By the time you get to the café – three shops to the left – your hair’s caught some of the rain. Maybe it’ll fall flat now. Maybe you’ll catch a cold, though a few drops never killed anyone. The door opens inwards and you’re gripped by the smells of coffee, sugar and vanilla. The temperature inside this café of 4 tables has shifted north just a little, but enough to make you notice. Have you been here before? Probably not. Cafes mean speaking to people and the accidental eye contact and god knows you’ve spent a good part of your life avoiding both.
But you’re here now.
And your companion from earlier has settled into a table, dwarfing it. Settled well in, as he’s using the time looking at you. You would too, had someone stood at the entrance of an empty café looking at nowhere really. And now you’re looking at him. Start walking, idiot.
Why are you here anyway?
Did you want coffee?
When was the last time you had coffee?
Did you blank out back there?
Did he hypnotise you?
Is this safe?
Why isn’t there anyone else in the café?
“Nobody really notices this café, probably the sign. Doesn’t glow. So we’re usually slow.”
“Loyal weekend crowd though.”
You’re in the booth already. Why does this place have booths? But it’s lit up. So it’s not absolutely the 70s.
“Do you work here?”
“Yes, also own it.”
You like the seat, feeling it on your fingertips. “So what’s good?”
His eyebrows scrunch themselves up. That’s a lot of scrunching. Of course. Listen to yourself.
“What would you recommend?”
Ah. Scrunch resolved.
“Well,” – is he assessing you? – “Cappuccino.”
Frankly, that’s a let-down. You always assume your tryst with strangers will mean they will have some secret knowledge about you, intuitively. And a cappuccino is far, far from intuitive. Masala chai would be nice, although he did say coffee. An espresso just to get out of the funk. Or an iced americano. So that the ice melts into itself and you can stay in this warm seat, sipping on the reincarnation of your original drink.
“Cappuccino’s great.” You’re not a monster.
He’s off the table and into the kitchen, and you take a moment to sigh into your crossed arms on the table, keeping your head down just to stop it from trying to desperately process and execute everything you’re feeling.
Sadness. A shade less than the morning, but sadness alright. Apprehension of opening the door to your house. Guilt for what you did. Guilt some more for being in this seat not because this man gave you his phone and help, but because something shifted in you after years when you saw the fabric of his jacket taut against his back. Guilt for making this man brew you a coffee you don’t even want. Guilt because it’s raining outside and you’ve never needed alcohol – you’ve only needed the right rain. And this is the right rain at the wrong time.
Guilt because his sideburns have a shade of grey in them.
You aren’t worried though. Somehow, safety is the least of your problems today.
Something moves on the table and you snap up.
He’s made himself an espresso, but you’re not going to whine now, are you? The cup’s wider than you’re used to, so there will be a moustache. But it’s pretty, the whole thing. Some kind of leafy design made of fine, slightly reddish coffee powder on the froth. It’s not coffee powder though. It’s cinnamon.
He’s put cinnamon in your cappuccino and now you want to snuggle against his shoulder in the rain and smelling of cinnamon.
You stare diligently at your coffee because clearly you need something stronger and drink up. The plan is to finish this as quickly as you can but your tongue and lips are off to mutiny. This is good, warm coffee. The spice stirs something, and the sip had the most subtle aftertaste. He’s made art in a cup.
You look up and catch his eye.
“Thank you. It’s quite lovely.”
This is the first, decent, non-pathetic thing you’ve said to this man. Almost ladylike. He nods and the light catches the scar under his eye and sideburns. A knot you didn’t know you had in your gut tightens. You want to touch the smooth, pink scar with the pads of your thumb.
“What happened to you?”
“I had a bad start to the day.”
“And it nearly ended with your card being swallowed?”
“Nearly, yes.” But thanks for this.
“I’ve seen you before.”
Of course, he has. A few weeks ago, you had that showdown around this corner with a cab driver who wouldn’t go a few hundred feet further on a rainy day. It got loud and horrible rather quickly. That was another bad day. Several people from stores and restaurants had tried to intervene. A cop had to step in.
But you hadn’t seen this one. This one should have stuck in memory.
“I had the morning shift so I was watching from inside here.” Ah.
“I won that day.”
“What did you win?”
“The argument. He had to drop me to the vet’s clinic ahead and he refused to. I made him.”
“Good start to the day then?”
He’s talking about that day, not today.
“No, not really.” You like that he leans in, urging you to share more. “My dog’s scan. Tumours in the lungs.”
He’s scratching his hair; you want to do it for him. “That’s bad. Yeah. How’s it now?”
The spell is broken. Binks’s shiny eyes and the whine that’s caught at the back of his throat since 4 am this morning and how his coat felt course as you piled him alone in the cab. You want to say with a straight face that yes, I decided that I can’t treat it any more, that I have to take this decision for him. So, as of this morning, I turned into a god, and had him put down, because I’m omniscient and I can tell is there’s no hope and no cure.
I heard him howl in pain through the night and in one irreversible decision, I killed the one thing in the world that loved me.
Now the coffee tastes salty and you’re a swirling mess of tears, snot, dread and darkness.