The restroom, when I got to it, was blessedly unoccupied. It was also small – intended for single use – and had a deadbolt. So I locked myself in. And then, since I was locked in a relatively small space where no one could get to me, I was safe enough to fall apart a little. So I did.
I sank down on my heels and hugged my knees tight against my chest. It was probably as close to the fetal position as I could get without lying on the floor – but, ew, it was a bathroom. I leaned back against the door and trembled instead. And then, when I could make myself let go of my knees, I may have hyperventilated a little. But I didn’t start crying and I didn’t sob, and when I was done and I checked myself in the mirror I could see that Megan’s makeup wasn’t mussed. There also wasn’t anything in my teeth. But the evidence that Hans hadn’t been lying didn’t make things better – if anything, it made everything even harder to get a mental grasp on.
I was supposed to call Megan. I could finally remember that bit of advice. I wished I could follow through, but my phone was in my purse – and my purse was sitting in the booth across from Hans. Stupid, I derided myself. There would be no escaping. But that was okay, I didn’t have a way out, anyway. Why is it that restaurants only have bathroom windows that are large enough to crawl out of in sitcoms?
I studied myself in the mirror. My eyes were a little red, but I didn’t think anyone else would notice. My lower lip trembled with each breath. My arms were trembling, too – but I think that was just because I couldn’t stop clutching the edges of the sink as hard as I possibly could. Mostly. Okay, so I was still a little shaky. And I still felt a little sick, too.
What the hell had I been thinking? Hans was a man who was so good looking he had to be used to getting whatever he wanted from women. Hell, from life: he was going to be my boss. He was already leaping to the top of the food chain, and here I was: a stupid little bunny who insisted on sticking her head in his jaws.
Or her paw, as the case may be.
I turned on the hot water and hastily washed my hands before it could get too hot. Then I stared at my reflection more, trying to see what Hans was seeing. I let the water run.
I couldn’t see it. Sure, whatever Megan had done to my eyes emphasized them – but they were wide and panicked and crazy, and I didn’t think long fluttery lashes could make for that. And okay, Megan had picked a good lipstick. My lips did look fuller, and maybe even kissable…but the fact was that I am twenty four years old; two years out of college, and I have never been kissed on the lips yet. So why the hell would anyone start looking at me like they wanted to now?
Hell no. No way. I had no clue what Hans was seeing. I was too scrawny to be feminine, too imaginative to be innocent, too old to be waifish and too big a wimp to be mistaken for a tomboy. I didn’t know what Hans’ type was, but unless it happened to be ‘crazy, broken and difficult’ he wasn’t going to find it here. Hell, I wasn’t even pretty. The best I could manage without Megan’s help was ‘not unattractive.’
But the man was a wolf, and I was probably going to wind up getting torn apart in the process of him figuring out I wasn’t worth it.
Except he wasn’t. A wolf, I mean. That was just me, re: crazy, broken and difficult. Hans had actually been quite well behaved. I was the one who’d literally shoved her hand in his face and told him to bite.
Oh, God. Did that constitute flirting? I was way out of my league. I was so far out of my league I was hiding in a bathroom, on the verge of another panic attack.
I cupped my hands and thrust them under the faucet. I’d never touched the handle for the cold water, and what was coming out now was fiercely steamy.
If you’ve never scalded yourself, don’t start. I’d gotten into the habit years and years ago, before I’d had Megan to help me cope. Actually, it had been a few years since I’d felt the need to do this. I’d still done it a few times since then, just… well, just because. Sometimes there’s comfort to be found in old habits. Even bad ones.
It only took a second for the water to fill my cupped hands and start pouring over the sides. It hurt, of course. That was what made it work. I could feel the heat, and yes, it hurt. But after those first few seconds I could feel the heat and know it hurt without actually feeling the pain. And it didn’t hurt worse the longer I held my hands there… It just hurt more. It demanded more attention. It demanded to be dealt with. There were sharp, burning tingles all over the backs of my hands – where the water was spilling freely, but not pooling. It was kind of nice, like my hands had fallen asleep but instead of getting pins and needles I was just getting needles.
I wasn’t on the verge of a panic attack anymore because my body didn’t care about Hans or self-esteem or social anxiety or wolves – it only cared about telling me it was being hurt and that I needed to do something about it.
I took a deep breath and parted my hands. The water I’d cupped splashed in the bottom of the sink and the stream from the faucet poured through open air. I let out a sigh of relief. The nice thing about scalding yourself is that as long as the water isn’t hot enough to raise blisters the pain will go away as soon as you stop. It’s cathartic, in its own way.
I shook the last drops of water from my hands and turned off the faucet. My skin tingled, and there was a tightness – like an aftertaste, but for the sense of touch. It wasn’t unpleasant. My hands were much pinker than normal, but I knew from experience that would fade before anyone could notice.
The bathroom had one of those hot-air hand dryers, so I turned it on and stuck my hands under it. One of the problems with water that hot is that my hands were going to be extra dry. But that was okay, I had some lotion in my purse. That’s actually why I had stopped doing the scalding thing – a few years ago Megan had noticed my hands were always chapped and had bought me some moisturizer as a gift.
Where I’d grown up, there’d been a stigma attached to being one of ‘those emo kids.’ So when I needed to hurt myself just for the distraction from what was going on in my head, I’d always, always, made sure it was something that couldn’t possibly be noticed. I didn’t want to make anyone worry about me. It seemed like that would be selfish. I was just a crazy girl, so it’s not like there was anything to be done about it anyway. And besides, one of the biggest reasons I’ve always been hyper-anxious to begin with is that I don’t want anyone to realize what a freak I am. I don’t know why they haven’t already, but I’m certainly not going to go around being obvious about it when I can help myself.
Also… I have a lot of issues. And knives and blood and cut, living flesh all freak me the hell out.
The dryer clicked off and I wiped my hands on my jeans for good measure. My hands were still tender – that would probably last a couple of hours, actually. And that was okay, because a couple of hours was enough time to eat dinner and go home and call Megan and pretend I wasn’t a crazy freak.
I unlatched the deadbolt and went back to my table. For the moment I was much, much calmer. I smiled at Hans as I sat down. See: I had my shit together.
I don’t know how long I’d been in the bathroom, but it looked like Sarah had come and gone while I was away. There were more plates crowded among our appetizers, sporting our sides and steaks. Apparently I’d been hyperventilating for a while… that would be embarrassing, later.
Hans hadn’t started without me. I felt bad – really guilty – for making him wait, but that had been considerate of him, right? And he had to be glad to be getting points in his favor, so maybe it wasn’t so bad.
“I’m sorry about that,” I said anyway. It seemed necessary – and hopefully Hans wouldn’t ask what ‘that’ was. I wanted to try and salvage a few shreds of normalcy, at least.
Hans frowned. “No,” he said. “No apology is necessary. Or rather… I’ve obviously made you uncomfortable, so I apologize.” He sighed. “I came on too strong, didn’t I?” He smiled ruefully.
“No,” I protested – then I changed my mind. If he wanted to take the blame for being the crazy one, I was okay with that. “Well, maybe.” But then I felt guilty for trying to pin it all on him. Dammit. “No,” I said again. “Look, you’ve been nice. And I’m the one who pushed things earlier. But I don’t do very well in social situations, or with being the center of attention, or new things or surprises. So I wasn’t expecting any of that. And this… this is not a work date. And even though it was kind of obvious it wasn’t going to be, I wasn’t really expecting that, either.”
I took a shaky breath. That had been hard to admit. But the one good thing about really falling apart is that… well, it wasn’t easier to do hard things. But it was possible. When I’m wound up and vaguely terrified and wracked with anxiety and just a step or two away from melting down I can’t – I literally cannot – do the hard stuff. Trying to makes me panic worse, and then I go into panic mode, and then I start blurting out crazy shit… or it pushes me too far, and I have to get away because I’m about to go to pieces and I’m desperately afraid of what people will think of me if they see it happen.
But after a breakdown… well, I’m just too tired. I feel too drained to be anxious. Or to become more anxious, I guess I should say. I had noticed back in college that I was usually at my best at around three in the morning, when I was too tired to think crazy. I wrote a lot of papers in a sleep deprived haze.
Hans nodded slowly. “Would you like it to be? Just a ‘work date,’ I mean? I would never intentionally do anything I thought you weren’t okay with – or said you weren’t.” He chuckled self-deprecatingly. “Megan did say my chances were slim, and it is entirely possible that in my enthusiasm I picked up on signals that weren’t actually there. If that’s the case, please, let me apologize again and start over fresh.” He blushed. He blushed! It was the cutest damn thing ever. “Ah, if I haven’t made too great an ass of myself already.”
I couldn’t help it. The sheer incongruity of a guy like Hans being embarrassed about the impression he’d made on a socially awkward nutcase like me was ridiculous. I started giggling. I tried not to, but that just made me start snickering harder. Finally I clapped a hand over my mouth and smothered the urge to laugh.
“No,” I said. “Oh, God.” I bit my lip to keep from laughing again. “Okay,” I said. “The thing is, Megan is my best friend. So anything she’s told you is going to be really biased. Especially if it involves getting us hooked up. Megan has been trying to get me to date someone for years. See, it’s not that I’ve never found anyone ‘manly enough to pique my interest.’ It’s that I’ve never had anyone’s interest long enough to reciprocate.” I swallowed. The hard things to say were getting harder by the second, and I was starting to feel queasy again. But as long as I acted like none of this was a big deal, maybe Hans would think it wasn’t. That would help. So I waved a dismissive hand, as though to say ‘whatever,’ and picked up a potato wedge from my plate. I bit it in half. It had cheese and sour cream and bacon bits on it, and it tasted divine.
Hans frowned at me. “I find that hard to believe,” he said slowly. Then he started to grin. “But I’ll take you at your word if it means you aren’t dismissing my suit.”
I blinked at him. Why was he making this harder? And who the hell talks like that? I finished chewing and swallowed. “You don’t understand,” I said. “I’m difficult. I’m flighty and rude and I don’t have a clue what I’m doing. I don’t even know if the ‘signals you picked up on’ are actually there, because I don’t know how to give off signals. I’m not going to keep your interest, so…” I popped the other half of my potato wedge into my mouth to make myself shut up. So what was the point?
Hans chewed the inside of his lip and nodded thoughtfully. I watched him watching me and tried to keep my anxiety in check, but I was winding up again. Today had been hell. The demon Murphy had been kicking my ass every step of the way, and here I was admitting to the man who was going to be my boss that I was an anti-social freak, and I was exhausted from the strain of everything. I pressed my hands against the edge of the table. My palms were still tender and the sharpness of the edge felt about five times more significant than it actually was. It was just a distraction, but I really needed one.
“Alright,” Hans said at last. He tilted his head. “Except you do have my interest. And I hope you reciprocate. But I don’t want to push my interests on you and force you to. Nor do I want to make you uncomfortable in any way. So, I won’t try to act on any hints you may or may not intend. I won’t escalate things unilaterally. We’ll do what you want, Abigail. If you tell me to take you on a proper date, I will. If you tell me to bite –” he grinned roguishly – “I will.” His tone abruptly sobered. “And if you tell me to leave you alone or give you your space, I will. Whatever you want, and however you want to do things, that’s how we’ll handle them.”
I stared at him. Megan was right: Hans had a submissive streak. I had no idea what to do with that. I would never have picked up on it if Megan hadn’t pointed it out… and now that I had that insight it felt like cheating. Especially since Hans didn’t know I had it and was trying to cover up that side of himself by saying it was out of consideration of my inexperience or whatever. Assuming Megan was right, and I wasn’t just reading into things that weren’t really there.
I looked down at all the food spread out between us. Then I looked back at Hans. “I want to go home,” I said.
He didn’t even bat an eye.
“Of course, then,” Hans said. He leaned out into the aisle and flagged down Sarah to ask for the check and some to-go boxes. I swallowed and hugged myself while Hans took care of everything. I felt very small, and rude, and inconsiderate, and cowardly. But Hans had called me lovely, and told me he was interested in me, and wasn’t being put off by my inconsiderate rudeness. And none of that had ever happened to me before.
Which made it all rather terrifying, now.