Smile

He smiled understandingly — much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced — or seemed to face — the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey.” –The Great Gatsby

It’s Amelia’s text message that wakes me up much earlier than I planned to be awake, but it’s my own fault for forgetting to silence my phone before I went to sleep. I love my best friend but she is just way too fucking chipper first thing in the morning. I generally don’t function before ten and definitely not without at least one strong cup of coffee in my system first. Her text reminds me to get cocktail napkins, of all things, and I can’t help but roll my eyes. Was it really necessary to text me at eight A.M. with that shit?

Ugh.

I roll my crabby ass over and try to go back to sleep, but the damn birds chirping away outside make that impossible. Instead I roll out of bed and go straight to the bathroom to pee and brush my teeth. My hair actually looks good. It’s got that sexy bedhead appeal to it and I decide to put on a pair of cropped yoga pants, and a bra on under the tank top I slept in. No need to get fancy for errand running, after all.

I grab my cell, purse and keys, and then head out to run my errands so I can come home, take a nap, get ready and set everything up for later. I cleaned the house the day before, so at least that’s all taken care of. Country music plays loudly and helps to wake me up. I dance to Luke Bryan in the driver’s seat as I head for the Dollar Store to pick up plastic cups, paper plates and disposable shot glasses. Trader Joe’s is located in the same lot so I won’t have to make a bunch of stops.

When I spot a Starbucks on the way I hang a quick right to get myself a venti white mocha latte. I’ll be less grouchy if I have a little caffeine in my system. Even though I know the coffee is way overpriced, I sigh with relief the second it hits my tongue. The Dollar Store is surprisingly busy considering it’s a Friday morning. One of the few bonuses to working mostly nights is that I don’t have to worry about standing in heinous lines during the day when I have errands to run.

I get the things that I need there, only spending about seven dollars versus the twenty I probably would have spent at the grocery store to get the same stuff. I go across the lot to the Trader Joe’s where there’s a large crowd of yuppie soccer moms toting around their screaming toddlers. The screaming, bratty toddlers are the downside to days off. Even more annoying to me than their screaming is how their mothers always give in to what they want, thereby teaching them to throw fits, instead of telling them to knock it off and behave the way my Gran would have done. Actually, Gran would have given either Jason or me a swat on the behind and warned us there was more where that came from if we didn’t cool off.

Since I know what I want before I even walk in, I make a beeline for the frozen aisle and grab the things I need. My goal is to get in and out as quick as possible so I could go home and take a nap before I have to start getting things all set up. As much as I love Amelia, sometimes it annoys me how pushy she is. The party I’m throwing is supposed to be for me, technically speaking, but I’m only throwing it to keep Amelia from dragging me out to some awful club instead.

I work in a bar four nights a week. The last thing I want is to spend my night off in one. Really the appeal of seeing drunks loses its luster after about the fourth night. If we went out I would end up taking care of Amelia and that’s no fun. At least in my own house I have the option of locking myself in my bedroom if things go to shit and I don’t feel like dealing with people anymore. It’s not that I’m anti-social as much as I need a little space to decompress after being around people so much.

My days off are usually spent at home as much as possible. I clean my house, read, paint my nails, dance like an idiot in my kitchen to silly pop music… you know, normal stuff. I fill my basket with all the little snacky things I want, and head up to the front. My eyes scan for the shortest line and it just so happens to be where a middle-aged woman wearing cropped yoga pants that are a size too small is flirting with the guy behind the register. Not that I can blame her for it.

This guy manages to make a Hawaiian shirt look dead sexy, which is no easy feat. He’s well over six feet tall, has that sexy bedhead type blond hair and eyes as blue as the ocean on a sunny day. The words “I’d hit it” keep reverberating through my head. It’s not dignified at all for someone who just turned thirty two days before, but whatever. At least I’m pretty sure the guy isn’t a mind reader. I maintain the respectful distance while I wait for him to finish bagging her groceries.

She’s obviously trying to keep their banter going as long as she possibly can, and I can’t really blame her for that either. Actually, she’s doing us both a favor since it means I get to bask in the same sexiness that she is. It dawns on me, as I’m standing there, that since I’ve hit thirty that means I’m dangerously close to being considered middle-aged myself. People are going to expect me to act like an adult now. I’ve never really given much thought to age being anything more than a number until Anne Bancroft here started putting the moves on the Nordic Dustin Hoffman behind the counter.

Fuck. The fact that I can even make a reference to The Graduate gives me pause.

But then Anne Bancroft has no choice but to move on, and Dustin Hoffman turns to look my way. He’s got a smile on his face when he turns to me, but he startles a bit when his eyes meet mine. Up until that moment he hadn’t even glanced my way so he’s seeing me for the first time. I get all self-conscious and start to wonder if I’ve got more makeup smudges under my eyes than I thought, or maybe the wind has blown my hair into crazy cavelady territory.

“Good morning,” Dustin Hoffman says his smile still in place as he reaches for my basket.

“Hi,” I remember to smile back and set my purse up on the counter to retrieve my credit card.

“Oh, these are good,” he says as he lifts a box of frozen arancini from my basket to scan it.

“I haven’t had those yet, but I’ve never bought anything here I’ve been disappointed in,” I say awkwardly and try to avoid looking into his eyes. They’re intense, and he focuses them on me sharply whenever he looks at me.

“Looks like you’re having a party,” he says after he’s scanned everything, and retrieves a paper bag to start packing everything into.

“Yes, I am,” I smile.

“For you or someone else?” he asks casually.

“Me. My birthday was Wednesday,” I tell him.

“Oh, well, happy birthday. You’re what, twenty-two?” he fishes, and I really could kiss him just for that alone.

“Not for a while now, but thank you,” I smile at him and laugh under my breath.

“Well, since it’s your birthday and all,” he starts, even though he knows my birthday has passed, “how about a piece of chocolate?”

He looks to the display of Trader Joe’s brand candy beside his register. Usually I’m a chocolate fiend, but I don’t feel right about that.

“Oh, no, thank you though,” I shake my head.

“It’s on me…” he offers, trying to get me to take the bait.

“No, really, I appreciate it, but—” I say, and swipe my card when my total appears.

“Then how about I give you my number instead?” he suggests when my receipt starts to print.

I’m flabbergasted, even though I probably shouldn’t be. I see people drop lamer lines every night at work. There’s something refreshing about the guy I’m standing in front of, and upon closer inspection of his nicely sculpted chest, I see that his name is Eric. Eric is much better than Dustin Hoffman, but I thankfully have enough of a brain/mouth filter just then that I don’t comment on that out loud.

Before I can get my mouth to say something intelligent Eric is already writing his phone number on my receipt. He hands it to me with a smile and wishes me a happy birthday yet again.

“Thanks,” I say, and try my best not to sound as socially awkward as I’m currently feeling.

Eric hands me my bag and my fingers brush against his. The hairs on my arm stand up, and when my eyes move up to find his I see that same frozen expression that I saw the first time he looked at me. Metaphorically speaking, there are sparks flying everywhere and I’m not sure how I feel about that. It’s been a while since I’ve had a boyfriend so I’m a bit rusty at dealing with this sort of thing.

For the last few years I’ve preferred to adore from afar, rather than acting on my impulses. A bad breakup will do that to a girl, though, and Bill definitely did some damage to my feely bits. I know I shouldn’t let that asshole wreck my life, or have a hold on me for that long but it’s not even about him. It’s about me, and how lost to the rest of the world I was when I was with Bill. I let myself get swept up and carried away. The tunnel vision I developed meant that nothing else in the world seemed to exist as long as he was in my life.

I have no one to blame for that but myself. It would be too easy to say it was all Bill’s fault and that he forced me to become the waif of a woman I was at the end of our relationship, but that isn’t true. I did it all on my own, and it was part of the reason he dumped me. My relationship with Bill was the first serious one I’d had, and we had been together for almost five years. We’d lived together for three of those years. We talked about marriage a time or two, but there was no rush to go there. But then he dumped me before we got to that point.

Ever since then I’ve been reluctant to get into relationships. I don’t ever want to lose myself that way again, and the way Eric is looking at me, I know it would be easy to get lost in him. I give Eric a little wave and then turn to walk away. When I glance over my shoulder one last time, I see that he’s watching me walk out the door. He didn’t even ask my name so maybe he wasn’t as interested as he wanted me to think. Maybe he was just being nice by giving me his phone number.

Yet, when I pass by the trashcan I don’t throw my receipt away. I spend the drive home sipping my coffee, listening to the Black Keys and try to figure out what to do with the phone number written down on the slip of paper on the seat next to me. If I call him what do I really have to lose? The worst thing that can happen is that I find out it isn’t really his number he gave me. At least that way I haven’t lost anything.

But what if I miss out on something great because I’m a big chicken?

It’s that particular thought that prevents me from throwing away Eric’s phone number when I get home. After a lot of pacing and debating, I finally decide to bite the bullet and call him. Much to my relief I get his voicemail when I do.

“Hi, Eric, this is Sookie Stackhouse. You gave me your number this morning at Trader Joe’s. So I uh, I was just thinking that if you’re not busy later that party I’m having, it’s kind of an open house deal so if you want to stop by that’d be okay. It’s a pretty casual thing so… yeah… my address is 3975 Hummingbird Road…” I give him the rest of the information, and hang up before I can get all obsessed about the message and rerecord it fifty times.

I send Amelia a quick text to let her know I got everything that was on my list of things to get. All I need her to get is ice, and we’ll be all set. After that I put my phone off to the side and start to set things up around the house. The party will be starting at seven.

oOoOoOo

In spite of her promises to be at my house much earlier, Amelia doesn’t arrive until ten minutes before seven. I haven’t gotten too dressed up for the event, but I did put on a little more makeup than I usually wear. I’ve got on a pair of black leggings and a pale yellow t-shirt from Old Navy that has a blue and purple beach design on it. I’m in love with this t-shirt. I wear it every chance I get. I’ve woven my hair into a quick and messy fishtail braid so it’ll be out of my face.

God forbid I allow myself to drink so much that it makes me sick, at least my hair will be out of the way. I get my iPod set up on its dock in the living room while Amelia fusses over the angle of the napkins on the dining room table where all the food will go.

“Ames, did you get the ice?” I call from the living room since I have yet to see it.

“Yes, I did. It’s out in the coolers in the back,” she tells me, and I breathe a sigh of relief. She walks into the living room and says, “You’re not really wearing that, are you? I know you said casual, but—”

“But what? This is casual. It’s summer outside. You’re lucky I’m wearing clothes at all,” I smirk and push play on the iPod. The Spice Girls fill the room.

“Seriously?” she bursts out laughing.

“Shut up! You know this shit is catchy,” I say and start dancing.

Amelia follows suit and before long we fall into the choreography from the video that we taught ourselves way back in junior high when we would come home from school every day and watch TRL. We’re still dancing when other cars and trucks start to pull up in front of the house. I didn’t invite too many people, just enough to have a good time. I don’t really want a wild party. Those days are behind me. The good thing about having a house out in the country is that I can crank the music up as loud as I want and not have to worry about the cops showing up to tell me to keep it down.

Lafayette and Tara are first to arrive and I’m a little shocked that Tara has managed to ditch her possessive, controlling assface of a boyfriend. To say I’m not a fan of Mickey’s would be the understatement of the fucking millennium, and I have no idea what the hell she sees in that guy. He has no sense of humor, as far as I can tell, and Tara is working double shifts to support them. He claims he’s on disability because of a back injury, but I think he’s just a lazy fuck. I don’t like him. I don’t like him at all.

Lafayette, on the other hand, has brought his new friend, Jesus, whom I didn’t see in the back seat when they pulled up. Jesus I wholeheartedly approve of. Jesus is a nice bit of normal beside Lafayette’s general clusterfuck of activity. Don’t get me wrong, I love Laff, but he can be difficult to keep up with sometimes. Jesus balances all that out and has this way of bringing Laff back to earth when he starts to spin out a little. Him, I adore. Tara needs to find a guy like that instead of the jerkwad she’s been seeing for the last eight months.

“Happy birthday, bitch!” Lafayette pulls me into a hug when he walks into the house.

“Thank you,” I hug him back, and then move over to Jesus. “I’m so glad you could come! Laff said you were working tonight.”

“It was slow so they cut me early,” Jesus hugs me back. “Happy birthday, sweetie.”

“Thank you,” I pat his shoulder, and move over to Tara. “And you…” I squeeze her hard while I whisper in her ear, “Thank you for not bringing Mickey along.”

I don’t even feel sorry for saying it, even though I know it kills Tara that I don’t like her boyfriend. I refuse to apologize for thinking she can do better than him. Maybe it’s none of my business, but she’s made it my business. I’ve had to go pick her up more than once because of some awful fight they’ve gotten into, and it’s only because she’s begged me not to that I haven’t gone to my brother about this. Finally there’s a payoff to Jason being a deputy, and I can’t even take advantage of it.

It worries me that by doing as she asks that I’m endangering her life further, but I also know that if I go behind her back it will just make her angry and then she’ll feel like she has no one she can trust. If Mickey gets arrested he’ll most likely only spend a couple of days in jail, and then when he gets home it’ll just be worse for Tara. I don’t want him to kill her just to make a point.

“Even if you would have invited him he wouldn’t have come anyway,” Tara shrugs, knowing full well there is no love lost between Mickey and me. He hates me as much as I hate him, and all because he’s very well aware that I think he’s a scumbag and have absolutely no problem telling Tara as much.

Amelia comes over to say hello to the new guests, and she goes to show them where the drinks are since Alcide and Debbie arrive just as we’re heading for the kitchen. Alcide and Debbie are an interesting couple, to say the least. I can tell by their body language as they walk up to the house that they’ve been arguing. Depending on a person’s point of view, that’s either a bummer or a sign that things are bound to get entertaining later. They’re both the jealous type, and that’s only interesting because Debbie is forever accusing Alcide of cheating when she’s the one in the relationship that’s cheated in the past.

Alcide is about as faithful as an old hound dog, and no matter how awful Debbie is to him he can never seem to stay away from her for long. I long ago stopped encouraging him to move on and find someone new. He’s committed to this woman, no matter how insane she is sometimes. There are times when I think he encourages her insanity. God knows he definitely indulges her. I would go insane if I had to live with someone like her, but I suppose it isn’t fair to just blame her for the problems in their relationship. It takes two, right?

“Happy birthday, Sookie,” Alcide says first when they get into the house.

Alcide is a bear of a man who wraps me in a hug so strong it could probably crush my ribcage if he had a mind to do it. I don’t pay much attention to the look I’m getting from Debbie, although I can feel her eyes on me. She and I have talked many times about her tumultuous relationship, and I have made it abundantly clear to her that while I value her boyfriend’s friendship, I have no interest in taking her place in his life. Alcide’s got issues of his own, obviously, if he’s willing to stay with someone like Debbie for as long as he has. Personally, I want no part of all that hot mess.

“Thanks, Alcide,” I pat his back and he puts me down on my feet again. “Hi, Debbie,” I step over and move to give her a hug.

“Happy birthday, Sookie,” she says, but with far less enthusiasm as everyone else so far. “Thanks for invitin’ me.”

“Of course,” I smile at her when our barely there hug breaks up. “If y’all want drinks they’re back in the kitchen and on the mud porch. I’ll be right there.”

“Great,” Debbie says. She gives Alcide a dirty look and then heads for my kitchen.

“What’s with her?” I whisper once she’s gone.

“We uh, we thought maybe she was… but we took a test this afternoon and she’s not,” Alcide admits a bit sheepishly.

“Oh,” I my eyes go wide. “Were you trying to be…”

“No, not really,” he looks at his feet. “But I think she wanted it.”

“I see,” I nod.

Children have been a major source of contention in their relationship. Alcide wants them, just not yet. He wisely wants to wait until things in their relationship stabilize, but the problem with that, at least as far as I can see, is that it’s never going to happen. Two people that have problems with jealousy are always going to have that problem. A little jealousy in a relationship is a healthy thing, as far as I’m concerned, but not at the toxic levels these two have it.

Alcide excuses himself to get a drink, which he obviously needs, while I go to my iPod to change playlists. Florence & the Machine starts to play and another car pulls up to the house. This car I don’t recognize, and it’s not everyday that I see a shiny red Corvette in town. Either my brother bought a new toy, or… the realization hits me like a ton of bricks, and I haul ass for the front door.

Just as Eric is emerging from the car, I get to the front porch. Since he didn’t call me back I didn’t expect him to show up, but I’m happy he has. He’s got a little gift bag in his hand, and I feel bad for not mentioning that presents aren’t necessary. I long ago told people to stop buying me gifts and treat themselves to something else instead. I figure no one really treats themselves as often as they should, and I don’t really need anymore trinkets lying around my house.

“You’re here,” I say with a smile as he approaches the house.

“I am,” he nods. “Sorry I didn’t call you back.”

“No, it’s okay. I uh… I just didn’t expect to see you,” I say, feeling a little awkward.

My friends are going to want to know about him and seeing as how we just met that morning I don’t really know what to tell them other than his name, and the fact that he hit on me while I was buying groceries at Trader Joe’s. If I want to get corny about it I can say that he checked me out in more ways than one, but I want to slap myself for even thinking something so lame. The thought makes my cheeks flush, and when he gets to the steps we’re evenly matched in height.

“So what made you call me?” he asks with a curious expression.

“You gave me your number, didn’t you?” I shrug. He doesn’t need to know too much about my lackluster personal life just yet. “Or were you just being nice and weren’t really expecting me to use it?”

He smirks and says, “Oh no, I’m very happy you used it.”

He leans in and kisses my cheek as he says, “Happy birthday, Sookie.”

Those sparks come back and I know right then that I’m in big, big trouble.

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