Daniel noticed a certain agitation in Aasif’s manner toward him the next few days. The bartender would practically throw his drink down on the bar top and dash away, fleeing as though his very life depended on it. Something was working Aasif up. He wondered what. He was fairly certain that it was his uniform that had sent Aasif scurrying away that time on the street, so why was he acting this way when Daniel no longer wore it? And he also noticed that the bartender wasn’t acting this way about any of the other men who came into the bar. So apparently it was just him who was giving Aasif the willies. Why? And how could he find out?
He finally lost patience on the day before Aasif’s days off. He was sitting on his regular barstool, sipping at a beer ands watching Aasif surreptitiously. There was no one else in the place at this time of the day, not uncommon for a mid-week afternoon. The bartender was way down at the other end of the bar, elaborately cleaning glasses and refusing to look in Daniel’s direction.
His mouth thinned. He was really, REALLY tired of Aasif acting like a frightened rabbit whenever the man came within ten feet of him, especially when he hadn’t done anything to deserve this behavior. He set his beer down on the bar top and spoke in a flat, cool voice. “Aasif.”
The bartender jumped, and his big eyes skittered to Daniel’s face briefly before darting away again. “Yes?” his voice sounded rather high and tight, as though it were being strangled in his diaphragm.
“Have I done something to scare you?” Daniel asked, his voice emotionless.
“No!” Aasif cried, looking upset.
“Well, you sure act like I have. You jump when I talk to you, you run away when you give me my drinks, and you won’t look at me. I don’t know what’s going on, or what I’ve done to spook you. But I don’t like it. I don’t think that I’ll be coming in here anymore.”
Aasif’s head whipped around, and his face was a picture of shock and horror. “Oh, no!” he cried, his eyebrows gathering together. “Please don’t…I’m so sorry,” he continued miserably, his shoulders slumping and his head drooping. His hair hid his face as he stared at the floor.
“Sorry for what? What’s the matter, Aasif?” Daniel asked more gently, his eyes fixed on the top of the bent head.
“I can’t…I just…” Aasif’s voice was broken and full of despair.
“You can’t tell me? You have to see it from my point of view, Aasif. Out of the blue you start to act like I killed your mother, when I’ve never done anything to you. That’s pretty upsetting for me,” Daniel explained.
“I know,” Aasif whispered woefully. “And I’m so sorry. It isn’t anything that you’ve done, Daniel. It’s me. It’s just me,” the self-loathing in his voice was a punch to Daniel’s gut.
“Hey, don’t beat up on yourself. I’m sure that you have a good reason for acting this way,” Daniel’s voice was soothing and kind, but him saying that just made Aasif’s shoulders hunch even more.
“A good reason, yes,” he said in a choked, cracked voice. “But I want to…I want to…not have that reason anymore! I can’t stand this!” he wailed, and then, to Daniel’s utter horror, he burst into tears and stood there sobbing helplessly like a frightened child.
Daniel got up and circled the bar. He knew he shouldn’t try to touch Aasif, but he couldn’t help himself. He couldn’t just sit there and watch the man fall apart like this. Aasif’s anguish was so palpable that it was like a cloud encasing him. He had to ease that pain somehow, even if it made Aasif even more frightened of him.
He put out his hands and took Aasif by the shoulders. The bartender stiffened in fear, and his eyes were wide with panic(and glistening with unshed tears) as they flew to Daniel’s face. But Daniel ignored his terror this time. He pulled Aasif to him, encasing the trembling man in a tight hug. He knew that this might be the worst possible thing that he could do, but he just had to try. “It’s alright, Aasif,” he crooned into one small ear. “It’s okay. I’m here. I won’t hurt you. I’d never hurt you.” he rocked Aasif, and talked to him, and while the bartender was frozen with fear like a small animal caught in a trap, as Daniel’s hands stroked down his back he gradually began to relax just the tiniest fraction.
Daniel had no idea how much time passed, or how long they stood like that, but at last Aasif’s breath gusted out of him in a sigh, and he relaxed enough that his body was touching Daniel’s at the chest. He groaned, a sound full of hopeless agony. “Daniel,” he said, “I hate this. I can’t let anybody touch me. I’m so afraid, all the time. I want to kill myself, but I’m too scared. Please, help me.”
That plea made Daniel’s gut tighten and tears prickle at the backs of his own eyes. “I will if I can, Aasif,” he said. “And you’re letting me touch you right now. I’m not hurting you; it’s alright. So do you believe that I won’t hurt you?”
“Yes,” Aasif whispered on a thread of sound. “My head knows that, Daniel, but I can’t convince my body or my heart. I’ve never been able to do that. Not since…” he trailed off, and it was clear that he wasn’t ready to talk about whatever trauma had reduced him to this quivering mass of fear.
“I understand,” Daniel told him. “But maybe we can work on convincing your body and your heart that you can be safe. Maybe we could try a sort of ‘touch therapy’? I could hold you or touch you for longer and longer periods every day, until you’re used to it and you’re not so scared anymore. They call it ‘immersion therapy’ for PTSD sufferers, and I think that’s what you have. Would you like to give it a try?”
Silence. Then: “Yes,” the determination in Aasif’s voice moved Daniel. This man had a lot of native courage. “I would like to try, Daniel. You’ll help me?”
“I will if I can,” Daniel vowed, gently releasing him. “Starting tomorrow. It’s your day off, right? We could meet up somewhere and give more touching a try, if you want.”
Aasif’s watery dark eyes met his for the first time in days. “I would very much like it, Daniel,” he said softly. “I do not want to live in fear anymore. I’m so tired of it. And I want to…touch you…” he added, his cheeks reddening in the most adorable blush that Daniel had ever seen, even as his eyelashes fell over his large eyes to hide them.
Oh, man. It was good that they were standing in a semi-public place, or he might have done something drastic that he REALLY couldn’t afford to do right now. Aasif was still very much like a wounded animal, that had to be coaxed into trusting again. Jumping on the man would be the worst thing that he could do right now, but damn was he tempted…
He cleared his throat. “I’ll just go back to my seat now,” he said huskily. This time it was his turn to flee, because if he stayed in Aasif’s general proximity he was going to lose his mind and screw the pooch entirely. And he didn’t want to do that; he really wanted to make this thing with Aasif work out if he could. That meant helping the man through whatever was burdening him and causing his terrible fear of being touched.
Daniel sat down on his stool, taking a fortifying swig of his beer. Aasif stood trembling for a moment, then walked slowly on shaking legs down to where he was sitting. “If you meant it…?” he began, hesitantly. “Where…?”
“Not at your house,” Daniel replied calmly. “A more neutral setting, where you can feel more comfortable, would be better. How about a park or some other public place? That way, if you feel threatened or really scared in any way, you can run off or get help.”
Aasif nodded a bit, jerkily. His hands were twining together in front of him in intense anxiety, but his lower lip also jutted out stubbornly. Daniel really did admire his courage. Aasif was willing to do whatever it took to free himself from the fear that he was living with. “There’s a park nearby,” Aasif remarked slowly. “It’s less than a mile from here. I could meet you there tomorrow afternoon. About three?”
“Three will be great,” Daniel told him. “And I’ll find the park, don’t worry. We’ll give it a shot, together. I figure it can’t hurt, right? Also…” he paused, meeting Aasif’s anxious gaze steadily, “Maybe you could eventually talk about what the cause of this is? You need to get it out, Aasif, to talk about it. If you keep bottling it up inside you it’ll eat you alive. I know, I’ve seen it.”
Aasif closed his eyes. “I’ll try,” he choked out.
“Don’t push yourself too much. We have plenty of time. You’ll know when it’s right and you’re ready.”
Aasif shuddered faintly. “You’re so kind, Daniel,” he said in wonder.
Daniel snorted silently. He didn’t want to tell Aasif that he wasn’t doing this out of kindness. Or at least, not kindness alone, anyway. “You’re a friend, Aasif,” he replied aloud. “I just want to help a friend who’s in pain. I’d do it for any friend who needed my help.”
Aasif got a strange expression on his face when Daniel called him a friend, though his lips lifted in a small smile, as well. “It’s good to have a friend,” he said slowly.
Daniel studied his face. “Don’t you have any friends, Aasif?”
A shake of the head. “Not any close ones, anyway. Not since I left Iraq. I’ve wanted to make friends, but it was difficult. Some people don’t react well to Middle Eastern men, and others don’t react well to gay men. Me being both has made it hard to get close to other people, especially with my fear of being touched thrown in.”
“Well, you’ve got a friend now. And hopefully you’ll make more soon as we work through your fears together. Things will get better, Aasif. I know they will.”
His positive words made the bartender’s lips lift in a tremulous smile. “Thank you, Daniel. For everything.”
“I’m sure you’d do the same for me, Aasif,” Daniel replied. “If our positions were reversed.”
“I’d like to think so,” Aasif said.
Daniel smiled. “I know so. Listen, I’ve got to get going. I’ll see you tomorrow at three, Aasif. Be there or be square.”
The bartender nodded. “I will be there, Daniel,” he said, lifting his chin. “No matter what it takes.”
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