Chapter 17 - Nate
“Just a se-- FUCK!” I exclaimed as I sat straight up into the undercarriage of the tired old minivan I was stretched out beneath. I dropped back, blinking up at greasy metal, listening to my ears ring and my coworkers snicker.
“I said I’m coming!” I yelled back without a lot of heat, shoving myself out from beneath the car and shaking the last of the stars out of my eyes.
“You okay, Nate?” one of the older guys, Will, asked around a grin from where he stood bent over the engine of a yellow muscle car. He was changing the battery. Can you imagine that? Spending all that money on the kind of car that screams “gearhead” only to take it into the shop for a battery change?
I grinned back at him in response, and I think the poor fucker almost died of a heart attack. I wasn’t exactly known around the office for smiling. That wasn’t my shtick.
Maybe things were about to change. Who would I be with Alex in my life, again? Maybe I would be the weirdly happy guy. Maybe I’d start pulling pranks and cracking dad jokes or some shit like that. Maybe I’d show up every morning with a big ol’ mug of coffee and a too-bright smile and greet everyone cheerfully until I annoyed them into killing me.
Or maybe she’d leave again and I’d end up right back where I fucking started.
I took my time washing my hands and exchanging my grease-stained work shirt for my sweatshirt. Alex was waiting in the lobby, chatting with Red, when I pushed through the door.
“-- asked him, already. He won’t--” Red, who was leaning on his forearms on the counter, broke off when he heard the door, twisting around with wide eyes like I’d caught him the act of trying to kiss her or something. Alex stood on the opposite side of the counter wearing a bright red pea coat and a goofy smile.
“Asked me what?” I challenged, pushing through the gate and closing the distance between Alex and I. She turned as I walked toward her, and I could feel her opening up. It wasn’t overt. It’s not like she threw her arms out to her sides and ran into my mine. It was more a subtle drawing back of the shoulders. A widening of the eyes. A dipping of her chin. Even without the small tower of psych books I’d packed away during a more desperate month in prison, I knew how to read the signs. Maybe she didn’t want forever, and that scared the shit out of me, but this girl definitely did want sex, and my body revved up in response.
“What makes you think we were talkin’ about you?” Red challenged, but I barely heard him because right at that moment I reached her. Alex was in my arms.
Six fucking years.
I felt her hands grip my shoulders as her lips met mine, and I leaned her back a little, keeping a hand on the small of her back so she wouldn’t tip over. Her tongue darted into my mouth and I tasted the gum she’d chewed on the way over.
God, we were disgusting. Like teenagers, exchanging spit in a public space with a reluctant audience and no shame at all.
Then again, in a sense we were teenagers. That’s where fate had cut us off, so maybe in some sense that was where we needed to pick back up.
A clearing throat pulled our attention back to the present, and I reluctantly broke away, tucking a glassy-eyed, loopy-looking Alex under my arm as I turned to Red. The older man sat on his stool with a forced look of disgust on his face and a bright gleam in his eye.
“I’m taking my lunch break,” I told him unnecessarily, and he flapped a hand.
“I figured as much,” he said. “Although I’ve somewhat lost my appetite for mine. Tell you what. I was going to have you work the desk for an hour after your break. Since I won’t be eating anytime soon, I’ll cover it for you so you can take an hour and a half.”
“Red, that’s not--”
“I’ll see you at 1, Nathan.”
“I need the hours--”
“I’ll clock you back in at noon. Enjoy your lunch.”
We glared at each other over the computer’s monitor. Alex broke the staring contest by tugging on my hand, where it hung over her shoulder.
“I think you should say ‘thank you’ before he changes his mind,” she whispered, and I could hear the laughter in her words.
“Thank you, boss,” I ground out, scowling at his full-bellied laughter which followed us out the door.
“Where are we gonna go?” Alex asked as we stepped out into the still, frigid winter air. “We’ve got a lot of time. Nobody’s really accounting for me at work so I can take the full hour and a half.”
I’d spent the morning drafting up plans for our thirty minutes, and had planned to present her with three well-thought-out options.
Option one was coffee at the place next door. Benefits: close by. Drawbacks: no substantial food options.
Option two was drive through fast food of her choice and drive around town. Benefits: cheap. Drawbacks: memories that might not necessary be pleasant.
Option three was to forego food, park the car somewhere secluded, and do some of the catching up we hadn’t done last night. Benefits: need not be stated. Drawbacks: none.
All three seemed like great options when I was alone, surrounded by the sound of power tools and men yelling. Now that I was in her presence, they all seemed like absolute trash. No option was good enough.
“We could...” I found myself flailing about in a vacuum. For all that I’d spent most of my life in that town, I had no idea where I man could take a woman for a lunch date. Were there diners, or something?
“Tell you what,” Alex said, slipping out from beneath my arm and tugging me toward my car, parked in the back of the lot. “You drive. I’ll pick.”
* * *
I should’ve known she’d find a way to mess with my head with a simple lunch date.
“Applebee’s,” I deadpanned, shifting the car into park and sitting back in my seat.
“Yeah!” Alex said brightly. Then she dimmed. “I know it’s a little lame, I just thought--”
“I know what you thought,” I said, looking over at her. She smirked at me from the passenger seat, tugging a wool cap over her curls. “I just didn’t know you had such a flair for poetic symmetry. I always figured you for more of a pragmatist.”
Her scowl deepened, but she leaned across the console and kissed me so I knew it was fake. “I am a pragmatist,” she said, sitting back and unbuckling her seatbelt. “Just not where you’re concerned.”
Her voice was a strange braid of sultry, sweet, and snippy that made me want to tell her I loved her, fuck her in the back seat until she screamed my name, and then hold her in my lap and listen to her talk about nothing until we both fell asleep.
Or, y’know... we could eat lunch.
Our brief walk across the parking lot had Al’s cheeks pink with the cold, and my hands half-numb with it, even shoved into the pocket of my sweatshirt. Her arm was looped through mine, though, so I didn’t really feel the bitter air.
“Do you have a seating preference?” the hostess asked with a bright, fake smile, gesturing at the half-empty restaurant. I shook my head.
“Anywhere is fi--”
“That table!” Alex cut in, standing on her tiptoes and pointing to one of the booths on the raised level to the right of the bar.
Our waitress led us to our table and left us with menus and silverware, and Alex opened a menu and perused it a little too intently, ignoring the questioning look I’d leveled at her the second the waitress left us alone.
Finally, she glanced up over the top of her menu and caught me staring. The lower half of her face was hidden by the plastic-covered booklet, but her eyes crinkled with a smile.
“What?” she asked, lowering the menu and folding her hands on top of it, her mouth twitching with her struggle not to smile.
“What are we doing here, Alex?” I asked. “We gonna go to a movie, next? Maybe drive out to some abandoned field so I can--”
“Nate!” she exclaimed, reaching across the table and smacking my arm, looking around although there was nobody within earshot. Then she sat back, and the blush creeping up her neck spread up into her face. She looked down, frowning at her hands. “I just wanted to relive some memories, that’s all.”
Of all the memories, why this one? This was the last one we had before things went sour. All I’d had for the last six years was memories of her, and even I didn’t want to relive this one. Our first date date was one of the greatest nights of my life, but I had a hard time remembering it as such. To me, it was also the last date. The night I fucked up beyond redemption.
“I have a feeling you’re overthinking this,” Alex said, tilting her head at me and frowning. “You know that’s my job, right? Stereotypically speaking, the girl is supposed to over-evaluate and the guy’s supposed to be all...” she rolled her eyes and went on, lowering her voice to a mocking baritone, “‘blah blah blah, stop being so dramatic,’ and all that.”
“Oh, I’m being dramatic?” I asked, reclining in the booth and draping my arms over the back. “At least I don’t show up places with heartfelt speeches drafted out on notecards, Alex.”
“I didn’t want to forget anything!” she exclaimed, drawing her brows together. Fortunately I was saved by the arrival of our waitress with our drinks. Alex ordered some salad thing, I ordered a cheeseburger, and the bubbly girl smacked her gum and scratched our orders onto her pad and disappeared.
“She was into you,” Alex said, leaning back and crossing her arms over her chest. She’d removed her jacket, and that pose pushed her chest up in a way that made my mouth water.
“The waitress?” I asked, taking a sip of water to combat my suddenly-very-dry throat.
“Yeah. She was checking you out.”
“Pretty sure she was just taking our order, sweetheart. You jealous or something?”
I was just joking, but her brow furrowed a little and she shrugged.
“A little. I just got you back, and I know it’s not like I have a claim or something, but--”
“You do.” It wasn’t word vomit. I meant to say it. I’d fucked everything up the first time by keeping half my truths tucked away. I wasn’t going to make that mistake twice. I knew she was probably going to leave again, but I could make damn sure it wasn’t because of me. I’d probably survive her leaving, but I couldn’t be the offending party that fucked it all up. Not again.
“What?” Alex frowned at me, unfolding her arms as her shoulders relaxed.
“You do have a claim,” I said, shrugging a shoulder. “You always did. And you can trust me, Alex. I didn’t cheat on you then, and I’m not about to pick up the habit now.”
“Does Matt know?”
It took me a second to trace the path of her segue, and when I finally realized what she was asking I shook my head hard, a flash of panic making my heart stutter.
“No, and he never will,” I said, too firmly. She flinched and held her hands up.
“Okay, okay. He won’t learn it from me,” she said. “I was just asking.”
“Tell you what,” I said, reaching across the table and enclosing her hands in mine. “Let’s save the heavy talk for after food, okay? If we’re gonna do this we need some ground rules to manage all the melodrama. Let’s have that be one of them.”
“Okay,” she said slowly, nodding. Sunlight was streaming through the window beside her, bathing her face in gold and bringing out the streaks in her hair. I shifted in my seat, wondering if my dick would calm the fuck down after we finally had sex. Or was this the rest of my life? Imagine-- an entire lifetime of fighting erections like some poor, pimply teenager with a cracking voice and raging crush on an unattainable girl.
“So tell me about your work,” I said, forcing my hands to release hers as I sat back.
“Mm-mm, not yet,” she said, tucking a strand of loose hair behind her ear and sitting up straighter, eyes dancing. “If we’re going to establish ground rules we need to be thorough.” Twisting around, she dug through her coat pockets before coming up with a small memo pad and a stubby pencil.
“Christ,” I moaned, burying my face dramatically in my hands. “Does everything with you have to be so fucking official?”
“Yup!” she said, nodding as she flipped the notebook open to a blank page and started writing. “Rule number one: no heavy talk until after food.”
“Rule number two--” I started, but she cut me off with a glare.
“No, we’re going to trade back and forth. This is a two way street, Nate. I need some buy-in, too.”
I rolled my eyes and tried to hide a smile, waving my hand for her to continue. She bent over the notebook, reading out loud as she wrote.
“Rule number two,” she said slowly, pencil scratching over the paper. “Nate must answer all questions honestly.”
“Amend that,” I said. “To Nate and Alex must both answer all questions honestly. Rule number three,” I said as soon as she was finished writing, breaking off when she looked up at me with a glare. “What? Rule number two was still yours, I get the next.”
“Fine,” she bit out, narrowing her eyes at me in a mock glare. “Continue.”
“Rule number three,” I hid a smile by taking another sip of my water. “One heavy topic per date. No piling on or sneaky segues.”
Her nostrils flared at that one. Ha. Thwarted. “Take it or leave it, sweetheart,” I said. “It’s that or nothing.”
That wasn’t really true. If spilling my soul to her in one agonizing session was what it would take to hang onto her, I’d endure it. I just didn’t particularly want to, and I smiled in appreciation when she begrudgingly jotted the rule into her book.
"“Rule number four,” she said. “We trade off driving, we trade off picking the restaurant, and we pay for our own food.”
“What? No!” I exclaimed, shaking my head hard. “I’m paying.”
“You can start paying when you have a mattress to sleep on,” she snipped, one corner of her mouth turning up in a mischievous grin. I tried to stare her down, but she just stared back. “And even then,” she said slowly, deliberately... a challenge. “You can only pay for dinner dates. I’m a grown woman with a job. You can open doors for me if you want, but I don’t want needless chivalry that might come back to hurt you and Matt.”
God, I loved her. How is that even possible? With so much pain, so many years, and so much change between us, how was it that my feelings for her hadn’t changed even an iota?
“Fine,” I acquiesced, dredging up a new rule while she jotted down the last one. “Rule number five. No more unnecessary charity.” She looked hurt at that one, and I walked it back immediately. “I’m not ungrateful,” I said hurriedly. “Your family saved my ass, and I am immeasurably thankful for that. We’re okay now, though, and I don’t want to accept charity from my girlfriend’s dad. That doesn’t sit right with me.”
I realized my mistake as soon as I said it, and Alex did to. Her face split into a shit-eating grin and she leaned forward, gripping the edge of the table between us. “Nathan Reynolds,” she said under her breath. “Did you just call me your girlfriend?”
Fuck. Too late to cover it up or pretend it didn’t happen. “I did,” I said, feigning confidence as I leaned back, fixing her with a challenging stare. “Is that a problem?”
“Not at all,” she said, shaking her head slowly. “It’s just a little presumptuous, that’s all. And hasty. I mean this is only our first date.”
“Technically, it’s our second,” I argued, sitting forward until our face were inches away. “And I’ve been waiting for six years. I don’t really want to wait anymore.”
A flicker of pain passed through her eyes, but it was gone before I could mention it. She rose up, leaning further across the table, and just like that we were kissing again. I knew it was rude. Not only were we in public, we were in a restaurant. Surely that’s some kind of health code violation, having hormonal assholes trying to lick each others’ tonsils right there in the eating area.
My body didn’t really care about propriety, though, and in that moment my body took over and led the charge. I wrapped a hand around the back of her neck, loose hairs tickling my hand, and I pulled her closer. She moaned quietly against my mouth, and stars exploded in my eyes.
When we finally broke away, Al’s hair was messed up and her lips were swollen and bright red. I clamped my teeth down on my tongue, trying to distract myself from my sudden, overwhelming desire to stand up, grab her by the hand, and drag her to the bathroom. Nevermind that, from the glassy arousal in her eyes, she wouldn’t have had a problem with it. For one, it was illegal and I was still a parolee. For another, though, we hadn’t had sex in six years. I wasn’t about to break that dry spell in a public restroom. Alex might not have much flair for ceremony, but I do. She deserved better than that.
We talked about her work while we waited for our food. I learned that she’d done well in school. That she’d started working in Boston. That she’d come home when her dad had a heart attack. I learned that she’d started out TAing for a couple physics classes, but had now taken on a handful of other responsibilities and had a more generous salary to go with them.
“It’s a lot more computer stuff than a lot of people realize,” she said, stretching her legs out until her feet nudged mine under the table. “When most folks picture astronomy, they imagine looking through a telescope or something. These days the telescopes are all computerized, and we use programs and equations to answer questions rather than simple visual observation. You don’t tell what a nebula is made of by looking at it and guessing, for example. You use spectrographs and stuff like that, which is all computerized. It’s not very glamorous.”
“Well then it’s a terrible career for you,” I said sarcastically. “You’ve always had such a penchant for glamour.”
“Hey, I can pull it off,” she scowled. “I’ll have you know I attended a few fundraisers while I was up in Boston. Men in tuxes, women in ballgowns, all that. I made it work.”
Alex in a ballgown. I made a face and pretended not to believe her while quietly adding that item to the list of things I needed to see before I died.
“What about you?” she asked. “How’s work?”
“It’s fine,” I shrugged. “Satisfying. Red’s a good boss. Steady income. Can’t really complain.”
“These poetic words you weave,” she said dramatically, pressing a palm to her chest over her heart. “Honestly, Nate, calm down. Talk less. Your prose is overwhelming me.”
I rolled my eyes and was saved from further bullying by the arrival of our food.
Remember my first meal as a free man? That cheeseburger? That slab of greasy, cheese-covered meat I’d been waiting so fucking long to enjoy?
This was that cheeseburger. Not the one from six months ago that I ate at a small table in a dingy hotel room with Deb in a drugged-out haze and Matt trying not to cry over pickles and mustard. This one.
“You okay?” Alex asked, staring at me over her monstrous salad. I looked up at her and realized I’d been staring down at the stupid burger in my hands for an awkward amount of time, having long since swallowed my first bite.
“I’m good,” I said around the sudden, embarrassing lump in my throat.
“Is the food okay?”
I nodded because I couldn’t speak and took another large bite, closing my eyes and chewing slowly. It was like I’d suddenly got my senses back. Every meal I’d eaten for years had tasted like the same dull sludge they’d served us in prison. Every song I’d heard sounded like the same bland pop song the cops were listening to on the ride from Tim’s house to the station.
That burger didn’t taste like sludge. It tasted like meat medium rare, sharp cheddar cheese, sauteed onions, ketchup, mustard, and fresh lettuce. The eighties rock on the radio didn’t sound tuneless either. It made me want to slide out of the booth, drag Alex to the nearest patch of empty floor, and twirl her around until we were both sweating and breathless.
The music was back. Music that had been gone so long I had forgotten it was missing.
“Nate...” I snapped my eyes open and found Alex staring at me, her fork hovering over her bowl, loaded with salad. She raised an eyebrow at me and shook her head slightly. “You want me to leave the two of you alone?”
Abso-fucking-lutely not. “It’s a good burger,” I said, defensively. Then, to distract her... “since when do you eat salad?”
* * *
As we ate, the conversation fell into old rhythms. We’d eat for a while in silence, and then Alex would perk up without warning and start talking about whatever had popped into her head. I’d respond. We’d find a way to turn it into a debate. Then we’d sink back into thoughtful silence. We were talking about TV shows I apparently needed to catch up on when the waitress came to clear out dishes away. Alex was so invested in the conversation I thought for a second I was going to get away from this first date unscathed.
I should’ve known better.
“Time for my heavy topic,” she said, changing the subject the second the waitress was out of earshot.
“Who said you get to pick it?” I asked, hoping to sidetrack her. “What if I want to pick?”
“Then we’ll have to amend the contract to two topics per date.”
Ugh. “Fine, but I go first.”
“Fine,” she shrugged and leaned back, crossing her arms over her chest again. “What do you want to know?”
Everything. Nothing. “Are you okay being home?” It wasn’t the question that was eating me, but it would do. “I know staying here was never your plan. How much longer do you think you can live with being stuck here?”
She chewed her lip thoughtfully, turning her attention out the window as she mulled over her answer. After a few long seconds of internal debate she lifted her shoulders and let them drop, turning her gaze back to mine.
“It’s not bad,” she said, and I could see in her eyes that it wasn’t entirely true. “It’s not ideal, but I love my family and I want to be with them. And my job keeps me busy, even if it’s not all that challenging. I’m happy for now.” For now.
“Where do you want to be?”
“MIT,” she said without hesitation. “There’s a lady there, Dr. Paulson. She’s on the leading edge of dark matter research. I want to work for her.”
Boston? I could live in Boston. There’d be more culture there for Matt as he got older. Probably better schools. I’d never been out east but, from what stereotypes I’d read about the Boston working class, I’d fit in okay. I could follow her there.
If she wanted me to.
“My turn,” Alex said brightly, and my stomach sank as her eyes darkened with seriousness.
“Or we could skip it and go make out in the car for the next,” I checked my watch, “forty five minutes.”
“This is serious, Nate,” Alex said, and for once her tone matched her words.
“Fine,” I bit out, a little more clipped than I intended. Nonetheless, it didn’t seem to phase her.
“Tell me about your foster father,” she said casually, like she wasn’t aware of the rotting, putrescent corpse buried six feet buried in the shallow grave she was digging up.
“Which one?” I asked, weakly.
“The bad one?” she said, and there was a tinge of fear in her voice, like she’d finally realized what she was doing. Good. The more uncomfortable she felt, the shorter this conversation would be.
“Which one?” I asked again.
She lowered her voice, although the restaurant was still half-empty and there was nobody within earshot. “The one you killed,” she half-whispered, leaning forward and bracing her arms on the table. “Tim.”
“He was an asshole,” I said with a shrug, forcing myself to look her in the eyes and let her see that there was nothing in mine. No pain, no fear, no regret. All that shit was buried down by the bedrock, far deeper than the corpse itself.
“You know what I mean,” she said. “What was it like living with him?”
“Shitty,” I said honestly. “He and his wife were alcoholics and drug addicts, Al. It wasn’t exactly a happy home.”
“What did they do?”
“Alex--” Applebee’s wasn’t really the place for this conversation. Hell, there wasn’t a place for this conversation.
“I don’t need details,” she said quickly, shaking her head. “Just... in general.”
In general? I could do that. “Marsha didn’t do anything,” I said. “That was kind of the problem. Tim had a mean streak and a... a creepy streak, I guess. He liked the girls.”
Alex covered her mouth with her hand, and I rushed on quickly. “He never got his hands on them,” I assured her. “Except Deb. Once.”
“Because you were out with me,” Alex said, her voice somber and accepting. “He got to her because you weren’t there.”
Her words were a knife to the gut, and it took me a second to realize that she wasn’t condemning me. She was blaming herself.
“She wasn’t supposed to be home,” I assured her. “They were all supposed to be out of the house. I wouldn’t have left her alone on purpose.”
“It’s no wonder she hated me,” Alex said, dropping her face into her hands. Then her head popped up. “How did you stop him all the other times?”
A wry smile twisted my mouth as I thought of my younger self, running his mouth like a moron in a dark hallway, and Tim’s lumbering idiocy as he fell for it time after time. “I just distracted him,” I said, forcing my smile to widen as I met her eye. “He wasn’t very smart.”
“What did you do?” Alex asked, trying to match my smile, but hers was wobbly and unconvincing. “Throw a steak?”
“In a manner of speaking.” I leaned back, the smile dropping off my face as I watched her piece it all together. Then her eyes snapped up to mine, and they were brimming with tears.
“So the nights you didn’t show up at the spot...” she said, letting her words dangle so I would fill them in.
“Those were nights Tim was feeling a little lecherous,” I provided reluctantly.
“And I...” she trailed off, swallowing hard and blinking up at the ceiling. “I always got pissed at you because you’d show up the next day looking like you’d picked a fight.”
“Technically you weren’t wrong,” I teased, but it didn’t do much good in calming her down. “We need to make another rule,” I said, reaching across the table to wipe a tear off her cheek. “No crying.”
“Sorry,” she choked, scrubbing her eyes and offering me a watery smile.
“Don’t apologize,” I said. “Just don’t cry about it. It’s years in the past. It didn’t bother me then, and it sure as hell doesn’t bother me now. It’s not worth getting worked up over.”
“It didn’t bother you,” Alex echoed, shooting me an incredulous look with tear-glassy eyes. “I guess that’s why you beat his brains out? Cuz it didn’t bother you?”
“You’ve really got a way with words, you know that?” I forced a smile, pulling a napkin out of the dispenser by the window and handing it to her. Mascara was starting to pool beneath her eyes.
“I’m just saying...” she said. “We agreed not to lie.”
She wasn’t wrong.
“Fine,” I admitted, schooling my face into passivity and my voice into monotone indifference. She could make me say the truth but she couldn’t make me feel it. “The truth is, it bothered me a lot, back then, and compounded some anger management issues that were already a pain in the ass to deal with. It’s still in the past, though, Alex. I got help with the temper thing. I meditate and do deep breathing bullshit and pretend I’m on the beach or whatever when I get pissed off. At the end of the day, Tim was just an asshole. He ruined Deb’s life. He’s not going to ruin mine, too.”
I thought it was a great speech, but Alex just frowned, tilting her head at me. “I’m sorry I got pissed at you,” she said mournfully. “That was probably the last thing you needed.”
“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you,” I answered. “You never gave me any reason not to trust you.”
She nodded thoughtfully, and we sank back into that comfortable, weightless silence. The waitress bought the check and we paid separately. We walked back out to the car, arm in arm. I drove back to the garage and we kissed for a while with the vents blasting warm air at us. Alex was wearing her jacket but I managed to unbutton it and get a hand up her shirt and that pretty much negated all that unpleasant, post-food heavy talk.
Then I stood outside the garage and watched her walk to her car. I tried to ignore the acidic feeling in my gut as I watched her pull out onto the road and drive away.
Eventually, I knew, there would come a day when she would leave again and not come back. That was the only way this ended. I just had to comfort myself with the knowledge that that day hadn’t yet arrived. It was still far, far in the future.
Content in the knowledge that I still had Alex, at least until tomorrow, I felt light enough to crank up the music and sing along while I drove to the school to pick up Matt. Even after I turned the radio off, I heard the damn music in everything. In the car horns during rush hour traffic. In Matt’s voice as he chattered away in the back seat. In my own as I read to him that night until his head grew heavy on my shoulder and he stopped giggling at the shitty falsetto I used to voice the girls’ dialogue.
The music was so damn loud it was almost like silence was a thing in the past-- a memory I could bury in sound and light until it was like it never existed.
The day Alex would leave again was so far in the future, it was almost like it wasn’t going to come at all.