Excerpt From All Eyes on Her
by Poonam Sharma
Red Dress Ink
It is better to be envied than it is to go unnoticed, my mother’s voice echoed in the back of my mind. And I would have agreed with her on principle; however, if I leaned any farther to the left to avoid being seared by Stefanie’s jealous gaze in that Friday morning meeting, I’m sure I would’ve toppled right off of my chair. For the record, there were eight other junior associates at our Beverly Hills law firm hoping for the same two promotion slots. I was handling a key client, and I did take my career very seriously. But even I wasn’t cocky enough to believe that Stefanie’s ill will had anything to do with my superior job performance. Rather, I knew that my being the only other female candidate was the reason why she made a habit of watching me as if there were a bull’s-eye centered on my forehead. “Interesting choice of footwear for a firm-wide meeting,” she had sneered in the elevator an hour before. As if my open-toed pumps were too much for the office. Luckily, I knew better. These emerald green Diors were as suitable as they were scrumptious.
Maybe she just didn’t like me. And if so, then I really didn’t have the time to wonder why. Being the only Indian girl in my Hermosa Beach high school taught me to let the curious stares of others roll right off my back. It was just one of the many side effects of never quite fitting in.
Although I’d never actually done anything to Stefanie the office tension was becoming a problem. How obvious could she be? And why would anyone choose to wear their emotions on their sleeve for everyone to see? To me, that would’ve been like wearing my naughty-nurse costume to a law school reunion. Or my bra as a hat. Completely illogical. It’s not that I was dead inside. It was just that I’d learned to not let my feelings run amok. The casual observer might’ve assumed that since I didn’t react, I didn’t care, but I consoled myself with the knowledge that at least my fiancé, Raj, knew better.
Or—well—he used to.
Judging by his recent silent treatment, maybe Raj needed a reminder? I glanced down at my BlackBerry for the eighth time that morning. No new messages.
Two weeks, I thought. And still not a word from him. Men are such women sometimes.
Really though, he’d completely overreacted. I had every intention of helping him understand why—just as soon as he got around to returning my call. Or calls. All right, fine. Two calls, two e-mails and one text message in the fourteen days since he took that consulting assignment in London. The thought of him cutting me out of his life so easily made me want to hurl my BlackBerry at the wall. Of course, that kind of outburst at the conference table wasn’t an option. Unless you were a client, in which case even trying to smoke the conference table itself would have been forgiven. Not to mention that nobody would ever find out about itwe at Steel Associates would make sure of that. Appearances are everything in Los Angeles, and so much more at our firm, which catered to the stars. Steel was the most sought-after marital mediation and divorce boutique in the city. Composure was our corporate culture as much as discretion was our hallmark.
“It’s true that our clients rely on us for our legal expertise. But they also expect us to help them steer clear of the headlines,” Niles, a senior partner, began. “I understand there have been some—complications with your case. Monica, would you care to elaborate?”
All eyes were on me. Silently, I berated myself for using Raj’s going AWOL as an excuse not to bother with my eyebrows. To begin with, I was a noticeably tiny brunette scurrying around in The Land Of The Seven-foot Model. Beyond that, I chose a professional career in a part of the country where “trophy wife” was considered a legitimate aspiration. I was used to the women in tight-fitting track-suits and spray-tans who clogged the checkout lines at every Whole Foods on the west side, waiting to buy a single avocado. I was not used to being the center of this much attention. I stif led the urge to check my face in the conference-room window.
“Gladly, Niles.” I cleared my throat. “And I want to assure you all that despite recent news, this case of Camydia hasn’t been nearly as difficult to handle as some of the others I’ve had.”
Trust me, it’s not what you think.
Dubbed “Camydia” by the popular press, Cameron and Lydia Johnson had started their relationship as Hollywood’s “it” couple. They had been a publicist’s dream-come-true, since they appealed to every imaginable demographic. Lydia was a feisty, buxom and ivory-skinned brunette from a South Philadelphia ghetto. She began singing in a racially diverse inner-city gospel choir and soon topped the Billboard charts. Cameron, on the other hand, was the son of a mildly successful African-American stockbroker from Harlem, and the product of a top-notch private-school education. His rebellion against his overbearing single father was to reach for a basketball in lieu of an SAT review book. The pair met at an A-list party mixing celebrities and professional athletes when each was at the height of their career. And the kind of fireworks that ensued could be seen from here to Las Vegas.
But in the two years since they’d shacked up together in a twenty-million-dollar Malibu mansion, things had taken a turn for the worse. On the release date of her latest album, Lydia’s former agent wrote a book claiming that she lipsynced on tour. And the rumor around the area locker rooms was that Cameron’s hard partying habits had landed him in danger of losing his NBA contract. Put more succinctly: few things will kill a celebrity marriage quicker than the hint that someone’s public stock is about to decline. The couple’s newly conjoined name, which did indeed rhyme with the venereal disease, was the media’s way of underscoring the fiery state of their current affairs. In particular, there were rumors that Cameron had been seen about town with an unidentified blonde.
“With that said,” I continued, “we suspect a leak from someone on Cameron and Lydia’s household staff. Paparazzi swarmed the Malibu mansion just as they were leaving in separate cars on Saturday night. Although Lydia assures me it meant nothing, since she was headed out for dinner with a girlfriend and he was meeting some buddies at the gym. The rumor in the celebrity rags this morning is that they have each been spotted with other people. So this week we’ll be focused on damage control.”
Steel Associates was the Navy SEALs of celebrity divorce law. We handled everything from counseling to mediation to divorce, depending on the case. To be sure, we earned a premium for our public-relations-minded strategies in a city where gossip was worth its weight in gold and divorce wasn’t just the topic of tragic statistics. To our clients, divorce suggested far more than a broken heart or a depleted bank account. In this city, it might spark a public-opinion shock-wave. Who would get the house in Napa? Who was responsible for the ongoing psychiatric treatment of their Pomeranians? What about the care and feeding of the entourage? Just how much of a popularity drop would the divorce cost them among the 18-34-year-old female demographic, and how would it affect record sales? Would it make a difference if they waited to announce until after the Emmys?
These were serious questions, all, and that’s why the celebs came to us first. Short of an actual computer spreadsheet into which we could pump all the variables and estimate the costs to both sides, Steel gave the best advice money could buy. Because either alone or in pairs, these folks typically wanted to consider their options, estimate their settlements and minimize the potential damage to their careers.
Loosely, my job was one-part mediator, one-part lawyer and one-part marriage therapist or celebrity spin doctor. Although with Cameron and Lydia lately, that title seemed to be all celebrity babysitter all the time. Given the current state of my own engagement, the marriage therapist part was a laugh. One nice side effect of my career choice, however, was that I instinctively minimized the collateral damage in my own life, as well. I had been wearing my ring on a chain around my neck ever since my engagement three months before. As long as people still noticed the chain peeking out from my collar, I was fine. Other than my cousin Sheila, nobody knew that Raj and I were, in his words, taking some time.
“Since when do we believe everything our clients tell us?” Stefanie interrupted me, smiling widely and refusing to blink. “Have celebrities suddenly become reliable?”
Everyone laughed on cue, and so did I.
“Certainly not,” I answered graciously, as if we were all just the best of friends. “I’m simply trying to make sure everyone is up to speed on the new developments in the case. That is what we’re here for, right, gentlemen?”
Stefanie was as cool as a cucumber under pressure, and she despised me for at least visibly seeming the same. Had I not known better, I would’ve sworn that one of the thick and serpentine waves of her long, brown hair actually lifted itself up off her shoulder to hiss at me. Indeed, had my superstitious Indian grandmother been in the room, she wouldn’t have hesitated to lick her finger and slide it right across my cheek, as a makeshift shield for the dreaded evil eye. Had I been anything short of convinced that it would fuel every popular corporate stereotype about a woman’s inability to play well with another, I might have chosen to react to Stefanie. But I drew a deep breath, threw my fellow female colleague a wide, bright smile, then paused and turned my attention toward Niles.
“After all, Cameron and Lydia are very important clients for our firm.”
By the time Cameron and Lydia had first contacted us, they were only in what we referred to as Phase 1. In private, they were fighting like cats and dogs and contemplating a trial separation, but were still too emotionally attached to each other to commit to it.
“I agree—” Jonathan, my fellow junior associate and co-counsel, chimed in. “As such, we’ve prepared a preliminary asset-split recommendation to present to Cameron and Lydia.”
I began passing copies of our internal brief around the table. Asking for input from everyone always ref lected favorably on a Junior Associate, and Jonathan and I were working together to make a good impression. Not that he needed any of my help. Jonathan had that rare but potent blend of stalwart optimism and moral relativism that meant he was born to practice law in Los Angeles.
“But I thought this was a mediation case.” Niles feigned surprise. “When did they move into ‘division of assets’ territory?”
Snickers around the room.
“Yes, well,” I explained. “Our strategy is to show them a version of an asset split and hope they’ll take it as a wakeup call. Seeing their life divided up like this might actually force them to reconsider.”
Silent stares from every direction. Do-gooders didn’t last very long at our firm.
“Naturally, we’ll get our billable hours either way.”
The tension in the air noticeably dissipated. Niles looked up from his copy of the brief, and added, “All right, all right. I can appreciate the creativity as much as anyone else. But tic to risk their bodies and their lifestyles by having children, but I’ll bet that the idea of splitting up the ‘mock children’ will get them divorcing in no time.”
He was right to be sarcastic. About 75% of our cases skidded right past mediation and landed in divorce. And Steel made a bigger profit in a shorter period of time when the husband and wife divorced immediately than when they opted to “reconsider.” Niles made it clear that he wanted this case closed soon, and normally I would have agreed. In fact, I probably would have nudged them not-so-gently in the direction of the courthouse because the more cases I completed in a year, the higher my bonus. But with Camydia, I wasn’t convinced. Unlike most of my uber-famous clients, these two didn’t fight like they wanted to hurt each other—they fought like they needed to hurt each other. A perfect example was the first time they had sat down at Steel Associates with Jonathan and myself.
“I told her it wasn’t me in that goddamn hot tub.” Cameron buried his face in his massive hands before running them over his bald head. “She could believe that stupid tabloid, but she can’t believe me. What the hell?”
Hunched over in a chair before us, he seemed about as helpless as any client I had ever seen. Jonathan and I simply listened, sympathetically, trying not to be blinded by the twinkling of the canary diamond solitaire on his pinky finger, or the studs the size of testicles protruding from his earlobes.
“It’d be one thing if I did it.” He licked his upper lip and wrung his hands. “But I didn’t do what they said I did. And she doesn’t even talk to me about it! She just swallows whatever her goddamn publicist feeds her! And then I have to hear it from my agent that my own wife is taking off with her girlfriends to Cabo San Lucas for a week. I got home from practice one day and she was out! How you gonna leave town without even telling your man first? Without even calling him?”
I resisted the urge to hug him, knowing as I did what it felt like to be left without a forwarding address. Instead I fingered the chain around my neck. But before I could run the risk of looking as if I was taking sides by trying to console this head-shaking, hand-wringing tree of a man, Lydia whooshed back in from the ladies’ room.
“Oh, so now I gotta tell you where I’m goin’ every minute of the day?” she spat at him, taking a seat and ripping off her white-rimmed sunglasses to reveal striking and furious blue eyes. “Do I always know where you are, Cameron? Huh? Do I? Oh, or maybe you just own me?”
After crossing her legs she brought her puffy, defiant eyes to rest on mine.
“What the hell is she talking about?” Cameron looked from me to Jonathan. “How am I supposed to deal with a woman like this?”
“What I am talk-ing about, Cam-ron,” she overenunciated, “is reality. Somethin’ you lost touch with.”
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