The three of us together constitute a smidge of impurity in what would otherwise be an unadulterated cup of salt. Not the Himalania Fine Pink Salt that will run you $8.99 for ten ounces at Whole Foods. (That’s right. I just googled the price of pink salt at Whole Foods, because I’m all about precision. And while I was at it, I checked to see if gluten-free blueberry waffles are back in stock. Alas, no.) I mean the regular iodized salt that you can get for less than a dollar at Target, the salt that comes in the dark blue cylinder with the yellow-dress girl and her wholly unnecessary umbrella. What do umbrellas have to do with salt? For that matter, what do girls in yellow dresses have to do with salt?
By “the three of us,” I mean me, Lakeisha, and Annette. I am Patrice. Five foot three at best on a dreaded “high heels necessary” day, I have a snub nose, average body, shoulder-length braids, thick eyebrows, and red cat-eyes glasses. Lakeisha, whose willowy frame, heart-shaped face, hazel eyes, naturally pouty lips, and relatively well-behaved long hair would cause me to hate her if we weren’t besties, is at the low end of model height. Annette, with her signature bun and pearls, has an “AKA all the way” vibe. A little bit plumper than me and glasses-free, she is my height twin. We are all in our late twenties.
I am not going to describe my complexion, or either of theirs, as cinnamon, cardamom, caramel, chocolate, cocoa, coconut (shell, obviously), coffee, or anything else that begins with c and might make one hungry or thirsty if mentioned. Nor is it necessary to discuss potting soil or paper bags. Suffice it to say that we are each conclusively in the brown family, but we are not the same shade.
The three of us are law clerks at a courthouse in a newly purple state. I started last year. Lakeisha, who already had several months of clerking while black under her belt (“Really? You’re a law clerk? To a federal judge? In this building? Huh.”) when I arrived, encountered me in the elevator during my first week, stared conspicuously at my I.D. card, smiled widely, and said, “We are going to have so. Much. Fun.” She wasn’t wrong. Annette joined us around six months ago, and we seamlessly became Destiny’s Child (Michelle Williams era), the legal version.
The first time I was mistaken for Lakeisha, I had been working at the courthouse for about three weeks. I was confused but flattered, because hello, Lakeisha is hot. And then it happened again. And again. The reverse was also happening on a regular basis, which I assume was less exciting for Lakeisha; while I’m on the right side of presentable, ‘hot’ would be an exaggeration. Annette’s arrival did not help matters. It became axiomatic that on any weekday ending in y, at least one of us would be misaddressed by day’s end.
A meeting was held. (No, we did not go to H.R. Don’t be ridiculous.) We sat at a table in the courtyard during lunch hour, eating salads and casting envious looks at two male clerks devouring meatball subs nearby. Between dainty bites of kale and arugula, we determined that the problem would not go away and that we would need to make the best of it. We ruminated for some time over what making the best of it would entail.
It was Annette who first realized the glorious benefit of our coworkers’ ineptitude with respect to cross-racial identification. Her fork, loaded with greens and fat-free balsamic vinaigrette, froze halfway between her plate and her precisely rouged lips, and a Cheshire cat grin slowly meandered across the bottom half of her face. “Oh,” she said as she slowly returned her fork to her plate. “Oh, ladies, we’ve been looking at this all wrong. This is a gift.”
Lakeisha and I simultaneously cocked our heads to the left. “How so?” I ventured.
“Think about it. What is the absolute worst part of this job?”
Lakeisha beat me to the punch. “The stupid, interminable, purportedly optional but really mandatory after-work events.”
Allow me to clarify. Much to our consternation, our coworkers are rabidly social. There are happy hours. There are soirees to honor milestones reached by various judges. There are birthday celebrations, baby showers, holiday parties. Sadly, the list continues. These gatherings are not our jam. Our workdays are beyond exhausting. Not only do we spend long hours navigating the labyrinthian maze that is federal law in order to make our judges look good, but we do it while dealing with the usual, hourly micro-aggressions (with instances of blatant disrespect sprinkled in). When the sun finally sets, our instinct is to flee to our respective sanctuaries to lick our wounds and prepare to do battle yet again the following day. However, in order to avoid hearing that kiss-of-death phrase—“not team players”—applied to any of us, we had been dragging ourselves to these affairs. Good times were not being had.
“Exactly. Now think about this. Why do we all need to show up for this nonsense? These fools can’t tell us apart. If only one of us goes to an event, we all get team-player credit.”
Lakeisha and I mulled this over and saw no flaw in Annette’s reasoning. I whipped out a pen and notepad, and with input from my fellow Destiny’s Child members, listed all events scheduled for the next month under the heading “I’d Rather Poke My Eye Out With Any Object (Sharp Or Dull, Doesn’t Matter) Than Attend The Following.” We split the list into thirds.
Three weeks into Project Extra Credit, things are going swimmingly. I was able to avoid, among other things, a retirement party for a secretary who always looked astonished when she saw me enter the code for the employee-only bathroom. Of course, Annette and Lakeisha dodged a bullet when I alone attended Judge Foxwood’s coma-inducing lecture on preemption. I doubt that they fully appreciate my sacrifice. But that’s okay.
I am currently walking across the lobby with my co-clerk, Jennifer, a green-eyed, no-nonsense brunette. While we haven’t officially crossed over to close friend status yet, Jennifer and I get along exceedingly well, and I’m fairly certain about her stance on lives that matter (although we’ve really only danced around the topic). We are on our way to the florist to select a bouquet for our judge, whose birthday is approaching.
Halfway to the lobby exit, we are waylaid by Mary, one of the court reporters. “Jennifer!” she gushes, her alabaster cheeks pinkening with pleasure. “Patrice!” she doubly gushes. “It was so nice to see you at Rhonda’s shower! We love it when the law clerks show up to these things!”
“Happy to be there.” I smile.
After a brief coughing fit, Jennifer murmurs, “Same. It was a really nice affair.”
Additional pleasantries follow, and then we delicately extricate ourselves from Mary’s clutches. Once outside, Jennifer looks at me quizzically. “What was that all about? I was at that shower from the beginning to the bitter end. You most definitely were not. For any part of it.”
True. Rhonda’s shower had been Annette’s gig.
“Well, if you must know….” I proceed to explain Project Extra Credit and its origins, confident that even if Jennifer doesn’t approve, she won’t rat us out. Winding down, I do a little dance and say, “And now I can add the tenth-floor-Mary moment to our list of successes to date.”
I glance over at Jennifer. She has the most peculiar expression on her face, and for a moment my heart skips a beat and I wonder if I have this all wrong. I have visions of her outing the three of us to each of our judges and bad things following. And then she sits on a nearby bench and laughs and laughs. And then she laughs some more.
I am now relieved but perplexed. “Okay, I know it’s kind of funny, but is it really that funny?”
“Oh,” says Jennifer. “It is. It really is. That wasn’t Mary the court reporter in the lobby. It was Barbara from payroll.”
Colette Parris is a Caribbean-American attorney who returned to her literary roots during the pandemic. She is currently nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her work can be found in Streetlight Magazine, Vestal Review, BigCityLit, Lunch Ticket, Burningword Literary Journal, Sleet Magazine (forthcoming), and elsewhere. She lives in New York with her husband and daughter. Find her on Twitter @colettepjd.
Cover Design by Karen Rile