If I assumed I wouldn't see Clay again after that first day at church, I was a chump. From that day on, he was there. RIGHT there. Every Sunday. I found it unnerving.Every time we ended up in the same room, I was hyper-aware of him, yet completely unable to speak. A few weeks later we had a service in the park, followed by a picnic lunch. Guess who was manning the grill?
After the lunch was over, I was gathering up the kids and stuff to head home with Dad. During this era, Mom was working a job that often had her gone on Sundays, so often it was me and Dad showing up at church. As I scooped up the cooler to carry it to the car, Clay stepped up to say hi. We stood on a bridge over a small stream, and - just like that - we chatted. He asked how I was, and I claimed to be fine. Trees arched overhead in a lush green canopy, and we both exclaimed overmuch about how good the lunch had been.
The boys were ahead of me on the path, but when I looked over to check on them, I couldn't see Raphael. He was only three at the time, but he was already fully Raphael, if you get my meaning, and with a small stream in the area, I knew I couldn't afford to assume he was okay. I turned and scanned for him, then spotted him and relaxed.
"Oh," I said, "there he is. With my dad."
"He's YOUR DAD," Clay said, with such obvious relief that we both laughed. Then he carried my cooler to the car for me (impressing Dad), and waved goodbye as we drove away.
I think Clay may have assumed at this point that the path ahead of him was clear. He thought I was interesting, and I obviously thought the same of him. Because I was in charge of the church prayer chain, my phone number was simply all over the place. He even asked me, seriously and directly one Sunday after church, if he could call me. I agreed (somewhat curtly). And sure enough, shortly later, he called.
Now, this summer ('04) happened to be a hard time with my grandparents. They'd recently moved near us, into an assisted living facility, and even that bit of independence was being whittled away by the brutal process of aging. Grandma had fallen and broken her leg, and was in a rehab center for a few months. Being away from home, away from her husband of sixty-odd years, being in pain, all of it conspired to undo her. She was anxious - paranoid, even - and confused and angry. Grandpa couldn't sleep in the rehab center, but was absolutely driven to being with her whenever he could. Three adults in the family shared the job of helping them, and Mom took the lion's share of that burden. And yet it was exhausting us all.
The afternoon that Clay called, I was in the midst of shooing all the boys out to the van, so we could pick up Grandpa from the nursing home and take him back to his home. The phone rang, and when I answered it and heard Clay's voice, I panicked.
"I can't," I said, "I mean, I'm just about to leave."
"Okay," he replied, "I was just wondering if we could get together for coffee sometime?"
"I don't think so. I mean, I'm busy. My grandmother broke her leg."
"I'm not trying to push you into anything, Kira. I was just hoping we could be friends."
"I'm sorry. I can't. I'm busy," I stammered. And then I hung up on him.
I stood there, and stared at the phone in my hand. As desperate as I'd been to get him off the phone, I was sad that he was gone. And I was sure he was gone. He'll surely give up now, I thought.
I didn't know Clay yet.