Back at the sublet, I put on my new Rachel Grimes record and flopped onto the bed. The mattress was still bare and smelled foreign. I considered doing something about it but chose to lie there instead, reading Annie’s invitation over and over. When evening crept in, I changed into the nicest clothes in my hockey bag. I looked almost presentable with my pea coat and a little water through my hair.
I took the car because I didn’t want to be late and didn’t really know where I was going. I ended up being twenty minutes early and standing in the drizzling rain. By the time she got off the bus and wandered up to me, I was shivering a little.
“Hi, Annie,” I said.
“Hello, Matt. Long time no see.”
She had exchanged her sneakers for little black boots and her jean jacket for a grey tweed coat. Both boots and coat were too light for an Ontario winter but probably perfect for Vancouver. The skirt of a simple green dress was poking below the coat and she wore black tights with it. The jacket’s hood was pulled over her curls. She looked cute.
“What happened to the above-zero winter?” I asked.
“Even Vancouver freezes sometimes,” she said and took me by the hand to a Vietnamese restaurant. I couldn’t look her in the eyes when she was touching me.
“I love Vietnamese,” I told her. She nodded.
The place was small and decorated in mostly black and white. We took a seat by the window and only let go of each other’s hands to take off our coats. Directly outside the restaurant, Commercial Drive was relatively quiet for my tastes but I liked the modest presentation of the storefronts. She ran the edge of her thumb along the back of my hand and my cheeks burned because of it.
“I made a deal with you,” she said. “Would you like me to explain how we know each other?”
“Will it burst this bubble?”
“Then let’s wait a minute.”
The waitress came with tea and went with our order. Annie smelled like lavender and the skin on her hand was soft. We sat in a very nice silence.
After a couple minutes, I let go of her hand and said, “OK We better burst it. This is starting to feel normal.”
“I was hoping you’d remember something,” she said. “I wanted you to have at least a glimmer of recognition.”
She took a long pause and I took a sip of tea.
“We lived together for two years,” she said.
She looked away and I scanned my memory for interpretations.
“What, were you one of the people who lived in the basement of the Markham place?”
“Not in Toronto,” she said. “Here.”
“Huh? I told you I just got to Vancouver, right? This is literally my first day here. And you’re telling me we were roommates?”
“No. I’m telling you we lived together. Like in the way where we sleep in the same bed.”
“For two years?”
I laughed dismissively and said, “Oh, OK.”
“Don’t be a prick,” she snapped. The line under each eye was especially pronounced and she looked genuinely upset. “Just because you don’t understand it doesn’t mean it’s not true.”
I could feel regret curdle my stomach.
“OK,” I said. “OK. This is important to you. I can see that. But you’re right; I don’t understand. Could you try explaining it to me?”
She cupped her hands around her tea and said, “Five years ago, you drove here from Toronto and ended up staying. We met at a record convention just up the street from here. You started coming into the store pretty regularly. I don’t know when I started looking forward to your visits. It felt like it happened overnight. And then I let you take me to dinner. Here, actually. ‘Our courtship’, you always called it. A year after that we moved in together.”
She was choking up and her neck was going flush.
She said, “It wasn’t perfect but it was really nice, you know?”
“It sounds nice, yeah,” I said, “but you realize that couldn’t have been me, right? I’ve never even been to Vancouver before today. I don’t want reality to get in the way of our reunion dinner but I can’t see any other way around it.”
There was a break in the conversation. She kept her eyes on the window and I kept mine on the table. Eventually the waitress brought our meals and our stalemate continued. I could rationalize my dissatisfied feeling to being attracted to her or to feeling so untethered from the life I’d driven away from, but part of me wanted there to be something else.
“OK,” I said. “Humour me. Why did we break up, then? Why am I the amnesiac and not you?”
It wasn’t like a dam bursting. Her head was still turned away from me and nothing about her face changed suddenly, but it was there. The muscles around her lips got tighter and tighter and her eyes started to fill up until only surface tension was keeping the tears from spilling over. And then they did, fast streaks down her smooth skin, and all the tears followed that path down her face and dripped off the line of her jaw. All this time she was motionless and the only indication that anything was happening was that tension in her face.
I didn’t know what to do. My own eyes were filling up a little. I reached out and put my fingertips on her cupped hands as gently as I could.
“Hey,” I said, “Hey, I’m sorry. Come back to me please.”
“I know basically everything about you,” she told me, turning her eyes but not her head. “Your car. I know you named your car after your aunt. It stalls all the time.”
“How—” I began. She cut me off.
“The only thing you can keep neat and tidy are your fingernails. Your aunt gave you her record player and her old vinyl collection when you were a teenager, and you thought Jethro Tull was the coolest thing you had ever heard. You prefer turntables with built-in pre-amplification but you feel guilty about it because it’s not the old-fashioned way. You sing along with everything but feel like you’re a mediocre musician.”
“What the hell is going on, here?” I asked. I pushed my bowl and chopsticks to the side of the table.
She sniffled and continued, “And you consider yourself a good driver because you’ve never had an accident, but you don’t even understand the concept of turning in the same direction as a skid.”
Her last comment caught me so off guard that I couldn’t help but laugh a little. I said, “Seriously though, it doesn’t make sense. If you’re sliding to the left, why the hell would you turn to the left?”
“You could never admit that I might know better. You idiot. If you had just turned into the skid, you wouldn’t have ended up under the wheels of a transport truck. I wouldn’t have had to console your fucking family at your funeral or spend a year hating you for never listening to me.”
I flagged the waitress and made the gesture for our bill.
“Annie, I’m sorry for your loss but I don’t even know you. I don’t know anything about you. I’m not denying how accurately you described me. But you’re just a very pretty girl I met today. You are a stranger.”
“No, I’m not,” she said.
I settled the bill and we collected our things in silence.