Erica fingered the wooden splinters of the food truck court picnic table and stared out at the water till she spotted Ryan rolling up on the fire-red Cannondale he bought on credit. He didn’t stop to park the bike before entering the dining area, but jostled his way through the lunchtime customers like an entitled eel in a koi pond. If anyone protested, or pointed out the PARK YOUR BIKE sign, or looked at him wrong, Ryan would explain he’d been sick. Thankfully, no one complained.
He dropped his new bike against the table. The surface rattled under Erica’s hands. Offering no greeting kiss, he sat across from her, and with a solemn gesture, he placed a closed manila folder containing a few sheets between them, on top of a gooey queso spill from someone’s breakfast taco.
He beamed. His cheekbones reminded Erica of the sharp corners of the table, but even so, he was not as gaunt as before. Erica could lift him before, had to sometimes.
When he removed his sunglasses, she noticed wrinkles around his eyes. The grin seemed genuine.
He needs me to ask him what the doctor said. Needs me to try to scoop up the folder and read the results, but he is keeping his hand on it so I can’t and he can play.
His smile drained her. She was too deeply tired to indulge Ryan’s games now, as important as today was, as those results were. How many obscure lab reports with huge words and tiny fonts had she studied? How much had she researched online in the dead of night while Ryan slept, and in support groups where she was encouraged to persevere?
Today, he could just tell her. If he could ride a bike, he could just tell her.
“This place is busy!” Ryan said. “Did you order?”
“Can you eat?”
“Oh, can I! Smells like waffles.” He twisted to survey the semi-circle of trucks surrounding the gravel-covered common eating area. It was noon, but the light strings were on, giving the place a happy coziness. “That Thai barbecue is new. ‘Yippee-Thai-Yay’. Food’s gotta be better than that dumbass name.”
Erica did not attempt a peek at the folder’s contents. Instead, she gazed beyond the trucks and out at the still water, with the pointy silver pillars of downtown reflecting. A pair of paddle boarders set up near a creaky wooden dock, a young man with arm tattoos gently advising his cute, slightly plump, and nervous, date on technique. He was polite and sweet and she laughed; they seemed new to each other.
“Let’s do Thai,” Ryan said. “Get me whatever’s their signature. Tell ‘em double the heat.”
Erica didn’t move, resisting the automatic impulse to go fetch. She’d barely known Ryan before the diagnosis and her innate caretaking drive took over and they became… enmeshed. Erica was helping him walk to the toilet to puke and taking time from Sheffield’s to tote him to treatments before she knew his middle name.
Just tell me, Ryan. Don’t make me work for this. We both know it is the end of treatment, or the end of the line.
He’s happy, though. Genuine, wrinkly-eyed smile.
Gotta be good news.
Or is it like last fall, when he got hysterical about his birthday and planned his own decorations and bought an expensive cake, then tried to overdose on Tramadol? In the bathroom. At his party. With all his friends in the apartment.
(He claimed he was heartbroken knowing they were watching him slowly die, so he wanted to speed things along. But the prescription bottle was over half-full when she found him.)
Such drama. Always such drama.
Such friends, too. What a saint, they gushed, was Erica (unsaid: to let them off the hook of having to attend to Ryan).
“Shouldn’t we talk first?” Erica said.
“I said Thai, Erica.”
Why can’t I just ask him? Why can’t I grab that folder?
Utter fatigue with doing what Ryan wanted. Or needed.
The couple on the river got into a contented groove. Standing side by side, they cut through the quiet water towards the bridge on a perfect day. How nice for her.
“I bet you’re dying to know what I’m up to,” Ryan said. He clasped her hands atop the folder. “We met here, you know.”
“At night. After the bars closed,” Erica said. “We were both drunk.”
“I should get you drunk again. You used to talk more.”
Erica saw a jagged red line on her index finger, an insult from a splinter from when he dropped his unpaid-for fancy Cannondale against the table. Beads of red welled to the surface as Ryan squeezed her hands. He didn’t notice.
“It’s time for a new phase in our lives, Erica.”
He knocked his bike over to make room at the side of the bench. The shiny machine crashed into the gravel, blocking the path between tables. He meant to display his burning intensity, but it came across as . . . just stop.
Continuing to grasp Erica’s hands like a restraint, he maintained eye contact as he bent to a knee.
“Erica, I do not have a ring….”
“What did the doctor say, Ryan?”
“First, I have to do this.”
“You don’t. Don’t.”
“Erica, now is not the time to start talking.”
“Have you ever said, ‘Erica, let’s go paddle boarding?’”
“Paddle boarding? Just…wow, Erica. Maybe I’m not strong enough for paddle boarding.”
“Maybe you’re not strong enough for a marriage.”
“You’re strong enough for both of us.”
Erica resisted the urge to wipe away the tears on her face. The wetness cooled her hot cheeks, anyway.
“Go on,” Erica said. “Say what you’re going to say.”
“No. The mood is off now.”
As he began to stand, Ryan noticed the people at the tables around them staring. A fit, jogging-stroller mother in a neon green Nike tracksuit shushed her squirming boys so she could hear. She reached for her phone, surely planning to post about the cutest li’l ol proposal at the food trucks.
Ah, an audience.
He settled in on his knee and resumed his speech, loud enough for tracksuit mommy and the metalhead teenage girls a table away.
“I’ve endured a year of treatment. Brutal. Unimaginable. I never thought something could happen to someone as young as me. I have learned that life is short….”
Foolishly expecting he would at least thank her and realizing he was not, Ryan’s voice faded from Erica’s consciousness.
She looked at the folder.
A streak of her blood arced across the tan expanse.
A little on-the-nose, gods of excellent decisions.
Proposal complete, Ryan turned to smile at the onlookers, expecting Erica to melt like a popsicle on the sidewalk.
Erica pulled away, put on her sunglasses, then stood and slung her purse over her shoulder. She righted Ryan’s bike so no one would trip over it. She wanted to wash her bleeding finger in the river water. It would be dirty, but would feel so nice to put her hand in.
Patrick R. Wilson lives in Austin, Texas, with his family and Rottweiler-Dachshund mixes Murray and Emmy.