It Can’t Be
Sookie slid into the seat next to me with a grin, sneaking a kiss to my neck while she pretended to wrestle her arms free of her jacket.
I whispered, “You seem very proud of yourself.”
She wiggled her eyebrows. “I am.”
“For being an hour late and leaving me hanging with an extra coffee that was too sweet for Cookie Monster to choke down?”
She puckered her chin in a sympathetic pout. “Awwww. I’m sorry. I bet I can cheer you up.”
I raised an eyebrow at her and hummed. “Here? Now?” I shrugged and moved my books. “OK, but use your jacket so no one sees.”
She laughed before she could get her hands over her mouth to stop herself. Everyone in the lecture hall turned around to gawk and the professor shot a dirty look in our direction. “Miss Stackhouse, I apologize for interrupting, but…”
She elbowed me, but lifted her chin to show the sarcastic jerk that she wasn’t as embarrassed as he wanted her to be. “No worries. All is forgiven.” Smart ass.
After the gawkers stopped laughing at her facetious joke (instead of his sarcasm like the prof wanted) class continued. I leaned over once I thought it was safe. “Well?”
She quirked her eyebrow and grinned. “A wishing well?”
She growled, “Eric.”
“You’re punishing me for making you laugh, aren’t you?”
She settled back in her seat and flipped open her notebook. “Shhhh. I’m. Trying. To. Learn.”
As soon as class was over, she tried to run past me. I saw it coming… that mischievous twinkle in her eye gave her away.
I dropped my books and grabbed her around the waist and pulled her into my lap. I didn’t care who was left in the gallery to witness it. I used one arm to hold her to me and the other to relentlessly tickle her thigh. With all of her flailing around, she almost broke my nose and she barely managed to shout ‘uncle’ between squeals.
“You’re going to tell me?”
She nodded, still too breathless to say much. So I pulled her knees around so she could face me and I waited for her to catch her breath. “Your roommate creeps me out.”
“Me too.” He smelled like dog biscuits fresh from the shower and he stared at the wall with his mouth open.
“And my roommate makes you sneeze.”
“Patchouli and incense… and why hasn’t she figured out how to not burn her popcorn?”
She nodded. “I know, right? Anyway… my mom called me this morning. Not only did she mention that she lost her job, but she told me Calvin said ‘hi’.”
“How did she lose a job filling cigarette machines?”
“She didn’t lose it even though she was skimming cartons and selling them. She quit when they wanted to start paying her over the table.”
“So ‘Calvin says hi’ was code for she talked to him about you waiting tables for the summer.”
She clapped her hands. “Yay. You win this round of Greedy, Lazy Bitches. So guess what your prize is.”
“Ummmm. A pack of Lucky Strikes and a short stack of pancakes?”
She giggled. “No. You win a sleepover for two with your girlfriend.”
“Is Arlene leaving with the carnival and taking her zen with her?”
“Nope. I’m going to have a housewarming sleep over in my shitty little apartment.”
She nodded. “Mom calling was strike three. I’m not going home for the summer and working my ass off so that she won’t lose her food stamps. I’ll stay here and work my ass off and knock some credits out.”
“You’re serious? You got an apartment?”
She nodded and she was getting more excited as I was catching up. “I went to financial aid first and they said that everything was clear once I got the counselor to sign off on my course load. I jumped through the hoops like a good little poodle. Financial aid to counseling back to financial aid then to register then I called about an apartment. I went and looked at it. It’s a dump on the first floor and there’s tap dancers or ogres in the unit over it… but $300 a month gives us somewhere private to be without having to bribe or threaten a weird roommate and I wouldn’t be that far away when you can get away and come visit me over the break. I think I’m going to take it.”
“What would $600 a month get?”
“A slightly bigger dump and no money for laundry.”
“What if you had a roommate?”
She tilted her head to the side. “I know you’re not talking about moving in together.”
“Because… well because, aren’t guys supposed to shit their pants over the idea of moving in with a girl.”
I nodded. “Yes. Yes, we are. But I’m not talking about moving in with A girl… I’m talking about moving in with MY girl. I don’t want to go all summer without seeing you. I’d rather see you every day, take summer courses and keep working at the bookstore than go home and fight with whichever parent I stay with and bust my ass for my prick uncle with nothing to show for it. You’ve got the right idea.”
“I don’t know. Are you sure? You’d be stuck with me.”
“I like being stuck with you.”
“I was planning on keeping it a secret. Otherwise…”
“You’ll have to listen to a barrage of shit about how you could be sending money home if you can afford to live off campus?”
“You should be on Jeopardy.”
“Do they make a ‘White Trash’ version?”
She nodded. “For Final Jeopardy, you write the answer on the back of an unpaid phone bill with a pencil sharpened with a steak knife.”
“And the winner takes home a lifetime supply of Duck Tape and Bondo.”
She giggled at me. “You really want to get an apartment with me?”
“Ummmm… lemme weigh my options… ‘Son of bitch! We’re out of beer! Eric, are you 21 yet? Go get something good, none of that light shit’… OR… ‘Son of a bitch! We’re out of rubbers! Sookie, where are my pants…?”
She threw her head back and laughed and once she calmed herself down, she grabbed my hand and started getting up. “Let’s go get us a newspaper then, beer boy.”
That’s just how Sookie was. Even though she changed so much after the rape, what I finally knew was her rape, that’s how I remembered her. Take charge. If she didn’t like something, she changed it if she could.
She didn’t want to deal with her family shit any more than I wanted to deal with mine… It wasn’t like we were running away as much as distancing ourselves. No one wants to be around people they have nothing in common with and we still did obligatory holidays. When we wanted to, we’d borrow or rent a car and visit… Ninja style. We’d blow through town and keep ourselves busy visiting friends or the few relatives worth a conversation. We got busted a couple of times, but since the offended parties didn’t know until we were home again, it made the delete button on our answering machine that much more valuable.
She was the go-getter. She was the planner. She always had a Plan B… sometimes C… Until she was raped, she knew what she wanted. She was willing to do anything to meet her goals.
That sudden lack of confidence should have made me do less watching and worrying and more pushing for her to get help.
“What do you mean, ‘make it right’?” I couldn’t bring myself to look at the papers so I just set them on the table. I was worried that she could be giving me custody of Eric like a changing of the guard.
She grinned and eyed the papers like she was desperate for me to look at them. “I’ve kept you guys apart for years… I don’t want to do that anymore. You guys have been having fun. Y’all obviously get along. You deserve the chance to…”
Eric was too anxious to let her explain. He snatched the papers from the table and started looking over them, but judging by the look on his face he wasn’t getting any answers. “What the hell is this?”
“It’s my contract. I talked to Russell to see if he still wanted me to take over his Shreveport office. Those were waiting on my desk when I went in this morning to tie up some loose ends before I left on vacation…”
Sookie nodded. “You’d have to switch schools…”
“Screw the school. Boring is boring no matter where we live. As long as they have a soccer team, I’m cool. We’re moving.” At least he was sold.
“Sookie, are you sure…?”
“Eric, I told you that I was ‘getting ready’… I’ve had everything lined up for years… Octavia suggested that I take little steps towards resolving the problem so that things wouldn’t seem too big when the time came… I was serious when I said that I was chicken shit. I was scared that you’d both hate me… I’ve wanted to be in Shreveport since I left our apartment.”
“Taking a job at a new office isn’t a ‘little step’ though.”
“I’ve been building up… I started small with things like my will and keeping track of you… and built up…”
Eric interrupted, “Where are we going to live? What school will I go to? Did you get that far yet?” I was too worried that she was doing too much to let myself be happy that they’d be in Shreveport with me… If she had another break, if she ran again because she was overwhelmed, I’d die. I couldn’t do it again. I couldn’t.
“I… I’ve been out of excuses for a while now. About 4 years ago I bought a house here. It’s close to Eric’s… I found 2 schools that I like. I figured that you guys can go look at them and pick the winner…”
He cut her off again, wearing a huge grin. “I’m not complaining, but… you like Jackson. Why? Are you sure you’re ok with moving and all?”
“I didn’t like Jackson. I liked Jackson enough. I didn’t want you to feel like you had to choose between your Mom and Dad. I don’t want any of us to have a phone based relationship. I’m great with moving here.”
“How close to his house?”
“In his neighborhood. Near the front.”
“When I read that he was working with that developer, I…” Her chin started to pucker again while she fought away tears. “I really want you guys to be together.” What I wouldn’t have given for my own therapist. I was terrified that I wouldn’t just lose her again, I’d lose Eric too. I couldn’t put together anything that would’ve sounded remotely positive. I couldn’t put together anything to let them know I wanted them closer without a ‘but’ being included. I couldn’t even fall back on the standard. My fall back… efficiency. My secretary, because I didn’t give her enough to do apparently, had scoured the internet for all the articles about me or my work she could find. Whatever the fuck a ‘tag cloud’ is, ‘efficient’ earned the largest font, followed closely by ‘deliberate’. Knowing that that their permanent move to Shreveport was the most logical way to solve our dilemmas of distance, wasn’t helping me to not freak right the fuck out that Sookie could be jumping the gun and pushing herself too hard, too far, too fast.
It was like she was reading my mind. She reached into her purse and put her phone in front of me. “I told her what I’m doing and to expect your call.”
She nodded towards the front of the restaurant. “Do you still pace?”
Do I still pace? The parking lot almost needed new asphalt by the time Sookie’s phone rang.
“Mr. Northman…” The woman sounded annoyingly amused. “Octavia Fant.”
“Miss Fant. Sookie just informed us of her intention of relocating.”
“And you’re concerned that she’s not ready for such a big change, perhaps even worried that she might become snowed under.”
“In a nutshell. Absolutely.”
“Mr. Northman, I want to start by explaining to you that I am not the counselor who discouraged her from contacting you all this time.”
“You weren’t?” I hadn’t even thought about it really, but as soon as she mentioned it, I realized that whoever had would be near the top of my hit list… just under Barry.
“No. She was seeing a therapist without any experience with PTSD. He was treating Sookie as though she were depressed because of her rape. His reasoning for discouraging the contact, according to his notes, was that Sookie would only become more ‘manic’ if you rejected her. It actually caused paranoia that you might use her emotional state to take Eric from her. She also thought it was possible that you’d shun him to punish her for leaving you.”
“Given the circumstances, we can understand why she’d worry about that. We’ve been doing some homework since we left Jackson… What is your experience with PTSD?”
“I did my internship at a VA hospital. When her previous therapist retired Sookie came to the practice I was with. She saw a colleague of mine first and she referred Sookie to me. In lay terms, she’s been ‘over’ her rape as much as she’ll ever be for about 10 years now.”
“I fully believe that she was depressed initially. She tried to carry on as though the rape didn’t happen just as she did concerning her father’s abuse. The childhood abuse is another contributing factor.” Like I needed more reasons to dance on her father’s grave.
“So… it was the situation that the rape created? Not knowing who Eric’s father was?”
“As you put it, in a nutshell. She explained, years after the fact mind you, that she felt like Eric was holding her hostage until he was born. She didn’t get any joy from feeling him move or hearing his heartbeat on a monitor. She only decided to look at him for the first time because a nurse mentioned how blond he was… Then she wouldn’t let him go so that she could so much as eat. She was fragile when her previous therapist mentioned that she could be setting herself up to be rejected. She’s been frustrated that Eric stopped asking about you when he was about 8 years old because she’s been ready, completely ready to finally introduce the two of you. Her fear of your reaction was why she didn’t initiate the reunion. Her last anchor was Eric’s false apathy.”
“So… What? Are you saying that now that she finally got it off her chest, she’s cured?”
“No. I’m saying that her PTSD has been exaggerated by the turmoil all along. I’m saying that now that she’s been honest with you and Eric, she’s not carrying around the paralyzing fear and grief she was a week ago. Mr. Northman, I’ve been seeing Sookie for 11 years and when I saw her yesterday, she was excited. I’m not telling you that just because it was nice to see. I’m telling you that she was excited because it was the first time I’d ever seen it. But… and this is a big but… she feels immensely guilty now that you and Eric have met. She feels like she isn’t worthy of your forgiveness or understanding and she may very well never trust it fully.”
“So we’re fucked no matter what we do?”
“No. Family counseling is going to be the best chance for you all to heal.”
“What could go wrong? She’s planning to move to Shreveport.”
“Mr. Northman. She has wanted to make this move for years. She compared it to leaving Bon Temps for college. She feels like she’s getting out of jail. She’ll have her moments of self doubt. She’ll have a few guilt ridden episodes. She has a fresh prescription of Xanex in her purse if she has a panic attack…”
“How likely is it for her to chicken out?”
“It’s not likely at all. She’s done everything she could to feel close to you and feel like Eric’s had little pieces of you. Some people do it to punish themselves. Sookie did it because it made her feel better.”
“When you say ‘close to’ me…”
“She’s told me a few times that she’d never been happier than when she was with you. One of the primary reasons she was so gripped with fear was because she couldn’t face the possibility that you’d hate her. Truly, if he wasn’t retired, I’d have her old therapist’s license. I hate that it took Eric’s desperation to bring her some peace.”
“So you’re confident that she isn’t being overambitious. She’s capable of relocating without stressing herself out to the point of breaking.”
“She feels good. She’s feeling guilty thanks to everyone’s friend, ‘hindsight’, but she’s anxious to move on. She’s been stagnant for a very long time.” Sookie wasn’t the only one.
“Is there anything we should know? She’s staying with us this week. Is there something she’s prone to, reactions we should watch for, topics we should avoid?”
“I think you’ll do just fine. It says a lot that you care enough to ask though.”
“She was a wreck on Saturday.”
“The abruptness of your appearance was a shock. She does much better with things when she can prepare for them.”
“If you’re sure… is this what you wanted to speak about?”
“Actually, I wanted to speak to you to gauge Sookie’s grip on reality. She’s been very upbeat and I wanted to confirm that you’re invested rather than placating.”
“You mean you wanted to make sure she wasn’t imagining things.”
“She did too actually. After a decade of playing mind games on herself, she doesn’t really trust herself anymore.”
“Understandable. What would you like to know?”
“I think I know enough.”
“How’s that? You haven’t asked anything.”
“Mr. Northman, sometimes it’s not what a person says that’s most important, but what they don’t say.”
I cleared my throat, hoping like hell Miss Crane didn’t talk in circles when we met with her. “So… what is it that I didn’t say?”
“Mr. Northman, that was the first time you referred to yourself as a lone entity.”
“What does that have to do with anything?”
She laughed quietly. “What that has to do with the situation at hand, is that you seem so selflessly invested in her treatment that I could be imagining things. You enjoy your evening. Call me if anything alarms you.”