The Hundred Loves of Juliet
Alaska in January is a fairy tale, with frost-rimed branches glittering in the pale moonlight, like lace woven by a snow maiden. Icicles on rooftops twinkle like Christmas frozen in time, and I swear the spiraling snowflakes beckon to me as they fall. Fairy tale indeed. Or at least it’s a great first impression for my first evening here.
At thirty years old and after too many uninspiring years as an assignment reporter in the Los Angeles bureau of The Wall Street Journal, I’m finally chasing my dream of writing a novel. An actual book of my own! Not just telling other people’s stories. I’ve been jotting down short stories ever since I was a teenager—bits and pieces of a novel—and now I finally have time to figure out how it all comes together.
Truth be told, I need this. My recent past—hell, the last ten years—are best swept into a fire pit and doused with gasoline. The death of my two golden retrievers, one right after the other. My Pied Piper of a soon-to-be-ex-husband, who attracted interns and affairs like rats at cheese orgies. And my so-called best friend, who stole the promotion that was supposed to be mine.
However, she unwittingly did me a favor. If I’d been promoted to columnist, I wouldn’t have left. If she’d been a true friend, I’d still be stuck in a nowhere life, married to a no-good husband.
Instead, she betrayed me, and by doing so, she handed me the match I needed. I lit it and burned the past down, metaphorically speaking.
Goodbye, old Helene Janssen.
Hello, new and better me.
My mom always says that everything happens for a reason, and I obstinately hold fast to that belief. So when I saw super cheap plane tickets to Alaska (tourists don’t usually visit here in early January) plus an “artist’s cottage” for rent in a quaint fishing town, I saw it as a sign that this was where I was supposed to go to begin work on my novel, and my future. And I think I was right. Being here in this winter wonderland is already helping me feel better about my odds going forward.
I hum to myself as I lock the door on the cottage and head down the street in search of dinner. It’s only half past six, but it’s been dark for hours now, which will take some getting used to. So will walking through the snow in these clunky boots, although it’s better than driving. I’ve got a car stashed in the garage, but the trip this afternoon from the airport to the cottage was harrowing enough for one day. I’m used to driving down sunny, palm-tree-lined boulevards, and I don’t want to use up the rest of my daily allotment of luck on the icy streets of Ryba Harbor.
Luckily, my rental is only a few blocks from the picturesque downtown. On the corner, a cute, nautical-themed bookstore cozies up to a little souvenir shop for the few tourists who venture away (in summer) from Anchorage and Ketchikan. Wood smoke billows out of a barbecue place, scenting the air with brisket and ribs. There’s also a record store (I didn’t know they still existed, and the fact that they have one here delights me), several bakeries, and a coffee shop.
When I see a bar called The Frosty Otter, though, I know that is where I want to be on my first night in Ryba Harbor. It reminds me of a saloon from the Wild West, but with an Alaskan flair, the blue paint weathered by snow and salt from the roads. A wooden statue of a bearded fur trapper stands outside the door, rifle in one arm and beer stein in another, and ragtime piano music jangles from speakers inside.
Three flannel-clad lumberjack types charge amiably through the front door ahead of me, laughing at jokes in that deep-throated, belly-shaking way of people who’ve known one another for years. I slip in through the door behind them.
Inside, The Frosty Otter is everything I hoped it would be. Two-thirds of the tables are full, and the patrons are as eclectic as the decor. The lumberjacks go straight for the far corner to sit beneath a large mural of a grumpy-looking otter. Along the back wall, a cluster of older women who look like kindly grandmothers knit beneath faded twentieth-century advertisements boasting Wild Alaskan Salmon! The Klondike! and a cartoon of a giant king crab wearing a gilded crown (I think that might be my favorite). Most of the others here are men—probably those who work at the nearby seafood processing plant—but there are also a few families, the kids eating chicken fingers while Mom and Dad have a beer.
“Welcome to The Frosty Otter,” a spunky, white-haired waitress says. “You new around here?”
I laugh. “Is it that obvious?”
“Well, it’s a small town and I know everybody. Plus your hair is that pretty deep gold that happens when brown meets the sun. Unlike the rest of us pasty and vitamin D–deprived folk.” She winks. “I’m Betsy, owner of this joint. Sit anywhere you like, and I’ll bring ya your first drink on the house. What’ll you have?”
“A local beer, maybe a pale ale?”
“Comin’ right up.”
I find a smaller booth along the wall where I can see everyone in the room, and I slide onto its cracked pleather seat. A giant moose head trophy hangs above me, and it’s both impressive and a bit gruesome at the same time. Still, it fits into the over-the-top decor of The Frosty Otter just right, and I can see why this place is so busy.
Betsy brings me an ale from an Alaskan brewery.
“Your watch is way off, hon,” she says, gesturing at my wrist. “You need to reset it, and to local time.”
I smile and shake my head. “Can’t. It’s broken.”
It’s not even a particularly impressive watch, just a standard blue and silver dive watch. It used to belong to my dad, and it stopped working after a deep-sea scuba expedition. But he never bothered to fix it, just kept wearing it broken. “Time doesn’t matter,” Dad liked to tell me and my sister, “because if you live with one eye fixed on the end, you’ve already lost.”
It’s a lesson I haven’t always been good about following, but I plan to now. Which is why I wear his watch like this. It was broken when Dad used to wear it, and it was broken when I inherited it. The watch might not keep time, but it’s a good reminder for how I want to live: both eyes on the present.
Another group of boisterous men pours into the restaurant. The room breaks out into cheers as the seven of them enter, and people lift their glasses to toast their arrival.
“Who are they?” I ask.
“King crab fishermen from the Alacrity,” Betsy says. “Every time they’re back in port, they come here to celebrate their haul.”
“Fun for them, but why is everyone else cheering?”
Betsy smirks. “Self-interest. The Alacrity’s captain, Sebastien, is legendarily generous. He buys a round of drinks for the whole restaurant whenever he’s here. Speaking of, I better get back to the bar, ’cuz orders are about to flood in.
I thank her for the beer and settle in to people watch. I take a sip—it has a lovely hint of honey in the finish—at the same time the tallest of the crab fishermen takes off his coat and turns toward the bar, his silhouette framed by the light cast from the gold glow of the bulbs overhead.
Déjà vu whispers against the back of my neck like winter’s breath, prickling my skin and tingling down my spine. I freeze.
I know him.
“A round for everyone, on me,” Sebastien says, and The Frosty Otter erupts in another cheer.
Only I am quiet. Because I’m staring at his profile—one I’ve known for too long in my own head. When I was being bullied in middle school, I made up an imaginary best friend to help me through it. And then I kept him around and he grew up with me, even though I should have given up a juvenile idea like that forever ago.
He’s also been the star of every short story I’ve ever written.
Now he’s standing right here. In the flesh. It’s hard to tell how old he is, because he has one of those faces that’s impossible to pinpoint. But if the inconceivable is true—that this man is the same as the one I conjured in my mind—he’s about thirty, like me.
And his features are all so familiar. That mess of dark hair and those quiet blue eyes that seem to hold a locked icebox of secrets. That J-shaped knife scar along his jawline, which matches a vignette I wrote about a bar fight in Portugal. Those shoulders, proud yet heavy, as if the man to whom they belong has seen a little too much of the world, yet survived.