She drops the casserole dish, cuts her finger when she leans down to follow it. But the gasp isn’t hers. It’s… the sharp-edged woman standing in the doorway. Maybe that’s an odd way to describe someone, but the first thing Dawn thinks is that the lines of her, barely hidden beneath corduroy and denim, are sharper than the wicked curves and slivers of the now shattered porcelain at her feet.
She’s ashamed to say, something instinctive making her blush, that her eyes only turn to her daughter after taking in black hair, tan features, and startling violet eyes. Her gaze slides down the prominent tendon in the other woman’s neck, falls into the hollow of her collar bones, skitters to startled again as her daughter’s face shifts into eye line at the other woman’s chest.
Her daughter’s left eye swelling shut, a vivid black and blue blooming along her right jaw, dried blood she tried and failed to wipe away, crusting around her nostrils.
“Jennifer,” Dawn sighs. “Jennifer.”
Jen tries to keep her chin up, haughty, so brave, but she falters, chin to her chest, as Dawn’s hands brush gently against her bruised jaw line. She has to coach that beloved face to the light, feels one of the many sharp shards in this room piercing her heart as she gets a good view of the damage. Even if it wasn’t swelled nearly shut, she thinks Jen would be squinting to see past the blood filling her left eye. Her nose is broken. Again. The jaw is just bruised but –
Jen flinches back with a cry as her finger barely brushes along the bottom of her bruised eye. Dawn’s sad to say they’ve been through just this scene so many times now that she can make out where the swelled eye is falling into an even darker purple beneath the eye socket. It’ll take a few more hours to fully bloom but: “You’ve broken your cheekbone again.”
Jen just nods. She’d have known that for herself.
“What – ”
But what’s the point? They’ve been through this so many times. And Jennifer lied at first. And at first Dawn even believed her. Fights at school. A mugging. A terrible fall down a flight of stairs. Biking accident. “A scuffle.” Jen actually used that exact phrase once. Dawn often thinks of that as the pinpoint, the moment she finally stopped even trying to believe all the bullshit spewing from her daughter’s mouth. There were no fights at school. The police never did find that mugger. No one saw her fall down the school stairwell. The bike in the garage has flat tires and a rusty chain. “A scuffle,” might actually be the closest answer to the truth she’s ever gotten. Intentionally vague.
“And who are you?” she hears her bitterness ask.
But despite the fact that she’s somewhat infamous for her temper, feared even, the woman in the doorway merely smiles.
“This is Layla,” her daughter answers for her. “She’s a student at U,” she enthuses.
The only U in town. Top tier. Maybe why she looks so exotic. An international student?
“Layla Mubarak,” answers that question.
She can see where her coloring might be Middle Eastern, northern Africa. But not quite. The eyes, for one thing. And even that particular shade of caramel seems more Mediterranean, even Central European.
“I ran into your daughter on my way home,” she answer the question Dawn’s ashamed she was too distracted to ask. The lovely caramel skin, but even more the hint of an accent hiding beneath the syllables of her name, the low-toned voice scratching over those same syllables.
But Dawn forces her mind free, peers closely now at those striking eyes, searching past the Skyflower shade to hints of the person beneath, a spark of intelligence or malice, good humor or a soul frigid and barren, emptiness. What she finds is… calm, an infinite calm in that gaze. Maybe a spark of amusement. And beneath, a mind that misses not much of anything. Those very eyes may distract those around her, but Dawn gets the sense very little escapes their notice, that she is not easily distracted from her distant observation of all the chaos surrounding her personal island of still and deep.
“Lucky accident?” she hears herself murmur.
The woman steps closer. Though Dawn is closer to six feet than five, she’s peering up by the time the woman’s in arm’s reach. Jennifer is positively dwarfed between them.
“While I can’t deny her actions were foolhardy,” the woman murmurs, “I think your daughter may have saved a man’s life.”
I am twenty-nine years old.
I have never been kissed. I have never been touched in a way that wasn’t platonic, familial, or, occasionally, drunk and sleazy.
If I died tomorrow there is no one in the world who would mourn beyond a passing, a frown, sad eyes for a few sad days, but then they’d move on, forget me, they have already forgotten me, so my death will only be a momentary reminder, a brief flash of memory that I did exists, but now I am gone, and the instant prickle of regret at that, the polite sadness that a life, any life, is gone. We must mourn when someone dies. Anyone really. A co-worker. A co-worker’s mother we never met. Our sister. Our friend we haven’t seen in ages but we have far-off polaroid memories of them when they were small and we were small and we ran together and there was laughter and the stupidity of youth and it means something that we enjoyed that time together.
So maybe a half-dozen people will cry. Family. They have to cry.
And maybe a baker’s dozen besides will say to the void: what a shame it is that she passed, how young, what a waste, whatever.
But then I will cease.
I will not even exist as a memory, or a thought of a person.
It hardly seems a tragedy to me. I am already so little. I am a wisp of a woman. I am mere air and a handful of letters scattered around the country, deep in desk drawers where they’ve been forgotten, crinkled, smeared. They mean nothing. I am nothing. I have been so very, very careful to be nothing.
And now what?
Twenty-nine years of nothing and no one.
Twenty-nine years of going through the motions. You see my hands move. You see me sludging along on the sidewalk. You see me smile, but my eyes say, “No. Nothing. Who are you? Who are you to me? You must be nothing too. For a nothing can love nothing. It’s too dangerous. It’s too daring. It’s too too. Too close to something real. To close to something that would make me a woman and not a wisp and women bleed, women cry, women hurt like no man has ever hurt and I think sometimes that I am the only person in the world who truly understands pain, who has truly internalized the experience and made it my everything, just one giant, pulsing pain was I and then… Now I am gone. Now I am not.” But I smile so you will see a women. And not be scared of wisps.
I like my coffee hot, dark, and no frills. In this day and age, that makes me the eccentric. There’s only one place I know in town where “double macchiato” means exactly that: two shots of espresso with just a dab of foamed milk on top.
I’m not giving them points for creativity on the name, but…
That’s actually what I like about them. No frills. No attitude. No hot air, puffed chests, feeling important in our business suits and silk ties, sounding out some long-winded order with made-up words that sound vaguely Italian but never really were. Frappa-what? Just…
“You’re not Joe.”
The woman behind the counter is… beautiful, I decide. In a quiet way you wouldn’t notice if you weren’t seeing her first thing in the morning, in the bleary haze before your caffeine hit, lit from behind by the lights over the chalkboard menus, smiling back at you just as sleepy as you feel.
“I am, actually,” she says. “Jo,” she adds.
“You’ve lost weight, Joe,” I deadpan.
The usual Joe is a guy in his sixties, grey hair still thick and curly in a ponytail, bulging biceps and a bugling belly.
The woman looks too tired to laugh, but she smiles at me.
“Thanks,” she says.
“Can I get a double macchiato?”
She throws the towel she was carrying over a shoulder and bangs and mutters for a minute behind the espresso machine. I’m going to be devastated if she gives me a cup of hot milk with hardly any coffee. I’m prone to instant infatuation and it’s going to ruin my morning if the beautiful woman in the coffee shop doesn’t know good coffee from chain store brainwashing. There’s a high pitched hiss of steam, the woman pulls the towel back from her shoulder to wipe down the machine, and she hands me –
A demitasse cup.
My smile might still be sleepy – I sip – but it’s genuine.
I slide my five across the counter, and she slides my change back.
I slide it back again, to the tip jar.
“Jo,” I nod to her – I sip. “That’s a good cup.”
It’s a good morning.
I go back the next morning.
And the next.
That’s not actually unusual. I know enough about finance to know that buying myself a cup of coffee every morning from Plain Jo is delaying my retirement by a half decade, but it’s worth it. And now I get five minutes with a beautiful woman every morning too, at no extra charge.
“So where is Joe?” I finally venture on Thursday. He hasn’t been in all week, at least when I’ve been here. It used to be a beer belly and a bellow that greeted me every morning. Now it’s… this.
I like ‘this’ better, Jo, but I’m still curious. Joe was a nice enough sort of guy, even if he didn’t put a little extra shot in my step.
“Joe had a family situation of some sort. Moving to the Carolinas somewhere,” Jo shrugs. “Didn’t give me much notice,” she mutters.
“Notice?” I ask. But then it finally strikes me, what should have been obvious probably since the first day. I’m an observant person, in general. I’m especially observant of beautiful women who smile at me, even if it is with a cash register between us. Jo has a stylish, fresh haircut. Smooth hair, unnaturally smooth, like she gets keratin treatments. She doesn’t wear a lot of jewelry, but what she wears looks real, classy, white gold mainly. Her clothing has that no-loose-threads look of the more expensive brands, even if it’s just jeans and button up blouses. “You own the shop?” I finally think to ask.
This morning Jo looks a little less tired than she did on Monday. And Tuesday. And Wednesday. Her smile curls her lips just a little bit higher.
“How long?” I ask. “I’ve never seen you in here before.”
It sounds perilously close to a pickup line – So, I’ve never seen you here before… – but it’s true. And considering the little thrill that wiggles up my spine when she smiles at me, ‘perilously close’ is a show of admirable restraint on my part.
“I opened the place up about…” She’s doing mental calculations, staring through the ceiling. Her blush is just a hint of pink on her cheeks, but I’m charmed. “Jesus,” she sighs, “sixteen years ago.”
She looks like she might be in her forties. So, pretty young to start her own business.
“You’re so brave,” I tell her. I mean it. “I’m not sure I’d have the guts to go into business for myself. Even if I had a great idea, I’d be so scared of failing. So scared of losing all my money…”
“Well, thanks for the pep talk!”
“You seem to be doing alright.”
She laughs again.
“You are always the only person in here when you come in. How on earth would you know if I’m doing alright?”
“I’m not drinking coffee anytime but bum-crack dawn,” I concede. “But I walk up that road,” I gesture out the window, “to and from lunch, and back home again. And I can see the crowd through the windows. You’re doing at least as well as the Starbucks on the other corner. And I imagine in coffee shop world that’s about as good as it gets, right?”
“I’m doing alright.”
“Ha!” I point, like I’ve won a great argument.
“I still worry about failing though,” Jo admits. “And losing all my money.”
“Mmm… Entrepreneurship is the single best way to go broke,” I have to admit, from my readings. “But it’s also one of the best ways to make boatloads of money. Risk big, win big.”
“Know a lot about it, do you?” Jo asks.
“Not in practice. All theoretical. I’m a librarian.”
It’s not the first thing I want to reveal when I fall madly into infatuation with a perfect stranger. It’s not a terribly exciting career field, after all. But it does tend to lend me some credibility when I go off spouting random facts about a whole host of issues. And I do that a lot.
“A scholar,” Jo concludes with a fair bit of romanticizing.
“If you like.”
She smiles, and maybe she’s about to say something else that will make my ego purr –
But the bell jingles above the door, as the first post-bum-crack customers start trickling in.
My farewell is a raised cup.
Jo salutes me with her towel.
“You’re in a particularly good mood this week,” my friend Jaime teases as we sit to lunch that day. “Who’s the girl this week?”
“Woman,” I correct. I don’t think you could rightly call Jo a ‘girl’. “And I think I might stay infatuated with this one for two weeks.”
Jaime teases me about my infatuations, but I honestly have a hard time understanding how everyone else avoids stumbling into breathless appreciation everywhere they go. Women are so beautiful. Like, all of them. I meet a woman with a devious little smirk and a sharp, bold tongue. I meet a woman with limpid eyes and delicate hands and a gentle touch. I meet a woman who tells a totally mundane story, but she’s got me grasping my chair and leaning forward to hear what comes next, ’cause she just tells it so well... There are so many women, with so many different kinds of beauty, kindness, intrigue… I don’t know how everyone doesn’t have a new infatuation every week.
I know not to take them too seriously.
I know not to take this one too seriously.
I don’t know Jo.
I probably never will really get to know her. She’ll hire someone to replace Joe and she’ll be a pleasant memory for a while before she fades into the whole pleasant blur of beautiful women I have once admired.
It doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy the warm glow of senseless affection while it lasts.
“So who is it?” Jaime prompts.
“Coffee shop woman. She owns Plain Jo.”
“Oh no,” Jaime gasps. “This is serious. She knows how to make a good cup?”
“Well you do know what they say, don’t you?”
“That the way to a woman’s heart is through her stomach…”
“I thought that was the way to a man’s heart.”
“You’re not honestly going to tell me you think gastronomic appreciation is limited to one gender.”
I take a bite of my burger and groan.
“So with every sip you’ll fall just a little further. If you’re not careful, you’ll fall madly in love with this one.” She puts down her own burger to look me straight in the eye, dead serious expression, and says, ludicrous: “I think you should give up coffee.”
“Alright, alright,” Jaime relents. “Then I at least think you should let me come along to check out the competition.”
Jaime is married to a man named Michael. They’ve been married for thirty-two years. But if I dare to point out the incongruity of Jaime snarling at my would-be female paramours, she only tells me, “Darling, my heart beats for one man, and one woman.” And then she places her hand over her breastbone and looks up at me and flutters her lashes.
Part of me thinks, deep down, Jaime is actually a little polyamorous but it was just so far outside the realm of what anybody even knew or could even articulate back when she was growing up that she’s never really thought of it outside a joke and daydreams she hides even from herself…
And part of me thinks she’s just very comfortable indulging the bouts of possessiveness that come with any close friendship. Most of us sublimate our possessive impulses because they’re not societally acceptable. Jaime has just decided, ever since she hit fifty, that she doesn’t give a rat’s ass what’s societally acceptable anymore. So she can indulge all her impulses.
So I drag a whiny, sleepy Jaime with me to the coffee shop on Friday.
“ ’Morning,” Jo calls out as the bell rings over the door.
“Raleigh,” I finally get around to introducing myself. I place a gloved hand over my own chest to indicate me, and then tug Jamie forward to say, “And this is my friend Jaime.”
Jaime looks more asleep than awake, but she perks up a bit under the counter lights, and rubs her eyes. Fifty-two and fabulous. She has absolutely no shame about looking the poor coffee shop owner up and down. And then back over again in a second, slower pass.
“Oh,” she says. She turns to me. “She is pretty.”
When we first became friends, when I first started at the library and Jaime was this braying woman in the collection development office who did battle with the vendors over licensing issues and, frankly, scared the shit out of me, but I admire that in a woman… Yeah, once upon a time Jaime’s frank perusal of the object of my intermittent affections would have embarrassed me. By now I can just shrug it off like I do all of the public humiliation being friends with Jaime entails.
Jo is looking at me with wide eyes and her eyebrows raised.
She looks genuinely surprised.
I can literally shrug - How freeing it is not to give a damn. - and say, “You are.”
Jaime leans forward and confides, “I’m worried she’s going to fall in love with your coffee, and by extension you.”
Jo still looks a little bewildered, but she manages to muster up a shaky smile.
“I suppose she’ll have to decide if it’s worth the risk.”
The Roaring Mouse will be out 12/16