They were like two ships passing in the night … but could they be more?
Bridie was called to the job. Her boss, Mason, didn't believe in callings and he told her so.
"There are jobs and we do them," he liked to say, every once in a while at the conclusion of one of their support meetings.
He was not inspiring.
And…Bridie knew he was wrong. Short-sighted. And she picked her battles. So convincing Mr. Mason of that higher voice that pulled at a person's intellect and will, giving unique and specific direction, felt like punching a leak in her row-boat-load of challenges and why would she do that?
If Mason chose to view his life as a seed blown about by the wind, left clinging to some weird…marginal place like a rain-gutter, taking precarious root without a bigger plan to sink its hairy tendrils into…then let him…cling to chance.
Here's how it went down, philosophically speaking: He was hired. She was called.
He applied, she surrendered.
He was, of course, a realist. She was, of course, an idealist.
He could argue it was only words that separated them, but words were the tail end of truth, not its creation…or its nose. Words…defined. Words…mattered.
So they differed. On many things, but on that for sure.
Another thing. It defied chance that they were on a collision course so frequently in one week. How many times had she rounded a corner on her way to the copy room, lunchroom, restroom, and nearly collided with him?
"Reading while you're walking again, Becker?" he would say as he touched her awkwardly, like pat-pat on her arm, or worse, she touched him, like pat on his shoulder. One pat only and then because nearly colliding with him always made her spastic.
Now she sat in the chair before his desk defending a recent decision in regards to a program she was running on connections. Or human relations. Or connecting humans. She thought there was no substitute for the face-to-face approach and he loved emails, texts. He perceived them to be more efficient when dealing with a list of over two hundred souls. She was working her way through the list all right. Calling each one. Or visiting them in person. What better way to ensure their support for the building project? What she wouldn't tell him—millennials didn't answer their phones. And he'd warned her about that. So for half of her list, she'd surrendered to texting. But the other half, the over fifty-year-olds, they did answer. And that was her point.
So technically, they were both right.
"You're wasting time," he said.
"I don't agree," she said.
"Of course, you don't," he replied, tossing his pencil in the aisle between a stack of manila folders and a pile of books.
"If you perceive I have a problem being a team player I have to ask again, where is my evaluation?" she said moving to the edge of her seat. She knew he hated to give evaluations. Much preferred a steady string of short, abbreviated messages that let his team know where they were remiss.
"You think an evaluation is going to make you supportive of one thing I say, Becker?" He looked at her over the little paper city on his desk. Before she could answer, he turned away from her and leaned back in the best office chair any of them had. The board purchased it for him to show their appreciation…four years ago. He also had a new bookcase.
They were both single parents. He'd been married, but she'd left.
Bridie had never married.
He had a daughter. She had a daughter. His was five. Hers was…five.
And since the work picnic two weeks ago her daughter was begging for a playdate…with his daughter. He told her around the coffee maker that his daughter had really liked her daughter.
"Seemed surprised," she'd said.
He was surprised. He didn't deny it. So that was the end of it.
But not at home.
At home…"Mommy when can Sandy come over?"
Sandy was attached to Mason. Her daughter Sara was too young to find that a problem, of course.
So now Bridie looked at her shoes. Sensible…shoes. Oxfords. So cute and…substantial. She wasn't changing anything…for him…or anyone. She was going to wear shoes like this…and that's what she'd taken out of this…life-challenge. Freedom.
"So…," she tried to get Mason talking now as he sat in his office. She hated when he looked away and made her wait for the next sentence, the next disappointing thought.
"So Sandy wants to know when Sara can come over to play," he said.
Now that is not what she was expecting. "I…don't know," she said.
"Don't want to make it complicated," he said.
"That's…a strange thing to say," she said. "You mean you don't want to complicate it, or you don't want me to complicate it?"
She had to wait again while he tapped his steepled fingers and stared at the wall. "I just figure, they hit it off…might be good…you know?" he said, not really answering her complicated question.
Now he did look at her. No smile, and the eyes of the burning man, the man who had lost…his sense of humor. But when he did laugh…she had to admit…it brought tears to her eyes. Now why was that?
She wasn't about to figure it out.
Chapter 2: Playdate
It was a nice house. That made her a little sad. Just a little. She already knew Mason had bought it when Jane was around, so 'they' had picked it, technically. Hence the sad.
It was a hopeful house—the kind with room to grow—the kind that assumed there was a future. Oh, young people did that—assumed. She had. He had. They all had.
Sara ran ahead, up the brick walkway to the front door. Bridie trailed behind carrying two plastic containers, one holding cupcakes, the other sandwiches. She didn't know why she'd brought food, just that she had to, needed to make sure she kept working for him, even when she wasn't asked.
He had the door opened right off and he grabbed a dog, a cocker-Spaniel named General. She knew that. So here it was. Cute and yappy.
"Come on in," Mason said, carrying the dog deeper into the house and she followed the girls who chattered and ran off, leaving her and her plastic containers, and her big purse in the beautiful sun-lit halls of this hallowed ground where Mason wept and prayed and carried-on.
Of course, she assumed all of that.
He was wearing jeans. He never did that at work. None of them did.
"You're wearing jeans," he said flipping a dishtowel over his shoulder. He didn't smile, but he was friendly. "What's this?" he asked relieving her of the containers.
She was nearly embarrassed. Yes, he'd asked her to stay when they made this plan. He wanted to take the girls on a nature trail and one sarcastic comment led to another and he'd invited her, almost dared her to go along. But now she thought the food might look like she was making too much of it.
"Just…," she said.
"Oh," he said looking at the tubs and walking off with them. "Back here, Becker," he said over his shoulder.
She put her purse on a chair and followed him.
The kitchen was bright and sunny, yellow and white and shiny appliances. A school bag on a chair and drawings on the fridge. Drawings of Mason holding Sandra's hand. And drawings of two, father and daughter. One drawing of three, girl and her dad holding hands but back, by the trees, a woman…smaller. Mommy? Sheesh.
She didn't spend time nosing there. She was glad Sara was willing to accept simple answers about her own father. For now. But Mason…how did he deal with it?
There was a bowl of apples on the counter. "You're doing a good job," she said before she thought.
When he looked at her, she pointed to the apples.
"Help yourself," he said leaning against the counter and folding his arms.
One thing about Mason, he had nice arms. He was handsome, she never denied that. And she never joined in conversations about it. Lunchroom talk about how he wouldn't last long on the single's market, but like her…like her, he hadn't dated since…everything.
She moved away from the apples to the big farmhouse table near the French doors. He watched her and she held onto one of the chairs. The table didn't look used. No crumbs. Placemats. Very clean.
"That's the last thing she ordered," he said. "Fits the room pretty well."
Her throat was dry. "Yeah. She…had good taste," she said.
"Yeah," he said. Big sigh. He was rubbing a hand over his eyes like he had a headache. He did this a lot. His hair was longer than usual. It was thick. Shiny. Why were men lucky like that?
"Becker?" he said.
"What?" she said.
"You're off…thinking," he said.
She smiled. "Thanks for the credit. I am capable of thinking."
He nearly smiled. "I know that."
"Debateable," she said.
"Dateable?" he said. Big grin.
She nearly fell over. Mason was making a joke. And that grin. She was glad to be hanging onto the chair. Maybe it hit her hard because she saw…this wasn't a sad place. Not really. By association, but not directly. It was clean and bright and life was happening. Life.
"F…funny," she said flatly.
"Are you?" he said.
"Funny?" she repeated.
They had a bit of a stare off and that wasn't the first one. But it was the first one where he was smiling.
He laughed. "Come on. Don't look like I ate your canary."
"Ate my…?" she knew she was flushing.
He laughed more. "Got that from Sandy."
She smiled a little, in an effort to feel her face, her edges, her presence in the room. "Right."
"Do you? Date?" he persisted. She knew he was a bird dog as a rule, but only regarding work.
"Do you?" she deflected.
"You know I don't," he said. "They talk about me. You hear it."
He wasn't boasting. She didn't think so.
"They…don't talk about me?" she said.
"They talk about us," he corrected.
"Us?" she repeated, sounding dull.
"Yeah. Both…," he bobbed his head like he was waiting for the right word to show up.
"Repressed," she finished.
He outright laughed.
And her eyes burned a little.
"Yeah. And maybe we should…date or something," he said as her jaw hit her shoes.
"Want a soda?" he moved to the fridge, yanked it open, bowed his back as he looked in. She'd always thought his back was nice, long and strong. He had wide shoulders. Hey, he was not hard on the eyes. She wasn't dead.
"Date…like others?" she said seeking clarification and dreading it.
He held two sodas. Approached her to hand one off. She took it, her heart speeding up because geez, where were they going with this?
He pulled out a chair. They weren't going to sit side by side and talk like this?
"Don't I get a tour?" she said.
"Oh, sure," he said, taking a noisy sip.
"Backyard," he pointed out the doors with the same hand that held the soda. Nice hands. Long fingers. He no longer wore his wedding ring. She remembered when he stopped. One year after Jane abdicated. That must have been the place where he accepted it.
"Nice," she said about the yard. Sara was going to love that swing-set. Gosh, he was close. They never intentionally stood this close. He smelled like clean laundry. Dryer sheets. He had on a white T-shirt. It was bright white, too. He did a better laundry than she. She threw everything in together. But he separated things obviously.
"We can't date," she blurted. "Isn't that…is that what you meant?"
His eyes were so blue. In the office, the lighting was crap. But in the sunshine. They were blue.
"There's no policy against it," he said to her.
"Yeah but…I don't date," she glued her gaze to the gym.
"Well," another noisy sip, "might be time to change that, Becker."
"You're crazy," she said. That…was a little strong. It had just blurted from her lips. "Sorry. See? I'm barely fit for company."
"Ah, you're a little rusty. So am I. So what?"
"So we're going to what…practice on each other? Get back in the game?" she pretended to laugh.
He laughed at that. "All work and no play…."
She didn't know how much longer she could hold that blue gaze. "Really?"
His hand was on her arm. He moved in closer. "Bridie…."
One hand came off the chair. She touched his face, his mouth, to stop his next impossible words.
Just as quickly she pulled away, backed up to the door. "What are we doing?"
"You're messing up my game, Becker."
"Gosh," she said, rubbing her face.
"Relax," he laughed, gently taking her hands from her face and holding them.
They got caught in the stare thing again. "This is so weird," she whispered, laughing this time.
"Just do it," he said, going Nike on her.
They laughed at that because of an old work reference where one of their co-workers, old Ed, used that slogan all the time at meetings.
"Bridie," he said softly, and she knew then. She knew. He was serious.
"Mommy!" Sara yelled. She stood in the doorway with Sandy.
"Look…look at the swing-set," Bridie said.
It was a flurry then, them moving out of the way, the girls rushing past, Sara saying loudly to Sandy, "They were kissing."
"Are they getting married?" Sandy yelled back.
It bled off some of the awkward at least, and she looked at Mason and they shared a laugh.
"I figured she'd lost enough. I didn't want the distraction," he said, speaking about dating.
"Yeah. I just…I picked such a jerk for her father. He doesn't even…he's never…you know?" she said.
"Finish your sentences, Becker. You know that drives me crazy."
"I was drunk. I never even looked him up. Never saw him again. Never wanted to. Probably some traveling salesman…with a wife and a mortgage." She felt immediate horror that she'd divulged this. And to her boss. Confusing as this was. "I wasn't like that. I mean…I can't hold my liquor. Hence the long…abstinence."
"From alcohol or sex?" He asked this rather boldly.
They laughed some. But he was asking. "I haven't dated," she said. That's all he was getting. But yes, she was a nun without the religious part.
"Do you miss it? The guy thing?" he said.
No. This was too much. She didn't even tell herself the answer to these questions. "I…I'm busy with work. Sara. My…my life is full. I don't have time…. I don't have…. It's very full."
"Yeah," he said softly. "It's amazing how many parts of yourself you can shut off if you have to. Doesn't make them go away," he smiled. But it was sad.
"I don't know," she said. But she did know.
He was going to be sorry they had talked like this. They had to work together. He'd never given any clue…. Actually, if he had, even six months ago, she might have quit.
"I learned something, Bridie. Right? You suffer. You learn, right?"
She stayed still.
"I learned how short time is. How you need to be in the moment. Seize it like they say. There are no guarantees about tomorrow, but that's no reason to miss right now."
There was a semi-awkward silence. No, more poignant than awkward. "I thought I was the idealist," she said.
He didn't look at her, but the corner of his mouth lifted a little.
She put her gaze back on the girls. "I'm trying. To be present."
"Then don't run away when I tell you I've been waiting to ask you out for two years."
She couldn't look away anymore. "Two years, Mason. Seriously?"
He still wasn't looking at her.
"You gave no indication…."
"I knew you weren't ready" he interrupted, eyes piercing again. "I knew you were closed off. And I wasn't sure I was ready either. So I was stuck there for a while."
He took a deep breath. They both did.
"Then the picnic," he said. "Our girls."
"Sara was begging," she said.
"Did you avoid it?"
"I don't know. Yes."
"Ever wonder why?"
"Scared, I guess. And that was before I knew it meant anything…else."
"Are you sorry you're here?" he said.
She worked to keep it honest because of a real desire to lie. "I'm not sorry," she said.
She felt his relief. He bumped her with his elbow, then he kept it there. "The other day you were in my office…and I knew it was time. Sink or swim, do or die. I said if she comes over…I'm going to lay it out."
"Mason…," she wanted to give him an out. He was saying so much.
"Just listen, Bridie. I don't want to waste any more time."
She shook her head a little. "Mason. I need my job. It's a lot."
"It's nothing compared to what we've been through. Right? We're soldiers already. This is good, Bridie. It could be. We…could be good."
It had gotten heavy.
He took her hand and said, "C'mon." It was time for that tour.
But she could barely take it in. Her head was still in the kitchen.
She snapped too a little when they reached the bedroom. That room was the most difficult, but only at first. It was his now. Just like hers was only hers. Life had continued past what he once knew, what he once had. It was a slow moving train that never stopped. And while she was on it…she looked at Mason as they stood on the balcony off of his bedroom and watched their girls play in the yard.
Her great unease had not been because he was her boss.
"We're very different, you know," she said.
"No, we're not," he said quickly. "We're a lot alike on the stuff that matters," he said.
"How are you so sure?" she said.
"I've had a lot of time to think about it. To notice. I like your black pants, by the way. And that white blouse? Those are the best days, Becker."
She laughed. "That's…outrageous."
"Wait a minute. What I'm getting at? These jeans are my favorite."
He glanced down and his eyes were alight. He took her breath. "Don't get so taken aback," he said, waving to his daughter to let her know he saw her cartwheel. "You notice me, too."
"What? As my boss!"
He just laughed.
Notice him? It hit her. The truth. At work…he was her focal point. Her head felt swimmy.
And at home, in-between being mommy, he was often…her focal point. Crap!
And the real truth…as long as she saw him, crawling if he must, but as long as she saw him refusing to quit…on life, it gave her courage.
That's it. He had always given her courage. And what she knew as she studied him…in some sneaky way…she was already on the road to loving him.
"So when would we do this?" she asked, her voice thin. "Date?"
He looked at her and rotated on his elbow against the railing. "What about Friday night?" he said. "Dinner?"
"With the girls?"
"Yeah. For a few times at least. Then…just us."
"Yeah? Just us?"
"Yeah. You ready…Bridie?"
"I don't know." But she did know. "Maybe I'll get ready Mason. How about that?"
He leaned in and she met him. They kissed softly and the girls kicked up from the yard below with oohs and aahs, and that was the best way to describe how she felt.