God damn it! Erik closed his eyes. Fuck. Come on. Breathe. Get it together!
But try as he might, it was no use. He’d already been telling himself that for the past hour, but it had done nothing to quell the dangerous urge that continued bubbling up inside him.
This craving was easily ten times worse than his last one. Worse than anything else he’d felt since his detox, really.
All the stress and frustration of apartment hunting had been building and building for the past couple of weeks. And it had finally come to a head, it seemed. Extreme stress was one of his “triggers”, as Dr. Kirby liked to call them. And boy, was Erik feeling it today.
His mind just wouldn’t stop. It was like there was this tiny, persistent voice he could not silence. And it was telling him there was only one way to feel better. One way to calm down and feel happy again…
But could he really do it? Could he really throw away everything he’d accomplished in the past eight months? Could he risk everything he’d been working toward? His career, finding a home, being a good father to his son…
Fuck fuck fuck!
There was only one thing he could do.
Erik’s hand shook slightly as he pulled his phone from his pocket. He knew it was wrong. He knew he shouldn’t. But he was just so desperate. There was no other way, was there?
He dialed the number quickly, before he had the chance to change his mind. A strange mixture of shame and excitement rushed through him as he lifted the phone to his ear.
It only rang twice before someone answered.
Erik stared down at the cracked cement of the sidewalk beneath his feet as he fought to steady his breathing. Almost there. He kept telling himself. It’ll be better soon.
He was glad he’d opted to walk instead of drive. The park they’d decided to meet at wasn’t far from Danny’s apartment, and the fresh air always helped to clear his head a little.
But it still wasn’t enough.
Thankfully, Rubi was already waiting for him when he arrived.
The moment his eyes fell on her, Erik felt better. Calmer. He hadn’t seen her in nearly a month… And he’d missed her a lot more than he realized.
It was the first time he’d ever seen her outside before, instead of inside the light green walls of Dr. Kirby’s office. Somehow, she was even more gorgeous in the daylight. He couldn’t help but take a moment to appreciate the way the sunlight danced across her face.
Rubi rose to her feet instantly at the sight of him, her beautiful face etched with concern. She took several quick strides toward Erik, closing the distance between them.
“Thanks for coming.” He said seriously as she drew closer. “I know I shouldn’t have bothered you. I just… I really needed to talk to somebody. Before I did something crazy.”
“Believe me, I’ve been there.” Rubi assured him gently. “More than once, actually… I’m glad you called.”
“Me too.” Erik agreed.
Danny was at work that day, but Erik knew his brother would have have come back for him, if he’d called… But he needed someone who’d actually understand what he was going through. And luckily, Danny didn’t. Erik hoped he never would.
“So… are you okay?” Rubi asked, her voice calling him back to the present. “Or still…?”
He shrugged in reply. “Still feeling it.” Erik confessed. “But it’s definitely a little better now… I just wish I didn’t have to spring this on you. I mean, you’re supposed to be done with all this shit.” He continued guiltily. “I didn’t wanna burden you with it or anything…”
Rubi had attended her last group therapy session a few weeks ago now. After nearly a year, she and Dr. Kirby had decided she didn’t need it anymore. She was ready to move on. Erik had been so proud of her when she’d left… But selfishly, so sad too.
Rubi just smiled at him. “It’s not a burden. I gave you my number for a reason… I know sometimes you need to talk to someone who really gets it. Even when we were still in the group together, Michelle and I used to text each other all the time. Dr. Kirby probably would’ve killed us if she knew… But it actually helped. A lot.” Her smile widened. “And I know the circumstances totally suck, but… I’m really happy to see you. I missed you.”
“I missed you too.” He replied seriously.
But despite how much he’d wanted to see her again, Erik still hoped he’d never have to call her, no matter how much he wanted to. It wasn’t fair to her, was it? To drag her back into the types of issues she was finally free from? Still… He was terrified to think of who he might have called instead, if not her.
“So… do you wanna go for a walk or something?” Rubi suggested, her voice calling him back to the present. “Or we could grab some coffee? Or both. Or neither!” She laughed softly. “I know the stuff that works for me might not work for you…”
Erik’s lip curled into a smile. “A walk sounds great. Moving around kinda helps… It’s when I’m sitting in one place that it really starts getting to me.”
The woman nodded in understanding. “We’re the same, then.” Rubi began heading down the sidewalk as she spoke. Erik followed. “I don’t get cravings nearly as much as I used to… But they still pop up every now and then. Sometimes being out in the garden is enough. Sometimes I’ve gotta go for a jog or something… Depends on the day.”
“Garden?” The word had caught Erik’s attention. There was so little he knew about Rubi, outside of the things she’d shared at therapy sessions. Somehow, it was easy to imagine her surrounded by lush green plants with soil between her fingers. It suited her.
Once again, Rubi laughed. “Guess I never mentioned it before… But I love gardening. And being outside at all, really.” For a moment, her smile faltered. “I was even working on getting a degree in landscape architecture. But then…”
Erik’s heart sank. That was one thing he did know about her. A bad skiing accident and a torn ACL led to nearly two years hooked on Oxycodone. But she’d already been clean for even longer than that. “It’s okay. You don’t have to talk about it.” He assured her.
She shook her head. “I don’t mind talking about those stupid pills… I just can’t remember the last time I’ve thought about that old dream. Being a professional landscaper, I mean.” Rubi shrugged slightly. “I haven’t thought about it in a long time.”
Erik nodded. He understood all too well what she meant. “Yeah… There are some dreams I’ve had to abandon too.” He said softly.
“But it’s never too late, you know.” Erik continued, willing the painful thoughts away. “I mean like, if you wanna go back to school or something, you should. What’s stopping you?”
Rubi did not immediately reply. Erik couldn’t help but notice how cute she looked with her brow furrowed in thought. “Okay, this is gonna sound super dumb.” She spoke at last. “But I guess the biggest thing is, like… Looking like an idiot, I guess? I mean, I’m twenty-five years old. Way older than all those uni kids. It’d be too weird.”
Erik sighed, almost amused. “Okay, first off, I am one hundred percent certain you wouldn’t look like an idiot.” He assured her. “And secondly, who gives a shit what anybody else thinks? Why should anyone else’s opinion matter? Like… what difference does it make, really?” He asked. “Letting other people have control of you like that… Is it really worth it? If you wanna do it, do it. For you.”
To his surprise, a bright burst of laughter passed Rubi’s lips at his words. “Okay, I’m sorry.” She managed to get out in between her giggles. “That’s seriously great advice, it’s just… You sound JUST like Dr. Kirby. Those are exactly the types of questions she loves to ask.”
He found himself joining in her laughter. “Alright, you caught me… I might have borrowed a couple of those from her.”
Dr. Kirby had worked with Erik a lot to help him worry less about his mother’s opinion of him. It was fine to want to make her proud… But he needed to stop doing things just to please her, or obsessing over what she might think of his choices. Now he realized that he needed to do things for himself. Because they were what was best for him. And maybe Phoenix too. But not anyone else. And Erik was sure that was just as true for Rubi.
“Aha! I knew that was something she’d say.” Rubi’s laughter had finally died down a bit, but her smile remained. “But, uh, I’m kinda questioning the ‘shit’ part…”
“Okay, I might’ve improvised a little.” Erik laughed again. “Seriously though… If you wanna do it, I really think you should go for it.”
“Thanks.” She replied seriously. “But honestly, I don’t think I know what I want right now… It’s something I’m still figuring out. I’m not even sure what ‘the dream’ is for me anymore.”
Erik was thoughtful for a moment before replying. “Well… Why not work on finding a new dream?” He suggested. “That’s what I did when my old one didn’t work out… Now it’s all about doing the best I can for my son.” He couldn’t help but smile as the thought of little Phoenix crossed his mind. “That’s my new dream.”
“Sounds like a good one to me.” Rubi smiled sweetly at him. “What was the old one?”
Erik willed away the thoughts of the life he’d once imagined sharing with Harper. There was no way he could share that with Rubi. Not right now. But he didn’t want to lie to her either. So he didn’t. “Depends on how old you’re talking… I’ve got plenty of old ones…” His eyes lit up. “Wanna know the first dream I ever had? Back when I was a little kid?”
“Sure! What was it?”
“Okay, don’t laugh, but…” To his surprise, he actually felt a bit embarrassed. “I wanted to be a basketball player.”
Rubi giggled. “Ha! No freaking way!”
“Hey, you said you wouldn’t laugh!” Erik was more amused than angry.
“Actually, I never said that. You did.” She stuck her tongue out at him for a moment. “And I was mostly laughing because of that.” Rubi pointed over his shoulder as she spoke, prompting him to turn around. “Perfect timing, right? Let’s go live the dream!”
It was Erik’s turn to laugh this time. “Okay, you can’t be serious.”
“Because I haven’t set foot on a basketball court since I was like sixteen.” Erik shook his head as he spoke. “And you’re in a dress. And heels! You’ll break your ankle or something.”
“Nah, I’ll be fine.” Rubi reached into her pocket, pulling out a hair clip and quickly securing her hair away from her shoulders. “Plus, you’re out of practice, right? So… Think of this as a handicap to help you out a bit.” There it was again. That smile that sent his heart soaring.
Erik couldn’t believe he’d ever doubted his decision to call her that afternoon. Rubi had pulled him back from the edge. The memory of his earlier craving had all but vanished, replaced with… Well, he wasn’t sure of the word for it. But whatever it was, Erik didn’t want it to end.
He’d be lying if he said he wasn’t attracted to Rubi. Or that he didn’t already have thoughts in his mind of where he wanted things with her to lead one day… But he also knew it wouldn’t be right to rush into anything. Not right now, at least. Not yet.
For now, what he could really use more than anything was a friend. Someone to understand and support him.
And it looked like he’d found one.
“Alright.” He replied at last. “You’re on.”