Archives For January 2013

Chapter 5

January 31, 2013 — Leave a comment

Chapter 5

 

Charlie woke after three hours of sleep, showered and dressed as usual for her Wednesday morning shift. “Parm and Pepp” day. Ugh.

“Parm and Pepp” day was the day designated to wash and refill all of the parmesan and crushed red pepper holders at every table. Normally the task wouldn’t be so bad, but it required her to be at work an hour earlier than usual.

The only people there that early were the manager and two prep cooks. The silence was refreshing. Charlie set up the tables, stocked the stations, and headed for the back to begin the chore of filling the bottles. The peppers always made her sneeze.

She organized the trays and the racks that held the clean bottles and began filling each one. Smiling, she thought about Jesse and his apology. She had probably forgiven him before he even asked, before the sweet kiss on her cheek.

“You still mad?” Jesse said startling Charlie.

Shattering a bottle of parmesan on the floor, she said, “I wasn’t.”

He laughed and walked over to the pantry for the broom and dustpan. “Quit making me apologize. Sounding sincere isn’t one of my strong suits,” he said as he scooped up the parmesan and winked.

Emptying out the dustpan into the garbage a few feet away, he turned and looked at her. “So, you’ve never…ya know? I mean, never?”

Charlie looked around the kitchen in embarrassment. She was happy to find no one near. She took a step closer to him and whispered, “No, never.”

“I find that hard to believe.”

“Why?”

“You’re–” he said, cutting himself off in mid-sentence.

Charlie saw him swallow and his expression harden, just before he began walking away toward the dining room. She gave him a half smile and got back to work.

#

“Hey, table fourteen just asked me if I could check on their food. Are you helping them?” Jesse asked later that afternoon during the lunch rush.

“Yeah, I’ll take care of it, thanks,” Charlie said in a rushed voice.

“Hey. Calm down. What can I help you with?” Jesse tugged at her apron string.

After regaining the strength in her knees at the mere thought of his hand being that close to her, she collected her thoughts and answered, “Twelve needs two diet cokes and twenty-three needs a bread basket. Thank you so much. Rae is really in the weeds here.”

“I got it. Take it easy. Go seat the people waiting in the front.” He slapped her behind and she took the apron off to greet the guests with a bright red face.

When she got back to the front and after Rae had regained control of her tables, Charlie asked Adam if she could take a smoke break. She should have known by now that simple eye contact titillated him; actually speaking to him affected him in a lewd way. He nodded and licked his lips.

Yuck.

Once outside, she inhaled the cigarette like no other before it. Jesse opened the door abruptly and it hit her on the ankle.

“Ouch!”

“Oh, uh. Sorry. What are you doing after your shift today?” he asked, after taking a cigarette from her pack.

“Going home, taking a shower and relaxing. You?”

“I was going to go for a ride…” he told her.

“A ride?”

“Yeah. Wanna come with me?”

“Depends. What are we riding?” She tried not to think about the sexual implication in her question.

He smiled. “A bicycle.”

“Oh god, no thanks. I fell off a bike as a kid. A bad fall. They’re not really my thing,” she said.

“C’mon. You gotta get back on a bike someday!”

“Why can’t I just stay off of them?”

He rolled his eyes at her.

“I’m not riding a bike again, Jesse. Period.”

“Fine. No bike ride today. But, I’m going to get you to ride again. Let’s go have lunch somewhere then?”

“Are you sure you can fit me in? I mean, between Tricia, Justine and Kendra?” she said, snidely.

He bit his bottom lip while trying to hide a smile. “Yeah, I can fit you in.”

“Fine. Where?”

“I’ll drive us,” he said.

#

They met in the bar after their shifts. Charlie had brought a T-shirt and jeans just in case she had wanted to sit in the bar afterward.

“Hey, I have to run home quick and change. I smell like a pizza. You can come in and wait. I’ll only be a minute,” Jesse said.

“Okay.” She was surprised that she was going to see where he lived. His attitude and mercurial iciness had shifted in the past twenty-four hours. He was much more consistently receptive and kind today, like a revelation had occurred for him.

They hopped in his Honda and headed south.

He was listening to a catchy tune that Charlie didn’t recognize. It was Reggae, but with a fast tempo, fused with strange guitar distortions.

“What are we listening to?” she asked.

“They’re called Rx Bandits. Third-wave SKA. Love ‘em. Do you like it?” he said, playing the drums on his dash.

“Amazingly enough, I do. It’s fun.” A smile swept her face and she glowed with anticipation for the afternoon. She was enjoying him and not worrying about what he’d say next. She was at ease with him for the first time.

“How many waves are there?” she asked sincerely.

“Ha! Just three.”

They pulled into a driveway that led to a house not far from hers. It was in a quiet neighborhood where homes looked like they were built in the sixties. The house was two stories, brown with white trim and needed a paint job. The screens were dirty, but the landscaping was simple and clean. There was a short brick wall segregating the mulch from the grass and two lilac bushes flanked either side of the front door that had three concrete steps leading to it.

“You wanna come in, or do you want to just wait out here? I’ll only be a few minutes…” he asked, taking the keys out of the ignition and cutting off the music suddenly.

I’m not passing up this chance.

“I’ll come in.”

Overestimating the weight of the car door, she slammed it too hard. “Oops. Sorry.” she said, and was embarrassed and looked down.

“Gentle! She’s a ninety-four, she’s getting old!” He winked.

What’s with this winking business? He’s winked twice at me today!

When Charlie walked in the door, the house smelled like man. And bacon. There was a small entryway that was clean and inviting. It was a split-level and the landing had a tiny coat closet and simple wood banister leading upstairs. On their way up, she peeked at the down stairwell to see nothing but a closed door.

At the top of the steps was a living room and kitchen. The window was open behind the dining table, blowing the curtain sheers elegantly. Green faded wallpaper covered two walls and the others were painted dull yellow. The cupboards were white and the countertops were an old vinyl. Dirty dishes were everywhere.

“It’s big. I didn’t picture your place looking like this.” She turned to Jesse, who had already walked up another four steps to a hallway outside his bedroom.

“Make yourself at home! There are cups in the cupboard by the sink and pop in the fridge!” he yelled down.

Charlie walked over to the bookshelf near the couch and started studying his small library.

Classics like Tom Sawyer, Great Expectations, Tess of the D’Ubervilles, Moby Dick. As she kept perusing, she discovered different kinds of books. Everything from self-help to science fiction. Has he read all of these?

She saw another book, titled How To Cope With Bipolar Disorder and another, Commonly Prescribed Medications, Interactions and Side Effects.

“Finding anything interesting?” He smiled appearing behind her silently.

“Oh! Um. Have you read all of these? It’s quite the collection. Varied,” she said.

“Most of those are Dennis and Jake’s. But, I’ve read a few of them, I guess. Are you ready?” He gestured towards the front door.

“Lead the way!” He smells so good.

#

“Where are we going?” Charlie asked, watching the woods as they drove.

“Just a quiet place I used to go. Good greasy food.”

Charlie watched the greens, yellows and browns pass by them in a blur as Jesse exceeded the speed limit. The windows were down and her short red hair was whipping around her forehead, hitting the lenses of her sunglasses. She couldn’t stop smiling. He seemed to be enjoying himself, too. He rolled his window up momentarily to light a cigarette and popped a different CD into the player.

“If you like this kind of music, I’ll copy one of my favorite albums for you.”

“Really? That would be great. Thanks!”

They drove about forty-five minutes west, passing corn fields and woodlands. Just as they were passing a large field of sunflowers, not yet blooming, Jesse turned his blinker on and turned down a small dirt road.

“You found a place to eat down here? What were you doing?” she asked, puzzled.

“I’ll explain later.” His attitude suddenly bellicose, “We’re here.”

Charlie turned to look at the small, log country house with an oak porch out front. Two tiny tables with two chairs sat on the porch. There was a hand-written OPEN sign hanging from the window and an old Labrador lying in the yard.

“Come ‘ere Sadie.” Jesse slapped his knee and the dog slowly jogged toward him. He knelt down and started scratching her ears. “Yeah, that feels good, doesn’t it?”

He stood again, slapping his hands together to discard the dog hair. He stretched from the long drive and placed his hands in his pockets. He started strolling toward the house as Charlie just watched in awe. I’ve never seen him this relaxed before. Calm. At home.

“Jesse Anders! It’s been too long!” A petite middle-aged woman with jeans, blue T-shirt and an apron came walking out the front door and wrapped her arms around him for a hug. She had grayish-brown hair that she wore up in a sloppy bun. “Hey there, Lil.”

Charlie turned her attention to the dog as the two old friends embraced.

“This is my friend, Charlie. We were hoping you had some patty melts and fries for a couple of strays.”

Charlie was suddenly famished. A greasy patty melt sounded delicious. She mutually reached her hand out to greet Lily. “Hi, it’s nice to meet you.”

“You too. Come on in kids. My lunch rush of four just left. The best seat in the house just opened up!” Lily said just before whistling for Sadie to follow her.

Charlie could see why Jesse’s attitude had softened. The house was decorated in antiques and checkered tablecloths. There were three tables set inside the room just as they entered. It had old, worn hardwood floors and small windows. The short hand-made curtains were red cotton and didn’t do well to keep the light out. There was a small breeze that carried a fresh, green scent of spring and soil throughout the house, masking the smell of greasy comfort food. On the other side of the room sat a counter with a cash register, and just behind it was a cooler filled with bottled sodas, waters and juice. There was a jukebox near the stairwell with a single chain closing the steps off for entry. John Denver was playing softly in the background. It was a calming place to be.

“Have a seat. I’m going to see if Lily needs some help,” Jesse said.

“Kay.”

Charlie sat at the table next to the window and opened the curtains so that the sun could beat down on her face. She closed her eyes and breathed in and out. She peered out the window and watched the short sunflower stalks swaying gently in unison with the breeze.

“Okay, okay! I’m leaving!” Jesse laughed, exiting the kitchen with a handful of fresh grated parmesan. Popping it in his mouth, he walked towards Charlie grinning and shaking his head. “She didn’t want my help.”

“So, did you used to live around here? I wouldn’t blame you if you did. I love it here.”

“Kind of. I was pretty young, and when I saw the sunflower field… Do you want something to drink?” he asked, walking toward the soda cooler.

“Um, sure. Anything is fine. Water or soda? So, you were saying…”

Removing two bottles and making his way back to the table, he said, “Yeah. I used to live near here.” He sighed, sat down and looked out the window. “I… I ran away from my first foster home when I was fourteen. This place is where I ended up. Lily took me in for a couple of months and I helped her out with this place.” He gave a tight smile and his leg started bouncing under the table.

“Do you want to talk about this?” She sensed his hesitancy and felt guilty for prying.

“Not really.” He looked relieved.

“Well then. Tell me more about third-wave SKA.”

An appreciative smile arose as he chatted for the next fifteen minutes about Less Than Jake, Rx Bandits, Mighty Mighty Bosstones and how first, second and third-wave SKA came about and the bands that influenced each wave. He seemed somewhat of an expert on the subject, and although Charlie’s appreciation for music was superficial, she adored the passion he had for it. He was animated and used his hands often to speak; he made her fixated on the conversation.

“Here we go!” Lily came out of the kitchen with two plates in her hands. “Do we need anything more to drink? Or ketchup?”

“A side of Ranch if you have it. Otherwise it looks delicious!” Charlie could already feel her stomach overloaded with the appetizing plate in front of her.

Here goes any weight I’ve lost in the past week.

She took her first bite and closed her eyes in satisfaction as she savored the buttery crisp goodness that lingered on the back of her tongue. She licked her lips and swallowed. “Oh my. Mmmm.”

She opened her eyes.

“I take it you approve then?” Jesse was taking pride in his little restaurant. He seemed happy to share it with her.

Charlie nodded and neither of them said a word during the whole meal.

 

“Well, I managed to eat the entire sandwich and half my fries. I blame you for the sixteen pounds I gained today.” She slouched in her chair. “Sorry, this has to be done,” she said, gesturing to her top button on her jeans that she had just unsnapped.

“No apology necessary. I’m about to do the same myself.”

“You two kiddos want some dessert? I just made lemon meringue…” Lily asked with a smile while wiping her hands on her apron.

“Lily, you’ve been great, and the sandwich was to die for. But. I. Am. Stuffed.” Charlie chuckled, patting her belly.

“I’m good too. We’ve gotta get going. I have to work tonight,” Jesse said.

“Tonight? Aren’t we going to be late?” Charlie looked at the clock on the wall. Four-thirty.

“No, it’s a bussing shift. I don’t have to be there until six.”

Lily smiled. “You liking your job then? How’s your mom?”

“Everything is good Lil. I’ll stop back next week when I have more time to chat.” He threw a one-hundred dollar bill on the table.

“I’ve heard that before. Just take care of yourself Jess. Charlie’s gonna promise me she’ll keep an eye on you.” Lily winked at Charlie and she nodded.

“Say ‘hi’ to your mom for me, Molly and Donny too.” She hugged Jesse as Charlie walked out the door to give them a private moment if they needed.

Outside, Charlie wandered around the front yard and lit a cigarette. Sadie ran over and sat in front of her, smiling. She smiled back and patted her on the head. “Good girl.”

“You ready?” he asked as the screen door clattered shut behind him. Lily was waving.

“Sure.” She smiled and waved at Lily. “Thanks again!”

On the drive back to The Crimson Cellar, Charlie fell asleep. When she woke, they were only five minutes from the restaurant.

“I’m sorry I fell asleep.” Did I snore?

He lit a cigarette and chuckled. “Don’t be.”

“Are you going to the Patio Party this weekend?” Charlie asked, yawning.

“The what?” He looked at her confused.

“The Patio Party at the Crimson? You know, the grand opening of the patio?”

“Grand, eh? I don’t know. I hadn’t thought about it. Will you be there?”

“Yes, I think so.”

They pulled into the parking lot and he parked next to her car.

He got out and stretched. “See ya Red!” He pulled his wadded up Crimson T-shirt out from the backseat and went toward the employee entrance. As he approached the door, he chatted with two other drivers and put out his cigarette as he walked in.

“See ya,” she said to the pavement. So much for sentimental good-byes.

Charlie smiled as she climbed in the front seat of the Taurus. The car was a gift from her parents when she graduated from Business College. It was teal and in fairly good condition. There were smelly trees hanging from the rearview mirror and the ashtray was always full. The Taurus was her baby.

She turned the key and pulled out of her spot. She heard a knock on the glass.

“You scared the crap out of me! What’s up?” she said, rolling down her window.

“I almost forgot, Lily told me to give this to you. You know, for ‘watching out for’ me.” He grinned as he handed her a large silk sunflower.

“Oh, that was sweet of her. Tell her I prefer daisies…” She winked.

“Good to know. Have a good night.” He tapped the roof of her car and ducked back into the restaurant.

 

Chapter 4

January 30, 2013 — Leave a comment

Chapter 4

 

“You wanna go park with me?” she asked innocently.

His head snapped quickly to meet her eyes. A confused grin crossed his face.

“Oh my god. That’s not what I meant,” she said mortified as she realized her mistake. She flushed bright pink.

“I… meant to say go to a park. To a park. Outside of the car. No making out involved. Jesus.” She wanted to cry she was so embarrassed.

“Ha! No, it’s fine. Yeah, let’s go to a park.” He couldn’t help but laugh every few minutes in memory of the conversation.

After about ten minutes of mostly silence, she pulled into a park close to her house. It had a baseball diamond on one end, a small pond for ice skating in the winter and an array of different playground equipment all in blue industrial plastic. The wooden sign was branded “Sky Sight Park.” There was a vast view of the city beyond the tree line.

A recollecting look on Jesse’s face appeared. “Why did you choose this park?” he asked.

She hesitated in her response. “Well, I…was a part of the volunteer group in charge of trying to save the wetlands here. They are some of the only ones around that are home to four different frog and amphibian species that are close to making the Endangered Species List within the next few years. The city wanted to make that area over there a warming house for the winter and just behind that, a basketball court. I come here sometimes to remember and to listen to the frogs.” She pointed in the general direction of the pond and they began walking towards it.

“You were successful then?”

“Well, kind of. They still got their baseball diamond. But, I was in charge of doing the research on the frogs and presenting the information to the City Council. They later said that it was my testimony that had swayed their decisions. But, I didn’t do any of the legwork. Other people had to go door to door getting petitions signed and stuff. I just buried my head in books about frogs for six weeks.” She tried not to brag.

“You must really like frogs…” he said, raising one eyebrow.

She noted his sarcasm and smiled widely. “I suppose. But, it was more of the principle.”

“So, are you Little-Miss-Do-Gooder? Do you look in the newspaper every weekend to see what kind of volunteer opportunities there are for a young lady in the suburbs? Are you going to fly to Africa and feed the children dying of AIDS or build a house for a blind quadriplegic that blows through a tube to get move through his hallway?” His face was unreadable.

“Are you kidding me?” she asked, her smile faded.

“What?”

“How disrespectful! Are you naturally this much of a prick or do you really just feel the need to repel everyone you speak to?” Her stride came to an abrupt halt. She wasn’t going to walk another step with him if he couldn’t answer her or provide some sort of reasonable explanation for his rudeness.

Hadn’t he realized that his question was rude?

“I guess it’s both,” he said after thinking for a moment and looking away from her. “This was a bad idea. I’m gonna go.” He started walking away.

Her mind twisted for a long moment debating what to do. The light was diminishing from the parking lot and it was getting harder and harder to see him; his silhouette fading.

“Are you running away from me Jess?” she shouted.

He got to the road, sat down on the curb of the busy street and began speaking out loud, but Charlie was too far away to make out what he was saying. As she got closer to him, she realized that he was about to get hit by the oncoming traffic. Honk after honk he ignored as three separate cars almost hit him and had to swerve suddenly to avoid him.

She yanked him off the curb and was lying in the grass with stains on her jeans.

“You were about to be crushed! Are you crazy?” she said as she stood up to wipe her pants off and marched for the car.

“Yes!”

She paused mid-stride and turned to face him.

“Yes! I’m fucking crazy! That’s what you think, right? Crazy, stupid, messed-up?” he shouted.

“I don’t think you’re stupid.” Her tone grew soft.

“Oh, but I’m not as smart as Adam,” he snapped, running his hand though his hair.

What does that mean? Was that some sort of confession? Is he jealous of Adam? Does he think I like Adam? She stood and stared down at her shoes; her courage building as she found her words.

“You’re just so rude and out-spoken. You don’t need to say everything that creeps up into your brain. Don’t you care who you offend?” Charlie was overwhelmingly curious as to how he felt he could speak to people the way he did.

“Maybe you shouldn’t be so sensitive,” he said.

Her jaw dropped open and her brow creased.

“Let’s go look at your frogs now,” he said as he brushed her arm walking past her.

She was beginning to question her own sanity staying with him. Would anyone hear her, or see her if something happened? Was there enough lighting for her to be able to be located in the dark? Which shoes was she wearing in case she needed to run suddenly? She didn’t trust anything about him. Then again, she didn’t trust easily anyway. She really didn’t have much to lose, unless he wanted to take her virginity. Which, at this point, she would have given to a passerby.

She followed with a slight hesitancy.

He sat down in front of the pond and patted the grass next to him. “Saved a seat for you.”

“You are so confusing.” She couldn’t help but smile at his charm and warmth, at his inability to communicate, and that contradiction. Hot and cold was an understatement.

“I know, Red. Bear with me. I’ve never had many friends.” He looked around and with a smile, “I guess that’s kind of obvious!” He laughed.

A hesitant smile emerged and she nudged his arm. They both sat back with their arms extended backwards and legs outstretched in front of them.

“So, what now?” he asked.

“I’m not sure what you mean,” she said.

“Nothing, it was a stupid question.” He retreated.

“What do you want to do Jesse?”

“Smoke, I want to smoke.”

“You better start buying your own packs; otherwise I’ll think you’re using me for my Marlboro Mediums.” She grinned and threw the pack at him.

“I’ll buy you a pack tomorrow, Red.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out his Zippo.

They sat through the night, mostly silent, until the horizon lightened. By then, they had both stretched out and were lying on the ground, listening to the chirping of crickets and frogs.

“You saved those frogs.”

“Nah, I didn’t do much.” She shrugged.

“Yes you did. You should be proud of yourself. They couldn’t exist without you.”

Charlie looked down at Jesse’s shadowed face just as he turned his head to avoid eye contact.

“Let me ask you something…” he said suddenly, sitting up, startling her.

“Shoot,” she said.

“Why are you still here with me?” he asked.

She considered carefully before answering, because she honestly didn’t have an answer.

When she didn’t speak immediately he said, “Because I’m not gonna fuck you, ya know.”

“Charming. Well, thank god for that!” How inappropriate! “I have never had a boyfriend, never dated, none of it! So, before you make an assumption about who I am or why I’m still here, take into consideration that I’m not gonna fuck you either!” She stood up and headed back for her car.

Her pace quickened and she pounded her feet into the ground with each step. “Way to ruin a perfectly nice evening Jesse!” she yelled over her shoulder.

Enraged, she arrived to her car and savagely dug into her purse in search for her keys.  Hearing his shoes on the gravel behind her, she turned.

Staring at the ground, he was fumbling with a blade of grass. He looked surprised, hurt and ashamed — like he had no idea what he’d done wrong.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered. He took a slow step toward her and she flinched. He leaned in closer to her lips. She froze and her fingertips went numb as she forgot to breathe.

He slowly but chastely kissed her cheek.

Charlie watched as Jesse walked down the sidewalk away from her until he was gone.

 

That evening, Charlie went home and exercised again. This time, for over forty-five minutes. She had done well the past few days on her diet and was starting to feel her clothes loosen around her waist.  It was a good start, but she had a long journey ahead.

 

 

Chapter 3

January 29, 2013 — 2 Comments

Chapter 3

 

After her shift the next night, Charlie was overwhelmed with excitement to spend time with Jesse. A sexy, mysterious man wanted to have a beer with her. Never once had a man asked her to join him for a drink. She had avoided anything remotely dramatic and exciting her entire life. She knew it wasn’t a date, but it felt good to be desired on some level, even if it was just platonic.

She waited in the booth for what seemed like hours, though it wasn’t much more than thirty minutes. Then she saw him. He was dressed in baggy black jeans that hung off his sculpted hips in a way that instantly made her shiver. He had on a plain white button-up short-sleeved shirt and tennis shoes. But she couldn’t take her eyes off those hips. He was much more physically in-shape than she could ever dream to be. His pectoral muscles were implied underneath his white shirt and every time he moved his arms she could see everything lightly flex. He was doing his check-out and getting his tips from Justine. She was flirting with him, but he didn’t seem to care about the seventeen-year-old temptress that had been his date the night before.

Regret instantly filled the hollow of Charlie’s stomach. What am I doing here? There was no way Charlie could make sense out of a man like that being interested in a woman like her. He could get anyone he wanted; he was beautiful, edgy and sexy. I’m fat and mildly attractive at best.

 

“You’re nothing, Charlie Johnson. Nothing. You’re a waste of a human being. A huge, worthless, disgusting human being. Why don’t you try a salad?”
That’s where it all started with Aaron Paulson. The first words he ever uttered to me. Seventh grade, in the hallway on my way to art class.  And I can remember how he followed up his words by throwing himself against the lockers in an exaggerated attempt to allow my fat ass to get by. The laughter and mimicking of others in the hall certainly didn’t help matters. Everyone there, at that exact moment, continued the same torment for months; backing up in the hallway so that I could pass, comfortably.

How thoughtful of them.

 

Jesse mumbled while walking towards Charlie sitting at a booth in the bar. He nodded his head and gave her a weak smile for a fraction of a second. She looked up and was torn from her flashback.

“Do you have any smokes?” he asked.

“Yeah, are Marlboro Mediums okay?”

“Let’s go have one,” he said while gesturing towards the patio.

He opened the door and she followed. The patio wasn’t open for business yet, as it was still early spring and two weeks before its grand opening party. But since they were both employees, they knew they could sneak out and smoke without any questions.

He grabbed the pack from her when she offered. He lit his cigarette with a Zippo he pulled from the pocket of his jeans. His shirt lifted slightly, exposing his blonde navel and a glimpse of his toned abdomen. Her heart flickered and her insides grew warm.

When he offered to light her cigarette, it was as if someone had offered to open a car door for her or ordered the most expensive wine on the menu. She was shocked, not knowing how to take the kind gesture; but she graciously accepted.

A crooked smile escaped his thoughts.

“So, how old are you?” he said, sounding like it was forced out of his mouth.

“You’re not supposed to ask a lady that. But, I’m twenty-three. How old are you?” she asked, snickering at their exchange.

“Older than you,” he barked. His smile now gone, replaced with a rigid expression.

A long and uncomfortable moment lapsed.

“So, what’s your story, Jesse?”

“My story?”

“Did I stutter?” She was tired of the short, clipped tone and cold conversation. She wanted something to raise his brow from its fixed position.

It worked.

Another smile played on his lips before he answered. “I’m adopted. Well, I lived with my foster family. They took me in when I was fifteen, and ended up adopting me after a couple of years. I have one brother and one sister–” he cut himself off and his face was suddenly serious.

She concentrated on his eyes, which were now stony. Does he not like small talk?

“What brings you to The Crimson Cellar? Have you always worked in restaurants?” she asked, feeling compelled to continue the conversation.

“Yeah, I mean I’ve always worked in these kinds of jobs. Mostly delivery. I figure a trained monkey could do your job. At least mine involves driving a vehicle.”

“Dick! Trained monkeys can drive vehicles too; very smart, highly skilled and dexterous monkeys. And, I’ll have you know that my job isn’t that easy.” She had to smile because she couldn’t believe how callous he was being for how informally they knew each other. There had been no sarcasm in his voice.

A large smile covered his face.

“Yeah, yeah, Red. Let’s go drink.” He flicked his cigarette into the darkness and held the door for a split second while she grabbed it.

“Did you just call me Red?” she asked.

His only response was a smile.

Ah, my auburn hair. Got it.

They plopped back into their seats and Jesse immediately picked up his beer and drank almost half in one gulp. He swallowed and wiped his mouth with his thumb and index finger. His hands were rough and un-manicured. Stop touching your mouth. Distracted, she quickly took a sip of her beer and tried thinking of something she could ask him.

He took something out of his pocket and began fumbling with his chin. Oh Jeez. A labret. Could he get any sexier? It was a small silver stud.

“Girlfriend?” She winced as if the question hurt her to ask.

Did I really just ask him if he had a girlfriend?

“Nope.” The question didn’t seem strange to him.

“Boyfriend?” she asked and raised one eyebrow, trying to make light of the previous question.

He rolled his eyes. “No boyfriends either, Charlie. I don’t really date. What about you?”

She hesitated before answering. How do I answer this one without sounding like a fool?

“I guess I don’t really seem to date too much either…” Not wanting to divulge the fact that she had never been on a date before. Never had sex. Never had a boyfriend. Didn’t trust men.

“Why?” he asked.

She slouched in her seat. “Oh, well I just do other things. I mean, like hobbies.” I am so pathetic.

“Oh, so no one wants to date you, I see. And those other things have you convinced you’re happy, huh? Well, good for you.” His eyes were amused with sarcastic delight.

She shifted uncomfortably in her seat.

He was watching her closely. She tried to move in a way that was graceful; tilting her head to one side to expose the length of her neck. She’d rest her hand on her jaw line and softly stroke the space underneath her ear. Her words flowed out of her mouth with ease and grace. She kept twisting a small silver teddy bear charm hanging from a chain around her neck. He looked hypnotized by her movement. She decided that whatever she was doing was working, even though she had never tried to do anything like that before.

“Did you go to college?” he asked while his eyes fluttered between her face and breasts.

As Charlie babbled about her college and her first few jobs afterward, she thought that the conversation must be extremely boring for him. She wanted to stop talking about herself and get the conversation back on him.

“When is your birthday?” she asked suddenly. It was a quick change of subject that made his head cock to one side.

“November seventeenth.”

“Do you have any hobbies, things you do for fun?” She felt like she was jumping from subject to subject too quickly.

“Sure.” He shrugged.

“And…”

“Um, I guess I like chess. I play the drums. Ah, um…I ride my bike. Is that good, or do you need to know more?”

“If you could have lunch with any three people in history, who would you choose?”

“Where are these coming from? Are you getting these from a generic book of questions? Why do you want to know all of this useless information?” he asked and ran his hands through his hair in distress. Aggravated, he looked up at her as he exhaled and said, “I have to go.”

“Oh, okay. Yeah, me too.” Charlie couldn’t refrain from allowing an agonizing look of disappointment cross her face.

He downed the rest of his beer and set the mug down on the table. “Um…bye,” he mumbled as he walked toward the door.

She gave him a half smile as she stood to gather her things.

She paid their tab and walked out to her car, moping. She hadn’t thought the conversation was going so terribly, but she had obviously bored or offended him. Was I asking the wrong questions? She played the conversation over in her head. By the time she got to her car, she hadn’t noticed he was sitting on her trunk.

“Oh hey. You scared me a little…” she said, grasping at her chest while taking a step backward.

“I don’t like people much…and sorry I didn’t pay for my drink,” he said, lighting the cigarette he had stashed behind his ear.

“It’s fine Jesse. You don’t need to explain to me why you needed to leave. But, I’m sorry if I offended you in some way. I just–”

“Stop. That’s not what I meant.” He exhaled sharply and looked like he was trying to find words. He failed. He grunted and waved both arms up in defeat as he turned and started towards his car.

“Hey Jess?”

He stopped without turning around.

“You wanna go someplace with me right now?” she said, thinking this might be her last chance.

He turned and took a minute contemplating before he started walking toward her. He didn’t look at her and opened her passenger side door and sat down.

“I’ll take that as a ‘Yes,’” she whispered and rolled her eyes just as he shut the door.

She got in her car and put the key in the ignition.

“Yes,” he said with a smirk.

 

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Chapter 2

January 28, 2013 — 1 Comment

Chapter 2

 

We all have one. One person that we still remember to this day. The one that made your life a living hell…a neighbor, a student, or a teacher. Whoever it was, you remember those moments that it all became clear how much you really loathed them: riding on the bus and making you feel like a fool the whole ride to school; or maybe it was a teacher that constantly picked on you for answers that you never had; or that same kid who every time he saw you between first and second period would pass you in the hall and try to trip you.

Charlie had them all.

Everyone looked at her as though she was an abomination. Everywhere she turned, someone was spewing hurtful remarks. Gut-wrenching remarks. She was fat and weak. People used her as their personal ego booster. Who knows why kids say the things they do? Self-esteem? Popularity? A dare? They all had their reasons. Especially Aaron Paulson.

Aaron came from a wealthy family; he was smart, two years older than Charlie, and on the wrestling team. He was popular, like his brother three years before him, and there weren’t enough curse words in the dictionary to come close to how Charlie felt about him. He wasn’t a very good-looking boy, but he had many friends and was known for his wit and insults.

He was the worst to Charlie. He sought her out between classes to torment her. Went to her house on weekends and threw eggs, garbage, dog feces, toilet paper, anything he could find toward the front door. He would find out which boys she had crushes on and walk with them through the halls so that they could be a witness to her humiliation. In an attempt to get what few friends she had to turn their backs on her, he would spread rumors and tell people what a horrible person she was. He was very good at what he did; successful in most of the goals he set out to accomplish with Charlie. Just when she was starting to define herself, he would distort her. When she felt like she would finally gain ground, he would stomp on her. And if she had a day she was feeling normal or even special, his success in making her feel grossly appalling never failed.

Charlie heard that Aaron went on to attend school to become a doctor or a lawyer. And there was Charlie, at age twenty-three she was a part-time hostess and living in her parent’s basement.

Somewhere in the middle of it all had to be a reason. Character-building? Facing adversity? A lesson?

No. Charlie concluded that most people just suck.

She felt like if she had to lose the weight to gain popularity, she would have been doing it for the wrong reason. She never really got used to the insults; rather she got closer and closer to feeling as though she deserved them. The teasing only progressed as the years passed.

She had a few close friends she grew up with and they stayed her friends through school, but as the years went by, they all had found different cliques to be a part of and spent less time with Charlie. They found boyfriends, got jobs; got busy. She didn’t mind that. She figured out a way to manage being alone. After all, if you’re not fit company for yourself…

Eventually, after high school, she found a few people like herself — outcasts, black sheep. She started to feel a little bit better about her place in the world, but never better about her body and image. Her self-esteem had plummeted so low that it would take years of healing to repair. Outwardly, she seemed confident and tough. It took a long time to create that disguise, and she found it worked well and people left her alone. But even her few friends didn’t know how poorly she thought of herself.

Aaron and all the other guilty ones would never know what they had done to her. After years of severe depression and thousands spent on therapy, she came to realize she didn’t trust men. They had always been the source of her ridicule, shame and self-loathing. She had learned to associate them with harm and distrust.

#

By this point in her job, she had managed to remember some of the servers’ names. There was Marco; a small Italian guy who had large brown eyes and spiky black hair. He dyed the spiked tips orange and red; it looked like his hair was on fire. He had character and didn’t care what people thought of him. He was bursting with restless energy and always gave Charlie compliments.

Then there were a handful of servers she considered the “elite.” The untouchables. Charlie was better off not knowing much more. It was a crowd that never really accepted her, or anyone else not exactly like themselves.

Jesse wasn’t like the others that worked in Delivery. Most of the guys were younger, late teens and early twenties. Jesse seemed to be a bit older and didn’t have many friends at work. He made small conversation with his coworkers, but she never saw him sharing a beer after work with anyone besides his buddy Jake. Even that was rare. He was a growing mystery for Charlie that was begging to be solved.

Paulina and Angie were sisters and definitely the most hospitable and friendly to customers and new employees. Charlie grew up across the street from Paulina and Angie. They would spend some time together in the summers during sleepovers and playing video games. But Charlie’s fear of being publicly ridiculed kept her indoors and away from joining activities like her friends. And that became a cycle. The sisters became her idealized version of life. Everything seemed so much easier for them – they were smoother, happier and were able to discard nasty words and not let things ruin their day like Charlie would. As they grew older, they didn’t have much in common to talk about, so they slowly didn’t interact much at all. Charlie stayed home with more solitary pursuits – fine arts, movies and crosswords.

#

The day after her initial encounter with Jesse, work was busy. The kitchen was a disaster. The dishwasher had called in sick. One of the prep cooks had quit – eliminating four menu items for the afternoon – and the manager, Karalee, arrived late, leaving Charlie to do much more work than nine dollars an hour was worth. But it kept her on her toes and made the day fly.

“Thank you so much. You saved us today,” Karalee said, practically bowing to Charlie once the lunch rush was over.

“No problem! I like keeping busy,” Charlie said, wiping the beads of sweat from her brow.

“Hey Angie, you can go home now,” Karalee said walking past Angie, throwing her arm up to give her a high five.

“Thanks girl!” Angie said on her way to the front. “Ugh, finally! I wish all our hostesses worked like you do,” Angie said to Charlie while rolling her eyes.

“Well, it might have something to do with the fact that you guys only hire fifteen-year-olds.” Charlie laughed.

“Yeah. Lawrence is an ass. He only hires the ones that pique his…curiosity during the interview, if you know what I mean.”

“I’ve noticed. I feel like I’m babysitting toddler beauty queens on Friday and Saturday nights,” Charlie said.

“That’s nothing! Have you seen delivery? I don’t know what’s worse, babysitting infant hostesses or babysitting canned-whipped-cream-huffing delivery drivers. We went through four cases of whipped cream last month! I saw how much we made in desserts; it certainly didn’t justify that much whipped cream.”

“Seriously? Is that why the servers can never get any whipped cream out of the cans?” Charlie’s mouth hung open.

Angie nodded. “Back in the walk-in cooler between deliveries. I’ve busted the guys two times already.”

Here was her chance. Charlie looked around the dining room to make sure he was nowhere near. She hadn’t seen him all morning.

“Well, what about that Jesse guy? He seems a little bit older. Does he do it, too?”

“I wouldn’t doubt it, but I don’t exactly know who all does it. Older doesn’t necessarily mean more responsible. He’s kind of a loner. The only thing I know about him is that he’s into mountain biking or something like that.” Angie waved her hand, dismissing the conversation.

“Hmmm…” escaped Charlie’s lips.

Angie recognized Charlie’s expression and sighed, her eyes serious.

“Get it out of your head, Charlie. He’s bad news,” Angie warned.

“Get what out of my head?” Charlie tried to sound innocent.

“I know that look. And I don’t blame you, but I don’t trust him. You’ve seen the way he hits on the underage hostesses! That’s just…wrong and gross.”

Before Charlie could retort, the bartender called Angie back into the bar, “Hey Ang – eight-oh-two needs their tab!”

“See you tonight?” Angie shouted over her shoulder on her way back.

“Yeah, I’m on a double.”

“I mean it – don’t give him another thought!”

That evening was even busier. Still no dishwasher, but Karalee was able to prep the food to put the four missing items back on the menu. She took one of the hostesses from the front and brought her to the dishwashing station. This made Charlie busier, but she preferred to work alone; then she knew nothing would get screwed up.

“Hey Charlie,” Adam, the manager-on-duty, said with an oily grin.

Adam was inappropriate with all the girls at work. She tried to smile warmly at him while he took the pen and started eliminating servers and bussers from the seating chart.

The rush was over, and Charlie was wiping down the plastic covers and chatting with Adam when Jesse walked in. Under the dim track lighting in the entrance he looked like a god. Casual, solid build, with baggy jeans on; and his face looked like he had spent some time in the sun that afternoon. From behind his glowing form, she appeared. Throwing his arm around Justine, it looked like a date.

Jesse leaned against the counter and started tracing the flyer coupons on the front desk with his thumb, staring at Charlie while Justine took a trip to the restroom. Just staring. He glanced at Adam and Adam knew to leave.

Charlie couldn’t look away, but she couldn’t speak.

He looked like he was trying to work up courage to say something to her. Maybe he’s just trying not to throw up. He reeks of whiskey.

“Hey.” He looked down.

“Hello. May I help you with something…Jesse, is it?”

He smiled, answering her question. “What’s your name?”

“Charlie.”

“Charlene?” Her full name rolled off his tongue as he glanced at her name tag; his eyes traveling over her body.

“That’s me.” She played coy. Even looked away trying not to act interested in where this conversation was going.

“Am I bothering you?” He looked shocked.

She was a little turned off by his brashness. “Sort of. It’s a little busy here. If you wanted to make yourself useful, you could put on your uniform and help bus some tables. But, I think your little date would be mad. So, if there’s nothing else I can do for you, I’ve got some things to do in the kitchen,” she said, raising an eyebrow.

Continuing to stare in awe, he looked speechless. Finally a small smile escaped one corner of his mouth.

“Have a drink with me.” He paused shortly, waiting for her to speak. “Tomorrow, I mean, just one coworker to another. Just a friendly drink…” he said, when she didn’t respond right away.

She hadn’t answered immediately because she was trying to slow the fluttering in her stomach. She took a deep breath and looked at him with much speculation.

“Okay…” she finally said.

He smiled just as Justine exited the restrooms.

“Did you order our food?” Justine said.

“Oh, sorry I forgot. I was just chatting with Charlie here. Ah, could we get a large Hawaiian pizza, to go?” He placed his arm around Justine again.

“Sure. That will be up in fifteen minutes. You’ll have to sit in the lobby though. The bar doesn’t allow anyone under eighteen.” With a tight smile, Charlie turned on her heel and headed back toward the kitchen.

She didn’t see the wide grin on Jesse’s face on her way to the back.

 

 

 

Chapter 1

January 27, 2013 — 8 Comments

Prologue

I admit, I didn’t think much of Charlie at first. She was rounder than the girls that usually catch my eye. Not my type. But when I saw her sitting in that booth all alone, for the first time something in my mind or my instincts or my heart told me to join her.

 

She defied me. She challenged me. She gave me hope. Before I knew it, moving forward was my only option.


 

 

Part 1

Charlie

Chapter 1

Charlie was three weeks into her new job and loved it. It was simple and every time she sought out something to do, she was praised for it. Evidently all the hostesses in the past just stood there and fiddled with their lipstick and manicures.

On that particular Tuesday night, it was slow. Charlie sat fourteen tables all evening and watched as the buss staff were all sent home and most of the cooks as well. She had answered the phone often, so she knew delivery had been busy, but the majority of the wait staff were sitting at a large table chatting while they waited for food to come up for their tables. Charlie sat slumped in her chair listening to the idle chitchat that was the focus of all their conversations: gossip, rumors and diets.

Her posture instantly changed as someone she’d never seen before, wearing a Crimson Cellar uniform, strode out from the kitchen doors. She watched him walk across the dining room like he was on a mission and stood waiting at the front desk for the hostess on shift. She sat up straight and her eyes opened wide.

She noticed his shoulders first: broad and muscular. Then her eye traveled down to his waist and hips. She watched his confident stride and examined his face a little closer. He had a defined jaw line, a perfect little nose, and sad, hazy eyes.

“Oh shit!” she spat out. He’s waiting for me.

By the time she arrived at the front desk, he had his delivery receipts ready to cash out. Her hands started to quiver and her pulse raced. She didn’t dare look at him again because she could already feel herself blushing and butterflies fluttering in her belly.

As she started working on his receipts, he paused momentarily for a brief glance at her. “You’re new. Where’s Justine?” he asked, shuffling through his paperwork, seemingly uninterested in her response.

“I don’t know.” She heard the pitch of her voice bounce and she struggled to avoid his eyes.

They stood in silence, restlessly busying themselves with their own organization. She handed him his evening’s tips and gave a quiet smile. He took the money without a word and walked to the back.

She was overwhelmed with extreme tension and her own animal magnetism and was alarmed to know someone could knock the wind out of her. She had made note of his name tag: Jesse. Vowing to stay away from him if she ever wanted to get any work done, she allowed her lungs to take in a surge of air.

Minutes later, Jesse came out from the kitchen in street clothes holding a wadded up Crimson T-shirt in his hand and no hat. Dark blonde. The pale aqua shirt made his gray eyes turn bright blue. It was a short-sleeved, button-down linen shirt that displayed his frame and the muscles in his forearms were defined. He had a farmer’s tan line she could see just under the sleeves of his biceps and a black tattoo of vertical wavy lines on the inside of his left forearm. Odd. He wasn’t too big or bulky, but just right. She imagined what that body must look like naked. What? Naked? She felt herself getting warmer, as if he were pressing himself against her.

“Holy Lord,” she said and looked away again.

He walked into the bar, ordered the Crimson’s microbrew and sat down. Half his beer disappeared in minutes. She found herself glancing over, despite telling herself not to look.

As her eyes darted in and out of the bar area, she tried to stand in a position to block her range of vision of him. She stared at the wall that segmented the view of his booth, willing it to crumble so that she could watch him. As her eyes floated around the restaurant, and as she peeked at him, their eyes locked. His facial expression was unreadable and she looked away quickly. Her stomach lurched as she realized she was busted. She made herself a promise that she wouldn’t go into the bar after her shift, not if he was there. She knew she’d make a fool of herself just by staring, let alone if she could stop blushing long enough to actually speak to him.

The phone rang and it pulled her from her strayed thoughts.

“Thank you for calling The Crimson Cellar. This is Charlie. May I help you?”

“Yeah, can you tell Je…I…na….ittl…late?”

“Hello? You’re cutting out –” Charlie said while covering her ear to block out the noise from the kitchen and the chatter from the bar.

“Can you hear me now?” a man’s voice said.

“Yes, better. Now, what can I do for you?”

“Yeah, this is Jake. I’m supposed to be meeting Jesse in the bar after his shift. Is he done yet?”

A sudden burst of heat flamed around her cheeks.

“I’m not sure I know who you’re talking about.” She decided to play dumb.

“You must be new. Are you hot?” he asked.

“Excuse me?” Did he just ask that?

“Never mind. I’ll hear about you if you are. Look, he’s not answering his phone, so just tell him when you see him I’m on my way. I got…detained.” He laughed at the last remark and hung up.

Great. Of course. She’d have to speak to him now.

“Pull yourself together, Charlie! Damn it!” she whispered to herself and rolled her eyes.

She had to tell herself that he was just a person. Like anyone else. No one special. Not intimidating. Not sexy. Not put on this earth to tempt her. And certainly not someone who would be interested in her the same way. That last one helped.

She made her way to his booth with hesitancy. The walk over seemed to take forever. Time slowed. Quiet noises boomed and echoed in her ears. She took one sharp inhale as she came within feet of the table.

“You’re Jesse, right?”

His eyebrows shot up and he removed the mug from his lips as he nodded with a mouth full of beer.

Oh God, those lips. Focus, focus, focus…

“Yeah,” he said.

“Jake just called saying he was on his way. He got…detained. I felt it was important that I add the pause,” she said, smirking.

“Ha! I bet he did. Did he say how long he’d be?”

“No, sorry.”

She smiled uncomfortably and turned to leave the tableside. She was a few steps away when she heard, “Wait!” shouted over the music.

She turned back and lightened her expression.

“Do you have any smokes?” he asked.

“Not on me, sorry.” Noticing his knee bouncing under the table, she shrugged and walked towards the front desk again.

She was quite proud of herself for playing it cool. Now, if she could just find the strength she had just used to keep up this façade, all would be great. If only.

This wasn’t going to be easy.

#

All the employees received one free beer after a shift; an unexpected benefit of the job. Sometimes Charlie took out her notebook to write, other times she sat and watched the regulars. Most nights, coworkers would join her after their shifts and order dinner. It was a relaxing place to count their tips and enjoy their beer.

If a coworker had a bad night or had just broken up with a boyfriend, Charlie’s booth was the place to go. She was able to find the right words or knew when no words should be spoken. She had an intense connection with people and emotions, which is what made the bullying so much harder on her growing up.

Charlene Johnson was stuck in this life; this body. Her entire life she had been overweight. No, fat. Her entire life she had been fat fat. It was the word that echoed in her thoughts as she walked alone down the suburban Minneapolis sidewalks and the halls of every school she’d ever attended.

As if school years weren’t torturous enough.

#

She was thankful for Jesse’s discretion in any assumptions he made of her at first glance, as he hadn’t laughed or judged her for her size. It had been a quiet interaction; normal and unpretentious. But her paranoia and insecurities seized her conscience. For as exquisite as she found him to be, she was certain he found her beastly but refrained from saying so.

She avoided the bar completely after her shift and drove home. Shaking her head and chuckling to herself when she thought about how silly she had been.

Grateful for the short drive home, Charlie waved to her parents as she walked downstairs to her bedroom and put her feet up. At the age of twenty-three, she had concluded that four hour shifts were perfect as she had only short bursts of extremely good work ethic. The extra weight she carried made it a challenge to stand for longer periods of time.

After a few hours of drawing in an oversized sketchbook, she got into her bed that night feeling energetic, antsy and anticipatory. After debating whether she should watch a movie or lie restlessly in an attempt to sleep, she got up, put on her tennis shoes and threw in an aerobic DVD. After ten very long minutes of running and kicking in place, she plopped back down on the bed, exhausted.

Drifting asleep, she envisioned herself thin and desired. Her hair long and her legs toned. A dream of having someone like Jesse want her, desperately. She’d be able to wear skirts without feeling self-conscious and she’d be able to walk in high heels without feeling imbalanced. The more she thought about the person she wanted to be, the more she needed it.

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