As I surveyed the crowded room where the Women to Watch luncheon was being held, I felt a surge of pride, thinking, "I am a phoenix, rising from the ashes and re-creating myself from dust. Where decay once dominated, opportunity abounds. Where poverty once prevailed, abundance now reigns. Where shame once ruled, pride now resides. And I stand among them unbowed, uncowed, with my head held high. It's been a long time coming, and there are things that I certainly would have done differently if circumstances had been different. But they weren't. Like Old Blue Eyes, I did it my way, and now I sit at the table among those who once thought me worthless, and I am The Grande Dame."
Since graduating from Moultrie State University, it had taken me seven years to get back to the City of Brotherly Love. After seven years of toil, now, as at jubilee, I was finally enjoying the fruits of my labor. I had to admit that I did have some fun along the way, and I definitely learned a lot and built up my arsenal. And as I made progress, I realized that I was retracing Momma's steps north, where she had headed roughly a quarter of a century before, chasing a dream that she never caught. But now I'd caught it, wrapped it up, and presented it to myself with a big, luscious bow on top.
Finally I was the television personality and news anchor that I'd always wanted to be. I had lots of fans, and people loved me. They waited on my word. To them I was important, not someone to be overlooked as I had been in the past. As I made my way on this path, I wasn't concerned about market size or making continuous moves from smaller markets to progressively larger ones. My only aim was to follow my mother's footsteps and return north, where I could show the Philadelphia elite that I, too, was worthy. Hell, I was more than worthy. And they'd better not forget it.
My first stop after leaving Moultrie, Georgia, was Atlanta, where I was a traffic reporter. It was a great place to cut my teeth, and my job helped me learn my way around affluent communities like Lenox Hill and others I dreamed of living in. I explored them all on my downtime, admiring the grand homes that would cost three times as much in northern cities. Every night after my "dream drives," I'd return to my apartment and practice speaking in front of the mirror and work on my carriage and poise with the aim of developing a presence for the camera as well as perfecting my on-air delivery. Despite being pleased that I was starting in the city that folks were calling "the new black mecca," I knew that dissatisfaction and eventual boredom wouldn't allow me to stay in the same job for very long. Besides, I was eager to get back home to Philadelphia to claim my rightful place in society. Nine months later, I burst forth from the Peach State, heading to the next location on my trek north.
Residents of Columbia, South Carolina, welcomed me as a new weather reporter for the FBC affiliate. This was before the push for weather people to become certified meteorologists, so a vampish vixen of a weather girl would do. I pushed the envelope a bit, though, wearing revealing clothes while reporting on steamy summer days, or sporting a bikini under a fur--long before Naked News but long enough after one of my journalism idols had done the same that people had forgotten. At other times I was all smiles, forecasting everything from sun to storms. I got the attention of the viewers and of the general manager, who began lingering around the set when I was on. Coy and coquettish, I smiled pleasantly as he attempted to endear himself to me. When he put his arm around my shoulders one day as I was exiting the crowded set, that was all the ammunition I needed to cry sexual harassment. Enough people had seen him regularly fawning over me that contacting an attorney was merely a formality. So after about two years I left the station with a five-figure settlement and a stellar recommendation letter. Next stop Durham, North Carolina.
In Durham I got my first real break, reporting the early and midday news. Even though the job gave me the opportunity to be on camera with regularity, I called my duty "shit detail" because I was stationed in one of the suburban bureaus where not much news took place. The occasional early morning fire, the rare small-town political scandal--you name it, I covered it. The producers knew that I was willing to work hard, so when they needed me to step in for an absent evening reporter, I jumped in with both feet. That opportunity presented itself frequently enough that I felt confident in officially applying for the spot when the regular reporter left for another city. I figured, why shouldn't I apply? I spoke well, I was quick on my feet, and I had the experience. Unfortunately, I was beaten out by a Barbie look-alike from the Dallas station. Then a consumer reporter's position became available, and I put in my bid for that as well. After observing the way the station was run, I wasn't surprised when the spot went to a Jackie O clone with an underbite. Tired of bumping my head against the glass ceiling, after little more than a year I knew that it was time to leave Durham, so I headed north to Richmond, Virginia.
Although it wasn't really what I wanted, I landed an arts and entertainment job at the FBC affiliate there. I had been trying to establish myself as a serious journalist who was spunky enough to compete with Katie Couric, intelligent enough to knock Katharine Graham on her ass, and compassionate enough to give Oprah a run for her money, so this job seemed like a step backward. It wasn't without its perks, though. I received passes to all kinds of cultural events, and I got to meet artists, authors, dancers, and musicians. And Richmond was the place where my fame in the community blossomed. I was asked to give presentations at a variety of events, and I did my fair share of the prestigious ones with good perks while turning down the low-profile events. Then I was asked to emcee an event sponsored by the Richmond Alumnae Chapter of Delta Alpha Zeta.
The sorority had been courting me since I'd arrived in Richmond, inviting me to their events and even honoring me with an award. I was pleasantly surprised when they sent me an invitation for membership, and knowing about the privileges that membership brought, I accepted and was initiated in a special weekend ceremony.
So there I stood, the newest member of the chapter, and I was more than a little nervous as I listened to the chapter president introduce me. As she read my credentials to the crowd who had come for the art auction, I almost forgot that she was talking about me. I had augmented some of my accomplishments, making myself look more like a humanitarian than I was. Service projects I had supposedly initiated and charitable contributions I had purportedly made painted me in the image of a modern-day Mother Teresa. Only I was much sexier.
"._._._And so it is with great pleasure and profound pride that I introduce our emcee for the evening, our soror, Peach Harrison," she announced, beaming.
A few of the younger sorors gave the Delta Alpha Zeta call as the older ones applauded. I heard a few of the men whistle as I marched to the podium wrapped in an air of false confidence. Despite the fact that I made my living by talking, doing it with a live, visible audience sometimes made my stomach flip, especially afterward, when I would rush to the ladies' room and heave until my stomach was empty.
"Good evening, beautiful people of Richmond, Virginia," I said, smiling. I was poise and polish personified, never letting on that I was quaking inside. This greeting, which I used when I reported on arts and culture events, initiated a hearty round of applause. "I'm Peach Harrison, and I am honored to greet you on behalf of my dazzling, dynamic sorors of Delta Alpha Zeta Sorority, Incorporated. Welcome to the Sixth Annual Art Auction. You will be glad to know that last year the beautiful people in the Richmond area raised $223,000 for the service projects the sorority sponsors. This year we are going to raise even more, because we know the women of this chapter and we know their hearts. Our sorors are making a difference, and tonight, with your contributions, you will, too."
I had surveyed the crowded room, noting that the ladies were dripping with expensive jewelry. Lagos, David Yurman, and Mikimoto twinkled from their delicate wrists, ears, fingers, and throats. The men oozed opulence in dark jackets and brightly colored pants that only the rich or the drunk are confident or oblivious enough to wear.
Some of the artists were in attendance to autograph their works and to give insight about their creations. In the days before the auction I had scanned the catalogue, seeing familiar names of artists living and dead whose original works would be auctioned tonight. William H. Johnson, Jacob Lawrence, and Romare Bearden were among them. So was Ron "Boriqua Soul" Juarez, the sexy middleweight boxing champ who painted canvases by day and pounded opponents by night.
"Before we get to the auction, I have some special guests that I'd like to acknowledge."
When I called the names of the artists in attendance, I noticed that Juarez stared at me extra long, grinning broadly. I nodded in acknowledgment and continued, nonplussed.
Since leaving Moultrie, I hadn't been in a relationship with anyone. I had been so busy working and plotting my next move that I hadn't made time. Truthfully, I hadn't really been interested in anyone. Besides Ishmael, with whom I'd been obsessed since our days at Moultrie State. And I was leap years away from roping him. But if there really was a lid for every pot, as Momma used to say, then he was my Calphalon lid, and I longed for him to find his way to me, his pot. But for now it looked as if Juarez was trying to clutter up the meantime while I waited for Ishmael.
While the other artists stood and waved where they were, he made his way to me at the podium, carrying a glass of white wine. He raised an eyebrow before puckering up and blowing me a kiss. I smiled at his gesture, amused yet a little annoyed because he'd almost broken my composure. I couldn't help but notice, however, that despite the ferocity of his sport, his face was virtually scar free.
Bidding was fierce, especially on the Bearden pieces. Throughout the evening, Juarez made very public, almost embarrassing overtures to me. When the time came for me to auction off two of his originals, he surprised me by asking to take the mic.
"Aloha! I'm glad that the members of the sorority invited me to be here. The pieces that I donated for the evening are very special, because they were done during the time that I was training for the title, which you know I won."
A round of applause went up from the boxing fans in the audience.
"But there is one thing that I need your help with this evening. I won't sign any of my work unless our emcee here agrees to have dinner with me tomorrow."
All eyes turned to me, and audience members gasped and giggled in humorous expectation. Juarez began a chant: "Peach! Peach! Peach!"
The room seemed to shrink as I looked around. Lord knows that I liked the attention, but I didn't need Mr. Ron "Boriqua Soul" Juarez to throw me off my course. Judging from the sound of the crowd, though, I didn't have much choice but to acquiesce to his advances.
"Okay. But I get to pick the restaurant," I said, trying to regain control of the situation.
"That's fine by me," he said, smiling. As he kissed my hand the crowd cheered, and I spent the rest of the evening allowing him to fawn over me.
Even though I had made the dinner reservations for us at an upscale Spanish restaurant, Juarez dominated the date. First he insisted that we sit at a table by the window. Then he ordered for me without asking me what I wanted to eat. After dinner he took my hand and led me to the dance floor, where he guided me through salsa and mambo numbers. One thing that I love about Latin dancing is the opportunity it gives you to slide into cruise control while the man takes the lead. As ironic as it sounds, it's satisfying for me to surrender to a man, because I've never had anyone to shoulder my burdens with or for me. But while I admire decisiveness in a man, I also appreciate being consulted, which was something he didn't seem to get. Rather than complain, I just sucked it up and rode it for what it was worth.
Apparently, the evening was worth a whole lot more than I thought it was. A quick look at The Richmond Tattler's gossip column on Monday confirmed it. Not only was there a paragraph about us leading the column, but there were two photographs as well, one from Saturday's auction and one from Sunday's date as we sat by the window of the restaurant. I knew that sorors had contacted Richmond's media outlets to cover Saturday's event, but I'm sure they would have preferred that the attention be focused on them and their community service rather than my love life. At least they got a mention, though. Without needing confirmation, I knew that Juarez was responsible for Sunday's photo. I vacillated between the annoyance I felt at being manipulated by him and the vulnerability I felt at being violated by the photographer.
For the sake of closure, I called Juarez on Monday night to hear his reaction. As I suspected he would, he tried to minimize the issue, saying, "Come on, bonita. Don't be angry. At least the photographer caught your good side."
"That's hardly the point," I retorted, suddenly eager to get off the phone.
"You're right. Lo siento. I apologize. I don't mean to make light of your feelings. I'm just gearing up for my next fight, when I have to defend my title. It's two months away, and my manager advised me to take the opposite approach from my opponent."
My annoyance was being replaced by intrigue. "What approach is that?" I asked despite myself.
"Killer Calderon is playing crazy. Leaking information that he trains by scrapping with his pit bulls for raw meat and crazy shit like that. My manager has this idea that I should make it look like training is the last thing on my mind. That will make him super confident. In the meantime, I'll spend my days training like mad."
Excerpted from The Love Child's Revenge by Nicole Bailey Williams. Copyright © 2008 by Nicole Bailey Williams. Excerpted by permission of Broadway, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.