“He said what?” Penny asked incredulously.
“And he didn’t know you were there?” M.T. countered, over her mouthful of cheeseburger.
Kate shrugged, but her nonchalant guise didn’t fool the other women. They knew better by now. Exchanging surreptitious glances with one another, they waited patiently for Kate to break. She was hurt, but her pride wouldn’t admit to it. Not just yet.
The three of them were huddled over the kitchen table at Kate’s house, having yet another of their dinner parties. This time, however, it was Kate who’d brought the heavy conversation; in fact, she was so upset she hardly noted just how well the sisters were getting along, almost as though they were…well, friends. The girls had decided on take-out that evening, evidenced by the white Styrofoam boxes littering the kitchen counter. Kate had volunteered to pick up the food, knowing she would swing by Julie’s Diner on her way back home from school anyway.
That’s when she’d heard Jake. He’d been sitting at the bar when she’d walked into collect her order, but he hadn’t seen her. He’d been too busy, a beer in one hand, a fistful of bar peanuts in the other, making conversation with his friends—conversation that had everything to do with Kate.
“…no, no—,” he insisted, cutting off one of his friends, “my employee Kate is worse. She just talks and talks and talks! To everyone, about everything. It takes her twice as long to ring in customers, to clean out the bathrooms, to stock books…! I’d tell her this, but I can’t get a word in edgewise…”
That had set him and his cronies off, guffawing at the lame joke, guffawing at her expense. Kate, listening to this incredible piece of news, her mouth hanging limply open, nevertheless crept steadily nearer. She couldn’t believe what she’d just overheard. She couldn’t believe Jake had just said that. Against her better judgment, Kate wanted to know what else he had to say. A self-inflicted sickness, she felt compelled to stay, to stick around. She didn’t want to, and yet she couldn’t make herself move away, either.
“Yeah, but she’s hot,” the imbecile on Jake’s right returned.
Jake shrugged. “I guess,” he threw out flippantly, as though it had never occurred to him to notice.
He guessed? Kate pulled herself up to her full height. There was no guessing necessary. She wasn’t a conceited woman, but Kate knew she looked nice—at least, according to societal standards. And, she was always beautifully turned out at work. She took great pride in her appearance.
“It’s hard to find a woman who doesn’t flap her gums in excess,” the baboon on Jake’s left said.
“Problem is, she’s not an easy person to talk to,” Jake stressed. “You know, for someone who supposedly worked in the cut-throat corporate world, she’s, I don’t know, fragile or something; I’m not sure how she would’ve survived it there,” he continued, warming up to the subject now.
Kate’s breath caught on a hiss. So what, now she was not only an annoyingly chatty woman, she was weak too? The nerve!
“Maybe that’s why she left,” the goon on his left tossed out indifferently.
“Yeah, maybe,” Jake said, chewing on the idea. “I mean, she always acts so nervous around me…her hands are always shaking, and her eyes look anywhere but at my face…it makes me anxious!” Jake teased lightly and even to Kate’s sensitive ears, it sounded affectionate.
“Maybe someone’s got a crush on the boss?”
Kate actually felt her eyes bug out of her head at the not-incorrect guess. Perhaps she’d misjudged Jake’s friends. They weren’t complete idiots after all.
But thankfully, Jake had only laughed at the notion. “I doubt it, besides…”
Kate hadn’t been given the chance to hear the rest of whatever it was Jake said just then, her attention diverted by the presence of the restaurant host, coming up to her, to-go bag in hand. Paying the bill, her body slanted awkwardly, concealing her view from Jake, Kate made a hasty retreat. Her face burning, her eyes misting, she’d never felt so low in her life.
And now, looking into the anxious eyes of her best friends, Kate was forced to remember it all over again.
“Yes, he really said that and no, he didn’t know I was there,” she answered them. “The fact is, Jake can barely tolerate my company.”
That wasn’t true. In fact, Jake hadn’t meant any of the things he’d said about Kate. Certainly, she did talk a lot, but he found it charming. And yes, she worked slowly, but she was methodical, precise. He hated that she was nervous around him. He wanted to get to know her better. He wanted to be around her more.
In fact, he couldn’t stop thinking about Kate. It made him feel terrible. He should have been thinking about Ashley, his girlfriend. They’d been dating for a little over six months and he should’ve been enamored with her. But he wasn’t. He just kept thinking about Kate. She was an enigma he couldn’t figure out. Jake had known Ashley almost all his life. She’d graduated two years behind him, and they’d more-or-less grown up together. She was a wonderful person, a great girlfriend, but…then he met Kate.
That’s why he’d been talking about her. Not because he didn’t like, but because he liked her all together too much. He couldn’t admit that out loud though, hell, he could barely admit it to himself. Still, it was like a force beyond his control, to bring her name up in conversation whenever he could, however he could. He just—she had this laugh, a mere tinkle of sound, that he found himself craving when she wasn’t around. He went out of his way to bring it about when she was.
But he wasn’t supposed to like her, so he told himself—and anyone willing to listen—that he didn’t. If he said it enough, he might learn to believe it himself. At the very least, Ashley deserved that much.
Nice, sweet, predictable Ashley who loved him.
“So, what are you going to do with this information?” Penny asked some minutes later, after she and M.T. had tried, and failed, to convince Kate that of course Jake hadn’t meant to imply any real dislike toward her person. Kate wasn’t buying it. “Are you going to tell Jake—that you know?” she went on meaningfully.
Kate pushed herself up from the chair, her hands busy as she grabbed up the empty food containers, bringing them to the trash can. “I can just imagine how well that would go,” she said dejectedly. “I’d probably have to quit if I did that.”
“And you don’t want to quit?” M.T. asked, sounding surprised.
Kate shifted, listlessly throwing the contents away. “I mean, not really. I like that job.” And, though she knew she shouldn’t, she also liked Jake. Regardless of what he’d said, she liked him. Attraction like that didn’t just go away with a hurtful word or gesture. And, though he shouldn’t have been talking about Kate behind her back, she couldn’t exactly deny he had a right to some of his accusations. She was weird around him. She did blabber, especially in his presence, searching desperately for something to talk about, something to fill the silence. She trembled around him. What he said may not have been nice, but it wasn’t technically slanderous either.
“Is this going to be another whole, let’s just pretend it didn’t happen, scenarios? Because, last time I checked, that wasn’t working out well with you and him,” Penny said bluntly.
“And face his rejection face-to-face?” Kate considered. “No way….”
Walking out to their respective vehicles at the evening’s close, Penny sent M.T. a knowing look. “If Kate thought her relationship with Jake was strained after the Halloween disaster, what does she think will happen now?”
M.T. shook her head perceptively. “I know. My heart breaks for her. The thing is, I think she likes that man.”
“And, though she put on a brave face, I think Kate was more hurt than she let on; she relies on others’ acceptance of herself.”
Penny whistled. “You can say that again. Kate doesn’t know how to like herself otherwise.”
Coming up on M.T’s car, both women came to a stop then, staring into the night helplessly. “So what do we do?” Penny asked her sister.
“We just be here for her. We accept her, regardless of the decision that she makes.”
Turning back, looking over her shoulder at the silhouette of Kate’s body through the kitchen window, Penny nodded. Then, her eyes finding M.T’s, she said: “You know, you’re very good at this.”
“At what?” M.T. asked, fishing out car keys from within her purse.
But Penny didn’t answer, instead she just smiled softly and walked away.
A week later, Kate had come to the same conclusion as Penny. Things with Jake had reached an all time low. Work had become awful:
On Tuesday, the first day they’d worked together after the unintentional eavesdropping session, Kate had done her best to play it cool (while simultaneously keeping her mouth shut), but the result of this exercise had been less than stellar. Translation: it reeked of weird.
“Kate,” Jake had said, coming up to her at the customer service desk. “I’ve got a question for you.”
She’d looked up at him inquiringly, her eyebrows finely arched in question.
After waiting a beat, looking disconcerted by her prim silence, her starched expression, he’d hesitated to add: “Well, I was wondering if there’s any way you could come in early next Friday? I-uh, I forgot that it’s the start of Spring Break at Cordwyn, which may leave is a little understaffed…”
Kate’s voice, when she’d finally spoken, had been clipped. “Yes. I can come in early.”
Jake had raised his eyebrows at the chilly tone. Where was Kate’s usual readymade smile, her typical bantering retort, that superfluous something about her own plans over vacation? All he’d seen was an unwilling participant in a suddenly awkward conversation. “If you had other plans though, don’t worry about it. It’s not a big deal, I just thought I’d ask…”
“What time would you like me here?” Kate had asked instead, and despite her best intentions, the words had come out a little frosty, a little unfriendly.
Jake had cleared his throat uncomfortably. “Uh, how about ten o’clock?”
Kate had nodded sharply. “Fine.”
Wednesday hadn’t been much better, and then they’d only seen each other in passing, at shift change.
“Ready for another fun day of work?” he’d teased, meeting up with Kate outside the employee room.
“Yup.” That’s all she’d said. Yup.
For a long, clumsy moment, Jake had just stared at her, waiting for more, but Kate hadn’t been forthcoming. She was done being labeled the chatter box of the group. If Jake wanted quiet then she’d give it to him.
“Well, all right, enjoy your evening…?”
“You too.” And with that she’d spun on her heel and walked away. If she’d turned back around, if she’d glanced back over her shoulder, she may have been surprised at the look of paused confusion on his face, of self-conscious disquiet at her brisk attitude, her lack of interest. She may have been curious to see how much her words, or lack thereof, had affected him. But she didn’t turn around, she just kept walking.
Not surprisingly then, Friday and Saturday proved much the same, only on those days Kate hadn’t stuck around long enough to endure any more conversations with Jake, running from one station to the next, sorting, reorganizing, filing, dusting…all with a sense of urgency and proficiency to shame even the speediest of employees. She’d exhausted the majority of her eight hour shifts winded and sore… her eyes peeled keeping out of Jake’s path. If this created some tension, some undue attention, that was nothing compared to what happened on Sunday…
Kate had been coming back from restocking the paper towels in the girl’s bathroom when she’d seen the mess; one of the shelves in the New Age aisle had come loose, all the books having spilt untidily across the floor in consequence. Without bothering to seek assistance, or stopping to knock on Jake’s door and inform him of the issue, knowing he was busy filling out invoices or doing inventory or something of that nature, Kate had quietly taken herself to the storage closet and grabbed up the tool box kept there, having decided to fix the broken shelf all by herself.
She’d been in the process of doing just that, the electric drill buzzing in her hand as she screwed another bit into place, when Jake came up behind her. Apparently, another employee had seen what Kate was up to and felt obligated to then report the matter to Boss Man straight away. No one, it seemed, thought she could handle even the simplest of tasks.
“Here Kate,” Jake had said loudly in greeting, gesturing toward the tool, “I can do that for you.”
With a hard snap of her finger, Kate had shut the instrument off. She’d had enough. “Why, you think I can’t figure out how to screw together two pieces of wood?” she asked roughly, rounding on him.
“Whoa,” Jake had warned softly, his hands raised in defense, “I didn’t say that.”
“Well good,” Kate had returned sharply. “Contrary to popular belief, I am not a weak woman. I can do this by myself. I don’t need your help. That’s why I didn’t ask for it. Unless, that is, you don’t think I’m up for the job?” She’d turned rebellious eyes on him then, her foot tapping impatiently against the carpet as she’d awaited his response.
“Kate, what’s going on?” He’d asked instead, taking the drill carefully out of her hands.
“Nothing,” she’d mumbled.
“Hey, I’m sorry if I offended you. I didn’t mean to imply that you can’t do this—I know you can,” he’d assured her thickly. “I was just trying to help, but, ah, have at it, if you want.”
“Thank you. I’ve got it under control.” The words had practically eked prissiness.
“Sure,” Jake had said easily, “first though, do you want to tell me what that little outburst was all about?” Steel had resided underneath the offhand comment.
Smoothing down the sleeve of her shirt, pulling out the wrinkles, the tactic a deliberate stall, Kate had kept her eyes lowered. “No, not really,” she’d admitted quietly, and then: “I just, I don’t like when people treat me like I’m—like I’m made of glass or something, too delicate to be of real use.”
“I’m sorry if I did that,” Jake had said, his very look puzzled, a caricature of bewildered confusion— like a scolded child who wasn’t sure what he’d done wrong. “There’s nothing else bothering you?”
“Should there be?” Kate had challenged.
“I don’t know, that’s why I’m asking,” Jake had said slowly. “You’ve been, I don’t know, you’ve seemed a little short lately. And what you just said now has me worried. Is it us—are you unhappy here? You can talk to me Kate.”
But just don’t prattle on and on.
“Everything’s fine,” Kate had assured him, reaching for the drill once more. “But I’m not a robot; I have feelings, you know. My moods ebb and flow accordingly.” She’d felt her shoulder hitch. “And sometimes they get the best of me, that’s all.”
“Yes, I got that just now.”
Now, heading home from school, two days later, Kate wondered what was to be done about that situation. By the time she’d left work on Sunday, Jake seemed to be avoiding her just as vigorously as she was him. It couldn’t go on much longer. She didn’t want to quit, but she was starting to lose hope of salvaging her working relationship there. She and Jake had been through so much—problem was, he didn’t know it!
She was still chewing on this problem as she pulled up into her driveway. Getting out of her car, throwing her backpack carelessly over one shoulder, she gradually made her way up the steps. She’d call M.T., talk it over with her. She always knew what to say in situations like this.
Kate had just reached her porch steps when she noticed it, the burnished orange coloring of a brand new basketball, sitting just a little to the left of her door. A pretty pink bow had been stuck to the top of the purchase box. And, tapped just beside it, was a small card.
Before she even opened the note, Kate knew who the present was from. Only one person knew the meaning behind such a gift. No one else would have thought of it. Bending her attention, she read the three lines of text scribbled across the white cardstock paper.
Thought it was about time you learned how to play.
P.S. My gym has an indoor court. Take me up on a game?
For the first time in over two weeks, she felt the beginnings of hope blossom once again in her heart. For the first time in over a week, Kate felt the beginnings of a full-fledged smile settle across her face. Maybe Jackson wasn’t quite so broken after all. Maybe Kate wasn’t quite so pathetic.
In an instant, Jake became but a hazy memory. He was a problem for another day. Right now, Kate was too busy being happy, excited, nervous…what would she wear, should she call him now to thank him, or later? What would Penny say? They’d probably have to discuss the entire scene, analysis the note, word-for-word, in fine detail… Right now, Kate was too busy daydreaming about a man who appreciated her, flaws and all…