Word Count: 2,973
Life went about fairly normally. Prom, which her mom went absolutely crazy with the picture taking over but Chris couldn't complain really. It was the first time she'd ever been dressed up like that and Joe looked stunning in his tuxedo. Her dad had been conveniently absent that afternoon, but at least he hadn't objected to Chris bringing Joe altogether.
Graduation. That one Joe had bowed out of because the party her parents had for her was mostly their friends rather than hers. Neither of them was out to upset her father even if he thought Chris' choice in boyfriends was deliberately to the point of doing so.
The summer was everything she expected it to be. Dating someone who lived in the city was great because it was natural for him to want to do things downtown and that was where Chris loved to be. Taste of Chicago. Fireworks. Baseball games. Picnics at the beach with friends.
Her mom got to know Joe a little better, even coming with Chris to Joe's house when he had people over for Memorial Day since her dad was golfing that day. Chris' mom and Joe's were never going to be friends, but the two had gotten along well enough Chris thought. Her mom seemed to like knowing where Joe lived, too.
Joe got a job working of all places for the garage where Chris' mom's station wagon got fixed the night they met. He liked working on cars and Chris had mentioned the place thinking if anyone would give Joe a chance Mr. Dawson would. She'd never forget him letting Sara have her Thor helmet back.
Fall came and Chris started at the closer school in Aurora. Brenda was relieved. Her graduation present from her parents was her own car so that she didn't have lack of transportation as an excuse to keep her from coming home. They knew she wouldn't be home every weekend.
She fell into a routine easily enough. The smaller campus size suited her, which she knew would be the case over the larger universities her dad seemed to prefer. She saw Joe every weekend, usually spending one night at his house if not both nights. He worked weekends, but she used the time he was at work to get her homework done.
Things changed after Christmas break. It took her a couple of months, even after their one year anniversary, for her to pinpoint when the change had started. He never said anything, didn't treat her any differently necessarily. He was different, though; more distant, acting less as though he saw a future for them. Prior to break, she'd been sure he was it.
The only thing she could look back and owe the change to was at the party he'd gone with her to on New Year's Eve. It was at her parents' country club. She'd been expected to go despite much preferring spending the night with Brenda and Joe doing something less stuffy. Her father had insisted and she'd insisted back that she should be able to bring her date of choice.
She'd been talking to Arthur Williams, the son of one of the partners at her dad's firm. She'd known Arthur for years. They'd grown up together despite living in different suburbs and rarely seeing one another except at things like this. They'd always gotten along, though. He was smart and easy to talk to. Most of all, he never seemed to be hitting on her or plotting on how to get her into his bed every time they talked.
At one point during their conversation, which wasn't all that lengthy just long enough for Joe to step outside and have a cigarette and go to the bathroom, she'd caught her dad talking with Joe. He hadn't said anything about the conversation afterward and hadn't appeared to be upset or anything.
It was the only thing, though, that she could look back at and think led to the change in him. What changed? She couldn't describe it. She just knew something had happened. Joe responded to her questions about what was the matter with nothing. Phone calls between them grew less lengthy during the week. She knew they got expensive for him, but he should have just come right out and said that was the case. Instead, like everything else she was left to wonder. He never wavered in his kindness toward her or being good to her, but it was just different.
It was the weekend of their anniversary when the questions started.
What would she be doing now if she wasn't involved with Joe?
Did she change her mind on colleges because of him?
Were there other guys she'd be happy with who wouldn't cause problems with her father?
Did she plan on living in Chicago after college?
The answer to these questions, and others he asked similar to them, weren't easy. Of course he played a role in where she decided to go to school, but not entirely. The smaller campus size for her major really was a bonus in her opinion. Certainly, there were other guys she could be with who would please her dad to no end. Any white guy who was in college would probably do it.
However, Chris didn't want other guys. She wasn't sure what she'd done or said to make him think otherwise.
Sex between them got different, too. Little things like the hickeys he was so fond of giving her no longer being of interest to him. The first few weekends of college he'd always sent her back to campus with one or two that were visible, but after a while he'd stopped given them to her anywhere. Other things, too. It'd taken her a long time to let him be inside her from behind, but once she had she'd enjoyed it so much it became a regular thing. Until recently. He always seemed to want to be facing her.
She finally brought it up because she knew he liked being with her that way and he said something about not wanting her to feel cheap. She'd never felt that with him no matter the position or location. Hell, they'd had sex in her car more than once when he visited her on campus and her roommate was home and they didn't have a lot of time.
It boiled down to no matter the where or how of it, she knew he loved her so nothing they did made her feel cheap or dirty.
Her freshman year ended and while they were still together she was so confused she honestly wasn't sure what they were doing. He was working a lot, picking up extra hours when he could whether in the garage working on cars or driving the wrecker that brought the cars to them.
Oddly, it was her mother who finally provided the answer for her. They were in the kitchen working on dinner together when she brought up not having seen Joe since Chris got home for the summer.
"He's been busy."
"Yeah. Working a lot," she shrugged.
"And you're here instead of there?"
"I have a curfew."
"You do, but that didn't stop you last year from seeing him evenings."
"I know, Mom. I'm just not sure what's going on."
"He's been acting differently and I don't know what I did."
"Why do you think it was something you did?"
"Well, it'd have to be. Wouldn't it? I don't know. Maybe he was hoping I'd go to Southern Illinois."
"Maybe he wanted space."
"I never saw anything that indicated that was the case."
"Did something happen between him and Daddy?"
"Yeah. At the party on New Year's Eve."
"I don't know what you mean, Chris. As far as I know your father hasn't said more than two words to Joe."
"That's what I thought, but I swear I saw them talking. Joe said it was nothing, but it looked like Dad purposely sought him out when he was away from me."
"You asked Joe?"
"I did, but it's the only thing I can think of. I'm probably overreacting. I've never been in a relationship for this long before, maybe this is how guys get when you've been together for a while."
"Is he treating you poorly? If he is, Chris, you don't need to put up with that. You're a beautiful woman. A smart woman."
"No, Mom, that's just it. He's fine, just different. Not bad to me or anything, just not the same. I don't know how to describe it. Last year, he always seemed so happy to hear from me and see me. I'd write him a letter and when I got to his house a few days later it'd be on his table, as if he'd read it more than once. You know?"
"I do," her mother said. "I've written a letter or two to your father before we were married."
Chris glanced at her mom for a second, not really ever thinking about what her parents were like before they got married. Her mother was beautiful and smart, giving up her career once she'd had Chris.
"Now, though, that excitement just isn't there."
"Would you like me to ask your father?"
"Do you think he'll tell you?"
"He might, I suspect on this subject he's more apt to be vocal about it."
"Do you love him?"
"I do. I thought he did, too. He still says it. I thought," Chris shrugged.
"I thought he was going to ask me to marry him."
"You don't anymore?"
"I don't know. No. I caught him one day trying on one of my rings."
"Like he was sizing it, seeing how big my finger was compared to his."
"Oh, I see. He could have just been looking at a regular ring, Chris."
"I know, but it was right before Christmas and I thought," she shrugged. "People do that. Propose on Christmas."
"Would you have said yes?"
"I'd finish. I know you had to force me to choose to go to college, but now that I'm there and talking to nursing students ahead of me it's exciting."
"And the contraception?"
"Mom," Chris said.
"Don't ‘Mom' me. If you think there are problems between you two, it's especially important you maintain whatever means you're using."
"I don't want to hear any more about it, but I have to be realistic. You're not living at home. We gave you a car for graduation, which gives you the means to drive the forty miles to see him whenever you want without a curfew or anything else to stop you from staying at his house as often as you want to. I just need you to know that a baby would not solve your problems."
"I know. I'm not going to get pregnant, Mom."
"Good. As long as you're keeping your head about you, Christine. I want a good life for you."
"You don't think I could have it with him?"
"I didn't say that, but things are different than when I was your age. At the very least a woman needs to be able to support herself. It may never come to her needing to, but an education and skills are essential."
"I know. I'm not going to give up."
"I wouldn't even if we got married."
"He's doing well at his job?"
"Yeah, seems to be. It's long hours and hard work."
"And you're all right with that?"
"Why wouldn't I be?"
"Well, you're used to your father coming home from work in a suit and tie, exhausted perhaps from a long commute in his car or a tough day in a courtroom. I trust the fact he's working manual labor reflects that he has no degree or other skills to use."
"There's nothing wrong with being a mechanic. Dad needs his car fixed, too."
"Of course he does and I didn't say there was anything wrong with it. It's not me I'm worried about; I wouldn't be the one living with him and doing his laundry. I just want you to make sure before I brooch the subject with your father of what may or may not have been said at the party that you've thought this through. You wouldn't have a house like the one you grew up with. Your children may go to school in the city and you know how terrible some of the schools are there."
"You're getting way ahead of yourself."
"You mentioned you thought he was going to propose. With marriage comes children, Christine, even if you're not planning on having them tomorrow."
"I can't answer your questions, Mom, not really. I won't know until it happens, but I do know that if there's a reason he's acting differently I'd like to know about it so that I can do something about it."
"You've asked him?"
"Yes, I told you he says there's nothing wrong, that night he said nothing happened. It's the only time Dad's ever bothered to say two words to him so it makes me wonder."
"What would you do if you find out your father did say something?"
"I don't know. I guess it would depend on what it was he'd said, but I'd talk to Joe."
"Would you be upset at your father?"
Chris shrugged. "No more than I have been about the way he's handled my entire relationship with Joe. Unless he tried to pay Joe off to stop seeing me or something."
"Your father may have led Joe to believe that if it weren't for him, a relationship with Arthur would have been inevitable."
"He said what? And you knew about this all this time? Mother."
"You'll learn, Chris, that couples have private conversations with the expectation they not be shared outside of that confidence. I honestly didn't realize that Joe would take something like that to heart or that it would manifest itself into you believing he didn't care for you."
"You don't think he would? Mom! He sees how I live and obviously Arthur would be able to provide all of the things you mentioned Joe might not be able to to me and any kids. So, yeah, I think Joe would wonder what he's interfering with."
"Have you led him to believe he is?"
"Of course not! He hasn't mentioned anything to me or we wouldn't be having this conversation. He has been asking questions since that night."
"What I'd like to do with my degree? Where I want to live? You know, things like that."
"So, he's feeling you out to see if the life he believes he could provide for you is what you want."
"And your answers?"
"I could see where he might think that Arthur was better for me," Chris admitted. She'd been honest with him, not realizing that Joe was having doubts or second thoughts about their relationship. Of course she wanted a good life, a nice house, and to be able to provide for her children everything she'd had and more growing up.
"Well, I think you should clear the air."
"Why didn't you say something?"
"You hadn't mentioned anything being wrong. How was I to know? Your father told me something in confidence, after the fact, when he seemed to realize that his prying hadn't worked. I didn't think it was important."
"No, I don't think he would break up with me, but I suspect he might be waiting for me to break up with him."
So much made sense now that she knew. She'd always suspected her father hoped she and Arthur would hit it off more than they had, but she never realized he'd use that as a way to break up a relationship she was happy in. The change in their sex lives was probably his attempt at not wanting her to feel cheap or used, or to think there was someone who would be more loving to her.
"Is he working tonight?"
"You could go and wait for him. I know you've got a key."
"It'll be late, Mom. A conversation like this could take a while."
Her mom set the knife down she was currently using and placed her hands on Chris' cheeks.
"I can always tell your father you're spending the night at Brenda's."
"I want you happy. That's all I want for you, Christine. Your father can't see past his own biases and personal feelings. He's a good man, but even good men have weaknesses. This is your father's. If you think this man is the one who will make you happy then you owe it to yourself to talk to him."
"But you're telling me to stay there."
"To talk," her mother said with a smile. "I won't have it on my conscious that your father did something that causes you to be unhappy. He doesn't know the things about that Mike Toddwell I do, though I'm sure he's come to learn plenty enough to know he wasn't nearly as good of a catch as your father thought him to be initially. He may not be as right about Arthur as he thinks he is either. I've watched Joe. Not just with you, but with his mother and his neighbors, even how he takes care of his house. I may not be certain that you're not making a mistake, but I do know that you could do worse."
"There are things about him, about how we met, that you don't know."
"Do you know them?"
"Then I trust you."
She blinked, surprised to hear her mom say that.
"Go, Christine, before your father gets home."
"Okay, thanks, Mom."
Story ©Susan Falk/APCKRFAN/PhantomRoses.com