He talks very fast, and Bee thinks she likes it.
“Bryan,” he says, “with a Y.”
When they meet, Bryan shakes her hand, like he’s a consultant. Their corner booth is big and round, and a candle burns in the middle of the broad table. Streaks of light and shadow paint the cream tablecloth.
“I had to reserve this spot,” says Bryan with a Y. “I love the privacy. Not gonna lie, it might be the best table in the city. The best table I’ve found, anyway.”
Their alcove is framed with canary-colored curtains, so Bee can see the rest of the restaurant, the tuxedoed waiters marching beyond their table, loaded with silver trays; but they feel far away, like primates in a zoo. A painting looms behind them, a still life of fruit and a jug, the portrait’s surface crackled with age.
The waiter presents Bryan with a wine bottle. Bryan nods at the label, and the waiter strips the foil, sticks a screw in the cork and twists intensely. The bottle pops open, and wine gurgles into Bryan’s tulip glass. He swirls and sips, sucks through his teeth, swallows. He closes his eyes, as if remembering a distant time and place, then opens them. He aims a wan smile at Bee.
“They always say that scent is the sense of memory,” he says, punching every syllable. “But I think—I honestly think—it’s taste.” To the waiter: “That’s perfect, thank you.”
And their glasses fill halfway.
Bryan is so stylish, she notices right away—his corduroy blazer, his white linen shirt unbuttoned to mid-chest, which Bee should find tacky but she doesn’t. His jaw is narrow, his Adam’s apple pronounced, and his hair, black and curled, uncoils lazily over his head. He talks with such ease, a boyish yet growly voice, the voice not of a man but a very mature adolescent. He sniffs his wine and shakes his head, now and again, and winks at her. Some kind of joke she doesn’t understand. Bee would find him attractive, except he’s almost too overwhelming to be attractive.
“So that’s why environmental law,” Bryan says. “Because it’s not just that I want to help people—I do—but we’re all just so connected. You and a tree, you and a drop of water, or you and an entire watershed. You and me.” He holds the glass aloft, looks at her sidelong. “That’s why I never worry about these things.”
“Meeting people for the first time,” says Bryan with a Y. “Because we’re already connected.” Before Bee can respond, not that she’d know what to say to that—she’s almost breathless—Bryan with a Y rolls his shoulders and falls back against the padded wall, raising his glass. “So I know I’m old, going back to law school. It should feel like I’m starting all over again. But I don’t. I don’t think you’re ever too old to cash a rain check. You know? Don’t you think?”
Bee smiles. She can feel the tightness of her smile. Her stupid, inadequate smile. She looks so goddamn dumb right now. Cordial is the word that echoes in her mind. A stupid, cordial smile. The smile of someone who doesn’t deserve to be here, or share this booth, or sip this wine, or even talk with someone like Bryan. He’s so svelte, so well made, he probably doesn’t have to exercise, but he does anyway. That’s the kind of the man she’s dealing with right now. Ageless and excellent and leagues out of her league. She has never been so afraid of herself, what she might do to mess this up.
“Yeah,” says Bee. “I absolutely agree.”
“Yeah?” says Bryan. His eyes move vertically over her body. It’s exactly like he’s tracing a finger over the skin of her cheek, neck, clavicle, right down into the soft ravine of her cleavage. She can feel his gaze so vividly that she almost shudders the way she does the moment she falls asleep.
“The next wine,” says Bryan, slowly, “is my very favorite vintage.”
The soup gives her something to do. She can raise the round spoon to her lips, repetitively, as she listens. Of course she wants to respond, but nothing she has to say competes with Bryan’s monologue.
“I never really thought about buying a house,” says Bryan, “until my friend said, ‘You’re throwing your money away. Even the very nicest place, if you’re renting, you’ll never see that money again.’ And I’d never thought about it like that. But I don’t think there’s any reason not to be savvy with your finances. So then when you finally sign those papers, you walk into your place, and you’re like—this is mine. You know? I can change this. I can shape this. If I don’t like something, like the cabinets, or the floors, I have two hands. Why not?”
Bee slurps soup, the most delicious soup she’s ever tasted, a lobster bisque so thick and creamy that she wants to steal the recipe and make it every day of her life. She almost says this aloud, because Bee is a very decent cook, and maybe that’s something interesting enough for Bryan with a Y to know. But the spoonfuls keep coming, and she hates the sound of her lips absorbing liquid, like tearing cardboard. She tries to eat quietly, but sipping without sound feels clumsy.
“Here’s a funny thing,” says Bryan. Then he shrugs, wiping away the thought. “It’s a little crazy.”
“What?” Bee says, startled by her own small voice.
Bryan looks around, then leans in. “So when I was living in New York, they had all these classes. Like, at the community center. And I couldn’t help it. I had to take it.”
He looks up and smiles broadly. “Handwriting analysis.”
Bee laughs. It’s a very small and tentative laugh, but it feels so good. They are bonding over a secret. She can’t believe he’s saying this. Just a quirky thing. Something you would only tell someone you trust. Yes, this is her in. Maybe he likes her, a little. And now she summons courage.
“No,” she says, folding her skinny arms.
“Really. It’s true.”
“I don’t believe it.”
“I thought you’d say that,” Bryan says, and he pats his jacket. His palm strikes something hard, and he pulls out a small notebook. A Moleskin. The same leather booklet Bee once used as a diary, back in college, when one day still seemed different from another. He roughly flips through page after page of handwritten notes, as if annoyed by their existence. “Just some stuff I like to write down,” he murmurs. He pauses on a blank page and turns the book to face her.
Bee starts to say, “Do you have a—?”
But then Bee hears the click of a pen above her head, and Bryan is beaming, proud to have read her mind. She takes the pen and feels herself blush, because everything Bryan does seems to fall into place.
“What should I write?” says Bee.
“Usually,” says Bryan, “it’s just your name.”
“No,” says Bee, “I’ll put my name.”
She writes: Beatrice Maria Walker.
“Okay,” says Bryan as he flips the book toward himself. He studies the page. He breathes slowly through his nose. He nods, then his head wafts side to side, as he weighs the implications of her scrawl. “The reason they say to put your name,” he says, “is that you’re so used to writing it. You don’t think about it. You sign your name every day. It’s the most…” He squeezes his eyes, then slowly opens them, a revelation: “It’s the most unselfconscious part of your life.”
“I don’t really like my name,” Bee whispers.
“What?” Bryan hooks his ear with his finger.
Bee leans into him, her chin nearly touching the table. “I’m actually really self-conscious about my name.”
“That’s interesting,” Bryan whispers back. He’s so astonishingly close than she can smell the warm sweetness of his wine-breath. “That’s exactly what your handwriting says.”
“Really?” Bee straightens. “Wait, you can’t tell that.”
“See these curves?” Bryan points to the wide loop of her T, the teardrop that ties her M together, the upside-down teardrop that conjoins her W. “They’re really wide, like that? You’re being careful. They’re, like, styled. You probably drew a lot pictures in your Trapper-Keeper when you were a kid, right?”
Bee’s jaw drops open, and she taps him on the shoulder. A playful strike.
“Yes!” she exclaims. “But lots of people did that.”
“See the B,” Bryan says, pointing to the first letter.
“It’s smaller than the M and the W.”
“Yeah. It’s an uppercase letter, but it’s almost as small as your lower-case letters. And it’s not even as elegant looking. You’re Catholic, right?”
“Your family’s Catholic? Your parents?”
“Yeah…” says Bee slowly.
“I mean, Maria. That doesn’t take a genius. And Walker is English, right?”
“Yeah. I mean, I’m mostly Irish and Italian—”
“Don’t tell!” Bryan holds a hand up. He laughs like a succession of self-amused sniffs. “Don’t tell me. Let me do my thing.”
“Okay,” chortles Bee. “Do your thing.”
“Oh, I will.”
The way he says these three words is so deliciously seductive, so harmlessly erotic, that Bee can barely sit straight. Oh I will is the biggest vote of confidence, the most untethered expression of desire she’s heard in a long, long time. So decidedly masculine, but also playful and funny, and she realizes that they’re probably both a sure thing, this dinner might end in a very sensual way, though who knows where or how or to what degree. And she doesn’t care, because that oh I will is both commanding and inviting, he’s like a warlord-prince who asks permission before pillaging the town. She remembers, as oh I will ripples in her mind, what it is like to formally dance, like the salsa she learned in Cancun, to feel the man lead. To follow another’s footsteps. For once, not to have to do every fucking thing herself. Yes, she can do everything herself, and she does, but for a brief sliver of time, she doesn’t have to. She can see where his conspiratorial smile takes her.
“The small B,” says Bryan. “That’s your first name. Beatrice. That’s you. And of these three names, you are the smallest part.”
Bee’s lungs fill with air. She can’t exhale. She touches the back of her neck and feels her scarf. Two hours ago, when she tied the scarf around her forehead, she loved how it looked in the mirror—girlish but exotic. This was the scarf Bee wore when she used to take belly-dancing classes, because it was gauzy and long and sparkled in direct light. But now it feels childish, like the rest of her. Not just a child, but an old child. Someone who should have grown up by now.
“Huh,” says Bee. “Wow.”
There is a long silence as Bryan takes a sip from his glass. He doesn’t look at her; his eyes are downcast, deep in thought. Then he looks over and grimaces.
“The entrées,” he says.
And a plate appears before Bee, enormous and white. She feels winded, as if she’s jogged a few miles in the cold, like she used to do. She sees the mix of roasted tomatoes, freckled fettuccine, jolly-looking clamshells, a steaming island in the middle of porcelain whitespace. So elegant she could crack into tears. So perfect, this evening, that she can’t believe it’s real.
Bee takes her dinner fork and sketches the surface of her sauce with its tines. Then she notices that Bryan is looking at her. His brown eyes graft to her.
“I’m so glad this is happening,” he says.
And she could just die with happiness.
Bee has never drunk so much wine in a single sitting. Other spirits, sure, but never bottles from a deep cellar. Bryan describes their bouquet, their ingredients, the time he spent in Napa. “It was only a tour,” he says. “I’m not expert. But you pick up a lot. Anybody would. I have this feeling—just a feeling—that you would love it out there.”
Bee’s vision feels frosted and her body feels warm. The word hearth floats around in her mind. Bryan is no longer a flesh-and-blood man, and the details of his personhood no longer matter; just this feeling matters, this nimbus of joy. She could float through the next hour, listening to Bryan talk and offering some words in return, and then he could propose anything, and she’d probably just laugh and shrug and nod. That’s how these things always used to happen, in the past, when she used to go on dates. Not that there were a lot of dates. More like meeting guys at parties. And not big parties, but those little gatherings in apartments, where someone always played guitar, and half the party smoked cloves on the balcony, and she always brought a plate of bruschetta, which was wolfed down in a heartbeat. She smoked a lot of pot back then. Now that she thinks about it, she smoked a lot of pot back then. But she rarely bought it, never smoked alone. And when guys said, Hey, what are you doing later?—she always laughed, shrugged, nodded. She never once said yes. She never remembers saying no. She can’t remember saying anything at all.
Bee hates knowing that she’s shy. She hates waiting for someone else to ask questions. But she is shy, she can’t help it. Her voice is so timid, a piccolo in the roaring orchestra of everyday life. Sometimes she feels so fragile that the thunder of a passing delivery truck could shatter her. She doesn’t like to drive. She only walks side streets, except as a last resort. She likes the city, because that’s all she’s ever known, but not because it comforts her. She knows what other girls fear—stalkers and crazies and creeps—but she’s more afraid of getting hit by a bus, because she worries the driver won’t notice her. In the subway, she leans against the tile wall, as far from the yellow line as possible, not because she thinks she’ll fall or get pushed, but because she imagines a freak breeze will lift her off the platform and she’ll drift into a speeding train.
Bryan says, “I’m gonna use the facilities.” He looks at her seriously as he slides out of the booth. “I’ll be right back.”
“Okay,” Bee says, half-waving. Her hand feels heavy now. She feels lazy as a sunny Sunday. “I’ll be here,” she says.
Just as she says I’ll be here, Bryan half-turns. He’s still walking, but he points his fingers like a gun. He clucks loudly. Cocking the gun. The expression takes Bee off guard. It’s more colloquial than before, the expression of teenagers and badda-bing grandfathers. Indeed, Bee remembers her uncle used to do that. As Bryan saunters beyond view, Bee can hear her uncle saying, Who knows ya, kid?
Bee waits. She now has time to glace at her cell phone. It’s a little after 9 p.m. The perfect time. The night is young, but it’s no longer early. They could go anywhere now. A bar is probably a bad idea. But a nightcap, maybe. Dessert? She wonders what he’ll suggest. He might cut to the chase. So where do you live? he might ask. Can I give you a lift? He probably drives something stylish. Not necessarily expensive, but thoughtful. She doesn’t know makes of cars well enough to guess. A Jaguar? She always liked Jaguars. That would fit him. The hood-ornament of a lithe cat, springing forward.
Her glass is nearly empty, but she wants to save the final swig. Classy people do that, without thinking, she thinks. They save that final tablespoon of wine, so that when they stand and put on their coats, they can lift the glass and taste a final swallow. She wishes there was a workshop she could take, so she could learn these unspoken rules. Her grandmother always knew how to angle herself so that men would seat her. The gesture was as natural as blinking. Her grandmother never thought about her white leather gloves, but she knew just how to remove them, tugging three fingers, then sliding them off, one at a time. They rested in her lap, like a small dog. Never a second thought.
Bee will invite Bryan upstairs, to her third-floor studio. She knows it will happen. She likes that it will happen, as much as the prospect makes her nervous. It’s not that she likes him so much as she doesn’t want him to go away. He’s engaging, yes, and so handsome it pains her, but he also doesn’t frighten her. There’s nothing urgent or rushed, and maybe it’s an act, maybe he just knows the rhythm of seduction, but maybe that’s okay, because maybe she wants to match its tempo.
She recognizes the song, even though it’s a lugubrious arrangement. A Sinatra song, transformed into slow piano. It plays from the restaurant speakers, this improvised version of “Mack the Knife.” Elevator music, she thinks, although she regrets thinking that. This restaurant is high-class and tasteful, and it wouldn’t trifle with elevator music. But then the thought makes her laugh—or snort, really. And then she realizes she’s snorting to herself, feeling genuinely drunk, alone in a corner booth, surrounded by empty plates.
Bryan isn’t back yet. Bee peaks at her cellphone again. It’s 9:18. He’s been gone for nearly ten minutes. It’s strange to think what Bryan is doing in the restroom. She hopes he’s freshening up. Maybe he’s more nervous than he’s letting on. Surely he’s not fixing his hair, since his locks are free ranging. Maybe he’s taking a dump—ha!—although it seems so odd to do that here, in a restaurant like this, while your blind date is waiting in the dining room.
Bee reads a text message from Lidia. Lidia is at a conference in Baltimore, and she just hates it here. Lidia is the kind of person who goes to conferences. Lidia studied philosophy and actually teaches philosophy and writes papers about philosophy. Bee doesn’t do that. Bee works at a ceramics store where patrons can paint their own pottery. She walks her neighbor’s dog to make extra cash. Bee lives alone because all her friends moved in with their significant others. Bee doesn’t have a significant other. She hasn’t had one for a long time. People always say that Bee is so herself. She’s happy being who she is. She’s too independent for a boyfriend. But really they think she’s a lesbian. Or she just doesn’t like to date. Or maybe they think the truth, that she’s just too shy to start conversations. Honestly, she doesn’t even know where to start with people. Smalltalk is so torturous that she brings crafting magazines everywhere she goes, just so people won’t strike up a conversation, even though she would love it if a cool person did just that.
Craigslist made this night possible. Unbelievable. Craigslist produced a cool person. A blind date with a guy who analyzed her handwriting. She can’t believe the night could proceed so smoothly. How did this perfect man appear—maybe not perfect, but someone she can just listen to, without having to invent conversation? An hour from now, in a couple of days, maybe two weeks down the line, she could open up. Once she knows him better, once they’ve spent an afternoon walking in the park. He’s probably the kind of guy who jumps and grabs a branch, and then climbs into a tree. She could picture Bryan doing that. Physical and three-dimensional. Maybe she could invite him to hot yoga. Would he be into that? No harm in asking.
Now it’s 9:31. Bee swallows hard. Is he okay? She imagines him sprawled on the floor, choking up froth. A stroke. A seizure. For all she knows, he’s a medical nightmare. Something toxic in his rack of lamb. Maybe he’s allergic to the mint jelly. He wanted to impress her with his epicurean knowledge, and now he’s juddering in a bathroom stall.
No, that’s stupid. He’s talking to somebody. The maître d’. This is the kind of place that doesn’t have hosts or hostesses, but maître d’s. He’s yukking it up with a law school buddy. Rude, maybe, but maybe he’s that kind of person. Time slips away, because he wants to gab with everybody. He seems like the type.
Another text message from Lidia: srsly this hotel is lk auschwitz.
Bee adjusts a bra strap beneath her peasant dress. If Lidia were here, saying her hotel was like Auschwitz, Bee would laugh, because Bee laughs at everything Lidia says. Lidia is funny but also dry; she never laughs at her own jokes. Bee wishes she could do that, but when she tries to say something funny, she starts laughing, or she says, This is so funny, ready? But then the pressure’s on, and everything falls apart. She forgets the order of events, no matter if it’s a real joke or a funny anecdote or what. She’s just terrible at it.
“Pardon me, miss,” says the waiter. “Would you care for dessert or coffee?”
“Oh, I’m just waiting for my friend.”
“Oh.” The waiter says oh very quickly, as if Bee waiting for her friend is shocking and illogical. “I see. So…” He winces thoughtfully. “Your friend is coming back?”
“Yeah.” Bee feels sick as she smiles. “Yeah, he should be back any minute.”
“All right,” says the waiter. He’s extremely tall, timelessly young, with black hair and bushy black eyebrows. She would peg him as Greek or Sicilian, but generations ago, like all her ancestors. He says, “Well, very good. I’ll be back.”
“Take your time,” says Bee.
Because she already knows. She can feel it. The feeling hollows out her insides, squeezes her guts, and boils up into a volcanic head-rush. He left. She can’t stifle the words inside her brain. She can actually feel the place in her forehead where the words are being thought, and she can’t squash them like she wants to. He just left. He ate, he walked out the door, and he left her here. He left her here with the bill. He’s somewhere else, she’ll never see him again, and now, at this moment, he’s laughing at her.
Bryan’s voice sours in her memory. Everything sounds sarcastic now, dripping with fakery. His law school aspirations, his interest in the environment—all those passionate speeches now sound so rehearsed. His handwriting analysis—a trick, as transparent now as it was mystical an hour ago. His outfit, his facial expressions, all his words were choreographed for maximum enchantment. He enchanted her. The spell worked. Here she is, stuffed, drunk, totally alone.
At 10:03 p.m., the waiter arrives with a second glass of water.
“Is there anything I can do for you?” says the waiter. His face doesn’t hide his concern. He is pitying her. He knows what’s going on. The story is clear. Maybe it’s an old story, a classic bait and switch, and he can’t believe she fell for it.
“I think he left,” Bee says, smiling meekly. “He just left.”
“Are you sure he’s not coming back?” says the waiter.
That statement seals her fate. She never said she was sure. She never said he wasn’t coming back. But the waiter must know something. He must have seen Bryan leave. Bryan with a Y, although that’s probably not even his real name. That’s why the waiter looks so confused. Bryan didn’t go the bathroom. He has no friends here. He didn’t step out for a cigarette or put money in the meter. He walked right out, cocksure and fancy free, right to his fucking Jaguar, and he peeled out of his parking space, cackling with amusement.
“I guess I’ll take the check,” Bee murmurs.
“I’m sorry?” The waiter steps forward and crouches low, as if catering to a child.
Bee clears her throat. “I’ll take the check.”
“Just a moment,” says the waiter. He spins around and slips away. He moves so easily. Everyone around Bee does everything so easily. They all act without fear. They have no idea how gracefully they move and speak and pause. They leap and spring as she crawls and grovels.
Bee has a credit card. She probably still has enough credit to pay the bill. Just enough, but she can do it. She doesn’t have real money, not at the moment, but she can pay this off eventually. She can atone for trying. Her penance—for waking up in the morning, for wanting excitement, for desiring anything at all.
Beyond the canary-yellow curtains, Bee sees the waiter and an older, mustached man. The manager, she assumes. The man nods, looks over at her, then nods again.
“No, it’s okay,” says the manager, in a tone that says he’d rather not deal with this bullshit today, he has his own problems, thank you very much. As he thinks, he pinches his nose with his fingers, but he uses all his fingers, grasping the cartilage like he wants to rip it from his face. His hand drops, he yanks up his belt authoritatively, and he says, “Fine. That’s fine.”
They part, and the waiter approaches Bee. She pretends to be looking at her phone, even though the screen is dark.
“If it’s okay with you,” says the bushy-eyebrowed waiter, “I used my employee discount.” He places a leather book on the table. It reminds Bee of the Moleskin. She tastes bile in her throat. “I always find it funny when people—mostly older guys—they ask, ‘What’s the damage?’” says the waiter quickly. “Most people who come here, they say it like a joke. Because it’s not very damaging to them.” He forces a dry cough. “I won’t be upset if you can’t leave a tip.”
Bee sniffs loudly, and the tears bleed down her face. A gush of salty emotion. Sadness she didn’t even know existed washes over her cheeks. She gasps, and now the crying is real. She can’t rein it in. She opens the book slowly, sees the lined piece of paper. The handwritten items. The numbers written and the numbers crossed out. A percentage taken out. She sees the final tally. The triple-digit whiplash.
“Oh, fuck,” she says.
“He’s an idiot,” the waiter blurts.
Bee looks up from the damning check. She wipes her eyes with her bundled cloth napkin. She sees this waiter anew. He’s so nice. She can just tell. A very nice guy. He’s doing her favor after favor, and she hasn’t even hinted at her thanks. Maybe this waiter is a sign. Bee doesn’t believe in Prince Charming moments. And she shouldn’t, especially not now. But maybe belief has nothing to do with how her narrative unfolds. Maybe Prince Charming is supposed to appear anyway, whether she has faith or not. She opens her mouth, and her dry lips unpeel painfully. She is about to say something. She can almost piece the words together. They are ready to be spoken. Just one more second, and she’ll have it.
“I mean, I’m gay,” says the waiter. “So it’s not like I would know. But you seem too good for that.”
Bee shouldn’t have worn clogs. They feel clumsy as she stumbles down the sidewalk. The warm spring air deceived her, because now, around 11 p.m., it’s chilly out, and she hugs herself with her bare arms. Breeze slices through her peasant dress, and her skin feels pocked with goose bumps.
She turns into a familiar alleyway. She prefers the alleyways, even at night. The thoroughfare is wide and the walls aren’t very high, only a couple of stories. Cinderblock on the right, brick on the left. She sees trashcans and dumpsters, doors that look like they’ve been sealed for decades. The brick wall once had windows, but these have been filled in with more brick, probably because the cinderblock wall ruined its view. She ambles slowly; she can feel her body tacking one way, then the other. She hates the feeling of drunkenness when it’s no longer fun, and she just wants to stop being drunk, to be as numb and thoughtless as she is when she’s sober.
Bee stumbles on some pebbles. Not pebbles, more like rubble. The detritus of crumbling buildings. She walks in a semi-circle around the spot, then bends over to see what she stumbled on.
Chalk. Blue chalk. She looks around, but the alleyway is empty. There’s a distant whoosh of passing cars, in either direction, but no human life. Bee reaches low, thinking she’ll pluck up one piece of chalk, then a different piece, but finally she just picks one at random. She goes to the wall.
Nobody can see her. Nobody knows she’s here. She’s never defaced anything in her life, except for her dormitory’s bathroom, which hardly counts. And it’s not really defacing. Whatever she draws or writes, the rain will wash it away. She places a hand against the brick and leans a little. It feels good, stretching one leg, then the other. Bee blows out through her lips, steps away from the wall, and then, in a rush of inspiration, she draws a straight, vertical line.
She stands on tippy-toes, so that the line is as tall as it can be. Then she draws the rest of the line down to the ground. She starts to snicker to herself. This is ridiculous, but she likes it. She likes her vertical line. Then Bee draws a curve, as big as she can make it. She meets the line again, so she makes another curve. The shape is enormous. The shapes are oblong and strange, but she doesn’t release the chalk. She doesn’t stop or even pause. The lines intersect again.
Standing back once more, she admires her work.
A giant letter B. As large as she could write it.
She tosses the chalk at the ground. As if she doesn’t even care. Effortless. She totters away, down the alleyway. She giggles. She laughs. She laughs very loudly. Her laughter echoes back at her. A familiar, foreign voice, like the laughter of a friend.