Originally published in Khimairal Ink Volume 5.3
The little brass bell above the door rang as another customer came in for morning coffee. After months of working here, I felt like one of Pavlov’s damned dogs, conditioned to run to the counter and take her order. Not for the first time, I contemplated ripping the damned thing down. But then I’d have to explain why it was missing to Viv, and she wasn’t likely to appreciate me giving into my
impulses in this situation.
Mrs. Danburry heaved her oversized black purse onto the counter and rested there for a moment, her breath coming harder than it should that early in the morning. “Child, it’s gonna be a hot one.” She fanned her face, red from exertion. “I can feel it clear to my bones.”
I had the same conversation about the weather at least a hundred times a day. Too hot, too cold, too windy. Never just right. And they never wanted a real conversation, just a smile, a nod, and off they went. “It sure is, Mrs. D.”
Before I came to work here, I thought all coffee drinkers were the same. Didn’t take me long to realize that wasn’t the case. Mrs. D She was plain black in a real cup–not paper–with a raspberry Danish on the side. I couldn’t understand why she would pay someone for a plain ol’ cup of coffee that she could get with less fuss and considerably less money from her own coffee maker at home. When I asked Viv, she answered with a sad little shake of her head. “She’s just lonely, Leis. That’s all.” That taught me to take a bit more time when the Mrs. Danburries came in.
“Global warming, I tell you, days like today, I sure believe it.” Mrs. Danburry dug though the depths of her purse and dragged out her coin purse. A wad of crumpled bills kept it from closing all the way. She held my hand firm when I tried to take the money from her. She reached up—the skin on the back of her arm swaying—and gripped my chin. “You’re a good girl, Liesel. Always have been.” She nodded once, her movement hard like that decided it all.
“Thanks,” I never knew what to say to statements like that. As folks figured out that my separation from Luke wasn’t just a temporary break, but rather just the first stop on the road to D-I-V-O-R-C-E, they reached out in different ways. Some with sympathy, like Mrs. Danburry. Others with sneering condemnation. It was a mixed bag as to who responded in what way. Even Luke’s mother seemed to be in the sympathy court, where as my own was none to happy with the renewed single status of her eldest child.
“Here’s your coffee, ma’am.” Roxy, Viv’s daughter, smiled in her shy, sweet way as she set the cup, along with the pastry on the table by the window.
Mrs. D gave my chin an extra squeeze, then worked her way to the table, still complaining about the heat.
It wasn’t so bad, this life I found myself in. Thirty-three, almost divorced, living in my best friend’s spare bedroom, and selling coffee for little more than minimum wage. When I spelled it out like that, it sounded a little bleak, but most days I found plenty to smile about. I poured myself a cup and, with a nod to Viv, stepped around the counter to sit with Mrs. D for a bit.
Halfway to the table, the front door opened again. I smiled that reflexive business polite smile that is required in the service industry. My face froze, along with my throat and limbs as my brain registered who had come through the door. She stood there, shifting her weight from one foot to the other. She was the reason for all the confused, pitying looks, the heated judgment, and a good amount of fear. Hell, she was the reason for the divorce itself. And to make matters worse, she wasn’t even a little bit sorry.
She blushed under my rigid scrutiny, her cheeks flaming red. This couldn’t be easy for her either. The Other Woman wasn’t a role that most could wear comfortably, especially not someone like Grace who faced life head on. Sneaking around just wasn’t in her make up. And yet, she’d done it, played the role of mistress, all with that intense fucking smile on her face. The door swung shut behind her, and that stupid little bell jangled through the silence and over my nerves. Grace stepped forward, a small, unsure smile teasing the corners of her mouth—a combination of guilt and need. “Liesel . . .”
The way she said my name, all timid as if she were afraid I was about to send her away, was nothing like she normally said it. Her hesitation made me want to go to her, assure her everything would be okay. If nothing else, we’d been friends for years, since high school. She didn’t need to be afraid of me. It’s not like I would attack her in the middle of Viv’s coffee shop. I set my mug on the table and squeezed Mrs. D’s shoulder as I passed, just letting her know that I was okay. She worried, and I thought that was sweet. I stopped a few feet from Grace, careful not to get in her personal space. “Coffee, Grace?”
She shouldn’t have come here. She knew it. I knew it. Hell, everyone in town knew it.
“Umm.” She shifted her weight again. “Can we talk?”
I felt Viv close in behind me, then her arm settled around me. “You sure that’s a good idea, Leis?” Her fingers dug into my shoulder, sure to leave a bruise.
I loved her for it, her need to protect me, but it just wasn’t the right time. Coming here was hard enough for Grace without Viv turning into the Godfather.
“It’s okay, Viv. I got this.” I didn’t look away from Grace when I said it. She needed to know that I wouldn’t shy away from her in public. Grace sighed in relief, her shoulders relaxing slightly. I could still feel the tension coming off of her, but not nearly as much. After all, I’d said yes.
“Come on, then.” I nodded toward the office and waited for her to pass me before collecting my coffee from Mrs. D.’s table. I needed something to do with my hands, to keep me from doing something inappropriate with them. As the door closed behind us, shutting out the symphony of silver clanking on ceramic, I suddenly reconsidered agreeing to see her. The quiet hung in the air, punctuated by the soft sound of her breathing. I turned and pressed my back to the door and waited.
She took a hesitant half step toward me, her hands clenching and releasing at her sides. “I shouldn’t have come.”
“No, probably not.”
“I tried to talk myself out of it.”
“It’s okay. Really.” I stepped away from the door, willing to meet her in the middle.
“This is just so fucking hard.” Grace stretched her hand out and cupped my face, rubbing her thumb—calloused and soft at the same time—across my cheek.
And just like that, it was all okay. The tears and hurt from Luke. The whispered-behind-my-back rumors. The name calling that some thought I couldn’t hear and others didn’t care if I heard or not.
With that one simple touch, she took away all the reasons, all the justifications to stay with my soon-to-be ex-husband, and stripped away all the noise until all that was left was the undeniable truth in our hearts.
I couldn’t keep my hands at my side any longer and pulled her to me, wrapping my arms around her. The almost shaved short hair on the back of her neck tickled my fingers and the low spicy scent of her cologne comforted me. Cologne, not perfume, and I couldn’t get enough of this woman who was feminine with her soft curves, but anything but feminine with the way she smelled and the way she carried herself. She opened doors and jars, held packages, and always rang the bell instead of honking the horn. More that, she listened, paid attention to what I said and what I didn’t say. She was strong, made me feel safe, and could
turn me to liquid fire with a look, a barely whispered word. She was everything I wanted and nothing I was supposed to have. Good girls don’t. That’s what my mama taught me. But how was I supposed to say no when she came to me and kissed me, hot enough to burn clean through my soul? How was I supposed to say no when she promised it would all be okay? No one would ever find out.
Not that I cared. I was intoxicated. Lust permeated my life, and I was too giddy to hide it.
“I can’t keep doing this.” She kept her head down, her eyes averted when she said it. I hated that she felt like she couldn’t ask for what she wanted, like there was no way I would agree. I couldn’t stand all the self doubt coming from her. So I kissed her. She was hesitant, almost shy as she nibbled my mouth, her tongue skimming over my lips, but not pushing past my teeth. When the kiss ended, I could see some of her normal confidence in her eyes again.
“I’m ready whenever you are.” I’d said the same thing at least a hundred other times, but she refused to rush me, refused to push me out of the phantom closet the town pictured me in.
She squeezed my hand, her fingers laced with mine, and tugged me toward the door. “Let’s go.”
I expected her to drop my hand as we returned to the front of the shop, but she didn’t. Her steps grew firmer than before, her chest a little puffed out. Then, just like it was the most natural thing in the world for her to do, she gave me a quick kiss on the lips–the kind Ward gave June on his way to work during prime time in the fifties–and said, “I’ll see you tonight.”
I watched her climb in her truck, a big ol’ F-350, designed to haul everything she could ever imagine and still have room for her uncharacteristically over-inflated ego. Normally, she was humble, down to earth, but her smile said it all. She got the girl—that would be me—and she wanted the world to know it. With a wink she backed out of the space and pulled into traffic.
“Auntie Liesel?” Roxy appeared at my side, quiet and steady, just like her mama. “I poured you a fresh cup.”
I sat opposite Mrs. D and waited. It was just a matter of time before one of them said something. It wasn’t every day that two women kissed in front of God and all creation. Certainly not in my hometown.
Mrs. Danburry reached a hand—weathered and cracked like the Arizona desert at three in the afternoon—across the table and grasped mine. She held it for a moment, then patted it once with a nod. “Yes, a good girl. Always have been.”