Leslie squinted at the menu and willed her stomach to coöperate. She’d done her regular half hour on the stair master, and sat in the steam room for a good 20 minutes. That had always worked before to sweat out a hangover. Maybe she was getting old. Thirty and change was when things caught up to you, she’d always heard, but didn’t want to believe. The overhead light caught on the heavy silver fork and the gleam hurt her eyes. Could she choke down a chicken salad sandwich? Better not.
“So glad to have this Foxworth case so pleasantly concluded. It’s always nice to have a big job well done, isn’t it? A real feeling of accomplishment.”
“Yes, Mr. Easworthy.” Leon Easworthy was the senior partner in the firm; tradition dictated that the senior partner took a promising junior partner to lunch for a quiet tête à tête just before announcing promotion to full partner. This was a lunch Leslie had been striving forever since she had talked her dad into the law school tuition nine years ago. He hadn’t been pleased. “I’ve spawned a lawyer? Are you sure there aren’t better ways to spend your time?”
“Dad, this isn’t the Woodstock generation any more.” Her dad had missed attending the famous concert and never forgave himself. He had hitchhiked across the country, smoked pot, demonstrated against the war in Vietnam, and was right now somewhere on the Appalachian trail, happily hiking along in his L. L. Bean boots and warm wool socks. Leslie had other plans.
Her incisive, analytical mind had carried her through Yale, to graduate in the top five per cent of her class, and her strong constitution had carried her through the weekends of partying that she always, somehow, found time for, even just prior to taking the bar. Since joining Easworthy, Conklin, Rose, and Barr, she’d toned it down a bit, learned to drink martinis, and to count her drinks in public. If she went for a drink with one of the partners, she never had more than two.
Last night was the exception. An end of summer blowout. The last Friday in August. And it only happened once in a while, exceptionally.
“You accomplished in one month what two partners would have taken two months to do, young lady.” Easworthy was speaking again. “Bill Foxworth is extremely pleased he can go ahead so fast on this deal. And time is of the essence, as we explained to you at the outset. The owner has had several nibbles for his property, and Foxworth’s partners were getting impatient.”
The Foxworth deal was a shopping development and plaza of immense proportions, slatted to occupy twelve hundred acres of unproductive wetlands at the edge of a suburb that was about to achieve tax revenues beyond its wildest dreams. The work Leslie had done was a superhuman effort of title searches for nineteen separate pieces of property, some owned by distant conglomerates, some owned by reclusive little old ladies, all of whom had to be kept in the dark about the potential purchaser and use for the land. Leslie had put in fourteen-hour-days at the office, the law library and the public records department, and by dint of sending flowers and chocolates to the county clerk’s staff had succeeded in assembling the necessary data in half the time allotted to her.
It helped to be new in town, to be thirty and change, to have a good rapport with the support staff. Her mother, less a hippie than her father, and a secretary for a college dean had taught her: “always befriend the support staff.” Leslie had followed her advice, and it helped. Her looks helped too—the dramatic over the calf skirts, the slim waist, the thigh high leather boots and the curly dark hair, permed, and highlighted with henna. She kept herself in shape with the stair master and the steam room and was a regular at the Y even when she put in the fourteen-hour-days. And if she wanted to have a little blow-out to celebrate and kick loose after doing in a month what two partners couldn’t do in two months, well, hell, who could blame her.
She squinted again at the menu. The food at the City Club was uniformly terrible, but the local swells had nowhere else exclusive to go. Lack of competition makes any business sloppy, she decided. Her timing for this blow out—for last night had been a blow out, in point of fact, a blow out of monumental proportions, there was no doubt in her mind about that and one she needed badly, or thought she did—her timing wasn’t so good. Easworthy had surprised her with this lunch invitation. She’d sensed, from the smiles of the receptionist, and the nudge in the ribs from another junior partner, that it was coming, but today wasn’t such a good day for it. Well, if she ate light, he’d just think she was a lass who was watching her weight. Which was true. She watched it like a hawk.
Someone else was watching her now; she felt Easworthy’s eyes on her cheek like a pair of crawling hands. He was well over fifty, old enough to be her father, and very much married, but even through the fog of her nausea she could sense his look. Maybe it had been a mistake to accept, to come to lunch alone with him. When the young men were made partner, they all had lunch alone with him. But young men weren’t his thing.
She felt a quickening in her pulse. She’d just keep it cool, professional, she’d handled horny old men before. After all, she got through law school on her brain and not on her back. She’d never traded sex for advancement in any college course, summer job, clerkship, or employment position of any kind. She wasn’t about to start now. Her personal life was under her control and always would be. She enjoyed being single, living alone, choosing which man to let into her life at which time, and casting off the ones who no longer interested her. There were certain advantages to staying single, and definitely advantages to remaining childless, at least for the time being. After she’d been partner for a couple of years, then she might think about a marriage, if she found a man interesting enough who wasn’t threatened by a woman in the top five percent of the Yale graduating class.
“The Foxworth project was a challenge, Mr. Easworthy,” Leslie said. “I always enjoy rising to a challenge.”
“A challenge, eh, I’m sure that at Easworthy, Conklin, Rose, and Barr we will provide you with many more challenges through the course of your career with us, my dear.” Easworthy looked up. “Ah, the young man’s here. We can order.”
“Clear soup and a salad,” Leslie began, as she closed the menu and turned, then she stopped. The young man, bending to take her order, was Scott, his blonde hair neatly brushed, not unruly and falling over his sweaty forehead, his collar buttoned under the tightly knotted tie, not open and wet with sweat, exposing his throat, as it had been last night at Mr. Tony’s on the dance floor, his hands with their thick and knowing fingers now holding a pen and a pad of white paper.
Scott regarded her with a knowing look and it all came rushing back: Scott of last night’s blow out. Dancing, arms and head flung back, Scott, his breath hot on her throat in the back of the cab, Scott, pressing her face into his mattress, as she cried for more. She hadn’t asked his last name or where he worked or anything about him. She hadn’t cared. He was just Scott and he was there, and now he was here. She felt heat rise in her throat and looked at his chin, then away.
Easworthy was staring.
“We have a tossed green salad, and a Caesar as well. Which would you like, ma’am?” Scott’s tone was cool, amused. He must have spotted her the minute she walked in.
“A tossed green salad with dressing on the side,” Leslie heard herself say, and handed him the menu, careful not to touch his hand.
Easworthy was looking at her with a frank, assessing look. “Do you know that young man?”
“No, not at all, that is…” As soon as the lie left her lips, she knew she was lost.
“I noticed you ordered your salad dressing on the side.” The older man leaned in towards her. “You must be very careful about what you eat and drink, my dear.”
His breath was suddenly heavy on her throat, but to a passerby it wouldn’t appear that he had leaned too far in for propriety’s sake. Leslie stiffened as his hand found her thigh under the table. “I’m so glad you chose our firm to work for, my dear; you’ve done so much good work for us to date. I’m pleased to offer you the promotion to full partner with our firm. I’m sure you’ll be our most pleasing new full partner.”
His blunt fingers pressed into the flesh near her crotch and suddenly she remembered the look she had seen on the face of the only other woman partner in the firm, a haunted, scared, and closed-in look, even as she swept back into the office, in her perfectly fitting Talbot’s suits, returning in triumph from a successful court case. Behind Leslie, Scott had retreated to the kitchen with his order pad and her order, and she saw clearly how much her last night’s blow out had cost her; how much her blush and stammering revealed, how expensive a full partnership in Easworthy, Conklin, Rose, and Barr would be.
Susan Thornton lives in Binghamton, New York. Her memoir, On Broken Glass: Loving and Losing John Gardner, was published in 2000 by Carroll & Graf, New York. Stories have anthologized in The Best American Mystery Stories 2016 and Flash Fiction Annual (2017). Work has also appeared in Blackbird (2017) and Dark Fire Fiction (2014, 2015, 2016). Look for Susan Thornton Author on Facebook and Susan Thornton Author at Amazon.com.