Ann Arbor, MI

He was fighting with the espresso machine when she came in. He didn't actually care about timing each shot to perfection, but he was hoping to avoid a reprimand from his sweaty and over-eager manager Andrew.  

The cafe was in the basement of a new storefront for a brand selling expensive handmade leather wallets and watches, packaged neatly with socioeconomic responsibility and the rebirth of Detroit. Along the darkly painted cinder block walls were three separate record players with headphone listening stations, and a stack of albums, carefully curated for sense of cultural longevity; Simon and Garfunkel, Neil Young, Miles Davis, and Dolly Parton.

Andrew, whom he had spent almost every day with for the past three months, was passionate about coffee; a feeling which he was actually envious of. Occasionally, he fantasized about impressing future girlfriends with perfect latte art, but now that he actually had the chance to learn, he maintained a safe distance of apathy. Caring about coffee in that way would mean giving up some rough edge of himself that he still took pride in.  

Working behind a counter, he felt an affinity with the espresso machine.  He was a smiling hub of input and output without any real personality. In the eyes of his customers, he was the guy working at the coffee shop; a seemingly singular character which fully described all guys who worked at all coffee shops. He didn't mind, he actually enjoyed the chance to embody a persona which he felt with certainty was not his own.

Looking at the new interloper, he couldn't decide if she was pretty or not. She was small and slightly boyish, wearing jeans and a bell-sleeved floral top that had the soft faded look of a secondhand store.  A canvas backpack swung loosely from one of her shoulders. Her eyes moved around the room like a vacuum, taking in the details. After flipping through some of the records with a sort of performative confidence, she approached him.

Hi, he said, giving her his most generic smile. What can I get for you?

Greetings, she said, How is your day going?  She spoke with an ironic, almost flirtatious tone.

My day is fine, he said flatly.

She seemed not to notice his failure to engage, and continued with her interrogation.

Do you like working here?

Um, he said, suddenly feeling blank and awkward, what?  

Do you like working here? She asked again.

Oh. yeah, it's good. He said, looking around to see if Andrew was listening. Do you want an application or something?

No, I was just wondering because you seem bored

He felt annoyance manifest as a slight headache. His anonymity had been intruded on. Did he have to be supremely enthusiastic on top of friendly and functional now? He wiped his hands on his work pants, a pair of khakis that was slightly too short and made him look like a teenager.

Oh, sorry. He said, in a tone which conveyed exactly how not sorry he was. I'm fine. What can I get you?

She sighed. Just a regular coffee, please, and one of those, pointing at almond croissant. Her face had gone slightly pouty, and she sounded dejected.

Jesus. He thought.

He gave her a quick, insincere smile and placed the croissant on a small white plate with a pair of tongs. He filled a mug with coffee and handed it to her.

Thanks, she said, taking the plate and mug, and sitting down at the small industrial style table directly in front of the counter.  

He felt flustered by the interaction, and continued to study her from his vantage point behind the counter. As she sat down, the hem of her jeans pulled away from her white canvas shoes, revealing what looked to be a sort of metal pole in place of her right ankle, a prosthetic leg.

At this unexpected sight, a wave of hot adrenaline passed through him, like he'd seen something he shouldn't have, and he looked away, suddenly feeling a desperate need to clean the counter of coffee grinds.

His annoyance with her evaporated, and was replaced with a dull, pounding shame. I'm such an asshole, he thought, mentally reviewing their entire interaction in his head. How had he missed it when she walked in?  He tried to reassure himself by thinking of all of the morally righteous things he had done recently. His Grandmother lived in a nursing home 30 minutes away from his apartment. Since his dad had taken a job in Minneapolis, he visited her frequently.  She always smiled and told him to cut his hair, and asked him when we was going to get married. She smelled bad, like formaldehyde and feces. He was a nice person, wasn’t he?

He looked back up at the girl. So, he said, trying to sound casual, do you live around here?

Oh, now you want to talk, she said, flashing him a grin. When she smiled, her face relaxed, and she seemed like an entirely different person than the one who had accused him of boredom just minutes ago.  She seemed suddenly fascinating, a person who had fought battles that he could never imagine.

Sorry, he said, genuine this time, you just caught me at a bad time with this machine.

She looked down at her coffee, and then pulled a battered book out of her bag and opened it in front of her. The book had a picture of a shirtless pirate man on the cover, his shirt ripped open with abs glistening in some kind of faux moonlight. A busty teenage girl clung to him, her arms around his waist.

He had no idea how to redeem himself so he shuffled around behind the counter, arranging and rearranging large bags of coffee beans. He picked up his phone but the sight of the screen made him mildly nauseous, and he put it back down. He scratched his left elbow with his right hand and then mindlessly ran his index finger over a geometric black and white tattoo on his wrist.  The dim lighting in the dark basement was making him sleepy and he wished someone else would walk in, but there was no relief to the tension. He could hear Andrew clomping around upstairs, showing customers beautifully backlit displays of leather belts with monogrammed initials, displayed against stark white walls.

The girl quietly sipped her coffee and appeared to be engrossed in her pirate romance. After twenty minutes or so, she reached into her bag and pulled out a ten dollar bill and a white dentist’s office pen with a green clip. She carefully wrote something in the front cover of the book and then put the pen and the money down. When she pushed her chair back from the table, it made a scraping sound which rang out almost apocalyptically. Then, she got up and pranced out of the room with her backpack slung over one shoulder.

At the sound of her chair he looked up. Her jeans were still pushed up around her waist and as she sauntered away, and before they fell back into place, he could clearly see the bottom of her legs, both looking very normal and flesh-like. Confused, he looked down to where she had been sitting and saw, for what seemed like the first time, the strangely jointed metal chair legs.

Her book lay carelessly on the table and he walked out from behind the bar to pick it up. He opened the front cover, inside of which she had written

Call me sometime, Pirate

734 662 3490

Wilder, TN

Sarah waited impatiently at the gas station counter as the bleary eyed clerk scanned her purchases.  He was clearly stoned, and having trouble punching the right buttons on the tablet. Next to the checkout was an add for ‘Krunchy, Krispy Chicken’ and ‘Home Fries’, under which a glass countertop revealed a variety of dried out brown nuggets, which probably smelled good nine or ten hours ago.

Sarah was wearing an oversized tie-dyed shirt, and her chubby white calves were bare beneath knee-length blue shorts.  She held her phone in one hand and pecked at it with the other as she distractedly instructed the clerk on her cigarette preference.  When she had paid him and gotten her change, she turned quickly towards the door, noticing the girl waiting behind her for the first time.

The girl threw her a half smile, which somehow felt more to Sarah like a quick assessment of her value than an attempt at politeness.  In a pair of expensive looking yoga pants, the girl looked rich, despite her messy hair and plain face. She had soft, smooth skin and perfect white teeth. Sarah could tell she was from out of town, nobody around here dressed like that. What the hell was she doing in Wilder, alone, at this hour?  Sarah walked by without acknowledging her, internally rolling her eyes.

When she got to the truck, Trey was waiting in the driver’s seat.

‘You took long enough’ he said

‘I was getting your cigarettes’ she retorted

‘And a whole bunch of other shit’ he said, eyeing her Twix bar.

Sarah rolled her eyes, out loud this time.

It was late, almost eleven, and the gas station was lit up like a fire escape under the black, small town sky.

As Trey started the engine, the rich girl walked out of the storefront glass doors, looking like a perfectly ripe fruit among moldy produce.  Sarah watched Trey’s face to see if he would notice her. She saw the subtle twitch of his mouth as his eyes followed her stride longingly across the parking lot to her shiny SUV.  Sarah felt a hot fist clench in her stomach, and she looked away.

They drove home in silence, along two-lane county roads littered with fast food bags and beer cans, framed by dark fields and cattle. Sarah was restless in the passenger seat. She felt sweaty and ill formed with her scratchy clothes and frizzy hair.  Earlier that evening, she had applied a new lipstick shade that she’d picked up at Walgreens on a whim, and it felt sticky on her lips. She flipped opened the car visor, and the mirror confirmed her fears that it looked cheap and stupid.

As soon as they got home, Sarah scrubbed her face hard with a paper towel over the small bathroom sink. Better to blend in than to look like a try hard, she thought.

Trey had turned on the TV and didn’t even turn to her when she walked by him towards the bedroom.  She lingered in the doorway, examining the back of his head. “Look at me”, she thought.

But the TV blared on and Sarah walked down the hall. She tore off her miserable clothes and crawled into bed.