RATING: PG-13 for language and sexual references
SERIES/SEQUEL: The second of Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Redhead, following "Those Who Cannot Do."
SPOILERS/CONTINUITY: Through "Chaos Theory," after which this becomes an AU. The story takes place in early autumn, 2002.
SUMMARY: Peter's not in love with her anymore, but he can still let her take him out to lunch.
DISCLAIMERS: ER is the intellectual property of Constant C Productions, Amblin Entertainment, and Warner Brothers Television. This original work of fan fiction is copyright 2002 Mosca. I make no profit, so it's protected in the USA by the fair use provisions of the Copyright Act of 1976. All rights reserved. All wrongs reversed. What color is the fish?
NOTES: Thanks to k and Katisha for being awesome beta women, and to The Distraction. This story is for Ali.
The poem excerpt at the beginning is from "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" by Wallace Stevens, and the whole series is a homage to that poem.
I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.
Elizabeth calls me on a Wednesday morning and asks me how long it's been since I've gone within Chicago city limits. When I can't give her an answer immediately, she tells me that we're meeting on the Northwest Side for a curry. "For a curry." Like she doesn't know that getting past Cleo and out of the house on my day off is like charging a layup past Shaquille O'Neal. Like she doesn't know how foreign she sounds, and how much that used to turn me on.
I get the third degree from Cleo, of course, but I make it sound important. I tell her I can't reschedule and let her think it's work-related. And I'm inbound on the Eisenhower. For a curry. With Elizabeth.
I stand outside the restaurant to wait for her, because it's a beautiful day and besides, sitting alone waiting in restaurants makes me fidgety. She always runs late, and even though I know that, I'm always on time. I stand leaning against the brick of the electronics store next door and watch two scruffy Indian guys try to jump-start one of those early '80s Oldsmobiles with the long, slim bodies and the sparkly copper paint that seems to blend into the rust. Elizabeth shows up just as the Oldsmobile's engine turns over. "You look well," she says. She looks like she's trying to decide whether to greet me with a kiss on the cheek. Without really meaning to, I flinch away from her. She doesn't give me the kiss, but she holds the door for me and waves me into the restaurant, reminds me who has always been on top.
I know she wants something from me because she starts out asking about what's going on in my life. She gets it out of the way so she can talk forever about whatever's bothering her. I shrug and say there's nothing new. I lie and say things are fine with Cleo. I don't want to get into it.
"How's Reese?" she asks.
"Great," I say. "He loves kindergarten. Loves being around other deaf kids." Hasn't learned to hate being the only black kid in his class, and I'm hoping to hell he'll take a long time figuring out he's supposed to. That's not what I wanted for him. Schaumburg isn't a completely white-bread suburb but we're the only black family on our street. Reese couldn't care less, but I can't shake the feeling that my neighbors are waiting for me to bring their property values down.
Maybe I'd be able to shake it if Cleo weren't constantly reminding me that we stand out. I've got more in common with the doctors and lawyers in our subdivision than I ever did with the people in my old neighborhood. Sometimes it seems like Cleo's trying to make us look unfriendly. I'm never going to be one of those fathers who coaches the T-ball team or organizes the Easter egg hunt, but I don't see why we've got to be bad neighbors. I could swear I hear my mother entering into the argument: "Why you gotta be inhospitable like that, Peter? Why you gotta always be listenin' to that woman?"
When I hear my mother's voice in my mind, Cleo is always "that woman." Elizabeth was usually "that white woman," but it felt less harsh. Like Ma figured that's where I'd end up, and she'd gotten used to the idea.
"How about Ella?" I say.
"Walking, talking, getting into all sorts of trouble," Elizabeth says.
"But that's not what you brought me here to talk about," I say.
"What do you mean, Peter? I wanted to see you. It seems like I never see you anymore."
"Oh, don't give me that bullshit."
"It's the truth," she says. "If I'd just wanted to talk something out, I'd have called you on the phone."
"But you wanted to... talk something out."
"There's... there's someone I've been-- well, not exactly dating, it's more like--"
"Sleeping with?" I guess.
"Not even," she laughs. "I-- That's not to say it hasn't happened a few times, but--"
"So what's wrong? Are you worried that it's too soon after Mark?"
She shakes her head, and all those bright red curls rustle around her face. "If I'd been worried about that, I doubt I would have slept with her in the first place."
She looks stricken, like she didn't mean to let that pronoun escape. To be honest, I'm not shocked. Surprised. But coming from Elizabeth, that kind of thing doesn't shock me. I think it shocked me more that she would go after someone as safe and boring as Mark Greene. It shocked me that she would want to get married. To lock up all the things that made her fascinating and try that hard to lead a normal life. It's like she took away the possibility that I could comfort myself by believing that she and I had broken up because we didn't want the same things.
"I didn't plan on any of this," she says. "It snuck up on me."
"What-- what do you want me to say, Elizabeth?"
"I want you to be horribly offended and march out in a huff, saying that you'll never speak to me again."
"I wouldn't do that," I snort.
"It would certainly make it easier for me to decide whether to pursue this."
"You want me to tell you what to do?" I say.
She sighs. "I want to not have to make hard decisions." She picks at her food. "And I'm not even sure that it is a hard decision. I can't escape the feeling that if-- if she were a man, I wouldn't be having second thoughts."
And I understand why she needed to talk to me, and me specifically. She's terrified. I wonder if I had the same look in my eyes when she first came on to me, and when it first occured to me that I was falling for a white woman. She and I both know that all these superficial accidents of color and gender shouldn't make a difference, but they do. You worry about what everyone else is going to think, and the world doesn't take a minute to look around and get wiser just because you do.
"Maybe you wouldn't be," I say.
"And maybe I shouldn't be," she says. "I should acknowledge that I'm attracted to her and I like being with her, and that should be enough, shouldn't it?"
"I don't know," I say. But I do know, and she's right. I just don't know if that's what she wants me to say. "I think you should do what will make you happy, Elizabeth," I add. I think she should do whatever she damn well pleases, like she's always done. I don't think that should have to change.
"She does," Elizabeth says. "She does that."
"Good," I say.
"When I'm with her, Peter... When I'm with her, there's no question that I want to be with her. It's only in the times in between that I have any doubt. And I know that if I never say anything to her, she'd be perfectly content to be my friend. We are friends, or at least that's the pretense. She'll never push me into anything, and I feel like... I need to be pushed."
"What do you-- want me to push you?"
She laughs. "No, more like keep me from turning tail and running away before I can persuade myself to jump."
"You... you like her," I say. I must sound like a complete idiot. Not that Elizabeth ever minded making a fool out of me.
She giggles. "I do."
"Tell me about her."
"I don't want to-- I'm not comfortable saying who it is," she says. "Not just yet."
"It's someone I know?"
She gives me a Cheshire Cat grin. "Maybe."
In my mind, I am making a list of every medical professional in the greater Chicago area who's rumored to be a lesbian. I can't even hazard a guess. I can't see Elizabeth with any of them.
"She's a bit shy," Elizabeth says, and at first I'm not sure if she's covering her tracks or answering my question. "Not quiet, really, but shy. she's got an odd sense of humor. She's got an opinion on everything, and she'll want to talk it out with you-- argue it out, really-- but she won't hold it against you. It seems like she'd be a judgmental person, but she's not, which is the exact opposite of Mark, who seemed so accepting but moralized about everything. She's-- she's so unlike him. And I suppose I need that."
I'm still not sure why she needed someone like Mark in the first place. I never had anything against him as a person-- I kind of liked him, in fact-- but I couldn't figure out what Elizabeth saw in him. He was nice. Boring. I think of Elizabeth pulling me into the showers in the locker room for a quick one before the next appendectomy, and I wonder if Mark would have gone for that. Sometimes it seemed like he was trying to cure her. Like the things she does that make you want to shush her or say, "Not now, baby" needed to be repaired, when those are the things that are thrilling about her.
It's not my place to approve or condemn Elizabeth's lovers, but I can't help it. I don't think it's too much to ask that she stick to people who are at least better for her than I was.
"I'm rambling on like a schoolgirl, aren't I?" she says.
"I-- I don't mind," I say.
But she doesn't seem to want to talk about her girlfriend-- or whatever it is she wants to call her-- anymore. She steers the conversation to County gossip. When I worked there, I avoided knowing anything about anyone's business. I thought it made me that much better, that much more professional, than anyone else. Carter would get so excited about some nugget of information about who was fucking whom, and I'd brush him off. Now, I'm hearing it all from so far away. It's like running into some guy from high school and finding out that he's gotten older, had a couple of kids, built himself a career. That his life didn't freeze in time like your memory does.
We're finished eating, and Elizabeth doesn't like leaving Ella with the nanny any more than she has to, so we say goodbye. The radio says there's some accident blocking the outbound Ike, so I take the local roads home. I watch the dense low-rise buildings segue into the cramped brick postwar houses of the inner suburbs, and then into sprawling strip malls and subdivision gates. All the houses are hidden from the main roads, tucked along residential lanes that curl like intestines. Sometimes I'll wake up disoriented in the middle of the night, wondering why I can't hear cars going by. When I was a kid, that kind of silence was how I thought things would sound when the world ended.
But no, the sound of the world ending is the sound of me pulling my car into the garage of my house on Whispering Oak Drive. I walk out onto the driveway once I've parked the car, and I look out down the winding, treeless street where I live. That's Reese, in the driveway two doors down. The blond-haired kid that lives there has one of those free-standing kid-size plastic basketball hoops that you can set up anywhere, and the two boys are playing while Cleo chats with a woman who I guess is the other little boy's mother. My first instinct is to herd my fiancee and my son inside, to protect them. But what the hell. My son is playing basketball with a hearing white kid, and he has no reason to see anything wrong with that. Why should I give him one? This is progress. We should all of us be that unafraid to jump.
I go over to the neighbor's driveway. Cleo kisses me hello. "How was your lunch?" she says, dripping malice.
"Good," I say. She looks at me like she expects more from me: like after three years I'm going to all of a sudden give her the details of the very few aspects of my life that don't directly involve her. "Can we talk for a minute?" I say. She follows me into our own driveway and stands with her arms crossed. "Cleo," I say, because I haven't figured out the rest of the speech yet.
"Yes?" she says.
"Do you think... how do you think things are going between the two of us?" I am studying the tiny imperfections that are starting to spread through the asphalt; I am playing with my fingernails.
"I think things are going good," she says. "I think we've worked a lot of things out lately."
"Because I think maybe... maybe you've worked a lot of things out, and I've gone along with them because I didn't want to get into it."
"Is-- is that how you feel, Peter?"
"Sometimes," I say.
"Then you should have told me."
"I'm telling you," I say. "This is how I'm telling you."
"All right. In the future, I'll try to take your opinion more into consideration. Even if I have to beat that opinion out of you. Will that do?" Cleo's method of avoiding an argument is to present a solution before anyone has time to air grievances, then show off her beauty-queen smile. That, or to walk out of the room. I used to fall for it: I used to blame myself for it. I know her better now.
"I don't think-- I don't think that's going to be enough anymore," I say. "I think... we need some time apart."
"You saying you want to break up with me?" she says. "I thought you'd stopped being like that. Running away as soon as it got difficult."
"Maybe it's not even possible," I mutter.
"Peter, who did you have lunch with today?" she says.
"I told you," I say, in case I made a more explicit excuse than I remember.
"No, you said something vague about meeting a colleague in the city and jumped in the car like you were afraid I was going to follow you."
I sigh. "I had lunch with Elizabeth," I say. "And I didn't tell you because I know what you think of her, and I don't want to have to hear it."
"She put you up to this," Cleo growls.
"No," I say.
"But what? You still miss her or something, Peter? You trying to get me out of the way so you can get back with her?"
"Elizabeth and I know we're not right for each other," I say. "She had the sense to-- to break it off before things got bad. I wish I'd had that kind of sense with you."
"Things never got bad," she says, shaking her head.
"Not for you," I say.
She takes her engagement ring off slowly and presses it into my hand. "Why don't you take Reese to the children's museum on Saturday, and I'll come get my stuff."
"All right," I say. I realize that this is the first time I've ever dumped a girlfriend. It's usually me who isn't good enough for them. I ought to be upset or at least feel empty, have some kind of sense of loss. But what I want to do is watch my happy son play basketball. Maybe it's because he's the only person in my life that I have always been certain I love.
I stand silently with my neighbor for a minute. "Is everything all right?" she asks.
"Yeah," I say. "It's-- it's nothing."
She flashes me a fake but comforting smile. She knows there's something going on, but she also knows that she doesn't know me well enough to expect me to tell her about it. "It looks like they're really having fun," she says.
"Yeah, it does," I say.
"I'm really glad Jacob's made a friend," she says. "He's such a quiet little boy, you know, sometimes I get worried." She says it like this isn't the first time our sons have played together. Reese is way too young to have a social life that I'm not aware of.
"Reese has always been kind of shy around hearing kids," I say. "It's good that they found each other, I guess."
"They don't seem to have any trouble communicating." Her smile is genuine now.
"Funny how that works," I say.
"Dad, look!" Reese shouts. He doesn't usually vocalize when he knows I'm watching him, but he's at least learned that talking gets people's attention.
"I'm watching," I sign.
Reese runs a few yards back from the basketball hoop, a distance large enough to present ample challenge for a five-year-old. He pulls the ball into his chest and fixes his eyes on the hoop. He leaps forward as he releases the ball, which arcs cleanly into the net.
"Nice shot, man," I say and sign. He just grins back.
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