I had just taken my apron off and stepped out from behind the counter when Tommy walked into Simmie’s. I smiled and walked over to him. “Hey, Tommy.”
He smiled and leaned to kiss my cheek. “Hey, Lor. You want to grab a cup?”
I glanced back at the bar. As much as I did love coffee, sometimes it was better to just say no. I shook my head and gestured towards the door. “Let’s go outside. Between school and work, I’ve been inside all day.”
We left the café and found our way to the river walk. On one side of Simmie’s was the cinema. On the other was the library and beyond that the Willow Creek Museum and Gallery. Though I had never lived in this town, this particular strip had become quite familiar to me. I knew the regulars at Simmie’s and, therefore, most of the people who frequented or worked at these other places. It was a pleasant feeling, knowing so many people.
I looked over at Tommy. I knew him, but did I, really? Ever since our fight a few weeks ago, things hadn’t been quite the same. I wasn’t sure if I was guarding what I said or if he was or what was going on, really. There was a tension between us that hadn’t been present before.
The silence between us stretched as we walked. Tommy finally broke the silence. “I want you to have dinner at my house tomorrow night.”
I stopped and blinked at him in surprise. Tommy had never once asked me over to his place. “Your house? You’ve never asked me over there.”
He shifted on his feet. “Yeah. I know. You’ll understand why if you come. It’s just, my parents want to meet you and – well, I think you should come over. See the place, or something.”
He was acting strangely, but I thought I might know why. He didn’t come from money. Perhaps he was embarrassed by where he lived. Which, I thought, was silly.
“Of course I’ll come over, Tommy.” I smiled. “I finally get to meet your parents.”
He laughed a little. “You won’t be so excited about that tomorrow.”
I rolled my eyes at him and slid my arm through his so we could resume our walk. I could still feel the tension there, but it was less now. I had high hopes that tomorrow evening would eliminate it completely.
Tommy picked me up about half an hour before seven the next evening. Though I’d offered to drive – oh, yes, I’d gotten a car for my birthday – he’d said it might not go over well with his father. Apparently, Cody Smithson wasn’t too keen on his son dating a rich girl. I’d gotten accustomed to riding around in his Dad’s work truck anyway. For a girl like me, it was a little like stepping into a foreign world with all the bric-a-brac in the floor and the cup-holder-slash-anything-holder shoved between the driver’s and passenger’s seats on the bench. The smell of it, too, was something that, to me, reminded me of Tommy. Sawdust from the wood they built with. Grease from keeping this old truck running. Sweat from a hard day in the sun. It smelled like work.
As we drove through Newcrest to the city limits, I couldn’t actually remember coming out this way before. Willow Creek was the opposite way and Oasis Springs was to the west of us. I guess I hadn’t had a cause to, though, since it was past the shopping district. None of my friends lived around here either.
I was surprised by how the houses changed. They were small and worn down. The yards were unkempt. Were these houses older – the first houses of Newcrest? Or just the ones left to the ravages of time as occupants moved on to bigger, shinier homes up town?
When I was almost sure we were going to leave Newcrest entirely, Tommy finally parked in front of a small house.
“Well, this is it,” he said as we got out of the truck, the doors creaking as they shut behind us. He walked around the truck and stood next to me.
“You really do live way out here.”
“Yeah.” He nodded but wouldn’t quite look at me.
I started to say something but then the front door opened and a thin, pale woman stepped out. She smiled at the two of us. “You must be Loralee. Tommy has told me all about you.”
“Hi, Mrs. Smithson. Thank you for having me over.”
She went back inside, allowing us to walk in.
I took in the small room around me. This house would fit in our living room, I thought in shock. And it was so…run down.
Tommy’s father was on the couch. He didn’t look super thrilled to have company. With a grunt, Mr. Smithson rose to his feet and looked over at me. “Loralee, right?”
“Yes, sir. Thank you for having me tonight.”
He nodded. “Yeah. Well, you’ve had Tommy over so much and we haven’t even met you. I figured we should.” He turned and walked through a door by the kitchen. The bathroom, I supposed.
Tommy dropped down on the couch, and I sat down next to him. He let out a deep sigh. “So, are you ready to run yet?”
“Run? Of course not.”
“You sure? We’re young and can move pretty fast. They’d never catch us.”
I laughed and leaned over to kiss him quickly.
Not quickly enough, evidently, as Mr. Smithson returned. “Enough of that. I don’t allow that in my house.”
“Oh, Cody,” his wife called softly from the kitchen, “leave them alone.”
I looked towards the kitchen. “Would you like some help, Mrs. Smithson?”
She turned to smile at me. “Thank you, but no. It’s almost ready.”
Mr. Smithson snorted.
Tommy turned to glare at his father. “What? You think Loralee isn’t capable in the kitchen?”
“I didn’t say that.” He didn’t sound much like he was denying in though. He went on to say, “It’s just – and no offense, Loralee – rich girls don’t exactly spend much time in the kitchen. They’ve got cooks for that.”
I straightened up in my seat. I didn’t want to fight with Tommy’s father, but this just wasn’t fair. “Actually, Mr. Smithson, I do a lot of the cooking at my house. I enjoy it. And I work as a barista at Simmie’s in Willow Creek.”
He looked over at me. “Huh,” he said noncommittally.
Tommy’s mother came in and set a serving platter on the table. “Dinner’s ready. Help yourselves.”
Tommy and I each took a seat at the dining table while his parents sat on the sofa.
“Thank you for dinner, ma’am. It was really good.” I said after we’d finished eating. And it was true. This was an excellent taco casserole.
She smiled. “Thank you, Loralee. So, I heard you say you like to cook. Do you think you’re going to want to pursue that?”
Tommy and I moved over into the living area. “I think I might, but I’m not sure.”
She nodded understandingly. “There’s so much out there at your age. So many possibilities to explore.”
“And I guess she would have the liberty of exploring them,” Mr. Smithson said.
She shot her husband a look. “Then she’s very fortunate.”
The evening didn’t really get any better. Mrs. Smithson was very kind, but the same couldn’t be said for Cody. Tommy eventually got up to do the dishes, leaving me alone with his parents; his mother and I mostly kept up conversation with Cody grunting every so often.
After a short while, Ava rose to her feet. “Well, then, I think I’m going to lay down. Loralee, it was so nice to meet you. I hope you come over again.”
“It was really nice to meet you too.”
I watched her disappear into the bedroom. I sat in silence until Tommy came out of the kitchen. He didn’t have to say anything. I immediately got up and walked outside with him.
“I’m sorry about my dad. I guess you see where I got it from when I was a kid.” Tommy walked around the yard. “Look, I wanted you to come over – “
“I understand,” I said. “You needed to show me your world – and you were right. I needed to see it. I am spoiled and sheltered.”
His eyes widened. “No, no! I didn’t mean that.”
I smiled softly and wrapped my arms around him. “But I am. My life has been so wonderful and easy. I can’t even imagine living the way you do. I understand you better now, I think. You don’t understand my world, and I don’t understand yours.”
He leaned his forehead against mine. “Do you think less of me now?”
“Less of you? Watcher no, Tommy. I wouldn’t think less of anyone just because of the house they lived in. You’re not defined by the stuff in your life. I hope I’m not defined by the stuff in mine.”
A smiled curved his lips. “You could never be defined by anything, Loralee Thoreau.”