"So all is right in the world?" Dawson asked when John came to get Holly.
"Yes," he said.
"What did you do with her?"
"What do you mean?"
"Please tell me I didn't just spend the last few hours babysitting for you to take her back to your apartment and have sex."
"That would've been bad?"
"You have sex with her at your apartment every night," he said and John was very glad Claire had elected to wait in the car. He'd drop Claire off at her house on his way back to his apartment.
"Well, not with Holly not home we don't."
"That may be true, but the kid goes to sleep before nine o'clock every night. That gives you plenty of time in the bedroom undisturbed. So, you know what I mean. I offered so you'd do something different with her."
"I didn't take her back to my apartment. I brought her down here actually."
"Oh," he said.
"Yeah, we had dinner and then drove along Lake Shore Drive for a while. We stopped at the Planetarium and walked around out there," John shrugged as he put his arms around Holly and slid her off of the couch. He was almost an expert at doing this without waking her up these days. Getting her into her car seat without waking her was going to be a new challenge because usually when he picked her up from a couch it was to move her to her bedroom.
"That's better than I thought you'd do."
"Why?" John asked, knowing he was getting defensive.
"I don't know. You don't strike me as the most romantic guy, John."
John scoffed. His boss was judging him on how romantic he was? Talk about the pot calling the kettle black!
"Well, no, I've never had reason to be," he said softly.
"Word of advice," Dawson said.
"You're going to say it anyway."
"She's a reason to be. You've got a kid who people are going to make the assumption when you're out together is yours. I mean yours together, yours and hers. Maybe you could learn to be that for someone who accepts you and your daughter. And is likely to be mistaken for her mom more often than not."
"Jesus. She's not going to ask. You got yourself involved with someone who is as high maintenance as they come. Pretend you don't think so all you want. Think of better dates than movies the nights you have a sitter or she's going to get bored."
John sighed. Dawson wasn't telling him anything John hadn't already thought of. He just didn't like hearing it because it meant the doubts John had were legitimate concerns. They'd had a nice time tonight, but John had to ask her for ideas on where to go eat because he didn't know the first thing about date-worthy restaurants downtown.
"She was all right?" John asked, hoping to get Dawson off of this subject for tonight.
"Yes, she was fine. We had spaghetti. I didn't have any macaroni and cheese so improvised."
"You gave her spaghetti?" John asked suspiciously.
"Like I said, I have nieces and nephews. I gave her just a little sauce. She was fine. I have washcloths. She got none on her clothes, you wouldn't have known if I didn't tell you. Admit it, I did all right with her."
"You did," John admitted. "Thanks."
"Sure, I'm not going to rush out and do it again tomorrow or anything, but you're ever really in a bind… You know, like theatre tickets or something and your sitter backs out."
"That would be a very romantic date-like thing to do, John."
"Thanks," John said as Dawson handed him her things. Theatre tickets? She did stuff like that he knew. She knew at Christmas time she'd gone to see something with her mom and dad. Likely that wasn't the only time either. Fuck. That would mean suits and ties.
"You thinking about what those dates entail?"
"Yeah," John said.
"Hey, you don't want to deal with someone like her…"
"I didn't say that. She wouldn't go out with you anyway."
"Doesn't mean I wouldn't try like hell to convince her."
He probably would, too. John couldn't blame him because if he was in Dawson's shoes he'd feel the exact same way. Fuck it all if she wasn't worth having to buy a suit and tie for. Dawson knew John thought she was, too. He just enjoyed giving him shit because he could. "See you tomorrow," John said.
"I'll be there."
John settled Holly in her seat as carefully as he could. She woke, which he expected, but he hoped she'd fall back asleep as soon as he started driving. It was way past her bedtime and he didn't want to send her to daycare tomorrow tired and in a bad mood from being up all night.
"Everything all right?" Claire asked.
"Yeah," John said. "Sorry. He talks sometimes." He shrugged, settling his hand over hers once he started driving. She took his, lacing her fingers through it.
"That I said that."
"Yeah," John admitted. "It's why he offered to babysit. I don't think he would've otherwise. You know, just randomly offer."
"He thinks you're crazy?"
She shrugged. "Loving me back?"
He wasn't sure how to respond to that.
"Why would he think that?" he asked.
"I don't know. We're not at all alike."
"Yeah, so," John said. "We're not that different when it gets down to it. I may not have followed the rules, but I know what they are enough to get by and even do all right when I have to."
"I know. I just," she shrugged. "Dinner tonight. That's not at all where you would have wanted to go ordinarily."
"Well, ordinarily you don't tell me you love me for the first time so no, you're right."
"I've never told anyone that."
"Me neither," he said. "I've never had anyone I even thought I'd want to say that about let alone to. Holly, I guess, but that's different."
"Right," Claire said.
"So that, in my opinion, called for something outside of what's normal for either of us. I mean, you don't go there every week. Do you?" he asked. It was a pretty nice restaurant. Not crazily expensive like some places he knew she could've chosen, but it was certainly nicer than any restaurant he'd ever been to before.
"No," Claire said.
"So, see. I don't know. What do you want me to say? I don't want you to love me? I do, Claire. Did I ever think you would? No, not really. Certainly not with Holly in the picture."
"Why have you been seeing me then?"
"Because I was sure hoping I could get you to feel that way. I just worry, you don't mind Holly now and I don't mind getting babysitters. In the fall, though, when I'm going to school and working very few hours it's not going to be something I can afford every weekend. So that means a lot of staying in, a lot of dinners and movie rentals at our place."
"I know that."
"I believe you do, but I'm not sure you understand that I can't go to school four nights a week, basically not seeing her those days and then get babysitters on the weekend. I got custody of her, but that doesn't mean Betty – or her parents – couldn't challenge it if they think I'm not spending any quality time with her."
"I get that, John, I do. You're the one who said you thought you had to get a sitter every weekend this summer. I didn't say that. I know you should be saving money now so when you're not working as much you have money. You're looking at apartments that are closer to me, which is nice but they're more expensive. I'm not dumb, I know that they are."
"Dawson's mentioned me making up the hours I lose by working Saturdays."
"That'd be up to you, though."
"Oh," she said.
"It would defeat the purpose of my driving all the way downtown to work for eight hours to pay a babysitter for the time I'm there. I mean to try and make up for the hours I'm losing. You know?"
"See, I'm laying this shit on you and you shouldn't have to deal with it."
"Maybe I shouldn't, but that doesn't mean I don't love you and want to deal with it. And Holly isn't shit you're laying on me. She's your daughter who you went through a lot of effort to be sure she was in a better place than she was in before."
"I know," he said.
They stopped talking about that the rest of the way to her place, which was good. He didn't want to dwell on the fall. He wasn't sure she'd understand how scared he was to be doing this. Never mind the work thing, losing that many hours every week was certainly scary. He'd barely gotten through high school. Granted, that was his doing not because he was incapable. He just hadn't given a shit and wanted to show everyone that was the case. This wasn't high school, though. This was the rest of his life, the potential to do better, have better, and be able to give Claire better. He just wasn't sure he'd be able to do it when all was said and done.
"Is your mom up watching for us?"
"I don't know. Why?"
"I can't really leave Holly in the car alone."
"Oh," she said, reaching for her door handle.
"I'll get it. I didn't mean I can't get out of the car, just walking you to your door is about as much as I can do. She's not going to freak out I don't come in or anything, is she?"
"No, I don't think so."
"All right, she was decent to me this afternoon I don't want to undo that because I don't want to wake Holly up for ten minutes."
"No, I'd explain it to her if she said something anyway."
"All right," he said, getting out then to open her door for her.
"Thank you for dinner and everything. It's been a long time since I just drove around downtown like that."
"Well, thanks for coming with me and the suggestion for the restaurant. I have no clue where to take you, so I'm glad you gave me an idea of what you actually like."
"John, it's not that hard…"
"Except I've never done this before either."
"Sure, but you went to dances, have had dates who took you to restaurants that I don't know about because it's not ever been something that I had to deal with."
She sighed. "You're right, but we don't need to go to Allgauer's every week to make me happy."
"I know, but you're going to expect – and deserve – better than Wag's."
"Wag's is fine."
"Yeah, well, tonight I thought you deserved better than that."
"Tonight I agree with you."
"Thank you," he said. He leaned in and kissed her.
"I could go to your…"
"No, not tonight. Your mom would know you were leaving with the express purpose of coming to my place at close to eleven o'clock at night when I work tomorrow. Like I said, she was decent, let's not shove her nose in it that we're doing more than kissing."
"I can't remember the last night I didn't end up at your place."
"I know, right? It has been a while. I'm not sure I'll be able to go to sleep."
"You tire me out very well, Princess."
"I'm not sure that was a joke. It's a very pleasurable way to get ready for bed."
"Says the nineteen year old guy who didn't have sex for years before January."
"Yeah, well, it's true. I broke my abstinence for you not for anyone else."
"I love you, too."
He chuckled a bit, kissing her again. "I have to go."
"I know. Sleep well. If you can't sleep you could call me…"
"Hmm. You going to tell me a bedtime story?"
"The good kind?"
She sighed, kissing his chin and then his jaw. "I could try."
"Once upon a time…"
"Yeah," she whispered.
He slid his hands to her cheeks, kissing her again. "I do love you. I can't promise you I'm going to be the most outstanding boyfriend at saying it at every turn or anything, but I think you know me well enough to know I don't just casually feel that for anyone either."
"So I'm not walking away."
"From you. From us. From love."
"I believe you."
"That doesn't mean I don't have doubts or think you'll come to your senses one day and realize you deserve someone like Craig Foltun."
"Funny because I've wondered why it took you so long to come to your senses and realize that you deserve me."
"I'm not Craig."
"That's good because I realized that day at school I don't want someone like Craig, John. I want you. That's who and what I want. Holly, mechanic if that's what you end up deciding you like doing, and all." She leaned in and kissed him. "Be sure to thank Erik for me in the morning, too. Okay?"
"I love you, not him. I just want you to tell him that I appreciated it, too."
"Go home and tuck your daughter in and just think in a couple of months you won't have to drop me off on my parents' doorstep anymore. We'll be able to tuck each other in every night."
"That sounds wonderful."
"I think so, too."
"Them knowing we were doing that…"
"Steps, John. I will tell them, I promise. Next year when I don't have a dorm they will know. I'm giving them time to get used to this. Me having a boyfriend. You. Us. Holly."
"I get it."
"So you're saying you don't care if I go to school?"
"I care because you want to go. You said you want to. If you didn't want to that wouldn't bother me. You have a job. You're supporting your daughter."
"I come home filthy…"
"I don't care! Fuck, John, did I care that day we had sex while you were at work?"
"Well, no," he said.
"I don't care. If you're going for me or because you think you need to for me or my parents…."
"No, I need to go for Holly." He shrugged. "I have to admit, I like Dawson, though."
"I know you do," she said. She knew that wasn't easy for him to admit either. He didn't have many friends. He didn't let himself trust people to get close enough to befriend people.
"Go home, John. Get Holly to bed. I'll see you tomorrow." She ran a fingertip along his arm. "Maybe I'll bring you lunch."
"You mean the kind where I might make you dirty again?"
"Yes, that kind."
"I love that kind of lunch."
She laughed softly. "Me, too."
"You know, I was thinking maybe there was something I could major in that would be useful in other jobs, but with him too until I'm ready to leave. Or maybe I could work for him part-time or something. I mean, he's being more than fair and he can teach me a lot."
"I know he can."
"He can't teach you a lot, honey."
She laughed softly. "I don't think I'd want to learn what he could teach me anyway."
"Good to know."
"And if that's what you want to do, ask him. I think he likes having you work for him as much as you like working there. If he won't answer you or can't, we could talk to my dad for some ideas. I don't honestly know what kind of majors would work for that. He may not know either. Small Business?"
"Just what I want to do, ask your dad for advice."
"At least he'd know you're thinking about a future."
"Yeah, with you."
"John, he already knows we are. He's not stupid, so talk to him if you need to. He knows you already so you may as well."
"I know. Thank you. I don't really have anyone else to talk to about this shit."
"You can talk to me about anything anytime. I bet you could Dawson, too."
"So, next year, huh?"
"Living with me?"
"Is that all right?"
"Yeah, I didn't realize you'd actually, officially do that. I figured it'd be off the books until you graduated and we got married."
"As long as we don't have any more kids before we were to get married my parents wouldn't have much choice but to deal."
"Your dad's paying for your school though."
"My dad isn't going to stop paying for my school, John."
He turned to go then, stopping at the bottom of the steps leading from her front door.
"What?" she asked, turning to face him? She'd already started unlocking the door.
"You just said more kids."
"Just wondering if you realized what you said."
"I not only realize it but meant to say it. She's going to be living with us. I'll treat her as close to being mine as I know how to do, John. And I understand what that means, that people may think she is really mine. That's their problem not mine or yours. The people who matter, my parents, know she's not. And, well, she's a beautiful and good girl, I'd be flattered to be mistaken for her mom."
"I'd be pretty flattered, too, Princess, that they'd think a guy like me could've gotten a girl like you to sleep with me back then."
"I'm sure you could've if you'd tried, John."
He chuckled softly.
"Go home, John."
He walked to the car then, glad Holly was still asleep. He turned the car on again, waiting to be sure Claire got in all right and turned the lights off before pulling off the driveway. He glanced at Holly in the rearview mirror once he was on the street leading from their house.
Marriage. Kids. Moms. I love you.
Man, a year ago that shit would've scared the living crap out of him and here he was now kind of wishing they didn't have to wait. At least for the living together part. The kids' part he could probably wait a few years for and not complain about.
Yeah, he wouldn't get too shook up at someone mistaking Claire for her mom either. Betty might, but that was her problem. One she could fix very easily if she chose to. At this rate Claire was going to be the only mom Holly ever really knew because Betty certainly was putting on a pretty good act at no longer being interested.
"All right, Kiddo, let's get Daddy home to bed," he said, not that she heard him.
He drove past Shermer High on his way to his apartment. He didn't miss the place one bit, but he had to admit it'd be pretty cool to see Assistant Principal Vernon's face about now to where John's life was headed. It would almost be worth walking through those doors again one day.
Story ©Susan Falk/APCKRFAN/PhantomRoses.com