On a Clear Day You Can See Despair
I knew of her in high school but I didn't really get to talk to her much. I knew her mostly by reputation: the `tragic' girl with the dead parents, the quarterback's girlfriend. But mostly I knew about her because my best friend Clark had crushed on her ever since we were in grade school all the way up to high school. I used to tease him about it. You have to understand. She was pretty, smart and talented but it wasn't doing him any good, just standing in the distance, longing for her. When I found out the truth about Clark, I finally understood why he just hadn't gone up to her and gotten it out of her system. You can't really go up to a gal and say, "Hey, pieces of my dead planet whacked your parents and I'm an alien who wants to take you to the prom."
I left Smallville to go to Wichita after my junior year. My parents got divorced and I ended up with my mom. After I graduated, I headed to the University of Metropolis. After a while, I saw Lana there, walking with her books. She was different than I remembered her. Instead of soft pastels like pink and sometimes blue, she was dressed in black and styled her hair differently, more sophisticated. "Oh, hey, Lana!" I said. I just liked seeing another familiar face in this huge campus.
She looked confused then saw me and smiled. "Pete Ross?"
"Yup, in the flesh. How's the town princess?"
She made a face. "I'm not a princess."
"Kidding. What have you been up to?"
"Oh, I'm undeclared. I was thinking of art, fashion design or maybe business. I haven't really figured out what I want to do. How about you?"
I sighed. "Law with a minor in political science."
"Oh, so you want to be what, president?"
"No, not president. Maybe the guy who makes someone president."
"A king maker."
"Yeah, you get more latitude by working behind the scenes."
"How about we go to my apartment for some coffee?"
"I'd love to."
I ended up getting caught up on all the things that had been going on in Smallville after I left. Clark would call from time to time but well, he never really talked about the secret much because he knew that it was part of the reason I had to leave. Even now, he'll only talk about it with me if he has to rather than simply just because. He'll do the occasional crazy slam dunk but other than that . . .
She told me about her trip to Paris, the boyfriend that followed, the weird adventures and how Clark had left after telling her that things would never work out between them. I was relieved that she also knew the big secret and that she knew I knew. I asked about Chloe because the last I heard Clark had told me she had moved to Bludhaven and that she hadn't given him her new address. Lana shrugged. "I don't know what's happened to her. We didn't keep in touch."
I looked at the clock on the wall and realized I only had ten minutes to get to class. "Oh, wow, I need to get to English 1A. It's been really nice talking to you." I took out a piece of paper and gave her my cell phone number. "Call . . . only if you want to."
We hung out but we didn't start dating then. She liked to date fraternity presidents, quarterbacks, you know, the big men on campus. Nothing lasted though. She liked to complain that none of them wanted to be exclusive; that they were just like rock stars who treated girls like groupies. I shook my head and said, "You need to find yourself a one-woman man."
She smiled and said, "Are you a one-woman man, Pete Ross?"
I was about to answer when she changed the subject.
"Hello?"a woman's voice said.
"Hi, my name is Pete Ross. Is this Lois Lane?"
"Yes, it is."
"You don't know me but I'm a friend of Clark Kent's from high school. I was also a friend of Chloe's."
"Oh, hey, I remember Chloe talking about you."
"She did?" For some reason that made me smile.
"You're Smallville's friend, too? Did I ever meet you?"
"No, I don't think so. I moved to Wichita in my junior year. Clark said that you visited Smallville after I had already left."
"Hey, why don't you come over for a beer?"
So, I went over to her apartment and I'll admit that I found her pretty hot though a few inches taller than me. She had on a teal sleeveless pullover and jeans. "So," she said, handing me a bottle of beer she got out of the fridge, "How do you know Smallville?"
"I knew him since we were in grade school. You could say we grew up together." I took a sip of the beer. It was a little dark and bitter for my taste but it was . . . all right. "He didn't really say how he met you but I guess you made an impression. Um, why DO you call him Smallville, anyway? I'm from Smallville, too."
"Well, he was the first guy from Smallville I ever met. Let's say that our first meeting was really unusual."
"He's an unusual guy."
"Mmm, very unusual."
We both gave each other a look and laughed. She told me about crazy cheerleaders, an assassin with metal arms and Lionel Luthor. I talked to her about cars on fire, mind-altering flowers but mostly about a blond girl whose dream was to be like Woodward and Bernstein. We ended up talking for a few hours and decided that we liked what we heard.
We saw each other on and off throughout the school year. It didn't matter that we had different majors. In fact, she liked to snark that once she became a reporter that I would probably be relentlessly grilled during an interview about my political agenda one day. I answered back that I would probably let the candidate I backed to take the heat. We had other important things in common like football, beer, and the fact that we could talk about the strangeness that was Smallville without thinking the other nuts.
Once, I was at Lois' apartment watching football with her (our team was going up against the University of Michigan Wolverines and our team was totally getting their asses kicked, d'oh) and knocking back a few bottles of Samuel Adams. I didn't bring my cell phone with me because I didn't want to get interrupted during a really good play. Well, once I got home to my dorm room, there was a message from Lana saying she wanted to talk to me. So, I called her back and she said, "Where were you?"
"I was out watching football with a friend of mine. What did you want to talk to me about?"
"Come on, you can tell me."
"No . . .no, it's nothing. I just hope you had fun with your friend. I got to go." With that she hung up on me.
I sighed but knew that within a day or two, she'd get over her funk. Lately, Lana'd been doing this whenever she called my house and I was out kicking back with Lois.
"Hey, Lois?" I said as we sat in the stands, waiting for the game to begin.
"Yeah, Pete?" she said before biting into a hotdog slathered in mustard and relish.
"What are you doing for Christmas? You said that your dad was away in Afghanistan."
She swallowed what she had been chewing and said, "Actually, Gabe invited me to have turkey with him and Chloe. He said that he'd give me enough leftovers so I'd have enough to make a turkey casserole at home. Why?"
"I don't know. I figure that if you didn't have anywhere to go, my brothers and sister were all going to come over to my mom's house . . . But since you already do . . ."
"It was nice of you to ask. Hey, how come a nice guy like you doesn't have a girlfriend?"
"Who says I don't have a girlfriend?"
"Because you never talk about her."
"Girls don't notice guys like me."
She turned to me and said, "Don't underestimate yourself. I'm sure there's someone out there who thinks you're quite the catch."
I noticed that she apparently didn't think she was that someone.
Later that day, Lana dropped by my place. I wasn't really in the mood to talk but I didn't want to be rude so I had her sit down on the couch while I got her a cherry coke.
"I haven't seen you in a while," she said.
"I've been a bit busy," I said as I handed her a cold can of soda.
"Is something wrong?" she said.
"Oh, you don't want to hear it."
"No, I want to know."
"Well," I said, furrowing my forehead, trying to find a way to put it into words. "I'm wondering why I'm always the second choice."
Lana gave me a puzzled smile. "I don't understand . . ."
"I know that I'm not the first choice of any of the girls I've ever met. I'm just wondering what it is. Is it that I'm just not good looking enough? I just don't project enough confidence? Is it a society hierarchy thing? What?"
"Why are you asking me?"
I wondered briefly whether or not to tell her about Lois and how I'd developed feelings about her. Instead I just said, "I'm just curious what makes a woman decide to date someone."
Lana thought for a second and looked like she was about to laugh. "I can only talk about what I personally like. I need a man who's completely honest and open with me. I like a good listener who makes me his number one priority above all others. He should be sensitive to my feelings and never make me feel insecure, who will always be there. Someone who will love me no matter what I've done or how I look. Besides that, I like thinking that the man I date has something that makes him unique, something that sets him apart from everybody else." She gave me a smile and said, "Does that help you at all?"
"Uh, I guess." Wow, I thought, she wants a lot from a guy.
"What are you doing for Thanksgiving?" she said.
"I'm going to the annual Ross family gathering, complete with little boys sticking bread sticks up their noses so they can pretend they're walruses and my great aunt playing the ukelele. And you?"
She pouted and sighed. "I have to go to Nell and Dean's house. Dean's going to invite his parents, his sister, her kids, and a few people from work while Nell's inviting me. I'll survive. Anyway, I have to go and meet Jean Pierre, but . . . I'll see you tomorrow."
I'd often be amazed that Lana had enough time to go to all the events and concerts that she's talk about. I asked her that very question and she said, "It's a lot easier with a little help. I've got Ben to help me with calculus, Jeremy to help with art, and Jason to help with biology."
"Sounds like you got your own research team to help you."
She looked a little defensive. "I get a little help from a few friends, that's all."
"If I had some pretty girls helping me to study, I think I'd flunk."
She rolled her eyes at me.
Lois, well, she was pretty busy herself though sometimes we'd study at each other's place and have potluck. One night, it was lasagna night at my place. My roommate Steve, who could actually cook, made the main dish while I made salad and garlic bread. Lois came by with some brownies and a bottle of red wine. "Here's my contribution to underage drinking," she said, holding up the bottle.
"You made those?" I said pointing to the pan of brownies in her other hand.
"Well, they're actually Betty Crocker but I actually stirred stuff together and baked it. Does that count?"
When Steve took his plate of food into his room so he could study for his physics exam, I said (after having drunk two glasses of wine and knowing my breath stunk to high heaven from the garlic bread the lasagna), "I was wondering if we could go out as more than just friends . . ."
"Like boyfriend and girlfriend?"
She poked at her salad. "I don't really . . ."
"See you that way," I said. I knew the drill.
"I'm sorry, Pete."
"Yeah, well, just wanted to be sure. Want another piece of garlic bread?"
"It's OK. I'm used to being shot down. It's no biggy."
Even so, the rest of the night was pretty quiet.
Later that spring, I received a letter from Luthercorp asking if I would be interested in a paid internship for the summer. The weird thing is that I never sent in an application. I would've sent a letter back turning it down except Lana saw it lying on the table and read it. "Looks like you're all set for the summer."
"Actually, I'm going to turn it down," I said, a little annoyed she poked her nose into my business.
"What? You manage to get the attention of the richest and most powerful man in Kansas and you're not interested?"
"His father ripped off my family. I don't even know Lex Luthor that well. I don't know why he even sent me this letter."
She scrunched up her face as if I had horribly insulted her. "Do you want to spend all summer asking people if they want fries with that? This is an opportunity."
Damn, man, I thought. "You know, I thought maybe my mom could get me a job doing some filing in a nice air-conditioned office in the courthouse. Anyway, why do you care so much about whether or not I take this internship?"
"Because maybe it could lead to something more." She looked at me as if she was thinking something over. "Something with potential."
"Mr. Ross, you are probably wondering why you are here," he said, looking cool and completely in control.
"The thought did cross my mind, Mr. Luthor." I had visions of Men in Black suddenly appearing, zapping me, and taking me to their hidden headquarters deep underground. I knew that Lex had a special interest of the weird things in Smallville so he might think I had something to do with them.
"I've heard about your background. You've done well in school and extracurricular activities. Your present interest is law."
"That's right. That still doesn't answer my question." A thought occurred to me. "Clark didn't ask you to get me a summer job, did he?"
"No, he didn't ask me to do this. I'll confess I'm interested in the people that Clark is friends with but you wouldn't be here if I didn't think you could handle the work. This isn't going to be an internship where all you do is sharpen pencils."
"I don't think . . ."
"I know the big secret."
Pause. My brain ceased to function at that point.
Lex smiled at my sudden dumbness. "The ship, the meteor shower, Kryptonite, I know."
"Why are you . . ." I said, wondering how to finish the sentence. Talking crazy? Smoking crack? Telling me all this? I felt a little flare of anger at myself for letting Lana talk me into coming here. I hated being put into these kind of positions.
"I'm working on a project and I figured that I'd rather hire people who were already in the know and showed a certain level of loyalty and discretion."
"Does Clark know about this project?"
"Yes. He doesn't exactly approve of it but he sees the reasons behind it."
"What is the project?"
"To thoroughly decontaminate Smallville and the surrounding areas of Kryptonite and to store it where it will no longer do any more harm. Now do you want to hear what the internship entails or do you prefer to leave now?"
"Tell me about the job."
I didn't tell Lois about this job in detail because I knew that would really get her curious about what was going on. I just told her it was office work, which was technically the truth. I'd be lying though if I said that I didn't feel slightly tempted at the thought of seeing her eyes light up at all the dirt I could give her though it was immediately quashed by not only by the knowledge of what was at stake but the thought of how much trouble she'd be in if anybody found out she knew. I confess that in the past when I saw Clark lie to Chloe or see her drive herself nuts trying to figure out why things happened the way they did, I really did want to tell her the truth because I knew it would be the biggest thing in the world to someone like her. It's just that it wasn't my gift to give and it was a burden I didn't want to share.
When I got home, the phone rang. I let the answering machine pick it up as I shut the door and threw my jacket on the back of the couch. I slipped off my shoes and wriggled my toes.
"Hey, Pete," said the voice.
I snatched up the phone. "How are you, man?" I said, recognizing Clark's voice.
"I'm fine. It's official. I'm going to Metropolis U this fall."
Soon after Clark had graduated from high school, his dad had died. After a few months, his mother decided that Clark shouldn't stay in Smallville and started working on a plan to give Clark a shot at University of Metropolis. She sold off all of the farm equipment and most of the land, paid off all her debts and researched all the grants and scholarships that he was eligible for. She even contacted her father and asked for some help. Grudgingly, he promised to make up the difference though only if they visited him more often. While his mother had moved back to Metropolis and started working with her dad, Clark had gone traveling by himself for almost half a year. Clark had told me that he had gone to the real Fortress of Solitude to figure out what to do from now on during that time.
"That's cool," I said. "Have you told Lana yet?"
"Actually, I haven't. I don't plan to, either."
"Clark . . . It's a big campus but it's not like you exactly blend in," I said. "She's going to see you the second you step on campus."
"I know. I just don't want to give her false hope by telling her that I'm going to school there."
"Clark . . . She told me that you left Smallville soon after you told her that things would never work out with her. So, I . . . don't see the problem if you've already told how things stand between the two of you."
There was a pause. "Pete, there are things that you don't know about Lana, things I don't think she went out of her way to tell you. During the time you were gone, a lot of things happened between the two of us. You used to be the one who told me to take off my Lana blinders. I finally did and I saw a lot of things I hadn't wanted to see."
"She wanted more from me than I could ever have given her. She hates being alone or having to compromise and I'd have to constantly ask anybody I'd be with to do both. After she knew the secret, she was very angry, screaming that I had ruined her life and said that there were so many times that she had nearly died because of me. After so many years of struggling to be someone she wanted, that was it. There was nothing left of the way I used to feel about her. When I told her I was leaving, she then accused me of running away and leaving her to deal with things alone and how selfish that was."
"Man, she said all that? All she said was that you told her then left."
"I really don't want to say anything more about her."
I decided to change the subject. "Your friend Lois . . ."
"What about her?" The tightness in his voice relaxed a little.
"She's really quite a bit like Chloe. They don't look alike but I'm really beginning to think the snark is genetic. Shall I tell her that you're coming or shall I keep my mouth shut about that?"
"I guess you could tell her."
"Oh, I should warn you . . . she still calls you Smallville."
I smiled when I heard him groan.
It was as I foretold. The first day that he set foot on campus, Lana saw him. I wondered if she had a sixth sense or something because she almost never set foot on the north side of the campus. It was a quiet part of campus where the professors did their research, just across the street from the residential area mixed in with a few shops unlike the opposite side that was all shops, restaurants and clubs.
I was with him when she walked up to us. She had quite the tan and I briefly wondered if she had gone to Greece of Hawaii during the summer like she said she would. "Clark, you didn't tell me that you were coming here," she said.
"I'm enrolled," he said, shrugging.
I immediately sensed the tension between them and said, "Excuse me, I'll leave the two of you to play catch up." I didn't particularly want to hear two people playing the blame game so I decided to walk away. However, I did turn around to see them arguing and for once, Clark was dishing whatever Lana was giving him right back without looking whipped as he usually did. He never used to do that, I thought. Looks like he was telling the truth.
After a while, he left her and walked over to where I was standing, leaving her looking frustrated.
After all our classes were done, I took Clark over to Caf Intermezzo where Lois was waiting for us. It served good pastries and salads as well as coffee, which was good because we were planning on hanging out for a while.
As we walked to the table that she was sitting at, she looked up and said, "Pete! Smallville!"
"My name is Clark . . . Clark Kent!" he said as he sat next to her. I sat on the other side of the table from them.
"How's Clark Junior?" she said.
I raised an eyebrow. "Clark Junior?"
Clark turned slightly red. "It's a long story."
"A very, very long story."
"You're never going to let me live that down, are you?"
"I could say a few things about your dad chasing us with helicopters."
"Now, you can't blame that on me . . ."
"It was you he was after . . ."
I spent the rest of the time drinking my coffee listening to them argue, watching them as if from a distance. After a while, I excused myself under the pretext that I wanted to wake up early so I could get a jump ahead on my textbook shopping.
The next day, I was walking to the auditorium for my Anthropology professor's lecture when I felt a familiar hand on my shoulder. "Pete."
I turned around and sighed. "Yes, Clark."
"Pete, are you mad at me? You left early and . . . "
"It's more that I'm just mad that it's . . . happened again."
"What do you mean?"
"I'm the third wheel."
"Third wheel?" He frowned.
"Remember Chloe in high school? She was totally smitten with you and I never had a chance . . . even when she knew that she didn't have a chance with you. Whenever all three of us were in the room, I felt like I was the one on the outside. Now, here I am. I've been friends with Lois for over a year. I've drunk beer with her, and went to some football games with her. Then you just come in and . . . I'm back in the shadows again."
"Whoa, whoa, whoa, Pete. She doesn't think of me that way . . ."
"Yes, she does. Maybe she doesn't even know it yet but . . ."
"I didn't mean to . . ."
"I know you didn't mean to. It's that old Kent charm. I will say this, though. During high school, I watched you and Chloe go through a whole lot of really painful crap for years and I didn't say anything. I don't want to see you go through the same crap with Lois. " With that, I walked away. He's my best friend but I just didn't want to look at him at that moment. It just hurt too much. I could stand being the man behind the man in every aspect . . . but this one.
There was a knock at my door. "Go away!" I yelled, eating popcorn and watching a really bloody zombie movie on the TV. I really wasn't in the mood to face either Lois or Clark. I needed time to cheer up and nothing gets me out of a sour mood like eating popcorn, drinking beer, and seeing screaming people being eaten by the undead. OK, I know it's sick but . . .
"Pete, are you OK?" Lana said at the door.
I sighed as I pushed the pause button on my DVD. "I'm kind of in a really bad mood right now. Can't it wait?"
"No, it can't."
I groaned while getting up off the coach and opened the door. "Look, if you have a problem with another boyfriend, I'm really not in the mood to . . ."
"Actually, it's about you this time," she said, holding up a little white cardboard box and a thermos. "I've got coffee and cake."
I let her in. "Come in."
Lana went into the kitchen and got a plate, a fork and a mug. I went back to sitting on the couch.
"I was at Caf Intermezzo last night. I was upstairs near the railing and I could look down on your table. Let me guess . . . You were the one left out while those two were in their little world." She put the slice of cake and a mug of coffee down in front of me on the coffee table before sitting next to me.
"It was that obvious?"
"Oh, obvious enough. You like Lois, don't you?"
"It's like huge neon sign, isn't it?"
Lana nodded and smiled.
"You think what I'm going through is funny?" I said.
"No, of course not. It's just that I think it's funny that she's letting a good man slip through her fingers."
I narrowed my eyes. "You're saying this because you feel sorry for me, aren't you?"
She shook her head. "Look, I know I've dated tons of guys who were the big men on campus. Well, I've come to the realization that you've always been a good friend and someone who's always been there for me. Unlike all those other flashier guys, you're the one who really has potential. You're smart, ambitious, loyal and hardworking. I know you're going places. With those guys, I never knew where I stood. You make me feel safe, knowing that I have you behind me, supporting me." With that, she leaned forward and kissed me.
At the time, it made me feel good. Years later, though, I wished that I had noticed that not once had she said anything about love.
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