Vanessa tossed her keys down onto the decorative table in the hallway. They clattered against the blinking answering machine. Rick came through the doorway behind her, yawning.
“Why didn’t you wake me up? We could’ve left you know.” He pulled his coat off and threw it across the back of the easy chair in her living room.
“I thought you could use the rest,” Vanessa said as she put her purse on the table and hung her coat in the closet. “Besides, it would’ve been louder to wake you. You tend to scream if you’re startled awake.”
“What? You’re lying.”
“Really? What about that time I forgot to put my phone’s alarm on vibrate? Your neighbors almost called the police.”
“I just didn’t expect you to have that song for your ring-tone.”
Vanessa laughed. “Do you even remember which song it was?” She looked him in the eyes with eyebrows raised in expectation. He didn’t break that contact until his mental straining for the answer failed.
“Its… irrelevant.” He blinked.
“Ha!” She kept laughing and watched as he sunk down onto the arm of the chair bearing his coat. “You weren’t the only one asleep. Didn’t you hear the guy down front snoring after they killed off what’s-his-name?”
“No, that was when I lost interest and fell asleep. I mean, he was the only one of them that I liked. Why’d they kill him so early?”
“I don’t know. He was the only one I liked too. Though, it was almost entertaining to see just how bad it could get.” Rick raised his eyebrows. “I said ‘almost.’”
“You could have waken me up,” he paused. “Woken? Waked? Anyway, we didn’t have to stay.”
Vanessa flipped through her mail and set it back down beside the answering machine. “I told you, it’s fine.”
“But it’s not,” he insisted. “It was supposed to be a date night and I know I have a broad definition of what constitutes a date but even I don’t consider me falling asleep during a terrible movie to be a date.”
“I agree with that sentiment.” She crossed from the table to where he had perched on the arm of the chair his coat had been thrown upon. “But we can still turn the evening around.” She wound her arms around his neck and kissed him. His arms came up to hold her by the waist. She pulled back and headed for the kitchen.
“Where’re you going?”
“It’s a surprise. I’ll be back in a sec.” She disappeared around the corner and Rick stared after her, waiting for her to reappear. Something in his periphery drew his eye, but it took a moment to isolate exactly what it was that had distracted him. He could hear Vanessa riffling around in the kitchen. Then he found the slow blinking light that indicated a message had been left.
“You still have a landline?” he called to Vanessa with a laugh.
“Don’t mock me. I hardly ever use it except with my mom. After the second time my cell battery died on us, I thought this would be better.” The clattering in the kitchen continued.
“You know you’ve got a message.”
“Probably just her checking up on me. I’ll listen to it later.”
But Rick’s fingers itched to push the button. He was a little bothered by the light’s taunting blink. He imagined that it was trying to signal, “push me,” in Morse Code. His finger skimmed across the rubbery surface of the button, gauging the pressure that would be necessary for the signal that would play the message to be relayed.
Vanessa came around the corner with a mountain of ice cream in a bowl and several toppings in plastic canisters tucked between her arm and torso. She rolled her eyes as Rick took a sudden step back from the table, putting his hands up defensively.
“God, if you’re so curious just go ahead and push the damn button.” She headed for the couch and laid everything out on the coffee table. “So what do we want to watch to cleanse our mental palates of that crappy movie? Trying to force it to make sense is going to give me a headache.”
The high-pitched tone of the machine sounded but it was not her mother’s familiar voice that followed.
“Hello Miss Larssen. This is Principal White. I wanted to thank you for interviewing with us last week. The staff here at Parkington Preparatory were very impressed with you and agree that you will be a valuable addition to our program here. So, we would like to offer you the position. I know that it’s a long way for you to travel, especially at this time of the year, but we will need you to return for a brief formal orientation and to sign some paperwork for HR before the term ends. The position officially starts in September, as we discussed. Give me a call back when you have the chance and we can hammer out those details. My contact information is in the packet we provided you with last week. And I just wanted to say again that we all look forward to working with you.”
Vanessa had turned around briefly to see Rick’s confused expression before turning her back to him again so he wouldn’t be able to read the surging, conflicting emotions passing across her own face. She first had an impulse to jump up on the coffee table and do and embarrassing victory dance but the surge of dread and disgust with herself cemented her to the floor. She fought to compose herself and waited for the accusations from Rick to fall, knowing she deserved every hurtful thing he might say.
“You interviewed for a new job? Why didn’t you tell me? This is fantastic.” Vanessa felt herself picked up from behind as Rick spun her around.
“I didn’t think I’d get it. I only went on a whim cause Kelly recommended me for it.” His support and enthusiasm matched her own and she didn’t want them to vanish so she encouraged Rick’s misunderstanding.
“When was the interview? And where is this Parkington place, anyway? I’ve never heard of ‘em.”
“The interview was last Tuesday.”
The first shadow of understanding flitted across Rick’s face and she could see him consciously fighting back against the full implications of her response.
“I thought you said you were visiting your parents last week. Cause I distinctly remember you said your dad was having surgery and your mom didn’t want to be the only one around when he came out of it. You said that neither of them wanted to have anything falling on her since their divorce was finally finalized last month.”
“He did have surgery and it went fine. You know I sent you pictures and you talked to my mom yourself.”
“Well then you must have the day of your interview wrong because you were gone from Saturday to Friday and there’s no way you would just up and interview for a job in Maine. Not without telling me anything about it.” The hurt was so vivid on his face that Vanessa could hardly stand to look at him, but she made herself do just that as punishment.
“I’m sorry. I got home and ran into Kelly and she told me about the opening and it’s exactly the kind of position and the kind of school I’ve been dreaming of finding and I didn’t think and I’m so sorry. I should have said something to you and I swear I didn’t think it would go as well as it did and when it did, I still thought I was too under qualified to get it.”
“So what are you going to do?”
“I… I don’t know,” Vanessa admitted and hung her head.
Rick nodded silently with his jaw clenched.
“It’s just that it’s perfect,” she began, half-heartedly defending her actions, justifying them to herself as much as to him. “It makes sense in so many ways. It was too perfect to be true which is why I never thought I’d get it. I’d be back near my parents who are actually able to agree on the fact that they want me to be closer and out of the city. They never liked the idea of my living here.”
“They want you around to play referee,” Rick interrupted harshly. “You always talked about how much you hated when they put you in the middle like that.”
Vanessa kept going, ignoring the interruption. “And where my dad’s been sick lately, maybe it would be better if I wasn’t so far away. I never meant to stay here. It was supposed to be just for school and then so many of my friends stayed and then there was everything that happened with Vincent. And I had found a job so staying became easier but it was never what I wanted to do. I mean it is teaching but it’s not the kind of teaching I meant to do.”
“Are you saying you’re too good for public school?” Rick snapped. He could see how easily the list of reasons to leave was growing and felt the balance shifting on the see saw, lifting him higher over the precipice as the only measly reason to stay. He was clinging to the seat and hoping not to fall off.
“Of course not. But Parkington has so much freedom in what we can do because they have so many special cases and such deep resources. They’re the kind of school where kids who have been in and out because of illnesses or serious accidents can catch up or kids with severe disabilities can get the one-on-one attention they need. There just aren’t a lot of schools like that around period, let alone around here. And don’t think that I haven’t looked, because I have. It’s something I’m passionate about…”
“You don’t think I’m passionate about stuff? That just because I’m a bartender I don’t care about things?”
“I think you’re scared to look, that maybe you’ve given up trying,” Vanessa retorted. She knew she was talking too much. She was starting to convince herself to go and she felt Rick pulling away. She wanted him to fight with her, to feel that he was still in this and would give her the reasons she needed in order to feel like staying wasn’t giving up on herself. She wanted to engage him in her decision now, knowing that it was her fault for having left him out of it in the first place. “I know you decided that you didn’t want to keep going and paying for medical school, that the debt was already too much and you couldn’t stand to get in deeper, but what have you done since then to figure out what you want to do? All you seem to do is bitch about bartending and threaten to quit but you never do anything about it. That’s not how I can live. If I’m not happy with something in my life, I’m not going to just suffer through it; I’m gonna go out and try to do something about it.”
“Well, it looks like you have.” Rick started the sentence shouting but his voice broke part way through and he fought to hold back tears as Vanessa looked at him and softened, the hot ball of guilt in her stomach pushing tears up and into her own eyes.
“That’s not what I meant at all.” She struggled to say it loud enough for him to hear without losing the control that was keeping sobs from breaking through.
“But it is what you’ve done. You haven’t factored me in at all.”
“I have. I just…” she paused. She had to word this carefully and she knew it. “We need to think about what this is and where it’s going. We haven’t really talked about it and you’ve never really said what you want. I haven’t either. But I need to know what you want before I make up my mind what to do.”
Rick was shaking his head and fidgeting from one foot to the other. “No. You’ve already made it clear that you can make decisions about our relationship on your own, so do it again.” He started moving towards the door as she protested. “I think you already know you’re going to take the job and you want me to break up with you so you can play the victim and I can be the bad guy, but it’s not going to fly. If you want to end this, it’s on you. Call me when you decide whether I still have a girlfriend or not.”
He didn’t even slam the door when he left.
Vanessa slumped onto her couch and pulled the bowl of ice cream towards her. It wasn’t as melted as she had expected it to be. Tasting a spoonful, she became disgusted with herself and then forcefully defensive before returning to frustration with the poor way she had handled explaining things to Rick. Of course, his initial reaction had surprised her and thrown her off from what little preparation she’d made. She thought she had a handle on him but maybe she didn’t know him as well as she’d thought. Generally she loved the ways he could surprise her but now she wasn’t so sure it was a good thing. There was something to be said for predictability, right? But she couldn’t get past a nagging suspicion that she might be self-sabotaging.
The spoonful of ice cream didn’t go down as smoothly as she expected and she felt it sitting in the pit of her stomach, making everything else residing there churn uncomfortably. She took the bowl, crossed to the kitchen sink and dumped out its contents. She watched the pile of ice cream settle into the drain depression. To speed things along, she moved the faucet head directly above the softening dessert. Her hand hesitated over the cold spigot, then moved to the hot and turned it on just enough for a slow stream to strike the blob of ice cream dead center and eat its way through to the drain below.