The Spark Theory

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Chapter Five

A few days later, I woke early to get a headstart on the day. It was the day of my big presentation at work for the three partners -- a sort of “dry run” for what we would be presenting to the clients in a couple of weeks and a chance for them to critique anything the team had come up with thus far. Since Mark had been keeping tabs on the project throughout, I was confident it would go well. Still, I was full of nervous energy as I walked out of my apartment building, my stomach doing wild flips.

I decided a caffeine fix would help me focus, but I wasn’t sure I had the time. Checking my watch, I stopped at the café down the street, peeking through the window. Thankfully, only two people were at the counter, so I went inside to order. While I was waiting my turn, I mentally ran through my presentation.

I was fine tuning what I was going to say when I realized I’d been waiting a while. Looking up to the counter, I saw the girl behind it staring at the man in front of me, a dazed expression on her face. She didn’t seem to really be listening to what he was saying. He was asking her a question, and it took two tries before she was able to respond coherently. Finally, she got his order correct and left to get his coffee. I rolled my eyes and sighed.

“Maybe if you’d pay a little more attention to what the guy was saying instead of his face, we’d get out of here sometime today,” I mumbled under my breath.

As if on cue, that “guy” turned around and looked at me, surprised.

Oops, I thought, and I feel my face get red. I guess I said that a little too loudly.

He smiled at me, and I looked down, embarrassed, but not before my heart leapt to my throat. I’d noticed he had the most beautiful eyes I’d ever seen. A chocolate brown that seemed to pierce right into the middle of my brain when he’d looked at me.

I risked a glance from under my eyelashes, but the guy had turned back to the counter to wait for his order. He was tall -- the top of my head just cleared his broad shoulders. He was wearing jeans and a tan blazer, and his wavy, golden brown hair curled over his collar. After paying for his order, he turned to leave. He caught my eye and smiled one more time, and I couldn’t help but give him a stupid grin as he walked past. I made my way to the counter, my heart beating a little fast. The girl behind the counter was following him out with her eyes, even as she asked me what I wanted, and I couldn’t blame her. He was absolutely gorgeous. I forgave her previous lack of concentration.

I got my coffee and headed to the subway. While waiting for the train, I got a glimpse of the guy again. He was waiting a few yards down from me on the platform. He looked over and saw me staring at him, and I quickly looked away, taking a sip of my coffee.

Once on the subway, my mind slipped into work mode, and I became distracted, thinking of the day ahead and trying to prepare myself mentally for what was to come. Before I knew it, I arrived at my stop, and I got off the train to walk the rest of the way.

The office was quiet. Even with my coffee detour, I was one of the first to arrive. I used the time to review my presentation outline and was feeling much more prepared when Jim stopped by my office.

“Hey,” he said, smiling at me.

“Hi, you,” I replied.

“Do anything interesting last night?” he inquired.

“Not really,” I laughed. “Unless you can call freaking out interesting.”

“That nervous, huh?” His eyebrows were raised in surprise.

“Um, no. I guess not. Not anymore.” I shrugged. “I think I’ve gone over this presentation enough times that I could recite it backwards in German while hopping on one leg.”

He laughed, a little too loudly, I thought. It wasn’t that funny. But, still, his mood was infectious and made me feel a little more relaxed.

“Do you want to catch lunch today?” he asked.

“I can’t,” I told him. “I think we’re ordering in for the presentation. Making this a working lunch today.”

“Oh,” he hesitated. “Well, what about after work. A drink?”

I considered before replying. It would beat schlepping home after a day at work and spending the night curled up on the couch with the TV remote. And, besides, if things went as well today as I hoped, a celebratory drink was sure to be in order. Before I could answer, he continued.

“Kate, I heard about Mike.” He looked at me quietly.

Oh, I thought. The breath went out of me. I had let it slip to Tina about my breakup and word must have gotten around the office -- somehow.

“Look,” he said. “I’m not sure why you didn’t tell me before. But, if you need someone to talk to, I’m here. Friends, remember?" He waited for my reply.

“Sure,” I finally said, wondering why I’d been afraid to share with Jim what had happened. I guess I thought that the more people I told, the more real it became. ”Thanks. And, drinks tonight, yes. But, I buy the first round.”

“Have it your way,” he smiled as he turned to leave. He stopped and leaned back over my desk. “Hey, good luck today, okay?”

“Thanks,” I smiled back.

Tina finally arrived -- only a few minutes late -- and we were able to get the conference room set up and go over everything a few times before presenting to the partners. I was feeling confident and decided to let her have a larger part in the presentation. After all, she had had some really good ideas and it was ultimately her design we’d decided to use for the logo.

The presentation went great. At the end, I could tell that the partners were really pleased. They only had a few minor -- but important -- suggestions to make, and I felt my hard work was paying off.

Jim held true to his “just friends” drink request and invited a few people from the office to join us. The mood was light and fun, and I was glad that I’d agreed to go. It was just what I needed to let off a little steam after being so keyed up -- over Mike and work -- the past week or so. We shared a few shots and cursed the relationship gods, and when I left, Jim was busy showing off his Superman tattoo to the new girl from marketing. Maybe he wasn’t as clueless to his affect on women as I thought.

My good mood lasted the rest of the week and through the weekend. I kept myself busy on Saturday, meeting Michelle for shopping and lunch, and then on Sunday, hanging out with Emile and Charlotte for a few hours. Monday, Tina and I planned the next phase of our project -- presenting for the clients in two weeks -- and I was in an upbeat mood as I headed home that night. On the way there, I stopped at the dry cleaner’s to pick up some clothes I’d dropped off a few days earlier.

While waiting in line, I heard the bell on the door behind me ring, and I instinctively turned around to see who has entered the shop. My heart skipped a beat and then started beating fast as I recognized the person who’d walked in. Piercing brown eyes met mine and then flashed briefly as the person they belong to recognized me, too.

“Hey, coffee girl,” he said with a smile. It was the guy I’d seen last week. He was even more handsome than I’d remembered, and his smile was open and friendly.

I laughed. “Hey, um, coffee guy.” I said hesitantly.

“Do you live in the neighborhood?” he asked.

“Yep, just around the corner, on 85th Street.”

“Really? Me, too.”

“Oh, yeah?” I tried to act casual, but my heart was still racing. This is silly, I thought.

“Yeah, I just moved in about a week or so ago.”

I couldn’t think of anything to say, so I just nodded.

“It seems like a nice neighborhood,” he offered.

I nodded again. Master of conversation, that was me.

He looked beyond me to the counter. “It looks like it’s your turn.”

I handed the man behind the counter my receipt and then glanced back at “the guy” to smile in thanks before turning back toward the counter. Should I introduce myself to him? I wondered. Make small talk?

Finally, I thought of something witty and clever to say. “They’re really good here.” I pointed to the shirts he had draped over his arm. “They do a good job," I added, just in case he didn’t understand me the first time.

“Okay, great. That’s good to know." He nodded. “Looks like my shirts will be in good hands, then.”

I giggled. A weird sort of girly laugh that even surprised me when it came out. What should I say now? I wondered. Before I had a chance to decide on my next move and even get my courage up for something more, the guy behind the counter was back with my dry cleaning. I paid, and then turned to leave, still wondering if I should say something more to the guy.

My next statement was even more clever than the first one had been. “Well,” I heard myself say. “See ya!”

“Yep,” he replied, already moving up to the counter. “I’ll see you around.”

I walked home kicking myself, thinking how lame I must have sounded trying to come up with small talk. What was I even doing, anyway? It hadn’t even been two weeks since I’d broken up with Mike -- or rather, Mike had broken up with me -- and here I was getting heart palpitations over some stranger I’d run into a couple of times. Lame, lame, I told myself. Get a grip. Besides, he was beautiful, perfect, and I was -- well -- not.

Okay, I thought, now you really are overreacting. He probably doesn’t have much more going for him, anyway, than just looks. This is just a minor crush. Time to get over it. Besides, I was giving up on any sort of relationship based on sparks.

Yet, for the rest of the week, I did everything I could to run into the guy. I stopped at the cafe for coffee every morning. I looked around the subway platform every day while waiting for the train. I even made an excuse to go back to the dry cleaners a few days later, sure he’d have to go back to pick up his shirts. But, no dice. Not even one glimpse.

Saturday, my mom took the train in from Long Island. We shopped and saw a movie. Blessedly, she kept the mood light, only briefly asking how I’m holding up, since we’d already hashed out the details two weeks earlier over the phone.

“You know, honey,” she said later, over an early dinner. “The right guy will come along before you know it, and then you’ll settle down and miss all of the drama of these years. Trust me.”

Hardly, I thought. There was still a lot of drama with her and my dad. My mom and I ended up talking about work, and I got excited as I laid out the details of the project I was working on. Although she’d chosen the more traditional path of being a housewife and focusing on raising me and my sister, my mom was also once a writer and had begun writing again part-time. I trusted her creative mind and the enthusiasm that always seemed to go with it.

Sunday afternoon, I decided to have a late lunch at the cafe down the street. I grabbed a patio table and was enjoying my sandwich, when a shadow fell across the paper I was reading. I glanced around and up into the face of “the guy,” as I’d come to think of him, standing over me.

“Hey, there,” he said.

“Hi,” I replied, swallowing a bite of sandwich. He was wearing jeans again, with a button down shirt rolled up at the sleeves. He was holding his tan blazer casually over his shoulder with one hand. His shirt was open at the collar, revealing some of his smooth, tan chest.

“Nice place,” he said, gesturing toward the restaurant, “I just had lunch here.”

“Yes,” I nodded. “It is.” My conversation skills were as sharp as ever.

“Well,” he continued. “I guess if we’re going to keep running into each other like this I should introduce myself.” He held out his hand. “My name is Clark.”

“Clark?” I asked, shaking his hand. “That’s an interesting name.”

“Yeah, well, my grandmother came up with it.”

“Your grandmother liked Superman?” I blurted out. The first thing that had come to mind when he said his name was Clark was Jim’s Superman tatoo. Clark looked confused. “You know,” I continued. “Clark Kent?”

He laughed. “No, I think she actually liked Clark Gable. My dad’s name is Clark, too, so when she found out that I was going to be a boy, she sort of pushed for my parents to continue the name. Actually, some people call me CJ -- you know, Clark Junior. But, I prefer Clark." He smiled and shoved his hand in his pocket.

"Okay, Clark,” I said. “Well, it’s nice to officially meet you. I’m Kate.” There, I’d done it. I’d managed to string together more than four words. I was on a roll.

“Kate,” he smiled appreciatively. “That’s a nice name.”

“Thanks, I guess, although I really had nothing to do with it.” I felt awkward again, and I groped around in my mind for something else to say. Just when I was going to open my mouth and say something about the weather, a voice called from a few feet away.

“CJ?”

I looked over. Coming out of the restaurant was a tall, beautiful girl, her golden blond hair shining in the sunlight. She was thin and had a perfect figure. I felt like an ugly duckling, sitting there in my jeans and sweat shirt compared to the way she looked. She stopped at the gate and smiled at us, clearly waiting for Clark to join her. I looked at Clark, but he was looking at the girl.

“Oh, hey, gotta run,” he said, glancing back at me. “It was nice officially meeting you, Kate. See you around.” He flashed a smile and then walked over to Ms. Gorgeous. I watched their retreating figures with a lump of disappointment in my throat.

“Figures,” I muttered, under my breath. I turned back to my lunch and paper, but I found that I couldn’t concentrate. Instead, all I could think about was the guy. CJ. I now had a name to go with the face. CJ, Clark. I sighed and closed my eyes. I shook my head, as if trying to clear it, and sat there for a minute. The quiet was shattered when the waitress came over with the bill and asked if I needed anything else. Declining, I paid the bill and left.

Back in my apartment, I curled up on the couch to watch TV. I flipped through the channels when an old black and white movie caught my eye. I checked the guide and saw that it was “It Happened One Night,” with Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, and I decided to watch it. The relationship between the two main characters reminded me a lot of my parents, each one of them strong willed, but clearly a bond was there. I also saw how CJ’s grandmother -- Clark, I think to myself and my heart flips -- could have liked Clark Gable. He was cute, funny, and charismatic, in his own way, and it made me wonder about the Clark I met. I ended up spending the rest of the day watching old movies on the classic movie station, pretending to be the heroine in each one, imagining I’m the one who ends up with the happy ending at last.

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