All Stories, General Fiction

Black Coffee | Hēi Kāfēi by T.L. Tomljanovic

Cigarette smoke curls up in front of my face like curtains parting on a stage. I lower my hand to my drink and shift on the hard metal stool facing the band.

The western world may have quit cancer sticks, but Shanghai is a throwback to a wilder time, and I throw myself right into it. I take another drag off my latest addiction– clove cigarettes. I soak up the nicotine, the syrupy sweetness of my rum and coke, and the atmosphere. I like sitting by myself swirling the ice in my drink and smoking. It’s a nice contrast to my workdays spent corralling dozens of shouting, laughing, and crying preschoolers.

My cousin Frank plays piano in a jazz quartet who are warming up at the mostly empty Cotton Club on a Tuesday night. Frank’s not really my cousin, but his family is from the same small town as my mom. Back home in Saskatchewan, that doesn’t mean anything, but in Shanghai, that’s close enough of a connection to call him family. So, when his band rolls into the Xuhui district for a four-week gig, I velcro myself to the small reminder of home like a grasshopper to a wiper blade.

The band’s vocalist oozes jazz. Her coal-black hair is slicked back close to her scalp. Her lipstick a brick-red smear next to the retro silver mic. She’s crooning about loneliness, regret, and a man. The song is Black Coffee. 

Calm settles over me for the first time since last night. I’m glad my boyfriend Cal doesn’t know where I am.

I met Calvin at a bar. He said he’d, “Show me the real Shanghai.” After a month alone writing English lesson plans in my flat, I thought that sounded pretty good. 

Cal is older, speaks Mandarin fluently, has a six-pack and a pockmarked face. He’s a fellow Canadian ex-pat and Chinese; he helps bridge the gap between my home and here. And I was lonely. 

Cal thinks Frank is my cousin. 

The singer thanks the audience after each song with a carefully enunciated, “xièxiè.” I mentally add the Shanghainese verbal tic “ah” to the end.

The band breaks between sets, and Frank walks over. He’s hard to miss. He has bright orange-red hair and, at six-foot-two, towers over everyone else in the room. Then again, I tower over everyone in the room and I’m five-foot-eight. Frank has got an aw-shucks kind of charm that small town mid-west boys all seem to exude. His physicality and personality do not fit the brooding jazz persona at all. He doesn’t look like he’s suffered enough.

“Hey, we’re gonna have an open set for anyone who wants to join us for a song. Do ya play?”

“Yeah.” What good ol’ Prairie girl wasn’t forced to take piano lessons as a child? “But I’m not that good.” I dropped piano after failing the Level 2 Royal Conservatory test twice. 

“How ‘bout singing?” he asks.

I laugh and tap the ash from my smoke. I like Frank, but I wish he’d go away.

We make small talk for five minutes before he goes back on stage.

My thoughts darken. I stare at my drink. I think about Cal, and I try to remember last night.

We were drunk. I remember that much. We were naked and in bed. He was behind me. I said no. I mean, I think I said no. I meant to.

I left his flat and went to work the next morning with a pounding headache. Afterward, I found myself at the Cotton Club. I hadn’t planned on going, but when Frank texted me, I just went with it, like I usually do.

I take another small sip of booze. The sickly-sweet taste of it and the clove smoke has turned cloying. I swirl the ice cubes with my straw and wish that I liked liquor more. I wish that I could afford a second drink. This one cost me twenty kaui.

The band is well into their second set. I look at my Cartier watch. It’s a thing of beauty, silver links joining together around a slender rectangular white clock face with nothing so garish as numbers. It features Roman numerals and the Cartier name in elegant script. Cal bought it for me as a birthday present. It’s a knockoff.

Everything I have in Shanghai, from my Dior blue handbag to my Hermes gold silk scarf, is fake. Cal introduced me to the frenzied street markets. Hundreds of stalls and vendors peddling knockoff brand-name clothing, stolen mobiles, and imitation antiques.

I check my watch again. It’s late. I glance at the band and decide on a French exit. I can call Frank tomorrow. I finish my drink and slip out, hailing a cab. 

Back at my flat, I can’t sleep.

I’ve been drinking a lot of coffee during my teaching stint. Tea may reign supreme in China, but some habits are hard to break. I managed to get my hands on some straight instant. Most of the coffee in this city is sold in individual packets pre-mixed with whitener and sugar. It’s not great, but I’ll take stale coffee over tea leaves in my teeth.

I consider texting Cal. When I look at my mobile, I see four missed texts from Frank.

“Why’d u leave?”

“Where r u?”

“Want company?”

“About last night…”

I flip my mobile shut. I pour myself a black coffee and stare at the wall.

T.L. Tomljanovic

Image by Ralf Vetterle from Pixabay 

12 thoughts on “Black Coffee | Hēi Kāfēi by T.L. Tomljanovic”

  1. Highly evocative, rich prose which really transports you to a place. I felt like I was reading something from the 1920s/30s at first so liked the surprise of realising it’s set in modern times.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Tatiana–
    It may sound contradictory, but this is a fine construction of aimlessness. A “pause” in a life. One can feel the MC wanting to move on, for like the coffee she finds this particular adventure increasingly stale. Well done.


    Liked by 1 person

  3. Indeed, the protagonist seems like she’s in a strange situation, pre school teacher by day, high class mistress by night. I’m not sure if it was Frank she had the not exactly consensual experience with or Cal, but maybe that doesn’t matter. Interestingly atmospheric, the protagonist perhaps is trying to get some mystery and adventure into her life, but it’s rather artificial, like the fake brands.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. p.s. Your confusion over the not exactly consensual relationship with Cal or Frank is understandable. I originally wrote this as a clear assault by Cal, but then decided to muddy the waters and turn it into an affair with Frank. I wanted to give the protagonist more agency and Frank a bigger role. But, I left it ambiguous so the reader could (hopefully) interpret the story through their own lens.

        Liked by 2 people

  4. Hi Tatiana,
    I loved the tone and the pace. It is also very visual and I would like to visit that bar.
    I was left with a wee bit unease as I wondered if she was raped or unfaithful?
    This is a very provocative plot-line which you should be commended for. You were very courageous to raise it with such a vague and subtle hinting.
    The darkness is a very interesting offshoot and you judged the information that you gave us beautifully.
    Looking forward to reading more from you.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you, Hugh. I feel like you really got where I was trying to go with this story. I keep singing your and Leila’s praises on Twitter, but it bears repeating here, you’re both such wonderful editors to work with. I’m grateful to you both for publishing my stories.

      Liked by 1 person

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