Harlem, New York City
Milan Rose strutted into the Zebra Room on the arm of a dashing man with thick ruffled dark hair and freshly tanned skin.
I heard the mumbling as soon as they walked in. She turned heads in a funky black leather halter top with a plunging neckline and matching mini skirt that showcased her super long legs in pointy-toed calf-length boots. Her escort sported an impeccably tailored navy blue European suit and diamond and gold cuff links that sparkled even in the dim light.
Long strides led them to a table directly across from us, beneath Billie Holiday frozen in time, a passionate angelic expression of blues above them. They were seated next to Shorty Red’s table. I watched as Milan and Guy stared at them curiously but discreetly.
Milan saw me and smiled, then turned to her escort who had asked her a question. I smiled back and tried my best not to stare but I was finding it hard not to.
“You know her?” Jewel asked me.
She was definitely drunk, but that didn't stop her from missing a beat.
“Yes, Jules. We went to high school together.”
“Really? Well who is she?”
“Her name is Milan Rose,” I began and then told her all that I knew which wasn’t much.
Milan and I had attended Bellmonte Academy, a small all-girls private school on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Milan had joined Bellmonte in my third year. Whispers about her being a rich orphan and former model traveled swiftly through the drafty wainscoted and stone halls of the grand limestone building. Students, faculty and staff were all intrigued by her. Her presence at school clinched the fascination as she was a sight to see and felt by us all.
I remembered the morning Milan arrived. I had been waiting for the school bell to ring in the brick paved courtyard off West End Avenue with the other girls. A vintage cream Rolls Royce had pulled up and Milan was escorted out by a uniformed chauffeur. Six-foot-tall with skin the color of an olive tan and dark wavy hair that fell to her elbows, Milan strutted into the school courtyard as though it were a runway. She gave our bland gray and white uniform an elegant edge with exotic tights and expensive designer shoes. She carried an alligator leather messenger bag slung over one shoulder.
Immediately, she was surrounded by a cluster of girls; they pawed and fawned over her. At school we tried to wear accessories that would make us stand out and express who we were as individuals outside of the uniform. But that day, Milan surpassed us all.
Weeks later, I was flipping through one of Jewel's fashion magazines and saw a photo of Naomi Campbell, carrying the same bag on the runway during Paris Fashion Week. I couldn’t remember the designer’s name but I remember that the bag was pricey and knock-offs were hard to find.
Milan stood out wherever she went. She had that deadly combination of looks, confidence, money and the imperceptible quality that made such people popular and envied. Still, I often saw her alone at school. She hadn’t joined any of the cliques and seemed not to attend many of the school functions.
My friends and I often speculated that Milan had her own clique of friends from her days as a model. We thought she surrounded herself with celebrities that we could only read about in the gossip rags. Of course, this only added to Milan’s mystique and made her all the more intriguing to all of us.
“Oh. Well did she even say Hello?” Jewel asked.
“Oh, she did, in her own way.”
“Hmm. Who’s that white man she’s with?”
“I’m not sure,” I lied, stealing a glance at them.
Jewel gave me a side eye glance. I'm sure she knew I wasn't being honest. The truth was, I knew exactly who he was. I’d seen him enough times to know he was Guy Richeux, Milan's guardian.
I recalled seeing him at the family events at Bellmonte Academy. The last time I'd seen him had been at the Senior Soiree for us senior girls. I could never forget his blue-blue eyes, like dancing robins, as he stood amongst us in the brick and stone paved courtyard.
He had given a donation in the form of six figures to Headmistress Prose who introduced him proudly as Milan’s guardian, and some sort of European billionaire with royal connections. No one knew much about Milan's parents or the circumstances surrounding their death. Everyone presumed Guy was her relative or a close family friend. At the time, the details hadn't been important.
Guy and Milan sat next to each other cozily, their shoulders pressed close, her legs crossed, pointed toes resting in the cuff of his starched pressed pinstripe suit.
Ever so often, she would lean into him and whisper something in his ear, her French manicured fingers brushing across his neck or collar or her hands gripping the muscled arms peeking from beneath his jacket; movements so familiar and intimate.
I tried not to read too much in it. Milan did have a way about her. She was fire to any man, or woman’s ice. Her energy could never be called innocent. Perhaps Mr. Richeux was unmoved by Milan’s charms, and they were simply familiar and comfortable with one another, I told myself.
Jewel had noticed their intimacy too. Jewel hadn’t been a good scholar, but her instincts were always on-point.
“They’re pretty chummy over there” she said to me.
“Oh, I don’t think so,” I waved my hand dismissively.
“Yeah, okay Diamond. I guess I'm just seeing things, huh?” Jewel's words were slurred.
“Maybe you are,” I mumbled under my breath.
“What! I heard you Diamond. You know you think your little prep school friends are so much better than the girls from the hood. Ha! Those little bitches are the worst. They're doing shit we can't even afford to think of. You know, Diamond, you have a lot to fucking learn!” Jewel spoke a little too loud.
My cheeks flushed warm. I just knew everyone could hear her. But when I looked around, no one seemed to notice, or at least they pretended not to. I looked over at Milan who was busy talking to Guy. She looked up at me just then, raised an eyebrow and smirked.
I tossed my hair and ignored her. I wasn't as naive as Jewel thought I was. I knew what prep school girls were capable of, especially with access to money and credit cards and lack of parental supervision.
My first year at Bellmonte, I'd learned that lesson early when I walked in on Penelope Greenhall, the most popular girl at school sniffing lines of cocaine with Mr. Washington, our young and popular Math teacher. I scoffed at Jewel's naivete.
I simply didn't want to speculate or gossip about Milan. Besides, I couldn't judge Milan if she was dating an older man. Stone was five years older than me. The pot calling out the kettle was not the name of my game.
“Excuse me, I have to go powder my nose,” I said to Jewel in a sarcastic tone.
She frowned and tossed back another shot.
I got up from my seat and headed over to the bathrooms down a short hall only a few feet away. Both were occupied so I stood in the darkened hall and pretended to be lost in thought. A tap on my shoulder awakened me from my pseudo-daydream, or was it a nightmare?
“Diamond, I haven’t seen you since graduation. How is everything? I should have known I would see you here tonight,” Milan greeted me with a smile.
She was obviously pretending like she hadn't overhead my little tiff with Jewel. I played along.
“Hey Milan. I didn't expect you to come up to Harlem. Is it your first time here?” I asked innocently.
Milan looked puzzled but quickly recovered. “No, I've come up to Harlem before. It's a cool neighborhood.”
“Oh, I’m glad you like it. I’m a native and I love my neighborhood but not everyone gets it.”
“Of course, of course. What I really wanted to know was how your classes are going? I’ve seen you around on campus but I think we keep missing each other. I was hoping we could meet up for lunch one day and become friends,” Milan bit her lip coyly.
“I didn’t know you were at Columbia? I thought you were moving back to Paris---”
“Yes, well, that was the plan. But I told Guy---my guardian---that I really wanted to stay in New York and go to school here. And so, we called in a few favors and I enrolled in Columbia,” Milan winked.
“Wow. Great! Sure, we could meet up for lunch. I usually have lunch at the Student Center but recently I discovered this little cafe over on Broadway. The Riverside Cafe. Maybe we could meet there?”
“Sounds good. Here’s my card. How about lunch at one?” Milan handed me a business card with her name, telephone number, email, and messenger user name.
“Hit me up over the weekend with your info,” she said before slipping into a bathroom that had just become available.
A minute later, the band’s drummer stepped out of the second bathroom zipping his fly as he passed. He blew me a kiss and I ignored him.
When I came out the bathroom, Milan had already returned to her table. She and Guy were sharing a plate of soul food. They munched on baked macaroni and cheese and collard greens nodding their approval.
I rejoined my table, sliding into my seat next to Stone who looked bored out of his mind at this point. Jewel and Jazz were still drinking, laughing and cracking jokes that only they seemed to get.
“Are you bored sweetie?” I asked Stone.
“Nah. The music was nice. I'm more into hip hop. But you know hip hop got its roots from jazz. I bet you don't remember that youngin'.”
“Of course, I know that, Stone. Hip hop has always sampled jazz riffs and rhythms. A Tribe Called Quest. Common. Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth. Gangstarr and Guru with those Jazzmatazz CD’s. If anything, we need more jazz in hip hop.”
In my head, I heard Electric Relaxation with its hypnotic jazz melody.
“True, true. But there's nothing wrong with gangsta rap is there?”
“No, there isn't. I love gangsta rap as much as the next person. Yeah, I know, they use the words bitches and hos every other word but I lie to myself and say they aren't talking about me. I know I carry myself like a lady.”
“Always, always. They just talking about what's going on in the hood. There's hos everywhere. In every hood across America. Hell, across the world. But as a female, you know, you always have to carry yourself with class. You can't go around doing what everyone is doing. Never be a follower, Diamond. That's just not you.”
I nodded my head. “You're so right! Men can sleep with a million women and he'll always be a player. But if we women do it, we're called hos. It's hard for a woman to own her sexuality without crossing the line.” I said.
Our talk made me think about the lessons from my grandmother and my Women's Studies teacher in high school.
I could never forget Miss Hill, the curly haired feminist with the raspy voice. She would harp about sexism and feminism in America all the while clutching pearls and wearing prim dark skirts with colorful cardigan sweater sets. She'd written a glowing recommendation for me to get into Columbia. I was forever in her debt.
Stone laughed and shook his head. “You're such a feminist, Di.”
Our waitress came back to our table. She called out the Midnight Specials and reminded us that there would be a second cover charge. We agreed and ordered dessert and coffee.
The lights dimmed and the trio took their places at the front of the room. The band's leader and pianist made another humorous but more charming introduction of himself and the band. His words were a little slurred now, but he seemed to be in a good mood.
I wondered if they would continue the competition that fueled their music from the last set. The pianist began with a flourishing solo that soon began to edge toward a feverish pitch. The bassist and drummer struggled to keep pace. They shot him dirty looks and attempted to cut him off with circuitous solos.
And then I had my answer.