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Sunday, December 16, 2012

Better Than You: part 16




Mike decided that in the movie of Delta’s life, her father would be played by Michael Douglas circa Wall Street. He was all swept back silver hair, college rings, salon tan and the kind of tailored suit that wasn’t found in a store, let alone bragged about. No, Dennis Brooks didn’t need to brag – his wealth was so self-evident and he was too sophisticated for shit-talking. With one flat, disinterested glance, he told Mike that their fast handshake was a courtesy only, that he wasn’t happy to meet his daughter’s new guy. And worst of all, it promised questions. Lots of painful, awkward, demeaning questions designed to make Mike look even more like a worthless piece of shit.


“Walker you said?” Dennis asked as he poured two fingers of Glenlivet into heavy crystal tumblers for each of them. They were in the room Delta had called “the study”, the walls lined with bookshelves and wood paneling. “Let’s have a man-to-man chat,” Dennis had said. Across from the massive, claw-foot desk, they stood in front of a wet bar built beneath a window that overlooked the back garden. “I know a Camille Walker. Beautiful violinist. Where’s your family originally from?”

Mike accepted the Scotch that was handed to him, hoping he could throw the stuff back without choking. His dad was a beer man, and so was he. Scotch wasn’t for the faint-hearted. “I don’t know a Camille…sir.” He managed to tack the title on at the end. The little rivulets of sweat going down his back under his shirt were becoming a distraction. All he could think was that he should have been in a jacket and tie like Delta’s father. “I’m from Marietta,” he said, and tried not to wince at how unimpressive that sounded.


Dennis twitched his brows and stared down into his Scotch. It sounded unimpressive to him, too. “Marietta…definitely no relation to Camille, then,” he said, almost to himself, then headed for his desk.


Mike had to step aside, convinced the guy would have walked right through him otherwise, and watched him settled into the ergonomic swivel chair on the far side of the desk.


“Sit,” he motioned toward the tufted leather sofa across from him and Mike complied because he didn’t dare resist.


There was a grandfather clock in the front corner of the room by the door and its deep, resonating tock counted every painful second Mike spent staring into his tumbler, scrambling desperately through the idiotic folds of his brain, trying to think of anything he could say that might alleviate the tension and prove to Delta’s father that she wasn’t dating the stupidest doofus on the planet.


Dennis spoke first, unfortunately. “So, Mike,” if Mrs. Brooks said his name like she wanted to jump his bones, then Mr. Brooks said it like he was diagnosing someone with a gastrointestinal disorder. “What do you do?”


Mike lifted his head to meet the other man’s gaze and the only thing that popped into his head was your daughter. But he couldn’t say that, so he swallowed hard instead.


“You do have a job, don’t you?”


Job…job…get your shit together, dumbass! “Yes!” he said too eagerly and Dennis cocked a skeptical eyebrow. “I mean, yes. I do.” His throat was too dry and he took a sip of the drink in his hand…which proved to be a mistake because he couldn’t get it down without making a face. Oh, shit…he gulped and somehow, the Scotch went into his stomach, but his composure wouldn’t come back. “I’m a staff accountant with Parrish. I’m working on getting my CPA.”


“Oh,” was the first semi-polite thing that had come out of the man’s mouth. “Parrish is a top-notch organization. How’d you end up there?”


“I started as an intern while I was still in college,” Mike said, and felt the knot between his shoulders start to loosen. “They guaranteed me a job once I graduated.”


Dennis nodded. “They pay you well?”


He almost took another sip of scotch, but caught himself. “Well enough.”


That earned him another nod. “Probably more than Delta makes.” He frowned. “The girl had brilliant grades. Two degrees. And she’s working at a department store.”


“She’s managing,” Mike reminded.


Dennis’s smile wasn’t kind. “But she could be head of the entire company if she’d let me help her.”


She might get there anyway on her own, Mike thought but didn’t say.


“I hate to see talented young people squander the opportunities available to them,” Dennis continued, eyes moving over Mike’s shoulder and out the window. He sipped his Scotch like he liked the stuff. “That’s the problem with the younger generation: they take all the advantages their parents laid at their feet and shit all over them.”


“Um…yes, sir,” Mike said.


“You wouldn’t do that, would you, Mike? You came from a middle class background and you worked your way to where you are now, right? You certainly wouldn’t have turned down advice.”


“No, sir.”


“Good.” Dennis waxed thoughtful, swirling the Glenlivet around in his tumbler. “Delta, though…I dunno. Maybe she had it too easy. She’s a good girl – she can be – but she’s got this stubborn streak.” He took another sip and made a face. “It leads to some poor decisions on her part.”


Mike felt a grim non-smile tugging. So here came the part where he was not-so-subtly backhanded. “Poor decisions like me?” he asked, and Dennis seemed surprised.


He gave a little facial shrug. “That remains to be seen. But I’ve learned to expect mistakes when it comes to my daughter. No offense to you, son, but I always have to assume the worst of her judgment.”




Dinner was served promptly at three-thirty at a dining room table long enough to sit twenty, easily. Four heavy silver candelabras marched down the center, the tapers lit despite the almost neon afternoon sunlight that poured in through the heavy drapes. Mike felt the touch of Delta’s hand against his thigh beneath the table and wondered what sort of mistakes her father had come to expect. Wondered how long he’d have to endure her mother’s winks from across the table. Wondered if there was some subject to broach that would go over better than his previous three attempts to ask Dennis about sports.


Finally he said, “dinner’s great, Mrs. Brooks,” because at least it was a true statement. The turkey and gravy and stuffing and green beans were delicious.


But Louise Brooks caught a laugh behind her napkin, shook her head and gave him another of those dreaded winks. “Oh, honey, you think I made this? That’s adorable.”


“Louise couldn’t microwave popcorn,” her husband said with another of his tight, insincere smiles.


“Denny, don’t talk that way about me in front of our guest,” she said through her teeth, eyes still on Mike.


“Mom and Dad have a chef,” Delta supplied, eyes on her plate. He couldn’t tell if she was trying to suppress parent/child dysfunctional issues, or if it was embarrassing to admit that there was a chef involved in Thanksgiving dinner. “He made the meal.”


“Compliments to him, then.”


“Delta, sweetheart,” Dennis said and the endearment sounded as if it lost all meaning when it left his lips, “I know you aren’t with Greg anymore, but do you still see him? I had some books I was going to let him borrow. You could take them to him for me.”


It was getting harder and harder to think about the posh little shit Mike had seen at Nordstrom that day with his hands on Delta. He ground his teeth and watched her profile, the pretty slip of her nose and the downward curl of her mouth as she frowned at her father. “Dad,” her voice was laced with tension, “I’m not going to see Greg anymore. If you think so highly of him, you can give the books to him yourself.”


“Well, I just thought -,”


“I don’t see him anymore,” Delta said, the words snapping off, crisp and sharp.


Dennis sighed and glanced up at the ceiling. God give me patience or some such bullshit.


No wonder Delta was such a Wuthering Heights fan – she lived every day inside it.


Her hand came back to his thigh and squeezed. Don’t worry about Greg, he interpreted, and he didn’t.




Delta didn’t take a deep breath until her heels were clipping against the cobbled front walk on the way back to the car. They’d survived. It had been dreadful – embarrassing and far too revealing to have only known Mike the short time she had – but they were both breathing and even better, they were escaping.


He didn’t offer his arm and she didn’t reach for it, struggling to come up with an apology that didn’t make her feel like too much of an idiot. If she was too earnest, she’d look weak. If she was too cool, he’d start bricking up a wall between them. Or at least, that was her experience when it came to men.


She didn’t have the chance to say anything, though, because his phone rang when they reached the Beemer. He read the ID display and sighed, answering with a tired-sounding, “Hi, Mom.”


Delta couldn’t hear the words from the other end, but she could hear a vibrating, high pitched murmuring voice, and it didn’t sound happy.


“No…Mom,” Mike said, “I told you…no…but…” he sighed again. “Yeah. Yes. Yes, ma’am.” He hung up and gave her a guarded look. “That was my mom.”


“I could tell.”


“She wants us to come by for dessert.”


He wasn’t asking her, but he wasn’t not asking either. He was giving her a chance to say no. Delta guessed it was only fair, after the Night of the Living WASP horror they’d just endured. She offered a thin smile. “That’s fine.”




Mike had grown up in a subdivision built in the eighties, full of trees and brickwork houses, big yards that were beginning to get shaggy and driveways full of more than one generation’s worth of cars. His parents’ house was a two-story brick box, blue doors and shutters, wide, flat front yard with azaleas planted around a flagpole, the grass flat in places where footpaths had been worn over the years. The drive was an odd mix: a new Yukon, an old red Dodge truck, a Tahoe, a Mustang, a Jeep and a Buick. And God knew if there were more cars in the garage.


It was unimpressive. Characterless. Jarring to look at as she sat in Mike’s Beemer and tried to rectify his ties and oxfords and gray satin sheets with this uninspired piece of suburban hell.


“It’s…” she tried to come up with some sort of compliment.


“I know,” he said with yet another sigh. “Come on. Brace yourself for this shit.”


She could hear the voices through the door as they stood on the front stoop, raucous and tumbling over one another. Mike didn’t ring the bell or wait for someone to welcome them in, instead opened the door and urged her in after him. The foyer floors were scarred and scraped, a hall tree strung up with too many coats and stacked at the foot with shoes. The air was too warm and smelled too strongly of dinner. And the voices were even louder in here.


“Mikey?” a big, booming man’s voice called. “That you?”


“Yeah!” Mike called back, his voice an echo of the first, and Delta just knew it had to have been his dad who’d yelled: they had the same voice. And then the man himself stepped out of a doorway to the right, and Delta knew exactly what Mike would look like in another thirty years.


His dad was big and broad-shouldered too: blonde and square-jawed and green-eyed, she saw, as he came toward them. He had the look of a retired footballer and the fashion taste of a twelve-year-old: his dark green sweater and jeans fraying and grass-stained in places.


“Hey, Mikey,” he greeted, and pulled his son into a hug that was only half-returned. Then his eyes fell on Delta. “And you’re way too pretty for him, sweetheart.” A big hand came out for hers and she didn’t know whether to laugh or cringe at the odd juxtaposition of similarities and differences between the two Walkers. She took his hand. “Randy,” he gave her his son’s smile.


“Delta,” she managed to twitch a half-smile. “Nice to meet you.”


Mike put a hand at the small of her back and guided her deeper into the house, into what had to be the living room. It had couches and a TV. She spotted his younger brother. A man who was clearly his other brother. A dark-headed too-fashion-conscious-for-the-room man who reminded her too much of Greg. And then the lone woman stood from the couch and turned to face the doorway and them.


Delta gasped before she could catch herself.


She was slight: thin, athletic, but curvy enough that even in her jeans and long-sleeved t-shirt, Delta could see how the boys would like her. She had a wavy mane of dark blonde hair shot through with brown, a sweet-looking pixie face and big, bright eyes that were more blue than green.


Whoever she was, she was the girl who’d been on Tam’s lap in 2003. The girl he’d snarled at her about and turned vicious for. The girl he didn’t want her to tell Mike about…


She was introduced to brother Walt, brother-in-law Dylan, and suffered an up-nod from Jordan. Then: “My sister Jo,” Mike said, and the little girl with the big eyes who was Tam’s secret offered a handshake and a cool, appraising look.


Tam had had a secret affair with Mike’s little sister.




Dessert was pumpkin pie (homemade), brownies with ice cream, cookies…more than Delta wanted or needed. She balanced a too-full plate on her knee and pretended to nibble at it as Beth Walker sat across the coffee table from her.


“I love your shoes,” Mike’s mother said. “Where’d you get them?”


“At work – Nordstrom.”


“Oh,” Beth frowned. “I don’t shop there.”


“I do,” Walt’s wife, Gwen, said. “The one at Phipps?”




They were an odd collection of people. Trying to be sweet, trying to impress, and not giving a damn all at the same time. They made her head hurt.


“What about your dress?” Beth asked. “It’s very nice too.”


“It was a gift,” Delta lied, “I’m not sure where it’s from. Macy’s, I think.”


Beth plucked self-consciously at her own sweater set and Delta wished the floor would open up and swallow her. Mike’s mother was a little soft in the middle and there was just a smidge of gray her hairdresser had missed in her blonde hair. She did look like her parents’ housekeeper, crow’s feet and all, and it left Delta horribly guilty for some reason.


“Jo,” Mike’s other sister, Jessica, said, “I keep trying to tell you that you’d look good in a sweaterdress like that.”


Jo was sitting in a massive, lumpy chair with her brother Jordan, her socked feet on the coffee table. She snorted. “You couldn’t pay me to wear something like that.”


“Joanna,” her mother scolded. “Manners.”


“I was just saying -,”


“I know what you were just saying,” Beth scowled. “Don’t say it again.”


Jo made a face that her brother mimicked, and she elbowed him.


“So, Delta,” Beth turned back to her, her polite façade stressed. “How long have you known Mikey?”


“Mom,” Mike said under his breath with a groan, and Delta didn’t know which bothered him more – the question or the nickname.


“About…” the truth of a week was obscene. It felt worlds longer than that. “A month,” she lied again.


Beth’s expression told her that still wasn’t long enough.


“Where’d you guys meet?” Gwen asked, a fist propped on her chin, looking dreamy and delighted at the prospect of a story.


“Yes, how did you?” Beth added. “I had no idea you were serious about anyone, Mike.” She glared at her son. “I would have appreciated knowing.”


Delta put a bite of chocolate chip cookie in her mouth and let Mike tell the story. It didn’t sound charming or cute or destined-to-be as he related it in monotone. It just sounded like one awkward mistake that had led to this awkward mistake of a moment in this house where she was an alien.




It was only nine-thirty when Mike parked in front of her apartment building, but it felt like one a.m. He was a bad mix of tired and restless, and Delta’s silence on the drive told him she was feeling the same way. It was too soon to dissect the strange day they’d just had, and he wasn’t sure when he would even want to. Meeting families was always awkward. But they hadn’t known each other that long, which made it even worse.


He followed her silently up the stairs and through the door into her apartment. They took off their coats and she stepped out of her shoes.


“You want a drink?” she asked, already heading for her kitchen.


“What’ve you got?”


“Does it matter?”




He heard the pop of a wine cork and stepped across the threshold to find her pouring two glasses of something white. Not his choice, but like she’d said, it didn’t matter. She passed a glass across the center island to him and he chugged it in one long swallow. Delta lifted her brows over her own glass, but said nothing.


“So we met the families,” he said. “Guess that’s kind of a big deal.”


“Guess so.” She swept her headband off with one hand and massaged her scalp with the other, hair shimmering and chocolate in the low light over her stovetop. “I should probably call it a night,” she said, and Mike tensed at I: I wasn’t an invitation for him to join her. “Black Friday tomorrow and I’ve gotta be up early.”


“Glad I don’t work retail,” he said, and settled his forearms on the center island of her kitchen. “I can sleep late.”


Her smile was quick, tight, untrue. “Good for you.”


I’ve learned to expect mistakes when it comes to my daughter, Dennis Brooks’ words came back to Mike now. God knew, in her family, “mistake” could have meant a bad manicure. But more likely, it meant she carried her father’s constant disapproval; today had rattled her.


It had rattled him too, though, and the last thing either of them really needed was to part ways with pretend smiles and insincere promises to call. Well, maybe not needed so much as wanted. He didn’t want to walk out of here and go home to let all the day’s bullshit turn into indigestion.


“Come on,” she started around the island, eyes on her bare toes, “I’ll walk you out.”


Mike darted out a hand and caught her wrist – caught her startled attention too because her eyes came to his with a sudden little gasp.


“Shit, you scared me,” she scolded, a frown curling down the corners of her mouth. Her lip gloss was all but gone, and her lips were pale, her eyes liquid and dark and unhappy.


“I didn’t mean to.” He gave her wrist a gentle squeeze and felt the fluttering of her pulse under his fingers. “But I’m not leaving.”


“Why not?”


“Because I don’t want to.” He started to pull her toward him and she came, up on her tiptoes and trying to look resistant. “And I don’t think you want me to.”


“You’re going to tell me what I want?” she challenged, and he thought he saw a tremor in her jaw, felt a shiver in her arm. He didn’t understand either.


“No, I’m just guessing,” Mike said and offered her a smile as his thumb moved over the faint blue veins just beneath her skin. “And I’m a little afraid that if I walk out, I won’t hear from you again.” Her jaw worked as she ground her teeth together. “And after all that stupid shit with our families, I think we need to take a sec and remind ourselves why we’re doing this.”


“Doing what?” she tried to pull away and he wouldn’t let her.


“Seeing each other.”


“Well if you want to keep seeing each other, you’ll turn loose. Because news flash, Walker, I’m not some bitch who secretly longs to be dominated. Don’t manhandle me.”


But Mike didn’t let go. “I’m not hurting you,” he said, “and I’m not going to ‘dominate’ you. Calm down.”


She coughed a humorless laugh. “Calm down? I’m not wound up.”


“Yeah you are. You’re wound so tight you can’t even stand for me to touch you.”


She started to protest, he could tell. Her mouth opened, the tip of her tongue against the back of her teeth, a deep breath gathered. But then she released it in a shaky rush, her eyes rolling to the ceiling.


“I don’t aim to piss you off,” he prodded. “But I can’t stay on your good side if you don’t tell me what’s wrong.”


“Wrong,” she repeated with a non-smile, still staring at the ceiling. It was a long moment before her eyes dropped to his, wide and sparkling like coffee. “I don’t have a damn clue how to deal with you,” she said just above a whisper. “And it scares the shit out of me.”


Mike wanted to laugh. The dinner he’d endured with her family and she was scared? Ha! But he didn’t say that, instead urged her even closer, until they were almost touching, and straightened away from the island, her head falling back on her neck as she looked up at him. “Stop overthinking things,” he said, and swept her hair aside as he palmed the back of her head. “At least for tonight?”


She nodded.



Delta wasn’t lying: Mike was nothing like her father…the men in her life…he was nothing like what she’d been taught to want, and that scared her. He was everything she’d always thought she didn’t want…but wanted him anyway. And that truly did scare the shit out of her. She fought with herself every second over him, and it made her want to fight with him. Settling into a rhythm with him would feel like losing some much-needed part herself…wouldn’t it? Wouldn’t it feel like sacrificing principles and teachings?


Or maybe it just felt like his lips falling through open air and landing against hers in the middle of her shadowy kitchen. Maybe that’s all it was supposed to feel like. Maybe she worried too much.

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