Pigeons perched on top of the identical stucco apartment building across from Mary’s; through the open sliding glass door to her balcony, she could hear them faintly cooing and scratching. She could also hear occasional traffic in the street below and smell the bay on the cool evening breeze that came through the door.
The bell on the microwave rang. Mary went into the kitchen and brought back the low-calorie frozen dinner she’d heated. She set it on a tray table and ate in front of the television, flipping through channels with the remote as she did. The early spring light fell outside, and the room became dim.
As he stood at their bathroom sink shaving, Tom could hear his younger brother, Andrew, on the phone laughing with his girlfriend, Lisa. Tom wondered if he looked his age; he was five years older than Andrew, whose twenty-sixth birthday they were going out to celebrate that evening. People said they looked alike, but Tom knew that was a stretch. His own features were more elongated, less defined somehow, and lacked the assuredness that Andrew’s always held. Andrew had done some modeling when he was in his early twenties, but that hadn’t panned out, and he’d worked in sales for a fitness equipment company for the past several years. Andrew regularly used the equipment he sold. Tom didn’t, which wasn’t hard to tell.
Tom heard Andrew end his call with Lisa. She’d been around so much the past couple of years that she almost felt like a kid sister herself to him.
Andrew shouted, “All set?”
Tom finished shaving and was splashing cold water on his face when Andrew appeared in the bathroom doorway of the little rental house they shared down the street from the elementary school where Tom taught. “I really appreciate you taking us to dinner,” Andrew said, “but I can pay for Lisa. It’s not her birthday.”
“No problem,” Tom said. He dried his face with a hand towel from the rack on the door. “I want to.”
Andrew nodded and smiled. “All right,” he said. “You get yourself a lady friend, and I’ll do the same on your birthday.”
Tom felt something fall inside. He hadn’t gone out with anyone in over a year.
Andrew said, “I’ll go get the car and pull around in front for you.”
Mary didn’t go to the Boat House every night, but she’d begun walking down to it a couple evenings a week. It sat on pilings at the edge of the bay. It wasn’t really a singles place; there
was no dance floor, and tables for dining were arranged around the bar area in its center that sat on a raised island of dark wood. The bar itself was a square with the bartenders inside, and a few tall-top tables were perched along a gold railing separating the island’s edge from the dining area. Mary sat on a stool on the bar’s far side with an empty glass of Chardonnay and a full one in front of her when Tom and Lisa came in. She watched the hostess seat them at a table in the opposite corner of the room from her.
Lisa gave Tom’s shoulder a squeeze when they were seated, leaned into him, and said, “This is very nice of you. Taking us to dinner.”
Lisa licked a fingertip and ran it across Tom’s cheek just below his earlobe. “You missed a bit of shaving cream,” she said, and they both laughed. He patted her hand and thanked her.
Mary took a sip of wine watching them. Then she saw Andrew come in, and she caught her breath. She watched him look around in the foyer and raised her fingertips to her lips. “My, God,” she whispered. “You’re beautiful.”
She saw the couple who’d just settled at the table wave to him. She watched him walk over to them and sit down with his side to her. When he smiled, her heart quickened, and she took another sip of wine.
At the table, Andrew said, “Sorry. I had a hard time finding a parking spot.”
“No worries,” Tom told him.
A waiter came up to the table, handed them menus, and took their drink orders. As they studied the menus, Mary regarded herself in the short mirror above the liquor bottles across from her. She smoothed her hair, straightened her shoulders, and thought that she still looked all right for almost thirty. She’d put on a few pounds since her college days, but she didn’t think her face had changed too much. People at work still complimented her on her appearance, although it was usually something about a dress or outfit looking nice on her rather than the things men had said to her when she was younger. She’d only been in San Diego for less than a year after moving west from Pittsburgh for a new job as a speech therapist at a children’s hospital. Part of the reason for the move was to get away from an emotionally abusive relationship. She liked the work and the weather, but had only dated twice since arriving, and both had gone nowhere.
She watched the waiter serve drinks from a tray to the couple and the man. She watched them raise their glasses, toast, and sip. There was something in the way the man held himself that gripped her; she felt a tingling in the bottoms of her feet. As he drank, she did the same. Her glass was almost empty. Evening had faded, and it had become completely dark outside. She thought of her empty apartment. She thought of the nights alone there, the ones behind her and the ones ahead.
“What do I have to lose?” she whispered to herself suddenly.
She took a pen from her purse and reached for a clean bar napkin from the little stack in front of her. She wrote the note quickly, put a ten-dollar bill inside the napkin, and folded it.
She finished her wine, took a last look at the man with the couple, and walked to the hostess stand, where she stood with her back to their table.
The hostess glanced from her reservation book to Mary.
“There’s a man sitting with a couple at a table at the far end of the restaurant.” Mary tipped her head to show the direction. “Would you give this to him for me?”
There weren’t any tables occupied between the hostess stand and where Mary had indicated. At that table, Tom was taking a photograph with his cell phone of Andrew and Lisa; they had their arms around each other and Lisa was kissing Andrew’s cheek.
“Yes,” the hostess said smiling. “I can do that.”
Mary handed her the napkin and thanked her. She left quickly, not turning around. The night air outside felt chillier than she expected. But, she was sweating a little in spite of it, and her heart pounded. “I’ve never done anything like that before,” she said aloud. She pulled her jacket closed. “Never.”
The hostess walked across the room and handed Tom the napkin. “A woman asked me to give you this,” she said. She was still smiling.
Tom frowned at the napkin. He looked up at the hostess, then at Andrew and Lisa who sat holding hands and staring at him expectantly.
“Well, open it,” Andrew said. “Tell us what it says.”
Tom unfolded the napkin, read the message, and slowly set the ten-dollar bill on the table in front of him. He looked back and forth between the two of them.
“Well?” Lisa said.
Tom shrugged. “She wants to buy my drink. She’d like to get together. She left her name and phone number.”
Andrew reached over and clapped him on the back. He and Lisa were both grinning.
“How about that?” Andrew said.
Lisa exclaimed, “Good for you!”
Andrew looked up at the hostess and asked, “Where is she?”
“Was she attractive?”
The hostess raised her eyebrows. “I guess,” she said. “I mean, sure.”
They watched her walk away. Tom sat staring at the napkin. He held it in front of him with the fingertips of both hands.
“You must get so tired of that,” Andrew told him.
Tom said, “I do.”
They all laughed, and Tom tried to look grim. Inside, his heart raced.
“Are you going to call her?” Lisa asked.
“Are you kidding?” Tom replied. “I don’t know.”
Late that night, Tom sat up in bed. He took Mary’s note from the top drawer of his nightstand and propped himself against the pillows with it. He switched on the nightstand lamp and read it again. He read it a second time, then ran his fingers through his hair, pursed his lips, and rubbed his chin.
Across town, Mary lay awake in bed with her hands behind her head staring at the ceiling. A foghorn belched across the bay. She blinked several times and said, “Did I actually do that? Did I?”
Andrew wasn’t home from work yet when Tom came into the house the next day after school. He changed clothes and tried to grade some papers at the kitchen table, but he found himself biting his nails and staring out the window at the fence. He got a broom, went outside, and swept the back deck. Then he stood holding the broom handle, watching some children riding bikes up and down the alley. He went back inside, opened a beer, and took a long swallow from it. He went into his bedroom, took out the note, and read it again. Finally, he sat down on the edge of his bed, dried his palms on his jeans, took out his cell phone, and dialed Mary’s number.
Mary stopped unloading the dishwasher when the phone rang. The sound of it made her jump and give a little cry. She picked up the phone; the incoming call was from a number she didn’t recognize. She cleared her throat, exhaled once, and answered it.
“Hello,” she said.
“Is Mary there, please?”
“This is she. I mean, I’m her.”
“Well,” Tom said quickly. “Listen. The thing is, someone left me a note last night at the Boat House asking me to call her. Is that you?”
She pictured the man from the night before. “Yes,” she said. “It is.”
There was silence for a long moment. Tom could hear traffic behind her. She could hear him breathing. Finally, he said, “My name is Tom.”
“Hi, Tom.” Mary closed her eyes tightly and said, “I’m glad you called.”
“I am, too. I mean I want to thank you for the drink. That was nice of you. Listen, would you like to get together?”
“Well, I don’t know. Is tomorrow too soon?”
“That’s fine. Where? What time?”
“Well, we both know the Boat House. Would that work? Say, five o’clock, in the bar?”
“That sounds perfect.”
“Okay, then,” Tom said. His eyes had grown wide. “So, how will I know you?
He heard her laugh. “I know you, remember? I sent you that note.”
He laughed, too. She liked the sound of it. He said, “Of course.”
She smiled, picturing him, and said, “I’ll be watching for you.”
“Okay.” Tom paused. “I’m looking forward to it.”
“Me, too.” She put her free hand against her cheek. “All right, Tom. I’ll see you then. Goodbye.”
Tom listened to line go still and set the phone on the nightstand. He made a fist and smacked his palm with it.
Mary set the phone on the counter. She looked at the reflection of her happy, startled eyes in the kitchen window.
Mary was sitting on the same stool at the Boat House the next afternoon twenty minutes early. The place was crowded: Happy Hour on a Friday. She’d ordered a glass of wine and was
swirling it. She adjusted the front of her dress, licked her lips, and sipped. She put her hand against her chest and said, “Stop it. Relax.”
Tom entered just before five and stopped in the restroom off the foyer. He’d borrowed a shirt of Andrew’s and wore it with the tails out beneath his sports coat the way his brother did. He regarded himself in the bathroom mirror. He unbuttoned a second button under his collar, then re-buttoned it. “All right,” he said to his reflection. “Come on. Let’s go.”
He left the restroom, passed the empty hostess stand, and stepped up onto the near edge of the bar’s island. People sat on every stool and at every table, and three bartenders moved back and forth quickly inside their cavity. His eyes slowly scanned the room.
Mary saw Tom through the crowd and sucked in a breath. She shook her head, slowly at first, then faster. “Not you,” she whispered, staring at him, then looked down quickly. “No. No, no, no.”
Tom stretched uncomfortably where he stood. His eyes briefly met several women’s, but they all glanced away. He put his hands in his pockets, and then took them out again and held them in front of him. He felt himself sigh.
Mary looked at him once more before taking money out of her purse, placing it on the bar next to her glass, and climbing off the stool. She went down the back steps of the island, circled around the perimeter of it behind Tom, and left through the front door. A low fog came off the bay like smoke. She walked over and sat on a bench between the restaurant and the harbor and watched the fog drift among the boats.
A group of men and women vacated a pair of tall-top tables at one corner of the bar, and another replaced them. The place was full of voices, laughter, the clink and shuffle of glasses. A slant of dull, late afternoon light crossed the room. Tom continued to slowly scan the faces until he thought his gaze met that of a blonde-haired woman standing alone next to the railing across the island from him. Bartenders passed back and forth between them for a handful of seconds, and when they’d cleared, it appeared to him that she was still looking his way, craning her neck a bit towards where he stood. He thought her fingers may have wriggled in his direction.
He looked down quickly at his hands. He thought, “What the hell.”
He zig-zagged through the crowd and made his way across to where she stood. Her head was still facing the entrance, so he tapped her gently on the shoulder, and said, “Mary?”
The woman turned and looked at him blankly. “No,” she said. “I wasn’t Mary when I came in, and I’m pretty sure that’s still not my name.”
Tom was blinking rapidly. “I’m sorry.”
“Sure, you are,” she said evenly, then pushed past him into the crowd.
Tom stood staring at where she’d been and swallowed. A flush had spread over him that he hoped didn’t show in his cheeks. He leaned as casually as possible against the railing in her spot and stared at the floor. He folded his arms and felt the flush turn cold. He listened to the voices and laughter, standing perfectly still and glancing up now and then for another twenty minutes or so before leaving himself.
Light had descended towards evening, and the fog had thickened. Tom had nowhere to go, and he didn’t want to appear home so soon with Andrew and Lisa there. He walked towards
the harbor and stopped at the bench where Mary sat.
“Can I bother you for the time?” he asked her. “I don’t have a watch and I forgot my cell phone.”
Mary looked up at him. Their eyes met for the first time. She saw the uncertainty and pain in them, and her heart clenched a little. She turned her wrist so he could see the face of her watch.
Tom nodded and gave a small smile. He said, “Thanks.”
She recognized something in his smile that stirred a place further inside her. He looked nice, kind. Then he was gone into the fog. “Wait,” she whispered. But it was too late; he’d disappeared completely, and there was no way to try to explain herself. What could she say?
Tom walked to the far end of the harbor where he found another bench to sit on himself. The streetlights had come on, but were muffled globes in the fog. He listened to the hulls of the boats rocking in the water and knocking quietly against the dock. So did Mary. Perhaps a hundred yards separated them, which was as close as they’d ever be.
About the Author: William Cass has had over a hundred short stories appear in a variety of literary magazines and anthologies such as december, Briar Cliff Review, and Conium Review. Recently, he was a finalist in short fiction and novella competitions at Glimmer Train and Black Hill Press, received a Pushcart nomination, and won writing contests at Terrain.org and The Examined Life Journal. He lives in San Diego, California.