“Please tell me you’re kidding. You’ve got to be kidding.” Charlotte looked, from where I sat across her kitchen table cradling Maxine, to Emile, who was at the counter busily mixing up a bottle of formula. “Emile, can you believe it?”
Emile looked over, clearly not wanting to be part it. “I can believe it, Charlotte. Now, leave her alone about it.”
I smiled. It was fun to see Emile and Charlotte again, their playful banter doing wonders to cheer me up. And, it was definitely something I needed. They were part of the something ‘new’ I decided I needed two weeks ago when I’d come up with my plans on Labor Day. A new locale, at least, to get my mind off of things. So, when I had called to see about visiting them, they were happy to hear from me. They couldn’t wait to show off their new house and how much the baby had grown. Charlotte had called several times during the past two weeks, clearly excited about the visit and looking forward to having what she called ‘adult conversation.’
“Nothing about the baby,” she’d said. “That’s all Emile and I ever talk about anymore. And, he’s been away so much getting ready for the start of the term, so I’ve been alone with Maxine so much. I can’t wait to have you here!”
Now, here I was, soaking up as much friendship and ‘awayness’ from the rest of my life as I could.
“I just can’t believe Mike,” Charlotte was saying. “I still can’t believe he had the gall to ask you to get back together.”
I sighed, remembering. After calling Emile and Charlotte, my next phone call had been to Mike. When I finally made the decision to call him and say that I was ready to talk, it felt like a weight had been lifted off of my shoulders. I hadn’t realized I’d still been hanging on to that portion of my old life, however small a piece it was.
Mike had spent most of our first meeting apologizing, begging, even crying. He’s said he’d been unable to sleep or even focus on anything. His life had pretty much been at his lowest point, he said. Me, I wasn’t so sure it was me he missed as much as just having someone, anyone, in his life. I didn’t know where things were going to lead. I think Mike saw a future for the two of us. But, for now all I felt toward him was nostalgia – a part of my past life.
“But now you’re dating again?” Charlotte looked at me in disbelief. “I always thought he wasn’t your type. That you weren’t compatible. There were no sparks.”
“Now you tell me,” I shrugged. “We’ve only gone out twice. It’s not like it’s serious again or anything. And besides, I’m really taking it slow.”
“Nice, yes. But, to you really see a future? Baby, it’s time to move on.”
“Give her enough credit to know what to do,” Emile said, handing the bottle to Charlotte. “She can handle herself.”
“Hmmph. We’ll see. At least I hope he’s better than last time.” Camille stood up and took the baby from me. “I think I’ll feed her in the other room. I want to try and settle her down to sleep. Then,” she looked at me seriously, “we can talk.”
“Or not,” Emile called after her as she left the room. I laughed to myself. After not seeing my friends for so long, it felt good to be back together. Comfortable.
“Want a beer?” he asked.
He grabbed a couple of beers, and then we retreated to the back porch. After years of living in a cramped apartment in New York City, Charlotte and Emile were finally able to spread out a little bit, despite his meager salary as a professor. We kicked back in a couple of lounge chairs and soaked up the evening air.
“It’s nice out here,” I commented.
“Yes. It almost makes you never want to leave. If I’d known what it was like, it would never have taken so long to get out of the city.”
“Really? You were a diehard New Yorker.”
“I guess I’d been rebelling against my parent’s lifestyle. You know, quiet neighborhoods, white picket fences, that sort of thing. It wasn’t cool."
“So, having a baby sort of changes your perspective on things a bit, huh?”
He winked at me. “Just a bit.” His expression suddenly turned serious. “Really, though. Are you okay?” Emile knew a little more of the Clark story then I’d let on with Charlotte. He knew I was disappointed how things turned out.
“I’m fine, I guess. I mean, seriously, Emile. I never should have let myself get to the place I was at. We were just friends. I mean, his girlfriend is a freakin’ model, for gods’ sake. Of course he could never fall for me.”
“Right, because you are so ugly and such a horrible person, right?” Emile grinned. He was used to my put down sessions and had stopped long ago trying to talk me out of them.
I grinned back. “Right, a monster.”
“So, that explains it.”
“What?” I asked, confused.
“That horn sticking out of the top of your head,” he teased, reaching over to tousle my hair.
I laughed as Charlotte emerged from the house, a beer in hand. “Sounds like you two are having entirely too much fun out here without me,” she commented.
“Well, let’s see what we can do about that,” Emile answered back.
I laughed as they began their playful banter. I envied the ease they had with one another. How perfect they seemed to fit together. I sighed to myself, wondering if I’d ever really find that.
I started thinking back on the events of the past couple of weeks. After I’d called Mike and agreed to meet, I’d felt I needed to make other changes to my personal life. At first, I decided to try and cut ties with Clark, thinking that would be the best way to get over him. I had successfully avoided his phone calls on Tuesday -- two of them -- before deciding that hiding wasn’t the way to go.
I got the courage to call him at his office the next day but was informed that he was on his way to the airport for a trip. This was confirmed when I checked my emails later that day. He’d sent me a quick note from the airport, saying that he was sorry he’d missed me and hoped to see me when he got back. Penelope called later on that day to chat, and she told me that Clark had to go to Africa for about a week to work on some issues with his charity and was stopping through London for a few days on his way back. That solidified it. His girlfriend must have had to go back to London and he was going to see her there, I was sure, so I didn’t have to face him for at least another week. I jotted off a quick return email to him, wishing him a good trip and implying that I’d see him when he got back. I guessed I could figure out how to cross that bridge when I got to it.
Friday, I’d met Jim for lunch, and he had me laughing at all of the craziness I’d left behind at my old job. It was a fun, carefree lunch. Just the thing I’d needed to get my mind off of everything else. I had such a good time that I asked him if he and Kristen wanted to go to the movies with me and Mike the next weekend. I think he was definitely surprised when he heard I’d agreed to give Mike another chance. But, after his experiences with Kirsten, he said he couldn’t really fault me, and he readily accepted.
After the movie, Mike had suggested we all go out to dinner. And, it was fun. Sort of falling back into my old comfortable routine with Mike and my friends, I started to see the possibilities where before I could not.
I was startled out of my daydream, thinking back on all of this, when fingers snapped in front of my face.
“Hey, dreamer! Ready for dinner?” Emile asked.
“Oops, sorry. Spaced out there for a moment. Yes, dinner. I’m starving.”
“Good,” he said, standing up. “Let’s eat. I’ll get the grill started. Why don’t you help Charlotte in the kitchen? I think she’s got her own type of ‘grilling’ to do,” he said, grinning at me.
I groaned and looked over at Charlotte, who held out her hand.
“C’mon,” she said. “Spill it all. If you’re going to give Mike another chance, you’ll have to tell me all about it. Convince me he’s the real deal.”
She dragged me toward the house, and I looked back at Emile, pleading. He just laughed and took a swig of his beer before turning to light the grill. I turned back and followed Charlotte in the house, determined to play along if that would get me through it as quickly, and painlessly, as possible.
My weekend away with Emile and Charlotte was short. Too soon, it was time to face reality. I’d had an ulterior motive for going to see Charlotte and Emile. Actually, I’d had two. The first was I needed some time away from Mike. While it was true I enjoyed our dates, I felt like I needed some distance from the whole thing -- whatever our “thing” was at this point -- to try and get an outsider’s perspective. I didn’t really care much what Emile and Charlotte thought. But, I need to try and figure out what I thought. And, the truth was, I just didn’t know. Mike had been charming, contrite, more than repentant. He treated me well. He told me over and over that we didn’t have to rush into anything, that we could take it however slow I wanted to. I wanted to believe him, to think that what he was saying was all true. I wondered if it were possible to get back to the place we’d once been. I sort of began to think that my whole theory of looking for someone “normal” wasn’t so bad after all. So what if there were no sparks? Maybe you didn’t need to feel sparks to find the right person.
My other motive for getting away was because I knew Clark was coming back into town. I’d exchanged a few noncommittal emails with him over the past two weeks, and when he let me know he was coming home this past weekend and asked if I wanted to get together, I was glad I had the weekend with Charlotte and Emile planned. I just didn’t know if I could see Clark, yet. I wanted to put some distance between that whole thing, too, to see if I could get my mind around the fact that I had to end our friendship. I foolishly thought a few more days apart would help. Now that I was back, I realized I would need a lot more time.
Mike called the day after I got back -- I guess he couldn’t wait for me to call him -- and we made plans to go out on Friday. Tom from the band called, too, and I half-promised to meet everyone at the bar for happy hour on Thursday. Clark also called a couple of times to see if I wanted to get together. I made an excuse that work had suddenly buried me, and I had to put in some major overtime at the office. I decided to make a point of getting into the office early and working late -- in case Clark actually talked to Smith. They were friends, after all.
Without realizing it, this tactic had two benefits. First, I successfully avoided running into Clark around our neighborhood. Second, Smith, my sort of boss, took notice, and I think he was secretly pleased.
“I wish all of the people who worked for me were like you, Kate,” he said that Thursday afternoon.
I looked up from the spreadsheet I was preparing to see him standing over my desk and smiled. “Just trying to get it right. This is a big deal.”
“Big, yes, but you don’t have to kill yourself. Have you gone home before nine p.m. at all this week?”
I thought about it. “Umm, no, but I’m okay.”
“Kate, I know how it can be. You can kill yourself in this business if you don’t take a breather every now and then. Besides, I’ve sat in on your meetings. You and your team seem to have everything well under control. I think you can afford to leave before six o’clock at least one night, don’t you?”
I shrugged. In reality, it was true I was done with everything I could do up to this point, although part of me still wasn’t happy. We were in the home stretch for the Seldrige Sporting Goods campaign. The presentation for the client was just two weeks away.
“Listen,” Smith said, leaning down. Then, looking around, he straightened up and beckoned to me. “Actually, let’s go into my office. I have something I want to discuss.”
Standing, I grabbed a pad of paper and a pen and followed him back into his office.
“Close the door behind you, will ya?” he said, moving behind his desk to sit down.
I complied and then sat down on the chair in front of his desk.
“Look,” he said. “About the Seldrige campaign. I wanted you to know how pleased I am with it.”
“Well, thanks.” I said, wondering why he’d called me into his office just to tell me that.
“I just got off the phone with the CFO from Seldrige Sporting Goods, and there seems to be some logistics they have to work out with the charity portion of this whole thing. Something about the foundation they are trying to set up, some international legal work, that sort of thing. So, it’s going to take longer than they expected to get it up and running.”
“We could still move forward on the project. The team has been working for weeks on this. We can get it ready for when they are ready.”
“I thought of that,” he nodded. “But, it might not make sense if we don’t know how things are going to pan out on their side.”
“Well, how long of a delay are we talking?”
“A month. Maybe two.”
“That long?” I was suddenly worried. All of the hard work I’d put in over the past few months to get the campaign up and running, and now Smith was telling me it was delayed. On top of that, I was working on a consulting basis. What would I do if he couldn’t afford to keep me?
“It might be only a few weeks. I just said a month or two because you never know when it’s something legal. The bottom line is, I’m going to hold the team up on this project until we hear.”
“But, not to be selfish here, but what does that mean for me? You’re hiring me on a consulting basis. The other stuff I’m helping you with, you really don’t need me for at the moment.”
“Well, that’s another thing I wanted to talk to you about. Kate, you’ve been an invaluable member of our team these past few months. I thank my lucky stars the day Clark told me about you.”
I blushed, embarrassed at the compliment.
“The thing is, I don’t want you as a consultant anymore.”
My stomach dropped as it felt the bottom dropped out from under me.
“You’re . . . letting me go?” I didn’t understand. I’d worked so hard on this campaign, and now he was firing me. I looked up at Smith and was confused by the amused expression on his face.
“You misunderstand me. I don’t want to have you as a consultant anymore because I want to hire you. I want you to come in as our head creative director. Full time, with benefits. You’ve become irreplaceable here, and I don’t want to take a chance of losing you when you figure out how cheaply I’ve been getting you all this time.”
“Hire me? Are you sure? I mean, it hasn’t yet been six months.”
“Kate,” he laughed. “Don’t sell yourself short. You’ve really blossomed since you’ve joined us. I’ve got some big clients in the works. If they pan out, we’re going to have more work than we know what to do with. And, when the Seldrige campaign comes out, I think we’re going to have to fight the clients off with a stick.” He grinned.
I grinned back, surprised and pleased at this turn of events. Head creative director! It was my dream job.
“Look,” Smith said. “It’s five o’clock. Why don’t you leave for the day? Sleep on it. Figure out what you want to do. You don’t have to give me an answer now. Tomorrow is fine. If you agree, we can work out the details with Chris and draw up a contract. How does that sound?”
“Wow, Smith. I don’t know what to say! This is a lot to take in all at once. But, I don’t need until tomorrow to decide. I’d love to make it official.”
“Terrific. I’ll let Chris know. He’ll be pleased.” He stood up to shake my hand. “So, I guess you need to go and celebrate.”
I laughed. “Actually, some friends of mine asked me to meet them for drinks tonight. I was going to blow them off and work late. But, I think I changed my mind.”
He smiled, standing up to offer his hand. “Kate,” he said. “Welcome to the team. Officially, that is.”
Grinning from ear to ear, I could hardly think straight as I walked out. There was just too much to think about. Head Creative Director. At 27! This was my dream come true. I picked up my phone and automatically started to call Clark and share the news -- after all, he was the one who helped me get the job with Smith. But, wait, I was avoiding him. So, that wouldn’t work. Instead, I called Mike to tell him we had an official reason to celebrate at our dinner the following night. I called Michelle, my parents, Emile -- everyone except the one person I wanted to.
At the bar, the gang and I wasted no time catching up on what had been going on in each other’s lives. I’d been the last one to talk to Emile and Charlotte, so I filled everyone in on what they were doing and on how much the baby had grown. When I told them about my new job, they all cheered. Paul offered up a toast in my honor, and I beamed under the praise and attention. I was sorry that Emile and Charlotte couldn’t be there, too.
We’d been there about an hour when I felt a tap on my shoulder. I spun around to find Clark standing behind me. My heart leaped in my throat. Just the person I’d been trying to avoid!
“There you are,” he said.
“Oh, hey, Clark,” I said, my face turning red.
“So, you didn’t have to work late tonight?” he asked.
“Um, nope. Actually, Smith paroled me.”
He laughed. “Sounds like the man is a slave driver.”
I shrugged. “No, actually, I love it.” My heart was finally starting to slow down a bit.
He gestured at the drink in my hand. “Can I get you another one?”
“Uh, sure. That’d be great.”
He got drinks at the bar and then came back to where I was standing. Everyone welcomed him with hellos and a few handshakes. Soon, though, they were chatting, laughing and drawn back into their old conversations. Clark and I stood there for a while, not saying much, before he guided me to some nearby stools, pulling one out for me as he sat on the other.
“So, do you see these guys often?”
“Not really,” I admitted. “It’s been a while since we’ve gotten together.”
“So, I got lucky, then.”
“Yes, to catch you here.”
“Oh, yes. I guess so.”
“So, other than work, what have you been up to?”
“Well, not much. You know that I visited Emile and Charlotte last weekend.”
“Uh huh,” he said, taking a sip of his drink. “How was that?”
“It was nice to get away. I haven’t seen them in a while, and I was used to seeing them almost every week. And, the baby has really grown.” Changing the subject, I asked him. “What about you? How was your trip?”
“Oh, you know. Same old thing. Get in a plane, fly to another country, work, get in a plane, do it all over again.”
“Speaking of work, Smith told me there were some issues with your charity?”
“Yes. Some issues with how we need to structure everything. Legal stuff.”
“Well, it seems like the ad campaign has been put on hold because of it.”
“Really? I don’t know much about that, yet. I knew they were thinking about doing that, but I haven’t had a chance to talk to the CFO or my dad, yet.”
“Yes, well, because of that, it seems like my employment options have changed somewhat.”
“Because we’re putting a hold on things? God, I’m sorry, Kate. I had no idea.” He sounded so sincerely sorry that I decided to take pity on him and tell him the whole story.
“Don’t be. Actually, Smith decided to hire me. Full time. I’m going to be his new Head Creative Director.”
“Are you serious? Kate, that’s great!” He reached out and grabbed me into a quick hug.
“Thanks,” I said, grinning back at him when he released me. Damn, I thought. It’s so easy to fall back into this.
“This calls for an official celebration. Just the two of us. How about dinner tomorrow?”
“Tomorrow?” I asked. He nodded, waiting. I had my date with Mike tomorrow. I wondered what to say. I guess there was no sense in avoiding it any longer. “Actually, I can’t tomorrow. I, uh, have a date.”
“A date?” he asked, clearly startled. “Well,” he finally said, “maybe some other time.”
His reaction made me mad. It was okay for him to go jetting overseas to see his girlfriend, but it wasn’t okay for me to go out on a stupid date?
“You seem surprised,” I observed, barely containing my feelings.
“Yeah, surprised that I would actually have a date.”
“No,” he replied. “It’s just that . . .”
“Just what?” What was his deal anyway? Either he liked me and gave a damn or he didn’t and should get out of the way and let me move on. “How’s Camille, by the way?” I asked, throwing that in the mix.
“Camille? Fine, I guess. I mean, I only saw her for a couple of days while I was in London.”
“Long enough to get your fix in, huh?”
“What is that supposed to mean?” he asked, confused.
I thought a moment. What did I mean? “I guess it means that it’s real convenient to have your out-of-town girlfriend who you go jetting off to see every few weeks and then have someone like me to hang out with to take her place when you get back.”
“What?” he laughed. He quickly stopped when he saw the look on my face. “Are you serious? I thought we were friends, Kate. I was under the impression you liked hanging out with me.”
“We are. I do. It’s just . . .”
“Nothing. Forget it. You’ve got Camille, I’ve got Mike. We’re friends. I’m just temporarily insane. Probably a little drunk, too,” I concluded, taking a swig of my beer.
“Mike,” he observed. “So, you decided to give him another chance.”
“Sometimes, we can learn from our mistakes.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Nothing,” I spit out. I felt bad for being so mean to him. “Listen, forget I said anything.”
He took a sip of his beer, contemplating. I couldn’t read his expression, the way his brown eyes stared off into space, thinking. I started to say something, to apologize for acting so stupid, when he stood up.
“Look, I’ve got to go.”
I didn’t want to stick my foot in my mouth again, so I just nodded, saying nothing.
“But, still,” he added, looking me in the eyes, “let me know how things go with your new job, okay? You’ve worked hard for that job. You deserve it.”
The expression on his face was so sincere, his brown eyes so tender, making my stomach flutter. Maybe it wasn’t worth ending our friendship on bad terms. Now that we were talking again, all of the anxiety I’d built up over seeing him again felt stupid.
But, still, it was out there. My feelings for him couldn’t have been any more apparent unless I’d come right out and told him how I felt. How I was falling for him. And, yet, he’d said nothing. As if it hadn’t mattered. Maybe to him, it didn’t.
“I’ll see ya,” he said, turning to leave.
“Bye,” I whispered back, but he was already too far away to hear me.
It was like a piece of me broke off as I watched him walk out the door.
The next night, Mike met me in midtown Manhattan for a celebratory dinner. The restaurant he brought me to was a quiet little Italian place on 46th Street, popular with the locals. While we were waiting for our table, we had drinks at the bar.
“Here’s to you,” he said, holding up his glass for a toast. “Congratulations on a job well done and to finally seeing the fruits of your labor.”
“I’ll toast to that,” I smiled, clinking my glass against his.
“No, really, Kate. It’s great. You finally got what you wanted.”
“Yeah, I know,” I sighed. “For a while there, I wondered if it would happen.”
“You mean, back when you were working with Mark and all,” he said.
“Yeah. You know, I worked so hard there for years. And, it was like I’d never done anything. I was beginning to think it was me.”
“It wasn’t you,” he disagreed. “Want to hear something?”
“The night I broke it off, when I packed my stuff and walked out, I stayed there, right outside your apartment door, for the longest time. It’s like I was outside of myself, watching myself, wondering what the hell I was doing. We’d been together for eighteen months. That’s longer than I’d ever been with anyone. But, I’d been so stupid, made stupid decisions, said some stupid things. Like how I needed a change. God! I must have been crazy. I don’t know what I was thinking!”
He swallowed, looking down at his hands before continuing. “I really don’t think it was you, Kate. And, I’m sorry I blamed you. I think it was me. Actually, I know it was me. I was afraid. Part of me wished you’d come out the apartment door, begging me to come back. I kept waiting for a call, anything. But, then, I figured it was too late. This other person had came along, and I used it as an excuse to not have to commit. I took the easy way out. I was a coward.”
I didn’t know what to say to him, so I swallowed, trying not to cry. I’d never seen him so vulnerable during our time together.
He smiled, sort of a half laugh, before looking up at me. “Maybe it was for the best, though. Look what you’ve been able to do, Kate. With your job. You took that chance and stood up for yourself. Maybe if we’d still been together, none of it would have ever happened.”
It got me thinking about Penelope and her beliefs. “Have you ever given much thought to fate?” I asked him.
“What about it?”
“I mean, do you think that fate brings us things in life? Allows certain people to cross our path, makes certain things happen?”
“Honestly, I think it’s mostly what we do with those things that counts the most.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, fate might put something or someone in our path, but if we don’t recognize it, or don’t act upon it, what does it matter? Like with us.”
“Hmm, I guess you’re right.” I couldn’t help but think about Clark. I’d certainly felt fate had made our two paths cross. And, it was true my life had taken a turn since I’d met him -- with my job, our friendship, even meeting Penelope. Was I supposed to do something more? Or, was this it? Maybe I’d already gotten everything out of it I was supposed to and it was time to move on. I mean, here I was with Mike -- smart, funny, definitely interested in me. Maybe fate was at work here, too. All I had to do was act on it.
“You’re a million miles away,” Mike noted, touching my hand.
“No, I’m here. Just thinking, that’s all.” I smiled and shook my head. “Work,” I lied. I picked up my drink and held it out for another toast. “But, enough of that. How about another toast?”
“How about to fate putting us right where we should be.”
He smiled. “To fate.”
Later, Mike insisted on bringing me home, so we caught a cab uptown. I had the cab drop us at the corner, and Mike paid while I got out. He’d paid for the whole evening -- his treat for my celebration evening, he’d said. He grabbed my hand when he got out of the cab, wanting to escort me to my door. I smiled at this touch of chivalry. It had been a while since I’d been treated so nicely.
We crossed the street, laughing and talking, and were headed to my building when I noticed the person who’d been walking a few feet in front of us. It was Clark. He must have heard us. I’m sure he had. But, he gave no indication either way. I certainly wasn’t going to say anything. I was still embarrassed about the night before. And, despite what I’d said earlier that night about fate having people cross our paths -- literally, this time -- I thought maybe it was best if I still went with the whole avoiding tactic.
I kept my eyes on him the whole time, though, watching, waiting to see if he’d acknowledge me. When he got to his building, he turned and climbed the steps. I risked a glance out of the corner of my eye as we got close, and I thought he’d looked up and saw us. I walked by with Mike, pretending not to see him -- a cowardly move, I know.
When Mike and I reached my steps, he asked if I would meet him again on Sunday. He’d heard of a cool record store in the West Village he was interested in checking out. I agreed to go, and before he left he leaned in for a quick, soft kiss. The touch of his lips was warm. Not a spark, but a warm comfortable feeling. He leaned back and smiled before walking back to the corner to hail a cab that would take him across town.
I waved goodbye, watching him as he walked away. I thought about our evening and the kiss as I walked up the stairs to my apartment. I had a good time -- there was no doubt -- but I just wondered if I was ready to forgive Mike and move to the next level. I mean, I knew that the basis of every good relationship was friendship and honesty. We’d certainly made a start tonight. But, still, I just wasn’t sure.
Maybe I’m overanalyzing things, I thought. Better to just go with the flow. After all, everything I’d tried before had clearly not been a success, so why not give the new and vulnerable Mike a try? I mean, I’d wanted something new, and certainly, this qualified as new.