My life, pockmarked with a history of numerous disastrous and short-lived “love” affairs needed some spicing up; I finally gave in to the peer pressure and joined a dating app.
Two days into one hell of an uncomfortable experience, I was thigh-deep in a pond of eclectic fish. Questionable sexual propositions and painfully boring interactions left me mentally exhausted. My optimism knew no bounds, however. Despite having heard the worst, I was naive enough to believe that I wouldn’t get caught up in the whirlwind of horror stories that plagued the dating world.
I don’t think I have ever been so wrong about anything in my entire life.
Day three of my romantic efforts rolled around, and I woke up to a match from Pill, 32 – someone who can only be described as “a massive ride.” Of course, my first thoughts were things such as “he’s definitely a catfish” and “he probably swipes right on anything with a pulse and ignores everyone.”
What I, in that moment of blissful shock, failed to notice was the message he had sent.
“My name is actually Phil, everyone calls me Pill. You know, because I’m hard to swallow.”
His message made me cringe a little, but his profile made him seem sound enough for me to chance a reply.
“So that’s either a dirty joke, or you’re a horrible person. I’m pretty sure that’s a lose-lose for you.”
“I swear it’s neither, I’ve always been an honest, straightforward person, and some people find that annoying. Having said that, I like your profile, and I’m not one for small talk. Fancy meeting up for a coffee?”
“Is this where I say I’ve always valued honesty? Because I think that’s true for everyone, but some people can’t handle the truth. I’m up for coffee, what did you have in mind?”
“The café in Connelly’s Inn has a great bakery if you want to meet there around half one?”
“I absolutely LOVE their croissants, I’ll be there! This is officially the shortest message exchange I’ve had that didn’t include someone talking to me about their knob, I appreciate that.”
A wink back and that’s all there was to it. Plans were made without even exchanging numbers. I threw on some mascara, and before I knew it, I was out the door to catch the bus into town.
Hopping off the bus into a faceful of misty rain, I pulled my hood up and headed towards the hotel. I turned the first corner and walked up the steps to the cafe’s entrance, taking a deep breath before pushing in the glass door. Things seemed to be slightly busier than normal, even for a Saturday afternoon.
For years I had been a semi-regular for a caffeine fix while still working in retail. Dermot, the barista, looked up as I walked in and gave me a quick wave before returning to his work behind the bar. It was nice to see a friendly face, and I immediately felt at ease with my surroundings.
Then, I heard my name.
“Jess! Over here.” There he was, precisely as his profile pictures promised, walking straight towards me with a broad smile on his face.
He leaned in to give me a quick hug and then stepped aside, motioning forward. “I grabbed a table for us over here.”
Before I was able to form a complete sentence, he guided me towards a table for four in the centre of the room. Two older individuals slowly stood from their seats at the table as we approached.
“Mam, dad. I want to introduce you to Jess.” He paused. “My fiance.”
Looking back, I think my face may not have fallen as far as I thought it did because no one, aside from me, was the least bit phased by this information.
“Oh, I’m not…”
“Jess! It’s so lovely to meet you, Phil has told us so much about you. We’re just sorry we haven’t been able to visit and get to know you before the wedding. This has all happened so fast!”
“Yeah but I’m not his fian…”
Phil took my hand in his. “Jess really isn’t fond of the word fiance, I told you that mam.” He tightened his grip on my hand, then tilted his head to look at me with an intensity that shook me to my very core. “We’ll be married first thing tomorrow anyway, there’s no need to get used to it now. I’m just glad that everyone was able to make it!”
“What do you mean…everyone?”
“I told you I booked the hotel for the weekend, Jess. It’s just you, me, and my family.”
It dawned on me, as I looked around, that everyone was looking at us and smiling. I was trapped. For the longest time, I thought I would be able to handle anything, but at this moment, I was frozen. Not particularly with fear, more by confusion. Phil loosened his grip on my hand, and I took the opportunity to withdraw from him.
“If you’ll excuse me, I just need to use the bathroom quickly.”
“Oh, of course, dear! No worries. Hurry back so we can chat and get to know more about you!” While his father was silent, his mother seemed far too excited for all of it to feel real.
As I turned to go to the bathroom, Phil abruptly grabbed the handle of my bag. “You don’t need that in there, we’ll mind it for you, babe.”
“No it’s okay, I’ll just bring it with me.”
“We’re not going to rob you! It will be just fine here.”
Not knowing what else to do in the face of his determination, I relaxed my grip on the bag and watched as he placed it on one of the chairs.
“It will be right here when you come back.” He winked.
I slowly retreated to the back of the room, making sure to pass by the bar. Knowing I was being watched, I did my best to get Dermot’s attention. My hope was that, in knowing me, he would pick up on the tension. “Psst.”
He glanced up from the latte he was making, a quizzical look on his face.
‘Help me,’ I mouthed as I darted a look behind me with my wide eyes and continued passed him and into the bathroom. Locking myself into the last stall, I leaned against the wall and allowed myself to breathe. I knew I couldn’t stay too long without causing concern, and for the first time since school, I prayed.
Less than a minute later, the bathroom door opened. My entire body went numb. To my relief, old acquaintances come in handy in crazy situations.
“Jess?! It’s Louise from reception. Dermot asked me to check on you, are you okay?”
I unlocked the stall, walked out and over to Louise. I took a deep breath.
“I came here for a date with someone I matched with on a dating app THIS MORNING and everyone out there in that room is here for our WEDDING. TOMORROW. There is no soul behind those eyes, and I am absolutely terrified. He wouldn’t let me bring my bag in here. You have to call someone and get me out of here. I don’t know what to do.”
“…Okay. That’s a lot.”
“Yeah, it really is Louise.”
“The only way out is through the cafe to either the front door or the bar door. You’ll have to go out there and act like everything is normal while I call security. I’ll sort that and then call Dermot and have him tell you that I need you for something.”
“I’m fucked right now aren’t I.”
“Not completely, we’ll get you out. It just might take a minute or twenty.”
Composing myself, I exited the bathroom, and I can honestly say that I deserve an Oscar for my performance from that moment forward. I walked over to that table, slowly lifted my bag from the chair and sat down prepared for anything. Thankfully, Phil’s mother was a chatty woman.
“Thought you had fallen down! Was nearly going to come and check on you. Wasn’t sure what you wanted to drink but Phil mentioned you love the croissants, so there’s a warm one on the way!”
“Thank you so much, I’m actually starving. This whole day has been like a blur so far.”
I didn’t need to look at Phil to know he was staring at me with those empty eyes of his. Glancing at the clock, I realised I had been his hostage for all of ten minutes. My mind was racing, and my gut was telling me that standing up to make a run for it wouldn’t be a great idea. Something was wrong with the whole situation, and in the back of my mind, I had picked up on that the moment I walked in.
Thankfully, Dermot strolled over at that moment with a tray full of pastries and coffees.
“All right, everyone, sugar and milk are on the table. Is there anything else I can get for you?”
“Nah Dermot, I think we’re okay for now. It all looks delicious.”
“Oh, before I forget Jess, Louise out in reception was wondering if she could have a quick word. Said something about lady business.”
Acting like nothing was out of the ordinary, I picked up two lumps of brown sugar for my coffee and stirred it gently. Taking the croissant from its basket, I ripped it in half and took a small bite for courage.
“I’m just going to pop out to Louise quickly.”
I stood up from the table, picking up my bag, holding it tightly.
“You don’t need to go out there right now hun or bring your bag.”
“It’s okay, BABE, I’ll be right back. Can’t leave my coffee go cold.” I winked at Phil, turned around and walked with uneasy confidence towards the bar door to reception.
The moment the door closed behind me, relief flooded through my body. I continued on to the reception desk where Louise waited with a sympathetic grin on her face. Without asking, I walked around behind her and sat down on the floor, hidden from view.
“Security is on the way, they’re not sure how to handle this, but they have put in a report. I’ve been looking through the files for the bookings, and most of the information is complete bullshit. I have absolutely no idea what’s happening right now. I’m just glad you’re relatively safe for the moment.”
“For the moment. I appreciate the optimism.”
“Oh, there’s Michael now, he’s given me the head nod, and he’s gone into the cafe.”
I stood and leaned against the desk to wait for whatever would happen next. Dermot returned with the security guard all of five minutes later.
“They’re gone. Everyone stood up and left without a word just after you walked out. Michael looked at the camera footage, and it’s clean. It’s as if they were never here.”