Short Story – Unsweetened

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She wasn’t there, today. I felt the slightest of droops in my mood. I glanced back over my shoulder, through the glass of the door, hoping that I would see her hurrying across the street to get her coffee before rushing to wherever she worked. But no.

I let out a small sigh and got in line, fishing money from my pocket to purchase my own morning cup of Joe. It was Tuesday, after all, and I hated Tuesdays more than I hated Mondays, even. There was nothing like sitting at a desk for seven hours on the second day of the week, hunched over a keyboard, slowly acquiring Carpal Tunnel Syndrome during countless games of Solitaire.

I made myself stop being so fatalistic and ordered a regular coffee, black, with no sugar. Just the kind of stiff stuff that would get me through the day. I took hesitant sips of the scalding drink, imagining how the morning could have been different if she had been there.

Images of her standing in line before me, in jeans and a nice blouse—or maybe a stylish business suit—long, light brown hair hanging straight down to her shoulder blades, flashed through my mind. I couldn’t stop a slight smile from finding its way onto my lips at the thought. In my little fantasy, she turned her head and met my gaze with pale blue eyes. Even just the idea of that made my pulse quicken, and I cursed myself for my foolishness. Grown men shouldn’t have flights of fancy, I admonished myself, and they certainly shouldn’t feel the twinges of butterflies at the mere thought of a pretty woman.

*       *     *

I walked into the coffee shop on Wednesday, hopeful. It was a little after 8:30 a.m., and I was starting to despair of her appearance. If she was there, it was almost always at that time. I sighed, once again, and got in line to get my coffee. A fat woman, shorter than I by almost a head, bumped into me from behind, and murmured a gravelly early morning apology. As I’d not yet had my coffee either, I just grunted and ignored her. My mood was darkening by the minute.

The door opened behind me, and the little bell above it jingled. Despite my sourness, I turned my head enough to see who came in. It was her.

I jerked my head back forward, perhaps a little too fast. She was getting in line, two spots behind me, I knew. Damn, three times damn. There was no way I could wrangle a way to talk to her with people between us, so I settled for again turning my head a bit. I drank in the brief glance I got at her.

The thoughts were still fresh when I stepped up to the counter and ordered my usual black coffee with no sugar. Money exchanged hands, and I turned to go, getting in one last glance at her before moving toward the door. A thought struck me, and I turned back, intent on asking for creamer from the man behind the counter.

My little plan worked. While I handed him my coffee cup, I heard her order her own drink: premium roast, two spoons of sugar, cream. Her voice rang in my ears, soft but rich, lower than I expected. It fit her, though.

I thanked the man when he gave me my coffee back, no longer the same dark color. I left the shop with a smile on my face and another plan in mind.

*       *       *

It was one excruciating week before I got a chance to implement my plan. She wasn’t there on Thursday, and she beat me there the next three work days. The following Wednesday, though, I saw her walking toward the entrance from the opposite direction just as I was pulling open the door. My heartbeat kicked into high gear, and after only a brief moment of eye contact, I hurried inside. She was only moments behind me, and got in line immediately after me.

I struggled to keep my breath under control; I had no control whatsoever over my heart rate, which continued to exceed normal levels. The two people in line ahead of me seemed to take years to order, but once they did, I started to panic a bit. It was too soon, too soon, but I stepped up to the register nonetheless.

The familiar man behind the register—his name tag always seemed to change; today it read “Curt”—nodded a greeting. “You want the usual? Black, no sugar? Or should I throw in the creamer, like you wanted last week?”

I tried to flash a jaunty, early morning grin at his familiarity, but I had a feeling it ended up looking forced and perhaps a little queasy. “Yes, that,” I began, and had to reach across the counter to grab his sleeve as he turned away. “I’m not done.”

He looked down in surprise at my hand gripping his shirt. “Uh, you’re not?” He sounded confused and more than a little startled.

“Yeah, I’m gonna get another drink, too.” It was truly difficult not to turn around and look at the girl who was, as I was all too aware, only a few scant inches away from me. “I’m gonna get my usual, and then a medium of the premium roast, with cream and two spoons of sugar.”

I sensed her shift behind me as she heard the order; I had no doubt that she’d been listening in on what was going on as soon as I reached across the counter to grab the clerk. I cursed inwardly, wishing I’d been able to spring a total surprise on her. Oh, well.

The man behind the counter—Curt, or whatever his name actually was—raised his eyebrows at me. He knew the usual orders of all the regular customers. Including the girl behind me. He knew what was going on.

Finally, “Curt” nodded and passed two cups down the two-person assembly line behind the counter. While the coffees were being prepared, he turned back to me. “That’ll be six seventy-one.”

I handed over a ten and waited nervously while he fished for change in the drawer and the girl behind me fidgeted; I kept my stare resolutely forward, but I just knew that she was fiddling with the clasp on her handbag, wondering if I was really doing what she thought I was doing.

Finally, and all too soon, “Curt” handed me my change. My already increased heart rate spiked even more as I stepped to the side without turning to talk to the girl. I could sense her hesitation as she stepped up to the register; from the corner of my eye, I saw her look at me with a furrowed brow. She was starting to think that it was all in her head. Good.

Just before she opened her mouth, I turned back and said, “I got it for you, don’t worry.”

The words sounded clunky and awkward, and possibly a little cocky while I spoke. Nevertheless, she smiled, touched my arm, and said, “Thanks!”

At that first contact, I felt all sorts of blood rush to my face. I must have blushed like nothing before me; on top of that, our little interaction had gotten the attention of several other people in the line. I felt like I was on stage.

“Want to sit and talk for a bit?” I asked. “I don’t need to be in for work until nine.”

Her smile remained on her face, and she nodded. “Sure.”

I led her to a small table in the corner, fully aware of the other customers still watching me with interest. I fiddled with the cuff of my shirt while we waited the brief moments it took for our coffees to be made.

“I’m Chris,” I said, suddenly aware that she wouldn’t have known.

She glanced at me from the corner of her eye while she reached for her coffee. “I’m Alicia.”

My reflexes told me to shake hands upon an introduction, but I didn’t know how to proceed in this situation. She looked at me from a more direct angle, her cup in hand and steaming. I gave in to my instincts and stuck my hand out. She shook it, and I felt awkward. The whole situation reeked of that feeling, and I was desperate to change that. I took my own cup of coffee from the counter and walked back to our table, Alicia in tow.

I sat down and took a sip of the scalding drink, and used the inevitable coughing fit as a delaying tactic to think of something to say. It didn’t work, and I found myself making eye contact with Alicia. Her pale blue eyes paralyzed me.

Finally, she broke the silence. “I’ve noticed you in here before,” she said.

My heart jolted, and my paralysis disappeared. She’d noticed me before? That was a good thing, right? I opened my mouth and said the first thing that came to mind. “So have I.” I cursed myself. “I mean, obviously I have.”

She laughed. It was like hearing my lotto number called, or hearing that I was getting promoted to a coveted position. I laughed off those immediate comparisons; it was far better than that.

“Well, you know what I mean,” I continued, trying to settle my thoughts. “I—well, I wouldn’t have bought you that coffee if I hadn’t noticed you.”

She laughed again.

I didn’t know how to continue. Her laughter was as intoxicating as her eyes. She took matters out of my hands, thankfully. “I appreciate it.”

I nodded and jokingly raised my paper cup of coffee for a toast. She smiled and tapped her cup against mine. After the brief silence, I said, “So, Alicia,” I savored her name, “what do you do for a living?”

It sounded lame, but seemed to succeed in breaking the ice. “I teach yoga. At FlexFit, a block down.”

I noticed, as she said that, that she had a fairly large tote bag with her. I assumed it contained a change of workout clothes, since there was no way I could imagine someone teaching yoga in those skinny jeans.

While I took all that in, my mouth worked for me. “Sounds fulfilling—though I can’t say as I’ve ever tried yoga before.”

She smiled, sipping her coffee. “Oh, it is. I’ve been doing it for years now.” She paused. “Well, I’ve only been teaching for one. I’ve been doing yoga in general for six.”

I chuckled, and she colored a bit. I was glad to see that I wasn’t the only one fumbling my thoughts and words. “I bet that keeps you in great shape, though.”

Alicia looked at me for a moment, her coffee cup raised just in front of her lips, and seemed to gauge how to respond. I realized, when she did, that she might have thought I meant that comment in a sexual way. I felt my own cheeks begin to heat.

Finally, she took a sip, set the cup down, and spoke. “It does. I have tons of energy every day.” She tapped the cup in front of her with a finger and a sardonic grin bloomed on her face. “The only reason I drink this is because I feel like I have to. It’s bad; I should probably stop.”

I laughed at the dry tone in her voice and nodded. “Yeah, I got pretty addicted to caffeine in college. Too many late nights, and too many early morning exams.”

She nodded understanding. “What did you study?”

“Accounting. I work just across the street.”

She looked out the front window and took in the corporate headquarters of Smithson & Blanch Advertising, LLC.

“Yeah. Looks pretty exciting, huh?” I winked at her, and was shocked at my boldness.

She didn’t respond to the wink at all, and simply said, “Like a theme park. I’m jealous.”

She held a deadpan expression for all of three seconds before we both laughed. It seemed like a good sign, I thought, that we were making each other laugh so much.

It wasn’t to last, though.

Alicia glanced down at her watch—I noticed the slimness of her wrist, and found the way her silver watch sat on it to be oddly alluring—and her eyes widened. “Oh, wow. It’s almost nine. We should get going.”

My laughter settled, and I got up. We walked to the door and parted ways, me filled with glowing thoughts of our conversation and looking forward to the next morning, when I might see her again and talk over coffee.

*       *       *

I entered that coffee shop the next day, and the next, and each day the following week, with expectations riding heavy in my chest. She wasn’t there. I ordered two coffees each time, mine with cream, and another made the way Alicia liked. Seven coffees went untouched before I returned to my old order of just one coffee.

Unsweetened.

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2 thoughts on “Short Story – Unsweetened

  1. This is amazing! I smiled my way through the whole thing. I fell in love with your style, and I loved how much I hated the ending, and I mean that in a good way. Looking forward to more short stories!

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