2 days earlier…
Laying here, his arms wrapped around her, felt right. Their bodies were tangled in each other, sweaty and slick, hearts still racing slightly from the bout of passionate sex they’d just finished. A breeze rustled through the plastic blinds of her open bedroom window causing them to clap rhythmically and blowing cool air over their heated bodies. It was June in Illinois, normally a time for the kind humid heat which covered one’s skin like a hot, wet blanket. This year’s was an unusually cool summer, however, which meant there was no need to turn on the air conditioning. If the weather man was to be believed the high for the day would barely scratch 65F.
Mabel shifted slightly so her whole weight wouldn’t rest on Max’s arm. He grunted and moved, shifting them so they lay on their sides, his body half over hers. The new position meant neither of them was crushing the other. This was classic Max: ever accommodating and considerate. She stroke his back,watching her hand move up and down over the expanse of his back. She’d never understood what India Arie had meant when she sang “Brown Skin.” She did now. Max’s skin mesmerized her. It was Hershey brown, smooth and supple. It had been one of the first things she’d noticed about him when she’d been introduced to the doctor who would be performing one of her patients surgeries.
The patient had been the infant daughter of one of Chicago’s most successful venture capitalists, who she had diagnosed with biliary atresia. This was a birth defect which caused a blockage in the ducts that carry bile from the liver to the gallbladder. Treatment would involve surgery to connect her liver to her small intestine, going around the abnormal ducts, as well as a liver transplant. The panicked parents had demanded the best surgeon and Dr. Senapathi, the chief of surgery at Bloomfeld-Hyman Center for Pediatric Medicine where she worked had immediately recommended Max their pediatric surgery fellow. Mabel had been proud and curious when she realized the person the chief of surgery was praising so glowingly was a Cameroonian but she’d been expecting a geeky, pedantic and self important, dweeb as super smart Cameroonian guys in her experience tended to be. Nothing had prepared her for Max Litumbe.
Max’s easy going and infectious charm had won over both her and the child’s parents right away, the deal being sealed when the sick, fussy child had stopped crying and chortled when he’d taken her from her mother’s arms and made funny faces at her. Throughout the rest of the consult, it had been all she could do to not stare at him open mouthed. He explained the procedure easily to the parents, assuring them that their daughter would receive the best possible care. He complimented Mabel for diagnosing the condition so quickly and joked about a Cameroonian take over of Bloomfeld-Hyman. Max was not a classically handsome man. His ears were too big for his face and he had just a bit of an over bite. However, he was tall, lean and muscled with arresting brown eyes, a strong square jaw and perfectly proportioned facial features. Add the rich brown skin, easy charisma and confidence and he made for an overall magnetic character.
Mabel breathed in deeply and couldn’t stop the sigh of pleasure that slipped past her lips. The next best thing about Max after his skin, was his scent. There was something about the way Max smelled which stirred the depths of her most elementally feminine places. The major scent was that of his cologne, but now the undertones of his sweat and the unique essence that was his alone gave it a rich earthy muskiness that could never be bottled. He’d laughed at her attraction to what he called his pheromones when she’d mentioned it to him and she’d chuckled in return, but the power of how much his scent got to her had dawned on her when she’d almost walked into a display at Target, after some random man who wore the same scent had walked past her. She’d been engrossed in her phone, not paying attention but the moment the scent had hit her nose, her head had whipped up and around to search for the source, thinking it was him. A lady nearby had shouted “Watch out!” just in time for her to not crash into the display of purses. He’d laughed so hard, tears had streamed down his face when she told him that story.
“Sniffing at me again, eh?” He asked now, his voice laced with amusement, surely remembering her near accident..
“Shut up.” She replied, pinching him. He yelped in pain and she chuckled.
It was moments of easy intimacy like this which hurt her the most, because she always immediately remembered that he wasn’t hers. That as much time as they spent together both at work and in the moments they stole to be together, it was really just only matter of time before he’d decide to fix things with his wife. His wife who he still loved deeply, despite the fact that he currently lay content as cat in her arms.
As always, Mabel felt anger curl in her stomach when she thought of Max’s wife, Iya. She’d never met the woman and for that she was grateful. She wasn’t sure she’d have it in her to be polite if she did. Mabel remembered how depressed she’d been when she had found out he was married. It had been over lunch at the hospital. After their patient’s surgery, they’s started seeking each other out for consults and just to chat about life. It had been an easy enough friendship, they were the only two Cameroonian doctors at the hospital. He’d talked about his wife with affection and pride. She was a financial analyst at Morrison & Roth, one of Chicago’s top global investment banks. She was currently one of the directors of investment banking but he was sure she’d be named managing director by the end of the year. They were both very busy and Max had been worried that their demanding schedules were taking too heavy a toll on their marriage.
Max was a good guy. A kind, compassionate man who was also brilliant and hard working. He also loved his wife. He was devoted to her. Which is why finding out that she was involved in an affair with her boss had almost destroyed him. From what he’d told her, the way he’d found out was right out of a Hollywood movie. In an effort to spice up their marriage, he’d taken some vacation time from work and had planned to stop by her Wacker Avenue office to take her out for a surprise lunch. He’d arrived 5 minutes before her lunch hour and had been informed by Iya’s assistant a businesslike Asian girl, that Iya was at a meeting but would be with him shortly. The stricken look on the girl’s face when he’d told her he was Iya’s husband hadn’t really registered on him. As he sat waiting in the richly appointed lobby of the executive floor, a strikingly handsome white man, about his age had walked out of Iya’s suite. The assistant had bid him farewell with the utmost deference, calling him Mr. Roth. Probably the “Roth” in Morrison & Roth. Max had thought to himself admiring the man’s loping gait, the kind of carefree stride that could only come from knowing you were the captain of your ship, the master of your domain. It was a feeling Max was familiar with, he was after all Bloomfeld-Hyman’s highly prized surgical fellow.. The assistant buzzed Iya and told her that her husband was waiting and then informed Max that Iya was going to be another 15 minutes, as she had to take a quick call.
Max had then excused himself to made a quick bathroom run. In the restroom, he ran into Mr. Roth again. He and an older man stood talking in hushed tones near the sinks. Both men had stopped and looked at him when he walked in but upon realizing that he wasn’t an employee, they’d continued their conversation. Max went about his business. The barely suppressed anger in the men’s voices, however, soon caught his attention. The older man obviously chiding Roth told him to stop “fucking around with female employees.” Max had laughed silently. With a face, body and money like Roth’s, there probably wasn’t a shortage of female employees who very much wanted to be fucked around with. The next thing the older man said had made Max’s blood run cold.
“Iya Litumbe is one of the best people we have,” he said “I intend to make her chairwoman one day. I’ll be damned if her hard work and brilliance get cheapened by the fact that she’s sleeping with you. Cut it the fuck out, Roth. She’s married and you’re in the middle of a divorce.”
“What Iya and I do is none of your fucking business, Morrison.” Roth said coldly. “If not for me, we wouldn’t even have her here, you racist bastard. I have proof of that, remember.”
“And I have video footage of her on her knees sucking your dick.” Morrison had said smugly. “You remember that.”
Max did not remember leaving the building.
Mabel had found him in his office when he’d not returned any of her calls. Eyes bloodshot from crying, unsure of what to do with the rage and betrayal he was feeling. She’d encouraged him to confront Iya but he had refused, needing time to process the unraveling of his life and the betrayal of the woman he’d loved since they’d been form five students in B.H.S Buea.. He’d begun to spend more time at work and Iya, busy with her own work and affair had barely noticed. A small part of her had rejoiced at the chance she now had to take Max for herself. Any woman who cheated on a guy like him did not deserve him. He’d pulled away from her in the months that followed but she’d been consistent about checking in on him and making sure he was OK.
Their transition from friends to lovers happened one fateful night when, after leaving the hospital late due to a surgery which had taken a turn for the worse leading to the death of a 7 year old girl, he’d come to her condo, drunk and in complete shambles. She’d taken care of him, stripped him of his stinky clothes, bathed him and then cuddled him in her arms as he wept not only for the dead child but his dead marriage. They had fallen asleep together and woken up hungry for each other. Their affair had blossomed and through it Max had found the focus he needed to get his head back into his work. Months had passed and he still did not confront Iya. Mabel had asked him about it once and he’d shrugged it off saying he would when he was ready. It had now been over a year.
The moment she’d known he was still in love with Iya was the week of the hospital’s annual fundraiser. Employees were expected to attend with their spouses. She and Max had been having their customary cafeteria lunch date when Dr. Senapathi, the chief of surgery stopped to chit chat. He had asked if Iya would be at the fundraiser and Max had said she was out of the country on business. They’d started talking about Iya’s prowess. She’d just been featured Chicago Magazine as one of the potential candidates for the Chairperson of Morrison & Roth. The first woman and black person to hold that position. Mabel had first, been shocked then completely heartbroken by the pride, love and affection she’d heard in Max’s voice as he spoke about his wife. It was the same pride, love and affection she’d heard the first time he talked about her before he was aware of her infidelity. Later that day, she’d asked again if he intended to confront Iya but he’d avoided the question. She’d let it go and they’d fallen back into their pattern of lunch dates at work and stolen moments of passion at her condo, which was a few miles from the hospital. As time passed, however, she became more and more anxious. Was he ever going to confront her?
Even today, laying here in his arms, the question haunted her. She’d come to realize that he was delaying because when he did confront Iya, it would be the first step towards fixing his marriage. A step which would mean ending things with her and he apparently didn’t want things to end yet. Well, he’ll have to make a decision. She was getting tired of sneaking around and it was only a matter of time before someone at the hospital noticed.
“Have you spoken with Iya?”
His body, which until then had been fully relaxed in post coital bliss, tensed.
“No. I haven’t.” He replied.
“Why?” It was the first time she’d ever pressed the issue. She usually let it go when he said he hadn’t. He sighed heavily.
“I don’t know, Mabes. I keep planning to but somehow I can’t bring myself to.”
“You know we can’t do this forever right? I can’t do this for ever.”
They didn’t speak for the next couple of minutes.
” I want to – ”
Whatever he was going to say was interrupted by the sound of his pager going off. He groaned, rolled over and picked it up from her night stand. He glanced at the number, cursed quietly under his breath and started dressing up.
“I thought you weren’t on call?” Mabel asked from the bed.
“Technically, I’m not. I got off at 3 p.m. and I’m supposed to be off till 9 a.m. tomorrow morning” He said, pulling up his scrub pants and tying them at the waist. “But I operated on Atkinson’s grandson yesterday.”
“Atkinson? Chairman of the Hospital Board Atkinson?”
“The one and only. Post-op is being a real bitch. Poor kid is also thrombophilic. Clots galore.We might eventually need a vascular surgeon.”
“Oh wow… that sucks. Anything I can do?”
“Nope. Not right now. But I’ll keep that in mind.” He was done dressing. He reached over and kissed her forehead, a gesture she found tender and endearing. “I’ll see you later.”
Mabel lay back in bed, listening to the sounds of him leaving. Eventually all quieted down and she was left with the faint sounds of vehicles in the distance and the claps of the plastic blinds on her window as the breeze rustled them. Max was gone which meant dinner plans were cancelled. It was Tuesday – a work night, so she’d planned on ordering in Thai. She’d just fix a salad. No need ordering anything when she was alone. It’s good he left, she thought. She was going to press for answers and from every indication, he wasn’t ready to answer.
Her own phone rang, interrupting her thoughts. She picked it up from her night stand and looked at the number. It was a strange number with an 847 area code, so definitely Illinois. She normally ignored calls from strange numbers but distracted from thinking about Max, she answered this one.
“Hello.” The voice was female and the inflection oddly familiar. Definitely not an American. “May I speak with Dr. Mabel Mbemba?”
“Yes, this is she. Who is this?”
There was a small hesitation then the woman spoke again.
“This is Iya, Iya Litumbe. Max’s wife. I was hoping you’d be willing to meet me for lunch… I’d like to talk with you.”