It’s strange. Her hair seems to be glowing today as if it’s bathing in the sun. But as I look around, I see that these windows are painted with raindrops. Her brunette tresses are aggressively drawn back into a highly tensioned ponytail. Usually, they’re down, dangling over the left side of her face, acting as her own stage curtain. Something to hide behind while she pokes her head out through the cracks, watching the crowd as they wait for her. Raising the anticipation. Holding the power backstage to decide whether the show will go on. But finally, the wait has ended. The curtain has risen, and she’s emerged. Ready to take center stage and give the audience a bow. I imagine myself standing from my seat, clapping hard, and throwing flowers at her feet as her hair shines in the spotlight.
However, this production does not take place on the creaky floorboards of a theater stage. It’s set in the distant lands of the booth at the other end of this café. And I’m the only audience member, scribbling away in my notebook like a theater critic. In this current act, she’s fiercely focused on her laptop, leaning so far forward as she types that I worry she might just fall into her screen. Every few minutes, she pauses. Her eyes levitate over her computer and find their way to me. My eyes desperately vault themselves away in a valiant effort to pretend that I haven’t been staring. But she knows. She’ll smile, subtly basking in the attention before letting her focus settle back to her work. I’ll close my eyes and listen to the symphonic clacking of her keyboard. I like to think that she’s writing about me too.
I wonder what she would write about. Has she noticed this journal I’ve been writing in, bound in flexible fake leather, with the image of a key etched on the cover? How when I open it, I have to flip through a hundred full pages before reaching the first blank one. Would she notice my clothes? This gray polo, tucked into khakis, separated by a slick black belt. Would she appreciate how well I’ve manicured my blonde beard or how my biceps slightly bulge out the sleeves on this shirt? I think she’s filling her own book with thoughts and observations about me. Just as I’ve done with her. If I searched through the pages of her field notes, what would I find? And how could I ever let her read through mine?
Staring at my journal, my mind drifts back to our first encounter. There was me, hovering near the register, waiting to place my order. Her standing in line just behind. The barista sauntering toward me and asking, “What can I get you today?”
Leaning in, burdened by my immense secret, the lowly whispered words slid out between the gaps in my teeth, “Large pumpkin spiced latte, please.”
The barista, attracting the attention of the entire café, loudly responding with a distinct and impossible not to hear, “What?!”
With a father’s sternness so as not to be misunderstood again, the order is repeated through a clenched jaw. “Large. Pumpkin. Spiced. Latte. Please.” The words finally stick their landing as the barista nods and ventures off to create my beverage.
Then, upon retreating from the register, finding myself standing before her. A devious smirk was already tattooed on her face, evidence that my secret love of pumpkin-spiced lattes had been uncovered.
The words dance from her mouth as she playfully asks, “Is that drink for your girlfriend?” My mouth falling open slightly. Lips curling into a mortified smile. Her soft laughter bounces off the counter top as she continues, “Aw. I’m sorry. I can’t help myself sometimes.”
Composing myself and responding with a theatrical authority, “Don’t apologize. I knew the risks when I started drinking these.”
Her leaning in closer, whispering, “Well, your secret is safe with me.”
“Good. Otherwise…you know…” I whispered back, slowly running my pointed finger across my neck.
Her winking at me, finding it humorous and holding her finger up to her lips in a mutually agreed upon eternal silence.
Her laughter gone but somehow still echoing within. Me, sliding away from her towards the other end of the counter as I wait for my latte, respecting such a professional gutting of my ego.
Her, ordering her tea, smirking at me as it’s handed right back, and then gliding off to her booth.
Me charmed, embarrassed, and intrigued all at once as unfamiliar feelings expand from my stomach.
That scene unfolded over a month ago, and I’ve considered that soft laughter as her signature. Her name on the lease as a new tenant, taking up residence within the confines of my mind. I just wish I had the guts to knock on her door already. Tell her things about myself, deeper than what she sees at such a great distance. Like my love of chess and how therapeutic I find the noise that those felt-bottomed pieces make as they slide across the board. Or how sometimes, when I write in this journal, I’ll lose myself in introspection to the point an entire afternoon will pass before me. Maybe I’d even tell her how I grew up going to magic camp and still performing tricks for my younger cousins. I see that she wants to know these things. She wants the knock to come. She’s just waiting as I pace the hallways outside her door.
I see her in here twice a week, and there are always subtle interactions between us, hidden behind blushed cheeks and fluttering stomachs. There’s something about how she just now raised her mug up to her mouth, pursed her lips, and lightly blew on her peppermint tea that’s making me lose my mind. She did that on purpose. Knowing I would see it. Knowing it stokes the coals inside me. Clever girl. This fire in my gut now burns with certainty. Certain that I need to take the next step.
Yet, I’m finding it unsettling to trust this confidence. I keep thinking about how easily I could lose control of the situation. But that’s just part of the game. If I want her, I must work for it. I’ve been hiding among these written words, squeezed between the lines on these pages for too long. Orchestrating the situation to my pitch. My tempo. My volume. No one to question me as I wave my baton before the band, controlling when and where to hit the proper notes. But within this ensemble, all she is, is simply what I’m writing her character to be. She can’t hurt me in my writing. I can maintain control here. She can’t get away from me on the page. Is that where I want this opportunity to live and die though, on the pages of this journal?
No. She is the first step towards the future you want. Become the new version of yourself that you’ve envisioned. You should not fear such a challenge as this. Leap from the page and take your first steps outside of this world of graphite and paper. Allow yourself to be scared. Give yourself permission to fail and finally surrender to the awakening of your true self. And do it fast. It looks like she’s walking over here…
I need to write this down, so I won’t forget.
By the time I put my pencil down, she was here, looking down at me. Raising her white flag in friendly surrender, she asked, “What in the world are you waiting for? Do you realize how patient I’ve been?”
I relaxed back in my chair and simply replied, “I just wanted to build some anticipation.”
She pulled her head back, cracking a smile, and raised her eyebrows. “Oh. I see. Well, here I am; you’ve got my attention.”
“Ah yes, my evil plan is working,” I said through a grin, bringing my palms together and wrapping my fingers against each other.
She chuckled and continued, “Am I crazy to think that I’m the only one feeling this way? I’ve been watching you, watching me, you know.”
My smile settled, and my eyes softened, falling to the floor for a moment, then rising back up to meet hers. I replied, “No. You’re not the crazy one. Honestly, there was this part of me that was hesitant. I guess I was just afraid of what would happen if I asked you out.”
She brought her hand to the back of her head, fumbling with the elastic tie in her ponytail until her hair fell to its normal resting place.
Then she leaned in close, placed a folded-up piece of paper on the table before me and whispered, “Well, if you had, then the worst thing that could have happened was this.”
Her eyes pointed towards the note as she rose, waiting for me to open it. My pupils must have reflected fireworks when I saw her phone number carved into the paper.
She backed away slowly, hiding behind her hair. Conjuring that anticipation once again, she said, “I’m Tara. Call me.”
And then she was gone. And since, it’s been me sitting here in a silent triumph, my heartbeat ringing through the café, while the note she left somehow grows in weight, causing the legs of this coffee table to groan.
I’ve lost myself within this string of digits as that fire in my gut spreads throughout my entire body. The hesitation I felt is subsiding as if it were a balloon finally released to float off into the clouds. There’s this inertia to it all. A small rock dislodged, surely to create an avalanche. I will overcome any lingering fear and finally commit myself to achieve what I’ve wanted to since I first met Tara. I’ll follow the plan.
I’ll put this note in my pocket. I’ll walk home, leave it in my living room drawer, and wait two days before pulling it back out. Then I’ll dial the number and ask her to accompany me to dinner and a movie. I’ll be polite, gentlemanly, and attentive. I’ll listen. I’ll laugh. I’ll brush the hair out of her face. I’ll open myself up to her. And as the night winds down, I’ll invite her up to my apartment for tea. I’ll show her my favorite chess board. The dumbbells I work out with and, of course, my magic kit. Full of trick cards, wands that transform into flowers, handcuffs, and hats with secret compartments. I’ll ask for her to participate in a new trick. I’ll don my magic top hat and kindly ask her to put her hands behind her back. I’ll handcuff them. I’ll tap my wand on her head three times. Then I’ll remove my hat, reach down deep inside, and retrieve a large plastic bag. I’ll put it over her head and tighten the bottom around her neck with a zip tie. I’ll sit down and watch as she suffocates, pondering this insatiable appetite raging inside of me. And I’ll continue wondering how it awoke from something as insignificant as being laughed at for ordering a pumpkin-spiced latte.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Daniel Jackson is an aspiring writer from Newport, Rhode Island, striving to create new and exciting works of fiction. He graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering and works as an environmental scientist in the Pacific Northwest. He can be found exploring the pacific coast or wandering through the mountains, finding inspiration for his work through his adventures. He lives in Portland, Oregon with his soon-to-be wife. █
Photo credits: https://elements.envato.com/user/seventyfourimages
[Editor note: Daniel’s story was our Short Story Contest first-place winner.]
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