Alex steps in from the pelting rain and into the dry, frigid air of the coffee shop, the door scraping loudly against the floor on her way in. Steam rises in clouds from the espresso machine, as hot water goes screaming into cups. The strum of acoustic guitars whispers through the speakers, nearly drowned out by the clatter of fingertips against laptop keys and spikes of laughter from study groups clumped around tables.
Shaking the raindrops off her magenta windbreaker, Alex shuffles up to the counter and orders a latte topped with cream and cinnamon, along with an apple streusel muffin—a delicious attempt at distraction.
She fumbles for her wallet to pay, and with her hand gripping a teal-painted saucer, finds herself a table pressed flush-against a wall-sized map of the world. It’s yellowed and not overly detailed. She guesses it’s supposed to be a reproduction of one from two or three centuries earlier; or, it’s just some decorative map the coffee shop paid too much for, to look like it was from that time. The latter, she decides, reaching for her bag.
She pulls out her newspaper with a flourish, intending to read the national news section. Every page warns of something terrible. Murder. Poverty. Abuse. War. Bombs. Why did she think this would lift her spirits, instead of reminding her of the bleak, miserable world?
One of the study group members dropped a plate from the stack he was carrying back to the counter. Somehow, it’s not him her eyes land on; it’s the guy squatting down beside him to pick up ceramic shards from the polished concrete floor. He cradles the pieces in the bottom of his Crosby, Stills & Nash tee. The silver chain around his neck glints under the bronze pendant lights.
There’s something about his waves of raven hair, the ease of his smile, the lilt of his laugh that is as familiar as the threadbare blanket she’s slept with every night since middle school, and the embrace of her mother—or at least the memory of it. It’s almost as if she’s met him before. Maybe in passing. Maybe in one of her pit classes.
He carries the fragments up to the counter, and empties his shirt into a trash can held by a grateful barista, before walking Alex’s way. She tries to play it cool, act nonchalant, as if she wasn’t even watching, but whatever it is about the guy that awakened some shadow of him in her mind.
Much to Alex’s embarrassment, he catches her, and as soon as they meet eyes, red heat crawls up her neck. His eyebrows knit together, and the heat turns to a burn as she gives him a tight smile and ducks her head into the newspaper.
“Could you be any more awkward, Alex?” she murmurs to herself, and breaks a chunk off her muffin to shove in her mouth. She finds a column on a school raising money for one of its students battling a rare disease, and tries to focus on the goodness of the classmates, rather than the sickness—until someone clears their throat.
“Excuse me?” A foot away from her, the plate-picker-upper waits with his hands stuffed into his pockets.
Someone kill me now, Alex thinks. He probably wanted to know why she had been watching him with as much intent as a scientist does her subject, and is going to tell her she—understandably—made him uncomfortable.
“Sorry to bother you,” he says.
“Have we met?” he asks, taking one hand from his jeans to motion between them.
“No, not that I know of,” she says.
“Huh.” He slaps his leg, and touches ink-stained fingers to his mouth, one of which points at her. “I just really feel like I’ve seen you before somewhere, and I thought maybe you had recognized me, too.”
“Oh.” She pushes her hand through her caramel hair, and tucks strands behind her ear. “Yeah, yeah, I did actually. I just couldn’t place from where.” A smile spreads across his face slowly, like a sunrise appearing over the horizon sliver by sliver. The heat rolls over her again, but this time it’s not powered by embarrassment. “I guess we both don’t have to feel crazy anymore. Or at least I don’t,” she says, swiveling her coffee cup back and forth by its thin handle.
“I don’t either,” he replies, before screwing up his mouth and squinting his gray eyes as if he’s perplexed. “But, still, at some point, we must’ve crossed paths if we both think we’ve seen each other.”
“True,” she says and thinks back to her class. “Do you go to Miller?”
He shakes his head. “No, I’m not in school right now. Have you ever been to Beck’s? I work there.” It’s a bar in the city not too far from the campus, known for its great bands and electric atmosphere.
“I’ve been meaning to, but no.” It had been her plan for weeks to go, but whenever an invitation rolled around, she wasn’t up to going, not when her world had crashed and burned, and she didn’t know if she’d ever fully put out the flames.
It was something her mom had talked of a lot: reincarnation, finding your loved ones over and over across timelines. Alex had laughed her Mom off then, but now, it’s not funny as much as what she’s holding onto hope for.
“Or maybe we are crazy and it’s a shared delusion?” she offers.
“Possibly,” he laughs. “Well, if we’re sharing delusions, I should probably share my name.” He extends his hand out over the table. “Bryan.”
“Alex,” she says, and takes it. His handshake is firm, but not so much that the bones may collapse accordion style. Just right.
“Alex,” he repeats. “It’s nice to meet you.”
“You, too.” For a few seconds, they do nothing but look at one another, and, if she’s being honest, she wouldn’t mind if they did it a while longer. Isn’t there a study that said all you had to do was fall in love with someone was stare in their eyes for 4 minutes? She thinks she might be willing to try it with Bryan.
“I should probably let you get back to reading, huh?” he says.
She shrugs. “Eh, I wasn’t doing much of it anyways.”
He cocks his head, trying to read the paper upside down. “Anything interesting?”
“Not a whole lot.” This is much more, she thinks.
“Really? There has to be something.”
“Take a look for yourself,” she says and waves to the paper.
“Go for it,” she says, and scolds herself for her eagerness, although she can’t tamp down the bubbles of happiness floating through her body for the first time in months.
He scoots the chair out and settles into it, his forearms rest against the edge of the table, and his head tips towards the paper, but he doesn’t stop looking at her. “What are you looking for?”
Alex knows whatever this is between them will probably end when she steps outside of the shop, but, until then, she wants to believe it could be longer, and this familiarity is more than a coincidence. Didn’t she deserve to? Her mom would say so.
“Tell me something good,” Alex says.
“Hmm.” He slid a hand around her back, and the other onto the paper to drag it towards him. The home was dark, illumined by one dim bulb above the wood table.
His eyes flicked back and forth along the tight copy, his finger running below the words. Dirt clung to the underside of his fingernails, like it did to the groove of her footprint, unable to be washed completely away.
She pushed up from the table to grab the kettle wailing on the stove, quieting when she lifted it from the flame. As she poured the liquid into the porcelain cup, some splashed up onto the lip chipped from when her grandparents crossed the sea from Ireland. Despite its condition, it brought her comfort now when few things did.
His finger jammed against the thick, but somewhat torn page. “Here we go. It looks like Amelia Earhart is going to try to fly across the Atlantic.”
“She is?” She sat back into her chair, resting her chin in his shoulder, and he nodded, sipping from his cup. His black hair ticked her face, and she reminded herself to give him a trim when there was time.
“In May. That would be impressive if she could.” The clock chimed from the living room, and they both looked toward the noise. Outside, the sky had begun to warm at its edges. “I better get out there. I’ll give this back to the Hendersons.” Rolling up the paper, he stood from the chair, only to stoop down, run his hand over her caramel hair, and kiss her. “Wish me luck, Lena.”
“Good luck, Michael.” He walked out the door, humming a tune that he would’ve played on his guitar before this, when resting after work didn’t mean collapsing onto the mattress, and the instrument wasn’t waiting with the rest of her china for the day it would have to be sold to keep them alive.
From her chair, she watched him trudge out towards the barn, newspaper tucked under one arm, a bucket for milk in the other. A tiny cry came from the other room, and she turned away from the window, dumping the remainder of her cup in the sink on the way.
If they lived at another time that wasn’t so turbulent and difficult. A different life may have meant a different love, she knew, and that she would never change. No matter the circumstances, she wanted this boy—his broad shoulders, and calloused fingers, and kind heart. Her always something good.