Once, the coffee shop walls were sunshine yellow. It was a yellow that to Nick evoked the shape of sweet dreams. Dreams that whispered and took him by the hand. Dreams he couldn’t get facing white walls, six months ago. White walls that faced other white walls, with faceless neighbors who never made themselves known.
He used to spend so many nights here studying or filling futile job applications, right up until closing, when people dispersed, and the blackness of night called him home.
Now, the walls are crimson and gray, lines and angles are pronounced, as if each space must be designated. This is the beginning of one room, one world. There is another.
Once, the lines all seemed less sleek, less visible. There was the counter, the main room, the fridges full of beverages and there was the study room off to the left. There’s a barrier between the rooms too. A window demarcates the two worlds, as if the studiers must be segregated, laughed at. Deemed freaks. Same with the idlers in the main spaces, the ones absorbed in their phones or just sipping their beverages with a certain satisfaction.
Of course, people chatter in the study space and stay silent in the main room. Just like when he came in day after day, after class. When he lived right around the corner, before necessity moved him across town.
On top of all this, Nick doesn’t recognize the barista.
“You lost, dude?” a long-haired man says. He looks disturbingly like a young Tommy Chong but smells of fry grease and Marlboros.
“Not exactly,” Nick says.
“You looking for someone?”
“Sort of,” Nick says. He doesn’t know how to put this all into words. I’ve walked into a coffee shop I was in last six months ago. I’m looking for the sameness of things. Looking for something they didn’t completely wreck.
“Well, good luck,” the man says.
Nick moves forward toward the counter, still faux marble. One good thing anyway.
They used to know Nick’s orders, the litany of baristas. David, Claire, Anna, Tony, and Rachel, all people in their twenties, somewhere between happiness and cynicism, Nick thought. Their smiles seemed to connote this, waiting for signs, signs of where to position themselves. Yet they moved with a youthful grace, their postures confident, unlike Nick who’s always slunk into the world.
Sister Nan even used to call him “the slug.” A truthful joke, but one he laughed at because it was hard not to with Nan’s sea-blue eyes fluttering with secrets and mischief, husky-voiced charisma.
He thinks of his old orders, hot chocolate, a pot of vanilla rooibos tea depending on the mood. Order for Nick, they’d call over sizzling coffee, laughter, and murmured secrets. Nick, Nick, a name shouted out with enthusiasm, a name that hovered in the air without fail. They used to ask about his day, what he was writing, when he was going to graduate. He was always camped out in his favorite little seat, between the piano and the front window. There he could savor the laughter, snatch it, without hearing the secrets beneath it, the connections between boyfriends, girlfriends, brothers, sisters. He was afraid of what might rise to his ears. I love you, sweetheart, darling, some nickname or another.
The last nickname Nan called him was pooper. He has no idea why, still. But he loves the randomness of it, the lack of precise logic.
The baristas even remembered his birthday once, offered him a free cup of cocoa when no cards came in the mail from Mom and sister Nan forgot to text, something that’s become even more common. Nick still thinks of the way they plopped the cup before him, the gentle clink of cup meeting wood. The warm cocoa beckoning, each swig its own long sensation. The call of “Happy Birthday,” so vibrant.
Now there’s a young chestnut-haired barista in a black turtleneck and beige apron. She wears her hair in a blunt bob, along with a prominent pair of cat-eye glasses. Her eyes flicker, owl-like and hazel.
She smells like Camels, possibly a trace of sweat and onions too. She calls him “sir,” asks what he wants. When Nick says, “one of my usuals,” she cocks her head, smiles.
“Tell me,” she says, drumming the counter. “Please. I’m sorry. It’s been so fucking hectic with the remodels and the new crop of students coming in. Pardon my French, obviously.”
“Yes,” Nick says. “It’s easy to disappear. Very easy.”
“What was your name?” she says.
As if grabbed by a growing sense of deflation, Nick just says, “Christophe.” At least it’s a somewhat memorable name, a name the barista might carry with her on some subconscious level. A name that connotes a certain grace.
“Christophe,” she says, smiling. “Beautiful name. I’ve heard a lot of names. You know, I knew a girl from Istanbul named Tuba.”
“Well, we don’t have any choice in names, do we?” Nick smiles.
“Tuba means tree of paradise, I think,” the barista says.
Nick’s name translates to victory.
Mom always lived in historical moments, a teacher immersed in worlds, trying on names and identities. Last he heard, she’d taken the name Tatiana. But back when she was young and still Penelope Botkin, she’d named him after none other than Tsar Nicholas II. Nick’s wondered if that had anything to do with his inability to pay bills, maintain steady jobs, convey confidence in the world. Is it the misfortune of history reaching in like a monster, ghosts taunting?
“Nope,” the barista smiles again. Her smile’s crooked now. “I wouldn’t have chosen Misty as a name to be honest. It doesn’t fit. But I’m rambling again. What would you like?”
He wonders if they still have the same old teas, or if they’ve also been trammeled by transition. He couldn’t bear to think of drinking some variant of the rooibos tea. Or something else entirely. Likewise, with the cocoa. Have the ingredients been diluted by dollars and cold pragmatism?
“Nothing right now. I’ll get something in a few minutes,” Nick says.
“No rush,” the barista says. She stares at Nick for a moment, mouth agape, as if she wants to say something. Maybe offer a secret about the transformation of his beloved coffee shop. Maybe she wants to offer some word of comfort, to simply tell him to have a good day.
But she doesn’t and for a moment, Nick hates her. Truly despises her, until shame rises and he brushes it away.
“Thank you,” Nick says. “Sorry. I just can’t make up my mind right now.”
“No worries.” She nods and withdraws back into the whir of coffee machines.
Misty is a part of this new world, unaware that she has replaced an old guard or simply cannot afford to lament too long. She has her own bills to pay and life to construct, piece by piece. Perhaps she is saving for a better apartment, a condo even. Perhaps she is saving to leave town, to go somewhere random, but attractive. Or somewhere she has planned to go for years. A larger place. Denver? San Francisco? This is the way of things. People leave, people retreat into the tasks at hand.
He hasn’t talked to Nan in a month. There’s no point in texting. Sure, she works in a movie theater nightly, dispensing cynicism and Skittles, but once their bedrooms were adjoining and she’d burst in and tell a dirty joke. Mickey Mouse divorcing Minnie because she was fucking Goofy was a particular favorite. She’d shove and God forbid, hug on occasion, laughter and energy shimmering. She exuded something beatific, in a very, very crude way and always smelled of pot, Marlboros, and acrid whiskey.
Nick keeps pacing the rooms, moving from main room back into the study room and back. He needs a table, but he’s not ready. The piano’s gone too, the one that was oddly placed in the study room, between the longest row of tables and the front window. The old Sterling with the yellowed ivory keys and the blemishes, deeper and deeper, markers of existence and of love. The barista tells Nick the thing was too out-of-tune.
But it gave the music that perfect discordance, beauty and aloneness converging before Nick wandered home to a dark apartment. They had a pianist play several evenings a week, and she’d often play classical pieces like “Claire De Lune,” or “Valse Sentimentale,” music that lingered with him, even while studying at home late nights. Notes that sobbed and danced all in one, drifting into the expanse of space and sky.
Now there’s just a table in its place, peppered with copies of The New York Times. Taylor Swift drones from unseen speakers, sleek rhythms rising. Shake it off. Shake it off. A swarthy man in too-small navy-blue sweatpants takes it too literally, shaking his butt. His head’s tossed back and he keeps nodding, as if the music has consumed him completely.
“Shut the fuck up,” Nick growls. His fist strikes an expanse of crimson wall, a thud that echoes. The man turns, thick eyebrows arched. Other patrons whirl around, fascinated by this possible scene.
“Sorry,” Nick says. “Not you. That fucking music.”
“You don’t like Taylor Swift?”
“Not particularly,” Nick says. “
“It’s about empowerment.”
Nick shakes his head.
“Shit man, you’re miserable,” the swarthy man says.
“I like music,” Nick says, his voice rising. “I just prefer Tchaikovsky. No neat messages packaged. Just sorrow on his sleeve. Or joy. Give me strings, pianos, but not fucking synthesizers and substitutes for everything. Whatever happened to music that conveyed love and loneliness?”
Nick realizes that his voice is sharp, cracking even. Outside cars roar through the parking lot, squealing to a stop. Thunder rumbles and Nick realizes that it is growing darker, charcoal-colored clouds casting deep shadows.
The swarthy man just nods and slinks back into his table. Nick wants to apologize for stopping this man’s dance, his moment in time. This man has found something small and good in an obnoxious commercial song and that’s more than Nick can say for himself.
Misty stares through the window between the study space and general area. Nick just nods and smiles. He doesn’t want to be escorted out. Not like this.
He wants to shoot the speakers out, one by one. Paint over the walls, stroke by stroke. He wants to hug the old walls, hug them very hard. And he wants to ask if anyone’s noticed all these changes. But people are immersed in the study room, in the main space. Students are hunched over notes, giggling, at the long rectangular table in the middle of the study room. An old man in a fedora sits at the tiniest of tables in a corner perpendicular to the rectangular table. Not a book in sight. He smells of mint soap. He stares into the crimson expanse, eyes wide, as if he’s somewhere else, somewhere better.
A flame-haired young woman laughs, at a table in front of him, hands gesturing like wild creatures to a lanky boy. He looks like McLovin from Superbad. Same little mouth even. Same glasses. Maybe they’re lovers, planning out a date. Or brother and sister, reconnecting.
Probably lovers, Nick thinks.Misty strides in.
“Everything all right?” she says, staring straight at Nick.
“I’m fine,” Nick says.
“Are you going to order something?”
“In a minute, I promise.”
“It’s just that things get busy this time of day,” she says, inhaling. “We like to make sure we have enough space for everyone.”
“I won’t stay long,” he says, the words striking. Space, space.
“Oh, I’m not trying to kick you out,” she says, words trailing.
“Sure, you are,” Nick says. “It’s all right though. You need your spaces. I won’t stay long.”
She just nods, stares at him again and walks, her steps precise. Clickety-clack, clickety-clack.
Nick feels his face crumple like a dollar bill. He takes a deep breath, then another.
A digital clock on the wall, its quartz ancestor departed, displays the time in bold, cold font. 16:20 pm. March 15. Temperature 51 degrees.
Nick walks to a table in the right hand corner of the study room. It’s not his table, the scratched one between the piano and the window, but a new oak table. A blank square, constrained space staring. It waits for a computer, a book, some marker of consecration. But this table’s even smaller than his old spot. Sharp angles open onto a precipice and the floor. White tiles shimmer, where they were once splayed with mud, dullness, pieces of bagel, and candy wrappers.
Once little elementary-school sized chairs squeaked a welcome and Nick loved shifting around, finding the right angle at which to sit. They seemed to cling to Nick, whispering, stay a while, pal. We could use a little company.
Now long, sleek oak chairs with more lines await. Sit, they call, like a drill sergeant.
Nick lowers himself into this new space, his buttocks descending, as if he’s sinking, sinking, sinking. As the clock changes to 16:21, he makes contact with the chair. Not the tiniest squeak rises. There’s just a body, a space, and the hard, hard scrape of settling.