Chapter 5 - Nate
I’m such a fucking idiot. Bring your car to my shop, Al. I’ll work on it for free, Al. Let me torture myself by interacting with your beautiful, standoffish ass for five minutes before you go home to your Harvard boyfriend, Al.
Such a fucking idiot. Such a fucking loser.
Hopefully she wouldn’t take me up on the offer. It would be for the best. That’s what I told myself the whole drive home after dropping her off, my whole shift at the bar, the whole night lying awake, staring at Deb’s ceiling. All the while my heart beat out a strange, excited rhythm. Please let me do this for you, Al. Please let me see you.
I’d been at work for ten minutes on Wednesday when a tow truck pulled up out front, familiar white sedan hooked to the back. I was alone at the service desk, but I still put an effort into tempering my reaction to its arrival. Maybe if I could act like I didn’t give a shit, I actually wouldn’t.
Carefully expressionless, I watched through smudged glass windows as the tow truck driver dropped the car in a spot in the side lot and trudged inside. I’d seen the guy a few times. His name was Jack, and he looked every part the hillbilly tow truck driver. He was forty and balding, with jeans that showed too much ass crack, a yellowing wifebeater, and a lip perpetually packed with Copenhagen.
“Morning, Jack,” I said as the bell above the door announced his entrance.
“Red in, yet?” Jack asked, leaning on the counter.
“He’ll be out most of the morning. You got a drop off?”
“Sure do,” Jack dropped Al’s keys on the counter, offering me a tobacco-stained smile. “Owner said she’d be in late this morning. Pretty little thing. Had half a mind to ask her out when she came in to drop off her keys.”
Jack wasn’t a bad dude, but in that moment I wanted to grab the back of his neck and slam him face first into the glass-covered countertop. I resisted the urge.
“Thanks for the heads up,” I said carefully, taking the keys and tagging them.
Three hours later, I was on my back beneath a jacked up 4x4 when Red’s voice called out from the main building, echoing over the sound of engines and power tools.
“’Sup? I called back, sliding out from beneath the car and climbing to my feet. My boss was hanging out of the glass door that separated the garage from the service desk.
“Got a customer, here. She’s asking for you, specifically.” There was a hint of amusement in his voice, and maybe a note of concern as well. I could count the number of people who’d visited me in prison on one hand, and Red was one them. He didn’t know everything, but he knew enough.
My coworkers leered and made catcalls as I strode toward the door.
“Where’d you find this one, bro?”
“Is she pretty?”
That last one came from Cory, resident prick and my least favorite of Red’s hires. Apparently the kid was distant family, but Red’s loyalty to blood made little sense to me. Especially considering how worthless the kid was in the garage.
“Back the fuck off,” I growled as I neared where he stood by a lifted Audi, running diagnostics on the drive train.
“So sensitive!” he mocked. “That pussy must be something special for Mr. Playboy to get so possessive.”
The eight different rotating shrinks I’d been forced to see in prison would’ve been proud of my restraint. I didn’t hit him. Didn’t tackle him to the ground and bash his head against the concrete floor like I really, really wanted to. I just reached out and shoved him back with a sharp blow to the center of his chest.
He stumbled, off balance, glaring and bewildered. Then he charged forward, dropping the handheld device he’d been using, and shoved me back. The little prick had about as much mass as my left leg, but I let him pretend it phased me. That’s something I learned in prison-- some people need to be put in their place, but more often than not the humiliation of a sound, public beating just makes a man more volatile.
Cory was just the kind of kid who would take a licking and, instead of coming out wiser and more willing to keep himself in check, would come back with some warped, sophomoric thirst to mend his own tattered honor. In this case, at this time, it would be better to let him think we were equals. I’d sent a message-- don’t talk shit about the girl, and I’d let him think he sent me one right back-- don’t fuck with me. As far as Cory was concerned, we were on the same page. No need to overcomplicate things.
Alex sat in one of the chairs lining the wall on the far side of the service desk. She was clearly dressed for work in a skirt and button up blouse that fit her too well to ignore. Her hair was pulled back into a neat bun and she sat tall and dignified, wearing black heels that made her long, slim legs just that much longer and slimmer.
To anyone else, she’d appear to be the picture of composure. Even with six years lost to time, though, I knew her better than that.
She was chewing on the inside of her lip and, although her hands were folded neatly in her lap, she worried restless at her left thumbnail with her right. When she heard the door swing open she shot to her feet, her eyes darting nervously around the room, looking everywhere but me.
Red stood slowly from his stool behind the computer, glancing between me and our customer, his brow furrowed in concern and his lips curved in a sad, knowing smile.
“I’ll be in my office, Nathan,” he said as he passed me. “Come see me when you’re done helping the young lady.” I met his pointed look with stony vacancy and waited until the glass door swung shut behind him before turning to Alex.
“You don’t have to do the work for free,” she blurted, stepping toward the counter but staring at down at her hands. I think she’d figured out what I had-- that something uncomfortable happened when our eyes met. She was trying to avoid that paralysis-- that riptide that tugged us both back into feelings neither of us wanted to revisit. “I didn’t come here for that. I just.. I did some research last night and the reviews for this place are the best in town.”
“Sure,” I said blandly, taking Red’s place behind the computer and pulling up the program to create a customer profile.
“Thank you for picking me up yesterday.”
“Where were you coming from to be so far out of town?”
I glanced up with the intent to shut this conversation down with a glare, and our eyes met.
It was like being tased-- all control of my body gone while my mind screamed and pain washed through me in waves. A lot about Alex had changed. Her brown hair was a little shorter, the blond highlights slightly less pronounced. Her body was stronger-- the muscles of her legs toned, her shoulders and arms a little more defined, her posture more aloof.
Her eyes, though? Those were just the same. They were the same eyes that found mine that first night in the spot. The same eyes that pleaded with me for comfort the night her mom died. The same eyes that stared up at me, reflecting starlight while I took her virginity.
The same eyes that grew weary and heavy with disappointment and heartbreak in our last days together.
Those last memories jolted me a bit, and I broke the involuntary staring contest, letting my eyes drop back to the safety of the computer screen.
“I was visiting someone out of town,” I said, answering her question.
“Who?” she asked.
“That’s none of your fucking business,” I grated out. “I need your full name so I can create your account in our system.”
“You know my name, Nate,” she said softly, and I tried to ignore the hurt in her voice as I clumsily typed her name into the computer. Alexandra Edith Winger. Love of my fucking life.
“Year, Make, and Model of your car?”
“Chevy Malibu, 2003.”
Clipped questions and blunt answers, slow typing, and the buzzing box fan in the counter were the only sounds for the next five minutes. When I had the the forms filled out, I pushed to my feet.
“Do you have a rental, or do you need a ride to your work?” I reached for the keys to our shuttle vehicle, praying...
“I have a rental,” she said, gesturing out the window at a shiny silver compact in the gravel lot.
“We’ll call when we finish the diagnostics to give you an estimate.”
“Transmission overhauls usually take a few days, so don’t expect it to be ready tomorrow.”
I waited for her to leave, but she just stood there, keys to her rental clutched in her hands. She studied my face like she’d forgotten what she was looking for. Like she’d walked into a room to retrieve something only to find that whatever she was missing had already skipped her mind.
“Nate...” she said, trailing off.
“Don’t,” I cut her off, before she could find her thoughts.
“Don’t what?” She was scowling. Alex doesn’t like to be interrupted. Nobody really does, but it sets her on fire in a special way.
“Talk,” I answered. “We don’t need to talk. There’s nothing to say.”
“You certainly seemed to feel different when you were flooding my mailbox with letters,” she argued, bracing a hand on her hip.
She might as well have slugged me in the gut. Those stupid fucking letters haunted me more persistently than the people I’d killed. I guess because they were written by another person who’d died at my hands-- a boy whose thoughts on love were as self-centered as they were naive. Some idiot kid who foolishly, selfishly tried to commit the girl he loved to a life of turmoil, danger, and loneliness. Some fucking asshole who was willing to drag an angel into the darkest corner of hell just to lighten the place up.
“Destroying them was for the best,” I said. “You and I have nothing to say to each other that hasn’t already been said.”
Maybe she agreed, or maybe I just hurt her feelings. Either way-- to my intense relief and gut-wrenching disappointment-- she left without another word.
* * *
It took me four days to fix Alex’s car. It would’ve been a two day job, but I saved the work for after my shift and had to split it up in order to make time for the rest of my life. Unless her rental was an Alfa Romeo the extra couple days would set her back far less financially than the man hours.
I don’t know why I did it. Guilt, I think. Guilt and a not-inconsiderable amount of chauvinism and masculine pride. Once upon a time, I’d been Alex’s first line of defense-- her knight in shining armor. Now I was just some washed up loser with a criminal record, and her feelings for me-- if she had any at all-- probably looked more like hatred and disgust than love and trust.
I couldn’t unkill Tim. I couldn’t un-lie to her. I couldn’t go back in time and stop all the fucked up shit from happening. No, there was nothing I could to change the past. So I did the only thing I could do, and I fixed her stupid car.
I finished the job at 5 a.m. on a Saturday morning. I’d been doing the bulk of the work at night, after my shifts at the bar. A few hours spent working were better than a few hours spent staring at Deb’s ceiling. Red had given me keys to the shop within a couple months of my return. It rankled some of the other guys at first, but most of them had learned to respect me, even if they didn’t necessarily like me.
I finished the job, opened the garage, and took the car for a brief test drive to make sure it shifted smoothly up to the highest gears. By the time I returned to the shop, my eyes were gritty but I felt uncharacteristically light-- satisfaction of a job well done, I suppose. Certainly not anticipation at the thought of seeing Alex again.
She showed up at noon the next day to pick it up. I was rotating the tires on some compact hybrid when Red hung his head out the door and called for me. The guys had the good sense not to comment, although fucking Cory unsubtly took a trip to the water cooler so he could peer through the glass door. I hit him with my shoulder as I passed.
Alex was laughing at something Red said when I walked in. The sound of it hurt. It sank talons into my chest and ripped me open, spilling memories and wants into the void that used to be my soul. I’d worked so goddamned hard to empty myself out-- to purge every desire, every need, and every feeling so that all that was left of me was cold and hard... unbreakable. For six years I’d existed in the safety of that icy bubble.
Alex popped it. She didn’t even have to try. She just had to laugh.
Fortunately, I suppose, her laughter stopped the second I entered the room. Her expression fell from charmed amusement to pinched anxiety. Her wariness stopped me in my tracks, and I halted just inside the door, so close it nudged me in the ass as it fell closed behind me.
“I thought it was ready,” she said, staring at me. Her eye contact was deliberate and restrained. Proving to herself, and to me, that I had no special power over her. Her question, directed to Red, held a note of accusation. She’d clearly come here under the impression that she’d be able to make the payment, grab the keys, and go. Being forced to see me was an unsavory surprise.
“It is,” Red answered easily, pretending he couldn’t sense the tension. “It was a complex job, so I thought you might want to talk to the mechanic who did the repairs. That way if you have any questions--”
“It’s fine,” I said. I don’t know why. For three days I’d been fantasizing about this conversation-- my five minutes in the sun. Why the hell was I giving it up? I tore myself away from Alex and forced a shrug, addressing Red. “There weren’t any issues. I already put all the charges in the system. You can just ring her up and give her the keys.”
Red’s a bit of a meddler, so I made a quick exit before he could make up some bullshit to keep me in the room and reunite me with the long lost love of my life. I didn’t dare make eye contact with her either. I just turned and jammed a shoulder into the door, shoving it open and stalking back out into the garage.
Once again, I think my composure would have given my disinterested shrinks a spark of pride. I didn’t break a single thing. Didn’t start a single fight. I just walked back into the garage, picked up a lug wrench, and continued working the tires off some middle-aged professor lady’s sage green hatchback hybrid.
I’d been working for all of two minutes when Red’s voice echoed through the garage once more.
A few of the guys nearby perked up and looked at me, but I pretended I couldn’t hear him.
“Reynolds, I know you can hear me. Get your ass in here!”
My therapists would not be proud that I dropped the lug wrench onto the cement floor with a little more gusto than I probably should have. It clattered and rang, echoing above the sound of power tools, reverberating off the vaulted ceilings of the garage.
The guys pretended not to notice. Say what you want about college degrees and blue collar workers. My colleagues were pretty fucking smart.
Alex was still in the lobby, standing with her arms crossed over her chest, her glare leveling me before I even had a chance to clear the threshold of the door.
“What the fuck?" she demanded. Red, hiding a smile, brushed past me without even a word of apology for foisting a pissed off customer on one of his employees. Nevermind that it was the employee’s fault that she was pissed. That was still bad leadership as far as I was concerned.
“What’s the problem?” I asked.
“You know perfectly well what the problem is,” Alex sad, unfolding her arms and smacking the countertop with her palm before pointing to the computer. “Fix it.”
“Goddammit, Nate, I didn’t ask you to do that. You can’t force me to accept a favor from you.”
“It’s not a favor.”
She rolled her eyes. “Fine, I don’t want to accept a gift from you.”
“It’s not a gift.”
“Then what the fuck is it, Nate? Because from where I’m standing, it’s just fucking creepy.” She placed her fists on her hips, her face and neck flushed bright red with rage and indignation “Maybe you’ve forgotten how things ended, but I haven’t. We,” she waved her finger between the two of us, “are not friends. We don’t do nice things for each other. You are nothing to me, and I am nobody to you. You broke my heart, and you’re not going to win it back by fixing my car for free and manipulating me into forgiving you. That’s stalker shit.”
Let’s take a tactical pause, here, and talk about perspective.
Perspective is important. From my perspective, in that moment, Alex was being a raging bitch. I had done nothing but help her. I’d picked her up when she was stranded. I’d steered her away from shitty, overpriced service at a disreputable garage. I’d saved her a thousand dollars by doing the work off the clock.
What the fuck was her problem?
But there’s this thing that I’ve learned from years of nothing to do but read, make regrettable choices, and get myself into fights that didn’t have to happen. Moments like this, when you’re so absolutely sure you’re right and the offending party is acting the part of a lunatic? Those are usually the moments when you most need to take a step back and circle around to your attacker’s point of view.
Alex was right. In a lot of ways, it wasn’t even a perspective thing. She was just... right. I was acting the part of a deluded stalker. Had I entertained a foolish notion that she might be so overwhelmed with gratitude she’d forget the past and run back into my arms? For the sake of my dignity, I’ll say no, but you are of course free to make your own judgments.
Did I gain a perverse satisfaction in the fact that I could fix a problem for her that her pretty little white-collar boyfriend could not? Yes.
Did part of me hope that, after she broke up with him in the aforementioned flight back into my arms, he would confront me? Fuck, yes.
Did I kind of want to bust his nose and loosen a couple of his teeth? Holy shit, yes.
Did I hate him for touching my girl? Yes, so much it made my blood boil.
Did I still, after six years of stony silence, consider this woman, who clearly wanted nothing to do with me, “my girl”? Disturbingly, yes.
“You can pretend this is some kind of nice gesture, but I know... wait... what?” Alex trailed off, confusion interrupting the diatribe she’d clearly prepared to rebut my defense.
“You’re right,” I repeated, moving to the computer. Her account was up, and I scanned it without reading, just to give my eyes something to do. I couldn’t say what I needed to say while looking her in the eye.
“You are,” I nodded, using the cursor to highlight her name and then click away from it. Highlight her name, delete it, and type it in again. “I’ll make you a deal, though.”
“What?” She sounded wary.
“Don’t ask me to add the labor costs,” I said, highlighting her name again and staring blankly at the screen, my mind a thousand miles away.
“Nate, I’m not going to say it again. I won’t accept a favor from you.”
“It’s not a favor,” I argued, forcing myself to look up and meet her eye. She was glaring-- familiar sparks of agitation flashing in her eyes. Something thick lodged itself in my throat and I swallowed it. “It’s not a favor,” I said again. “And it’s not a gift. I fucked things up, Al. I know that, and I’m not stupid enough to think I can make it right with a few hours of free labor.” Not anymore. “So just take this as an apology, and I swear I’ll stay out of your life. From this point on, I won’t look at you twice if I see you in town. I won’t come to the spot. If we run into each other, I’ll pretend I don’t know you.”
Alex was frowning, and I heard her toe tapping against the floor. The right corner of her bottom lip was tugged in and I knew she was biting down on it damn near hard enough to draw blood. I’d fired the opening salvo, and now she was at war with herself.
“Just let me apologize, Al. That’s all it’ll be. It’s a shitty apology, but it’s the only one I’ve got. I swear to god I’ll never speak to you again, but please let me apologize first.”
“You expect me to believe you’ll keep that promise? You don’t exactly have a great track record in that regard,” she snapped, but there were tears hovering in her eyes and a note of pain in her voice. Her facade of angry indifference was slipping, and the sight of her pain-- pain I had caused-- felt like a band around my lungs, squeezing until I couldn’t breathe. Desperate, I cast around for a way to make her trust me.
“If I don’t keep it, you can call the cops and say I’m harassing you,” I suggested, wincing at my own idiocy. Now that I’d put the idea in her head, what was stopping her from calling them the second she left the garage? “I’m a parolee, so I seriously doubt they’d question you. You don’t have to trust my intentions to know I’d rather die than go back to prison.”
I think if I was really honest with myself I’d admit the reason she acquiesced was more because her pride and principles weren’t worth a thousand dollars. Whatever the reason, she clenched her jaw and nodded jerkily.
And that was how it ended. It didn’t end when I got arrested, when she ignored my phone calls, when she threw away my letters, or when she wrote me back and told me it was over. It didn’t end when I saw her with another guy.
As far as I was concerned, my relationship with Alex ended that day in the lobby of Red’s Auto Body. Leaving the work hours at $0.00 was my apology. She accepted by handing over her card. I sealed my promise to keep away by running it.
“I need your signature,” I said, pushing the itemized receipt over the counter towards her and handing her a pen. Her hair hung down around her face as she bent her head and scribbled her name on the dashed line.
“Thank you,” she said quietly, her voice somber and grave with sincerity, as I handed her the keys and her copy of the receipt. I got the feeling she wasn’t thanking me for fixing the car. Any one of the fuckers in the garage could’ve done that-- even Cory. She was thanking me for liberating her. She was finally free to live her life without the fear that I would come barging back in to claim what I thought was mine.
Harvard guy would be ecstatic.
Me? I kind of just wanted to get in a fight.