No River Wide Enough
Two years ago, Chris and his boyfriend escaped the turmoil of the big city to settle in a small town at the US-Canada border. Eager to settle into forever, Chris bought the Frontier Café and Bakery. A year later, his boyfriend dumps him, leaving Chris the only gay man in town and resigned to a life of romantic solitude and baked goods.
Hank is a loner who's spent the last ten years travelling through the country for his job as a water plant engineer. Deeply closeted, he's extremely careful about the men he meets. Like the rivers he studies during his travels, he flows fast through the land, never slowing down enough to be caught.
In town only for a few weeks on a water treatment facility project, he's intent on getting the job done and returning home out west to take care of his father. But when he sets eyes on the local ginger baker standing behind a table full of decadent desserts, the temptation is too much to resist.
Wednesday morning, when I pulled into the Frontier Café’s lot, I parked by Drika’s old Buick and sat in my car, taking a moment to enjoy the dawn.
Staring at Main Street, I had to admit that my ex-boyfriend Lewis had been right about this town. It wasn’t much to look at. St-Clovis county—population 1500—was a Canadian county people drove through on their way across the border to Vermont for cheap American gas or bulk food. Nobody ever stopped here unless they needed a tire change. There wasn’t even a decent bar in this sleepy town, never mind a gay one. And yet, there was something about this place that fit me perfectly.
A truck drove by, rattling me out of my thoughts, and I glanced up to see Drika turning the hand-painted sign in the café’s glass door. OPEN. We had a long list of tasks awaiting us today. Preparation for the annual country fair coming up this weekend. That left Drika and I three days to get ready. I had better get started on that.
A few moments later, when I stepped inside the café’s tiny red dining room, I was welcomed by the familiar scents of chocolate, buttery dough and freshly brewed coffee. As usual, the sweet and comforting fragrances lifted my mood. This was my second home. My own business. I’d invested so much in this place.
Drika was at the front counter stocking the display shelves, singing along to a Floyd Red Crow Westerman song. Through the glass, she waved. “Hey, Gingerman.”
I was more of a strawberry blond, than a redhead, but there was definitely no escaping the nickname Ginger. “Hi there,” I said, pulling the shades up in the windows. “It’s nice to see your smile this morning.” Drika, who was sixty-two, had been dealing with chronic pain in the last year.
“Thank you, sweetheart. How are you?” She still had her head inside the glass counter. She wore a yellow bandana tied around her short white hair and big silver hoop earrings. A big-hearted woman with a Dutch heritage, Drika was a great baker and the reason the café was so popular.
And that I’d gained twenty pounds.
“I’m all right,” I said, in a fake cheery tone. Truth was, I hadn’t slept much last night. I’d sat up in bed with a plate of fruit tartelettes, thinking of ways of breaking my solitude. Lewis had left me last year, but I hadn’t gone on a single date since then.
I was the only openly gay man in town. The odds were stacked high against me ever having another boyfriend.
“And you?” I asked Drika. Had to remain hopeful. Had to think positive.
“Well, it’s such a beautiful morning. Did you see the color of the sun? It’s gonna be a hot one.”
As I walked around the counter, I pulled my sweater off and tied it around my waist. It was a habit I’d picked up—a way of hiding my weight gain. I had a flash of the old days, when a regular weekday had meant putting on a stiff business suit, sitting in meetings all day long, and then going to the gym for a grueling work-out. Nowadays, I came to work in plain tees and blue jeans and had stopped working out. Had I given up on myself since Lewis left me? Sometimes I wondered what the point of trying to stay thin was.
I pushed my bag in the space beneath the cash register and forced a smile. “How long have you been here?”
Drika was arranging the cheese croissants on the top shelf in the display counter. “You know me, I’m up with the birds.” Drika had offered me friendship when I’d needed it the most. She also had her nose in the town’s every current event, so I was blessed to have her as a business partner. She and I shared equal parts in the Frontier Café. “You didn’t have to come in until seven,” she said. “It’s gonna be a slow day, ’cause there’s that police convention in Forked River Creek, so the boys aren’t gonna show this morning. They’re all over there.”
“All? You mean, the six active cops?” I went back to setting up the cash. “Don’t tell anyone the po-po is gone, or we might have a riot on our hands,” I joked. “Anyway, there’s all the country festival stuff to prep.” I shot her a quick look. “Thought I’d get an early start on everything.” I couldn’t wait to take refuge in the kitchen, where I could hide out, undisturbed and unseen. She probably knew it, too.
“Shall I pour us a coffee?” Drika pressed my shoulder. “You look like you need one.”
Grateful for her small gesture of understanding, I nodded and shut the cash drawer. “That’d be great, Drika. Thanks.”
For a few wonderful minutes, we both leaned back against the counter, sipping our dark-roast coffee, sharing a peaceful moment. I surveyed the room, recalling those afternoons I’d spent sifting through newspapers and old photographs in St-Clovis’s one-room library archives, searching for those images that now adorned the Frontier’s walls. I’d wanted to give the people here a sense of history, as simple as that history was, so that every time they came in, they felt proud to be a St-Clovis resident. It was a farming community and I’d done a good job giving this place a real charming rural feel.
“Well,” I said, setting my cup down, “I should get started.”
Drika gave me a tender look. “You okay, brown-eyes?”
“I’m gonna go stuff my face with bread rolls.” I pushed on the kitchen door, stepping back into my safe zone.