair. “Thank you for signing up to save us.”
I didn't know that I'd signed up to save anything, but as I was the one with the notepad, the degree, and the business cards that said I was a psychotherapist. I guess I, at the moment, was the chosen one.
“What's going on?” I cleared my throat, trying my best to look like I knew what I was doing. Jenellis wore what looked like a huge quadruple-carat rock on her left ring finger. With all that money going on in that loveseat, I could not help but wonder if they should be the ones saving me.
The two looked at each other and I knew already from my brief foray into the world of therapy that a long story was about to follow.
My son had better be finished packing.
I tried not to let my eyes drift back to the mantel clock that sat next to a Tiffany lamp I found at a yard sale.
When I graduated with my master's in social work, I had not planned to become a therapist. I had specialized in child welfare and had done most of my work with foster children. However, after a girl named Dayonna Diamond had me driving around the city of Baltimoreâshoot, the state of Maryland, it seemedâlooking for a sister named Hope that nobody else said existed, I knew I'd had enough.
Apparently, so did my old supervisor, my life mentor, Ava Diggs. The day she announced her retirement following Dayonna's case was the day I came up with my present plan. Ava had wanted me to take the reins over from her, but I quickly directed them to my former officemate, the control-hungry diva Sheena Booth. I'd had enough of the system and the sorrows within it to not want to become the captain of a sinking ship.
I'd stayed as long as I could under Sheena's leadership, swallowing my pride to follow the girl child's directions; but I started working toward my private practice immediately. It had taken two years but The Whole Soul Center was now finally up and running, full time and fully on me.
Nobody had told me how difficult it would be to build up my own practice. As close as I was cutting it to my son's flight, I was even closer to bankruptcy.
I could not afford to turn away Jenellis and Brayden when they'd called asking for immediate help just under an hour ago. They had offered to come as cash customersâno insurance forms or protocol to worry with. And I figured I could spare an hour for them, especially if they turned out to be regulars.
I was having second thoughts.
The two still looked at each other, a silent conversation occurring between them.
“What brings you in today?” I pried again.
“We're getting married.” Jenellis finally broke their silence.
I wanted to say. Plenty of people had been there, done that. I mean, even I had made a visit to the altar, uttering a “'til death do us part” promise that I wholly meant and wholly failed.
Actually, I had not failed. I just had not seen my husband in sixteen years, and was uncertain about whether death had done us part.
The last time something RiChard St. James came up in my life, it almost cost my sanity and my son's safety. I shut my eyes quickly to the searing pain that wanted to well up in me at the memory of the empty urn and the gaudy ring that sent me on a wild goose chase nearly two years ago. I'd put the pain aside since then, determined to show an absent man and a proud me that I could carry on my life without him.
Without any man.
“When's the big day?” I blinked, blocking out the host of emotions that wanted to break through me like a water dam. Plus, I was still waiting for why these people had me about to miss sending off my only begotten at the BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport.
“Our wedding is two weeks from now.” Jenellis tried to smile. The way she looked, I could not help but wonder if we were talking about a wedding or a funeral.
“And we just got engaged two weeks ago.” Brayden cleared his throat and wrapped his large hands tighter over Jenellis's delicate, manicured ones.
Why the big rush?
I caught myself from saying it out loud. They had to be pushing their mid-forties, so I doubted that a hush-hush baby was the reason for their run to the altar.
As if reading my mind, Jenellis piped in, “We wanted our wedding reception to be at the La Chambre Rouge and that weekend was the only date they had available for the next eighteen months.”
Brayden had more to add. “They had a last-minute cancellation and Jenellis and I offered the highest bid out of eight other couples.”
“Oh, I see.” I nodded like I even knew what the La Chambre Rouge was. I jotted a quick note on my pad to Google it later. Brayden seemed pleased that I was scribbling something down.
I was thinking of another question to ask to move the conversation forward when a loud ring interrupted me.
“I'm sorry,” Brayden mumbled, pulling out a phone. He started to press a button but his finger froze in midair as he focused on the number flashing on the screen. He turned to Jenellis.
“It's her.” His voice was slightly above a whisper.
“Ms. St. James, we're going to have to go.” Jenellis never looked his way. “But we want to come back, if that is okay. Can we reschedule for later this week?”
“Friday,” I said a little too eagerly. “I mean, I have time on Friday morning. Is ten a.m. okay?”
The couple did not seem to notice my relief at their leaving. They were already headed to the door.
“Yes, we'll see you then.” Brayden barely looked at me as he rushed out the suite door, Jenellis right behind.
I stepped back into my office and peered from my second-floor window to the parking lot below. After one bad experience during my first full week at my center, I rarely left immediately after my clients.
There are some crazy folk out there and I don't need not nary one of them knowing the make or model of my car. But that's another story for another day.
It was a little after one now. I needed to get home. I held my breath as the handsome couple stood talking in the parking lot a few moments, then exhaled as Brayden finally turned to a large black Escalade and hopped in. Jenellis pointed her keys toward a red Lexus coupe and the headlights flashed.
I dialed my son Roman's cell phone as I gathered my coat, workbag, and purse, set the alarm, and locked the front door of my beloved office suite.
No surprises. He did not answer.
“I'm on my way,” was the message I left on his voice mail as I opted for the steps instead of the elevator in the outdated three-story office building. Though I'd done my best to make my personal suite look impressive, I had no control over the grounds of the best space I could afford to lease in the nondescript building in Rosedale. The hallway carpet was gray and frayed in some spots, and the main lobby forever smelled like chlorine, although to my knowledge there were no swimming pools anywhere near the premises.
It was going to take a lot more than one cash-paying couple to make it in my new adventure, I considered as I reached for my car door.
“Ms. St. James.” The voice from behind startled me.
“Oh.” I jumped a little. Jenellis Walker stood eye to eye with me.
“I need you to do me a favor.” The sultry quality of her voice reminded me of one of my great-aunt's old Billie Holiday records.
“A favor?” I was off balance and wanting to get home, but I had enough sense to know that siding up with one party is dangerous ground in couples therapy. “I'm sorry, Ms. Walker, but before you continue, I think we should wait to discuss whatever your concern is openly in our Friday session.”
“You don't understand.” She blinked with false lashes. “Brayden can't know about this.”
Her eyes and tone were expressionless, but my resolve was unmistakable and firm. “I would prefer not to begin our work together with secrets and picking sides. It does not help with anything, especially if you are planning to join in marital union in less than a month.”
“I understand your concerns, Ms. St. James, but I need you to hear mine.”
I resisted the urge to check my watch. “What is it?” It wasn't the question I needed to ask, but I had to get home.
I saw a smile in Jenellis's eyes and we both knew that she had won our first battle. “Brayden will tell you more about why the two of us need your services when we come back on Friday, but I have my own personal reasons for seeking your assistance.” She lowered her voice, and moved her head closer to mine. “I need you to fish through Brayden's past.”
“I need to know more about him, not his childhood or family or any of that psychobabble stuff. I just want to know about his past relationships. Romantic relationships, marriages, and otherwise.”
“Um, for some reason, I got the impression that the two of you had already talked about your former loves and disclosed whatever needed to come out onto the table.” I felt totally off script.
“Yes, yes.” Now she was the one rushing. “I know about his three ex-wives and most of his girlfriends, but I'm not looking for names and dates. I only want to know one thing about him.”
In spite of myself, I raised an eyebrow. “Are you questioning his fidelity?”
Jenellis sighed and rolled her eyes impatiently. “No, no. I mean, let me correct myself. I couldn't care less about his fidelity. I'm the last person who should be questioning the faithfulness of anyone.” She stared at me so unabashedly, I felt shame for her.
“What I need to find out, Ms. St. James,” she said, her voice lowered again, “is simply this: whether Brayden was abusive to any women in his prior relationships. I have a high tolerance for a lot of things. Some issues that other women fall apart over are but small matters of foolishness to me. But abuse of any nature I do not tolerate.”
“You've had experience with this.” I had meant to make my words more of a question than a statement, but Jenellis smiled wickedly at my observation.
“Let's just say that my first husband was not a kind man, but I am stronger because of it.”
I considered her declaration for a moment as I reached again for my car door. “Ms. Walker, I am a therapist, not a private detective. Now I can help facilitate an open dialogue between the two of you where you can explore some of these concerns. But if you are wanting to get more detailed information about his past behavior with other women, without his knowledge, then I am not the right professional. Indeed, I'm not sure that I even feel comfortable providing services to the two of you with such a lopsided beginning.”
Jenellis stared at me a few moments, her expression unreadable again. “Okay,” she finally breathed out, “you win. We'll go about things your way. Explore. Talk it out. But I do know that the law states that if you as a therapist find out that someone is dangerous you are required to inform the targeted party.”
“That's only if there is a stated or implied homicidal threat.”
“Yes, that's right.” Jenellis nodded her head and turned away.
I guess that meant good-bye. At the moment I did not care. I was supposed to be driving my son to the airport in twenty minutes. As I was about to sit down in the driver's seat, I realized that I could not shake a question that was nagging me.
“Ms. Walker,” I called after her. She turned around and faced me again. “Whatever happened to your first husband? Did he face consequences for whatever he did to you?”
She paused, looking over to a distant memory to the left of me. Then she looked me right in the eyes. “Ms. St. James, my first husband is dead. Of natural causes,” she quickly added.
“Oh,” was all I could say as I finally found my driver's seat. Jenellis marched over to her Lexus, got in, shut the door, and sat there with the engine idling.
My engine was on and I was off.
I could not help but wonder as I turned off the small lot,
what have I gotten myself pulled into with this couple?
A familiar feeling, and not a pleasant one, sunk slowly into my stomach.