“Chunky vegetable beef with brown gravy?” Trenton asked, holding up a large can. “This is good shit.”
I smiled and gripped the push bar of the grocery cart. “Throw it in. It’s going to come in handy soon when the nights get even colder.”
“You can borrow me anytime. I’m perfect for sweater weather.”
“Be careful. I might hold you to that.”
“Don’t threaten me with a good time.” He stopped in the middle of the aisle. “Wait. Really?”
I burst out laughing, and shook my head. We pushed the basket that doubled as a kid-size car while Olive pretended to steer and crash into things.
“I bet your California boyfriend isn’t as comfortable as I am,” Trenton said as we turned down the deli aisle.
“It’s cold!” Olive said, pretending to shiver. Trenton shed his coat and draped it over her. I reached out for a package of deli meat and tossed it into the basket.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t really remember how soft he is.”
“What is that like? Being with someone you never see?”
“Military wives do it all the time. I don’t really see a point in complaining.”
“Not sure how I could be if we don’t see each other more often.”
“Exactly. So, what keeps you going?”
I shrugged. “I can’t put my finger on it. There’s just something about him.”
Trenton’s direct and very personal question made the muscles in my neck tense. It felt like an attack on our relationship, but I knew those feelings of defensiveness were so strong because Trenton was asking questions that I had asked myself many times. “He does.”
“But he loves California more? He’s in school, right?”
I cringed. I didn’t like talking specifics about T.J. T.J. didn’t like me talking specifics, either. “It’s not school that keeps him there. It’s his job.” Trenton shoved his hands into his pockets. He was wearing a brown leather cuff around his wrist, a brown leather braided bracelet, and the bracelet Olive had made for him. “Do you ever take Olive’s bracelet off?” I asked.
“Why do you want to talk about T.J.?”
“Because I’m curious. I want to know what makes you stay in a relationship like that.”
“Where you’re not a priority. I don’t get the sense that this guy is an idiot, so I’m trying to figure it out.”
I bit my lip. Trenton was being endearing and making me feel sick about T.J. all at the same time. “It’s kind of like you and Olive. It might not make sense to people standing on the outside, and it sounds weird even when he tries to explain, but he has responsibilities that are important.”
I leaned into his side, and he put his arm around me, squeezing me even tighter.
AFTER HAM AND CHEESE SANDWICHES, A MOVIE, AND A short trip to Chicken Joe’s, Trenton and Olive were on their way to her house, and I was on my way to the Red. I could see my breath as I walked to the employees’ side entrance, and kept my coat on until more bodies filtered in and warmed the bar.
“Holy flippindip!” Blia said, rubbing her hands together as she passed by. “It’s colder than a frog’s ass in January!”
The Saturday night crowd never came in, and three hours after we reported for work, it was still dead. Raegan propped her chin with her fist, and clicked the nails of the other hand on the bar. Two guys were playing pool over by the west wall. One of them was wearing a Legend of Zelda T-shirt, and the other guy’s clothes were so wrinkled, he looked like he’d dressed straight from the dirty laundry hamper. They weren’t the sort to attend an underground fight, so it wasn’t hard to guess what had stolen our business.
Raegan’s regular, Marty, was sitting alone at her end of the bar. He and the pimply faced boys at the pool tables, they were our only patrons, and it was ten o’clock.
“Goddamn it. Goddamn those fights. Why can’t they have them during the week when it won’t cut into our tips?” Raegan said.
“They’ll come after, and then the whole bar will be one big fight, and you’ll wish they had all stayed away,” I said, sweeping the floor for the third time.
Kody walked by, glancing at Raegan from the corner of his eye. He depended on being busy to get through a whole night of Raegan being across the room. He had been moping around for two weeks, and taking his frustration out on the drunken idiots who dared fight on his side of the bar. The Wednesday before, Gruber had had to pull Kody out of the heap. Hank had already spoken to him once, and I was afraid if he didn’t snap out of it soon, he was going to get fired.
Raegan glanced over at him, just for a moment, when she was sure he wasn’t looking.
Raegan shrugged. “I try not to. He makes me feel like an ass**le when I’m not talking to him, so I’m not eager to start a conversation.”
Her face lit up. “He’s busy with football and Sig Tau, but there’s a Valentine’s date party. He asked me yesterday.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Oh. So it’s like . . . this is serious.”
Raegan pulled her mouth to the side, looked at Kody, and then looked down. “Brazil was my first love, Cami.”
I reached out and touched her shoulder. “I do not envy you. What a shitty situation.”
“Speaking of first loves . . . I think you’re his,” she said, nodding toward the entrance.
Trenton strolled in, a big smile on his face. I couldn’t help but match his expression. From the corner of my eye, I could see Raegan watching us, but I didn’t care.
“Hey,” he said, leaning forward against the bar.
“I thought you would be at the fight.”
“Unlike boyfriends in California, I have my priorities straight.”
“Very funny,” I said, but my stomach fluttered.
“What are you doing later?” he asked.
“It’s really cold outside. I thought maybe you’d need the extra layer.”
I tried not to smile like an idiot, but I couldn’t help it. He was having that effect on me lately.
“Where the hell did Ray sneak off to?” Hank said.
“Who f**king cares where she is?” Kody said. His arms were crossed as he leaned his back against the bar. He was watching the near empty room with a frown on his face.
“Did you get that job?” Hank asked.
Hank put his hands on each side of his mouth in an attempt to amplify what he was about to yell, and then took a breath. “Hey, Gruby! Send Blia over here to cover for Raegan while she’s outside, would ya?”