"You have got to be fucking kidding me!"
Maybe I am a little louder than I intend to be, but the point is still the same. Miranda stands there with genuine surprise on her face.
"Shhhhh! Jesus! What is the problem, Kristen?"
I get right up to her because I only have two settings right now: hissing and screaming.
"Is this an ambush? Some kind of fucking sneak attack? I know I’ve been a little boring lately but I do. Not. Need. An intervention!" I’m loud again.
"This isn’t an intervention! It’s just dinner!"
I glare at Miranda so hard the paint behind her head bubbles. She is still wide-eyed at my reaction to walking into the house and finding myself on a blind triple-date.
"Dinner my ass," I sneer. "You can feed mine to the dog."
I’m halfway down the stairs at a trot when Jane turns the corner from the living room and stops at the bottom. Her face says that unless I’ve been practicing my full-contact running game, I’m not going anywhere. The urge to shout her down right here, where the house house can hear, surges in my blood. Reading my expression, Jane sets her jaw and orders.
I plop down on the bed as hard as I can, huffing in frustration. Jane closes the door and glances at Miranda. I pretend not to notice the I-told-you-so look.
"Kristen," Jane starts. She’s made of tougher stuff than Miranda and won’t be giving an inch. "You are being a bitch."
I continue staring a hole in the floor.
"So we weren’t completely open about tonight. That’s absolutely no excuse to storm out of cocktail hour and pitch a fit."
"Completely open," I laugh. "Completely bullshit."
That offends Miranda. "Hey, we are just trying to help."
"Trying to help what?" I begin slowly rising to my feet, the anger lengthening and deepening with my height. "Help me get date raped? Help me get an STD?"
Jane steps in between us. She’s taller than me by a head and could palm my skull like a basketball.
"Trying to help you stop being so fucking tragic. Tyler cheated on you. He fucked and ducked you, he screwed around, he got caught with his pants down. WE KNOW." She backs up half a few inches. "But Kristen, he did those things. You didn’t. You didn’t do anything wrong but you hate yourself for it anyway. It’s... it was sad. Now it’s getting pathetic."
It’s just like her to go for the jugular. No baby steps or sugar coating, no it’s better if you figure it out for yourself. Jane tells the ugly truth no matter what. I’m spitting mad and even more disgusted when hot tears prick my eyes.
"Don’t you think I’ve had enough of that type of guy? You think I need another round in that fucking ring?" Again with the yelling.
Jane rolls her shoulders back and drops her voice to a warning level. "Not too long ago, people were saying some pretty bad things about you. Should we have listened to them?"
No, of course not. The only reason Tyler cheated was that he is an asshole. But the whispers behind my back still ran the gamut - I was a control freak, a cold fish in bed, trying to get pregnant. I’d heard it all.
"I...," and with that I sink back into my seat and hold very still. All my sentences start that way lately - I did this, I feel this, I hate that. Jane is infuriatingly right that at least should start with what he did.
"I am embarrassed," I say. It’s not the first time I’ve admitted it. I thought swallowing swords would get easier, but it doesn’t.
"I know," Miranda moves in to comfort me, the role she was born to play. "We know, hon. But it’s not your fault. And you’re letting it change you."
Jane leans in. "Listen. I’m sorry that I’m so blunt but you are not getting better. He was a piece of shit and you’re circling around him like a toilet flushing. It has got to stop. He cannot do anything else to hurt you, Kristen. He’s gone. Don’t fucking go with him!"
"I’m not," I hear my very small voice say.
She squares her shoulders. "Then go downstairs and prove it."
"But he’s...," my voice fails. Of all the people, at all the times.
"He need a change. You have at least that in common."
My voice is still small, but I’m not talking to the girls. I am, despite myself, in the living room with a drink in my hand. Miranda and Jane watch me carefully as I approach the guy sitting on the arm of the couch. He’s the fifth wheel here without me - and I am clearly his date.
If I’d known this was a setup, I never would have come. Which is exactly why they didn’t tell me.
"Everything okay?" he asks. There’s a hint of gray in his light blue eyes that says he knows exactly what just happened. Points for polite, I award him mentally. Something I failed to be.
"Yeah, sorry. I’m fine. It’s just been a long week."
Something about his smile makes me smile. I don’t want to smile. I don’t want to be fun. I want to be perfectly unremarkable so he can hurry up and leave, forgetting me along the way. Especially him. Instead he raises his glass and gently clinks the rim to mine.
"To the weekend, then."
"To the weekend."
I’m both glad and not glad that he’s seated next to me. He’s a little too close and entirely too warm, as if his body were solar-powered and had been soaking up rays all day. There’s a very specific smell I can’t identify, something familiar, and it gently crosses my nose each time he moves. Sitting at the table, his presence is larger than his actual size. I don’t like that feeling.
"Salad?" he asks, offering the bowl. I notice the hand holding it is overly large.
But at least he’s not across from me. Then I’d be looking at him all night. Comparing the image I had in my mind to the one sitting before me, weighing differences and calculating improvements. There have definitely been some upgrades and I am not happy about that either.
He’s tan, for starters. It looks so damned healthy I keep expecting him to lift a glass and ask if I’ve Got Milk? His arms are larger, chest thicker. Not that I’ve ever seen him in person. But he’s definitely put on quite a bit of muscle and hasn’t bought any new shirts. The slightly elastic band around the sleeve of his polo is losing that battle.
"This steak is delicious," he points out. I nod, mouth full.
And he smiles. Ugh, that’s the worst part. His face has changed - he looks the same-ish, but not exactly. The shorter hair is a huge plus, but maybe it’s the useful weight he’s put on. There’s less baby in his baby face now, more man. He looks grown-up.
I’m thinking too much. My inner commentary has been my constant companion for a while now and the volume setting in my head is way too high. He glances in my direction, probably because I’m examining him like a science experiment. There is no call for him to be so... normal. And attractive. It’s like someone filled my unleaded tank with diesel and I can’t figure out how to make my brain go.
"You don’t say much, do you?"
But I’m not totally useless.
"Not much that doesn’t get me in trouble," I answer.
Dinner is finally over. The table is cleared, the last round of drinks poured. I hate to admit that it’s been a good time; aside from the guy sitting next to me, it was a fun night with friends. Something I have been missing lately. Maybe it was worth it if only to get me back into my usual place. Miranda smiles hopefully - both because she wants the old me back and because she doesn’t want to endure another of my tirades.
It’s been four months since Tyler dumped me. He was not the great love of my life, but he was a good guy who I trusted. Wrong and wrong again. In the two years we were together he cheated on me at least twice, both pretty long term. The first one I forgave him. The second one I interrupted him, gave him a black eye and threw his laptop right from our third floor apartment through the sunroof of his car. It was closed at the time.
I don’t know if I loved him. But our lives were sure tangled together. The girl did a runner when she saw me hit Tyler - she was just a hundred pounds of scared shitless. Tyler let her go, and let me get one good shot in. It didn’t make me feel better. Then he watched, barely trying to explain himself, as I collected whatever belongings I could fit into a backpack and marched out the door. Miranda picked me up a mile away. The next day I cut work, cleaned out my part of the apartment and ended our lease. There were interested people and Tyler couldn’t afford the place on his own. I told the landlord to keep my deposit and two weeks later, Tyler was in the wind.
Fuck him, I’d told myself.
But really, I got fucked up. I was instantly homeless, worthless, defenseless. The smallest thing set me off and eventually I retreated into my own little world where I couldn’t lash out at any innocent people. My studio was small but it felt like all the effort I could muster. My life shrank from a two bedroom loft to a half-bedroom with a galley kitchen.
Which is how I ended up here. Jane and Miranda let my heartbreak and humiliation run it’s course, fully expecting to catch me at the bottom of the water slide like doting parents. Only I never made it down. They could only wait so long before they had to come and get me. And tonight they certainly got my attention.
Still I am the first to leave. My nerves are frayed, my knuckles cracked. With as much grace as I can muster, I thank everyone and hug my friends. When it comes to my date, I simply extend a handshake. He has borne the brunt of my discomfort with nothing but impeccable ease. That is more unexpected than anything else. I should be thanking him for being everything I was not. I should do a lot of things, but I brush him off along with the entire evening and let myself out.
Halfway across the lawn, I hear the front door open then close. Feet tap on the porch stairs.
I flinch at the sound of his voice. The sound of my name. It jerks me to a stop when my heart is screaming that I should go.
"Hey, wait up."
Frozen, like one of those dreams where you’d being chased but cannot run. I stare at the darkened street and wait for him to reach my spot.
"I, uh...," he stops next to me and I don’t even turn. An awkward pause lasts an eternity before he lays a hand on my shoulder. His light eyes flicker in the ambient light from the house. He’s taller and wider than me, the darkness of twilight seems to dissipate around his blond hair. Judging by the look on his face, he is well aware of how hard he worked tonight.
"Did I do something wrong?"
I want the ground to swallow me. I want to disappear. This is supposed to be a bad person, and here he is being a thousand times better than me. I don’t this guy at all, really, and I have been so insufferably rude all evening that he thinks he offended me. I’ve offended him, and myself, and probably my friends. Again. I cannot do anything right.
"No." It’s a whisper, hardly worthy of the apology I mean it to be. I should leave it at that and keep running, but this feels awful. I am not a bad person, I’m not mean. I don’t hurt people without explanation. And I won’t let Tyler turn me into that.
"No, it’s not... you were really nice. Nicer that I was. I’m sorry, I didn’t know you were going to be here and then it was like a blind date and I...."
My chest heaves and I start talking uncontrollably, going from mute to babbling like a switch being thrown. That telltale quiver in my lip quickly transfers to my speech and just like that, I am trying not to cry.
"Hey, it’s okay. I didn’t mean... I just wanted to apologize for whatever I did." His hand is on my bare arm now, and it burns. That kind of energy could heal some pretty deep wounds.
Oh fuck me, I think as a fat tear rolls down my cheek. I blink, looking up and away for any escape route but he’s not having it. One second I’m fleeing across the darkened yard and the next I’m pressed against his strong chest. His hand slips into my hair and holds my face to his shoulder, like he knows I don’t want him to see me cry. The other hand rests chastely at my waist - but it’s secure. I go stiff and try to resist, try to fight, but his whole body is as warm as that touch. It seeps into me and I melt, curling into his solid form.
"Sorry, I’m sorry. Shhhh." He whispers meaningless things to soothe me. The entire world goes upside-down for a minute before I can regain my composure.
"Sorry," I mutter. Humiliation on top of humiliation. "I didn’t mean to ruin your night."
The hint of smile that crosses his face forgives everything I have done. My inexcusable behavior is erased by a flash of his grin. He squeezes and I realize that he’s holding my hand.
"Nah, you didn’t."