He'd gotten to the studio way earlier than he'd needed to this morning. He'd used the time to get some maintenance things done as well as look for some extra equipment he knew he had stashed away here. He had a couple of cameras that he didn't use anymore because while still suitable weren't as good as what he had now. They'd be great for what he needed to do with Claire, though. He had all of Mr. Fitzgerald's equipment here, too. Some of it he used, some were just boxed up. Years later he was still floored how much stuff the old man had left him. Without his help, willing him the stuff he had, he never would've been able to get started because he never would've been able to afford the stuff needed even to develop pictures.
He'd found the camera he was looking for. He'd actually been very fond of it until an upgraded model came out that he'd had to go with. He found the old camera bag he had for it, too. Really it was Mr. Fitzgerald's old camera bag and even though it was from the sixties it was still nicer than anything John had been able to find. He'd looked, too, because the bag showed its age. He put a few rolls of film in the bag so he'd have everything he'd need at his fingertips.
When he'd started this business he'd had nothing but the basic supplies Mr. Fitzgerald had left him. He'd used a room in his friend's basement as a dark room and had met people places not having an actual office or studio to bring them to. He hadn't taken personal type pictures back then. He'd done some pictures for area schools, summer Little League baseball teams, and things like that. He'd scrimped and saved everything he earned so he could buy the equipment he'd needed. He bartered a few times, too. He got business cards by giving the guy who ran the store some pictures of his kids. He got his first bit of space in exchange for engagement and wedding photographs of the guy's daughter in lieu of a deposit.
His friend lent him some of the money to get his first bit of space over three years ago now. The pictures had gone toward the deposit. He still needed to make the monthly payments while he got settled and established. He paid him back and eventually had been able to move into the space he had now. He didn't see needing to move again. There was plenty of room to add offices or whatever if he needed to. He'd seen the studios those places at malls and stuff had to work with so he knew he had more than what he needed here to take pictures. Those places didn't develop their own pictures either, sending the negatives away somewhere to do the developing. John did all that himself.
He also had enough space to store backdrops that were seasonal, like the ones for Easter and Christmas. That was the maintenance stuff he'd done today. For whatever reason he'd put off taking the Easter backdrops down. It wasn't a bad thing to have them up, but it was tedious sorting through a couple of dozen backdrops when he only needed, say, ten for year-round situations.
He heard Ronda come in. He would've started brewing the coffee for her when he got here, but he had no idea how strong she liked it. He'd tried once and she'd told him his coffee was awful. How scooping some grounds into a filter and pushing brew could result in awful coffee he wasn't sure, but he'd never tried it again. Sometimes, too, she was in the mood for different coffees so he had no idea where to even begin there.
"I was surprised to see your car here already this morning," she said from the little kitchen area they had where her coffee stuff was. There was a refrigerator, microwave, and a full-sized sink with some cupboard space. They kept some groceries here basic stuff like bread, peanut butter, jelly, instant soup, and things like that. There was a small table with chairs in the room, too. He never sat in here, but she did sometimes. He imagined it was just to get away from her desk for a while because it wasn't as if she couldn't eat out there.
"Why?" he asked. He was usually on time, early even. Occasionally he ran late, but so did everybody once in a while and he certainly couldn't control rush-hour traffic.
"It seems you had a busy weekend."
"I did?" He had? "Not really. Just that wedding up in Algonquin. You were right, that Port Edward is a nice restaurant. I'd never heard of it." Not surprising since fancier seafood restaurants were not somewhere his parents ever took him. He himself didn't venture out that way much, choosing instead to go downtown when he wanted something to do.
"I wasn't talking about Saturday."
"Okay," he said. "I still didn't have a busy weekend."
He heard her sigh and wondered what that was about. She walked to her desk and then to his office, tossing the morning paper onto his desk. He didn't get the daily paper, only the Sunday paper. He barely had time to read that one, sometimes not getting completely through it until Monday or Tuesday depending on how busy he was on the weekend.
"You said you weren't involved with her," she said.
"Her who?" he said, glancing at the newspaper.
"Oh," he said, seeing what apparently had her upset with him this morning.
It was a picture of him by her car yesterday evening. He'd made her breakfast which they'd eaten in his kitchen. Breakfast had turned into her hanging out for the day. They had some sandwiches on his screened-in porch for lunch. He had a little TV he could bring out there (he didn't leave it out there) and they'd watched the Cubs game. That was followed by dinner out before he took her to her car. He could honestly say he'd never spent an entire day with a woman. Well, Ronda, but she didn't count.
He'd gotten out of his car to walk her to hers to be sure it started and everything. He wasn't just going to drive away and leave her there. She'd kissed him and it had turned into a pretty nice good bye kiss. That was what the picture was of.
Could this be love? captioned the picture. The little blurb underneath the picture didn't say much, but it did indicate that this was the first time Claire had ever been caught engaging in a public display of affection. John had never thought much about that until reading that, but he supposed that was true. He'd seen plenty of pictures of her with guys over the past four years. He'd seen her holding a guy's hand, getting out of cars or coming out of clubs with them, but he'd never seen a picture of her hugging, kissing, or doing anything remotely loving or that might reflect being beyond a casual date with a guy.
He'd never entertained the notion in a million years that someone would've been camped out in the parking garage waiting for her to get back to her car twenty-four hours after parking her car there. He supposed they realized she'd have to come back there and in some ways he respected the tenacity of whoever camped out there to get that photograph.
There was a second one, a close-up of Claire revealing very clearly she wasn't wearing a woman's shirt.
"Just how slow of a news day was it yesterday?"
"Really? That's your explanation."
"I never said I wasn't involved with her."
"You said she'd seen you…"
"Yeah, I know what I said and I hadn't seen her for months until Saturday night."
"She was at the wedding?"
"What?" John asked, confused.
"How'd you see her Saturday night?"
"Oh, no, not at the wedding," he said. He told her the story, leaving out a few details like the fact her brother was gay or that she admitted to kissing another woman.
"So she spent the night and nothing happened?"
"Yes, even I have manners. She'd been attacked, trying to rape her or mug her didn't much matter to me."
"How is it they haven't found you yet?"
"Come on, you were kissing her and judging by that picture it wasn't just a quick good bye kiss either. Not to mention I recognize what she's wearing in that second picture as being one of your shirts. I've seen it more than a few times."
"No," he said, glancing at the picture again. There'd been nothing quick about that kiss. He'd contemplated inviting her to come back to his place for the night again. He was very glad now that his hands had stayed put. It'd been very tempting to let them roam along the curves of her body he'd been itching to touch that morning. He'd known that wasn't safe to do, though, so he'd refrained both in the morning and at her car. "Uh, the parking garage was pretty full so I had to park on the top level and then walk with her to her car. They probably wouldn't have seen what I was driving not looking for her to show up with me."
"You're lucky because you know they'd be milling about here if they knew who you were."
That was the last thing he needed. His parents as far as he knew had no idea what he was up to and he preferred to keep it that way. True, he was still in Shermer, but it was a big enough suburb he could avoid them pretty easily. He didn't want them coming around, looking for handouts or causing problems. Then, the picture wasn't focusing on him so maybe Ronda only knew it was him because she was as familiar with him as she was these days.
"You going to tell me not to take her calls or let her in here now?"
"No! Nothing happened."
"And if it had happened?"
"No," he said.
"I don't know why you're bothering to fight it, either of you. Just get together and quit pussy-footing around."
He sighed softly. "She's going to be expected to have kids."
"I'm pretty sure I can't give those to her."
"You heard me."
"You have the parts, John, and obviously know how to use them. Those women don't call here for weeks after you've clearly blown them off because you show them a bad time."
"I never said I couldn't use them. I know full well how to use them. I said I can't give her kids."
She grew quiet then, regarding him no doubt assuming it was something psychological. A fear he'd turn out like his old man or something. She saw his back once by accident. He'd been here, changing before going to a bar mitzvah. He'd been in the bathroom and she'd come back having forgotten her purse. She thought she'd left the light on so came to shut it off. She'd never said anything. It was the one topic she was oddly silent about. She'd evidently put two and two together, though, with his absolute steadfast rule that no one named Bender was to ever get a hold of him or know where he was.
The electronic doorbell went off, indicating someone had come in. She hadn't been there long enough to print off his schedule for the day, but he knew he didn't have anything this early. She left his office to see who was there, leaving the newspaper behind. No doubt intentionally. She was wearing the pants she'd worn out Saturday night, but she was wearing one of his shirts because he hadn't had anything else to offer her. He didn't have women's clothing at his house. Contrary to what Ronda probably thought he didn't have a supply of left belongings there. He wouldn't give something like that to Claire even if he did.
"There's a Mr. McMillan here to see you," she said, handing him the business card the lawyer no doubt had handed her.
"Send him in."
"Yup," he said. No doubt this conversation wasn't going to be a pleasant one. "When's my first appointment?"
"Not for an hour yet. It's a pregnancy announcement."
"Of course it is," he murmured. How fitting since babies were now on his mind.
"I could cancel it if you think this is going to be long."
"No, it shouldn't be. I'm sure he's come here to tell me to stay the fuck away from her. I had volunteered to help her clean up her image a bit. I doubt this will do that."
"Oh, well, I don't know," she said, glancing at the paper.
"People might see that and think she's actually got a heart. You know, feelings. Until now, anyone looking at her with one of her boyfriends' knew she felt nothing for them."
"You could tell that from a photo?"
"I can because I know what someone looks like when they actually not just love the person they're with but like them, too."
"Not everyone has that."
"No, they don't. It's pretty rare, John. Still anyone with a brain and eyes could tell she didn't like any of those guys."
"And she likes me?"
She scoffed. "I told you that months ago."
"I guess you did. You think this picture says that?"
"Men," she said.
"Here," he said, handing her the newspaper. "Send him in, Ronda."
John glanced at his office from a successful lawyer's point of view. His desk was old, not antique old but bought at an estate sale old. So was pretty much everything else in here. It was decent stuff, but not top of the line or anything. He'd scrounged ads and things looking for something that people were obviously getting rid of because they'd upgraded not because it was old and decrepit. Nothing matched, but no one was coming here for his decorative ability. At least he hoped not. The one piece of furniture he doubted he'd ever get rid of was the credenza he'd found. It was great because he could store all kinds of stuff in it and hide the disorganized mess that was his paperwork if he needed to. Over time he planned on getting better things, but for now he was all right with what he had. No doubt Mr. McMillan had way more expensive stuff than John could even dream about owning.
Ronda shut the door once Mr. McMillan was in his office. He'd heard her ask him if he wanted coffee. He'd said no.
"Good morning, Mr. Bender."
"Yeah, hi," he said cautiously. The guy didn't look pissed off, but then he was probably very practiced at keeping his face from showing anything.
He set his briefcase on a chair next to the one he'd sit in if he chose to sit. To this point he hadn't. He opened the briefcase and slid some papers out of it, handing them to John.
"What's this?" John asked.
"Miss Standish called me last night, saying you'd agreed after all to what we mentioned."
"Yes. You're surprised? You didn't agree?"
"I, well, no, I did. I told her I didn't need a contract with you, though, or anything. I assumed you were here about the picture."
His lips tightened at that, but he said nothing.
"Have a lawyer look it over if you care to. It's pretty self-explanatory. It lists what your rate per hour will be and that, as you stated before, you would retain ownership of the negatives. As I've stated any photos will go through my office first. My secretary can approve them if I'm unavailable."
"Thanks," John said, glancing at the paper. It wasn't a real thick document. No doubt because they weren't entering into some earth-shattering conglomeration or anything.
"Miss Standish has told me she'll forward you her schedule each week herself. In the event you haven't received it by Friday afternoon for the following week, contact my office and my secretary will be sure you have it by Monday morning. The number on the page is the direct line to my offices so you'll get my secretary when you call that one."
"Okay," John said.
"I'll leave it to your discretion where you photograph her and how many pictures get out. I would suggest that less is more to start. We don't want people to suspect that we're actually trying to correct her image."
"Well, right," John said. That seemed obvious. People would be suspect if all of the sudden a hundred positive pictures appeared in the papers.
"As far as the picture this morning. I have looked at it, read it, and contemplated what to do with it. I've decided on doing nothing with it. I've never interfered with her personal life to this point and I don't believe I should start now. If the pictures were any more explicit."
"Don't do anything stupider than kiss her in parking lots, Mr. Bender."
"Oh, well, no. Of course not." He wouldn't do that. Not with her anyway, though he had to admit if she'd suggested climbing into the backseat of her car he may not have said no last night.
"You seem to have a good support staff here."
"That is good. You will need it if they find out who you are and if you're seen with her more than a couple of times they will make it their business to find out."
"None of her other dates have been bothered."
"None of her other dates have been seen kissing her either and she wasn't seen in his clothes."
"It's not what it looks like."
"She explained the situation to me. I, however, am not the public. They will see what they want to see. And that is evidence that maybe she's serious about someone."
"Wearing my shirt says that?"
"For her it does, yes."
"Look over the papers, Mr. Bender. If there's something in there you're not agreeable to, please let me know, and I'll fix it. I'd rather deal with this when you're both agreeable than shelve it again for another six months until you two can decide to get along again."
"I'm sure it's fine. I told her I don't need money."
"She mentioned that as well. Of course we'll pay you for your time."
"What if I just want to spend time with her?"
"When that's what you're officially doing and not a hypothetical 'what if' we can revisit the contract at that time."
"I'll have it back to you this week. I just want to read through it."
"Very well. Her schedule for the week is attached. You can start as soon as you'd like. I've included an expense form as well, document your mileage, money spent on tolls or parking at the facilities, and so forth and you'll be reimbursed for all of it."
"Thanks," John said, glancing at the various things he'd mentioned that were with the contract.
"Thank you. Should you wish to sever the contract for whatever reason in the future I would appreciate notice from you. I don't care about advance notice, but some would be appreciated. Just so long as I am aware the photos will stop."
"Uh, no, I guess not."
"All right. I'm in a hurry, I apologize if I seem abrupt. Fortunately, you were on my way to a deposition I have to take this morning."
"Glad I could be convenient," John said.
Mr. McMillan regarded him, probably looking for any sign that John was being sarcastic. He wasn't for a change. He was glad the guy hadn't had to go way out of his way for this stuff when John had told Claire he didn't want to get paid to begin with.
"Have a good day."
"Yeah, you, too," John said.
John thumbed through the papers, finding her schedule. It blew his mind that she had a schedule that she submitted to the guy.
There were the obvious things on the list like working at food banks, a few churches that fed people who didn't have a way to eat otherwise, a shelter or two, and local hospitals. There was stuff on here he hadn't thought of. She went to elementary schools to what end he had no idea, but he was curious. Her schedule wasn't jam packed with appointments, to be expected he supposed because sooner or later she'd be working at her dad's company so wouldn't have the time any more to do all of this stuff.
"Everything all right?" Ronda asked.
"Yes," he said.
He separated the expense form and Claire's schedule from the actual contract, handing that part to her.
"Look this over for me, will you? Just tell me that they won't own my soul until I die or something and we're good."
"I'm going to take some pictures. You know, her ladling food out to someone in need at the food kitchen, her reading a story to the sick kids at the hospital, and stuff like that."
"Kissing you in public and trying to change her image."
"Jesus, quit trying to marry me off and just read the damned contract. I just want to make sure I'm not signing my life away. I told her I didn't want compensation as long as it didn't interfere with my work schedule."
"She wants you to get paid for your time anyway."
"Huh," she said, sounding and seeming somewhat impressed by that.
"And what we talked about earlier. That's between us, right? Somebody starts coming around here I don't need you telling them I don't want kids."
"You didn't say don't want them, John."
"I know," he said.
"You really don't know if you can?"
"I was told a very strong possibility exists I won't be able to. And please don't ask me how or why I'd know that."
"Have you told her that?"
"No! We haven't even had an actual date yet and I'm not sure we're ever going to."
"Have you asked her?"
"No, I haven't talked to her today. I was actually going to call her to tell her the lawyer came by."
"Oh, well, let me get out of your way."
"Why do you like her?"
"I don't like her. I don't know her. I do know you, though, and the way you live isn't normal or good for you long term."
"There's nothing abnormal about me."
"John, be reasonable. You've never had a girlfriend in the time I've known you. That's not normal. You're a good looking, nice, smart, business owning guy."
"Thanks. I kind of lucked into the business, though."
"That doesn't matter. What matters is you're sustaining it and succeeding. I just want you happy and whether you think so or not, you're not happy living the way you do. You have a house. You have a business. You even talked about getting a dog."
"Those are all things that point to someone who wants stability, normalcy."
"I don't have to be married for that."
"If I hadn't seen the way you looked at her I'd agree with you, but now I know someone exists that makes you get soft in the eyes and probably the heart."
"I don't get soft in the eyes. What does that even mean?"
"It means you look at her and you aren't so hard. You stop thinking about work or whatever else is on your mind."
"Other women do that to me, too."
"They do not! I'm not talking about replacing thoughts of work with thoughts of how to get the next one into your bed."
"You make me sound like such a stellar guy. Why do you like me? Why do you even work for me?"
"Because you're not a bad guy. I like you, I like working for you, and you know that. It doesn't mean I have to like everything you do."
"I suppose not."
"And well, she wasn't so bad the day she was here."
"I was surprised when I realized who she was. I went over our conversation in my mind and she was a bit… snobby, but I would expect that from someone like her. She probably isn't accustomed to waiting or being told someone may not be immediately available to see her."
He chuckled softly at that. "No, she's not."
"So, she didn't do anything wrong or behave badly. She wasn't overly nice to me, but she wasn't rude or dismissive either."
"No, she wouldn't do that. She's not a bad person."
"Does this," she said, holding up the contract. "Mean she's going to come around here again?"
"I'm not sure."
"Well, a little warning might be nice."
"So I can actually look nice."
"You always look nice." He frowned. "I've never seen you not look nice."
"Nice to you and nice to Claire aren't the same thing."
"Ah. Yeah, well, just remember you work for me not for her."
"I don't think she could afford me."
"Probably not. She wouldn't know what to do with someone so efficient either."
She left his office then and he picked up the phone. He had no idea what she did with her days now that she wasn't in school. She didn't work yet he didn't think. Shopping? Beaches? He really had no clue.
'Hello,' she said, sounding maybe as if she'd been sleeping.
"Hmm, don't tell me you went out after I dropped you off and didn't get home until two o'clock in the morning or something."
'No, I actually came home afterward.'
"How did that feel?" he asked.
'It felt a little weird.'
'Not too bad, no.'
"Have you seen the paper this morning?"
'Yes,' she said softly. Obviously she wasn't sleeping then. 'I'm sorry.'
"I'm not mad," he said quickly. "Not at all. I mean if I had my choice I guess I wouldn't be in the newspaper at all, but there are certainly worse things I could get in there for than kissing you."
'I know, I'm still sorry.'
"Don't apologize. Mr. McMillan was here this morning."
"You called him last night?"
'Yeah, I wanted to get it taken care of right away.'
"I told you…"
'I know what you told me, and I appreciate that. You're still going to be giving up opportunities and you'll have the expenses of driving around to those places and stuff you wouldn't otherwise. It's only fair.'
'I hope you're not mad at me.'
"No, I'm not. He gave me a copy of your schedule for the week."
'Exciting, isn't it?'
"It's about in line with what I'd expect. What do you do at the schools, though?"
'Oh, I help out in the library and in the cafeteria.'
'Yes. Trust me when I say school food has not improved since we were kids.'
He chuckled softly at that.
'I also work with some of the kindergarten classes, drawing and whatever they have going on.'
"You like that stuff?"
'It's fun. Actually, it's probably my favorite thing to do.'
'Well, I probably shouldn't say this but the food banks, food kitchens, shelters, and hospitals get depressing. Sometimes at the hospital I get to visit women in there who have just had a baby. That's fun. Other times though, it's delivering flowers to cancer patients or a parent whose baby isn't going home with them because it's in the NICU. Those aren't so fun.'
"I get it."
'So the schools are fun. They're kids and they're there to go to school and learn. I draw a picture with them or something. You know. I love finger painting now as much as I did when I was five.'
"Finger painting, huh?"
"I have some ideas of things you could do with your hands."
'I'm not sure I could do those things around kids.'
"Probably not," he said softly.
'I was trying to do things with my hands yesterday. You stopped me.'
"Sue me for being a gentleman about something for once in my life."
'If your girlfriends had come over having that happen to them and tried that would you have stopped them?'
"They're not my girlfriends. And no I wouldn't have, but we've had sex before. I haven't with you."
'That makes a difference?'
'I see,' she said.
He hoped she could. He also hoped she'd eventually stop bringing up Tina and Lily. God he felt like shit about it every time she mentioned them as if he'd been doing something wrong. Okay, maybe the last time he'd done something wrong. He'd called them because he'd been pissed off at her. They hadn't done anything besides kiss, though. There'd been nothing resembling a commitment or anything between them.
"Well, onto perhaps safer topics. I had some thoughts on how to ease into this without making it obvious you're trying to turn your image around."
'I shouldn't want to make it obvious?'
"No, because then people will think you're still doing the things you've been seen doing, you're just being more discreet about doing them."
'Oh,' she said. 'So what were your thoughts?'
"Well, I could tell you over the phone. Or we could have dinner later."
'Are you sure you want to do that?'
"Why wouldn't I?"
'You didn't expect to get your picture in the paper today.'
"Do I sound or seem disturbed by it?"
'Well, no,' she said.
"Now if you rethinking being seen with me that's a different story."
'No,' she said.
"I can pick you up."
"Do you have plans tonight?"
'Well, nothing set in stone.'
"No grand openings?"
'It's a Monday,' she said.
"I suppose not too many clubs or restaurants open on a Monday. So I have no time restrictions."
"Hmm. When was the last time you saw a movie?"
"No, not really." He chuckled. "What kind of question is that?"
'I don't know. I can't remember the last time I saw one.'
"Well, you obviously have the paper there. Pick one out and we'll go to one. Just call me back if you need me to pick you up earlier than six o'clock."
'Okay. You're sure?'
'Can I ask a question?'
'Dinner is talking about what your ideas are. You can't tell me your ideas at a movie.'
"Yeah, that kind of seems like a date, doesn't it?"
'You're okay with that?'
'Yeah,' she said.
"So am I."
He wasn't really. The idea came to him, not wanting to have to drop her off after dinner. He liked the idea of her going home last night and staying in after spending the day with him. That meant he'd given her, provided her with something she didn't usually get. At least he thought it did. Then what did he know?
'I'll see you later then.'
'Oh and John?'
'I had a nice time yesterday.'
"You told me that when I dropped you at your car. Seems to me you kissed me pretty nicely, too."
'I know I just thought I'd say it again. I can't remember the last day I did nothing.'
"Should I be insulted that spending the day with me is nothing?"
'That's not what I meant. I just meant, staying in one place, watching a Cubs game, relaxing.'
"Did you like it?"
"Would you like to do it again?"
"That was the general idea, yes."
'Maybe next weekend?'
"I have a wedding again."
'Oh,' she said, sounding a bit disappointed.
"I won't be as late as I was this weekend and you could probably meet me at the reception if you wanted to after dinner is over. I stay until the end to get the actual leaving for the night photographs."
"Yeah. I always hate those pictures I've seen where it's obvious they were taken way before the reception started. I do take a couple so if they're not happy with the later ones they can use them, but unless someone signs up for the real bare bones package I stay until the end."
'I bet people like you for doing that.'
"Well, I'm still in business so I must be doing something right. Or I could give you a key and you can be there when I get home again."
'You just don't want me sitting on your porch.'
"You're right. What would the neighbors think, someone like you classing down the place."
She laughed softly.
'I think I'd feel more comfortable just meeting you back at your house.'
"Okay. Sometime this week I'll get you a spare key then."
'You could just call me when you're on your way and I could meet you there.'
"You don't trust yourself in my house, Princess, or what?"
'No, I do. I just could understand why you might not.'
"Yes, because I have anything that you don't already have or can't afford better in my house."
'Well, okay, right.'
"And if you're going to snoop through my drawers, well, you'd do it if I was sleeping or in the bathroom or out getting take-out anyway."
'I don't want to snoop.'
"You wouldn't find anything anyway."
'I find that hard to believe.'
"Really? What do you imagine I have in my house anyway?"
'I don't know exactly.'
He chuckled softly at that. "That's an evasive answer, but that's okay. I'll pick you up at six o'clock unless you call me back to tell me earlier."
Story ©Susan Falk/APCKRFAN/PhantomRoses.com