America had decimated Kemi’s love life.
It had shredded her dignity and tossed its slivers into the air, cackling like a hyena. Relegated to picking up questionable prospects, Kemi was tired of wearing her invisible armor. A two-ton defense system that screamed to the world she didn’t need a man.
She couldn’t carry that weight anymore.
Lately, her dating life read like a dossier of shame. First, there was that one memorable dinner with Deepak.
“I think I told you I’m a software developer, right?” Deepak began to overdose on his own voice twenty minutes in. Kemi simply glared at him. She figured his name-dropping his career the sixth time wasn’t worth a verbal response. The rest of the evening, Deepak intermittently punctuated his monologues with his love for “Black booty.”
Then there was the silent date with Earl, a white accountant from Ohio, who summoned visions of a serial killer. Earl kept staring into nothingness past her face. Each time he tried glancing her way, his hawk eyes floated down her cleavage then darted back to the intriguing void beyond her.
She wasn’t sure if he was shy or scheming.
And how could she forget the Jamaican real estate agent, Devan, whose gaze kept trailing every white woman who sauntered past their table while professing unflinching love for the sisters?
America had stretched Kemi’s limits and run her resolve through an involuntary boot camp. According to every dating survey she had ever read, she—a Black African woman—was the least desirable relationship prospect, alongside Asian men.
Those surveys said first choice was someone else.
This verdict chipped away at Kemi, carving and presenting a weaker version of herself that received every suitor through a skeptical lens of paranoia. Yet, like a glutton for punishment, she kept going back to the app that faithfully failed her with precision.
“Don’t worry, my dear.” Her mother’s drawl would float abruptly into her stream of consciousness whenever she found herself swiping faces left or right on her iPhone.
Then it would taper off into a miniature sermon, followed by a reprimand. “God’s time is the best. Go to church! Stop wasting your time! Don’t let the devil tempt you unnecessarily, sọ gbọ? Are you listening?”
Her mother’s tenderness was always delivered with a healthy backhand of realism. Kemi would automatically nod at each passing statement, knowing full well her mother was on the phone and couldn’t see her.
Frankly, she was tired of nodding during family discussions, in executive boardrooms, and on boring dates. She was tired of being the archetypical Strong Black Woman, impervious to vulnerability. Pretending she didn’t need a man’s touch for years had lost its luster.
She was lonely.
“Seriously? How do you do it, guurl?” Connor’s Boston Irish accent cut through her concentration like a grating radio frequency. “You are one remarkable woman!”
She didn’t look up at him. Whenever Connor launched into faux urban speak, Kemi averted her eyes to spare his dignity. She had been reviewing the latest brand layouts an advertising agency had sent over. With eyebrows furrowed and forehead resting on her fingers, she scanned the copy, cringing at language that showed a single point of view had been responsible for the global campaign meant to cut across diverse views.
She was still mad at Connor for insisting she review it once more, even though she’d been adamant it was a waste of time. He’d simply waved her out of his office, saying if anyone could bake brownies out of shit, it was Kemi.
“What?” Kemi half asked, still reading the crap copy.
“I said,” he dragged on, “you are one remarkable woman, Kemi. Congratulations!” He fully stepped into her corner office with its panoramic glass windows that mentally separated her from cubicle life. It physically didn’t, but Kemi needed it to.
She wanted him to leave her space. He pressed on. “You won National Marketing Executive of the Year! Again! Congratulations!” A grin spread across his lightly freckled face. He folded his muscular arms across his chest, shirt sleeves rolled up to the elbows.
She responded with a deep breath and then, “Thanks, Connor,” tapering off into a smile.
“Well, thank the awards committee! We can’t go public yet with the news because it is embargoed until early May, but we should celebrate early. I’ll get Rita to fix a cake and some champagne,” he added.
“Thanks, but really, I don’t want to make a fuss about it. It’s a huge honor but—”
He cut her off. “Well, we’re gonna make a fuss about it, about you, so on Friday, Rita will get the cake and champagne, okay?”
She smiled again, deeply this time, revealing equally deep dimples. That was when she caught it. Again. The naked look in his eyes. That split-second linger that revealed her boss wanted her.
She turned sharply away from him and back to the copy she was struggling to fix. “Thanks again, Connor,” she said, hurrying him along so he would leave. She felt his looming presence before Connor turned to go with pounding feet. Kemi glanced up in time to catch that familiar gait she’d been seeing almost every week for the last four years. The swagger that screamed to everyone it met that he ran the place, even if he didn’t actually own the company.
She couldn’t stay at Andersen & Associates any longer.
Thoughts of resigning swam in her head daily. They swan-dived in on Mondays whenever Connor rounded the team up for meetings. They did laps on Tuesdays whenever he circled her, walking a tightrope between flirting and bossing. They surfaced for air on Wednesdays whenever he was out of the office on client runs. And they continued with butterfly strokes into the weekend when she tried to bury them.
Though she had finally settled into her executive role and had turned a few key client portfolios from red ink into black, Connor McDonough’s look reminded her that she was still a specimen to be sampled and tested. Or rather, tasted. He was already married to his first choice, yet he wanted to try her like cheese on toothpicks handed out to passersby at a farmers market.
He had no intention of making a purchase. He was one of those men who wanted to steal into the fridge at night to binge while everyone was asleep, only to return to their diets—their wives—come morning.
Connor had tried to hide his leering over the years unsuccessfully. He classed everything Kemi did as “remarkable” even though she was just doing her job, his mediocre way of worming himself closer to her through empty flattery.
She picked up loose sheets of horrendous copy from her desk and started ripping them, one after the other. Shredding and shredding and letting the pieces float like confetti about her desk and office with a view of Capitol Hill far away, framed by light-pink cherry blossoms.
Like cold water to the face of a drunk, the high-pitched buzz of her desk phone interrupted her paper-ripping parade, followed by the high-pitched voice of her personal assistant, Nicole.
“There’s an Ingrid John Hansen on line one from Sweden. Should I put her through?”
She’d never heard the name before, but Kemi was also used to Nicole butchering names. She received the transfer from her assistant.
“Kemi Adeyemi,” she introduced herself.
“Kemi, I am Ingrid Johansson from von Lundin Marketing based in Stockholm,” came a distinct melodic lilt that seemed on the verge of bursting into show tunes.
Recognition rushed in at the mention of “von Lundin,” the international firm currently mired in a global scandal that probably started with lazy, poorly researched copy similar to the one she’d just ripped into confetti.
Ingrid continued before Kemi could respond.
“I am honored to get this opportunity to speak directly to you. I am head of global talent management, and we have just created a brand-new top management position that will report directly to our CEO, Johan von Lundin. Although he prefers to be called Jonny,” she poured out in a single breath. Rather, “Yonny” in Ingrid’s accent. “We have created the position of global diversity and inclusion director, and we think you are perfect for the job.”
Kemi let Ingrid’s words sink in. She was being headhunted directly by one of the largest marketing agencies in the world.
The words “How did you find me?” stumbled out inelegantly. She couldn’t take them back. Of course she was easy to find.
“We follow the National Marketing Awards closely, and we know you won Marketing Executive of the Year last year. You have worked with major brands, and we know you have been involved in some of their most diverse campaigns. We need your talent and expertise.”
“After the IKON fiasco, right?” Kemi didn’t want to bring it up, but she had to. IKON was an international Swedish clothing brand marketed by von Lundin, and one of their advertising campaigns would, no doubt, be used as a case study in future advertising curriculums across universities worldwide as a prime example of what not to do.
It was something along the lines of using “Leave your color at the door, we don’t need it” while promoting a series of blouses and dresses fashioned in delicate, bone-white lace. It riled Swedish society, all the way from minorities in its upper echelons to newly arrived immigrants, and had caught the attention of international press quick to jump on the country’s integration issues. That copy should never have left von Lundin’s pitching stage. Unless that team was indeed lacking in diversity and the reason why Ingrid was currently quiet on the other line. The phone call reeked of damage control.
“Y-Yes,” Ingrid continued after a two-second silence. “It was an unfortunate incident, but it also showed us how much we need to diversify our top management. We need strong voices at the table, and we want you, Kemi,” she continued. “We need you here in Sweden.”
“Thank you for the offer, Ms. Johansson, but my life is here in the States.” Kemi looked down at her watch. Ten fifteen on Monday morning and her week was already off to an intriguing start.
“I understand, and I’m sure Andersen is lucky to have such a remarkable talent, but I would love you to please consider a meeting with us.”
Remarkable. There was that word again.
“I can’t fly to Stockholm.”
“Oh, no,” Ingrid sang. “Jonny will come to you.”
Brittany-Rae Johnson was born to first-generation immigrants who fled Jamaica and settled in the muggy warmth of Atlanta, Georgia, for no clear reasons explained to her. While she was growing up as their sole child, reminders of her Jamaican roots were found at Uncle Dajuan’s house three streets away whenever they visited him on weekends for curried goat and her parents switched into patois.
“Jamaica boring!” she’d often hear him joke as they dug into reminders of home off their Sunday plates.
“Boring?” she’d start her futile argument. “People go there for their honeymoon.”
“Mi point exactly,” he’d reply while cracking into bones. “Dem go for lovey-dovey, make babies, smoke ganja, and come back to dem real life. Boring!” He’d finish off by licking his fingers one by one. One man’s paradise…
Her parents had struggled financially up until both their retirements. That wasn’t going to be her own destiny, if she could help it.
So, when Samuel Beaufount had floated into her life riding on his wings of fame and wealth, Brittany clung to him like a backhoe digging her out of Patois, goat, and ganja.
She had dreamed of going to fashion school to become a designer, envisioning sketching outlines, poring over fabrics, and launching her own line on catwalks in Paris and London. But Beaufount had derailed her and thrust her down the path of modeling.
Fifteen years ago, his air of self-importance had walked into Brittany’s textile design class way before the man himself did. As the legendary designer behind Beaufount—upscale men’s brand and go-to choice for metrosexuals who enjoyed pink shirts and turquoise trousers—he was going to be their guest lecturer for the term. This was his way of giving back to the next generation of designers, per the press release put out by his company.
His presence therefore demanded their rapt attention. He stood much taller and broader than they’d all seen on TV. Mindless bantering among the students died down the second Beaufount strolled into their class. He glided in wearing a pink pin-striped shirt encased in a green tartan suit, topped off with a green polka-dotted bow tie, his platinum hairdo slicked off his face.
His brown gaze swept over each student, wordlessly accepting or rejecting them. It landed on Brittany, and he followed its pull, planting himself in front of her desk, the class waiting with bated breath. He peered down at her for seconds, which stretched on for an eternity in Brittany’s mind, as he singled her out. Once she’d peeled off her initial feeling of dread, another emotion had bubbled up within Brittany. Beaufount had made her feel like the most exquisite creature he’d ever seen.
“You shouldn’t be in here,” he finally said with a deep baritone that belied his flamboyant exterior. “You should be modeling.”
Barely a week later, Beaufount became her manager. The first time he backed her into a corner had only been two weeks after that initial standoff in her textile class.
Beaufount remained the unrelenting weight bearing down on her slender, five-foot-eleven-inch frame. She still hadn’t talked to anyone about it besides a therapist she saw maybe once a month whenever she slunk into self-shaming.
Even her best friend, Tanesha, hadn’t been privy to any of it, and Tanesha had been sitting right next to her when she had become Beaufount’s pet project.
“Do you want to see something special?” Beaufount had asked Brittany when he’d invited her to his sprawling estate on the outskirts of downtown Atlanta. She had responded with a smile then a nod before setting down her porcelain teacup lined with golden vines on an equally delicate center table.
He led her through an intricate maze of grandiose rooms until he settled in front of gilded double doors. He glanced over his shoulder at Brittany, a coy smile on his lips, before opening both doors at once in a dramatic fashion.
His works in progress. A shrine to designs that were slowly materializing from creative ghosts in his mind to full-bodied apparitions worth thousands of dollars.
The walk-in closet swallowed up an awe-stricken Brittany, and Beaufount quietly shut the doors behind them.
Six months after he became her manager, Brittany dropped out of fashion school. Fifteen years later, thirty-eight-year-old Brittany stood in the galley as a flight attendant, serving water and champagne in small glasses to rich people.
Brittany had witnessed how the affluent floated into her cabins. They had an untouchable aura. She could sniff them out like a bloodhound. They often came dressed in understated ways, wearing very little bling, maybe one piece of jewelry—but worth a year’s salary. It was the difference between affording one Michelin-starred course versus buying the whole damn restaurant on a whim.
She’d often wondered how that cloak of impenetrable privilege would feel around her shoulders.
For a few months in her early twenties, she had tasted privilege with Samuel Beaufount, but as seasons changed into decades, Brittany had seen levels well beyond his stature.
The first few passengers in British Airways business class were settling in, shoving hand luggage into overhead bins, and handing suit jackets to her colleagues who were roaming through the cabin ensuring comfort.
Brittany took a quick look in the sliver of a mirror above the parked food carts to check her makeup and push loose strands of her bone-straight weave back before picking up the tray and heading down the aisle. Her cherry-red lips widened into a smile as she started her routine, handing out glasses and asking the passengers if they wanted champagne or water. She never broke stride, moving from one uninterested passenger to the next, occasionally pausing as a hand reached onto her tray.
The cabin was rather empty today. She was manning the last flight to Washington out of London that Thursday evening. Most of the business travelers had caught earlier flights to make it in time for corporate meetings or to close deals over lavish dinners.
“Welcome on board,” she said, stopping by seat 6A where a man with blond hair brushed back from his face sat gazing out the window. He was wearing a sky-blue shirt, and his left hand, which tapped restlessly on his knee, bore a titanium watch. “Would you like something to drink? Some wine maybe?” He turned, pinning her with an intense gray-blue glare. She shifted her weight uncomfortably as he kept staring at her.
“Would you like something to drink, sir?” she repeated.
“Yes, yes, of course,” he answered, in an accent tinged with something Nordic. He reached for a glass of water, making eye contact over the rim as he downed its contents in one go. She smiled and was about to turn when he reached out again.
“One more…please.” He grabbed another glass and repeated the same over-the-rim scrutiny of her, making her uneasy. If that was his way of flirting, she wasn’t into it.
“Thank you.” He handed both glasses over just as a tall, lean woman with similar blond coloring came rushing up the aisle, panting. She was wearing a masculine-cut shirt buttoned up to her chin.
“Oj! Förlåt att jag är sen!” She was breathless, cheeks flushed pink, as she dropped her bag onto the empty seat next to the blond man.
The tall woman seemed frazzled, and Brittany offered to help her settle in—grabbing her bag, pushing it overhead—while feeling the man’s eyes all over her. They had to be Scandinavian from the way the woman was fretting, Brittany noted. The flight was still boarding economy class. Technically, the woman wasn’t late.
“Ingen fara, Ingrid.” The man held up a splayed hand, gently rocking it back and forth, seemingly trying to calm her down.
“Would you like some water, ma’am?”
The woman nodded, and Brittany took her leave to fetch Ingrid’s water.
With Ingrid’s thirst quenched and the man on his unnecessary fourth glass of water, Brittany decided to switch aisles to do the safety demonstrations and to avoid his intense gaze. Inappropriate businessmen came with the job. But this one disconcerted her, and she could feel his striking looks slowly chip away at her composure.
A few moments later, the plane lifted off into the sky. Once the pilot turned off the seat belt sign, passengers started pulling out laptops across the cabin. A few kicked off their shoes and reclined their seats, ready to sleep away nearly eight hours on expensive tickets. The woman the blond man had called Ingrid was already on her laptop.
Brittany was tired of serving others—a task she had never wanted to do in a career she had never desired. She was tired of rushing off to fulfill their every whim and desire. Tired of pretending to care when they asked her opinion of which tray of overly processed airline food she would recommend. As if they were dining in a fancy restaurant, not currently sitting in a narrow metal tube over the Atlantic.
Now a seasoned flight attendant, Brittany was jaded enough to know that pursuing a career in fashion this late in life required a miracle. So, she stood patiently as the blond man stole precious minutes deciding over beef or fish.
“Hmmm,” he pondered, brows dipping as he studied the menu.
“The braised beef comes with pan-fried root vegetables and broccoli rabe,” she said, trying to prod a decision out of him.
“It looks really good,” he said, smiling. “But…”
“The sea bass looks good too.”
He finally decided on the fish, which he ended up barely touching. When Brittany came to pick up his tray, she found his fingers rapping on top of it as if in a trance. Ingrid didn’t seem to mind this gesture. His fingers stopped their furious dance as he peered up at Brittany.
She stole back to the privacy of the galley once the cabin lights were dimmed for the evening flight. She pulled off her navy-blue apron, straightened her skirt, and was about to turn around when a full frame swallowed up the tight space between them.
“Jesus!” Brittany was startled but quickly composed herself. She hated tight spaces. Especially when blocked by large men. “May I help you with something?”
The man from 6A was a few inches taller than she was, and his pupils widened, adjusting to the low light.
“I never got your name,” he said, reaching out for a handshake. She gave him a weak smile and took his hand.
His gray-blue eyes swiftly scanned her face in response. He then fumbled inside his pants pocket, pulling out a crisp business card on quality stock. “This is my card.”
She took it, flipping it around to read. “Von Lundin Marketing… Sounds interesting. What do you do?”
“I sell people stuff they don’t need.”
She chuckled at his response. He laughed in an unexpectedly boyish way until his mouth morphed back into a serious line.
“I’d like to take you out to dinner.” He sounded unsure of his own voice, but he held his intensity.
“Mr. von Lundin.”
“Jonny. Please call me Jonny.”
“I appreciate the offer, Mr. von Lundin,” she started, “but I have a boyfriend.”
From IN EVERY MIRROR SHE’S BLACK by Lọlá Ákínmádé Åkerström, published by Sourcebook Landmark, an imprint of Sourcebooks. Copyright © 2021 by Lọlá Ákínmádé Åkerström.