I smiled to myself as I walked into my apartment later that afternoon. When Emile had called, I’d only been a few blocks from the hospital where Charlotte had given birth an hour before. I had hung up the phone with him and hurried over, stopping on the way to pick up a vase of flowers for Charlotte.
When I had arrived, Charlotte was sleeping, so Emile took me to the nursery, where he pointed out his new baby girl through the glass. They had decided to call her Maxine, a name that seemed to fit very well. She was a beautiful baby with petite features like her mom and, as Emile pointed out, a full head of brown, curly hair like her dad. Emile and Charlotte had gone in at eight o’clock that morning for one of Charlotte’s last checkups. The doctor hadn’t liked how the baby was doing, so they decided to send Charlotte to the birthing ward right away to perform a C-section. It had all happened so fast -- her due date wasn’t for another few days -- and Emile couldn’t help grinning as he described the birth, how loudly the baby cried, and the pleasure they’d felt when they’d found out it was a girl.
After gushing over the baby for a few more moments, we decided to head to the cafeteria for a quick bite to eat before Charlotte woke up. Emile’s parents were on their way down from Westchester, and Charlotte’s mom wasn’t due to fly in from Chicago until Friday. So, I felt honored to be the first person who got to see the baby.
When we got to the cafeteria, I realized how famished I was -- it had been lunchtime when I’d left the office, and my thoughts had been so distracted that I hadn’t even thought about food. I was halfway through my meal before I even realized that Emile was talking to me.
“So, it’s great you were able to come so soon. I’d thought for sure we wouldn’t get to see you until tonight.”
I swallowed the bite of sandwich I’d been chewing and wiped my mouth with a napkin. “Yes, I’m glad I was free to come over.”
“I tell you, Kate. This is amazing. I can’t believe I’m a dad. It’s a little surreal, you know? A baby! She’s so small! I felt like I was going to break her when I held her. She was crying, you know, but when I started talking to her, she calmed down right away. As if she knew the sound of my voice. It was so cool!”
I laughed. “I’m sure she did recognize your voice, don’t you think? She’s been hearing it for nine months.”
He smiled, a dreamy expression in his eyes. “Yeah.”
He almost choked on his sandwich when I told him I quit my job. I gave him most of the details -- leaving out my conversation the night before with Clark -- right up to the point where I turned in my resignation letter and walked out.
“Whew,” he whistled. “I didn’t think you had it in you. What are you going to do now?”
I looked at him and shrugged. “You know what? I don’t know. And, for now, I really don’t care. It’s not important. What’s important now is you and Charlotte and Maxine,” I said, turning the focus off of me.
“Wow! That’s the spirit!” he cheered.
We left the cafeteria and went back up to check on Charlotte. She was awake, and little Maxine was with her. Charlotte looked a little tired, but peaceful. She smiled when we walked into the room, and I felt tears come to my eyes when I looked at how pretty she looked with her little baby. I gave her a kiss and a hug, and we all turned to admire the baby for a while.
A couple of hours later, after keeping Emile company while he waited for his parents and Charlotte taking another nap, I finally decided it was time to head home. Now, I only had about an hour and a half before I was meeting Clark.
I took my time getting ready, first luxuriating in a hot shower and then carefully blow drying my hair. I searched through my closet and tried on different outfits for a good fifteen minutes before deciding what to wear. What did one wear on a non-date to an art gallery exhibit with a non-boyfriend? I finally settled on a pair of slacks with a silk tank top in turquoise, the color making my green eyes stand out. Even though it was nearing the end of May, the weather had turned a little cold again, so I topped that with a blazer and slipped on a pair of sling backs, with a low heel in case we were doing a lot of walking.
I was just touching up my makeup when the buzzer sounded, Clark’s voice coming through the speaker when I pressed the intercom button. I grabbed a small purse and dumped my phone, wallet, a pack of gum, and some lip gloss into it before heading out the door. My heart started to beat wildly as I made my way down the stairs, and I couldn’t keep the grin off of my face as I saw Clark waiting on the sidewalk in front of my building.
“Hi,” I called out, coming out of the building.
“Hi. You ready?” he asked with a smile.
“Yep. Where are we headed exactly?”
“Actually, have you eaten anything? Do you want to grab a slice of pizza before we head downtown? We have a little while before we have to be there.”
“Sure,” I agreed. I was glad he mentioned food. In my nervousness, I had forgotten all about eating anything for dinner. It would have been embarrassing to walk into the art gallery with a growling stomach or to get drunk easily on a few drinks like I had the night before.
We walked a few blocks until we found a pizza place and each ordered a slice -- me a veggie one, and he a cheese -- and sodas. I pulled out my wallet, but he gave the guy a twenty-dollar bill before I could get it open.
“No, I got it,” he said, motioning for me to put my wallet away. “I invited you, remember?”
“Gee, thanks,” I said, grabbing my soda and plate from the counter.
We found a small table near the front and sat down. I took a huge sip from my soda, and we both attacked our pizza.
“Yum,” I said, as I ate an olive I picked off the pizza. “This hits the spot.”
“Sure does,” he said, wiping his mouth with a napkin. “So,” he said, after another bite of pizza. “How did today go?”
“Great! Did you know Emile’s wife had her baby today?” I said, avoiding what he was really asking about.
“Oh, yeah? That’s your friend in the band, right? That’s great! What did they have?”
“A girl. I went to visit them at the hospital today, so I got to see her. She is so cute and little, and Emile is beside himself with glee.” I smiled to myself as I remembered how Emile had acted when his parents had finally arrived. He was such the proud papa, showing off his daughter, already comfortable in the “dad” role.
“Wow, a baby,” He shook his head. “That’s hard to imagine.”
I took a sip of my soda before replying. “Yeah, I know what you mean. Emile and Charlotte are the first of my friends to get married, let alone have a baby. It’s a little hard to get my mind around it.”
“I could picture marriage. It’s the baby part that sounds alien to me.”
I wondered if he was thinking of his girlfriend when he said that. I opened my mouth to reply, but I couldn’t really think of anything to say. So, when the words actually came out of my mouth, they weren’t exactly what I had expected to say.
“I quit my job today,” I said.
“You did?” He seemed genuinely surprised. “What happened?”
I let out a breath before continuing. “I was all set to be a team player. I thought about our conversation last night, and I thought that I had my purpose. I wanted the promotion, so it was worth it for me to stay.”
“Okaaay,” he said, knowing that more was coming.
“Well, we got to the staff meeting today and, basically, they gave the promotion to Tina.”
“What?” he grimaced.
“Yep, I didn’t even see it coming.”
“Man, that sucks!”
“Tell me about it. Well, I was upset, to say the least, but, anyway, this will sound weird . . . ” I hesitated a second before telling him about my vision of the diving board. He nodded his head as I told him, as if he got what I was talking about. “I didn’t understand why in my vision I was afraid to jump. I mean, as a kid, I did it. I was afraid, but I did it. And, it wasn’t that bad. So, I got to thinking, what if this time it isn’t so bad, either? So, I . . . I guess I sort of jumped.” I finished quietly, looking at him carefully for his reaction.
He leaned back in his chair and stared at me with an expression I couldn’t read. Despite all his talk the night before of being a little crazy to get what you want in life, did he think I went overboard? Was it only that, just talk?
“I feel guilty,” he said, after a moment.
This wasn’t what I expected at all. “Why?” I asked, confused.
“I know how much you enjoy what you do, and now I feel like I talked you into doing something you didn’t really want to do.”
“No, it’s not that way at all,” I said quickly. “Don’t feel guilty. Really! You didn’t talk me into doing anything. I was all set to be a team player this morning, remember? But, I thought about what else you said, that they didn’t really appreciate me. And, you know, I want to be appreciated. I deserve to be appreciated. For the first time in a long time, I’m starting to see that. And you know what else? I’m happy. It’s so weird. I feel like there’s this weight that’s been lifted off of my shoulders and I can finally move freely for the first time in months. So, please do not feel guilty on my account. Then, you’ll start to make me feel bad.”
He hesitated a moment, then grinned at me. “Well, what are you going to do now?”
“Honestly, I have no idea.” I shook my head. “Probably relax a couple of days, go home and see my parents for the weekend, maybe. I’m sure it’ll be about, oh, three or four days at least before I actually start to freak out,” I said, grinning into my soda cup.
He laughed and raised his cup. “Well, here’s to freaking out!” I raised my cup for his toast, also laughing, and we got back to finishing our pizza.
Fifteen minutes later, we were on the subway headed downtown, switching at Union Square for the N train that would take us to our final destination. The gallery we were headed to was on Broadway, just a few blocks south of Houston. We got off at Prince Street and walked the last block. We arrived just behind another group of people, and Clark held my arm as we climbed the steps to the door. Next to the door, the front of the gallery opened up to the street, with a wall of floor to ceiling windows that let you see into the gallery. Looking in, I could see an open and airy space with white walls and hardwood floors, and I could make out black and white photos on the walls. A girl with long, red hair was greeting everyone just inside the door.
“Clark, you came!” she said excitedly as she reached out for a hug.
Clark gave her a big hug and then turned to introduce me, his arm still around her waist.
“Penelope, this is Kate, a friend of mine. I moved into her neighborhood a few weeks ago. Kate, this is Penelope, the genius photographer whose work we’re here to see tonight.”
Penelope punched him lightly on the shoulder before turning my way. She looked at me warmly and held out a hand. “It’s so nice to meet you, Kate,” she smiled.
I couldn’t help but smile back as I took her hand. “It’s nice to meet you, too,” I said, politely.
She turned back to Clark, half-leading, half-dragging him into the room, me following behind. She steered us to a small bar that is set up in the corner, from where she grabbed two glasses of wine before turning back to us. “Here you go,” she said. “They don’t often serve the premium wine at these things, so you’d better get some before it’s all gone. Oops, I see someone coming in. Gotta run. Enjoy!” she called over her shoulder as she hurried back to greet the newcomers.
Clark turned to me and raised his glass. “Okay, now we can have a proper toast. What we were toasting to earlier? Freaking out?”
I laughed. “Freaking out, worrying, but not being too nice anymore and finally getting what I want.”
“I’ll toast to that,” he agreed. We clinked glasses, and I smiled as I took a sip of my wine.
“Penelope is nothing if not enthusiastic," Clark told me. "She’s a brilliant photographer and very modest, if you ask me. She’s got more clout than she thinks, so of course they would give her the VIP treatment.”
“I’ve never been to art exhibit opening before,” I admitted, taking another sip of wine as we walked toward the center of the room.
“Oh, yeah?” He gestured around him. “Well, this is pretty much it. A bunch of people standing around with wine glasses, looking at pictures, pretending to know more than they really do.”
“You sound as if you know a lot about it.”
“My mom is sort of an art collector.” He caught my expression and paused before continuing. “I mean, she doesn’t do it for a living or anything. She’s just sort of always been into art -- she was an art major in college -- and she was always dragging me and my brother and sister to one of these things, looking for stuff that interested her.” He took a sip of wine while looking around the room. “So, yes, I know a little bit about it.”
He laughed. “As a kid, it was torture. I mean, having to dress up, be on your best behavior, while the adults oohed and aahed over something that looked like a stick and a red blotch of paint, but I guess over the years, I’ve learned to appreciate it more.”
“Huh,” I said, shaking my head.
“It’s just that I don’t picture you as a kind of guy who’d be into art.”
He laughed again. “Well, I’m not really into it. Like I said, I can just appreciate it better.” He gestured around him toward the photographs. “Plus, when you’ve been friends with the artist since you’ve both been in diapers, it’s sort of expected that you show up -- even if you don’t appreciate it.” He looked around. “Not that I have that problem with Penelope’s stuff. She really is a great photographer.”
“Nice turnout,” I said, noticing the amount of people now filling the space.
“Yes, she always gets a good crowd. She’s pretty popular.”
I looked over and saw Penelope standing with a group of people. They were all listening to her, laughing at whatever story she was telling them. She had a very expressive face, very warm and inviting, and I realized that I liked her already.
A little while later, Clark went to get us two more glasses of wine. I wandered over to a wall to look at some of the photographs, not sure what to expect. As I’d seen from outside, the photographs were all in black and white -- I supposed to my untrained eye that made them more “artistic” -- and they were all of people. Some young, some old, a few of them -- an actor here, a model there -- I recognized. Some were directly facing the camera and others were looking off in another direction, but they all had one thing in common. The people in the photographs were happy. More than that, really, they all appeared to be glowing, as if radiating a sense of peace and contentment, as if the picture were taken at the best, most happy moment of their lives. As I walked along looking at each one, I was in awe at the life that seemed to pour out of each photograph, at the feeling of peace that came over me as I looked at them. I moved back away from the wall to get a better view of a larger photograph when a voice next to me startled me out of my reverie.
“What do you think?” It was Penelope, hands clasped behind her back, watching me.
“Oh!” I looked at her and then turn backed to the photographs. “They . . .” I searched for the word, “They’re brilliant!”
Penelope laughed. “Thanks!”
“You’re welcome!” I said, smiling at her. “I mean, they are so full of life and so peaceful and so . . . wonderful,” I finished softly, afraid I’d already said too much. I wrapped my arms around myself, suddenly shy.
“Glad you like them!” Penelope grabbed my arm, turning me back to the photographs. “My dad once taught me the power of emotion. He told me that to be happy, surround yourself with happiness. Of course, back then, I thought it was a load of bunk. But, you know, I learned to trust my dad, and it really does work. So, that’s now my motto. Get happy to be happy.”
I frowned. “It sounds simplistic. I mean, how can you be happy just by thinking about being happy?”
“Well, you aren’t really just thinking about being happy -- although that helps, too. You also have to surround yourself with things that make you happy. Life’s too short, you know. Why suffer if you don’t have to?” she shrugged.
“Hmm, you sound like someone else I know.”
“Glad the message is finally getting through to the guy. I was worried about him there for a while.” Before I could ask what she meant, she was looking past me. “Speak of the devil,” she added.
Clark was approaching us, carrying two glasses of wine, one of which he gave to me. The other he offered to Penelope, who held up her hand and shook her head. “No more for me tonight, thanks,” she laughed. “I actually want to walk out of here tonight.”
“So, what are you two ladies talking so intently about?” he asked.
“The power of happiness,” I said.
“Ah, Penelope’s hitting you up with all of her mumbo jumbo, is she?”
“Mumbo jumbo my a--,” Penelope started.
“Careful,” Clark jumped in. “You don’t want to leave a bad first impression.” He looked at me, eyebrows raised.
We all laughed.
“So,” he continued, looking at me. “Didn’t I tell you she was great?”
“You did, and she is,” I agreed.
“Flatterer,” Penelope said, hugging Clark around the waist.
Clark hugged her back, kissing the top of her the head. Watching the two of them together, I didn’t feel at all jealous -- not that I had any right to, anyway, since Clark and I were “just friends.” Instead, I felt like I was watching a close relationship between a brother and sister.
Penelope pulled away from Clark. “Well, I should make the rounds. Clark, if I don’t get a chance to talk to you before you leave, call me in a few days, okay?”
She turned to me, holding out her hand. I reached out to shake it when I noticed a business card in it. “Kate, here’s my card. We should go out to lunch or something sometime.”
I was taken aback but flattered at the same time. “Oh, okay. Sure,” I said. “It was really nice to meet you. I love your work,” I added.
She reached out and gave me a hug. “Thanks! It was really nice meeting you, too, Kate, to put a face to the name.” She turned to Clark, eyebrows raised. “Clark’s told me all about you.” She turned back to me with a smile. “Well, see ya!” she grinned and bounced away.
Before I could really take in what Penelope had just said -- Clark talked about me? -- Clark cleared his throat, and I looked up at him.
“She, uh, she asked me if I’d met anyone in the neighborhood,” he explained with a shrug, as if reading my thoughts.
“Oh, right,” I nodded, my heart beating a little too fast.
“Yep, I told her about you and the bar and your other friends. She might want to come up sometime and see the band.”
“Sure,” I said, distractedly. Then, I pulled my thoughts together. “Only, it might be a few weeks before we play again, with the new baby and all.”
He nodded. “Right.”
I took a sip of my wine, not sure what to say next.
“Well,” he said after a while. “Do you want to go home? Or, would you be opposed to walking for a while? I know a little place around here that makes great turkey burgers.”
I patted my stomach. “I’m still a little full from the pizza.” He nodded. “But,” I quickly added, not wanting the night to end, yet, “I could just get a soda or something if you’re hungry. I’m a little thirsty, actually.”
He smiled and held out his arm. “Okay, let’s go.”
The restaurant Clark lead me to was on a tree-lined street a few blocks north of the art studio. It had wood-paneled walls, smelled like tahini, and was filled with students from the large university that was just a few blocks away. When we arrived, Clark decided he was too full for a burger, so he settled for a cup of coffee and I ordered a cup of herbal tea. And, even though I insisted I wasn’t hungry, he asked for a piece of apple pie with two forks.
The order arrived quickly, and Clark picked up a knife and deliberately cut the pie down the middle, pushing half of it on the plate toward me. I guess he thought it was a little weird to eat from the same piece of pie, but I didn’t say anything. Instead, I said “Thanks,” and picked up the fork to take a bite of pie.
Clark was busy pouring milk into his coffee, so I doubt if he noticed anything weird in my voice. I was glad. Again, I had to remind myself that this wasn’t a date, just a night out with my neighbor -- my friendly, albeit insanely good looking, neighbor. I suddenly felt self-conscious. I put my fork down and picked up my tea cup, taking a sip while Clark stirred his coffee. When he was done stirring, he put down his spoon and picked up his cup for a sip.
“Man, that’s good stuff,” he sighed, putting down the cup and looking up at me. “Is the pie any good?”
“Yeah, it’s great,” I said, pushing the plate toward him. He picked up his fork and took a bite.
“Umm,” he said around a mouthful. “It is good.”
I watched him take another bite before speaking. “So, you and Penelope have been friends for a while, right?”
“Yep, since before we were born.”
“Before you were born?”
“Her mom and my mom were college roommates, both art majors. We bonded in the womb,” he said with a smile. “We played together a lot as kids, even dated for a bit in high school. I can tell you our moms were disappointed when we broke up, thought we’d never speak again, but we sort of met up again one summer after our sophomore year of college, and we’ve kept up our friendship ever since.”
I couldn’t help but ask. “Did you ever go out again? I mean as boyfriend and girlfriend?”
He shook his head. “Nope. Luckily, we figured out we’re much better off as just friends. We get along much better that way,” he laughed and took another sip of coffee. “She’ll tell you I’m the difficult one, but don’t let that happy exterior of hers fool you.”
“She’s not what she seems?”
“Oh, she’s happy, all right. She just hates it when someone else isn’t that way, when they are ‘wasting their lives,’ as she calls it. She used to get on my case a lot, before, but now she has sort of mellowed out. She was always trying to fix me up with someone, one of her friends, you know? I actually met Camille on one of her photo shoots.”
“She hooked you up with your girlfriend?”
He hesitated. “Well, no, she wasn’t too happy about that one. Even though she works with a lot of models, she doesn’t always like them. She thinks that, for the most part, they’re too shallow and superficial, which she thinks is at the top of the list of all time life wasters.”
“I thought you said you met Camille at a photo shoot for a line of clothing you carry at your store.”
“Right,” he nodded. “Penelope was doing that one. She actually does a lot of commercial work. Pays the bills, you know.”
I nodded, thinking back to something else he had said. “So, why was she getting on your case a lot?”
He shrugged. “Oh, no big deal, you know? She just didn’t like it when I was in my rebellious stage. ‘Too energy draining,’ she called it.” He paused. “So, what about you?”
“What about me?” I asked.
“Well, I know you have a sister, your parents live in Long Island, you work -- or used to work -- in advertising, and that you sometimes sing in a band. What else?”
I shrugged. “There’s not much more to tell, I guess. I moved to the city after graduation. I actually lived in Queens for a while before moving to Manhattan. Michelle, my sister, is 25. She also lives here in the city with some friends from college. She’s apparently dating an older man -- all of 33.”
“Ooh, flirting with disaster.”
“Yeah, well, I’m not sure what you’d call it, but she seems pretty happy at the moment. I guess we’ll see how long it lasts. She’s not one for long relationships. I think this is boyfriend number eight since college? I’ve lost count, but it always seems like she’s fallen head over heels for someone.”
“And you don’t agree with that,” he said, hearing something in my voice.
I took a sip of my tea before answering. “I guess I got to a point where I don’t believe in giving my heart away so easily.”
He sat back in his chair, his hand resting on his coffee cup. “You told me yesterday that you just broke up with someone. What happened there?”
“He broke up with me, remember?”
“Right, you said that. How long were you going out again?”
“A year, a little more.”
“Yeah, I guess so,” I shrugged. I didn’t like where this conversation was heading. Even though I felt comfortable with Clark, I wasn’t sure if I was ready to share the details of my now defunct relationship. I took another sip of my tea.
“What?” I asked.
“You didn’t love him,” he said.
“What makes you say that?” I felt my face get red. “I mean, yeah, I sort of did. But, maybe not the way I should have. But, I only discovered that after the fact. How could you know?”
“I don’t know. I guess my years of hanging out with Penelope and seeing her tonight has brought out my inner psychic. My touchy-feely side. But, I don’t know, it’s almost like you have this wall up, and you’re afraid to let anyone inside. What you said about not giving away your heart so easily. Even with him, I’d guess.”
I glared at him, not sure what to say. Part of me wanted to deny it, tell him how wrong he was. Another part of me was ready to walk out. I couldn’t figure out why it bothered me so much when he got under my skin like that. Especially because he was right.
Instead, I said, “Boy, you’re not shy, are you?”
He laughed. “Okay, I know,” he said. “I’m probably being a jerk and presuming too much. Just tell me to shut up, and I will.”
“Okay, shut up.”
He laughed again. “Sorry.”
I picked up my fork again and took another bite of pie.
“I like to see a girl who can eat,” I heard him say.
“Are you trying to get a fork in the eye tonight?” I asked sarcastically.
“No,” he grinned. “I date a model, remember? With her it’s all salads and cocktails. No real food.” He picked up his fork again and took another bite of pie. “Hmm, this is so worth it.”
Right, I think. Worth getting under my skin to see just how much you can annoy me. But, I had to admit to myself, even though he could say some irritating things, there was something tickling at the back of my mind. Something that made me want to get to know him better. Now, I just had to figure out what that was.