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.
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?”
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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