After sliding the lumpy mattress across the room in our box laden studio apartment just off campus, I climbed back into the bed while she laughed and wrapped my arms around her.
She kissed my cheek and hummed a thank you against it. “Can’t we just leave it here? I like watching it rain.”
“I don’t see why not. It’s our apartment… Sookie, do you love me?”
She giggled and snuggled back into me. “Eric, you know I do.”
“Do you love me enough to marry me?”
She turned slightly to give me a more serious look. “With this onion ring, I thee wed?”
I laughed at her. “Not tonight. Maybe when we can afford to have the power turned on though.” When our manager tasked Sookie with showing me the ropes when I started working at the café/bookstore, it had been one of the best things that ever happened to me. Signing a lease and getting the keys to the apartment we were keeping a secret from our families only to have our paychecks bounce before our deposits for the utilities cleared… sucked. We couldn’t even call our parents or friends for help because they were all just as broke as we were. If it hadn’t been for our student loans including room and board, we’d have been fucked.
“The phone too? I’d want to call folks and let them know.”
“That’s pretty lofty of you.”
She sighed. Fake whimsy thickened her already sexy drawl. “I might never find a man that can spoil me in the manner in which I believe I should be accustomed.”
She giggled again. “What? You call me a ‘spoiled little shit’ all the time.”
“When you shove my Suave off the lip of the tub to make room for your Herbal Essences… I meant will you marry me?”
“I’ll marry you when you build me a house made out of honeysuckle and glass.”
She started laughing. “We can’t afford honey for our biscuits… or a pane of glass for that potential pneumonia hole you put in the window with our drafting table.”
She answered by grumbling my name. It was her way of making fun of me for being serious when she was in a joking mood.
“We won’t always be this broke. When we can afford to build our house, will you marry me?”
“Well, when you put it like that… definitely.”
“No. I was just kidding.”
I rolled on top of her and tickled her. By the time I was done, she agreed to marry me as soon as we could afford more than $575 for rent.
Then we took the most miserably cold and raced showers ever, since without power, there was no water heater, and rode our bikes to the student union with our meal tickets… Our first night in our new apartment was actually spent in the dorm rooms we didn’t want so that we wouldn’t die in our sleep of heat stroke.
Three days later, after selling back all of our used books, hocking all of our CDs, and being criminally creative with Pell coupons… we finally had enough money to have the power turned on so that we could spend the night in OUR place together and had enough left over to celebrate with breakfast at IHOP on the way to class the next morning.
By the end of the week we both started work at Rafters. She was bartending… when she told me that she’d applied, I wasn’t happy. We knew too well how much grab-assing went on since it was our favorite club and pretty much the only one we ever went to… That’s why I applied as a bouncer. It didn’t happen often that she worked when I didn’t. Not only could I keep an eye on how she was treated, it was that much more time we could spend together.
Things were amazing. We didn’t quite know what to do with ourselves… I think we were both expecting to hate each other eventually. None of our parents seemed to stay with a partner any longer than they did a job. We’d made a joke out of the fact that we were waiting to get sick of one another. Neither of us made a secret of hating that we’d grown up below the poverty line. I’d made a model of a trailer and we kept it on our cinderblock and plywood coffee table to motivate us through deadlines and study crunches. We both had the same simple goals. Most of them (99.999%) had nothing to do with what we would do with our degrees, but what our lives had been like to make us need college… Food Stamps and free school lunches weren’t something we wanted to put our children through. Starting our own firms and/or becoming ‘famous’ would’ve been nice, but we’d have settled for doing malls, banks and condos as long as we weren’t hand to mouth, paycheck to paycheck.
Everything WAS amazing… the turning point had been Spring Break. Our friends Sam and Callista were getting married right after graduation so they decided to turn Spring Break into their Bachelor/Bachelorette Parties… The guys went on a ‘cruise to nowhere’ so that we wouldn’t get into too much trouble and the girls went to Myrtle Beach… Once Sookie and I were home, I was geared up and ready to jump into my finals so that I could put school behind me, but Sookie hadn’t been nearly as motivated by our vacation…
She was having a hard time concentrating. She was jumpy. She wasn’t herself in general… I’d gone a couple of weeks without hearing her laugh.
I came home from class one day and Sookie was on our only barstool slumped over the counter, running her finger along the rim of her coffee cup and drawing with her other hand. It was one of the 2 we owned. Both were bought at Dollar Tree along with almost everything we had. Anything else was bought at yard sales. Since we’d managed to find jobs, she’d been thrifty. Even though we had been blessed with decent paychecks, she didn’t want us to ‘get ahead of ourselves’.
She didn’t force it on me though. For the most part I was careful about my paychecks too. We split the bills and she still insisted that we eat at the student union as much as possible. She only ever replaced what desperately needed to be replaced and she seemed perfectly unwilling to ask for anything. It made Christmas nearly impossible. I resorted to planting the business card for a jeweler in my pocket so that she’d confront me. The argument ended when she finally admitted that she wanted new sheets for our bed.
We’d managed to save a few thousand dollars each in spite of how much our supplies cost.
Even though we’d both found jobs in Shreveport that far exceeded our salary hopes, she still didn’t change her ways to splurge. She eventually turned house hunting over to me and I’d found a loft apartment. It wasn’t expensive, but there was a lot of room and I’d gotten attached to our little studio. No matter where she was, I knew what she was doing.
When I put my hands on her shoulders, she jumped, sitting up and knocking her coffee over to spill on her notebook.
She shot off of the stool to grab a dishtowel. “Jesus Eric, don’t sneak up on me like that.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t realize that you were so engrossed…” I looked down at her sketch while she mopped up her coffee. “…You were lost in a commercial bathroom?” It wasn’t terribly original either. It looked like the one at Rafters.
“No… I was just doodling.”
“Are you alright? You’ve been spacey. Don’t let finals stress you out. Even if you shit the bed on all of them, your grade won’t drop below passing… We still graduate. We still move to Shreveport to work our enviable jobs and live in our sexy loft nowhere near a trailer park…”
“It doesn’t mean that I’m going to just tank the projects and throw off my GPA. I have some pride.”
“I know you do. What I’m saying is that stressing out will only drop your GPA. You have a creative major. Loosen up before your creative juices end up on the floor.”
She scoffed and moved everything off of the counter so that she could spray it with cleaner… it was a ‘new’ thing I didn’t like. For weeks, she’d been wound up and cleaning every surface like she’d caught a viral OCD.
“Sookie, what’s wrong?”
She snipped, “What could be wrong? Why does something have to be wrong? I’m allowed to worry about my GPA. Not everyone can roll out of bed and be fantastically creative like you. Some people have to work at it, you know.”
“Is…” I was sure I was about to be hit or maced with 409. “Sookie, is this a PMS thing?” She wasn’t usually ‘one of those’ women that punished the world for a week every month, but it didn’t mean that the stress of finals wasn’t amplifying things.
Her furious attack on the countertop halted in a fraction of a second… there were tears flowing before she bolted to the bathroom and slammed the door behind herself.
I took that as a yes.
I leaned against the door and slid down to get comfortable on the floor. I had a feeling that I was going to be there for a while.
“Sookie, talk to me. You’ve never stressed out about your grades like this before.”
“Girl, you know how I am. I need details.”
“There’s just too much… I can’t… we aren’t going to live happily ever after.”
“Why wouldn’t we? We’ve been broke together. We can be gainfully employed together. In fact… I think we should celebrate. We don’t have to go to work for a while. Why don’t we go get fitted for our Professional Costumes. A couple of suits to ease us into the idea of skipping a tax bracket or two.”
She didn’t answer and her weeping became more audible as she slid down the door.
“Sookie, you’re freaking out.”
She wailed, “I know.”
“Why don’t we go to the campus clinic… Maybe they can give you something for anxiety.”
“If it zones you out, you can stop taking it, but you’re worrying me.”
“Then… calm down. Everything is going to be fine.”
“No. It’s not. You’re going to end up hating me. I’m going to end up crazy…”
“Sookie, we aren’t our parents. We actually love each other. We’re going to be fine.”
“Nothing’s going to be fine. Everything’s already ruined.”
My memories were cut off by the smell of gasoline. Topping off the tank in Vicksburg while we stopped for sandwiches and drinks had resulted in my shoes being soaked with gas while I was lost in thought.
I’d thought about Sookie more often than not since she left. Most of the time I was terrified that something horrible had happened to her. Even though it was 3 states away from where we lived together, when a body was uncovered during a freeway construction last year, I dropped everything to drive 700 miles thinking that it could be her. There were times, usually when alcohol was involved that I hated her. Times when I was sure that she left me. Left without giving me the chance to fix what I’d done wrong. Left without giving me the chance to beg her to stay. I’d have done anything for her. I had a bartender tell me once that he pitied me for peaking so young… That the universe was a cruel bitch to have given me something that made me so happy and then taken it away. ‘The one great love’ wasn’t supposed to happen until you were mature enough to hold onto it. I decided that the prick’s girlfriend had made him watch The Notebook so I found another bar when I threw my next pity party.
All this fucking time, Sookie had been fine. Not laying in a shallow grave or as a Jane Doe in a civil cemetery. She’d left our apartment, empty except for a change of clothes and the mattress we weren’t taking with us because what little we had was already on our U-Haul… she’d left me asleep by the window and jumped on a bus or plane… she’d left.
No kiss goodbye. No closure. No peace.
16 fucking years of questions.
The few ‘relationships’ I’d had since, felt wrong and were so short lived that they weren’t worth mentioning… I told one of them about Sookie’s disappearance and she might as well have been gone before I was done. Not that I missed her. Rum had been the reason for the ‘honesty’ in the first place.
Sookie had left me with nothing and took my child with her. I needed a really good reason to be level headed. I needed a stellar fucking reason to not come unhinged. I’d been robbed. I couldn’t think of a single fucking reason why I’d been spending hours every week looking for her when I could’ve been teaching my son how to ride a bike, helping him with homework… Fuck. I didn’t even know what his favorite color was. Had he already had his first kiss? Did he have braces? His tonsils? How much did the tooth fairy leave him? I didn’t know. I didn’t know anything about him. I should’ve been there. I should’ve been the one to hold him still for shots and nail clippings. I should’ve been at parent/teacher conferences. I should’ve been there to teach him to swim. Could he swim? Fuck.
He should’ve had a father that he took for granted. He should’ve had a father to roll his eyes at and make fun of to his friends.
The more I thought about it, the situation, what Sookie did… the less confused I was. She left and it scared the shit out of me. The mystery I’d been trying to solve for 16 years finally got answered. She’s fine. The new problem was that I was so pissed about what I’d missed out on, that I was very close to asking him to live with me until he leaves for college. I wanted to get to know him and one weekend every month wasn’t going to make up for what Sookie had deprived me, us of. There was only two years left of his ‘childhood’ and I wanted them. He deserved the time to figure out if he even liked his father.
If Sookie had let me know him, visit him… allowed me any kind of contact, then I wouldn’t be a stranger to my own son. How completely awkward the invitation could make him feel was the only thing keeping me from asking. Fuck Sookie and her feelings. He was my son too and she’d been hogging him.
“What are you thinking about?” Even though we’d been in the car for more than an hour, the question still hit me too hard. I was thinking about how to steal some time with him. The ride had been quiet. Both of us were at a complete loss for words. I honestly didn’t know if I was close to being able to express what was going through my mind. I sure as hell wasn’t going to tell him that I remembered clues from right before she left that suggested his mother resented the pregnancy.
“I didn’t know anything about you… When she left… I’m pretty sure she knew about you. I’m remembering some hints, but I chalked it up to her being stressed about finals.”
“You said she left after graduation… what were y’all planning to do?”
“I found a job with Fowler, Fowler and Green. Sookie found a job at Edgington Homes. We were moving to Shreveport. She’d helped me load everything onto the truck before we left for graduation… I woke up the next morning and she was gone. When she didn’t come home, I called the police, filed a report, paid another month’s rent and waited for two weeks instead of taking the time to move. When I got to Shreveport, I took one weekend to unpack and buy a car and then started my new job… I drove back to our old apartment every weekend until Christmas hoping she’d show up. Like a fucking idiot. When the building was bought, I traded the developer plans for the condos in exchange for our unit. I still have it… Since Sookie knew the address of our apartment in Shreveport, when I started my own firm a few years back, I bought the building and turned it into my offices. I did everything I could so that she could find me… How… How are you dealing with all of this?”
“Could you be a little more specific?”
He snorted. “I’m pissed as all hell.”
I laughed at him. “Ok… Fine. What made you look for me?”
“I was waiting for Mom while she picked up some materials, right? I’m sitting in the reception area because it was freezing outside. I’m bored and my options are obviously interior design and architecture magazines. I’m leafing through one of the damn things and pretty much see myself, only old. It was a small picture, but you’re ERIC Northman. You were quoted as saying that one of your biggest influences is Frank GEHRY… Mentioned the college you went to and some of the buildings you’ve cranked out just so happened to be side trips when me and Mom hit the road. Two and two is four… I didn’t even need an excuse or anything. Uncle Jason’s been asking me to come out to visit for a summer for years. Once I got there, all it took was talking his kids into looking for embarrassing pictures of each other to get the photo albums out… Crystal was at the store… badda-bing, badda-boom. ‘Hey uncle Jas, who’s this guy Mom’s dancing with? What is he, like 8 feet tall?’ He tells me, ‘Who him? That’s just Errrrrrrr… Shit. I don’t remember his name.’ Like I said…”
I laughed, “…Kind of a tard.”
“Yeah. And since you’re so public, it didn’t take much to get your address. I had Aunt Crystal drop me off at the mall and got a cab to your neighborhood. I honestly just wanted to meet you. I didn’t think for a second you’d hire me… Why did you hire me? I know you have landscapers.”
“You have Bill Compton to thank for why I hired you. That dolt’s daughter shows all the initiative of a paperweight and I’ll put good money on the fact that the first ‘job’ she’ll ever have will be snagging a husband once her inheritance is gone. I liked your excuse about saving for a car.”
He shrugged. “It’s not really an excuse… I’ve been working during the week with Uncle Jason. Siding is a snooze-fest, but swinging a hammer pays alright.”
“How much do you have saved?”
“Eight thousand should get you a decent car.”
“Yeah. I’m stalking Auto Trader…”
“Twelve would buy a nicer one.”
“I don’t see why I shouldn’t offer the same deal as your mother. I’ll match you too.”
“Really? No… I’m… I don’t want your money… Seriously. That’s not why I…”
“If I had been the Kinkos employee of the month, you’d have still been curious about who your father is. If you’d known me all your life, you wouldn’t feel the need to turn the offer down. Hell, if that were the case then your mother and I would fight because I’d want to just buy a new car for your 16th birthday present. I’m only offering the same deal as your mother.” I might still just buy him a new car once I find out what he’s shopping for. I suddenly found myself in arrears of child support.
“I don’t know. I’ll think about it… Mom could be… Nevermind.”
“Mom could be what?”
“I was going to say that Mom could be pissed that you’d bogart her offer, but… ummmm… I could give a crap right now if she’s pissed.”
“What were you picturing? You had to wonder over the years.”
“I don’t know. I… a headstone… mug shots… beer goggles… I didn’t know what the hell she was keeping from me. I didn’t know if you beat her up or your wife didn’t like your girlfriend or you joined the damn Merchant Marines when she told you she was pregnant. Every time I heard about someone who didn’t have a father, I wondered if it was the same scenario. I didn’t have anything to go on other than a weird middle name.”
“So you’re pissed because I seem normal.”
“No. I’m pissed because Grampa was an asshole.” I knew about ‘Grampa’s assholery. I’d wondered for years if that was why Sookie left. I could have forgiven that… if she was afraid that I’d end up an abusive alcoholic…
“He wasn’t exactly a teddy bear…”
“No. I know he should’ve been in prison for what he did to his family. How is it that you’re pissed at Sookie for it?”
“It’s… I don’t know… it’s just that Uncle Jason isn’t like that. He still has the same six-pack in the fridge that was there when I got to Shreveport over a month ago. He doesn’t get drunk. The most aggressive thing I’ve ever seen him do is give a bear hug… he got beaten up by his father for scratching his nose the wrong way and he’s harmless… Even if you were a complete monster, I should’ve been able to know that… But you are normal…”
“I’m not that normal. I’ve spent the last 16 years looking for someone who, as it turns out, ran away from me and took my son with her.”
“Yeah. There you go. Right there. You don’t know why she left. I don’t know why I didn’t get to know you. It sucks. I mean you obviously weren’t bored with her…”
“We were going to get married as far as I knew.” I’d actually bought a ring. With my first paycheck once I moved to Shreveport. I was going to give it to her when I found her.
“I asked her months before she left… We weren’t just a fling… We’d joked about what we’d name our kids… That’s how you got stuck with Gehry… You’d have a brother named Wright too… the other half of the joke was that we couldn’t have girls because we couldn’t come up with names.”
“Wright as in Frank Lloyd?”
I shrugged with a nod. “We were just joking around… We aren’t far from Jackson… where am I going once I get there?”
He snorted. “Funny you should ask.”
“Just follow the signs to Fountainhead.”
“No. Mom put me in private school so that we’d have an excuse to drive by it every day. The public school is in the other direction…”
It was probably a bad idea to say it out loud, but it slipped… “Our first road trip together… was to Fallingwater… We went to 6 of his houses together.” I still had the pictures we took since she left our albums behind along with everything else.
“You’re kidding me!”
“What the hell!? That’s just… why? I mean…”
I snorted at how flustered he was. “I see your point.”
I was finally on the receiving end of my angry face. “My mother took off in the middle of the night, knowing she was pregnant… and names me after you and your favorite architect, cries every time I mention my dad, moves us to a place right down the road from a landmark reminiscent of your first date…”
“She was never so confusing when I knew her. I think I’ll blame you.”
“That’s not funny!”
“Yeah me too! I’m packing my shit when I get to the house. She can go fuck herself.” I didn’t know if he meant that he wanted to stay with me or Jason, but either way, he’d be closer to me. More available.
I had a hard time forcing myself to discourage him. I didn’t want it to seem like I didn’t want him, but he needed to calm down.“You should give her the chance to explain first.”
“Tell you what… why don’t I just leave her my contact info. Maybe by the time I have grandchildren she’ll be ready to talk to one of us.”
“Like it or not, you’re still a minor. You don’t get to chose who you live with.”
“I’ll use my goddamn car fund to get a lawyer. You can’t tell me with a straight face that I don’t have the right to be pissed. My mother still loves my father and I’m only just now meeting you… and even then it’s just because I initiated the meeting.”
“She doesn’t still love me. If she did, she wouldn’t have stayed gone.”
“Well there you go… How about… if she loved me she wouldn’t have left it to Architectural Digest to tell me who my father is.”
“I’m pissed too.”
“You’ve got a funny way of showing it.”
I raised an eyebrow at him. “Excuse me for being a little over stimulated. I’ve been worried that the woman I love was mutilated and discarded and I was still searching for her when I met our son who I didn’t know existed.”
He slammed himself back in her seat and growled at the ceiling before yelling, “You just said that you still love her!”