The night goes by way too slow for my liking. It’s Thursday night so the diner is dead by midnight. While I’m tidying things up after doing my side work, I see a college course catalogue sitting up by the cashier’s counter. Seeing it there gives me pause. Ever since Jason made that comment about me skipping college I’ve been thinking about it. I don’t want to work here for the rest of my life.
Originally when I got my scholarship to ISU I was thinking to study anthropology, but I don’t find that as appealing as I once did. At the age of eighteen the idea of spending a year in South America studying ancient civilizations seemed like a lot of fun. Mostly I likes the idea of being out of my father’s house and doing whatever I wanted without someone telling me I was being reckless or foolish.
Now that I’m older I feel differently. I did move out of my father’s house for a couple of years. When I was twenty I was dating someone that I was pretty serious with. We moved in together and lived in a tiny apartment in Lincoln Park that cost a small fortune, but it didn’t work out. I moved back home when I was twenty-three and I’ve been there ever since.
I know my dad doesn’t mind me being there but I don’t want to be there forever. I’ve stayed here at the diner, if I’m honest, because it’s comfortable. My problem now is that I don’t know what I want to do. There are just too many options.
Jess keeps telling me I just need to start somewhere. I start flipping through the catalogue and find myself drawn to the psychology courses. In the past I probably wouldn’t have been interested in it, but things change with age and experience. Given what I’ve been through recently, and seeing the way things are for Eric with all he’s been through, I’m wondering if maybe I should put all of my years of serving other people to good use, just in a different capacity. Obviously I like working with people.
Since the catalogue doesn’t seem to belong to anyone, I tuck it into my bag to look over more later on. I wonder what Eric wants to do with his life. After seeing the kinds of books he’s collected I know any lack of education isn’t due to a lack of intelligence. He’s got books by Steinbeck, Flaubert, Chaucer, Dostoevsky, Hugo, Dickens, Shakespeare, Dante, Twain, Tolstoy and the Brontë sisters.
The only time I’ve read stuff like that was if it was assigned in school. I like reading, but I’m not as well versed in literature as I probably should be. While it’s true that Eric could be reading books like those just for fun, something tells me that’s not all of it. If he runaway from the foster home or halfway house he was living in when he was fifteen then I have to assume he probably lived on the streets for a while.
It’s yet another heartbreaking thought. I stop when I see him clearing a table in my section. He doesn’t complain about the lot in life he’s been handed. As far as I know he’s not a recovering addict of any kind. He’s never had anyone to lean on, or share his life with until he got Sunday three years ago.
I don’t know how he does it when I need Jessica’s advice in picking out an outfit for a date. As he almost always seems to do lately, Eric catches me watching him and he smiles at me. I walk over to where he is, thankful that it’s almost time to go.
“Want some help?” I offer. “All of my side work is done and there are no customers.”
“I know. Charles is asleep behind the flat top.”
I snicker at that. It doesn’t sound like the most comfortable place to sleep, but if it works for him…
“Twenty more minutes and we’re out of here,” I say with a smile.
“Are you still coming home with me?”
“Unless you changed your mind.”
“Nope, definitely not.”
“Then I’m coming home with you.”
When I got home earlier in the day no one else was there. I was able to eat and shower in peace. I was also able to trade shifts with Holly. The great thing about Christmas being right around the corner is that she’s anxious to make more money, and a Friday night is more profitable than a Friday afternoon shift so we switched.
“I switched my hours with Holly tomorrow,” I tell Eric. “So I’ll almost have a full day off before coming back to work.”
“And I just happen to be off tomorrow.”
I gasp dramatically. “No! Huh, I had no idea. Gee, whatever will you do with yourself?”
“I’m sure I’ll think of some way to keep busy until you get off work.”
“Yeah, I bet you sleep the whole time.”
“No, I have some Christmas shopping to do tomorrow. I haven’t bought my grab bag gift yet so I need to get that done.”
“That reminds me… a little birdy told me they’ve got you for grab bag and have no idea what to get you. Got any hints I can pass along?” I have Eric but I’m not really sure what to get him.
His answer has my jaw dropping. “Condoms would be good.”
Eric has a good laugh at my reaction.
“Look who’s a comedian all of a sudden.” I shake my head and he gives me a quick kiss.
“I wasn’t kidding,” he says with a wink and then goes off to the kitchen.
I bow out of taking Sunday for a walk when we get back to Eric’s apartment. It’s just too cold for me, plus it’s snowing. While Eric’s gone I get out of my uniform and into my pajamas. I don’t want to snoop around his apartment, but I need to figure out what the heck to get him for Christmas.
Other than Sunday and me, I don’t know much about his interests. There are his books, of course, but he’s got tons of books. I want to get him something more creative and thoughtful than a book. I’m just going to have to pick his brain a little bit.
Condoms are an okay gift to give him when it’s just him and me, but not in front of our coworkers. Although I’m sure Arlene’s face would be priceless. As it is I have to find the time to call Jess and give her the update since I won’t be seeing her tomorrow night. I left a note at home for dad so he wouldn’t be worried about me not coming home two nights in a row.
While browsing Eric’s books I find a worn copy of The Grapes of Wrath and pull it from the shelf. I flip through the pages and stop when I come to an old photograph. It’s a picture of a tall blond man in a Cubs jersey, standing with his arm around a blonde woman wearing a Chicago T-shirt and there’s a little blond boy standing in front of them, also wearing a jersey.
One look at the pretty blue eyes on the boy in the picture tells me I’m looking at Eric as a child. I can only assume the people he’s with are his parents. They’re standing in front of Wrigley Field on a partly cloudy day and Eric is missing a tooth. It’s easy to see where he gets his height from since his father was quite tall. His mother had freckles and a smile very similar to the one Eric has now.
Is this picture the reason Eric only got as far as Chicago before he stopped running?
I hear Sunday coming up the stairs and scramble to put the picture back. Just as the door is opening I slide the book back into its slot. I turn to see Eric covered in snow and go to get him a towel. He let’s Sunday off his leash and takes off his coat and boots.
“It’s coming down harder out there. I’m glad we’re in for the night,” he says when I hand him the towel.
“Me too. All these years and you’d think I’d be used to the cold, but I’m not.”
“I like the cold. When I was a kid is spend hours out in the snow until mom forced me inside,” he says as he towels off a little.
“Where did you grow up?” I know it was somewhere east but he’s never said where, exactly.
“Saratoga Springs, New York.”
“Do you miss it?”
“Not really. I used to in the beginning. My father used to commute from home to Manhattan. He had a corporately paid apartment in the city so when I didn’t have school mom and I would go down with him for a few days, but I liked how much space we had out there. We were off in the woods…”
Plenty of privacy for evil deeds. No wonder Eric was the only witness to what happened to his parents.
“Do you ever think about going back?”
“Sometimes I do. I wonder if it would look different to me after all these years and not look like a tomb. I haven’t been inside the house since that night.”
“I’m sorry, sweetie,” I say sincerely.
Eric shrugs like it’s no big deal, but it is a big deal. I can acknowledge that it’s a bigger deal to me because I still haven’t wrapped my mind around it.
“How old are you?” I ask.
“I’ll be twenty-seven next August.”
“Did you ever finish school?”
“I enrolled to get my GED but I never took the tests.”
“I don’t know,” he shrugs again. “At the time I guess I didn’t see the point. I still don’t know what I want to do with my life. When I was a kid I wanted to be a baseball player. Then everything happened with my parents and I think I got stuck. After something like that happens you see the world differently. For me my world became very dark.”
“Do you ever think about it now? I mean what you want to do.”
“Once in a while. I know I’m not baseball material, but I don’t really know what else I’d want to do. Working at the diner is easy. I can keep to myself and it’s a low risk job. Well, mostly,” he smiles. “But can I ask why you’re still there? You’re better than that place.”
“I could have gone to college, but I stayed put because I was in love. It just gets easy to stay in your comfort zone instead of stretching your wings.”
Eric and I have something in common after all. Who knew?
Sunday comes over to sniff me out and I kneel down to pet him. Eric goes to the bathroom and when he comes out he’s only wearing boxers. Sunday absndons me in favor of his own bed. I go to the kitchen to wash my hands and Eric gets his ice cream out of the freezer.
“I don’t know how you can eat ice cream when it’s so cold outside.”
“It tastes good,” he says as he grabs a spoon from the dish rack next to the sink.
While I wash up he gets the lid off the pint and digs in.
“Want some?” he offers me a loaded spoon. “I promise to warm you up if you get cold.”
I dry my hands on a dish towel and smile at him. “That’s an offer too good to pass up.”
I open my mouth and he feeds me the ice cream. It makes me shiver. I’ve always reacted to ice cream that way. During the winter months I don’t generally eat it for that very reason, but I love it in the summertime.
“You weren’t kidding.” Eric nods to my arms, which are covered in goose bumps.
“Nope. So, are you going to make good on your promise?” I look him up and down. Damn, he looks good.
“I’m no welsher. Besides, I think keeping you warmed up might be my new favorite thing.”
“Then I’ll be burrowed under your covers when serve you’re finished.” I kiss his cheek and pinch his ass on my way over to his little bedroom area.
I’m barely settled in bed before he pounces on me.