Chapter 2: Breathe Me

Chapter 2: Breathe Me

I end up back at the diner since that’s where my closest girlfriends work. I’m surprised to see Holly when I walk in since she’s supposed to be off tonight. Jessica is behind the counter, chatting with the Berts. For God only knows what reason the Berts love sitting at the counter for hours on end, drinking coffee and chatting up the waitresses.

They’re harmless old guys. They’re both unmarried and still live at home with their mother, as far as I know. I think the Berts have been regulars here since the diner opened back in ’84. They’ve even got personalized mugs we keep behind the counter that say Bert 1 or Bert 2 on them. Bert 1 works for the CTA as a bus driver downtown. Bert 2 is on disability, thanks to a back injury he sustained while working security at some fancy office building on Wacker Drive. He says he hurt himself while trying to wrestle a homeless man out of the lobby one night, but Bert 1 suspects his brother slipped on a newly waxed floor and was just too embarrassed to tell anyone.

“Sook, what are you doing here?” Bert 1 asks.

“Yeah, I thought you was goin’ to da Bears game,” Bert 2 says in his thick Chicago accent.

“Change of plans,” I flash a weak smile while Jessica, my best friend, pours me a cup of coffee.

“Oh,” the Berts say simultaneously. I hate the twin sympathetic looks I’m getting from them. It’s Alcide’s loss that he dumped me.

“Come on, Sookie,” Jessica leads me away from the counter to a more private section.

We pick a table and sit. The dinner rush is over on Sunday night. Jess will only be dealing with stragglers from this point on. From about midnight until four it’ll be completely dead in here. I hate getting stuck on that shift, but Jess likes it. She can do her homework. Unlike me, she finally settled on a career and is going to nursing school.

“Where’s Arlene?” I ask as I pour sugar into my coffee.

“Lisa got sick. Again.”

Mmhmmm.

“That’s what, the fourth time this month?” I ask.

“The fifth,” Holly says as she takes a seat at the table with us.

She’s got a six-year-old son herself, and I can count on one hand the number of times she’s called in sick because of her kid.

No one says so out loud but I know we’re all wondering why Stan doesn’t just fire her already. There are meteorologists that are more reliable than Arlene and in a city like Chicago, that’s saying something.

“So, come on, tell Dr. Hamby why you’re here instead of getting some post game nookie with the hot construction worker,” Jessica says as Holly offers each of us a cigarette. I decline, but Jess takes one. She’s not a regular smoker, but she’ll have one every now and then to make sure she’s not missing out on something.

I can’t help but notice those incidents tend to coincide with my breakups.

“I don’t know what happened,” I say as my eyes well. “I did everything right. I didn’t call a million times. I didn’t sleep with him right away but I didn’t make him wait too long either. I dress up when I see him. I even baked, for fuck’s sake! I don’t know what I keep doing wrong!”

I put my head down on the table and cry. Dramatic? Yes. I’m just so damn frustrated. I feel like I’m wasting my time. In the last year alone I’ve date three guys that I thought things could get serious with and it always ends the same way-with me bawling in the diner and breathing secondhand smoke.

“He’s obviously an idiot if he broke up with you,” Holly says.

“He said he thinks we should see other people.” I lift my head and take the napkin Jess is offering me. “Everyone knows that’s the nice way of saying you’ve already met someone else and you want permission to go give them a shot.”

I wipe my tears off my face and a glass of water finds its way in front of me. What surprises me is when I see that it’s Eric who’s brought it to me. Our eyes meet and there’s something in them… not sympathy, exactly, but understanding. Like he’s been through the feelings I’m processing. My breath catches when the corner of his mouth lifts just a little.

Is he smiling at me?

“Thank you, Eric,” I say sincerely, and my voice breaks whatever that just was between us.

He remembers himself and his face slides back into its default expression. Eric turns quickly to go back to the kitchen. I wonder aloud why he doesn’t talk.

“Arlene says he doesn’t have a tongue,” Jessica says, and my head whips in her direction.

“What? That’s ridiculous!” I laugh.

“I don’t know,” Holly takes a draw on her smoke, “I’ve been working here two years and I legit have never heard him speak.”

“Maybe he just doesn’t have anything to say,” I shrug, and take a drink of my water.

“You know, I think more men should take Eric’s approach,” Holly says. “I swear sometimes if they would just shut up we wouldn’t have to nag the shit out of them.”

I smile a little at that.

“It really is like they’re asking for it sometimes,” Jessica agrees.

“You know Quinn broke up with me for not nagging him enough,” I recall.

“No, he broke up with you because you didn’t mother him enough,” Jess corrects. “And maybe if he had better stamina than a twelve-year-old you would have considered it.”

“Was he that bad?” Holly asks.

“They were dry humping in his kitchen and he blew his load in under a minute,” Jessica explains.

“Oh.”

“Yeah.”

Yes, Quinn wasn’t exactly great when it came to holding back. The first time he went early I took it as a compliment that he was so excited he couldn’t hold back. Only it wasn’t a one time thing. It turned out Quinn just didn’t have stamina. The crazy thing is that he dumped me for the reason Jessica said.

“Sookie, honey, you have to raise your standards. You’re too good for all these clowns you keep dating,” Holly advises.

“But Alcide seemed like a winner, you know? He was perfect on paper,” I say.

Jessica gives me a look that says she disagrees with me.

“Sookie, he called when it was convenient for him and after you gave it up he did the minimum to keep you,” Jess says, and I want to argue but she’s not finished. “You let these douchebags walk all over you because you don’t want to end up alone or like your mother, but settling for the first guy to tell you he loves you is no good either.”

She’s right. I hate it, but she’s right

“I wish I was a lesbian,” I sigh heavily.

“No you don’t. Then you’d have to deal with someone nagging back,” Holly jokes.

We continue down my list of failed relationships, hoping to figure out what is about me that is so fucked up that no man seems to tolerate me past the three month mark, until an unexpected crowd of drunk college students come in.

“Break’s over, ladies,” Stan says, appearing from out of nowhere.

“Yeah, yeah,” Jessica grumbles and Holly snubs out her cigarette. “Call me tomorrow, Sook. We’ll go get pedicures or something, my treat. Do not call Alcide.”

I hug my friend and then she’s off to go wait on her tables. Holly gives me a hopeful smile and does the same. I take my time drinking my water and watch Eric when he comes out of the kitchen with a rack of clean glasses. He’s tall and lean, but not nearly as threatening as someone of his size should be. Slightly greasy blonde hair the same shade as mine brushes his shoulders and he’s always got a few days worth of stubble on his face.

Since he doesn’t talk I don’t know anything about him. I’ve been curious in the most basic sense, but since he doesn’t seem interested in making friends with any of us I don’t pester him. I’m polite to him, though. I don’t take it personally that he’s not a talker, and since I don’t gossip like Arlene does I don’t buy into any of her crazy theories about Eric either.

He’s just a quiet man that does his job and goes on with his life.

I get so lost in my thoughts that I don’t realize he’s turned around until I feel him looking back at me, and it’s then that I realize I was staring at his ass. It’s a nice ass. My cheeks flush and I scramble to get up. I put my eyes anywhere but on Eric, and get my coat on for the walk home.

Three weeks ago my car finally bit it on me so I’ve been walking to or from work when the buses aren’t running. Thankfully I’m in a relatively safe part of the city and I know the streets well enough to be able to change up the path I take to get there. I also carry a little bottle of hairspray in my coat pocket just in case so if anyone sneaks up on me they’ll get a faceful of Aquanet x8 hold spray.

“See you Tuesday, Sookie,” Stan says as I get to the door.

“Goodnight, Stan,” I sigh and walk out.

It takes about twenty minutes to walk home, but only because I’m in no rush to get there. When I get to the house I see Pam’s had dad and Jason up on the roof to put lights up there since I was home earlier. As soon as I open the front door I see the awful pink glow of our Christmas tree, and I cringe.

I miss the real trees dad used to buy when we were kids, back before he met Pam and he let her take over the decorating. The tree is covered in red lights and red ornaments, making it a hot pink mess. I shake my head at the awful tree and go upstairs. The first thing I see in my room are the presents I bought for Alcide. My lower lip quivers, but rather than dwelling on what I’ve lost I strip out of my clothes and grab my robe off the back of my door.

In the shower I wash off my makeup and the smell of smoke. I tell myself that I’m not going to think about Alcide, but who am I kidding? I just wish I knew what I did that was so wrong. Jessica always says that I’m too nice. I chock it up to residual people pleasing requirements from work, but Jess thinks it goes much deeper than that. My armchair psychologist tells me it’s because of the abandonment at such an early part of my childhood.

Maybe Jess is right. Maybe I’m somehow looking for the love I never got from my mother in my relationships with men. That’s a pretty fucked up notion, but I suppose it makes sense. I stand under the hot spray until the water starts to cool, and then I finally get out of the shower. I brush my teeth and put lotion on my face before going back to my room. The pile of presents are still staring back at me.

Despite Alcide saying that this is just a temporary thing, I know it’s not. Why would I want someone back who didn’t think enough of me the first time around to pass up whatever else he was being offered? I can admit that maybe my self-esteem isn’t as high as it should be, but even I have my limits. At this point I know I would be Alcide’s second choice.

Thanks, but no thanks.

There’s someone else out there, someone better suited for me. Maybe I just need to take a step back from dating for a while. Jess is always telling me that I try too hard. Maybe she’s right about that, too.

I put on a pair of flannel pajama pants and a thermal shirt. I comb out my hair and towel dry it until it’s just barely damp, and then quickly weave my hair into a French braid without looking in a mirror. When I take the braid out in the morning it’ll be all wavy.

I gather up all the things that remind me of Alcide, including his presents, and put them in my closet. I’ll deal with them eventually. For now I’m too exhausted to do anything other than crawl into bed and go to sleep.

I hope things will be better tomorrow.

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