She sipped her coffee and squinted into the sunlight.
It didn’t seem fair he could still be so good looking after all this time. Her ex strode in the sunshine still wearing fashions five years out of style. Despite his lack of dress sense passerby stared at the lanky blond figure striding among them. It had been 20 years (had it really?) since she’d last seen him, even through the glass she could sense his confidence and charisma.
She caught her own ogling reflection. At least he wouldn’t see her. Not with her hair up in a messy bun, her ragged sweat pants and glasses meant to hide the puff of the years in her eyes. Her thoughts drifted away from terrific tangles in sheets with the figure walking up the street to the much more recent past. The lies, the fights, the constant work to maintain a semblance of a “normal” life. The alcohol.
Her head bent back to her book.
The door bells clanged happily as a rotund banker walked into the coffee shop for his usual 3 p.m. espresso. Laura sighed and rested her book on the counter turning to the gentleman.
“Just an espresso today?” she asked.
“As always,” the man smiled. He really was kind. He always left a dollor or two in the tip jar. But today Laura couldn’t bother with the smile and the usual chitchat. Some of the customers complained she was standoffish.
“How are you today?” the banker asked.
Laura looked up. “Fine,” her voice squeaked above its usual octaves.
“Any thing new going on?” he pressed. His questions bit into her routine loneliness.
“Oh you know ‘another day, another dollar,'” she smiled tightly as she smashed the ground espresso shoving it into the machine.
“Char, char, char,” the man laughed in a wheezing, chuckling way that made the barista grit her teeth. She smiled up at him.
“How’s your day?” she asked brightly.
“Great! Just great! My divorce is final today,” he smiled. He seemed to think they were friends. He said this like Laura had known he was getting divorced. She hadn’t even realized he was married. She smiled at him again thinking she might just get enough dollars out of him to make her tips worth counting tonight.
“Does that mean congratulations are in order?” She set his espresso on the chest high counter.
He reached for the paper cup. “Oh yes,” he nearly moaned. “All that lawyering and finally I am free. She got everything, of course. But now I can do what I want.”
He reached forward with a five dollar bill.
She took the bill, rang in the espresso and handed back the change. He dropped it in the tip jar.
“Thank you,” he smiled wide, turned and walked out the door the bells clanging behind him.
“You know,” he started affably enough. “It might be odd, but can I have your number?”
Laura stared in shock at the banker, she now knew his name, John. And had mocked him for it.
He still came everyday within a few minutes of 3 p.m. for his espresso. Never varying his routine apparently upset when Laura wasn’t in according to the barista grapevine.
The pause lengthened with the sounds of the espresso machine grinding and wheezing.
“No,” she said finally. “I don’t think so. You’re a nice guy, but I…” She couldn’t think of anything.
His head dipped down solemnly. “I understand.” She nudged his espresso towards him. He looked up then left empty-handed.
He didn’t come the next day, or the next or even the one after that. Monday through Friday at 3 p.m. he would show. Laura hadn’t seen him for weeks. She worried, but didn’t know what to do about a regular who suddenly stopped. Usually there were words, a sense of distancing themselves from the too familiar, but not John. He loved the familiar, the routine, their daily meaningless chatter. It was his five minute escape from the stress next door. Despite her rejection, he would still come. She knew it.
Then one day, there he was. It was a Sunday and early, still breakfast really. Laura had come in for a sick colleague with hopes of a quiet day, but of course, the crowd had been unexpectedly large. She was hurriedly trying to finish each order while calling out for others all while making call after call to get another barista on the clock.
He waited patiently in line, chatting with the woman next to him. She was smiling. He was smiling. They seemed happy. Laura saw his arm slide around her waist in a familiar way. In a way that was comfortable, the way her parents had stood watching fireworks on the fourth of July when she was small. Laura blinked quickly.
“What can I get for you?,” she called to the couple. That’s what they were. They had to be.
“A dirty chai and a macciato,” he said. “And not the Starbucks version. A real one.”
Laura nodded, stated the price and pulled levers.