|OFF THE RECORD
(or: The Life and Opinions of Tristram Cates, Gentleman)
This is my first story.
Thank you, E and M—the best influences, and cheerleaders, around.
* * *
HUDSON UNITED FIRE UNDER SUSPICION
Blaze kills four, injures dozens on eve of new contract
By Melinda Bergin
Sun Staff Reporter
… Staff Reporter T.S. Cates contributed to this story.
* * *
Before long, the heat from the fire combined with the press of bodies behind the police line had helped me sweat through my favorite French blue shirt. The flames were starting to die down, but they cast an eerie light on the already unnaturally bright riverfront. The lights from the row of plants made the stars look dull, and I followed the line of factories to the glow of the bridge and the nearby skyline of the city.
I knew they were trying to keep the press back, but I’d fact-checked a story the other day on the contract changeovers and cross-referenced enough suspect names to be interested. I admit it, though; everything that happens in this city interests me. It’s what helped me survive years of writing about snowplow shortages and state senators’ wives’ minor colds. My interest stretched even down the Jersey Turnpike, where a hunch—okay, a tip-off from a favorite source—had drawn me earlier that evening.
It was scary. Not scary like crushing mob scenes I’ve covered or even chalk outlines and carnage, but terrifying in the helplessness that seemed to pervade the scene. The emergency workers were doing their thing, but behind the police lines, interested bystanders, the encroaching press, and concerned loved ones had no choice but to watch.
The woman next to me confessed, peeling off her jacket and pushing sweat-slick hair from her face, that she was certain her late-shift husband was inside. They weren’t letting even family through, and the area was pretty well shielded by this point, but even myopic me could see that some of the bodies wheeled into the waiting ambulances looked pretty bad. I was jotting notes in the red and white glare of the emergency vehicles when the chirp of my cell phone somehow cut through the noise enough for me to hear it. I yanked it out of my pocket, apologetically flashing my press pass for the disapproving man to my right, as if to signify Official Business. “Cates,” I answered briskly, trying to tuck the tiny phone against my shoulder long enough to flip over my notebook in the hopes of snagging a passing cop. The life of a journalist is—
“Tris? Where are you?”
I recognized John’s tone of calm crisis, the same I’d heard a few years ago when the printers decided to strike at the height of the gubernatorial campaigns. Totally in control while comprehending completely the seriousness of the situation—one of the many traits of his I admired. Unfortunately, the tone rarely signified good things to come for me, and John was no longer my editor.
“Working?” I tried.
“Are you asking me or telling me? Cathy already said you left hours ago”—damn our overly efficient receptionists—“and what is all that noise?”
“I’m stuck in traffic?” That would explain the sirens, right? The man next to me was shaking his head and I noticed a woman with a notebook and a most impractical pair of pumps jostling her way towards the front. Someone was coming out of the building and I’d be damned if Fetish Heels was getting a statement before I did.
“Tris. It’s after 11. I’ve been trying to track you down since eight, and I am not playing games. Are you all right? Where have you been?”
Heels, with the aid of a well-placed elbow, was fast approaching. I tried to tune out the other end of the phone, but was jerked back to reality with the barked: “TRIS!” I grabbed the phone and covered the mouthpiece as best as I could to keep the inevitable dressing down private.
“I’m fine, I’m sorry, and I have to go…I’ll explain everything later.” I paused for half a second, then blew a kiss into the phone, slammed it shut, and pocketed it; thinking again, I switched off the ringer and headed into the fray.
The crowd was pushing and in what I’ll admit wasn’t the smartest decision I’ve ever made—corresponding nicely with the possibly fatal phone conversation—I ducked under the barrier and emergency tape and was attempting to grab the spokesperson when I hit a solid blue wall. I looked up to find that the wall belonged to a solid blue policeman, whose face I had to crane my neck to see. It did not look amused. “Those are there for a reason, kid,” he growled, grabbing my arm and gesturing at the barriers.
With a bravery perhaps lent by the insult of being referred to as kid, I snapped back at him—cliched, I know—that the people wanted answers. I pointed with my free arm at the anxious family members as the officer steered me away.
“If you care so much about their pain, get back where you belong and let us do our job,” he responded, preparing to muscle me back through the barrier and away from the story. He had a good fifty pounds on me and they were fifty rock-hard pounds. On the one hand, I can’t stand backing away from a story. On the other hand, one of the best pieces of advice John had given me was “pick your battles.”
I drove my free elbow into the officer’s midsection and brought a foot down hard on his instep, yanking free of his grip and trying to dart away from him as he responded to the pain.
What? I didn’t say it was the best advice I’ve ever TAKEN.
I certainly wished I’d taken it a second or two later when the officer tackled me, threatened handcuffs, and informed me with a bit too much cheer that I was “well worth a black mark on [his] record.” My throat hurt too much from the chokehold to shout police brutality, so I kept quiet as he wrestled me away from the scene, wrote me a fine, and told me I was lucky not be brought up on assault charges. I muffled a “so are you” and rubbed at my arms as pitifully as I could. In what I thought was a touching example of the unity of the police and journalists, he allowed me to stick around and keep taking notes since “all you write is crap anyway.”
I hobbled back into the fray. I was starting to seriously worry. I’d been due home hours ago; John had sounded anything but happy; and even I was beginning to wonder if I was in over my head. I’d spent years trying to convince John I was ready for the big time, though, and I tried to assure myself that a few bruises and a ticket shouldn’t keep me from a promising story I knew I could handle. Still, my knees were a bit shaky when the jacketless woman who’d introduced herself earlier asked me if I was all right. I told her I was fine, and when she confided, in tears, that she was pregnant, I put my arms around her and wished I’d never listened to my source. I wished I’d never heard of Hudson United and more than that I wished John were here. But I’d kept myself from that possibility, and as I hung on to the weeping wife I cursed my stupidity.
* * *
Let me pause for a minute for some deep background.
My name is Tristram Shandy Cates, and this is the story of my life.
Okay, slight correction. This isn’t really the story of my life; I’ve just always wanted to say that. And no one except my passport is allowed to string my names together like that. If you’re wondering, my birth and subsequent naming were the result of the possibly unfortunate joining—mind and body—of two overzealous and inappropriately creative academics. My parents were doing something or other literature related at St. Andrews when I arrived in the world, but except for my aggravating name and the Scottish birthplace on the aforementioned passport, nothing in my ordinary bringing-up years speaks to the unequaled excitement of a foreign birth. (Of course, I can’t run for president, but most people who know me would agree that’s probably a positive thing.)
The Cates, in one of their last mutual decisions, packed us out of Britain and sequestered me in suburbia while their lengthy and vitriolic separation proceedings provided the possible impetus for my later feelings on heterosexual relations. By the time I started school I was determined to start finding things out for myself; waiting for my parents to enlighten me had never really worked. In elementary school I typed out cafeteria menus for the weekly newsletter, eventually moving up to summarizing PTO meetings; in middle school I attempted to get the principal fired via a scathing expose of his dittoing practices (and no, that’s not a euphemism). By tenth grade I was a stringer for the Northdale Notes and spent my spare time scouting scandal in the high school halls. I was ready to get out and after graduation I decided to “spread the news”—ha ha, I know—and I took off for New York, where I knew I would find journalistic fulfillment in the greatest city in the world. In reality, of course, for the first couple of years I found mostly cockroaches in the filthiest apartments in the world. But I worked my way through school waiting tables and writing not quite Pulitzer-worthy pieces on sanitation schedules and the occasional late-breaking weather report, and loving every minute of it.
Back when we shared a newsroom, John was always reminding me not to bury my leads. So suffice it to saw that by the time our story begins, I’d clawed my way to the bottom of the top: the New York Sun. And I’d like to think my nose for news has helped a few people, though John would probably prefer that I tell you his witty rejoinder that I have a brain as well as a nose, and ought to use the former once in while before the latter. But he’d probably also say I sounded pretentious, and then whip out his famous green pen (red being too harsh and overdone) and go to town. That’s why I don’t run everything by him first…which segues us nicely back into our lead story.
* * *
It was nearly two in the morning when I found the garage closed up, drove blocks for a parking space, and ducked into the lobby with a rueful glance at the night doorman, who saluted cheerfully. “We who are about to die salute you, too,” I mumbled. John was waiting for me at the elevator and I cast a furious glance down the elevator shaft toward the traitorous doorman, who’d no doubt alerted him to my arrival. John put a finger to his lips, indicating the sleeping neighbors, and escorted me ahead of him into the apartment with a hand on my back.
Once inside he closed the door, leaned against it, and waited, eyebrows climbing. He had beautiful brows and I hoped they’d never go gray.
“Tris.” He sounded tired, but convinced. “I’m asking you again, and you can’t hang up this time. It’s two a.m. and pacing around here waiting for you isn’t good for my blood pressure OR the rugs, and evading the question any longer won’t work. WHERE have you been?”
I studied my shoes, which I realized were rather sooty.
John sniffed at the air and reached out to tug my overcoat off my shoulders, revealing my stained shirt. Too late it occurred to me that I stank of smoke and fuel and crowd.
“What the hell—”
It was too much. I bolted from under his hands in time to collapse in front of the toilet in the hall bathroom, gagging on the fear I’d been swallowing the whole evening. I felt hands supporting me and John was crouching beside me. I retched, sure I was losing my insides, and closed my eyes on the blurry room. I felt a cold cloth on the back of my neck, and then heard the shower start to run. John pulled me to my feet.
“Anxious as I am to hear everything, you’re a mess and you’re going to make yourself sicker if you don’t relax,” I became aware of his saying. I leaned into his solid warmth as he adjusted the faucet, not really hearing the usual questions about eating and coffee and the rest. “Rinse off,” he ordered, letting me go and starting to help me with my shirt, “before the rest of the apartment smells like factory run-off.” I caught his eye briefly—I wasn’t the only one in the household with a nose for news. His hand ran over one of the bruises under my shirt and I cried out and pulled away.
“Tris?” He waited until I was shirtless and gave my bruises a quick once-over, shaking his head and whistling softly.
“You should see the other guy,” I said weakly, too unsure not to joke and feeling too much residual fear not to cling. I was waiting for anger; the calm solicitousness was going to drive me crazy if I wasn’t already. He ushered me into the shower instead and stuck around to make sure I didn’t become a tile casualty, which I appreciated. Through the curtain he suggested that I spend my washing time stringing together a coherent explanation, advice I considered rather condescending. I mean, it wasn’t as if I didn’t have a good explanation already. The bruises…well, the resisting arrest bit wasn’t the high point of the night, but I’d been working. Day and night to bring fast and dependable information to the people of this fair city…predicting that John might be difficult, I’d already phoned my notes in during the drive home—another aspect of the story I planned to keep off the record. Rico, who sits the city desk at night, had done his job while informing me, rather unnecessarily, that they had sent someone out a few hours ago. The only shred of satisfaction I could grab was that I’d at least called in first, although chances were the other reporter could afford another hour or two in the newsroom instead of needlessly explaining the concept of “working” to her demanding partner.
And now I needed to sit down. My knees weren’t as sturdy as I would have liked and my head was buzzing a bit. I felt suspended from time. I forced myself to focus, toweled off, and accepted the fresh clothes John handed me. He dragged me to the kitchen to replace the fluids I’d lost throwing up, a familiar dance, and I peered at him over the top of the glass, cleaner, warmer, but no less nervous. My stomach was still turning and I willed it to be still, cursing it for never sending me warning signals in time. I was wavering between defensive and downright miserable when John sat down across from me. Taking in the set of his jaw and the firmness of his glance, tentatively I chose miserable and traced patterns in the swirls on the tabletop, sniffing a time or two.
“You had a story to tell,” he said grimly, cruelly not noticing my state. “Start at the beginning. Don’t leave anything out. Where did you go and who gave you those bruises? Don’t forget the human interest angle of worrying me, not the mention the night receptionists, half to death. And let’s get the first part first: WHERE have you been?”
“Therewaskindofathingatthehudsonplant,” I mumbled.
“You were in Jersey all night?” he inquired.
Damn. I’d forgotten John was fluent in mumble.
“There was sort of a fire,” I started slowly. “Maybe you saw it on the news…”
He widened his eyes at me. “I’m afraid I’m uninformed, having spent the evening trying to hunt you down.” Ouch. “Go on,” he prompted. He’s always let me tell my side, or plead my case, in full. I wasn’t unappreciative, but I wasn’t too eager to continue either.
A good story not only transmits the important information, but avoids the extraneous. I followed this advice by neatly severing both my source and my ticket from the story, sticking to the bare—if slightly spun—facts. John, who is the best listener I know, managed pretty much to conceal his grimace when I described driving over the bridge and setting up camp at Hudson based on something I’d overheard at the paper. Aiming for sympathy, I finished up with the heartrending story of the pregnant wife whose husband, by the time the scene was cleared, had been pronounced critical, but alive.
“I had to stay with her,” I offered, as appealingly as I could, winding down my re-telling. “She was alone, and no one was telling anyone anything.”
John exhaled rather loudly. “Tris, I never said I doubted your good intentions. Now backtrack for a moment and tell me about the fight—and I certainly hope it wasn’t anyone from the Tribune.”
“That was blown all out of proportion,” I muttered. Could I help it if everyone had overreacted to a little innocent pushing and shoving at a press conference last fall? John, who obsesses a bit too much over good manners, had warned me if it happened again he would personally have me transferred to a veterinary newsletter he knew of in Omaha.
“Go ahead and tell me. How bad could it be? It wasn’t a Girl Scout, was it?”
I glanced up to see if his teasing was a good sign, but his face still looked more or less implacable. John has occasionally commented sardonically on the fact that while I can bang out 700 words of news twenty minutes before deadline, trying to get a story out of me when in trouble was an interminable process. “I was just trying to get a better view and this policeman thought I should stay back,” I said finally.
“You got in a fight with a policeman. And he gave you those bruises. It looks like a bit more than just crowd control to me.”
“I guess I shouldn’t have tried to fight back,” I said, which wasn’t easy to admit. I knew it and I knew John knew it too. My stomach was starting to twist again.
“That wasn’t a bright choice, Tris, although much of this city would probably think the officer handled the situation with admirable restraint.”
I tried to glance discreetly at the wall clock. I loved watching the sunrise from our terrace but we did both have to work tomorrow. John never puts off a discussion if he can help it, possibly because the stress of waiting tends to make my stomach rebel in the middle of the night.
His hand covered mine, which had started to drum on the table top. “Is that everything?”
“Yes,” I said, swallowing the question mark.
He gave my hand a squeeze and leaned back in his chair. With a flash of guilt I noticed the tiredness around his eyes.
“I didn’t mean to make you worry,” I blurted.
“Worrying is a natural side effect of having no idea where you are,” he pointed out, “but I can’t say you considered that before you took off without a word.” He sounded resigned, not accusatory, which made me feel worse. I felt tears start in my eyes. It’s not that I’d prefer being shouted at. It’s just that John’s calm solidity, while comforting in every other area of our lives, never fails to make me feel terribly guilty during a confession. I hated going over and over like this. What’s done was done; punch it up, file it, and wait for the next day’s edition. It was a workable lifestyle, too, at least before I’d met John. Not that John didn’t approve of clearing the slate, too, but I wasn’t exactly fond of his methods. My stomach was churning and I leaned forward, trying to ease some of the pressure. John noticed, and pulled me to my feet, stopping to grab the antacid bottle from the cabinet.
“Breathe,” he instructed firmly, muttering something about my being tough at all the wrong times. He walked me into the living room and sat next to me on the couch, rubbing my back as I folded my arms across my knees and rested my head on them. All the adrenaline that had kept me going at the fire had disappeared, and all I wanted to do was curl up somewhere and wish I’d never left the office tonight. I swallowed a few tablets and tried to relax. The ulcer was treatable and controllable, but it was a bitch in times of stress and I wasn’t always terribly conscientious about watching what I ate. In private, that is. At home the commander, naturally, was good enough to help me remember. I caught my breath and sat up tentatively, feeling a bit more human. When I met John’s eyes I began studying my cuticles, wondering if this process felt as interminable to him as it did to me.
“Good. I don’t think I need to go into exactly how good for your body the stress of staking out gasoline fires is. Tris, you cannot go running after every bone anyone throws to you. Not all of those leads are legitimate and they’re certainly not all safe situations.” He paused when I looked at him in surprise. “Yes, I figured that out myself, though I would have appreciated hearing the complete story from you.”
I dropped my eyes. “I thought it would be something important and I just…I just wanted to cover it myself.”
“Tris, we’ve talked about this. Your ambition is admirable but not to the point where it puts you in danger. I can’t watch you every second now— ”
The tears started for real and I lowered my head even further. I didn’t want to be reminded of John’s absence from the newsroom.
“—and either I need to see that you can gauge the wisdom of following a blind lead or you need that option taken away. I know how much you love this job, and believe me, I do understand, but no story is worth getting hurt.”
“I know,” I mumbled.
“And I know you know. We’ve been over it before. But we’ll keep going over it until you get it right. Tris, I had no idea where you were tonight. I expected you home by nine for dinner, not tiptoeing in at two a wreck.”
“I didn’t know it would take so long,” I offered miserably, not sure why I even tried to defend myself.
“Tris. It takes only a moment to make a phone call.”
“You would have said no if I’d asked!”
“WHY do you think that?”
I scowled. “Because it’s dangerous,” I forced, hearing my voice sound sing-song. Mistake.
“There’s nothing amusing about risking your life, worrying people who love you, and not taking responsibility. You were right I would have said no, but if you’d taken that realization to mean it was NOT a good idea, we wouldn’t be having this conversation—or if you’d called me before walking into a situation you knew nothing about. What if the fire had gotten out of hand? Not to mention your altercation with the policeman. Especially at the site of an emergency you owe the people trying to fix it some respect. And speaking of respect,”
John had always been good at transitions.
“Tris, not at least calling to tell me you would be late is inexcusable. NOT to mention refusing to talk when I did track you down—”
“I told you I was fine!” I blurted, quieting when John placed a hand on my knee.
“If you ever hang up on me again when I’m trying to find out where you are I’m going to have you LoJacked. And I don’t ever want to have to track you down like that in the first place. Clear?”
I nodded vigorously, hoping that perhaps enthusiasm at this point would ward off the inevitable.
“Tris, you have all the same responsibilities whether or not I’m a floor away to see that you don’t go wild.”
“I’m glad to hear that. You gave me a good scare and—” gently he touched a bruise on my shoulder—“I think you gave yourself a decent one too. I know you think you can handle anything, but you can’t rush off like that without talking to me OR Glen.”
I grimaced at the thought of my editor. “Glen hates me.”
John squeezed my hand. “Glen doesn’t hate you. He likes you. And I love you. And you owe both of us, and yourself, more than tonight’s stunt.”
He stood up and offered me his hand. “If it’s any consolation, I don’t think Glen is tough enough on you. But maybe he’ll learn from experience.”
I rolled my eyes. Who could be as tough as my uniformly right partner? I looked up at the snap of his fingers and reluctantly gave him my hand. He pulled me to my feet and shifted us both to the middle of the couch. He sat and I stood by his knee, not at all happy with where this conversation was going.
“Would you like to review tonight’s lesson with the class?”
“No story is worth getting into a dangerous situation,” I recited obediently, keeping my tone as neutral as possible. Then, unable to resist, I blurted: “But that’s NOT true all the time! Even you know it! I mean, some of the greatest stories ever were nothing but danger, and if no one had ever written them…” I trailed off.
“I’ll grant you that,” John said. My understanding man. What else can you expect from a couple that has been known, occasionally, to refer to each other as Woodward and Bernstein in bed?
“Here’s a rewrite,” he offered politely. “No story is worth putting YOURSELF in danger. I’m not making the rules for every reporter on the planet.”
“No, just for me,” I muttered. John raised his eyebrows. Even I wasn’t thrilled with my tone, but we were rapidly descending into unfriendly territory and I didn’t feel like going along too willingly.
“You haven’t grasped this concept too quickly, but I’m happy to show you the error of your ways,” he said, far too cheerfully considering the circumstances. “If you get yourself in another mess like this, aggressive cops will be the least of your worries. I’ll brain you myself.”
I flushed and studied the threads of the carpet under my feet, entertaining a fading hope that this was as close as I would get to them.
“AND you can keep a civil tone, if you don’t mind,” he added curtly. “Wait here.”
I watched his retreating back, biting back a snide reply. I’m all for politeness usually, but I was starting to feel cornered.
John came back in a moment later holding something in his hand that made me wish I hadn’t woken up that morning, much less taken off for the fire without permission.
“Oh, no,” I said, backing away.
“Oh, yes,” he responded without a hint of a smile, sitting down on the couch again and pulling me to him. “This is far from the first time we’ve had this particular discussion and it clearly hasn’t sunk in yet.”
“I’m really sorry,” I said unsteadily.
“You’ll be sorry enough not to make that sort of decision again, if I can help it,” he said unhelpfully. “Come on, you know what to do.”
My stomach flopped a few more times, reminding me that it was there and was no happier than I was to between this particular rock and hard place.
“Tris. It’s absurdly late and we’re both tired. Please don’t drag this out.”
Already fighting off tears, I eased down my flannel pajama pants and let him guide me across his lap, careful of the bruises on my arms. He shifted me slightly as I grabbed a sofa pillow to hold onto. “I SAID I was sorry!” I pointed out, my voice rising.
“And I said you had plenty of chances to avert tonight’s events and you didn’t. As I recall, we’re taking care of more than one infraction here.”
I buried my face in the pillow to stifle my reply. What kind of man keeps a fraternity paddle, anyway? It wasn’t even like he’d been in a fraternity—his roommate had presented him with the darned thing in college as a coming out present. If I ever tracked down Boyd Phillips I would make certain to express my belated ingratitude. The thing was deceptively small, looking rather like a thin, miniature cutting board—if twenty drunken boys had signed a miniature cutting board, that is.
“Do you want to enlighten me on what we’re covering here?” John asked mildly. I didn’t respond, too busy trying to prepare myself for what was coming. The paddle smacked down firmly and I yelped.
“Did you have something to say?” John repeated.
“Thank you, brother, can I have another?” I snapped sarcastically, and regretted it immediately when the paddling began in earnest.
“There’s a time and a place for humor, Tristram,” John rapped out evenly, rapping out a similar rhythm on my already burning bottom. Hearing my given name hurt almost as much as the swats that were coming too quickly and too sharply for me to concentrate. I had a try at yanking myself away but his arm across my back prevented my moving. I buried my face in the pillow and gritted my teeth, unwilling to give in.
“I’m not tiring yet,” John pointed out above me, punctuating the sentence with the paddle’s loud and firm descent. Oh, if I survived this, I was definitely going to kill him.
“Ow!” I shrieked in spite of myself as the paddle cracked down across a particularly sensitive area. Buried in the pillow, my face was getting wet and breathing was starting to be difficult. “Okay, okay, okay!” I blurted around the tears. “I should have called you to say I’d be late!”
“And?” John inquired. My giving in apparently hadn’t satisfied him; if anything, the paddle seemed to fall even faster.
And. And. My brain wasn’t working. “The source!” I yelled. “I maybe shouldn’t have—shouldn’t have listened to him.”
“Keep going,” John encouraged. “You’re not the only one shocked at the sheer multitude of wrong here,” he pointed out at my noise of surprised outrage. This was going to have to stop soon or I was seriously going to embarrass myself. Already I was having trouble forming the words he was waiting to hear. He paused for a moment, resting his hand on the small of my back gently but with enough force that I knew it wasn’t over yet.
“Take a breath, Tris,” he ordered quietly, and I did so, the oxygen only facilitating more sobs.
“I shouldn’t’ve hung up’nyou,” I slurred. The rest came out in a rush. “The fire was d-dangerous and I shouldn’tve fought with the cop and…” The most dangerous fire right now was the one burning on my hindquarters, but I didn’t mention that, too busy trying to breathe around the tears. “And you were worried about me…” I swallowed and tried not to wail as his hand left my back with a final pat and returned to the unpleasant rhythm of paddle against flesh.
“I didn’t mean to scare you,” I whimpered, my voice inching high enough at this point that I was sure only dogs could hear me. A new round of tears came as I thought of the tired lines on John’s face in the kitchen. I’d left him pacing all night, too busy thinking about my own byline. He delivered a final few swats, no less powerful, and dropped the paddle on the couch. My heart, which had been beating in time with that wretched instrument, pounded into my ears, drowning out the sound of whatever John was saying above me. I hoped it wasn’t too important; all I knew was that it was soft and far gentler than I felt I deserved at this point. His hand moved across my back and he shifted me onto my side, pulling me up and toward him until I was curled with my head against the soft part between shoulder and neck. His hand was comfortingly cool on my face as he moved my hair out of my eyes and traced the drying tear tracks.
“And what about calling in your notes while you’re driving? You know how I feel about inappropriate cell phone use…”
I looked up at him in shock, still trying to catch my breath. “You know I have eyes in the back of my head,” he teased. “They can extend all the way across the river, too.” He reached down to readjust my pants and I sobbed once at the sandpaper scratch of what had been a soft pair of flannel pajamas.
I turned back in his arms, not sure why I couldn’t stop crying. He rubbed my back with heavy strokes, those powerful hands I loved so much. They were David hands, I’d told him once, looking uncannily like those of Michelangelo’s statue. He was talking into my hair, his breath warm across the top of my head.
“It’s okay,” he said, not rocking but just holding tightly. “This was big. But it’s over. Shhh, we’re fine. Come on, take a deep breath.”
“I’ll never do it again…I swear…” my promises, sincere enough, were tough to spit out around the shuddering breaths I was fighting to control.
John wrapped me tighter, close enough to hold me still, and I buried my face in his shirt and listened to him speak above me. He rubbed my back and I matched my breathing to his, slowly relaxing against the steady rise and fall of chest.
“I hope not,” he said quietly. “This isn’t my favorite middle-of-the-night activity.” His cheek rested against the top of my head and we sat in silence while my breathing slowed and the hot pulse stopped beating in my posterior. He kissed my forehead and leaned back against the couch, still holding me, before speaking again.
“You need to show me that you can keep an eye on yourself when I can’t. I’ll help you with anything you need and I’m a phone call away all day, but if that’s not enough to keep you from these kinds of decisions then we need to rethink the work situation.”
My head shot up. “You mean you’d come back to the paper?”
John sighed and pulled me back against him. “I know adjusting hasn’t been easy.”
It was hard to get worked up again with my face pressed into his shirt, surrounded by his comforting smells. “I just don’t know why you had to leave me,” I said finally. He took my shoulders, pushing me away enough to look into my face.
“Tris, I’ve explained at least a hundred times, and I’m going to keep explaining as much as you need. I did NOT leave you; I left the Sun. I know it’s different not working in the same place, but with all the movement in the departments we didn’t see each other that much during the day anyway by the time I left. Working at the magazine is less stressful, and less stress,” he said firmly, “is good. For both of us.”
“I make you stressed,” I admitted.
“No, kiddo, you’re the reason I want to be less stressed. I’d rather have more time with you and less pulling all-nighters and bringing my work home. Listen to me. I’m thirty blocks away; I’m still there anytime you need. And really, we’ve had more and better time together since the move. Longer nights.”
“Usually,” I pointed out ruefully, not unaware of the first pink tinges of light outside.
He ruffled my hair and gave me a smile that would make his dentist proud. “And when I’m not there, it’s your job to take the kind of care of yourself I would—or to let me know if you can’t.”
“I’m not unsympathetic, Tris. It’s been hard. But I need you to trust me that it was the right decision for us, that it gives me more time for more important things—like you.”
I couldn’t help a smile and he pulled me back against him. “Now listen, my little Gemini, I know these are big changes and you can’t help but react, but a rise in the general common courtesy and respect around here would be nice.”
“No hanging up,” I said, flushing.
He kissed the top of my head. “We’ve taken care of that. But we’re not going to settle into new routines by slacking off. You can take the first step in that direction by apologizing to Cathy when you go in to work.” He put up a hand to stop my protest. “It’s not a request. And do me a favor and talk to Glen…you’ll get more stories that way than by sneaking around. And you’ll be arriving in the afternoon,” he added. “We’re both getting some sleep before I unleash you again on this hapless city.”
I couldn’t argue. I was utterly exhausted. I hovered as John changed, wanting to stay close, and we collapsed into bed minutes later, John closing the shades tight against the hint of dawn. My eyes drooped; the glowing green hour on the alarm clock seemed impossible. Drained as I was, I felt better and I wasn’t uncomforted by our talk. Curled against John, I was just settling in to a guilt free sleep when a rock in my stomach jerked me awake. I sat up, then though better of it and rolled off the bed. John caught my hand as I swung toward the hamper. “WHAT are you doing? Get back in bed.”
“Wait. I need to tell you something,” I panted, tugging at his grip. He groaned and sat up, not letting go of me.
“Please don’t tell me there’s more.”
“Not exactly, I just…” I trailed off and pulled away. John watched me with a raised eyebrow as I tried to find my discarded pants in the hamper by the light of the alarm clock. I turned out the pockets and found what I was looking for. It was rather wadded and damp and I handed it over without much enthusiasm.
“What’s this?” he asked, flicking on the beside lamp.
“The officer gave it to me tonight—but you can’t get mad about it, that’s double jeopardy,” I added quickly, backing away.
He snorted and began trying to smooth out the crumpled ticket.
“And I’ll pay for it,” I put in nervously.
“Tris, am I in early senility, or did I just remind you tonight that I prefer being told the whole story at once? WITHOUT my having to guess at motive and without these late-night sequels—” He broke off suddenly and started to laugh.
I stared at him, wondering about the sudden good humor.
“Tris, darling, have you actually read this?”
“What do you mean?” I asked, confused. I crossed the room and reached for the ticket, which he held out of my grasp.
“I’m guessing it was dark when he wrote it out—and you didn’t check to see what the fine was for?”
“No…” I said slowly, not sure what I was missing. I made another grab for the ticket and John caught me and pulled me down to sit beside him on the bed, unfurling the ticket for me to see. There was no signature, the line was filled up with “Knicks rule!” written in a bold backhand. In place of the description of offense, the officer had scrawled “Pick your battles, kid.”
I groaned and fell back on the bed. It was official. The world was against me. John, still faintly chuckling, tossed the ticket on the nightstand and stole a kiss as another flick of the switch sent the room once more into darkness.
I slept—on my stomach—right through the thump of the morning newspaper delivery.