Quarter Life Crisis: Step Two: Confrontation

-4-

Sean pulls up in front of Sideview High—his alma mater—and steps out of the car just as the classroom doors burst open and a stampede of kids shoots out, separating like cattle in a slaughterhouse as they head to their next period. Behind him, birds chirp and the sun shines down brightly from the cloudless sky on the front yards of the luxurious Pinecrest homes across from the school where the palm trees sway gently in the light breeze and it’s a beautiful fucking day and Sean wishes it would all just stop. Even with the weed in his system, his head is still killing him.

Sean walks up to the front gate and stares at the huge sign above the school with the name and Sideview’s seal: a dolphin flying out of the ocean with a palm tree in the background. He’s always thought that was ridiculous. He’s lived in Miami most of his life and the only place he’s ever seen a damn dolphin was at Miami Seaquarium, which is nothing but a tourist trap with sea life that could have been imported from California for all he knows. Sean presses his sunglasses further up his nose and scowls at the building in front of him.

Needless to say, he hates this place.

Inside the front gate, Sean takes all of three steps towards the front doors before a golf cart comes flying up, screeching to a stop in front of him. The man sitting in it has to weigh at least 350 pounds, his belly barely covered by a green t-shirt with the word “SECURITY” stretched wide across his back. He glares at Sean like he’s a potential terrorist, and Sean wishes he was surprised but he’s not—he knew this man was going to give him a hard time before he even got out of his car. His name’s Larry and he’s been working here for-fucking-ever, since before Sean was a freshman, which was over a decade ago now. Larry walked on his own back then, wasn’t so big yet that his belly sat on his thighs and he needed to have a gallon bottle of Powerade with him just so he wouldn’t pass out.

It’s obvious he doesn’t remember Sean, but Sean remembers him and knows how this conversation’s going to go even before it starts, which really just makes this shit boring.

“What’s your business here?” Larry.

“Just picking up my little brother, same as last time.” Sean.

“You sure about that?”

“Yup, he’s in the office right now.”

“Yeah, right.”

Sean raises an eyebrow, clears his throat.

“Alright,” he says. “Thanks for, uh…that.” Sean sidesteps the golf  cart. “ Gonna go get my brother now. Then I’ll be out of your way.”

Sean starts to walk off and the motor on Larry’s golf cart whirrs into action as he shoots forward and cuts Sean off again.

“Just a minute,” Larry says, scowling. “I need to see some ID.”

Sean rolls his eyes.

“You just saw me last week,” he says. Larry just sits there staring at him. “You know my brother, Marcus.” No movement, and Sean throws his hands up. “Come on, man. I used to go here, not too long ago. Class of ’05?”

“You and half the people in a twenty mile radius,” Larry says, holding a hand out. “ID, please.”

“Fuck,” Sean mutters under his breath, reaching into his back pocket for his wallet at the exact same moment he pictures it sitting on the nightstand at his apartment. Cursing, he checks all his pockets. Left his phone at home too, nothing but his keys in hand. He smiles up at Larry, suddenly amicable.

“Larry, listen—”

“You don’t get extra points for knowing my name, potty mouth. Identification, please.”

Sean can’t help it—he chuckles when Larry says “potty mouth.”

“Look,” Sean says, forcing his smile away and pulling off his sunglasses, completely forgetting that he and the sun are not on good terms right now. The moment the glasses clear the threshold, Larry vanishes in a flash of blindness. Sean tries to squint through it, hoping he’s making eye contact with the large man.

“Right now,” Sean says, “my little brother’s in there—in Principal Lawson’s office most likely—and he just called me to come pick him up because he’s been suspended for…I don’t know what, doesn’t matter, he’s a good kid who’s going through his rebellious stage right now and he needs his older brother there to help him get through it. Now, I don’t know the details of this particular situation, but I would like to find out and it is my genetic and legal right to do so. So if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go find my brother and take him home.”

In Sean’s head, this rant is the defining moment of his day, causing Larry to hang his head in shame and let him pass, watching with jealousy as he struts inside the school.

What actually happens, though, is that Sean tries to step around Larry after yelling at him and Larry shoots forward again on his golf cart, running over Sean’s left foot. Which fucking hurts. Then Larry—surprisingly agile for a man his size—puts a hand on Sean’s chest and pushes him back. Sean stumbles into the fence and Larry points at him.

“Get off this property before I call the authorities.” Then a quick stern nod and he adds, “And don’t come back unless you have some ID.”

Sean opens his mouth to say something slick, then realizes he’s embarrassed as shit and there’s a bunch of students staring at him, so he just turns and heads back to his car where—in the space of the two or three minutes since he got out—a police officer’s appeared and she’s just slapping a ticket down on his windshield when he reaches the driver’s side. He’s about to pull the same shit he just pulled on Larry, yelling about how he’s only been here for a minute and this is a goddamn injustice and doesn’t she have anything better to do with her time like catch actual criminals? But knowing the result will probably be exactly the same, and seeing as how he just got schooled by a fat man on a golf cart—not to mention he doesn’t have his wallet which, incidentally, has his driver’s license in it—Sean decides to shut up, grab the ticket and leave.


-5-

Lauren puts her car in park and stares at the building without actually seeing it, then closes her eyes, takes a few deep breaths, turns down the radio, counts to ten, then opens her eyes again. She pulls her makeup kit out of her purse along with a napkin from the glove compartment, using the napkin to wipe away the small lines of runny mascara, reapplying the mascara and eyeliner, adding a little foundation to her nose and cheeks, then puts the kit away and tosses the napkin and adjusts her shirt.

All this to yield a very specific result: she will walk into Justin’s preschool right now, her son will happily greet her, and he will not ask any questions she cannot answer.

Lauren knows she doesn’t actually have to pick Justin up right now. She knows that he still has a full seven hours before the final six o’clock pick up time, and that she could go on about her day and pick him up at the normal time when he’ll expect it and not be alarmed in the slightest.

She wants to see her son though. She wants to see his face—touch his cheeks and the corners of his eyes, slightly upturned, like looking closely in a mirror—and know that he’s real. She wants to know that she hasn’t completely wasted her time.

Inside Children’s Fantasy, at the front desk, Lauren signs Justin out and smiles grimly at the skinny blonde receptionist that Rick’s always staring at for a few seconds longer than necessary. The woman smiles back as Justin runs up to Lauren on wobbly legs.

Soon, Lauren’s driving aimlessly with Justin gurgling in the back seat. He says something which would probably sound like gibberish to most people, but which she recognizes as him commenting on her picking him up early.

“Yes, baby,” she says. “Mommy missed you and wanted to see you.”

“Miss you,” he says, and Lauren smiles. “Daddy?” he adds, and Lauren frowns.

“Daddy’s at work, baby,” she says, glancing in the rearview mirror. He turns and looks out the window and she can tell by the small furrow in his eyebrows that he’s disappointed. She picked him up from daycare early, which usually indicates there’s some sort of special occasion involving both Rick and her. Lauren feels a flicker of envy, at Rick and Justin’s father/son relationship, and that she has to witness Justin’s disappointment and Rick doesn’t.

“Daddy,” Justin says quietly.

“Daddy’s gone,” she snaps, then immediately regrets it when his eyebrows drop even further. “I mean—not gone gone, baby. Just momentarily. He’s coming back. I mean…Daddy’s on a business trip.”

Justin looks at his mother’s face in the rearview mirror, confused now. Lauren opens her mouth to explain what a business trip is, but her voice catches and she realizes if she says anything else about Rick or this situation she’s going to get emotional, which she knows will only make things so much worse. The last time she cried in front of Justin (Rick and her were fighting about them asking her mom for money—Lauren, against; Rick, for—and Justin walked in right as she was in the middle of a sobbing/screaming fit) he started crying too and it took all of half an hour to calm him down. It effectively ended their fight, but Lauren remembers the feeling of helplessness, seeing Justin both scared and hurt at the same time, not understanding why they were so mad at each other. She and Rick made a vow that night to never fight in front of him again, and they’ve kept the promise ever since. Rick’s not here now, but Lauren still doesn’t want any of their problems to spill over into Justin’s life. Not just yet at least.

Lauren reaches back and puts a hand on his leg, squeezing gently.

“You’ll see Daddy later, baby,” she says. “It’s just us for a little while though, ok?”

He nods and his eyebrows raise a little, though he still looks skeptical. Lauren will take what she can get.

It seems like Lauren drives for hours, but according to the car’s dashboard it’s only fifteen minutes later that she pulls up to her mother’s house. This is not, in fact, where she wants to be—is actually the second to last place she wants to be, the last place being her own home (which makes her physically sick at the thought of reentering). Lauren’s got nowhere else to go though. Caitlyn didn’t answer her phone, and she hasn’t had anything resembling a good non-sibling friend since college.

Pulling up to her childhood home always brings with it both a sense of nostalgia and claustrophobia. Not to say she had a bad upbringing or anything. An interesting and tragic one, yes, but nothing she would call completely repulsive. Her father was Italian-American, born in Long Island before her grandparents moved with him to Miami, where her dad grew to become a dedicated and successful businessman. He came into the stock market at the beginning of the initial dot-com boom and was one of the few smart ones that fled right before things tanked. The move left him with a sizable portfolio and a lot of prestige in certain camps, utter infamy in others.

He died when Lauren was twelve, Caitlyn ten; a brain aneurysm that took him one late afternoon in his Downtown Miami condo. The three of them—Lauren, Caitlyn, and their mother—were unaware at the time of this condo’s existence. They were also unaware that her father was using the condo to conduct his regular rendezvous’ with the various woman he slept with on the side, the last of which took place between him and his recently hired twenty-two-year-old Puerto Rican secretary, Rebecca. And it was Rebecca who was left with the responsibility of dialing 911 that day, hysterically screaming that Lauren’s father had collapsed on her during their lovemaking and she needed somebody to come get him off.

The aftermath was brutal. Lauren’s mother completely forfeited her mourning phase, opting to spend the period of time following his death slandering her father’s name, even at his own funeral. Ultimately the ordeal left Lauren devastated, Caitlyn disenchanted, and their mother a multi-millionaire widow.

Through it all, though, Lauren still remembers her dad as he was around her: loving, funny, warm, handsome. It’s an image her mother’s tried to erase every day since.

Lauren turns onto the property, in the middle of Coral Gables about six blocks from University of Miami, an area that is nothing if not high-end living. The house itself is a two story monstrosity sitting on a few acres of land with an angel fountain out front and a driveway that’s the same width as Lauren’s entire apartment building. There’s a brand new Range Rover parked out front and, as she pulls up behind it, Lauren sees her mother step out of the house with a purse as big as a picnic basket hanging from her wrist. There’s a large sun hat sitting precariously on her head, wisps of curly blond hair fluttering beneath. She’s cut it in the past few weeks since the last Lauren saw her, added some shades of brown streaks too. Lauren parks the car and steps out right as her mom turns and notices she’s there, a broad smile breaking across her youthful face.

“Darling,” she says, coming towards Lauren with outstretched arms. Her mother takes all her cues from old Audrey Hepburn movies, even though she’s only forty-five, way too young to have been affected by them. She didn’t always act like this though. Lauren assumes she saw something on TV sometime not too long after her father died and subsequently created the persona she bombards Lauren with right now.

They embrace and her mom steps back, holding Lauren’s shoulders so her profile is visible.

“You’ve lost weight,” she says. Not in a pleasant tone, but more like Lauren’s anorexic.

“I started running again,” she says.

“Are you eating right?” her mom asks.

“Yes, Mom.”

“You look pale. Did Rick say something to you about your weight?” She cocks her head and purses her lips with determination. “You don’t have to do anything to your body you don’t want to, baby, remember that. Especially not for a man.”

“Mom,” Lauren says. “You exercise more than I do.”

“I do it for myself,” she quips.

“I do too, Mom.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, Mother.”

“Because in the end it’s your body and your mind and he owns neither.”

“Mom,” Lauren says, clenching her teeth. “I started running because it’s healthy.”

She assesses Lauren long and hard. Her mother’s low opinion of men is quite understandable, given the circumstances. It makes her a difficult person to deal with for all parties involved though. She refused to remarry after the funeral, and not for lack of attention. There were all types of interest in those first few years for a beautiful, mid-thirties multi-millionaire, even if she was a widow with two kids. And her mother—consciously or subconsciously, Lauren will never know—used and abused nearly every one of the men that courted her, then left them on the curb with the Monday morning trash. Sometimes literally.

“To what do I owe this pleasure?” she asks.

“I just wanted to visit,” Lauren says.

“What did he do?” she asks, taking a step back, eyes wide.

“Nothing,” Lauren says reflexively.

“You’re lying,” she says and Lauren rolls her eyes. This isn’t some intuitive move on her part. She would think Rick did something even if Lauren came over here with him, grinning ear to ear and doing back flips.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” Lauren says, walking over to the back door of her car. She opens it and unbuckles Justin from his seat, holding him as she closes the door and heads towards the front of the house.

“That is not acceptable,” her mother says behind her, and Lauren can hear her quick, light footsteps in pursuit.

“I don’t care, Mom,” she says. “You don’t have to accept it. I don’t want to talk about it, and I’m not going to.”

“You can’t bottle things up, they’ll only get worse,” she says. “It’s like cancer. You have to catch it early or it’ll spread.”

“Thanks for the analogy, Mom,” Lauren says, opening the front door and stepping inside. “But I think I’ll be fine.”

“What did he do?”

“Nothing, Mother,” Lauren says, turning and glaring at her. “Can you drop it?”

She studies Lauren for a moment, arms crossed, scowling.

“Are you going to at least talk to him about it?” she asks quietly.

“No, I—” Lauren pauses, shaking her head absently. “I wouldn’t even know where to start.”

“So there is something,” she says, smiling triumphantly.

Lauren groans. Her mother studies her face, burning a hole in Lauren’s forehead with her eyes. Lauren’s about to turn away and continue through the door and into the house when her mother points at her.

“He slept with somebody, didn’t he?”

Lauren’s mouth drops open to deny the charge. She can’t though, so she just bounces Justin in her arms, staring at the woman staring back at her. Lauren and her mother look alike in the faintest manner: they’re both around the same height with the same light green almond-shaped eyes. Everything else—Lauren’s dark hair and button nose and puffy cheeks—she got from her father, with her mother bestowing the rest of her bounty on Lauren’s sister: Caitlyn’s got the same full blond hair, the effortlessly proportional figure, the pouty lips and attitude. Lauren feels beautiful most days when she’s away from them and standing in front of her own mirror. Around them, though, it’s a different story.

“I told you, I don’t want to talk about it,” Lauren says finally, her voice wavering a little. She walks inside and puts Justin down on the tile. He sits for a moment then stands, waits until he gets his balance then stumbles across the tile like a drunk, around the corner and into the living room.

“You being here right now is a good thing,” her mother says, nodding. “I can tell that look on your face, the look of betrayal. I’m glad you came to me for support.” She pauses, stepping inside and closing the door behind her. “He slept with somebody, didn’t he?” She repeats.

“Mom,” Lauren says, throat tightening. “Please. Don’t.”

“I knew it,” she says, in such a resigned tone that Lauren’s actually convinced her mother foresaw this moment the day Rick asked her to marry him. “Who is it?” she asks.

“Does it matter?” Lauren says.

Suddenly her mother’s face drops and she approaches Lauren with her arms at her side, palms extended and facing her.

“Oh, baby,” she says. “Baby, I’m so, so sorry.”

Her voice is so soft, catching Lauren so off guard that her defenses don’t have a chance to barricade her emotions. The result is Lauren involuntarily dissolves into her mother, bursting into tears. Her legs grow weak, and when she holds Lauren, Lauren doesn’t hug her back so much as fall into her embrace. Her mother rubs her back and whispers inaudible words into her ear as Lauren unloads into her blouse, clutching the fabric in her fists and shuddering. They stand like that for a moment until Lauren’s gasps begin to subside and she can finally breathe again. Then behind her something crashes and she hears Justin giggle.

Lauren untangles herself from her mother’s grip and dives towards the living room, eyes wide with fright, nose running. She finds Justin sitting on the tile, rubbing his hands through a pile of dried rose petals he knocked out of a glass container sitting on the coffee table. He looks up at her as she approaches, pointing at the rose petals and giggling again then returning to rubbing his hands through them. Then he notices her tears and his face drops.

“Mama?” he says.

“Yes, baby,” Lauren says, crouching next to him. She puts her hands in the pile of rose petals too and rubs them around, trying to distract him. “Roses, baby. Nice, aren’t they?”

Justin looks down at them then back up at her, and she can tell he’s trying to figure out what’s wrong with this situation. She turns her head and swipes quickly at her eyes with the sleeve of her shirt then looks back at him and smiles as wide as she can.

“You want to stay with Grandma for a little?” she asks him.

Justin looks behind her as Lauren’s mother approaches, standing next to her and looking down at them. He giggles again and goes back to rubbing his hands through the flower petals and Lauren sighs, relieved. Her mom smiles, despite a deep sadness in her eyes.

“They’re good at this age,” her mom says. “Manageable, loving.” She pats Lauren’s shoulder. “Then they grow up, and everything turns to shit.”

Lauren wants to respond and tell her mother that she’s wrong. Not all men are bad, and if she has any say in it, Justin is going to grow up to be one of the good ones. Lauren still believes this too, despite the circumstances. But she doesn’t feel like preaching right now, and her lunch break was over fifteen minutes ago.

“Can you watch him tonight?” Lauren asks, clearing her throat. “I have to get back to work then I’m going to hang out with Caitlyn, figure all this out.”

“Caitlyn,” she says, her voice monotone, lips suddenly stretched as thin as they can get.

“Yes, Mom,” Lauren says. “Caitlyn. My sister. Your daughter.”

By the look on her face she obviously wants to give her opinion but is not sure whether or not it’s a good time. It’s not a good time.

“Of course, baby,” she says finally, smiling and rubbing Lauren’s shoulder. It feels good and reminds her why it wasn’t such a horrible idea to come over here. No matter how frustrating they are, family is family. Lauren hugs her again, then they walk to the door. Lauren opens it and faces the Range Rover in the driveway, pointing at it.

“What’s up with that?” Lauren asks, swiping a hand across her cheeks.

“That thing?” she says, cocking her head to the side curiously, as if the car appeared out of nowhere. She sucks her teeth and waves it off. “The Benz was getting old.”

“You traded it in?”

“No, it’s in the garage.”

Lauren rolls her eyes and smiles.

“What do you need with two cars, Mom?”

“Baby,” she says, patting Lauren’s back. “If all we ever got in life was what we needed, things would be pretty damn boring, don’t you think?”


-6-

Driving back to Sideview High with his wallet placed firmly in his back pocket and his cell phone tossed on the dashboard, Sean passes by a Burger King and is struck by a memory of this one day when Maria had been at work and Leon came by the apartment with a bag of cheeseburgers and told Sean he couldn’t have any.

That’s how shit’s been happening with him lately; the smallest thing will trigger a snapshot so vivid it’s like somebody just punched him in the solar plexus with a Polaroid camera.

For some reason though, this day, Leon—instead of just closing the door behind him like he always did and walking over to the couch where Sean was sitting playing Madden—decided to look at the back of Sean and Maria’s front door. Which was how he found “The List.”

“What the fuck is that?” Leon asked, pointing at it and looking back at Sean like he’d just witnessed an alien bursting through their wall.

Sean paused the video game and looked over, immediately tensing up.

“Nothing,” he said. “A list.”

“Obviously, dumbass,” Leon said, peering closer at the paper. “A list of what?”

“Stuff,” Sean said, unpausing the game. “Quit stalling and come get your ass whooping.”

“Stuff like what?”

“Huh?” Sean said dumbly.

“Stuff like what, Sean?” Leon said. “Like, what the hell is this thing?”

“Goals!” Sean yelled. “God, can you not do what you’re thinking of doing? Just let it go.”

“Goals?” Leon said, glancing at Sean then turning back to the list and reading aloud, “Sean: get a real job, set a wedding date, get married, have a kid, start a gym membership, buy a house in a nice neighborhood with a fence, get a dog, figure out the most efficient way to run a 401K without—” He stopped, turning to Sean. “Are you fucking kidding me?”

Sean paused the game again and looked at Leon who was staring at him with his mouth open.

“Those last two were supposed to be a joke,” Sean said.

“Bro,” Leon said, looking back at the list. “Maria’s side says she wants to become chief cardiac surgeon at Baptist and have two kids and a fucking Yorkie.”

“Yorkie’s are cute,” Sean said quietly.

“Did she put you up to this shit?”

“We both came up with it,” Sean said.

“Bullshit,” he said, walking over and sitting on the opposite end of the couch. “No way you came up with that shit. And if you did, I need to seriously reconsider our friend ship.” He paused. “And by ‘reconsider’ I mean ‘terminate.’”

“We both came up with it,” Sean repeated, feigning an attitude. “What’s your problem?”

“Is that really what you want?” he asked, pointing at the list.

Sean nodded and opened his mouth to affirm the nod with a “yes” but all that came out was a grunt. He looked away from Leon, who stared at his best friend for a moment, waiting.

“Sean!” he yelled.

“Yeah!” Sean yelled back. “Yes, ok? That’s what I want.”

Leon sat back, studying the bag of burgers clutched in his fist, his expression blank. He sat like that for a while, then finally opened the bag and pulled a burger out. And Sean was just beginning to think he was going to let it go, pick up a controller and get grease all over it again so Sean would have to go get a wet napkin from the kitchen to clean it after he left—as usual—when Leon looked back at him and pointed at the list again.

“You know that’s not possible anymore, right?” he said.

Sean raised an eyebrow.

“What’s not possible?”

“That,” he said, emphatically pointing at the list now like he’s stabbing it with an imaginary knife. “That shit. Not possible. Not like it used to be anyways. Was totally possible for our parents. Fuckin’ A”—he chuckled contemptuously—“that shit was easy for our parents’. But not us.”

“What are you talking about?” Sean asked.

“It’s just not gonna happen,” he said. “Not possible.”

“Anything’s possible.”

“Sure,” Leon said. “If you’re rich. And you don’t have student loans coming out of your asshole. Neither of which applies to you.”

“Funny.”

“Seriously, what’d you tell me you’re at now?” he said. “A hundred thou’?”

“Seventy-five,” Sean muttered.

“You know how long it’s going to take to pay that shit off on a bartender’s salary?” he asked, still pointing at the list, so that Sean wondered if his arm was getting tired. “You think any of that shit’s possible with that over your head? Why are you even setting yourself up for that fall?”

“This conversation’s not comfortable in any way,” Sean said. “Just in case you’re wondering.”

“I’m just being real, bro,” Leon said, facing forward again and unwrapping the burger in his lap. “Maria’s got you brainwashed, thinking you guys are going to live some Brady Bunch life or some shit.” He chuckles. “That was the 60’s and 70’s, man. This is the 21st century. I’m making 60K a year and living with my parents. Know why?”

“Because you’re a fucking bum?” Sean said.

“Partly,” Leon said, unfazed. “But mostly because I’m realistic. I know that shit’s different now than it used to be. All I’m trying to do is make sure I’m not bankrupt by time I’m thirty.” He pauses and points a finger in Sean’s face. “And that I’m having fun.  You should be concentrating on that shit, Sean. Worry about yourself. Not”—he turned and pointed at The List again—“Whatever the fuck that is.”

They dropped the conversation after that—Leon taking a bite of his burger and getting ketchup and mayo all over his shirt—and he never brought The List up again. So Sean never really got the chance—or had a reason to at least—to tell Leon how much that conversation stuck with him. He doesn’t know if that slight change in his outlook had anything to do with everything that happened over the next few months—the deterioration of his and Maria’s relationship, the deterioration of Sean’s overall mood, culminating in Maria leaving him to go fuck somebody else and Leon crashing his car into a wall late one Saturday night—but Sean does know that everything Leon said to him that day touched some deep recess in his mind, some part he’d been ignoring for so long it had gotten pissed and turned to the dark side, coming out later on to rear its ugly head and put him where he’s at right now.

Which is Sean’s excuse for why he spits out a stream of curse words and flicks off the old lady in the car next to him when she tries to slip in his lane, honking his horn and speeding around her.

This ain’t a fucking charity.


-7-

Lauren puts on her white lab coat and sits on a stool near one of the two computers housing the pharmaceutical database. Steve fiddles away on the other one to her left, the huge bald spot in the middle of his head gleaming in the fluorescent light above. The pharmacy is empty at midday, and they don’t usually get their rush until around 4:30. Lauren leaves at 5:30, so she only has to deal with it for an hour before Lynda, the other pharmacy tech, comes in.

On the counter in front of Lauren are stacks of prescription labels and a separate stack of white paper bags with the CVS logo printed across them. Her job is to count the pills, put them in a bottle, put the label on it, and give it to Steve—the pharmacist—for verification.

The first label calls for Yasmin, birth control. She grabs the paper, fills the prescription, then tries to fill the next one, but can’t. She really doesn’t want to be here right now. She knows she has to be, but knowing that doesn’t change her desire to get up and walk out. Actually, it makes the desire even stronger.

There’s an US Weekly shelf on a rack near the pharmacy’s cash register, and for some reason she always finds herself staring at it. She has each week’s cover memorized within hours of it being on the shelf, though she’s never actually bought an issue. Reese Witherspoon’s on this week’s—smiling her jack-o-lantern smile with the headline “Reese is Pregnant” printed across her chest—and Lauren wonders if things are different for Reese and all other actresses like her. The thought seems irrational—of course shit’s different; she’s an actress—but it’s there and Lauren can’t make it go away: does Reese Witherspoon see life as one big movie? Does she call up past films in her mind when she gets stuck in a rocky situation? When she and Ryan Phillippe got divorced in real life, did she say to herself, “Shit, I’ll be okay. This is just like Sweet Home Alabama”?

Lauren wishes her life had a personal screenwriter, and that she could peek over his shoulder every once in a while and offer some suggestions. Or just fire him and get a new one.

For just a second, Lauren wonders if she’s going insane. But insane people don’t think they’re insane, everybody knows that. But since it’s common knowledge, doesn’t that mean an insane person could use it to convince themselves they’re not actually insane? Wouldn’t that make them even more insane?

“Lauren?”

She glances up and Steve’s eyeing her curiously, the wrinkles in the corners of his mouth and eyes more pronounced when he frowns.

“You ok?” he asks.

Lauren clears her throat, brushing a piece of lint off her pants.

“Yeah,” she says. “Fine. Why?”

“You’ve been sitting there staring at the wall for like ten minutes,’ he says.

The US Weekly catches her eye again, and she feels the urge to shudder but pushes it away.

“Sorry,” she says. “I’m just—nothing.”

“No problem,” he says. “Think you could watch the register for a sec, though? Jared’s taking a break.”

Jared is their cashier, an eighteen year old high school senior who is allowed to leave school early so he can come in here smelling like weed and do nothing but stare at the locked Controlled Substances cabinet in the back for unnaturally long periods of time. He also takes half hour smoke breaks whenever he wants with seemingly no consequence. It aggravates her.

Lauren nods and walks over to the register, poking at it as if it’s an alien machine. She’s about to sit on a stool when a man walks up to the counter. He’s attractive, older, thirty maybe.

“Pick up for last name Stetson,” he says. “Linus Stetson.”

“Linus?” she repeats. She tries to keep the amusement out of her voice, but it’s there already, not going anywhere.

“Yeah,” he says, staring at her and repeating, slowly, “Linus.”

“Ok, sorry,” she says, her face heating up. “Just a sec.”

Lauren spins around and searches the shelves behind her for Linus Stetson’s prescription. It’s not there, so she walks over to the recently bagged prescriptions, lined up and waiting for Steve to double check and sign off. Linus’s is in the middle. She could pull it out of the queue and watch Steve roll his eyes and sign it reluctantly then listen to him tell her later that he doesn’t like to upset the order of things and that customers can wait their turn and blah blah blah. Steve doesn’t get mad. Ever, about anything from what she can tell. But he does get this look in his eyes that borders somewhere between annoyance and pity whenever something interrupts his routine. Lauren can’t imagine what his home life must be like. Regardless, she could get Linus Stetson out of here in the next five minutes.

But she doesn’t want to. Lauren wants Linus to hang around a little longer.

So she walks back over to the register and smiles at him.

“Sorry, Mr. Stetson,” she says. “It’s not ready yet. A few more minutes, if you want to wait around.”

Linus  surveys the area surrounding the pharmacy counter, pausing with his eyes on the chair attached to the blood pressure machine near the back wall.

“I’ll just wait here?” he says, curling his voice at the end so it’s a question.

“Sure,” Lauren says.

Linus takes a seat and Lauren picks up the issue of US Weekly she was staring at earlier, flipping through it. It’s maybe 30 seconds later that she hears someone clear their throat and glances up to catch Linus watching her with a sly grin on his face.

“You were making fun of me,” he says. “Weren’t you?”

Lauren has no idea what he’s talking about so she frowns, turning her head to the side. Linus chuckles, shifting in his seat.

“My name,” he says. “You were mocking my name.”

“No I wasn’t,” Lauren says, though she can feel her face turning red. She smiles shyly, looking away. “Not really.”

“I didn’t name myself you know.”

“I’m sure of it,” Lauren says. “Nothing wrong with yours either way. It just made me think of Peanuts.”

“Peanuts?” he says, raising an eyebrow.

“The comic strip.”

Still nothing.

“Charles Schultz?” she says, and when he still looks confused she sighs. “Charlie Brown, Snoopy. Linus is the kid with the blanket.”

“Ohhh,” he says, nodding. Lauren studies him for a second—taking in his strong jaw line and slicked back hair—before returning to the magazine.

“You been working here long?” he asks.

Lauren notices right then the discomfort rising in her and tries to push it down. She knew—consciously or subconsciously, doesn’t really matter, she just knew somewhere—that Linus was going to end up hitting on her. Most women know things like this, not so much when they’re younger but definitely as age and experience start to accumulate. It’s in the way guys walk when they see a girl they’re attracted to. The changeup actually; a different swagger that isn’t exactly the same in every man but is discernible from plain ordinary walking.

Linus paused before approaching the counter, checked Lauren out, then avoided her eyes until now. Sure indicator.

But the fact that she’s feeling the familiar discomfort associated with being hit on as a married woman—the feeling she’s gotten quite used to over the past few years—is disconcerting considering the circumstances. It’s so deeply ingrained in her that she can’t seem to bypass it, even by replaying in her mind what she just witnessed Rick and Natalie doing not even two hours ago.

The image isn’t doing anything but turning her stomach in knots, making her not want to talk to Linus at all.

Lauren realizes right then that the prospect of being single—of recent events leading to a divorce and her being a single mother with child support checks and the like—scares her to death. Dating itself is such a frightening, vulnerable time period, no matter what the circumstances. It sucks, really. She doesn’t want to go through all that again.

“You okay?” Linus says.

“Yeah,” Lauren says quickly. “Uh…what were you saying?”

“I asked how long you’ve been working here,” he says.

“Oh,” she says, shrugging. “A while. Not too long. Couple of—you know.”

He nods, giving her a sideways glance.

“That long, huh?” he says.

Lauren smiles, though she suddenly wants Jared to finish his long ass smoke break and come back to his post at the register now so she can return to her job in the background, bagging pills and avoiding the general public.

“A while,” she says. “Since college.”

“College,” he says, nodding. “How long ago was that?”

“College?”

Linus nods and Lauren shrugs.

“Couple of years now.”

“For a pharmacist, you sure aren’t into specifics.”

“I’m not a pharmacist,” she says, pointing at him. “Pharmacy technician.”

“Isn’t that the same thing?”

“Not even close,” Lauren says.

“What’s the difference?”

“About six years of schooling and forty thousand in pay,” she says.

Linus chuckles and Lauren smiles at the sound, pleasant and masculine. She feels a little more relaxed, but still a little uncomfortable. So familiar, this feeling. The flirtation, the breaking down of barriers, layer by layer.

Can she actually do this again? Go through this process over and over until she meets another Rick? Because, really—what else is there? Lauren and Rick were best friends before they became lovers, which is the supposed dream start to a relationship everybody’s always raving about. If that doesn’t work out, what else really is there? Sleeping with a complete stranger? Being single the rest of her life? Both sound equally horrible.

“So,” Linus says, rubbing his hands together. “This is what you went to school for? Pharmacy stuff?”

“No,” she says, then chuckles. “Actually, I was a literature major.”

Linus’s eyebrows rise slowly.

“Really? Literature?” He glances up at the ceiling, as if he just realized where he is. “How does a lit major end up here?”

“How?” Lauren says, then chuckles, trying to hide the contempt that threatens to pop into her voice. “She gets pregnant, withdraws from school and finds a job so that she can support herself and her son.”

Linus’s face drops.

“I’m sorry,” he says.

“Don’t be,” Lauren says, shaking her head, suddenly in a confrontational mood. “Why should you be?”

“I don’t know,” he says, shrugging. “Sounds like a sore subject.”

“No, I didn’t mean it like that,” she says, picturing Justin. “I love my son to death. Definitely more than I loved college.”

There’s a brief moment of silence after this revelation, during which Linus goes back to avoiding Lauren’s eyes. She’s thinking that she blew it—she remembers being a lot better at the single thing pre-Rick—and is resigning herself to reading US Weekly again when Linus clears his throat one more time and she looks back up at him.

“You going back?” he asks.

“Where?”

“College,” he says. “You plan on going back?”

And before she can think of a proper answer, she blurts out the first thing that comes to mind:

“Why would I?”

“To finish your degree,” he says.

“Yeah, I get it,” she says. “But—why?”

“To get a better job?”

“I’m okay with this one,” she says.

“Yeah,” he says, shifting in his seat again. “But—I don’t know. Can’t you make more money?”

“Linus,” she says, leveling her eyes at him. “I was an English major.”

Another pause.

“Well,” he says, scratching his head. “I don’t know then.”

And suddenly, the whole situation is too much. Lauren feels it rising and, before she can stop herself, she bursts out laughing. Linus laughs a moment later, and soon they’re both stifling hysterics. And it feels good, all thirty seconds of it. To share a laugh with somebody about a subject she hasn’t ever really seen much humor in.

In the midst of it, Steve walks up with a tray of filled prescriptions, pausing to stare at Lauren and Linus. Lauren stops laughing abruptly, though there’s still a smile on her face as she grabs Linus’s prescription and Steve goes back to his post. Lauren rings it up, noticing his prescription is for Nexium, used to treat gastroesophageal reflux disease, also known as GERD or acid-reflux. She knows this because Rick takes the same medication. It causes her to pause for a second as she hands Linus the bag and his receipt, just long enough for Linus’s eyes to drift to her hand.

“Oh,” he says.

“What?” she asks.

“Nice ring,” he says, nodding towards her ring finger. “How long you been married?”

Lauren flexes it, touching the band as if it just appeared out of nowhere.

“Yeah,” she says quietly. “Couple of years.” And she’s unable to muster any sort of emotion into the response. Not anger, not affection, nothing. No further explanation either.

Linus stands there for a moment then picks up his prescription bag, crumpling the corners in his palm.

“Lucky guy,” he says, smiling.

Lauren smiles back, but stays quiet, so Linus pats the counter once and turns, walking towards the front of the store and then out the door. Lauren opens her mouth to call him back a total of three times before he disappears, then she just sits there staring at nothing. Jared comes back from his break a moment later and Lauren heads back to her stool next to Steve, who watches her intently. When she notices from the corner of her eye she looks at him.

“What?”

“Nothing,” he says, then stops fiddling with his computer and turns to face her fully. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

“Yeah,” she says, grabbing a prescription bag and nodding, utterly dismayed to find herself fighting back tears.

Click to Read Step Three

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