The Chicago air has a sharp edge to it as I walk down the street toward my lonely apartment. My legs are numb, feeling like jello from the twelve-hour shift I’ve just finished, and my entire body is worn out and weak. Lifting patients takes a toll on my body, and dealing with the rush of the emergency room always makes me feel like I’ve run a marathon. The scent of coffee washes over me, and I feel myself perk up, excited to get a little jolt to help me get through the rest of my evening. It’s just after seven p.m. and normally I’d avoid caffeine this late, but I still have to fix something for dinner, finish up laundry, and go through the mountain of bills piling up.
I quickly dash into the coffee shop and stand in line, breathing in the sweet smell of energy as I wait. Finally, I step up to the counter and place my order: a large hot white chocolate mocha. The cashier quickly rings it up.
“That’ll be five dollars and sixty-eight cents,” she tells me with a polite smile.
I open my purse and pull out my wallet. When I open it, I find I only have four one-dollar bills. I set the wallet on the counter as I unzip the change compartment. Feeling a little embarrassed, I rush to count out the remaining dollar and sixty-eight cents. There’s already a large line forming behind me and my heart picks up with nervousness and anxiety.
I pour out the remaining change onto the counter and find the money I need with fifteen cents left over. I push the money her way, scoop up the change, and dump it into the tip jar before moving down the counter. My face feels hot and red with embarrassment. I should have put a little more thought into my impulse purchase and at least ordered a small coffee instead of a large. My bank account and money situation are getting harder and harder to avoid. I take my coffee and leave the store in a rush, all too ready to escape the coffee shop and everyone’s judging eyes.
Stepping back out into the brisk air, I take my first sip. The sweetness and warmth settle over me and my eyes nearly drift closed.
“Mmmmm,” I mumble against my cup, which I still haven’t pulled away from my lips.
I’m only a block away from the apartment when my cell phone rings. I pull it from my pocket and see El’s name flashing across the screen.
“Hey bitch,” I answer cheerfully.
She giggles. “Where you at? I just got to the apartment and you’re not here.”
“I’m on my way,” I say as I round the corner, picking up my pace. “Where are you? Inside?”
“Duh, if you think I’m waiting out in that cold air, you’re crazy.”
I laugh. “Be up in a sec.” I pull the phone away and slip it back into my coat pocket.
When I step into the apartment, I place my coffee on the entryway table and hang up my purse and coat. I take my coffee and walk farther into the apartment, finding El in the kitchen, standing over my table where all the bills are piling up.
Her eyes jump up to me. “What is this, Sam?” She’s holding a handful of bills in each hand.
I let out a long breath, causing my shoulders to fall as I walk across the floor and sit at the table. “It’s nothing.” I start pushing the bills into a neat stack.
She takes a step back and crosses her arms over her chest. Her eyes narrow on me. “You told me everything was fine.”
“Everything is fine.” I stand, bills in my hand. “Now, what are we going to binge watch?” I slide the stack of envelopes into the bread box and spin back around to face her.
“Sam, be honest with me. Are you in trouble? Do you need money? I know I put you in a difficult situation when I left. I can give you some money.”
I grab my coffee off the table and head to the living room. “I’m fine, El. I don’t want your money.” I place my cup on the end table and pick up the remote to turn on the TV.
El follows me into the room and flops down on the couch. “You need help, Sam. Griffin and I can loan you money if you don’t want to just take it.”
I let out a long, frustrated breath and sit beside her on the couch. I turn my body toward El as I level my eyes on her. “Listen, I have been struggling a little since you left. But I’m not your concern and you shouldn’t have to give me any money just because you no longer live here. I’m working, and I’m making money. I just have to learn how to juggle it all a little better, that’s all. Now, can we please forget about all this and just watch Netflix and eat junk food like we’ve been planning all week?” I plead.
She presses her lips together like she has to forcibly keep her mouth shut, but she nods once.
I click on Netflix as I make myself comfortable. I bend down and remove my shoes, and that’s when I hear her clear her throat. I look up at her to see her eyes move from me, to the TV, and back. I look at the TV and see the error message.
“Haven’t paid your Netflix bill either, I see.”
“I did, I swear! I just…didn’t pay the internet bill.” I sit back and cross my arms over my chest.
“Just let me help you,” she begs.
“No. In fact, the only help I will accept from you is you paying for the pizza we’re going to order because I bought dinner last time.”
She rolls her eyes. “Well, at least that’s something,” she mumbles, reaching for her phone to order the pizza.
Thirty minutes later, I’ve found an old DVD to put into the player just as she walks back into the living room with a big pizza box and a bag on top.
“What all did you order? That’s more than what you asked for on the phone, isn’t it?”
“Pizza, wings, cheesy bread, cinnamon poppers, and soda,” she answers, setting it all down on the coffee table in front of me.
I laugh. “I’ll get some plates, glasses, and napkins.” I stand and walk into the kitchen. I lean against the counter and take a deep breath, needing to clear my head. I hate that she had to buy dinner, even though it was her turn. But it’s something we’ve always argued over. It was our thing, and this time, I didn’t put up a fight. Honestly, if she hadn’t bought dinner, I’d be stuck eating whatever is in the fridge and pantry, which is nothing more than some questionable Chinese food from last weekend and Top Ramen.
Pushing myself forward, I get the needed items and head back to the living room where she has everything opened and spread across the table.
“Which movie did you find?” she asks, reaching for the glasses.
I sit on the couch and set our plates on the coffee table between us. “Dazed and Confused.” I smile.
She laughs. “Seriously? I haven’t seen that in forever.” She pours us each a glass of soda and hands one over.
I take it and set it on the end table next to me. “I know. I didn’t even know I still had it, but I figured I’d watch it again just to laugh at Matthew’s porn mustache.”
She giggles as she reaches for her plate.
“How’s the job going? Do you like it? Have you met any hot doctors?” She pulls her legs up onto the couch, with her growing belly holding her plate like a table.
“I like the job—love it, actually, though the hours are killing me. And every Friday, I have to work a day in the ER, which totally sucks all the life and energy from my body. But I have been talking with this sexy doctor. He’s only a couple years older than me, and he has blond hair, blue eyes, and perfect bone structure.” I close my eyes and savor the thought of him.
“Has he asked you out yet?”
I laugh. “No, he just started working there about two weeks ago. So far, we’ve talked and gotten to know each other a tiny bit. I mean, it’s a little hard to get to know someone on an ER shift, but we’ve been flirting back and forth. Nothing has actually happened yet. Not that I even expect it to. I mean, come on, he’s a doctor, and I’m nothing more than a nurse who empties bedpans and tells patients to stop pulling on their catheters. On a good day, I smell like a truck stop bathroom.”
She laughs. “Come on. You have more to offer than that and you know it. Besides, nursing is freaking hard! I couldn’t imagine having the patience and empathy it takes to care for the sick and dying day in and day out.”
“I always pictured this job being like Grey’s Anatomy or something, you know? I thought it would be fun, suspenseful, full of drama, and packed with beautiful people who take turns sleeping with each other. But so far, it’s pretty much been the exact opposite of that. I think I might try finding something in a private practice rather than a big hospital—someplace where I could be close with the other employees and patients. In the hospital, there are so many people coming in and out that you could work there for years and not meet them all.”
She nods. “You want something a little more quiet and personal?”
“Exactly! Plus private practices usually pay more and have better insurance.” I let out a long breath. “I just wish I didn’t feel so lost.”
Her brows pull together as she turns to face me. “What do you mean?”
I swallow the bite I just took. “I just want more than work and home. I have no life—and not just because the hours suck and I’m always tired, but because I literally can’t afford one. I mean, I have no internet, and I’m late paying the power, water, and credit card bills, plus there’s usually nothing to eat. The only thing that’s been paid is the rent, and that’s because it had to be paid or I’d be on the street. I just don’t want to struggle anymore. I want to be happy and find a boyfriend so I can have someone with me—someone I can talk to and vent to. Someone who understands and can comfort me. I miss being in a relationship. I can’t even remember what a penis looks like.”
Her bottom lip sticks out in a pout. “You will, Sam. You’re a great person. You’re beautiful, funny, and smart. You’ll find someone. And this struggle is only temporary. It won’t be like this forever.”
I roll my eyes and laugh. “God, I hope not!”
“But if things get too bad, please come to me. You know I’m more than willing to help you out.”
I force a small smile. “Thank you, but you know that will never happen, right?”
She lets out a quiet laugh. “I know, but still…”
We both quiet down and focus our attention on the TV, but I’m lost in thought, wondering how the hell I’m going to keep myself alive. I’ve already let go of the things I can: the internet, cable TV, and just about every subscription I used to have. I haven’t even had my usual monthly pedicure, bar trips, or shopping sprees. I’m dead broke. I guess I should be thankful I have a job to keep my rent paid for the moment. Maybe, if nothing else, I can make some money by selling some of my nicer clothes, shoes, and purses.
A deep sigh leaves my lips, and it causes El to look over at me. I just press my lips together and wave her off, far from ready to admit that I need help.
When the movie is over, El helps me clean up the food mess, and we load everything into my fridge. I don’t tell her that I’ll probably be living off the leftovers for the next week. As she pulls her coat on, she looks up at me and her eyes light up. “Hey, I may be able to talk to Griffin and see if the hotel is hiring. It could bring in a little more income.”
I cross my arms over my chest as I lean against the wall in the hallway. “I already work twelve-hour shifts. I don’t have time for a second job unless it’s on the two days a week I already have off, or maybe even something I can do from home, but thanks. Maybe I’ll look online later and see if I can find one of those work-from-home scams.”
She rolls her eyes. “How are you going to do that with no internet?”
I stick out my tongue. “I hacked my way into the next-door neighbor’s Wi-Fi, thank you very much.”
She laughs loud, then pulls me in for a hug. “Don’t let yourself starve or freeze. Call me if things get worse.”
“I will,” I promise, hugging her back.