"Pardon me, are you Rosa?"
I could hardly look up from my book, even hearing my name. I normally would have, but I was waiting for someone. Someone I was there to meet. And sitting on the park bench, I felt like I just wanted to disappear.
His voice was... well, everything he'd said it was. Warm, deep, comforting, and mysterious. Darryl, his name. New to the city. And the way we met... Just thinking about it made me blush, which made me want to hide again.
"Pardon me," he said again. He sat on the opposite side of the bench, giving me lots of room to get up and leave if I wanted to. "Are you Rosa?"
I peeked up, looked over at him. Former college football player, he still had the big-and-tall air about him, sitting there confidently. Already small, I felt absolutely tiny, hunched over a fantasy novel, trying not to be noticed. Despite the fact that Darryl was just the person I wanted to notice me. He matched his profile picture, too; Black, brown-eyes, short crop of hair that he deliberately coloured silver (I could see the brown roots), and a broad smile that made him look so much friendlier than I had imagined.
He lifted his eyebrows and I immediately shrank back. "Are you Rosa?" he asked again. He sounded amused.
I'd told him about myself. He'd seen a college picture, though my hair was longer now and in a ponytail instead of hanging loose, and I had different glasses on, and I wasn't dressed formally, just in simple jeans and a nice green blouse that matched my eyes. Comfortable and cool. Twenty-three and painfully shy. He said he didn't care about the shy part, that he knew his way around shyness, and that he just wanted a friend with shared interests to get to know the city with. I knew what he meant by 'shared interests,' given where and how we first crossed paths online, in, I could hardly believe it, a chatroom for hypnotism enthusiasts. It had taken just about everything I had to come out of lurking mode when he said he was being transferred to my small city. I was sure that he wouldn't want to spend time with me—or that, if he did, he'd be another abusive hypnotist looking for a shy girl who wouldn't fight back and wouldn't have the courage to speak up about what was going on... There was a reason I lurked, instead of participating, most of the time.
But no, he seemed genuine. Friendly. So six weeks after I spoke up, which was two weeks after his transfer went into effect, we agreed to meet. In public. On a nice Saturday. In the park, where there were... well, it wasn't a lot of people around, but if I screamed—if I got up the courage to scream—a few people would notice.
He laughed, seeing my look. "Are you Rosa?"
"I..." Finally I made a noise. A minor triumph. "I... suppose."
He smirked. "'I suppose'?" he said. His tone wasn't mocking or belittling, just gently teasing. "Surely you know if you are or not. So, are you Rosa?"
No getting away from it, unless I wanted to run. And I didn't want to run. I closed the book (and lost my place) and took a breath and said, "Yes."
He held out a hand to me. I looked at it like it had eight fingers on it. It didn't. There were five. The index was bent at a bit of an odd angle. Maybe he'd broken it sometime before. It was an offer of a handshake. I realized I was supposed to do something with that. "I'm Darryl," he said.
I knew that. "I know," I replied, and regretted it instantly. "Uh, I'm Rosa," I said, trying to cover up the dumb thing I'd just said to him. His hand was still there. I was still staring at it. I took it.
"I know," he said back. He still sounded amused. His handshake was firm, powerful, and I could imagine those strong arms pulling me in and wrapping around me, the sweaty scent of his—
I swallowed. The handshake was going on too long. Wasn't that a sort of hypnotic induction? Just holding someone's hand until they tranced out? There had to be more to it than that. I wished that I'd studied it. I wanted to let go, but I didn't want to be rude, but I wanted my hand back, and maybe it was just weirder to keep holding on like I was? But also, he was still holding my hand, and I realized that it was probably no longer than an ordinary handshake when, as though reading my mind, he let go.
He probably wasn't reading my mind, I realized. He probably just let go when it was normal to let go.
Why couldn't I be normal? I sighed internally. He must have thought I was a weird freak of nature or something.
If he did, though, it didn't show. "It's nice to finally meet you," he said, as though I hadn't just had a minor heart attack at the thought of a handshake. He sounded like he meant it.
"Thanks, you too." That was almost a normal thing to say. I savoured the success. I doubted that I'd see many more successes.
"What would you like to do today?" he asked.
I hesitated. I hadn't thought that through. It was too late for lunch, and anyway I'd already eaten, and it was too early for supper. What do you do on a date with a hypnotist? Trance out? But I didn't want that, not yet, anyway.
"Rosa?" he said again. "What would you like to do today?"
I had offered to show him around. That was kind of what I wanted to do. But we were in a park. There was a lovely English garden, and some forest trails, and an art gallery all right there. A lot to see without hopping on a bus or walking very far. And it was all so very open, very public, that maybe...
With a voice that radiated patience and good humour, he asked again. "What would you like to do today, Rosa?"
"Walk?" I squeaked.
He chuckled. "There are a lot of places to go."
I breathed. "Just walk," I managed, getting to my feet. My book dropped to the ground, and the two of us both moved to pick it up, then stopped before we accidentally became a comedy routine.
"Allow me," he said.
I froze. He must have thought I couldn't do it myself. Or maybe he was just one of those can't-let-a-woman-do-anything-for-herself kind of men. I wondered if I should have been irritated, but I really couldn't be, since he very nicely, and even more carefully than he had to, picked up the book and dusted it off. He noticed the cover and the title and I flushed, it was more the sort of book that you'd expect a fifteen-year-old boy to be reading, not a twenty-three-year-old woman, but I got hooked on sword-and-sorcery novels as a kid and just couldn't put them down.
"I love this series," he said, handing the book back to me. I slipped it back into my purse, embarrassed. "I've been reading them since I was in school."
I blushed. He obviously knew how childish they were, then, and how simple. Hardly high literature. Heck, 'literature' alone was a stretch. "Me too," I mumbled, confirming that I was still obsessing over things I loved ten years ago.
"I hear there's talk of a streaming show," he said casually, as though I wouldn't already know that. Of course I did. But I didn't want to tell him, because he clearly thought he was imparting new information to me, and I didn't want to seem like a massive nerd so soon in our conversation. Or at all.
I just nodded and waited for him to start walking. Instead, he looked me in the eyes and said, "Well, guide, where should we go?"
I looked away, suddenly, trying to pretend I was thinking. In reality, I was planning escape routes.
"Rosa?" Darryl's voice sounded concerned. "Where should we go?"
I looked back, but stared at his neck, not his eyes. "What would you like to see?" I muttered quietly.
"Hm?" he replied. "Sorry, I didn't catch that, where should we go?"
I had to make a call. I had to. "... The garden?" I said after what felt like an eternity but was probably only a momentary pause. I looked at his eyes. They were kind.
He nodded. "I'm a fan of gardens." He waited expectantly, and so did I. This time the silence was legitimately awkward. "Which way?" he asked.
"Oh!" I jumped to action. "Of course, so sorry, uh..." I looked around, trying to get my bearings. "It's... over there, I think?"
He seemed amused. "Do you not know?"
"I just... I get turned around... I'm... not used to this part of the..." I trailed off. I took a breath. "Let's go that way."
"Lead on," he said, as though I'd just made a declaration in perfect confidence.
And I was right, at least. The direction I'd pointed led us more or less straight to the garden. I couldn't think of anything to say on the walk, and Darryl seemed comfortable with the silence. At least I hoped he was comfortable with it, certainly he didn't say anything to break it, so maybe he just felt I was too awkward to talk to. He seemed more to be taking in the sights, which made sense since he was new to town. Although I had to imagine he'd seen trees and grass before. I had a moment or two to take a look at him as we walked. He was older than me, though not by a lot, I think he'd said twenty-seven. He had a bit of a limp, probably from a sports injury or something, and he did look more like a former athlete than a current athlete.
I knew nothing about flowers, but the garden sure was pretty. Pathways wound around little sections with one or two kinds of plant in batches designed to be eye-catching, and succeeding, as far as I was concerned. It wasn't big, it would only take us a few minutes to walk through, but it was nice.
"Lovely layout," Darryl said, stopping by the entrance. "What do you think?"
I liked it. Pinks and blues. I didn't know what to say, though, I just looked at them.
Darryl cleared his throat. "Rosa? What do you think?"
I demurred. What if I said the wrong thing? Did he believe in some sort of associations with colours? If I admitted that I liked the blues, would he think I wasn't womanly?
"What do you think?" he repeated, not sounding particularly concerned with my unresponsiveness.
"Um! the blues are... really nice, I think? I don't know what flowers they are I'm sorry," I said.
He laughed, and I was surprised to find that it wasn't unkind laughter. "It's fine to just give your opinion on what it looks like, I honestly don't know any more than you." He knelt down and inhaled. "They smell nice, too."
I tried to catch my breath a bit. I felt a little like the fairly short walk was more of a marathon. I didn't get down to the ground, I just went to look at another cluster of flowers, whites and yellows. Probably daisies. I wasn't paying attention to the flowers, I was half hoping that I would pass out so the paramedics would take me away from this date that I was...
I was surprised to find that I was actually enjoying myself, once I got past the panic. Darryl didn't seem to care too much that I was freaking out, he was just being... kind. Probably pity, I said to myself, but I didn't sense any of that from him. His amusement seemed just like genuine delight and not mockery.
"How are the daisies?" Darryl asked, coming up behind me, and I jumped. He laughed, again, and again it didn't sound like I was being made fun of. "Sorry, sorry, I didn't mean to surprise you."
"No it's okay," I babbled quickly, "I'm sorry I'm just jumpy and easily startled."
He smiled and nodded. "Alright, I'll be sure not to sneak up, then."
"Oh, thank you," I said. I think I smiled.
"You're welcome, Rosa." There was that sincere tone again. I could hardly believe it. "So how are the daisies?"
I blinked. He was still thinking about flowers. I was still thinking about him. I couldn't shift gears quickly enough to answer. I said something extremely bright like, "Uhh..." then just stood there in silence.
Almost as though he wasn't sure I'd heard him, he asked again, with the same patient voice. "How are the daisies?"
Finally I spit it out. "I like 'em," I said. Not a deep critique of the floral arrangement, I knew, but it was the best I had.
"I do too." He nodded again. "Should we continue our walk through the garden?"
"Please," I said too quickly, but he didn't seem to notice.
He didn't talk much, and neither did I. A lot of the small details of our lives—family, friends, work, hobbies—we had already sorted out in the chatroom and in private messages, so we didn't have a lot to go over. He just kept asking me about the flowers. I kept answering. Sometimes he had to ask me twice or three times before I got my thoughts in order, but he was always calm, cool, comforting. I have no idea how he managed to put up with me.
We made our way slowly through the garden and made it back to the entrance. "That is a really nice little garden," Darryl said. "Thank you. I was worried that there wouldn't be many spaces like this out here."
"Out here?" I asked.
He shuffled, seeming a bit embarrassed. "I didn't mean anything by it, I'm sorry. Smaller city, you know? I was kind of expecting it to be... less than it is. And I haven't had a lot of time to do anything outside of work and getting settled in, so my impressions have mostly been about what's been missing from my life instead of what's right here to see. I've needed to be more... open. Forgiving. Just because this isn't The Big City doesn't mean it's not worthwhile. I mean," he looked at me, "you're here, so it's obviously not a miserable place."
I swallowed. That was a compliment. I wasn't ready for a compliment. And it was a really nice compliment. "Thanks?" I said, turning away and putting my hands to my face. My cheeks were very warm. "Could we... what would you like to do now?" I asked, trying to gather myself.
"I wouldn't mind a snack, if that's alright. Not a full meal, it's too early for that for me, but something sweet. Is that alright with you?"
I nodded, and turned back. "Y-yeah," I stammered. "Yeah, that's... It sounds nice."
"Good, then let's do that." He gave me a grin. "Where should we go?"
I hesitated, before pausing. There was an ice-cream place nearby that did pretty good business and I really liked it. But maybe Darryl would be more interested in the bakery downtown, and it wasn't too far a walk, or we could hop a bus and—
"Where should we go, Rosa?"
I didn't know if I just ask, or just take a guess, or even just tell him that I would show him a place and pick an actual destination while we were walking, putting off the decision until I could figure out what I wanted.
"Where should we go?"
"Uh, I... Ice cream?" With a suddenness that surprised even me, I started marching off in the direction of dessert. I heard, and somehow felt, Darryl following me, catching up to me easily in a couple steps.
"Sounds great," Darryl said.
And he was right, it sounded exactly like what I wanted. "Yep. Just a few minutes up the road, a little outside the park. They do good business in the summer."
"So." I recognized that tone. Serious Talk Tone. Where the dumping would begin. "Hypnotism."
Nope. Worse than being dumped. Being acknowledged. "Uh. Yeah. Hypnotism."
"You like it."
I nodded, nervous. "Yeah, I... I like it. A lot."
"So do I." He looked at me and winked. "I think a little differently than you do."
"Yep." I took a deep breath. "I like the way you... uh... talk." We had played a bit on the forums, and I'd managed to get a bit dazed and trancey, but I wasn't really ready to let go entirely. Darryl had respected that, but it didn't stop him from teasing me about feeling lightheaded and dozey, or from pinning my arm (just one) to my lap and laughing at my slow typing.
"Thank you. I like the way you respond."
I flushed. Praise! My heart fluttered. "Th-thank you ssssss—" I trailed off into a hiss. This wasn't a session, and still I nearly used the s-word. I tried to keep my composure. I didn't want to break any boundaries, not now, not with him so close, not without an easy escape.
He pretended not to notice, and I silently thanked him again for that. "You're welcome, Rosa. So where are you hoping hypnotism takes you?"
I opened my mouth, but no sound came out. I tried again. "I... haven't thought that far ahead, honestly. I just... I'm having fun," I said. Which was mostly true; I didn't have the courage or energy to be a very active participant, and when I had been more, it hadn't gone well, but I couldn't really give it up, so I lurked, mostly, and enjoyed it all vicariously. Until Darryl had mentioned coming to my city, and then I'd jumped in without thinking, and made a friend, I hoped. "Uh, what... what about you?"
"Oh, you know, the usual," he said with a grin. "Collect a few subjects, gather up my own little harem, live hypnotically ever after."
He laughed like it was a joke, but honestly my mouth went dry at the fantasy of it. I didn't know if I really wanted to be a part of that sort of group, but in my dreams sometimes...
"More realistically," he continued, "I guess same as you. Long term plans are a bit weird for me generally, especially since my life just got uprooted on what was basically a manager's whim, which really messed with me, I have to admit. Broke me away from a couple good play partners, not to mention friends, and I'm a little pissed about it, but more I'm adjusting and I kinda feel that long-term planning is a bit of a crock when that sort of stuff can just... happen."
I nodded sympathetically. I wasn't the one who got transferred here, I'd been here my whole life. Most of my friends and family moved away, not towards. Even my parents had taken early retirement once I was safely in university and bought a condo on the coast to be closer to my grandmother and aunt, leaving me to come back home to an empty house, which was fine for my antisocial tendencies, but not great for my loneliness.
We arrived at the ice cream place as he was talking. He held the door for me, which was nice. "No arguments," he said, and I shivered a bit internally, "I'm buying. You're my tour guide, it's the least I can do."
I nodded and resisted the urge to actually say anything because everything I could think to say was openly submissive.
"What do you like?" he asked. We were at the back of a short line, so we had a couple minutes to figure things like that out.
I looked at the menu. So many choices, so many of them good, but he was buying and I didn't want to be too extravagant. "Just... just a small vanilla soft-serve?"
He smiled back at me. "Really? What do you like, Rosa?"
I felt a bit trapped by those dark eyes. "I just... it's okay, you don't have to..."
"I want to," he replied. "What is it that you really want?"
"I... maybe... uh..." We stepped up as people in front of us moved forward and I looked at the literally-mouth-watering options on the menu board.
"What would you like?"
"Hot fudge sundae," I said. Middle-of-the-road option, but so, so good. "This place makes their own whipping cream and it's got just the right sweetness and I mean I don't want to impose but if you really want to..."
"I do really want to." We stepped up to the counter. "I want to try the Peanut Blaster, please," he said to the lanky kid serving us.
"Uh..." I looked at Darryl, then back to the freckle-faced high-school boy. "H-hot fudge. Large!" I exclaimed. Why not. "With shredded almonds, and rock sugar, and a cherry!"
"Of course, miss, right away," the server replied with a smile.
I flushed. My outburst felt childish. I had a degree! I was an adult! But... sometimes... And Darryl seemed... Supportive. He didn't say anything, either way, and neither did I; we just waited for a moment for them to get our order together. It didn't take long, and we were outside again, our treats in hand.
"Where to now?" he asked me as we started walking down the main street of town.
"Uh..." I mumbled around a mouthful of delicious ice cream. I swallowed. "I mean, I should probably think about going home before too long..."
"Of course! Can I walk you to the bus?"
I looked down at my feet. "I. Um. Didn't take the bus."
"You live nearby?"
I nodded. "Yeah, it's, uh, actually not too far."
"Would you like me to walk you home, then?"
I took a bigger bite of my ice cream than I should have, giving me an excuse not to answer.
"Rosa?" he said, looking at me. We were already walking in the direction of my house. "Would you like me to walk you home?"
"I... uh... maybe?"
He smiled. "Would you like me to walk you home, Rosa? I understand if you don't want me to know where you live."
I nodded. "I... not today, um, but I'll walk with you back to the bus?"
He actually seemed happier with that answer. "I would be honoured." He looked around. "Which way is Shoreline? I'm sorry, I have a terrible sense of direction."
I was happy to help. "It's probably faster to just go back through the park." I was always happy to help.
We turned around, walking back into the trees and grass. The sun seemed to be getting warmer. It was difficult to hold a conversation while enjoying ice cream, so we lapsed into silence again for a moment or two. It was Darryl that broke it. "Ice cream was a great idea, Rosa. Thank you."
I flushed and mumbled something about enjoying it myself, too. Which wasn't a lie at all, the hot fudge sundae was perfect.
"I hope we can do this again."
Oh my God yes please yes a thousand times yes! I thought. "... sure," I said. I hoped my smile conveyed my intention, but not too much, I didn't want to seem desperate. Or maybe I did.
"I... hope I haven't been too forward," Darryl said. "I do want to see you again."
I nodded, finishing my sundae. "I want to see you again, too."
We paused at a garbage can to toss out the containers for our desserts. "May I still contact you on the chat?"
"Oh! Yes! Please! I still... I don't want to... um... lose..." I struggled for words. I didn't know what we had, I didn't know what I didn't want to lose. But I knew I didn't want to lose it.
"I understand." We reached the bus stop and stood there. He was on the main line, so we wouldn't have more than a few minutes. "I don't want to lose it, either. But whenever you have time and want to get together, I'm happy to have another walk in the park."
"Maybe..." I mumbled. Not because I didn't want another walk.
"Hm? Maybe?" He raised an eyebrow.
I shrank back. "Maybe, um... a..."
I saw the bus coming. "Maybe you wanna go to a movie Tuesday night?" I said quickly.
He smiled brightly at me. "Maybe I do, Rosa." The bus pulled up. "We'll talk more before that."
I waved when he got on, because I couldn't find the words I wanted. He waved back.
I was barely able to keep from laughing with joy the whole time—but I was in public and being the weird girl laughing at nothing would probably raise too many questions. Still, I walked home on a cloud, grinning the whole way. I could hardly wait to get into the chatroom.