Barbara hadn’t always been a ghost. Three years prior, she had been in love with her fiance, Aaron Weinsap. They had known each other in high school, years later bumping into one another at a Taco Bell. Unlike Barbara, Aaron had gone on to college and become a CPA. Transformed from a sullen, pimply boy into a robust, handsome man, Barbara had been instantly attracted to him. As they ate tacos, he would periodically push his wavy hair from his high forehead with the back of his hand and wipe his mouth every few seconds, although there was nothing to wipe away. Barbara found his nervousness charming as he delivered a detailed explanation of the new tax exemptions for singles. He spoke rapid fire fast and almost inaudibly. Barbara could only hear half of what he said and understood even less of that, but feigned interest to keep him talking. They exchanged telephone numbers and, to her amazement, a few days later he asked her out. Even more amazing, within three months of their awkward date, they were engaged. Barbara would wake every morning in her twin bed, raise her hand up from beneath the sheets and ache with pride at the sight of her engagement ring.
Neither she nor Aaron had a social life. They spent their evenings together going to dinner, the movies or watching television. It wasn’t long before Aaron’s nervous habits and compulsive tidiness became more annoying than charming. Barbara decided they were tolerable faults for the sake of love. She never thought to ask herself or him why Aaron was so uncomfortable in his own skin. She was grateful to be wanted and simply took him as he was without question.
Daniel and Patrick had invited them to dinner in their flat one evening, doing their best to make him comfortable. Aaron had been more nervous than usual. Before the meal, he wiped the silverware and rim of his wine glass with his napkin, which elicited an incredulous glance between their hosts. Every time Aaron spoke, Daniel would ask, “What was that again?” while Patrick struggled to suppress the giggles.
“Don’t you think you should take your time getting married, sweetie? What’s the rush?” Daniel had asked Barbara the following day, Patrick nodding in agreement. While others may be prescient, no one is more myopic than someone desperate to be loved. So it was with Barbara. She knew her relationship with Aaron was unconventional. She told herself they were two lonely people who had luckily found quiet companionship with each other. If love, as the poets say, is a feast, Barbara was satisfied with the crumbs. She attributed the absence of sex to his crippling shyness and was secretly relieved. Due to her own insecurities, her few sexual encounters had been clumsy and always the prelude to the end of her brief romances. One Saturday night, after a bottle of Merlot, Aaron painfully admitted that he was a virgin.
“I’m sorry, Barbara,” he’d whispered.
“Don’t apologize,” she’d replied, embarrassed by his admission.
“I know I’m pathetic.”
“Aaron, don’t say that. You’re not pathetic.”
“You’re too good for me, Barbara. You deserve someone better,” he’d muttered at his shoes. The previous week Aaron had become increasingly morose and Barbara sensed that something was wrong. Quietly panicked, she feared he might break their engagement to avoid future humiliation.
“I love you, Aaron,” she’d said for the first time, the words stalling in her throat. He had looked up at her with an expression of such emptiness, at that moment her dream of happiness dissolved. She knew that however much she loved him, he couldn’t love her in return. He knew she had seen the void in him and felt deeply ashamed of having misled her. something in his past had crushed the life out of Aaron and he had hoped that marriage to Barbara could resuscitate it. The following day, too cowardly to tell her face-to-face, he left a stumbling message on her voicemail saying he couldn’t marry her but she could keep the ring. Like a sleepwalker, she had removed the ring, wrapped it in a tissue, stuck it in the back of a dresser drawer and never looked at it again. Her life had droned on unchanged ever since.
“Dammit,” she sighed, opening her umbrella. A light rain had begun to fall and she knew it would be bone chillingly cold out on the bridge. Her shift was from eight to four and by one o’clock the left arm of her blue uniform would be soaking wet and her left hand, despite the prophylactic latex glove, would be nearly frozen from taking tolls all day. She stood at the bus stop, hypnotized by the whooshing rhythm of cars heading up and down Fillmore street. She read a sign in the wine shop across the street advertising a new shipment from Chateau Haute de Loire winery. For years she had dreamt of a trip to France and had saved enough money to go. She had once spent an hour with a travel agent planning an itinerary but when the flush of excitement at the thought of Paris had calmed, she saddened at the idea of being there alone, surrounded by couples in love. Barbara’s dreams rather than sustaining her, were reminders of unfulfilled promise. She stepped back to avoid the splash of gutter rainwater as the bus squealed to a stop before her.
“Morning, Barb,” the driver greeted as she climbed onboard.
“Gonna’ be a rough one out there. ‘Sposed to rain all day,” he said, checking the side view mirror and steering the bus back into traffic.
“Um hm.” She took a window seat near the back door. Chuck had the heater cranked up, fogging the windows. Wiping a circle with the sleeve of her coat, she stared vacantly out as the bus descended the hill toward the steel blue bay below. In the misty distance a cargo ship loaded with containers inched cautiously out to sea, led through the center span of the Golden Gate Bridge by the haunting baritone of a foghorn. Winter in San Francisco comes in many shades of gray. None as deep as a broken heart