Scarred

Chapter 1

Gwen

 

My palms were sweating.

 

The thought had Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” hysterically playing in my head as I wiped them across the skirt of my sundress. For a second, I considered taking the driver up on his offer to play whatever music I wanted. Maybe if I pulled up the song, I could listen to it just once rather than giving it free rein to play on loop in my head for the rest of the night.

 

But if I did listen and couldn’t sing along, it might be worse. Ray—or was it Roy? Ron? Something with an R—was just trying to make some money driving people around. He didn’t deserve being subjected to my non-existent rap skills.

 

No one deserved that.

 

So instead I sat there, trying to calm down in silence. It was just a date. A blind date, but whatever. Not a big deal. We’d have dinner—definitely not ordering spaghetti, thanks to the damn song still going in my head—and it would probably be awkward, and then we’d go home. If it turned into a second date, I’d cross that bridge when I came to it. At least it got me out of my apartment and away from my roommate’s, Kelly, asshole boyfriend that she was constantly fawning over.

 

I checked my phone, seeing that the restaurant we were meeting at was now only a couple blocks away. Almost there, and I was right on time. I let out a slow breath. At least there was that. If I’d been running late, it would only have set my nerves even more on edge.

 

Just relax, I chided myself. It’s going to be fine.

 

When we pulled up, it was obvious the place was popular. Even as I got out of the car and thanked the driver, two couples and a group of women had gone in. I followed in their wake, smoothing my dress and checking my hair for flyaways.

 

Inside, the chatter of the seemingly full restaurant was like a dull roar. I skirted around the line for the hostess stand, trying not to show how awkward I felt as I scanned the entry area for a man I didn’t know. I came up with nothing. I was the only one there who looked to be alone.

 

Why? Why did I agree to a blind date?

 

Pulling out my phone, I found a text just in from him.

 

Chad: Running behind. Be there in a few.

 

It felt abrupt, but maybe he sent it quick before driving. Or while driving, which I hoped not because I was not hip on the texting while driving thing. But there I went again. This was one date. I might never know if he was the type to do that either way.

My eyes jumped back up to the hostess line. People were still being seated without much of a wait, but that didn’t seem likely to last. Almost every table I could see was already taken. Hoping I wasn’t making a huge faux pas, I stepped up to the hostess stand when the line cleared.

 

“Good evening. Just one?” Ouch. Not that the blonde was anything but gracious as she asked.

 

“I’m meeting someone here actually,” I replied. “I’m not sure if he already has a reservation or if I should put us down for a table.”

 

“First date?” she asked with an encouraging smile. I nodded. “Let me look, what’s the name?”

 

“Chad.”

 

She scrolled through her list for a moment before looking back up. “I don’t have anything, but we’ve only got a couple minute wait right now, so I can go ahead and get a table ready for you.”

 

“Thank you.”

 

I stepped off to the side, keeping an eye on the door while staying mindful not to stare at it. Maybe his being late was a boon. I needed to get my nerves under control. If I kept up like this, this was going to turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy situation.

 

It was just a date.

 

Just a date.

 

Just a—

 

“Ma’am?”

 

I looked up to see the hostess smiling my way once again. “Your table is ready.”

 

“Oh.” That was quick. I glanced back at the door.

 

“Don’t worry,” she assured. “I’ll keep an eye out and make sure he knows you’re seated when he gets here.”

 

Right. Okay. “Thank you.”

 

She led me to a two-seater table near the back of the restaurant. Taking the seat that kept me facing the room at large, I accepted the menu from her and distracted myself reading through it. I’d made it through the whole thing—wincing when I saw spaghetti was an option—all the way down through the desserts and coffee when a waitress came over. I ordered a glass of wine and hoped I had the grace to not chug it down as soon as she dropped it off.

 

Then I waited.

 

And waited.

 

Feeling the prickling self-consciousness, I picked the menu back up and read through it again, not taking in the words I’d already read so much as using the thing as a shield. Every few seconds, my gaze popped up over the edge to see if anyone was approaching and found nothing.

 

After a minute, my wine was delivered. After five, the waitress returned and asked if I had any questions about the menu. After ten, I checked my phone again to see if I’d received anything else.

 

It was about fifteen minutes after I’d sat down that another perusal of the room revealed the hostess with her eyes on me, leading a man I couldn’t quite see behind her toward me. She gave me a little nod of confirmation that this was Chad. I popped up out of my chair as she stepped to the side to let him by and I got my first look—at the top of his head.

 

He was on his phone, engrossed enough that it took him a second to realize that he’d reached our table. He looked up, then back down to type a few more words before pocketing the thing. I watched as he ran his eyes up my body first rather than meeting mine. I took him in as he did. Medium height, medium build, slightly tanned skin, hair that was somewhere between blond and brown. It felt uncharitable to think, but he looked like the epitome of an average guy, like a model for a department store ad. Attractive, but somehow wholly nondescript.

 

I shook off the thoughts, chiding myself for being a dick even in my own head, just as his eyes came to land on my face. And it happened, as it so often did. For a moment, one fraction of a second, I was a person. A woman. His date whose body at least had seemed to spark some level of interest. In the next, I was nothing but a scar.

 

People think they are tactful. They think they adopt a veneer of manners as they grow up that masks their true reactions entirely. Maybe they think it because they learn not to gawk, open-mouthed, and point like kids might. But they don’t often hide their true feelings as well as they think they do. Like Chad, whose eyes widened as soon as they took in the right side of my face. Only after he’d given that away did the conditioned politeness kick in, and he averted his gaze until I knew his focus was almost over my left shoulder rather than on my face at all like he would want me to believe.

 

Although it wasn’t a great start, I knew holding the reaction against him wasn’t fair. I was used to it, anyway. I had to be.

 

“Hi,” I greeted, offering a hand. “You must be Chad.”

 

“Yeah, hi,” he responded, giving my hand half a shake before looking at the seat I’d been in. “You mind if I sit on that side?”

 

“Oh, yeah. Sure,” I replied, but he was already moving in. I scrabbled a bit, grabbing my wine and the water glass I’d already sipped from to shift them across the table. By the time I’d set them back down, he was already seated and picking up the menu I’d left in that spot. Shuffling over to the other chair, I accepted the new menu from the hostess that was still standing there, giving her a smile that felt forced.

 

I took a sip of my wine, not tasting it. Chad didn’t look my way, just read over the menu in silence. Already certain this was a mistake but determined to try, I cleared my throat and asked, “So Caroline said you know Steve?”

 

Caroline and Steve, my co-worker and her husband, were good people. The best. I was closer with Caroline than anyone in my life. It was why I’d agreed to do this against my better judgment. I’d shared my frustration over my futile attempts at online dating, and always ready to involve herself, Caroline had asked for the chance to set this up. My instinct had been to say no, but she’d been so excited about the idea. I’d even tried selling her on a double date or some type of group activity so I could meet him. She wouldn’t be swayed. It was too easy for us to only talk to the people we already knew and not each other, she’d insisted. Unable to argue, I’d relented.

 

When Chad grunted back a “Yeah,” I was really starting to think I shouldn’t have.

 

Still, I wasn’t one to give up on people.

 

“How did you guys meet?”

 

“Gym.”

 

There was a dead end topic for me if there ever was one. I hadn’t been to a gym since I’d tried to convince myself I was going to go every day after class my junior year of college. I’d bought a bunch of workout clothes I shouldn’t have spent money on, then ended up going a grand total of six times. Still, I gave myself credit for trying.

 

“Have you known him long?”

 

He gave a non-committal sort of grunt as a response. There was nothing subtle about his lack of interest in contributing to the conversation, but I wouldn’t give up. I’d gotten all done up when I could have been in my sweats, I’d come across town to be here, and Steve had to think there was something good about this guy to let tonight happen. The least I could do was try. Coaxing someone to talk might not have been my ideal evening, but I wasn’t a quitter.

 

“So, what do you do?”

 

“Loan officer for a bank.” His tone was flat, bored. I couldn’t blame him. That sounded boring.

 

“How long have you been doing that?”

 

“Five years.”

 

“Do you like it?”

 

He shrugged, not even making a sound. He also made no effort to pick up the broken thread of the conversation, which left us in silence until the waitress came back to get his drink order a minute later.

 

“Johnny Walker Black on the rocks. Make it a double, actually,” he answered.

 

His drink order was longer than anything he’d said to me yet.

 

As she scuttled off to get his scotch, I tried to stay positive despite the ever-mounting evidence that Chad was a total jackass. This was made even harder when he closed his menu and still wouldn’t meet my eyes.

 

“Have you been here before?” I kept at it.

 

“No.”

 

I bit back my sigh, even as it started to hurt to do so. “Me neither. The reviews are really good, though.”

 

Nothing. It was like I hadn’t said a thing. Not that I was surprised at that point.

While I tried to summon up something to talk about that might manage to engage him, he shifted his chair back and announced, “Gotta use the john.”

 

As soon as he was out of earshot—though I wasn’t sure why I bothered to hold it in that long—I sighed. Feeling the need to escape for a minute, even if he wasn’t at the table anymore, I took a page from his book and headed to the bathroom.

 

When the door closed, noise of the busy restaurant was dulled to just the low sound of the classical guitar music they were playing. It made me realize just how grating the cacophony had been while trying to have a one-sided conversation. I went to one of the sinks, turning the cold tap on full power. I didn’t want to ruin my makeup splashing water in my face, so I held my hands beneath it until they were chilled before drying them and putting them both against my forehead. It felt good, but it wasn’t enough to stave off the headache that was setting in.

 

I should have stayed home.

 

Dropping my hands, I looked into the mirror. I saw me. I saw my more carefully than normal curled, shoulder-length, ash-brown hair, the makeup I’d done with a light hand but with care, the sundress in bright, happy colors that highlighted my curves. I saw what years down a path to self-acceptance led me to be able to see. Something beautiful.

 

But I also saw what Chad saw, what led him to check out entirely with one look.

 

Sometimes, it was hard not to focus on the wide, pink scar that cut through the right side of my face from the hairline to just past my lips. Being around people that couldn’t see past it made that so much harder.

People like Chad—though he was far from the only one.

 

I just had to get through dinner, one he didn’t want to drag out any more than I did, and that’d be the end of it. With a deep breath, I set out to face it.

 

Only I came up short as soon as I stepped past the door.

 

“You have to be fucking kidding me, man.” It was Chad. His back was to me, and I could see the cell phone at his ear. “What do I mean? Seriously? Her face is fucked, that’s what I mean. It’s not like you could fucking miss that. Why the hell would you set me up with her?”

 

It shouldn’t hurt. Not from someone like Chad, who I hadn’t been interested in anyway, who I’d already figured out was an asshole.

 

But it did.

 

I hated myself for it, but it always hurt.

 

“No, fuck you!”

His voice was harsher now. I knew Steve was pissed and coming to my defense. He’d go off on Chad for talking about me like that. Both he and Caroline would feel bad for putting me up to this, but it wasn’t their fault. This was on Chad, and only on him.

 

Still, as I walked out—head high knowing he would see me leave—and ordered a car to get home, I couldn’t help but think it was my fault, too. I shouldn’t have gotten my hopes up. Blind dates, fix-ups, online dating, they were too big a risk for me. I knew all too well how shallow people could be, how deep the wounds they carved could go.

 

I had enough scars already.