A Fairy Tale
“Oh, dammit all to …” Adriana Mercer wished she had a typewriter instead of a laptop. Deleting wasn’t nearly good enough for the romantic tripe she had just spent a tortuous hour composing. She wanted to rip it out of the machine, crush it into a spiky ball, and toss it on top of the heap in the circular file, just as she had imagined countless other authors doing with countless other first drafts of their work.
Adriana Mercer wanted to be a writer.
She had graduated from a small midwestern college with a degree in English literature, moved to Chicago where she got a job as a hostess at an upscale restaurant, and rented an apartment over a print shop. Where now, as ready as she’d ever be, she began to practice her chosen profession.
But the romantic adventure stories that she thought she had in her head seemed wooden and dull to her on the page. Her princesses were wimpy, her heroes were polite dullards, and her language of romance had never been spoken by real people ever throughout history. Or at least one hoped that it hadn’t.
And yet, somehow, she knew there were stories she could tell. She made them up all the time, riding the bus, standing in the check-out line at the grocery store, even the patrons of her restaurant. Sometimes she even tried writing some of these down but could never get much further than descriptions. She could write about their clothes and their hair, the way they looked and walked – people with long faces, people with no chins, people who walked into the restaurant and looked about as if they owned the place and people who asked for their names in the register as if they expected to be turned away. She could write pages and pages of description, but she could not, for the life of her, fit them into the stories she thought she wanted to write. They were all ordinary people. Not a heroine or a hero in the bunch.
Then one morning, sitting at her little table by the window with her morning cup of tea, she spotted a red-haired woman in a black running suit jogging down the sidewalk across the street with her brindled pit bull on a leash at her side. Toward the end of the block, she turned off into the park, and was soon lost to sight under the trees. Danger! The word appeared in her head like a neon sign. She even rose in her seat as if to run after her with a warning. But she didn’t. What possible danger could there be for a woman with a pit bull at her side? In a public park? On a well-traveled path? No, even the most deranged of rapists would leave her well alone. Even so, Adriana couldn’t quite shake the sense of unease that followed her throughout the day.
“What’s with you tonight?” Debbie asked her, when she returned from showing the last guests to their table.
Debbie Allen was the closest Adriana had to a best friend. They had worked together for nearly a year now, standing at the ready behind the concierge desk, greeting customers and showing them to their tables, then gossiping about them the minute they turned their backs.
“Nothing much. Just had a weird feeling this morning that something bad was going to happen, and I haven’t been able to shake it all day.”
“What kind of bad feeling? Like a premonition or something? We’re gonna get robbed or something?” Debbie eyed the patrons waiting in the lobby with a wary eye.
“No, nothing to do with us. I just saw a woman dressed in black running down the street with a pit bull at her heels. I thought she might be in danger.”
“A pit bull was chasing some woman down the street? Did you call the cops?”
“No, no. I think the pit bull was with her, but she looked scared. Like somebody was after her.” Adriana had just made that part up.
“Well, lucky she had a pit bull then, huh?”
“Ahem.” A distinguished looking man with a pert red-haired wife stood at their station. “You have a reservation for Stoner?”
Adriana came to attention and ran her finger down the reservation list. “Stoner. Yes, we have you here. It will be about twenty minutes. Would you like to
wait at the bar?”
Debbie watched as the couple murmured a thank you and walked away while Adriana put a number next to their name on list. “So, what happened?” she asked then.
“What do you mean … oh. The woman in black. Right. Nothing. They got to the end of the block, you know where that corner entrance to Gateway Park is off of 55th. I live right up the block from there. Over the print shop.” Adriana shrugged. “I just got the feeling that she was in danger, but she did have that pit bull. Who was going to mess with her?”
Debbie looked up to see four people approach the cashier. “Whoops. Gotta get back to work. You got a four-top on your sheet?”
“Right here.” Adriana clicked on her microphone. “Boynton, party of four.”
Debbie headed off to see the table cleared.
Adriana thought a little more about her story. Why had she said the woman looked scared? She hadn’t looked scared at all. She was just a woman going for a jog in the park with her dog. A pit bull. Good choice. Nothing scary about that at all.
But that night, she wrote a story in which a woman was attacked in the park and saved by her dog. It was harrowing. Every bit of her imagination came into play as she wrote about the woman’s dog suddenly pulling the lead from her grasp and chasing off into the woods. It was as she left the path to follow him, calling his name – “Bruno! Bruno!” – that someone had tackled her from behind, forcing her to her knees, his hand clamped around her mouth.
He had managed to get her jogging pants over her hips, when she heard a low growl and knew Bruno was there. Her attacker heard it too and paused long enough in his struggle to completely subdue her for Gwen, as Adriana had named her, to bring up a knee into his crotch. At that same moment, Bruno leapt on the man’s back and the two of them rolled off her. The struggle didn’t last long. Gwen got to her feet and pulled up her clothes while Bruno mauled the man until his clothes were in shreds and blood ran from clawed ravines along his arms and down his back.
“Come, Bruno! Come!” Gwen ordered, knowing that if someone discovered them there, Bruno could be taken from her for attacking a human. Yes, he had defended her, but he was a pit bull. There would be no mercy.
The last Adriana’s imagination saw of her, she was headed back the way she had come, Bruno’s lead in her hand. And this time, she really did look scared.
“Adriana!” Debbie hissed, with a conspiratorial look from left to right, when Adriana reported for work the next day. “Have you seen the papers?”
Debbie stood behind the concierge’s desk with a newspaper spread out over the reservations book. Adriana joined her and shoved her bag into its cubby while she glanced down at the paper.
MAN FOUND MAULED IN GATEWAY PARK
Police rounding up stray dogs
She froze, unable to breathe for a minute. It was her story, in newsprint. Except for the presence of the jogging woman and her dog. Because it was that dog, Adriana was certain of it. She could see Gwen now, in her imagination, peering out through her curtains as if expecting the police at any minute, comforting her dog who seemed to sense her anxiety. “Good dog, Bruno. Good dog.”
“Adriana?” Debbie elbowed her in the ribs. “Are you okay?”
Adriana braced herself on the desktop to steady her knees, which felt a little wobbly.
“I’m fine. It’s just – weird, you know? Do you think it could be the dog I saw with that woman?” She side-eyed her friend, looking for any suspicion Debbie might have that she knew something more.
“I’m sure it is. How many pit bulls were in the park yesterday? Are you going to tell the police?”
“What should I tell the police? I don’t know who she is or where she lives or even if it was her dog.”
“Well, we should know if there’s a dangerous dog out there somewhere. You know what they say about pit bulls.”
Yes, Adriana knew. It was the reason she could logically assume that the story she had written was believable. But if she was right, and this was the same woman, the same dog, then the dog was in the right. Still, she thought, looking down the page, it seemed the attacker survived. So perhaps she should say something. If the woman identified the man, he would likely be arrested for attempted rape. And they couldn’t destroy Bruno for protecting his mistress, could they?
Then she had an idea. It was an impossible idea, but it couldn’t hurt to try.
“I’ll think about it,” she said. And that night afterwork, she set her mind to finishing her story.
“Check it out.” Debbie laid out the newspaper in front of Ariana.
MAULED MAN ARRESTED FOR ATTEMPTED RAPE
Woman’s pet dog hailed as a hero.
Once again, it was her own story. Even the names she had given them. Adriana had been up half the night writing about Gwen Anderson and her dog Bruno. About how Gwen had struggled with her decision to call the police. About how the evidence of her own bruises, her torn jogging suit (Adriana had added this detail to her original story), and Bruno’s friendly obedience had finally won them over.
She smiled at Debbie. “Glad it all worked out,” she told her. “It was for the best.”
From then on, Adriana made up stories about nearly everything. She saw an old woman struggling with her grocery bags as she trundled along the sidewalk, and wrote a story about a neglectful son who determined to be a better one after an she collapsed from exhaustion (down around the corner, out of Adriana’s sight).
There was a meet cute story about a single mother and her young son who broke free from her hand long enough to run straight into the arms of a very nice man. There was one about an elderly couple quarreling, in which the old woman died of a heart attack the next day and the old man spent his life reliving their last quarrel and regretting the years they could have been happy together.
Adriana felt a little bad about that one. Had she killed the old woman? She refused to look in the obituaries. Ordinarily, she tried to write stories in which everything worked out in the end, stories that would not appear in the paper, stories that she hoped assured her characters, both real and imagined, a happy ending.
But some of them just seemed to write themselves. No matter how she tried to let the old woman live a few more years with a loving companion, somehow, she always died the very next day. Nothing else fit the story she was writing.
She tried to stop after that. Still, each morning found her sitting at her window watching the people on the street below. And all through the day, a story would grow and play out in her head until she felt she would burst with it. So, every night, she opened her laptop and wrote.
Then one morning, while watching a group of young boys skateboarding down the sidewalk, Adriana noticed a young man approaching them from the direction of the park. She had been wondering if the boys would turn into the park or if they would continue to the intersection and cross the street. What if one of them fell? What if one of them couldn’t stop? What if one of them decided to show off and fell into traffic? The possibilities, each more disastrous than the one before, darted behind her eyes like movie clips. Then her first thought played out right in front of her.
The boys split into two streams as they approached the young man coming toward them, and as they did, the one closest to the street side caught his wheels on the curb and tumbled toward the street. Adriana hadn’t noticed the bus that was edging toward the curb and slowing to a stop, but there it was, and just as she feared she would be forced to watch her most disastrous scenario come to life, the young man swooped in and pulled the boy to safety just as the bus pulled in at the stop ahead of them. There followed a flurry of activity that involved the bus driver coming out of his bus to thank the young man and shake his hand, all the while giving the youngsters a solid piece of his mind, or so Adriana presumed, watching the stern lines of his face and the precision of his arm movements as he apparently illustrated the tragedy that nearly took place. The boys all nodded, gathered up their skate boards, and the last Adriana saw of them they turned into the park and disappeared. The bus driver returned to his bus and saw his passengers safely discharged and rumbled further down the street.
She started to gather her breakfast things together, her mind full of a story she wouldn’t have to write because it had written itself, when her glance fell once again on the window and the young man standing alone on the sidewalk. Was there a story there? she wondered. And as she did so, the young man turned his own glance upward and met her own. Then he smiled and nodded in her direction, before resuming his own morning walk up the street and out of sight.
Adriana wasn’t quite herself that day. For one thing, she couldn’t get his smile out of her head. Everywhere she went, wherever she looked, that young man was there somehow, turning to meet her eyes and then smiling. No, he wasn’t really there. But then, neither was Adriana. She was in a world of her own with a young man who … who what? What was the story here?
First of all, her memory must be playing tricks on her because although she could see his eyes meet hers, feel the warmth of his smile, she could not put those eyes, that smile, in a remembered face. She couldn’t remember what he had been wearing. Tall? Medium? Surely not short. She would have remembered short, wouldn’t she? Adriana was only five and a half feet tall herself. He’d have to have been pretty damn short for her to think of him as short. So, medium, she decided. Just the right height for her.
“Have a seat. We’ll be with you in a moment,” Debbie said to a young couple standing patiently waiting for Adriana to notice them. “What’s with you today?” she asked, as the customers moved off. “You see that woman with her dog again?”
“Huh?” Adriana jerked as if waking up. “Oh, no. Sorry. Had trouble sleeping last night.”
“Something else bothering you? You can tell me.”
“No, no. Just one of those nights, you know? Couldn’t get comfortable.”
Debbie smiled at her friend. “I know what you need.”
“What?” she asked in a disinterested tone. She pretended to check her reservations list while still trying to catch a fleeting glimpse of her mystery man’s face in her memory.
“A boyfriend. What you need, girlfriend, is a boyfriend. I could set you up.”
“What are you talking about?” Adriana turned on her friend as if she had just noticed her. “Blue eyes.”
“Nothing. Never mind. Look, I think a table has opened up. You should go seat those folks.” She gestured at the young couple who had taken a seat at the bar.
Debbie frowned in concern, then shook her head and went to do her job.
But that night, Adriana sat down at her table, took out her notebook and pen, and wrote, “Jerry wasn’t the tallest man in the world, but he wasn’t the shortest, either. His best features were a pair of kind blue eyes and a warm smile that made people like him.
“His hair was blond, worn short with a longer flop over his forehead giving his square face a softer, boyish look. He was wearing beige cargo pants with a black long-sleeved tee-shirt and scuffed white sneakers. He didn’t usually walk through the park on his way to work, but lately he had decided that maybe walking was a good idea, given that he was nearly thirty and should start taking care of himself. And then, the very first morning, he was glad he had done so.
“A medley of boys on skateboards sought to avoid him, as if they were the river and he was the stream, when one of them caught a wheel on the curb and tumbled into the path of an oncoming bus. Jerry’s feet were moving before thought, and by the time he had decided what to do, he had done it. He was duly thanked. The bus driver disembarked and shook his hand. Then the boys skated for the park entrance, and the bus was rolling through the intersection and he was left alone to be glad of his own existence this morning. As he lifted his eyes to the sky, as if to thank the world for the little things in life that sometimes worked for the better, he caught sight of a young woman in her window, gazing down at him. It occurred to him that she had been a witness to his actions, and the thought that she must think well of him warmed his heart and he smiled. Then he glanced down at his watch and hurried off down the street.”
Where did he work? Adriana wondered. She would have to check tomorrow on what sort of businesses were within walking distance. Businesses that would allow a young man to wear what she had heard described as “business casual,” since he didn’t look scruffy or ungroomed. Still, she had what she could remember of a face, of blue eyes, and a blond cowlick – that’s what it was, a cowlick – hanging boyishly across his forehead. She liked the look, and she took it to bed with her.
It was raining the next morning, and there wasn’t even a dog walker to be seen on the sidewalk across the street. Adriana read over what she had written the night before, and decided she still liked it but couldn’t think of anything else to say about Jerry. Did he have a car? Did he ride the bus? Did he have a girlfriend? Nothing came to her.
It was a busy Friday night at the restaurant, as eating out or the movies or both were fail-safe activities in the rain. Nevertheless, she found herself looking for him among the crowds of bright slickers and black umbrellas that shouldered through the door.
“Okay, out with it. What’s his name?” Debbie asked during a seating lull.
“Jerry,” Adriana replied, without thinking.
“I knew it. I just knew it. Jerry who?”
Adriana paused, holding her pencil above the reservations list. Why had she spoken his name, when it wasn’t even his real name. It was just a story in her head.
“I don’t know,” she said. “Just somebody I saw on the street recently. I heard somebody (in her mind, it was the bus driver) call him ‘Jerry’.”
“You mean, you haven’t even met him?” Debbie turned to thank a couple who was leaving.
“No. I just – he helped a kid who fell down on his skateboard, and somehow our eyes met. Then he turned around and left. That’s all.”
“Geesh, girl. I hope you see him again. That’s a meet-cute, that is. Straight out of the movies.”
That night Adriana had just enough energy to write a short paragraph about Jerry, about how he couldn’t stop thinking about the girl in the window and wondering if he would ever see her again. The rest of the weekend was dreary. Few people out and about and none who sparked her imagination. The whole city, it seemed, had come to dinner on Friday night, but couldn’t be bothered to leave the house for the rest of the weekend, so work was dull. Even the romance novel she had picked up had little interest for her. She couldn’t imagine real people doing and saying the ridiculous things these characters did. She had no way of putting herself in the story. The little stories she had finally begun writing were things she could imagine the people she saw everyday doing and saying. She could imagine them coming true.
Sunday night she wrote another piece about Jerry.
“It was a beautiful Monday morning when Jerry, dressed in clean and pressed khakis and a sports shirt, slung a light sweater over his shoulders and set off to cross the park. What had begun as an exercise in healthy behavior had, since last week, become a prelude to adventure complete with someone to rescue and a princess in a tower. A girl with dark hair and dark eyes – surely her eyes were dark, said his imagination.
“He nodded to the young woman running with her pit bull – hadn’t he read about a pit bull attack here recently? He edged to the side of the track as they passed. Halfway along, an old man with sad eyes sat on a park bench. Further along, an elderly woman trundled toward him on an electric trike, its basket full of groceries. “That’s cool,” Jerry said to himself, and had turned to look after her when something barreled into him. It was a small boy, running ahead of a young couple turning into the park behind him.
“’Richard! Come back here,’ cried his mother.
“’You promised. You said I could walk all by myself when we got to the park.’ The boy stood stolidly, hands on determined hips.
“’It’s okay, sweetie,’ Jerry heard the man say to his wife, as they passed him, and their drama receded under the trees.
Jerry didn’t care. He barely noticed the skateboarders approaching as he emerged from the park, his eyes on the apartment buildings across the street. Which window was it? he wondered. Suddenly he wasn’t even certain which floor it had been.
And then there she was, sitting at a table lifting a cup of tea – somehow he thought it would be tea – to her lips. She turned at that moment, and once again their eyes met.”
Much to Adriana’s surprise, the next morning brought a cavalcade of old friends to her window: the woman with the pit bull – she had kept him safe, then; the old widower; the old woman with her shopping – oh, look. Her son must have bought her that tricycle. There was a happy new family who had met for the first time right under her eyes. One by one they all approached and then turned into the entrance to the park. She held her breath. Did all her stories come true? The sidewalk remained empty but for the skateboarders just coming into view. She looked down at the words she had written the night before.
“…there she was, sitting at a table lifting a cup of tea to her lips…”
She picked up her cup and blew across the top before taking a sip. Then she turned back to the window.
Monday and Tuesday were her weekend, and were usually devoted to grocery shopping and banking, things she had time for during the week, because her shift didn’t start until four o’clock, but which she preferred to spend reading. Today she called Debbie.
Adriana had never shared her suspicion that sometimes what she wrote came true. Not with anyone and certainly not with Debbie who, she was sure, would broadcast it to the entire staff. Still, if she could talk to anybody today, it would be Debbie. When “Jerry” had raised his eyes to hers that morning, she had wanted to run downstairs to confront him. To demand to know his name. To …
But she hadn’t. Instead, she’d dropped her eyes and carefully studied the tabletop for a century or so, and when she dared to look again, he had been gone. Her hands trembled as she dialed Debbie’s number and her voice must have trembled too as she told her friend she had to talk to her right away, because Debbie didn’t waste any words. “I’ll be right over,” she told Adriana.
“Okay, girl. What’s up?” Debbie asked, once they were sitting at the table with a couple of sodas and a basket of potato chips from an unopened bag she found stashed away. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
“Oh, sorry. I didn’t have time …”
“I don’t mean you don’t look good. You always look good. But … have you seen a ghost? Something’s happened. You look scared.”
“Remember the woman and the dog? How we wondered if it was the same dog? Well, lately …” And then Adriana showed her the stories she had written, never knowing if they came true or not, ending with the parade she had seen this morning. The people she had written about. Looking as if her stories had come true. “Weird, huh?” she asked.
“Yeah, but …” And Debbie went on to say how there didn’t seem anything unusual about the people she wrote about. “You said that old guy just looked sad, but maybe they just had another fight.”
“Read this.” Adriana put the story of Jerry in front of her.
“Wow,” Debbie said, when she had finished. “Quite the imagination. But you say he looked up at you again this morning?”
“Um hmm. Just when I said that he did. Right after he had seen the same people in the park. Just as I said he had. Everything. It’s scary, Deb. I don’t know what to do.”
“Well, that’s obvious. Tonight you write that tomorrow morning, instead of drinking tea and watching people, you go for a walk in the park yourself. You see him, in the park, walking toward you. Make up a conversation. And tomorrow, that’s just what you do. Go for a walk in the park. See what happens.”
“But … but … what if …” Adriana stammered, as possibility after possibility ran through her head.
“No buts. No what-ifs. Tell you what, I’ll stay over here tonight and go with you. Nothing better to do on a Monday night anyway. We can watch TV, order in pizza. Hey, maybe I can help you write the story.”
So that’s what they did. Adriana shut down Debbie’s help on the story. “I don’t want to take any chances. It might have to be just me for it to work.” And that night, while Debbie cleaned the pizza debris away, Adriana sat at her little table and wrote:
“Jerry Gates was whistling as he set off on the walkway through the park.”
Jerry Gates was whistling as he set off on the walkway through the park. Today was the day. Last night, while enjoying an after-pizza beer, he had actually lost the thread of his favorite television show planning a meetup with the woman in the window. Even if she turned out to be not quite all that, it would be better than fantasizing about her day and night as he had been since the morning he first saw her.
The woman with the pit bull was there again this morning. Had she been, every day? Jerry wondered. This morning they had stopped for a moment while the dog took care of some business. Jerry said a wary hello when he passed them. She nodded and smiled back, pulling a plastic bag over her hand. “Sorry,” she mouthed at him. He nodded back and went on.
The old man was still on the park bench looking as if he hadn’t moved since yesterday. On an impulse, Jerry stopped in front of him and said, “Good morning, sir. You doing okay?” To Jerry’s great relief, the old man raised his head and nodded. “As well as I’ll ever be.” Jerry felt as if he should say something more, but couldn’t think of anything appropriate, so he patted the old man on the shoulder and moved on.
Not too much further on the old woman on the trike passed him, and as he looked after her again, he saw that she had pulled up by the park bench. Ahead he saw the young couple laughing as their son presented his mother with some weedy flowers he had found, and beyond them the boys on their skate boards swiveled into the park. The boy he had helped hollered, “Hey, Jerry,” as he cruised by in a graceful parabola.
Suddenly Jerry stopped short, the sounds of the morning fading behind him. The path before him was blocked by someone he almost didn’t recognize, but then it came to him. She was there. All his plans to finally meet her somewhere, somehow, vanished with all the speeches he had planned to make. She was right in front of him and walking toward him with what looked like every intention of saying something.
“Excuse me,” she said. “Is this the way to the library?”
“It’s you,” he said.
“Well, um, of course it is. Who else would it be?” Adriana said the stupid words she had written for herself the night before as if they were rehearsed, because he had said the very words she had written for him.
“Of course. How stupid of me. But you don’t know how much I was hoping to meet you some day. Ever since I saw you in the window. I thought you saw me, too.” He said the words all in a rush. And then he stuck out his hand. “I should introduce myself. I’m Jerry Gates.”
It was all Adriana could do to stick to the script. She felt her mouth fall open as she stared at Debby, who was doing the same. They must look like a couple of idiots, was all that went through her head.
But she had written her astonishment into the story, so it would give Jerry a chance to say,
“Remember? I think you were watching the day the skateboarder almost got hit by a bus.” He smiled, somewhat abashedly. “Seems I saved the day.”
“Oh, of course you are. I remember now. You were quite the hero.”
Debbie nudged her in the ribs.
“I’m Adriana Mercer, and this is my friend Debbie Allen.”
Jerry’s hand was still extended. Adriana extended her own, and the pleasantries were over with. It was this part that she had had trouble with writing. Did he ask her out? Did he just say he had to go, he was late for work? Did he know where the library was? Was there a library? She hadn’t checked. It just sounded like a nice neutral thing to ask, when she was writing it.
She had settled for …
“Oh. My. God!” Debbie grasped her friend by the arm as the two of them looked after Jerry, just now rounding the corner out of the park. “It’s the same. It’s the same damn thing you wrote.”
“Yes, it is.” Adriana replied faintly, feeling more than a little shaken. She had a date with Jerry Gates. He had told her that the library was just a block and a half to the right when they got to the end of the park, and then said he was late for work and left, but before Adriana and Debbie had a chance to react, he had turned around and asked if it was okay if he stopped to see her after work. They could go for coffee or something. And she had said “yes.” Just as she had written it.
“There was even a library.” Adriana barely breathed the words.
“How did you know?” Debbie asked.
“I didn’t,” Adriana replied. “I just made it all up. Even his name. Everything.”
“How cool is that?” Debbie was over the moon with wonder.
“Yeah, cool.” But Adriana wasn’t so sure that it was, cool that is. Who wrote a perfect life for themselves that came true? Nobody, that’s who.
They walked as far as the exit from the park at the far end, before turning back. Debbie urged Adriana to write the story of her coffee date with Jerry, but Adriana flatly refused.
“What if he doesn’t come? What if it doesn’t happen?” Debbie argued. “You haven’t written that part. What if …”
“If he doesn’t come, he doesn’t come,” Adriana replied. She was getting a little miffed at Debbie’s insistence. “I almost hope he doesn’t.”
“Because it feels like cheating, that’s why. I don’t like thinking that he asked me for a date just because I wrote him that way.”
“Point taken,” Debbie replied reluctantly. “Hey, what if his name really isn’t Jerry Gates? What if it’s Hiram Tucksnoodle, and you just made him think he’s Jerry Gates? What if he shows up and he’s like ancient and warty? He just looked cute today because that’s how you wrote him?”
“Well.” Adriana’s tone had taken on a stubborn tone. “If that’s what it is, that’s what it is. I’ll deal with it.”
“Okay. Your funeral.” They had reached the park entrance just across from Adriana’s apartment, and Debbie headed for the bus stop. “Call me tonight, promise?”
“I promise.” Adriana crossed the street and climbed the stairs to her apartment, her stomach full of butterflies.
Adriana quelled the butterflies as best she could by choosing an outfit – one equally suitable for fending off Hiram Tucksnoodle or casual conversation in a coffee shop with Jerry Gates. She finally settled on her favorite beige linen slacks with matching sleeveless top, loosely covered by a bright orange shirt left unbuttoned – more color accent than wardrobe. Too nervous to really eat, she washed down a banana with a cup of chamomile tea and tried to read the afternoon away by re-starting Interview with the Vampire, just in case it turned out to be Hiram at the door.
When the doorbell rang, Ariana went down to meet him instead of buzzing him up. In case he was Hiram, she told herself, even though that was ridiculous. But it was, indeed, Jerry Gates at the door, looking just as he had this morning and just as pleased to see her.
“You’re here,” he said with a delighted smile. “I had almost convinced myself that I’d made the whole thing up.”
Adriana forced a polite smile. “I … I know what you mean. People don’t meet like this – you know, through a window – in real life.”
“Not unless you’re Romeo and Juliet, they don’t.”
“And look how that ended.” Adriana didn’t know why she was being such a wet blanket, but she couldn’t bring herself to trust that any of it was real. After all, she really had made the whole thing up.
Jerry frowned a little, but then what seemed to be his natural optimism reasserted itself. “Okay, forget R&J. I promise I won’t serenade you under your window tonight. What’s your favorite coffee shop?”
She didn’t have one, so he walked her down the street to the place where he and his friends from work (he was an insurance adjuster) often went for lunch, A Clean Well-Lighted Place.
“I should hope it’s clean,” she said, when she saw the sign.
“Apparently it’s something from Hemingway,” he told her as he guided her inside and, after they had ordered, found a booth near the back.
“So, here we are at last,” he said then. “Tell me, what do you do all day besides look out your window?”
She told him about her job, and how much she liked to read, although she hadn’t read much Hemingway. She told him that she didn’t get out much, but that she did like watching the people on the street and wondered what their stories were. She did not tell him that she spent her evenings writing versions of their stories.
Adriana was surprised at how easy he was to talk to. She had not written a story of their date, but even so every comment of his called forth a comment of hers that followed as if she had, indeed, written it.
He liked his work well enough, he said, although he didn’t like having to turn down claims that he felt were worthy even though they didn’t meet the company standard. She told him a few stories about some of her customers at the restaurant and how she was even grateful for the few troublemakers because sorting out their issues broke up the long evenings.
Then he told her about the people he had met on the path through the park that morning and she admitted that she had noticed them as well. They somehow spoke of them as old friends, and Adriana went so far as to tell him her first impressions of them when the old man had a wife and the old woman had to struggle with her groceries on foot.
When they had finished with their drinks – him a latte, her a spicy chai – he asked if she would go to dinner with him some time soon. Maybe even tonight?
She turned down the invitation for tonight, but suggested perhaps next week, since their work schedules overlapped too much to meet for coffee until then. He made her promise to be ready at seven o’clock the following Monday night. He wanted to take her out to dinner. Then he walked her back home where she turned a proffered hug into a handshake and escaped up the stairs.
Adriana spent the next few days suspended in a state that resembled guilt and dread more than happy anticipation. At work, Debbie pestered her for every little nuance of the date, but when she began to orchestrate her dinner date for Sunday, down to the shoes she should wear, Adriana had had enough.
“I don’t think I’m going,” she snapped at her friend.
“What? Why not?” Debbie’s mouth hung slightly open, giving her the look of a curious fish. “Did you … did you write something bad?”
“Oh, good grief no! I haven’t written anything at all. I don’t even sit in that window anymore. I can’t.”
Debbie frowned and stepped back, ignoring the couple who had been called up for their table. “What do you mean you can’t? What do you think he’s feeling when …”
Adriana put her finger to her lips and directed her glance over Debbie’s shoulder. “Hi, there. Your table is ready. Debbie will show you in.” It was all she could do to refrain from kicking her friend in the shins.
Debbie turned to the guests with a smile. “Right this way,” and throwing a glare over her shoulder at Adriana, led them away.
It was true. Adriana hadn’t written a word for two days. And she had avoided the window in the mornings, taking her tea on the couch and watching the noisy morning shows to take her mind off Jerry. She just couldn’t reconcile the fact of his being real with the very real fact of his being fiction. Except for the morning that he pulled the kid from in front of the bus. That remained real. Everything else, she felt, was her imagination, including his interest in her. She had manipulated him, somehow. She was sure of it. And that couldn’t be a good thing.
The restaurant stayed busy for the next couple of hours, so aside from a few raised eyebrows from Debbie, Adriana was spared having to answer any more questions, and when there was time, she put her friend off with “I don’t want to talk about it now.” At closing time, she hurried through her bookkeeping chores and left, answering Debbie’s invitation to go for a late drink with, “Not tonight.” She did hope she had not lost a friend, but over the course of the evening she had had an idea, and almost ran home to put it into action.
Jerry Gates set off on his way to work with a worried frown on his face. He had not seen Adriana for three or four days. Had something happened to her? Was she ill? All he knew was that when he looked for her in her accustomed place, she had not been there. He had even hoped that she might come down to meet him as he walked through the park in the morning. He wanted to ask her if it would be weird to have dinner in the restaurant where she worked or if she had another favorite place, but she just wasn’t there. He had reached for the phone on Tuesday after work, then slapped himself upside the head for not remembering to ask for her number. They should have been texting all week, but no. No email address, either. Nothing. Not even a friendly wave.
A low-throated growl broke into his thoughts and he jerked out of his reverie. The woman with the pit bull stood about three feet away watching while her dog took care of some personal business.
“Oh, I’m so sorry. I wasn’t watching where I was going.”
“Bruno!” the woman countered. “Mind your manners.” She turned to Jerry. “Don’t worry. He’s just a little protective of his privacy sometimes.”
“No, no. It’s my fault. Kind of lost in thought this morning. I’ve seen you here so often, it seems we should be acquainted. I’m Jerry Gates.” He stuck out his hand.
“I’m Gwen Anderson,” she replied, and extended her own. Then they both laughed. Her hand was encased in an empty plastic bag. “Good thing this is the ‘before picture,’” she told him, taking it off. “I really should insist that he get further off the path, but big dogs tend to go where they want.”
Jerry glanced down. “Well, he went all right.” The big dog stood and sniffed at Jerry’s hand.
Gwen laughed as she pulled the plastic bag back over her hand. “Bruno, meet Jerry. Jerry, this is Bruno. You can give him a pet now if you want. He’ll remember that you’re a good guy.”
Jerry scratched Bruno’s head. “Good dog, Bruno,” he said. “I hear you’re a good friend to have.”
“Oh, you read about that. Bruno’s the only reason I still run every day. I’d probably be looking over my shoulder all the time if he weren’t with me.”
“Don’t blame you.” Jerry glanced at his watch. “I should get on to work now, but great meeting you. Have a good run.”
“I will, thanks. Good meeting you. See you later.” She stooped to the side of the path, plastic bag at the ready.
Jerry turned to go but turned back a few steps further on to see her red head jogging on through the park with Bruno keeping pace beside her.
Adriana was peeping around the side of her window when she saw Jerry come out of the park and raise his head. He stood there for a moment, then checked his watch, shook his head, and hurried on down the street.
She wondered if he had met the red-headed woman, as she had written him to do. Obviously, he was still thinking of her, Adriana, when he glanced up at her window, but was he wishing he had made the date with the other one – Gwen, Adriana thought her name was. They would make a cute couple, she told herself, and brought her morning tea over to the couch where the TV was already on. Where she wiped an escaping tear from her cheek and tried resolutely to pay attention to the happy TV people announcing yet another gun violence statistic as if it were an achievement of some kind.
When Debbie pestered her for answers that evening, she answered them firmly, with a smile. Yes, of course she was still going out to dinner with him, no, she didn’t want to go shopping for a new outfit. And yes, she would call Debbie on Tuesday to fill her in on all the details. And the next morning, Friday morning, she stood watch once more beside her window, where precisely at 8:15 she saw Jerry and Gwen exit the park together, chatting like old friends, just as she had written it the night before. Everything else, she decided, would be up to him. And Gwen. She wasn’t going to write about them anymore. She had given him another chance and taken herself out of the picture. All her guilt and anxiety vanished like heavy fog in the sunshine. She was free.
Free or not, the anxiety returned on Monday morning as if it had never been gone. What if he showed up anyway, out of guilt perhaps? What would she say? They hadn’t exchanged telephone numbers or social media addresses. Why ever not? Because she hadn’t written that part in. But wait – she hadn’t written that part at all. Her “date” with Jerry, even if the invitation had been programmed in, had gone off quite naturally, as it would between two people who were discovering that they genuinely liked each other. If she hadn’t escaped up the stairs in such a hurry …
Too late now. Adriana spent the day alternating between staring morosely out the window and cleaning out her closet whenever tears threatened. As, to her annoyance, they did. At six o’clock she even closed the curtains on the window that looked onto the street below. She would not watch for him. She would not.
At seven o’clock, the doorbell rang.
Adriana, having already thought up a good excuse, pulled her bathrobe on over her clothes, mussed up her hair, and grabbed a tissue. Her eyes were already red from inadvertent weeping, so she was certain he would understand. Then they would both be off the hook where her imagination had hung them.
He stood in the doorway, once she had buzzed him up and opened the door, with a bouquet of flowers, each furrow in his forehead a question.
“I’m so sorry,” Adriana began.
“I’m so sorry,” Jerry sputtered in tandem.
They spoke over each other for a few seconds, making apologies for things that couldn’t be helped like summer colds and closed restaurants.
Then Adriana stopped to take a breath, and into that space she heard Jerry say, “Gwen and I were getting worried about you.” He stopped.
“Gwen …” It was all working out, just the way she had written it. Jerry and Gwen … somewhere inside Adriana began to cry.
“Yeah. You know. The redhead with the pit bull. We ran into each other in the park when … well, nevermind when. Anyway, I’ve told her all about you, so she’s been looking out for you, too. When you disappeared the last few days, we got worried.”
“You … you told her all about me?”
“Yeah, of course. She can’t wait to meet you in person. Are you all right?”
“I’m fine. Nothing to worry about, but …”
“Well, like I was telling you, turns out all the best restaurants close on Monday. I was hoping you would be up for pizza or maybe some teriyaki? I know a great little hole in the wall that’s to die for. But if you’re sick …”
Somewhere inside, Adriana’s tears turned into a bubble of happiness. “I’m fine, actually,” she said. “Give me a minute to get dressed.”
And from that moment on, Adriana wrote no more stories about the people she saw from her window. Instead, she wrote stories about anonymous bystanders who caught her eye in news reports. And she gave them all happy endings.