May 1, 2001
I like Ben - who loves Catherine, who loves Robert...
by Ruth Baxter
y phone rings, the double-ring that means a call from within the office. My eyes scan the newsroom, looking for someone talking on the phone and looking back at me.
My eyes lock on Ben, this guy I like. I pick it up and say, 'Yes?'
'What are you doing tonight?'
'Why? Got nothing to do this weekend?' But I already know the answer. I look pointedly at the desk next to mine.
'Gone again, huh?'
I sigh. Do I want to go out with Ben, be his girl-buddy, while the woman he burns for is out of town visiting her fiancé?
That's right, I said 'her fiancé.' He loves Catherine, the owner of the desk. She presumably loves her fiancé Robert, but keeps Ben strung along pretty well. When she's unavailable, Ben calls me. Nobody loves me, and I don't even love Ben, just like him an awful lot. I guess I'm the weak corner of this love quadrangle.
Or, as my editor and friend Buckner put it, 'Jill, you're at the bottom of that food chain.'
But Ben and I do have fun. And we've spent so much time together lately that I've started to have that buzzy feeling that hums along with first attraction. Surprising, because Ben is decidedly not my type. Still, I figure I'm not in too deep, just marking time until the real thing comes along. And helping Ben mark time while I'm at it.
'Happy hour? Dinner?' he persists.
'Sure. Meet you at five.' Ben hangs up and turns back to his work. I sit for a moment regarding him, turning over the things we said. I search for a nugget of something to hold on to, but I don't even find some dust.
'About halfway through my third margarita, I found myself looking at his lips.' I'm talking to Buckner and his wife, Denise, over brunch on Sunday. 'He was talking and I was just watching his mouth. Wondering if he'd ever kiss me.'
'Which he did not,' Buck asserts.
'Which he did.'
'And?' Denise pauses, jelly-loaded knife poised over toast.
'It was great. Wonderful. Fireworks.'
'Oh boy.' Buck dumps salsa on his eggs. 'And then?'
'Then he brought me home, kissed me again a few times and said goodnight. And left.'
'Yesterday?' Denise asks.
'She back in town yet?' Buck asks.
'Must be. Pass the syrup.'
Monday morning I make myself wait two hours before I swing by Ben's on the way back from the coffeepot. He's reading e-mail but closes it before I can see it. He spins around and gives me a warm smile.
'Jill, hey! I had fun Friday night,' he says.
'Me, too,' I say, trying for genuine but sounding doubtful. 'Wondered what else you got up to this weekend.'
'Not much,' he says, not looking at me now, flipping through the paper. 'Gardening, shopping. Went to a movie last night.'
'OK, well.' I take a drink of my coffee, already tepid. 'See you later.'
'Right. Lunch, maybe?'
'Maybe.' I stroll back to my desk and spin around in my chair to talk to Catherine. She's coming in from an interview and is throwing her notebook and tape recorder on her desk, pushing her blond bangs back from her forehead in a distracted but adorable way. I wonder what Ben's told her about me. If he's told her anything.
'Have a good weekend?' I ask. 'How's Robert?'
'Good!' she says. 'He's awfully busy, studying for the bar. I had to cut it short and come back Saturday.' Her phone rings and she snatches it up, then she's busy talking and scribbling notes.
Across the newsroom, Ben's not on the phone, so it's not him. But later I get to watch them have a twenty-minute conversation, right in the middle of deadline frenzy. Maybe they planned it that way so everyone would be too busy to notice. Probably nobody else did.
I skip lunch and am pretty successful at ignoring him the rest of the day. He hangs around after Catherine leaves. I am aware of him not doing much, just flipping through mail and surfing the Web, maybe looking for a chance to chat. I keep my head down. Finally, he packs up, and I feel the tension sucked right out of the room as the elevator doors slide shut behind him. I have that hyperconsciousness that attends recently kissed lips. It's the kissing that's messed me up. I'm not his girl-buddy anymore, but I'm not sure what I am. Maybe I am to Ben what Ben is to Catherine.
I go home, feed my cats and make some iced tea. I sit on my porch with my guitar and try to write a song about it, but 'quadrangle' doesn't really rhyme with much except maybe 'cod mangle' and 'God dangle.' I can't work either of those into the verses. The light begins to fade so I just sit there in the gathering evening and watch the people come home from work. I drink iced tea and wish that I smoked. Half a package of Oreos surely can't be much healthier than a couple of milligrams of tar.
Two weeks later, I find myself on the Guadalupe River in the bow of a canoe. Buckner and Denise have a side business running canoes down the river during the summer. Buckner organized a float trip for newsroom types that will take the better part of this Saturday. Ben talked me into coming, but when he drove up to the parking lot at the paper, Catherine got out of his car. When the group loaded up, I climbed into the cab of Buck's truck with Dave, one of those photographers who always has his camera ready. He snapped one of me just as I shot a black look at Ben and Catherine.
I paired with Buck, who knows his way with a paddle. Ben and Catherine got together in their own canoe. As Buck and I glide past, they're already entangled in the gnarled roots of a cypress. Catherine is trying to fend off the bank with her paddle, and Ben is digging mightily into the water with his, and they're bickering about strategy and method. Too bad, I snort. I ask Buck to pass me a cold one, and he sets it on his paddle and edges it forward, serving it up like it's on a platter. I feel like Cleopatra. For a short, shining moment, being the odd woman out isn't the worst thing.
Ben and Catherine catch up to the party about the time we beach our canoes on the rocky bank to have lunch. They're a lot happier now. I wonder if maybe there's more to their lagging than inadequate canoeing skills. The river is cold and the sun is hot and every once in a while somebody jumps in and splashes around for a bit. When Catherine and Ben dive under the water, they come up together, smooth as seals. They say something to each other, too quiet for anyone to overhear, and wade back to the bank, shoulders touching.
Buck and I jump in and get wet before we climb back into our boat and head downriver. I pick up a paddle and make to dip it in the water, but Buck clears his throat and I lay it back down.
'You don't mind that?'
'Mind what? Not paddling? Not if you don't,' I say, pushing my sunglasses up on my nose and pulling my ball cap a little further down on my forehead.
'That's not what I'm talking about.' Buckner backs water until the nose of our canoe comes around and I can see Ben and Catherine behind us. Buck lets them slide past. We exchange cheery smiles and waves.
'Oh. Them.' I shrug. 'It doesn't matter much if I do mind, does it?'
'I don't think you can get those sunglasses on any tighter, kid,' Buck says.
I prop my sneakers on the side of the canoe and lay back against an ice chest. 'I'm just living in the present, Buck, and right now I'm glad I'm here with you.'
'Wish my wife felt like that,' he jokes, and lets the canoe swing back into the current.
In the newsroom Tuesday afternoon, Dave walks by my desk and plunks a black and white on it.
'Jill vs. The River,' he says. 'I pity the river.'
I snatch up the print before anyone can see it. Even I'm surprised at the size of the scowl on my face. My scowl is epic. It's like the scowl on a professional wrestler when he challenges his archenemy to a death match. It's a wonder I didn't pull a muscle or break a tooth.
This time when the phone rings, I snatch it up without looking. 'Yes?'
'I saw that picture,' Ben says. I flick him a look but direct my attention down at my desk. I'm drawing rectangles, squares and boxes in my notebook. 'I'm sorry,' he says. I look back up at him, and he smiles, just a little, kind of sadly.
'That girl doesn't look much like you.'
I study the picture some more. 'What are you talking about? She looks exactly like me. I mean, I look exactly like me.'
'Except for the frown.'
'The sun was in my eyes.'
'And your Ray-Bans weren't working.'
'Listen, why are you calling, exactly?' I stab the pencil around the corners of the rectangle I've drawn. In the corner closest to me, I stab so hard I make a hole.
'To say I'm sorry. And so I am.'
'So am I.'
Friday night there's a going-away party for a police beat reporter. The crowd is an unruly mix of reporters and cops. I'm sitting on the back porch steps by the keg, hanging out with guys talking baseball. It's only cool compared to what it's been during the day. It's muggy, too, and my hair has gone frizzy in its ponytail. I'm glad it's dark out here.
I fill my plastic cup and wander over to the smokers, where Buckner is holding forth. He gives my shoulder a little squeeze and mutters, 'Your boy's here.' I smile a little and nod. Good, I figured Ben would be here. I thought maybe we'd get a chance to sort things out, and once that was out of the way, maybe a little kissing would be in the cards. Maybe a lot.
'His girl's here, too.' Oh. I start to reshuffle my romance deck. He adds, 'But then, so's her boy...' The cards fly out of the stack like a game of 52-Pickup. I hold my beer cup up to my forehead to feel the coolness against my sticky skin. The screen door squeaks, and Ben is silhouetted in the frame. He joins me in the circle with Buck and the smokers.
'Buck, Jill,' Ben says. He stands next to me, and I can smell his clean, soapy smell even through the smoke.
'Anything interesting going on in there?' Buck asks.
'Not much,' Ben says.
'That's what I figured,' says Buck, stomping on his cigar and sauntering inside.
As awkward pauses go, it's not too awkward. We pretend to listen to the people in the circle talking. In a minute, Ben's fingers are tapping mine, and then we're holding hands and then he's leading me away from the smokers and the keg and the sports-talkers. We drag a couple of lawn chairs out to a corner of the yard.
His profile against the porch light looks good. Strong, but not severe. He's a good-natured guy, and his face relaxes into contented lines.
'I can't think of when I've been more miserable,' he says. I stop myself from sputtering. So much for contentment.
'You sure know how to woo a girl,' I say, taking a gulp of beer.
'I hate that picture of you. I can't get it out of my mind.'
'Right. You can't get me out of your mind but only because you saw a picture of me so pissed off it looks like I'm about to break someone's kneecaps.'
'Catherine's. Then yours.'
Ben sighs and looks up at the quarter moon, high and thin and silver. 'That's not like you, Jill. You and Catherine are friends.'
'I guess. Not close friends. You and I were better friends than that.'
'Were,' he says. 'We're not friends anymore?'
'No, not exactly,' he agrees, his hand resting on my bare knee, drawing little circles. 'I'm not thinking of you as a friend lately.'
I hate to break the mood, but I can't stop myself. 'What's Catherine doing here anyway? I thought she was going to visit Robert this weekend.'
Ben doesn't say anything for a minute. Then he starts fishing in his pocket for something, and finally pulls out a smooth, flat white rock.
'See this? I got it on that river trip. That was a near-perfect day for me. I wanted this rock so I could remember Catherine, even after she . . .'
My stomach twists and spins a little. I felt so angry and betrayed that 'near-perfect' day, watching the two of them so obviously together, not caring who saw. 'Even after she marries Robert.'
Ben nods. He throws the rock over the hedge into the next yard. 'I can't think of that day anymore. I'll see that look on your face, and know that I put it there.'
'So who gets credit for the way your face looks right now? Catherine? Robert? Me?'
'Me,' he says. 'Nobody but me.' He edges his chair closer to mine and says, 'I told her about us this morning. I told her to go ahead and get married, and I'd go on with my life, starting today.'
The screen door slams and here comes Catherine with Robert in tow. It takes her a few seconds to spot us, then she's making a beeline for our corner.
'Great! So let's go.' I jump up, urgent to get moving before she gets to us. 'Come on, leave with me now.' But he's looking past me and doesn't budge.
'Jill! Here you are! Robert asked if you were here and I said we'd go look for you.' Catherine looks cool in white linen, while I'm sweating and rumpled in jean shorts and a sleeveless T-shirt. So much for the cover of darkness. 'Robert called at lunch, and we changed our plans so we wouldn't miss the party. I'm really glad we came. Some of my favorite people are here!'
I stand by Ben's chair, half-listening to the forced chatter. My hands are shaking so I set my cup down and shove them in my pockets, but suddenly I've developed a full body chill that I can't stop. Catherine and Robert, Catherine and Ben, Ben and I - the vibes are so chaotic and intense, I can almost see them.
'I think I'll take off,' I say, 'I've got to work in the morning.'
In the kitchen, I glance back through the door. I thought Ben might follow me, but he stays put. Catherine sits on the ground at Robert's feet, looking up at Ben. She's not going to let him go, I realize, watching her smiling at him. And even though he is sitting stiffly, he's looking tenderly at her, and I can tell he doesn't want to be let go. Two chairs, three people and no room for me in that triangle.
'I need out of that mess,' I say, not realizing I even said it aloud until I hear Buckner agree from behind my shoulder.
'I'd say so, kid. I'd say so.' He gives me a sympathetic squeeze and turns me in the direction of the front door.
In my car, I wait one last hopeful moment, thinking Ben might yet change his mind, but he doesn't come. I know now he'll never choose me. Even if he gets over Catherine, he won't want me around to remind him. I can't blame him. I'm not sure I want anything around to remind me.
I wait for the warmth of the car to take away the last of my chill. I roll down the windows and drive along the river, watching the bats swoop under the bridges. The high sliver of moon looks like a hook, and beyond it is a faint star, all by itself. Like me - no longer part of anyone's line or shape or anything, just a glint of light shining on its own, off the hook.
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