Wednesday, May 9, 2012

PLD Chapter 10



Keeley couldn’t remember dozing off, but she must have because before she knew it, Clay was gently shaking her and they were in his driveway. She rubbed her eyes sleepily. “I’m beat,” she said, stiffly crawling out of the truck. “And I think I smell.”

Clay rolled with laughter. “Whoops, didn’t mean to say that last part aloud,” she added sheepishly. Nice Keels, she thought as they left all the gear in the truck and stumbled inside.

“So are we labeling this a success then?” Clay asked, tossing his keys on the counter and wheeling towards his room. “Because Tuck and Sara go camping at least once a month. They’d be thrilled if we caught the bug.”

Keeley smiled at the way he said we and followed him into his room. She collapsed onto his bed as he shut the bathroom door. “Apart from a shortage of the tent time you promised,” she yelled. “I think yes. We can label the trip a success.”

She heard Clay laugh through the door. Idly, she wondered what how long he’d be in there. Clay always took a while in the bathroom—longer than her; she figured it had to do with the wheelchair. Not that she was going to ask anytime soon or anything. Eyeing the dresser she wondered if she had enough time to nab a clean shirt of his. Yes, she decided.

A few minutes later he came out, bare-chested and in old sweatpants. Keeley had crawled under the covers; tired enough not to care how dirty or sweaty or smelly either one of them were.

Clay quickly transferred onto the bed, positioning his legs with hands. Keeley eyed him appreciatively. “You know,” he said, smiling and propping on his elbow once he was done, “We could definitely work in more tent time if we go again in, say…in two or three weeks?”

Keeley smiled and rolled over to kiss his forehead. He tasted salty and…is that grit on my lips now? “I haven’t had that much fun camping in a while. But…”

“What?” he asked playfully and nipped at her ear. “Afraid the next time won’t be as good?”

She smiled coyly, shutting her eyes and enjoying the feeling of his kiss. “Oh I’m sure it will be.”

“Damn straight it will be,” he whispered huskily, rolling over and positioning himself above her. He lightly kissed her eyelid, making her shudder with pleasure. “It’ll be—”

“But,” she interrupted a little too loudly, opening her eyes and breaking the spell. “I already have my next two weeks planned out.”

Clay pulled back, an incredulous expression on his face. “You’re kidding me.”

Keeley had to laugh at his expression—one of puzzlement and disbelief. “Two weeks from Thursday I go before the doctoral board and defend my dissertation.” She sighed and stared at the molding of his ceiling. “That means I’ve got two weeks left to get all my loose ends tied up and polish everything. Two weeks to have a nervous breakdown from stress. Two weeks left to become an expert on the social stratifications of Native Americans of the Southwestern part of North America, as evidenced by their burial practices and tangible artifacts.” Keeley turned her head to look at Clay; his expression made it clear he wondered where this all was going. She smiled apologetically and patted his chest. “I’m allowing myself no time for distractions. And that includes you.”

“I’m a…” Clay kissed her lightly on the shoulder.“Distraction?”

“A very welcome one.” A very welcome oneKeeley thought as his mouth moved lower and lower down her body, making her shudder. Clay raised his head and looked at her impishly, waggling his eyebrows suggestively; his deep green eyes twinkling. In an uncharacteristically high voice she added, “In two weeks that is.”

He rolled his eyes and sighed heavily, but he was smiling. “You drive a hard bargain Ms. Future Dr. Keeley Burns. You do drive a hard bargain.”  

“I’m driven.” She said shrugging. Clay gave her a funny look and she smacked herself. I’m driven? What the hell Keels?

“Well, you know,” he started, grinning roguishly. “I’m driven too.”   

“Oh?” Keeley managed to squeak out as he lifted her hair and gently kissed the nape of her neck.

“Oh.” He nodded as he leaned up, whispering in her ear. “Especially after two weeks.”

***

Keeley tossed her phone across the room in frustration as the chorus of Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds started spouting from it. After three text messages from her mom, one more call from her dad, and a voicemail from Jan came through, she finally got up and turned the damn thing off.

Ah. Peace at last.

Five days into her self-imposed exile into the land of academia and her dad had amassed a routine of calling at least twice a day to see if there was any way he could help her prepare. Her mother, bless her, was just as bad—worse even, calling with an endless stream of what she thought would be welcome distractions and gossip. But the news (and vision) of her parent’s eighty-year old neighbor walking around at seven in the morning in a bathing suit, while frightening, was not exactly the de-stressor she was looking for. Nor was the promise of relaxing evening full of margaritas at Zia Taqueria on upper Meeting Street with Jan—enticing and tempting? Yes. Oh God, yes. But welcome at the moment? Negative.

She pushed the papers and highlighters and sticky tabs to one side of her desk and laid her head down. Burned out. That’s how she was feeling—burned out. Frustrated, anxious, stressed. For the past week she’d slowly poured over her 273-page magnum opus, trying hard to reacquaint herself with all of the experimental details, protocols, results, and conclusions from her graduate school years. That was the easy part. Predicting the questions her examiners might ask and preparing viable answers was hard. And when she found the trouble spots and unresolved issues within her dissertation that they were sure to use as ammunition against her, it made her nervous enough to wet her pants. 

Shit, she thought and banged her head lightly on the desk. I’m screwed.

“Dammit, Dean,” she grumbled as a hesitant knocking at her office door pulled her out of her preparation inspired stupor. That’s it; I’ve put up with this long enough. Getting up she yelled, “You know the code to get in!”

Three more knocks, less hesitant this time. Keeley shot out of her chair and crossed her office in three steps. Jerking the door wide open, she let the frustration she’d harbored towards her stuffy office-mate for the last five years finally spill out. “You know that I’m trying to work here. So why in the—is that…is that food?”

“Best Thai in town.”

Clay was sitting outside her office, still dressed in his clothes from work, a bag of food in his lap and a thermos stuck between his legs. The lopsided, cautious grin on his face immediately softened Keeley’s insides. When she didn’t say anything, Clay hurriedly went on, “I know you said no distractions, but—”

She waved his sentence away and pointed to the thermos. “Is that coffee?”

He nodded. “Thank you,” Keeley breathed and bent down to give him a tired, but surprisingly eager kiss.

Clay beamed as he rolled past her into the narrow, closet-sized office. Keeley noticed with an embarrassed pang that his chair barely fit between her desk and Dean’s. He sat the food bag on her desk and procured two Styrofoam cups, offering her one filled with black coffee. Grabbing the push rims of his chair and pushing up for a moment, shifting his weight and grinned cockily and shrugged. “What can I say? I’m good.” 

Keeley laughed, thinking how great it felt to do so. They ate in comfortable silence; thirty minutes later, Clay said a quick goodbye. As he left, Keeley felt something deep down inside of her, some emotion that hadn’t been tapped into for a while, welling up in her chest. Here it was, ten thirty on a Tuesday night and he’d made the trek all the way to her school, found her office hidden in a back corner of the anthropology department (not an easy feat), and brought her food.

And food at this point trumped the only thing Brent had ever brought whenever he had visited her office late at night: his libido.

Clay’s random unannounced coffee breaks and late night visits continued throughout the next week and a half. Keeley had to admit, she was slightly disappointed that the late nights and periodic study breaks didn’t give way to long and steamy make-out sessions or other things. By the same token, when Thursday morning dawned bright and early and much faster than she thought possible, she realized that the fact Clay had never lingered longer than thirty minutes at a time had actually made a difference.

Not that the realization stopped her from calling her mom at six-thirty in the morning in full-blown freak out mode, but the fact that she’d had ample time to prepare, made the freak out a little less intense.

Deep breath, you’re fine, she told herself as she hurriedly changed into a charcoal gray suit. Her legs and fingers felt like jelly. “For the love of Pete Keels, calm down,” she said aloud as she stared at her reflection in the mirror. Nothing about her cool exterior betrayed the fact that her insides were jelly. Except maybe the fact that she’d missed a few buttons on her blouse. Keeley grabbed her keys, a couple of Rolaids, and ran out the door. Deep breath. “You can do this.”

The phone rang while she was driving. Without glancing at the screen she answered. “The witching hour begins at ten.”

Keeley heard a cool laugh on the other end and her insides seized as she realized her it was. Before she could decide if throwing the phone out the window in anger was a good idea or not, her ex-husband cleared his throat and went on. “I heard through the grapevine that today was the day.”

“You know, you’ve got your nerve Brent,” she said through gritted teeth as she exited the expressway. She’d only answered because she’d expected it to be her parents or Jan. Or Clay. But not Brent. He had barely congratulated her when she’d been accepted into graduate school; why would her completing her dissertation be any different. “Calling me today of all days.”

Brent sighed on the other line, “Yeah,” he drew the word out and cleared his throat. “Well…listen. I was just calling to say good luck today Keeley. You’ve worked hard. And you deserve it.” Brent paused and she almost hung up. “And Kelli says good luck too.”

Asshole.

 Keeley grunted and pressed the “end” button, furiously whipping her car into a parking spot. For a moment there, when she had recognized his laugh, she’d been touched Brent had taken the time to call her with well wishes. That was the man she’d fallen in love with during college.

Then, he’d opened his mouth and the illusion had been shattered.

Keeley sniffed deeply, trying to shake the funk that was threatening to ensnare her. She slammed her car door shut, taking her frustration on it.

A quick glance at her watch told her she had less than thirty minutes before D-Day commenced. Get up at five forty-five and still manage to run late. As usual. She hurriedly started walking towards the room her defense would take place in. Her heart swelled as she saw Jan, sitting cross-legged on the ground reading Cosmopolitan outside of it. “Jan…”

Her friend shot up. Smiling, she gave Keeley a tight squeeze and then held her at arm’s length. “Ten years. And a whole lot of shit. What sort of best friend would I be if I wasn’t here today babes?”

Speaking of…she thought wryly. She’d have a nice vent about Brent later on. Keeley laughed, the sound was thick and chocked. “Thanks Jan.”

Jan shook her finger sternly at her, but she was smiling. “I take it all back if you get sappy on me. I’m the sappy one, remember?” Then she playfully popped Keeley in the back of the head. “And don’t look so damn nervous girl; if your advisor didn’t think you were ready, you wouldn’t be here. You’ve got this.”

And with that sentiment she gave Keeley the thumbs up sign and sank back into her previous post on the floor. Jan was still in that same position three hours later when Keeley re-emerged three hours later and collapsed down beside her. “So celebratory margarita’s tomorrow?”

Keeley rolled her head around to look at her best friend and grinned a bit crazily. She felt buoyant; it was as if a huge weight had just been lifted off her chest. She was done. She’d done it. Five years, lots of research, 273-pages, three hours straight of questioning, and just a little red tape left to maneuver and she was finally Keeley Burns, PhD.

True, she had no job. And she had no clue what she was going to do after her commencement ceremony in a week. But for the first time—in an extraordinarily long time—she felt free and happy. She grabbed the proffered phone out of Jan’s hand and quickly dialed Clay’s number to share the good news with him.

***

Warm lights sparkled through the windows and a tantalizing aroma wafted through the open door as Clay and Keeley stood outside waiting to be called for their table later that night. After ten minutes, the stuffy looking maitre d’ poked his head out of the door. “Dr. Burns, party of two?”

“Dr. Burns?” Keeley looked down at Clay; he was trying hard to suppress a smile. 

Clay held up his hands defensively. “I don’t know why you’re looking at me like that,” he said, looking innocent, as he followed the maitre d’ into the restaurant, popping a little wheelie to get over the threshold. “I didn’t tell them put ‘doctor’ in front of your name.”

The maitre d’ mumbled something that sounded suspiciously like “No, you just insisted,” and in turn, received a dirty look from Clay. 

Keeley smiled as she let him lead the way, walking slowly behind him. The maitre d’ led them to a narrow, albeit intimate, corner of the restaurant. Their table was situated narrowly beside another and directly underneath a giant mural of a man and woman on a Vespa riding through Italy. As he removed one of the chairs for Clay and walked away, she looked up at the painting. “Well, that’s not ostentatious or anything.”

Clay laughed as he poured them both a glass of wine. “Not a bit,” he said as he handed her a glass, and raised his own. “Congratulations, Dr. Burns.”

She smiled and took a sip of her own wine, sort of wishing she could just go collapse on her bed. “Thanks Mr. Whitlow.” 

Keeley opened the menu but she didn’t glance at it. Rather, her mind was far away. Now that the stress of having to complete, submit, and defend her work was over, she felt brain dead. The past two weeks were of nonstop going were catching up with her—making her both mentally and physically fatigued. And the white zinfandel she was sipping certainly wasn’t helping.

“Shrimp scampi for me,” Clay said as the waiter suddenly appeared beside their table. “Dr. Burns?”

“Oh! Umm…”Crap. “I’ll just have spaghetti.” Please let there be spaghetti be on the menu.

 The waiter nodded curtly and disappeared. Clay took a sip of his wine and then smiled. “So, question: what happens now?”

“I sleep for the next week,” she deadpanned. Clay laughed. “And then my family’s comes in to town next weekend for my commencement and a celebration. And then I enter into the world of being an out of work, over-qualified, knowledge-seeking academic.”

Clay raised his eyebrows at the sharp edge to her voice. “Sorry,” she quickly tried to apologize. “I’m not much fun when coming off a stress high.”

Clay shrugged and grabbed his silverware. Unrolling his spoon from his napkin, he swiftly steered the conversation to smoother waters. With a serious look and monotone voice, asked, “So, Dr. Burns, tell us: have you always aspired to be an expert in the field of archaeology?”

When Keeley didn’t laugh or answer, he waved the spoon in front of her face. Clay cocked his head at her and exhaled. “Keeley?”

“Sorry, just thinking.” A flash of confusion crossed Clay’s face. Then it was gone. Keeley laughed belatedly at his question.

Clay dropped the spoon on the table and frowned. “Why are you laughing? That’s my best Anderson Cooper impersonation.”

The indignant edge in his voice only made her laugh harder.“I’m sorry. But that was awful. Anderson Cooper doesn’t even sound like that!” 

Or look like you, she thought giddily as the wine buzz kicked in and she took in his brown dinner jacket and mint green Oxford shirt appreciatively.  Keeley looked pointedly at the spoon he was waving. “And I think he probably has better table manners.”

Clay rolled his eyes. “Just for that,” he said pointing the spoon at her, “No celebratory anything after dinner.”

“Nothing?” she asked with a coy smile, fairly sure he was kidding but not positive. After all, they did have a lot of time to make up for. And mentally exhausted or not…she’d be willing to take one for the team in this situation. “Not even—”

“Nothing,” he repeated. “In fact, I’m so offended that I may even let you pay for your own celebratory dinner.”

Keeley balled her napkin and tossed it across the table at him, laughing as it hit him squarely in the chest. He raised his eyebrows, grinned, and threw it back. The waiter arrived with their food, looking at them disdainfully.

They ate in silence for a few minutes, enjoying the music coming from a stage situated to their right where a jazz band played softly. After a few minutes Clay nudged her, “You never answered my question.”

Keeley quickly swallowed and put her fork down. “Clay,” she said drawing out his name. “I’ve been answering questions all day.”

He gave her a pointed look.

“It’s embarrassing,” she sighed.

“Oh come on.” He laughed and took another sip of wine. “Tell you what. Answer my question that’s ‘embarrassing’ and then you can ask me one.”

“I’m going to think of a doozy one to ask you, Mr. Whitlow!” she laughed, never intending to make good on her threat. “In fourth grade I told my mom I wanted to grow up and get my PhD in history.”

“Now what’s embarrassing about that?” She shrugged. Clay wrinkled his nose in distaste and went on. “Except that you actually liked history. Seriously Keeley?"

She nodded, laughing at his expression. “Then I got to college and my first history class was a disaster. Meanwhile, I fell in love with anthropology and passed that class with flying colors. So, I changed paths,” Keeley shrugged. “Plus, digging in the dirt is more fun than constantly writing papers.”

“Because you didn’t end up doing that or anything.” Clay said laughing. At Keeley’s expression he quieted and took a bit of his pasta. “But anyways, uh, digging in the dirt rocks.”

Keeley laughed at the quick change of tune. “You think?”

He grinned boyishly. “I grew up running around construction sites that my dad was supervising. There’s always dirt and mud there somehow, whether it’s rained or not. My brothers and I had the time of our lives whenever we went to work with Dad. And, we ruined a lot of good school clothes too."

Somehow, that doesn’t surprise me she thought as she laughed at the anecdote. Keeley could all too easily picture a young Clay, running around the skeleton of a building, playing hide and seek and other kids games, somehow ending up covered in mud. Suddenly the image in her head morphed into a grown Clay, which made her smile even more.

His voice pulled her thoughts out of the gutter they were headed towards as he continued. “Dad was just as bad as us. He’d run around in the mud with us, help us dig holes for the posts and foundations of the buildings we were imagining in our heads, acting like a little kid the whole time.” Clay smiled fondly at the memories. Then he chuckled. “He still does, when my five-year-old nephew comes to work with my brother Mark.”

Keeley smiled. “Uncle Clay doesn’t help with digging around in the dirt?”

He shook his head and grinned ruefully. A flash of something unidentifiable—regret, sadness?—flashed in his eyes. A moment later it was gone. “Not anymore. Surprisingly, not too many construction sites are wheelchair friendly. Nor is mud, for that matter,” he added.

Keeley felt her face flush as he said that, mentally kicking herself for bringing up something like that. It suddenly seemed so obvious. They finished their meal in silence.

As the waiter returned with dessert menus and Clay quietly ordered, she took a deep breath. Since she’d started dating Clay, something had been awakened inside of her. She was slowly losing some of the paralyzing cautiousness that had surrounded her aura her whole life. The sarcastic comments and questions she used to keep to herself—around any man, much less one as attractive as Clay Whitlow—suddenly spilled from her mouth. Of course, there were still some times when she stuck her foot so far down her throat it was almost impressive, but those times were becoming fewer and father between. And Clay seemed to take it mostly in stride. Everything was easy with him; the banter was natural and the flirting didn't freak her out so much anymore.

As their tiramisu arrived, Clay topped both their wine glasses off. A few minutes passed before he gave her a pointed stare. “What?” Keeley asked, unnerved and confused.

He grinned cockily and took a sip of his wine. “Just waiting for you to ask that doozy of a question you promised,” he crossed his arms and leaned back in his chair.

Keeley rolled her eyes. “I didn’t really ever plan on asking you a ‘doozy’ of a question.”

“Ouch,” he said with a wry grin. “I’m that uninteresting huh?”

“Clay!” she said blushing. “You know what I meant. I just don’t ask questions” 

He laughed warmly, the deep sound resonating in the restaurant now that the jazz band was gone. Then he looked he looked her straight in the eyes. Quietly he said, “But you do wonder them.”

A small part of her marveled at how intuitive he was. Boy, do I ever. Questions about what exactly he’d been doing on that roof in the first place, questions about all the “details” of his injury that he never wanted to quibble over and what they meant. In his life. In their relationship.  She nodded slowly.

He looked thrown off for a moment, surprised not by the fact that she wondered, but because she admitted it. Clay gave a low whistle and shook his head, a strange grin on his face. “Why don’t you just ask then?”

Keeley squirmed under his gaze. Now that he was confronting her, the cautiousness was back, wrapping its long tendrils around her. Damn, she thought as she struggled to think of what to say. She never had liked asking questions. The fear of ridicule or being invasive was too great. As she looked across the table at Clay though, all of sudden the fears seemed insignificant. 

And so stupid. 

"Three questions," she heard him say. "How about that? And you can make them as personal and invasive as you want. After all," his eyes twinkled with a familiar mischievous glint. "You are a nosy, knowledge-seeking academic now." 

Keeley threw her napkin across the table at him, laughing. Ah hell, why not? 

10 comments:

  1. Very nice. I loved getting some background details about Keeley. I'm quite excited to how these three questions play out!

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  2. Wow -absolutely wonderful. This was one of the best chapters ever ! Thanks a lot and please do continue soon

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  3. Marvelous and intriguing. Thanks for feeding our yearnings.

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    1. Thank you Eleanore!! :) Your suggestions helped a lot :) I'm excited too! ;)

      Aww, Anon, wow! That means a lot to me; thanks for your encouragement!

      Pepper, you are always SO encouraging! Thanks for the positive feedback! :)

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  4. I cannot WAIT to see what these two have in store coming up! They're both so caring and deserving of love; I know the Q&A session will be so good.

    Come on, EJ -- do I have to bring you some Thai food to keep your writing mojo in action? (Says the woman who should be typing, typing, typing...)

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    1. Thanks Jane :)

      Heehee...I am currently in front of my computer with Japanese (closest thing to Thai in my town lol) takeout! Your comment may have inspired me ;)

      Can't wait to read up on Jules and Jeff!

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    2. I typed that in and suddenly got my own craving for Asian food ;)

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  5. Ohhhhh...This ending is just mean!!!

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  6. I like how you're rounding out the characters with details of their not-with-each-other lives. And I love the humour in this story...not to mention the wee tummy-squishies thrown in. :D

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  7. Anon #1:

    But sooo good, yeah? :)

    Anon #2:
    Thank you! :)

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