He walked with the alert alacrity of a man who had doused his morning coffee with freshly ground nutmeg. The sun already shone a warm, embracing yellow, but its rays seemed even fresher and finer to him. The sky seemed bluer, the scamper of traffic a hum of happy productivity, the passersby only a handshake and hello away from friends. And all due to one word…a name, actually.
Of course, he still didn’t know how to spell her name. You never could tell with spellings these days, he said to himself for the second time that day.
He had said it to himself for the first time as he carefully Windsor-knotted his Grenafaux-dotted, tangerine tie earlier that morning while staring at his list of incoming tweets. (The spelling of Quvenzhane Wallis’ name had prompted this thought.) Given his job, he had to stay connected to the financial pulse of the world.
He took a few steps to the left, ended up in his bathroom, and pursed his lips as he eyed his reflection. Tangerine was a bold choice, but he needed something bold and eye-catching. On his wall was a diploma stating he had graduated with a degree in computational finance; when he popped up in photos of official events, editors tagged him as “Generic White Guy”; he was an ordinary-looking fellow, with dark brown hair, brown eyes, average height, and an average face; to cap it all off, his parents had once actually contemplated naming him Keith.
He was aware of all this, of course. So he needed something that could be a good conversation starter, something to stand out, and the tie would serve well, or so he hoped. The dots were quirky, the knot substantial, the color striking. He wagered that it had nearly as much personality as he did, at least on first sight. (He was fairly confident that he had more personality than his tie, at least, after the first hour or so of conversation had eased things.)
A fruit fly buzzed in front of his face as he took one more look in the mirror and absentmindedly swatted at the fly. He detoured into the kitchen briefly on his way out, in order to check his homemade fly trap. He had poured molasses in the bottom of a glass jar, mounted a cardboard turret atop the jar, fastened it with duct-tape, and then inserted a tube with a hole cut facing the molasses through the cardboard. The fly trap was abuzz with flies, and he thought momentarily of releasing them into the wild. (He was a gentle soul.)
But then he steeled his heart, and the tangerine tie flopped gracefully as he bent down, laced up his shoes, and straightened the cuffs of his khakis. Then he stood up, picked up his brown briefcase, stuffed one overly boisterous flap of his shirt back behind the firm barrier of his belt, and launched out the door.
Today, he was going to learn her name.
The Corner Cafe couldn’t make up its mind whether it was a pub, a cafe, a coffee shop, a restaurant, or a brewery. Whether this was due to the owner’s oddities or market demand, its identity crisis had created a loyal base of customers.
After all, if you wished for a fresh cup of coffee, you could see the harassed barista tramp downstairs and retrieve some recently-ground beans from the midsize grinder. Or if you wanted a morning glass of Sangria, the kitchen in back always seemed to have blueberries and raspberries and the requisite wine and brandy on hand. There were even stainless steel vats of modest proportions down below employed for brewing some beer (although the type and composition of beer changed dramatically every week).
It was only two stories (one above ground, the other below); the upper was crammed with small wooden tables and chairs, window-seats, a long, winding wooden bar, and a kitchen, while the lower was devoted to the equipment mentioned above and supplies. Consequently it always felt jam-packed.
And despite the jam-packed-ness, it was probably teetering on the edge of financial collapse most of the time, according to the man in the tangerine tie’s odd financial intuition. After all, there was never any expansion, nor any new equipment, nor extra staff to assist the three harried baristas/barmaids/brewers. The Corner Cafe was essentially a place of stasis, with an oddball, unchanging appeal, which is probably why the man in the tangerine tie felt oddly reassured as he strolled in that fine sunny morning.
He made a beeline for his favorite spot: approximately five feet in front of the bar and the giant chalkboard menu. White words sprawled across the chalkboard with vague clarity. You couldn’t simply read off the menu; he had once ordered a blackcurrant espresso shot with mixed greens at 7pm. When it had arrived, he was so mortified (both physically and mentally) that he consumed it in silence, and then was compelled to leave by dreadful gut rumblings. (Or borborygmi, his word of the day, he thought to himself, as the memory of the incident rippled through his mind.)
It was his favorite spot, of course, because he was certain to see her.
He had no idea who she was, or even what her name was. All he knew of her was that she wasn’t new, but rather had recently returned from a vacation or other absence, which explained why he hadn’t seen her in the two months or so he had frequented the cafe. He had gleaned that morsel of information from the very first day he had seen her.
(Flash backward nearly a month.)
Her back was to him, as she spoke to Angela, who was slender, tall, animated, and remarkably quick. (She was a law student at the nearby university.) Angela always made him nervous, mainly as he suspected she already knew everything about him…her intelligence was so readily overpowering it was almost unbearable. Looking at her, he had known in his heart that the only reason women hadn’t taken over the planet was that they were smart enough to realize it wasn’t worth it.
So the conversation went on, and he was hesitant to interrupt. He normally had the confidence of a freshly neutered tomcat, and that, coupled with Angela’s proximity, led to extreme reticence. He consequently paced in place, with a sort of odd foot shuffle combined with intense scrutiny of the menu board, as if the choice between a latte and an espresso was of great importance.
“Sorry, how can I help you?”
And he pulled his gaze down, and met hers, and then frozen. She had the most striking eyes and eyebrows, you see: dark and strong and thick, tapering off at the ends (her eyebrows, that is), while her eyes delicately teetered on the fine line between darkest brown and lightest black.
He became aware that the dark eyes were growing puzzled, and he promptly said the first thing that came into his head: “Chocolate.” (He had been mentally categorizing the color of her eyes.)
“Hot chocolate?” she had asked, and he had realized what he had said, but there was no way out now, so he mildly had said, “Yes,” even as a hot breeze from the 80-degree morning wafted in to punctuate his sentence. He wasn’t quite sure why he was unable to speak casually with her, but then his tidy, orderly mind rustled around for a moment, and efficiently produced the answer: he found her so attractive he had absolutely no desire to say or do anything that could be wrong, in her eyes.
She smiled pleasantly, displaying white even teeth, and then promptly whisked around to the refrigerator. Her hair was a thick dark shining mass, while her faintly freckled nose was firm, small, and pert. A tattoo stretched in some spiraling pattern on her brown left back shoulder, exposed by her white tank top and black apron. He had sufficient time to contemplate the ramifications of his decision, as she grabbed a small iron pot and a bar of chocolate. (They made real hot chocolate at the Corner Cafe.)
Meanwhile, Angela took over the register and rang him up. She coughed significantly, and his gaze ambled over from the tattooed brown shoulders moving briskly behind the bar.
“That’s all you’re getting?” Angela asked, with a cheery smile, adjusting the comb in her Afro.
“Yes, for now,” he said, and automatically reached for his wallet.
“So that’ll be four dollars, then.”
“Sounds good,” he mumbled, and placed a five-dollar bill in front of her. She regarded him with interest, one eyebrow that had been plucked into skinny submission arching slightly, even as she handed him one dollar back. He promptly deposited the dollar in the tip jar, and then an inactive silence congealed between them in a fatty, leering manner, until he could stand it no more.
“Seems like a hot day,” he said, feebly, conscious of her gaze, and knowing that it was most likely related to his order. What business had a grown man ordering hot chocolate on a hot day? Why mention the weather? Weather talk was the stale toast of conversation. He cleared his throat with a skittering hrrrmmph, aware of sudden dryness in his mouth.
“Yeah, but you don’t seem to mind the heat,” Angela said, glancing back at the stove. “Hot drinks cool you down somewhat, I guess.”
“It’s for my throat,” he said, for some reason. As the words left his mouth, he looked down at his paisley-patterned blue tie and contemplated a self-gag.
“Do you have a cold? Are you a singer?” Angela asked, her keen mind already leaping to deductions.
“Yes, a singer,” he stated, and his mind, somewhat removed from the conversation, watched the falsehood exaggerate with the fascination of an engineer eyeing a trainwreck. “Dry, strained throat.”
“Did you just get out of a performance, or have you been rehearsing a lot?”
“You know,” he said, vaguely gesturing, and then, mercifully, the chocolate had been ready. The girl came over, and placed a thick green porcelain cup filled with hot brown liquid chocolate right next to him. Her slim brown fingers moved deftly and accurately. He idly noted her fingernails had been nibbled down to the thinnest line of white.
“There you go,” she said kindly, and then added, “watch out, it’s really hot.”
Indeed, wisps of steam curled up from the hot chocolate, yet he willfully ignored them, and grasped it firmly about the base. Slow heat began to assault his fingers, and he immediately realized he had made a grave miscalculation. Yet he had already begun the slow shift of his heel to turn, and so he smiled almost helplessly at Angela and the girl.
“Do you want a tangerine slice?” the girl asked, looking down at the chocolate almost critically. “I always like pairing it with a little fruit.”
“Sure, sure,” he said, and thought for a moment he could see his knuckles smoking. She plopped a few tangerine slices down on his plate, and smiled at him once more. He would have smiled more nicely in return, had moisture not begun to collect in the corners of his eyes.
“Thanks, have a nice day,” he said, then quickly pivoted, and scurried for a table in the darkest, deepest corner of the cafe, where he could blow on his hands, and pretend to drink his piping hot chocolate. He managed to actually down some of it before he realized with a jolt that he hadn’t even had the balls to ask the girl her name.