Kate barely connected the edge of her racquet to the ball before she slammed into the wall with her left shoulder. She knew the shot would fall short.
"Okay that's it, girl," Tammy said, not unsympathetically. "Two in a row, which I never do, I've scored eight straight points, which I also never do, and that's the fourth time you've hit the wall. I like winning, but I'm afraid you won't survive another game without breaking something."
Kate rolled her shoulder and flexed her hand. "Guess it's just not my day."
Tammy held the door open and they moved toward the dressing room. "Yeah, right," Tammy said as they reached their lockers. "You've hardly said three words since you got here. Work troubles or did you and Steve have a fight?"
"Work is fine." Kate yanked the locker open with enough force to cause her shoes and towel to tumble out.
"Okay. What was the fight about?"
"Who said we had a fight?"
The irritation in her voice was unmistakable as she unsuccessfully grabbed for the falling objects.
Tammy picked up the towel and held it. "Want to tell me about it?"
Kate pulled off her goggles and sweatband, threw them inside the locker and sat on the bench to untie her shoes. Tammy was patient and knew her friend well enough to give her a moment.
"This was not your run-of-the-mill tiff. This was a big blow-up. He's got a flight to Atlanta this afternoon."
"The new job you were telling me about?"
Kate nodded and wrapped the towel around her now naked body and entered the large shower area. "He's made the short list, the very short list. There's a better than average chance they'll make the offer while he's down there." She stepped into a stall and turned the water on.
Tammy spoke above the noise. "Oops, then he would have to say yes or no?"
"Pretty much. He might have a little wiggle room, but it's hard to tell. He doesn't have to necessarily answer instantaneously, but he won't want to look indecisive either if there are no points left to negotiate."
Tammy took the adjoining shower and stood close to the wall while she washed.
"So was the fight about him taking the job or turning it down?"
"Not exactly either," Kate said. It was hard to distinguish her tone of voice. "He wants the job, he's got a good chance at it and if they offer it to him, he wants me to go with him."
"What?" Tammy stopped in the middle of lathering her hair. "Are you serious? Go with him like in marriage? And you had a fight about that?"
"Well, the word marriage didn't come up," Kate said. "I got too upset to make it that far. I'm rinsing my hair, " she added, apparently not ready to answer another question.
Tammy was certain the rest of the story would come out. She could wait a few minutes.
Kate sighed loud enough for the sound to carry as she twisted the water off. "It's just that here we are, not nearly long enough into a relationship to be talking like this and I'm supposed to agree to pack up and trail after him?"
They stood on the thirsty mats outside the stalls and dried off. "You passed eight months at Valentine's Day and he did tell you he loved you," Tammy pointed out.
Kate rubbed her naturally curly, short brown hair with more energy than required. "And I love him, but it's only a start. We need more time." The last sentence held a note of frustration edged with what sounded like pain. Or was it fear?
Tammy thought quickly, trying to figure out what kind of support was needed.
"Well, does everything have to be decided right now? I mean, Steve has never struck me as overly spontaneous and we know you aren't." She wondered if Kate would take that comment wrong.
"It isn't that I have to make a decision this second," Kate admitted. "Part of the problem is, I know what a good deal this is for Steve and he wants it to happen. To be honest, when he first told me about it, I thought it was the beginning of the end. You know, set me up with the long distance offer and we know how that usually works out."
Kate quickly changed into her pantsuit and slipped her feet into a pair of pumps designed with the comfort of flats. She dumped her athletic gear into the center compartment of her bag without carefully separating it into designated compartments.
"Why haven't you told me any of this?" Tammy opened her make-up bag and decided to leave her hair in a ponytail. She had no reason to go back to the office.
"Oh, I guess I was secretly hoping he wouldn't make it this far. He's been doing great work, but the competition was tough and he's a couple of years junior to the other three in line. Now it's down to two of them."
"I'm still not sure what the fight was about. I mean, if you're upset about him leaving, then him asking you to go with him sounds positive. I agree long distance relationships have drawbacks, but it's not like nobody does it."
Kate exhaled a long breath, her body more tense than it should have been after a hot shower. "The fight was because he said my willingness to go with him was a part of his decision making process. I told him I appreciated it, but he needed to make this on his own. He said he thought I understood both things were important and the least I could do was give him some idea of where I stood on the idea. Just like that, wham!"
Tammy snapped her compact shut. "And that's what upset you?"
Kate bit her lower lip, a light flush tingeing her freckled cheeks. "It's not fair of him to lay this on me. I don't need to have any kind of responsibility for his choice. I especially don't want to make a decision of this magnitude with no notice. If I say, sure I'll go, how do I change my mind if I think about it some more and decide it's a bad idea? If I say no, would he go so far as to turn the job down even though he wants it? And if he does that, how will that affect us? If I tell him to take the job and we'll figure it out later, will we be able to? I mean, it's not like I've had great success with men in my life, you know."
Tammy slipped into her dress and turned for Kate to help with the zipper. "That's true, but Steve has been good for you and I thought you were getting sort of serious."
"That's what makes this so damn frustrating. It has been good, no actually it's been really good, like even great most of the time. I don't need this right now," she repeated.
"Hey, why don't we grab something cold to drink?"
"That's not a bad idea."
They walked into the deli next door, Kate's body almost rigid. Tammy thought that if she could keep her talking, perhaps it would help. She hated to see Kate upset over something that should have made her happy. God knows she'd been through enough in the past decade.
It was hard to believe nearly ten years had passed since they'd been architect majors together, since Kate had been her maid of honor and she had returned the favor when Kate married Brent. He was a dynamic litigation lawyer, considered as having the potential to be one of the youngest partners in his firm. The women were hired by the same architectural company and they found suitable townhouses within walking distance of each other. The four of them enjoyed the life of two couples dining out together, attending the theater, or breaking away for ski trips. Their relationship remained unmarred for almost three years.
Tammy began to sense a problem, but Kate initially attributed the strain between her and Brent as work related stress. Then one night after Brent exploded during dinner and left Kate alone with no explanation, Tammy sent Greg home and said she wasn't leaving until she knew what was going on.
Kate started to cry and between gulps described Brent's increasing use of cocaine, her suspicion of his affair, if not affairs, and the shambles of their finances. Tammy had been with Kate throughout the nasty divorce proceedings to do what she could, even when it was only provide tissues to dry the tears.
Tammy motioned the boy behind the deli counter for two Diet Cokes as they dropped briefcases and gym bags on the floor next to a small table.
Kate paid him and sat down with a sigh. "Okay. I know I sound like I'm getting ahead of myself on this. It's just that it was so unexpected. I mean, if he had said something a few days ago, I would have had time to think about it." She didn't want to tell Tammy how badly she'd behaved, how she'd lashed out from feeling pressured. In the light of the afternoon, she knew he hadn't realized she interpreted his question as pressure.
"So you haven't talked to him today?"
"No. I was going to call and try for lunch, but I had the meeting with Hodges. Besides, I'm not sure I wouldn't make things worse. Christ, you've known me long enough. You can tell I don't know what to say." Kate's voice had become reflective, obviously struggling to sort through emotions she was releasing.
"I mean, it's taken me five years to get my life back in order - five years. Kicking Brent out was the right thing to do, but I was a wreck from all that debt he'd piled up and having to admit he'd slept with practically every woman he met. You remember how ugly it was."
Tammy sipped her drink and waited. Ugly was an understatement.
"The few times I tried to go out afterwards were disastrous. I was beginning to think I would never be able to have a normal social life. If it hadn't been for you and Greg, it would have been nothing but work and sleep."
"You would have done the same for me if the situations had been reversed."
"Yeah, but you were still a lifesaver." Kate looked at her watch. "Steve's flight is in less than an hour."
Tammy stirred the ice in her cup with the straw. She hoped she was reading Kate correctly. "Look, you're right about not having to make a decision this second, and come on, you and I both know you could make a separation work if it came to that. I mean, we're talking about a direct flight between major airports here. It's not like he's going to Outer Mongolia."
"If he demands an answer immediately, I can't give it to him. Finally getting my independence cost me one hell of a lot. I don't want to risk losing it again."
Tammy looked directly into her friend's troubled hazel eyes. "Kate, Steve is not going to make that mistake. He's a better guy than that. He's a sharer, not a taker. Call him. Tell him what you told me. Tell him of course you care and you do understand, but that you were caught off-balance."
Kate shook her head. "No good. He dropped his cell phone yesterday, broke it and was planning to pick a new one up while he was in Atlanta."
Tammy grinned. "You know, you could probably catch him at the airport."
"At this hour? Our cars are a block away and it always takes forever to get out of the garage this time of day."
Tammy knew she had Kate's attention. "If you go see him off, at least he'll know that you aren't still mad at him."
"There's no way I can get there."
Tammy glanced out the door and saw what she was looking for. She jumped up and waved for Kate to follow. The taxi at the hotel across the street responded to her signal and maneuvered towards them.
Kate started to protest, but she stopped her. "Give me your bag. I'll take it to my place, you call when you're finished, I'll come get you and we'll pick up your car. Give me a quick hug and go, go!"
"Can you get me to the airport in thirty minutes?" Kate asked the driver as she opened the door.
"I'll try lady, but that will tough this time of day."
"There's a twenty dollar tip if you do."
"I'll sure as hell give it a try.
Tammy threw a good luck kiss.
Kate stared out the window, alternating between disbelief with what she was doing and dismay with the traffic.
Scenes with Steve played in her mind as she unconsciously grasped the edge of the seat. Their first meeting, the tentative attraction, the uncertainty of whether or not he would call. Their first date, both of them surprised at how easy it was to talk to each other, their reluctance to call it a night, but her gratitude when he merely kissed her on the cheek with no demands.
The minutes ticked too quickly on the clock. They were close, but they were barely moving in the bumper to bumper line of cars.
"Which terminal, lady?"
Oh God, what was he flying? What had he said? American? US Air? No, wait Delta!
"Delta. Are we going to make it?"
"You're lucky. It's on this end."
Kate realized she was holding her breath and let go with an effort. She had the fare and tip out as they pulled up at the door. They would be boarding within minutes if they hadn't already started.
"Thanks," she called as she rushed around a couple with a stroller and almost collided into a skycap. It cost her nearly a minute to locate the departure information for the gate. The Now Boarding note was posted. Damn, it was at the far end of the corridor! She hurried past the ticket counters and groaned at the security gate line. Steve tended to wait until the last minute to board so she might still be able to catch him. She began to trot the moment she cleared security, no longer caring what she was going to say. She just had to let him know she was there! Had to let him know why she had reacted the way she did! As long as he understood that, they could work through the rest of it later.
She dropped her head in disappointment at the sight of the closed jetway. The single attendant looked up from the stack of papers she held.
"The flight to Atlanta?"
"I'm sorry, it just backed out. Were you supposed to be on it? I wasn't notified of any late passengers."
"No, no, I wasn't..., I mean I was... I wanted to get a message to someone."
"Is it some sort of emergency, ma'am? You look worried."
Kate resisted the urge to lie. "No, not really an emergency. It was..., it was important, but not an emergency."
"Well, perhaps you can leave a message at the destination," the attendant suggested politely and returned to her papers.
"Yes, well, that's a good idea," Kate said, fighting the press of tears.
Why hadn't she found the time to break away? Why had she been so afraid to tell him what she was feeling? Why had she screamed at him to not trying to control her life? Brent had been the controller, the one who lied to her, the one who belittled her, humiliated her. Brent, not Steve. Not Steve, who had left her apartment in hurt silence when she told him if he was going to deliver ultimatums, then he could go to hell. Christ, how could she have been that stupid?
Kate started for the telephone to call Tammy and saw the cocktail lounge. A glass of wine was what she needed. The Atlanta office chief was taking Steve to dinner so even if she caught him, he wouldn't have time to talk to her until late. She would leave a message and tell him she'd sent an email. She hopped onto an open bar stool, thinking of how to phrase her apology, absently ordered her wine and accidentally swung her purse against an older gentleman seated next to her.
"I'm terribly sorry," she said. "I didn't make you spill anything, did I?"
"Oh no, I'm quite all right. Did you miss your flight?"
"I noticed you seemed upset in talking to the agent and then you came in here. I thought perhaps you missed a flight."
Kate took the glass from the bartender and grimaced. "No, not exactly. I needed to talk to someone before he flew out and I missed him by a couple of minutes."
"Ah," he said. "An urgent business matter?"
Kate paused before answering. She didn't usually engage in small talk with strangers, but something about the man seemed familiar.
"Actually, it was personal. My boyfriend. We had a fight last night and I didn't handle it very well."
"And now he's gone off thinking you're still angry with him?"
Her grandfather - that's who it was. They were about the same build, the voice was uncannily similar, and his eyes only a slightly different shade of blue.
"Something like that."
She sipped her wine and thought again about how she tensed up the moment Steve mentioned following him to Atlanta. How she snapped that he had no right to expect her to pack everything up at his say-so. How she stiffened when he tried to reach out and explain.
The old man smiled. "I don't travel nearly as much as I used to, but I remember a couple of those times myself. Emma, my wife, saw so little of me that the only time we had was between trips. I know I wasn't as sympathetic as I should have been with her trying to keep the house going during my absences and every now and then, we just couldn't settle an argument before I'd be off again."
Kate looked at him closely for the first time. The resemblance to Grandpa Wilson was incredible.
"Indeed, but we managed to get through it, mostly due to her tolerance. Matter of fact, it will be forty-three years next month."
"That's hard to believe these days," Kate said. "It just seems so complicated to meet the right person, then balance two careers and all."
"I admit it is different for you young people. You seem to have so many conflicting choices, but this gentleman must be pretty important for you to go to the trouble to try and catch him at the airport."
Kate sighed. "More important than I wanted to admit."
"Well, if you don't mind an old man giving a word of advice, you should tell him so as soon as you can. That's one of the lessons you learn when you get to be my age. Telling people what you think isn't as difficult as you imagine sometimes and letting people know you love them is often easier than we make it."
Kate shook her head. "You're probably right, but he's got a decision to make and it may be already too late. I may have given him the wrong idea about how I felt."
The old man smiled again, the same smile her grandfather had used when he wanted to dispel her worries about whatever momentous adolescent problem she had at the moment.
"Oh, if he's like most men, he'll accept that you said something you didn't mean because you were upset. And if you want to make sure you get his attention, call the hotel and have a bottle of champagne delivered to his room along with your message."
Kate looked at him, startled. He was right!
His smile widened at her expression and he laughed. "Or for that matter, it's hardly a peak travel time. I'm sure there are more flights to Atlanta this evening."
She laughed. "That's an extreme approach, but the champagne is a great idea."
"I suppose grabbing a plane out is a little impetuous." He finished his drink and gathered his belongings. "I need to get to my gate. It's been a pleasure talking with you and I hope everything turns out okay with your young man, if that's what you want, of course. Take care of yourself."
"Thank you," Kate said. "I enjoyed it and have a nice trip wherever you're going."
He smiled in parting. "Actually, I'm flying to join Emma at our middle son's home. They've given us another beautiful granddaughter and Emma's been helping out."
"Congratulations then, and good-bye."
Kate watched him walk away and wondered what it would be like to be married to the same person for more than forty years. She still wasn't over the shock of her parents getting a divorce after twenty-eight years together.
"Did you want a refill?"
Kate turned her attention to the bartender. "Uh, no thanks, I have things to do."
She'd passed the business center on her way in and she suddenly didn't want to wait until she got home, didn't want to risk losing her resolve. The message wouldn't need much detail, nothing too mushy, just enough to let Steve know that she'd been wrong. Enough to let him know she was willing to talk. Tammy and the old man were right. This was not an unusual situation with couples and she and Steve could come up with a solution.
She began to plan a special homecoming as she walked down the corridor. She would go to the gourmet shop for provisions. Caviar maybe, and a couple of the thick marinated filets, those wonderful roasted potatoes to heat in the microwave and two slices of their terrific Black Forest cake. Oh yes, and a nice bottle of Bordeaux or Zinfandel.
Maybe she would fax instead of emailing and champagne was definitely a classy touch. A quick phone call after the fax should take care of that.
One of the airline's advertisements took up the wall next to the business center. The only line which gives you eight flights a day non-stop to Atlanta, it claimed. Atlanta. Would Steve really want to stay there? Could he afford to pass up the opportunity if it was presented to him? It wasn't a place she'd thought about living in, although she'd enjoyed it when she'd visited once. It was only a couple of hours by air and wouldn't be that difficult to get back and forth on the weekends. She hadn't paid enough attention to know if the new job was supposed to be permanent or a temporary rung up his company's ladder. If it was temporary, then it would make no sense for her to uproot.
Kate shook her head in exasperation, entered the business center and was directed to a cubicle. She dug the hotel information from her purse and sat at the computer terminal to write her message. She was halfway through when she paused, unable to find the words she wanted.
She closed her eyes and focused on the image of Steve's face. His face when he appeared at her door the first time, a bouquet of flowers in hand; his face the morning they woke up together after having waited to become intimate; his face when he told he loved her; his face when he left her apartment last night. It was the look from last night that she wanted to change.
Suddenly, another image took shape in her mind and she shook her head once more and tried to dismiss the thought. It would be much too difficult to pull off and Steve would probably think she was completely out of her mind. No, it wasn't crazy; it was what she ought to do. She opened her eyes again, highlighted the passage she'd written, hit the delete key and started over.
Steve groaned inwardly at the delay in checking in. What was the problem?
The desk clerk looked up from whatever she'd been verifying on her terminal and smiled. "Oh yes, Mr. Plimpton, we were able to change rooms for you. You'll be in Suite 705."
Steve frowned. He was still in an off mood from Kate's inexplicably angry outburst and he only had a short time to get changed for dinner. He had enough on his mind already and he didn't need a mistake in his reservations.
"I'm sorry, but I don't know what you mean by changing rooms. There must be a mix-up," he said.
The irritatingly pert young lady continued to smile and handed him an envelope. "No mistake, sir. Your office called, asked us to move you into one of Jacuzzi suites."
Steve pulled the single sheet of paper out and stifled a laugh when he read the note.
I sure made a mess of things last night and I'm sorry. I didn't come close to saying what I should have, and I didn't explain myself well at all. There should be a bottle of champagne in your suite and I'm on the way to Atlanta. I'll be waiting in the Jacuzzi when you get back from dinner. I don't know exactly how we'll work everything out, but I bet we can come up with something. See you in a few hours. Love, Kate.