“Can I at least buy you a cup of coffee while you wait?” Steve Rogers asked, hands stuffed in pockets. He didn’t want to seem threatening but he didn’t want to act like he was begging or whining either. Asking someone out to coffee outside his therapist’s office certainly wasn’t on the list of things he thought he’d ever do, least of all on that day.
It was cloudy and he knew the rain would come soon. He glanced at the redhead in front of him, who he had to admit looked severe and intimidating even in jeans (Maybe it was the black heels? Or just her resting bitch face…) He had overheard her asking for a tow truck on her cellphone as he walked out to his own car.
As he slid into the driver's seat of the little red car that got him just from A to B, his conscience was what had pulled him to step in. He didn’t know a lot about cars but he had been there, broken down in an inconvenient place. He could see smoke billowing from the hood and shook his head. Option A was to drive away and go to the gym. Option B won.
She met his question with a glare that caused his ass to clench and his mouth to go dry. Man, I’m trying to help, he told himself in defense. It was one of his flaws, according to his therapist, who had argued that he was always trying to rescue people. You can’t help people who don’t want to be helped, Bruce had admonished him only twenty minutes ago. He sighed and looked over his shoulder at the door to the office building where he went every Tuesday for an hour and sometimes also on Fridays (in the early days).
“It’s ok if you don’t want to,” he felt himself explain as she narrowed her eyes and clutched her purse closer. “I just thought… who knows when a tow truck will get here. It might rain…”
She bit her lip, a gesture that normally would have turned him on if he wasn’t scared she’d mace him, and shook her head. “I’m fine, thanks.”
He raised an eyebrow and shrugged. “Well, there’s a Starbucks right across the street. I’m going to go pick something up in case you change your mind.” It was a bold move to keep the invitation open and he wasn’t sure why he was fighting so hard to convince her. She nodded and looked down at her phone. He took it as a nothankyoufuckoff and retreated. As he made his way to coffee, he vacilitated between a childish hope she’d show up and logic that this would just be fodder for next week’s session.
His thoughts turned to his agenda for the day: gym, grocery shopping, class. What he wanted to do was go home and watch Netflix for hours. He took a sip of his coffee and pulled out the notepad and pen he kept in his back pocket per his therapist's suggestion, and started doodling. Drawing helps unlock your right brain, he told Steve. And besides, you have a talent. He'd offered her some help, she'd turned it down, and he had to move forward with his day. Progress. Baby steps, he told himself as he finished his cup. He glanced quickly at his sketch, a black spider with long spiny legs that threatened to crawl off the page.
"So, what's on your mind today?"
Natasha shifted, reminding herself to sit straight and not fidgit. She sighed and made eye contact with her therapist. He smiled with sincerity and she took a mental note of his ruffled clothes. What kind of therapist doesn't iron?, she wondered, wishing again that her insurance had paid for a different provider. He sat back, relaxed and hands folded, waiting for her to talk. Which kind of pissed her off. She was in therapy for him to tell her how to live, not for her to talk to air.
"Not a lot. Things are ok."
Yeah, she'd had her share. It was one of the reasons Natasha had sought help. Dreams about drowning, being smothered, dreams about a past she was trying to forget. They'd gotten worse over the past year, to the point that she wasn't sleeping, which in turn affected her ability to concentrate at work. A coworker had suggested meds when she confessed to nearly falling asleep at the wheel.
So she had called Dr. Bruce Banner, hoping for something. Xanax. Ambien. Anything. A quick fix so she could get her life back. In their first session, he asked about goals and then gently told her he was a PhD. PhDs can't prescribe meds. She’d nearly walked out right then and there.
"But I would like to work with you to see if we can't find some other ways to get through this", he had explained. It might take time and work but that she might feel better with coping skills that allowed her to function without relying only on prescriptions. She consented with hesitation, deciding not to tell him that the bottle of vodka in her freezer was getting her by just fine.
And now, a month in, she found herself still saying "I'll give him one more week." One more week of breathing exercises and creating good "sleep hygiene" before bed (no phone, no TV, just a dark room and deep breaths). She kept coming back because, as much as she hated to admit it, it felt nice to tell someone all she was keeping inside.
"Only once," she admitted to the bad dreams that had been slowly getting better.
"Yeah. I guess so."
He nodded and checked in with her about her other symptoms. Irritability, racing heart, difficulty breathing. She denied them, though she had been jumpy closing up the shop the night before.
"And isolation? Have you checked on any of the ideas we came up with to get more social support?"
Natasha shrugged. Go to church. Go find a group for domestic violence survivors. Go online. Nothing. Not that she had really tried. Being alone was safe.
"My car broke down last week. Right after our session." she offered. It had been the biggest event and certainly most stressful of her week. Waiting for the tow, praying the repairs wouldn't be so expensive or time-consuming.
"And how did you handle it?"
She bit her lip. "Well, I guess. I mean, it overheated. I probably should look into something new. I don't know. I just waited for the tow and then crossed my fingers. Got hit on while I was waiting."
Her therapist nodded. "What was that like?"
"Weird? What was your anxiety level? Scale of 1-10?"
Natasha remembered the blond man who'd offered to help her, to wait with her and buy her coffee. He had seemed innocent enough. She remembered his eyes as he had smiled at her. Kind. Maybe a little timid. But weren't those always the ones to watch out for.
"I mean, he just wanted to buy me a cup of coffee while I waited. It was...sweet. But yeah, it reminded me of Ivan." As soon as she said his name, her stomach lurched. She wondered if her therapist would be able to refer her out for a lobotomy just so she could forget.
Her therapist tapped his fingers on the arm of his chair but continued offering a blank face that betrayed no judgment. “Tell me more about that?”
Natasha just remembered feeling like he had come out of nowhere. She remembered memorizing everything she could about his looks in case she ever had to pick him out of a lineup. The sandy-colored hair, tall. Looked like he went to the gym or the beach often. Jeans, Maroon v-neck sweater. Did he have blue eyes or brown? She squeezed her hands into fists because, fuck that is an important detail. She hoped it wouldn’t ever matter. What mattered most was that he came out of nowhere and asked to help. Invited her to coffee. She’d immediately stopped breathing, the hair on the back of her neck standing up. She probably had scared him off, a part of her reasoned. But she was safe. She was in control. And best of all, she hadn’t had to reach for the knife kept in her bag, because she wasn’t even sure she could actually use it when push came to shove.
“I just felt nervous. Just. Didn’t get a good feeling”, she explained. “I mean. Everyone starts off nice. Ivan started off nice.”
And so her therapist walked her through the different things she’d been feeling in her body at the time, (tightness in her chest, nausea, shortness of breath) and reviewed the deep-breathing he wanted her to do daily that she always neglected.
“Natasha, sometimes your body remembers trauma kind of like muscle-memory. It’s the idea behind flashbacks. Like you are there, with Ivan.” Bruce moved forward in his chair, smiling. He smiles the way a father does on TV, she thought to herself. Like fathers are supposed to smile.
“Natasha, I wonder if you could experiment. Practice reminding yourself that there is only one Ivan."
She exhaled. “Not all men, right?” So far that had been bullshit but Bruce was a man and she didn’t want to get into a political discussion. Maybe not all men. Bruce and Mickey Mouse. They could be the exceptions.
“So what are you saying, Bruce? Should I have let this guy take me out?” Natasha felt her chest tighten. Her first date with Ivan. What had that been like? Had she ever been to coffee with him? She couldn’t remember. They had met through mutual friends when she was still in high school.
“I’m not saying that at all, Natasha. You should trust your instincts. But you should also remember that you have been through hell. That was not a normal dating experience or a normal relationship”.
She smirked. “What’s normal?”
He maintained his safe smile, picking up his black agenda from the floor. “You deserve love, Natasha. Can we test this and talk next week?”