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“They’ve probably just gone out for a smoke.”
“Where is my son?” He addressed me as if I’d kidnapped Winston.
“He must be on an errand, Dr. Okapu.”
“Where is that…young woman? Who says her husband knows people in the State Department?”
“I need to speak to her.”
“Oh, Dr. Okapu, does Ted know Cornelia’s getting involved?”
“Ted!” He might have been spitting. “Mr. Ted Reilly has done nothing for us but get us deported.”
“Deported? He hasn’t said a word about that.”
“How else can this end, if we don’t get asylum?”
We stared to the right of one another. Finally—I knew I shouldn’t have said it, I knew it—I said, “Dr. Okapu, if you do go back to Nigeria, I could take Winston in.”
Now he did spit, a slow sizzle through the gap in his front teeth. “Do you think I can’t take care of my own sons?”
“No, Dr. Okapu, of course not.”
“That I would hand them over? To—” He swept his arm across the room until it stopped at me. Then he pivoted on one heel and marched out. From the outer office he called: “Perhaps you would be good enough to ask Cornelia to call me.”
Ted said the judge looked at Dr. Okapu, who was describing how he’d been photographed during a demonstration, as if he were a shifty-eyed drug dealer. “Which he was—well, the shifty-eyed part.” Ted waited for me to tell him not to call a client shifty-eyed. “Why couldn’t he just look the judge in the eye? If he wants to stay so bad.” Still I didn’t say anything. “So badly? If he wants to stay so much.”
“Maybe it’s a cultural thing. Not looking people in the eye.”
“He damn well better learn that much about this culture.” I’d never seen Ted that angry at a client. Dr. Okapu had shamed him in front of a big-deal federal judge.
“Will they be deported?”
“Well, you know….” What Ted meant, in those pre-9/11 days, was that the judge would deny asylum and issue a deportation order, but if Dr. Okapu really wanted to stay he could just disappear into the South Side of Chicago or even the West Side of Greenglass. He could get a new social security number for a thousand bucks, and Ted could probably tell him where to buy it—but he would always be looking over his shoulder.
“Do you think he really demonstrated with Saro-wiwa?”
But Ted was an attorney and knew better than to answer that question. He shrugged and left for the law school to teach his afternoon class, and I began to practice the blank faces I could wear when Winston came in after school.
“Bad news for the Okapu family?” I could have throttled Cornelia. Her husband was supposed to be seeing what he could do, but I doubted she’d even told him about the case. She strolled off in the afternoons with one intern or the other, and the petty cash box was always empty.
And then when Winston came in an hour later, she let out a squeal. He was wearing a new basketball jersey. “You made varsity!” He flashed his golden smile, went to his chair, sat at attention.
“Winston! “ Cornelia wagged her finger. “Come let me give you a hug!”
He obeyed, slowly. She more than hugged him: she did a bump and a grind. I retreated to my office so I wouldn’t say anything nasty, but from inside I could hear her carrying on: “You’re going to have girls crawling all over you, Winston, you know you are. This is super. This is awesome. Varsity. Oh baby, I am proud of you. Are you going to let me do your hair now? Come on, let me braid you for the first home game, say you will.”
I cleared my throat. The office settled down. But after a few minutes I heard her say:
“Come look at this one. You should see me in this,” and I jumped to my feet and called her name. I would have dragged her into my office by the scruff of her neck if she had not come willingly. I met her halfway.
“Please close that door.”
She did. Showdown in the O.K. Legal Clinic Corral. We were six inches from each other. I could smell her Chanel. She was wearing a suit that might have been Chanel too, for all I knew, pink plaid over her curvy little hips.
“Cornelia, that boy is sixteen years old.”
She looked at me as if I were mad.
“You have to stop tormenting him.”
Now she was the one practicing blank faces. “I’m sorry if I did anything to offend you.”
“To offend me?”
She scrunched the left side of her mouth. “Maybe you identify him with your own sons.”
“This has nothing to do with me.”
“Have you ever heard of projecting?” she said. “Because, you may not be aware of it, but white people do that—.” She stopped dead. She must have seen my face turning a floral shade of purple. I could hear my heart fluttering like a bird in my chest. “And also I think maybe you identify me with whomever busted up your marriage.”
A little strangled cry left my throat. “Whoever busted up my marriage.”
“I don’t know who busted up your marriage,” she said. “Just between you and I—”
“It’s just between you and me.” I was calm at first, but I began to repeat myself, and in the chorus I heard myself picking up the pace. “You and me. You and me. You and me.” I took a step forward. I slapped her in rhythm to my words, left cheek, right cheek, left cheek, right cheek. She was so surprised she let me, and I was so surprised I kept at it. I remember barking, “You steal the petty cash from a poor people’s clinic,” but Dawn says I said more, lots more, about stealing people’s husbands and stealing young men’s dignity. Dawn and I had a good giggle about it later, but right then I wasn’t giggling. I had progressed to shaking Cornelia by the shoulders and evidently I was rattling her teeth, because when Dawn and Winston burst in they both looked terrified, as if I were a marauding stranger. Cornelia was trying to push me away with her slender Chaneled wrists, so they peeled me off and Dawn pinned me against the wall.
“Just between you and me,” I called to Cornelia, “I already know I’m uptight and judgmental and guilt-ridden. Ha!” I actually said ha. I was elated. It was all a big joke, though a joke on whom I’m not sure I could have said. Maybe I’d hit the bottom of the chute. I could finally remember what that lady with the gas bill looked like: above her chins a full mouth painted purple, a broad nose breathing fire. Her small eyes were wide-set, white-hot coals.