By S. Paul Bowen
The worst part about going to the coffee shop before work was that there were so many customers there. It wasn’t that Pete minded the crowds—it was that two cash registers would be open and only one line. He would have no say about which cashier he would talk to. He cursed silently when the old man in front of him was called over by Amber, a blank, bored look on her face. Old fucker would doubtlessly take his time as he ordered, and Pete would be stuck giving his order to the guy, Kip. He sighed and shifted his weight to his other foot. Oh well.
But as Kip opened the drawer to get change, he was out of quarters. Pete was hopeful, but the old man was having trouble finding change of his own. Amber glanced at Pete and smiled. He smiled back. “It’s okay, sir,” she said. “Don’t worry about the thirty-seven cents.”
“Are you sure?” the old man asked.
“Yeah, it’s fine.”
Just as the old man started shambling away, Kip was handing change and a receipt to his customer. Both cashiers were open and Pete walked straight past Kip to Amber’s terminal.
“Morning, Pete,” she said. “How are you today?”
“Better now,” he said.
“Need that first cup to wake up, huh?”
“Yeah, coffee.” He winked, and Amber’s smile broadened. Her lone dimple—the one on her left cheek—deepened and both of her already ruddy cheeks burned a little redder.
“You’re such a flirt,” she laughed. “So what’ll it be today?”
“Honestly, I don’t know. Is there anything you’d recommend?”
“You know, you’re my only regular customer who never orders the same drink twice.”
“Are you saying I need to settle on a particular drink? Am I a flip-flopper?”
“I prefer the term ‘open-minded.’” Now it was her turn to wink, and Pete could feel his own face warm.
“How about a large caramel macchiato . . . upside-down with soy milk?”
“Soy milk, huh? Okay, what the hell.”
“Cool! Anything else I could get for you today?”
He hated that question. It meant their interaction was just about finished, and only moments after it began. He peered at the display case. It was just to stall: he was doing a low carb thing and all the baked goods were decidedly off his list of food he could eat. He brought his eyes back up to Amber’s. “I guess not.”
Amber leaned forward conspiratorially. “Tell me what you were looking for,” she breathed, her eyes slightly squinted. Pete could smell her strawberry lip gloss, mixed with the ubiquitous smell of coffee. It was ambrosial. “They’re making a fresh batch of apple fritters in the back and they’ll be out in a few.”
Pete’s voice caught in his throat. “That . . . that would be great.”
She leaned back. “Cool. It’ll be out in a few minutes. That’ll be three eighty.” Again, she leaned toward him. “No charge for the fritter.” At that moment there was no coffee shop. No line of customers. No Kip, no noisy foam machine, no job he had to get to, no mortgage, no piped-in woman covering the Who on an acoustic guitar. It was just Amber, inches from him, her sweet, warm breath mingling with his, her pale green eyes gazing into his. Until she broke the spell by leaning away again.
Should he ask her now? Amber, can I take you to dinner? How hard could it be? Could she make it any more clear that she wanted him? Come on, Pete, grow a pair. Instead, he pulled some cash out of his pocket. He glanced down to make sure he wasn’t handing her a single, then gave her whatever bill he was holding. If she was disappointed that he didn’t ask her out, she didn’t show it. Amber gave him change for a twenty and he thrust it into the tip jar.
He wanted to say more. He wanted to ask her out then, but he felt the moment had passed. “See you tomorrow,” he said.
“Have a good day, Pete.” Her smile was warm and genuine, but it definitely signaled a cessation in their interaction.
After a few minutes of standing around the condiments, Pete’s name was called and he picked up his coffee and apple fritter. He thought about saying goodbye to Amber, but she was busy with another customer.
Outside, he dropped the pastry into a trash can. He took a couple more steps and then stopped. Quickly, before he had a chance to change his mind, he raced back to the coffee shop. Amber was just finishing up with a customer when Pete, ignoring the glares from the people in line, stopped at her register.
“Pete. Is there something wrong with your order?”
“Not at all. It’s just that . . . I wanted to see if you . . . would you like to . . .” Go out Go out GO out! “. . . hang out some time?”
She beamed. “Yeah, I think that would be fun.”
He fumbled for his wallet and thumbed out a business card. “Here’s my card. Oh!” As she reached for it, he took back the card back and pulled a pen from his jacket pocket. He hoped the numbers would be legible, but he was flustered and wasn’t entirely sure. “Here’s my cell. Call whenever. Or text?” He hated the way his voice lifted the word “text” into a question. Like he was saying, Isn’t that what you kids are doing these days? Like he didn’t text now more than he talked on his phone.
Amber giggled as she took his card. “Sounds good.” She flipped it over to the pre-printed side. “Investment banker, huh?”
“Glorified accountant, really.”
“Come on,” someone in line grumbled, earning a glare from Amber.
“I’ll get in touch, Pete. Have a good day.”
“I will,” he said. As he walked out, he didn’t realize that he was whistling. And he hardly noticed when he put his left hand into his pocket and slipped on his ring.
“Going out with the guys? Sounds fun. Can I come?” Josie was sitting in the recliner, one of her detective paperback novels in her hand. If it wasn’t a detective novel, it was true crime. And on TV, it was always those shows about real life murders.
Amber’s text had come nearly five hours after he left the coffee shop. It was his eleventh text of the day, and each time it buzzed in his pocket, his stomach turned over and his heart beat faster. “Wanna hang tonight? Having people over. You can meet my friends. Eleven?” And she gave an address.
He immediately replied in the affirmative.
“No one else is bringing their wives. And it’s not ‘the guys.’ It’s Rich and Gabriel. I told you about them. I guess they go out pretty regularly, and I’ve been doing lunch with them, so they finally decided to include me in their little club.” It was the best Pete come up with, and he wondered if he could make this a regular outing, without allowing Josie to ever meet them. Or would they cover for him if he asked? There were so many aspects to this that he had never realized.
“Fair enough. But doesn’t it make more sense to go right after work? Rather than coming home and then going out again?”
“I guess they kind of go to check out girls.”
“Aaaahhh, there it is.” Josie stood up and walked to Pete. She swayed her hips in a slinky way that used to turn him on incredibly. He tried to think of when that stopped being the case, but couldn’t. She came up to him and stood on her tiptoes to look him in the eye. Or try, at least. Even on her toes, she still had to look up to meet his gaze. “Are they the only ones who are going to be checking out the girls? In their hoochie outfits?”
He smirked. “I’m sure lots of other guys will be, too.”
She gave him a playful punch and he doubled over as if in pain. Bent over like this, she could easily kiss him, which was their game. She sucked his lower lip for a moment and then released him. “You can look all you want, but do . . . not . . . touch.” She punctuated each word with a light jab to his abdomen.
“Not even a little touch?”
Josie embraced him in a bear hug and softly punched his lower back. “That’s it, mister. I’m working the kidneys, now.”
For most of their twenty years together—four years through college and sixteen married—Josie had the same moves. After this playful fighting, Pete so badly wanted to do something different, but this dance was so ingrained in him that he wouldn’t even know what else to try. So he pulled Josie over to the sofa and lay back in it, dragging her onto him. She straddled him and he looked up at her, her hair hanging into his face. He could feel her arms tremble slightly as she held her body over his, and he knew it wasn’t from exertion. The dance could go in one of two ways now. He moved his head imperceptibly toward hers before he stopped. Then he put his hand on the back of her head and lowered it to his chest. Her arms relaxed and she melted into him, her body fitting snugly into the crevices of his.
“Mmmmm, I like this,” she said.
Pete kissed her head. He could smell the shampoo—mint and rosemary—mixed with a faint aroma of her sweat. It was a fine combination. “I like it, too.” He wondered how Amber’s hair smelled.
Pete was in front of Amber’s building at eleven on the dot. He texted her that he was there and waited for her to come down and get him.
It was a nice building. Or at least, it had been at one time. It was a little rundown, but it still looked respectable. Like a 1950s starlet who still kept up appearances. Its close proximity to the beach had taken its toll on the paint job. It was hard to see such things in the night, but the moon was bright and full and lit the building well.
He found a picture window and looked at his reflection. He didn’t have the body that he had a decade before, but he was still in pretty good shape. At any rate, he looked good in a suit. It was a little too much, though, so he quickly tugged off his tie and stuffed it into this pocket.
Pete turned around and Amber was holding open the door to her building.
“Hey,” he said.
“You’re kinda dressed up.” Amber wore a threadbare Sonic Youth shirt over faded jeans with holes at the knees and thighs.
“Oh. Yeah. I haven’t been home since the office.”
“It’s cool. You look good. But you might get l‘odeur de marijuana in your jacket.” She gestured with her head for him to follow. “Come on in.”
They faced the elevator as they waited for it to come down. Pete snuck a peek at Amber’s hair and again wondered how it smelled. She usually wore it in a ponytail at the coffee shop, but it now hung limply to her shoulders. She was considerably taller than Josie. Pete, who was just shy of six foot, thought he had maybe two inches on her.
“You speak French?” he asked.
“Oui. Un pue. Trois ans au lycée et une année à Paris.”
“I don’t know what you said, but I guess you do.
She laughed. “I speak just enough to get by in France.”
“So how many people are you expecting?”
“It’s not a party or anything. Just hanging out. Usually five or six people. I think Vince is working tonight, so you’ll probably make five. You’re the first.”
The elevator arrived and they stepped in. It was slow, and they rode in silence. Pete could feel the thrum of its progress and it would occasionally slow and then lurch upward. He thought about asking if this was normal, but Amber didn’t seem bothered so he said nothing.
The car stopped at the twelfth floor and Amber got out. “This way,” she said, and led him to the left. A few apartments down, they came to a door that was slightly ajar. Amber pushed it open and walked in.
“Want something to drink?”
“What are you having?”
Amber walked to a small breakfast table and picked up a glass of white wine to show him.
“Sounds good to me.”
She disappeared around a corner to what he assumed was the kitchen.
It was a small studio with only a mattress serving as the bed. The walls were adorned with band and movie posters—a mix of classics, as well as new movies and bands Pete had never heard of—and the parts that weren’t covered revealed maroon paint that was chipping off. The carpet had been torn out and a slab of red painted cement was revealed. Someone with considerable raw talent had painted garish cartoons on it. Pete saw a giant heart with AC + JQ 4EVER” written in the middle of it, only the JQ was crossed out in white spray paint. Despite this, Pete wouldn’t call the place a “dump.” There was a certain Bohemian element that, while rather cliché for a college student, was warm and inviting.
“Nice place,” Pete said, allowing a little sarcasm into his voice, but being careful it wasn’t too much so he could backtrack if she took offense. “Who’s JQ?”
“Ugh. This douche I used to date,” Amber called from the kitchen. “He did all that artwork. Was pissed when we broke up and he couldn’t take it with him. You cool with a regular glass? I think that was my only unbroken wine glass.”
She came back around the corner holding a spotty rocks glass and a bottle of chardonnay that Pete recognized as one step above boxed wine. She handed him both and walked to a full length mirror that was leaning in a corner. She plopped down in front of it and picked up a tube of mascara. He watched her put on makeup for a moment, his own form behind her looking somewhat squat and dumpy in the mirror as it bent slightly toward the wall. He went to the table to open and pour the wine. “What time is everyone supposed to be here?”
Amber shrugged. “Hey, can you hit play on the cd player?”
“Okay.” He looked around and saw a stereo next to her bed. Three bras were draped across it. He brushed aside one of the straps to find the play button, and pushed it. Loud, intense music that Pete didn’t expect exploded around him. He flinched, but Amber didn’t react, so he left the volume where it was. Pete spotted some text books on a bureau. “Are you in school?” he shouted.
“Yeah. CSULB. Go Beach.” The last part sounded sarcastic, but it was hard to tell with shouting.
“What’s your major?”
“Double major. English and Criminal Justice.”
“Very cool. What are you going to do with that? Write true crime novels?”
“I don’t know. Maybe law? I don’t know.”
“That seems like a strange combination.”
“Yeah, but it works.” She was putting on lipstick now, and spoke between applicating and inspecting her work in the mirror. “I’m like the only person in in the Crim Justice program who can write worth a shit. And really, I’m not even that good.”
“Come on. I’m sure you’re fine.”
Her eyes met his in the mirror and she stared defiantly. “Based on what? That I spell your name right on your coffee cup?”
Pete didn’t know what to say. He stared at her with wide eyes.
Finally, Amber laughed. “You should see your face now, dude.”
Her friends—two guys and another girl who came as a group around midnight—started arriving shortly after and were similarly dressed down.. He was nervous when each new person came, but they met Pete with the jaded indifference of youth.
The rest of the night progressed in much the same way—he was never quite sure how to react to anything anyone said. At least they didn’t try to push their marijuana on him. At first, they didn’t even want to smoke in front of him, but Amber assured them it was okay. When one of the guys, Mitchell, eyed him suspiciously over a glass pipe, Amber elbowed him in the side. “He’s not a narc, dude, he’s an accountant or something.”
“Investment banker,” Pete corrected.
Mitchell inhaled expertly, not coughing at all as he let out a cloud of pot smoke. He, Amber, and Pete were sitting on the floor around a Scrabble game that nobody was playing. Pete breathed in the marijuana, a pleasant aroma, despite its mildly sinister undertones, which Pete had managed to forget about in the years since he had last smoked out.
Not long into their relationship he talked Josie into doing it—she had managed to get through her early twenties taking nothing more than a toke. She hated it. And since Pete was still in the trying-to-impress-her stages, he quit. He never missed it.
The other two people—Nance and Austin—were on the balcony.
“No shit?” said Mitchell. “I thought all you guys worked on Wall Street.”
“Wait, you’re that kind of investment banker?” asked Amber.
“What other kind is there?” asked Mitchell.
Amber’s cheeks reddened a little. “I guess I didn’t really think about it.”
“I did work on Wall Street for a while, but I didn’t care for New York. Too many people. You don’t really hear about the firms in LA like in New York, but there are still quite a few. And it’s a lot less stressful here.”
“You lived in New York?” Pete could feel Amber’s esteem for him rise. “I would love to live in New York!”
“Why don’t you?”
“I don’t know. My family’s here. I don’t know anyone there.”
“Yeah, that’s tough.”
The conversation stopped for a moment. Mitchell swayed a little and it looked like he was going to pass out, but he jerked himself up straight again. Amber and her friends had all drunk a lot of alcohol. Amber was never without a glass of wine, and Pete stopped counting after her fourth shot of Crown Royal. She had tried to get him to match her, but was only successful three times. Just enough to keep his buzz going, and to muffle the keening voice second-guessing everything he said.
When Mitchell swayed again and steadied himself again, he blurted out, “Dude, how old are you?”
“What?” said Pete, stupidly.
“I mean, it takes years to get a degree to work on Wall Street, right? And you were in New York for a few years at least, I bet. So how old are you?”
Pete considered lying, but there were too many ways he could get caught up in it. Plus, he was rather proud that he was getting along with people a decade or so his junior. “I’m thirty-eight.”
“Holy shit, dude!” said Mitchell.
Nance and Austin walked in from the balcony. “What’s up?” asked Nance.
“How old would you guess Pete is?” said Mitchell.
Nance squinted her eyes and tilted her head in an appraising look. “He’s definitely older than us. Maybe late twenties?” She looked at Austin for confirmation, and he nodded approval.
Mitchell paused, as though to draw out the suspense. “Thirty. Eight.”
“Serious?” said Nancy. “You’re like, twice my age!”
“Come on,” said Pete.
“Really, literally, I’m nineteen.”
“But you’re drinking,” said Pete.
They all laughed, and when he got the joke, so did Pete.
“Okay, how old are the rest of you?”
Austin: “I’m twenty-one, too.”
Amber: “I guess I’m the old one in the bunch. Twenty-four.”
“Holy shit. You guys are kids.”
“Does this weird you out or anything?” asked Nance.
Pete took a deep breath and let it out. “I mean, I guess I’m cool with it if you are.”
The guys shrugged noncommittally. Only Nance spoke. “You seem alright to me.”
Pete now felt about as good as he had all night. He finally felt like he fit in. “Cool. Thanks. But I really should be going,” he said as he stood up. He looked at his watch. “Jesus, it’s nearly three.”
“Curfew?” asked Nance, and giggled.
“Yeah,” said Austin. “If you’re out of the old folks’ home for too long, you don’t get your tapioca pudding.” His tone was playful, and Pete could hear no meanness beneath the joking. Still, the rest of the group said nothing. They held their breath, waiting for Pete’s reaction.
“You should probably leave now, too. From the smell, I think it’s time your mommy changed your diapers.”
The group burst into relieved laughter and Pete exchanged some high fives. But he could still sense the slightest condescension. It wasn’t that they were saying, Good one. It was more like, Good one. For an old guy. His feeling of belonging was slipping.
“Seriously, though, I do have to go.”
“Gotta get home to the wife?” asked Amber.
Pete looked at her, expecting, perhaps, a devilish grin to show that she was getting off another zinger at his expense. But she was serious, and he realized that all intonation had left her voice. He opened his mouth to respond—to say he was never married, or that he was no longer married, or maybe some other evasion—but stopped. His body sagged. “Yeah.” He didn’t know what else to say.
“I’ll walk you down.”
Pete said his goodbyes. Told everyone it was nice meeting them, and that they should do it again. And it felt wrong. This is what he would say he if were leaving contemporaries at a dinner party, not college kids hanging out in an apartment.
The elevator ride down was silent as it was going up, but the ride was smoother. They faced the doors. Amber leaned toward Pete and rested her head on his shoulder. The smell coming off her was a chemical but not altogether unpleasant shampoo odor and the sweet tang of whiskey. He breathed in deeply. The back of her hand brushed his, and he knew, even after years out of the dating scene, that this was a cue to hold her hand. He didn’t, but nor did he move his. He noticed the youthful softness of her hand against his knuckles.
They walked out of the building and stopped just outside the door. They stood looking at each other inches apart, and Pete again wanted to take her hands, but didn’t.
“I had fun tonight,” said Amber. “I’m glad you came.”
“So am I.”
“I really like you,” she said, smiling.
“I like you.”
They were silent for a moment, looking into each other’s eyes.
“How long have you know that I was married?”
“I didn’t. Not really. But you kept touching the finger a ring would be on. Like you expected something to be there.”
He looked down at his hands now, half expected to find them engaged in the incriminating behavior. They weren’t.
“When did you notice?”
“I don’t know. A while ago. At the coffee shop. So for a while, I’m like, fuck it, I don’t need to be involved with a married guy, anyway.”
“What changed your mind?”
She shrugged. “Nothing. I mean, I still really liked you, but I wasn’t going to make the first move.” She took a step closer to him and looked up into his eyes. She leaned forward to kiss him. He didn’t stop her. Her lips were so soft and smooth, and he allowed his tongue to caress them before pulling back. “Then you did.”
“I guess I did.”
Her eyes were forlorn. When he looked down at those lips again, she dropped her gaze to their hands, which were now entwined.
“If things were different—”
“In a heartbeat. But I can’t—”
“But I want you to know how it is.”
“Just stop. Please.”
They stood there, breathing the same air, until a cold gust of wind. They both shivered.
“I’m going in.”
She walked back to the door.
“Take care,” Pete said.
Amber didn’t look back, but nodded. He watched her through the glass doors as she walked away and turned down the hall.
Pete turned around and walked toward his car, his own head down. The mist was now a full fog. The street lights were fuzzy, glowing moons suspended in the sky. He wandered for several minutes before he realized that he didn’t remember where his car was parked. He was lost.
Pete stood in the middle of an empty street and turned in slow circles. Nothing looked familiar, and the air had a thick, salty taste. He could hear fast traffic from a few streets away, but this block seemed to emanate no sound, save the wind blood running through Pete’s ears. After a couple of rotations, his dizziness told him that he was drunker than he had first realized. Giving into the feeling, he stumbled to the side of the road, not concerned about dragging his wingtips through the gutter. He collapsed onto the curb and leaned against a mailbox.
Pete fished his ring out of his pocket. He turned it over and over again in his hands. The once shining silver was dull, but it glowed when it caught the light in a certain way. He laid his head back, holding the ring above him. He wanted to look at the moon through the ring, see if he could find the right distance so it fit perfectly inside. But the fog was too thick: he couldn’t find the moon anywhere.