Cassiopeia, Part 4.

I stopped short. My dog barked at her. Cassiopeia simply patted the side of her leg twice and Jack Russell ran over, licking her hands while she enthusiastically petted him. What a guard dog.

“What are you doing here?” I asked, remaining where I stood.

She studied me before glancing at the duffel bag in my hand. “Are you going somewhere?”

Instead of replying, I whistled for Jack Russell, noting how reluctantly he left her side to come back to me.

“Why haven’t I heard from you?” Cassiopeia asked.

“Shouldn’t you be at work?”

“Shouldn’t you?” she countered.

I headed toward my car, which was parked against the curb a few feet away from her. “Look,” I said, opening the passenger door and urging my dog inside, “I need to get going. I’ll talk to you later.” Which, of course, I had no intention of doing.

Before I realized it, Cassiopeia was standing before me, peering into my eyes, her breath on my face, so, so close. I gazed at her and felt every ounce of my bravado falling to pieces.  I muttered something unintelligible, probably “God” or “help.” I wasn’t sure. She then pointed toward her collar. I looked at the collar and shook my head, confused as to what I was looking for.

“Closer,” she mouthed.

Leaning even closer—the movement caused the side of my head to brush against her earlobe and yes, my heartbeat was now fully out of commission—I examined her collar once again. A tiny, nearly microscopic gold pin. It was affixed to the fabric on her collar. I looked back at her.

“Pull,” she mouthed and then pointed at herself.

I obeyed and placed the pin in the palm of her hand. She carefully set it on the ground and then crushed it with her foot, rendering the pin into a shimmering pile of gold pieces.

“It was a microphone,” Cassiopeia said. With that, she got into in the passenger side of my car. My dog situated himself on her lap and lovingly gazed up at her. Traitor.

*

The two-hour trip to Palm Springs was silent as far as she and I were concerned. Cassiopeia was far more interested in entertaining Jack Russell than saying anything to me. Eventually, I pulled into the parking lot of the Pebble Brook Hotel and Golf Resort. Moments later, the car’s engine now off, we sat in silence.

“Let’s get a few things out of the way first,” she finally said. “I liked you from the moment I met you. You’re funny, smart, a great listener, and I like your face.”

A smile tugged at my lips. I remained stoic, however, looking straight ahead of me and not at her. That would change, however.

“Can you please look at me, Elliott?”

The question and the sincere way in which she asked me: I knew that staying away from her would never work. (Adding to the fact that she was already sitting in my car.) I belonged to her. I had belonged to Cassiopeia Benson from the moment we met, even if that wasn’t her real name. I turned to face her. “Always,” I said. “I will always look at you.”

Cassiopeia gazed at me for a long while, not speaking. She then moved closer toward me. “Thank you, ” she said. “Zachary Jupiter is my father.”

Cassiopeia, Part 3.

Later that afternoon, I sat on a bench in the dog park and dazedly watched my Golden Retriever, Jack Russell, playing and running about with some of the other dogs. Thoughts piled high in my mind, all stemming from lunch from earlier that day.

  • Cassiopeia is aware of how you feel about her.
    • How did she know?
    • Did you exhibit some sort of behavior that was out of the ordinary?
      • After all, you’re careful. You don’t stare; you keep things casual.
      • She said I was transparent. How?
  • What happens next?

It went on and on like this; attempting to organize my thoughts like a college research paper, attempting to understand the whole situation. And, of course, there was the $64,000 question:

  • Does she feel the same way about me?

“That your Retriever over there?”

Instinctively, I looked up to see if something had happened to my dog. On the contrary, Jack Russell continued to run around with abandon. “It is, yeah,” I replied to the guy who now sat next to me on the bench. I glanced at him. Crew cut; steely expression; shaped like ten bodybuilders. He didn’t look familiar; most of us who frequented the park had come to know each other well. He crossed his arms over his massive chest and watched the dogs, remaining silent, as if he hadn’t just spoken to me moments ago and/or hadn’t heard my reply.

“Don’t look at me again,” he then said, his voice lowered. “Call your dog over. Look distracted and look down; you’re not talking to me.”

Something told me not to question it. I didn’t. Quickly, I acquiesced and called Jack Russell over, who bounded into my arms. I busied myself with petting and playing with him.

“You can’t trust her,” Crew Cut then murmured.

At the sound of “her”, an alarming knowledge quickly settled over me. Cassiopeia.

“She’s not who you think she is,” he continued.

Oh God.

“It’s obvious that you have feelings for her. If you want to live, fight those feelings and get rid of them. Don’t go near her. Keep to yourself. You get my drift.”

I nodded faintly, my chest twisting itself into painful, unceasing knots.

“She will notice the shift in your behavior, by the way. And she won’t allow it. She was trained to be unrelenting, to force you to admit things. When you make admissions, they come after you. Resist.”

With that, Crew Cut was done with me. I watched peripherally as he surveyed the park for a few moments before he stood up and disappeared down the sidewalk. Now numb, I remained in the park long after the sun had set.

*

The next day, she came to my office door minutes after our daily staff meeting ended, a meeting I had joined virtually.

The knock on my closed door—a door I didn’t typically close—seemed to reverberate throughout the room. I remained still in my chair, both willing her to disappear and wanting, so badly, to see her.

“El?” I heard her call from outside the door.

I didn’t move. I wasn’t breathing, either.

“Elliott, are you in there?” she called again.

Just go, I silently implored her. Moments passed. Cassiopeia knocked again. After a long while, I ventured that she had walked away. For now. Quickly, I accessed my personal iPad and Googled Cassiopeia Benson.

Most of the results dealt with stories about her mythical namesake and the ensuing constellation. Nothing about a living person with that name. I then wondered: was Cassiopeia even her real name? After the conversation with Crew Cut, I presumed that Cassiopeia was working for Zachary Jupiter’s team of hoods; perhaps she had been planted among us to determine who was going against the policy. I shook my head. The entire matter was ludicrous when one considered it: enacting violence on employees that simply chose to become romantically involved with each other. I even laughed despite everything. Insane. I then searched for Professor Alfred Benson, “Cassiopeia’s” deceased father. No viable results.

She had lied to me from the beginning, I thought. The story about her name, the extraordinary way she told it, the person she had quickly become to me: all lies.

CB: Where are you?

I gazed at the Instant Message that had just popped up on my work computer, the letters swimming before my eyes.

CB: I didn’t see you at the meeting. Are you okay? Are you here?

I turned off my monitor and sent a text message to my manager indicating that I was placing a request for a personal holiday for the rest of the day and for the remainder of the week. As soon as he replied that he would approve it, I left the office.

*

I decided to head to Palm Springs for my days off. I needed distractions: golf, relaxation, anything. I needed to clear my head. The next morning, after hastily throwing a few things into a bag, I guided Jack Russell outside, ignoring the incessant voice in the back of my mind that demanded that I stop and think. Why I had so quickly believed the words of a stranger with a crew cut? the voice insisted. Why was it acceptable that the woman I thought so highly of would be involved in nefarious behavior?

She was waiting for me on the sidewalk.  

Cassiopeia, Part 2.

Unsurprisingly, I wasn’t the only guy smitten with Cassiopeia.

“You two met Cassi Benson yet?” Richard Nelson inquired one morning in the breakroom. Other than Richard and me, Danny Gator also stood by the counter, waiting for his coffee to finish brewing in the machine.

I drank my coffee and remained silent. I wanted to hear what they had to say, for one thing, and my instant fury at hearing her name exit Richard’s mouth was best left unexpressed, at least in the office.  

“I met her after the all-hands meeting last week. Smart as a whip. And,” Danny said, grinning, “utterly gorgeous.”  

“Gorgeous isn’t even the word,” Richard replied, shaking his head. “I wanted to take her to dinner in Rome or something. She messed with my mind the moment I met her.”

Well, he was right about that.

“What are your thoughts, El?” Richard then asked me.

I shrugged. “I don’t have any thoughts.”

“Come on. Haven’t you met her?”

“Yeah, he’s met her. I saw them talking at the all-hands meeting,” Danny said.

“So, what do you think about her?” Richard pressed.

“She’s great.” My own words burned my tongue. Great was such a meaningless word. Cassiopeia didn’t deserve that word, even if using it was my attempt to get out this inane conversation.

“I wonder if she’s married,” Danny then said.

“Married like you are to your wife, Rick? And you, too, Danny?” I asked them.

They laughed nervously and in unison, gazing at me with wide, exposed eyes.

“We were Just…just thinking out loud, man,” Richard stammered.

I took my leave, leaving Richard and Danny with their coffee and their excuses.

*

Of course, none of it mattered. There would never be a declaration to Cassiopeia about how I felt or an admission that my work day now consisted of the moments we saw each other versus everything else. There would be no declarations at all, not from me or from Richard and Danny’s respective imaginations. The Jupiter Alliance had a strict non-fraternization policy; workplace romances were completely prohibited. Four years ago, after our founder and CEO, Zachary Jupiter, had been caught in yet another dalliance with one of his subordinates, his wife—who had discovered this dalliance during an impromptu visit to the office—had threatened a very public shaming and brutal divorce if his behavior didn’t change. This resulted in Jupiter establishing a no dating/fraternizing policy top to bottom, from the executive staff to the cleaning crew. Soon, rumors began to crop up that Jupiter was utilizing ruthless tactics to ensure that his employees upheld the policy; some of these tactics included the employment of faceless enforcers who stopped at nothing on his behalf. Of course, no one had any proof.

Then came Ballard Keene and Marnie Anderson.  

Two years ago, it became quickly evident that something was going on between Ballard and Marnie. The way Ballard looked at Marnie when she passed by his desk. The way she invented reasons to stop by his desk. (Ballard was a junior accountant and Marnie was a paralegal; crossing business paths would be rare, at best.) Almost immediately, we started warning them. If we could see what was happening between them, so could everyone else, including the boss and his rumored enforcers. Our warnings went unheeded. One day at lunch, Ballard announced that he would seek approval from Zachary Jupiter himself to marry Marnie. “I’ll volunteer to quit,” he told us. “That way, it won’t make a difference.”

A few weeks later, Ballard and Marnie’s workspaces were empty. Calls and text messages to their phones went unanswered. Some of us visited their respective apartments and were informed that neither of those names were on the list of residents. It was as if the two had never existed. 

That was the part of the story none of us could still digest: the cold dread of knowing, deep down, that Ballard and Marnie no longer existed.

*

That mid-morning, an Instant Message appeared on my monitor.

CB: Japanese or Thai today?

I smiled.

EP: Your choice.

CB: Let’s go with Thai.

EP: I concur. There’s a new place downtown we can try.

CB: Sounds good. Just us this time?

I read her message repeatedly on my monitor, each word burning into my brain.

She wanted it to be just us?

Was something happening?

Had she noticed that I always surrounded us with people when we were together for fear of being noticed and subsequently accused of fraternization and receiving some sort of insidious, Ballard/Marnie-type of reprisal?  

EP: Sure, just us this time.

*

Being alone with Cassiopeia Benson wasn’t advisable if you were in love with her and/or feared being seen by potentially murderous agents. Ten minutes into our lunch at Thai Garden, I found myself doing whatever I could to distract myself and pretend as if everything was fine; constantly drinking my water, fidgeting, looking elsewhere. It was ridiculous, and she knew it.  

“What’s going on with you?” she asked, frowning at me.

I drank my water yet again, draining the glass and wishing it was whiskey. “What do you mean?”

“Elliott, come on. Be straight with me.”

I wasn’t ready to tell her the part that involved my feelings. Rather, I told her the other part, about Zachary Jupiter and Ballard and Marnie. She listened intently.

“I don’t even know what to say,” she said when I was finished. “I was aware of the policy; they stressed it repeatedly when I onboarded. To be honest, I thought it was preposterous. However, that story…” Her voice trailed off.

“It’s a lot to take in, I know.”

“So, you’re nervous because you think if you’re seen with me—”

“We’re colleagues and we have a right to enjoy lunch together,” I said firmly, sounding more determined than how I felt. This was the reason I had given myself before accepting her earlier lunch offer. “But who knows how these guys—if they’re real—interpret these things?”

“I see. That’s why we’re always in a group.” She repeatedly twirled her Singapore noodles around on her fork, not eating, just twirling.

For a moment, I was reminded of my recurring dream and the stars that twirled around on her skin. Quickly, I cleared away the image. “Are you all right?” I asked. “It’s a pretty heavy subject for lunch on a Tuesday, I know—”

“I thought you preferred groups when we’re together because of how you feel about me.”

I swallowed thickly. “How I feel about you?”

The intense expression on her face slightly softened as she nodded. “Yes, Elliott. I’m not blind, you know.”

I wanted to reach for her. I wanted to pull her towards me. I wanted to tell her.

“You’re a bit less transparent than you think,” she said, chuckling softly.

There was no more water to drink and I was suddenly too weak to signal a server.

“Nothing to say?” she asked me lightly.

“I–“

“It’s okay. We’ll talk about it later. Let’s discuss that collaboration project they mentioned at the morning meeting.”

I did more listening than talking, although I wasn’t sure I could speak even if I tried.

Cassiopeia, Part 1.

I discovered Greek mythology as an 11 year-old wandering around the stacks of my local library. One afternoon, I happened upon an illustrated book of Greek myths and was immediately struck by the photo of the frowning goddess on the book’s cover. Naturally, I grabbed the book and set to reading, quickly devouring stories about these gods and goddesses that manifested purely human traits for supposed inhabitants of a celestial mountain. They were very much fallible, yes, and some of the stories were uncomfortable to read, certainly. (Zeus was very much for the streets.) But I was intrigued, surely. This led to more readings about the Greeks; Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, for example, and other related works. I wanted to know more and more about them. By college, I was taking Classics courses on Mythology for that guaranteed A (I mean, yeah), and had read an arsenal of myths of other cultures, too. It was all so interesting to me.

In my fiction and poetry, you’ll find more than a few pieces inspired by Greek mythology. Sometimes metaphorical, sometimes allegorical, sometimes outright pieces spoken in the voice of a chosen character. This particular short story I’ve decided to share with you is brimming with mythological symbolism. Let me know if you can find the symbols (won’t be hard to find, tbh.) Anyway, the story was inspired by a myriad of things; I mostly wanted to write a story about the corporate world, which I know quite well, write from a male point of view, and throw in some suspense in my storytelling.

Here comes Part 1 of Cassiopeia. Enjoy.

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Let’s start from the beginning.

Three months ago, we had the following conversation:

Me: Your name is pretty unique.

Her: Do you know the story behind the name? It’s from my father’s favorite Greek myth.

Me: No, I’m not familiar with it.

Her: You remember Perseus and Andromeda, right?

Me: I’m nodding but I have no clue.

She responded to my statement with robust laughter. The fact that I could make her do this, to throw her head back and laugh, thrilled me in ways I couldn’t even describe to myself, much less to you.

Her: Ok, so Perseus flew the horse with wings, Pegasus. Andromeda was almost sacrificed to a sea monster. Here’s where my namesake comes in. Andromeda’s mother, Cassiopeia, boasted that both she and her daughter were more beautiful than the nereids, who were sea nymphs. Of course, this didn’t sit well with Poseidon, who was god of the sea. He decided to unleash a sea monster onto the kingdom. Naturally, the only way to appease Poseidon was to sacrifice their daughter, because how else do you appease mythological gods, right? Moments before the sea monster takes Andromeda away, Perseus swoops in on Pegasus and saves the day. But Poseidon still wanted to punish Cassiopeia for her arrogance. So, he placed her in the sky as a constellation, in the same position that her daughter had been in when she was chained to a rock at the edge of sea.

Me: Interesting. Your father named you after an arrogant woman chained to a rock…

Her[chuckling]: Well, Cassiopeia was a queen, so she was powerful in her own right. He loved that about her. She also refused to cower to the gods. He loved that, too. But it was the fact that she wasn’t just boasting about herself: she included her daughter in her boasting. To him, that signified a fierce, unapologetic love for her child. So that was the primary reason he gave me the name because he felt the same way about his daughter.

A few things.

1) She was almost out of breath when she was describing the myth. Her eyes gleamed the entire time, her hands moved to and fro as she described the scenes. It was dizzyingly incredible.

2) Her passion for the story quieted when she mentioned her late father. She spoke about him reverentially; it made me wish we weren’t standing by the coffee machine in our break room but that we were somewhere else, maybe in a holy place, a place worthy of the awe in her voice.

Finally, 3) If you haven’t guessed it by now, I’m in love with Cassiopeia Benson.

*

Three months ago, I was walking down the hallway that Monday morning and didn’t realize that the empty office I typically passed by was no longer empty. 

“Good morning,” I heard moments after I had passed by.

I reversed and peered into the office.

She sat on the edge of her desk, her attention on the folder in her hand. When she became aware of my presence, she looked up and smiled at me.

Initial thought: my God.

It’s just not enough to tell you that, in that moment and thereafter, I sincerely believed that Cassiopeia Benson was too beautiful for words. Beautiful couldn’t legitimately describe what I saw in that office. Perhaps essence or light or wonder were comparable, but in the end, every word fell short.  Whatever it was that was emanating from her, I wanted it right then and there. Not merely for myself, but with me, next to me. 

“Good morning,” I replied after locating my voice. I then gestured toward the boxes sitting throughout the office. “I’m guessing that you’re moving in.”

“I am—it’s my first day.”

“Welcome and happy first day. I’m Elliott Percy. I’m on the Wealth Management team.” I walked further into the room and extended my hand toward her, which she shook. I did everything to stop myself from lingering there, palm to palm.

“A pleasure to meet you, Elliott, and thank you,” she said. “Cassi Benson, Portfolio Management.”

“Stephen Worthy’s team. He’s a good guy.”

“I’m glad to hear it. But I was warned about eating in the cafeteria?”

I laughed. “There was an incident about four years ago. I won’t go into much detail, but it’s probably safer to consider outside options for lunch.” I paused then, quickly making up my mind on what next to say. “A few of us were planning on Italian for lunch actually, this afternoon. There’s a great spot close to the office. Feel like joining?” I was amazed by how casual I sounded, being that my heart was minutes from imploding. No, it wouldn’t be just the two of us at lunch, but it would certainly feel that way to me.

“I’d love to. You can fill me on other office-related things I need to know. Want to pick me up here?”

“Sounds like a plan. Again, happy first day.”

“Thanks, Elliott.”

When I reached my office, which was a few right turns away from hers, I took a seat at my desk and stared dazedly at the blue screen of my monitor for what seemed like an eternity.

*

When I arrived to pick her up in the afternoon, her new nameplate was now emblazoned on her office door. CASSIOPEIA BENSON. I gazed at the curious first name and decided, before knocking, that “Cassi” was far too average for a woman who was nothing like the word. It was after our Italian lunch, in the breakroom, that I asked her about the origin of her name and heard that breathless, reverent, amazing story. 

*

I started dreaming about Cassiopeia soon thereafter. The dreams usually consisted of the same scene: me standing silently before her in an unknown, shadowy place, the only light coming from the constellations that whirled around on her brown skin. A breathtaking, endless display of moving stars on her arms, hands, cheeks. The dreams rarely went beyond us standing still before each other—until the most recent dream. In that one, I reached out to touch the configuration of stars spinning around on her cheek. Before I could, however, she pulled me toward her and locked her arms around me until the stars appeared all over me, too.  

All the Things.

So, by now, I’m sure you’ve heard the details of the “bombshell” interview that Oprah Winfrey conducted with Harry and Meghan a few weeks ago. (If you’re a woman and a person of color, not much that you heard was surprising.) But believe me, despite not being largely surprised by how Meghan was treated, I found the interview to be utterly impactful. I felt sad for them, too. Ultimately, however, I have no doubt that she and Harry will keep it moving. The interview got me thinking about a lot of things. Race, microaggressions, my own life experience, so much. Here are some related thoughts and reactions from the more popular comments and remarks I saw on social media.

One question I saw more than once was why Meghan felt like she’d be accepted by this institution.

Image Credit: O, The Oprah Magazine

When I came to this country, the black and brown kids that I longed to be with mostly ignored and/or mocked me. Of course, in hindsight, I now understand that my “otherness”, coming from Africa, was largely informed by a stereotypical representation of my continent in the media. It explains why many questions were related to where I had lived in Ghana, if it was a house, if I owned shoes. They didn’t really know any better (we’re talking about 10 and 11 year-olds here, too). At the time, it was perplexing, sad, and infuriating. And lonely. The kids that looked like me didn’t want me. Being in a predominately Caucasian school and area, I was soon accepted into mainly white friend groups. Now, young me experienced the other side of the spectrum: fascination, curiosity, and interest. Many of these friends sincerely wanted to learn what life was like for me, pre-US living. They wanted to be in my presence, to be in my company. A level of comfort set in for me. When that happens, that comfort level, you start to believe–and I certainly did–that all spaces were ready for me. Because my white friends seemed to be accepting, all white folks would accept me.

Not so.

And I honestly think that Meghan believed some of the same things. Pre-Royal Family, she was an actress, in the public eye, likely accepted in a variety of circles and groups. Perhaps this mindset continued when she entered the RF. She mentioned in the interview that she assured her in-laws that she was ready to work hard on their behalf; she saw the opportunity for representation in the Commonwealth and embraced the new chapter that she would help start. But at the end of the day, some circles are not all circles. As I got older and navigated life/adulthood/race/ identity, I learned that there wasn’t always a welcome mat for me. Sometimes that mat seemed fine on the surface, but underneath was really full of ignorance, bigotry, and those microaggressions. So, yeah, I feel like she went in hopeful. And soon learned that there was a lot of stuff going on underneath.

Racism must be bad if they came to the States to escape it.

Word. But one thing I thought about: the British media was largely trashing Meghan. Here in the States, slants exist, yes, but there’s still a level of political correctness that will come with headlines. Harry and Meghan mentioned the British press more than once during the interview, their obvious bias against her and comparing her to Kate Middleton. (Love this quote from Meghan during the interview: “…if you love me, you don’t have to hate her. And if you love her, you don’t need to hate me.”) So it’s bad everywhere, yes, but at least the depth of journalistic vitriol isn’t as immense stateside.

Why in the world didn’t Meghan Google the Royal Family before getting involved??

She stated during the interview that she didn’t want to Google her husband-to-be, and wasn’t that informed about the Royals in general before beginning a relationship with Harry. Hey, it happens. I know plenty of folks who couldn’t care less about those people, nor need to be informed about them. Of course, This Square Peg isn’t one of those people. *laughs* Starting with my beloved Princess Diana and surpassing the British royals into royals all over the world, I’ve always been fascinated by them. But where Meghan and I differ: I’m Googling you. A potential relationship, a new friend, whatever–yes, I admire that she didn’t want to be informed by someone else’s POV about her husband, but Google is Google. I still need to know some things. Anyway, it’s a valid question. Maybe learning about the history of her late MIL would have better prepared Meghan for the life she was about to begin, but I also maintain that nothing prepares a woman of color for the welcome she will or won’t receive from society. Sadly, we mostly have to live it to find out.

Wait: it was the Firm’s decision not to give Archie a title and not H&M?

And here we see how the media drives thoughts and opinions. When Archie was born and the announcement came, I and several of my friends assumed that Harry and Meghan had chosen to not give him a title and instead afford him a regular life despite being the son of a prince. Not so. Meghan shared that the Firm–the RF as a whole–decided not to give the baby a royal title. And why? Protocol, they say. But I’m pretty sure Meghan’s reveal that some members discussed how “dark” Archie would be had something to do with that decision. (Talk about the part of the interview that infuriated me more than I can even describe.) It’s just interesting, optics and media, no? Even Harry and Meghan showing the baby, not on the steps on the Lindo Wing post-birth like Kate M and Harry’s mother, but in Windsor Castle, seemed like their choice. It wasn’t. (By the way, post-birth, a photo op seems really intrusive and weird and like physically uncomfortable to look at, but yeah.) Anyway, my point: their decision to want to step back as Senior working members of the RF was warranted and completely called for.

So, Team Meghan, right?

Absolutely. From the start. (Just search Meghan on TSP and you’ll see what I mean.)

Thanks for coming to my Ted Talk, folks. Happy FriYAY and bon weekend, as well.

The Hanging Tree, The End

Sitting deep in the woods, within a slight clearing, was the oak tree. Its trunk was massive and burly, with branches strong enough to bear the weight of the African American men, women, and children who met their final moments at its feet. Some of the white children, some of whom had been present during some of the lynchings, began to refer to it as the Hanging Tree. After Myron’s final hanging in 1961, someone had anonymously tied a  rope around the base of the trunk, its fibers painted red…  

On this particular warm morning in 2014, however, a gathering of teenagers, led by their American  History teacher, her mother, and a few of her friends and colleagues, approached the clearing. Bringing up the rear  were camera crews and reporters from an assortment of local news stations. When this assembly arrived at the tree,  the students formed a circle around it, each grabbing the hand of the person next to them.  

“That’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,” Rebecca Harper whispered in her  daughter’s ear as the students formed their circle and held hands.  

“Truly,” Alice replied, both stunned by her students’ gesture and overcome with  emotion.  

Standing next to her, Henry Cooper slipped his hand into hers. Alice glanced down at their joined hands. History was one thing, yes, and the future was another.

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A pleasure to share this story with you. Thanks for reading, for commenting, for liking.

More stories to come!

The Hanging Tree, Part 5

Alice slipped on a pair of sunglasses when she walked outside the next morning due to  the glare of the sun, but primarily to cover her swollen eyes. Following her short, succinct meeting with the superintendent, the desire to both scream and give up had culminated in a weeping session in the ladies’ room. (She drily noted that the time spent sobbing in the bathroom stall had been longer than the meeting itself.) As she walked toward the parking lot, her mind raced, sadness and confusion swelling in her chest. However, rage was quickly surpassing those other emotions. By the time Alice reached her car and discovered Henry Cooper standing next to it, she wanted to shatter somebody’s windshield with her fists. Perhaps the superintendent’s. Surprised that he was there, she nevertheless held up her hand. “I can’t talk to you right now,”  she said.  

“What happened in there?” Henry asked.  

“I’m surrounded by inept, idiotic fools who care more about public relations than education. That’s what happened in there.”  

Hot, angry tears quickly then pulsated behind her eyes. It was her lot in life to react to anger with tears. As the tears descended past her sunglasses, down her face, and onto her blouse, Henry approached her and placed his arm around her shoulders.  

“You planned this,” Alice said, wiping her face. “To be here and to be the hero.”  

“I just wanted to support you. This actual moment, however, with my arm around you, might be icing on the cake. Although I would prefer that you weren’t crying.”   

“Did you really turn down Atlanta because of me?” Alice asked.  

Henry nodded. “I didn’t like the idea of not being in the same building as you.” 

“You should know that it’s highly likely that I’ll be fired, so being in the same building as me may not matter.”

“Yes.”

“I’m taking the kids to the tree.”  

“I know.”  

“I might go to another school in another city, another state.”  

“I know that, too. But Alice, I can only hope that if there’s a chance that you leave, it won’t be goodbye.” 

Alice took off her sunglasses and looked up at him. “I mean it, Henry. I need to really know you first.” 

“I want you to know me, remember?”  

There was no harm to simply getting to know him, was there? she reasoned. Admittedly,  the fact that he was even there at the superintendent’s office spoke volumes. Slowly, she placed her head on his shoulder.

The Hanging Tree, Part 4

“Would you date someone outside of your race?”

Nadine Maxwell peered at Alice over her wineglass following the latter’s question. Having since reconciled over their disagreement earlier that week (being friends since grade school meant they couldn’t live with an impasse between them for too long), the two sat on the floor in Alice’s living room that evening. In advance of the next day’s meeting, it was Alice’s intention to drink away the abundance of nerves that currently consumed her. The idea of meeting the superintendent with a slight hangover paled in comparison to quieting the butterflies that roamed about the entirety of her body.

“That’s certainly an interesting question,” Nadine said.

“Well, would you?”

“I would and I have.”  

Alice’s eyes widened. “You have?”

“Sure. In college. He was Asian.”

“Asian? Where was I?”  

“Probably holding mock sit-ins at the local diner.”  

The two collapsed into endless giggles.  

“All right, let’s be serious,” Alice then said. “How—I mean—” Her voice trailed off.

“Alice, I didn’t care that he was Asian,” Nadine said. “He was simply a great guy. That’s the criteria for whoever I end up falling for: if he’s a great guy, that’s all I need. I don’t care where he’s from or what he looks like.”

“But what about someone who understands our culture, people, and our background? Our Black experience?” Alice countered. “Aren’t those things important?”

“They are. And I’ll want to reach a place of understanding about those things, or at least try to come close, and also acknowledge our differences. But if we don’t share the same experience, that’s fine. The essence of the individual is far more important to me.”

She blinked rapidly, astounded by her friend’s words. Could she step outside of her comfort zone? Did she even want to?

“This is about Henry Cooper, isn’t it?” Nadine asked.  

“How in the world did you know?”  

Nadine laughed. “Oh, my poor friend. He’s been head over heels for you since we were in high school, Alice. Of course, if you didn’t notice the guy I was dating, you wouldn’t notice anything else. He even stayed in Myron because of you. Five years ago, he was offered a job teaching in Atlanta and he turned it down.”

Alice shook her head in disbelief at this revelation. Images of high-school aged Henry Cooper attending her rallies, handing out flyers, attending her speeches flooded her mind, as if a window to the past had been finally unlocked. “I’m blinder than a roomful of bats,” she muttered, a phrase her father was famous for saying. She then recalled Henry’s words.

Stop looking behind you and look right in front of you.

Nadine touched her arm. “Look, Al, you can feel whatever you like. There’s no rule that says you have to return Henry’s feelings. But I also think, in this case, you’re judging a book solely by its cover. And that’s something I know you don’t want to be a part of.”

*

End it. Make a statement to your students and to the school board that you regret the divisive nature of this endeavor. Abandon this plan or there will be adverse consequences.

The Hanging Tree, Part 3

Unfortunately for Alice, however, Henry Cooper wasn’t leaving her mind anytime soon.  She thought so much about his admission that she found herself bursting into his classroom early Monday morning.

Sitting at his desk, Henry looked up at her in surprise, his reading glasses nearly falling off in the process. He stood up. “Alice—”  

“Did you actually believe that you’d tell me that you’re in love with me and I would choose not to talk about it?” Alice asked.  

“Well, I—”  

“I’m Black!”  

Henry nodded and smiled slightly. “I noticed.”  

“Is this some kind of strange fascination? Is that what this is?” she questioned.   

The smile disappeared from his face. “You think my feelings are part of a strange fascination?”  

“It’s a valid question, Henry. History validates that question. Thousands of black babies born in fields and barns with white fathers who would never acknowledge them validate that question. I  want to know where all of this is coming from.”  

Henry shook his head. “Forgive me, but that might be the most ridiculous thing I’ve  ever heard. Open your eyes, Alice. Stop looking behind you and look right in front of you.” He walked around the desk and approached her. “You’re Black. So what? I’m White. So what?”  

“You can’t ‘so what?’ race. We don’t live in that kind of world,” she replied. “And to be frank, I have to ask these questions. I don’t really know you. Yes, we grew up together and we’re colleagues, and yes, we’ve spent some time outside of school, but bowling and game nights don’t mean anything. I don’t know you, Henry.”  

“Then get to know me, Alice,” he said softly, his brown eyes fixed on hers. “Get to know  me.”  

Startled by the earnestness of his appeal, Alice nonetheless stepped back. “I need to go,”  she said before marching out of the room.  

*

“Ms. Harper?”  

She turned from the chalkboard later that and regarded McKinley Battle, one of the tenth graders  in her fourth-period class. “Yes, Mr. Battle?”  

“My mom told me that if you take us to the tree, she’s going to make sure that you lose your job.”  

Alice nodded. “I know, Mr. Battle. She informed me of that, as well.”  

“But…you’re still taking us, right?”  

*

An hour later, #takeustothetree began trending on various forms of social media. By  mid-afternoon, local civil rights chapters urged the school board to approve the visit to the  Hanging Tree.  

Finally, at the end of the day, Alice Harper received a call from the superintendent’s  office. She was to meet with Franklin Walsh, the superintendent, first thing the following  morning.