My sister Dana had recently gotten dumped by her boyfriend Teddy. I liked him fine, but knew he wasn’t “the one,” just the right wrong boyfriend for her to have at the time. He got her to meet new people, and try Korean barbecue, and go to comedy shows at dive bars. In a few short weeks after the breakup, she picked up hiking (which she hates), went on a juice cleanse (which made her mean), and got a new, near-six-figure government job (which crowned her champion of the breakup).
But she still redirected all of our weekly dinners to ask me why I thought he had dumped her and why he hadn’t reached out since. “I don’t know,” I’d say, “He’s just crazy and flaky and you’re better off without him.”
“Yeah, I know that, but he’s not better off without me,” she said. “Joan, listen, I’m thriving. I’m just curious why he didn’t think he’d miss me.” She’s genuinely a narcissist, which may have been Teddy’s issue.
“It’s a mystery.”
As soon as I left Dana’s apartment, I got a message from my roommate, Kate, that she was “entertaining a guest,” meaning her boyfriend, Zach. It was more of a polite warning than anything else, but I certainly didn’t want to walk in on anything. Not after last time.
Kate and Zach met at a party, aggressively. Both were dating other people who were missing out on the fun, homebodies. When the banter was uncontrollable, hot and mean, they took to the host’s walk-in closet. They had been exhaustingly inseparable since.
Insomniacs’ Cafe was the only place open past 10pm that didn’t serve alcohol. I didn’t feel like getting roofied that night, so I went in. Offended at the flippant use of the word “insomnia,” a very real thing I’d been tortured by for years, I nearly didn’t give them the satisfaction of my patronage. However, I did appreciate their proper plural possessive apostrophe.
The bell above the door rang as I stepped through. The floor tiling was a neon quilt and I could only imagine how many Instagram aesthetics have benefitted from this design. The menu above the barista’s head was like any other, using a lavender latte as their quirky, new addition.
I stood in line behind two women in activewear (one with a shaved head and the other with a neurotically tight ponytail), an old man in an oversized polo shirt, and a 25ish guy who looked like he was the kind of kid who spiked his hair and wore those button-up shirts with flames on them in third grade. Meaning, he was white and preppy and half-heartedly attempting punk, but failing.
The guy turned around and stared at me. “Hi.”
I crossed my arms and forced a smile, “Hey.”
“Have you been here before?” he asked.
“Oh. Well, do you know if they have decaf here?”
It would be absurd to assume otherwise. “Probably,” I answered. “If not, which is unlikely, you can order an herbal tea.”
“Cool, thanks.” To this, I hoped we’d be through. But he shot me with a: “So, are you from around here?”
I could either be that allegedly crazy, conceited bitch who tells the guy that I’m not interested, to which he will most definitely deny his flirting with me. Or I could continue this idle conversation until he confirms my suspicions and makes a concrete, undeniable move that I go along with to be polite.
“Yeah,” I said. “I mean, kind of. College town.”
He nods, “Cool. So you’re still in school?”
“Thanks.” The old man dropped his coin change into the tip jar. “I think you’re next.”
“Let me buy your coffee,” he offered.
I couldn’t owe this guy anything. A five dollar latte could be exchanged for my phone number: a transaction I wasn’t comfortable making. “No, really, thank you though.”
“Please? As a graduation gift. I’ll get you anything you want. One of everything on the menu.”
“That’s sweet but...”
“Okay, fine, two of everything,” he chuckled, quite pleased with his chivalry. He turned to the barista, “Hey, you got decaf here?”
The barista looked at him and at me. “Yeah,” translated to “duh” in his inflection. I was glad to not be alone.
“Great,” the guy said, “I’ll have a,” he looked up at the menu again, apparently not having rehearsed it enough in his head like everybody else, “a decaf vanilla latte.”
“Anything else?” the barista asked.
“Anything this lady here wants.”
“No, please, it’s fine.”
“No, please, really,” he insisted. A few more people jumped in line behind us, trendy teens, and I could hear the barista tapping his foot behind the counter. I was holding everybody up.
“All right,” I turned to the barista, “I’ll have a small decaf drip.”
“Come on, live a little,” the guy nudged.
“That’s all. Thank you.”
“All right, we’ll have the coffees and a couple of muffins, surprise us.” He was so excited to interact with a human woman, I didn’t have it in me to stay cold.
“Name for the order?” the barista asked.
“Lewis. Oh yeah,” he turned to me, “I’m Lewis,” he reached out his hand for me to shake.
“Joan,” I shook the hand before me.
“Really?” Lewis asked.
“What do you mean, ‘really?’ It’s my name. Like Cusack and Didion and of Arc. What’s wrong with it?”
“Nothing, nothing,” he didn’t seem like the skeptical type, but there he stood: questioning my name.
Lewis paid the barista and took a seat by a leafy plant. At a table for two. I walked up to him as he took his backpack off and pulled out his laptop. “So...” I began, but didn’t intend on finishing.
“Do you want me to sit with you? Are we talking here now?” I asked. “I couldn’t imagine you ordering me a coffee and a muffin then expecting me to sit over there,” I pointed back at an empty table that looked incredibly inviting.
“Yes, Joan, I do suppose it would be awkward if you didn’t join me. But you don’t have to. And I do have a bit of work to do,” he mocked sophistication in a half-British accent, which was grossly charming. I liked the sound of my name coming from his mouth.
I pulled a book out of my purse and shook it lightly above my head, like a trophy I’d won for being an ill-functioning member of society.
“Lovely,” Lewis said. My favorite word.
Was this it? Was this the story of how I’d meet my soulmate? In a coffee shop, hating him at first, but he broke down my walls, yada yada yada. Like an indie song from 2009. It could be sweet, but I couldn’t get ahead of myself. Though I knew the spontaneous types, Dana and Kate, would surely approve.
In the middle of Lewis telling me about his new job in finance, my dad called. I get biweekly calls, nothing of substance, but I answer with hopes that maybe we’ll eventually have a decent relationship.
Our parents divorced when Dana was in high school, I was in middle school. Dad “fell out of love,” which I didn’t think was allowed to be an option. He dated a wide variety of 30-year-olds to maybe fall back into, but nothing ever stuck. Mom stayed single, as did I. It started out of solidarity, but eventually, I didn’t have to think about it; I was just habitually alone.
“One second, I’ve got to take this,” I pointed at my phone.
“Sure, sure,” Lewis said, looking back at his screen.
“Hello?... Yeah, hi... I’m good... Things are good... She’s good... She made chicken parm, I brought a salad... Chicken parm... Yeah, it was good... I know, she’s the best... Fine... No, I’m at a coffee shop... A coffee shop... No, I’m alone,” I looked at Lewis. I didn’t want to explain any of this to my dad. “Hm?... Mm-hmm... All right... Thanks... All right... Goodnight.” I groaned mental exhaust into the speaker of the phone after hanging up and immediately deleted the call from my history.
“So you had chicken parm?” Lewis asked.
“Oh, yeah. Dinner with my sister.”
“That was my dad on the phone.”
“Cool.” Lewis needed to learn more adjectives.
“Sorry, go ahead and do your thing. Or talk. Whatever,” I waved away the stagnant air of our last dialogue.
“Or we could go somewhere else. I know a great—”
“No,” I interrupted. I knew where he was going. Too fast, too strong. I was warming up, but not hot. “I’m fine here. I still have coffee, still have some conversation in me, pages to read.” No second location. I could be friendly, but not that friendly.
“It’s all right,” Lewis put his hand on mine. “We’ll stay.”
I released an audible sigh.
But Lewis leaned in to whisper, “The bathroom here will do just fine.”
“Oh, ew,” I pulled my hand away from him. Nevermind to the soulmate in a coffee shop story, sorry, friends. I’d be fine not believing in soulmates for a little bit longer, just skittering through life and maybe running into somebody who isn’t utterly repulsive in the shift of a moment. “It’s really late, I really, really should get going,” I pushed in my chair.
“No, don’t go, I hardly got to know you,” Lewis stood up, making the old man nearby flinch. “There’s so much more we could have done.”
“Oh I know,” I said slinging my purse back over my shoulder. “Thank you for the coffee; I really do appreciate it. Have a great night. In the bathroom by yourself.”
I wasn’t ready to face the shaky grounds of Kate and Zach’s entanglement in my apartment. Their unfair bliss stung more than their bare presence in our home. How could they find each other so easily and claim their territory, leaving me to brave this night alone?
It was too late to pop in anywhere else, Dana’s or my mom’s, other friends’ who had found and lost love countless times and teetered between divorce or death, death being the optimal choice.
I sat in my car under the dome light for minutes that felt like months. I hoped the people inside Insomniacs’ were happy. I hoped my dad would stop floundering and my mom would stop grieving. It’s been long enough. I hoped Teddy was well and Dana could stop trying to prove something to herself. I hoped Kate’s and Zach’s exes moved on and were now with faithful, decent people.
My list of hopes is long and yellowed with time.
Maybe I should have gone to a bar and let someone dull my brain and take me. It got too late and the thoughts got too dark, so I clicked off the dome light and drove, radio too loud to let me think.
I kept going until sunrise, fuel tank dangerously low. I stopped at a Chevron a few towns away from home, one I never really knew existed beyond a reflective green sign. I leaned back on the hood of my car to see the indigo and fuchsia and peach and gold on the horizon. Maybe a sleepless dawn was my soulmate.
When the beauty was stagnant, I went inside and poured a crappy 99-cent cup of coffee into a flimsy paper cup. Looking down to fish my wallet out of my purse, I set the cup on the counter and said, “This, and 35 dollars on number...” I looked outside to see which pump I’d parked by.
“You haven’t rehearsed it enough in your head like everybody else?” the cashier said. My head whipped around like an owl to see some sarcastic guy with a familiar-feeling smile: one that would reward the journey and ask for nothing, like that sunrise.
Elena Ender has loved every bit of reading for and editing literary publications Tin House and The Masters Review. She spends her time writing snarky fiction, listening to 2007 pop-punk, and driving around the streets of Portland, OR. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram as @elena_ender.