I never was very comfortable making friends with new people. I'm not antisocial; it's just that I don't know what to say to people I don't know. Would I offend them? Because I'm not generally blessed with tact. It's easier to keep my mouth shut and speak when spoken to. Maybe it looks like I'm not friendly, but it's better to appear stuck up than put my foot in my mouth.
Which is why I'm wondering why I'm sitting next to this man, Max, when I knew full well when I agreed to keep him company that this would be awkward for the both of us. I'm trying not to squirm, but I get fidgety when I'm uncomfortable. I steal glances of him. What's his deal? He never shut up before, and now he's silent. And from the look of him, he's fine with the hovering quiet around us.
I set my cup down on the concrete by my feet and fumble with my muffin. Plagued by the lingering silence, I hold out my breakfast in an offer to share. At first he shakes his head, but I insist. "It'll probably remind you of home," I tell him.
He raises an eyebrow but reaches out his big, masculine fingers to break off a piece. Finally, he speaks; I was beginning to wonder if he had lost his voice during our walk to the bench by the fountains. "Remind me of home?"
"Yeah, it's French toast," I say as if it's obvious.
"I'm French-Canadian," he replies. "Québécois. Besides, I don't think French toast is any more specifically French than fries are."
"I was trying to be nice and make conversation," I mumble.
Max stretches his long fingers in front of his mouth and deposits the piece of muffin into his mouth before reaching over for more. "I know. And that was me being nice and talking back." Before he tears away another piece of my breakfast, he raises his eyebrows again as if asking for permission.
What is with him? This is "Max," a nicer and more polite version of "Crippled Guy" who would take without asking like he stole my M&Ms. I don't forget that easily. I guess the caffeine just didn't kick in yet. I let him take more of my muffin, glad to have someone to share with. Otherwise, I'd eat the whole damn thing and I didn't need to intake all those calories. The more he ate, the more my cottage-cheese thighs would thank him later.
Our conversation lulls again, and I pick up my latte and carefully peel off the lid. I know the liquid below the foam is scorching hot, but I'm dying for the energy and try to sip it without burning myself. As I watch the steam billow upward, I try to make conversation again. "So, what did you do to yourself?"
"What do you mean?" he asks, turning to face me. He pulls his knee onto the seat of the bench and positions his elbow on the top of the backrest. As he readjusts his body, his thigh brushes against mine, and I in turn shift uncomfortably at the intimate touch.
I clear my throat. The last time a person touched me, besides the random grope on the public transit buses or handshake, was John. Yes, that long ago. I purposely kept that distance from people. Now that I'm experiencing that sensation again, I remember why I did. I hope my voice doesn't betray my newly found nervousness. "Your shoulder."
"You know about my shoulder?" His eyes narrow like he suspects something.
"Um, that's why you were at the center. I could tell from when you shrugged that you had hurt it. My guess is you were showing off and you humiliated yourself in front of your friends," I say, smiling as I sip my latte.
Max laughs. It's a real laugh; not something fake and polite designed to stroke my ego or string the conversation along. It's a belly laugh, and his eyes are sparkling to match his delight. "Is that what you think of me? What kind of impression am I making on you?"
"I'm just saying, I wouldn't put it past you," I add, laughing too. It's contagious.
Even though he gets serious, he keeps his smile. "Got hit and dislocated it. I thought it was fine, just normal wear-and-tear, but it kept catching and then it was popping out of the socket all the time. Next thing I know, the doc's telling me I have a torn labrum and I need surgery."
"You got hit? Like, a car accident?"
"Something like that," he said, shaking his head and looking off into the distance.
"But you're okay?" I ask. Now it's my turn to press for information.
"Oh yeah. I'll make a full recovery." His eyes unfocus for a moment before he drags them back to my face. I feel like I must have hit a nerve, so I let the issue slide and listen as he changes the subject away from his injury. "What about you? Why do you go to the center?"
Now it's my turn to stare off in the distance. "Exactly what you saw. I work out there."
"Pardon me for being dense, then, but it's a physical therapy office. You're not going for therapy?"
I stop myself from snorting with indignation. "Working out is therapy for me. I know Hank, so he sneaks me in so I don't have to pay for a gym membership elsewhere. It's a nice arrangement we have, really. I keep him company, and he lets me work up a sweat."
"Why work out in there when you can run outside?" he asks, swinging his arms out beside him into the crisp morning air.
"Um, because I don't run?" I reply.
"You'd rather stare at a wall than run outside?" He tsks and shakes his head. "Let's go for a run tomorrow."
"I just told you, I don't run," I tell him.
Nice guy Max is fading away and the imposing, crazy Crippled Guy is coming back into the foreground. He's bossy and insistent, and he's injecting himself into my schedule for tomorrow. "Why not? A good run is very invigorating and refreshing. Besides, the weather isn't going to stay this nice for long, and you should enjoy it. Spend the winter on your treadmill," he rationalizes.
"I'm sure that's nice and all, but I don't run. I don't run. I don't see the point in it."
"But you work out," he says tentatively, a question somewhere in his remark.
I laugh. "Yes. I work out, I sweat, and that is 'invigorating and refreshing,' as you say. But running. I don't get it. You're not running toward something or away from something; you're just... running. I don't see the point."
Max chuckles at me. "What about running with someone then? I promise you, if you join tomorrow morning, it will be fun."
With that accent, I would believe anything that came from his mouth. I'd believe in aliens and ghosts and a JFK conspiracy theory. I shake my head, but not as an answer—I'm shaking my head in disbelief. I hate running, but I find myself wanting to say yes to him. Whatever his motives are for inviting me along, spending time with him has been... interesting. Yes, fun. Max is a fun guy and good company. And between my grandparents, Gina, and Hank, he's the only other person I know in this city. Best of all, he doesn't know about John.
In fact, I haven't thought about John since I ran into this man at the coffee shop. It feels good to make a friend and get my mind off my worries. Maybe this is the first step to getting over him. Maybe this is my existential breakthrough; I can't get over John and then expect to move on with my life. I've got to move on with my life and get over him in the process. What's a better way to get on with living than by making new friends and doing new things? At the very least, it'll get me out of the apartment.
"On one condition," I tell him, and that broad grin is back on his face. "I'm not a runner, so you've got to take it easy on me. And if that means screwing with your workout, then maybe we shouldn't bother."
"I think you can handle it," he says. "I have complete faith in you." I smile at him. At this moment, I'm so proud of myself. I can't wait to tell Gina. She's gonna flip. "You have a little something," he mumbles, seemingly embarrassed as he brushes his fingers against his lips in a gesture to tell me that I have crumbs on my face.
I wipe my mouth and look at him, thinking he'll tell me that I was successful and the crumbs are gone. So foolish of me to think I'll look halfway respectable in front of my new friend. "Did I get it?" He shakes his head and smirks as I again wipe my face. "How about now?"
He shakes his head again and takes it upon himself to de-crumb me. The pad of his thumb brushes my upper lip. I hope to God that he got it the first time, because if he has to touch me again, I think I might pee myself. It's the second time we've had contact, third if you count yesterday when he took my M&Ms, and all it does is bring to mind John and his hands. Max's eyes focus fully on my mouth. "Sorry. It's a freckle."
Before I can pull away and remember that I do in fact have a stray freckle on my lip, he presses his mouth against that dark spot. It's soft and gentle, and I'm... enjoying it, until I feel the rough scrape of his unshaven chin. The scratch of his scruffy face drags me back into reality, and I push him away and slide away from him on the bench.
I know I'm wearing a horrified and pissed off expression. It's not exactly called for, seeing as though it was a simple kiss and nothing gross or forceful, but I'm still relatively furious. "What the fuck, Max?" I spit, putting emphasis on his name. I thought I was making a friend. I have my plate full with John, and I don't need to add to that. Not to mention, it just feels wrong compared to the feelings John stirred in me.
When John kissed me, it was always out of affection and caring. This guy doesn't know me. He couldn't possibly care about me. And if it's not for that reason, then I can only guess it's for an overtly sexual purpose. I look like a slob this morning; I didn't even brush my hair and now I have disgusting coffee breath. It's barely nine a.m., and we're in the middle of the fucking plaza. I can be kind of oblivious sometimes, but this is not one of those occasions—I didn't send him any signals or raise any flags to let him know that his actions would have been remotely appropriate.
And then there's the fact that I don't know what Max wants with me. I mean, I can guess what he wants, I just don't know why me. He's... infinitely, indescribably beautiful and gorgeous and sexy, and I can't think of one good reason why he'd kiss me. Unless when he hurt his shoulder, he also hit his head. He's suave and sophisticated and put together, and I'm just an ugly mess. I never saw that kiss coming, because I never thought he'd deign to kiss a girl like me.
"I'm sorry?" I don't know if he's apologizing because he thinks he's supposed to or if he truly means it.
"This was a mistake," I moan, standing and beginning to leave him on that bench.
"No, please, Charlotte," he continues. I immediately regret that I told him my name, but I'm glad that's the only thing he knows about me. Well, he also knows how I eat my M&Ms and what my usual coffee order is. But that's it. "I am sorry. I don't know why I did that."
"Me neither," I mumble under my breath before speaking loudly so he can hear. "I don't need you to complicate things for me. I thought I could use a friend, but not that badly."
"We can be friends," he returns. "Join me for that run tomorrow." I shake my head, neither telling him yes nor no. He calls after me again, "Meet me outside Caribou, at nine." I don't bother giving him any response, physical or verbal; I only keep walking away. Stupid boys. Stupid me for not seeing through these stupid boys.