This story is featured in the author’s collection of short stories called A Cupboardful of Shoes: And Other Stories (published by Trafford Publishing). Copyright is held by the author.
SHE’D STARTED to run on the far side of the Market Square, by City Hall; now, fighting the crowds, she pushes her way to the traffic lights. Crosses King Street first since it’s green in that direction and then, still running as the light changes, crosses Brock as well. Two blocks up Brock to the bus stop on Bagot: across the street, though, and buses often leave early, to stay ahead of the traffic, at this time in the afternoon.
While he is walking fast out of habit. Perpetually busy, he’s forgotten how to take his time even when there’s plenty of time to take — and now, from the other side of Queen, he strides along Bagot to get back to his car, parked on the lower part of Brock.
Their paths will intersect at Brock and Bagot: in front of the office supplies store with its entrance way cut diagonally across the corner, inside a pillar supporting the upper storey. But all things (except blind fate) considered, they’re unlikely to recognize — or even see — each other as they pass.
They’d never seen each other since. Had forgotten all about it.
She runs past the gourmet food store without a glance at its coffees and exotic spices, although the musky aroma of groceries often entices her inside. I must get home! Still hurrying. My husband away, and no reason for haste except a guilty feeling of obligation to explain it to him when I’m late. She dashes unseeing into the sun, unaware that other possibilities could be drawing her on.
At Queen Street, by the empty lot, he misses the traffic light. Too many speeding cars to risk crossing against it: a circumstance that might change his future (but will it?) by delaying his arrival at the corner. Had he known this, he might have contemplated the purpose in life of trivial details such as traffic lights; of buses to be caught; of strangers and pregnant women who block your way with parcels. But instead he waits impatiently, remembering he’s promised to discuss holiday plans after supper before he can immerse himself in work.
Unable to find her again, he’d left the party and returned to his wife, who’d stayed home that evening looking through household catalogues.
Might I do something daring instead of going home? She glances at a window full of tartans suggestive of Scottish mists. Perhaps even buy a picture — she runs past the gallery just the same — something she hasn’t done since leaving college. But the sun’s in her eyes, she’s tired (it seems she always is), and she can’t bear the thought of having nothing to fill in the time downtown.
The host had interrupted. Dragging her away to introduce her to someone uninteresting, whom she’d later married and no longer knew why.
Relieved that the light’s now green, he steps out across the street, driven along Bagot by the gratifying thought of how busy he is. Once there was a hotel here, he recalls, but its foyer was turned into a shopping mews long ago and only the cocktail lounge remains: a bar now, with its warm, red lighting. He strides on by, tempted by memories of easy pick-ups and intoxicating music on those (rare) occasions when he has a convention out of town.
Men’s clothes, a gift-shop, for that man who has everything. Do I care what my husband’s doing on his weekend away? Oh shit! — passing a trust-company office she collides with a parking attendant writing a ticket. Doesn’t notice the car, although in days to come (if things go right) she may find herself eagerly waiting for it to arrive.
A small consolation for a business, which isn’t great or even all that interesting. Again he stands at a traffic light, in front of his bank, which used to offer a sense of deserved security. Diagonally opposite, the bookstore now attracts him more, with works on African birds, astronomy, unknown lives.
He’d been about to invite her to dinner — she, to comment on his sensitive hands and inquisitive eyes, which she’d felt an irresponsible urge to satisfy.
Hurry, hurry! She takes her life in her hands (why shouldn’t she, after all?) in a quick dash across Wellington Street. Barely a minute left: what if I miss the bus? Nothing much will happen, of course. My world’s not likely to change. Is it?
He hurries over the main street to the boarded-up corner with its pedestrian walkway under the scaffolding. Where, in the discount drug store, I used to buy condoms when I was young. The building’s not rebuilt yet since it was destroyed by fire, and the new one will be different, I suppose.
Hell, I’ll never make it: a red sports car turning into the parking garage blocks her path. Determined still, she skips round the back of it into the road, then starts to run again. Why such a rush? she thinks.
An evening long ago; another lifetime, perhaps. A crowded party who knows where: a playfully casual flirtation over martinis and canapés.
For a moment he slows down, glancing with a vague wistfulness at the bookstore across the street. There’s no real need to work this evening: but better that than boredom, family obligations. A book, perhaps, would do as well.
She pauses to catch her breath, clutching the fence round the sidewalk café in front of the hotel. It’s crowded, cheerful: why shouldn’t I eat downtown? But — she presses on — I’d feel self-conscious sitting here alone: knowing no one, desired by no one, loved by no one.
No, I’m too busy — and an approaching bus has blocked his view of the bookstore window. Passing Zeller’s Bagot-Street entrance, he comes to the office supplies store with its sterile desks and filing systems.
That’s not entirely true, she thinks. Starts running again past Zeller’s Brock-Street entrance: my husband loves me, I suppose. The office supplies store with its blur of paper and artists’ equipment gives her a momentary, sensuous pleasure — how I used to love to write and paint! — but, out of time, she flings herself towards the corner. Then ahead of her, against the sun, sees a pregnant woman carrying bulky parcels.
It wasn’t the right time, perhaps.
Instinctively he accelerates his pace. Would have explained this by his recollection that his car’s overdue at a parking meter.
She can’t push by the woman with her parcels ahead. The bus will be leaving on the other side of the street and, with no time to wait for the light, she’ll have to dodge across the road in front of it. It all depends on the pregnant woman with parcels. If she goes straight ahead I can cut through the entrance way inside the pillar on the corner.
When, coming from the other direction, he too will see the waddling figure emerge and fill the corner in front of him. He too will take the short cut inside the pillar of the office supplies store.
Behind the woman, she’ll swerve to the right.
Decisively, he’ll turn in to his left.
She can’t avoid him. Out of breath, she’ll barely manage to stop.
He can’t avoid her. Protectively, he’ll grasp her arms.
Each about to apologize, they’ll look at each other. Recall another lifetime, or an evening long ago. A crowded party who knows where; a playfully casual flirtation over martinis and canapés. He’d been about to invite her to dinner — she to comment on his sensitive hands and inquisitive eyes, which she’d felt an irresponsible urge to satisfy. But their host had interrupted, dragging her away to introduce her to someone uninteresting, whom she’d later married and no longer knew why. It wasn’t the right time, perhaps. Unable to find her again, he’d left the party and returned to his wife, who’d stayed home that evening looking through household catalogues. They’d never seen each other since. Had forgotten all about it.
Now, in the shock of this breathless physical encounter, in their blind haste that has driven them together, there’s no time to think of normal proprieties.
“I know you . . . ” he starts to stutter.
“I too . . . ” she starts to reply.
And in an instant they’re kissing., unaware that the pregnant woman, stopping at the traffic light, has turned round and, seeing them, dropped her parcels; that another man, also trying to take the short cut, has moved aside and taken the long way round the pillar instead.
Crazily she finds herself spinning in the air as he lifts her to him. Lips and bodies pressed together, forgetting the others who throng about them, they decide that . . . she’ll miss her bus.
They’ll have a drink together — have dinner too —i n the sidewalk café in front of the hotel. Laugh at the parking ticket when they return to his car. Stop to leave the fine at the collection box by City Hall as they drive away. Ten dollars, after all, is a small price for a happy-ever-after ending — or rather, for a happy beginning to the game that they’re about to play. Who knows what the future might bring? An affair, divorce? It won’t be easy, for passion never is: that’s the real price they’ll have to pay. But does it matter? For a while, they’ll be playing life’s game as it’s been offered to them: by chance, by fate or what you will or by their own haste to participate.
If the pregnant woman with parcels goes straight ahead, that is.
But perhaps she’ll stop. Step inside the entrance way to the office supplies store, to rest: unaware that other lives depend on where she goes.
Yes, I can get by her now, and the light’s green too: better keep straight ahead and cross here after all.
About to cut through inside the pillar, he’ll find his way blocked by a pregnant woman, laden down with parcels. For a second he’ll hesitate before taking the long way round instead. Almost (not quite, for he’ll manage to stop) bump into a younger woman emerging from Brock Street ahead of him, as she runs to catch the light. He thinks he recognizes her from somewhere.
She catches her bus: signals to the driver before it moves away. Smiling now, she thinks of the pregnant woman ahead — who fortunately (she thinks) hadn’t delayed her.
She hadn’t seen him. The sun was in her eyes. She’ll return to someone uninteresting, whom regrettably she’d married and no longer knows why.
While he’ll stride on down the street towards his car. Curse silently when he discovers the pink ticket on its windscreen — for he hates being caught out, unfairly, in the wrong. He’ll work that evening, once he’s discussed the family’s dreary holiday plans. Yet there’s a momentary nostalgia for something he can’t identify: the younger woman, perhaps, who he thought he’d recognized.
Where is it, he thinks, that I’ve seen her before?