Just after the lunch rush, the shop is almost empty. It is easy to ignore the suburbanite women engrossed in gossip in the corner, the man in the suit with the newspaper and cup of tea before him, and the guy wearing sandals, long shorts and a t-shirt two sizes too big tapping away on his laptop.
There isn’t a line, just a grey-haired man receiving his change, but Grace holds back anyway, gazing up at the menu boards behind the counter, inhaling the mixed scents of fresh coffee, melted chocolate and all kinds of breads. As if they aren’t sufficient to tempt taste buds, the glass counter houses shelves filled with muffins, donuts and bagels of every flavor. She takes her time, looking over all the freshly baked goodies. It’s a rare day. She has absolutely nowhere pressing to be.
Finally, she removes the tiny music-filled earbuds and catches the attention of the guy behind the counter. When she places her order, he replies, “Ah, the usual.”
The usual? Exactly how often do I come here?
Should she be creeped out or flattered when he winks and lets his fingers linger on hers while giving her the change?
Strange, but her heart skips a beat.
Her body thinks it’s some kind of chemistry. Her stomach flutters, reminding her that it hasn’t done that for a long, long time. He does have amazing blue eyes and brown hair that looks like he just ran his hand through it.
Grace thanks him softly, sounding like a nervous schoolgirl to herself and backs away from the counter.
Her eyes fall, catching on the tag on his chest. It says, “Nathan.”
“My pleasure.” She hears something in his voice and meets his blue eyes again. Yup, stomach flutter, something she cannot control on the inside, but doesn’t have to show on the outside. She smiles politely and turns to find a seat far away feeling the hole where her usual power resides.
She is used to this kind of attention in her power suit, heels and makeup. Behind a professional reflection, she knows exactly how to push people away with a glance, a gesture. She is in character and knows the rules. Control is hers.
Today, she is hiding from the everyday grind. Grace glances down to see what exactly she’d put on that morning: sneakers, dirty jeans, denim jacket over a t-shirt with a huge cannabis leaf on the front.
Without the costume, the script is gone.
The large brown armchair by the windows reminds her of curling up with a book instead of homework. She turns it just a little so that when she throws her legs over one arm and rests her back against the other, she can look out into the street. She ignores the feeling of being watched herself and jams the earbuds back into her ears.
Today, an empty day….a day where she can go where she wants, do what she wants and forget the pressures of her job, forget routine, forget for just a moment who she is.
Her bag is not even the usual one full of briefs, files, criminal histories and lists of things to do. Today, her bag is not a briefcase, but a large leather messenger bag from her college days and holds just her wallet, a notebook, a couple of pens, a half-finished romance novel that really borders on erotica, and a digital camera. She smiles, thinking of the cell phone she intentionally left on her kitchen counter.
She pulls out the book and tries to remember what it is about, but gives up and starts over. It’s been that long since she had enough moments to put together to read something other than legalese.
After a while, the sun slants to just the right angle to blind her. She thinks briefly about leaving. She’s been here a long while already, there’s only a little bit of cold coffee at the bottom of the large cup. She thinks about a refill. Then her bladder says she has to deal with the first cup first.
When she returns to the chair, the cup is full of steamy cappuccino. Well, now, she has to savor this one too, doesn’t she? She smiles and arranges herself on the chair so that she faces the interior and the blinding ray of the sun warms the back of her head.
Turned into the shop, she catches movements out of the corner of her eye: two men in jeans and button-down shirts almost head-to-head in fevered discussion, a girl with a stack of books on her table scratching furiously in a notebook, a couple of women taking a break from the monotony of spending money. Every one of them comes and goes. Their own worlds enclose them like a thick cocoon.
Two people take turns at the counter. The girl, probably in high school, is round and pretty, her light brown hair clipped messily on her head. She smiles easily and often. Her eyes twinkle. She enjoys her job. Certainly, she must be nice to be around.
Nathan towers over the girl looking like a misplaced athlete. He moves efficiently and a little gracefully.
Grace returns to her book. Only this time it is not so easy to get lost in the pages. The movements of customers and the two behind the counter are distracting. Not that she minds…. Grace clicks the pause button on the earbuds and lets the buzz of customers wash over her.
She closes her eyes to think. Maybe she will take in a movie. Maybe she will walk to the park down the street – anything but return home to an empty apartment.
“Most women read that stuff in the privacy of their own bedroom.”
She looks around, surprised to find Nathan wiping down a nearby table with a well-used dishcloth.
“I’m not most women,” she responds without thinking.
“I see.” He flicks the dishcloth. “What’s your name?”
Caught off guard, her body, relaxed just seconds before, stiffens perceptibly. She has to make herself answer. “Do I come here often enough for you to need to know my name?”
She almost regrets her tone. He does have amazing blue eyes. His brown hair is short and just a little ruffled on top. He smells like coffee and orange juice. Had she her workplace armor, she might have continued to talk to him, or brushed him off easily rather than using stilted words.
He moves closer rather than farther away. He senses her reluctance. He smiles. Her stomach quivers.
“Just like to know my regulars, that’s all.”
The girl returns from the back. The swinging door bounces against the wall and echoes. She carries a spray bottle of glass cleaner and a squeegee and sets to work removing fingerprints from the display cases. Nathan glances at his watch and strides to the counter. The old wood floor creaks beneath his steps.
“Almost ready for the next rush, Kathy?” Nathan asks the girl.
“Yep, everything is filled and ready.” Kathy smiles. She jerks her head in Grace’s direction. “Any luck?”
Nathan glances at Grace assuming the music is hiding his conversation. “Not yet.” A crooked, confident grin slides across his lips as if he can see the future.
Grace tucks her book back into the bag without bothering to save her place. She decides to go to the park after all.
Floorboards creak as she makes her way to the door. A hand on her shoulder stops her. She turns, thinking she’s forgotten something. Her eyes meet Nathan’s nametag. She has to look up. His chin is on the same level as her forehead.
In her hand, he places a small white paper bag. “Take this with you. If you don’t want it, give it to the birds.”
The paper crinkles in her hand. She can’t think of one witty remark. Her mind has gone completely blank the moment she realizes it is his hand on her shoulder. “Thanks,” is all she manages as she steps out of the door, the jingle of a bell following her.
Two steps past the shop her thoughts return in waves. She could kick herself. Grace-from-the-past would have welcomed an interested, good-looking guy with open arms and a smile. Grace-from-the-firm always had something witty on the tip of her tongue. The person back there hadn’t been either. That person that mumbled and stumbled out the door was not a Grace she recognized.
Grace shakes her head to rid herself of these thoughts. The weight of her ponytail, tucked into a bun on every other day but loose and heavy today, is comforting. However, pushing away self-examination leaves room for more disturbing thoughts. Thoughts she should have instinctively, but hadn’t. How does he know she is going to the park? Isn’t it a little creepy that a guy in his mid-thirties working in a coffee shop knows where she is going?
Just being attractive did not excuse him. Serial killers could be attractive. Rapists could be attractive. Maybe her job has jaded her and made her just as cynical as every other attorney she knows.