Was it a bistro? Or a café? I really couldn’t say. But she was the reason that I stopped there each day. It was the perfect half hour. Joy was always waiting for me. Same booth, same time. And, I couldn’t help but notice, and be stunned by, the same bedazzling smile. As usual, she was wearing my favorite color; whatever color she happened to be wearing. She was beautiful, and I told her so. She protested modestly.
“You’re always smiling,” I said to her. Case in point, her face as she replied. “Because I’m looking at you.” I had no response, that is to say, no verbal response. Inside me, my heart was melting like a pad of butter on a flaky croissant. I’m no poet, but when it comes to love, I know it. She was lovely, I told her. She denied it, blushed, and fell into a demure silence. It only made her lovelier.
Coffee with Joy was the highlight of my day. It was all the little things. Like when I’d reach for the sugar just as she did. Our fingers would touch, and for a moment, every neuron in my nervous system would send lightning across the gap. I’d smile, knowing that the contact was not accidental, for Joy drank her coffee black. Every day, I’d spill the cream, distracted, lost in the depths of her ocean blue eyes. She’d giggle, the sweetest sound, and then offer me her napkin.
Later, there’d be that particular moment, the one I most anticipated. The spectacular explosion of inner fireworks, when I’d try to pick up the check, and Joy would place her hand firmly atop mine. Always with her blue eyes locked on me, the luckiest guy in the world, the only guy in the world, for one instant.
This morning began exactly as expected, a perfect clone of every day prior. Joy, with her angelic smile, and diffident denial of her beauty. Me, with my usual mesmerization. Today, as it turned out, was different. “Lonely Ol’ Night” was playing from the overhead speakers. How odd, at eight in the morning, I thought. It was a portent of just how awry the morning would go.
She called me “Sweetie.”
I was on my second cup of coffee, but my heart raced like it was my eighth. I thought I would burst.
But then, she called the waiter “Sweetie”. And after that, the busboy clearing the tables. And the stranger who picked up the spoon she’d knocked clumsily to the floor. Actually, no. Him, she called “Sweetest.”
“She calls me Baby. She calls everybody Baby,” John Mellencamp sang. He was right, and I hated him for it. Joy looked different. Fidgeting with her watch, her focus on me gone. As was her smile. Our time was over.
Realization turned the coffee cold and bitter in my stomach. I was no one special. Just one of a billion other fools. My eyes began to sting. I snatched the check from the waiter’s hand, muttered some sort of farewell, and left hurriedly. It was past time to go, anyway. Don’t look back, I told myself. Just don’t. I vowed not to. Resolve fluttered with my receipt to the gleaming floor, which was reflecting the face of a jilted man back up at me. I turned around. And she was smiling that smile. Only now, she was looking right through me. Past me.
At the man just entering the café. Or bistro. Taller than me. Immediately, I hated him more than Mellencamp. I contemplated punching him. Or cursing him. Both. Or cursing both him and her. I imagined a lot of things in that scant moment. But then, I tipped my hat to the man, and stopped him for a second. “You meeting the beauty in the last booth? I asked. His twinkling eyes answered affirmatively, even as they sought her out. “Do me a favor, pal,” I mumbled conspiratorially. “Tell her that she’s always smiling.”
“She is,” he agreed, looking at me quizzically. Then, dismissing me with a nod, he walked quickly back towards Joy. I moved behind the fake ficus tree near the door, and peeked through its plastic foliage. I watched her face as he greeted her the way I’d asked. I read her lips, knowing what she’d say. “Because I’m looking at you.”
Vision blurry, I walked into the damn tree. My hat fell off. I banged my head as I picked it up. The knot I’d have later would be my disconsolation prize.
I walked out the door. Forever. I’d never have coffee with Joy again. So went Sunday.
Monday morning, I went to a different coffee shop; this town is lousy with them. I drank my coffee bleak. Without cream. Without sugar. Without Joy.
I sat and thought. The more I thought, the more I knew I was going back to her Tuesday.
The next morning, Joy was waiting. And smiling. All for me. For now.