TRIGGER WARNING: This chapter includes mentions of child sexual abuse.
I work from home as a graphic artist and web designer. After I finished treatment, I started taking online courses and doing freelance work since I’ve always had an eye for that sort of thing. My niche on the artistic side is book covers. I’m really good at those, at least in my opinion. I’ve started working with a local photographer named Maria-Starr. Kennedy introduced us. Kennedy is my sponsor. It turns out that before Kennedy got into the program herself she worked as a model. Maria photographed her on a regular basis and they stayed in touch even after Kennedy quit modeling. My sponsor has opened all sorts of doors for me.
Having someone be in my corner, being genuinely interested in seeing me blossom into the person I’ve always wanted to be has been incredible for me. I can’t say that Kennedy’s support for me is unconditional, because it’s not. There’s accountability for my actions. If I slip I won’t be the first addict to do so. It happens all the time. I’m human, so I do the best I can to keep out of situations that might tempt me into falling back into old habits and patterns. That means I try not to associate with the people I did back when I was drinking.
I’m not a person who can have just one drink and be fine the way millions of other people can. Maybe someday I’ll reach the point where I can have a celebratory glass of champagne at a wedding or a lone glass of wine during a dinner party, but I’m not there yet and I know it. I see no point in tempting the fates and setting myself back. I’ve worked too hard for that.
Yet when I leave Eric’s house, I find myself sitting outside of a bar in downtown Portland about three blocks away from my apartment. Aurelia’s engine is still running, purring and making the seat vibrate a little in a way that still excites me. I got this car from a sugar daddy I picked up after I left Eric. My father had one like it when I was a kid, except his was all black. He and my mother died in it when I was seven. A flash flood came along in rural Louisiana and swept the car off a bridge. The engine had stalled and Dad didn’t realize just how bad the storm really was. Heavy rain, sure, but bad enough to sweep a ‘71 Chevy off a bridge? He and Mom never had a chance. Their bodies were never found but the car was once the water receded.
I pick up my phone and dial Kennedy’s number, hoping she’ll have some words of wisdom for me other than telling me to go to a meeting. It’s probably what I should do, but I don’t particularly want to go be in a room full of other people with sob stories to tell. I’m just not in the mood after the encounter I’ve just had.
“Hello,” she answers in the same even tone she always does.
“I’m sitting outside a bar. I can hear Smirnoff calling my name,” I say quietly.
There’s a pause and then the shuffling of paper on the other end of the line.
“St. Anne’s has a meeting in twelve minutes. You should go,” she says. I hate St. Anne’s meetings. They’re a little too Good Book focused for my taste, and I’m a girl who goes to church most Sundays.
“I hate St. Anne’s.”
“I know, but don’t you hate being drunk more?”
I sigh, knowing she’s right. I can’t expect her to drop everything to come and rescue me in a moment of weakness.
“Go to the meeting. If you still want to talk afterward, I’ll meet you at the Daily Grind at nine,” she offers.
It’s a compromise I can make so I said, “Fine, I’ll go. I won’t like it.”
“You won’t be hungover tomorrow,” she says as if that’s reason enough to go.
“And I won’t hate myself. Well, not as much anyway.”
That gets me a snicker from her.
“I need a proof of life photo when you get to St. Anne’s if you expect me to meet you,” she says.
She’s not stupid. I agree to her terms and then put the car in gear.
“What set you off?” Her voice is full of curiosity and trepidation.
“I saw him.” I don’t need to tell her who ‘him’ is. She draws a breath.
“On second thought, I’ll be at the coffee shop in twenty minutes.”
That was easy.
“Okay. See you there.” We hang up. I set my phone down on the seat where Bear was sitting not an hour ago. After checking my mirrors, I turn on my signal and pull out into traffic.
I’ll get to the coffee shop before her, but that’s okay. Given the late hour, I’ll probably have no trouble finding a table for us to occupy either. Daily Grind classifies itself as a coffee shop, but they serve a small menu’s worth of diner classics. Since it’s Thursday they should have a hot turkey sandwich as their special. Carved turkey breast with cranberry sauce and stuffing on grilled sourdough bread with mashed potatoes and gravy on the side. Thanksgiving on a plate offered up every Thursday, all year round. I’ve spent a lot of time at Daily Grind in the last two years.
When I first finished treatment I didn’t have anywhere to live that was mine. A social worker pulled some strings to get me into a halfway house, but I quickly determined I didn’t like it there. I don’t mind doing chores and pulling my own weight to keep a house clean. What bothered me was having three roommates in a small room. There was no privacy. I’m a person who needs their own space to retreat to. For a while I lived out of my car. Aurelia and I got really close. I didn’t have much at that point. Before I went into treatment I had been living in a hotel. When I didn’t pay the bill, my clothes got junked and anything of value was redeemed to cover the costs. Fortunately, Aurelia had been put into storage and I had the foresight to pay a year in advance. I picked up my car three days before the facility owner was going to put the unit up for auction.
I pull into the parking lot beside the coffee shop. Aurelia is easy to spot with her honey gold paint job that’s as shiny as a piece of candy. She’s got black racing stripes up the hood. I make sure to lock the door after I get out. She’s a hardtop coupe. The chrome is shiny on her grill. I smile at the SS. As a little girl, I thought that SS stood for Sookie Stackhouse.
While it’s totally cliche, a Dave Matthews Band live album is playing in the coffee house when I walk in. I smile and wave at Sam, the guy working behind the counter. As usual, he’s dressed in well-worn jeans and a plaid shirt with the sleeves rolled up. He’s got a friendly smile and just a hint of silver near his temples in the strawberry-blond hair on his head. His hair brushes the collar of his shirt. He has deep blue eyes that, much like mine own, have their secrets. Everyone has their secrets. I think maybe I’m better at spotting things like that because I’ve had more than my share in my life.
“Hey, Sam,” I say as I approach. When I was broke he used to sneak me breakfast sandwiches or Hulk muffins. I’m pretty sure he paid for the stuff and just didn’t tell me. Why he took such a liking to me I’m not sure. I wasn’t especially nice to him back then.
“Hey, Sookie,” he replies with a smile. “How you doing tonight?”
“I’ve had better nights,” I answer honestly.
By now Sam knows that I’m in recovery. He also knows that my situation has vastly improved from where it was when we first met.
“Sorry to hear that. Anything I can help with?”
“I could use one of your dirty hot cocoas,” I tell him. It’s a hot chocolate with crushed Oreos and marshmallow creme swirled on top.
“Coming right up,” he winks before turning to get my hot cocoa going.
“How are you doing, Sam?” I plop down on one of the stools at the counter. I can smell the Turkey special. The smell of roast turkey takes me back to childhood, which is kind of strange because Gran fried her turkeys. I haven’t had fried turkey in twenty years. I’m pretty sure if I caught a whiff of a frying turkey I would throw up.
Roasted turkey doesn’t cause me to have that reaction, and for good reason. I guess roasted turkey makes me remember all the Thanksgivings I fantasized about having. My parents would still be alive. Bartlett wouldn’t come and corner me on the mud porch and make me…
“Not too bad. I’m tired, but happy. I was warned I wouldn’t get a lot of sleep with a new baby, but I think I underestimated it,” he laughs.
“Got any new pictures?” I love baby pictures. In spite of everything I’ve been through, I hope to have kids of my own someday. There was a time when kids were the furthest thing from my mind and I was convinced I would be the world’s worst mother. Now I think maybe I have a greater sense of understanding and compassion. I’ve seen some of the worst the world has to offer. I can handle whatever a fussy toddler throws at me.
Sam pulls his phone out to show me the latest picture of his daughter. She has a bubble beard and she looks pissed about it.
“Bathtime is not her favorite time of day. It’s comical how pissed off she gets.”
I laugh at the narrowed eyes and pursed lips. She’s got her mother’s tight curls and beautiful mocha skin.
“How’s Nikki doing?” I know his fiance’s been dealing with postpartum depression. I can’t imagine how tough that must be. Everyone looks at you like you’re nuts if you’re sad after just having a baby. It happens all the time. With all the crazy hormone fluxes, it makes sense to me.
“She’s doing better,” he says. “I’ve been worried about her, but she’s gotten some help for what she’s going through at the moment.”
“That’s great, Sam. I’m happy to hear that,” I say sincerely. “Larkin looks like she’s found her inner fierceness.”
“She takes after her mom,” he laughs, delivering my drink.
“Sure seems like it. I suppose that explains why you’re so in love with her.”
“That’s a big part of it,” Sam confirms with a big smile. “Her little personality is really starting to show.”
“It’s pretty cool, isn’t it?”
“It’s amazing watching her grow. Cool doesn’t begin to describe it.”
I can’t say that I’m jealous of Sam, but maybe a little envious. My idea of family wasn’t a good one, up until a few years ago. With my start in life, I think it’s fair that I had no desire to perpetuate those patterns and cycles. Now I know better. I realize I don’t have to make the same mistakes and subject my kids to things I was subjected to as a child. Relationships are complicated. I love Gran and I appreciate everything she did for my brother and me. There’s also a part of me that’s mad as hell at her for leaving me with a goddamn predator.
It’s too late to really do anything about it. Gran died when I was twenty. I never told her what Bartlett, her brother, did to me. He convinced me that Gran would never believe me. In fact, she might even send me away to live in foster care. Bad things happened to little girls who were raised by strange men. So I should just stay quiet and let him do what he wanted to do because it could be worse.
Sick son of a bitch.
The door of the coffee shop opens behind me. I see Kennedy’s reflection in the chrome backsplash ahead of me. She’s six-feet-tall with long dark hair. Honestly, she kind of reminds me of Cher back in the late ‘60s. Her skin tone is similar. She’s got big brown eyes. Her frame is made of bird bones. In addition to alcoholism, I know she’s also battled eating disorders in the past. Right now she’s at a healthy weight, but getting her diet right has been harder than quitting drinking. Food is mandatory. It can’t be avoided. You eat or you die.
“Can I get a Monte Cristo and fries, too?” I ask Sam.
“Coming right up.”
While Sam puts my order in, Kennedy comes to the counter to order a cup of coffee. Sam pours black liquid gold into a large earthenware mug. I take my mug of dirty hot cocoa and follow Kennedy over to the station where there was a variety of creams, sugars, syrups, and the like for doctoring the coffee.
“Thanks for coming,” I say sincerely.
“Of course.” She adds an almost absurd amount of coconut milk to her coffee. I don’t get that but it’s gotta go down her gullet, not mine. “So how in the world did you end up seeing your ex?”
“I went to the house we used to live in,” I confess.
“Sookie.” Her tone isn’t quite chastising, but it’s close.
“I know, I know. I didn’t know if he was still living there. Now I do. He is. My dog got loose from the backyard and came running right to my car. My goddamn windows were up.”
“That sense of smell is no joke. I didn’t know you had a dog.”
“Yeah. Bear. He’s a fluffy little pit mix. We got him as a puppy. Well, Eric gave him to me as an anniversary present. I wanted to name him Boo Bear, but Eric wouldn’t let me. It wasn’t tough enough or some silly nonsense. Bear worked out just fine. Anyway, from the moment we met it was obvious I was meant to be Bear’s person. I don’t know how Eric knew that, but he did. It’s magic that we found each other. If you’ve ever had a connection like that with someone, then you know what I mean.”
“So it’s not really that surprising that Bear found you again.”
“Not really,” I conceded. “I should have been expecting it, I guess.”
It dawns on me that Bear is not a puppy anymore. Four years have passed since the last time I saw him. He was almost five years old when I left. He could have passed away in that time. My eyes well up when I realize that it’s entirely possible he could breathe his last wondering why I left him. All those times I told him he was the goodest boy and then I just disappeared.
“Sookie?” Kennedy’s voice yanks me back into reality.
“Sorry,” I apologize. She waves me off.
We find a table to sit at. There aren’t many others in the shop at that time of night. A few college students are hunched over their laptops. Some are studying. Some are writing papers. I’m sure at least one is writing what they hope is the next great American novel or best picture nominated screenplay. Daily Grind has the industrial grandma’s attic appeal. The furniture is mostly old and none of it matches. I wouldn’t be surprised if each piece was picked up at flea markets or antique shops or consignment stores from all over the country. There’s nothing to indicate a love of a particular style or time period. One of the sofas looks like it’s Victorian but I can tell by the feet on it that it’s actually a revival piece, probably from the 1950s.
Kennedy selects a rustic round table and sits down on a tufted chair that’s covered in kelly green velvet. I sit across from her in a more imperial looking gilded armchair that is also upholstered in velvet, only the velvet on this chair is a rosy pink color. They chairs don’t match, but somehow they go together just fine.
“So I assume Eric saw you,” she says once we’re settled.
I nod a confirmation and say, “Obviously he wasn’t expecting me.”
“Did you talk?”
“Not for long. I told him I’m sober, but not much else.”
“You didn’t go into the house?”
“No. He invited me. I’m not ready. I know there are things that need to be said. At least I know that door is unlocked, if not open.” I take a drink of the hot cocoa.
“So why were you parked outside of a bar, white knuckling it? It sounds like it went about as well as a first encounter can go,” she says.
“It’s still a first encounter. Bear didn’t want to go back in the house with him. He parked his furry little butt on the front seat of my car like he was coming with me.”
“Abandonment issues for everyone,” she dryly comments.
“Basically.” I take another nervous drink of my cocoa. It’s cooled to a level where I won’t burn my mouth if I take more than a sip, which is good. In my mind I can hear Gran telling Jason not to eat so fast or he’ll burn his mouth off. It doesn’t make me smile. Someday I hope it will.
“Are you going to see him again?”
“I don’t know. I feel like I should. I know I owe him an apology.”
“Make amends, right?”
“Right. More than that. He deserves more than amends.”
“Don’t go offering up more than you’re capable of, Sookie.” That’s been something I’ve had to work on, too. “You need your own forgiveness more than you need his.”
There’s no good way of reconciling the choice I made to leave. What I did was shitty. I have to own that. I can’t take it back. I can’t justify it. I just have to live with it. What I can do is say that I’m sorry for the hurt it caused and actually mean it. Emotionally flogging myself for the rest of my life is not a recommended sentence for any crimes I committed.
Sam brings my sandwich and fries to the table.
“Thanks, Sam.” I’m impressed when he sets a side plate in front of Kennedy since I didn’t ask for one. We’ve had too many meetings in the coffee house I guess. He winks at me and then walks away. “You want half?” I offer Kennedy.
She says no but then steals a fry off my plate. I roll my eyes and give her half of the sandwich. It’s the least I can do since I interrupted her. She also takes the raspberry jam off my plate since she knows I want nothing to do with it anyway. I don’t even like raspberries when they’re fresh. They have a weird texture and the flavor has never wowed me much either.
“I think I still love him,” I confess.
I laugh at that.
“No, Eric,” I clarify. “Maybe it’s just the idea of him I still love. Still got an ass that won’t quit.”
“That’s not love.”
“He’s remnants of an old life, Sookie. Make amends, but tread very lightly in the romance department. He’s obviously a trigger,” she says.
She’s right. We didn’t even delve too deep into the way things were Before and I ended up outside of a bar. What would happen after I said the things I needed to say? Would I be able to handle what he said in response? Having my sponsor there for moral support probably wouldn’t work. What needed to be said should probably be said in private, just between Eric and me.
Maybe having Bear there would help too. It was obvious he had already forgiven me.
And I left him again.