I liked his resume immediately. Harvard Law School, magna cum laude— I could place him anywhere. He'd also done his undergraduate work at Vassar, first of the all-women's schools to admit men. A few brave men surrounded by all those women . . . my telephone buzzed. It was James.
He wanted to change his interview time to 7:00 p.m.
"Is that too late? We could talk over a glass of wine." I couldn't help smiling. It was against the rules to flirt in my business. Resisting temptation had never been my strong suit, so I was grateful for the rules. It wasn't that I couldn't say no. I most certainly could, and did, and would.
I wanted to be taken seriously, so I'd stopped wearing contacts and donned dark-framed glasses. I'd also taken the precaution of wearing my long hair pulled back in a prim twist. My one weakness were strappy Italian heels. Oh, and bras. I usually skipped them. Under silk shirt, and vest, and jacket, it was really overkill. My candidate relationships were strictly business, and my business was thriving.
"That's too late, isn't it?" He sounded sad, less sure of himself.
I glanced down at his resume, flat and cleanly typeset on my desk. He lived in West Hollywood. Could be gay. I stared out the window at the men working the cranes on Wilshire Boulevard. They were sturdy types who climbed the heights daily, their sweaty skin gleaming. I crossed my legs, squeezing my upper thighs together. Office chair exercise. A tension reliever.
"Seven is just fine," I said, "my busiest time is between 5:00 and 7:00. A break would be perfect after that."
Certainly meeting such a stellar candidate on his time frame was not against the rules. I'd set down a few commandments of my own when I'd embarked on this venture: No dallying with the candidates was the first one. The second: No sex with the candidates. Just in case the first rule was open to interpretation.
I was dropping mail down the central chute in the reception area when he stepped off the elevator. We shook hands. He'd sounded older and taller on the telephone. A good half-inch shorter than me, and with skin as pale and hairless as mine, James looked about sixteen years old. In heels, I towered over him. His eyes traveled the length of me. What a little punk. I felt him watch me as I headed off to my office to collect my things.
Our interview proceeded over a glass of wine in a little bar next door. His firm was splintering into two groups, and he'd received offers from both. "They're all great guys, and I don't want to burn my bridges with any of them." He kept his eyes on mine, and didn't bother to check out who else was around. In L.A., and in my business, it's as much paranoia as social arrogance. "I'm just not ready for a start-up. I function better in a stable situation."
"Of course," I said. "You've still got plenty of time to branch out, and take a flyer with a more entrepreneurial firm. Right now you need to take care of the basics, get established in your practice." If he'd told me he wanted some hotshot, high-flying, high-risk firm that paid big bucks to attract top talent, I would have told him to go for it. I had.
Our glasses were empty, and the cocktail waitress was waiting for us to decide on a refill. "I'd really like it if you joined me for dinner," he said. "I know this great Japanese place next to my office. And I can show you our firm's art collection."
"I'll meet you there," I said, preferring to drive my own car. I could call a halt to the interview at any time. What harm was there in a little art and dinner?
At the restaurant he requested a private room. We had to leave our shoes at the entrance, and stood facing each other, now almost equal height. I decided that I'd never really liked looking up at men. James guided me to the room, his hand in the curve of my waist. It had a table sunk into the floor, and I had to hike my tight skirt up a little in order to slide into the opening. He stood aside and watched, a serious expression on his innocent face. The paper doors slid aside and a geisha delivered sake on bended knee. He knew her by name, and said something to her in Japanese. She covered her mouth with a tiny hand and giggled.
James had been out of law school for one year. Even with his excellent credentials, his boyish appearance had worked against him. So he tried harder. Same thing with women. Somehow the conversation had strayed to sex, or maybe it had been going in that direction all night.
"If one thing doesn't work, I'll try another," he informed me, his voice soft. "It turns me on even more to give my partner pleasure, to watch her come." He sipped his sake, and looked right at me. "And maybe come again."
I hoped the dim light reflected off my specs so he couldn't see the panic in my eyes. "I wish the geisha would come again," I said, and wiggled my sake cup. "Do you think she was really trained in the geisha arts?"
James ignored my weak attempt to change the subject. "Here, take mine," he said, and without even a breath to signal a segue, "an older lover taught me about the nine clitoral areas."
"N-nine?" I only knew about three.
I was having a hard time breathing. The situation was out of control. It wasn't that I didn't remember the rules. It was the urgency I'd attached to them, that now seemed irrelevant.
James took me on a tour of his firm. Most of the other attorneys were gone or were in the process of packing up. They glanced at me, then at him. Smiled tiredly. We stopped in the senior partner's corner office.
He didn't turn on the lights so the panorama of nighttime Los Angeles spread before us. A serpentine crawl of lights followed the Wilshire corridor all the way from Century City through Beverly Hills and into the downtown mega-business center. We stood – one set of shoulders higher than the other – and reveled in the power of the city. I thought of all those attorneys working downtown, miserable in their jobs, just waiting for my call. "I'll show you my office," he said, and held my hand to lead me there. I could hear the night cleaning crew's vacuums. We entered a first year associates' office, hardly bigger than a small bathroom.
He walked over to an abstract print on the wall, and held his hand beneath the picture. "My wall safe," he said, and pulled the picture out from the bottom. A joint fell into his palm. He shut the door, and lit up.
"We're gonna smoke it here?" James no longer seemed concerned with his career, and how I might help him.
"Everyone's gone," he said, passing me the joint. "The cleaning crew doesn't care." I hadn't bothered to invent a rule about getting high with candidates. I took the joint from him, and idly wondered if this fell under the rubric of dallying in rule number one.
We went back up to the partner's corner office, and sat there in the dark. He put his arm around me, murmured something. I sat stiffly, eyes forward, struggling with an urge to flee, and the urge, centered in my pelvis, to stay. He kissed my cheek.
"Ok, let's do it," I said, already undressing. Still seated, James looked startled. "Rules Schmules." He didn't disagree with me.
In one massive gesture, I could flaunt authority, break the rules of decent business conduct, and even the rules I'd set for myself. Break rules I hadn't even considered—sex and drugs with a candidate, in a client's office, at the first meeting. Who could blame me?
I could hear the work crew at the end of the hall, the drone of the vacuum and the banging of doors and clanging of trashcans a nerve-wracking intrusion on my pleasure, and I knew I'd never come. A few doors down now, getting closer, the machine whined across the carpet in rhythm to our motions. Forward and back, the forward whine deep, the backward whine urgent, begging the forward motion, a white noise that filledmefilledmefilledme.
Sometimes I surprise myself.
He walked me down to my car. "Your hair looks great down," he said, relaxed.
I said goodnight, and adjusted my glasses. Somehow the frame had gotten bent.
"I'll call," he said.
I knew I'd kissed the placement fee for James – well, way more than kissed – goodbye, but I smiled, and drove off with the windows down so I could feel and smell and hear the California night.
We have four children now, and rarely break the rules. Occasionally. Memorably.
Sometimes we surprise ourselves.