Copyright, Frances Metzman, Reunion, 2018
It had taken Toni two hours to put herself together for the reunion with Caroline and Lana, two women who had meant so much to her in the past. Until a week ago she hadn’t seen or heard from either one of them for sixteen years. At first, they had occasionally phoned then e-mailed, and after all communication stopped, they lost track of what everyone was up to.
Studying herself in the mirror, Toni hoped she gave the appearance of success, confidence and a woman who had arrived. In the last year an urge to meet up with the old friends had become progressively stronger until Toni got their new e-mail addresses through old friends and made the arrangements. They all decided to wait until they met to play catch-up. She wanted to show her mentors how far she had come from being an administrative assistant, a euphemism for secretary, at Scarducci, Adden and Drugers. The law firm had hired her straight out of high school. Caroline and Lana were newly graduated young lawyers at the same firm who, unlike Toni, had grown up privileged.
Although Caroline and Lana had treated her well, Toni felt that she didn’t measure up to them because she couldn’t afford to go to college. She always felt on the rim of their friendship. Despite having been invited to both their homes on a couple of occasions, in her perception, she never entered the inner circle of their lives. Looking back, she knew that feeling opaque in their presence was because of her own insecurities. Yet, undeniably, knowing them had been a life-changing experience. She could now present herself as a person of substance.
Going through her entire wardrobe, it frustrated Toni to realize she was so trying to impress the women – how pathetic. Still, she had tried on five of her best suits, finally settling on a Valentino design that she’d bought in a consignment shop. The beauty of combing the exclusive Main Line consignment stores was that they provided hugely discounted, runway-quality clothing, discarded by the ultra-rich after wearing them once or twice. It seemed as though hardly any of the Main Liners had the word wasteful in their vocabulary. The better for me, Toni thought.
She made, what she considered, an astronomical amount of money as an associate lawyer at a prestigious firm, Jackson and Haymour, that was located smack in the middle of Center City Philadelphia. Yet, she had never lost the fear of poverty that came from her deprived background. She only allowed a sliver of childhood memories to rise from time to time. Back when she worked at the Scarducci law firm she had never spoken of her roots, and no one had asked.
One last shake of her long, silky hair, a tug on the sleeve of her black short-jacket with chalk pin-stripes, a pat on the puffed-up collar of her cream silk blouse and she was good to go. The suit was perfect, and she approved of the effective dusting of make-up – thin purple eye liner, pale pink lipstick, and brushes of light magenta rouge on her mocha colored skin. As she often did, she felt grateful she’d inherited her Caucasian mother’s fine, softly waved hair that fell below her shoulders.
Years ago, her once beautiful mother had hair like that, but it had thinned, and she was beaten-down looking since her dad died six years ago. He had been ill for many years and unable to work. Toni missed him, and felt sad she visited her family so little because of long work hours. She promised herself to change that, but knew she probably wouldn’t. Her mother and sisters were proud of her, but what she missed most was the approval of the two friends, a goal that had haunted her over the years.
Toni walked out the front door of her West Philadelphia town house that was nestled in the protective shadow of the University of Pennsylvania where she had graduated from law school only four years ago. Originally, she had lived in the poorer side of the neighborhood, but recently moved to this more elegant and expensive location. She hailed a cab to take her to the Center City hot spot, La Bella.
As they passed a particularly rough, familiar ghetto neighborhood, Toni closed her eyes, trying to distance herself from her childhood memories. In no time, the scene changed as the taxi approached the exciting, twinkling lights of the city. She had become a part of this sophisticated world, understood the upscale restaurant menus, classical music and clever buzz words the professional set used.
As Toni got closer to her destination, the apprehension of childhood feelings of inadequacy dropped heavily on her. She chided herself to calm down. The two women never talked down to Toni. She did that to herself. If anything, they’d introduced her to a different lifestyle that probably propelled Toni into pursuing a law career. The only hard part of going on the partnership track at her firm was giving up marriage and children. But that could still happen – maybe.
As she entered La Bella, she thought that all she knew about her old friends was they had children and lived near each other. She wanted to know everything that had gone on in their lives and tell them all about hers even though she’d slipped into her e-mail message that she had gone to law school.
The ornate room had thick, hunter green carpets, gilt wall panels and huge, glittering chandeliers that cloaked her in luxury. She shivered with delight and thought it impossible for her to ever become jaded to her new life.
Looking around, she had no trouble spotting the two women at a table nearby. Toni inhaled as she approached quickly. A soft collective buzz of voices permeated the dense air. Toni noticed Caroline had thickened a bit and wore heavy makeup with a lipstick smear in a corner of her mouth. She still had the thin aquiline nose. Her jaw jutted out a bit more and her shoulders drooped. Lana looked lovely and hadn’t changed very much, but she appeared to have dressed in a big hurry. The buttons on her blouse were askew. Both women looked older but then so did she.
Toni stopped at the table and the women jumped up and they all hugged. Warmth washed over her as she recalled how they’d showed her that all things were possible.
“Toni, you look fabulous,” Caroline exclaimed loudly, with positive nodding from Lana.
“Thanks, you two are looking pretty terrific yourselves.”
“That’s a gorgeous outfit. Where did you get it? It looks familiar.” Lana eyed her up and down.
Toni hesitated. “From a consignment shop on Montgomery Avenue, not far from where you live.”
Lana snorted a laugh. “How ironic. That’s where I take my old clothes. I saw it there and admired it.” Lana raised a very thin eyebrow. “Whatever brings you to that place?”
They all sat down at a round table.
Caroline gave Lana a stern look, not lost on Toni.
“Habit,” Toni said, smiling. “I’m making big bucks at Jackson and Haymour, but never lost the feeling that I’m spending my last dollar. I’m working on that.”
“Get with it, kiddo,” Lana said. “You have to help prop up the economy. Buy new. We both do that as much as possible.” Lana pointed to herself and then Caroline who nodded in agreement. “It’s a dirty job but someone has to do it.” She laughed heartily.
Up close, Toni saw they seemed much more harried than when they were free-wheeling singles. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought about both of you over the years.”
“Same here,” they both chimed in.
Toni wanted to ask why they hadn’t contacted her in all that time, but she had to take some responsibility, too. One reason she didn’t pursue keeping in touch was that decided to wait until she reached her objective. Now she had. They could renew their friendship on a level playing field.
“We should have kept in touch,” Caroline said, looking a bit sheepish. “But you know how it is when you’re raising a family. Remember Josh Harton? He made partner. We dated and got married two years later. Lana and I stayed on for another five years after you left.”
“And I married a doctor, specializing in internal medicine,” Lana said with a touch of pride in her voice. “I met him after you left the firm.” Lana tilted her head. “And you were only there two years? Right?” Lana narrowed her eyes. “Why did you leave anyway?”
She thought Lana was reaching into a vague memory bank that for Toni was as sharp as if it happened yesterday. “I was at Scarducci for three years and left because I went to work at U. of P. They paid for my undergraduate work. I did it in six years at night. Then I won a scholarship to their day law school, graduated, got a job where I’ve been for four years. Now I’m off and running on the partnership track.”
The waiter materialized as though from thin air and opened a bottle of Merlot the women had ordered and poured some into each glass. Toni thanked him. He grinned, nodded directly at her and walked off. She thought he was cute and had an intelligent face.
Lana raised her glass. “Cheers,” Lana said. “We don’t go out much. The kids are pre-teens now, and Jack works so hard that when he’s home he wants to chill.”
“Yeah, we take our kids just about everywhere,” Caroline said. We can keep an eye on them. You know kids.”
“I can only imagine,” Toni said.
Lana narrowed her eyes. “I don’t remember you ever saying you wanted to be a lawyer.”
Toni suddenly had a recollection of Lana staring at her when they first met as though she were a mysterious creature fished out of the deepest part of the ocean. Toni cautioned herself to be patient. Lana was curious not an interrogator. “I admired you both so much, and you helped me to have faith in my abilities.”
Both women looked startled. “Really?” Caroline exclaimed.
“You can’t imagine how much I looked up to you guys.” She sipped the oaky wine, the aftertaste clinging pleasantly to her tongue. “You took me to classical concerts and introduced me to serious theater, a world that I had never dreamed of.” Toni noticed both women looked pleased with themselves. “I majored in English, and that turned my life around. I discovered a wonderfully intellectually layered world. Before that it was one-dimensional – work, play and watching TV.” Affection for the women filled her. “You raised the bar for me, excuse the pun.”
“I can’t believe we ever influenced anyone, including our kids,” Caroline said.
Toni raised her glass to the women. “You guys were my inspiration to succeed.”
Lana had a look of surprise on her face. “I don’t remember what we did to inspire you. We went to a couple of Philadelphia Orchestra concerts. That’s all I remember.”
That jarred Toni. Something so important in her life never touched Lana’s inner world.
“Sounds like we were successful with our poster girl.” Caroline said.
“Poster girl? Did you think I was challenged?” Toni said, somewhat put off.
“Of course not. You are a wonderful and smart girl that we liked being with.” Caroline reached over and pressed Toni’s hand.
Were they patronizing her? Toni kept her anger in check, sure she was being overly sensitive.
“We knew you came from the inner city,” Caroline continued. “And I do recall wanting to help you.” She turned to Lana. “Lana, remember how we talked about Toni needing an introduction to new things that she might not have experienced?”
“I really don’t, but what the hell. I’m glad we did.” She smiled at Toni. “Here you are all grown up and you beat the odds to become a lawyer.”
Lana made her feel like a bad child with a misspent youth that finally landed a job.
“I do recall that you were careful not to talk about your bad childhood,” Lana said nonchalantly. “I admired that. People often like to get into their dysfunctional childhoods, like it’s some kind of badge of honor. It’s quite the hit topic of conversations, like being on Oprah.”
Toni drained the last drop of wine that now tasted bitter to her. “Poverty doesn’t equate to a bad childhood, Lana. We were poor but proud, honest, hardworking and loving.” She had kept a lid on her background so long that she felt shaky talking about it.
Caroline had a tenuous smile on her face that gave her the appearance of a woman walking on five-inch stiletto heels and unable to balance herself. “We liked you. We wanted you to go out with us. Never mind your background.”
“Sure. Of course, that’s how it was,” Lana said, in an off-hand way.
Toni stared at her well-manicured, pale pink painted nails and, thinking that Lana sounded scripted. Back then Toni believed that only rich people with disposable income indulged in attending concerts and theater. Naïve and out-of-the-loop, she had been so isolated from the mainstream growing up. These women generously paid for her. Toni recalled protesting a few times but very weakly. She accepted because she always helped her mother and sisters financially and hadn’t an extra dime for entertainment. Toni had loved those new adventures with these women who had gone to Ivy League schools and never worried about tuitions or worked a day in their lives until they finished law school. Back then she hadn’t thought of herself as the object of a pity party, but that’s how it seemed now. It hit her with a punch that she impacted these women’s lives like a pimple on an elephant’s butt. But that was okay even though she wanted to make an impression. It was naïve of her to think they’d be concerned if she made it or not?
“Would you like to see pictures?” Caroline asked. Her face brightened.
Both women pushed their cell phones at Toni.
“And we’re still married unlike a lot of others we know,” Lana added.
Toni studied the photos and saw four cute children all between the ages of eight and eleven. “Your kids are adorable. I love their eager, innocent faces.”
“There was no sacrifice giving up the law for that,” Lana said pressing her finger to the screen.
Toni raised her eyebrow as though it helped her form the question. “I thought you gals loved the law. Why did you quit?”
“We quit when we got married,” Caroline said. “Too much ass-kissing. You have to be nice to the senior partner even if he’s a jerk. I hardly liked anyone in the place. And corporate jobs didn’t hold much excitement.”
The waiter appeared and poured more wine into the empty glasses. When he finished, he looked at Toni and asked if she wanted anything else. She shook her head. He gave her a tiny bow of his head and left.
“That idiot didn’t look at us. What are we? Chopped liver?” Lana asked.
“We don’t look as good as Toni,” Caroline said, smiling.
Toni plastered a smile on her lips. She needed to bring into alignment the memory of the women she knew and adored to the women sitting in front of her. The ones from her past had to be hiding for the moment under the layers of different lives. “I’m surprised. “You two seemed happy at Scarducci. I thought you’d stay with law.”
Toni had forsaken marriage, refused to let anything stop the trajectory of where she wanted to go. Was it worth it? Had she driven herself to prove her self-worth to these women, to herself for naught? Had she overly romanticized the world she had gazed into from the outside those many years ago like a hungry kid, standing at a bakery window with her nose flattened against the glass.
“We realized there was another life out there,” Lana said.
There were moments Toni found herself questioning the wisdom of having squelched two marriage proposals. Both men in high-powered jobs had departed quickly after she said no. She knew that they wouldn’t deign to share in domestic bliss. Marriage and children would have prevented her from putting in the huge number of billable hours needed to make partner, something she nearly killed herself to get.
At most firms, few married women and mothers became partners because of the burden of driving car pools, picking up sick children from school or staying home when the baby-sitter didn’t show up.
The statistic had become her mantra – while women comprised approximately fifty plus percent of the law students only about sixteen percent nationwide became partners. She wanted into the inner sanctum and had allowed nothing to stop her.
“You both dreamed about becoming partners. Both of you were Law Review.” Toni, too, had reached the rarefied apex of the top ten percent of law students who become Law Review. “I understand it’s hard to get back into law if you let too much time lapse.”
“I’m never going back to law,” Caroline piped in. “I like my life. We can do whatever we want.”
It was ironic to Toni that the ambition and drive an earlier version of these women displayed had been her template. Her spine stiffened. “Do either of you work now?”
“I’m running my husband’s medical practice and am a domestic goddess in addition. In other words, I’m doing double duty,” Lana said.
“That’s great. Do you like the work?”
Lana’s face tightened and took on hard edges. “I hate it, but you have to guard what’s yours. There are treacherous women out there beating the bushes in medical offices, trying to snatch a doctor-husband away from his marriage. She’ll worm her way in, give him unconditional admiration and make the idiot think she loves him. I didn’t think much about it until my neighbor’s cardiologist husband up and left her for a nurse when the wife was pregnant with their second child.” Lana gave Toni a lopsided smile. “Don’t you remember the affairs running rampant at the Scarducci firm? Some of those women specialized in trying to nab a wealthy lawyer, married or not. That Evan Martinson was snatched away by that bitch Heather Alcalf.”
“I remember, but I couldn’t imagine you choosing anyone that wasn’t terrific,” Toni said.
“Of course, he’s great, but he’s a man. Any woman who gives these idiot men adoring looks and compliments him to death will eventually get one.”
Toni’s heart fluttered. It didn’t seem right that marriage should be fraught with dread. Was that another segment of life she had naively idealized? “What about you Jacqueline? What are you up to?”
“I’m a stay at home mom. My husband doesn’t want me to work so I can take care of our active social life, the kids and oversee the maid. “You know how it is when you have to entertain the biggies. My husband is thinking of running for the State Senate.” She looked over at Toni’s left hand. “I hesitated about asking, but I see you’re not married. Divorced?”
“I never married.” A pang gripped her as she sensed, by their dubious glances, that they thought she had somehow failed. After all her hard work, how could that be?
There was an uncomfortable silence. The waiter hurried by and gave Toni a half-smile. That broke the tension for her.
“You’re a beautiful, intelligent woman,” Caroline said. “I’d imagined you’d find someone pronto.”
“You know the drill. If I keep up the pace, I’m in for partnership in a few years. I have no time for marriage or babies.”
There was a long, blank moment – an awkward pause waiting for direction from someone.
“You can date guys who are black or white,” Lana said nonchalantly. “Jackson and Haymour got a prize – an African-American, a woman and a beautiful gal who looks white. All politically correct items rolled into one.”
Toni slipped down into her chair a bit. Did they think that because she looked white that helped her succeed? “I was Law Review.”
“I didn’t mean to disparage your intelligence,” Lana protested, not appearing embarrassed. “I mean that you don’t show any remnants of a culturally underprivileged background. You’ve become so polished and sophisticated.”
“We always knew you’d make good on your own steam,” Caroline said quietly, giving Lana’s statement a face-saving out.
They were now stepping on mines, back-tracking, then getting blown up from behind. Toni hoped they’d get a rhythm going soon.
Lana leaned back in her chair, shoulders hiked up nearly to the bottom of her ears. “I know what the Jackson firm pays Law Review law graduates.”
“And isn’t that the most important thing, Toni?” Caroline asked. “You’ve arrived and anything you want you can buy. Forget about race, gender whatever.” She flicked her wrist in the air. “Money is really the important issue as you well know.”
Toni bit her lip. It hit her that this was just the impression she wanted to give – successful and rich. Now it fell flat. She’d fallen into that trap, and had become another self-absorbed accumulator. She had been too hungry to have seen it before. Now it glared at her like a blinking neon sign.
She hadn’t realized how fatiguing it had been to keep up that image. Yes, she had been ashamed of who she was, where she came from and tried to rewrite her history by hiding in the triumph of winning and buying things.
Where she came from was indelibly stamped in her life, and she sensed a pride rising in her. She wanted to tell them she has a wonderful, hard-working, single mother and her siblings were struggling to work and go to college. They helped each other. There was nothing but dignity in their lives. She promised to rid herself of excuses to visit home and felt ashamed of having hidden her family all these years. “If ever you think of me, I don’t want you to forget that I’m an inner-city, African-American of very humble but caring and loving origins.”
Both women started fidgeting. Caroline focused her attention on Lana. “I forgot to tell you that I found out the best private school on the Main Line is Humbolt Learning for Life.”
Toni sat in a stupor, trying to clear her head while the women exchanged information about the best private schools for getting their kids into Ivy League colleges. Toni had come to boast about her life, to impress her old friends. Now it had so little meaning. Ironically, she had learned something from these women again. Imitating their lives had made her shallow, and she’d nearly deserted her family.
The waiter walked over to ask for their food orders. Toni wasn’t hungry but ordered the salmon.
“My baby sitter has to leave early,” Lana said. “Can’t stay for dinner.”
“My husband hates to baby sit,” Caroline said. “He wants me home soon.” Caroline checked the time. “I’m shocked my big baby husband hasn’t called five times already. He’ll be sulking when I get back. I’d better go.”
“Before you go,” Toni said without hesitation. “I want to thank you both for being my inspiration, my mentors to help me achieve what I have.” Her statement rang true although she saw that her own ambitions would have taken her to the same place.
“But you did overcome many hardships on your own to get there. Congratulations,” Caroline said.
“Maybe not as many hardships as I once thought,” Toni said, allowing a small smile to play on her lips. She looked around the room. It had lost some of its luster.
“Don’t you want more from life?” Lana asked.
“More? What do you mean?”
Lana smiled broadly and snapped her cell open once again. “For that. For kids.”
“Well,” Toni said, “it’s not for everyone.”
Both women gathered their paraphernalia, stood and said their goodbyes.
“Keep in touch,” Lana said without much enthusiasm.
Caroline nodded and threw money on the table. “That will take care of the bill.”
Toni passed the money back. “I’ll take care of it.”
No one protested. From the corner of her eye she noticed the waiter, standing off to the side.
“Bye. I’ll keep my eyes open for guys to introduce you to.” Lana crinkled her nose. She bent and leaned closer to Toni’s ear. “Do you mind dating white guys? I have one in mind.”
“Don’t bother. I’m very much in love,” Toni said in a robotic voice. “Actually, he’s Asian. I’m an equal-opportunity dater.” Toni smiled tightly.
Both women giggled a staccato, unsure tinkling sound.
“By the way, I never told you but my real name is Tonisha.”
“Oh,” Lana said, taking a step back. “Nice.”
The two women waved, promising to e-mail and left.
Toni knew they wouldn’t. She realized these women weren’t racially prejudiced but simply class conscious. Because Toni wasn’t born to the life of Main Line society she’d always be their mascot. That glitch wouldn’t change no matter what Toni accomplished.
She needed to know why she had been so unrealistic about her relationship with Caroline and Lana. It hit her with the clarity of a note bowed by a professional musician on a Stradivarius violin. They’d taken her under their wing to alleviate their guilt for being born privileged. She’d taken the ride willingly, but the price was Toni denying her upbringing. She half-smiled, thinking they probably deducted the cost of the tickets they’d once bought for her as a charitable donation.
Running from her past with a vengeance had made her bump heads with the present. She’d given up marriage and children just to show that she was as smart as they were. The niggling doubts ended abruptly when she remembered she had partnership to look forward to one day. The pull of that had not diminished. Toni noticed the waiter, once again, hovering within calling distance. She ordered a dry, double martini, and the waiter gave her a curious look. “You sure?”
“I’m not driving,” Toni said. “I can afford cabs. I’m going to be a law partner in a few years, and I’ll make in the high six figures before bonuses. What do you think of that?” She smiled sardonically, knowing how little that meant.
“How nice for you,” the waiter said, a wide grin on his cute, round face. “That means you can afford to leave me a very, very big tip.” He scurried off and then stopped and turned. “Is your name really Tonisha?”
She stared dumbfounded, but not the least bit offended. He had such a sweet genuine smile. “No, but it seemed appropriate to throw that in.”
“Good for you.”
Toni watched his retreating back. A freeing sensation exploded within her. By idealizing Lana and Caroline she had placed herself in an obsessive prison. At least now she didn’t have to be constantly running to the finish line. What she got out of those self-imposed, unrealistic standards were skills no one could take from her. It was good.
Toni wondered how it would feel to teach law if she decided against the partnership track. Or maybe she’d find that Asian boyfriend. It seemed odd but wonderful to finally have choices of her own choosing. It was hers for the taking.
The waiter hurried back and set the icy cocktail glass, filled to the brim in front of Toni. “Why don’t we drink to your success?” He held up an imaginary glass. “Do you know I’m half Asian and an opera singer? I wait tables so I can eat.”
Toni looked closely and saw an Asian quality to his handsome face.
“Good luck to you, Toni or should I call you Tonisha,” he said, winking.
“Were you listening to our conversation the whole time?” Toni smiled to tell him she didn’t mind.
“Just pivotal moments. Opera singers have very good hearing.”
Toni laughed until she was breathless, her eyes misting at the same time. “And good luck to you. I mean it with all my heart.” She lightly smacked her hand on the table. “Why don’t you bring the salmon now? I’m fiercely hungry.”