A few minutes later, she came back out, heading straight for my table. She set the cheese fries down and smiled at me politely. “Can I get you anything else?”
“Yes.” I smiled back, though I still felt uncertain, could feel the blush warming my face. “A cup of coffee. But not just any coffee. Diner coffee. I’ve never had it before and it’s been a lifelong dream to experience it. I was hoping you’d buy me a cup.”
She let out a breath. “You and your lifelong dreams.”
I grinned. “I’ve got a few. I bet you do, too.”
“This is my dream, sugar.” She swept her arm around the dim club. “What more could any girl want?” She leaned on the table with one hand, her tray held out to the side with the other. “Stop coming here, Gabriel. This is not the place for you. You don’t belong here.”
“Neither do you.”
“Stop it. I’m sorry I couldn’t help you. I’m sorry I was the wrong girl. But I don’t know why you think I don’t belong here, because I do.”
“You hate it.”
“So what? You’re the savior of strippers everywhere who hate their job? I have to make a living, Gabe.”
I closed my eyes, frustrated with her, but mostly frustrated with myself. I was making a complete mess out of this. “Just coffee, that’s all I want.” Just to see you smile.
“That’s not all you want. You want to save me from my intolerable life of pain and misery.” She put a hand on her chest in overdone drama. “I’m not a project, and I don’t want your help.”
“I’m not here to fix you. I just want—”
“What do you want?”
I let out a sigh, running my hand through my hair. “Just to talk. I like you.” God, could that sound any more lame? I wanted to grimace at my own feeble attempt to sway her.
She stared at me for a moment, something flickering behind her eyes that I wasn’t sure how to read. Whatever it was, she was fighting it. That cynical smirk curved her lips, but there was something shaky about it. “Don’t they all?” She stood straight, letting out a tired-sounding exhale. “That’s just sexual attraction, Gabe. You’ll get over it.” She didn’t say it meanly, though. Just as if she was sharing a fact she’d learned long ago. Something about it made sadness well up inside me. She started to turn away.
“I’m not giving up on you. I’m coming back.”
She shrugged one delicate shoulder. “It’s a free country. You do whatever you want. But I suggest you get out of here and go find the right girl.”
“What if I still think you’re the right girl?”
“Then you’re wrong.” She turned and walked away.
I spent another twenty minutes nursing my beer, contemplating what she’d said. Was I here to fix her? Was that even worse than asking her to help fix me?
She didn’t return to my table. Her section kept her busy enough, but I knew she was avoiding me, and I wasn’t sure I could blame her completely. She went to the back, and when she hadn’t emerged ten minutes later, I signed the credit card slip the waitress had brought a few minutes before and started walking away. With a sudden thought, I turned back and used the pen in the bill folder to write my cell phone number on a napkin and then folded it in half and wrote Crystal’s name on the front. I almost balled it up—who even knew if she’d get it, and if she did, she’d most likely toss it out. With a sigh, I left it there anyway and turned and walked toward the door.
All the way home, I vowed not to go back again. It was hopeless. Move on, Gabriel. Let her be, and do what she said. Find someone else.
* * *
The next day, I helped George in the quarry, directing the machines and trucks that cut and hauled the stone. The physical labor involved in constant hikes from the bottom of the quarry to the top, combined with the nonstop activity, kept me distracted enough that I didn’t drive myself crazy with my own thoughts. The crew didn’t necessarily need my help, but there was always something to do at the quarry, and I enjoyed the strenuous work at least a couple of times a week. It usually helped inspire creativity the next day—something about putting my body to work and emptying my brain. It was a type of therapy, I supposed. Then again, so was carving.
As I was heading up the hill, George fell in stride beside me. “Thanks for the help today. Got something on your mind?” He grinned over at me.
George wasn’t one to pry, and was a man of few words. I didn’t often discuss personal things with him, and he’d never asked me about what I’d experienced in that basement all those years. I knew in my gut he’d talk about it if I brought it up, but I’d never felt the need to, not with him, and I appreciated that he respected that boundary. So when I stopped and turned to him and asked, “George, how do you know when to give up on someone?” he looked mildly surprised.
He paused, looking off behind my shoulder, before turning his wise eyes back to me. “We talking about a female someone?”
I laughed softly. “Maybe.”
“Maybe.” One side of his lips quirked up in a half smile. “Well, is she giving you any reason to be persistent?”
I sighed. “Not so much. But I just, I have this feeling …” My words died. I didn’t know how to finish that sentence. This feeling that what? That she’s mine. The words rose up inside me so strongly I almost stumbled. “This feeling …,” I murmured again, feeling both off-balance and somehow energized.
George glanced at me worriedly. “Uh-huh.” He paused again, seeming to consider his words. “Well, kid, I guess there’s no one answer to that. I think you have to go with your gut.”
I smiled. “That’s what my dad used to say.”
He smiled back. “Yeah, sounds like him.” Affection moved over his face at the mention of my dad, his best friend. “I think you should trust yourself, Gabriel. The answers are in here.” He tapped a hand over his heart. “Whatever you decide, I have faith it’s the right choice.” He paused as if he was gathering his next words. “It’s not the things you do with love and good intentions that you end up regretting. It’s the things you don’t do that you have to live with. Be honest with yourself about your intentions, Gabriel, and then follow your heart. Regardless of the outcome, you’ll never live with regret.”
“Thanks, George. I kind of needed that vote of confidence.”
“Gabriel, where you’re concerned, I’m always confident.” He winked and walked away, toward the office.
I went home and took a quick shower, George’s words—my dad’s words—echoing in my head. Go with your gut. My gut told me to try again with Crystal.
Before I could talk myself out of it, I got in my truck and headed to the Platinum Pearl. I’d told her I wasn’t giving up on her. I’d said it. Maybe I shouldn’t have, but I had. I couldn’t make a fool of myself forever. If she never reciprocated the effort, I’d have no choice but to give up eventually, but I was willing to check my pride again to prove to Crystal I hadn’t just delivered empty words. I had a feeling Crystal was well acquainted with empty words.
I sat at a different table this time, but one still far back from the stage. All the tables at the front of the room were taken—the men crowded together, anxious to see the dancers up close and personal. A small flicker of jealousy lit inside me at the thought of all the men gaping at Crystal, but I tried my best to extinguish it. I couldn’t even get her to have a cup of coffee with me. I had no right to be jealous.
I hoped I had arrived after she’d danced but with enough time to be seated before she came out to serve drinks, and it seemed I had lucked out with my timing. Twenty minutes after I got there, Crystal emerged wearing her waitressing outfit. She stopped in the doorway, an empty tray in her hand. My heart flipped over. A loose braid fell over one shoulder, several pieces of hair already escaping and hanging around her heavily made-up face. She looked both innocent and far, far too knowing at the same time. A complete paradox.
I felt somewhat anonymous as I watched her from the crowded room, sitting in a place she wouldn’t necessarily expect. I hadn’t meant to set things up so I could watch her without her seeing me, but as it turned out, that’s just what I was able to do. She seemed to make it a point not to look at the table I usually sat at, but I watched as she moved into the room, and I saw the moment her eyes darted quickly to that table and then lingered on the guys who were sitting there. Something bleak seemed to come into her eyes, a sort of knowing apathy as if she’d figured I wouldn’t be there and it confirmed her low expectations. Or was I reading too much into one fleeting expression?
Trust yourself. Go with your gut.
She turned my way, and when our eyes met, I saw her jerk slightly, so slightly, but I’d seen it. She blinked once and then sauntered my way, stopping in front of my table. I wanted to stand, but I had no reason to do that, so I looked up at her, feeling awkward and shy—knowing that just by being here I was asking her to hurt me, and yet not being able to stop myself. Coming back here—it felt irrational and illogical and foolish and right.