Emily’s fantasy cliché of meeting cute was bruised, but not broken. Her romantic yearnings were part of her DNA, implanted by a healthy (some might say unhealthy diet) of Disney films and The Princess Bride.
She was eager for another shot at love (but not the likelihood of missing out at said shot).
Emily was comfortably perched in her favorite cozy, indie coffee shop where everyone is creative and full of life and purpose and ideas. Though outwardly conservative, she always felt more at home among these “type” of people, despite the realization that they were likely to see her as the outsider –a plain Jane. Of course, she knew there was more to her than that. Rarely, did others see it. If only they could hear her playlist.
Even in her own social circle, she was an enigma. Her liberal friends found her too conservative. And her conservative friends found her too liberal. So, where did this leave her? One would think being smack dab in the middle would make her feel at home anywhere, but instead, she felt adrift in a no man’s land, never quite good enough for either side, uncomfortably doing the splits with one foot in one door and another foot in another door.
At least she felt like she had a safe haven at this coffee shop, eschewing Starbucks in favor of supporting small business (though, admittedly, she preferred the big chain coffee over most indie brews). She felt even better about the fact that was using a mug, rather than wasting a paper cup. Two levels of guilt killed in one stone.
Aside from her primal need for caffeine and finding the man of her dreams, she was here to study, work on sketches for her art portfolio, and hopefully if she had time – read her hard cover copy of Lord of the Rings that she got from her parents for Christmas – one of those collector’s editions from Barnes & Noble.
But, of course, she was always on the lookout for his Prince Charming – no scratch that, her Westley to her (albeit nerdy) Princess Buttercup.
And this is why she was single.
But then suddenly…
She first spotted him standing at the front of the line from her vantage point in the back of the café. She could tell he was flustered about his order. She turned down the volume on her music to listen in. She immediately noticed that he was going out of his way to be as polite as possible, despite the inconvenience. Being assertive probably wasn’t his strong suit because he hated coming across anything other than ‘nice’. Some might see this as a weakness. She saw it as enduring. She hoped he knew that.
She got the sense he was the type of guy who was too humble to ever take a compliment well.
Whatever the problem was, he appeared to be doing everything in his power not to appear like an asshole – the type of guy who was used to putting up with shit – probably a bullied kid. An ugly duckling who blossomed into a beautiful, humble swan prince. In other words, the male version of herself.
As it would turn out, she couldn’t have been more right.
She rarely got such a strong sense of someone’s character. It was as though she already knew all there was to know about him. Although she was admittedly never a good judge of character, this time just felt so…different.
So, what could she do about it?
For starters, she hoped he wasn’t simply taking his coffee to go. But even if he stuck around, then what? Probably nothing. Why should today be any different?
So even though she was unlikely to find the courage to approach him, what was the likelihood he would approach her? As much as her past shook her confidence, what was more upsetting was the unlikelihood that another guy would ever attempt something like that again.
For what it was worth, she got a similar vibe from this guy as she did on that fateful night. Again, she realized this probably meant nothing. But she was hopelessly devoted to her internal hopeless romantic.
He certainly didn’t strike her as the type of guy who would hit on girls in a bar – let alone a coffee shop. But as much as she saw this trait as a plus, her inability to convey any sign that was interested made the probability of finding someone like this problematic. Somebody would have to break character.
So why not her?
She devised a plan. She would stand behind him in line with the hope he would somehow notice her. At the very least, she could settle for being noticed.
But she was tired of settling dammit!
And knowing her track record, even if she got noticed, it would be by being awkward. It was her modus operandi.
So, what she could do to end her streak of bad luck? Like she promised herself and her friends?
First, she would wait to see if she stayed in the cafe, or took his coffee to go. If he was leaving, she would have to act far more quickly. If he was staying, she would have time to game plan.
Hypothetically, if he did happen to stay in the café, perhaps she could sit closer to him. Leaving nothing to chance, she gathered her belongings and hopped into line. She needed a refill, anyway.
But as her luck would have it, it was just in time for him to get his order straightened out, along with a coupon for a free drink that he thoroughly thanked the barista for, going as far as to tell her that she didn’t have to do that.
He turned around, making direct eye contact with her.
“Excuse me,” he politely said as he sidestepped her, heading toward the door as “Another One Bites the Dust” played.
No, please don’t leave!
But he wasn’t leaving! Instead, he veered off to a window table.
And it just so happened that there was a table open right next to him. It was all working out so perfectly! It was all but written in the stars!
But now what?
Even though she was next in line, she debated leaving it so she could grab that table, but she also really needed more caffeine. Besides, it would have been odd if she didn’t have a drink with her after sitting back down.
Would anybody even notice?
She could always set her stuff down, then get back in line. That wouldn’t be so weird, right?
She continued eyeing the table like a hawk. She noticed him watching her.
Oh my God! He saw me. Is he on to me?
Was it possible he would even know why she moved in the first place?
She pretended to be scoping out the rest of the room, neglecting to realize that it was her turn to order.
“Miss?” the barista nudged.
Panicked, she went ahead and ordered.
“Yes, can I please have a refill. Almond milk. Little bit of sugar.”
Rather than waiting for her order, she bee-lined it toward the table next to her crush du jour, but was suddenly cut off by another customer who swooped in and took her seat.
“Order for Emily!”
She frantically grabbed her drink, nearly knocking it over as she realized that not only had somebody already taken the table she was previouslysitting at, but there was not a single table left at all.
So now what? She looked around helplessly, hoping she didn’t look at panic as she felt.
What was she supposed to do now?
Was she really going to have to leave?
At the very least, she wanted to get work done.
But she would probably have to do so at home.
She turned to head toward the door, bumping into another customer and spilling half of her coffee – and the customer’s.
The customer was clearly annoyed and walked away. She couldn’t even clean up her mess if she wanted to, as she had nowhere to set her stuff. Embarrassed and paranoid that she was making a scene, she continued making her way back out into the cold, cruel world.
But then, across the room, she spotted a customer exhibiting signs of the universal language of getting ready to leave.
She made her way over there, struggling with the balancing act trying to keep a respectful distance, but also signaling to others that this territory was being staked out. Same principal applied to parking spots. However, she was trying to become more assertive. She lost way too many spots over the years. This was a sign of progress.
As the customer continued on gathering his stuff, she asked just out of common courtesy:
“Just checking, are you heading out?”
“Yep. Will be out of here in just a second.”
“All yours,” the man said with a warm smile.
She sat down. It wasn’t ideal, but at least she had a spot.
As she got herself settled in, she kept a periodic eye on her Westley at all times.
Would he even notice me way over here?
But then, a customer got up from the table directly next to him!
Fate was certainly testing her.
She wasn’t going to get up again, was she?
Was she trying too hard?
Maybe she should just stay put to avoid drawing even more attention to herself. Then again, maybe being too obvious would be a good thing? Moving closer might be the only way to get his attention.
As long as she didn’t look too desperate.
She also considered: what if the customer wasn’t actually leaving? She didn’t want to get caught in a no man’s land between tables.
Next thing she knew, she was heading over there. It didn’t even feel like she had control of her body at this point!
She inched closer, hoping by the time she got within striking distance of the table, she could swiftly slide right in a peaceful transition of power. But the customer certainly didn’t seem to be in any rush to hurry up.
She waited awkwardly, knowing that her mere presence was putting added pressure on him to hurry up, which was only half-true. Should she say something? Or, would that only make it worse? While she waited, she contemplated which side of the table to sit on. Did she want to sit opposite him? Or, parallel to him? What would give her the best shot of being noticed? What would be less awkward?
Just as she arrived into prime position, the customer did an unexpected bait and switch and sat back down. She either changed her mind, or never planned on leaving to begin with.
What a ruse!
Not to mention embarrassment.
She turned around to head back to the other table she had just abandoned. By some divine miracle, it was still available!
But right on cue, she knocked a book off a customer’s table. At least this time, it wasn’t a cup of coffee.
She picked up the book and continued her journey back to her table, but just in time to get cut off by another customer who swooped it and took it.
Part of her felt the urge to claim what she thought was rightfully hers. But by the same token, it was all her own doing!
She accepted this fact: fate was telling her to throw in the towel and leave. She gave it a worthy effort. It just wasn’t meant to be. As she headed toward the exit, with her tail between her legs, a voice beamed out, as thought through parting clouds.
“You are more than welcome to share my table.”
The man of her dreams.
Is this really happening?
“Are you sure?”
I don’t mind at all!”
She proceeded to sit down, managing to knock over another customer’s coffee right off her table.
“I am soo sorry. Let me get you another one!”
“Don’t worry about it,” the customer said, with only a slight tone of annoyance. “I was just about done anyway.”
An employee rushed to the scene with a mop bucket.
“So sorry,” she said to the employee, who either didn’t hear her, or ignored her.
“Thank you so much.”
She settled in awkwardly into her spot.
“Thanks again. I feel like I am taking up space you need.”
“Seriousyly. It’s fine. I’m very flexible.”
I’m sure you are.
She felt frazzled and embarrassed and could feel her heart racing. She would have been shocked if he didn’t notice, which, of course, only made her more nervous.
To ease her mind, she pulled out her book, but quickly realized she could only pretend to read it, taking nervous sips of coffee and trying to control the butterflies that were trying with all their might to escape from her belly. Adding more caffeine to the fire probably wasn’t the best idea.
The words in her book might as well have been in a foreign language.
Meanwhile, her future husband appeared to be far too engrossed in his work to even glance in her general direction – perhaps out of politeness, as to not encroach up on her limited space.
Again, she considered the possibility that he not only did he not noticed her at all, but that he simply didn’t care. Yet, she couldn’t help but sense his gaze on her. She was too nervous to look back, thus limiting any chance she had at making a meaningful connection. And as much as she wanted him to notice her, she was also equally self-conscious about it.
When then she somehow found the courage, she realized he wasn’t looking at her at all – he was deeply immersed in whatever it was that he writing in his tattered composition book and lost in whatever he was listening to on his headphones. Which also made her realize the possibility that he was a writer. Which, in turn made her fall in love even more.
At least he seemed pretty settled in for the long haul.
Of course, there was no way to know how long he would stay, but he seemed pretty engrossed in that notebook. It was as though she wasn’t even there at all. But she should have expected otherwise? Perhaps it was her time to make a move.
For now, she decided her best course of option was to get busy with her own work. But all she could do was fake it, fixating instead on what he could possibly be writing in that notebook.
As much as she wanted to continue taking secret peaks at him, her shyness prohibited her from diverting her eyes away from the book she was pretending to read.
But then she thought of a low-risk way to get his attention. She stood up and turned toward him:
“Excuse me, but can you just keep an eye on my stuff while I go to the restroom?”
“Oh, of course, no problem.”
She always found asking people to do this was pointless. Did this security measure actually ever prevent a theft? Maybe people only did it in the context that she was doing it? A subtle form of flirtation
She headed toward the restroom and immediately regretted her method. Because this now meant that his first interaction with her painted an image of her using the restroom. Nothing she could do about it now.
She entered the restroom and realized she really did have to go. She could feel her heart racing and realized how utterly ridiculous she was being. She couldn’t help but wonder whether he had any ulterior motives with asking her to sit with him? Or, was he just being nice? Would he have done the same if it were a guy? Or, a less attractive woman?
Why am I so hopeless?
But it didn’t have to be. Hadn’t she already learned her lesson? She had complete control of her destiny. Well, as in making a move. If he didn’t reciprocate, there was nothing she could do about that.
The question remained: what was she going to do about it? Leave it to chance? Risk letting the potential love of her life walk out the door with the likelihood that she would never see him again? She couldn’t let her past dictate what she was likely to do in this situation. She would have to be proactive. But realizing this didn’t necessarily mean she would follow through on it. In fact, it probably meant there was a greater chance she would crack under pressure.
But there was only one way to find out.
She headed out of the stall, washed her hands, and took a long, last look at herself in the mirror, before realizing that the longer she spent in the bathroom, the more likely he would think about what she might be doing in there.
With a deep breath, she headed back to her table.
“Thank you,” she said with a smile.
“No problem,” he said. “I had to fight someone off with a stick, but other than that, no issues.”
Oh my God, he talked to me!
Granted, he was only replying to my thank you. Probably just being polite. Can’t possibly mean anything.
So now what?
Since reading wasn’t in the cards, she took out her sketchbook to work on her portfolio. Last, but not least, she put on Enya to settle her nerves.
Her Enya obsession was one of her dirty little secrets. In fact, she made sure her phone was turned so he wouldn’t notice.
But even with the soothing melodies of Enya pouring into her ears, she still couldn’t concentrate. He was like a magnet, erasing all of her data. She got the sense that even if he did leave, the regret of throwing away a chance for romance would dominate her thoughts for weeks.
. “Excuse me…?”
At first, she didn’t realize he was talking to her, but then she saw the way he was leaning.
She removed her headphones.
“Okay, your turn. Mind watching my stuff?
“Hmmm, let me think….sure, I guess?” she said with an unexpected coy smile.
“It’s okay” he said sitting back down. “Guess I’ll have to hold it in.”
He’s totally playing along! Is this really happening?!
“Okay, but what should I do if someone tries to steal it?”
“Want my stick?”
He’s not only playing along, he’s using innuendo.
“Oh, my God, that sounded awful,” he said, blushing. “I honestly—”
“I know,” she said, laughing. “It’s even funnier that you didn’t mean it.”
She actually found herself wishing he meant it. But was more impressed by the fact that he didn’t. Perhaps, on a subconscious level, he did.
She watched as he headed to the restroom. She couldn’t help but wonder: did he feel self-conscious, too?
And what was supposed to happen next when he came back?
If she went by her track record, she knew the answer to that question: nothing.
She would find out one way, or another.
What she really needed to be doing was studying for her upcoming exam. Or, work on her portfolio. But she knew it was useless. She was relishing being the female lead in a romantic comedy and she had to play the part. And the part was that of a nervous, awkward, hopeless romantic.
But when wasn’t she?
The only difference, she now had a seemingly willing co-star.
She looked up. He was already on his way back! It wasn’t even a minute!
“That was quick!”
Seriously?! That’s the best I can do?!
“You were timing me?”
“Sorry. I can’t believe I said that.”
“Don’t be,” he laughed. “And I owe you a big thank you.”
“Well, everything seems to be accounted for.
“Oh, yeah. But only because I fought off five people with your stick.”
“Knew I could count on you.”
“Glad somebody can.”
“It’s funny how we feel the need to ask someone to watch our stuff when we go to the bathroom. Because what does that really mean? Has anyone ever had anything stolen? And has anyone ever had to defend somebody’s stuff?”
“So why do we do it?”
“You tell me.”
“You tell me.”
“And if it were to happen, like what does the person doing the guiding do? Signal for help? Address the thief directly? Call 911?”
“I bet it’s never happened before. Ever.”
“Yet, we do it anyway.”
“Sometimes, it’s the only way to get someone’s attention,” she said coyly.
“Now who would do a thing like that?”
They both smiled.
“James,” he said, offering his hand.
They shook hands.
“So, Emily, tell me, what do you do when you are not hanging out in coffee shops?”
“Hanging out and drinking coffee at home. But mostly sleep. And study.”
“Oh! What do you study?”
“Oh, that explains the sketches!”
“Oh, you noticed?”
“Marketing student by day. Failed musician by night.”
“My second guess.”
They both laughed at their breezy interplay.
“But the failed musician thing. The artist in me cries.”
“But I can’t quit! Hence, the song writing I’m going. And got a few possible gigs coming up. So, by ‘failed’, I mean, the idea of making money off my art. But I have learned that making money is not what counts the most. Sure would be nice, but not the end all.”
“I know what you mean. And that’s why I am pursuing a teaching degree to fall back on – even though there’s a part of me that want to get rid of my safety net.”
“I know what you mean. Sometimes, it feels like my naive childhood dream is all but dead as I get closer to finishing my degree. Can’t help but feel that career is looming. Hoping to at least land something in entertainment marketing, so I can at least help other people’s dreams. And maybe make the right connections to help mine.”
“Well, that sounds nice at least.”
“But I will never fully give up on my dream. My philosophy is “Just keep doing your art. No matter what.”
“You make it sound so easy.”
“Well, looks like that’s what you’re doing.”
“Yeah, well…it just feels like I’m spinning in my tracks after what my parents call my ‘pipe dream’.
“Don’t listen. Or, listen and use it as fuel to prove them wrong.”
“That’s all we can do.”
“Well, I will let you get back to your art. And Enya.”
She realized she had turned her phone over!
“Oh, how embarrassing.”
As embarrassing as it was, she was honored that he took the time to not only notice, but remember.
“Hey, we all have our guilty pleasures,” he laughed.
Only, it wasn’t a guilty pleasure. But she wouldn’t let on.
But was he being sarcastic? Or, genuine? Or, genuinely sarcastic? She couldn’t tell.
“Yep, so true.”
“Take me, for instance. I love Hall & Oates. Without shame.
“Okay, maybe I shouldn’t feel so bad.”
“In fact, I’m listening to them right now.”
He put his headphones back on.
As they both got back to “work”, she was a bit disappointed that their conversation was over. For the time being, at least.
As much as she wanted to keep talking, she didn’t want to be a pest. Perhaps he was very busy. He looked busy. And she was supposed to be busy, too. But she gave up on focusing. She just had to fake it.
A half hour later, he began packing up his stuff and she realized it was over.
But then he put a folded Post-It note in front of her.
“It was nice meeting you, Emily,” he added.
“Nice meeting you,” she mumbled.
Then he was gone.
She looked at the note: “Call me if you ever want to get coffee sometime.”
Followed by a smiley face.
She smiled right back at it.
R.J. Fox is the award-winning writer of several short stories, plays, poems, a memoir, and 15 feature length screenplays. His first book – a memoir entitled Love & Vodka: My Surreal Adventures in Ukraine was previously published by Fish Out of Water Books. His debut novel Awaiting Identification was released last spring and was placed on MLive’s top 10 Michigan books of the year. Both books – which were initially screenplays – are currently being developed into feature films. He is on board as a co-producer for Love & Vodka.