What If

[Note: this story originally appeared in the Jack Straw Writers Anthology 2023.]

What kind of fool makes a first date for Christmas Eve? Wats knew better; he knew he knew better even when he made the date. December was the time of last-minute cancelations, with family and travel and gift-shopping wreaking havoc on the schedules of lonely singles. By mid-December, the Great Flakeout had begun in earnest, and a day before Christmas, you couldn’t even rely on the buses to run on time. Still, the week after would have been even worse.

He looked at his watch again. Eight minutes past seven. Not unreasonably late yet, but not a good sign. He had texted her from the bus at 6:45 to make sure the time still worked for her. She had said she’d arrived early, but then realized she had left her ID at home. Entirely reasonable. Except that to minimize the chances for a no-show, he had suggested they choose a place close to where she lived. Always make it easy to say yes, he had thought to himself. That meant she would have had plenty of time to go home and get back by now. Again, not a good sign. He looked out towards the windows facing the street, but all he could see was the dark December night and the vague reflection of his own ghost in the glass.

Wats scrolled through her text messages from the last day to see what might have happened. Nothing too remarkable there; mostly just logistics on where and when to meet. Maybe a few too many emojis, though. Had he seemed overenthusiastic? He noticed that each of his texts ended with an exclamation mark and sometimes two, while hers rarely ended with punctuation at all. Who had first suggested meeting in person? It was him. Who had suggested the date and time? Him again. Great. For a certain kind of person, avoiding the discomfort of saying no outweighed the guilt of standing up a stranger. But what kind of person would do that? This kind of person, apparently. Crap. That said, she was still within the window for plausible lateness. He had to wait until at least 7:15; otherwise, he could end up being the asshole for not giving her enough time. Might as well make it an even 7:30.

Wats looked around the bar. It was one of the new boutique cider places – long gleaming wooden tables under handcrafted lightbulbs, stools fixed to swinging joints under the supports. No table service, just a register in front of a giant chalkboard with the available ciders and a long array of taps. He looked back at the bartender, a Seattle classic: perfectly manicured beard, a moustache with waxed tips, and a vest of dark suiting material over a muted plaid shirt in blue and grey. The plaid felt like an homage to the neighborhood’s working-class past of rugged fisherfolk; the facial hair and vest an alignment with the nouveau style of carefully curated masculinity. Bearded Vest had been pleasant enough when he rang him up; as he handed back his card, Wats couldn’t help but notice the dark metal band on his finger.

“Must be nice this time of year, going home to a warm embrace, recounting the stories of the day,” Wats muttered to himself.

He imagined what story Bearded Vest might recount about him: “It’s always sad this close to the holidays. You see a few singles come in. This guy told me he was waiting for a date but who would make a date for Christmas Eve? He just sat there looking at his phone – honestly, I think he just didn’t want to be alone.” His lover would put their arms around him, glad they had found someone so sensitive yet so exquisitely groomed. Putting their fingers into Bearded Vest’s large (but surprisingly soft) hands, they would lead him to the warmth of their marital bed.

He looked at his watch again. Half past seven. Clearly, she was standing him up. But what about her text? Why would she bother saying she was here and then going back for her ID? Why not just leave the text unanswered? He looked through the messages they’d exchanged on the app before switching to text. Yes, there was some solid flirting there, in both directions, and she had seemed genuinely interested. What if she had planned to return, but something happened on the way home or back? Maybe a family emergency of some kind – but then she would at least have texted. But what if she couldn’t text because she was the one with an emergency? Think about it – the streets were desolate, and there were still some industrial areas in this neighborhood with sinister figures lurking in the shadows. What if she had taken a shortcut to rush back to the bar and then been assaulted, knocked to the cold ground while the villains took her wallet – or worse. Shit. Shit. Shit.

Should he go out and look for her? But he had no idea where she lived. Should he call for help? But he didn’t even know her full name, just her phone number. It would probably be possible to get her identity from a phone number, but not without the police. He could call the police, but what would he tell them? “Hey this person I met online didn’t show up for my date and I’m worried something horrible has happened to her so could you please go look for her?” They wouldn’t even take a Missing Person report until she’d been gone for 24 hours, and even then, the story would sound ridiculous. The thought of the police laughing at him began to calm him down.

“But what if she really is missing?” Wats fretted, his fears rekindling. “The first thing they’d do would be to check her phone records, to see who the last person she communicated with was – me. I’ve been in this bar the whole time, but how would they know that? My phone location data! That would probably clear me. But I’ve heard phone location data isn’t that precise, so if she was attacked somewhere nearby, they might still think it was me. Crap. Who could testify that I was here the whole time? Bearded Vest! But would he remember me? Probably not, he sees hundreds of people every day. I need to do something to make myself memorable. Maybe I can ask him to take a selfie with me – the picture alone won’t prove anything, but the awkwardness of that moment would make him remember my face, then connect it to my being here the whole night. Jesus, this is going to be embarrassing, but I guess it’s what I need to do…”

Wats sighed, turned to look at the unsuspecting bartender, and felt his heartrate rise rapidly as he got up to approach him.

“Wats?” a small voice asked from the other side of the table. He turned back to see a smiling, oval face the color of sand, surrounded by the fur fringe of an enormous puffer jacket.

“Kaleena!” he said, almost shouting in his surprise.

“Oh you must be soooo mad,” she said, turning her body to make a quick escape but with her eyes still locked onto his. “I should probably just go.”

“No, no, don’t go, I’m not mad at all, just relieved! What happened?” Wats made a rapid inventory of her features: dark, narrow eyes extended into wings; a septum ring; a slender frame constantly in motion.

“Oh, it was Edgar. My hedgehog.” Kaleena looked down but raised her eyes again to smile at him.

“Your hedgehog?” Wats asked in genuine surprise.

“He’s kind of a little shit, actually.” She smiled and briefly turned her body away and back. “When I got home, I saw his water was empty, and when I opened his cage to take it out and fill it, he made a break for it. Once he’s hidden away, he’s almost impossible to find, and so stupid he’ll starve before giving up his little game. I had to keep eyes on him as I chased him around my apartment, and it took this long just to coax him back into his little house.”

“Now that,” Wats laughed, “is not what I was expecting!”

“Well, you said you were relieved, not angry; that’s not what I was expecting either! Tell me, Wats, what were you relieved about? Did you think I was going to stand you up?”

“No…well, yes, actually. At first. But then I was worried something dreadful had happened to you!”

“Something dreadful – how dark and exciting!” she said, straddling the stool in front of him and swinging it closer as she pushed back the hood of her jacket. She put her elbows on the table, rested her face in her upturned hands, and smiled up at him, fluttering her eyes. “Do tell – I love a good true crime story.”

Wats went through the entire progression of his thoughts, leaving no detail unturned. He had a vague sense that he might be oversharing, but she seemed to be entranced by his words. When he got to the selfie with the bartender, she laughed out loud, covering her mouth with one hand while reaching out to stroke his arm.

“A selfie with Bearded Vest! Oh, my poor dear, you must have been truly desperate. But now I kind of want you to take that selfie anyway,” she said with a giggle. “That’s quite an imagination you have, mister.”

“It’s just my damned anxiety,” Wats said, laughing as well, beginning to wonder if this adorable creature might actually be finding him interesting. “My therapist calls it catastrophizing. Once my brain starts going, it’s really hard for me to stop.”

“How interesting,” she said, squinting off to the side and pausing for a long moment. “So much detail: the bartender’s spouse. The police scanning my phone records. What if…”

Wats squirmed. Maybe she found him “interesting” as in “interesting mental patient,” not “interesting person I would want to date.” Unable to hold the silence, he blurted out, “What if what?”

“Oh!” she laughed. “What if anxiety is your superpower?”

“Wait, what?” he asked, genuinely mystified.

“Well, it’s your anxiety that led you to have all these worries, right? Which turned into this incredibly rich story. What if the same part of your brain that makes you worry so much is the part that’s able to weave those tales?”

“Interesting,” he said, pausing to look off to the side. “I’ve never thought about it that way. I suppose you can’t really worry if you can’t come up with all the terrible things that might happen, right?”

“Right!” she said, smiling up at him. “Have you ever thought about writing them down?”

“My worries?”

“Yes, well, maybe not all your worries, but at least the ones that turn into stories? ‘Cause maybe,” Kaleena said, shimmying her shoulders towards him in a tiny dance, “some of those stories will be about me.”

“Mayyybe,” he said, sharing in her smile.

“Preferably ones where I’m not getting hacked to bits by some ne’er-do-well.”

They both laughed. They spent the next hour talking, smiling, teasing, joking. At nine, Bearded Vest came over to tell them the bar was closing early for the holiday. They walked outside together, their breaths merging into a private fog in the still December air.

“Now, I really do want to see you again, and I want to hear more of your stories,” she said. “And I’m going to text you as soon as I get home so you’ll know I haven’t been the victim of a horrible murder.”

“I would like that,” Wats said, laughing.

“Wait – you would like a text, or to see me again?” she pouted.

“Both,” he said, holding his arms out in an invitation. She jumped into him, holding him tightly until her puffer jacket had deflated against his body. Giggling, she spun around to walk briskly away, turning back once to smile and wave. A good sign. He headed towards the corner, seeing the bus pull up just in front of him. Another good sign. He boarded and found a pair of seats to himself. Pulling out his phone, he thought back to the beginning of the night, retracing his steps as he entered the bar, and began to write:

“What kind of fool makes a first date for Christmas Eve?”