Something I started a while ago, inspired by some real events. Forgotten, until now, I think I'd like to finish it. Any feedback is welcome :)
It wasn’t the type of place I frequented.
Mostly I avoided it because of the people who did usually go there. Well, at night anyway. They were teenagers or kids in their early twenties—the kind that still believe they’re invincible, but think that the concept is something novel and secret, like no one else had thought of something so grand in the entire history of the universe. They’re the sort who latch onto anything new, anything that promises to provide them with the most fashionable sort of thrill, because it’s in.
This café, it was a well known establishment around town, one even I knew by name—it was called Café Tunes, and the neon sign in the window said as much. Not a horribly original title, but it boasted what I understood to be a sort of karaoke every Friday night. Apparently, it could be filed in the ‘in’ category.
Tonight’s impromptu concert had already begun—some rowdy band members were torturing noise out of their instruments, thrashing about on the rickety stage as though unaware of its tiny parameters and the pressing crowd. The harsh sound grated against my ears worse than the alley cats that gathered around my backyard now and again; the comparison made me smirk as I took the one empty spot in the place. I had a decent view of the menus above the counter, so I debated what I wanted to drink. Café mocha, double espresso, two shots over ice, soy latte, grande this and hold the sugar. Plain coffee sounded better than anything gussied up.
Coffee had been a means to some fairly interesting ends lately, though I wasn’t really here to enjoy a cup of it.
Three weeks ago, when I was getting coffee at this very same café before work, I met a young woman who impacted me more profoundly in the comparatively short time we spent together than my closest friend of 23 years.
I’m a freelance writer more by force of nature than choice--I’m simply compelled to write and can’t do a damn thing about it. Trust me, I’ve tried. But because of this occupation of mine, I have a lot of time on my hands to work with. No bosses to hover over my shoulder, no nosey people two cubicles over—all the perks afforded to the anti-social. I get to set my own schedule and workplace, and I’d taken a liking to the daytime crowd at Café Tunes. It was the shop I’d chosen to be patron to for the week (I switch every now and then, just for the variety) and, admittedly, I didn’t know why they’d chosen the name they had. Yeah, sometimes I can be a bit dense.
It was Leigh who told me.
She was running the cash register the first day I stepped through the door. A merry jingle of bells greeted me instead of the sleepy-eyed staff present at 6 A.M. Out of the four smocked and uniformed people present, she was the only one that struck me as having gotten decent sleep, who hadn’t been up all night accomplishing nothing. I learned later that she didn’t actually sleep at all until her shift was over at 10; Leigh was practically nocturnal.
Because I have this annoying, incurable habit of smiling when I meet strangers, I think Leigh took an instant disliking to me. The forced, sarcastic grin she gave me in return should’ve tipped me off right then that she didn’t like morning people. Then again, the black nail polish, heavy eyeliner, and multiple piercings should’ve said something too. But I’m more inclined to give people the benefit of the doubt—doing what I do, I can hardly judge people by how they look. Contrast to the expected is too important to my work. So I tried not to lump her in with the stereotype of her appearance and made my way to the counter.
I stopped to examine the menu and she stared blankly at me from the register; I ended up looking at her rather than the list of creamer flavors. She had dull, dark hair that sucked up all the light, greedy, and refused to let it go. It was obviously dyed flat black because there’s no way that was a natural color. As if she knew I was criticizing, she raised one eyebrow, quietly, sardonically, almost as a challenge.
“Um, coffee please,” I stammered, shaking myself out of my observant reverie.
Her brow went higher and I could almost feel the acerbic remark she must’ve been holding back.
“Morning blend, please. Medium. Eh, a little bit of cream and sugar.”
She smirked ever so slightly and rang up my order; one of her coworkers peered over her shoulder and left promptly to make my drink, bringing us back to an awkward duo.
“Your total is two nineteen…sir.”
She was chewing on some kind of mint and I could smell it when she talked. I gave her a five and smiled again out of reflex. Briefly, I wondered what she saw when she looked at me, though she was now busying herself with my change and hadn’t glanced my way since she rang me up. I was 37 year old man, a little overweight, though I could still claim all my hair as my own. There wasn’t anything special about my features—brown eyes and hair, average-sized nose, fairly straight teeth, a few freckles. If anything, I was different because I blended in so well just about anywhere. I probably looked like every other guy that had come for his coffee in the morning.
“Two eighty one is your change.” She set the bill and coins on the counter, apparently of the same opinion concerning myself--unremarkable.
It was still just the two of us, in that exceedingly uncomfortable waiting-for-your-order silence, so I decided to attempt conversation. I put my change into my wallet and put that in my pocket and resisted the temptation to smile at her again.
“So, why is this place called Café Tunes?” It was curious, I thought, that there wasn’t even any music playing lightly in the background. It was something I’d become so accustomed to, the white noise, that the relative silence now struck me as an aberration. I don’t know why I didn’t notice it earlier.
The girl remained quiet for a moment and looked at me with eyes I now saw to be a deep, surprisingly pleasant blue. However, they were fixed on me with a look that could only be translated unfavorably.
“Café Tunes. We sell coffee, the French word for which is café, and people play music here every Friday. Hence the tunes.” It was a quick comment, and had the sound of the rehearsed to it. “I didn’t come up with the name,” she added as an afterthought.
The addendum was hardly necessary. “I didn’t think you had,” I started without much thought, “I’m sure you would’ve come up with something much…darker.”
She gave me that sarcastic smile again, played with her labret piercing, and walked to the back half of the store. I could hear a few snatches of rapid conversation, that kind where you can just tell it’s something unflattering about you, followed by a half-hidden snigger. I decided retreat was the better half or valor and found a booth next to the window which had promise. It was also as far away from the recent social humiliation I could get while still inside the café.
Though I’m the old fashioned sort and enjoy the magic of writing by hand, I wasn’t blind to the advantages of a lap top, and the steady weight of mine as I set it on the table reminded me of why I’d come. I’d been in something of a slump lately and had high hopes that a change of scenery could do what many futile hours of staring at a teasingly blank screen couldn’t. I love writing, don’t misunderstand me, but starting is the biggest pain in my ass. I would rather do my own taxes, or file for divorce again, than have to come up with the beginning to a new story, and this was the impasse at which I’d found myself for the umpteenth time that week. Some days I didn’t even bother with attempting to write—that’s how bad I’d let it get lately. What can I say? I have moods too.
The annoyingly consistent sound of my computer turning on, that little chime which I’m convinced is some form of subliminal messaging, brought me back to the present. I waited a few seconds for everything to settle in before opening Word in hopes that today’s staring contest would result in at least a few pages of anything, and almost jumped out of my seat when I heard a quick intake of breath behind me.
“You have a Lenovo Thinkpad?” It was grudging admiration; I didn’t have to turn around to see her face to know. Momentarily forgotten was my coffee, held in her hand like some kind of prize I couldn’t have until I answered her these questions three. Looking up, I turned in my seat to face her properly.
“That’s what my friend told me it was, yes. He gave it to me when he bought a new one. Something about wanting more RAM or an extra quad something.” I waved my hand dismissively; truth be told, I know almost next to nothing about computers. I only used mine to write and keep up with the news and my e-mail. I had gotten enough reactions like Leigh’s to realize I had something impressive though, and I gave a silent thanks to Stan for giving me something so high quality.
Leigh’s pleasantly blue eyes went wide. “He just…gave it to you?”
I had to resist the impulse to be sarcastic—she did still have my coffee. Generally, I’m not the sarcastic sort, but I hadn’t yet had my daily brew and my mind was wandering as I was starting to brainstorm. “Yeah,” I laughed, turning it around so that she could see the screen if she was thus inclined. She looked indecisive; a tiny step forward that was halted before she could stand next to me, a flash of curiosity in her eyes and half a syllable that escaped her lips.
“You don’t know what you have, mister,” she said after a moment, shaking her head and setting my drink down on a coaster. What she said after that was a string of words I’m sure meant something to her, and maybe the rest of the technologically inclined community, but it could’ve been Greek for all I understood of it. I suppose it was a list of reasons why my computer was so fancy. Leigh blinked at me. “And you’re using it…to write?” She scrutinized the paragraph I’d pecked out yesterday, trying to figure out what it was.
I shrugged, unapologetic. “Didn’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth and all that.”
“You got yourself a prize stallion for leisure riding.” Her laugh wasn’t aimed at me, or at least I didn’t think so.