It Can’t be
When we’d first started dating, our mornings were loaded and we only had one day of the week when we shared classes. Two of them, back to back. A history lecture that was scheduled until 11, but usually cut out early by our underachieving prof followed by an AutoCAD lab that started at noon. It couldn’t have been more perfect. Not only did we have more than an hour together to eat lunch or sneak to my dorm room, but we also had 2 hours and 15 minutes next to each other in a quiet room. Always on the back row so no one could see what happened when she got bored.
She leaned over slightly and whispered, “Have you ever cheated on a girlfriend?” The game. Truth Or Dare without the dares. She’d started it. Getting-to-know-you questions. Anything from least favorite color to VH1 or MTV… The only rule was that we weren’t allowed to ask a question we weren’t willing to answer. I would’ve accepted if she refused to answer, just like I was sure she would, but nothing had ever come up that we weren’t willing to share with each other. My favorite part of the questions was that it would start as something random and on occasion became a long conversation about a completely unrelated topic, making us forget the original question. Leading to a round of ‘name that segue’.
I whispered back, “I’m not sure I approve of the question.”
“Hmmmm. Why not?”
“Because it seems sexist of you to not care if I’ve cheated on one of my boyfriends.”
Her laugh was so loud and sudden, she’d gotten a dirty look from the prof before her hands were ever over her mouth. Once she settled down, she elbowed me and told me she’d kick my ass for that.
“Do threesomes count?”
She stopped working to give me a surprised look. “You’ve had a threesome?”
“Hasn’t everyone?” I winked at her because I hadn’t.
“Well? Do you consider having sex with two people at once, cheating?”
“I guess not… I think it’d be confusing though.”
“No. I hear it’s more fun… like eating cookies on a roller coaster.”
“I’m not big on cookies or roller coasters.”
“Then no three-ways for Sookie.”
She snorted. “You got that right.” Good.
“What about you?”
“No. I wouldn’t… It’s mean… I mean, unless everybody’s just in it for the sex, but I’m a relationship kind of girl. I couldn’t do that to someone I care enough about to be sleeping with in the first place.”
“That’s good to hear… I haven’t either, same reason. Broken bones?”
She leaned into the computer screen, squinting and biting her lip in concentration. “Ummmm… are we counting sprains?”
“No, but yes for fractures.”
“K… both forearms, right clavicle, right cheek, fractured pelvis and jaw bone and just in case… dislocated right shoulder and wrist.”
I stared at the side of her face for a minute to make sure she was done. “Jesus Sookie, car accident?”
She cringed. “Nope. My father’s a south paw… What about you?”
“I’m a rightie.”
She raised her eyebrow. “I meant broken bones.”
Fuck… “Uhhhh, yeah. I broke my leg in middle school. Bike v. pot hole. The pot hole won… Your father did all of that to you?”
“Yeah, but not all at the same time. He was a nasty drunk. Good thing you aren’t dating my brother. You’d be here all day. Jason’s lucky he can walk.”
“You said he was a nasty drunk. Does that mean he’s dead?” He should be.
“No. They don’t let you have a lot of liquor in prison. He’ll sauce himself up as soon as he’s out of his jumpsuit again.”
“So…” I had no clue how to ask if he’d gone to jail for beating his children or something else, but thankfully, she knew what I was getting at.
“Bouncing checks. I told you, I’m trash. My family’s all kinds of screwed up. I haven’t talked to my mom since the week before I left for school, last year.”
“That sounds like a separate question.”
“Fine. What did you talk about the last time you talked to your mother?”
She narrowed her eyes and groaned quietly. “I quit my job. I’m good and all, but not good enough to wait tables from this far away. The last thing I said to her was I was sorry she’d have to get her own job and that I heard the diner had an opening. The last thing she said was that I was a stuck up bitch. I spent my last week on my brother’s couch. Now it’s your turn.”
“I talked to mom just last week. My roommate had a friend over that didn’t know even when I’m there, I’m not ‘available’. She wanted to know how my new job was going… It was her passive-aggressive way of asking for money.”
She half smiled. “Nice. I guess I’ll have company when I don’t go home for Christmas this year.”
“You didn’t last year?”
“Last year I was still only working part time. I didn’t want to get swamped right out of the gate. So I didn’t have the money. I could do it this year, but my brother is getting married in March so I’m using that as an excuse to not go home ‘til then. I can’t take but so much of them.”
Professor Meadowbrook came over and stopped between us to lean in. “You two do realize that in a lab, you should actually get something accomplished, yes?”
Sookie scoffed at her and pointed between our screens. “Scuse us, but maybe you should pay less attention to our conversation since we’re both almost done with our assignments and…” She stood up enough to look over the class and sat down again. “… And I see 3 help screens open.”
“Miss Stackhouse, this course is crucial to your major…”
“Which is why I take it seriously. Is there something wrong with my work?”
Meadowbrook slid her glasses down her needle nose to look at Sookie’s screen, then mine… and then left us alone. I couldn’t look at Sookie because I would’ve started laughing. “She’s going to flunk you…”
“Pshhhh. She can try. What’s she going to do, go through and un-A me?”
That was it… The attitude I missed. She was always outspoken and sure of herself… but before she left… she was anything but.
Angsty was the word I used when I dealt with the police that were supposedly looking for Sookie. I’d rather have that Sookie back than have no Sookie at all.
No Sookie at all…
It wasn’t until about 10am that panic started to set in. I tried to hide it when I ‘calmly’ called the first few friends. Eventually, I spent 9 hours on the phone, calling all of our friends to see if Sookie had gone to say goodbye before we hit the road. Then I called them all again. Her family was called. Our profs and TAs were called. I had Sam come by to stay at the apartment so that I could go out looking for her anywhere I thought might have been an errand. And a few places that wouldn’t.
No one had seen her. No one had heard from her. Her mother actually asked what information about Sookie was worth to me. My imagination seriously fucked from knowing how much could happen in the 48 hours the police required before filing a report.
Jason was the only one to really share my concern. Once he’d gotten my messages when he got home from work he returned my calls. He was yelling into the phone. Not at me, just because I was there… I was yelling too. He swore ‘on a stack a’ bibles’ that he’d call me with news if he heard from Sookie… but the last time he’d talked to her was a couple months earlier when he called to tell her that his wife was pregnant.
Monday night, I’d fallen asleep on our bed with my nose buried in her pillow and my thumb on the ‘talk’ button.
Detective Beck was the detective I was originally handed off to. I’d been sitting on the bench at the precinct since 2am on Wednesday… So that I’d be there to file the missing person’s report at exactly 3am. I’d woken up to go to the bathroom so that was the last time I’d seen Sookie… Beck spent 3 hours interviewing me. Antagonizing me. Belittling me. Accusing me. When he cut me loose he didn’t seem interested in finding Sookie as much as he wanted to find her body to confirm I’d been the reason she was missing.
And when I finally did leave for Shreveport two weeks later, the prick had me take a copy of our new lease to him so that he could notify the police there to ‘keep an eye on’ me… I’d come to the conclusion that there are only 3 kinds of cops. The Cynics: the ones convinced that Sookie had broken up with me and I just wouldn’t take no for an answer. The Sloths: the ones who were endlessly annoyed with my persistence. And The Imaginative: the ones who were sure I had done something to her and ‘looking for her’ was part of my ‘game’; proving as much would’ve made for one hell of a script.
It was a nightmare I couldn’t wake up from.
And I did it all, every single mother fucking thing within my power to do, only to find out that she skipped town because she thought she was carrying another man’s baby and didn’t have the spine to tell me.
Even as I sat in the car and watched her move through the house, I still missed her. Even after finding out that she cheated on me, I still wanted to forgive her…
I didn’t want to finally find her after all this time only to hate her.
I’d heard somewhere, about 5 years back more or less, that there was a law protecting people who didn’t want to be found. That all of the reports I’d filed were useless because if Sookie didn’t want to be found, they couldn’t tell me anything about her. Not even that she was avoiding me. As she disappeared from view on her way upstairs, I couldn’t help but wonder how many times she’d been found… That many cops couldn’t be that incompetent. She had to know I’d been looking for her.
“What are we waiting for?” Eric seemed like he wanted me to leave skid marks.
“A few things I’ll need if you’re going to be staying with me.”
“Most of my clothes and stuff are at Uncle Jason’s… I have everything I need.”
“You might have what you need. I need things like your birth certificate and such.”
“So that she can’t claim that you kidnapped me or something later?”
I shook my head, still watching the house. “No. School, DMV… My lawyers.”
“So I can have my name added to the ‘father’ field.”
“Unless you want it to say ‘unknown’.”
“No… no. That’s not… I didn’t expect that you’d care. I mean, you kind of… well, I thought you weren’t around on purpose too so…”
“I told Sookie that I was going to talk to you about changing your name if you want.”
“Holy shit! What did she say?”
“That she wanted to name you Northman, but wasn’t allowed. When the mother isn’t married, the father has to acknowledge the child as theirs.”
“How do you know that?”
“My secretary overshares about her sister.”
“Well… wow. I don’t know… I’ve always been Eric Stackhouse so…”
“I understand if it feels weird to change it now.”
He snorted out a laugh. “I’d screw up about a million times trying to get used to it… What am I supposed to call you?”
“Whatever you’re comfortable with. This is weird enough, we don’t need to add to it.”
“You’d be cool if I just started calling you ‘dad’?” More than ‘cool’.
“It would take some getting used to, but I’m sure I’ll manage.”
In the corner of my eye, I saw his head jerk towards the house. As Sookie walked down the stairs awkwardly with a small paper bag and a bundle of things in her arms, he scowled at her.
She stooped as she approached my side of the low car and held out the bag. She was crying but she seemed much more in control of herself than she had been before. “He’s on Allegra, all the same allergies as you. There’s a fresh prescription in there. He’s not allergic to milk, but too much dairy messes with him and he doesn’t behave when there’s ice cream involved. He has tubes in his ears so he needs plugs if he’s swimming, but he knows that…” She stopped to clear her throat and hand over a stack of cards. “Social security, insurance and his Mississippi ID, just in case… What do… What do you want me to do with your fish?”
Eric snarled at her. “I’ll let you know. Just don’t kill them or put any up for adoption.”
She looked like she was going to be sick again and tried to say she was sorry, but couldn’t get past the ‘I’.
He snorted at her. “The best part of this is that you’re just ignoring explaining yourself again by letting me go with him.”
“I’m not ignoring anything. And I’m not letting you go. I’m stepping back and giving y’all the chance to get to know each other.”
“Ooooh. Before we get started, maybe you won’t mind telling me if anyone else should be included. How many brothers and sisters do I have?” That was too low.
She stood up while I told him to knock it off and she shoved the last items through the window to me and walked away with her hands over her face. “I know you’re angry and hurt, but you don’t have to be sadistic.”
“I’m beyond angry and hurt. Not only was my mother a dirty slut, but she was going to kill me. Do they put that on Hallmarks? ‘Congrats that your baby daddy is a winner.’
“We still don’t… we still don’t know everything. We aren’t going to know until we all calm down.”
“How the hell are you so calm?”
“Somebody has to be. Sookie isn’t stable and you’re too pissed at everything to let her try to explain.”
“She cheated on you.”
“That’s my dumb ass problem…” I opened the manila envelope that she’d given me with a soft bound leather journal. The envelope had a stack of pictures… 8 by 10s. There must’ve 50 of them. Baby pictures, soccer, school. They were in chronological order like she’d been saving them for me. “…Feel free to fester, but even if I never find out why she cheated, there’s more to why she kept you from me. Who archives baby pictures for someone she has no intention of contacting.”
He snorted that I was ‘kidding myself’ as I opened the journal… His birth certificate was sitting right on top of the first page…
Name of Registrant: Eric Gehry Stackhouse
Date of Birth: December 10, 1994
Place of birth: Beckett, Louisiana
Institution: Pratt Hospital
Maiden name of mother: Sookie Belle Stackhouse
Age of mother: 23
Mother’s place of birth: Louisiana
Name of father: Unknown
Age of father: Unknown
Father’s place of birth: Unknown
Date record filed: January 10, 1995
Pratt? Why the fuck would he have been born at Pratt? It was… oh, fuck me…
I told Eric to stay put on my way back to the house.
I walked through the gaping hole in the frame to the sound of a cell phone ringing. Sookie was trying to clean out the sink and answered on speaker.
“Sookie, it’s been a long time since you’ve called my service. What’s wrong, dear?” The woman sounded grandmotherly.
“You sound upset. Did you two argue?”
“Not my son, Octavia. His father.”
“Sookie, you know by now they’re just hallucinations… It’s been so long though. Are you out of Xanex?”
“Not a hallucination. I swear. He touched me. I interacted with him.” She was defensive and getting agitated again. She’d been seeing me?
“Octavia. I swear. I thought I was just being crazy again too. Eric found him. He got curious and went looking for his father.”
“Are you sure?”
“This isn’t just me being insane…”
“Are they happy to have found each other?”
“Not under the circumstances. Who would be?”
“You’ve wanted to take care of this for years. How did you do when you told him what happened?”
“I couldn’t… they were too upset… it was wrong. It was all wrong… the questions didn’t get asked in the right order… I…” She leaned over the sink when her breathing started getting away from her again.
“Sookie, try to calm down. What happened?”
She gritted her teeth and forced out, “My son overheard me tell his father that I didn’t know Eric was the father when I ran…” She started sobbing. “My poor baby… after everything I’ve done to him… to hear that… that I was going to put him up for adoption… if… if…” I couldn’t take any more eavesdropping. I wanted, needed to hear the story in order and I wasn’t interested in having a middle man.
When I walked up behind her and put my hand in the small of her back, I was surprised when she didn’t jerk away. “Then tell me the right way. I’ll listen.”
After ending the call from Octavia and grabbing a roll of paper towels, she sat down at the kitchen table and rested her forehead on her hands.
“I didn’t cheat on you… I never… I…”
“Slow down. That’s not the beginning. You weren’t right for two months before you left. What happened?”
She ripped off a paper towel to have it ready. “I… Do you remember when we went on spring break with Sam and Calista?”
She nodded slightly as she continued, “Y’all got back a day after us… I ended up working at Rafters the night we got home because Lafayette said he was short staffed. I felt so good after the break, I was feeling charitable I guess… I stayed to help close up. Like usual, we all had a couple of drinks while we cleaned up and Barry offered to give me a ride home since you weren’t home to walk with me…”
Even though her voice started to shake, I still couldn’t have braced myself.
“…I remember getting into his car… and the next thing I knew, he was on top of me in our apartment. I… couldn’t… move… I… couldn’t… scream…”
I sat down next to her when my knees started to shake, wanting to offer my hand to her, but I couldn’t make myself do anything. Something horrible had happened to her, but it was while we were together and while I was doing shots with my friends on a Carnival Cruise.
“…I went to the emergency room when I could move enough to get up… there was ‘GHB’ in my system, but because it was spring break and I was a student… and I told them that my boyfriend was out of town… I know what they were thinking. They thought that I just got carried away and…”
“Sookie, why didn’t you tell me? You had to know I wouldn’t blame you.”
She took a staggered breath. “No. You’d have gone after Barry…” Oh fuck… I would’ve. I’d have gone after him and beat him to a pulp. I’d have walked right into his dorm and stomped the shit out of him in front of witnesses. I might have killed him if someone didn’t stop me. And I’m sure, at the time, our Christmas visit was still fresh on her mind. I was behaving right up to the point when I was introduced to her father and he had the balls to ask me how I was treating his little girl. I clocked him in a house full of his own family and didn’t apologize. “…You’d have felt guilty for not being home… we both would’ve been wrecked and we needed to focus… After all the crap with my dad, I thought I could just motor through.”
She’d been raped and instead of telling me… she kept it to herself so that I wouldn’t go off and do something stupid… like murder.
“I was just… I was a little jumpy. I was having nightmares and all, but I just wanted to forget about it… then. I. was. late. and we were always so careful…”
She took a minute to set her breathing straight and I felt like I was going to be rushing for the sink she’d just cleaned out.
“…I wanted to end it. Just get it over with… but when I went to the clinic… the wheel, that goddamn wheel… They said that it… there wasn’t any way to know exactly when it happened… I couldn’t… I couldn’t kill our baby. Eric, I just… I couldn’t… but I wouldn’t keep Barry’s… I’d hate it.”
“Why did you leave though? You could’ve told me when we got to Shreveport. Just lied and said it was a random customer…”
“I know that now… I wasn’t thinking straight… I… was worried that you’d want to keep it. ‘Love it anyway’. ‘It’s not the baby’s fault’… I knew I just couldn’t… I knew I’d hate it… I called Russell Edgington to turn down the job, but he thought I was playing ‘hard to get’… I ended up taking a job at his offices here… that’s when I started to lose it.”
She nodded slowly, taking another paper towel. “I started seeing Barry all over the place. I thought he was stalking me at first. And then I started seeing you too. Everywhere… after about 4 months I was so crazy… I couldn’t do anything without one or both of you watching me… I started seeing a therapist… There were medications that he thought I should be on, but I couldn’t take because of the pregnancy… He went to my OB… they came up with a reason for me to be bed rested until he was born… and I checked myself into a hospital… Russell was sweet about it. He sent me sketch books and Prismacolors… pajamas and chocolates…”
“Why did you check into a hospital instead of just therapy?”
“I hurt myself… It wasn’t on purpose, but… I lost it and put my hands into a plate glass window because I was going after Barry as far as I knew… I had Eric in Pratt. They let me keep him with me while they got my meds straightened out because my doctor was sure I wasn’t a danger to him. I… wanted to call you, but… but… they said that it might not be a good idea because your reaction could be a huge setback for me and I needed to put Eric first…”
“You knew I was looking for you though… Jason… the detectives…”
“You were looking for me. Not me and Eric… I… I was a chicken shit, Eric… I was too afraid that you’d be pissed or… I just… I was crazy enough that I had a case worker… That’s the Niall guy Eric mentioned… He knew that if anything happened and I went nuts to call my therapist so that he could tell you what happened… it’s in my will that you get Eric… I never wanted to hide from you… I was just… just so… scared… I…” She trailed off while she tried to settle down again. “…Eric was 6 years old before Family Services cleared me. They call it PTSD. I haven’t ‘seen you’ in almost 5 years. Barry in about 10… That was when I started getting ready.”
“Ready for what?”
“Telling you… Explaining everything… I’d been keeping an eye on you online anyway, but I was ready to get in the car and take Eric to Shreveport the next time he asked… but he didn’t. I didn’t want to mess with his head, so I was just waiting… Him being in Shreveport with Jason kind of… I was going to go… I took the week off of work… I was coming to talk to you next week.”
“When you first realized it was me…”
She sniffled. “You mean when I thought planning my trip to Shreveport had made me snap or when you touched me and I knew I hadn’t?”
“Snapping. You said you ‘knew better’…”
“I thought I was hallucinating because I’d spent the day trying to figure out how to approach you.”
“So thinking about things makes it worse? Eric said some days are better than others.”
She nodded. “I’ve probably ruined every holiday for him since he was born. I have to be stoned to get through his birthday because all I could think about is that I wanted you there more than anything… I’m so fucked up…”
“I don’t hate you.” I couldn’t. When she’d used the word ‘snowballed’ it was an epic understatement, but still…
I thought that hearing it would make her feel better since saying it worked for me. I hated myself for every second I’d spent being angry with her. I knew her family wasn’t any help to her. Jason didn’t know why she left and she wouldn’t have trusted anyone else… She’d had our baby in a mental hospital because of the trauma of being raped and then raised him to be a great kid (temper aside) on her own.
It didn’t seem to help though. She looked like she was thinking about trying to hold it back before she sputtered and yanked more paper towels away from the roll. The blue of her eyes looked almost inhuman against the red area around them. “Would you like for me to explain to Eric?”
Her sobbing got louder.
“Sookie, say something.”
“Why don’t you hate me? You have every right…”
“I can’t hate you for something that you can’t really be blamed for… I just wish you’d known that all along.”
She choked into her paper towel. “Eric hates me.”
“He won’t forever. I’ll explain everything to him so you don’t have to go through it again. You can’t fault him for having my temper. He’ll grow out of it.”
She tried to laugh, but it just sounded like a cough. “I tried… you know… so you wouldn’t be a stranger to him…”
“I can tell… Are you going to be ok so that I can take him back, spend some time with him?”
She thought about it for a minute. “Yeah… yeah I think so.”
“No. Promise me. Now that everything is in the open, we’ll deal with it as a family. No more running. Promise me.”
She nodded slowly. “Yeah… I promise.”
I still wasn’t sure of my legs so I stood up slowly to leave…
“I know… I know I don’t have any right… any right to ask, but… can I… I missed you so much. Can I… can I just… hug you?”
All I could do is nod. Even if I didn’t want it, I probably wouldn’t have denied her anyway… after what she’d been through…
Her arms went around my sides, passively at first and she laid her head on my chest. As soon as my arms went around her back, hers tightened. I’d missed her too much. It felt too natural to rest my chin on her head, stroke her back, hold her closer…
She was in pain and had been for so long… We all had.
“See. 16 years and you’re already ruining my shirts again.”
She snorted out a laugh and tightened her grip. It felt too good to hear her mood lighten, even that much.
“When you’re coming to Shreveport.”