A Tall Order
The whirring sounds of grinding espresso beans and of baristas foaming milk filled the darkened room. People sat in comfy chairs and at cafe tables sipping lattes and cappuccinos. Most were alone. Some read a book or the newspaper. Others worked on laptops. The only couple spoke in hushed tones over their cardboard-cradled cups.
The woman popped off the white plastic lid and lined up the drink opening with the green, circular logo on the front of the white paperboard cup before snapping the lid back in place. Then she turned the cardboard sleeve until its logo lined up with the logo on the cup. She took a sip and moaned in delight.
“That good?” The man smiled at her euphoric reaction, but something extra shone in his eyes as he looked at her. He had watched her little ritual with great joy, while tapping the side of his own smaller cup.
“Mmmm. Always. This is ambrosia to me. Almost orgasmic.”
“That was quite a tall order.”
“Venti decaf non-fat no-whip mocha with foam,” she rattled off before taking another sip. The smile in her eyes never faltered, and neither did the gaze she held with him. “And you,” she continued. “Just a tall black coffee?”
“With two Sweet’n Lows.”
“How do they ever keep that straight?”
The man sipped his coffee, the joy of her company radiated from his every pore. But something in his countenance changed as he placed the cup back onto the table. His eyes shot downward. It was the first time he looked away from her. His smile faded and a look of sadness shrouded his face.
Her cheeks relaxed as well.
“This would be too easy.”
“It’s anything but easy,” she sighed, betraying a slight catch in her throat.
“Of course, I mean with you. It’s so natural.”
“I don’t know.”
“Just one minute everything changed.”
“Sure felt that way.”
“Can’t we just go back?”
“We have to, I suppose.”
“I don’t know how.”
“Neither do I.”
“Look. They’ve got their Christmas Blend in. Two for one, the lady said.”
“Really? And they have decaf. Sometimes they don’t have decaf in the special blends.”
“You only drink decaf?”
“That’s just not human.”
“I go rather nuts with caffeine. Literally. It’s a thing.”
“And non-fat, you said. Are you on a diet?”
“You don’t need to be. You look amazing.” His eyes again held the heat from before.
“Kevin,” she breathed.
“Right. Sorry.” For the next few moments, he looked around the cafe. His eyes fell on one person typing away on their laptop, then another reading a book, before they came back to his companion. But he did not look at her for long, just momentarily meeting her gaze before looking down again.
“But what about last week? Do I just put your seduction out of my mind. Wipe it from my memory?”
“We didn’t…” His words slipped across the table so silently they almost did not exist.
“I know we didn’t. I was there. But it was close enough.”
He took a sip of his coffee and watched the laptop guy put his computer in his brown satchel and fasten it.
“What? That didn’t count? Don’t kid yourself.” She crossed her arms and fixed her eyes on the tiers of pastries behind the glass.
“Their coffee is really rich.”
“It is. I have to get it watered down when I get just regular decaf. I tell them to fill it three-quarters and then the rest with hot water. When I get it iced, the hot coffee melting over the ice makes it perfect. Then the best part is watching the half and half swirl down between the ice cubes. I always try to take a picture of it, but it never comes out just right.”
“My god, you’re adorable.”
A blush flashed across her cheek and she tried not to smile. But she glowed with love, and it seemed to meet with the joy emanating from him. Their eyes locked, and for a moment they were the brightest spot in the dark cafe. But the sadness quickly returned.
“I can’t do this dishonestly.” His voice was barely audible over the recorded music and whirring machines. “Those are the rules, right?”
“Yes, so you said last week, too. Then…”
After looking around as if he expected a PI to be taking photos, he leaned in closer across the small cafe table, lowering his voice even further, his words desperate. “What do you want from me?”
“Something you are unwilling to give, or even try for.”
“I asked you to please have patience. It’s going to take a long time.”
“So you keep saying, and I can be patient, too. These feelings just don’t go away, after all. But are you even trying? Does she even know I exist?”
“Of course she does. It’s just…delicate.”
“Why did you do this to us? We were fine before. Perfect as friends. Colleagues. Now you haunt me. Every minute. Every fucking minute, Kevin.”
“It can’t be like that.”
“Well it is like that! It’s not something I can control or I would. Believe me. I would.” The tip of the woman’s nose started turning red and her eyes became glassy. She bit her lip and looked anywhere but at him. Her eyes fell on the rows of reusable cups along the wall and flicked from one to the next down the row, counting them. Red ones dominated the bulk of the display, as it was close to the holidays. Everything was either red or green or blue or white.
The man was silent for a moment. His face held a look of confusion, as if he was trying to think of just the right words. Tears formed in his eyes as well, but the sadness quickly turned to shame. He covered his face with his hands, slowly drawing them down his cheeks, then picked up his coffee for another sip.
She visibly softened, then broke the silence. Yet her voice was cold. “Still no word from my agent. It’s been months. I think she’s forgotten about me.”
“I’m sure that’s not the case.” He forced a smile.
“When will we run lines together again? I miss that.”
“I do, too.”
“Then we should start doing that again. Supporting each other in our work. That seemed to work well for us both last time. We can do this. We can go back.”
“I don’t want to lose you from my life,” he said softly. “I don’t know what to do.”
She reached out to his face but stopped just as her hand was about to touch his square jaw. She pulled back and crossed her arms again, looking away.
“I don’t want to lose you from my life either. And I know we can’t do this dishonestly. It was my rule from the beginning, remember? This just all sideswiped me and now my heart is overpowering my reason. Thank you for the reminder.”
“You saved my marriage. I’m just trying to return the favor.”
“My marriage is fine. My husband knows, remember? We have an agreement.”
“My marriage isn’t.”
“Yes. I know.”
“I love my wife.”
“Yes. I know. I love my husband, and I…” Her thumb worked the drops of mocha into the lipstick on the lid, smearing it. “Don’t you see, love breeds more love. Desire, more desire. There is no loss here, as long as it’s honest.”
“She’ll never go for it.”
“You can’t know that unless you try.”
“I know my wife.”
“Then what are we doing?”
“I don’t know.”
The woman put both hands around her coffee cup, as if to warm them. She looked down intently at the lipstick stained plastic lid before taking another long sip, then continued smearing the lipstick stain into a blurry mess across the plastic top.
The man watched her for a moment, the look in his eyes evolving from pain to love back to pain again.
“Friends, then,” she finally said after taking a deep breath and a deeper swig of her mocha.
“Of course. Always.”
“Just deny this.”
“We either betray ourselves or we betray them, so we betray ourselves.”
Tears filled the woman’s eyes. For several seconds, she squeezed her eyes tightly as if willing the tears to stop from flowing.
“What is it, my darling?”
“Darling. You are the only man to ever call me that. And when you say it, I catch my breath.”
“You are my darling, my love. But this situation, it’s impossible.”
“Do I just keep fantasizing then? That’s all this relationship has been, one fantasy after another. You did this to me.”
“I know. I’m so sorry.”
“You started something you couldn’t finish.”
“Look at me, Kevin. I’m getting older by the day. And you, your career is on the verge of taking off. Film after film, and I can’t even get a commercial. You become more influential and more powerful and just better every day.”
“I wouldn’t have any of it without your help. Without what you have been to me. My friend. My confidant. My muse. I found an agent thanks to you. And nonsense about you getting older. You’re beautiful.”
“I have a decade on you.”
“But you look younger than I do.”
“I’m just so afraid you’re leaving me behind. You’ll forget about me.”
“You should know better than that.”
“Should I?” She dabbed the brown napkin to the corner of her eye, catching the tear before it streaked her black eyeliner down her face. “Look at me. Fucking school girl. I’m just a fool.”
“Just stop. Just stop talking for a minute.”
The sound of a bell, a single dong, clipped the air.
The man picked up his iPhone and looked.
“They need me back on the set.”
“You know I don’t want this. Not this way.”
“But I just…. There’s just…. There’s just no other option.”
“I don’t really know what else to say.”
“Say whatever you like, just as long as it’s not goodbye.”
“Until later, then.”
“Of course. Later.”
She watched him leave, never blinking until he was out of sight.