This story is dedicated today, as it has always been, to Paul. You have always been a true friend. -lm
The boy was waiting when she arrived at work. His cheeks were pink on pale skin as though he were feverish. He was playing with a pen while examining the menu on the counter.
“Can I help you?” she asked.
“No,” he said, “I don’t know what I want.”
“Let me know when you figure it out.” She stashed her backpack under the counter. Her coworker waved as she left to go enjoy what remained of her night.
“Do you have any suggestions?” he asked.
“Depends on what you’re in the mood for.”
“I guess.” Then he said, “I don’t like coffee.”
“And yet you came to a coffee shop.”
“It seemed like the thing to do. Good place to get work done, anyway.”
“Speaking of work, have you made up your mind yet?”
“No, not yet. What’s an Americano?”
“You wouldn’t like it.”
She went to the espresso bar and scrubbed the crusted milk off the steam wand, made sure the brew heads were clean. She glanced around the shop, vaguely hoping that another customer was approaching the counter. A group of kids in the corner was watching a foreign film on a laptop. Another guy was working his way through a pile of books.
Finally she said, “We have smoothies and steamers, if you like.”
He looked up from the menu. “Steamers? What’s a steamer?”
“Hot flavored milk.”
He smiled. She noticed his eyes were brown. “I’m Paul.”
“You know, Jen, you have a great sense of humor. Very dry. I like it.”
“Thank you, Paul. Are you ready to order?”
“Surprise you?” The words came out flat.
“Yeah, I have two dollars. Have a field day.”
“A whole two dollars, you say? Wow.”
“Hey, we’re both poor college students, here. Gotta work with what I got.”
“I’ll make you a steamer. Then you’ll still have change to leave me a tip.” She tried to make a joke of it. But she was tired of going home with only two or three coins to rub together. Her body heat warmed them too quickly, and she would forget they were there.
“I’ll tip you if it’s good,” he said.
“How am I supposed to know what you like?”
“Nothing, Paul. Skim or two percent?” She grabbed a metal canister on her way to opening the refrigerator.
“Half and half.”
She frowned. “Half skim, half two percent?”
“No, make it with half and half.”
“Sorry, we don’t do breve.”
“You have creamers, don’t you?”
“So use a bunch of creamers.”
“Do you have any idea how many of those little creamer things I’d have to go through to fill this cup? I’d charge you twenty bucks for it.”
“No. Two percent or skim?”
“You mean crap or shit?”
“Two percent it is.”
She splashed the milk into the metal container, then paused before the forest of bottlenecks. “You sure you don’t know what flavor you want?”
“Right.” She did a pump of amaretto, Irish crème, and caramel, then plunged in the steam wand and cranked the knob until it screamed. She heard Paul speaking over her shoulder and called, “Sorry, I can’t hear you right now.” The milk took a long time to heat up.
When she had handed him the cup and topped it with whipped cream, he said, “I was just saying that there’s a way you can get it to stop making that noise.”
“You don’t say? I’ll have to ask my manager about that. Dollar fifty, please.”
“Yeah, you should do that.” He handed her the money. “What’s your major?”
“English,” she said, and gave him his change.
“Really? Why’d you pick English?”
“Because I was too stupid to major in anything else, Paul.”
“I’m sure that’s not true!” he exclaimed, and he was so sincere that she almost felt bad.
“How about you?” She looked at the Sierra Club logo on his shirt. “I take it you like the environment or something?”
“Hey, yeah, I’m gonna be an environmental science major! How’d you know?”
“I’m just smart like that.”
“See? There’s that dry humor again. I’m loving it!”
She didn’t know why he didn’t leave. She didn’t know what humor he was talking about. He liked her humor, and she wasn’t really trying to be funny, but he stayed anyway. As with many accidental things, she was sure it would stop sooner or later. She would stop being funny, and he would lose interest. She wanted him to go away while he still thought she was funny.
“So are you a freshman?” He was talking to her.
“No, I’m not. But you are.” The comment slipped out before she even realized she’d thought it.
He looked down at himself as though he would discover a sign in his lap. “How can you tell?”
“You’re still talking to me, aren’t you?”
“So an upperclassman would have gotten bored by now.” She suddenly felt irritated with this entire farce. He wasn’t her friend. She didn’t want him to be her friend. She didn’t need anyone else prying into her life, because in every innocuous question she felt there was a hidden reprimand for not having a different answer. “Don’t you have homework?”
“It’s Friday night.”
“Oh pish.” She looked over at the blender. It looked like it could use some washing.
“What about you, Jen? Why do you have to work on a Friday night?”
“Well, now, that’s interesting. I think it says something about your character. Why would an attractive lady choose to work on a Friday night?”
Lady? Was he hitting on her? She felt like a bug under scrutiny by an overeager six year old. It made her grumpy, and there was more bitterness in her tone than she knew. “So that I can ignore the fact that I don’t have a life. I could sit on my ass at home, or I could sit on my ass here and get paid. Money wins. I don’t have anything better to do, and I have a lot of worse things to do, so I choose to work on Friday and Saturday nights. It keeps me from thinking too hard.”
“And you want to avoid thinking?”
She didn’t answer. Instead, she turned knobs until water splashed in the sink. As she squirted soap in to the blender, she wasn’t quite sure why she had been so honest. She attributed it to the lateness of the hour. That, and her narcissism seemed to be flaring up again. It was hard to resist an audience as attentive as Paul, though she wished he’d picked a more interesting topic.
He took a long drink from his steamer while watching her dry out the blender. The steadiness of his gaze was getting to her. He reminded her in that instant of another boy with steady eyes whose hands were a little less disciplined. It was a memory she preferred not to revisit. “Do you like your steamer?”
“I find you a very interesting person, Jen.”
“I’ll assume that’s a yes.”
“Every time you open your mouth, there are a million little things that I realize I don’t know about you. I feel like no matter how long I know you, there will always be something new every time I see you.”
“I’m like an onion,” she quipped to cover her confusion.
“Layers,” she explained. “Or like a parfait.”
He laughed. “Talking to you is better than watching TV.”
“Talk about low standards.”
“Would you rather I said you’re better than homework? Because that’s the alternative.”
“Rock and a hard place, Paul.”
“Hey, what’s wrong with me saying I like talking to you? It passes the time, doesn’t it?” He was playing with his empty cup. “I mean, you’re a writer, Jen. When you meet a stranger who has interesting things to say, don’t you want to hear their stories? Don’t you want to get to know them better? How can you have anything to write about if you don’t talk to strangers?”
“Some people are destined to stay strangers, Paul.” Jen couldn’t even tell why this boy frustrated her so much. She wasn’t being pleasant. She wasn’t trying to be his friend. “You can’t befriend everyone. You’d run yourself dry.”
“Explain that to me.”
“What is there to explain?” She realized she was standing there with the blender in her hands and turned to put it away. “You only have so much time. Friends take time. And energy.” She turned to him. “I don’t have enough energy to be friends with everyone I meet. I hardly even have time to keep up with the friends I already have.”
“Well then it’s a good thing I have time.” Did he not get the hint? “I’ll come visit you every Friday and Saturday night while you’re working, when you have time.”
She stared at him, trapped. “I didn’t ask you to do that.”
“I like talking to you.”
And suddenly she felt like a schmuck. “I see.”
“Hey, Jenster!” a boisterous voice called. She turned to see Josh crossing the mostly-empty room towards the counter. “I can see this place is hopping.”
“Yes, it’s very exciting, what with it being eleven at night.” She smiled with relief at his appearance. “How’s your night going?”
“Meh. The tri-Kapp party is a bit noisy.” He hoisted himself onto a stool down a ways from Paul. “The whole cops and robbers theme makes for a lot of gunfire.”
Paul watched Jen laugh. It made her turn nervous.
“Paul, do you know Josh?”
Paul’s hand shot out and started pumping Josh’s half-offered one. “Hi, I’m Paul.”
Jen smiled. “Paul, this is Josh, my boyfriend.”
Josh smiled. “It’s nice to meet you, Paul.”
“You two are going out?” Paul twisted his head to look at Josh, and then he smiled too. “Cool, I’m happy for you.”
“Ah…thank you.” She turned to Josh. “So, what are you up to tonight?”
“Well, I was just swinging through and thought I’d stop in and see how you were doing.”
“Wow, what a nice guy,” Paul said.
Josh looked over at him. “You know, I really am.”
“Hey, if you’re going out, you must know Jen pretty well, right?” Paul’s eager eyes were latched onto Josh now. “Why don’t you tell me something about her?”
Josh’s eyebrows crept up. “Like what?”
“I don’t know, just something real.”
Josh leaned back with a wide grin. “Who’s to say what’s real? Jen, here, is a real mystery woman. No one knows much about her. I think that’s why we’re going out.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“Well, I have no idea why she’s going out with me. She talks a lot, but not usually about herself. For example, I don’t know what she does with her time when we’re not together.”
“You knew she was working here,” Paul pointed out.
“Well, yeah. But so did you.”
“We just met.”
Jen wasn’t sure whether she or Paul had said it.
“Oh.” Josh cleared his throat.
“Well, since you came all this way to see me, can I get you anything while you’re here?” Jen asked brightly.
“Oh, no, that’s okay.” Josh stood. “Like I said, I was just passing through. I’m going to head back to my room.” He glanced at the clock. It was shaped like a teacup with squiggly lines of steam rotating to show the hour. “God, it’s late.”
“It sure is. Too bad I’m stuck behind this counter.”
“Cheer up. Tomorrow’s Saturday, you can sleep in.”
“Can’t. I have to get everything ready for Spanish Club before noon.”
“Man, sucks to be you.” He sauntered towards the door. “See you later.”
“Bye, Josh.” She glanced around the coffee shop again. The guy with the books had left without a trace. The kids with the laptop were intent on their film. She imagined she was in a glass cage with Paul. Now she knew why her gerbils scrabbled at the glass even when their tiny claws couldn’t catch on anything.
“So, now you’ve met Josh.” She turned to go get a rag out of the bucket of bleach water. She could feel Paul’s eyes on her back as she started wiping down the counters.
“He didn’t seem to know much about you.”
“Well, I guess that’s what makes me a woman of mystery. If my boyfriend doesn’t know me, how can you expect to know me on such short acquaintance?” She found herself staring at the flawless black countertop. It hadn’t been that dirty to begin with. Still, it was part of closing procedure. It was necessary for proper sanitation.
“I’ve been trying to get to know you.”
“No, you’ve been asking a lot of questions. Besides, Josh and I have only been going out a little while.” She felt a lid coming unhinged inside her.
“How am I supposed to get to know you if I don’t ask about you?”
“What are you, a reporter?” She sounded peevish even to her own ears.
“Look, Paul, it’s late, and I’m tired. I’m not going to get any sleep tonight, and the prospect makes me more than a little cranky. I’ll answer one question, but I brought homework to do, and I really need to get it done. So ask, and then leave me alone for tonight, okay?”
When he didn’t bounce back with a ready question, the silence started to make her feel sick with herself. In the back of the shop, the foreign film jabbered on, and she found herself trying to understand the conversation. She couldn’t even tell what language it was in.
Then Paul laughed. “You know, I figured that if you wanted to get rid of me, you would have thrown a heavy object at my head or something. That’s the way most people take care of it.”
She frowned. “Take…care of it?”
“You know, get me to shut up and leave them alone. It’s cool. At least you were nice about it.”
Nice? She’d been nice? She doubted she knew anyone who confused her as much as this boy did. How could she go from almost throwing him out of the coffee shop to wanting to hold his hand and comfort him in less than five seconds? She felt one of her migraines coming on.
He had gotten down from his stool, and now he stood half-turned, looking at her.
She took a deep breath. “I majored in English because I loved to play with words. I loved to write. No one could stop me from writing. My teachers would threaten to lower my grade if my paper was too long. When I discovered that I could major in it, I thought I’d found my life’s purpose. What could be better than getting a degree doing something you love?” Her voice trailed off in confusion, and she frowned at the dirty grey register. She couldn’t remember what she was going to say next.
Slowly, Paul slid back onto his seat, eyes wary. She wondered if he really thought she was going to throw something at him. When she made no move, he said, “So what happened?”
“I hated it.” She started laughing. “Can you believe it? I hated it. I wish more than anything that I’d had the sense to major in something I didn’t like. Like economics. That would have been a smart thing to do. At least I would have gone in knowing I hated it. My opinion of it could only improve then, right? Instead, I’ve gone and destroyed—something.” She stopped to consider her words. “Something—precious.” She jammed her hands into her pockets. She found she didn’t want to look at him. She didn’t want to see him looking at her with those steady eyes. She felt like a fool for having even opened her mouth. It always happened. She started out with something to say, and then the words just drained out of her. Just like when she felt the tug of a story that was waiting to be written, only to have it falter before the glare of a starkly blank word document.
“So,” he said when a moment had passed, “do I still get that free question?”
Jen blinked her way out of her reverie. “Why do I get the feeling you’re never going to ask just one question?” But she found that her anger had drained away, leaving that part of her hollow. “Go for it.”
“Can I have a hot chocolate made with creamers?” He looked so hopeful.
It took her a moment to remember where she was, that she was working and had a job to do. Then she breathed and packed herself back into the box, convinced herself that everything was fine. She finally came up with a smile. “Sure thing, chief. I’ll even give it to you at half off.”
“Yeah. Ten dollars.”
“What! You’ve got to be kidding me.” But he was reaching for his pocket.
She regarded him curiously. “Are you really going to make me do it?”
“Would you really do it for ten dollars?”
“I said I would, didn’t I?”
“Yeah, well, you also said Josh was your boyfriend.”
“Ah….” Embarrassment washed over her, and she looked away.
He was quiet while she fumbled for an explanation, then reached into his pocket and withdrew the two quarters she had given him earlier. She startled as they jingled into the tip jar.
“Thank you,” she said.
He shrugged. “I don’t have ten dollars, or I might very well take you up on that offer.”
She managed a smile. “I’ll make you a creamer steamer whenever you can pay.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
He stood again, and this time she made no move to stop him. He hefted a large backpack onto his shoulder, and Jen felt all her stories pushing against her skull, at the backs of her eyes, deep in her ears, but none strayed onto her tongue. She willed him to ask a question so that she could speak, so that she could relieve some of the pressure. She needed to be given something to say.
In that moment, it seemed that he would never leave. He would stay, hunched under his backpack, warm cheeks bright against the pallor of his skin, forever. She would never sleep, never close the shop. They would be paused here, waiting for…. She was waiting for…waiting for what? Waiting to stop. Waiting to speak. She needed words. She needed something. The word was…something. Her temples pulsed under the pressure building inside her brain. She thought, it has to end soon. Something would give. The pressure couldn’t be maintained indefinitely. Nothing was this strong, something would collapse under the strain, and the whole thing would thunder down in an avalanche of blood and words.
She imagined herself exploding and wondered if anyone had died from untold stories escaping the prison of their errant creator’s head. If she melted under this pressure, would those half-caught stories ever be told? Would they fly out of her head and into someone else’s? Would they just vaporize into the ether?
She shuddered and forced herself to look up. Paul was gone, and this confused her. Had he ever been? He had been so solid a minute ago, she was sure he would have stayed. In the corner, the movie viewers had fallen asleep on the couch. The laptop flicked light over their faces, lending them an underwater pallor that made her think they would never wake. Time was frozen in this instant.
She listened again to the voices coming out, compressed and tinny, from the computer speakers. Arabic, she thought.
She pulled a book out of her backpack and began to read.
© 2006, Leslie Mills
This story was composed as part of a senior seminar taught by author Robert Stone when he was serving as the Mackey Chair at Beloit College. It was presented to an audience of faculty, friends, and family in 2006 as part of my graduation requirements before I was granted my BA in Creative Writing. Special kudos goes to the reader who can figure out what famous story inspired the style of this one.