The Spark Theory

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Chapter Nine

Later that night, the cab dropped us off on 85th Street. Clark walked me to the front steps of my building, thanking me for coming with him before bidding me goodnight and walking two buildings down to his place.

Luckily, there was no repeat of too much alcohol and not enough food, so there were no embarrassing Superman jokes. And, bonus, I was able to walk up the front steps without holding on to the railing for dear life. I looked down to where Clark was climbing his own front steps, and we both waved goodnight as we got to our front doors.

Once inside, I replayed the evening in my head. I had to admit I had a good time with Clark, despite the fact that he’d started getting all jerky on me there at the end. His friend Penelope was nice, and I wondered if I’d be brave enough to take her up on her offer of lunch. It was always nice to make new friends -- I’d have to get past my shyness. I figured the chance of getting to learn a little bit more about Clark from her wouldn’t hurt, either.

The next morning, I called my mom to tell her I was taking the train to stay with her and my dad for a few days. The good thing about my mom was when you say you’ll explain later, she’ll actually let you. So, without much ado, I packed a few things and rode the subway to Penn Station, where I planned to take a morning train to Stony Brook. I bought my ticket and then wandered over to a kiosk to look at the magazines, killing time before I needed to board the train. I opted for a couple of gossip mags over some of the other “girly” magazines -- I just didn’t feel like reading about “30 Ways to Make or Fake an Orgasm” -- and then it was time to get on the train.

The train was due to arrive around lunch time, and my mom was going to me at the station. The two-hour train ride was uneventful and, because of the time of day and the fact that I was leaving the city rather than coming into it, the train was pretty empty. About an hour into the trip, I was pretty sick of reading about who was dating who, which stars were seen making out, and, depending on which magazine you read, Angelina Jolie was either getting back to together with Brad Pitt or she was on the verge of helping discover a cure for cancer. Luckily, no one was sitting near me, so I was pretty sure no one saw me tear up when reading about the burn victim and the cancer survivor who found each other after twenty years. I ended up staring out of the window for the last part of the trip, watching the scenery change, and feeling the rhythm of the train.

The train slowed as it reached my stop. I grabbed my bag from the overhead rack and walked to the door. When I got off of the train, I could see my mom standing next to her brown Volvo station wagon, her shoulder-length blonde hair in a neat bob. She was wearing one of her trademark flowy skirts and clogs, remnants of her early days in northern California, where she used to live before she married my dad. She saw me and waved, and I walked over to her, bracing myself for what I was sure would be a barrage of questions. After all, it was “later,” so I was going to have to explain what was up.

“Hi, mom.”

“Hi, honey,” she said, giving me a big hug. “So glad you could get out of the city for a few days. It’s been a while since you’ve been out here.”

“Yep, it’s been crazy.”

“So, what’s up?” she asked, as we get into the car. “Did you take a few days off? I know you’ve been working hard on that project of yours. You must be tired.” She pulled the car out of the parking space and made her way out of the lot. “We’re meeting Dad, by the way. I told him you were coming out, so he suggested we all go to lunch. He’s been really busy the last few weeks, finishing up the semester and all, but now things have calmed down for him. He’s looking forward to having some time off this summer, although I can’t say I’m so thrilled about it. We always seem to get into each other’s hair, you know.”

My father was a professor at the university in Stony Brook, and when the Spring semester was over, he generally had a few weeks off during the summer. Since my mom worked at home with her freelance writing, it always threw her off a little when my dad was around more often. She said it messed up her routine, and she always got a little flustered. After a few weeks of being together, however, she usually adjusted to her new schedule, and they ended up getting along pretty well. Ever since my sister and I had moved out, she and my dad tried to take a trip somewhere every summer, just the two of them.

“So, where are you guys going to go this summer?” I asked, avoiding her earlier question.

“Oh, I don’t know. We’ve talked about heading up to Rhode Island. It’s been a long time since we’ve been to Newport, and I would like to go see some fancy houses, I think. We’ll probably drive up and stay at a bed and breakfast for a few days.

“That sounds nice.”

“Yeah, well, we’ll see how it goes. Your dad had talked about possibly picking up a class this summer, but now he’s not. It might be too late to plan anything.” She shook her head.

“I’m sure you can come up with something.”

“I hope so. I need a break. I’ve been writing a lot lately. I’m working on a piece now about improving your sex life after forty and then I need to start one on how organizing your clutter helps organize your mind.”

I laughed. My mom was probably one of the least organized people I knew. My dad was actually the neat freak of the two.

“I know, I know,” she sighed. “I got a call from one of the editors of Good Housekeeping, and they want to use me as a guinea pig. I’m hitting your dad up for most of my ideas on this one.”

We pulled up in front of the restaurant, which was one we’ve been going to since I was a kid and also happened to be one of my dad’s favorites. I saw his car in the parking lot, and he was waiting for us at a table inside, looking over the menu. I didn’t know why he even bothered. He always ordered the same thing -- a double cheeseburger with steak fries. He looked up when we approached the table and his blue eyes lit up when he saw us. At 65, his hair was still mostly blonde, and you had to look closely to see the flecks of gray within. He was a very handsome man, and I knew his introductory history classes were always filled with a lot of swooning freshmen. Looking at him and my mom, I was struck again by how different I seem from them. They, both with blond hair and pale skin, me with my dark hair, only my green eyes, from my mom, connecting me to them in any way.

“Hi, Katykins!” Dad said, getting up to give me a hug, and then indicating the seats across from him at the table.

“Hey, Dad,” I grinned.

“This is a nice surprise,” he said. “It’s not often we get you out of the city. And, it’s not even a holiday.”

“Well, it’s a holiday for you, right?” I asked.

“Yes, I’m finally done for the semester, basically. I still have some paperwork to do, but there’s no rush. I’ll probably go in for a few hours a day for the next week or so, to clean things up and all. I’ve got some ideas for next semester, but that can wait. Been thinking about writing a book again.”

Mom groaned. I laughed. He’d been saying the same thing for years. He actually had to write a book several years back, to make tenure, and he grumped around the house for almost a year before he was done. Now, he mostly stuck to writing articles for various history journals, articles my mom usually ended up polishing up for him. His passions lay in reading history, not in the writing of it.

The waitress came over to get our orders. I ordered an iced tea and a chicken salad, and my mom ordered the same. My dad hemmed and hawed over the menu before finally closing it. “A double cheeseburger and fries. And, I’ll have a Coke, too.”

I smiled to myself. Some things never changed, and I was glad for it. My mom and my dad both were warm and very loving people, and I always felt a little better when I visited them. It was almost as if a piece of me reverted back to childhood -- my mom cooking for me and my dad hanging out with me, letting me be a kid again, if only for a few days.

Our drinks came, and we chatted for a while about how good the weather had been. Mom brought up the guy Michelle was dating, and I had to admit that I didn’t know much about him, yet, as I hadn’t really talked to her in a few days. I told them about Charlotte and Emile’s new baby, Maxine, and how I’d gotten to see her when she was just a few hours old.

“Oh, that’s so nice,” my mother said. “We have to send them something.” My dad agreed. They both loved Emile, and Dad was happy when he heard Emile was “following in his footsteps” when he decided to become a professor. Emile and I’d been friends for a long time, and they sort of considered him the son they’d never had.

“Well, I have some news.” I decided I might as well get it over with, and I was surprised I hadn’t been hit with more questions. My parents looked at me expectantly, so I decided to come out with it. “I quit my job yesterday.”

My mom took another sip of her tea, as if expecting me to say more, and my dad continued to look at me with a neutral expression on his face, as if I’d only just announced I was getting a bikini wax.

“Well, don’t you want to say anything?” I blurted out.

“What do you want us to say, dear?” asked my mom.

“Well, how about, ‘Why? Are you crazy? What were you thinking?’ ”

“Good for you,” my dad said.


“Good for you,” he repeated.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Well, I know you, Kate. I know you wouldn’t do anything without a good reason. You’re too careful, too deliberate. So, you must have had a good reason for quitting.”

My mom nodded in agreement. I didn’t know what I was expecting -- I guess some amount of shock and disbelief -- but I shouldn’t have been surprised. My parents had always supported my sister and me, whatever decisions we’d made in our lives, but I guess there was a part of me that was waiting to be told how stupid I’d been.

“Okay,” I said. “Thanks for your faith in me, but don’t you think that was a little crazy on my part?” Just then, the waitress brought our food, and refilled our glasses.

“Well, what happened?” asked my mom, after the waitress left. I launched into my story, telling them all about the Benson project -- they already knew most of that part -- and then filled them in on the events of the past Monday, including a brief overview of the conversation I’d had with Clark.

“Who is this Clark?” my dad asked. “He sounds like a smart person.”

“Oh, he’s just a new neighbor. He moved into the building a few doors down from mine, and I met him a few weeks ago. He’s nice.”

“Is he cute?” my mom asked.

Yes, mom,” I sighed. “But, he has a girlfriend, so please don’t go there. I just broke up with Mike, for God’s sake.”

“You didn’t just break up with Mike. It’s been over a month.”

“Yeah, well, we were dating for over a year, so I think, in comparison, a month’s a pretty short amount of time, don’t you think?”

“Okay,” she said, dropping the subject.

We ate in silence for a few minutes before my dad spoke. “So, any idea what you’re going to do, now?”

I chewed a mouthful of salad and swallowed. “I’m not sure. I thought I’d lay low here for a few days, you know, get my head together. I’ll make some calls in a few days. I have a few friends in the business, so they may know of something. I tried to leave on good terms, but I don’t know if that’s how they’ll see it, now that I’m thinking about it. After all, they were right in the middle of the campaign. But, I guess I can’t worry about that, now. What’s done is done.”

“I’m sure you’ll find something,” said my dad. “You’ve always been pretty resourceful. You can always move home if you need to.”

I winced. I hadn’t lived at home since college, and I couldn’t see moving back home, now. It would feel like the ultimate failure -- losing my boyfriend, my job, and moving home, all in a month. “Thanks, Dad,” I said. “Really. If I get that desperate, you’ll be the first to know.”

I woke the next morning in my old room that still looked like it did ten years ago. There was usually a sense of comfort coming home. Today, however, I was a little restless. Where was I supposed to go from here?

I thought back on the events of the past couple of days. Things had happened so fast I’d barely had time to experience them, let alone think about what consequences there would be. I made a mental checklist:

1) I quit my job. My boss was a total wuss for not recognizing my talents; I was a total wuss for wasting my time there for as long as I did. Solution: Find a total kick-ass job where they appreciate my talent and skills.

2) I went out with my really cute neighbor, who is fun to hang out with, although slightly irritating at times. It will be nice to have a friend who lives in the neighborhood; possible con is that he has girlfriend. Solution: Get over the fact that he’s so cute and just focus on the friendship part. Always good to make new friends.

3) Met another possible new friend, neighbor’s friend Penelope. Talented photographer with a good sense of humor, seems really easy going and someone I would like to get to know. Solution: Must get over shyness of meeting new people; will make an attempt to call and meet for lunch.

That was a start, at least, although I was not quite sure what to do next. I thought about something Penelope had said: “Get happy to be happy.” How was I going to do that? I laid there a moment longer before coming up with at least a temporary solution. Kicking back the covers, I stood and stretched, my body sore and tired. It was ten o’clock, and I figured I had to emerge sometime today.

Heading downstairs, I grabbed a bagel and some of the morning’s leftover coffee from the kitchen. I took my food and sat on the back porch, which my parents had enclosed with windows and turned into a sort of sunroom when I’d been a freshman in college. It had a great view of the backyard, complete with the overgrown hedges and trees that my dad never seemed to get around to trimming. At least the grass was cut.

My mom walked in with a basket full of laundry a few minutes after I got settled. “Morning! You’re finally up!” she said, setting the basket down and picking up a shirt to fold.

“Morning,” I mumbled around chews of my bagel.

“Your dad went into work this morning. He’ll be back later. What are you going to do today?”

“Can I borrow your car? I was thinking about going shopping.” Nothing like new shoes to make one happy.

“Sure, I don’t need to go anywhere. And, if I do, I can use your dad’s car when he gets home.” She pulled out a pair of pants from the basket, which she proceeded to more or less roll into a ball. Folding clothes was not her strong point.

I finished up my food and went upstairs to take a shower. I pulled on some clothes and made myself presentable before heading to the mall a few miles away. I walked around for a while, looking at shoes that I now couldn’t really afford -- no job, and all -- but I did break down and buy a couple of cute tops that were on sale. I also decided to go to a movie while I was there. A romantic comedy starring Sandra Bullock that actually turned out to be very good and tok my mind off of my own worries for a while. Granted, I did feel a little guilty sitting in a movie theater in the middle of the day on a Wednesday, like I should be doing something -- anything -- a little more productive. But, I told myself to get over it.

After the movie, I wandered into a book store, determined to buy something “intellectual,” maybe one of the classics, but I quickly found myself in the mystery section, trying to decide between a thriller involving a lawyer turned detective who was trying to solve the mystery surrounding his ex-girlfriend’s death, or one with a psychic whose cat helped her solve her cases. I was just about to give up and scout the discount table when I heard my name.

“Kate, I thought that was you,” a familiar voice said. It’s Marissa Sandberg -- no, Goldstein, now. She was making her way over to me, a large shopping bag in hand, and she was hugely pregnant. Marissa had been one of the popular girls in high school, one of those for whom everything seemed to go right, and she’d always been sort of a snob. I’d heard she’d met and married an investment banker about a year and a half ago.

“Marissa,” I said.

“Oh, how funny seeing you here. I was with Rachel the other day -- you remember her, right? -- and we were just talking about you. I knew you moved to the city, and I heard you had this big advertising job. Your mom ran into my mom at the store one day and told her all about it. How’s it going? We missed you at the reunion.”

High school had been a bit of a blur for me and, even though I had some good friends, I always sort of felt I didn’t fit in and couldn’t wait to escape to college. My high school reunion had been earlier that Spring -- not quite at the 10-year mark, but close enough. Mike had begged off, claiming work, and none of the friends from high school that I still kept in touch with were going. I had had no desire to get all dressed up and trudge out to Long Island myself to be nice to a group of people I didn’t really like and had nothing in common with, anyway.

“Oh, yeah,” I said. “Sorry I missed that.”

“Well, yeah,” she said. “You probably had something going on anyway, right, living in the city and all?”

“Um, well, what’s new with you?” I asked, hoping to change the subject. “I’d heard you got married.”

“Yes.” She held up what must have been a 2-carat diamond ring. “Larry is the best. He works in the city, you know. I hate that he has such a long commute every day, but he insisted we live near my family. He says it’s better for, you know, when the baby is born.” She put her diamond-clad hand on her big belly.

“So, when’s the big date?”

“Oh, I have a few weeks left to go.”

“Really?” I raised my eyebrows.

Marissa laughed. “I know, I’m huge! Larry’s from a big family -- he’s almost six feet tall, you know. I don’t know how this baby will get out. But, I guess it’ll have to,” she laughed again.

Trying to be polite, but bored stiff, I asked, “So, do you know what you’re going to have?”

“Of course! You know me and how I like to plan things.” Did I? “We’re going to have a boy! We can’t decide on a name, though. I want to call him Lawrence, after his dad, but Larry has his heart set on Seth. So, I guess it’ll be Seth. I just can’t say no to Larry, you know.”

Hmm, I thought. That was a change. Someone actually telling Marissa what to do. I held up the books, still in my hand. “Well, it was really nice to see you, but I’m running a little late. My parents are expecting me.”

“Are you here for a few days?” she asked, not getting the hint.

“Oh, yeah,” I said, “Just taking a few days off. I’ve been working a lot, so I thought I’d come out for a break.”

“Is your boyfriend here with you, too?” she asked, looking around. Apparently, my mom hadn’t had a chance to fill in her mom on all of the details of my life.

“Um, no,” I said. “We actually broke up about a month ago.”

“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that,” she pouted.

“Yeah, well, I really do have to get going.”

“Oh, sure, it was really great seeing you.” She reached over and gave me a hug as if we’d actually been friends in high school.

“Right, you, too. Good luck with everything.”

She smiled and patted her belly again. “Thanks. It’s amazing what a difference a few years can make, right?”

“Yeah. Well, see ya.” I replied before taking the books and heading up to the counter. Because I don’t want to linger any longer than necessary, I ended up buying both of the books I’d been holding and left before Marissa could find and stop me again. It was weird running into old friends from high school, especially when, in reality, nothing had really changed much for me in ten years. I was still living and working in the city, still single, with nothing else happening. All around me, it felt, things were happening to other people. For me, it was like life was standing still.

I hadn’t had lunch -- only popcorn and soda at the movies -- and I was looking forward to getting to my parent’s house and seeing what was for dinner. When I opened the door, I heard voices coming from the living room. I peeked in and found a group of women, laughing and drinking wine. Oh, God, I thought. It was Thursday night, and this must be the night of my mom’s monthly book club meeting. Not your ordinary, run-of-the-mill book club, where the women read fun, chick-lit type books and then never really talked about them because they are too busy gossiping about their neighbors or their kids and husbands -- or their neighbor’s kids and husbands. No, this book club stuck to strictly educational, intellectual, uplifting (aka, boring) books.

I was about to sneak past, when my mom looked up and saw me. “Oh, there you are, Kate,” she said. There was a round of greetings from the women in the group. “Why don’t you join us?” my mom suggested. “We’re discussing the book we read about an African refugee who moved to America. It was a really moving book, really touching.” There was a general round of agreement from the group.

“Um, maybe in a little bit. Where’s dad?” I asked.

“He’s on the back porch. You know how he likes his quiet time after work.”

I grabbed a few crackers and some cheese off of the tray sitting on the coffee table, and then I went to the back porch to find Dad. I found him sitting in the dark with a glass of wine, watching the last rays of the sun as it slowly set behind the trees.

“Did you meet up with the feminist Nazis on the way here?” he asked. Dad felt the same way I did about Mom’s book club.

“Yeah,” I said, curling up in a chair.

“Same thing every time,” he said. “Always some ‘save the world,’ hoity-toity kind of book. They make you feel like an idiot if you haven’t read it, let alone not even heard of it. I don’t know why your mom does it.”

“Give her a break, Dad,” I said. “She actually likes that kind of stuff, and I think it makes her feel smart. You know the kind of drivel she ends up writing for the magazines most of the time. I’m sure this is a change of pace for her.”
My dad sighed. “I know. You’re right. I just hate when they have the meetings here. I always have to hide away for fear of being dragged into some boring conversation. I’d much rather pound my head against the wall.”

“Oh, Dad.”

He looked at me. “So, what’d you do today?”

“Not much. I went over to the mall, did a little shopping, saw a movie.”

“Oh, yeah? Did you have a good time?”

“Yeah, it was okay. Do you remember Marissa Sandberg?”

“I think so. Snobby girl with the long, dark, curly hair? Your mom runs into her mom at the store every once in a while. She hates it. She’s always having to hear about Marissa this, Marissa that, she says.”

“Apparently mom talks about me, too, because she knew all about me. She’s very pregnant, due in about a month.”

“Huh, I never really thought she’d find anyone who’d marry her. I always thought she was sort of annoying.”

“Yeah,” I agreed. After a moment, I continued. “Dad, she said something to me that sort of bothered me.”

“What was that?”

“She talked about how much things have changed in the years since high school.” I paused, trying to sort out my thoughts. “The thing is, Dad, I don’t really feel like things have changed for me. It’s like I’m stuck and things are standing still. My friends, people I know, they are all getting married, having kids. And me, I’m still doing the same thing I’ve been doing for the past six years since college. I’m still working -- well, I’m not working at the moment, but you know what I mean -- I’m not dating anyone, I’m not doing anything different. Seriously, Dad, what’s wrong with me?”

“Kate, this is not you talking, is it?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, do you really mean the things you are saying? Do you really feel that out of touch?”

I thought about it for a moment. “Seriously?” He nodded. “I guess, honestly, I don’t feel that way. I guess I just sort of feel like I should feel that way. Like I should feel that something is wrong with my life. I mean, I’m 27, out of work, single. Shouldn’t I feel bad about that? I mean, sure, I’m a little worried about it. I don’t know what I’m going to do about my job. But, you know, I guess it’ll all work out somehow.”

“Right, because it will. Like I told you before, you are pretty resourceful. You’ve always been that way. You’ve always been my planner, even when you were a little girl. Did I ever tell you about the time you decided to run away?”

I smiled. I’d heard this story a million times.

“You didn’t just pack your backpack with a few clothes and a stuffed animal like some kids do. No, you had a master plan. You made your list, planned it all out -- what clothes you needed to bring, your sleeping bag, all of the food you needed to pack, where you were going to go, all of it. When your mom found your list one night and showed it to me in a panic, I had to laugh. It was so typically you. Of course, the next morning, once you’d had a chance to sleep on it, you’d changed your mind, realized even then how impulsive it would have been, despite all of the planning.”

I tried to think back to those days, how determined and even brave I must have been to come up with all of that.

“I saved that list, you know,” he said. This was something new. “I figured I’d give it to you one day, maybe when you had a daughter of your own and she started doing some of the same things you used to do.” He chuckled. “Of course, you’re pretty unique, but it would be great to see you get a taste of what life with you as a kid was like. Always something new with you, Kate.”

I sat there in awe, trying to remember how I must have been and came up with nothing. It was hard to remember myself as being anyone other than the shy, careful person I was now.

“It’ll all work out, Kate,” my dad said. “You’ll see.”

I tried hard to believe him. Somehow, sitting there in the dark, enjoying the quiet with my dad, my issues seemed so inconsequential. So, I had no job -- big deal. So, I was single -- okay, a bummer, but, still, I’d been there before. I decided right then and there that I was through with being careful. It was definitely time to get a little crazy. The thing was, despite the list I made earlier that day, I really had no idea where to start.

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