ASK ME AGAIN
by Andy Spisak
Leah finished her call with the client and reached into the drawer for her handbag. She had agreed to meet Doug for lunch at twelve-thirty, and it was already ten minutes to noon. She would never make it through the mid-day traffic to reach the restaurant on time.
All morning she had been on the phone. The market had dropped again yesterday, and the calls began as soon as she arrived at her office. Leah was the newest investment advisor at the firm, so Wyatt assigned her the accounts that no one else cared to deal with—small affairs with little prospect for growth. Most of her clients had never thought about investments until they had to—because their spouses had died or their partners had fled.
As Leah checked the restaurant’s address on her phone, Alicia walked into her office. Alicia had recruited Leah from business school, and they became friends soon after Leah joined the firm. On most days she would stop by Leah’s office close to noon, and the two would head out to lunch.
Yesterday, as they were walking back to the office, Alicia confided that Wyatt had invited her to go with him next month to a three-day conference at a resort on the Eastern Shore. Leah knew that Alicia, with her Armani dresses and Amy Adams-red hair, had no need to exaggerate her appeal.
“Was he serious?” Leah asked.
Alicia looked at her and shrugged. “You know Wyatt. If bullshit were an Olympic sport, he’d be draped in gold. I’m surprised he even asked. He knows my father works at the Foreign Office and could scuttle his London deals with a few phone calls. Anyway, I was probably the third woman he asked.”
“Thanks for the heads-up, but I think I’m way down on his list,” Leah said.
“I wouldn’t be so sure. He wants to meet with us this afternoon. Something about a new investment product. He made a point of asking me to bring you along.”
Leah considered Wyatt’s meetings a burden of the job. He would begin with a joke that, although not overtly sexist or racist, often approached offense. Next, he would describe his weekend plans, which during the summer revolved around his boat, the Short Sail, which he docked in Annapolis. He would then turn to the purpose of the gathering, which more often than not involved trying to convince people to invest their money and their trust in products with questionable prospects.
Leah tossed the phone into her handbag. “I can’t go out with you today. I’m supposed to have lunch with this guy in Bethesda.”
Alicia stepped toward Leah and smiled. “So… who is he?”
“We were in some classes in grad school. I haven’t seen him since. He called me the other day and wants to get together.”
Alicia gave Leah a mischievous look. “For lunch?”
“Yeah. He said he wanted to catch up, that he had an idea he wanted to talk about.”
Alicia smiled. “As long as it doesn’t involve a trip to the Eastern Shore.”
Leah stifled a laugh. “Thanks. Hey, if I’m late for the meeting, can you cover for me with Wyatt?”
“Sure. I’ll tell him you’re at a job interview.”
Leah rushed past Alicia on her way out of the office. “He’d probably be glad to hear it.”
Leah had always thought of herself as a creative person and planned to go into advertising after finishing her MBA. Although she had an offer from a small ad agency in Atlanta, she also had a husband in the Army. Mitch was stationed in Virginia and could not accompany her to Georgia. So, a few weeks before graduation she attended a career fair sponsored by her school at the Four Seasons. A tall woman in a purple print blouse and black blazer offered Leah one of her business cards.
“Hello, I’m Alicia Stampe, McFadden Investments,” she said, as she handed Leah a folder of brochures.
“Leah Blythe.” She stuffed the material into her handbag and began surveying the room for her friend, Maddie, whom she was supposed to meet at the hotel.
“We’re young for an investment company, started twenty years ago. But we survived the recession. In fact, we’ve added several large accounts during the past year.”
“Thanks, but I don’t think I’d be a good fit,” Leah said.
“Well, I just think finance is too by-the-book. I was hoping for something with more possibilities.”
Leah scanned the room again for Maddie to no avail, but spotted a tapas bar tucked between displays on microfinancing and urban farming. Alicia sensed in Leah’s impatience an ambition driven more by restlessness than by ego.
“Tell me, Leah, what’s one of your proudest accomplishments?”
Leah shifted her weight to her back foot as she considered Alicia’s intent. “Well, when I was in high school I won the Oklahoma Geography Bee.”
“Really. So what was the deciding question?”
“What is the longest river in Canada?” Leah replied.
“The Saint Lawrence?”
“No, everyone thinks that. It’s the Mackenzie.”
Alicia laughed. “I should have known that. In the UK I could never take Commonwealth studies seriously. All of those far-flung countries. What does it mean, other than they have the Queen on their coins?”
Nonplussed by Alicia’s flippant comment, Leah handed Alicia her resumé and headed toward the empanadillas.
A few weeks later Alicia called and invited Leah to come to the office to meet Wyatt, who spent most of the interview prattling about his accomplishments. Leah found Wyatt glib, but harmless, and accepted his offer to join the firm, where she now spent most days assuring divorcées that their children’s education funds were secure and cautioning retirees about depleting their savings. And on this day, she was going to have lunch with a man she hadn’t seen in over a year.
* * *
Leah had met Doug in a marketing class in business school. She had stepped into the classroom and had taken a seat near the back of the room, just as the professor began asking the usual “why are you here” filler.
“I’m here because ‘Psychology and the Media’ is closed,” she said.
Doug turned around from a few rows in front of her. Another refugee, she thought. She was wearing a navy blue tee shirt with the inscription “I am not an Evil Weevil” in silver letters across her chest. After class Doug walked up to her and squinted at the design below the lettering on the tee.
“Is that an insect kissing a flower?” he asked.
“It’s a boll weevil—from the school I taught at in Oklahoma—it’s their mascot. He’s eying a cotton plant,” she said.
“Ah, so you’re not a bio major here by mistake.”
Leah weighed whether he was being sarcastic or just flirting. But he had noticed. And so did she.
The professor had paired them to work on a marketing study, and they agreed to get to the following week’s class early to discuss the project. Doug arrived first. He threw his backpack onto a small metal table and pushed it close to a corner in the back of the room, then dragged over a couple of folding chairs. He set the backpack on the floor and took out his iPad and a bottle of water. Leah walked in around ten minutes later. She was carrying a small canvas tote with a red and orange koi fish design.
“Sorry I’m late,” she said. “I don’t think I’ll ever get used to the traffic around here.”
Doug found her frustration a curious departure from her usual self-assurance. “No, it’s not Oklahoma. So, how did you wind up in Washington?” Doug asked.
She pulled over another chair and tossed the tote onto it. “My husband’s in the Army. I knew when I got married I’d be moving around, but when he told me about coming here, I didn’t want to go. He wants to start a business after he gets out. He thinks my MBA will come in handy. What about you?”
“My wife’s at Georgetown for her Ph.D. Jessica and I met at NYU. We got married after finishing school and came down here about a month later.” Doug reached for his bottle of water and almost tipped it over. “So besides the traffic is living here as bad as you thought?” he asked.
Leah looked into her tote and pulled out two tangerines. She rolled one across the table toward Doug, who began squeezing it like a stress ball. “I miss my mom, but otherwise it’s OK,” she said. “Mitch travels a lot, so school fills up the time. I’d only been out of Oklahoma once. My dad was a salesman—oil drilling equipment. The summer before my senior year in high school he won a trip to Padre Island—some kind of sales bonus. I remember going out to the beach in the middle of the night to watch the Perseids. It was the last good time we had as a family.”
“What happened?” Doug asked.
Leah leaned forward and began inching toward the edge of the chair. She looked at Doug and wondered if he was meddlesome or just curious. “He met a woman on one of his trips, at one of the gas sites in McAlester.”
“Are you still in contact?”
Leah disliked talking about her father, but she did not find Doug’s questions intrusive. Rather, she welcomed the invitation to vent. “Not much. A couple of months before I graduated high school he told my mom he was leaving. Just like that, as if we didn’t matter. He came to my graduation. I saw him a few times after I went off to college. I can’t stand seeing him with his new wife—he’s an asshole.”
Leah and Doug continued arriving at class early, sometimes to discuss an assignment, but often just to talk. One night Leah mentioned that she needed to speak to the professor after class. There had been some incidents on campus—a couple of students had been robbed—so Doug asked Leah if he could wait for her and walk her to her car.
“Sure,” she said, “I won’t be long.”
Doug walked outside, sat on a concrete step, and checked his phone for messages. Leah came out a few minutes later, and they began walking to the parking lot.
“Did you get things straightened out?” Doug asked.
“Yeah, I’m going to miss next week’s class. I asked for more time to turn in my research proposal.”
“Work conflict?” he asked.
“No, I’ll be in Oklahoma. Mitch’s brother and his wife just had a kid. We’re going for the christening.”
As they walked Doug reached for her hand and was surprised that she didn’t pull back. “Guess you’re looking forward to going home,” he said.
Leah looked down for an instant, then looked at Doug. “Yeah…though in some ways it seems like a dress rehearsal.”
When they got to her car she looked at him and smiled. He drew her closer and kissed her. Leah was startled but not offended. “What are you doing, Doug?” she asked.
“Where do you want to be, Leah?”
Leah pulled back and considered her various, precarious responses. “I don’t know. But I think you should be with Jessica.” She was no longer smiling.
* * *
Doug arrived at Café Paolo about ten minutes early. The noon hour sunlight reflected off the travertine tables, and for a moment he considered keeping his sunglasses on. The host brought him to a table that was adorned with a clear slender vase holding an orange bird of paradise. Leah walked in a few minutes later. She wore a cream-colored suit and a lavender blouse. She was wearing her hair longer than she had in school. It framed her face perfectly. Doug thought she looked magnificent, Leah and her Klein blue eyes. A waiter came to the table, handed them menus, and asked for a drink order. Doug ordered a gin and tonic.
“I’ll have a mojito,” Leah said.
Leah glanced around the room and focused on a poster of the Cinque Terre. She looked back at Doug and noticed that his tie matched the color of the sienna buildings in the poster. It was the first time Leah had seen him in a business suit, which she thought gave him a more serious bearing than she remembered from school.
“I was surprised to hear from you. It’s been a year since school. Did you go with that consulting firm?” she asked.
“Yeah, I was in Pittsburgh when I called. We have this client looking for new ideas for state lotteries. So far, we’ve come up with ‘Big Dog’—scratch off three fierce Dobermans, win ten thousand dollars. Maybe three Chihuahuas should be worth five bucks.”
Leah began to laugh. “Not exactly what we talked about in grad school.”
“Yeah, it’s ridiculous, but it’s what passes for business these days. We had a focus group and this fortyish housewife said we should have a game that offered a prize to attend celebrity awards shows. ‘You could call it Paparazzi!’ she said. The group loved it, of course.”
“And that drove you to call me?” Leah asked.
“I’ve missed talking with you.”
“We haven’t—since graduation,” she said.
“I wanted to call, but I thought you’d be busy with work. I imagined you taking dance lessons during lunch time.”
Leah had never thought about dance lessons, but they now appealed to her as an excuse to escape from the office. Doug’s aside reminded her of how he had a way of anticipating her.
The waiter brought them their drinks and asked for their order. Doug looked down at the faux-leather menus and asked the waiter for a few more minutes. Doug moved his gin to the side to clear some space between him and Leah.
“How’s your mother?” Doug asked.
“She’s doing great. I talked her into going back to school, so she took some classes at the community college in medical records administration. She’s working for a pediatrician and loves it. What about you?”
“Well, I’m planning to go to New York this weekend,” Doug said.
“A special occasion?”
“I’m going to see a singer, Melinda Giles. When I was at NYU I’d go to her shows at a small club in Brooklyn. I was listening to a jazz station the other day and heard one of her songs. She’s just starting to get some notice.”
“I guess Jessica’s looking forward to getting back to New York, even if it’s just for a weekend.”
“Jessica’s in Africa. She’s interning at the World Bank as part of her doctoral program. They sent her to Tanzania to work on a development project.”
“So you’re going by yourself?” Leah asked.
Doug paused for an instant and then just said it. “Actually, I’d like you to come with me.”
Leah, now both enticed and entangled, picked up her glass and fixed on the glossy flower on the table. “And here I thought you were looking for a good risotto.”
Doug didn’t respond immediately, a pause that gave Leah an opening.
“Tell me, Doug. What is it that you want?”
He looked across the table at Leah as she batted a swirl of hair that had fallen across her forehead. “I want to look back years from now and know I did everything I could,” Doug said.
Leah smiled and tilted her head to move the curl away from her eye. “I’m here now. Why not leave it at that? Sometimes it’s better not to want more,” she said.
“I can handle the disappointment.”
“I’m not talking about disappointment.” Leah leaned back in the chair; her shoulders dropped in a sigh. “A few weeks before I turned ten my mom took me shopping. We went to one of those big department stores, and I saw this jewelry box. It was dark red with a black and gold arabesque design. I asked for it for my birthday. My mom said it was too expensive, but I kept hoping—thought about it every day. On my birthday, she handed me my present. I tore off the wrapping as fast as I could. It was the box. I was so happy at first. But that night I was lying in bed, and I looked at it on the night stand. I felt this strange sadness coming over me. I no longer had the anticipation. I only had … it.”
“So, I should just keep the idea?” Doug asked.
Leah reached across the table and touched Doug on the hand. “See, it’s not that hard.”
Doug saw the waiter leaving a nearby table and gestured him over. “We should probably order.”
They finished lunch and headed back to their jobs. Doug got into his car and began checking his messages while driving back to the office. A couple of clients had questions that could wait until tomorrow. The last message was from his boss, who said he took the “Paparazzi!” idea to the senior managers. They were going to have the lawyers look into getting clearances, and he wanted to meet tomorrow morning to start a marketing plan. The thought of working on the silly game brought on a wave of dread, threatening the exhilaration of seeing Leah.
Doug called the office and told his boss’s assistant that he was going to see a client who needed to meet him right away. He exited the interstate onto a state highway that headed west, toward the mountains. He called up a playlist from his phone. Ella Fitzgerald began singing “Come Rain or Come Shine.” It was one of the songs he had listened to at the jazz club in Brooklyn. He turned the music louder until it filled the car as he drove past the trees and the road signs, over their long, jagged shadows across the highway.
On her way back to the office, Leah got a text from Alicia that she’d be leaving early to take her Springer Spaniel to the vet, but that she would fill Leah in on the meeting with Wyatt in the morning. Leah got back to the office around two-thirty, returned some phone calls, and worked on her monthly sales report before leaving a little before six. She stopped at the market on her way home to pick up a few things for dinner. She had just started slicing an avocado for a salad when Mitch got home. She walked out of the kitchen, put her arms around him, and kissed him.
“You’re home early tonight,” she said.
“They moved the briefing to tomorrow. Remember that field test I told you about? Well, I’m leaving for Fort Sill on Thursday. I’ll be there ten days,” Mitch said.
“Thursday? I didn’t think you’d have to leave until next week.”
“Yeah, they’re pushing it. At least I’ll have time to visit Jeff over the weekend.”
Leah smiled. “Tell him and Linda I said hello.”
Jeff was Mitch’s older brother—and template. He owned a construction supply business near Oklahoma City. He and Linda had been married eight years and had a couple of kids.
They walked back to the kitchen, and Mitch straddled the stool across the island from Leah, who resumed preparing dinner.
“Jeff said he wants me to take a look at some land. One of his customers is selling off parcels from a farm he inherited. He said there’s a ten-acre piece that would be perfect for building, after I finish up with the Army next year,” Mitch said.
Leah placed the paring knife on the counter and looked at Mitch. “And then what—you’ll join Jeff’s business?”
“I might. At least for a while, until I can start something of my own. I was thinking maybe comm support—cell towers, fiber optics, that sort of thing. It’s close to what I’m doing now,” Mitch said.
Mitch had often talked about life after the military, about returning to Oklahoma. But Leah found his new sense of purpose unsettling. She stepped away from the counter to check on the chicken she had put in the oven. She looked back at Mitch.
“That’ll take some money to get started. I won’t be earning what I’m making now back in Oklahoma,” she said.
“Don’t worry. I can work on that with Jeff. Maybe a loan to get me started. He’s flush,” Mitch said. “You’ll be close to your mom again. Maybe we can finally start our family.”
Leah placed the baking dish on a trivet. She put her hands on the edge of the island and leaned forward, mantis-like. “Sounds like you have it all worked out.”
Mitch grinned. “How about your day? Did Wyatt come up with any new scams?”
Leah shook her head and asked Mitch to help her carry the dinner to the table. She didn’t say much about her day, and she didn’t say anything at all about her lunch at Café Paolo.
The next day Leah got to her office just after eight. She noticed the light on in Alicia’s office and walked over. She placed her hand on the door frame and leaned in.
“Hi, Alicia. Sorry I got back after you left.”
“That must have been quite a lunch,” Alicia said.
“Not really. We were just catching up on things since school. Complaining about our jobs, wondering where we’d be in ten years.”
“How’s your dog?”
“Oh, she’s fine. It was just a check-up. She enjoys going there. The vet has a Yorkie she likes to play with.”
“So, what was the big meeting all about?” Leah asked.
Alicia stood up, pointed to some folders on her desk, and dismissed them with a flip of her hand. “Typical Wyatt—always a new scheme. He has some investments he wants us to push. He tried explaining them, but he didn’t make much sense. Something about diversified risk pools. He wants us to review these reports, then call some of our clients and get them to invest. I don’t think I can. I have to go back to London.”
“Why?” Leah asked, as she began walking toward Alicia’s desk to look at the folders.
“My mum’s health has taken a turn. My father called last night, and we had a long talk. I’m going back to be with her and help daddy,” Alicia said.
Leah walked around the desk and put her arms around Alicia. “I’m so sorry. Don’t worry; I’ll take care of these,” she said, pointing to the folders.
Alicia exhaled and sat down. “Thanks. They think she’ll be all right, but she’s in for a rough patch.”
“When will you be leaving?” Leah asked.
“Pretty soon. I’m going to tell Wyatt this morning. I’ve got to settle some affairs before I leave, but I hope to be back in London by next week.”
Leah gathered up the folders and glanced at the clock on Alicia’s desk. “Alicia, I’m sorry. I’ve got to run and make a call. We can talk more at lunch. See you around noon?”
“Sure. I’d better prepare for my talk with Wyatt,” Alicia said.
Leah walked back to her office. She took her phone out of her handbag and texted Doug, “Ask me again.”
Leah placed the phone on her desk and picked up a photo, which she had taken at her grandmother’s farm near Enid. Leah and her mother would visit for a few weeks each summer. The day she took it had been rainy, and she was bored. She and her equally restless cousin had had been playing a board game in the dining room, until they started to annoy each other and fuss.
Leah left the room and walked into the kitchen, where she found her grandmother reading a newspaper at the table. “Can I see the crossword?’’ Leah asked.
Her grandmother squinted over the top of her glasses and swatted at a pair of fruit flies circling her half-eaten peach. She turned to Leah and smiled. “In a minute, dear. I just have to finish this piece.”
“I’m just reading about a neighbor, Tom Gant. He was working on his truck, and it slipped off the support and crushed him.”
Leah drew back, startled by her grandmother’s unexpected reply. “That’s horrible.”
“It is—what a queer way to die.” Leah’s grandmother set the newspaper down and took Leah’s hand. “What is it, dear?”
“Jodie’s driving me crazy. I need to get away, but where?”
“Honey, my grandfather built this farm. He came here during the Land Run and claimed this. He farmed it until the day he died. I’ve lived here my entire life, just like my mother and father. You can go anywhere, Leah. It’s all right before you.”
Leah got up from the table and went to her room to get her camera. The rain had stopped, and there was still enough daylight to walk down to the woods, about a mile away. She set out bare footed across the broad field in back of the farm house. The wet soil squished between her toes. The rain had not cut the heat, and fog was beginning to form above the wet ground. She reached the woods and walked a few more yards toward the stream. She could make out two forms, visible through the drooping branches. She moved in their direction and saw two blue herons, erect and motionless in the stream. She stopped and hoped they would not notice her and flee as she framed the pair in her sight through an opening in the trees.
Leah placed the picture back on the desk. She was fourteen when she took it. It was before Mitch and before Doug, when she stood by the water and felt the terrible stillness.
About the Author:
Andy Spisak attended Boston University, where he earned a BA degree in history. He also has graduate degrees in international relations and statistics. After a career in public policy and economics he has begun a new phase of his life in writing. He and his family reside in Virginia and Hawai’i.