“Are you sure you don't mind babysitting, Mom?” Claire asked. She'd asked before, of course, but she had to be sure.
“Claire, the boys and I will be fine. Go.”
“Okay, thank you again,” Claire said. She kissed her mom on the cheek. Frank had already been fed and everything, so depending on how late she stayed out her mom may not need to do more than change him.
“You're welcome. Have a good dinner and a good time.”
“Are you going to bring us something back, Mommy?” Bill asked.
“I don't think so, honey, it'll be too late by the time I get back.”
“Bye, Mommy,” Justin said.
“Bye, sweetie, you behave for Grandma.”
“Good,” she said, kissing both boys.
Claire was looking forward to a couple of hours away. She loved school and her kids, but once in a while it was nice to be Claire and nothing else. It was fun dressing and getting ready for dinner out and going through her things for a purse that would match her outfit. Silly things, but she enjoyed doing them just the same.
She was running a little late, which was not unusual for her these days. She didn't used to be that way. She'd been raised to be punctual and prompt, but kids changed everything. The hours Dan kept hadn't helped. She wasn't sure how her mom had managed and it wasn't like she was hours late showing for things, she just wasn't the few minutes early her mother had raised her to be.
“Hey Bill. This is John.”
'Hi Mr. Bender,' Bill said.
John rolled his eyes. Claire hadn't budged to this point on the kids calling him Mr. Bender or Sir. It drove him absolutely nuts she still thought it was necessary, but as they weren't his kids he couldn't argue the point with her as vehemently as he would have liked. He just didn't like it, it made it seem so formal when he'd been seeing them twice a week for close to a year now.
“How was school today?”
'It was good.'
“Yeah? You haven't mentioned Tommy much lately. Isn't he in your class this year?”
'No, Sir, he has Miss Platt.'
“Oh, okay. I guess I didn't realize that he had a different teacher this year. Are you making some new friends?”
'Yes, Sir,' he said.
“Good. I'm glad. Say, is your mom busy?”
'She's not home.'
“Do you have any idea when she'll be back?”
'Um,' he said pausing as if thinking on that. 'No. Grandma said she had a dinner date and we wouldn't see her until morning probably.'
“Uh okay,” John said, not sure at all how to respond to that. He knew how he wanted to respond, but obviously Bill wouldn't be able to answer his questions. And why did he feel as though the child had just punched him in the gut with those words? “Is your grandma busy then?”
“Can I talk to her maybe?”
'Just a minute. She's upstairs I think,' he said, setting the phone down. Judging by the noise he'd answered the phone in the kitchen. 'Grandma. Mr. Bender is on the phone,' Bill yelled.
'I'm sorry to keep you waiting so long, John,' her mom said a few minutes later.
“It's no problem.”
It was a huge problem because John had the past few minutes to think on Bill's words and what they meant. In general and for him. And for Claire. He found it very hard to believe she'd go on a date without telling him she was doing that. Then what did he know? She'd made it very plain that she didn't think they were dating, so he imagined that would mean she felt she was free to do that without having to explain herself to him.
And really, she didn't have to. He knew that. She didn't owe him a god damned thing. Him and his stupid moral compass was to blame. Because he knew if they were having sex, if he hadn't said no to her back in June and stuck by that decision, that she wouldn't be on a date with someone else. She wouldn't do that. Kissing wasn't the same thing even though they'd somehow managed to get the art of kissing one another down to an art form the past few months.
He'd expected something, though, some warning. Some sharing of information, even in passing that she'd met someone she wanted to date. He knew he shouldn't be upset and he wasn't upset really. He couldn't blame her really. He'd probably want to date a time or two, too, if he'd married the first girl he'd ever dated and she turned out to be the type of woman Dan had been to Claire. He was hurt, though, because he'd laid his feelings on the line for her and evidently she couldn't take those feelings into consideration. Or she was hiding what she was doing out of consideration.
“How are you, Mrs. Standish?”
'I'm well, John, thank you for asking. Bill's keeping busy with his football and hockey this fall.'
“I bet he is.”
He wasn't sure how Claire did it. Justin was taking swimming lessons, too, a couple of times a week and was playing soccer this fall. He hadn't been interested in hockey (which was kind of ironic to John because hockey was kind of like soccer just on ice with sticks and pucks instead of a ball).
'How are you?'
“I'm fine, thanks for asking.”
'Claire mentioned work has been slowing down for you some lately.'
“Yes, ma'am, that's pretty typical for this time of year, though. New construction starts winding down.”
'You compensate for that, though?'
“Uh, yes, ma'am,” John said. “I work throughout the year and definitely knowing slower months are coming up I stash what I can away during the summer.”
'It's not so easy with a house, is it?' she asked.
He chuckled at that. “No, it's not nearly as easy as it was previous summers that's for sure. Last summer I was so busy trying to get settled in here that I didn't pay much attention.”
'It sounds from what Claire's mentioned that you do fine.'
“I try to. Listen, I just wanted to leave a message for her if I could.”
'Sure. I'm not sure how late she'll be tonight. She mentioned something about drinks afterward.'
She was planning on going out for drinks, too? He'd talked to her two nights ago and she hadn't mentioned anything to him about plans. He'd sort of gotten used to seeing her on Wednesday's. If Bill or Justin had a sporting thing going on he went with her and they ate afterward. His fault maybe for assuming he supposed. He just sort of presumed.
“Okay, well, she knows how late is acceptable to call me back.”
'I'll leave a note for her, John.'
“Thank you. I hope you have a good rest of your night.”
Not likely, he thought as he hung up. He stared at the phone for a minute. She hadn't invested in an answering machine for her own line, which was the reason he'd called the house's main line. She was rarely in her bedroom except to sleep anyway.
He stood then, heading toward the bathroom off his garage that he'd been working on during the week. He hadn't expected to have the evening free, so hadn't budgeted time to work on something larger. The bathroom had a ceramic tile floor that he had to grout. He'd been dreading it because he just didn't want to deal with the mess and noise of having to remove the grout he'd be replacing. Actually, using a grouting saw was probably just what he needed right now to get his mind off of what Claire was doing tonight.
“I was surprised you called,” Nancy said.
“A good surprise, I hope,” Claire said.
“Of course. I miss having lunch with you,” she said.
“Me, too, but Long Island Iced Teas are much better than milk.”
Nancy laughed. “You have a point. I was just surprised because you're always so busy. School, your kids, and I know they're both doing things this fall. I was surprised you had the free time.”
“I took Justin to his swimming earlier and one of the moms of Bill's teammate let him ride with them today.”
“Good. I'm glad you are all getting along well.”
“How is everything?”
“At school?” Nancy asked.
“Yes. Well, to start.”
“It's fine. Busy.”
“Good busy?” Claire knew there was good and bad for Nancy with her job. The school counselor didn't see people for just bad things as was the case for John when he was in school.
“For the most part. There's always bad things, but so far there haven't been many this year.”
Claire knew Nancy took her job very seriously and let things bother her probably more than she should. It was one of the reasons John had stood out to her. He was the first 'bad' case she'd come up against. She admitted to Claire once last year (without going into details) that if she could've gone back and done things differently, intervened more strenuously she would have. She'd been new, though, and had been willing to believe his stories.
“And you? How's school?”
“It's fine. I'll be a lot happier when I can get into more of the classes I want to next year.”
“That's too bad, but I guess it makes sense.”
“Yeah. I feel like I'm going to end up there for another four years all over again, but I know that won't be the case.”
“And if it's three years?”
Claire shrugged. “Then it's three years. I want to do this. You know I'd honestly forgotten what I'd wanted to do until John asked me.”
“Yes! I'd been so focused for years on my life as it was that thinking about 'what if' just never entered my mind.”
“Well, that's good, I guess.”
“You don't think so?”
“No, I do, but I'm glad that you remembered your dream, Claire, and are pursuing it.”
“I am, too. I'm just glad Mom is so understanding and willing to help me. There's no way I'd be able to do this if she wasn't.”
“I hope you've told her that.”
“I try to every day. I'm actually going to give her a weekend away at a spa.”
“Really? I think she'd like that.”
“I think she would, too, now. I wanted to do something for her a year ago just for letting us live with her, but she wouldn't have gone. So I waited.”
“And she's okay?”
Claire shrugged. “She has good and bad days. More good days than bad it seems. There are still times I see her staring off as if she's not sure what she's supposed to be doing.”
“It's an adjustment.”
“I don't do that.”
“I think you're a little more functional than your mom. You worked. You still have your kids at home. Your mom didn't work and her kids were grown and gone. From the things you've said your parents were getting along. I think it was a great idea for you to move in with her, even if you weren't worried about her at the time. It gives her something to look forward to, makes her feel useful.”
“Is she still drinking?”
“Not quite as much, but yes. I haven't come home from school finding her drunk or anything.”
“Well, that's good,” Nancy said. “Would you tell me if you did?”
Claire smiled tightly at that. “I don't know. You'd feel you should report it. I wouldn't endanger Justin or Frank, though.”
“I know you wouldn't and that's why I believe you. If she's having a glass of wine during the day, there's nothing wrong with that.”
“I know. She has more than that once I'm home.”
“Not every day.”
“Well, hopefully it'll continue to get better. It used to be every day, right?”
“Yes! There were nights I don't think she was able to sleep until the bottle was finished.”
“It will get better, Claire.”
“I know. I've just been so busy with my own stuff I forget sometimes why I moved back here to begin with.”
“You moved back here to be near your family, so the boys could be near their relatives. That's important. You had nothing in New York.”
“I didn't have nothing.”
“You know what I mean, Claire. Don't take offense to what I'm saying. You had no support system. No real one, anyway. Certainly no one you could have counted on with Frank.”
“No, I know.”
“How is Frank? He's seven months now?”
“He is. He's good. It's going by so much faster. He's so curious about everything.”
“I think that's natural. He has two big brothers to want to be like.”
“That's what their pediatrician said. He told me to be prepared for him to do everything early.”
“No! I'm not sure my mom is either.”
Nancy laughed. “It'll work out, Claire. You both will do fine.”
“Someone at school asked me out,” Claire said.
“And you waited until now to tell me?”
“I think I thought if I said it out loud it would be…”
“Less crazy sounding?”
Claire laughed. “Yeah, that.”
“So, who is he?”
“He's one of the grad assistants in my Anthropology class.”
“Yes, he's twenty-four.”
“Not a huge age difference,” Nancy offered.
“No, but he has nothing.”
“No responsibilities but class. He started this study group, actually for me.”
“Yes, I talked to him for ideas on how to get the most out of studying. There's so much in the text book and the lectures don't always follow it. He knows the professor he assists, so I wanted to know if I was supposed to put my focus on the text or the lectures.”
“So, I explained that I was back in school after so long and he got some other students together who seemed concerned about doing well in the class.”
“That was good of him.”
“John wasn't too thrilled.”
“He wasn't? He told you that?”
“Oh, no, he didn't say anything. I don't think he would, but he was there the day Chris called and I could tell he was curious.”
“Rightfully so probably.”
“I don't know what to do.”
“What do you want to do?”
“I don't know!”
“I've never dated anyone but Dan. And John I guess. I mean, we've had dates regardless of what we wanted to call them. They were dates.”
“Are you counting the ones before you weren't having sex with him as dates? Or just the ones after?”
“Well, it's important I think. He had a valid point, I think, behind his decision to abstain once Frank came along. So, did you consider the things you did before you had him dates?”
“At the time? No. I mean, kind of, I guess. I didn't want to admit to myself they were dates.”
“Because you felt guilty.”
“You can admit they were now, though?”
“Well, sure. I didn't have to go to the New Year's party with him.”
“I certainly didn't have to go away for a weekend with him.”
“You had fun, though, so did the kids.”
“Have you talked to John?”
“No! I don't know what to say. What do you tell the person who says they love you that you were asked out by someone?”
“You don't think he'd understand?”
She sighed heavily. “I really don't know. I wouldn't if I was him.”
“And you kind of love him, don't you?”
“Yes,” Claire admitted.
“More than kind of?”
“But you're still tempted to accept this young man's invitation?”
“Because I'm curious?”
Claire shrugged, running her fingertip along the base of her glass. The Long Island Iced Teas here were delicious. Nancy had recommended the place because on Wednesday nights they had various drink specials. Claire was glad she'd let Nancy pick.
“I guess what going out on a date with someone I don't know would be like.”
“Because you knew Dan and John before you ever went out on dates with them?”
“I thought I knew Dan.”
“Are you afraid John will be the same way?”
“No,” Claire said.
“Claire,” Nancy said.
“Maybe a little. I don't know. To commit to him…”
“It's scary because you have to trust someone again after someone you thought you could trust let you down so deeply for years.”
“What do you think John would do if you told him?”
“I think he'd tell me that he understands.”
“Do you think he'd leave you and the boys?”
“No, he wouldn't do that.”
“We're friends if nothing else. He may not come around as often as he does now, but he wouldn't just bail on us. I think he's as attached to the kids as he is to me.”
“You've been able to count on him, though.”
“It's scary losing that.”
“Yes, but is that the right reason to not say yes to a date?”
“I can't answer that for you.”
“If it were me?”
“I'd go. I'd tell John because if you don't then you're being dishonest and trying to hide.”
“I'd go, though. I think if for no other reason than I think you need that.”
“That validation that someone else who hasn't known you intimately finds you attractive. Desirable even.”
“I'm not going to have sex with him.”
Nancy laughed. “I wasn't suggesting you were. You can still feel desirable.”
“You don't even know what that's like, do you?”
“What do you mean?”
“To be flirted with?”
“Not really, no. No one flirts with the woman with the three boys along.”
“I bet some do, you just don't pay attention.”
“Maybe you're right.”
“You know Greg Wilcox?”
“Yes.” Greg was one of the sixth grade science teachers. He was a very nice man if not a little on the quiet and shy side.
“He wanted to ask you out last fall.”
“He did. He knew we were friends so he asked me about you.”
“What did you tell him?”
“I told him that you'd just lost your husband and were pregnant.”
“You did not?”
“Of course I did.”
“Why would you tell him that?”
“Because I thought he should know what he was potentially signing up for.”
“Obviously it was more than he wanted.”
“I don't think so. I think I scared him, but you never spoke to him for him to even ask.”
“Oh,” Claire said. She supposed Nancy was right. Their paths had rarely crossed, once in a while in the teacher's lounge or in the school office. Claire had always been polite to him, but she'd never gone out of her way to be friendly. God, she had just moved here and was still dealing with everything.
“He knew, Claire.”
“I can see you going over the few conversations you had with him last year and whether you were unkind to him or something. That wasn't the case. He knew your plate was full and that you didn't ask a new widow out on a date. I'm sure that's why he didn't ask. I imagine if you were still teaching this year he may have thought about it again. He's asked me if I've seen you.”
“Huh,” she said.
“This surprises you?”
“Well, I don't know why it would.”
“It just does, I don't know. I was married for so long…”
“Were you ever tempted?”
“Tempted to do what?”
“No,” she said without hesitation. The thought had never crossed her mind.
“Because I was better than that. And I'd know. I wouldn't have been able to go to sleep at night, knowing I'd done that. I wouldn't have been able to look my boys in the eye today and not shy away from them afraid they'd see things they shouldn't.”
“John has had quite a bit of experience.”
“You don't have to remind me.”
“Yet you seem to trust him.”
“You believe nothing happened at the bachelor party he went to last month?”
“Why?” Claire frowned.
“I admit I was a little afraid you wouldn't be able to trust again, certainly not so soon. I was afraid you'd use your experience with Dan as a reason to push someone away. John, or anyone.”
“John hasn't violated my trust.”
“No, but he loves you and the only other man you've loved did just that.”
“I know. John's not him, though.”
“I'm glad you know that, that's all I'm saying.”
“You should come over to the house sometime,” Nancy said.
“You could meet Randy and my kids.”
“You sound so surprised.”
“I am, I guess.”
“I'm not Miss French anymore, you know?”
“I do know that, I just didn't think.”
“I like you, Claire.”
“I like you, too. Even if you ask me tough questions sometimes.”
“Friends do that for one another.”
“You just know the right questions to ask.”
“I guess there is something to that. Are you going to talk to John?”
“You know you can accept Chris, that's his name, right?”
“You can accept Chris' invitation of a date without any meaning behind it.”
“What do you mean?”
“Just because you agree to a date doesn't automatically mean you're agreeing to a kiss good night or even a second date. There's nothing wrong with seeing what's out there, whether John is truly the fit you think he is. I think when all is said and done if you didn't John would always wonder if you were settling.”
“And you do think he's a fit, don't you?”
“Yes,” Claire admitted. “I didn't get my tubes tied and I was adamant when I found out I was pregnant with Frank that I would do that as soon as he was born.”
“I think I would enjoy meeting John's children one day.”
She laughed softly. “I suspect they will be incredibly … spoiled.”
“I wouldn't let him do that.”
“Not in the way you think I mean. I think John would do everything in his power to compensate for his own childhood.”
“Oh,” Claire said, not having thought on that. “He's very good with Bill.”
“Not with Justin or Frank?”
“No, he is, but I think because Justin's younger he's not sure what to do with him. He's not entirely sure with Bill either, but Justin's too little for things like snowmobiles. He holds Frank and he's given him a bottle for me. He likes going to Justin's soccer games with me.”
“Claire I can't tell you what to do and neither can John.”
“My mom would freak out.”
“She's just really gotten used to John being around.”
“You don't have to tell her everything you do. It's a date it's not a relationship or a future son-in-law.”
“Do you like him?”
“Oh,” Claire shrugged. “He's nice and he's nice looking. He's very smart.”
“I don't know.”
“Would you feel guilty if you went out with him?”
“If John knew? Probably I would still a little, yes.”
“That's normal especially since you've admitted to having feelings for him. That doesn't mean considering it is wrong, though.”
“You have to do what's best for you, Claire. John would say the same thing, I'm sure as much as he may not want to.”
“You're welcome. And you let me know whenever you can come over for dinner. Or just after school if dinner doesn't work.”
“Okay, I will. Wednesday's are usually a good day,” she said and stopped.
“I just realized this is the first Wednesday in months that I haven't seen John.”
“You just realized that now?”
“I really didn't pay attention to what day it was. It's different being in school again versus a job. I don't think about it from Monday through Friday just what classes I have to get to each day and how they fit into the boys' schedules.”
Nancy laughed a little at that. “I don't envy you.”
“I do the best I can.”
“I wasn't implying you were doing anything wrong. I think you're doing very well. You've remained constant, consistent, and have kept a routine. That's important. Obviously Bill and Justin are doing well despite losing their father.”
“Bill has his moments.”
“Completely understandable. I bet you do, too, and you're twenty-eight years old.”
“I hug him tight when I have those moments.”
“I'm glad you have someone to hug during those moments.”
“Me, too,” Claire said.
“I'm sorry I have to cut it short tonight,” Nancy said once they were in the parking lot. Claire's car was on the other side of the parking lot from Nancy's so they were going their separate ways at the entrance.
“No, it's okay. It was short notice.”
“You can call anytime.”
Claire got home in time to say good night to Bill. Justin was already asleep, but she checked on him, too. Her mom did fine with the boys, but the memory of coming home from her day to find Justin still in his pajamas more than once when they'd first moved back here hadn't been entirely forgotten. So, Claire still checked to be sure all was as it should be.
She found her mom in the living room, watching TV.
“Did you have a nice night?”
“I did, thank you. And thank you for babysitting.”
“You don't have to thank me.”
“I do. I appreciate it.”
“Yes. I told him I'd leave a note and I did. It's on the fridge, I wasn't sure how late you were going to be.”
“I'll call him tomorrow.”
“Is everything all right?”
“You usually see him on Wednesday's.”
“Everything's fine, Mom.”
“People change sometimes, Claire, needs change, too.”
“He hasn't changed neither have his needs.”
“I wasn't talking about him.”
“Mine haven't either. We didn't have plans tonight.”
“He called. I'll bet he was expecting you did.”
“I don't know.”
Claire didn't know what to say to that. She said nothing, choosing instead to sit with her mother for a while. She had no idea what show her mom was watching, a news show of some sort. Claire watched the news, but she didn't watch these hour long shows like Dateline or 20/20 as her mom did.
“How soon will Frank need another bottle?”
“I'll stay awake until he gets his last bottle for the night. You go on up to bed.”
“Go, Claire, get some rest.”
“All right, thanks.”
“Sure. I'll see you in the morning. I was thinking of making the boys French toast.”
“Yum,” Claire said.
“Well, you be sure to wake up in time and you can have some too.”
Claire smiled at that. As if she didn't wake up with her kids every day. True, sometimes after Bill was up and off to school Claire went back to sleep for a little while if she could and Justin was occupied. She didn't do that often, though.
Story ©Susan Falk/APCKRFAN/PhantomRoses.com