Title: The House of Cards

Author: UConnFan (Michele)

E-Mail: LoveUConnBasketball@yahoo.com

Story Summary: What he once thought was stone turned out to only be a house of cards.

Requirements:

Attending a wedding. (in other words, a guest at a wedding)

Chinese Food

The following movie line - She's gone. She gave me a pen. I gave her my heart, she gave me a pen. (movie line is from Say Anything)

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"She's gone. She gave me a pen. I gave her my heart, she gave me a pen," I sadly summed up for my Mother after the fact.

It hadn't always been that way, obviously. In retrospect, it wasn't just a pen either, it was the pen her late father had given her when she graduated with her Master's. Still, a heart for a pen, even an expensive ballpoint pen, isn't much of a deal.

There was something in her eyes. At eighteen, her eyes sparkled and her smile caused my heart to flutter. The odds of two college freshman, one in Michigan the other in Vermont, meeting, are slim to none. Truthfully, the entire meeting was terribly cliche. If I didn't know any better, I would have suspected my mother of orchestrating the whole thing.

A beach wedding in November, even in California, is something only my mother would have done. Obviously it'd been my Aunt Trish's idea, but my mother willingly went along with it. She was marrying a nice enough guy, and my father had been gone for eleven years. At nineteen, that hadn't seemed long enough to mourn and at thirty-four I'm just beginning to understand. Mom had met him through her best friend - he was her real estate agent. Not only was he a real estate agent, he *owned* the real estate company.

Money had never been particularly abundant in my house growing up, and for most of my young life, my mother worked nearly sixty hours a week to help get by. Without a father, my mother was determined to give me everything, from the best hockey gear to the all-male prep school that I loathed. Even so, my mother is not the type to marry for money, no matter what advice Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis offered.

It was a rainy October and I sat in our living room preparing for my physics test. Only a prep school would require physics senior year. The coffee table was littered with the Chinese that I had ordered to tide me over. My mother walked in characteristically late, and David was with her. Tall, balding with a salt-and-pepper beard, he shook my hand and told me how he'd heard all about me from my mother. The previous two weeks I had spent arguing with my mother over how I did not want to meet him, so I was not too thrilled to make his acquaintance.

He moved in on a cold day in November. Eventually we bonded. We'd never be close, but we'd spar back and forth nicely. The one thing we had in common was our desire to see that my mother was cared for. I hadn't expected to have much else in common with a man thirty-one years my senior, although he did like the Kings and didn't mind a dinner discussion of baseball.

A year after he moved in, they married. I was back in California on Thanksgiving break from Michigan. Front left chair was my designated seat for the afternoon wedding. A simple, non-traditional wedding - both had been married before. After the wedding, the entire wedding party and guests retreated to a beachside restaurant for the reception. My mother and I were dancing to an old Sinatra tune as I glanced around the room. That's when I spotted her. Beautiful and blonde, a smile that nearly split her face and diamonds in her eyes to match. Once my required son obligation was completed, I cut in on her dancing with my second cousin.

Our first conversation was brief and awkward. We exchanged pleasantries, names and relations to bride and groom. According to her I was the highly touted bride's son (she didn't seem all too impressed), while she was the groom's niece. My major was political science at Michigan; her's was childhood studies and teaching at Bennington. Anyone could have seen that she was none too impressed with me, and that I was instantly taken with her. I anxiously waited the entire evening before I approached her for another dance.

In her mind, second impressions thankfully outweighed the first. She even smiled at me in the puffy, purple bridesmaid dress my mother had chosen. By the end of the dance, I hated purple but loved her. During our dance she'd explained that her parents lived in Napa, but she'd chosen Vermont because she had loved going there to ski while she was growing up. The third of seven children, childhood studies had been the most natural major in the world. Most importantly, she loved the Mets and listened intently as I explained hockey.

The rest of the long weekend was spent together. When my mother drove me to the airport at the end of my stay, I told her I'd found the woman I wanted to marry. With a straight face my mother looked over and asked who I'd arranged to sneak me booze that weekend. Still, I had her phone number in my duffel bag and she was the first phone call I made when I strolled into my residence hallway that day.

Nineteen. What the hell did I know at nineteen?

More Chinese food. She loved it just as much as I did, which came as a relief, since I couldn't cook. Our spring breaks were on different weeks so I went to see her and learned how to ski. Two weeks later she came to see me and saw me check a fair share of people and score a goal in a Michigan win. I wrote her a constant stream of letters and received the same in return. Love letters, talking about the future as if either of us had a clue. There were every day letters, summing up our days and our lives for one another.

That summer she gave me her virginity - I'd lost mine two summers before, right before I began my senior year at that god-forsaken prep school. We were everywhere together. My mother treated her pleasantly, but even as our relationship extended from months to years, there was always a distance in my mother's otherwise warm blue eyes. We graduated within ten days of each other. While our friends rushed off to get engaged, we mutually decided to wait. During her first semester of graduate school at UCLA, I was off at Langley for training. She'd been there to celebrate with me earlier that summer when I had received my security clearance. Then she flew out from California over Thanksgiving break. Under the first snowstorm of the year, we held hands and talked before we returned to my studio apartment to celebrate our fourth anniversary.

January of 1991, instead of California, I was off to India for nine months. Even though my father had held a similar post for nearly two years before I was born, my mother was not pleased. She'd cursed the entire world for days when I told her I'd applied to the CIA, and didn't speak to me for nearly three weeks when I received my security clearance. The government was not going to take her son from her as they'd taken her first husband. She returned to saying the rosary everyday, and even asked my Aunt Trish to say some chants, as though it would act as a safety net around me.

I returned to California in the fall. There was no point in moving in with her by then. We'd been together for nearly five years. She was in the second year of a three-year Master's program at UCLA, living with one of her childhood friends close to the campus. I found myself a halfway decent bachelor pad right between the CIA building and the best Chinese food in the LA-metro area. She would spend two or three nights a week there, and I'd spend a night or two a week at her place. The other nights we were content to spend alone.

She graduated on time with her Master's and found a nice job teaching eighth grade at a private school. In the beginning, I'd stop by, get a kick out of her early-adolescent students and bring her lunch. Eventually that practice faded away. Five years became ten and her roommate moved out. By then most of her nights were spent at my place. For two weeks over breakfast she'd hint at how it would be easier to give up her apartment and move in full-time with me. I never took the bait.

After nearly fifteen years, it was becoming apparent to her that commitment was not my strongpoint. Still, I had given her my heart, what else did she want from me? At thirty-four, I'd only been with one other woman and that was before I'd ever met her. Perhaps I wasn't a big believer in commitment, but I had no qualms over fidelity and monogamy, no matter how badly Eric tried to convince me otherwise.

Almost eight weeks before our fifteenth anniversary, that all came tumbling down. The day had been normal. I'd woken up next to her, and she had made breakfast while I showered. Donovan slept soundly on the bed as we left for the day. She'd offered to bring my watch to the jeweler near the school - when I had woken up that day, it had suddenly stopped after keeping perfect time for over forty years. Politely I declined, kissing her as I held the driver's door of her car open for her. The dead watch would be serviced at the same small jeweler that my parents had purchased their wedding rings from, even if it would cost me an arm and a leg.

Perhaps I should have considered my father's words on that day - 'you could set your heart by this watch'. At the moment, I was more preoccupied with traffic, stale coffee and a moody printer to give much thought to advice he'd given me more than twenty-five years ago. Paperwork kept piling up, and with the damn printer not cooperating, I was falling even more behind. Obviously I was not eager when the phone rang and I was ordered to meet with the newest walk in.

If she hadn't been grimacing in pain, I would have laughed at our newest walk in. She hardly looked credible, but she was Jack Bristow's daughter and apparently she wanted to turn on SD-6. Even if she was insane, she was brilliant, so brilliant that I wasn't sure who was in charge of what for a few moments. I'd foolishly sputtered over myself, spouting something about instinct. Maybe that's what had caused my father's watch to abruptly die - instinct.

That apparent bozo had unknowingly begun slowly, steadily, tearing down the house of cards that was my current relationship. Chinese food grew cold when I returned home at bizarre hours. I missed her cousin's wedding because I got an urgent call from Sydney saying she needed me. Initially she'd smile her wide smile, and her eyes would still sparkle and she'd tell me it was fine. Months turned into weeks and on more than one occasion I expected her to accuse me of an affair.

In so many ways she would have been right.

The card that eventually brought down the house happened several months after I met Sydney. Every year her school did a big Thanksgiving Day show. Alice would sit proudly watching every student, from kindergarten to eighth grade, perform. In the weeks leading up to the show I'd listen to how fabulous her eighth graders were going to be that year, how excited she was for me to see the new students and how talented her students were. The first class of eighth graders she taught were seniors in high school, and she prided herself on the fact that she still kept in touch with a few of them.

I missed the play - I had no choice, Sydney needed me. That obviously held precedence over a Thanksgiving show, no matter how cute it was. Alice was wide-awake when I walked in the door, and her normally even temperament was on fire. The argument was long and I lost more than a few plates that evening. The sun was up before I finally went to bed, spent, on the living room sofa.

We stuck it out through Christmas. The charade was flimsy at best. My younger half sister and I sat in the living room the night after Christmas, and with all the wisdom of a thirteen-year-old, asked when the hell I was going to dump her. Together, we'd gone to all the family occasions, the CIA Christmas party, and the school Christmas party. I even managed to swing by the school the last day before Christmas break and give the kids a couple dozen doughnuts - Eric's idea. I did remember to bring Alice a cup of coffee, but that was barely a band-aid on an already infected would.

By the third Thursday of January we were completely over, the charade in shambles. I found the pen two days after she left. Obviously she hadn't meant to leave it there, it was stuffed on the top of my desk between two boxes of files. I could still remember her face when she opened the gift from her father and saw the expensive pen set. Her voice was muffled, I'm not sure by tears or the phone line, when she told me to keep it.

Sunday night the phone rang. In the midst of watching a replay of a Kings game, I absently picked up the phone. "Hello?"

"Alice is gone," my mother sighed into the phone, her French accent apparent.

"Yeah, she is." I sat back in the lounger, Donovan at my feet. "How'd you know?"

"I always knew Michael," she replied sadly. "I always knew."

With all the wisdom of a nineteen-year-old, I had given Alice my heart.

Fifteen years later, Sydney had stolen it, and that was for keeps.