The Spanish steps

What happens when a bartender creates a drink and a writer gets free reign to use it in a story? Pull up a bar stool and settle in for a drink and a tale…  

It had been so romantic at the start. The picnics and the poetry and the way she had been so charmed by the things he did when he thought no one was looking… like how he doodled tiny pigs doing human things on the sides of his notebooks. When he had asked her, after two months of dating, if she wanted to spend the whole summer in a cabin in the woods she had said yes so definitively she surprised even herself. And it was romantic.

The bag packing, the long drive out, even the planning beforehand had been fun: poring over maps and AirBnB, giving up nights out to drink gin and Aperol at home and pinching pennies so that they could save enough to spend a full summer with just them, him writing poetry and her painting. He packed up his pens and more notebooks than she could imagine, and she filled her suitcase with paint splattered shirts and shorts, plus bear spray and a hatchet, which was less romantic but made her feel safe.

The unpacking had been less fun, less like the light-hearted romantic comedy she had assumed her summer would be. There had been a few fights, but mostly there were just terse silences as they bustled about the 500 square foot cabin moving things around and then moving them again and again until finally they had found a place and a system for their things. She was kept up at night by the silence, the dull roar of it. Living in the city had taught her to block out trucks and bar fights, but the silence was something else entirely. The silence and the tension. But after an agonizing two weeks in which they very much doubted that knowing each other for two months was long enough to decide to spend a summer in isolation together, they spent a night toasting marshmallows and drinking hot chocolate spiked with Baileys. In the morning they had woken up and grinned at each other, and the fun had started up again.

 

They developed a routine; he would get up and make a pot of tea with mint and stinging nettle leaves from the forest, fill a thermos up with it, and go for a long walk in the woods to clear his head among the trees. She would start her day slower, rising later and drinking her tea from an old enamel mug, and starting a fire in the dusty stone fireplace to warm up the cold old cabin. On rainy days she would look out from inside and trace the shapes she found in the condensation on the window.

Then she would paint – mostly watercolors – often self-portraits, but sometimes the landscape and the trees. She would lose herself in it, the rhythm of the brush stokes and the calmness of the silence, the way she had when she was in art school and hadn’t felt since. Sometimes she would secretly sketch him as he wrote, curled up in an ancient wicker chair near the fire, writing furiously all the time, or while he was sleeping midday in bed, after they had been together.

She had never imagined herself living in the woods; she tended to be a woman who was comfortable in the city, who got energy from the hustle, who liked to exercise in the sterility of the gym. But he dragged her out of that and made her get her hands dirty. She made pies the way her grandmother had, with lard instead of butter in the crust, and filled them with blueberries he had gathered in the woods. She gardened, and was downright gleeful when the tomatoes had started to blush red. When the deer came and ate nearly all of them she swore she would shoot them all, before collapsing into tears that were so unlike her even she wasn’t quite sure what was happening. But for the most part she was happy.

They were happy.

She had thought.

She hadn’t seen it coming at all. The sit down, the distance, the talk about how different they were, how hard he had tried for it to work, how he just couldn’t see a future with her.

And then he left. He went back to the hustle. To the dirt of the city which seemed so much dirtier somehow than country dirt. He took with him his pens and notebooks and half written poems that he hadn’t been able to finish because she hadn’t been a good enough muse. Because he hadn’t loved her enough to complete any. Her notebooks were filled with his face, and his were full of nothing. That was the saddest part to her.

So she stayed. She didn’t want to go back to her real life. She wasn’t ready to. She couldn’t quite muster the courage, and anyways her apartment was still sublet. She had always been the one to quit. She had always been the one to say goodbye, she had always been the one to walk away when things went wrong. She had never felt that slick of abandonment, the sadness of being so entirely alone. And she stayed in it. She painted from it. She felt it in a way she rarely allowed herself, and she used it.

When the final month was up she packed her bags and had a girlfriend come and pick her up and drive her back to the real world. There was a letter from him waiting for her when she arrived back. She read all her other mail, paid her bills, unpacked completely, before she allowed herself to sit and just stare at it. Then she tucked it away, not quite ready to see what was inside.

Over the next couple weeks the parade started. The friends she hadn’t seen in ages came by, tactfully avoiding asking her about “the guy”. They wanted to see her paintings, to tell her that they had missed her, to try to pull her out of her heartbroken funk. She didn’t say much; she just drank gin and Aperol and let them do the awkward dance of trying comforting her. The only one who made any difference was a friend who ran a gallery in Gastown, who took pictures of her paintings and said she would see if her boss would be interested in showing her work. She couldn’t guarantee anything of course, but a week later she got the phone call. She had been accepted, and could she bring some of her work down?

She had been dreaming for years about this; about people looking at her work, about people buying it, and putting it up in their homes. Today her paintings covered the walls, all in white frames on the crisp white walls letting the bright colours of the forest come to life in a very different way then she had expected them to. On opening night she watched from a corner as people interacted with them, noting who stopped in front of which paintings, if they were smiling, whether they inquired about prices. Mostly they looked happy. So she left, on a good note, and went to a beautiful bar down the street, with black and white tiled flooring and a long twisty branch hanging from the ceiling. She asked the bartender to make something with Aperol and he brought her a drink filled with gin and strawberries and bubbles and she drank it slowly and deliberately. When she got home she took the unopened letter he had sent her, put it in an old cast iron pan and burnt it. She washed the pan, and hummed a song she didn’t know the name of. She went to bed. In the morning it was raining, and she traced the shapes she found in the condensation on the window. She smiled.

ABOUT THE BARTENDER Shaun Layton is the Head Barman at L’Abattoir in Gastown. Regarded as one of Vancouver’s premier barmen, Shaun has refined his palate via some of the world’s most renowned bars and lounges. His adventures on the cocktail trail have seen him competing in the U.K. and France, touring distilleries and cellars throughout Europe and the United States and participating in internationally recognized seminars and bar education programs. Shaun also runs his own bar consulting company, designing programs and training staff for small and big restaurants in Vancouver and as far away at St.John’s, Newfoundland. He is also a writer for Scout Magazine. Shaun was recognized in 2012 as the Bartender of The Year by Vancouver Magazine.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR Born in DC and raised in Toronto, Claire Lassam is a pastry chef, blogger, photographer and writer based in Vancouver, BC. These days, when she's not doing any of the aforementioned, she's most likely hiking, kayaking, painting or making crazy amounts of jam, all while listening to Pokey Lafarge. You can find Claire on the web at Liviasweets  or in the flesh at various markets around the city, where she sells her handmade confections.