Brian obsesses over a woman at the coffee shop, and his friend Garrett fears the infatuation won’t end well; by David Lanvert.
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Brian fell in love on a wet Tuesday morning before his first cup of coffee. He sat in the back of a Starbucks, wiping the fog of damp, wool-clad bodies and the steam of roasted beans off his glasses with his shirt tail. Another minute or so, and his fresh roast would be at the perfect temperature.
Up front, amidst the huddle of caffeine-deprived commuters, the barista called out, “Chloe,” and Brian glanced up at the novelty of the name. She was all of five feet tall, her head covered in a silk scarf ablaze with color, wearing tennis shoes, jeans, and a sweatshirt. She retrieved her drink and turned to leave, walking to the door with a rolling gait from the hips with her toes out, a dancer’s walk.
She glanced in his direction and pinned him with green eyes against a complexion like fresh milk still in the pail. The scarf lay close over a smooth scalp. Her face was smooth, without eyebrows. She’s sick, he thought. Brian leaned forward and watched as she left, holding his breath until the door shut behind her.
She was there every day, arriving 15 minutes after Brian, but he reminded himself it wasn’t an appointment but a coincidence. He started to say hello many times but held back, feeling like he had a ping-pong ball in his throat. Was she a regular? Would he have recognized her with hair? Did she live nearby?
Their mutual and intersecting morning routines resembled the precision of a rocket launch, and Brian could plot his moment, his chance to speak to her, on graph paper with a stopwatch. He did his homework and read up on chemotherapy’s side effects. What can people do while they’re on chemo? Can they date or go out to dinner?
After a few weeks of this, he dreamt one night of a project in third grade when they punched pinholes in shoeboxes to watch a total solar eclipse. You would go blind if you stared at it straight on. It was supposed to be a once-in-a-lifetime event. He woke at 4:00am and lay there pondering, his mind racing. Did she like her orange juice with or without pulp? Would her parents drop by their future apartment unannounced? If he reached for her hand, would it be warm or cold? Should he get a haircut? How much time would they have together? Did dying people work through a bucket list like in the movies?
On a rainy morning within the next few weeks, sometime soon, with the shop packed with the regulars and tables full, he’ll pick a different table, one on her path to the door. When she walks by, he’ll kick the chair out opposite him into her way and, with a nod, offer it to her. She’ll pause, glance at the rain hurtling against the window and take the chair, and they will enjoy their coffee in silence before leaving together as if it is the most natural thing in the world, her arm through his. Problem solved. He’ll lead with actions over words.
Brian sat facing his best friend over a late lunch at the sushi place across from the coffee shop. Garrett was a physician who worked nights in the emergency room. He thought Brian was nuts.
“What are you thinking? You’ve turned this into a big thing in your mind when it’s just two people getting coffee.” In school, Brian tended to fall in love once a semester.
“It sounds crazy,” said Brian. “I get that. But this is different. I have this once-in-a-lifetime feeling. You should see her, Garrett; she’s beautiful.” Brian slowed down, breathless, searching for words.
“You don’t know anything about her. Does she speak English? Is she married? Is she too shortsighted to see you pining for her with a puppy dog look from the back of the coffee shop? Garrett punctuated his points with chopsticks, dotting Brian’s shirt with soy sauce.
“I know, but…”
“Don’t but me. If you think I’m giving you a hard time, I am. You’re obsessing.”
“I’m doing fine, Garrett. Geez, it’s all under control,” said Brian.
“That’s what I’m worried about, your control. How many rolls of toilet paper do you have in your apartment?”
“Twenty-four and a half,” said Brian.
“How many days since your last haircut?”
“Thirty – I’m overdue by five days.”
“How many Christmas presents have you already purchased for next year?”
“All of them. But yours I’m going to return.”
“Okay, smart guy. You tend to overthink things.”
“I get it. I appreciate your concern. You have reminded me of my faults. But I did my research, and many people with cancer date while undergoing chemo,” said Brian.
Garrett set his chopsticks down as though he didn’t trust himself with sharp objects. “This doesn’t feel like it’s going to end well.”
“At least, tell me what you know about cancer, chemotherapy, you know, so I’m prepared?”
Garrett stared at his friend and drew a deep breath.
Everything worked out until it didn’t. A casual drizzle turned into a downpour while Chloe was getting her coffee. Brian chose a table in line with the door, and as she passed, he kicked the chair on the opposite side out into her path. With one hand holding the coffee and the other her phone and moving faster than Brian had anticipated, she didn’t see the chair.
There was plenty of time afterward to figure out what happened. Garrett dropped into the coffee shop to find his best friend leaning over a woman with her leg on a chair and an ice pack on her knee. Garrett approached, wearing scrubs from work. Chloe looked up wide-eyed and turned to Brian, “Oh my God, you called a doctor?” Garrett introduced himself and helped sort things out as Brian sat red-faced.
“Did you ever try to kick out a chair from the opposite side of a table as a dry run?” Chloe said. Brian started to stammer, but she saved him. “I’m kidding. You know, you could have just asked if I wanted to sit down and wait out the rain.”
“You’re right, and I’m so sorry. I’m an idiot. It was different in my head, what I pictured.”
“You must be a fan of old movies.” Chloe shifted as Garrett checked her knee for swelling.
“Your leg doesn’t look bad. At least it’s not swollen,” Garrett said. “You should watch to see if you have any dark bruising later or if it starts to swell. If it does, you should go to the ER right away, don’t call your doctor first, get to the ER and then call your doctor. Are you aware of the side effects of any medication you may be on? It’s not my business to ask, I’m not your doctor, but it’s worth putting it out there.”
“What do you mean?” said Chloe. She looked back and forth at the men leaning over her. “Wait a minute – the scarf, my hair. Oh no.”
Chloe didn’t have cancer. Her aunt did. All the women in her family had shaved their heads and eyebrows in support. Garrett looked at Brian with raised eyebrows but said nothing. He turned to Chloe and yawned through his goodbyes. He gave her his phone number, “Just in case,” because walking out seemed rude.
“You must think I’m pretty foolish,” Brian said.
“Well, I’ve had worse blind dates,” said Chloe. “It was quite an elaborate plan, in any case. You’ve never heard of spontaneity?”
“You’re not sick?”
“Oh my god, why would I lie? I’m too vain to go without covering my head, plus it’s cold.” Chloe yanked the scarf off her scalp. Now she was just a girl with a buzz cut.
“I see,” said Brian. Scarf gone, she was both more and less than she was moments earlier. She was not what he’d expected, what he’d planned for.
Brian went back to his apartment and sat at his desk. He worked in IT but preferred to tell people he worked in technology, which tended to shut down conversations. He surveyed the floor around his chair, a perimeter of textbooks, clinical papers, and articles about cancer, chemotherapy, and its side effects. Managing Side Effects of Chemotherapy: A Guide for Nurses sat alongside The Chemotherapy Survival Guide. He threw all the paper in the recycling and put the books in a box to donate.
Chloe had agreed to have coffee sometime, but they didn’t exchange numbers. After all, they both knew where to find one another. Brian wasn’t sure he had the guts to go back. The coffee machine on his kitchen counter was new when fax machines were popular, so he browsed espresso machines and assorted accessories online.
He started to call Garrett but stopped. He would be asleep by now and wouldn’t be up and around until around 6:00 to prepare for his shift. Brian stuck a sticky note on the corner of his laptop, “Call G about OCD counseling.”
Chloe’s hair had grown out over the last month. It was neither dark nor light, “brown” was too pedestrian a term. Brian watched her grab her coffee from where he sat in his old spot and thought of chestnut, auburn, or mahogany. A school-bus-yellow rain slicker made up for the colors she’d previously sported with the scarf. She walked towards him, smiled as he stood, and took the chair he offered.
“Finally gathered the courage to return to the crime scene?” she said.
“I had some things come up that I needed to take care of, you know, that kind of thing,” he said.
“So, I never did get to ask you. How did you imagine things would have gone if you’d been successful with the whole ‘kick out the chair and impress the girl’ move? And why all the, I don’t know, theatrics?”
“I couldn’t figure out how to start a conversation. I wanted to get your attention, and then we’d sit and enjoy our coffee.”
“Well, you get half credit,” she said, raising her cup.
They spoke for a while. Her knee was fine, and Aunt Amanda was doing well. They talked until they had nothing else to say. And they said goodbye.
Brian imagined neither of them would move, and he would make a speech. He’d talk about his obsessive tendencies, the handwashing routine when he was thirteen, and issues with sidewalk cracks and restaurant cutlery. He would talk about the first moment he saw her and how ashamed he was about romanticizing an image of her with cancer. He pictured saying all these things.
Instead, they got up, walked to the door, and went out. She turned to him on the sidewalk and smiled. Brian saw her nose crinkle and noticed the spray of freckles against her cheeks for the first time, like a dusting of nutmeg.
She turned and walked away. He went after her. “Chloe,” he said.