I was right on time. Of course. The line at the counter was beginning to fade fast – 9:56am was the ideal time to order coffee without encountering the regular morning-goers, the sleepy queue, the confusion from the employee who’s just started out; his curly hair waving from side to side with no clear reference of whose cappuccino is meant to go out first. No real concept of the specials, the tuna wrap or chai mocha latte, extra foam. Wait, why a tuna wrap today? Usually fish isn’t a favourite. The manager, a small Greek man with a little moustache, looked on, clearly amused that the new employee couldn’t control a line of caffeine orders. Chai was too risqué for me. Black far too businesslike and desperate for 9:57am in the morning.
I recognised the middle-aged blonde in front of me. She always held her palms together – like she was about to wail in prayer. I didn’t know her name. But I’d say she worked nearby and somewhere where appearances didn’t really matter. She didn’t paint her nails properly. Not that I painted my nails. Every morning she looked undecided on her order even though she stuck to a plain, black coffee. Two and a half sugars. Not businesslike – just a hurried, frighteningly sad, deafening anxiety – a fix-me-up-from-this-sad-life sort of order. Then she’d clasp the cup as if it were her dying lover who was moments away from being taken away. She had no other thoughts.
I could recite the room. Particular mention to orders, dress, morning emotions and the playlists that played soberly through the café – new-age indie bands that had far too much independent beer to be considered important anymore. Still hopelessly relevant unfortunately.
9:57-and-a-few-seconds-am was away from all the fuss. I timed it. It was the ideal time. Before lunch. Before the receptionist who grabbed thirty minutes of her soppy book, the couple who shared a sandwich even though the man wanted his own, the aspiring writer who didn’t write but who fancied a pastry every few minutes and then would change his mind and write a few lines that he considered Fitzgerald-esque. He’d delete it all a minute later. Everyone was at the office now, through their morning e-mails, through playing catch-up to the goings-on after dark. I didn’t have an ‘after dark’ experience – not in the societal claim for it, anyway. I got home, made dinner, sat in front of the TV, caught up on the news and retired. Right side of the bed.
“Standard cappuccino, foam.”
It was my usual. I didn’t eat the complimentary butterscotch biscuit, either. I pocketed it for later when I rewarded myself after typing forty pages of reports. That would be done by 13:07pm or a few minutes after if I have a few more e-mails to send out.
“Paul! Cap! Foam!” he shouted to no one in particular. The other young girl was still in the kitchen putting on her apron and checking her messages.
The employee was more controlled today – his voice had a little more direction. I had 13 minutes to get back to the office. An old lady (previously not in the vicinity before at 9:58am) ordered an iced tea (peach) behind my order, looked up and smiled at me. Crooked and yellow. I forced a smile back and nodded politely. I would remember her order if she returned. They only stocked peach at the café – I never ordered it. They could get it wrong. Why order that when the café doesn’t specialise in it? It was a petty afterthought.
“Nice day we’re having?”
She was fiddling with coins – a fifty cents piece, two rand, three five cent pieces and a crummy ten rand note that resembled some flimsy loo paper. She didn’t have a purse. Just her purple coat pockets, her tiny, self-knitted beanie and a plastic orange ring that one would most likely find in a lucky packet or those machines at the game arcade where you had to control an uncontrollable claw.
“Paul? That’s a lovely name. I knew a Paul a very long time ago…” The old lady pursed her wrinkled, thin lips thinking about that other Paul. Back in a time where she was probably in his arms, rummaging through her then-modern coat for sticky notes. Crooked, yellow.
I nodded. “Yes, it’s lovely.”
Was it lovely? I had always given my parents an ear-full because Paul was so normal but they insisted because they were church people and church people liked the name Paul. It was loaded with salvation and doing the right thing always. I always did good.
“Not sure where he is now. He could be dead.”
I could, too. 10 minutes. I was gripping my cappuccino hard, feeling the heat travel across my whole hand and wondered if the employee had put on the coffee sleeve. I looked down. He hadn’t.
I peeked at my watch. 9 minutes.
“Sorry, I have to go. I hope you find Paul.”
I wasn’t quite sure what I meant by that. I didn’t really care for the other Paul or the old lady’s memories surrounding the name. I had 8 and a half minutes before I had to be by my desk. I hope she finds Paul.
Fuck this, I’m late anyway. I needed coffee. I was working at the salon till lunch time then I’d fuck off and make some excuse about me having a doctor’s appointment or something. Just tell your supervisor that it’s personal and you’ll get off with no questions. Then I’ll dive into that vodka that’s chilling in my fridge. Bra off, baby. It was my routine to get stuck in before Michael, my anal roommate, returned and poked his head in, asking for rent money or if I care to wash the dishes sometime. I never care to wash the fucking dishes. Nobody cares to wash the dishes, Michael.
“Black, two sugars. Three, sorry.” The extra was for trying to get through the morning where I had two appointments on top of each other – one, a lady with dull, brown hair. So dull, so brown, so normal in fact that there was no real promise of me sprucing it up. The other: a bride-to-be who was having some test-runs done before her big day. Unfortunately, her entourage came with her and her first trial left me aching for a final release so I could get away from their insistent nagging and “Ohw mai gawd!” shrieks. The salon’s glossies don’t help the plastic crew either who seem permanently surprised at celebrities who have a pinch of cellulite or god forbid, a wrinkle under their eye. What a wedding it’ll be.
The boring guy who was always there was behind me, checking his watch insistently and fixing his eyes upon the drab that needed coffee. The type who ironed his shirt three times in the morning, waking up early to get in work before his pre-work coffee outing before his mundane, suited job. Then he’d get back home sharply and count his video games and action figures. Well, he was the type anyway – the kind that Michael was when I got home and needed a glass or five after dealing with the human race.
The kid manning the morning counter was whispering orders to himself while the manager was scratching a scab on his forearm. Sometimes I wondered why I came to this particular café – it wasn’t convenient, the service was average and the speakers wailed out soppy plucky-guitar songs about trees and new-age revolutions.
“Your black coffee.”
They had run out of sleeve things for the takeaways and the manager didn’t look too disturbed and boring guy had politely moved on from an old lady who was rummaging through her last-ditch change for the month.
“I probably won’t find him,” the lady mumbled as boring guy grabbed his cap and left in a hurry, again reading his watch as if it were life and death. He was either staring at my hands, his watch or scowling at the kid who looked like he was about to pass out.
The old lady smiled at me, her teeth a little wonky. What did people use for toothpaste back in the day? When was toothpaste a thing? I bet boring guy could mouth off history surrounding toothpaste.
“Someone told me that no one should have more than two sugars in their coffee,” the old lady smiled and hugged herself, swaying back and forth, “but who gives a hoot?”
1935 gave a hoot.
“I need the sugar.”
“Oh honey, nothing fixes you like yourself.”
“I’m not sure what that means.”
“Sometimes, you realise that the extra sugar doesn’t really help. It’s just your mind saying it does and you keep going back to it, because you think it’ll help. But, it’s all about really deciding that you’re alright.”
1935 had a lot of drugs, didn’t it? I nodded at the lady and took a big swig of my highly-sweetened coffee, making sure I smacked my lips as I took in the deadly aroma that would save my life. And it helped because the frightening hot cup dug into my skin, the lines of my palm growing red but it didn’t feel like I needed to let it go. I took it.
“It works for me.”
Amanda’s hand was perpetually on my right leg. In the beginning, it was kind of hot. Because she had this ‘technique’ – the slow planting of her hand that would start just above the knee and move up slowly towards my upper thigh; the slight tilt of her head towards my ear and the very slow, deliberate whisper of how great I was, how happy she was, how excited I made her. A whisper that took me. It was something that my body couldn’t forget in a hurry. And I loved the way her hair smelled when she tilted forward, too – it was some sort of caramel and nougat thing with ordinary soap. But I loved it and craved it. And her shoulders had freckles and I was done.
Twelve months later, a ring later, and her hand had become lazy – my lap a constant seating place and then she’d mouth off her plans, her diary, her friends, the wedding and how I’m not paying attention. The tilt, the whisper was gone. And I missed it. And I missed the way her hand looked on my leg, without the rock that cost me my life. And I pictured it differently; that I’d have her whispering secrets only we knew and approvals and wishes everyday and it would make me want to take her home, undress her and make her the happiest person alive and whisper back. Because I always used to whisper back. And I wanted to touch her shoulders but I had started to hesitate.
I don’t know. About three months before the wedding and I was hoping her hand would slick a little more excitedly now and that she’d concentrate on a seafood dinner I was planning tonight instead of my suit and tie and how moody the florist is. The mornings in the café showed Amanda’s mulish side – her insistence on perfection. So much so that I wondered if I was still perfect to her.
“You want the tuna wrap? To share? No chips or anything.”
I also figured that it was never really a question. She insisted – but directed it to me in a question to mock some sort of control that I could ever possess.
The waiter flicked his eyebrows in surprise as he scribbled our order and glanced at me quickly as if to ask where my balls had gone.
A tuna wrap? What was this place on about? Amanda also liked ridding us of sides before the wedding so I was onto a prescribed amount of calories, greens and smoothies that taste like asparagus and powdered cardboard. Before the ring, there was no real agenda or prescribed anything. And I got my own meal.
“So Jonathan said we’ll need more flowers on the main food table. Lilies. I hate roses.”
“I love lilies.”
“I know. So I told Jonathan it’s a go. And then I have my hair trial soon. Mom said I need a few more practice runs to prepare for anything. Your suit fitting is at 3.”
“You put it in my calendar.”
“And then we’ll need to decide on cake.”
“Vanilla. Chocolate is too…childish.”
“You love chocolate. Remember when we had that chocolate fondue on our third date or something? You were putty in my hands.”
“Not for our wedding. Not now.”
She smiled and her hand had momentarily moved and I expected the tilt but it didn’t come. Instead, she moved to collect her notepad to make sure we sample everything vanilla. Standard. How many variations of vanilla can be approved and what vanilla combination tastes better than another vanilla combination?
“Everyone likes vanilla.” She packed her notepad away and our tuna wrap arrived in all its glory. The tortilla loose around the fish with droppings of rabbit food to enhance the maroon plate that’s just been washed. Some guy at the counter caught my eye and frowned at the idea of tuna for breakfast. I envied his complimentary butterscotch biscuit.
“Ah, more greens. I can feel my muscles crying for it.”
Amanda moved her hand away and put a serviette on my lap.
“Don’t be clever. This will make us fresh for the day. Then a cheat a week will be alright. Dr. Grant says that our cholesterol should be in check now. I know how you loved your steak.”
This was when I fantasized that she’d scurry over and whisper at how she was right and how great I looked in a blue shirt. She used to do that a lot so I’d wear blue a lot just so I could expect her to lean in. I’d also imagine that we’d buy steak and chocolate and actually have a night in where we indulge a little and we forget about the plans and other people for a while. That she’d give into my usual blue shirt, take it off and take me to bed. And we’d forget about calories and doctor orders and the 2.5 kids we’d have one day and the monotonous way we’d go about our lives. And that I’d get excited to see her freckles and the way she needed me in some moments – so deeply that I felt like I was alive just for her.
I scooted closer and put my hand on her lap and she looked up and smiled at me. A little surprised. I shut her up. Finally.
Before I could whisper anything, an old lady pressed against my shoulder as she held her cup of something in her gloves as if it were her Philosopher’s Stone, her last meal. She looked at Amanda and me and then just at me and remembered something in a moment.
“I’m sorry.” she said quietly.
I was sorry, too.