**TW: Mentions of domestic abuse**
It was never supposed to be this way, our choices defining us as individuals—or as a group. The people around me...we all made the same choice: trusting the wrong person. Every woman or man here used to be someone else. Someone happy, active, full of life. Or maybe it was only them. Looking back, it was hard to remember that person before he came along. The one who stole my innocence and smashed it beneath his polished designer dress shoes. Now I was a stranger trapped in an unfamiliar body, in unfamiliar surroundings, with an unfamiliar face.
“Thank you all for coming. There're refreshments on the table if you’d like to stay for a bit. Next week Chef Williams will be here to show us some new recipes we can try.”
Everyone stood and moved to the desserts laid out on the banquet table. I headed for the door and wrapped my coat around me. The wind outside threatened to zap what little warmth I’d obtained inside the church. Cold dampness in the air seeped into my bones, promising another snowfall by morning. I tightened my scarf and pulled my hat down.
Salt trucks and snow plows sat along the side of the road, waiting for orders. People lined up at grocery stores for bread and milk. Hardware stores sold out of sleds and rock salt. Everyone prepared for what probably wouldn’t amount to more than an inch.
This close to Thanksgiving, Christmas lights, bells and decorated trees already filled shop windows. Children gazed starry eyed at the displays. Couples walked hand in hand, or people rushed by laden down with packages or bags. I tried not to think about the number of Christmases I spent healing bruises or broken bones. Or the ‘I’m sorry’ gifts.
As I walked along the sidewalk, dodging slippery patches, a sign in the window of a coffee shop caught my eye. Its rainbow of colors announced a new owner and free coffee to the first hundred customers. My first inclination was to rush home in case Damien got off work early—dinner was promptly at seven. Then I remembered I lived alone.
Jingling overhead announced my arrival. A few heads turned my way as I entered, and my heart skipped a beat. What was it my counselor said? Baby steps. I’d need to get used to being around people again if I wanted to return to the land of the living. I stepped up to the counter.
Startling blue eyes looked up at me from the register. As cliche as it sounded, I felt frozen in time, pinned by his stare. He cleared his throat, and his plump lips turned up in a beaming smile. I mentally shook my head at noticing anything about this man. I only wanted a cup of coffee.
“Welcome to Luv of Joe. What can I get for you?” His deep voice sent an unwanted shiver down my spine. I’d been fooled by that feeling before. Trapped by whirlwind romance and whispers of promises. Promises that were only a smokescreen for the deceit underneath.
“Medium coffee, black please,” I murmured, just as eager to leave as I was to stay.
He turned to the large coffee maker and poured the dark brew into a paper cup. The shop’s logo was a rainbow flag wrapped around a coffee mug. Brightly painted tables and chairs arranged around the room created a rainbow of color. ‘Love is Love’ posters decorated the walls. Either the owner was part of the LGBTQ family or an ally. Either way, I felt more at ease here than I did in my support group.
“On the house today. We haven’t reached our hundredth customer yet.” He handed me the cup. The laugh lines around his lips told me he smiled often. He had a beautiful smile.
“Thank you.” I managed a small smile of my own and hurried out the door and down the street to my empty apartment. I’d reached my limit for dealing with others today and sought the safety of my home.
When I walked through the door, a moment of panic seized me when I noticed the light on in the kitchen. He beat me home. My white cat scurrying in from the other room demanding dinner reminded me Damien was long gone. And I was free.
I breathed a sigh of relief and hung my coat up. I followed Snowball into the kitchen and filled his food bowl. He was my first purchase when I moved into my apartment. I’d never had a pet before. Damien detested anything that took my attention away from him.
As I passed by the stove, the urge to straighten the towel hanging on the handle had me reaching for it before I caught myself. I pulled it off and threw it on the counter instead. This was my house, and I could do as I pleased.
Sipping on my coffee, I picked up my journal and relaxed on the couch, ready to record my day. My therapist recommended I write down the small accomplishments each day. Snowball hopped behind me and settled into washing his paws from some unseen dirt. The familiarity of it all calmed my nerves.
Walked to the grocery store and bought junk food. The feelings of helplessness were less today. No inner whispering voices of how stupid or ugly I was.
Deep down I realized those were only Damien’s words, not mine, but I still repeated them in my head sometimes. My therapist said it would take time to remember who I was and not the ugly, stupid, useless person Damien claimed I was.
Today I stopped for a cup of coffee on my own.
As the weeks went by and the season changed, I visited the coffee shop after every group meeting. Sometimes, I’d order black coffee. Other times I’d try one of the fancier drinks Seth talked me into.
Seth. Every time I went in, he smiled brightly at me and had a cup of coffee waiting. If he wasn’t too busy, we’d chat for a few minutes at the counter. Occasionally, he’d wrap up a danish or muffin for me. On days when there weren’t many people inside, we’d sit at a table and he’d tell me funny stories about some of his customers. As the weather grew warmer and the days longer, we would go outside to one of the new wrought-iron tables he purchased.
“So how did you come up with the name for the shop?” I looked down at the cappuccino Seth sat in front of me. A swirled foam heart floated on top. The heart in my chest fluttered.
A light breeze scattered wisps of Seth’s blonde hair around his face. The wind brought the smell of petrichor with its playful dance. A bird ran under the outdoor table and grabbed a muffin crumb. Spring was here. And so was I.
“My gay uncle’s name is Joe. We were really close. I went to him any time I needed advice or help. I grew up in a small town where being gay wasn’t readily acceptable. He helped me navigate the hate and bullying. When I left home, I found a place near him.
“He always said if he had to do it all over again, he’d buy a coffee shop just so he could have all the free coffee he wanted. Plus, you know”—he pointed to his cup—"a cup of Joe." He let out a small chuckle, but a mournful look of sadness colored his eyes. “He passed away last summer. When I found out he left me some money, I decided to use it to make his dream come true. This place had been vacant for a while, but it included a lot of the machines. It just needed some sprucing up.”
“I’m sorry about your uncle. It sounds like he was an amazing man.”
“He was. He would have loved you.” Heat rose from my neck to my cheeks, and I fiddled with my napkin.
“I don’t know about that. I’m nothing, nobody.” As soon as the words left my lips, I regretted them. I knew they weren’t my words, but they were hard to stop.
He grasped my hands in his, and a stormy look crossed his face. Fear simmered beneath the surface of my consciousness. Was he upset with me? Would he hit me? It took everything in me not to rear back.
“Don’t say that. You absolutely are someone. Someone special. Someone I want to know more about. That is if you’d like to.” His hope filled gaze sent another flush through me, and my heart fluttered again for an entirely different reason.
“There are...things you don’t know about me. Things that may change the way you look at me.” I looked down at my cup and whispered, “Things I’m ashamed of.” One wrong choice.
“Leo, we all have a past. Stuff we’re not proud of, but I see the man you are now. That’s the man I want to know. We’ve been talking for months. Would you like to go out to dinner sometime?”
Dare I take a chance? Pretty words had fooled me before. Damien said all the right things, showered me with gifts until I gave in. Then once he had the band wrapped tightly around my finger, it changed, strangling the person I used to be. What was once beautiful morphed into something twisted and deformed. Beauty turned into the beast.
Seth watched me through my inner turmoil. His concerned eyes brought tears to mine. The words to say yes, to know more about this man, sat on my tongue but wouldn’t spill forward. It felt as if I was in a continual loop of self-doubt and worthlessness. What would it take to break free?
Resignation passed over his face, and he stood, gathering our cups. “It’s okay, Leo. I understand. I’ll see you next time.”
I watched him enter the shop and head behind the counter. People came and went, and I sat there. Even as the first drop of rain hit the table, and another followed on my hand until a deluge of water poured down, soaking me to the bone. Even then I sat there.
“Leo!” Seth’s frantic voice snapped me out of my fog. “Leo, come inside. You’re soaked. What happened? Why are you sitting out here in the rain?”
I had a choice to make. My own choice, not the one someone else made for me—telling me what to wear, what to eat, how to act, who my friends were. I could choose to listen to those disparaging voices that weren’t my own: you’re stupid, you’re ugly, you don’t know how to behave, that’s why you get punished. You brought this on yourself.
Or I could choose to let the new voices in, Seth’s voice: You’re beautiful, you’re smart. You’re somebody. You’re special. You’re perfect.
The rain stopped, and the sun peeked through. I made my choice. “Ask me again.”
“Let’s go inside.” He tried to lift me from the seat, but I grabbed his arms and stopped him.
“No. Ask me again. Ask me if I want to go out with you.”
Water dripped from his bangs, turning them a darker blonde, and his white t-shirt clung to his chest. His blue eyes sparkled, and his lips turned up in a smile. “Leo, would you have dinner with me?”
My smile mirrored his. “Yes.”