~ PREVIEW ~
~ Aaron ~
Mid February – Boston
The booming voice of the harried Starbucks employee shakes me out of my zombie-like stupor. My body is protesting being awake this early, but I have a shift at the animal shelter in thirty minutes. We’re beginning our six-week puppy obedience training workshop, and I oversee all of the shelter’s training programs.
All I really want to do is collapse in a warm bed with something soft and cuddly—preferably a woman and not Russell, my three-year old chocolate brown English Labrador.
God, I hate Mondays.
Sadly, the reason I’m dead on my feet has nothing to do with being up all night enjoying myself. I wasn’t exhausting myself hitting some hot piece, or getting into any other kind of trouble. I don’t even want to think about how long it’s been since I’ve gotten laid, it’s just too fucking depressing. My sex life—my social life—has been pretty pathetic lately. As in, I don’t have much of either.
I haven’t sought out any sort of relationship for nine months. Nine long months of self-imposed abstinence. I’d grown bored of meaningless relationships with woman who I only mildly tolerated. The truth is, I probably don’t deserve any woman who I would want to form a long-term and meaningful relationship with.
The real reason I’m a Walking Dead extra this morning is because I covered someone else's shift last night at The Pint, where I bartend. It has a pretty rough clientele. Pimps, drug dealers, and local bosses are all frequent patrons.
Why am I working there? I have a degree in Business Management from BC, for fuck’s sake!
In this economy, a man with a past as rough as mine can’t be too proud when looking for a job. I’m lucky enough to be able to do what I love and work with the animals at the shelter. I usually spend my mornings there, and then I bring Russell back home to our studio apartment above The Pint for his afternoon nap.
Dealing with the more rowdy, disgusting animals at the bar in the afternoon and evening seems like a fair tradeoff. Not to mention, I make pretty decent tips—mainly because the patrons know I keep my fucking trap shut. They reward me in a roundabout way for my discretion.
I was hired by Troy, the manager, under the bar’s legitimate business heading, and every two weeks, I’m given a paycheck, where I see my taxes and social security have eaten up all my hard work. I do my best to ignore the disreputable clientele, though. I keep my head down and do my job. Pouring drinks, filling bowls with pretzels, wiping down the bar, and decontaminating the johns.
Fuck, I hate my job!
Life never seems to go the way you imagine it will.
“Hi, how are you today?” asks the sweetest voice in front of me, pulling me from my depressing thoughts and waking me to my surroundings.
I’m standing in line at a small-overcrowded Starbucks with a dozen other Bostonians, waiting for my morning fix of caffeine. I usually go to the Dunkin Donuts across the street from my apartment, but this morning, for some reason, I felt like trying one of those ridiculously expensive, specially brewed coffees that my younger sister, Sarah, is always going on about.
“What’s ya’ orda’?” is the curt response from the haggard and clearly overworked employee.
“Could I please have a grande, no-whip mocha, with an extra pump of mocha? Thank you,” the voice says pleasantly, undeterred by the cashier’s borderline rudeness.
I smile. I love a woman who knows what she wants and isn’t afraid to ask for it. Flighty, air-headed, and indecisive woman drive me bat-shit crazy. I may like control—mostly during sex—but it’s sexy as hell when a woman knows what she wants, and that I’m the only one that can give it to her.
Especially, when it comes in such a sweet, polite package as the woman standing in front of me seemingly is. She’s young, probably early twenties, and has a mass of light brown ringlets falling haphazardly down her back. My hand itches to reach out and touch one of her glossy curls. To see if they are as soft and springy as they look.
Quickly scanning her body from the back, I can’t make out much of her figure. Most of it is hiding underneath a long, black down jacket, and the wildly bright purple bag hanging off her shoulder. The sight of her black, slightly heeled boots peeking out from the bottom of her coat make me grin.
Sexy. Classy. Fucking hot.
The boots give her a little more height. My guess is that in bare feet, she’d come up slightly above my chin. She’d fit perfectly in my arms. I shake my head, attempting to clear my daydream.
What the fuck is wrong with me?
Here’s hoping this mystery woman has a double-bagger face, or else I’m fucked. Which would honestly make for a nice change.
“Nina,” answers the sweet, friendly voice.
“That’ll be three sixty-nine.”
After Nina pays, by scanning the app on her phone, she says cheerfully, “Have a great day.”
“Next!” The barista says loudly, ignoring her friendliness once again.
As she moves off, I step forward and go through the motions of ordering. My thoughts, however, are on the woman standing by the counter across the room, currently waiting for her drink.
What is it about her?
After spending a small fortune for a grande specially brewed Clover coffee, I make my way through the crowd toward the counter to wait for my order. I soon find myself standing next to the mystery woman, Nina.
“Good mornin’,” she says, turning and flashing me the brightest, most beautiful smile I have ever seen.
Fuck! There goes the hope of her being fugly.
It’s not that her perfectly shaped mouth turns up, showing just the right amount of teeth, or that her green eyes sparkle and crinkle warmly. It’s the fact that her whole being seems to shine, like I’m staring at the sun, and it’s momentarily stunning me. It’s like I’ve suddenly come out of some bizarre sexual hibernation. I can breathe again.
“Hello,” I answer brightly, maybe a little bit too brightly. I’ve probably come off sounding like an overeager puppy.
Midway through what I’ve been told is a nervous habit of mine, I realize I’m tucking my long hair behind my ears. I know I’m staring. Grinning like a manic, and probably frightening her, I’m looking at her like I’m suddenly—awake.
Maybe for the first time in years.
I jump, when my cellphone begins vibrating in my pocket.
“Excuse me,” I say, pulling it out and quickly glancing at several new text messages, coming in quick, annoyed secession.
Richard: Where r u asshole?
Richard: If ur dead, I’m going to kill u!
Richard: Don’t make me call Sarah!
The persistent texter is my best friend, Richard. We met in college nearly ten years ago, and our friendship has withstood some of the best and some of the worst moments in each other’s lives.
I’ve been out of contact with Richard for several weeks now, and I’m not even sure why. Aside from Sarah, my sister, he’s one person who I’ve always been able to count on. He stuck with me when my life was going ass over tits. He may be my closest friend and confidant, but over the last year, I’ve been feeing lost and adrift. When I first got out of prison everything seemed to go back to normal, but now I feel disconnected from everything. Most of all, from myself.
“Do you like dogs?” I find myself looking up from my phone and blurting out stupidly.
‘Do you like dogs?’
What the fuck?
Where did that come from?
In my defense, the last woman I dated—and I use the term loosely—Lisa. She didn’t get along with Russell, and he didn’t like her much, either. At first I had thought it was mutual jealousy, but really, my dog has better taste in women than his master. Lisa wasn’t a fan of kittens, or Bao Bao, the new adorable baby panda at the National Zoo, either.
Why did I ever fuck her?
“Doesn’t everyone?” Nina asks, smiling and looking at me curiously.
“They should,” I reply, tucking my phone back into my pocket so I can give the woman in front of me my full attention. The annoyed messages don’t warrant an immediate response. I’d much rather soak up the sunshine in front of me.
“Do you have a dog?” Nina asks curiously, no doubt wondering why I blurted out such an inane question to a complete stranger.
“Yes.” I reply simply, and she looks at me expectantly, as if she’s waiting for more. “Russell. He’s a chocolate English Lab.”
“How old is he?”
“He’s three,” I reply. Then, since she seems interested, I ask tentatively, “Would you like to see a picture?”
“Of course,” she says, smiling enthusiastically.
I dig out my phone and find several of the pictures Sarah had uploaded onto it. Picking the one where he’s standing by Harry who’s in his playpen, laughing and patting Russell while being licked, I hand her the phone.
“Is that your son?” she asks softly.
“My nephew. Harry,” I reply quickly. For some reason, I don’t want her thinking that I’m married, or have children.
“They’re both adorable. Totally photogenic. I’d love to shoot them,” she smiles again. Then, realizing how what she said must have sounded, adds quickly, “I’m a photographer.”
After handing me back my phone, she lifts the camera up from where it’s hanging around her neck, as if to prove her point.
I hadn’t noticed before that along with a purple knitted scarf, Nina also has an expensive-looking camera strapped around her neck. I briefly wonder if she’s one of the millions of tourists who visit the city each year.
“You a tourist?” I ask, shoving the phone back into my pocket.
“No, Sunshine,” I say, grinning down at her. I’m staring again, unable to tear my eyes off of her face.
“A grande no-whip mocha with an extra pump of mocha, for Nina,” comes a voice, breaking through our grinning-like-idiots-and-staring contest.
“That’s me. It was nice meeting you. Have a great day,” she says sweetly.
“Yeah, you too.” I reply, as she turns to move through the crowd and collect her coffee, taking a bit of sunshine with her.
I can’t seem to keep my eyes off of her as she moves towards the counter. Out of the corner of my eye, I notice a ferret-like little man approaching at the same time. He goes to reach for the only drink sitting on the counter.
“Hey! What are you doing?” I can hear her ask loudly, grabbing her cup.
“Picking up my order,” he says slowly, acting like she’s an idiot.
“Well, I recommend you get in line, order something, and pay first. That’s how it works. This one is mine,” I hear her say tartly, standing her ground.
“Excuse me?” he sputters, puffing his chest up indignantly.
“Is your name Nina?” she asks angrily, pointing to the cup. “Because that’s what it says right here!”
“The idiot cashier must have made a mistake,” the asshole argues back.
An innate need to protect her comes over me, and I find myself making my way towards the two. Everyone else is oblivious to the interaction. They are all buried in their cellphones or staring at their shoes. This never happens at Dunkin’s!
“I saw you walk in the door, and head right over to the counter,” Nina replies.
“Oh really?” The asshole asks, stepping forward and getting into Nina’s face.
“Yes,” she says, attempting to step away from him.
Stepping between the two, I growl, “Leave.”
The would-be coffee thief looks up at me, takes a step back, and then quickly scurries away. I watch him leave and then turn to stare down at Nina’s beautiful, stunned face.
“Thank you for being a gentleman,” she says, quickly recovering. Smiling brightly up at me, her eyes are soft with—complete and utter trust. Shaking my head, I ignore how appealing she looks and forcibly push out the lustful thoughts that start creeping into my mind.
Laughing, I reply, “Trust me, I’m no gentleman. Far from it.”
“Oh, but I think you are,” she says as a slight blush graces her cheeks. “I hadn't realized the stories I’ve read about people coming in and stealing drinks from customers that have paid were true.”
“The world is full of assholes, Sunshine,” I reply sagely.
Wait, ‘Sunshine?’ What the fuck? When did I suddenly start calling her that? It fits her perfectly though. She is sunshine incarnate.
“Someday, he’ll learn that karma’s a real witch.” Nina says smiling, before adding sweetly, “Thank you for proving that there are still some nice people in the world. As my Mom always says, ‘Kind people are the best kind of people.’” Without giving me a chance to reply, she turns and quickly walks towards the exit, back out into the blowing cold and snow.
I’m suddenly warm all over.
It's time I start living again. I may never deserve sunshine the likes of Nina, but I don’t need to keep punishing myself, either. I need to follow through with my New Year’s resolution of ‘getting my head out of my ass.’
I’ve punished myself long enough.
I need to make some serious fucking changes in my life. I’m done putting my life on hold and living in limbo. If I'm being honest, for whatever reason, I haven't been motivated enough to make a change. That changed this morning. Sunshine came back in my life, if only for a moment, and I saw things clearly for the first time in months.
My parents, God rest them, are probably rolling over in their graves. I have a degree I’m not using, and a life I’m not living. I’m stuck in a rut that I need to crawl my way out of. I don’t want to be working for and cleaning up shit for people I don’t like or respect. What I’m lacking is a sense of direction, purpose.
God, what’s happened to me? I’m standing in the middle of a Starbucks having a mid-life crisis. Maybe not a crisis exactly, but a fucking epiphany.
Grabbing my surprisingly delicious coffee, I reach into my pocket again and dig out my phone. I suddenly know what I have to do.
I need to formulate a plan, but first I need to seek advice from the one person I’ve always been able to count on. Even if it’s something I don’t want to hear. With his texts this morning, I know Richard isn’t holding my radio silence against me. I haven’t pushed him away, like I know I’ve done with people in the past. With a few taps on the screen, the phone is ringing in my ear.
“Hey. No need to call my sister, I’m alive. Call me,” I say, leaving a message.
I walk out into the cold feeling more alive, and warmer, than I had earlier.
* * *
I enter into a nearly-deserted Champions and quickly find Richard sitting at a far table, nursing a beer and picking at a pile of wings. Yesterday, we made arrangements to meet up tonight at his favorite sports bar.
“Hey, Dicky!” I call out loudly as I approach, knowing he hates that nickname.
“Long time no see, asshole.” Richard says, laughing and standing up from his chair. He gives me a rough slap on my back, which I return heartily.
“I’m surprised your wife let you out on a school night,” I tease, pulling out a chair and sitting down opposite him.
“Becca knows who’s in charge,” he replies firmly, biting into a wing aggressively.
“You may think that, but I know who really wears the pants,” I laugh, reaching across and stealing one of his wings.
“Hey! Get your own,” he says, grabbing the plate and moving it out of my reach.
I grin as I swallow and then ask, “What are we drinking?”
“No idea, whatever was on tap,” he says, looking at his glass with sudden interest.
“You have no taste.”
“And yet I’m friends with you,” he quips back.
I breathe a sigh of relief and exhale the breath I didn’t know I was holding in. Just like that, I know our friendship hasn’t suffered during the weeks I’ve been ignoring him. It had nothing to do with him.
“I’m sorry I've been out of touch, man,” I say honestly. I never meant to shut out my closest friend. He is the one person, aside from Sarah, who’s never turned their back on me.
“Don’t worry about it. I knew you were just a phone call away.” Richard isn’t the type of man who holds someone’s nature against them. He knows I wasn’t shutting him out personally. Rather, I was closeting myself from, well, myself.
“Always,” I say sincerely, just as the waitress comes over to take our order.
I ask for a cheeseburger sans the pickles, fries, and a Harpoon IPA to drink. Richard orders the same, except with the disgusting pickle, and mustard instead of ketchup.
“What’s going on, Aaron?” Richard asks giving me a hard look, breaking the silence we’d lapsed into.
“I need your advice. What do you think I should do?”
“About what?” Richard asks, clearly confused.
Before I can answer, the waitress delivers our beers and promises to return shortly with our burgers.
Taking a long sip of the cold beer, I collect myself before finally saying, “About life.” And then I admit, for the first time out loud, “What do you think I should do? I’m fuckin’ lost.”
“No, I want you to lie to me.” I say sarcastically.
“First of all, you need to distance yourself from The Pint,” he states, his tone resolute. “I’d start by moving out of that shit apartment, and quittin’ your fuckin’ job there.”
“I wouldn’t be able to afford a decent place on my salary from just the shelter. It’s pretty much nonexistent,” I reply coolly. Not all of us make bank managing the exclusive nightclub, St. Andrew’s. They make a ton of money on the cover charge alone, not to mention the food and beverage sales. The club is only open Thursday through Saturday nights, and the rest of the time the restored church is used as a venue for other events, such as weddings. My sister and brother-in-law, Bennett, had their reception there when they got married, over three years ago.
“You asked for my opinion, so I’m going to tell you. If I were you, I’d get as far away from that element as possible. Do you want to end up back inside?” he asks harshly.
“Of course not,” I snap.
“Then I’d move in with Sarah while I looked for something permanent. You know your sister would take you in,” Richard says rationally.
“I don’t know. I don’t want to impose on her family again. It was fine when I lived there after getting out, before Harry came along, but it’s her home now, not mine.”
“What do you think you should do?” he asks, turning it back to me.
“I don’t know. That’s why I asked you,” I say exasperatedly, as the food is delivered to our table.
Just as I’m about to pick up and take a bite of the delicious-looking burger, my phone buzzes. I quickly dig it out of my pocket and glance down at the screen.
It’s a message from The Pint’s manager, Troy, proving Richard correct. I need to distance myself from anything to do with the bar and its patrons.
Troy: A package will be delivered 2morrow night, put it in the safe.
Ignoring the sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach, I shove the phone back into my pocket and focus on my meal. There’s silence as we both enjoy our burgers.
“I’m sure I could find you some hours at the club, until you find something else. We’re always looking for decent bartenders who don’t take any bullshit,” Richard offers in between bites.
“Thanks, I’ll think about it,” I say, and then seeing his hardened look I add seriously, “I promise, I will. You’re right.”
In the past, I’ve been hesitant to accept a bartending job at the club for two reasons. One being, they are only open three nights a week, and I need more hours than that, and the second reason is my own foolish pride. It could easily be me running the place, not Richard. Watching him manage the place would be a slap in the face, showing me all my mistakes.
After swallowing his bite Richard says, “You’ve been out four years. It’s time you leave it behind you. Stop punishing yourself, man.”
“I know.” I take a sip of my beer, swallowing the lump in my throat. I turn back to my burger, and after taking another bite, ask, “So, what’s been going on? How’s Rebecca?”
Rebecca, Becca, is the woman he married three years ago. Richard and I met her at the club back in the day. I’ve always liked her, and it’s an unspoken rule that we never mention that she and I briefly hooked up before they got together. The sex was fine, but we never really connected on a deeper level. I’d just been released at the time too, and was in no place to begin a long-term relationship—something I know she was looking for.
Afterwards, I could tell Richard was interested in her, and I told him he should go for it, and he did. Not one to mess around, he claimed her as his woman right away. I was thrilled for my friends. They are perfect for one another, and have exactly what they need in each other. By all accounts it was a whirlwind relationship, and it didn’t take long for them to get engaged.
I was the lucky bastard who got to be Richard’s best man, which meant I planned the bachelor party. It wasn’t up to The Hangover standards, though. We didn’t hit Vegas, and luckily, no one got arrested. But it was an epic sendoff into matrimony in its own right. I was the designated brain, meaning I was stone cold sober the entire time. That doesn’t mean I didn’t have a great time, taking photos and laughing at my friends’ expenses. I was on parole, so being sober was the best option at the time. I steered them away from any real trouble, but not before a lap dance or two. I still have several blackmail photos safely tucked away.
It’s funny how you don’t realize how much you’ve missed someone’s company until you see them again. Richard is a great friend. I should’ve never shut him out like I did. Luckily for me, he’s a forgiving bastard.
“We’ve actually been trying to get pregnant,” he answers me, smiling brightly.
“That’s great, man.” I know how much he wants to have a family. In a lot of ways, Richard and I are no different in what we want out of life. He’s just more on target to achieve it. You’d think I would be jealous, but I can honestly say that I’m not. I am truly fucking happy for him. At least one of us is getting our heart’s dream.
Your heart’s dream is that thing you won’t ever allow yourself to admit to truly wanting. You don’t believe you’ll ever get it, and admitting that it’s your deepest desire only makes the loss of your dream hurt more. So you pretend that it’s nothing you wanted to begin with. That way, you never have to feel the pain of not being granted your heart’s dream.
Finding an amazing woman, getting married and starting a family is my heart’s dream.
“I’m exhausted. Every time I turn around, she wants to have sex,” he complains before biting into his burger ravenously. Clearly, he’s been working up quite the appetite.
“Dude, you’re living the dream! We could all be so lucky.” I grin at him.
“Just wait ‘til you meet some nice little woman, and the next thing you know, you’re married and exhausted from having to perform,” he says, waving a fry in my face.
“I don’t think I’m that lucky. I’m not settling for just anyone,” I reply firmly. After meeting Sunshine yesterday, whether I deserve a woman like that or not, there’s no way I’d settle for anything less.
“I didn’t. And neither should you,” he says seriously.
“At least when it comes to women, I now know what I want. So that’s something,” I say, smiling.
“What do you mean?” Richard asks curiously, picking at his fries.
Leaning across the table, I say softly, “I need a woman who trusts me completely, one I can give myself entirely to. Someone I can be myself with, and who wants the same things out of life. A family.”
I’m not sure why—the pub is nearly deserted this early—but I feel the need to keep the conversation private. Probably because I’m exposing what's been hidden in my heart for a long while, but would never even allow myself to acknowledge.
“I sound like a fuckin’ woman. I think I need another drink.” I say, leaning back in my chair, rubbing my face and then tucking my hair behind my ears.
Richard simply gives me a knowing smile, and doesn't say anything. What else is there left for him to say?
“I don’t want to hookup anymore. Well, I do—you know what I mean.” I laugh as Richard chuckles along with me.
“If you want to meet women, then you should come to the Valentine’s Day Date auction at the club,” he says casually.
“I don’t know if I’m ready—”
“It’d be good chance for you to catch up with everyone, and meet some single women, maybe go on a date with one,” he interrupts enthusiastically.
I can’t help but laugh at his enthusiasm for my potential sex life. “I don’t know.”
“It’s for a good cause,” he reminds me, draining the last of his beer.
“I’ll think about it,” I say honestly.
“Good, I’ll make sure you’re on the approved bidders list,” he says excitedly.
“I didn’t say I’d buy a date. I’ll just go and catch up with everyone,” I caution him. I’m ready to start my life again, but I’m not sure I’m quite ready to step back into the dating world. Or that I even have the energy to find the right woman. Someone who is sweet, kind, knows what she wants, and gorgeous. Sunshine.
“Fine. But just in case, I’ll make sure you’re on the list,” he replies, not put off in the least by my answer. I have a feeling he’s stuck on the idea of me dating again.
“We’ll see,” I reply.
“Great. I almost forgot to tell you—Becca has this new friend you should meet, man. I think you’d really hit it off, and she’s the sweetest little thing,” he says animatedly, smiling at me encouragingly. Richard has found his happily−ever−after, and is determined that everyone else should as well.
“We’ll see,” I say again, noncommittally.
“At least come and hang out. You haven’t been out in ages,” he encourages.
“Fine. I can do that, but you’re paying my cover charge,” I reply, and his laughter tells me that I won’t have to break the bank just to attend the auction.
Not that I blame him, but I really don’t want him trying to set me up. Even if I know it’s done out of the goodness of that fucking romantic heart of his.
It’s why he started the Valentine’s Day Date auction—as a chance for singles to meet and raise money for charity. Maybe I should go to that auction on Thursday night. Who knows, I might just find a woman I’m interested in. It’s for a good cause, after all.
Food, drinks and women.
Really, what more could a single guy ask for on Valentine’s Day?