by J. Ryan
Jake is lost. On the steamy walk from his motel, street names blur as the sun bears down and the sweat clings to his eyebrows. A frenzied Rottweiler slobbers behind a chain link fence and Jake wants nothing more than to turn a corner and enter the confines of the subway with its security cameras and directional signs and maybe even a restroom, which he could certainly use.
He visited San Francisco years before with his fiancée Carrie on their California road trip, watching sea lions and eating overpriced cod at Fisherman’s Wharf, asking strangers to snap photos of them standing before the orange and fog of the Golden Gate Bridge. They’d squabbled on that trip — one of the few times they ever truly fought before last week’s blowout breakup — as they toured Napa and sipped wine and tried eel and didn’t have sex, not once.
Around the corner, he spots the subway and sighs louder than he means. As the train lurches, Jake sinks into his seat and closes his eyes and thinks of Hannah, the milky British accent, the smile of her eyes, how she looked under him in the bluish glow of dawn, how she navigated the suite’s kitchen like a mother.
He makes for the forgiving shadows in Union Square and stares at the three-story fashion ads. Hannah gets off work at six. He thinks about getting a drink when his phone buzzes in his pocket and it’s her voice and he could crawl into that sound. The sun weaves through the angled buildings of the fashion district and her silken voice guides him until he’s standing across the street from her outside the pub she’s chosen, the neon sign flashing above. She’s elegant in the swish and sway of her work outfit and he’s smiling and waiting for the signal to turn and then he’s awkwardly kissing her in the middle of the sidewalk.
Jake drinks three hoppy beers in the dim light and oaken smells of a pub and he makes a joke about a place called The Hideout having a neon sign. She pays because he drove all that way, over nine hours, chalking up a speeding ticket and an angry sunburn on only the one arm. Tipsy, they saunter toward the boutique she manages. The elevator dings and they’re surrounded by walls flanked by plastic-wrapped white fabric. She sells wedding dresses. They laugh at the irony, at his broken engagement and hers once she gathers the nerve. As he pulls Hannah close, he eyes the blinking red light of the security camera and feels watched, as if Carrie or his mother could see.
And then they’re touring her old haunts in the Castro, where she stops a tweeker briskly approaching them on the sidewalk in order to remove the 34 x 32 sticker still clinging to his crisp jeans. They eat salty sushi and sip wine twice as expensive as he’s ever bought. She talks about nitrites and about Sonoma Valley and about a poem she’s writing about him. He pees into a restroom trough lined with ice and thinks of when he climbed Mosquito Hill with Carrie in small-town Wisconsin, of kissing her in the snow, leaving an imprint like a conjoined twin snow angel. And as he zips his fly he grieves the cleaving of that union, even as he walks back to Hannah, the other woman, his future, whose eyes smile less than before.
When Jake returns to chair, Hannah admits she’s rattled. She has Zoe to consider. Only 12. She’s a mother first. She lost her head at the conference, away from her real life. She’s rattled with a few drinks in her, only twenty miles from her child and the man she derisively refers to as her “wife,” she’s rattled after a day dealing with short-tempered brides-to-be and overworked seamstresses, but what rattles her most is that Jake seems so wrong at this bar.
So when he predictably asks her to come back to his motel for just a few minutes, only to lie next to her so they can again feel close, she tells him no. No, she can’t bring herself to lie upon motel sheets or, worse, atop the dingy floral bedspread, not with Dwayne and Zoe waiting at home for her – for that would be tawdry, that would be a meaningless affair. If she were not a mother then things might be different, but right now, to allow this good, Christian boy who has admitted to sleeping with only four other women in the whole of his thirty years, to allow him to quit his steady office job and move out of his hollow apartment to rent some overpriced studio in somewhere as horrible as Oakland only to be close to her, to allow him to remove the fatherly warmth of Dwayne — unemployable as he may be — to allow that would be to shatter the very life of her daughter, her greatest poetry.
But she makes plans to see this boy the next day, Independence Day in a country not her own. There she will tell him that this won’t work, not right away; to explode her whole life now would be too much. She’s sorry he put it all on the line and uprooted his life and shattered his fiancée, but they need time and space. She will tell him this after a half hour trudging around Golden Gate Park for the right grassy spot to spread a blanket, an attempt to recreate a moment spent in a tiny municipal park the week before, outstretched under the blue sky as vast as the shared future they were certain lay ahead. And he will accept her rejection with only a slight wince, even find its silver lining, using a clumsy analogy to explain the time apart aging their relationship like wine. And hearing this cliché, so earnestly uttered, will make her kiss him against her better judgment, lying on her stomach, both of them listening to the clamor of excited children carried on the breeze, their eyes hidden behind mirrors.