In spite of the holiday, the ninety-nine bus was practically empty, all except a homeless man snoring loudly in the back and an old man beside the driver who pulled the cord before Paige could. The driver wished her a happy Canada Day as she got off. By the time she made it the two blocks up Granville, the cafe had already closed.
Paige studied her reflection in the window, her thin frame superimposed over the empty tables and stacked chairs inside. She scanned the street for Rick but did not see him. She turned off Granville and continued down a residential street until she came to a bench beneath a shady cherry blossom tree. Two weeks before she had sat in that same spot, waiting for Rick, sketching a spear of larkspur growing beside the bench. Now, alone once more, she took her sketchbook from her purse, opened it gingerly in her lap, and began tracing over the unfinished picture.
At that moment, a fat bumble bee whizzed past her face and landed inelegantly on one of the flowers. The sudden weight of its body caused the frail stem to bend and bounce precariously as the bee steadied itself. Paige leaned in, slowly, holding her breath so as not to startle the bee, which had burrowed its head in the pistil of the purple flower. She watched the abdomen pulsate as the bee gathered nectar, just barely could she make out the nubby barb of its stinger; all along the fuzzy rump were globs of pollen that hung from it like overripe fruit. No sooner had the tip of her pencil begun to incorporate the bee than her phone buzzed in her purse, rattling her keys and scaring it off. Rather than answer, Paige stood up, picked the larkspur, nestled it behind her ear, and made her way back to the street.
He was standing in front of the cafe. From the corner, Paige could see sweat stains blooming from his armpits where the straps of his Jansport dug into his t-shirt. His eyes were fixed on his phone, and he pretended not to notice Paige until she was right in front of him.
“Hi, Rick,” she said.
“Oh!” Rick feigned surprise. “There you are. A bit late.” He tapped his watch and smiled, his teeth blanched next to his sunburnt cheeks. “I was starting to worry you’d changed your mind.”
“Had a couple things to take care of.”
“Well, it’s good to see you again.” Rick’s arms hung loose. They flinched as if preparing to lift into a hug. He raised a finger to the side of his head and circled it. “This is nice,” he said. “The hair.”
“Thanks,” she said. “Did it last night.”
“Feels like a long time since you went with red. I like it.”
There was a brutalness to Paige’s brevity that Rick had not heard in her voice before. It caused his own to tremble. “Looks like I got the hours wrong,” he said. “Can you believe it? Open ‘till six every day—except Monday. Go figure.”
“Barney’s is open,” Paige said. “It’s a bar on the next block.” She started in that direction, but turned after a few meters to see that Rick had not moved. “You coming, or what?”
“Right,” he said. He quickened his pace. Something in the backpack jostled with every step.
Rick was just over a foot taller than Paige. In the past she had struggled to keep up with his leggy strides, having almost to double her pace. They had even made a game of it: Rick would make his steps as large as he possible and then they would count how many of hers it took to close the gap. Now, Rick slogged behind her, dragging his feet along the sidewalk like a dejected puppy.
When they got to the bar, Rick leapt forward and opened the door. Paige ducked in and marched towards a booth in the back. The air was saturated with the heavy, sour smell of beer, tinged with a pointed note of Lysol. Rick pulled the chair opposite her and flung the backpack on the ground. Paige grabbed the drink menu and flicked through the laminated sheets, scanning for the most expensive drink. Even though there was music coming from a ceiling speaker, an uncomfortable quiet enveloped them like a sheet of polyester.
“What can I get going for you two?” the waitress said. Her disarming voice cut casually through the silence.
“Long Island,” Paige answered straightaway. “Please.”
“What have you got on tap?” Rick stammered. “Er, I’ll just take whatever blonde ale you have on tap. Thanks.”
The waitress winked and left without a word. Paige glanced at Rick’s watch. It was the one she had given him on Valentine’s Day: a simple, white face with short black lines demarcating the time in five-minute intervals. For a moment, she thought she saw the second-hand tick backwards. Rick retracted his hand and tucked it away between his thighs.
“So,” Paige said finally. “Why are we here, Rick?”
“Because the coffee shop is closed?” he quipped nervously.
Paige cocked an eyebrow. Rick was tracing the labyrinthine grain of the table with a dirty fingernail, drawing out the space between the question as if he, too, had no idea why they were meeting.
“To be totally honest, it was a drunk text,” he said. “Sort of figured I couldn’t back out.”
The waitress came back with the drinks and Rick mouthed a thank you. Paige caught herself thinking how satisfying it would be to punch Rick in the teeth, call him an idiot, and leave. Instead, she took a deep sip of her drink, relishing the warm rush of liquor as it cascaded down her throat and behind her ribs. She already felt the alcohol blossoming on her cheeks.
“I mean, I wanted to meet. Of course.” Rick lifted his beer. “Drunk words are sober thought, right?”
“I uhm… brought you something.” His intonation was more that of a question than a statement. He opened the backpack and brought out a tattered ziplock bag full of miscellaneous toiletries: a red disposable toothbrush, dental floss, a travel-sized two-in-one shampoo conditioner, a scummy bar of soap, and a black comb with loose strands of hair woven through the teeth.
“Thanks.” Paige took the bag and nestled it beside her on the pleather booth seat.
“How’ve you been, anyway?” Rick asked. “Anything new?”
“I start at St. Paul’s next week,” she said.
“Right! That’s right. That’s really great.” Rick raised his beer for a toast. Instead of clinking glass, their fingers smashed between the two drinks. Beer slopped over the lip of Rick’s glass and splattered on the table.
“My bad,” Paige said.
“Don’t worry about it.” Rick slid his palm over the puddle and wiped it on his pants. “You’re going to be a great nurse,” he said. “St. Paul’s. Wow.”
There was not for him to say, not much for either of them to say, and it was obvious that Rick knew it. Paige was beginning to feel sorry for him, but there was something gratifying in watching Rick struggle beneath the weight of his inability to carry a conversation.
“Look, I’ve been thinking a lot about last week. I—”
“I love the paintings here,” Paige interrupted.
Rick reeled a bit, then said: “Me too. Where do you think they get them?”
“Local artists,” she said. “All of them are for sale.”
“Is that right?” The way he stammered made it clear that he had not recovered from the disruption, and might not anytime soon. “Are you… thinking of getting one?”
“Maybe another time.”
Rick looked all around the room, twisting his body to take in as many of the paintings as he could, grasping for anything that might help him talk to her. Finally, his attention rested on one directly behind him. “I like that one,” he said. The piece was a messy landscape of distorted color, a bicycle lay in the foreground, missing the front wheel.
“What about it?” Paige asked, earnestly this time. She was nearing the end of her drink.
“I don’t know,” he started. “It makes me think of those dreams you have. You know, the ones where you have some place you’re trying to get?”
“Like, you really need to be there, you know. Everything in you. But someone took the wheels off your car—or bike, I guess. So you want to walk or run, but you look down and your feet are gone or something. I’m always having that dream.”
“I know,” Paige said. “Maybe you should get it, then.”
“I can’t,” he stammered. “I like the painting and all, the idea—but I hate the dream.”
Paige looked away from Rick and glanced at the door. More people had come in, though it was still far from a busy afternoon. She made brief eye contact with the waitress, who had just finished with an order. “I think it’s time to go,” Paige said. She reached for the wallet in her purse.
“Wait,” Rick said. “I’ll get it.”
“No problem,” he said, as if picking up the tab would absolve him of something. “My treat.”
“Alright, then.” Paige wedged herself out of the booth.
Rick brushed her arm. “I really am sorry,” he said.
“Well,” she said. “Don’t be.” This time she allowed the hug. Her chin brushed against his shoulder as she pulled away. “Goodbye, Rick.”
She was at the door before he could say anything. She tossed the ziplock bag in the trash can as she walked out the door.
Her roommate was waiting for her on the living room sofa when Paige got home. She kicked off her shoes and hung her keys on the hook beside the door.
“What was that all about?” she asked.
“Beats me,” Paige replied. “Tying up some loose ends, I guess.”
“What do you say we finish up?” Jess motioned to a small pile of letters and various knick knacks in a shoebox on the coffee table. She held up a mug that read ‘I Deleted My Dating App For You.’ “Seriously, what is this crap? I say we burn it all. Forget that loser and everything that happened, maybe roast some smokies for dinner while we’re at it.”
Paige leaned against the back of the sofa and considered the small collection. “I don’t think I will,” she said. “Do you want anything from the kitchen? I think I’ll have a glass of wine.”
“Don’t you think you’ve been drinking a bit too much lately?” Jess said.
“Oh, come on. It’s a holiday,” Paige said. “Might as well celebrate something.”
“Fuck it,” Jess said. “I’ll have one, too. Pour it extra stiff. But tomorrow we have a talk about going easier on the booze. I’m tired of hiding my juice from you.”
“You can’t expect me to just drink everything straight.”
“Paige.” Jess put her elbows on her knees and leaned in.
“Alright, alright,” Paige said, throwing her hands in the air. “Tomorrow.”
“But tonight, we drink!”
Paige picked up the letters, tapped them in a neat stack and nestled them in the box next to the mug, a broken seashell, and a photograph of her and Rick at the seawall. She removed the larkspur from behind her ear, dropped it in, and closed the lid.
“I’m going to take this stuff up to the attic,” Paige said. “Then we’ll get started.”