A little while back, my friend Martha Thomas and I went to a happy hour held by a city magazine we both wrote for. I brought Jane and she brought her daughter Mary, since having them play together saved us each the cost of a sitter. They ran off to a less crowded corner of the place while we struggled to get near the bar. Fresh from months of hot yoga, I had exhumed my black miniskirt and heels from their mausoleum.
On the way, I attempted to wriggle past a tall African-American gentleman with short, graying hair and the build of a retired NFL tight end. “Can I help you, baby?” he said with amusement. “Do you need a glass of wine?” He was dressed in an immaculate three-piece suit with a pocket square. As he sized me up, his lips curved in an deep U shape, like a ladle. “I think I need to get to get know you better.”
Not long after we introduced ourselves, shouting to be heard and still smushed together by the crowd, J. Joshua Johnson asked me out. “Would you like to spend some time with me?” he said, smooth as Southern Comfort. “Can I take you to lunch?”
I studied him skeptically.
“It doesn’t have to be lunch! I’ll to take you to dinner, I’ll take you to breakfast, I’ll take you anywhere you want to go,” he said, his dimples deep, his teeth glinting.
At this point, I caught sight of Jane and Mary threading their way toward us. Jane explained that they couldn’t get near the hors d’oeuvres and were starving. “Could we go sit down in the restaurant and order?” asked Mary.
“Well, sure,” I said magnanimously. Then called after them, “Hey Split something!”
By this time, Martha had materialized at my elbow. I introduced her to my new friend. “He wants to take me to lunch,” I told her. The two of them began debating possibilities. Martha, a food writer, voted for a fancy place in the Inner Harbor.
J.J. smiled. “Is that okay with you, beautiful? How ‘bout this Friday?”
Well, it sounded okay to me, but it was also happening a little fast. I suggested we get in touch to confirm.
After his departure, some nearby ladies offered testimonials. A friend of his who owned a deli, clearly a nice Jewish girl like myself, leaned over to comment. “That went well, didn’t it, dolling?”
“He’s quite a smoothie,” I said.
“Oh, he’s a very nice man. You should definitely let him take you to lunch,” she said.
“Go to lunch, yes, you’ll have a lovely time,” another woman, bosomy and blond, counseled. “But no matter what, do not sleep with him for at least three weeks.”
“Three weeks?” I said dubiously. I hadn’t had sex in over a year, and that time was the relapse situation with my ex. Really, I almost hadn’t had sex in two years.
“Three weeks!” she repeated firmly. She launched into some of the standard arguments for restraint.
“Okay,” I said, “You’re right. Three weeks.” She rolled her eyes, as did several others around us. Sure, they were thinking. That woman is a desperate ho.
When I went to find Jane and Mary, they were seated at a candlelit table surrounded by half-empty plates and glasses. They’d had lobster macaroni and cheese, Caesar salad, garlic bread, and a couple of Shirley Temples. Now the waitress was on her way with cheesecake and a sundae.
“Whoa,” I said. “That’s quite a spread, girls.” I looked around for Martha, hoping she would split the bill.
“You know your friend in the suit?” said Jane. “J.J.?”
“Well he came and got the check, told us to order dessert and paid for the whole thing.”
“He even tipped the waitress,” Mary added.
My eyes widened and my head swiveled toward the doors through which he must have exited, as if I’d see a twinkling jet-trail of stars hovering above the white marble floor.
The intervening days were filled with the usual preparations and hysteria about what to wear. I ended up in brown wool wide-leg pants, a somewhat suburban low-cut shirt with metallic peacock feather designs on it, and high heels I couldn’t walk in. But there are no high heels I can walk in, so what can you do.
I waited until Friday morning to get a manicure so it wouldn’t get wrecked before the lunch, then ruinously scraped it getting into the car. By this time I was so wound up, I practically had a stroke driving downtown in the pouring rain, and another when I saw the price of the parking lot in the Inner Harbor.
A set of revolving doors led me from the monsoon into the smiling welcome of hostesses and coat-takers. The restaurant was warm and dry, with golden sconces glowing against the polished paneling and thick carpets to buttress my tottering heels. J.J. was waiting for me, as impeccably turned out as ever.
“You look beautiful, darling,” he said. “I’m so glad you came. Order anything you want. Anything.”
As we ate and sipped at balloon goblets of wine, I asked about his childhood. It sounded rough. Between his mother and father, he told me, they’d had 23 children. But the ghetto days were clearly over now. He took calls from people in the mayor’s office during lunch. He heard from his daughter Josie, whose car had been towed up at Penn. Throughout the conversation, he sprinkled mention of a lot of cool-sounding things he owned, boats, beach houses and such.
And he asked about me. Oh, me. You know, I’m a famous ex-junkie AIDS widow. It is really hard to condense the story of my life into polite conversation, but I tried. “I hope hanging around with me won’t ruin your reputation,” I concluded.
“Oh, well. I have some issues in my past, too,” he said, smiling. “I’ll probably tell you when we get to know each other a little better.”
As we lingered, he asked if I’d ever dated a black guy. I told him about Brent, a tall, beautiful boy from Southern California I knew in New York in the early 80s. I didn’t ask him if he’d dated white women. That would have been silly.
We had a warm but not messy kiss in the lobby of the parking garage, which by the way cost $13 an hour. But I was just winging those bills out the window fast as I could, eager to get home and start Googling.
It wasn’t easy, but LexisNexis finally got me to an old article in The Baltimore Sun. J.J. had been the leader of one of two groups of investors competing to take over a hotel project for the city — until his opponents leaked to the press that he was a convicted felon who had done time for attempted murder.
The following Monday, J.J. stopped by my house after work in his vintage red Corvette, electrifying my neighborhood. I was cooking dinner for a friend’s elderly parents and felt awkward asking him to join us. They would have assumed he was a new boyfriend — I’d never even had them over before — but inwardly I wondered whether it was because he was black. Would I be inviting him to stay if he were white? Was he wondering this too?
“Oh, honey, you don’t have to invite me to dinner. I don’t even eat dinner. I’ll just sit at the counter, and watch you cook for a while,” he reassured me.
He certainly watched me. Watched every move. I felt like I was doing something much sexier than cleaning shrimp, as if my curves were highlighted like key passages in a text. “You look like you know what you’re doing in the kitchen,” he commented.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” I said again awkwardly, “this is so rude.”
“Honey, I keep trying to tell you. I’m perfectly happy. Stop being so nervous, I adore you. Don’t you adore me?” he asked.
I couldn’t help laughing. “J.J., white people don’t say ‘I adore you’ in situations like this. But theoretically, I adore you too.”
“Okay, then what are you doing Friday night?” he asked. “I think I have some free time then.”
By now I’d waited long enough to get to the subject that was really on my mind. I confessed my to Internet snooping, and he sighed, then told me this story.
Back in his twenties, J.J. had owned a nightclub in DC with a partner. The partner had a girlfriend who was married to an abusive asshole, and they’d asked J.J. to help them get rid of the guy. J.J. said hell no. They offered money. He told them it was a bad idea.
Not long after that, the partner called and asked J.J. to meet him at the mall. When he pulled into the parking lot, it was full of police cars. As they cuffed him, he learned there had been an unsuccessful attempt on the life of Mr. Asshole. The wife was the initial suspect, but she told the cops she hired J.J. to do it.
At the time of this unpleasant trip to the mall, J.J. was packing heat — necessary, he explained, because he was constantly carrying cash from the club. That didn’t help his case. Nor did a phone call the wife had recorded in which they had discussed the idea.
Long story short, both of them did time. All-white jury in DC, he said, what do you think. Fortunately, he served five years of a 35-year sentence and was paroled at 30. Having made the most of his time behind bars, he left the pen most of the way to a degree in business and a second wife. (His first flew the coop after he got locked up, so he married the woman who taught college classes in the jail.)
I was filled with outrage and sympathy and disbelief, but not the kind of disbelief where you actually don’t believe. I did believe.
Friday night came. But before that, just a half-day before that, came my period. Tsunami style. I was in despair. How was I going to have sex for the first time in so long while I was hemorrhaging? Plus, considering I had already told him I have Hepatitis C (part of the I-didn’t-get-AIDS speech), there were not just aesthetic but health issues. Oh Jesus Christ. Maybe I should cancel the whole date.
But I’d already taken Jane up to her dad’s in Pennsylvania. I’d put on my black pants and dark blue satin top with sparkly buttons. I’d lined my eyes and glossed my lips, and then I’d taken a little detour. I was standing in front of the refrigerator eating leftover collard greens with my fingers. You know, I make great collards. I wondered dreamily whether I should bring him a sample. Oh right, a Tupperware bowl of collard greens and maybe some Jheri-curl cream too.
J.J. lived in Reservoir Hill, a part of town I had not visited before. Once an elite neighborhood, it had since descended most of the way into hood-dom. But J.J.’s place was as close to a mansion as a row home could be, with arched windows and pillars and curved balconies. It was surrounded by a wrought-iron fence draped in chains and titanium locks. Letting me in was a complex procedure.
Inside, though, was a world of wonders.
There was room after room with walls painted in dark jewel tones and windows cloaked in thick velvet curtains. Each room contained a certain type of item, displayed on shelves and pedestals and in backlit glass cases. The first room was Buddhas: golden, wooden, jade, stone, each with its hands in the classic mudra, its face wearing a meditative smile. Next room hourglasses. Some were tiny. Some were waist-high. Some were Victorian, others seemingly Egyptian.
After that, we came into a sort of living room, or at least the first room with couches and chairs. It featured models of clipper ships and framed oil paintings hung almost edge to edge.
Could a straight man really live here? A straight, single black ex-convict? It seemed more like some obscure museum in the 16th arrondissement of Paris than a home. But wait, there was more: out back, in addition to the Vette I’d already seen, there was a vintage Bentley, a huge, brand-new SUV, and a gleaming Harley Davidson the size of a twin bed in its own heavily secured trailer. Finally we went through an enormous basement filled with pallets of rugs, furniture and paintings and God knows what else.
J.J. explained that after he got out of jail he had a little trouble landing a job, so entered various fields of self-employment, antique dealer and real estate agent among them.
Perhaps there had been others.
After a series of winding staircases through media rooms and guest quarters, we arrived at the level of the royal boudoir. The bed was covered in lustrous brocade and meticulously-arranged satin throw pillows. One wall of the room was made entirely of stained glass windows. Another was a plasma television. And from the midnight-blue ceiling were suspended a half-dozen life-size golden mermaid statues.
I had to tell him I had my period. I really did. But first, maybe I should have a drink. He made me a pink concoction in a black martini glass in his marble kitchenette while I sat at his computer trying to get us a dinner reservation and staring down my own cleavage, which waited patiently between dark blue satin lapels. I launched into a short, nervous speech about my period and how I almost cancelled our date. He told me not to worry about it. “Let’s just go to dinner, darlin’,” he said.
Out in the vehicle storage yard, I went to climb into the SUV. Here we ran into a little problem. There was one thing J.J. insisted on, he said. I was absolutely forbidden to open my own car door. Every single time I got into or — much more annoying — out of a car with him, I would wait until he came and opened the door for me. “What if,” he said, “you go hopping out of the car onto the sidewalk and somebody snatches you up before I even get there?”
“What the hell are you talking about?” I said. We had definitely grown up in different neighborhoods. But I had to let it go or we were never going to get to dinner. So I did. For the moment.
At dinner, I realized that I was noticing the race of each of the people that served us — most of them were black men — and wondering what each made of us as a couple. Did they think J.J. was cool for being with me? Did they think I was cool for being with him? Could I have been having any less cool thoughts than these? At some point J.J. told me that the people he worked with were cheap Jews, and in my uncoolness this actually made me feel better.
By the time we returned to his house I was drunk, which made me more relaxed about the whole megillah with getting in and out of the car, and before I knew it I was up there with the flying mermaids. It was my first time in so long, and I wanted it to be special and perfect, I wanted it to erase my ex-husband and all my self-doubt, but more likely it was just going to be an unsexy mess.
My date, bless his heart, seemed to feel that with enough bath towels and condoms we could negotiate the sidewalk sale on body fluids.
His handling of the situation was nothing if not gallant. He murmured compliments about my soft skin and my nice stomach, he didn’t even mention my damn tattoo of my husband’s initials, and though this was probably an abbreviated version of his usual lady-pleasing routine, it was still nice. It did feel very weird to be with someone other than my husband, but I tried not to dwell on it.
Later, lying sleepless and distraught beneath the flying mermaids, I started worrying about my usual bed partner, my beloved miniature dachshund. What could he possibly be thinking, now that it was 3:30 in the morning and I had never come home? I pictured him staring at the front door, his head tilted to the side. I would have left but I knew I couldn’t get through the security system on my own.
At 5 a.m., I ventured a delicate toss-and-turn maneuver. “You all right, baby?” he asked. When I explained that I had to go home to my dog, he put on a pair of pajama pants and padded downstairs to undo all the bolts and padlocks and let me out. We had a muted, pre-dawn farewell. He did not insist on following me to the car to open the door.
Both of the next two weekends he told me he might be able to see me. Both times, I assumed this meant he would see me. But never did he take my calls or answer my texts on a weekend night. I expressed my irritation about this in carefully-worded emails and phone calls. He said he would try to do better.
I said something about what I expect from a boyfriend.
“Am I going to be your boyfriend?” he wondered, genuinely surprised.
“Well, I don’t know,” I said. “I kind of thought so, I guess.”
The second Saturday night I sat with a girlfriend at a bar not far from his house, at first expecting he’d be joining us any minute; later, sending plaintive, drunken text messages. I was beginning to grasp, though he never explicitly said this, that I might not be his only girl. I might, for example, be a replacement trying out for the recently-vacated Number 16 spot.
We had sex one other time, sort of like make-up sex though we hadn’t exactly had a fight, at my house at lunchtime on a weekday. As we headed upstairs, I realized this would be the first time I’d been with a man in my post-marital bedroom, the incident with Humberto notwithstanding. J.J. admired the clerestory windows, the framed photographs, my mother’s collection of Herend china animals arranged on the dresser. I flipped the little blue dog to show him its clever gold penis. Then he asked me for some hangers, and spent about five minutes removing the many layers and accessories involved in his fancy work costume, carefully hanging each of them in the closet.
Having thrown my jeans and t-shirt on the floor in a matter of seconds, I lay on the bed in my black underwear watching.
The next weekend was Thanksgiving. He had plans he never clarified but called me on the holiday from a place where he was getting his car windshield fixed. I wondered if he’d been shot at. In between yelling instructions to the repair guy, he said he’d like to stop by before he left town.
“Well,” I said, “my sons are home from college. Would you like to meet them?”
“Sure,” he said, which I didn’t expect. I hung up the phone and turned to my sons, side by side on the couch, watching the Dallas Cowboys game.
“Boys,” I announced casually, “this guy I’m seeing is going to stop in before we go out to dinner.”
“You’re seeing someone?” asked Hayes.
“Yeah, dude, she’s seeing some black guy, didn’t she tell you?” his younger brother Vince replied.
“And he’s coming over? Is it, like, serious?” Hayes asked.
“Oh, I don’t think so, honey.”
I was sitting at my desk in the front room when J.J. pulled up to the curb. “Come here, guys,” I called. “My friend is here.” One of the highlights of the whole relationship for me was the looks on my sons’ faces when they saw J.J. get out of the Bentley. He was wearing a black leather Stetson hat, black tailored shirt and pants, softly gleaming black boots. He was blinged to the gills and really, the theme song from Shaft might as well have been playing in the background as he crossed the street.
“Holy shit, Mom,” Hayes said.
A week or so later, I had planned a dinner date with J.J. and my DC friends, Jim and Jessica and Judy and Lou. I was feeling unsure about the plan, but not unsure enough to cancel. Perhaps the timing was off for the friend introductions. Then things got called off at the very last minute when Lou had emergency heart surgery.
When I called J.J. to bring him up to speed on these developments, he didn’t seem to want to settle on an alternate plan. “You probably need to go down to DC and be with your friends,” he said.
I hadn’t even thought of that. “Not today, anyway.”
“Well, maybe we can make this work some other time, then.”
As usual there was all kinds of noise in the background and it was hard to communicate.
“I can’t really talk right now,” he said, “and you don’t seem to be reading between the lines. I’ll call you later.”
“Okay,” I said and hung up slowly, staring at the words Call Ended on the screen. Read between what lines? Didn’t we have a date? I didn’t understand.
I decided to take his advice and drive to DC where I found my friends not only no longer in the hospital but heading to a French bistro for dinner so the heart surgery patient could recount his story with the proper accompaniment of butter and alcohol. As I gazed out at the snowflakes drifting slowly down onto the sidewalks of our nation’s capital, basking in the glow of good wine and old friends, a text from J.J. popped up on my phone. I will call to reschedule.
But that was the last I ever heard of J. Joshua Johnson, my knight in shining bling, or he of me. One way or another, our three weeks were up.
Marion Winik writes “Bohemian Rhapsody,” a column about life, love, and the pursuit of self-awareness. Check out her heartbreakingly honest and funny essays twice a month on Baltimore Fishbowl.