Kate closed her eyes as the memories washed across her consciousness. The utility closet Penny lovingly referred to as her shop, was shrouded in shadows, with only the lamp sitting atop her filing cabinet casting light upon the room. Seated around psychic’s worktable, leaning heavily against the ladder-backing of the proffered chair, Kate tried to breathe normally. The smell of freshly brewed coffee made her nose twitch. It was almost midnight but Penny had assured Kate that coffee wasn’t just for early morning…and hell, it was almost early morning anyway. Really early morning.
“Phil and I met our junior year in college,” Kate whispered, the words harsh, uncomfortable as they echoed across the room. She didn’t want to go back to that place—she didn’t want to revisit it, to dredge up any part of her former life. The wounds were still too fresh, the guilt too new. But Penny was probably right, and if she didn’t talk about it, if she didn’t exercise the ghosts, Kate would never truly let it go.
“His father is a lawyer,” Kate said, recognizing that a little background info would go a long way here. “And anyway, his firm had recently signed a retainer agreement with my father, who is a venture capitalist. Negotiations, investments, money, they hit it off right away—two man cut from the same cloth: out for blood and victory, and just for the sport of it, too.” Kate’s voice was rough, critical.
“I was living at college during this time, so I was only vaguely aware of their newfound partnership. It wasn’t until the New Year that it had any direct effect on my life. My mother called to inform me…” Kate’s voice droned on over her consciousness as she remembered that fateful conversation.
“Kate darling, our family has been invited to dinner with the Sheller’s…” Calida McDonald’s voice had held a note of expectation upon delivering this news, imparted almost immediately after her daughter answered the phone.
For a moment, Kate racked her brain, trying to place the name—wait, that’s right! The Sheller’s: Henry and Margaret. AKA: Father’s attorney and his wife.
“Is father being sued?” Kate asked quickly, fearfully. Why else would she be told about it…?
“Of course not,” Calida spoke impatiently. “Don’t be so suspicious darling. It’s just a dinner party between friends. They’ve asked us over for Saturday evening. I’ll expect you to attend, as well….” Kate was soon to discover that the couples had, in fact, grown quite close in recent weeks, her father and Henry playing a weekly golf game at the country club, her mother left entertaining Margaret in their absence—a dowdy woman who Calida found sadly lacking in fashion (but then, according to Calida, Margaret was also a woman of rather unfortunate curves anyhow…almost as unfortunate as her conversation.)
Kate chocked out an initial denial. “Saturday? I’m not sure I can—”
“Nonsense, of course you’ll come,” Calida went on, cutting Kate off ruthlessly. No one said no to Calida McDonald. It was practically a law somewhere. Kate should have known better. “It would be rude not to accept. The Sheller’s are fast becoming firm friends, and so naturally they want to meet you. Besides, you father and I already agreed to it on your behalf.”
Kate let out a soundless sigh. This was why she’d insisted upon moving into the dormitory on campus this year. It was always the same: Kate would be dressed up and made over, resembling the likes of a life-size doll. She’d be told when to eat, how to seat, when to speak…she was nothing more than a puppet pulled by a string. Her mother was a magnificent puppeteer.
“Don’t tell me you have classes during the weekends too?” Calida challenged.
“No,” Kate agreed, knowing it was pointless to explain further. To tell Calida the weekends saw Kate still studying for classes, finishing the last of her homework assignments, stressing out about her grades…well, that would have been an affront to her mother’s nerves: why couldn’t Kate get that done during regular workday hours? Had she become lazy? She wasn’t likely to get ahead with work ethic like that. To be a McDonald, failure wasn’t an option, mediocrity was an insult, leaving perfection as the only option.
Besides, the Sheller’s son would be present for the evening’s little soiree—and he was prelaw! If he could find the time in his undoubtedly hectic schedule, was it really asking so much for Kate to do the same? And anyway, Calida wheedled: Kate would have someone her own age to talk to. Wouldn’t that be nice?
There was really no response to this nonsense other than acceptance. Kate knew that. Calida would not abide by untoward embarrassment, certainly not the kind inflicted by her own flesh-and-blood. These people represented her father. They were business associates after all.
“What time would you like me there?” Kate submitted wearily.
“You can ride over with your father and me. Be to our house at five o’clock,” Calida instructed, gleeful now. “Oh, and Kate?” she warned in parting, “it will be a formal affair. Do dress appropriately dear. I was thinking maybe that black cocktail dress I bought you earlier this autumn? The one with the lace edging?”
Kate rolled her eyes. “Sure Mom.”
“And for goodness sake Kate don’t wear your grandmother’s pearls with it,” Calida added. Kate frowned. She loved that necklace. It had sentimental value. Her mother’s voice rose over these thoughts: “You looked cheap the last time you wore them together.”
Saturday evening descended naturally enough, Kate arriving at her parent’s house promptly on time, wearing the black dress. Her hair, she’d tied into a tight chignon, and low-slung satin pumps cradled her feet. Her irritation at the forced invitation was nicely disguised under the blank face of polite society; her mother met her at the door for a quick once-over, her eyes hawks, vultures…looking for faux pas, looking for the damned pearl necklace. She needn’t have bothered though; Kate had left it obediently at home. Satisfied at last, Calida gave Kate’s appearance her personal stamp of approval, and soon, swathed in couture coats, the family headed out the door.
Arriving at the Sheller’s house, Kate’s first impression had been one of awe: their familial estate was four-story, honey-yellow brick, and curtained on each side with tall shrubbery. An inlaid stone walkway circled to the front door, which, in turn, was flanked on either side by massive stained-glass windows. And that was just in one quick glance! If anything, the Sheller’s were even higher up on the social ranking scale than Kate’s own parents.
That must’ve rankled for poor Calida.
“Phil was the first person I saw upon entering the house.” Kate recited to a captive Penny. “He was standing a little ways back from the door, which had been answered by their houseman—Thomas.” Her eyes glossy in memory, Kate could put herself back in that moment as easily as if it were happening for the first time again, history literally repeating itself.
Phil had looked splendid in his three-piece suit, the dove-gray of the fine material striking an attractive contrast to his olive complexion. His wavy brown hair, cut nicely short, was styled off his face, allowing prominent exposure to his high cheekbones. He had a crooked grin. Kate had always loved that most about him. It was the only obvious imperfection he owned.
Advancing toward Kate and her parents, his right arm extended in greeting, Phil introduced himself, inquired about any pre-dinner drinks, and excused his parents for their tardiness. His father had an urgent call and his mother was going over last minute details of the night’s menu.
“I’m sure you understand, Mrs. McDonald, how stressful these parties can be on the hostess. The planning must be just right, the execution perfectly timed to achieve a satisfactory experience—or so I’m told,” he said, ribbing Kate’s father at the teasing remark.
Mr. McDonald laughed good-naturedly: “Oh, she knows all right!”
Calida smiled, but it was forced, frozen. She hadn’t appreciated the ‘little woman’ joke. Kate hadn’t found it very kind, either. But then again, anyone who annoyed her mother…well, that was just fine by Kate.
The first and second course of the meal went by uneventfully, the men talking shop, the women gossiping idly, generous compliments supplied on the food and wine. It was when the dessert was laid down before everyone’s plate, however, that Kate noticed a distinct change in the atmosphere. The father’s had grown ominously quiet, Calida and Margaret repeatedly locking eyes, communicating silently across the table to one another. Kate watched them watching her.
“Kathryn, your mother tells me that you’re quite the tennis player—the number one seed at college currently?” Margaret voice, consciously loud now, deliberately carrying, roused the table’s attention easily.
A forkful of some chocolate dipped mouse poised halfway to her mouth, Kate paused. “Yes. Though I should admit…”
“How marvelous,” Margaret said, speaking over her. She’d heard all she needed to hear. “Phil is also quite taken with the sport, aren’t you?” she said, a pointed look sent her son’s way.
“I am,” Phil agreed drily, with only the slightest of wobbles in his voice to convey amusement.
Kate had a sinking suspicion she knew where this was going….
“I know he’d love to get in a game or two before heading back to college,” she continued unashamedly, her voice conversational as she let her eyes span over the guests sitting across the mahogany dining set, gaining nodded approvals along the way. “He’s home for another week, then it’s off to the East coast for Spring Semester,” she said, her gaze shifting again, settling on Kate once more.
Kate wasn’t sure how to respond. It was only too evident that Margaret had said all of this for her benefit, but she unwilling to meekly play along. Being Calida’s yes-girl was more than enough. “Oh. Well, plenty of time then,” she invented noncommittally.
Margaret sighed theatrically, contriving to sound fatalistic as she addressed the room at large: “Only, of course, I’m lousy at the game myself and Henry’s work keeps him awfully busy lately. I’d be such a shame for Phil to miss out on the practice…” she hinted heavily, leaving the sentence to dangle there suggestively.
Before Kate took the opportunity to officially shut Margaret down—explaining that she had no interest in being set-up with a mama’s boy, who hadn’t even bothered to assert his own opinion or resistance to such ridiculous, obvious matchmaking—Calida’s voice broke against the wallpapered decor of the formal room: “I’m sure Kate would be delighted to arrange a court date with Phil.” The look she sent Kate was clear: Do. Not. Disobey. Me. “The country club has a wonderful, state-of-the-art indoor facility,” she went on to say.
“Oh, Kate that would be marvelous! Are you sure you can spare the time?” Margaret asked and then, before Kate could possibly be given the chance to actually speak: “Say tomorrow, one o’clock in the afternoon?”
There was a conspiracy afoot; Calida and Margaret were a little too adamant, a little too pushy…it was all a little too staged, too perfectly rehearsed.
“Sure,” Kate said tightly, dejected conformity dripping off the chopped syllable.
Calida clapped her hands together in finality. “Perfect! We’ll call and get everything reserved today.”
Neither Kate nor Phil had spoken a single word. Kate helpless in the face of her mother’s instance, Phil too busy looking bored to have apparently even noticed. Their parents had just arranged a play date for the two of them, as though they were still small children. Worse, they’d both quietly allowed it to happen. If Kate thought Phil was a dandy boy, she dared not think too hard about what her acquiescence made her?
“Our coupling could hardly be called happenstance,” Kate told Penny, her shoulders rising and falling listlessly. She felt exhausted suddenly, and not because of the hour of night.
Penny took a sip of from her coffee. From the bluish tint cornering the edges of her eyes, the caffeine would be required for the duration of this story. “He was from your social circle,” she stated simply.
“Yes, exactly. That was important to both of our mothers—that we associate with the right crowd,” Kate agreed softly. “I don’t mean to make them sound snobbish but…”
Penny shrugged: “Parents always mean well, regardless of how it’s perceived.”
Kate nodded. “Yeah, and to give them credit, Phil and I did mesh well….”
Because despite her reservations, Kate had enjoyed their tennis match the next afternoon; Phil had a nice serve, a graceful topspin, though his backhand didn’t even compare to her own…. They’d played for a solid two hours that afternoon, and even with Phil ultimately winning in straight sets, Kate had rarely felt the time slip by. (Of course, she’d made sure to let him win. Her mother would have been horrified at such a mean competitive streak if Kate had allowed herself to beat him; men should always been led to believe they are the stronger sex. Calida’s conservative views had often confused Kate.) He’d been a gracious winner, even offering to buy her lunch afterward….
“We went out two more times that week,” Kate told Penny.
She probably wouldn’t have if, when she’d returned home from that first outing, it hadn’t been her father who’d met Kate at the door, her father who’d anxiously wanted to know if she’d had a good time, if she had plans to meet up with Phil again. Calida was one thing, but Russell McDonald…. Her whole life, he’d been only ever vaguely involved in Kate’s life, absently agreeing with her mother on discipline and child-rearing, frequently absent…and yet, on the rare occasions when he chose to be present, when he remembered he had one, Russell McDonald doted unashamedly on his only child. His excited questions, the quiet hope in his eyes had done Kate in. She couldn’t disappoint him.
“Where did you go?” Penny prompted gently.
Shaking herself free of this melancholy thought, Kate brought herself back to point: “A musical one night, tickets to an art exhibit the next.”
Shifting, one leg crossed over the other, Penny tried to make herself more comfortable. “You enjoyed yourself?” It wasn’t so much a question as a statement of fact. Such entertainment would have been right up Kate’s alley.
Kate nodded. “Phil has this dry sense of humor. It’s completely deadpan and not a lot of people get it but…but he always made me laugh. There was this painting at the art show we went to,” Kate remembered. “It was a three-dimensional piece, abstract in design, sloshed everywhere in red and gold with sticks of driftwood glued on it, and here and there, an odd penny….” Kate shook her head. “Anyway, as we were coming up to view it, Phil stopped suddenly, as though frozen, his body seizing dramatically at the sight. Then he turned to look at me and said: ‘My God, suddenly it all makes sense!’” Kate smiled even at the memory. “He bought the painting that evening and gave it to me as a present, a token to remember him by, he’d said.”
“He sounds likes…he sounds memorable all on his own,” Penny said, her voice gentle, prodding Kate along. “So what happened after that week, when he went back to college?”
Kate shifted. “We kept in touch, and when we went too long without talking, our mother’s took over in the interim. I visited him during Spring Break; he attended my sororities annual May Wall Ball as my personal guest.” He’d shown up in a fitted tuxedo, perfectly turned out, and Kate had never felt so proud as when all her friends sidled up to him, jealous when they found out he was spoken for…jealous because their dates were the same old campus frat boys. Phil had wowed them with his intellect, his ambition. And everyone had wanted to be Kate. It was heady, intoxicating. Basking in the glow of having what everyone else wanted, she deluded herself in believing that it was what she wanted, as well. The picture-perfect life. The height of societal success. She hadn’t stopped to analyze further than that.
“Even when we weren’t together, we managed to stay in each other’s lives. He’d spend Sunday afternoons on the phone, quizzing me on my statistics homework,” Kate heard herself say, “and I sent him a picture of me standing in front of that hideous painting he’d bought—this time I wanted him to remember me.” Kate lifted one shoulder. “And by then, it was summer and he was coming back home.”
The first thing he’d done when his plane landed was seek Kate out. When she’d opened the door to see him standing there, his travel bags lying on the ground at his feet, she’d felt—she’d felt so special. They spent every day together that summer; they made love together that summer. It had been Kate’s first real taste of intimacy, and Phil had been so gentle and kind, so selfless. Kate would always love him for that generosity of spirit. For the first time in her life, she hadn’t felt alone. She’d wanted so badly for things to work. Between Calida and Margaret, resistance would have been futile anyway, so she imagined herself in love with him. It was easy at first. After all, it was the only experience she’d ever had of it, the only time she’d been allowed to ‘feel’ it.
“I was so desperate to be loved that I was ready to fool even myself into believing it was real,” Kate said, hating herself for how pathetic that sounded. She was so much damaged goods. “But deep down, I knew.”
Penny patted Kate on the knee. “That’s a hard lesson to learn.”
“It took six years to figure it out,” Kate said.
By the end of that summer Kate and Phil were an established item. She’d sent him off to his senior year of college that fall with tears rolling down her cheeks, and only a montage of desperation, dependency, and despondency to keep her company. She couldn’t focus at school, she hardly ate. Her friends had grown banal in her eyes, pedestrian, tiring… She missed Phil. If only he were here…!
“I let Phil become my whole world. I’m not even sure how it happened. I was so independent before I met him. I enjoyed being single, hanging out with my friends and then, suddenly, I couldn’t make a single decision without first discussing it with him.
“It was like, I lost my ability to be me when I was around him. Phil wasn’t—he isn’t a bad man. He never pushed his opinions on me. I just, instead, I did that. I made myself in his mold.”
Calida McDonald had finally accepted her daughter. Her daughter had done well for herself, the family name shone because of it. She was moving in the right circles. For the first time, she found no reason to nit-pick about Kate’s affairs. If Phil approved than Calida could find no fault either. Kate loved him all the more, if for no other reason than that.
“What a joke,” Kate spat, her hands gripping the edges of the table, “I was accepted as long as I wasn’t really being me. Even I was guilty of it, of lying to myself.”
“Is that why you left?” Penny asked, “because you didn’t belong?”
“Yes. No…” Kate shook her head, trying to understand it herself. “In a way, I suppose. But, it wasn’t until I moved here that I realized how far gone I’d been. It wasn’t until I was forced to make a choice on my own, that I realized I’d forgotten how to do that, that I’d lost faith in my ability to have an answer on my own.” The confession was filled with self-loathing.
“Hey, we can’t grow as people if we don’t make mistakes,” Penny reminded her. “And, whether you were ready to admit it or not then, you knew something was off—you wouldn’t have moved here, you wouldn’t have figured out just how lost you’d been, if not.”
Kate crinkled her nose; tears weren’t far from the surface. “When Phil asked me to marry him that’s when things first started to change.”
Some part of Kate had known in that very instant that she wouldn’t marry him. When she’d seen him get up from the table of the restaurant they were dining at, nodding conspiratorially at the proprietor, Kate had known what was coming next.
No! No, no, no, no, no!
But he hadn’t heard her silent pleading in the moments that passed, as he bent his left leg to the floor, gathering the attention of the rest of the patrons at the establishment. He hadn’t felt her stomach drop despairingly in that unguarded beat of time, before well-drummed decorum had taken over, convincing her that what she’d experienced was nerves of excitement, not dread. This was the man of her dreams! How many times had people told her that? Of course it was excitement! Silly Kate. That’s all it was.
(Except, except it all felt too real suddenly, the truth exposed in that first reaction, and covered-up in the next. And, despite years of training, Kate found she could no longer completely hush that small voice in the back of her head, the one which defied societal imposition, the one which openly rebelled against all things Calida McDonald…. Of course, years of training weren’t easily undone either. Calling it a fit of fancy, Kate nonetheless kept trying, vigorously suppressing its growing influence, tuning out is noisy insistence.)
Phil hadn’t known any of this when his eyes met hers across the linen tablecloth a red-velvet ring box held delicately in the palm of his left hand.
“But you still said yes,” Penny reminded Kate.
“Yeah, I did,” Kate said, pushing her chair back. Standing up, she moved over to the window at the back of Penny’s shop. With the flick of her finger, she pulled two blinds apart, her non-seeing eyes looking out at the empty roadway. “I was in so deep…I had gotten so good at pretending to be someone I wasn’t, I didn’t know how to be anyone else. So I said yes, but I didn’t mean it.”
“When did you—what made you…you know, leave?” Penny pushed expectantly.
“I wasn’t the right woman for him,” Kate said simply, pausing here to take a deep breath, the maneuver a deliberate stall. “I didn’t want to see what was right under my nose at first but then…this thing happens! and suddenly there are no more lies left to protect me, nothing to disguise the truth of what’s happening: the late nights at work, the desperate lovemaking, the empty promises…” Kate smiled emptily. “It’s the same old story, I suppose: romance gone awry, needless heartache and betrayal.”
Penny recoiled sharply at the involuntary words, her elbow crashing against the side of her porcelain cup, and almost overturning its contents, in the haste of her movements. “Kate, are you telling me—did Phil? Did he cheat on you?”