A Life Apart

Chapter 13: Graduations (pg. 77)


The door opened at once. He was greeted by Chloe’s dazzling smile. “You came!” She looked at the flowers in his hand and showed a pitying frown. “Let me put these poor babies in some water.” Taking the flowers from Paxton, she effectively pulled him into the apartment. “Come in, make yourself comfortable.” She pointed to the living area and disappeared into another room. Paxton still had not spoken. She continued her welcoming monologue from the other room, “How was your daughter’s graduation?”

Paxton selected a side chair and sat down. He felt he needed to say something apologetic and excuse himself. When Chloe reentered the room with the flowers, now in a red and white vase that accented the red roses beautifully, he again found himself speechless. She sat down across from him, sinking back into the soft cushions of her couch. Slowly, she lifted one leg over the other, her light, sleeveless chiffon dress casually slipping to the midpoint of her upper leg. Still, Paxton did not speak. His mind was blank, but his heart had increased its tempo.

Chloe stretched one arm over the back of the couch in Paxton’s direction and tilted her head inquisitively toward him. “John, what’s the matter? You haven’t said a word since you arrived.”

“I thought you were having a post-graduation reception . . . a party of some kind or other.”

“No, I never said that. What I said was that I would like you to attend my private celebration party with me. Now that you’re here, we can celebrate together, privately.” Paxton fidgeted in his seat. “Relax, join my party. Take off your coat, loosen your tie. You’re here so you might as well enjoy yourself.” Paxton, slowly succumbing to the moment, stood up and took off his coat. “Throw it over the side chair and come over here.” She patted the cushion next to her. “Remember me. I’m your friend.”

Paxton finally smiled, albeit rather sheepishly. He seated himself on the couch about half a body width from Chloe. She immediately scooted her body towards him as she swiveled her crossed legs so that one leg over-hanged his closest shin. She leaned forward, placed one hand on his leg, and looked searchingly into his face. “Now tell me what’s bothering you.”

“I don’t know that I can. I just feel uncomfortable with everything, with myself, I guess.”

“I thought you said Mirabelle was okay with you leaving her reception early?”

“She’s not the problem, although I skipped out on her altogether.”

“Jill blasted you again, didn’t she?”

“You guessed it. But maybe I deserved it. I don’t know.”

“John, look at me. I’m your friend, right? Well, I don’t think you deserve her bullshit! You’ve done everything she’s asked of you. You’ve spent more money on her than probably any ten men together spend on their wives. You need to stop letting her make you feel guilty all the time. Look, you’re here now. Relax. See the bright side of all this.” She squeezed his thigh, as if to emphasize her point. “What an incredible month you’re having: two graduations in the family, my graduation—ta da!” she threw her hands in the air—“and near completion of the trial. Now that’s a big month for any one man!”

Paxton loosened his tie and unbuttoned his collar. Her hand, once again on his leg, acted like a heat exchange, spreading its warmth through his whole body. It both comforted him and disquieted him at the same time. He thought he should take his leave, but felt the weight of his body anchored in the luxury of its place on that couch.

Chloe seemed to sense his uneasiness. “Is the trial still on target?” She removed her hand from his leg, leaned back and rested her head on the arm she extended behind Paxton. With the air of a patient listener, she waited his response.

“Of course it’s on target. In fact, except for that one test, it is actually ahead of schedule.” Paxton immediately began thinking about his Monday morning agenda. He would have to make one more call to General Westland to keep him abreast of his team’s progress and once again assure himself of the general’s support.

Chloe immediately added a follow-on question. “Do you still think the generals will excuse that test, the one you said was a condition for trial acceptance?”

“I feel it in my bones.”

“They must really want BTM. Do you know why? I mean, they must have a very serious need for BTM to overrule the trial conditions.”

“Generals like to play games, call it ‘strategic chess’ on an imaginary battlefield. I can always tell when a client is hooked on a software product. The first release of BTM is just a simulator, like a SIM game for the military. Beyond that, I don’t know anything specific. If I did, I couldn’t talk about it anyway.”

“Maybe you should know. It would be leverage. You’re a smart guy. I remember what you told me about how you leveraged IBM into a favorable contract. You knew what motivated them and used that against them. That’s why you should know what’s motivating the government to buy BTM, even lowering its trial expectations to close the deal. I know how brilliant you’re at reading people. You must have some idea. If you had any inkling at all, you could win better terms, perhaps a lengthier contract or more upfront money. Didn’t you tell me you have a large personal stake invested in this project? You could be in a better position if you knew why BTM is so important to them. Maybe they already have plans for its use. Do you think that might be the basis for the generals’ overruling the trial results?”

Paxton turned to look at Chloe just over his right shoulder. Her face rested just inches from his. She was expressionless, except for the expansive opening of her eyes. They spoke of the intensity of her interest. Paxton was surprised both by her interest and by the acuity of her analysis. He responded, “You’re going to be good at that business you want to start up. Strange, how you hit upon something I’ve thought about. There was something in General Westland’s remarks last week that tweaked me in the same vein.”

“You met with the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff?” It was Chloe’s turn to be surprised. She quickly recovered and asked, “Did he tell you how the Pentagon plans to use BTM? I mean, do they have specific plans for its use?”

“Well, they might have immediate plans, I guess. But they wouldn’t tell me. It’s just the way the general referenced General Perry’s interest in the full production or field version of BTM. His manner suggested that interest was more about operational deployment than trial results. Anyway, I don’t know enough to leverage anybody in the Pentagon. For Solvetur, it would be sufficient to finish the trial and finalize the existing agreements. That has to be my primary goal right now. And I’m almost there.”

Chloe moved closer, nestling her head on Paxton’s shoulder, her forehead against his neck, and stretching her right arm lazily across his lap. “You could do more if you knew what General Perry wanted with BTM.”

Paxton felt at once drawn into a womb of comfort and security and, at the same time, abstracted by the scene unfolding in his mind’s eye: a middle aged man with a young woman draped intimately across his body. Suddenly the image made sense. He was caught in a web of his own construction. Earlier in his car, he had spun this web. But now he understood its import, belying the feelings of the moment. He was no longer there with Chloe. Their shared reality was no more than a personal fiction.

Then, with a flash of recognition, he remembered Mirabelle’s smile when he told her he would not attend her reception. It was the same smile he used to see on Jill’s face: it offered no reproach, just unconditional acceptance and trust. At once, he knew he had been playing a fool’s game with himself. Chloe could not replace what was missing in his life.

He gently lifted Chloe’s arm from his lap and rose from the couch. He reached for his jacket and in a soft, but firm voice said, “Chloe, thanks for sharing your graduation with me. I wish you the best with your new enterprise. But I have to leave now. My family needs me with them to celebrate my daughter’s graduation.” At the door, he looked over his shoulder and added, “You are a bright young woman with a great future ahead of you. I wish you all the good fortune that life has to offer.” He closed the door behind him and was gone.

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