I was in good spirits after my lunch with Penelope, and my good mood lasted the rest of the day and into Thursday morning. I was so focused on work and developing the ad campaign for Seldrige Sports Wear that I forgot all about my conversation with Mike. I was reminded of it, however, when I sat down in front of my computer at home to check my emails for work. Right in between an email from my graphic designer, with some thoughts on the project, and one from Penelope, letting me know her schedule for the next few weeks, there it was. An email from Mike.
I grabbed my coffee cup and sat back in my chair, deciding whether to read it or just send it to the deleted items where it probably belonged. After a few moments, decision made, I leaned forward, finger poised over the delete button. But . . . I couldn’t do it. I don’t know what got into me -- curiosity or some sort of sick, masochistic desire -- but I clicked it open instead.
Kate, it read. I hope you weren’t too surprised by my call on Tuesday.I can imagine what you think of me, what you think of the whole situation.
Believe me when I say I am so sorry for all of the pain I caused you. I don’t know what else to say except that I couldn’t let another day pass without telling you again how much I miss you. We belong together, Kate. I see that now. I must have been crazy not to see it before.
Let me say it again: I’m sorry. I’m hoping that you can find it in your heart to forgive me. If you’ll let me, I will spend the rest of my life making it up to you. Please call me. I love you.
I stared at those last three words and felt my heart pounding in my chest. Never in our time together had Mike said those words to me, and now here it was. What did it all mean? How was I supposed to feel, other than completely messed up inside?
Those mixed feelings lasted the rest of the day and made it difficult to concentrate on work, but somehow, I managed to make it through to Thursday night. I’d had no more calls from Mike, but when I checked my emails that afternoon, I couldn’t help but go back and reread the one from Mike. I decided to reply.
Mike, I typed. I’m not sure how I feel right now. I’m too confused. I need some time. I will call you.
I read my email over before hitting “send,” and I thought about it as I got ready to go to the bar to meet Emile, Charlotte, and the rest of the gang for the going away party, wondering if sending the email was the right thing to do.
When I arrived at the bar, it was crowded and the party was in full swing, everyone gathered around the bar with drinks in hand. The other guys from the band were there, and Michelle was there with her boyfriend, Zach. Standing with them, talking and laughing, was Clark. He spied me at the door when I walked in, gave me a little wave, and walked over to meet me.
“Hey,” he said. “I was wondering when you’d show up.”
“Hi,” I said. “How are you?”
He must have heard something in my voice because he cocked his head to the side and said, “I’m fine. The question is, how are you?”
“Oh, I’m fine,” I said, waving my hands distractedly. “It’s just . . . boyfriend troubles.”
“Boyfriend?” he had a confused look on his face.
“Ex-boyfriend, I mean.” I smiled at him. “C’mon. I don’t want to talk about it, now. I’ll tell you later. Right now, let’s get a drink and enjoy the party, Okay?”
“Sure.” He guided me over to the bar.
“Hey, Kate,” Michelle said when I reached her. “This is Zachary” she said, looping her arm around his waist.
“It’s really nice to meet you, Zach,” I said, shaking his hand.
“It’s nice to meet yo, too. How are you?” he said.
“Fine. Just fine.”
Clark came over and handed me a drink. “Here you go.”
“Thanks.” I said, taking it from him.
“Clark was just talking to us about going camping in Pennsylvania,” Michelle said.
I almost choked on the sip of beer I’d just taken. “Camping?” I asked, coughing a little.
“Yes, it sounds like fun,” she said, a hurt tone in her voice.
“I don’t see it. Your idea of roughing it is if you have to walk an extra block to your car.” I turned to Clark and Zach. “When we used to camp out in the back yard, Michelle would last about thirty minutes before she’d be back in the house in her own bed. Sleeping in a tent just wasn’t her thing.” Zach laughed.
“Well,” Michelle said, giving me the evil eye, “I’ve decided to give it another chance. Zach used to go all of the time when he was a kid.”
“Oh, I see,” I said, comprehension dawning.
“What about it, Kate?” Clark asked. “Would you be up for going camping? I’m going rafting with a few friends this weekend, and then we’re camping out. You guys should all come. The water will be pretty calm this time of year. It’ll be fun.”
Fun, I thought. That was one thing I really needed right now. My mind was so jumbled with thoughts of the project I was working on for Clark’s company and the call and email from Mike. I could feel myself growing anxious. The expectant looks on everyone’s faces and the promise of a good weekend helped me decide. So, that’s how I found myself in a car with Michelle and her boyfriend early that Saturday morning, as we headed out of the city to meet Clark and his friends for a little white water rafting and camping.
When we arrived, Clark and his friends were already there. I was pleased to see Penelope in the bunch, and she ran over and gave me a big hug when we got out of our car. Clark introduced us to the other members of the group, one of which ended up being his younger brother, Ryan. He led us over to the rafts and to where we could put on our life jackets. Since the weather was so warm, he explained, we wouldn’t need to wear wet suits.
As promised, the water level was pretty low, so the rafts would float gently down the river the majority of the time, with very little work needed to steer. I ended up in a raft with Michelle, Zach, and Ryan. Clark and Penelope were in another raft with the rest of the group. After we went through the safety instructions with the owner of the rafts, we set off.
The day turned out to be beautiful, albeit a little hot. Everyone was in good spirits, laughing and talking. Clark’s brother, it turned out, was an old pro at white water rafting, and he entertained us with funny stories of his other rafting adventures. At one point, we heard a splash and turned to see that a couple of people in the other raft, Penelope included, had jumped in the water to cool off. It seemed like a good idea, so we took turns jumping in -- all except Michelle who decided she didn’t want to get her hair wet.
We pulled over at a stopping point to enjoy some sandwiches and drinks, provided by the raft company. Sitting on the rocks, I could feel myself starting to relax, lulled by the easy flow of the water, the beautiful outdoor scenery, and the company. We decided to take another dip in the water to cool off before continuing on, and after a lot of coaxing and teasing, Michelle made her way precariously out on a rock.
“I’m just going get my legs wet,” she said, before promptly slipping and falling all of the way in. The look on her face when she surfaced was so funny that we couldn’t help bursting out in laughter. Zach rushed over to help her out of the water, looking suitably upset for her, but, when Michelle’s back was turned, he looked back at us and gave us a thumbs up sign, prompting another round of laughter.
We were laughing about it again later that night, as we roasted marshmallows around the fire. Even Michelle, leaning on Zach’s arm, had admitted it was funny and was able to laugh at herself. Ryan, Clark’s brother, regaled us with a few stories of some of his and Clark’s mishaps while rafting, and before long, we were laughing so hard our sides hurt. After a while, someone brought out a guitar, and we all settled into a sort of quiet calmness, relaxed by the strumming of the guitar. Half of me relaxed and wished the moment could last forever, and half of me was thinking of Mike and the conversation with him that may or may not be a good idea to have. I looked over and surveyed the scene around me from my place across the fire. Michelle and Zach were talking in a lower whisper, he stroking her hair while she rested her head on his shoulder. Penelope sat beside Clark’s friend, Greg, leaning on his knee, and they laughed together at something that Clark’s other friend, Steve, had said. Clark was sitting with them, laughing along, but when he looked up and noticed me watching, he stood and walked over to me.
Holding out his hand, he said, “C’mon. I want to show you something.”
I stood and grabbed his hand. Our exit was barely noticed as we walked out of our camp and to the head of a trail we could see by the light of the fire. There was no moon in the sky and, as we continued to walk, we were eventually immersed in darkness. The sounds of the night -- crickets chirping and frogs croaking -- were all around us. It was so dark that I couldn’t see in front of me, and only the feel of Clark’s hand in mine, him dragging me along behind him, made me feel less nervous.
Soon, we emerged from the clearing, and I found myself on the shore of a large pond, the only clues to its existence being the soft, gentle sounds of the water lapping onto the shore and the stars reflecting off its surface. Still holding my hand, Clark said, “Look up.”
I did. Back in the city, where the glare of the lights blocked everything out, you were never able to see stars in the sky like this. As if someone flicked a switch, one by one the stars began emerging from the darkness. I picked out the big dipper, the little dipper. As my eyes adjusted to the light, I suddenly let out a little gasp.
“Amazing, isn’t it?” It wasn’t even a question.
“Is that the Milky Way?” I wondered. A band of stars was developing in the sky above, a thick, bright band of stars that swept across the night sky.
“Oh my God, that is SO cool,” I whispered, feeling that anything louder would break the moment.
“Yes,” he agreed. “It’s one of my favorite things.” I could just make out his face as he gazed intently at the sky. “It sorts of makes you feel how insignificant we all are in the scheme of things,” he continued. “Like all of our problems are just so trivial compared to all of that.”
He had let go of my hand to gesture to the sky, and I couldn’t help but feel disappointed. I could still feel the warmth of his hand. I flexed my hand and hugged my arms around myself, as if to keep the feeling from fading away. That’s when I finally figured out what had been tickling the back of my mind about Clark. That spark. I was surprised it had taken me so long to figure it out. I tried not to think about it as I looked back up at the stars. “I didn’t even know you could see the Milky Way like this. Thank you for showing this to me. It’s spectacular.”
He looked at me and grinned, his white teeth showing up in the starlight. “No problem. It’s definitely something you don’t want to miss.” He stared at me for a moment longer, and it seemed as if he was going to say something else. Before he could, we heard the sounds of others approaching and, a few seconds later, Ryan, followed by a few others from our group, emerged from the overgrowth.
“Hey, guys,” Ryan said.
“Thought I’d find you guys here,” Penelope said, coming up behind him.
She came over to me and put her arm around my shoulders for a quick hug, and we all stood there, staring at the sky, enjoying the peaceful moment, the stillness broken only by the sounds of the lapping water and the croaking frogs.
I woke the next morning to the smell of brewing coffee. The tent that I had shared with Michelle and Zach had just enough space for the three of us, and I did my best not to wake up Michelle as I squirmed my way out of my sleeping bag and out of the tent. Zach, it seemed, was already up and out enjoying the day. Penelope was at the campfire, poking it with a stick and adding a few branches to try and keep it going. She turned when she heard me approach the fire.
“Morning, sleepyhead,” she smiled at me before returning her attention to the fire.
“Morning,” I yawned. “What time is it?” I asked, sitting down on one of the logs around the fire.
“Oh, just a little after eight o’clock.”
“That early?” I heard a voice behind me. Apparently, my efforts at being quiet hadn’t succeeded because Michelle was coming out of the tent, closing the flap behind her, and making her way over to us. She plopped down beside me and rested her head on my shoulder. “I am SO tired. Now I know why I never did this before.”
I put my arm around her and laughed. Penelope laughed, too. “Not a natural born camper, huh?” she said. “Don’t worry. It gets easier.”
“I’m not sure I want it to,” Michelle replied. “I’m more of a hotel kind of girl.”
“Where’s everyone else?” I asked.
“Oh, they all took their coffee and headed down to the pond to get cleaned up,” she answered, handing us both a cup of coffee she had poured for us.
“Ugg,” Michelle said. “I’d rather use the showers in the common area.”
“You might rethink that once you get there,” Penelope said. “They’re not the cleanest.” She sat down across from us. “Actually, I just usually wait to get home to shower. Just wash up a bit in the water, shower when I get home,” she smiled. “It’s why I usually just agree to go on overnight camping trips. Greg and his friends can go for days. Not me, though.”
Something about her tone made me wonder. “Are you and Greg going out?”
She grinned. “Shows, huh? We’ve been trying to keep it quiet, so don’t say anything. Steve’s been after me for years, and he and Greg are best friends, so we’re trying to figure out how to do this without hurting his feelings.”
“Secret’s safe with me.”
“Me, too,” Michelle mumbled from my shoulder.
“Speak of the devil,” Penelope muttered, as Greg, Clark, and the rest of the group appeared from their trip to the lake.
“Morning, sunshine,” Zach said brightly, coming over to Michelle and kissing the top of her head. Her only reply was a slight grunt.
After cooking and eating breakfast, we all worked together to pack up the camp and get ready to head back to New York. Michelle and I made one last trip to the bathrooms and helped Zach put the rest of our stuff in his car. My mind was already racing ahead to home, work, and having to talk to Mike, and I could feel myself getting tense. Finally, we were all packed, and it was time to go. We said our goodbyes, Penelope doling out hugs all around.
“Good to see you, again,” she said to me. “We’ll talk soon.”
I nodded in agreement. I turned to find Clark, and saw he was coming over to us.
“Thanks for coming this weekend, guys,” he said, shaking Zach’s hand and clapping him on the shoulder as if they were old friends. “Did you have a good time?”
Michelle was sufficiently awake by that time to make a somewhat enthusiastic reply, and we all nodded in agreement. When I turned to say goodbye, he grabbed my hand in both of his.
“How about you, Kate?” he asked, looking into my eyes as if searching for something. “Did you enjoy yourself?”
I felt my heart leap into my throat, and all else was forgotten -- work, Mike, all of it. “Yes,” I stammered in reply. “It was just what I needed.”
He smiled and let go of my hand. He stepped back to rejoin the others, and they all waved goodbye to us as we got in the car. As we drove off, I turned and looked back. The others were moving around the camp, collecting the last of the items to pack up as they made to leave. Clark still stood there, however, staring after our car, a strange look on his face. I raised my hand to give him another wave but then saw that he, too, had turned to help the others, and my wave went unnoticed.
A few miles down the road, we stopped for gas, and Zach got out of the car to pump it. I was still thinking about Clark, staring out of the window, when Michelle turned around from the front seat to face me.
“You’re awfully quiet,” she said.
I looked over at her. “Yeah, just a little tired, I guess.”
“I know what you mean,” she replied.
Wondering if she knew what I had been thinking, I was surprised by the next words that came out of her mouth. “I’m in love.”
“Really?” I said. I’d heard it before.
“Really,” she said. “I love Zach.”
I eyed her critically. “Does he know that?”
“No!” she snapped. She looked out of the window at Zach and gave him a little wave. He waved back before turning back to the gas pump. She looked back at me. “I can’t tell him.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“I just can’t.” She looked embarrassed. “I can’t be the first one to say it.”
“Wow,” I said.
“I think I might actually believe you.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” she asked.
Before I could answer, the door opened and Zach climbed back into the car. “Ready to hit the road, ladies?” he asked, fastening his seatbelt.
Michelle gave me a pleading look and then turned to him with a smile. “Ready,” she said. “Let’s go. I can’t WAIT to get home and take a shower.”
“Yeah,” he teased, holding his nose. “I can’t wait for that, too.” Michelle punched his arm, and Zach laughed as we pulled out of the gas station and back onto the road.
It was a pretty uneventful trip back home -- just the usual weekend tunnel traffic when we got close to the city -- but I was glad when we pulled up to my place. Even though we’d just left the day before, I felt like I’d been gone for days. I was exhausted. When I got into my apartment, I noticed the light on my answering machine was blinking. There was a message from my mom, asking me how the camping trip had gone and wanting me to call her when I got home, one from Jim, confirming our dinner for the next night, and then a third one, unexpectedly, from Clark.
Hi, Kate, it’s Clark, the message began. I just wanted to say that, well, I’m glad you came this weekend. It was really fun. I know we haven’t hung out much the past few weeks, and I feel bad about that. And, well, it was really great spending time with you -- and your sister and her boyfriend, too. I wish we’d had more of a chance to talk. Let’s not let too much time pass before we get together again, okay? Okay. Well, you’ll probably be back soon. I just dropped my brother off at the train, and I’m headed home myself. Maybe I’ll see you around the neighborhood this week.
The message clicked off, and I sat there, happy, but completely dazed and confused. Was it just me or was Clark trying to tell me something? I shrugged, trying not to hope too much. The last thing I needed was to get my heart set on someone who was unavailable. The problem was, I already knew I liked him. But, what was I thinking? I mean, his girlfriend was a model. I must be crazy to think that he could actually like me. I had to put a stop to this. If I kept hanging out with him, I was going to find myself down a path that would be hard to get off. I had to wean myself from his company, even if it killed me.
With that thought in mind, I set off from my apartment the next morning, determined to get on with my life. I was going to focus on work, decide what to do about Mike, and basically get my act together. I was a new woman! That thought lasted right up until I reached the end of the block. There, standing outside of the cafe on the corner, was Clark, in his signature jeans and blazer, holding two cups of coffee. I hesitated, my heart beating faster. I considered for a moment turning back around, but then he looked up and saw me. He gave a little wave -- as good of a wave as one can give while holding a cup of coffee -- so I walked up to him.
“Hi,” I said.
“Hi,” he replied, handing one of the cups to me. “I was waiting for you.”
“You were?” I asked, surprised. I took a sip of the coffee. “How’d you even know I’d be heading into the office today?”
“I didn’t. Lucky guess. Anyway, I figured if you didn’t come soon, I’d just have to have two cups of coffee. Would have made for an interesting commute.”
“You going my way?” I asked, gesturing in the direction of the subway.
“Yep, let’s go.”
We walked in silence for a moment -- an awkward silence it seemed to me. I debated about acknowledging his phone call but instead thanked him for the coffee. He just smiled and said “no problem.” A few more steps -- weaving in and around people as we made our way to the subway -- I decided to speak again.
“I’m really glad. . .,” I started.
“I’m glad you . . .,” he said at the same time.
Laughing, we both told the other to go ahead, which made us laugh again.
“No, you first,” I insisted.
“Okay. What I was going to say was that I’m glad you were able to make it this weekend. I thought it was fun.”
“Yes,” I agreed. “Fun, beautiful, relaxing. A little exhausting -- I forgot what it was like to sleep on the ground in a sleeping bag. My back was glad to be back in my own bed.”
Clark laughed. “Yeah. Did your sister survive? She looked beat up yesterday.”
“Oh, I think she’ll live. It’s amazing what being in love can do.”
“Yeah, don’t tell her I told you, but she told me she thinks Zach is the one. I might actually believe it’s true this time.” I shrugged. “Stranger things have happened.”
He nodded thoughtfully, taking a sip from his coffee. “Yeah, Zach seems like a great guy. Very outgoing. They seem like a good match.”
“Yeah.” We arrived at the subway stop and made our way down the stairs, making our way along with the throng of other people making the morning commute. The subway platform was crowded and hot. We waited. A subway pulled in on the opposite side of the platform, a rush of air arriving in its wake, a momentary respite from the oppressive heat. My shirt was starting to stick to my back, my hair hot on my neck. I worried that beads of sweat were beginning to form on my top lip. I casually turned away to blot at them with my sleeve. I turned back to look at Clark. Despite the heat, he looked cool and casual, blazer and all.
“Doesn’t the heat bother you?”
He glanced at me. “Nah,” he shook his head. “I’ve felt worse. Don’t forget I was in Africa for a while. Try no air conditioning at all for a while. You sort of get used to it.”
“Right,” I nodded. I took a sip of my coffee. I wondered if now was the time to mention his call from last night. I mean, why even call at all? He’d just basically said the same thing. Maybe I was reading too much into it. I should put it out of my mind. I looked at my watch and then down the platform, listening for sounds of an arriving train. Hopefully the train we got would have air conditioning. There was nothing worse than being crammed into a hot subway car in August.
“So, Kate,” Clark said, calling my attention back to him. “Want to grab a bite to eat after work tonight?”
“Oh, sorry,” I shook my head. “I can’t. I already have other plans.”
“Oh,” he said, brow creased. “Ex-boyfriend?”
Was it my imagination, or did he look a little upset? “No,” I shook my head. “Just my friend Jim. We used to work together at my old job.” His mood seemed to brighten.
“How about tomorrow night?”
This was interesting. On the one hand, I could stick to my plan and say no -- the start of weaning him out of my life. On the other hand, I really wanted to go. What harm would it do? It was just dinner with a friend, right? I mean, I was having dinner with Jim, so what would be so different about having dinner with Clark?
All of that reasoning must have happened within a millisecond because I found myself agreeing to dinner pretty much right away. Just about that time, the subway arrived. Blessedly, there was air conditioning. Although, since it was standing-room only, the air conditioning only served to keep the temperature just slightly cooler than tepid. We rode downtown in relative silence, the crowdedness of the subway making conversation slightly awkward. Before we parted, we agreed to talk at work the next day to make our plans. I left the subway in pretty much the same mood as I’d headed to it earlier. I was a new woman, and I was determined to get on with life. Work, Mike, how to be just friends with Clark. I would figure it all out. I can do this, I thought. I have to.