"How does your mother know Mrs. Kuzinski?"
"Don't do that, I know that you heard me."
"Uh, well, I think I told you she was a friend of mine's mom."
"Yeah," he said.
"We were friends together at church. You know, first communion and all of that. So our parents know one another. Why?"
"Mrs. Kuzinski told me your mother came by to see my daughter today."
"She did what?"
"Yeah, that was kind of my reaction, too."
"I didn't know, John, I swear."
"Oh, I believe you didn't know. Mrs. Kuzinski said she tried to be subtle about it, but she was asking questions and stuff."
John shrugged. "If I drop Holly off in clean clothes and stuff. How many times you pick her up. If you've ever dropped her off."
"Oh," Claire said, glad now she hadn't ever dropped Holly off. She'd spent a couple of nights with John, but he'd always dropped Holly off on his way to work. "What did Mrs. Kuzinski say?"
"Well, at first she didn't understand why your mom was asking. I think she thought maybe your dad had sent her, you know, to see if I was keeping up with her a couple of months into getting custody of her."
"Oh. Dad wouldn't do that."
"Yeah, I think Mrs. Kuzinski realized that, too. That's why she told me about it, I think. She said she didn't say anything bad, but she felt bad she'd answered the questions at all when she realized your mother was screening me."
"I'm so sorry."
John shrugged. "I have nothing to hide. Holly wanted to wear a dress today so I guess she picked a good day to seek her out."
"I noticed that," Claire said.
"Yeah, she does that sometimes, gets fixated on an outfit or something. Unless it's something real atrocious I let her wear what she picks out."
"I've seen her clothes, she doesn't have anything atrocious."
"No, I suppose not."
"I've never seen her dirty or anything either."
"No," John said. "Mrs. Kuzinski said your mom stayed for a little while and watched the kids. I'm going to presume her attention was focused mostly on Holly."
"I'm sure I'll hear about it tomorrow."
"Where were you?"
"Out with some friends."
"We went downtown for a while."
"Not the beach."
He ran a fingertip along her arm. "No more sun than you had on you yesterday."
"Oh, no. We went to Water Tower Place."
"Ah," he said. "Did you max out your card?"
She laughed softly. "No, I did buy a dress, though."
"I see that look in your eye. What's the dress for?"
She shrugged. "I was thinking we could go somewhere nice for dinner the next time you get a sitter."
"The next time I get a sitter?"
"I kind of assumed I'd need to get one every weekend."
"To go out with you."
"Well, you don't have to every weekend, especially since I'm not going back to Iowa in August."
"I suppose not. Well, I still made arrangements with Lori."
"I didn't know."
"I just assumed it was kind of a given. So, that's what you want to do? Dinner? What am I missing?"
"I was thinking…"
He stared at her, suddenly filling in the blank.
"You want me to wear a suit? Are you fucking kidding me?"
"Well, you don't have to wear a suit exactly."
"So, you bought a dress that you can't just wear anywhere on a whim?"
"I never said I can't wear it anywhere."
"If you've got dinner in mind at a place I have to wear better than jeans at I'd say it's something that you wouldn't wear to come visit me at work."
She slid onto his lap, sliding her arms around his neck.
"That would depend is Erik there or not when I come visit you?"
"I don't know."
"Not that it stopped us that one day."
Huh. He hadn't thought she'd … liked that. He knew she hadn't left that day unfulfilled or anything, but her wanting to do that again someday hadn't entered his mind. He'd just chalked it up to one of those things she'd let him do, but it wouldn't happen again.
She kissed his neck and he sighed softly. He loved when she did this out here in the living room. He liked when she kissed him anytime, but like this it was just because she simply wanted to kiss him. He liked that a lot.
"Holly," he whispered.
"I know," she said.
Holly was about ready for bed, but she was watching one of the many videotapes he'd begun accumulating before bed. Some Betty's parents had given him because they were her favorites. Betty hadn't been too happy to learn they'd given them to him he found out later, but he couldn't blame them for doing it.
"So, not exactly a suit means what? Slacks and a nice shirt? A tie?"
"Fuck. There's a reason I work as a mechanic."
"I'd feel sorry for you, except you're going to school in the fall so clearly you want to do more than that."
"I guess," he said. He sighed. "We can go wherever you want."
"Do you have a tie?"
"I have a couple of them, yes. I don't have a suit, though, so if that was a requirement you'd be out of luck."
"What the fuck would I need a suit for? I didn't have proper dress shoes until your father insisted I couldn't show up in court in my work boots."
She laughed against his neck. "I bet he did."
"Yeah, it was the only thing he told me absolutely I had to do, so I took his advice."
"Me or your dad?"
"Thanks," he said, sliding his hands along her back to cup her ass. "I've got to get her to bed, but if you hold the thought of sitting on my lap…"
"I should go, too, actually."
"Wait. What? You're leaving? It's barely past eight o'clock."
"I know," she said.
"Okay. What aren't you telling me? Did I do something wrong today or something?"
"What? No, why?"
"You're leaving hours before you normally do."
"I know, but I know you're tired. I can see it and if I stay you'll be up later than you would if I wasn't here."
"I like staying up with you. I especially like staying up in bed with you," he said, sliding a hand along her thigh, pushing her skirt up a bit.
"I just feel bad."
"Let me decide what my bedtime should be, Claire. I'm a big boy. I want you here."
"Okay," she said.
"I'm going to put her to bed. If you wanted to have this off," he said, tugging on her skirt. "I wouldn't complain."
"On the couch?"
"On the couch, the floor, the bed, the wall, I really don't care. Haven't you figured that out by now?"
"I guess I have."
"You are coming with me tomorrow to look at that apartment right?"
"Yes, I said I'd meet you there."
"Just making sure you remember. I really don't want to make the decision without you. Even if it's only a one year lease, if you hate it you won't want to spend as much time there as I want you to."
"I wouldn't hate it!"
"I'd still like to be sure."
"I'll meet you there."
"Good," he said, kissing her as she slid off his lap so he could get Holly and put her to bed. She had no problem slipping out of her skirt while he was doing that.
"Mother," Claire said the next morning at breakfast.
"Yes, dear." Claire rolled her eyes. Her mom was still mad so calling her dear was forced and probably a bit sarcastic.
"Why did you go see Mrs. Kuzinski yesterday?"
"She shouldn't have told you that."
"She didn't tell me that. She told John. Who of course told me that my mother had gone there. You know, Holly's father. Someone comes around asking about her of course she's going to tell him."
"I was curious."
"Then why don't you ask me to have them over or something."
"I wanted to see her when he wasn't expecting me to see her."
"She's very cute," she said.
Claire was positive her mouth fell open in complete shock at that.
"She is," she said finally.
"I was surprised."
"Why?" Claire asked.
"I don't know, I just expected…"
"He takes good care of her, Mom. He really does."
"The pigtails were your doing?"
"Yes, I did them the night before after her bath and her hair had dried a bit. He usually leaves them in for a day or two."
"I could tell. I remember how you did your pigtails when you were old enough to do them yourself."
"Oh," Claire said, not realizing there was a distinct way of doing pigtails.
"Please tell me you're being careful, Claire."
"Mother, Dad and I already talked about this."
"Well, you didn't talk to me about it. I'm the one asking the question."
"Yes, we are."
"And you're sure about transferring schools?"
"Yes," she said. "I really wasn't all that happy in Iowa. I hadn't thought about it until I realized he wants to go to school and that if I was living here he'd have someone who could babysit the nights he goes to school."
"That still shouldn't be your…"
"My priority? I know that's what you think, Mom, but I love him. I want him to go to school so that he can support his daughter and feel good about himself. You know?"
"I've heard of them…"
"I bet," Claire said.
"They're not like us."
"No, but that doesn't mean he's not a good guy, Mom. Did you not hear me? I love him."
"I heard you."
Claire sighed. She'd never said it to John. She wasn't sure why or what she was waiting for.
"Are you going to need things from the house?"
"No, just the stuff I had in my dorm last year."
"His apartment is that furnished?"
"Well, he doesn't have a drawer full of mixing spoons of different types and sizes like you do or anything, but he has things sure. Why?"
"Well, if you're here, taking care of his daughter the nights he goes to school…"
Oh God, her mom realized she was going to be spending her nights with John.
"If there were things you needed so I knew you were all eating."
"Oh, he has things, Mom. I eat just fine when I'm there with the two of them. I eat lunch or dinner there a lot."
"What would you have done if you'd gone there on a bad day?"
"Yes, you know, things happen sometimes in the mornings. He has to drive downtown, children aren't always cooperative. So, say she'd been wearing a dirty top or her hair hadn't been combed and pretty."
"I don't know. Mrs. Kuzinski said…"
"I'm glad she said those things, Mom, because I'd be very mad at you if you'd gone there and that was the case and you'd held that against him somehow."
"I just wanted to see her when neither of you were expecting me to. She says you pick her up sometimes."
"Yes, every once in a while."
"You don't have a seat in your car."
"I use his."
"We didn't want to put one in my car…"
"Because of me."
"Yes, you weren't very nice to him, Mother. I thought you'd freak out if you saw I had a car seat in my car."
"He has a child…"
"Who he's taking responsibility for. More than just taking responsibility for. He saw she wasn't in a good place with her mother and did something about it. Isn't that worth something?"
"Your father has made me see that maybe that is."
"I hope so because I'm not breaking up with him."
"Just be sure you know what you're doing before that little girl gets attached to you, Claire."
"Mom. I love him. Have you not heard that part? I want her to get attached to me because I plan on being in her life for a very long time."
"Just remember you're not the only who stands to get hurt."
"I know, Mom, I won't forget."
"You can let your father and me know what night works for the two of them coming here for dinner so we can meet him properly."
"Probably a Saturday or Sunday since he works Monday through Friday downtown."
"Fine. Just let us know."
"All right," Claire said cautiously.
Was it really that easy? She went and saw Holly and was okay with it? Or was she up to something? Claire didn't think her mother was quite that devious, but she didn't really know. She never thought she'd be a completely judgmental bitch about someone either before John had started coming around the house last winter.
"You'll be home for dinner tonight?"
"I should be," Claire said. She usually was during the week unless John asked her to have dinner with them, but he hadn't for tonight.
"Okay. I have some errands to run, so I'll see you later. Have a good day."
"You, too," she said. She still wasn't certain the conversation was just a ruse somehow to make Claire think she had accepted this. She had expected her mom to be a bitch for a while at least. Maybe seeing Holly was in fact a real child and cared-for altered her thinking? Claire would never understand the way her mother thought.
She met John at the apartment he was interested in. She got there before him, unsurprising since he had to break away from work.
"One of those days already?" he asked when he saw her.
"Just a conversation with my mother. I asked her about going to see Holly."
"Oh," he said.
"It was surprisingly not a bad one. She said she just wanted to see her for the first time without you knowing about it first. She wants you and Holly to come for dinner some time, I told her weekends would probably be best."
"Oh okay," he said. "Yeah, sure, just tell me when we need to be there. It's not as if I ever have plans other than with you."
"Okay," she said.
"So you liked it?" he asked after they'd seen the apartment. It was actually pretty nice.
"Can you afford it?"
"Uh, yeah, I mean it's not like Shermer was much cheaper."
"I suppose," she said.
"Don't let the rent affect your decision. The question is can you see yourself spending your nights here? Eating breakfast and stuff here?"
"Yes," she said.
"Okay. There are two other ones I want to look at. One has a pool, which I thought maybe you and Holly might like for the summer. Dawson's mentioned my working a Saturday or two."
"All right. I'll see you later then?"
"Yes," she said. "Mom asked me if I was going to be home for dinner, so I guess that means I should be."
"Sure. After dinner then."
He leaned in and kissed her once she'd started her car.
"Thanks for coming apartment hunting with me, Princess."
"Sure." She shut her door then, rolling her window down a bit.
"What?" he asked.
"Yeah," he said, looking sort of concerned.
"It really doesn't matter where you live. Okay? I trust you to pick a place I'd be happy in with you two. I told you that before. If you like this place, get it, it's not far from campus and what's better it's pretty convenient for you to get to Lake Shore Drive and work or the Expressway if you needed to. Please don't worry about it so much."
"I worry. Sue me. I absolutely do not want you staying in your dorm more than necessary."
"I love you, an apartment isn't going to change that."
She drove off then, not believing she'd actually said it. She realized this morning talking with her mother she had to. She wasn't sure where he was, what his mindset was, and if her saying that wouldn't scare the crap out of him. She wasn't even really sure he wanted to be in love with anyone let alone her when all was said and done. She had to say it, though. She'd known after admitting to her mom it was how she felt that she had to. If she didn't she'd feel as if she was lying to him, holding something back. Certainly if she said it to her mother she could say it to him.
Easier said than done. She hadn't felt so panicked about much of anything in her life. The only time that came close was when she'd taken her ACT and SAT tests junior year, but it was a different type of panicked. Ironically, both times had something to do with her future, what saying or doing those things would do for her in the long run.
Story ©Susan Falk/APCKRFAN/PhantomRoses.com