**Part Two of For the Luv of Joe**
“Shit!” I dropped the hot pan into the sink, causing steam to billow up. It hissed and spat like a pissed-off cat when the metal hit the water. Could I do nothing right? I knew how to cook, so why was I acting like a teenager forced to prepare his meals for the first time? It was just dinner, nothing more. You know why.
No one had been in my apartment since the day I signed the lease. I guarded my asylum with a tight fist and hid behind the shield of these four walls. I went where I needed to go, did what I needed to do, interacted with who I had to, but no one stepped over the threshold into my sanctuary. Until today.
Seth. Since that spring day in the rain outside his shop, we’d been...dating? Seeing each other? Hanging out? To put a label on it would mean it was something more. Were we ready for that yet? Was I prepared for that? Somehow, I knew it was time to take the next step. Just like I did that day in the rain.
He didn’t rush and make plans. He gave me time to come to terms with the fact I’d said yes to his request to have dinner. He took it slow and easy. Almost too slow, to my annoyance. He insisted we learn everything about each other. When I grumbled about it, he said he didn’t want me to have any doubts about who he was as a person deep in his core. He wanted me to know he was different from the other men in my past. He needn’t worry. The way he ran his business, interacted with the people around him—treated me—left no doubt in my mind. His natural kindness, soft words, and gentle touch revealed the man underneath. The inside matched the outside. Beautiful.
I glanced over at the small kitchen table. I’d arranged the plates, so it wasn’t obvious they were mismatched and came from a thrift store. At least they coordinated, the blues and greens complementing each other, and the silverware matched. When I left Damien, I had nothing. Everything belonged to him. So when I finally found the courage to get a job and my own place, I started with the bare minimum and shopped where I could find the best bargains.
A wildflower bouquet in a mason jar sat in the center of the table, adding color to the drab surroundings, and a cheap bottle of red wine and two glasses completed the setting. My small income from the library sustained me most days if I budgeted and was frugal enough. I lucked up when I found an apartment in my range. The tiny place was all I needed. An account with my name on it accrued enough interest each month to afford a bigger and better place now. But I wasn’t ready to touch that money. Money gained from my blood and tears.
I shook my head to clear those morose thoughts. They had no place here tonight. Damien didn’t belong in the same world as Seth. I turned my attention back to the stove. The Alfredo sauce bubbled, so I cut it down to simmer. I’d already ruined the meat, its burnt remains soaked in the sink. I set about preparing the salad, chopping the vegetables, and shredding the lettuce. I’d already mixed the dressing and had it chilling in the refrigerator. The garlic bread only needed to be popped into the oven. The pot of water sat on the edge of boiling, ready for the noodles to be dropped in. I cleaned everything up, including the stubborn burnt pan. The impulse to make sure everything was neat and orderly almost overwhelmed me. Stop. He’s not Damien.
Searching my memory for some of the breathing exercises my therapist taught me, I took a moment to center myself and remember where I was. And I was free. Free from Damien’s control; my own person now, not a slave to someone else’s demands.
I knew by now Seth was nothing like Damien. Where Damien wanted everything fashioned a certain way—from the way the house was kept to what I wore, “I have an image to uphold in the community,” he’d said—Seth couldn’t care less. I’d been to his house several times. From the moment I stepped through the door, I felt at home. The lived-in space radiated warmth and love. Not the pain and malice I was used to.
A firm knock at the door startled me. He was here. My anxiety threatened to flare up, but I squashed it down. Seth was the one man I wanted in my space.
I checked the table and stove one more time to make sure nothing else would burn while I stepped away and rushed to the door. I glanced through the peephole. Though I knew Damien couldn’t get to me any longer, I didn’t take any chances. The fear that somehow he would come after me always sat in the back of my mind.
To my surprise, a large bouquet of multicolored roses greeted me. Seth popped his head from behind the flowers. The sheepish look on his face caused a snicker to escape before I could stop it.
I unlocked and opened the door. “Did they have any bigger bouquets?”
“I couldn’t decide on what color to get, which one you’d like best. So, I got some of each.” He shoved the flowers at me. A rainbow of petals broke loose and fluttered to the floor. He ran a hand through his hair and took a breath. Was he as nervous as I was? He had no reason to be.
“Sorry, Leo. I know this is a big step for you, and I want to make you as comfortable as possible. If you need me to leave, tell me. I’ll do whatever you want.”
Over the last few months, we’d shared our stories. He knew why I walked by his shop every week, where I was going or had been. His righteous anger for me warmed my heart. He vowed to always treat me as I deserved. And the fact that he knew how hard it was for me to have someone in my space, but was willing to leave, made me like him all the more.
I reached up and brushed my lips against his. “Have I told you how perfect you are?”
He grinned. “Well, not today.”
“Come on. Everything’s almost ready.”
He followed me to the small kitchen. “Smells delicious.”
I searched the cabinets for another jar for the roses. When they were situated and placed on the counter, I dropped the noodles into the boiling water and the bread into the oven. “Just a few more minutes.”
My hands shook as I stirred the sauce one more time. What was wrong with me? Warm arms wrapped around me from behind, and a body pressed up against my back, calming me. “Shh...it’s okay.”
How did he know I was struggling? I’d been fine moments before. Funny thing, I didn’t think it had anything to do with Seth being in my space and everything to do with wanting to make the perfect dinner for him. I wanted, no, needed, this normalcy and to do something special for him.
I snuggled back into his embrace until the timer for the noodles went off. “I’m good now. Why don’t you pour us a glass of wine while I finish this up?”
He gave me one last squeeze and went back to the table.
Once I had everything dished up and placed on the table, I sat across from him. We raised our wine glasses. “Here’s to new beginnings.”
“New beginnings.” And somehow, I knew it was going to be better than anything I’d ever experienced because of him.