TRIGGER WARNING: This chapter includes mentions of child sexual abuse.
“So I had dinner with my ex the other night,” I tell the people in attendance at the AA meeting I usually go to on Tuesday night. Most of the faces are familiar. I think we lose more regulars than we gain, unfortunately. “I’m not sure how I feel about it, except I didn’t drink. There was that voice in the back of my head telling me to have a shot after he left. We made breakfast sandwiches. When we were together we had breakfast for dinner like two or three times a week. He makes great waffles. We used to joke that if we ever got married, waffles would be our wedding cake. We probably would have had an omelet station instead of a carving station.
“The thing is, I found out he broke up with his girlfriend since we’ve reconnected. He says it has nothing to do with me, but he’s got a habit of lying to cover his ass when he’s not comfortable admitting the truth. Sometimes the lies are obvious and sometimes they’re not. It’s a habit I hoped he would have outgrown by now. I’m not really sure where this leaves us. We had a nice meal together, but I feel like he’s waiting for me to fuck up again. I don’t know if that’s always going to be there, hanging over my head. We didn’t trade phone numbers, but Facebook means never having to trade numbers these days.” I give a nervous laugh. I’m rambling out loud but we’re supposed to share and this is all I’ve got right now. “Anyway, it’s crazy to think that once upon a time I thought he was The One. Part of me still thinks he might be. Then I wonder if maybe I’m holding on for the wrong reasons. For a long time he was the safe harbor. But is that a good reason to be with someone?
“I feel like we both deserve better than that. He deserves someone who doesn’t have all my issues. I deserve someone who doesn’t make me think of all the bad shit I’ve done. It’s a strange paradox, you know? On the one hand, I truly do believe that his ultimatum was the very first step I took toward change. I had to go out on my own and be completely responsible for my own choices. I mean, I know that was always the case but I can’t credit him with enabling me after that point. Everything I did, I did because I wanted to. I let myself tank. It’s not his fault that I spiraled out of control. I’ve told him it was never his job to reel me back in, although I’m not sure if he fully accepts that. He’s a good soul, really. That’s part of the problem. He doesn’t walk in my shoes just like I don’t walk in his. I still haven’t told him why I started drinking in the first place. I don’t think he knows that I took my first drink when I was nine, and it wasn’t by choice. Even after all this time, there’s a really big part of me that’s terrified of what he’ll think if I tell him the whole story.
“I’ve learned enough about myself in the last few years to know that I can’t live with dishonesty. Whether it’s about my triggers or how I got on the path I did, or the little white lies he tells because it’s more comfortable. I just can’t do that anymore.” I wipe a tear off my cheek because it strikes me, as I speak, that I do still love Eric.
I’m not in love with him anymore, but I love him. I’m not sure what it would take to be in love with him again. I don’t even know if it would be good for either of us to revisit that. My eyes catch Kennedy’s from across the room, and I can tell she’s concerned. I take my seat and someone else stands up to speak.
The coffee is horrible at these meetings. That seems to be the one thing they all have in common. Horrible coffee. Tonight it tastes burned. At the end of the meeting there are the usual sentiments about donations and asking for volunteers to help tidy up the choir’s rehearsal space. I don’t mind sticking around to help stack chairs or put them back in their rows. It’s the least I can do. We close with the Serenity Prayer like always, and then folks move to the back of the room for more burned coffee and better pastries that came from Daily Grind.
“So you had dinner with Eric, huh?” Kennedy asks when she approaches me. We walk over to a corner to talk quietly.
“Yeah, I did. He tracked me down on Facebook. I didn’t plan on inviting him over. It didn’t go any further than dinner,” I assure her.
“Sookie, you’re allowed to date if you want to.”
“I know. I also know that my therapist would tell me to think long and hard before getting back together with Eric.”
“I would agree with your therapist,” she says. “It’s great if he can forgive you for what happened and you can build on what you once had. That will take a lot of time.”
“Yes, it will. There’s a lot of reconstruction that will have to happen. I’m not sure if I want to do it.”
“No pressure, right?”
“Nope. He didn’t ask me on a date before he left. I don’t know if that’s where his head is going or if he’s just trying to be friends. We haven’t discussed it.”
“Maybe you should,” she suggests. “Put all your cards on the table. Both of you. Let him know what the parameters are. You’re allowed to have boundaries. If he can’t respect them, then he can kick rocks.”
That’s all well and good but it’s easier said than done, especially when you’ve got history with a person. Lord knows I have history with Eric. I also know that I can’t change anyone who doesn’t want to change. He’s every bit as stubborn as I am when he wants to be.
“I feel like that’s a way of demanding a change though, isn’t it? Either do it my way or leave. That… I know where that gets you.”
“That’s a very egocentric way of looking at it, if you ask me,” she says. “We all have needs, right? Eric has them too. He needed you to be sober. You’ve accomplished that. What do you need from him? That’s part of a relationship, Sookie. Whether it’s a friendship or something romantic, you have to be able to tell him what you need. He needs to be able to vocalize those things with you as well, or it’s never going to work. Two people tiptoeing around each other all the time does not work. It’s a recipe for disaster.”
I take a deep breath and hold it for a few seconds. My eyes close and I try to imagine what it would look like if I said absolutely everything I need to say to Eric. He can be a good listener, although sometimes I feel like he listens for what he wants to hear instead of what’s being said. I’m guilty of reading between the lines and picking things apart to search for hidden meanings. Damn insecurities always get the better of me. That hasn’t changed.
When I leave the church, I get behind the wheel of my car. I should probably go home and check on Artis. She hasn’t been alone for more than two hours since I got her, but I want to take a ride out to the beach by myself. Even though it’s dark, I need to feel the sand between my toes for a little while. So that’s the direction I head. It doesn’t take long to get from Portland to the coast. I find myself at the beach closest to Eric’s house; the house that used to be ours.
We picked it because we fell in love with one of the little bedrooms, and thought it would be perfect for a baby. There’s a bonus room off the kitchen that we thought would be a great playroom for the kids so we didn’t have to have toys littered everywhere at all times. There’s enough fenced in yard for a couple of kids to play. As far as I know, just the dogs have really made any use of the yard. I wonder if his mom knows we’ve been in contact again.
Sabrina never liked me much. Whether it’s because I drank or because she thought I wasn’t good enough when I was sober, I don’t know. I won’t be surprised if it’s some combination of the two. I always got the feeling she thinks I’m a bimbo. Blonde hair, big tits, and a drinking problem… I’m the trifecta of fuckery to become Eric’s first ex-wife. The really shit thing is that I’m not even sure if I have a right to be offended by her opinion of me. Even if it’s made up of assumptions and prejudices, she might not be wrong to feel the way she does. Or did. For all I know, she’s forgotten about me. Good riddance and all that.
I pull into the parking lot and cut the engine of the Chevelle. When I get out of the car, I put my keys in the pocket of the pullover sweater I’m wearing. It’s soft material, something like cashmere, but not quite that expensive. My cell phone goes in my back pocket. I walk closer to the water’s edge but don’t get so close that the cuffs of my jeans get wet. It’s too cold for that. After removing my shoes, I do allow the water to curl over my toes. That’s enough to confirm that it is, in fact, far too fucking cold for getting any wetter.
I don’t know how many walks Eric and I took on this beach with Bear. Dozens, for sure. Maybe hundreds? I didn’t count. I wish I would have. There are a lot of things I wish I could have done differently. I try not to dwell on those things too much since I can’t change any of it.
What I can change is how I deal with things in the future. With that in mind, I pull my phone from my back pocket and call up the Messenger app so I can message Eric.
Me: Hey. Are you up?
It’s barely nine o’clock, so probably.
Me: Swear to Ceiling Cat that was not a pickup line.
Eric: 😂😂 uh huh…
Eric: I didn’t really think it was.
Me: I’m at the beach. Any interest in meeting me so we can talk?
Eric: Sure. I can head out in a minute. I’m waiting on the dogs to come in.
Me: Take your time. I’ll be here.
I decide to walk back to my car. To keep myself from losing my nerve, I put on some music. I opt for ‘90s R&B because it usually lifts my mood when I listen to that kind of stuff. The station starts with TLC, which is just fine with me. I’m humming along with a Boyz II Men song when I see Eric come around a curve. I lift a hand and wave to him, but remain right where I am on the trunk of my car.
“Thanks for coming,” I say to him.
“You’re welcome. What brings you out here tonight?”
“I’ve just come from a meeting. I got to talking to my sponsor afterward and I decided I needed to come out here to clear my head,” I tell him. “I also need to clear my conscience a little, and that means telling you some things I would rather not.”
“It’s heavy stuff.”
“The why behind your drinking?” he guesses.
I nod and add, “And how I got started. I had my first drink when I was nine.”
Eric frowns. He shifts to lean on the car next to me.
“I told you that after my parents died I lived with Gran,” I start, and he nods. “Well, to help make ends meet she would bake pies and take them to craft fairs around the state. Taking two kids along to stuff like that would have been problematic, so her brother would come over and take care of us. Jason adored him. My brother missed having a father figure in his life, but Bartlett wasn’t very fatherly. By that point, I was eight. Jason was a teenager. Bartlett didn’t give him a curfew and he would bring Jason six packs of beer because he didn’t see the harm in it. Not like my fourteen year old brother could drive, right? No big deal. Except he was also giving me what I came to know as Screwdrivers. I used to wonder why orange juice always tasted weird when he came over. Of course at that age I had no clue what a Screwdriver was. All I knew was that when he came, I drank funny orange juice and then I felt sick. It meant I had to stay home with Bartlett. Alone.”
The growl that comes from Eric tells me he knows what I’m going to say next.
“I don’t remember everything he did to me, but I remember enough. For years before the molesting started, he brought me presents and told me how pretty I was. Now I know that he was grooming me. He had me convinced for a very long time that Gran wouldn’t believe me if I told her what was happening. Bartlett very wisely made big donations to the local schools and churches. He seduced the entire goddamn parish into falling in love with him so that if I ever got the courage to tell someone what he was doing, they wouldn’t believe it. He stacked the deck in his favor. I felt pretty helpless. When I read about it now, I realize that I exhibited just about every sign there is that a child is being sexually abused. Either no one wanted to believe that it was happening or they didn’t care. First chance I got, I left Bon Temps,” I tell him. “I saved up all of my birthday and Christmas money for years. I left when I was sixteen. Gran was devastated. She threatened to call the police to get me to come back home but I didn’t care. Jail or juvie appealed to me way more than going back to her house, although by then Bartlett had lost interest in me. I was big enough to fight back and kick his old ass. The last time he touched me, I bit him where it counted. It got me a black eye, but it was worth it.”
By now Eric is prowling back and forth like a caged line, preparing to strike whoever is crazy enough to come near him. I can see the veins in his neck pulsing. His fists close and open. Muscles in his arms flex. Limp Bizkit’s ‘Break Stuff’ comes to mind.
Damn right I’m a maniac. You better watch your back, ‘cause I’m fucking up your program.
“He’s dead, right?” Eric asks as he paces.
“Yes. He had a stroke. Basically his brain exploded. He fell in a creek running behind his house. His body was found more than a week afterward,” I explain. “He left everything he owns to me, which pissed off my brother. It’s all sitting in a trust. The idea of touching that money makes my skin crawl.”
“That death wasn’t good enough. I want to fucking dig him up and kill him again,” he growls. Eric stops pacing and looks at me. In a split second I see an array of emotions flit across his face. He ends up leaning on the car again and dropping his head back. I notice a tear stream down the side of his face.
I don’t say anything because I don’t know why he’s crying. I do, however, put a comforting hand on his shoulder. Sometimes there aren’t words, and that’s okay. I’ve told him what I need him to know. Getting it out in the open feels good for me, but I’m not sure it’s the same for him. All I can do now is sit here and see what he inevitably has to say.
I’m overwhelmed with emotion. None of them are good emotions, either. What Sookie tells me about her uncle is enough to make me want to fly down to Louisiana and piss on that fucker’s grave. It also brings a lot of clarity as to why she drank. If I’d known before I might have gone about things differently. I’ll never really know.
Almost ten minutes pass before I finally turn to Sookie. I wrap her in a tight hug and hold her for as long as I can. A fucking monster preyed on her when she was already vulnerable from losing her parents. I inhale against her neck, taking in her sweet scent.
“I’m sorry you had to go through that,” I say sincerely as I hug her. “I’m also very glad you finally got help.” I pull back to look into her eyes. “Thank you for trusting me with this too. I know it’s not easy.”
“It’s easier now than it was five years ago. The drinking kicked into high gear when I started remembering more things. Remember how I used to laugh off the nightmares I was having? They were memories.”
I reach up to stroke the side of her face.
“I wish I would have known,” I say. “I know there’s nothing I could have done, but it would have made better sense.” I hated it when she woke up from those nightmares. There was nothing I could do to stop them.
“I don’t think I need to explain why I don’t like talking about it. Back then I wasn’t ready. I knew you would have questions and all these emotions and I knew I couldn’t manage your feelings and mine,” she says.
“Back then I’m not really sure how I would have handled it,” I confess.
“You would have lost your shit.”
“That’s an understatement. Believe me, I want to hit something,” I say.
“I can tell.”
“Sorry. I’ll save it for a pillow when I get home.” I move away, leaning on the car next to her again. I don’t want to crowd her. “I’m glad you told me, Sookie. I’m angry for you, but your actions make sense to me now.”
“I figure after everything I put you through, you deserved some kind of an explanation,” she says. “None of it makes what I did right. There are lots of other ways I could have handled it. When you know better, you do better, I guess.”
“That’s a good way to look at it,” I agree. I reach over to take her hand. “Back then I would have thought I could love you enough to fix you if I knew what had happened.”
“If only addiction worked that way.”
“Right,” I sigh. “Like you just said, though, when you know better you do better. I like to hope we both know better now.”
“It’s possible. I can’t speak for you.”
“I think I have a pretty good grasp of my emotions and actions these days. About five months after you left I ended up going to a therapist. I was having such a hard time without you and not knowing if you were safe.”
“Well you were planning on loving me out of addiction. You weren’t expecting me to pack up and go.”
“Mmhmm,” I hum. “I hate to say it, but you leaving was good for me too.”
“It was an unhealthy, co-dependent relationship, Eric. We’re not good for each other,” she says.
“We were extremely toxic then,” I agree. “We’ve both grown up quite a bit.”
I lift her hand to kiss the back of it.
“Sylvie and I broke up because when you showed up it brought back all of those old memories. She tried to make me feel better but it didn’t work,” I say quietly.
Sookie takes her hand back and sighs heavily.
“You lied to me.” She shakes her head and looks away from me. Even so, I can read some anger and disappointment on her face.
“I didn’t want to make you feel bad. I know I fucked up. It’s something Pam and I have been working on. What I think is saving your feelings, is making things worse.”
“I don’t know who Pam is or what she’s telling you, but let me tell you that when you lie, the only one you’re protecting is yourself. I know from experience.”
“Pam is my therapist. And she said the same thing.”
“Listen to her. She’s smarter than you.”
“A lot smarter,” I agree. “I’ve made a lot of progress. Had you come back two years ago I wouldn’t have been so upfront with Sylvie. I would have made up some it’s not you it’s me bullshit. I was honest and told her why I couldn’t be with her anymore.”
“But you’re still lying to me.” She slides off the trunk of the car. “I don’t need you to protect my feelings, Eric. Believe me when I tell you that you can’t possibly hurt me more than I’ve hurt myself.”
I straighten up and look her in the eyes before I say, “Deal. Even if I think it’s going to hurt you, I promise I’ll never lie to you again.”
Sookie doesn’t look like she believes me. That’s not good.
“I should go,” she says.
“It’s not a good idea, Eric.”
“I miss you,” I blurt out. “I want to know you, the you you are now. I just… I miss you.”
She shakes her head and says, “You’re lonely and sad, and maybe feeling a little desperate. I can’t stay, Eric. I can’t make you feel better.”
“You also can’t assume you know how I feel,” I counter. “Sad, lonely, and desperate isn’t it.”
“Well, you don’t know me and you never did,” she says. “You don’t miss me. You miss your idea of me. I’m not that.”
“Think whatever you want, Sookie. You’re going to assume you know how I feel no matter what I say.” I turn to walk away. If I stay I don’t see things ending well.
“It’s not like you’d tell the truth if I’m right anyway!” she calls from behind me. I hear the door of the car open.
I turn around and yell back, “Exactly, Sookie. No matter what I fucking say you’re going to twist it into something that makes me look like the goddamn bad guy. Something you’re a fucking pro at!”
She lifts an invisible violin to play under her chin and says, “Oh poor Eric, he’s a victim of his own bullshit.”
Why the fuck did she even call me out here?
“I’m a victim of your bullshit.” Seriously, why did she come back?
Sookie gives me an ice cold look and says, “You’re right. You don’t have to be anymore, though. Goodbye, Eric.”
“Goodbye, another thing you’re a pro at,” I growl.
“Oh wahhhh wahhhh I gave someone a choice and they didn’t pick me! Get over it.” She gets in her car and slams the door.
“Good fucking riddance!” I yell after her.
The car’s engine starts and Sookie manually rolls down her window.
“Oh go home and have an anger wank. You’ll be fine.” The lights come on to tell me she’s put the car in reverse.
Done. I’m done. No more. I turn and head back to my house. I should have ignored her when she showed up on my doorstep again.