Max waited in the coffee shop across from Ruby’s office building. When the clock neared four, he paid his check and crossed the street to be sure he wouldn’t miss her. He tried to decide the best place to stand so as not to embarrass her if she was with friends, and not to startle her if she was alone. He rehearsed the things he wanted to say, discarded words and then went over them again.
Ruby, he would say, please come back. Maybe he wouldn’t say that right away, not the first thing, but that was the main message he wanted to convey. Ruby, I’m sorry.
Max leaned against the newspaper stand and read the headlines. It was worse and worse, everywhere he looked. Movie actors making public fools of themselves, politicians shouting in all languages. The world was turning molten while mankind stood around whistling. He turned his gaze away and back to the building entrance. Ruby was his shelter. Ruby had kept the world at bay, so he could think and do his work.
Not that he had handled his piece of life with care. No, he hadn’t. He made mistakes and one of them had driven Ruby away from him, right out the door and gone. One party, a few drinks and what’s-her-name, Joyce whoever, in the hallway, in the bedroom. A couple of kisses, just casual, it hadn’t meant a thing. Joyce telling him what a big man he was, such a fine artist, hey, I’d like to know you better. Then Ruby’s face, her look of dismay pouring over him like hot lead. Eight months to get her to live with him, fifteen minutes for her to leave.
All right, it was a lot of drinks and somewhat more than just a kiss. Things had gotten away from him fast, and he was into it. Stupid, stupid. Ruby was precious, now he knew, now he was sure. Ruby was what he needed to live.
Everything had gone to hell without her. He spilled coffee on his sketches and tore his canvas. He had to throw out stretcher bars that had warped, he paced around the studio, his mind blank. Ruby sat in every corner, Ruby looked at him with scorn from the mirror. Ruby lived in the refrigerator, and descended on him in the shower like water. Ruby was in his clothes and in his paint. But Ruby was not in his arms, and was definitely not in his bed, where he lay sleepless while the hours dragged over him.
The M4 bus stopped and people got off and people got on. He watched, smoothed his hair and adjusted his jacket, the good one, the one Ruby liked. People bought the evening newspaper, candy bars and gum. The buildings opened their hands, and the crowd on the sidewalk swelled as folks left work. He looked at them like aliens, visitors from another planet.
Max has never had a regular job, nine to five. He has made his way by his talent and his wits. Up to now, that is. His brains have not gotten him anywhere lately. The more successful he is, the more he fucks up. Ruby had kept him from that, she was his savior, his salvation. Ruby was steady and true, honest and fair, loving and giving, and he had fallen on her from the moment he met her, at the gallery. He was there for an opening, had three pieces up and all of them sold. He could live for a year off them, and do as he pleased. His head had filled up with her smile. He felt safe somehow, when she was around.
He hadn’t known it all at first. Ruby had dawned on him like a spring morning, and then he couldn’t get enough of her. She was seeing someone else and Max had swept over her like sea water, until she only saw him. His work soared, he was better than ever, he was great and she was there to say so. He should have asked her to marry him. He had been a fool not to have her, really have her, ring and all. It hadn’t occurred to him soon enough, he hadn’t made a move in time. He should have bought flowers today, so she would see, so she would know how much he cared.
He had worked to get her to trust him, to stay with him, to move in. He had paid her every attention, hadn’t he? He had tried. Then she came, bringing her little things, her books and her pretty clothes, her small possessions. Max showed her off to everyone, and they had liked her, too. She was kind of shy, was delicate in her habits, was generous and modest. She believed every word out of his mouth, her lovely face turned up to him, her eyes full of faith. Four-twenty. Jesus, where was she?
He had gone to her old apartment, but strangers lived there now. He had hurried down to the place where she volunteered to council the homeless or whatever it was they did, but no one would tell him anything. Ruby had taken her address book, so he could not call her friends and he had no other ways to reach her. He saw someone on the street who knew her, but the woman had refused to speak to him or tell him where Ruby was. Ruby had disappeared and this filled Max with fear and dread. He shifted from foot to foot. Four-forty. This is the last place he knows to look.
The crowd thinned. People got on the M4 and rode away. The sky darkened and rain was in the air. He had the impulse to sit down on the sidewalk, and cry like an infant. He suddenly saw his life stretching out before him, empty and meaningless. He had betrayed her, taken her goodness and stepped on it, soiled it and driven her out. Max saw it clearly, now that it was too late. He stared at the building entrance until his eyes burned. Ruby, Ruby, I love you.
Then he saw her. She drifted out the door, and looked up at the clouds. He stood there, frozen, his heart racing, his mouth dry. Her face, her hair, her sweet innocence in the world. She walked slowly up the street, and he was paralyzed. What could he say to her? What should he.... He walked after her, he had to take the risk, he had to make it right. The universe opened wide again, and he at least had a chance. He will beg, he will promise, and he will by God, mean it. Ruby, he whispered and walked faster. Ruby darling, wait for me!