“Did you enjoy the play last night, darling? Daddy said you were a splendid tulip.” Kindergarten pageants don’t run to speaking parts.
“You should have come,” Alice says, showing that she is quite capable of repeating the same speech over and over -- maybe not one anybody else had written.
“Mommy has classes on Wednesday.” Claire was repeating herself, too. You did when talking with Alice.
“Other mommies don’t go to school. You should have come.”
“Other mommies have finished school. I haven’t.”
“You should. You should have come.” Finally, though, Alice lies down to sulk herself to sleep and Claire escapes to the living room.
She sits on the couch beside Kirk to watch TV. Mostly, though she thinks about the last conversation. Her daughter is so self-centered, so selfish. Sure, Claire’s choices made her finish college one class at a time at night. She could have had an abortion and finished her senior year. That idea, abhorrent back then, was looking more attractive in retrospect the longer Alice whined for not getting everything her way.
The speeding car on screen goes over a cliff and bursts into flames. The first ad up is for Tampax; Kirk wouldn’t be interested.
“She is so selfish.”
“Our six-year-old is selfish. The wheels on our car are round. News flashes.” He thinks Alice will grow out of it; she is afraid it’s genetic.
Back then, seven years ago by the calendar, three of her lifetimes ago, Kirk had been her best friend. They only had one course together, Sociology that semester. English and accounting majors don’t take many of the same courses. He could probably tell she was upset when she sat down beside him in the lecture hall.
“Want to go for coffee?” He asked as they came out.
“I guess.” But she took a round-about path that nobody else was using then. “I think Ted and I are over.”
“I’m sorry for you.” The careful wording was typical of Kirk. He hadn’t approved of Ted, and was too honest to pretend he had.
“Thing is. We were doing it.” He winced. They’d gone to two dances as freshmen. Kirk had wanted a romance, she hadn’t felt any attraction. Their friendship was a two-year compromise, and sometimes she felt guilty about it. But he was her best friend on campus -- maybe her best friend anywhere.
“Probably all he wanted.” Well, yes. And, she suspected from his tone of voice, that it was something Kirk wanted, too. That wouldn’t be too bad. He wouldn’t grab or insist. And Kirk would take care -- he was a careful kind of guy.
But, the next dance, Earl had made a play for her. Earl was exciting. Soon they were a couple. And being a couple with Earl meant coupling with Earl. He shared an off-campus apartment with two other guys. Parties there broke apart early with each couple going to the guy’s bedroom. Earl lived on the edge, and it was really living.
One night, they were making out in his room when he reached into the drawer. He pulled out an empty Trojans box.
“Your roommates must have spares,” she said.
“They’re busy.” She’d have known that if she’d thought about it. They went back to kissing. His hands were everywhere on her naked body. He stroked her until she was wriggling under his hand. “Let me.”
“I’ll pull out.” When she heard Joan shriek her climax, he resistance melted. He was in her, and over her, and she was climbing the mountain. When she came with a moan, he pulled out.
“Damn!” And he pressed against her belly and throbbed. The stuff covered her up to the undersides of her breasts. That was the most exciting time.
Later, though, when her period was late, she bought a kit. She told him.
“Well, I said that you should go on the pill.”
“Well, you knew that I hadn’t. What are we going to do.”
“You’re going to take care of your problem. I’ll help pay.” That wasn’t the answer she’d dreamed of. It wasn’t even an answer that she could bear. The class that she shared with Kirk that semester was English History, and it was in the morning. Afterwards, she led him to a private corner. It was a popular make-out place, but not on a day this cold.
“Oh, Claire,” he said when she’d told him. She sobbed in his arms. As the flow of tears finally slowed down, she felt his erection against her stomach. But this was Kirk. Earl, even Ted, would have expected her to do something about it. Kirk’ mind, if not his body, was on her problem.
“I don’t know what I can do. I feel like killing myself.” She didn’t feel like killing her baby, which was the only other choice.
“Well, it might not be so dramatic, but you do have another option.” Kirk didn’t take her suicide ranting seriously; he knew her too well. “You know I’ve had a crush on you for years. You could marry me. It would mean the kid would have two parents. There’d still be a financial struggle, but for a much shorter time. Still, I would want two conditions.”
“You’d do that for me?” He’d been her best friend. Right now, he was her only friend in the whole world, but this?
“I’d do that. The conditions. It would be a real marriage, ‘til death us do part. You could leave me if I abused you or cheated on you, but three years from now, you couldn’t say ‘I’m leaving; I don’t love you.’ You don’t love me now. You’d be faithful to me. You were faithful to Ted, weren’t you? And even to Earl in that passion pit?” Kirk was exaggerating. One of the roommates, Tom, had several girls over Claire’s time with Earl, but never two at once. They’d never undressed in front of the other couples, much less swapped.
“That doesn’t sound like a single condition, now I say it,” he admitted ruefully.
Back in the present, Kirk takes her hand. The couple on TV are sharing a hug, but their hair is white. It looks like an ad for an erectile-disfunction product.
“You always take her side,” she says. He is affectionate, even lovable, but he is too soft on Alice.
“I don’t take sides between you. You’re my wife, and I love you. She’s my daughter, and I love her. And, really, you love her, too.” Which she does, really, under all the irritation. Kirk knew her too well, and was too honest with her. And Alice was his daughter, that thought pulled Claire back to the past.
“One condition? You said two.” It didn’t sound like one condition to Claire either. But nothing sounded unreasonable. He was offering to marry her, he had the right to ask that it be a real marriage.
“The second is that the child you’re carrying will be my child. I’ll treat him as my son, but I want everyone else to do that, too. Earl knows, obviously. Tell him that if anyone else finds out you’ll sue for child support. You don’t confide in your closest friends; you don’t tell your family. You don’t pull rank on me when we have a disagreement about discipline that you’re the real mother.
“If this works for you, we’ll be a real family. I’ll be a real husband and a real father. I just want to have a real wife and a real kid.”
“Kirk. You are sweet.” And, if he wanted to seal the deal by going to bed right then, she’d been willing to do so. Hell! He wanted to; she could remember the erection pressing into her stomach. If he asked, she’d do it. His next point, though, had gone in an entirely different direction.
“I don’t think the engagement would look persuasive if we didn’t date first. After a couple of dances, I’ll propose.”
“That wasn’t a proposal?”
“Well, not the one we want to announce. If we want to keep the context secret, we can’t tell people it dropped out of the sky. Look, when is the next dance?”
“Will you go with me?” And they’d gone to the dance. Kirk had improved in the previous two years. He held her like a lover during the slow dances. He walked her home and kissed her outside the dorm. When she opened her mouth, his tongue touched hers. She felt a tingle, but not much of one. He clasped her butt and held her against him. His face was covered with perspiration when he let her go.
“I’ve waited two years for that.” And, for those two years, he’d been her loyal friend. She’d kissed lots of boys, gone much farther with a half dozen, and none of them had really been her friend.
She was anxious by the third dance, though. He hadn’t said anything about marriage in the meantime. Still, dancing with him had become enjoyable -- would have been quite enjoyable if she hadn’t been worried to death. He led her back to the table after the first slow dance. She hadn’t been tired, yet, but staying on the floor would have almost meant a spat. He seated her in an old-fashioned, formal, way. Then he dug his hand into a side pocket of his jacket.