“Alicia,” Cary’s voice stops her on the way out of the office. It’s Friday, end of the day. The elevator door is already open in front of her, waiting for her entrance, and she lets out a breath and lets the doors slide shut again with a thump. She turns, seeing Clarke Hayden standing behind Cary, both of them watching her expectantly.
Damn. They needed to go over the next quarter’s financial planning, and Alicia had missed their first meeting when she’d been called away to court. Then Cary had a deposition that ran late, then Clarke had been needed on another case. But Grace’s birthday had been on Wednesday, and she is supposed to meet not just Peter and the kids, but Jackie and Veronica as well, for dinner. She can’t stay late to take care of this.
“I’m so sorry,” she starts, and Cary reads it all in her face and raises his hands, stopping her.
“Just, when can we get together?” he asks. “We need, what?” He looks over to Clarke. “An hour?”
“If that,” Clarke agrees. “I hate to take up your weekend, but I have a meeting with the bank on Monday, and we need to be in agreement.”
“Okay.” Alicia shifts her bag on her shoulder and pulls her calendar to mind. She can probably find an hour on Saturday. She just needs to get ready for Sunday, because Sunday is busy, Sunday is—she stops, tests the idea. She can remember a time when she wouldn’t have considered this an option, but it doesn’t seem so complicated anymore. She studies Cary, who doesn’t push her, who’s just waiting patiently. It doesn’t feel like it will be intrusive. It feels… safe. “Do you like football?” she decides.
“Sure,” Cary replies, his brow crinkling. Still waiting.
“Um,” Clarke says. She’s not worried about Clarke.
“Peter has some friends coming over for the game on Sunday. We’re going to have too much food anyway and,” she hesitates, then goes for honesty, “I’d like to have some of my own colleagues around.” Peter said he wanted her and the kids there, since his time in Chicago is so limited these days, but Alicia isn’t looking forward to sitting in a roomful of politicians for four hours.
She’d nailed Peter and Eli both to the wall, making them swear it was really just a friendly gathering, not a photo opportunity or a bargaining session or an attempt to influence anyone.
“Alicia,” Peter had said, holding her hands and looking her in the eye. “It’s just a football game. I’m ordering some wings and pizza. Eli and some of the guys from work. No ulterior motives. I promise.” That means more these days than it has for a while, but Alicia doesn’t think she’ll ever truly trust Peter again. One of the many things she’s learned over the course of her marriage is that Peter is an amazing liar. But considering that she’s finally realized that truly, everyone lies, at least she’s come to trust Peter’s motives, which she finds reassuring enough.
“Oh my God, Alicia,” Eli had snapped. Eli, on the other hand, is a terrible liar, to the point that she wonders, sometimes, how he’s made it this far in politics. He didn’t lie to her that day, though. “It’s a football game. I’m not even coming; I have better things to do on a day off. But we’re in Chicago for some meetings on Friday and Monday, and there’s the breakfast thing on Sunday morning, so Peter wanted to do something for the staff who’d be stuck in hotels with nothing to do. They’re not even politicians, he invited the guys from the office.”
It makes her feel slightly better about having her home invaded. She won’t dispute Peter’s right to bring his friends into her home, into her time with her kids. She doesn’t even mind. She just finds it hard to shake the feeling of how it was for so long, that every meeting like this was just an attempt to pry into their lives, test their maybe-sham marriage. Peter’s friends or no, she’s less threatened by it than she used to be. She is tired of living her life in pieces: as a mother, as whatever she and Peter really are on any given day, as a politician’s wife, as a lawyer. So many things have gotten simpler recently, and with the campaign over and knowing now where she stands at work and with Peter, she’s ready to stop living her life piecemeal. Part of that is standing here in her office, thinking forward to Sunday, and realizing that it’s overwhelmingly clear to her that she would prefer Cary’s company to whoever Peter is inviting over. She thinks that maybe, through everything else they have been or become through the years, she has a friend of her own in Cary. She doesn’t have many of those these days.
Cary looks pleased at her offer, and she thinks that he too, is proud of these things they have created. This firm, this partnership. She thinks about how he trusted her through the whole partnership debacle of the past year, and how either of them could have crushed this fragile trust between them at any time, but didn’t. That in fact Alicia was the one to push that trust to the limits by accepting Will and Diane’s partnership and playing both sides, while Cary remained in her corner. They have fought hard against each other, higher powers, and themselves to get here from their early days of grudging respect and occasional outright hostility, and Alicia thinks that they are both equally enamored of every painful, precious step. This is just one more, and she thinks Cary understands that. “Sounds great,” is all he says. “If we get there at two, we can be done before kickoff.”
He turns to eye Clarke, who shrugs. “Okay?” Clarke hazards. “Can I bring anything?”
Alicia checks her watch, and hurries back towards the elevator. “Just the pleasure of your company,” she calls over her shoulder, and leaves before either of them can work out just how sincerely she means that.
Cary shows up in blue jeans, scuffed boots with snow still clinging to the treads, and a blue jersey with the number 81 emblazoned across the chest and the name Johnson across his shoulders. Alicia takes his coat with a smile, ushering him into the apartment with a warm hand on his shoulder.
It’s quiet yet. Peter had a breakfast meeting with labor unions before the game, and Zach and Grace are in their rooms. The first round of party food, chips and dip and a veggie tray, sits expectantly on the kitchen counter.
“We can set up in the dining room, but do you want something to eat or drink first?” Alicia asks, leading him through the living room. Cary follows her, and he’s still pulling his laptop out of its bag when there’s another knock at the door.
She follows the same routine with Clarke, who is dressed down from work, but still looks formal in khakis and a dark red sweater. He greets her a little stiffly, but seems to relax at the sight of Cary sitting at Alicia’s dining room table, scooping salsa onto taco chips.
It’s a juxtaposition, knowing that a few hours ago she was eating pancakes with her family fifteen feet away in the kitchen, and now she’s invited her work into her home. But she’s already had the whole firm in her living room, using all her toilet paper and filling her fridge with a hundred kinds of soda and take out boxes. The sight of Cary and Clarke sitting in her dining room with a budget, some financial forms, and nachos seems almost cozy by comparison. She knows there was a time not so long ago when the idea of her work and home life intersecting like this would have set off alarms and flashing lights in her head but even though she waits, listening for it, she feels at ease.
They work quickly. Mostly, Clarke explains what they need to know, and Cary and Alicia pick it apart until it makes sense, until it sounds like the firm they want to run. They sign a new insurance agreement, and discuss the office furniture.
“You need to upgrade the conference room before considering anything further,” Clarke tells them seriously, peering over his glasses. “That’s where the clients will spend the most time.”
“And something for the front area,” Cary points out. “Not that we have a real waiting area, but that just makes it worse.”
“What about the break room?” Alicia asks, and Cary excuses himself to use the restroom.
After a few minutes, Alicia hears voices from the next room, and interrupts Clarke’s tangent about Keurig to investigate.
“—just covered in it. I couldn’t face her roommate for a month. But aside from her, really, it was a great program.” Cary is grinning at the conclusion to some story that has Zach snickering against the kitchen counter.
“Hey Mom,” he says, straightening. “You didn’t tell me Cary went to Michigan.”
Alicia pauses, surprised. “I guess I didn’t know,” she responds. Harvard, she’d known, but just as she herself was a UChicago alumna before she ever walked on to Georgetown’s campus, Cary must have come from somewhere else.
“Let me know if you have any other questions,” Cary tells him, casting a sideways glance at Alicia.
Zach smiles, bobbing his head. “Thanks!” He takes a handful of cookies from a plate and disappears back down the hall.
“Sorry,” Cary says, after Zach leaves. “I wasn’t recruiting. I was trying to be polite, asked what he was up to, he said applying to colleges…” Cary trails off, watching her carefully.
“No,” Alicia says after a moment, waiting until she knows it’s true. “It’s fine.” She reaches past Cary to take a cookie for herself. She doesn’t know if it’s mother’s intuition or just having eyes in her head, but she knows there’s a world of difference between Zepps leaning on this same counter talking with Grace, and Cary talking colleges with Zach. “His other choices are much farther from home, so influence him all you like,” she says, only half joking on that front. Thank God Grace still has a few years before she has to worry about what she’ll do when they’re both out of the house.
The front door opens, and there’s a flurry of conversation from the front hall. “Honey?” Peter’s voice comes from the main room.
“In here,” she calls back, and steps back into the dining room, flipping shut her notepad. She looks up at Clarke and Cary. “We’ll figure out the furniture after next month’s billings come in, alright?”
The two men murmur agreement, and start collecting papers and file folders.
Peter leans into the room, catching Alicia’s eye. “How’s it coming? I don’t want to interrupt, but I’d like to do introductions whenever you’re finished.”
Alicia smiles up at him. “Just done now. Peter, did you meet Clarke Hayden?”
Clarke stands, and they shake hands and exchange greetings, and then Peter turns to Cary. “Good to see you,” he says warmly, and then takes a dramatic step backwards, hand going to his eyes in mock horror. “What is this? A Detroit fan? In this house?”
Cary laughs, and they do some manly shadow boxing with each other while Alicia watches, amused, and even more amused when she sees the bemused expression on Clarke’s face. She gathers up the discarded paper plates and napkins, and motions Clarke ahead of her into the kitchen. “I’m not a football fan,” he admits to her, and she can tell he’s working up to making his escape.
“I’m not either,” she tells him. “That’s why I invited my own people over.” She lets him mull that over while she shakes more chips into a large bowl and pulls a beer out of the fridge, holding it out in his direction. He hesitates for a long moment, his hand hovering, half-raised, until she quirks an eyebrow at him and he smiles, taking the bottle and laughing a little at himself. Alicia takes another beer out for herself.
“I like baseball,” he offers, almost apologetically, and she remembers Will dragging her an hour up the road to Camden Yards during law school whenever he could find tickets and a free afternoon. She doesn’t remember if the Orioles were a good team or not, but she remembers long afternoons drinking overpriced beer and cheering anyway, and she remembers Will tugging her down towards the field to get Cal Ripkin’s autograph, the fall he broke whatever record it was he broke. They’re still good memories.
“Me too,” she answers honestly, and Clarke smiles, twisting the top off his beer. When she heads into the living room, Clarke follows, leaving his briefcase against the wall.
There are a lot of introductions and handshakes, but it really is just four guys Alicia finds vaguely familiar from past events, and Peter laughs loudly when he gets to show off his kids. Grace leans in a little shyly, arm around her father’s waist, while Zach extends himself from Peter’s side to shake hands, recognizing some of the staff from the campaign. Alicia watches them, content. It’s always been easy to love Peter when he’s playing the dad role. She’s making up a plate of food when Eli brushes by her, and she murmurs, “I thought you had better things to do.” He narrows his eyes at her and jerks his head in Peter’s direction, and Alicia laughs at him until he breaks, shakes his head and walks off with a carrot stick before he can smile.
Alicia takes a seat on the couch on the quieter side of the room where Clarke has already positioned himself and after a few minutes, Grace wanders over to sit at her feet. She leans her head on Alicia’s knees, and Alicia strokes her hair absently. Cary settles onto the sofa between Alicia and Clarke, and he glances at both of them in turn. “Do you actually know anything about football?” he asks seriously.
“I said I’m not a fan, not that I’m totally ignorant of American culture,” Clarke grumbles, and Cary grins, clapping him on the knee.
“Mom just cheers no matter who catches the ball,” Grace betrays her, and Alicia leans down, covering Grace’s mouth with her hand and ticking her side until Grace squirms, giggling like the child Alicia still considers her. Cary grins even wider. Eventually Grace bats her away, and Alicia leans back, settling into the cushions contentedly.
“You’re from Michigan?” Alicia asks after a moment, and Cary studies her, grin fading into something more contemplative, elbows on his knees.
“Are you surprised that I’m from the Midwest, or surprised that you didn’t know?” he asks her.
Alicia thinks about it. “Both,” she hedges. She’s surprised because she feels like she knows Cary pretty well these days, but she doesn’t know where he’s from. She knows where he’s been lately, she knows a bit about his father, but she couldn’t say what he does when he’s not at work. Watches football sometimes, apparently. “Where in Michigan?” she asks. She tries to picture Cary growing up, going to high school in Detroit, Lansing, the U.P., but none of it works. She can’t even quite picture him at Harvard anymore, though at one point that was all she saw in him: a pretentious degree in a pretentious suit. Now she sees him in his cubicle at the State’s Attorney’s office, or with his head bent over the desk in front of hers at Lockhart/Gardener. She sees him high as a kite, stroking her scarf, or smirking at her across a courtroom after demolishing her witness, or hunched into his hoodie with shadows under his eyes after poring over casework for thirty hours straight on a weekend, exhausted and jittery with caffeine. She will always see him standing in her doorway, the night they agreed to leave together.
“Ann Arbor,” is his answer, but he shakes his head at her. “Don’t worry, Alicia. You know the parts that matter.” She wants to argue that she only knows the little things, like how he takes his coffee and loves Thai food and hates tequila. But she wonders how much of her own life prior to starting over at Stern, Lockhart, Gardner is necessary to understanding herself. She knows the crushed shape of Cary’s shoulders after speaking to his father, and the difference between the smile he uses on clients and the sweet tilt of his lips when he’s truly happy about something. She remembers the night of Peter’s election, the agonizing hour between when she called Cary, and when he came. She was sure she wanted to run, but it wasn’t until he was standing in her doorway that she felt anchored, knew she was running towards, and not from. She remembers realizing only the next morning that they hadn’t spoken of Peter once that night. While the city celebrated or despaired about Peter’s win, Alicia and Cary had been plotting their own victory, scratching out their own blueprints for a new life. She knows that she saved his plans in order to save herself, but also that he has done no less for her. She opens her mouth, not sure how to thank him for his part in all of this, but he watches her face, already with her, and tips the bottle in his hand towards her in a toast. She closes her mouth on a smile, and clinks the neck of her bottle against his.
The players line up on the field, and Peter unmutes the television, the noise in the room suddenly exploding as the announcers chatter to each other and Peter’s friends all talk louder to counter. Cary slouches comfortably back into the sofa, and Clarke leans in to murmur something in Cary's ear that makes him huff out a soft breath of laughter. Peter is already intent on the TV, leaning forward with his arms braced on his knees. Zach is next to him, and Grace is texting someone on her phone. Eli hovers for a long moment, gazing longingly at the door before landing on the arm of the sofa next to Peter, who pats his knee without looking away from the kickoff. On the field, the receiver returns the ball for forty almost effortless yards, and Peter claps his hands once in loud satisfaction. Alicia leans back into the couch, and takes a long sip of beer.