Since You Happened by Holly Hall

Chapter 8

I learned from college, where absolutely everyone traveled on foot, that you can learn a lot just by someone’s walk; whether they’re timid or outgoing, straightforward or flaky. I can tell Paul has no shortage of confidence just by seeing the four strides it takes him to cross to the door of the restaurant. His attire only adds to that assumption. From the fitted charcoal jacket to the dressy brown shoes, he appears impeccably put-together. I wonder if he had an ex-girlfriend pick out his clothes. Maybe a personal stylist; he seems like the type. I can hardly complain, though, because for once, one of Arielle’s suggested dates lives up to everything she’s told me thus far. Paul is strikingly handsome, tall and dark-featured with smooth brown skin.

When he enters the restaurant and his eyes land on me, I can tell even from a distance that they’re darker than espresso. Almost black. I’m glad they don’t remind me of Landon’s, but they crinkle at the corners almost the same way when he smiles, showing off a dazzling row of straight white teeth that could be veneers. I stand up, and he enfolds me into a hug like we’ve known each other for years, and I get an up close and personal introduction to his expensive cologne.

“I hope to God you’re Blake Kendall and I didn’t just hug the first pretty brunette I saw,” he says with a laugh, revealing deep smile lines and no dimples.

I swallow the urge to tell him I’m not Blake, arranging my face into a gracious smile. “I am. It’s nice to meet you.” I shake his hand once we’ve separated.

“Paul,” he says, his grip firm on mine. “It’s nice to finally meet another one of Arielle’s projects.” I can’t help but laugh at his knowing expression. I recognize the look of someone who’s been sent on too many failed dates. She must’ve worked on him for a while.

“Crazy when you realize you’re not the only one, right?” I ask. I have to look up at him, because he towers over me at around six-four. He’s the kind of guy that screams college athlete when you see him. He’s also the kind that sets off warning bells when you find out he’s single.

Paul relays our reservation information to the hostess, and we follow her to our table. The place is a typical first-date joint. There are white linens on tables topped with candles and a single red rose in a tiny vase at the center. It’s a little cheesy, but I tell myself not to judge him too harshly based on his restaurant selection. I promised Arielle I would give him a fair shot.

The waitress places our napkins in our laps for us, eyeing Paul longer than necessary, but he only gives her an easygoing smile and sends her off with his order of a bottle of chardonnay and two waters. Not overly flirtatious with the pretty waitress, check. You’d be surprised how many times I’ve sat across from a man at dinner who not-so-subtly glanced at the waitress’s ass every time she passed by.

Paul refocuses on me and folds his hands in front of him, a charming smile emerging on his lips. “So, how long have you known Arielle?”

I roll my shoulders to relax the tension. Arielle is a safe subject. Common ground. “Since college. She sat by me in history one day and borrowed a pen. Before I knew it, she knew everything about me, from my favorite comfort food to my second cousin’s honeymoon destination.”

“It’s weird how she does that, right? Makes herself part of your life before you even realize it?”

I laugh at the comment, which embodies Arielle so perfectly. “Yes, but I love her. Despite her interference with my dating life.”

He gives me an understanding look. “Does she do this often?”

“She tries. I turn her down for the most part.”

The waitress returns and gives both of us a sample of the wine. Paul nods to her and she fills our glasses, then sets the bottle on the table.

“Sorry,” Paul says kindly to the waitress when she hovers near his elbow. “We’re just getting to know each other. It’ll probably be a few minutes before we’re ready to order.” The waitress encourages him to take his time before she walks away.

“So, what made you change your mind and give me a try?”

“She said you were hot,” I say with a playful shrug. “No, she also said you were hardworking and love to travel, so I agreed to it if she would promise to stop setting me up.”

“Oh. I was the bargaining chip,” he says playfully, raising his wine glass to his lips.

“Basically,” I admit. “How do you know Arielle?” I already know the basics, but I want to keep the conversation flowing.

“My company partners with an organization she does some work for. We’ve seen each other at a lot of events, but we only made formal introductions a few months ago. She hasn’t given up on matchmaking for me since.”

“Careful. If you don’t find anyone soon, she’ll resort to using a mail-order service.”

“That’s why I came into this one extremely hopeful.” He raises his glass toward me, and the sparkle in his eyes makes my stomach flip over as I clink mine against it. “To dodging sketchy bridal services.” I shake my head with a smile on my face as I drink.               

Small talk with Paul is extremely easy to navigate, and we cover all the basics—hometown, college, occupation, family life—before the waitress returns. We tell her our choices and pick back up again without missing a beat.

The conversation flows naturally, and no more than an hour in, I already know his five and ten-year plans. Unlike Landon, Paul doesn’t keep any of his cards close. And despite coming from what I’ve concluded is an extremely well-off family, he isn’t the slightest bit pretentious. Even when he mentions his parents’ second home in Key West, he speaks of it with the fondness used when reminiscing of old family memories. I pick at my sea bass throughout our conversation, spending more time talking than eating.

It doesn’t begin to go downhill until halfway through the tiramisu. It’s not that Paul has done or said anything wrong. In fact, I sense a connection forming that I haven’t felt in a long time. However, I also sense something missing. Something vital that almost everyone I know either doesn’t look out for or just can’t detect: the knowledge that bad things often happen to good people with no warning. This man is sitting in front of me chatting about all his plans and hopes for the future with the grin of a naïve teenager on his face. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with that. I wish I loved it. Maybe there would be less heartbreak involved with a guy like this. But he’s wiping the corners of his mouth, sipping politely, smiling at me like I’m the only woman who exists, blessedly unaffected by anything like loss. It feels a little unfair to think that way—even I know that—but maybe I crave the depth that pain and disappointment bring to a person.

When the waitress carries over the check, I feel the tension begin to mount. The moment when he asks when we’re going to see each other again is fast approaching. That’s if he believes this went well, which it really has. And heaven forbid he try to kiss me and it be a good one. I don’t think I can handle my thoughts getting any more scrambled than they already are. I’m riddled with guilt when his credit card is returned to the table and he thanks the waitress.

Deciding to waste no more time, I swallow the lump in my throat before folding my hands in my lap. “Listen, Paul . . . before this goes any further, I think it’s only fair for me to tell you that I don’t see this going anywhere. You seem like a great guy, I’m just not in the position to see someone new right now.”

My words must take a while to sink in, because his expression is blank before it turns into one of blindsided confusion. “I . . . I’m sorry,” he says, frowning at the table, “I was under the impression this was going really well.”

My throat goes dry. This has gone well, and to everyone else, I’m sure what I’m saying makes zero sense. When he looks back up at me with genuine concern, I nod my head to tell him I wholeheartedly agree. “It was. Is. It’s nothing you did—”

“—riiiight, the classic ‘it’s not you, it’s me’ explanation.” Paul swallows a gulp of water from his glass, setting it down with a hollow clunk. I can tell he doesn’t believe me, and because he’s such a nice guy I feel the instant urge to comfort him, though I have no business to in this situation.

“No, it really is me. You’re great. You check off every box on every girl’s list of desirable traits.” I reach over and squeeze his hand. I’m not sure why. It’s not like I’ve ever done that to a grown man I just basically blew off before.

“Just not your list.” His voice turns a little bitter as his defensiveness spikes.

“You do, really, and I’m not just saying that. I just really have a hard time dealing with great people. I don’t think I deserve them, and I definitely don’t deserve you.” There must’ve been some truth serum in that wine, because I’ve never admitted that to anyone before. I feel like I’m on the brink of breaking out into a sweat, and I simultaneously wish I had on stronger deodorant and that we could get out of the oppressive heat of this restaurant.

“You’re just confusing me. I don’t think I’m any closer to understanding you than when we arrived.” He takes the last swig of his wine and wipes his mouth one last time, leaving his napkin in a crumpled heap on the table before he pushes his chair back, preparing to stand.

I take a deep breath and hold it in my lungs. Am I really about to do this? I haven’t told anyone about the moment that cracked my life in two four years ago besides my parents and my best friends. Beyond them, nobody knows anything about what happened other than what details they could learn from the news stories. Even then, by some miracle, my name was kept out of the papers. I don’t tell anyone who gets remotely close to me this story, so why do I want to tell a man I barely know?

To convince him that bad things do happen and people are often way more broken than they appear, maybe.

“I promise I can give you a reason that might explain everything, but can we at least finish this conversation outside? It’s really hot in here.”

His gaze switches back and forth between each of my eyes, perhaps wondering whether to trust me, before he nods, his lips pursed. I stand on shaky legs, swinging my purse over my shoulder. The only thing that keeps me walking forward and out the door is the prospect of fresh air.

I don’t know how long I stare at my bedroom ceiling when I return home. All I know is, from the time I arrived until now, the frequency of cars passing by on the street below my window has decreased to the point where I know it’s the dead of night.

I told Paul everything: the argument and distrust leading up to that night, the missed-step-in-the-dark feeling when the tires of the car lost traction on the road, the sound of the crunch of metal, the acrid smell of smoke, the overwhelming silence afterward. And then . . . nothing. Darkness and lost time. Waking up in an unfamiliar bed with my head bandaged. News of an accident I had no recollection of. I told him everything.

In the months that followed that fateful night, therapists told me it would become easier if I just talked about it. They were wrong; there is nothing easy about what I just did. I feel empty and weighted down at the same time, as if I unloaded all my truths only to have them circle around and pile back on top of me.

At some point, I just turn over and bury my face in my pillow. Sometimes, sleep is the only way to avoid thinking about it, but sleep can also conjure up every sight and sound and smell like I’m reliving that moment over and over again.