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The First Step

By Charlie Hudson

Carrie straightened her shoulders, drew in a breath and jingled her keys, ready to break her promise, get back in the car and drive the hell away.

“It’s lunch, lunch in a public place; an hour, hour-and-a half,” her father said with his soft smile. “It would mean a lot to me if you would go.”

“What does she want?”

“Can you accept that perhaps she simply wants to have lunch with her daughter?”

Carrie sniffed and relented at her father’s expression. “Okay, but I promise you she has some angle. She hasn’t set foot in this state for what, four years and all a sudden she flies in for a meeting?”

He’d laughed and cut into the lasagna. “I don’t really disagree, my dear, yet at the risk of redundancy, I doubt it’s anything terribly nefarious.”

Nefarious. How many other fathers would say nefarious?  Carrie smiled in spite of herself, in spite of the heaviness she felt in pushing away from the car, stepping away with a fleeting wobble on low-heeled navy leather pumps. She’d resisted the urge to wear her habitual jeans and sweatshirt; that display of inappropriate attire would have served little purpose. Teal and turquoise striped fluid slacks, a turquoise tank top and a teal knee-length single button long sleeve jacket was her compromise. Too casual for an interview, acceptable for lunch at the Hilton.  The air was still, humidity sliding down after early morning rain gave way to more sun than clouds. The trees were almost fully leafed, azaleas in crescendos of color, although groomed in controlled height; other flowers and shrubs filled curved beds that led to the entry. Clusters of mostly men in suits flowed in and out of the sliding hotel doors and Carrie wondered if any of them had met with her mother, or was it some sort of conference? If it was a conference, her mother would no doubt be having sidebar meetings to strike a deal of two. What was her title now? Vice President of what? Executive Vice President, maybe? Could there be an Assistant Vice President position?

Carrie paused once inside, not familiar with this particular building. It was a familiar layout nonetheless with typical franchise hotel meeting rooms; one designated as a ballroom, others various sizes with maybe folding doors to adjust the dimensions of the room. The lobby hum of people conducting whatever urgent business was at hand was moderated by high ceilings, thick, floral patterned carpeting and wide space between the registration desk and two steps with the expected brass colored rail that led down to a lobby bar off to the right and a restaurant to the left. The bar was sparsely occupied, a situation that would change as the clock approached five.

Carrie could see that the restaurant drew the crowd. There were few empty tables immediately noticeable and when she stepped to the hostess station, she reflected that this was a time she wouldn’t be upset if her mother stood her up with the usual excuse of completely unavoidable crisis, simply must be dealt with now, I’m terribly sorry, you do understand, This was a ritual they had performed for nearly a dozen years. Her high school graduation came immediately to mind. So what that she was valedictorian? No reason that should have been a higher priority that whatever corporate issue required her mother’s personal intervention. As usual, she sent an expensive present as a substitute for her presence – a very useful top-of-the-line laptop computer in a monogrammed bag. Stingy with her time rather than her checkbook.

The hostess smiled a bright greeting and barely glanced at the list on the podium. “Barnett? Yes, your table is ready, if you’ll follow me.”

Barnett. Why had she kept her married name; why not jettison it along with husband and daughter?

Carrie was startled to see her mother seated, but her head was lowered, eyes on her mobile; it would be the latest model of whatever was on the market. Dove grey suit, probably microfiber guaranteed to never wrinkle, jacket unbuttoned, icy blue square neck top, probably silk blend, and a single strand of blue beads – lapis lazuli maybe – rather than pearls along with matching earrings. Hair impeccably cut and the same ash blonde that Carrie wore in a longer style that brushed her shoulders.

“Ah, you’re punctual, as always. A good habit.”  Kathleen Barnett – and don’t even think of calling her Kathy or Katy or Kat – stood, a smile hovering, the always somewhat awkward indecision as to how they would greet each other. “You look nice,” she said when a hug wasn’t forthcoming.

“Thanks, and you do, of course. Your conference is going well? Is that what you’re here to do?”

Carrie sat quickly, grateful for the delaying dance of ordering ice tea and checking the menu despite knowing she would have a club sandwich and her mother would order an entrée salad. It bought them a few minutes before they needed to speak.

“Productive if nothing out of the ordinary. I have a follow-on meeting at two with promising potential though. A new client we’re hoping to bring in.”

“And get in some family time, how efficient.” Carrie smiled innocently.

Her mother’s grey eyes flickered something that could have been amusement. “A good shot and nicely delivered. You do know that’s definitely a characteristic that is far more like me than your father.”

Damn, that was true, but she wasn’t about to admit it.  “He has an article coming out in the next Chaucer Review,” she said instead.

“That’s always a plus in the world of academia and how like him not to have mentioned it. Did you edit?”

Carrie nodded. “I enjoy doing that for him and it helps make up for me not having fallen in love with the written word.” How she did cherish the closeness to her father when they talked, his passion for literature, his gentle acceptance of a world in which his chosen field had limited practical application. His office at home was marvelously, unapologetically stereotypical with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, an area rug so worn that it was hard to distinguish the pattern, an antique oak roll top desk, a single deep green leather chair with ottoman angled in one corner, an upholstered  window seat in the long window that let in great morning light. The single accession to modern demands was the corner armoire that held the computer he used as little as possible.

“Does he still become so absorbed when he’s writing that he forgets to eat?”

Did she hear poignancy?  “He does, but he’s actually put on some weight in spite of that. Nothing paunchy though and he trimmed his beard a little closer. He continues to be considered the most eligible man on the faculty.”

Not that her father seemed to notice the obvious interest of a number of women on or associated with the faculty. Aunt Cindy swore it was because he would never get over Kathleen and Carrie shrugged her skepticism. Except for those moments when she knew it was true; unguarded times when her father would stare at the array of photographs he kept or ridiculous excuses he used to discourage women who tried the direct approach. “I have you my very lovely daughter, this charming if somewhat shabby house, countless books to still indulge in, a wonderful stereo that brings me concertos and Duke Ellington when I wish and an ample source of good bourbon. Why would I want to go in search of anything else?”

Her mother started to say something and was either distracted by the arrival of their meals, or rescued depending upon which perspective – if either – was correct. They retreated into the safety of bites, sips, associated words – a mother and daughter luncheon as was occurring in who knew how many other restaurants.  How many of those were happy, so-glad-we-could-do-this? – or anger-fueled – why-can’t-you-see-what-a-bad-choice-he-is? – or fretful nagging – I-thought-I-would-have-grandchildren-by-now? How many were cautious as they were?

“Something strike you as funny?”  Her mother’s voice was curious, not accusatory.

Carrie met her gaze, eyes that scanned annual reports the way other women read fashion articles.  “I was wondering when you would get to the real point. Of what you have in mind, I mean.”

That amusement again, pronounced this time. A rapid assessment of the tables around them with overlapping conversations, modulated tones, sprinkled laughter, sounds of silverware against plates, noises that would absorb their own exchanges provided neither of them raised the pitch of their voices.

“I’ll take your question as directness rather than suppressed hostility. Congratulations on your class standing by the way, but why the summer graduation?”

Carrie swallowed a bite of her sandwich before answering. “I couldn’t schedule one of my required classes this semester, so I cut back to twelve hours and I’ll have only two courses this summer. It’s convenient though since I can put in more hours at the hospital.”

Her mother lifted her glass in acknowledgment. “I have no doubt that you’re good with patients, and I’m intrigued with your decision to focus on prosthetics in physical therapy. It’s a fascinating field. Was it because of Greg?”

“Not entirely, but it was a big part of the reason.” Carrie hesitated. “What you did for them, that was really terrific. It meant the world to Aunt Cindy.”

Her mother gave a tiny shrug. “Cindy and I haven’t exactly been best friends, but I was glad I could help. They’re good people and it was amazing to watch Greg recover. Or hear about it anyway.”

The waitress cleared their plates, inquired about dessert and when her mother asked for coffee, Carrie agreed. Greg, her favorite cousin, the brother she didn’t have; Aunt Cindy, her father’s sister who filled the gap to be the surrogate mother. Uncle Neil, good people yes, people who didn’t seem the least bit surprised when her parents’ marriage shredded, people who proudly accepted when Greg went directly from high school to the recruiting office. Worries set aside until dreaded word came. Ambush, explosions; quickly rescued, yet no way to save his left leg below the knee. Her mother reached out, made telephone calls and within two days of Greg’s arrival at Walter Reed Army Hospital, she sent airline tickets and booked a fully furnished apartment for as long as Aunt Cindy wanted to be by Greg’s side. Her mother’s personal assistant kept a close eye on Aunt Cindy and Greg’s progress.

Carrie hadn’t been able to break away to join Aunt Cindy, but she and Greg had been in almost daily touch and she’d been intrigued by his description of the staff that fitted his prosthetic leg and the rehabilitation he’d gone through. She’d wept when he and others, supported by some of the Walter Reed staff, had entered and finished the Army Ten Miler, an annual ten-mile race that began at the Pentagon. “We wanted to show the world what we could do,” he’d told her when she called. “Don’t feel sorry for me, I’m okay. A little cyborgy, but okay,” he assured her.

Carrie knew that had been when she largely replaced resentment at her mother with philosophical sadness for what they hadn’t been. Was it really so much easier to cope with corporate responsibilities than a husband and an adolescent daughter?

“Your father said you were planning graduate school in Baton Rouge.”

Carrie stirred cream and artificial sweetner into her coffee, sensing a deeper question.  “I’m pretty certain of a fellowship and LSU is doing some great work.”

“Well yes, that’s true, Louisiana State is a good choice. Are you looking at other options?”

Her mother’s face was neutral and Carrie had a glimpse as to what it might be like to sit across a conference table from her, waiting to hear offers of a deal.

“Not particularly. Why do you ask?” Her stomach clenched involuntarily and she pressed her left foot hard against the carpeted floor to keep it from quivering. The real agenda was about to emerge.

“You haven’t considered somewhere like Johns Hopkins?”

Carrie wrapped her fingers around the coffee cup, no plans to drink it.  “What’s this about? Really, I mean?”

A look from her mother sent the waitress veering to another table with the full coffee carafe. She returned her gaze to Carrie, her voice matter-of-fact. “There’s nothing wrong with LSU, but it’s not Johns Hopkins. Let’s just say that a fellowship is waiting for you.”

“Just like that, no pesky application or anything?”

“You and I are having a decent, mature conversation. Shall we not start to snipe? You are fully qualified and we both know that.”

Carrie felt a flush creep up the side of her neck, hoping it wasn’t too obvious.  “Okay, I’ll agree to that. Should I point out living expenses? Fellowships are not that lucrative.” She sipped the cooling coffee to buy time. Johns Hopkins. That’s was a hell of a bribe, if that’s what this was.

“Living expenses will only be a problem if you want to make an issue of them.”  Her mother’s wide brow, a trait Carrie was glad not to have inherited, was smooth, only the faintest of lines showing.

The waitress scooted in, victorious in her intent to provide them good service, cheerfully insistent on giving them that refill.

Her mother waited patiently, then exhaled a tiny stream of air. “Okay, let me play this out. You intend to get your Masters at LSU, then stay in the area, or return home, or somewhere close by, never more than three hours’ drive from your father? Stay within the designated geographic bubble of the rest of his side of the family?”

Carrie almost reminded her mother of the Texas slice, but a distance of less than 200 miles probably would prove much of a point.

“Maybe not everyone feels the need to embrace the Northeast. It’s not as if I haven’t been there. The traffic is awful and it snows.”

“Carrie, those are hardly sensible reasons to turn down the chance to get your Master’s degree from Johns Hopkins. You and I both know you’re smarter than that. Shall we cut through the nonsense and acknowledge that it is either because you think it’s too far for too long from your father or it’s too close for too long to me.”

The delivery continued to be calm, her mother allowing neither exasperation nor longing to enter her voice. Here’s the deal – logical, well-thought out, succinctly spoken. Carrie stalled, her desire to say, absolutely not, don’t need it tainted by the hard truth of what her mother offered. Johns Hopkins really was on the leading edge of some exciting research.

Carrie tilted her head, wanting to break through the lack of emotion in the woman that wasn’t blinking. “Just out of curiosity, is this suggestion that I can be within an hour of you because I’m easier to deal with now that I’m all grown up? I can be fun to be around? I’ll have my own life going so I won’t have to bother you with messy mother-daughter things that you don’t have time for?”

Kathleen Barnett, Vice President of whatever, astute business woman, solidly ensconced along the Maryland/Virginia Technology Corridor, yielded to an undisguised flash of pain, although she didn’t allow her shoulders to droop nor the look to linger. Her mobile vibrated sharply and to her credit, she completely ignored it.

“Tell me, you’re not in therapy by any chance, are you?”

Carrie was thrown off by the question. “No, should I be?”

Her mother twitched her lips, not quite managing a smile. “Good, I’d hate to think you were paying money to someone to be told you have unresolved abandonment issues.”

Carrie felt the acid response rising, but her mother held her hand up, her voice decidedly different. Not pleading by any means, a tone that wasn’t easy to identify. The waitress hovered briefly, aware that this was not a moment to approach them. “Look, this is neither the time nor the place to get into the kind of conversation, or conversations, that we will have some day. We both, or rather we three, counting your father, know that I failed miserably as a mother and wife. The discussion about how I fell madly in love with a man who was as utterly beguiling as he was wrong for me can wait. My genuine believe that I could leave my Ivy League upbringing, follow him to his beloved South and adapt to life in a very small college town where God help me, people actually referred to me as ‘that Yankee girl Walter married’, is not something we can cover in five minutes. What we can do is finish our lunch in a civil manner and return to topics we are comfortable with. There’s no need to make any decisions today. All I am asking is that you give this some thought. Will you at least do that?”

Carrie opened her mouth and realized no words came out. She moved her head up and down twice, struggling to say something that sounded intelligent. How on earth did she do it? How could her mother slice through years of unasked questions and leave it as if it was something that could be put on hold? She found her voice.

“I can do that, but how about a counter offer? Isn’t that routine for your business? Offers and counter offers?”

Her mother tilted her head. “And that would be?”

“I realize your two o’clock meeting is of great importance – your meetings always have been. Any chance you can fit me in at say four or would five be better? I could hang around town and we could have one of those talks you suggested. Maybe have a bottle of wine and go for a little en vino veritas?” Indeed, in wine comes truth – maybe that would break through her reserve.

Her mother’s mouth twitched again, still not a smile exactly and thank God, not condescending. “I don’t need booze to discuss this, although I have no objection to the basic scenario. I do have a conflict, however, and before you roll your eyes about me not being there for you, I have a date with your father tonight.”

Carrie inhaled sharply and exhaled slowly. “A date? With Daddy?”

Her mother’s face relaxed, her lips curved now. “I realize it is hard for you to believe, but your father and I married because we loved each other. It’s complicated, and the truth is that we both still care deeply – we’ve never stopped caring. We see one another when it works out and tonight happens to be one of those occasions. He’s driving up around four, so yes, I will be busy later.” Her mother paused and looked at her quizzically.  “Are you okay with all of this? It’s rather more in-depth than I’d planned.”

Carrie stared into her mother’s eyes, searching for irony and saw a degree of affection that took her by surprise. “I, well…I yes, I’m okay. I’m glad you and Daddy will be seeing each other. I just wasn’t expecting it, you know.”

“I understand. And are you okay about the Johns Hopkins part? About giving it some thought, I mean?”

Carrie nodded once. “Yes, I will do that. After all, you’re right. It isn’t like I have to make a decision this very second.”

“Good.” Her mother swiveled around, their waitress not readily visible. “Look, I hate to do this, but I need to step out to return that call that I just missed. It won’t take more than a few minutes.” She took her wallet from her purse and laid it on the table. “Get the bill please, and use the American Express. I should be back by the time she’s run it and I’ll walk you to your car. Deal?” Again to her credit, she waited until Carrie nodded again before she grabbed the mobile and slid away with a wink.

The waitress reappeared from the direction of the kitchen and acknowledged Carrie’s signal. She flipped open her mother’s wallet, extracted the card and noticed the photo of her father. It was an older one, one that was taken when she was about eight, when she believed her parents were happy, or at least before the problems became inescapably evident. She flipped the photo to the one behind it, her high school graduation. Right, the event her mother had been too busy for. Carrie barely looked at the bill as she handed over the credit card and turned to the photo of the year before. And the one before. They were there, every school photo from first grade on; back-to-back, the march through different hair styles, missing teeth, braces, glasses, contact lens.

Carrie’s throat tightened briefly and she swallowed hard. She answered automatically, not really paying attention when the waitress returned the bill, saying something innocuous in parting.

“Ah good, mission accomplished, I see.”  Her mother sat on the edge of the chair, scribbled on the credit card slip and smiled at Carrie. “Do you need to stop by the ladies room before you leave?”

“No, I’m fine.” Carrie rose, at eye level with her mother, their physical build so similar; her mother probably not more than fifteen pounds heavier. 

They didn’t speak until they exited the hotel, thin clouds breaking the sun’s glare. Carrie stopped as the wide walk transitioned to the parking lot. She faced her mother and fought to keep her voice light. “I was thinking that, you know, I have about ten days between the end of the semester and when summer session begins. Maybe, if you’re going to be around, maybe I could come up and meet with the Johns Hopkins people. Just to talk to them, find out some more details.”

Her mother’s smile was careful, no reading the real emotion behind it. “I think that’s a wonderful idea. Send me the dates and I’ll do everything I can to be available. I’ll have my assistant take care of the airline reservation, a car and book you a place at the Inner Harbor. You’ll like it there.”

“Okay.” Carrie had the fleeting sensation of the clumsiness of a first date when you really sort of like the guy and weren’t sure if a kiss was appropriate. “Uh, I hope you and Daddy have a good time tonight.” That was easier than she thought.

“We always do,” her mother replied quickly. “Be careful driving home.” She leaned forward then and pecked Carrie’s cheek. “Thank you, dear. I hope to see you next month.”

Carrie stepped into the parking lot, but not abruptly so it wouldn’t seem as though she was withdrawing. “I’ll email you,” she said, still not certain about how to leave.

Her mother resolved the question as she lifted her hand in farewell, turned and walked back to the hotel; poised and graceful – the successful business woman on her way to do a little corporate schmoozing. Carrie ambled to her car, curiosity replacing her earlier anxiety and hesitation. She briefly thought of trying to catch her father before he drove up from campus, but dismissed the idea. The timing wouldn’t work and she needed a chance to really think about what her mother had said, the tidbits she dropped, the dangled promises of more to come. Not the graduate school part. Exciting, yes, but that was secondary. Was it possible that she and her mother might be able to form a relationship at this stage?  Did she want to?

A pair of jets from the nearby Air Force base shrieked overhead and she looked up involuntarily. High-flying, fast-moving, streaking out of sight within seconds. Sort of like her mother, she thought irreverently. Her mother, the jet and her father, the old-fashioned propeller airplane. Or maybe older than that, maybe more like a bi-plane; a symbol of truly faded romanticism. And her? What was she? A cross between the two? She laughed aloud at the imagery and shook her head. It was hard to say and it was much too soon to know where this might lead, to know if they would find a shared path after all. For now though, at this moment, she didn’t need to figure it out. For now, a first step was enough.

The End