Imagine me, p.15

Imagine Me, page 15

 

Imagine Me
 


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He stormed out, his white lab coat fanning behind him. I looked to Jo and her eyes were just as wide with confusion as mine.

  “Jo, I didn’t . . .” I swallowed past the lump in my throat trying to push back the burn in my eyes. I needed to walk into that office calmly and not be all emotional.

  “I know. Just go talk to Dr. Voet, and it will get sorted out.”

  I fumbled out of my chair and rushed down the hall to Dr. Voet.

  “Dr. Stahl, obviously there was a mistake and as I said before, we will look into the situation.” Dr. Voet’s calm voice reached outside the office and when I walked through the door, it was to Dr. Stahl looming over the dean’s desk and Dr. Voet leaning back in his chair, relaxed and unconcerned.

  “What do you mean look into it?” He shook the papers between them. “The proof is right here. What more do you need?”

  “We need to consider everything. More than just one missing signature.”

  “Let me look into it. It’s my lab and my incompetent research associate. I’ll deal with her.”

  “The department can deal with the issue. But thank you for offering.”

  Dr. Voet met my eyes when I walked in and gave me a small, almost undetectable nod. It eased only the slightest pinch in my chest, but the vice was still there squeezing the breath from my lungs. Dr. Stahl turned to see me walk in and scowled. As I got closer, I could see sweat beading at his temples he was so worked up.

  “It’s because she’s a woman, isn’t it? Women shouldn’t be in the science lab. Men are too soft on them.”

  “Enough, Professor.” Dr. Voet’s voice rang with authority.

  Dr. Stahl’s jaw clenched and he turned, scowling at me as he walked past, muttering “Women shouldn’t be in the science lab. Men are too soft on them.”

  Once he cleared the door, Dr. Voet seemed to let out a breath he’d been holding and ran a hand over his hair, pulling his thick-rimmed glasses off.

  “I’m sorry about this, Juliana.”

  “I don’t know what happened. I signed for the delivery into the lab and took them straight to storage where I signed them in. I don’t—”

  He was shaking his head before I even finished. “Don’t worry. We’ll figure it out.”

  I took a deep, shaky breath and nodded my head.

  “You can head home for the rest of the day. Not as a punishment,” he rushed to finish when he saw my eyes widen in fear of being reprimanded and banished from the lab.

  “I, um . . .I have a procedure I’m in the middle of. I can’t leave it.”

  “Sure, sure. I just didn’t want you to feel uncomfortable with Dr. Stahl today.”

  I chuckled softly. “When are we not uncomfortable around him?”

  “True.” He laughed at my joke and before we said goodbye, he told me to come to him with any issues and promised to keep me informed on whatever they found.

  It didn’t really settle anything and the stress of the day caused me to mess up my procedure twice. Rather than waste anymore materials, I caved and left the lab an hour early. Jo gave me a sad smile and told me we’d order pizza when she got home.

  Thursday was another day to add to the shit-show I called my life. I’d woken up late and had to rush to the station, forgetting my lunch. I tried to hold strong and just go without lunch, but my stomach grumbled on repeat for a solid hour and the technicians were looking at me like an alien was about to pop out of my stomach. Then my hands got too shaky to pipette and that was the final straw. I needed to at least grab a bag of chips. It was late anyway.

  No one is going to be there. He won’t be there. It will be fine.

  I said it on repeat when I walked the halls, looking left and right like I was escaping prison.

  I arrived to a cafeteria that was much busier than I expected, but hoped the crowd would hide me. I was standing in line, two away from ordering my sandwich at the little kiosk, when I saw him. He stood by the door talking to his partner, his profile so beautiful and hitting me right in the chest. As though he could feel my stare, his head turned and his eyes met mine. He was too far away for me to read his expression, but his eyes lingered on me longer than a glimpse.

  My heart kicked up in my chest and the world got quiet, my blood pumping in my ears the only sound around me.

  Did he miss me?

  Did he want to run across the room and pull me into a kiss?

  Did he want to proclaim his love right then and there?

  Then his partner slapped him on his shoulder and drew his attention away, the moment broken. All my foolish imaginations crumbled and I resigned myself to the fact he was probably staring at my boobs the whole time. My heart fell to my feet and being a glutton for punishment, I stared a little longer.

  I missed him.

  And it hurt.

  “Hell of a man, amiright?” My attention jerked to the petite blonde standing next to me, also staring at Shane with a small smile that said she would strip for him if he’d asked. She leaned in closer to me. “Between us women, he fucks like a freight train, too.”

  She nudged me with her elbow and smiled before stepping up to the counter to order. Frozen, I stood there watching this woman order her sandwich. Wondering what she shared with Shane. Wondering how many others there were. Wondering why I thought I was different.

  I was no longer hungry. My stomach pitched, and I swallowed hard, looking over to where Shane was, the spot now empty. I stumbled out of the cafeteria, back to the lab on auto pilot, barely functioning through the motions, screwing up more procedures again.

  God, I was such a mess.

  Deciding not to waste the department’s materials, I filled out paperwork and oversaw other’s work until it was time to go.

  My body felt both hollow and heavy. I wanted to cry and do nothing. All of it tugging at my insides.

  I felt some relief at making it through the day, at least until I drove home and Betsy broke down half-way there. I managed to get her off to the side of the road where I screamed and sobbed and beat my steering wheel. So mad at my damn car for betraying me too this week. I let it all out, steaming up the windows with the amount of heat my anger produced.

  Once I’d finished, I dug my phone out of my purse and called the insurance company, knowing what to do after Shane had helped me last time. The driver came and towed my car to a shop. He was even nice to offer me a ride home and didn’t ask any questions about why my eyes were so red.

  He let me stare out the window and only gave me a nod when I muttered my thanks. Probably realizing what a lost cause I was.

  Friday, I used a sick day to wallow on the couch, eat ice cream and take-out, and feel sorry for myself. I didn’t shower. I didn’t brush my teeth. And I ignored all messages on my phone.

  Saturday, I repeated it all over again.

  Chapter 21

  Sunday, I finally decided to get up and out of my wallowing.

  And by decided, I meant that Jo came into my room with a mug of iced coffee that read, I ain’t no baby bitch. She plopped down heavily on my bed, making me bounce, and let me know I was starting to stink.

  I gave her a strong side-eye, letting her know I didn’t appreciate her honesty and reached for the mug. I turned on the television in my room and we watched a morning game show as we finished our drinks without talking.

  “You smell like a stinky hobo,” she said once the show had ended.

  “You’re too sweet, Jo.”

  “Just keeping it real.” She turned to look at me with sad, but hard eyes. “You know we don’t need to talk about it. I know enough to hurt with you. But no matter the hurt, you need to get up and bathe yourself. Otherwise, I will be forced to either dump a bucket of water on you, or kick you out. I can’t be having that kind of stank lingering when I bring my future husband over.”

  “Wouldn’t want to ruin your prospects. That’s the only reason I’ll shower. Because you need to find a husband before your family kidnaps you and marries you off to their idea of a ‘good man’.”
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  “Anything but that.” She shifted to face me, her eyes pleading. “Please bathe so I can choose my own husband.”

  “Okay, but just for you.”

  She fell back on the bed dramatically, arms thrown up in victory. My eyes burned then because it hit me how lucky I was to have her. She didn’t need to have a conversation about what was wrong with me. She let me be a stinky hobo until it was enough, and then called me out in a roundabout way that made me laugh for the first time in a few days.

  I patted her hand and then rolled out of bed, grabbing my clothes and heading to the shower. When I was clean again, I walked into the living area, and she didn’t even look up from the magazine she was flipping through when she announced, “We’re going to Sunday brunch.”

  “No.”

  Page flip. “Yes.”

  “Jo.”

  Page flip. “Yes.”

  “I don’t wa-”

  Her head finally lifted and she stared me down, interrupting me firmly. “Yes!”

  Narrowing my eyes, I tried to hold strong. She gave me a bored stare, unamused with my weak glare. Finally, I caved and rolled my eyes. “Fine.”

  Her lips curled and she wore a victorious smile before returning to her magazine. “It will be good for you. And I’m in the mood for some delicious free food.”

  While we waited until it was time to leave, we watched another game show, because we were super productive like that, and she caught me up on Dr. Stahl during the commercials. Apparently, he’d been on a ragey bender and even yelled at a couple of students in the lab for the mistakes they were making. Not even an advanced lab, but the lab for non-chemistry majors. He’d made a big hoopla about having been assigned to teach the class, saying it was beneath him, although every teacher did their rounds teaching it.

  Listening to her tell me how one girl left crying and headed to the dean’s office, made me feel a little bit better about skipping Friday. Although I felt bad for leaving Jo to deal with it all.

  I headed to my room to finish getting dressed when my phone rang. My heart jumped into my throat, and I hated myself for scrambling to get it, hoping it would be Shane. I was an idiot and a glutton for punishment.

  It was my mom. Just seeing her name made me eager to talk to her after such a shit week.

  “Hey, Mama.”

  “Hey baby. You sound sad,” she said in her soft Southern accent.

  Mama knew me better than anyone, which is why it was so easy for her to read me in only two words. I wished she could coddle me like she did when I was younger. I swallowed the lump trying to make its way up my throat and worked to get a half-lie out.

  “I’m just tired. It’s been stressful at work and my boss is kind of being a dick, which makes it worse.”

  “Well, no one is a dick to my baby girl.”

  I snorted at hearing my mom say dick. A Southern belle never said such vulgar words. “Thanks, Mama.”

  She laughed with me before getting serious. “Enough with the giggles. What’s going on?”

  I wanted to admit everything to her. Fall at her feet and beg her to hold me. But I left claiming how strong and independent I was, and falling apart now would let her know I was failing. And while my mom was the most supportive of my family, she’d latch on to it and use it as reasons to get me back home. So, I settled on a vague truth.

  “Just . . .Just some boy troubles.”

  “Oh, baby. What happened?

  “Nothing.” I didn’t want to have to explain everything, it would only make it worse. I just wanted the comfort from her.

  “You want me to tell your father?” she joked. “You just give me that boy’s name.”

  Her joke worked, because I imagined my mom marching up to my father and demanding he do something about a boy who made her little girl sad. “No, don’t tell Daddy. He’d tell me if I was in Texas, I wouldn’t have to worry. That no Southern gentleman would break my heart, and then he’ll push for me to come home.”

  Her deep breath reached me over the line. “He just wants what’s best for you.”

  “And you? Do you think Texas is best for me? Do you think giving up what I love to stand at a man’s side and run charities is best for me?”

  I knew she thought being close to her in Texas was best, but hoped she’d maybe softened her stance on it. She had been more understanding than Daddy had been, but still rooted in tradition.

  “I knew you needed space, Juliana. You always were so stubborn, demanding to do everything yourself. But you can’t blame me for wanting to keep my baby close. We just want our little girl to be taken care of. Especially if something should ever happen to us.”

  It was an argument I’d heard before. My parents were older. They’d had Jack when they were in their late thirties and then I came as a surprise. They’d done all the treatments to get pregnant with Jack and got lucky early on. After him, it took a lot longer for her to get pregnant again. When they’d finally given up, I came along.

  I was the little girl they never thought they’d get. I tried to understand, but when I was suffocating under the pressure, it was hard to see it from their perspective.

  “I know, Mama,” I said, even if I didn’t.

  “I hate that you’re hurting alone.”

  Her soft words caused a burn behind my eyelids. I hadn’t had many heartbreaks when I first started dating. Then early on, I’d gone steady with Hudson, but when I had the occasional upset, she’d always been there. I missed her now.

  “I’m not alone.” I tried to reassure her and myself. “I have Jolene.”

  “Have you told Jack?”

  “God no. He’s almost worse than dad when it comes to me dating.”

  She laughed remembering all the times Jack would come back from the Army to warn off the guys at school with his presence alone.

  “I’m going to brunch in a bit, so I won’t be alone. You don’t need to worry.”

  Before we ended the call, she brought up one last thing that made me cringe. “You know, Hudson’s been asking about you more.”

  Hudson had been messaging me on and off. A mix between doubtful messages, checking in, and sweet words, talking about memories of good times and how it could be that good again. But I’d been so busy that I hadn’t taken him too seriously or really paid him any attention.

  For a moment, at the mention of his name, I missed him. I missed being wanted by someone as much as Hudson seemed to want me.

  “Hudson should know better,” I said, trying to deter my mom from hoping for anything between us. I missed him, but it was more of a moment of sadness rather than actually wanting him.

  “That boy is just as stubborn as you are.”

  “We did butt heads more often than not,” I said, laughing at the memories of us as kids. “But, Mama, Hudson’s not what I want anymore, and no amount of stubbornness will change that.”

  “I know, baby.” She sounded resigned, but still my sympathetic mom.

  “I’m sorry I’m not coming home. I’m sorry I can’t be the woman you raised me to be.”

  “Juliana,” she reprimanded. “You know we always love you. You get your stubbornness from your father. And sooner or later he will come around and express how proud he is of you. He’s a sore loser and you’re his baby. He wanted to do everything he could to keep you close.”

  “Including doubting me? Pushing his expectations on me?” My bitterness at his lack of support slipped through my words.

  “We both love you. And your father never doubted you. I think that’s what scared him the most, why he fought so hard to make you stay. Because he knew once you left, that you would figure out how successful you could be on your own two feet.”

  I didn’t know what to say to that. Maybe I’d struggled to see past my determination to prove him wrong. Maybe I’d let my bitterness over how he’d shunned my need to be my own person, that I didn’t remember the supportive man who raised me my whole life. My mother was right. I did get my stubbornness from him.<
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  “I love you, Mama.”

  “We love you too.”

  Swallowing past the lump in my throat, I looked up at a Jolene grabbing her things and getting ready to go.

  “Hey, Mama. I have to get going. I’ll tell Jack you said hi.”

  “Okay, baby. Call me if you need me. Give Lu a kiss for me.”

  “I will. Bye.”

  I hung up and stared at the phone, feeling better for having talked to my mom and worse because she always reminded me how much they wanted me home.

  And there were times this week when heading home hadn’t sounded so horrible.

  On a whim of homesickness, I pulled up Hudson’s name and quickly sent a message before we left. I didn’t think about the implications. I just thought of the best memory I wanted to remember at that moment. One that reminded me of how it felt to not feel so hollow.

  Me: Remember that night we took a joy ride around the golf course in the cart, and we stopped to watch the stars just to get caught by the sprinklers? I laughed so hard that night.

  Me: Just reminiscing. I miss talking and laughing with my friend.

  Brunch was a struggle. It hurt to laugh and I had to force every smile.

  “What’s wrong with you,” Jack asked. Apparently I hadn’t been hiding my pain well enough.

  “I’m just tired.”

  “Well, that sucks Jules. Try getting more sleep.” Unlike my mom, Jack believed my lie. Although, I had to fight to keep from rolling my eyes at his lame suggestion.

  “Thanks for that sage advice. I never thought of getting more sleep,” I deadpanned. “On top of it all, work is a fucking mess.”

  “A mess is an understatement,” Jolene muttered.

  “What’s going on,” Luella asked.

  I broke down what had happened at the lab and everything with Dr. Stahl.

  “What a dick,” Evie said, mirroring my mom’s words.

  “I can’t believe he’d try and pin something like that on you.” Luella said around a clenched jaw. “I’m sure they’ll get to the bottom of it, Jules.”

  “Thanks guys.”

 
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