“You look like shit.”
I raised my eyes to see Peter, holding a cup of coffee, settling down next to me in the living room. “Good morning to you, too,” I murmured, sipping the coffee from my own cup.
Peter frowned. “What’s up? Are you feeling okay?”
“I’m fine, Pete,” I murmured, “just didn’t sleep well.” Or rather, didn’t sleep at all.
There had been way too much on my mind last night. Diego’s words circled around in my head, while sometimes I couldn’t help but think about what happened with Orlando, and how I was going to tell Nola that I didn’t want to see his face anymore. But mostly, my lack of sleep could be credited to Diego being on my mind, and not just for what he said.
I had no idea what had caused him to be so expressive, or less guarded than he’d been six years ago. I just knew that when the guarded-less attitude was directed at me, I was a goner, and that was bad. Very bad. Because I wasn’t nineteen anymore, and I couldn’t get away with having a crush, least of all on Diego. Again.
Then my brain started running simulations. If Diego and I did date - a notion that made me freak out, and not just in the cutesy way, although there was that, too, but in a panicky, hysterical way - what would I tell my brothers? They’d been there after Diego had left. They’d seen what I’d been reduced to. Was I willing to put them in that position again now, when they finally started doing so well, and move on from the past? And what about me? Was I dumb? Was I willing to pub myself in that vulnerable position again? To put my heart in his for his butchering?
Another part of me, a part that was bigger and was full of longing and loneliness, told me the horrible truth. If I was to say no to Diego now, before it hurt as much again, what would be next? Would I be able to truly move on? Because I might’ve stopped constantly hurting, but I’d been numb for a long time after he’d left six years ago. Yes, I’d eventually managed to pick up the pieces and have a semblance of what life should be like, but I’d been so terribly alone. So lonely, it burned in my bones. My brothers and Nola helped, but when I lay in bed at night, all I could think was how I wish I was someone different, able to trust, able to let someone wrap their arms around me, hug me to them, and tell me everything was going to be okay.
Was Diego that guy, though? He’d broken me more than once in the past. Every time I felt we’d been on the verge of something real, he’d backed off and spouted nonsense that was meant to explain his rejection but did nothing to ease my pain. Risking my heart again to that guy, even after six years, would be the epitome of stupidity. People didn’t change so easily, after all, and while he did say date, how much could I trust this?
And so it went. Contradiction after contradiction, simulating what life would look like with and without Diego, and sleep refused to come.
Peter finished his coffee quickly and went to grab his coat. “I’m going to study with friends,” he said, “but please call me if you need anything. You look a little pale.”
“Paler than I usually am?” I murmured, but at Peter’s sharp look, I sighed. “I’ll call if I need something. Now go, you worrywart.”
He gave me an exasperated look but left, and I was alone again, with only my thoughts for company, thoughts that led me nowhere.
Needing to take my mind off everything, I put on a coat, picked up the notebook, and went to the balcony. It was freezing cold, but I liked it, so I simply turned on the portable heater, curled in the comforter I brought along, and started writing the chords to the song I’d written months ago, humming a few optional melodies as I did.
When Patrick almost forcibly put me in therapy four years ago, I’d been under pressure to tell her everything about me. She was a kind woman, though, and was smart enough to know where to push and where to pull back. I ended up trusting that she was actually there for me, and so told her basically everything about my life, as a way to explain why one man had managed to push me over the edge and bring me into a catatonic state.
She had suggested going back to music, something I’d abandoned when I was fourteen. “Don’t sing, if you’re not ready yet,” the therapist had said, “but try to write music.”
And so I did. At first, I’d bought a stave notebook, and just scribbled notes all over it, from mostly copying melodies of some arias I’d listened to once upon a time and were stuck in my memory, to trying to get the chords right of the my favorite songs from Cats and Phantom of the Opera.
It had helped immensely, more than I thought it would. It helped me dig myself out of that vast, endless, black hole I’d been in, until I could finally find my feet again. Even after I stopped going to therapy, I kept the habit of writing music by hand in a notebook, until I stopped copying others’ works, and started writing my own - ideas I’d once had and forgotten about, new lyrics that came to mind, and so on.
This new habit helped me sort out my thoughts, and, if the thoughts were too turbulent to sort out as they were now, it helped numb them for a while, giving me a reprieve as I focused solely on the task at hand.
It took me two hours to harmonize the song before I finally went back inside and changed into my cooking clothes: it was basically pajama pants and a tank top, but they were reserved for cooking only, since I hated the smell that caught my clothes every time I cooked, and knew I had to sacrifice certain clothes for the occasion.
As I started working on the new calzone recipe I’d acquired from the internet and was ready to try, my phone pinged, letting me know I had a new message. I took it out, flickered it open, and saw a text from an unknown number saying, ‘It’s Diego. Are you free tonight?’
My heart decided it was trying to get into the circus and did a flip-flop. My fingers fidgeting, I type, ‘Sure’ automatically and only after I sent it, I started panicking if this was a good decision, or if maybe it was bad, and I was being an idiot, and maybe I should’ve taken more than two seconds to think about it -
‘Great. I’ll pick you up at 7.’
Before I could think - again! - I sent him a thumb-up emoji. Which made me blush furiously and face-palm myself in real life. Thumb-up emoji? Really? What the fuck was wrong with me?
“Fuck me,” I snarled, aggravated, as I saved his number and turned back to the calzone. I couldn’t believe that after fretting over this for a whole night, when Diego contacted me, I turned into a mindless idiot and simply agreed to see him without even thinking twice.
Maybe, a small voice whispered in my head, the simple answer can be found in the way I instinctually responded to his text?
Or maybe, and more likely, I had just made a huge fucking mistake.
It was a measure of how anxious I was about the whole Diego thing that I started to get ready at four, when we were supposed to meet at seven.
Thankfully, as I ran around the house trying to find what to wear, trying to understand if I wanted to dress to impress or just put on some casual clothes to show it was no big deal, Peter was still studying with his friends. Hell, it hadn’t even sounded weird to me that he was studying over Christmas break, when he had already finished the fall semester, but I was way too stuck in my own head to care.
When it was five, and I still couldn’t pick up what to wear, I forced myself to take a deep, luxuriating bath. But as I lay in the warm water, nursing a glass of wine for good measure, the anxiety spiked again, and instead of taking my time, I was out after fifteen minutes.
It was six when I finally chose what to wear, although I still didn’t think I’d made the right decision. I wore a warm, long-sleeved dress the color of burgundy, paired with black stockings and knee-high boots, because winter. It wasn’t the best dress I had in my wardrobe, but, I tried to convince myself, it was just the right balance between casual and formal. I left my hair down, applied the lightest of makeup with a naturally-colored lipstick, and wrapped a fluffy, heavy scarf around my neck. Since it was going below thirty degrees fahrenheit tonight, I put on a warm black beanie, and put on my winter coat. Then I sat in the living room, biting my nails in anxious excitement and terror as I waited for the remaining time to pass.
Twenty minutes before seven my phone went off. My heart hammering in my chest, I looked to see who it was, and deflated when I saw it was Nola. “What’s up?” I answered, welcoming the distraction.
“That’s what I want to ask you,” she said, and while she sounded concerned, there was an edge to her voice. “You ran out from the party yesterday without even saying goodbye, and Orlando just called to tell me you were being extremely rude, and that since you’re my PA, it might impact my reputation. Care to explain to what did I owe this lecture?”
My excitement cooled at once, the anxiousness replaced with anger. “Orlando was being handsy,” I told her, keeping my voice even, “and I couldn’t stand it so I left.”
“It’s Orlando, though,” Nola said quietly, “he’s being handsy with every pretty woman he sets his eyes on.”
The matter-of-fact manner she spoke about him, the fact that his behavior could be excused because he was being like that with everyone, made me even angrier. “He bullied me into accompanying him last night,” I told her, feeling the fury rising, “and I could’ve overlooked it if he didn’t try to kiss me when I outrightly told him no.”
Nola was silent for a few moments, and then, tentatively asked, “Don’t you think it’s a little bit dramatic to simply run out of the party just because he tried to kiss you?”
The furry reached its peak. “Do you think it’s just that?” I said, my voice shaking. “He’s been harassing me for weeks, Nola! I told him I didn’t want to have sex with him when he offered - and hell, not just because he’s your ex, but because I honestly didn’t want to sleep with him - and he decided to take that as a challenge, and tried to pressure me into hooking up with him!”
“But he didn’t touch you, Paige,” Nola’s voice was careful. “He was just being himself, and he just isn’t used to hearing no - “
“Then should I simply take it because ‘he’s just being himself’?!” I snapped. “Do you even hear yourself, Nola?! And what if he wasn’t good looking? What if he wasn’t rich? What if he was some other client of yours, one who kept texting you outside your work hours, trying to get you to meet him for sex even after you explicitly said you’re not interested, and then tried to force a kiss on you when you meet in person?!”
“Oh, it’s not the same, and you know it, Paige,” Nola said, irritated. “It’s important that Orlando would be kept happy when it comes to Wayla. He’s got connections, he’s got money - he could get me more high-class clients!” she sighed harshly. “I don’t even understand what you’re so upset about; have you seen how he looks? A lot of women would be happy to replace you and be the object of his attention, you know!”
I was shocked. Truly, utterly shocked. “Maybe you would like to be that woman, Nola, but it doesn’t mean I would like that!”
“Well, he’s not into me now, is he?” she snapped angrily. I never heard her angry.
And that was all the confirmation I needed. “You’re jealous,” I said, stunned, “you’re jealous of me because he’s been trying to get in my pants for so long. You can’t fathom why I might find his behavior creepy and uncomfortable, because you would love to be on the receiving end of it!”
“Don’t you dare, Paige,” she snarled, “don’t you dare turn this conversation on me. This is about you, and your absolutely disrespectful behavior at the party - “
“Something I’ve just explained to you!” I yelled. “How could I stay when I felt unsafe being with Orlando?! When I felt like he might take it a few steps farther and might even try to to have sex with me against my will?!”
“Orlando isn’t a rapist!” she screeched. “You show some respect to Orlando Walker, and respect to me, Paige Harper! I’m your boss, and he’s as good as - “
“Then maybe I should just quit, if that’s how you act when I try to tell you that I’ve been harassed by him for weeks!” I cut her off, feeling hurt, and mad, and so fucking betrayed - and by Nola, who wasn’t just the best boss I had but my friend - that I just didn’t know what to do with myself.
“Maybe you should,” she said coldly, “if that’s how you treat important clients.”
And that was enough. Just… enough. “I’ll send you my resignation first thing tomorrow, effective immediately,” I said bitterly. I had no intention to set foot in the office, see her face, and act as if everything was okay even for two more weeks. She’d just proved to me what her priorities were, and since she obviously preferred money over anything else, there was little I could do.
“Fuck you, Paige,” she said, infuriated. “I thought we were friends. I thought you wouldn’t throw me under the bus like that.”
“And I thought you would put your feelings and ambitions aside and put me first when I told you how distraught I was by Orlando’s behavior,” I told her coldly. “It appears I didn’t know you at all.”
I hung up on her before she could speak, and salt touched my mouth. I was crying. Sniffling, I was about to go fix my makeup, but at that moment, I got a text from Diego that he was here.
Well. If there was one good thing that came out of this - and I use the word ‘good’ very loosely here - it was that I was no longer anxious about my impending meeting with Diego tonight.