“Because you missed me,” she quietly repeated back to me.
Her voice was tinged with the same kind of sadness I always felt whenever I thought of her over the years – which was more than I probably should have, for my own sanity – but it didn’t make my admission any less true.
“What’s going on here, Eric?” she finally muttered, seemingly to herself. “Is this because of Sam? Or Hunter? Or is this some kind of mid-life crisis because you’re not playing ball anymore?”
Instead of sounding angry, she sounded genuinely confused.
And it made me realize yet another mistake I’d made with her.
When she’d left me all of those years ago, while we’d remained in contact because of Hunter, I’d never told her how I felt about her. That I still loved her, regardless of how much time had passed.
Never begged her to come back to me.
Never pleaded for her forgiveness once she was gone.
I hadn’t felt like I’d deserved her or her forgiveness, so why would I ask for them?
Our face to face meets after that had been politely awkward at first, but grew into a kind of comfortable familiarity. But we’d never even come close to having any of the once-in-a-while hookups I’d heard other guys sometimes had with their exes, whenever I would pick Hunter up or drop him off after a visit over the last four years.
The last time I’d touched her in that way had been a few weeks before that road trip where I ended up ruining all of our lives.
“What are you really asking me, Sookie?” I eventually replied.
If she wanted me to say it, she was going to have to come out and ask for it first.
I hadn’t planned on any of this happening. I hadn’t wanted to ruin whatever happiness she’d managed to find without me, even if it was with a territorial ass like Sam.
Telling her I was still in love with her would only make things more complicated for her.
And worse for me, if she didn’t still love me back.
“I’m asking…” she began and then paused for a long stretch, before exhaling out a long shaky breath and finishing with, “I’m asking you to have Hunter ready by seven. I’ll see you then.”
I didn’t know whether to be upset or relieved when she ended the call before I could say another word.
So I settled for feeling somewhere in between the two.
Hunter was wearing a sourpuss very much like my own by the time he finally straggled out of the school, walking like his sneakers were made of iron weights. He was one of the last kids to exit the building and if he hadn’t shown up when he did, I would have gone in there to look for him myself.
“What took you so long?” I asked when he got in the car.
He replied with a shrug and fastened his seatbelt, making it a point to not look at me as he chose to stare out the window instead.
“Aahhh…” I drawled out and pulled out onto the road. “You’re trying to sit out two games instead of just one.” And when his head whipped around, so I could see the look of terror in his eyes, I gave him my own shrug of indifference and said, “You’re doing a good job of it. Maybe by the end of the night, you’ll have made your way up to three games.”
“Daaad,” he whined.
“Don’t Dad me,” I shot back. “You were wrong and you know it. You have the best mother in the world and the way you treated her was uncalled for.”
And I may have flinched a little when I really thought about that.
Like father, like son.
I could see in my peripheral when his head hung down in shame, but his shame became my own – and grew tenfold – when he turned his teary eyes towards me and asked, “Why can’t mom marry you?”
Because I ruined any chance of that happening a long time ago.
But no matter how old eight years old was nowadays, I wasn’t about to tell him the nitty gritty of why that wouldn’t be happening. So instead I answered with, “You’re old enough to know how it works. People date and then they fall in love. And later on they sometimes get married. That’s what she’s done with Sam, so that’s why she’s marrying him.”
But I didn’t realize how my explanation would come back and bite me in the ass until it did when he asked, “So then why didn’t you marry her before?”
“Because I was an idiot,” I sighed, for the umpteenth time that day.
He was old enough to know at least that much.
But with the things he’d been yelling the night before, I felt the need to reiterate to him, “But she’s moved on, Hunter. Mom loves Sam now. Not me. So I don’t want you having any ideas that she’s going to change her mind about that. She deserves to be happy and if Sam’s the one who makes her feel that way, then we should be happy for her.”
Although, I couldn’t be sure who I was trying to convince more.
Him or me.
“But I don’t think he does,” he eventually replied.
“Make her happy?” I asked for clarification and when he nodded, I followed up with, “Why do you think that?”
Granted, I hadn’t gotten a happy vibe from either one of them on the two occasions I’d been around them both, but my presence itself was the likely culprit there.
But instead of bringing up those examples, Hunter said, “He’s never around to make her happy. He’s always working. They never go out on dates. She would just go to his bar once in a while to see him, but she stopped doing that a while ago. I thought they broke up until he showed up a few days before you moved here and then all of the sudden they’re getting married.”
While I wanted to dig for more information, it felt wrong to do that to Hunter, so I kept my mouth shut and filled in the blanks on my own with my overactive imagination.
Sam could have been coming over late at night when Hunter had been asleep.
And then I stopped my overactive imagination right the fuck there before it could conjure up any images of them fucking.
While pictures of something similar to a seal slapping against her body filled my mind – and my throat with vomit – something else was tickling my thoughts and I nearly slammed on the brakes when I grabbed ahold of what it was that was bothering me.
Other than nasty seal sex.
Everything Hunter had just said matched what Mikey’s dad, Terry, had told me on Hunter’s first day of practice.
Had Mr. Territorial only proposed because I was moving here?
And while I hadn’t gotten any signals from Sookie that she still cared for me in a romantic sense, did that mean he had seen them?
But why would she agree to marry him if she didn’t love him?
The Sookie I knew wouldn’t do that.
But then, the Sookie I’d known wasn’t the same Sookie I knew now.
The Sookie I’d been blessed with had been happy and carefree. She’d loved me and our life together. She always had a smile on her face and in her heart.
But I’d been the one to do away with that and with that realization, came another.
I really did change everything.
For the worse.
And as much as I wanted to give him answers, I didn’t have them to give, so I only said, “You’d have to ask Mom why she’s marrying him.” But remembering his tantrum from the night before, I was quick to add, “Nicely. And you have to accept whatever her answers are.”
We both did.
Even if she only ever gave her answers to him.
And seeing the sad but resigned look on his face, that I was sure would be reflected on my own, my thoughts ran back to an earlier one.
Like father, like son.
We played catch for a little while once his homework was done, but I got to work on making dinner when six o’clock rolled around. I was no culinary genius, but I could make my way around a kitchen and made a pretty mean chicken parmesan, if I do say so myself.
But with the way Hunter ate, I probably could have chucked a couple of raw steaks at him and he would have gobbled them up like a junkyard dog.
I was still considering getting him a dog in the back of my mind, but I wouldn’t be doing it any time soon with the way he had acted at the field.
We were just sitting down at the table when the doorbell rang and I rolled my eyes, hoping it wouldn’t be yet another desperate housewife and was pleasantly surprised – if not confused – seeing Sookie standing on my doorstep.
“I know I’m early,” she immediately began, with her eyes quickly dropping to her feet.
So I tried to put her at ease by saying, “No, it’s fine. But we just sat down for dinner. You’re more than welcome to join us. There’s plenty.”
There had to be when I had a junkyard dog to feed.
Her eyes finally made their way back to my own and there was something going on behind them, but the hell if I could figure out what it was, when she said, “I’m uh…not really hungry, but I can sit with you both until you’re done.”
I gestured for her to come inside and shut the door behind her before making my way back to the kitchen. Since it had just been the two of us, I hadn’t bothered with the formal dining room, preferring the cozy quality of the kitchen instead.
And when it seemed awkward had decided to join us on the way there, I tried to shoo it away by offering, “His homework is done, but he has a history project due next week. We only got it started tonight.”
“Okay,” she replied absentmindedly.
And when I glanced over at her to see what was distracting her, I saw it too.
The fucking Princess Bride DVD case sitting on my coffee table.
Why hadn’t I just gone out and gotten that tattoo of her name, so we could focus on that instead of THAT?
So when she didn’t mention it, I sure as hell didn’t and kept walking until I reached the kitchen. She stood in the doorway for a moment, taking everything in, but when Hunter’s eyes landed on her, he pushed himself away from the table and walked over to her. Throwing his arms around her waist and burying his head against her chest, he said, “I’m sorry for the way I acted yesterday, Mommy.”
“Mommy?” she smiled and ran her fingers through his hair. “You must be really sorry to call me that.”
“I am,” he shrugged and hugged her tighter.
“Then you’re forgiven,” she choked out, pretending he was squeezing her to death.
For the squeezing.
Not for the fake killing.
When he finally released her and walked back to the table, her eyes followed after him and she smiled softly, asking, “No greasy burgers?”
Was she putting something down I was supposed to pick up?
Her tone had been teasing, rather than accusatory, but just in case she was asking without coming out and asking, I offered sincerely, “I’m done with fast food. I’d much rather enjoy the quality of something superior you have to work for to savor, than the quantity of the garbage you can pick up anywhere.”
And perhaps eight years old wasn’t as old as I had thought because a little piece of chicken fell out of Hunter’s mouth and his eyes bugged out of his head, like I’d just said Santa wasn’t real, as he choked out, “What?”
Did he still believe in Santa?
A good father would know that.
Even worse boyfriend.
While I grimaced at the thought of being 0 for two, he looked up at me and sadly asked, “No more burgers?”
“I’ll just order a salad the next time we hit up McDonald’s,” I answered with an eye roll. “Better?”
“Much,” he nodded and went back to stuffing his face.
But when I glanced over at Sookie, she was looking back at me like Santa was in the room and standing behind me.
And maybe holding a bloodied chainsaw, while wearing a maniacal grin, given the weird look on her face.
Her right hand was twisting the ring on her left, like she was in danger twisting her finger off with it.
She was doing a pretty good job of twisting my gut by doing it though.
So I pretended I wasn’t in danger of hurling across the table and only said, “You’re making me nervous just standing there. Why don’t you sit down? If you don’t want to eat, can I get you something to drink?”
Or some WD-40 to help get that ring off?
She just shook her head in response and walked over, taking the seat in between Hunter and I, when I nearly choked with his next words.
“Why are you marrying Sam?”
“What?” she asked, looking all kinds of flustered and then shot me an unhappy look, adding, “Why?”
He just shrugged and shoved another piece of chicken into his mouth before saying, “Dad said I should ask you.”
Holy out-of-context Batman!
Her eyes narrowed at me as she said, “Oh he did, did he?”
“I meant when you were alone,” I clarified to him ten seconds too late.
So she kept trying to kill me with her glare as she said, “Oh you did, did you?”
Having lost my appetite along with every thought in my head, I dropped my fork and explained, “He asked. I couldn’t answer. So I told him to ask you.”
And then looking at him, my next words were for all three of us when I said “And I told him he would have to accept whatever your answer was.”
Looking back at her, I offered sincerely, “You deserve to be happy and if Sam’s the one who makes you feel that way, then that’s all that matters.”
She didn’t say anything, but at least her glare ratcheted down to just painful, rather than deadly. So I went back to pushing the food around on my plate when my fork stilled as Hunter asked, “So does he? Make you happy?”
I wasn’t sure I wanted to hear her answer.
And I was back to feeling a mixture of upset and relieved when she didn’t give him one by saying, “We’ll talk about this later.”
But because he was a kid – one who she was likely wishing we had never taught to speak – he followed up her response with, “Why not now?”
So she gave him the answer every parent gained the right to use with the birth of their kid and said, “Because I said so.”
I could feel her eyes boring into my skull, but I refused to look up and instead busied myself by going over to do the dishes. Only she followed me over and dried, while I washed for a few minutes before whispering, “What have you been saying to him?”
“Nothing that he hasn’t already told you,” I whispered back. “He’s not exactly shy about repeating everything he’s heard.”
It was a trait I couldn’t decide was a blessing or a curse.
Tramp magnets and dickheads aside, without his blabbermouth I wouldn’t know about Sookie’s weird pseudo-relationship with Sam.
The jury was still out on whether or not that was a blessing or curse.
Mr. Big Mouth chose to remind us of his presence by saying, “Done!”
And when I turned around, I could see he really was done.
There wasn’t enough left on the table to feed one of those tiny Yorkie’s Sam was terrified of.
He looked like he’d been kissing Heath Ledger’s version of The Joker’s Italian sister because from the nose down, he was painted in orange tomato sauce. But when he asked if he could go play video games, I figured it would give Sookie and I the privacy to finish the conversation she was trying to start and said okay.
But when we were finally alone, I left it up to her to get the ball rolling.
After all, it was in her court now.
We continued to wash and dry in silence, but when there weren’t any more dishes to clean she finally opened with, “Are you only doing this – acting this way – because it’s what Hunter wants? For us to be a family?”
Apparently my one word answer wasn’t good enough for her ambiguous questions, so she let her irritation come through in her tone when she said, “Why now, Eric? Not once in four years have you ever even hinted at wanting to be with me again. We’ve hardly spent any time together at all since you’ve been back, so what’s changed?”
Besides my manwhore ways?
One word answers were also apparently my new specialty.
I couldn’t help it though.
They pushed her buttons.
“Eric!” she spat out, obviously aggravated.
So I put myself right in front of her – and left myself open for whatever would come of it – when I looked into her eyes and said, “I’ve never lied to you Sookie, even when it was in my best interest to do so, and I’m not about to start lying to you now. If you’re asking what I think you’re asking, I’ll answer. But just be sure you really want to know what my answer is.”
I don’t know how long we stood there staring at each other.
They felt one and the same, but time seemed to stand still when she finally appeared to brace herself and quietly said, “I’m asking.”
So I braced myself for what was about to come, knowing everything would be changed when it was all said and done.
For better or for worse.
It was a vow I should have already made to her that was long overdue.
But I figured I should start off by giving her what she was asking for and answered, “I love you.”