He rapped his knuckles against the side of his glass. His nerves were getting the better of him. Scraps of apologies flitted around in his head, but he couldn’t make anything coherent from them. Nothing that she would accept.
It had been seventeen years. Who was she now? Someone beautiful? Angry? Could she be someone he could get to know all over again, or would she take the money, spit in his face, and leave him alone with his misery?
Three quarters of an hour passed before the bar door swung open. Daylight threw her shadow stark against the bar’s splintered wooden floor. She stood in the doorway, a harsh silhouette. Wide hips, tight jeans, long hair. Very different to the girl he remembered, but her. Undoubtedly her.
She paused long enough for her eyes to become accustomed to the gloom before she sought him out. God knew how she recognised him. The years hadn’t exactly been kind.
He eyed her nervously as she climbed up on the stool next to him.
“Buy you a drink?” he asked her, hating the crackle in his voice. He felt old.
Her eyes were hard. The same steel blue, a bit more blood-shot now, but no wrinkles at the corners. Not yet. She looked tired, and angry.
“Bourbon and coke,” she snapped, and turned her face from him.
He nodded to the bartender, and nudged his own glass of bourbon across the bar for a top-up. He cleared his throat.
“Where’s my money?”
His cheek twitched, and he bent down to grab the arm of his battered backpack. He fished around inside, and tossed her a thick brown envelope.
“Here. Little extra. Call it interest.”
He watched her count it, fingers flicking through the notes as his own tapped out a nervous rhythm on his thigh.
“Well?” he said at last, unable to stand the tension.
She smirked at him, and slid the envelope into the satchel slung over her shoulder.
The bartender set her drink on a serviette in front of her, and gave her a look recognisable anywhere: this loser bothering you, ma’am? She returned a smile: no, thank you. The bartender nodded, and moved back down the bar.
She sat with her fingernails tapping, ting, ting, against the rim of her glass. He let himself look at her, absorb her, the mass of dark hair she wore like a veil, the sharp line of her collarbone, the braided bracelets at her wrist.
“So why’d you take it?” She played with her straw, chasing ice cubes around the bottom of her glass.
He cleared his throat again.
“I was desperate, Mitch.”
“Don’t call me that.” She shot him a sharp look, anger of self-defense. “I was eighteen, Paul. I trusted you. My life savings. Why’d you take it?”
“I was – I owed – ” He broke off, lowering his chin to his chest. He watched the light glint through the ice in his bourbon, and tried to find words. He had practised this, had tried writing it out, even, but could never find the words.
“Paul. Look at me.”
A moment ago it had been so easy, but now it was a struggle to lift his head and meet her eyes. Still anger on her face, but it was not alone now. Something else had joined it. Sorrow. Disappointment.
“If you’d asked me,” she said, “I would have – ”
He shook his head, cutting her off with a slap of his palm against the bar. He met her eyes again, and laughed, a thin, starved sound.
“I couldn’t ask you, kid. Your parents’d kicked me out, and they were right to. I’d brought enough of my shit into your life. I didn’t want you to have to see me again, not after…” He trailed off, swallowing hard against the memory. He lifted a hand, pressing thumb and forefinger against the bridge of his nose. “Fuck.” He threw out a hand, a gesture almost of accusation. “Anyway you grew up all right, didn’t you? Thirty-five now, or thereabouts. Prettier than ever. Probably have a brood of kids and a husband who doesn’t realise what he has.”
Her lip curled, and she turned her head, letting her eyes wander over the bottles behind the bar, down to the glass she held pressed between her fingers.
“Me?” She huffed out a lungful of air. “Please. Longest job I’ve ever held down was that one I had back in high school. Three years.” She took a mouthful of bourbon and held it on her tongue before swallowing with a grimace.
Paul watched her, his mouth dry.
“You wanted to be a veterinarian.”
She let out a bark of laughter.
“I was eighteen, Paul. I wanted a lot of things.”
“But… you were smart. You were so smart.”
She gave him a long look, a peculiar sort of sympathy twisting her lips into a sad smile.
“It wasn’t your fault, if that’s what you’re thinking. It was nothing to do with you. It wasn’t the money you took, it wasn’t all the – the crap you managed to bring into our lives. Mom was angry. She got over it. They’re happy. Live in Oregon now. Dad made partner, opened his own office. Mom plays tennis and gossips. We did fine. I never really needed that money.”
“But it was yours.” He dared to reach over to her, resting his hand, briefly, on the bone of her wrist. “You’d earned it.”
“I just would have spent it on something stupid.”
“You wanted to go to Europe.”
Her lips quirked into a smile. “You remember that? I did. France and Italy.”
He could picture her in Europe, with a sketchbook or a camera, the sun on her face, some Italian fucker offering her gelato. Italy or France… she would have loved it.
“Did you ever go?”
“No. Washed out of college junior year.” She swallowed another mouthful of bourbon. “Pressure got to me. Too much trying to be perfect. Took me another two years to get back on my feet. And then there was the car accident, so…”
“You didn’t hear?” She turned on her stool to face him, her eyes piercing. She held his gaze and time stretched as she sought out the truth on his face. “You really didn’t know?”
He shook his head, dumb.
“Billy and I were heading back from a party. He died.”
Billy. The boyfriend of way-back-when. Paul had been wondering, before she walked in, if he’d married her.
“He was a good kid,” he managed to croak out.
“Yeah, he was. Sucked at driving, though.” She turned back towards the bar, lifting her glass in both hands and sipping at her drink. “I got off pretty light. Few scars. And there’s this…” She pulled up the leg of her jeans, and knocked her knuckles against her leg. It made a hollow sound.
“Ah, Jesus, Julia, I’m sorry.”
“It was a long time ago. I’ve come to terms with it. I was angry, for a while. At the world, and at Billy. We weren’t together, not then, but he was a good friend. It fucked me up a little, and I was fucked up to start with.”
“Now I work a job for a year or two, reach some unnameable breaking point, and quit. Nothing like failing to live up to your potential, right?” She hummed a laugh to herself. “Mom and Dad prop me up when I need it, but generally I do OK. I save a lot. Move often. Travel light.” She pushed her serviette around the bar, soaking up puddles of condensation. “You know I still play violin? It’s the one thing I always take with me. I’d like to go somewhere with a great art scene, Seattle or New York, join a jazz ensemble and just blow them away. Never worked up the guts. I guess it’s the one thing I really don’t want to fail at.”
He finished his bourbon and reached over the bar for the bottle, shaking it at the bartender and waiting for a nod before pouring himself another glass, and topping up hers.
“You wouldn’t want to go to Europe?”
She grinned, and patted the satchel at her side.
“That’s what this is for.”
His heart swelled, and he hid his smile behind his glass.
“Good,” he said.
“So what about you?” She kicked her toes against the bar. “What made you track me down after seventeen years? Been chewing on that guilt this long?”
“Heh. Yes.” He shot her a sidelong smile. “Came into some money. I never forgot I owed you, Mi– Jules. Wanted to give it back.”
She waved a hand. “It’s all right. Call me Mitch. Hard to break old habits.”
He breathed a sigh. “It is.”
“The money. Where did it come from?”
A muscle worked in his jaw as he took another drink.
“My mother died. Left me a house in Jersey, little town by the ocean.”
He was surprised, for a moment, but her expression was solemn, and he nodded.
“Yeah. Foolish old dame… don’t know why she bothered with me. Should have left the money to the church.”
“She wanted you to have it.” Silence, for a moment. “You still have the house?”
“Yeah. Not sure what to do with the place. Maybe let it out over the summer. I’m not really built for that town.” His lips pulled back from his teeth.
“Too many judgemental frowns? I bet they ask themselves the same thing you did.”
“Why she bothered with you.” There was something in her eyes that wasn’t quite judgement. More a weighing of his soul.
He rumbled a laugh. “Yeah, no doubt. I’m more built for towns like this.” He let his eyes wander over the ceiling with its hanging lights. “No one here gives you trouble. You mind your business, they mind theirs.”
“It’s a shit-hole, though.”
“I dunno. I like the dust, the far horizon.”
Her gaze was distant. “Horizons always make me want to cross them. They’re lonely things.”
“I suppose. Maybe that’s why I like ‘em.”
“What have you been doing all these years?”
He shrugged. “Got clean, fucked up, got clean again. They say you just need to hit rock bottom to realise you need to get your shit together but – ah, I don’t know. Like you watch yourself from a distance as you throw it all away – again – and you can’t stop it.” He drained his glass, and let it dangle from his fingers before, with care, he set it back down within the circle of condensation it had left on the bar.
“I never got into drugs,” she said, her eyes on his glass. “You were the cautionary tale, I guess. Don’t be like Paul, he fucked up so hard he stole from an eighteen year old kid. God knows where I would be if I decided to go with heroin instead of antidepressants.”
He grimaced. “I did you some good, then. Such as it was.”
She rested a hand on his forearm, leaning towards him until her stool started to tilt.
“The reason it hurt so fucking much when you took that money is because I was fond of you, you dick. You told great stories. You bought us rum. You didn’t tell my dad when I snuck in late. All my friends thought you were the shit. When I saw you in the hallway that night I thought you’d come back to say goodbye. Instead you’d robbed me.”
She held his gaze for a long moment before she pulled away.
“Yeah. I know.”
Then she blinked, and checked her watch, and threw back her drink.
“I have a train to catch,” she said, adjusting her satchel over her shoulder. “Last one heading north until tomorrow.”
He got to his feet as she hopped down from her stool, thumbs tucked into his belt, unsure whether to offer his hand. He cleared his throat, eyes slipping away from her.
“So, will – that is – ”
She stepped forward, and took his hand between both of hers.
“You’ll have to show me that house sometime.”
“I will,” he said, his throat dry. “I promise.”
A twitch of one corner of her mouth, as if all the broken promises of the past had come flooding back.
Then she turned, with a toss of her hair, and tugged on his hand.
“Come on, then,” she said. “Next train to Jersey’s here in five minutes.”