Inside the café, it smells like freshly-brewed coffee and warm, just-baked bread. Jazz music plays, soft and mindless, over the noise of otherwise quiet conversation. In a corner, a coffeemaker beeps cheerfully, and the barista standing behind the counter dutifully jots down the next order.
A handful of heads look up distractedly as the door opens with a friendly jingle. An inhale of brisk winter air from outside brushes the smell of coffee to one side momentarily. Tall, damp winter boots track fast-melting snow across the floor, and she sits down heavily in the chair across from him. Her nose and cheeks are red from the cold, and she sniffles noisily – just once – into her forearm. Her bookbag is slung over her left shoulder, and she lets it slip onto the floor at their feet with the unmistakable thump of too many books. The brushed steel chair creaks and she shrugs off her jacket to free her arms.
“I’m sorry I’m late,” she begins breathlessly as she pulls off her woolen hat. Messy, dark hair spills down around her face like melted chocolate. She tears off her gloves with her teeth and spits them into her lap. “Traffic was absolutely fucking brutal. Thank god it’s warm in here.”
He puts down the book he had reading and marks the page with a spare napkin. His short, dark hair has long since dried. “It’s fine – I haven’t been waiting too long.”
She rolls her eyes dramatically and places her phone face-down on the table. The dappled glass surface looks like a painting of the sea. “You always say that, even when I’m, like, an hour late.”
His mouth twitches and he narrowly bites back a smile. His eyes have the look of a guilty party caught. “I was trying to be polite. Little something called ‘common courtesy.’ It’s all the rage right now.”
“Never heard of it.” She grins wolfishly and raises one dark eyebrow at him. “Though I never would have pegged you for such a gentleman.”
“No need to sound so skeptical.” His voice is mockingly hurt, and he makes eyes at her. “I do try from time to time, you know.”
She pretends not to have heard him and looks around idly instead. But even she cannot help the small smile pulling at her lips, and begrudgingly, she lets it curl her mouth a degree. “I wasn’t even sure I was going to make it – the weather’s been so shitty lately. I had to dig my car out of, like, two feet of snow this morning just to get to class.”
He drums his fingertips against the tabletop – an old habit of his – in apparent thought. “You can always text me if it’s too much trouble, you know. We don’t always have to meet up – or we can go somewhere else, if you want. Somewhere that’s more convenient for you. I don’t mind.”
She laughs once and tosses her hair effortlessly over one shoulder. “But I like the coffee here.”
His eyes follow the movement of her lips around the words. “Well… as long as you’re okay with it, I won’t say anything.”
“See? There’s that gentleman in you again.” Her frost-tipped lashes come together momentarily in a cheeky wink.
He clears his throat and taps a fingertip absentmindedly against the cover of his book. “I took the liberty of ordering for you a while ago, if that’s okay.”
“Did you get me my usual?” She flicks a stray strand of hair out of her face.
“I always do.” He straightens unconsciously and a foot taps proudly against the floor, unseen but heard beneath the table.
She flashes him a smile full of bright white teeth. “Great. You know me so well.”
“By now, I certainly hope so.” He looks away in the direction of the counter before he can catch her expression. There is a sudden lull in the noise of the café as the music pauses momentarily in-between songs. She opens her mouth to speak but then seems to decide against it. He does not notice her indecision and turns back with a half-smile. “Should be almost ready by now.”
The barista appears at the side of the table and places a metal tray between them that cuts short any last lingering possibilities for conversation. The barista pops her gum – which is the same color as her hair – absentmindedly as she sets down the plates and cups in front of the two of them, along with a small clay jar full of sugar. When she is finished, she tucks the tray back under her arm and turns on her heel. Her hair is in a ponytail, and it swishes invitingly as she walks away. He watches her retreating figure out of the corner of his eyes, his gaze low.
“Right on time.” She says it brightly and pulls her own plate close.
“Couldn’t have planned it better if I tried.” He agrees with a slight smile and does the same with his own.
“Not that you would have tried in the first place. I know you.” She stirs a towering spoonful of sugar into her dark brown drink. She blows the steam from her cup, and her breath smells faintly of coffee when it reaches him.
“You’re right – I know how much you hate surprises.” He takes a sip of his own tea and grimaces as its sudden bitterness. He reaches across the table and takes the little jar of sugar from her. The tips of their fingers touch for only a moment, and they bump against each other like magnets.
“I think you mean just your surprises.” She taps her spoon four times against the side of her cup – an old habit of hers – and sets it on the table as he slowly stirs a spoonful of sugar into his cup.
He breaks off a piece of muffin and pops it into his mouth. “How are your midterms?”
She shudders visibly, as though the cold from outside had found another way in. “Don’t even remind me. Thank god it’s finally Friday. Another day and I might’ve killed myself just to end my misery.”
He winces overdramatically for effect and puts down his spoon. “That bad?”
“Worse. So much worse.” She rests her chin in her hands and sighs. Her hair flutters in front of her face. “Studying never seems to work for me. And I still have more next week.”
“I’m sure you’ll get through it.” He takes a nonchalant sip of his tea and she scowls at him.
“Oh, yeah? What about you? How are yours?” She rips a piece off her own muffin and debates throwing it at him but settles for chewing on it angrily instead. She imagines it is his finger.
“They’re going okay. Could be better, could be worse.” He looks down at the slowly-swirling tea in his cup and frowns.
“That’s a copout answer if I’ve ever heard one.” She raises her muffin to her mouth and takes a larger bite. “I’m sure there’s at least one hard class somewhere.” Crumbs spill from her mouth along with the words.
He stirs another spoonful of sugar into his tea. “If there is, I’ve been lucky enough so far to avoid it.”
He looks up and must stop himself from smiling. There is a smear of chocolate on her cheek, just beside her lips. She glares at his smile.
“What’s so funny?” Her nostrils flare and her eyes narrow.
“You’ve got a little…” He gestures vaguely at her face.
“On your cheek.”
She wipes her cheek in irritation with the back of her hand and he shakes his head.
“Here. Let me get it.” He uses his thumb to wipe away the offending stain and brushes the corner of her lips with his nail as he does. He lingers for longer than he should against the warmth of her skin and she glances up at him. His humor from before is subdued when he speaks again. “There. That’s better. Nice and clean.”
She touches the place on her cheek where his thumb had been distractedly, and where he has left behind a spot of warmth. “What a gentleman.” The playful tone from before is also gone. She looks down at her muffin and picks at the crumbs on the edge of her plate.
He taps his fingers – more nervously than before – as he gathers the courage for the words still on his tongue. “I really do love you, you know. A lot.”
She hesitates for a long while before she finally looks up. “I know. I loved you a lot, too.”
He pauses as he considers her words, then exhales sadly. “Was it good, at least?”
“It was. It meant a lot to me.”
“You meant a lot to me.”
The brassy, clear notes of jazz swell to fill the silence between them.
“Do you…?” She struggles to let the words loose, afraid more might follow if she does.
“Sometimes.” He admits it just a little too quickly, he knows. He knows how hard it is for her to say it and says it first so that she does not have to.
“And what do you think?” She sounds as though she does not want to know the answer.
“I’m not sure, to be totally honest. That’s a conversation for next time.”
She blinks at the definiteness of his answer. But then she smiles shakily, and he returns the smile to her as softly as he can. “Sure. Next time.”