The next Saturday, I went out for a run. I needed to wrap my head around the events of the week. First of all, it had been a busy week at work. The CFO of Seldrige Sports Wear called with the news that the legal snags they were running into might be resolved sooner than expected and they were eager to move forward with the campaign as soon as possible. Smith was running us ragged -- having us all pull late nights to get something together to show the client when they were ready. It was hard to put my brain around the fact that all of the work we’d done was finally going to be presented to the client. And, we’d gotten word on Friday that the head of Seldrige Sports Wear -- Clark Seldrige, Sr. -- would be attending the meeting. Everyone was on pins and needles, and I did my best to keep everything under control, putting out last minute fires here and there so our last amount of prep work would go as smoothly as possible.
Because of the late hours, I hadn’t seen Mike since the previous weekend. We’d spoken on the phone almost every night, and now he had gone to Connecticut for the weekend to visit his parents. He’d invited me to go -- a chance to get out of the city -- but I was sure our relationship hadn’t progressed enough again for me to show up at his parents’ house, yet. Instead, I looked forward to a quiet weekend alone, maybe getting a pedicure, ordering in Chinese takeout, and relaxing with a few DVDs.
When I got back to my place after the run, my phone was ringing. I raced to answer it before it went to voice mail.
“Hello?” I said, panting into the phone.
“He’s been asking about you,” a voice said.
“Penelope?” I asked, still out of breath.
“Yep, it’s me.”
“Who’s been asking about me? Clark?”
“What’d he say?”
“He was wondering what you were up to. Why you weren’t returning his phone calls.”
“What’d you say?”
“I said I knew that you’d been busy with work, but the truth is you had been avoiding him.”
“What? You didn’t tell him why, did you?”
“Relax. He doesn’t know anything. He was bugging me about you, wondering how your dad was doing and everything. I just told him you were embarrassed because he’d gone out of his way for you -- driving you and Michelle to the hospital and all. I had to tell him something that sounded logical, Kate. C’mon. He’s my friend, and I don’t want to hurt his feelings. But, of course I’m not going to tell him what you told me. You’re my friend, too. But, you’ve got to call him back, Kate. Just so he’ll stop bothering me about it.”
“Oh, God, Penelope. I don’t know what to do.”
“Kate,” she said, “You told me yourself that Clark is smart, funny, and a great guy to be around. But, obviously, you can’t handle things the way they are. With just being friends. The way I see it, you have a couple of options. One, you keep avoiding him. Maybe he’ll get the picture and stop asking about you, calling you, being your friend, or whatever. Then, you can move on with your life, date other people, get married, and have tons of babies with some lover boy.” She paused before continuing. “Personally, I think that would be a real shame. I’ve known Clark my whole life, and there’s no one like him. He’s great. But, if that’s what you have to do, then I guess you’ll have to. Plus, it’ll make my life a real pain there for a while until he stops bugging me about you, too.”
“You said options.”
“Two: tell him point blank how you feel.”
“Kate, who knows? Maybe he feels the same way, maybe he doesn’t. But, at least you’ll know. Either it turns out he’s head over heels with you or you’re back to option one.”
“The avoiding one.”
“God, I don’t know if I can just come out and tell him. What if he thinks it’s a joke? It was bad enough with hints.”
“Kate, give yourself a break. You are a beautiful, warm, intelligent girl. Any boy would be lucky enough to have you.”
“That’s another thing. What about Mike?”
“Hmm, that’s a slight hiccup. Have you slept with him again, yet?”
“Well, no. Almost, though. Things almost got there last week.”
“But they didn’t.” It was more of a statement than a question.
“No. I guess I’m still trying to figure out the whole Clark thing. How I feel about him. I didn’t think it would be fair to Mike.”
“Tell Clark, Kate. If anything, it will give you a chance to move on. You’re wasting so much energy worrying about it. Time to free yourself, one way or another.”
I nodded. I was sure she was right, but I didn’t know how I was going to get the courage to do it. It’s as if all of the courage I’d been able to find over the past few months -- to quit my job, get the new one -- had been used up. No, actually, it wasn’t like that at all, I thought. When it came to work, I’d had the courage. But, when it came to relationships, I had none. I always let it happen to me, not the other way around. Like, with Mike. He’d been the one to break up with me. Then, when we’d talked again, I’d sort of gone along with our whole dating thing, trying to figure out if it could lead us back to where we were. And, with Clark. I’d let him drag me along, knowing nothing was going to come out of it. When it came to men and my relationships, did I have any courage at all?
That question was further pondered the next weekend when my mom came to town for lunch and shopping. After waiting on my dad hand and foot for the past couple of weeks, my mom needed a break, and my dad had encouraged her to come to the city. Michelle had other plans, so Mike met us for lunch in midtown before leaving us to our shopping. Mom and I decided to head over to Macy’s to browse the racks.
“This is nice,” she said, holding up a red sweater she’d picked up from a display. “Do you think Michelle would like this? I could get a jump on my Christmas shopping.”
“She might like it in this color better,” I said, holding up a blue one.
“Oh, you’re right,” she agreed. “It’ll go better with her complexion anyway.”
We continued browsing, stopping every once in a while when she found something worthy to look at.
“Kate?” she said, after a while.
“Tell me more about why you got back together with Mike.”
“Well, there’s not much to tell. We’ve been dating again for about a month or so, now. He’s funny, and I enjoy being with him.”
“"But, still, do you love him enough to give him another chance? It’s not like you are married or anything."
“We have history, Mom.”
“You’re different around him.”“Different how?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” she said, taking a jacket off the rack and holding it up before putting it back. “Maybe it’s the way you act when you’re with him. Quiet, a little reserved. I see you close yourself off a little, like you did with Mike. You don’t want to put yourself out there too much.”
“I’m just taking it slow, mom. I don’t want to make the same mistake I made the first time around.”
“What mistake was that? Letting yourself actually get close to someone? Or, not getting close enough?”
I looked at my mom in surprise. I felt a little uncomfortable talking about this in the middle of a department store. I looked around. Luckily, it wasn’t too crowded. It looked like no one was close enough to hear us.
“Mom, do we have to talk about this now?”
“Why not now? It’s why I’m here, right? A little mother/daughter bonding time?” She smiled before heading off to another rack. I followed close behind.
“I guess,” I said to her, finally admitting it to myself, “what I’m looking for is something like what you and dad have. I mean, he was your first, right? You met young, fell in love, got married, had kids. You’re still together after all of these years, and it’s perfect, right? I mean, I know not everything’s perfect. I’m not saying that. But, you know what I mean.”
She looked at me for a moment, as if weighing something in her mind before she spoke. I guessed she was trying to decide what type of motherly advice to give me, trying to say it right. What she did say was completely unexpected. “He’s not my first husband.”
“Dad. He’s not the only man I’ve been married to.”
“What are you saying?” I asked, not believing my ears.
She took my arm and steered me over to a bench, sitting down next to me. She didn’t say anything for a few moments, but when she did, she had a sad look in her eyes. “Kate, I need to tell you something, and I’m not sure how.
“When I was about Michelle’s age, I met your dad. The man you know as your father.” She shook her head, deciding how to continue. “He was perfect. He had such a fiery personality back then. He still does. There were such sparks between us. I fell completely head over heels for him.”
“What sometimes happens when you’re young. He was a dreamer, a free spirit. We were both living in California at the time. We’d met at college. I was completely in love with him. But, my parents, well, that was another story. They were convinced he wasn’t for me. Too wild, they’d said. They wanted me to marry someone more sensible. They didn’t like the fact that he was heading off to graduate school in New York City. He wanted to be a history professor and teach, but, then again, he wasn’t sure. My parents didn’t see a future there. They told me I needed someone with a ‘real’ job, something stable.
“But, dad’s as normal as they come. I don’t get it.”
“Oh, he was a little different back then. It was the seventies, you know. He even had a motorcycle.”
“Dad, a motorcycle?” I shook my head in disbelief. I started to ask her more about that when I realized that she hadn’t even told me the most important part.
“He was leaving to go to New York and wanted me to go with him. But, I was stupid. I decided to listen to my parents. I pleaded with him to get a job, to stay in California with me. But, he got mad. Said I was killing his dreams. We had a fight, and he left the next day. I pined after him for a while. I kept expecting him to come back. But, after I didn’t hear from him for about a year, I realized he was gone.”
“But he must have come back, right? I mean, you married him.”
“Yes, he came back eventually. But, by then, I’d met someone else.” She grabbed my arm. “He worked at my father’s office, and my father brought him over for dinner one night. I didn’t realize at the time that my dad was setting us up. His name was Steven. Steven was kind, polite. And, handsome, too. He had a good job. Everything a girl would want in a husband. We began dating. I liked him. He made me laugh, and there was a kind of easiness about us. About a year after we started dating, he asked me to marry him.”
“So, you married him?”
“I did. But, after a couple of years, I realized that I’d made a mistake. I didn’t love him like I’d loved your father. I tried sticking it out, to make my heart feel something it didn’t. But, when your dad came back into town and found me, it was like no time had ever passed. I tried to deny it, but I realized I couldn’t. Your dad was the only man I ever wanted to be with.”
“So, what happened?”
She shook her head. “I asked Steven for a divorce and left with dad the next day. It’s one of my biggest regrets. Not following your dad out here to New York in the first place, marrying Steven, hurting him like that. But, I couldn’t deny my feelings any longer. And,” she shrugged, “it’s been so worth it. If I hadn’t been with your dad, who knows how things would have turned out? I wouldn’t have you, Michelle, everything.”
“Why didn’t you ever tell us before?”
“I don’t know,” she admitted. “I thought it didn’t matter. That there was never a need to tell you.”
“Still, you should have said something,” I said, defiantly.
She gave me a hug. “I know, Kate. I’m sorry.” She sat back, her hands gripping at her purse. “Oh, dad’s going to be so mad at me when I tell him I told you. We agreed that if we ever said anything, we’d tell you guys together.”
She looked so worried. I reached out and gave her a hug. ”I’m not mad, Mom.”
“You’re not?” she asked, disbelieving.
I shook my head. “I’m not sure why. It’s a little bizarre, the whole thing. Guess I’d never pictured you with anyone but dad before. I envy your relationship. Michelle always thought it was a bit of magic.”
She smiled. “Life with your father is nothing if not interesting. And, magic. I guess that’s a good word, too.”
I sat there, thinking. “Mom? Why did you tell me now? I mean, why now after all this time? I guess I don’t understand.”
“I guess because I don’t want you to make the same mistake that I made. I see you, Kate. I see you, so hesitant, so careful with your relationships, and I’m not sure why. Maybe somehow that part of me rubbed onto you more than I thought.” She looked me carefully in the eyes before continuing. “Don’t be afraid to take chances. You don’t always have to go for the safe option, just because you think it’s the best way of not getting hurt.”
“And you think Mike is safe.”
“It’s not what I think, it’s what you think. I only want you to be happy. And if Mike, or someone like Mike, is truly what’s going to make you happy, then I’m all for it. But . . . just be, Kate. Be an active part of it all. Don’t let it happen to you. You need to go in, eyes wide open, making these decisions with your head and your heart. But,” she smiled, “if you ask me, I’d say start with the heart. The head thing will catch up there eventually.”
I left my mom about an hour later so she could catch a cab back to Penn Station. She hadn’t wanted to leave, insisting she come back to my place for the night, but I’d wanted to be alone. Even though I hadn’t lied when I told my mom I wasn’t mad, I was still confused about it all. It turns out that my parent’s perfect relationship hadn’t started out so perfectly after all. She’d been married before! My head was still reeling from this revelation when I exited the subway at my stop. As I walked up the steps to exit, my cell phone rang. I reached to grab it without looking to see who it was. I figured it was my mom, as worried about me as she was when she left.
“Hello,” I said into the phone.
“You’re avoiding me again,” Clark said on the other end.
“No,” I gulped, hearing his voice for the first time in couple of weeks.
“Yes, you are. Penelope told me so.”
“Oh, right.” I hesitated, unsure of what to say. “Sorry about that. It was stupid. I should have called you.”
“Look, are you busy? Want to get together?”
After today, I wasn’t in the right frame of mind to face Clark, so I made an excuse. “Um, no, I can’t. I’m just getting back from lunch with my mom, and I have plans later. I’ve got to get ready.”
“Oh, right. Do you have a date tonight?”
“No, it’s not that,” I said. “It’s just . . . I can’t this weekend. I’ve got a lot going on. Can I call you?”
There was a slight hesitation before he answered. “Sure,” he said. “Call me.”
“Okay, I will.”
“Kate?” he said, before I could get off of the phone.
“. . . Nothing,” he replied. “I’ll be seeing you.”
The finality of his words hit me as the phone clicked off. I realized he thought I wasn’t going to call him back. I wondered if I would. Maybe this was it, finally. I could stop worrying about how to deal with my feelings for Clark because there would be no more Clark. It was the end. No more wondering. No more avoiding. Just . . . nothing.
My heart sank into my stomach as I walked home. I fought back tears. Angry tears more than anything else. Because I was angry. Angry at myself. Because, whatever had just happened, I was aware enough to notice one thing. My mom was right. Once again, I’d stood by, a passive observer, while life happened to me. And, once again, I’d done nothing about it.