Every coffee shop needs three things: black coffee, free Wi-Fi and a hot barista. The trifecta for all our caffeine-addicted, lust-driven and connectivity issues.
Perfection is not easy to find.
That place off Mackle Street has spotty internet. The cafe down on the corner of Humble Way and 4th has burnt coffee and a stream of loud teens. The place a street off of that—Cloud Coffee and Tea—is so quiet you’ll know every bit of drama between the two baristas before an hour is out.
The discovery of the century is this narrow cafe called Tall, Dark & Handsome—or TDH to us regulars. The windows have navy blue, yet sheer, curtains that both let in the light but stop nosy window gazers from seeing computer screens. The hum of activity, while just a murmur, is enough to give a sense of cover. The tables are small but rounded, hard wood yet curved comfortably, obviously meant to entice a person to sit for long lengths of time because they don’t numb backsides or leave lines of pain behind the knees.
Small shelves, each filled with a spattering of books, are scattered throughout, some of the tables having them built into their single center legs. The unwritten rule is you take one, you leave another. One kind, though likely anal, older gentleman has taken it upon himself to keep those shelves sorted. There’s a fantasy and sci-fi table, another with romance and paranormals and two more with dramas and thrillers. The non-fiction fills the largest shelves by the bakery window.
The coffee beans are ground by hand in-house, the occasional humming of that pestle no where near as ear-splittingly painful as the machines in other places. The baristas make hot cocoa from scratch as well, their pots of melted chocolate and warm milk a constant aphrodisiac.
They wouldn’t be, if it weren’t for the lean specimen of male beauty always standing behind that stove. He wears no name tag, though his apron is as black as his hair and his coffee-flavored eyes are as hypnotizing as the real thing. His smiles are brief, his attention briefer. His hands move deftly in their work, skills that likely translate well into the bedroom. His book bag is filled with computer and textbooks when he leaves at noon and the occasional overheard conversation puts him in law school.
A man like that is sure to be attached. His ability to be an ardent lover a byproduct of all that unwavering focus and intense ambition. How he must feel, hot and willing, sweet and strong, moving over his partners…
It’s nothing but passing fancy, a distant crush. Yet time and again I am there with my laptop and notes, buying coffee and scone from a barista whose name takes a month to discover.
Lukas. I overhear another call him that one day almost five weeks in.
He begins to get my order ready before I can reach the counter. His movements are forever quick and purposeful and though I try to catch his eye he never does have time for me. Which is just as well. He is pleasant to look at, at least. An even brighter spot in the goodness that is TDH.
I finish a trilogy and five hundred cups of coffee in that year. Though a handful of evening hot cocoas are scattered in there just so I could watch Lukas rub his hands in a way I wouldn’t mind done over my body.
It is May again when I finally find the courage to speak more than pleasantries about the weather. I ask him if he’s graduated. He seems startled, then shakes his head. One more year. I ask him where he will go after that. Wherever he can find a place. I nod.
It is but the first of many small interactions. I refuse to mention the weather any longer. I want him to know I pay attention. So I ask him about legalities, claiming to have a character who is a lawyer. He actually seems intrigued to discover I write novels. Begins to ask questions back. Once or twice a week. Then more often.
I outline a new novel with a lawyer as lead.
One evening, long after he’d left his morning shift, he comes back through the door. Sits on the other side of my table, pulls free his laptop and sets it up counter to mine. It’s crowded. It makes sense for him to choose that particular spot. However, I’m overly conscious of the romance books in the table’s leg between us. We murmur hellos. And we work. Perhaps he gets something done.
I do not.
Two nights later he sits at my table again—it’s not as crowded.
When I stretch and eye the pastries, he asks me what I’m working on. I tell him and ask the same. A paper, of course. I feel like an idiot, but he does not seem to mind.
The following week he requests, if I have the time, would I edit his paper. Grammar mostly. I tell him I can handle that. He turns his laptop around. I touch the same keys his fingers have touched. It makes me more excited than it should, my nerves making it difficult to read his words. His work is clean, though his voice dry. Expectedly so, for a lawyer is not a wordsmith.
When I look up, he’s reading off my screen. I stop him, murmuring that the story isn’t finished. He just grins and charms me into agreeing to let him have it when it’s complete.
It’s not until I leave that night that I realize his writing may be dry, but his speech convincing. For a lawyer uses more than words to get his way. I shudder with a want that burns its way down to my groin, and can’t help but wonder what he might be like beyond Tall, Dark and Handsome.
Summer’s shorts give way to jeans, but he looks just as decadent, carrying the smell of chocolate with him wherever he goes. And in that autumn rush of fresh classes and new deadlines, I help him two evenings a week to memorize cases and their significance. I learn with him, laughing at the stories he repeats from his favorite teacher.
I mention one day that he seems to be filling in, my eyes lingering on his arms, at the defined muscles that I swear had not been there the first time I’d laid eyes on him. It isn’t until after the words leave my mouth that I realize it marked me as paying more attention to physique than a friend likely should. Lukas does not call me on it. Instead he changes the subject with a shrug and a misdirect. He’s quite good at that.
The next week a heat wave blows over the city, summer’s last hurrah. Lukas hangs his shirt off the back of the cafe’s chair and wears nothing but a muscle shirt the rest of the evening. I have trouble paying attention to our conversation, my mind continually wandering to thoughts about those strong arms wrapped around me.
The week after that, he shows in his winter coat, a damp chill in the air though it’s months until snow will begin to dust the streets. The coffee tastes better in the cold. Like a warm shot, sparking synapses in my brain, giving me the push I need to finish that book about the lawyer.
After, I’m nervous to show Lukas that finished draft so I stall, murmuring edits, edits, edits. I can tell he doesn’t believe me, but he’s nice enough not to push. Though…he always has that look about him, as if he’s hurt, but doesn’t want to say.
He’s no longer a passing fancy. Christmas proves that when he brings me in a gift—notebooks from Spain. He has family there. I debate whether or not to give him the present I’d chosen for him for it seems too personal, too invasive. But he convinces me he will not be insulted or think less of me one cold December evening. I tell him I’d left the gift at home, thinking to postpone the inevitable for another meeting later on, but he gets up and has his coat thrown about his shoulders before I finish speaking.
Then he stands there looking expectantly. Which way, he wants to know. Which way to my apartment.
I almost drop my laptop in my nervousness as I gather my things. He goes and chats with a coworker, grabbing us two hot cocoas for the walk, yet his gaze never leaves me, not even when he reaches into his pocket to pull out the bills to pay. He must have read my mind, knowing I am considering running out the door without him, losing myself in the dirty, wet tracks within the snow.
Outside, I turn homeward bound, overly conscious of Lukas by my side, his presence making me as warm as I’d been sitting inside TDH. He leads the conversation smoothly, leaving me little room to panic as I answer question after question about the next novel I’m outlining. A sequel to the one about the lawyer. Then I have to cease speaking about it because my thoughts wander toward my gift and all the possible ways Lukas might receive it.
At my building, he holds the door open for me, a smile hovering on his lips, his dark hair flowing over his forehead. I drop my eyes, hoping to hide my desire, but I fear I may be far too late in this game for that. He had been untouchable. Now…
My keys shake as I put them into the lock, the noise of it embarrassing as I struggle with the handle in a way I’ve never done before. Lukas does not take the keys or turn the handle or push the door. No, instead, he leans closer to me and touches my elbow and reminds me how cold it is, giving me an excuse for my tremors.
Inside, he strips off his coat and tosses it neatly over my couch. He does not make a show over looking through my apartment. In fact, he seems disinterested in my home, his gaze zeroing in on me once more, as if I am some sort of magnet tugging on him. My heart beats abnormally loud as I pull out his gift. Somehow my hands shake even worse than at the door.
Lukas pulls the lopsided bow apart and rips through the gold wrapping. I stare at his face, waiting for his reaction. He pauses, then his brows draw down. A book. My book, I clarify. I don’t tell him it’s the one with the lawyer, but I see the realization in his eyes. He flips it open, something I wish he wouldn’t do, but stopping him now is impossible.
He freezes when he sees I’ve signed one of the front pages in black ink. I watch as his eyes flick back and forth, back and forth across my words. My nerves cause me to fidget. I put my hands in my pockets, then pull them out again. I shift my weight, almost in time with his eye movements. I begin to regret putting more than a quick thank you.
Then a curve pulls along his lips, growing, growing as he reaches the bottom of the page. He slowly lifts his gaze to mine and stares at me wordlessly, something dark and deep and passionate there. I can scarcely draw breath. The snap of the book closing makes me jump and in the scant second I glance downward, Lukas has crossed the distance between us and pressed his lips against mine.
I gasp and stiffen in shock, but do not pull away. And in the next seconds, I am falling against him, climbing him, loving him, the book he still holds digging into my back.
The evening is a blur and yet I memorize every moment. Pieces of a puzzle finally coming together as we tug and yank at our clothes, rub and squeeze one another in total abandonment of any chance of platonic friendship. This would be all or nothing.
We lay awake, fingers drawing endless circles against sticky skin, and speak things never dared within view of an audience. We murmur and chuckle, we kiss and cuddle, we delight in discovering one another. I don’t tell him I love him, but I think it.
In the days following, he makes it more and more obvious he wants us to be all and not nothing. He takes me to dinner; wears his best clothes. Walks me through the Christmas lights after a fresh snow, his gloved fingers ever finding mine. Kisses me under mistletoe at a party I am taken to as a plus one.
Every morning, I still see him at Tall, Dark and Handsome where he makes my drink without a word and waves me off without letting me pay. Sometimes he asks me what I’m working on. Most times he already knows. He will come around when the shop isn’t busy and sit with me for a few moments. He likes to flex his arms and chuckle when my eyes are drawn to the muscles that first gave me away.
Those arms are around me at night more often than not. Sometimes at his place. Sometimes at mine. I feel as if I live in a dream where passing fancy becomes reality, where hope grows legs and walks around with a vocabulary larger than my own. I worry though, as the cold weather blows itself out and spring approaches yet again. One more year, he’d said. And that year is almost up. A date in July hanging over my head as much as it hangs over his.
Nothing could still exist. Leaving me with bitter memories of a coffee shop once perfect for my writing where I can no longer splice two words together.
And indeed, the closer to Lukas finishing school, the more his behavior alters. He kisses me slightly longer, but pauses more before he speaks. He avoids talking about the future, his misdirection becoming more seamless as he wins arguments with his peers. Sometimes I don’t even notice until much, much later.
I prepare myself for the worst as he prepares himself for his life-altering exam and a subsequent job within his field. I have no doubt he will pass and I’ve told him as much. He merely nods and doesn’t look up from his studies, his brow furrowed and his shoulders tense. It surprises me that he is so concerned, for I’ve never seen such tension within him.
He fades away the closer the date becomes. Buried under the burden of a single grade of pass or fail that could dictate the direction of his life. I allow it, thinking it will make the agony of losing him easier.
It doesn’t help. I think it just prolongs things.
Lukas calls me up when he gets the news. Tells me to meet him at Tall, Dark and Handsome. He’s moving, he tells me between one sip and another. Not just physically. He’s moving on with a degree, a job title and an apartment larger than the one he now sleeps in. Claims his new place has an office and a little more space throughout. Says his new job is in a hotspot, replete with work, and that the attorneys will be perfect to watch and learn from. He even laughs self-consciously when I mention the cost and adds that there is a coffee shop just two blocks off the apartment that he’s sure he could get hired on at in the evenings to make up the cost-of-living difference. He cringes then, a quick flash of expression that I only catch because I’m watching him closely.
He has it all figured out then. I know what’s coming next. My coffee tastes like bile. I wish I’d asked for whip cream; maybe the sweetness would counteract what would come.
But he’s quiet. Swallows. Doesn’t say the words I expect. Doesn’t say anything at all. The word coward pops up into my mind, one letter at a time. C-O-W-A-R-D. I shake like I did the day we first slept together, but this time in an agonized fury. He could not give me the decency of a proper ending?
I keep drinking my coffee, my throat too tight to say anything. He drinks his. Maybe for the same reason. That helps, when I realize it might be as hard on him as it is on me. The fury washes away.
I stand, congratulating him once again. Kiss him on his cheek, ignoring the way he starts to turn his head. I discover I can’t say good-bye. So I say good luck. Then I go home. And I cry where no one can see me, into a pillow that still smells of him that I promise myself I’ll wash in the morning.
But the evening minutes tick away, counted in individual seconds by my numb brain. I watch TV, but don’t register what happens. I write, but the sentences are unintelligible. I am in an exhausted stupor when there comes a knock on my door in the middle of the night. I figure it’s the neighbors wanting me to turn the television down. I turn it off and go to answer, moving slowly to adjust my sweats.
It’s Lukas. Alcohol on his breath. Not his usual vice of choice.
My mind is still sluggish, but lips form an O of confusion.
He stares at me, but the words are not much in the waiting. You had always been the one, he claims. You had always been the one to start things. To put yourself out there. You spoke to me, asked me about myself before I even dared speak to you. You were brave enough to write your feelings, to open yourself like I couldn’t figure out how to. So now I’m terrified that the reason you haven’t said a word about this is because you don’t care. And if that’s the case, if you don’t care…
My heart beats too fast to feel. I’m strumming like a hummingbird, my brain slow to catch-up.
But I do, he says. I want you to come with me. I want to go, but I don’t want to go without you.
Words. Words I’d been dreaming of. Words I’d written in one way or another a hundreds times over in a hundred stories.
I reach out past the threshold and grip him by the fabric of his shirt and yank him against me. Strong arms he’d cultivated to impress me wrap about my shoulders. Fingers, of which I’d discovered time and time again how deft they truly were, thread through my hair and catch my face. Lips, tasting of cheap beer and fresh heartache stemming from fear, find mine over and over, proving once and for all that it is as much all for Lukas as it is for me.
He had been a coward that moment in TDH, but not nearly in the way I’d thought. I admit to myself though, that I had been as much of a coward as he, assuming the worst because fear of rejection overwhelmed sense. No more. We are, neither of us, cowards any more.
He pulls away from me for just a moment, long enough to shut the door and smile. There’s a coffee shop, not two blocks off his new apartment. Our new apartment. He’d found it for me. Not for him.
I end up hating the place.
Yet, I’ve discovered I’d been wrong, for burnt coffee, spotty internet and unattractive baristas don’t stop the words from coming. A coffee shop needs only one thing: to be near enough to the one I love.
~ ~ ~
I don’t normally write in present tense; it doesn’t lend itself to long stories in my opinion. Nor do I generally do anything nonfantastical, but I really liked the way this story came out. Mostly I used it to play with words. Plus, it’s always fun to play with the way we falsely place our own perspectives and fears on other people’s motivations, makes for fun misdirects as long as they don’t last too long. Thanks for reading :)
Edit: Forgot to add that this was a question prompt as well: If you could be anywhere in the world right now, where would you be? As you can see, I was thinking about coffee when I wrote the story. :)
(EDIT: PROMO IS NOW OVER) There’s a promo going on this weekend as well. 100 authors of fantasy and science-fiction each made a book available for only 0.99$. Please go check them out :) (Click image)