Sometimes, things happen in life that change you. It could be a major change that hits you over the head when you least expect it and sends your life into a completely new direction. The breakup with Mike. My job. My best friends moving away. My dad’s heart attack.
Other changes are subtle. They sneak up on you, but they can have a more permanent effect without you ever realizing. Like a wave gently washing away a beach, one grain of sand at a time. Like Clark. I hadn’t really realized the effect knowing him had on my existence until I thought it was gone. He seeped into every corner of my being, just like those grains of sand, where you can never really shake all of them out even if you wanted to. He’d given me food for thought, making me think twice about my life. Like, how I could quit my job and the roof wouldn’t cave in. He’d been a friend, a companion, someone who’d been there for fun and in a time of need. He’d crept into my heart, too, and while I wasn’t naive enough to think I’d never fall in love again, I knew that it would be a while before I found someone like him.
These thoughts came to me the day after I’d talked to him, after the lunch with my mom. I’d spent the night before alternately crying and thinking about the conversation I’d had with her. And, I realized something big time. She was right. The universe had been throwing people in my way left and right, and I hadn’t been listening. It was time to stop letting life happen without me. It was time to finally listen to what Emile, Michelle, Penelope, my mom -- fate -- had been trying to tell me. I needed to get my courage back. I needed to take control. I was no longer going to do what was expected of me. Or rather, what I had been expecting of myself. Time to do what I should do and lead with my heart, even if it meant getting hurt.
The first thing I did was call Mike. It killed me to do it. But, I’d actually paid attention to what my mom had said. Mike was Mister Safe Option, and I knew it. He was the one my head told me to take while my heart was sitting on the sidelines. It was a difficult conversation. I had to fight that part of my brain that was screaming “You’re crazy!” the whole time. But, it was done. Mike understood, I think. At least he pretended to. I think deep down inside he knew it was going to end this way eventually. Better sooner rather than later, I guess is a good way to look at it. After I got off the phone with him, I took to my bed, crying for a long time. Crying for what could have been if my heart had felt differently. Crying because I was scared about what was going to happen now.
That week, I took charge in another way. I think I surprised Smith when I went into the office on Monday and told him I was going to change the Seldrige Sports Wear campaign. I know he thought I was crazy -- I’m sure firing me crossed his mind -- but, to his credit, he listened to my ideas with a somewhat open mind and, at the end of our talk he told me to run with it.
And, in case you are wondering, I did actually call Clark later that week when I’d found the courage. I decided that I had to. As part of the “I’m taking charge of my life” campaign, I felt I owed it to myself to at least get everything out on the table. Once and for all. Even if it meant a slow maiming from humiliation. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised when his office said he was out of town. In London. Again. It looked like the maiming would have to wait.
About a week later, Smith gave me the news that we were a go with the Seldrige Sports Wear campaign. The legal issues had been resolved and their director of marketing wanted to see our initial ideas at the end of the week. I’d been putting in the hours, making sure that my changes could be incorporated, and I was pleased when they’d come out better than I’d anticipated. So, I felt ready. Nervous, but ready. The mockups were printed, the budget researched, the team prepped. I was as ready as I was going to be.
The meeting was scheduled for Thursday afternoon. At one o’clock, my team and I prepared the conference room and went through a mock presentation, hammering out any loose details, looking over documents for any typos we’d missed. By two-thirty, I felt pretty confident we were ready for our meeting. At three-thirty, Smith came by my desk to tell me that the client had arrived. This was it.
I felt little bubbles of nervous energy float around in my stomach, and I tried to damper them down. Picking up a note pad, more to keep my hands from shaking than anything else, I walked to the conference room. Outside the door, I took a deep breath and plastered a smile on my face before walking in, head held high.
Once in the room, though, my smile faltered. Smith was talking to Carol, Seldrige’s marketing director, and Clark Seldrige, Sr., the head of the company and Clark’s father. Standing with them was Clark. They were busy talking but when Clark saw me come into the room, he walked over to me.
“Hey, there,” he whispered.
“Hi,” I whispered back when I could recover my composure. “I didn’t expect you.”
“I got back from London yesterday,” he shrugged. “Dad asked me to come. He thought I should see this since I’ve been such a big part of getting the charity up and running.”
“Great,” I said, nervously. Here I was, not only presenting my ideas to the owner of the company but also to Clark. To the person I’d most recently decided I was going to confess my feelings of, what, love? Strong liking? I realized really quickly I had to work hard to get the courage to just present this campaign to him. It would take a lot more courage for anything beyond that.
“So, how have you been?” he asked.
“Fine. You?” I could feel my palms start to sweat, the nervous bubbles in my stomach threatening to make their way out.
“Good. My office told me you called. I’m sorry I didn’t get back to you. Things have been so crazy at work. But, I should have at least acknowledged you.”
“No, that’s okay.”
“Are you sure?” He looked over at the others before turning back to me. “I guess after we last spoke, I sort of felt like I was being a pest. I didn’t want to bother you.”
“No, it’s fine.” I could see Clark’s dad coming over.
Clark saw where I was looking and turned back to me. “We can talk later,” he said.
“Uh, sure, I’d . . . ”
“Kate, dear,” his father said, interrupting us. “It’s so nice to see you again.”
“You, too,” I replied, shaking his hand.
Clark’s father held on to my hand, keeping his eyes on me while he talked to Smith. “I hear this is a brilliant young woman you have working with you, Mr. Weston.”
“Please, call me Smith. And, yes, she is,” he said, pulling out a chair. “Would you all like to sit down, and we can get started?”
Clark’s father pulled away and went to find a chair, while Smith and Carol, the marketing director, got settled on their side of the table. Clark found a chair next to his father, and they all looked up at me expectantly. For a fleeting moment, I felt like a deer caught in headlights.
“Kate?” Smith asked, gesturing to the presentation materials.
“Um, right,” I replied, picking up the stack of outlines and passing them around. “Let’s start with this.” I turned on the overhead screen and started the presentation on my laptop. “Everyone, I’d like to introduce you to the faces of your new campaign.” The overhead screen began to show photographs of smiling people -- photographs that I’d commissioned Penelope to take months before when the germs of my idea had been conceived. As I clicked through the images, I could see that Clark’s dad and Carol liked them. Now, I just had to introduce them to my concept. “I call the theme of this campaign ‘Bring Happiness, Get Happiness’.”
I saw Clark smile and raise his eyebrows at me, and I smiled back. Suddenly, those nervous bubbles disappeared, and I was ready. I could do this.
An hour later, the presentation was complete. Clark’s father was pleased, and he offered me a congratulatory handshake and a hug. He and Carol began throwing around ideas with Smith -- about how they could incorporate the tag lines into a new clothing line coming out the following summer. Clark looked happy, too, and he threw in some comments here and there, being more familiar with the logistics of the charity side of the campaign. He looked over at me at one point, secretly giving me thumbs up before returning to the conversation. I sat, trying to take it all in. I’d done it! My first solo campaign, and it looked like it had been a success.
After a few more minutes, the meeting began to break up, and that happy feeling suddenly disappeared as I started to panic. Clark had wanted to talk! My stomach started to tie itself in little knots, and my palms began to sweat again. I knew what I had to do, but I was afraid I was going to chicken out. I wasn’t ready.
I had a momentary reprieve when Smith offered to show everyone around the office and to meet the team that would be working on their campaign. I saw a brief window of escape. I went back to my desk, pretending to work, but when their attention was elsewhere, I gathered up my things and made a run for it. Telling the receptionist I wasn’t feeling well, I made it to the elevator before anyone noticed. I was home free, at least for now! The elevator took forever to come. But, finally it did. I exited on the ground floor, breathing a sigh of relief, and headed for the door.
Out on the street, I hurried to the subway. But, halfway there, I stopped, feeling ashamed. What was my problem? Why was I such a coward? I was supposed to be taking charge of things, and here I was again running away. What happened to leading with my heart, even if it meant getting hurt? On top of that, Clark would be looking for me. I was a fool. How would I be able to explain this?
Shaking my head, I knew I had to go back up. There was no getting around it this time. I turned around and slowly made my way back to the building, hoping that each step closer brought a little more courage. I felt sick, and my heart was beating a million miles a minute.
It’s not too late to leave, I thought. Just go home, forget about it for now.
But, I knew I couldn’t. All that I had been through, the experiences of the past few months, all of it had been leading up to this. To me finally finding the courage to take charge. No matter what happened. Now was the time.
Inside, I pushed the up button on the elevator. What was I going to say? Everything that I thought of just seemed stupid. Clark, I know you have a girlfriend, but I think I’m falling for you. Clark, my feelings for you are more than just friendship. Clark, I like you and I hope you like me, too. Uggh, it all sounded so clichéd! I could never do this!
I was on the verge of leaving again when the elevator doors opened. To my surprise, coming out of the elevator was Clark, his dad, and the marketing director.
“There you are,” Clark’s dad said. “We looked for you to say goodbye, but the receptionist said you weren’t feeling well. Are you okay?”
“Um, yes, I’m feeling a little better now, thank you. I just needed a little air. Nerves,” I shrugged.
“Nothing to be worried about, my dear. Your presentation was excellent. I really liked your concept. I’m looking forward to working with your company on it.”
“Thanks, Mr. Seldrige. I’m looking forward to it, too.”
Clark jumped in. “Dad, I think I should make sure Kate gets home okay.”
“Good idea. If she is coming down with a little something, best get her to rest as soon as possible. We’ll see you in the office tomorrow, and we can have a meeting to see where things are going from here.” He turned to me. “Kate, take care. Feel better.”
He walked out of the building with his marketing director, leaving me standing next to the elevator with Clark.
“Want to catch a cab?” he asked, eyeing me carefully.
I swallowed down a bit of nervousness before agreeing. Outside, Clark didn’t say anything as he hailed a cab. I stood there, collecting my thoughts, wondering if he thought I was a total idiot for bailing on him. When the cab came, he opened the door for me and then followed me inside.
“2nd Ave and 85th Street,” he said to the driver. Leaning back, he looked over at me. I met his eye for a second or two before turning to look out of the window.
“So, are you okay?” he asked.
I nodded. “Yes, I’m fine. Like I said, I just needed some air.”
“You did some great work, Kate.” I heard him say. “You should be really happy.”
I looked over at him again. “Thanks. I am.” C’mon. Get the courage. You can do this. “So, how was London?”
“Great, actually. I had some really productive meetings there this time.”
“Yes, meetings. Why do you think I fly to London so much? We’re working with one of our international office on the Clothes for Africa charity campaign. That’s why we had some of the legal logistics to work out. Things are different from an international law perspective. But, I’m happy to say that it looks like it’s all worked out and we shouldn’t have any hold ups getting things started early next year.”
“Oh, I hadn’t realized.”
“What, you thought I flew to London so often for my health?”
“I thought you went there to visit Camille. I didn’t know.”
“Sorry about that. I assumed you knew. But, then again, I guess we haven’t talked that much in the past month or so.”
“Yeah,” Okay. Now is the time. Say something.
“So, how are things with Mike?” Clark asked before I could get the courage to speak.
“Mike? We broke up a couple of weeks ago.”
“Sorry to hear that.”
“Well, you know how these things sometimes go.” I stared out of the window of the cab again. We were making good progress and would be home any minute. “Guess it just wasn’t in the cards for us.” Okay. I was going to say something now. “Clark . . . ”
“Kate . . .” he said at the same time. “Oh, sorry, go ahead.”
“No, that’s okay. You go first.”
“Well, actually, I wanted to apologize to you.”
“Yeah, I’ve been thinking a lot. I wanted to tell you earlier, but I just didn’t know how to say it.” He smiled. “Actually, Camille’s been kicking my butt for a while, trying to get me to talk to you, but I guess I wasn’t sure how you’d take it.”
This didn’t sound good. Clark wanted to apologize to me at the request of Camille. Clearly they’d been talking and he’d told her what I’d said at the bar that night. They’d probably been laughing behind my back at the whole thing. And, now he was going to apologize for leading me on! I was so glad I hadn’t said anything.
The cab pulled up at the corner of 85th and 2nd, and Clark paid the driver before getting out and helping me out behind him. I had to get out of this conversation fast. Maybe I could fake a stomach ache. Say that I really was sick. Or, I told myself, maybe you can just stop acting like a jerk and get this over with. I could let him off the hook easily. He didn’t have to feel obligated to me.
“Clark,” I said, as we walked toward our buildings. “You don’t have to apologize to me. Whatever it is, I’m sure it’s okay. Actually, it’s me who should apologize to you.”
“Yes. Not calling you back and avoiding you like I had been. Penelope was right. I was embarrassed, but not because you went out of your way for us. It was because of the way I acted in the bar that night. By everything. Here you were just trying to be my friend, and I go and ruin it by twisting it into something it wasn’t. It wasn’t nice, and I’m sorry. I hope it didn’t make you uncomfortable. God knows, I’ve been feeling uncomfortable enough for the both of us.” God, it felt good to get this off of my chest! “The thing is, I guess I got it in my head that you were sort of treating me like your substitute girlfriend. Someone to take Camille’s place when she wasn’t here. I let my emotions get the better of me, and I didn’t know how to get out of it. So, I took the cowardly way out and avoided dealing with it. With you. I know how that must have made me look.” We reached my building and I stopped, looking up at him. “I’m surprised you’re even still talking to me.”
“Kate, I don’t want you to be my substitute girlfriend.”
“I know! That’s what I’m trying to say. It got to the point where I liked you too much to just be friends, and I couldn’t process it anymore. I’m sorry. I’m no good with words.” I looked down, embarrassed but relieved to have finally come out and told him how I felt.
“Kate,” he said again, grabbing my arm. “Look at me.”
“What?” I said just a little too sharply.
“You are perfect with words. I mean c’mon! Look what you do with your ad campaigns. It’s me that’s not making myself clear. So, I’ll say it again: I don’t want you to be a substitute girlfriend anymore.”
“I want you to be the real thing.”
“What?” I was confused. “What about Camille?”
“Camille. . . hmm.” He looked away for a second, gathering his thoughts before continuing. “Remember when I told you once that Camille was more of the nightclub kind of girl?” I nodded. “Well, it got to the point where we just didn’t fit. Hell, I don’t know if we ever did. We just didn’t like the same things. It was like night and day. Whenever something good happened, or even bad, I didn’t think she would care enough to really be there for me. The first person I wanted to call was you. I wanted to share everything with you. I finally realized that, as great as Camille was, she would never be, well, you.” His eyes pierced mine, and I couldn’t breathe. “Part of me knew how you were feeling about me. And, I just let it happen. I wanted it to happen. But, it was unfair of me to do that when I was still with Camille.”
“But, you’re still with her, right?”
He shook his head. “Camille and I haven’t been together for weeks. We broke up just after Labor Day weekend. You remember, I picked her up from the airport? We had a long talk. I told her how I was feeling, that I didn’t think we should be together anymore. I wanted to break up with her officially, Kate, before I acted on any feelings I had for you.”
“But, you told me you saw her in London.”
“I saw her a few times when I went to London for work, yes. But, just as a friend. Even though we weren’t dating, she’d become a friend. She’s the one who told me to apologize. I’ve been telling her all about you. I told her about our conversation at the bar that night. That really hit home, you know. I never realized before then just how much I’d hurt you. Then, when you told me you were back with Mike, I thought maybe it was best that I didn’t say anything at all. I thought it was too late.”
I looked at him, unsure of what to say. After weeks of wanting this, here he was telling me he actually liked me, too. I thought my heart would burst. It was beating so loudly I could hear the blood pulsing in my ears.
“Kate, I hope I didn’t ruin our friendship by being so much of a jerk that you’ll never want to speak to me again. That’s why I had to talk to you. Even if I can only be just your friend, I know it’s better than not being in your life at all. But, I understand if you can’t or if you don’t want to. I’ll go away. I won’t bother you again.”
His brown eyes searched my face, and I thought my heart would break. “You don’t know how much I wished to hear that,” I whispered.
A pained expression crossed his face. “Okay, I understand. I’m sorry. I probably shouldn’t have said anything.” He turned to leave.
“What? Why are you leaving?”
He stopped, looking back at me. “You just said you wished I’d never bother you again.”
“Oh my God.” I closed my eyes. “That’s not what I meant.” I grabbed his hands and led him over to the steps, pulling him to sit down next to me. I took a deep breath and steeled myself to finally say the words out loud, no hinting around, no hiding. “Clark, since I met you, my life has been turned upside down. I’ve met new people, done new things. You taught me how to have fun again, be myself. Someone I haven’t been in a very long time. Without you . . .” my voice broke a little “. . . I might still be stuck in a rut that I wouldn’t know how to get myself out of. It’s been crazy. Fun. Sure, it’s been frustrating at times -- more because of me being such an idiot than anything else -- but, it’s you. You’re the reason it was all possible, Clark. You.”
“No, Kate,” he shook his head. “You’re wrong. It’s always been there. Inside of you. You just needed someone to remind you.”
“I’m glad it was you,” I whispered. I suddenly felt awkward. Shy.
His hand grabbed mine. “So, the suspense is killing me. Does that mean yes, you want to be with me? Or, no, we’re still friends but it’s too late for anything more?” The look on his face belied the casual tone of his words.
Slowly, I reached out and touched his cheek. The touch of his skin burned my hand. Carefully, I leaned over, pulling his face toward mine, and I kissed him, gently, once, twice, before pulling back and looking into his face. “I’d love nothing more than to be with you. You’re the one I want. The one I’ve been looking for.”
He leaned in and gave me another kiss, pulling me closer. I felt my body melt into his, seeking more, as my arms wrapped around his neck, caressing his skin. “I’m glad,” he said finally, between kisses, “because I love you.”
Startled, I stopped kissing him. His expression told me he was utterly serious. “You love me?”
He nodded. “Yes. I realized it the night you told me about Mike. Actually, it was the next night when I saw you two together.”
“You saw us?”
He nodded. “I wished I would have told you sooner. It would have saved so much heartache. You can’t imagine how hard it’s been the past several weeks, knowing you were with someone else. Wishing it was me.”
“That’s just it, Clark. I wanted it to be. That’s part of why things didn’t work out between Mike and me.” I paused, trying to sort out my feelings, unable to believe this was really happening.
Clark saw the expression on my face. “What?” he asked.
I shook my head in wonder. “I guess, in my heart, part of me knew that I was in love with you." I smiled at him. “I love you, Clark. I do. I’m . . .”
I was cut off as his lips found mine, pressing into me with a hot, intense passion. I sighed contentedly as my head started to spin. Suddenly, he broke off.
“Did you feel that?”
“What?” I asked, barely aware of my surroundings.
“I don’t know. It was like a shock or something. When we kissed.”
I thought for a second. “You mean, like a spark?”
He nodded. “Yeah, that’s exactly it! A spark.”
“What?” he asked. “Am I crazy?”
I shook my head as I leaned over for another kiss. “No. You are not crazy. Far from it.” I grabbed his hand and pulled him up. “Why don’t we go inside? There’s a little story I’d like to tell you.”
He smiled and gave me one last kiss before following me. Sparks. I breathed a sigh of relief. I’d finally done it. The Spark Theory wasn’t a myth. The proof was right in front of me.
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