Chapter 5: Across the Road
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They talked more. It went well, all things considered. Max had successfully managed not to panic, and managed to not show the fact that he’d been trying not to. But Victoria’s continued gentle flirting, her dazzling smile and that twinkle in her eye had all come together to put him at ease. There was a voice in the back of his head trying to get his attention with a megaphone, trying to remind him that he was never going to be good enough for a woman this beautiful. It also found it really important to remind him that she was trans, and that she was beautiful, and that therefore his attraction to her was proof that he was a chaser and a pervert and a terrible person. He managed to ignore those for the most part. It was a little harder to shake off the feeling that once again he was getting attached to someone who was queer, someone whose experiences he couldn’t mirror. Someone’s spaces he didn’t really belong in. 

Another smile from Victoria swept that thought away, along with most others. The voice tried one more time to remind him that losing himself like this, that someone having the power to make him lose all cognitive thought was dangerous, that he’d been hurt before and that this was setting him up for hurt again. It was the most salient point the voice had made, but it, too, was drowned out by how much he enjoyed her company. They finally got up. It was mid-afternoon -- Oz Books closed early on Fridays, because the Ozzes had incorrectly assumed some things about Max’s social life -- and Victoria had some place to be in the evening and wanted to go home and freshen up. He was a little sad to have their little date end, but it had been a good one, he thought.

“I think so too,” Victoria echoed when he’d expressed the sentiment, and ever so gently, she touched the back of his hand with a single fingertip. It was such a small gesture, so it was more than a little interesting to Max how the jolt that went all the way up his arms and set his cheeks on fire was so intense. He barely managed to keep from making a small noise, but Victoria had clearly seen his reaction. She laughed softly and then, damn her, bit her lip. Max could have fainted then and there. 

“Do you, uh, want to do this again, some time?” Max asked. He’d managed to make it through the entire sentence in one go and he made a mental note to throw a small party for his limbic system later. Victoria nodded. 

“I’d love to,” she said, as they stood outside the coffee shop. “Just… I want something on the table first, Max.” Her expression turned a little more serious and Max was worried for a moment she was about to tell him he’d done something heinous, he’d done something wrong, so he steeled himself. “I had a really good time,” she said. All right, that could be worse. “And I think you’re cool. You’re kinda cute, too.” 

“I know,” Max said, trying to play it off. “People keep telling me.” He attempted to sound like a celebrity tired of the paparazzi, and going by her soft giggle, he’d succeeded to a certain extent. 

“They do, do they?” she asked, and Max was more than a little proud of himself for getting her to smile. It was one of the few things he felt he was good at, and making her smile was now a point of pride. He wanted to spend a lot of time making her smile like that, and then reminded himself not to get ahead of himself.

“Well,” he said, “my grandmother, mostly.” That got another giggle from her, and he couldn’t help but take a mental snapshot. He wanted to hear that laugh in his head again when she wasn’t around. 

“Well, they’re not wrong. The thing is… I’m…” She paused and chewed her lip. “It’s complicated, Max. Just try not to get your hopes up too much when it comes to… this? I can explain more when we get to know each other a bit more. I just don’t… I’m not really attracted to guys.” There it was. The hammer, the cartoon anvil that turned him into a flat circle on the ground. 

‘Told you,’ the voice in his head said. ‘You’re not good enough.’ He squashed it down and tried to hear what she actually had to say. The date had gone well, he thought, and she wanted to see him again. A few years ago he’d have gone online later to tirade about the friend-zone, but he’d grown out of that toxic mindset a long time ago. 

“All right,” he said, and smiled. “I had a really good time and I’d like to do this again, regardless. Can I give you my number?”

Victoria seemed a little taken aback. “Just like that? You’re not upset?” He frowned at that, wondering what frustrating kind of encounters she’d had before that his reaction was an outlier. 

“I mean, no? You’re really cool and I would like to get to know you better,” Max said, adding a little shrug for emphasis. “And it was a lot of fun flirting,” he added. She smiled again and put her hand on his arm. He was trying desperately not to see it as mixed signals. He looked at it and then at her.

“It’s… complicated. But I really appreciate you being so cool about this,” she said and took out her phone. “Let me add you, and I’ll give you my number.” She looked up at him, and there was that little sparkle in her eye again. He didn’t understand her, but as someone who didn’t understand himself, that didn’t mean much. “Let’s agree to do this again next week?”

He grinned despite himself. He always offered to give his number to others, never asked for it. That way, the other person didn’t feel pressured to either give up a piece of private information they weren’t comfortable with, or, god forbid, give him a fake number. Her offer was surprising but incredibly welcome. Her offer to see him again was unexpected and he tried to ignore how loud the butterflies in his stomach were getting. “Sounds great,” he managed, and they exchanged numbers before crossing the street. 

“Look, Max,” Victoria said, holding the strap of her bag as if she needed something to hold on to, “don’t think of this as like, a rejection or something, okay? This was a really fun time and I want to do it again some time.”

“I don’t,” he said, and the voice in his head told him she was wrong, that this was not only a rejection but a rejection of who he was as a person, as a guy, and that he should very much be hurt and offended. It felt a little bit like lying. “I’ll see you next week, all right?” He smiled reassuringly and she reflected it. Then he heard a voice from behind him that turned his blood to ice. 

“Yo, Jay!” the voice said, and Max ground his teeth together, absolutely ready to turn around and punch someone in the teeth. He was trying to convince himself that those weren’t his intentions when he turned around, fists clenched, to look at the source of the incessant aggravation in his life. It couldn’t have happened at a worse time. He really liked Victoria, and he didn’t want her to remember this date as ending with an interaction with the human equivalent of a migraine. 

“Andrew,” he said, turning around, to look at his old friend. Andrew Quilty was a friend from high school. He’d been his only friend for years. They’d been happily miserable in each other’s company, complaining about the other kids in school, consoling themselves that they, at least, were smarter than the bullies, and therefore better. Max had grown out of a lot of those behaviours. Andrew had not. That wasn’t to say that Andrew was a terrible person, or that he never had good reasons to be frustrated. His mom had been sick for the past twenty years, and he’d grown up largely without parents present. And he’d never moved out, eschewing college to get a job instead to help his parents out with medical bills. Andrew wasn’t a bad person by a long shot. But he was an asshole. Like still using Max’s old initial as a nickname. 

“I told you, Andrew,” Max said through his teeth. “I don’t like that name.” By turning to Andrew, he missed Victoria’s eyes going wide and her eyebrows escaping into the upper stratosphere.

“It’s your name, dumbass,” Andrew said as he approached the two with a lopsided grin. “Who’s this, then? You finally get yourself a date, J-- Ow!” Max grabbed him by the arm. Hard. Andrew grimaced and pulled himself free.

“Max. And this is Victoria. She was just leaving. I was just leaving. You probably should too, buddy. It’s getting late. We’ll catch up some other time.” None of what he’d said was a question or a suggestion. Max was trying to make it painfully clear -- literally so -- that he was proclaiming facts about the near future, and that questioning those facts was going to mean the near future was going to get very unpleasant. Andrew completely missed all of that, and grinned his grin at Victoria, absent-mindedly, rubbing his arm. 

“Nice to meet you, Vicky. Don’t often see someone as hot as you around… my friend. Try not to wear him out too quick, aight?” he said with a wink so gross it made Max want to commit at least one act of violence at him. 

Victoria smiled politely. “Nice to meet you too. And Max and I only just met, so don’t worry. I’m not going to wear out your friend any time soon.” She awkwardly shifted her bag and turned to Max. The warmth was back in her voice. “I should really be going, Max. It was really good to meet you. And your friend.” Her addition at the end was a little colder. 

Max was about to say something, when a child pulled itself free from its mother’s hand a little ways down the road and ran towards them. He frowned, and the others followed his gaze. The young boy had a determined look on his face and his mother was calling his name. Max frowned and knelt down, about to ask the little guy what was wrong. He especially didn’t want the kid running into the street. 

“What’s wr--” he managed, before the kid grabbed his hand with a grip that was a lot stronger than it should be for someone his age, and Max’s vision went black for half a second. Pain and fire shot up his arm but he couldn’t say or do anything. He was paralyzed with pain and fear while he felt like a needle the size of a terrier was being slowly pushed up his arm. It was excruciating and reminded him of that time he’d fallen down the stairs as a kid and his elbow had bent the wrong way. He also felt like something was inside him, binding to him. The kid didn’t seem to really notice and pulled his hand away, shook his head and ran back to his mom. 

Just as quickly as the pain had come, it was gone again. Max rubbed his hand in confusion. It still tingled, felt like what static looks like. His mind was suddenly foggy, cloudy, like he was trying to move from thought to thought by touch. He couldn’t focus. He stumbled as he got up, and both Andrew and Victoria asked if he was okay, what that was about. He shook his head. He didn’t know, barely registered their voices, and said goodbye with a short wave and a reassuring smile before walking to his door and going upstairs to his apartment. He felt guilty for ditching Victoria with Andrew like that, but he couldn’t think. He stumbled into his room. 

He’d been drunk to this extent before, where thinking was a distant memory and the world moved in a swirling haze. It had never been pleasant, but it turned off the thinking, the voice in the back of his head that told him he wasn’t good enough. Sadly, the voice was still there. Apparently, a chunk of his brain was still active enough to remind him that, no matter how well things had gone during the date, he was never going to be good enough for Victoria. He was trying to push it away but he didn’t have the mental fortitude to provide any solid rebuke. 

‘She thinks you’re cute,’ it said, ‘but you’re just too gross, too angular, too masculine for someone like that. You could never be good enough,’ the voice said. 

Then there was another voice, a new one. It was a voice like a cat with a secret. Like red velvet with a shot of vodka. Like the cracking of ice in a drink. Like a knife being slowly sharpened. 

Not necessarily, it said.

 

When Penny Met Max

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