By Elizabeth SmithThe woman entered the bakery and shook as much water from her hair as possible before adding her raincoat to the two already hanging on the rack. Checking her reflection in the glass door, she adjusted her blouse to cover her cleavage, dabbed a smudge of bleeding make-up, and wondered if her heart would ever beat steadily before she spoke to a stranger.
The woman looked around at the customers in the cramped place as if she expected someone in particular. She saw two androgynous teens who got in the queue and began to banter loudly through their face coverings, saying “I don’t get croissants like that at home” and “the raspberry cookie reminds me of your tongue.” They seemed good-natured for the moment and energetic in their new, public status of “dating,” as they impishly slid their hands into each other’s back pockets.
There was an elderly gentleman paying with exact change at the till, a man who still shined his shoes—but who would notice? He had no definite age but somewhere over sixty-five but under one-hundred-and-five and had the face of a widower: wrinkled, alone, playful, grouchy. He ordered “the usual”—two baguettes and a lasagna to-go.
The café owner behind the register was middle-aged, with red hair pulled into a loose hairnet and a blue mask properly concealing her nose and mouth. She had tired eyes behind her glasses and an equally tired yet friendly voice. “That’s twelve forty-six. Debit or credit? Tell your friends we are hiring.” The woman glanced at a man near the corner display. He was just standing there, looking at the almond cakes instead of getting in line.
The woman’s eyes finally rested on a man at the counter by the window. He wore an attractive camel hair jacket and had combed back his thick, graying hair. He read a magazine as he sipped an espresso.
She breathed as deeply as she could behind her floral mask and approached him with confident steps and an amicable, though concealed, smile.
The man looked up. His eyes were a striking blue.
“Did you place the classified?” She asked.
He cocked his head. His piercing eyes were blank.
“You have the wrong man, miss.”
A voice came from behind: “Nice to meet you, Jade.”
She turned to see the fellow who had been standing near the cakes.
“You’re looking for me. My name’s Brett.” He held out his hand politely.
She looked at him then. This man wore a flannel shirt and was slightly balding. Was this really the guy who wrote the classified in Wednesday’s Saanich News?
“A man with a six-figure salary is looking for the companionship of a woman between twenty and thirty-five of respectable reputation. Meet at 2:00 PM on Saturday at the Italian Bakery on Quadra and Tolmie.”
She would say nothing of the matter. Brett was tall, curly haired, slightly heavy around the waistline, but his voice was pleasant. Jade apologized to her dream at the counter, the three laughed, and she joined the solicitor in the line.
Damn, she said to herself, Of course I assumed he’d be the sexiest guy in the room. Really speaks of my “respectable reputation.”
They ordered their lunches and sat at the corner table.
The woman playfully asked, “So tell me about you.”
Here we go, the man grit his teeth beneath his face covering. I can’t believe someone actually showed up, especially a knockout. What to say?
“Well, I’m a civil engineer,” he started. Professions are easy labels, he supposed, easy first impressions. “I work for a firm downtown.”
After Jade inquired about his latest projects, Brett asked about her profession. She hesitated. How could I say the truth—that I’ve spent the past three months breastfeeding and changing my son?
“I’m a hairdresser. But I am contemplating a career change.” There, she thought, a half-truth.
“Well, with so many jobs being remote these days, I’m thinking I’ll try something I can do from home.”
“Good luck.” Gosh, Brett thought, it’s been so long since I tangoed. What next, what next? “What do you do for fun?”
“I love working out, especially out and about. Running, hiking, weights, you name it.”
“You have a gym membership?”
“Not anymore. You know how fickle things have been. Plus, I figured I’d save a buck. What about you?”
“Yes, you. What do you do for fun?”
Fun. When did I last have fun? I painted plates with Annabel last Friday… Brett grinned as he pictured her perfectly childlike strokes of red before she threw the brush on the floor and vigorously smeared the paint with her soft fingers. No, he decided painting with Annabel, though fun, was not a worthy hobby to tell a date. As he looked at Jade he wondered if she could be ugly under her mask. No chance, not that beauty’s a primary prerequisite. Brett bounced his leg. He had left Jade waiting a little too long now. Well, there’s always the old motorcycle in the garage.
“I’ve got a Harley.”
Jade raised her brows and inched closer to the table. Then the red-headed owner approached and placed minestrone soup and gnocchi on the table.
Sounds so hot, Jade thought. But then she caught herself: Is this guy just another Danny? She recalled the spontaneous adventure—the pack-all-you-own-in-two-bags-with-broken-zippers-and-see-how-far-Vancouver-will-take-you kind of adventure they had been through together. Jade pulled up her sleeves and reminded herself that a decent civil engineer needs to be a reliable, responsible citizen, not a coward who won’t man up for the most intense adventure yet: parenthood. Do they make side-cars for kids?
The man and the woman removed their masks. Brett’s groomed mustache surprised and pleased Jade. Jade’s perfectly lipsticked mouth pleased, yet did not surprise, Brett. The two ate and commented on the uniqueness of the recipes.
Brett’s cell hummed in his pocket. It was Tracy. He rejected the call.
“Do you have family?” Jade smiled as she chewed a saucy dumpling.
His phone buzzed aggressively. Tracy again. He excused himself and stepped outside, under the cover of the storefront’s awning.
“What?” he answered.
“I’m so sorry, Uncle Brett. But where is your first-aid kit?” A child sobbed in the background.
“Is Annabel OK?” Brett doubted his earlier judgment in asking Tracy to babysit for the first time.
“Yep. She just insists on a Band-Aid. Gotta scraped elbow.”
“Right.” He sighed.
Jade observed Brett’s profile through the window as his left eye transitioned from tension to relief. The patter of the rain coupled with the bustle of the bakery drowned Brett’s conversation, but she watched him cautiously with one beady eye of the beautician and another, discerning eye of prophecy. Both searched the man to know if he was worth pursuing.
She saw an unruly curl on the corner of his head; clearly Brett cut his own hair recently. She saw old wrinkles on the bottom of his shirt and the practicality of his chunky shoes. Although these details repelled her, she determined he was frugal and pragmatic regardless of his income. Besides, she could easily remedy these things if they were together.
Brett could be a true father.
“My apologies.” He returned to his seat. “My niece thinks everything is urgent.”
So he does have close family.
The man grinned and sipped his now lukewarm soup. A hasty customer passed the table a little too closely, and Jade’s napkin wafted to the floor. Jade stooped and arched her back as she reached, revealing more of her postpartum bosom than she realized.
Brett noticed the display but thought it an enticement. And he certainly was enticed until this thought emerged: What kind of woman would respond to a newspaper classified if she didn’t think it was some way to hook up? He blushed. His father had urged him to date and suggested the classified when Brett shuddered at the mere mention of Match.com. It was “something they did” back when his dad was dateable.
And that’s when Brett saw a dainty black line on Jade’s collarbone. It swooped upward into an ocean wave. Though simple and meaningful to his date, the tattoo flooded Brett with his Rachel, the morning he was stupid enough to throw her daffodiled teacup on the kitchen tile and she called Gloria to watch Annabel for the day and she hitched the kayak to the Subaru and drove to see the humpback migration alone but then rainclouds trampled the sea and the car sat abandoned in the lot because only Rachel had the key…
The owner took the plates. Jade wrote her number on the rescued napkin, a corner wet by stray droplets on the floor. She scampered back into the downpour.
Brett ordered a tea before glancing through the window. Across the street, Jade stepped onto the bus. He peered down at the napkin, its bleeding, fading ink.