I stared at my office telephone. Sometime this week, they’d said. It was already Wednesday. There was no way I could work on my fall semester teaching plan until I heard one way or the other, yes or no, up or down. Please, I begged the grant gods, make it today. Make it now!
I waited. I stared. Nothing.
Maybe a walk outside would get the grant gods’ attention. I grabbed my sunglasses and closed my office door behind me. A few doors down, I stuck my head in my colleague Diane’s office.
Her desk faced toward the back window. She leaned in, studying something on her computer screen, her head cocked.
I walked a few steps in and peered over her shoulder. A very good-looking man’s face filled the screen.
“Oh, my,” I said.
“Match.com,” Diane said. She swiveled in her chair to face me. “You made me do it.”
“Good girl.” It was about time she started dating. Six months ago her rat of a husband, Mark, left her for his personal trainer.
She sighed. “There’s probably something the matter with this guy – why else would he want to go out with me?”
“Maybe because you’re a beautiful, brilliant young lawyer. Stop selling yourself short. He’s gorgeous. And I’m jealous.”
“No, you are not!”
“Just a little.” I held my hands out and used them as scales. “Sixteen years of marriage versus that guy you’re looking at.”
Diane shook her head. “You and John are the happiest married couple I know.” Her eyes narrowed. “Right?”
“Yes, yes,” I reassured her. “Very happy.” And I meant it.
“Good. This guy’s name is Reed. I said I’d meet him for drinks tomorrow night.” She half-smiled, then sighed with a shiver. “I haven’t been with another man in forever. Not that I’m going to sleep with him. Of course. Just drinks.” She raised one hand and patted her chest. “My heart is actually racing. See, I can’t even think about being with anyone other than Mark without a mini-breakdown.”
“Mark’s gone, the idiot, and you have to move on. It sucks, but…”
“You did it, right? And you met John?”
“I did,” I said. It hadn’t been easy but I did. When Diane’s husband walked out on her, she’d been shell-shocked and without hope, as though she’d been sucked into a black hole from which she’d never escape. Two decades earlier I’d felt that same way. I’d shared my story with her while she sobbed, how I’d moved on from a painful, life-altering love affair, how I’d found John after feeling I’d never love again. I’d tried to give my friend hope, to reassure her that she’d not only feel better over time, but that she’d fall in love again, that she’d thrive.
“Anything from the grant committee yet?” she asked.
I sighed. “No. They’re torturing me.” As I scowled dramatically, Diane cracked up, her eyes nearly closing, her skin crinkling around them.
“It’s not funny,” I said
“Relax, sweetie,” she said. “My money’s on you.
“But the other schools in the running are bigger and better.”
“Now who’s selling herself short?” she asked. “We have you and you know more about fracking than anyone I know.”
Six months earlier I’d applied for the prestigious two million dollar Kehoe Foundation environmental law grant, a unique opportunity to lobby Congress to stop fracking on federal land.
“I can’t just sit here waiting for another minute. I’m going for a walk. Come?” I brushed my bangs out of my eyes and slid on my over-sized sunglasses.
“I should work.”
“Yeah, now that you’ve spent all morning looking at Match.com.”
Back at my office thirty minutes later, I skimmed my new e-mails and listened to my new voice mails.
Bingo. A call from the Kehoe Foundation. They must have decided! My heart slammed against my ribs, and my hands shook as I punched in the number.
“Congratulations!” Ted Stevens, the foundation administrator, said.
I exhaled. “Really? We got the grant?”
“Indeed, you did.”
What a coup. We’d won the grant – my clinic and I won the grant – over all the other environmental law clinics in the D.C. area. Yes!
First, I called John’s office at Catholic University. “You’ve reached Vice-President Cameron’s office,” his secretary Lynn’s voice intoned, “please leave….” I tried his cell. No answer there either. Where was John? Unless he had a scheduled event, which he would have shared at breakfast when we divided the day’s duties, I usually could reach him.
Oh well, I’d see him at home. Next, I ran down the hall to Diane’s office. Diane took one look at me and knew. “We got the grant! Oh my God!” She leapt up and hugged me. “You’re so amazing, Annie!” She hopped up and down, her curly locks bouncing with each leap.
The two of us shared the big news, first with the other clinic professors and then with the law school Dean, who suggested we go out later to celebrate. I declined, promising a rain check next week. I’d planned a long run for the early summer evening but now I wanted to get home and share my incredible news with John and the kids.
“My clinic got the Kehoe Grant!” I sang softly several times over as I scrambled down the five flights of stairs to the parking garage and drove home to our Northwest Washington brick colonial, just a few blocks from one of D.C.’s treasures, Rock Creek Park.
I rushed into the house where the first thing I heard was John talking to someone in the living room. I peeked in. Did we have unexpected company? No. He was on the phone, his jacket thrown over a chair and his tie half off.
He ended the call and placed his cell on the coffee table next to a bottle of champagne and two flutes.
Someone obviously had told him about my grant. Damn. Oh well. I walked toward him, smiling.
All six foot-four inches of him stood, then bowed with a flourish, unusually graceful for such a big man. He was beaming. John, a reserved, even-keeled man, rarely beamed.
“Who told you?” I asked.
“Who told me?”
I eyed him suspiciously. “Why the champagne?”
He walked around the cocktail table and drew me in close. “I’m the new President of ASU!”
“What?” I pulled away in shock. Last year, he’d applied for the top job at schools in Rhode Island and South Alabama. He hadn’t been chosen by either but had been runner up at Alabama Southern University, ASU. As sorry as I’d been to see John sorely disappointed, I’d danced a secret jig when he didn’t get the offer. South Alabama. Ugh. Kansas had been a close call two years ago. I did my best to support his dream of becoming a university president but these last two springs, while John moped around, I’d breathed a sigh of relief. I didn’t want to leave D.C. or my job and friends, ever, and certainly not for some remote part of the country.
“Their first choice had a heart attack this morning, and they called a few hours ago.”
My mouth gaped. “They want you to cover while he’s recuperating?” I should have monitored the other guy’s health apparently, gotten him out jogging, eating right, slimming down, whatever the hell it took to keep him on the job.
John grimaced slightly, a difficult task given how jolly he clearly felt. “He died.”
“Oh wow. How sad,” I said. For him and for me.
“It is, I know, but, Annie, they want me!” He grabbed the champagne and popped it, spilling the foam all over the rug. “I don’t care,” he said, eyeing the mess. Then, in the next breath, “Yes, I do. We need everything ship-shape to sell the house or maybe rent. I don’t know. I do know we’ve got to pack up and move. They want me right away. Here, you pour; I’ll get a dish rag.” He practically danced out of the room.
Move? Sell the house? Leave my job, my friends, and the grant? Not so fast.
I filled a flute, guzzled it, then filled it again. The champagne gave me an immediate buzz, not a particularly pleasant feeling, more like the top of my head might explode feeling. I heard John answer another call as I fought to control a rising sense of panic.
He returned, dropped to his knees, and dabbed with the dishtowel at the stain on the light rug. He angled his head, his wide face and square forehead facing me, his nut-brown eyes searching my face. “This is what we’ve wanted, right? Aren’t you happy?” He wouldn’t notice if I were spitting venom, he was so over the moon.
I nodded, even though “we” was a huge overstatement. The truth was I’d never thought it would come to this, never thought he’d actually be chosen to be the president of a university. Not that John wasn’t a brilliant administrator. He was. But the possibility had been so remote that I couldn’t believe the reality was now upon us.
“It’s a lot to take in, unexpectedly and all….” I sipped at my champagne even though the queasiness in my stomach told me that I shouldn’t drink anymore. “I just don’t know what to say, John.”
John pushed himself to standing, cramming the dishrag into his pants’ pocket. He reached for his champagne glass, his big hand encircling its base, and gulped his first self-congratulatory taste. His phone rang but he ignored it. “The word is out,” he said, his eyes bright. “Everyone’s calling. I think I told you everything about the school and the town after I went down to Carsonville to interview, right?”
When I just stared, my face in a scowl I couldn’t control, he said, “Let’s sit.” He relaxed onto the couch again, and patted the seat next to him, but I remained standing, frozen in place.
“You know how important this is to me, right?” he asked. His tone was calm and kind, vintage John.
I collapsed into the upholstered chair across from the couch, facing him, the champagne in my stomach churning. “I know, but school starts next month, here and there. There’d be too much to do, too many plans to change.” My voice sounded weak and small, as though his new job were squeezing the life out of me.
“You don’t need to do much. Really. They’ll pack us and move us. You have a job teaching at the ASU law school; I told you I made that part of the deal for any school I’ve talked to.”
A spousal hire, offered a job solely because they wanted my husband. Yippee. I will be a spousal hire. Not two words I’d thought would ever define my career.
“Would I have to do a ton of ceremonial work?” I sipped my second glass of bubbly.
“No one said anything about that. We’ll figure all that out once we’re there. You’ll love the trails in the national forest near campus. You can run for hours.”
That got a half smile out of me. Yes, that was something.
“And we’d have a huge house, like a mansion, Annie, and a staff! Can you believe it? Me, president of a university.”
“I don’t know John.”
“Annie. Come on. You can’t say no.”
“Really? I have to go?” I asked sharply. I couldn’t remember John ever telling me that I did or didn’t have to do something and it didn’t sit well, especially when he was asking us to upend our lives.
“Of course not,” he backtracked. “We decide together. We’re a family.”
“I have news too, John.”
He looked startled, as though only he could have news of any moment.
“Remember the grant I applied for?” I asked.
“You got it?” His tone matched mine when he’d shared his announcement: a total lack of enthusiasm.
“I know how much you wanted the grant. But this is a once in a lifetime chance for me, we talked about it, and you did….”
I held up my hand to stop him, palm out. “I know what you’re going to say. That when you applied for these jobs, I agreed we’d all go if you got one of them. I know. I know. But I never thought it would be so last minute, so rushed, John. It’s overwhelming. Our kids think they’re going to school here, you know, not being uprooted to move somewhere they’ve never even been.” I thought for a minute, my mind landing on the only option I could find. “Maybe you could do it without us, commute home weekends. And we could visit you. People do.” I cocked my head and looked at him.
His face fell. “I won’t do it that way, go without you and the kids. We go together or not at all.”
On a practical level I knew he was right. I could barely function sharing everything with John. Without him, life would be near impossible. We’d been a two-career family from the beginning of our marriage, when we’d promised to divide the household and childcare duties equally. Mostly that had worked, to the amazement of many of my friends whose husbands had drifted away from the cooking, cleaning and childcare they’d seemed to embrace in the beginning of their relationships, as though they’d always intended to give back these duties to their women once the kids arrived. So far, we’d found a way to make it all work. And work well.
Even more important though, I couldn’t imagine him without us or us without him. We were a family. I would never want our children, Nate fifteen and Lauren twelve, to grow up without one of their parents. Where did that leave me? I could say no, and shatter his dreams, or say yes to something I had no interest in doing.
“Please, come sit next to me,” he said gently.
I complied, too full of conflicting emotions to argue. He engulfed me in his long, strong arms and looked into my eyes. “Annie, please. It’ll all work out, I’m sure of it. You know I wouldn’t ask you if it I didn’t want it so badly.” His eyes beseeched me.
I poured another glass of champagne and stopped thinking about all the pros and cons, instead focusing on my sweet husband who was so over the moon that I couldn’t say no, as much as I wanted to. “Yes, John. Fine. We’ll go.”
“Thank you, Annie,” he said as he hugged me tight. “Thank you.”
I rested my head on his chest and wondered: had I just made the second biggest mistake of my life?