The specter of vomit wafting around my Jaguar reinforced my decision to be done with dating for a very long time. Jason wasn’t the straw the broke the camel’s back, he crushed the entire camel like a pallet of bricks dropped from a fourth story window.
I pulled into the North Orleans Street parking garage and swiped my card. I knew it wasn’t the closest parking garage to the Harold Washington Library, but I was scared to park on the South Side of Chicago. I knew it was ridiculous. I was going to buy my coffee at my favorite south side coffee shop. I was going to walk a mile to the south side library, where I was going to spend the rest of the morning, all the way until dinner time.
Walking down the sidewalk, the scent of fresh urine assaulted my nose. A bearded man, wearing a shredded black suit, shouldered passed me. The sole of his left shoe flapped against the sidewalk and the distinct smell of stale cigarettes and alcohol wafted behind him. I instinctively wriggled my nose in an attempt to dislodge the smells that refused to be dislodged. I turned left down W Randolph St and crossed the street as a train rumbled above my head, throwing miniscule bits of dirt floating down to the asphalt. A woman wearing a bright green summer dress and starch white yoga pants held the door open for me. I clutched my purse to my side and mumbled a half-hearted thanks. The welcoming smell of various coffees filled my nostrils. The stark contrast from the scent of the street to the scent of the coffee shop was quite literally a breath of fresh air.
“It’s not really fresh.” One of two men wearing grey sweat suits sitting directly to my left blurted out. The large man wearing a black knit cap, with a half smoked cigarette tucked behind his ear, cocked his head at his friend. “Coffee beans are left to bake in the hot sun before they even send them to this store.”
I stopped mid stride and stared open mouth at their table. “Excuse me?”
The skinny man wearing a Yankees’ baseball cap looked up from his espresso. “Can we help you?”
I stammered. “He said…I…” I pointed at the fat man. “How’d you know what I was thinking?”
The large man pulled his hat off his head and sat it on the table, causing his half-smoked cigarette to dislodge and roll on to the floor. “Miss, what’re you goin’ on about?”
The skinny man laughed. “These nuts in Chicago get funnier every time I visit. I swear it’s the green river. They must be drinking it.”
My cheeks turned the same shade of red as the two dozen roses Jason had bought for me the same day he later absconded with my Jaguar. The fat man joined his friend’s laughter. I stepped on the cigarette he’d been saving for later, and turned my foot as the tobacco spilled out of its wrapper.
At the counter, a twelve year old cracked the company line at me. “Welcome to Shantay’s Coffee. Hot brewed or cold brewed, poured over or French pressed, hot or iced, straight espresso or latte, tea or water, biscuits or cakes, we do it all. Can I interest you in our flavor of the month, a Triple Lungo Willis Tower Caramel Crunch?”
I blinked several times at him. “That’s a lot.” I shook my head. “Can I just get a normal brewed coffee?”
“We have seven different brewed coffees from a weak blonde to a dark put hair even on my chest double roasted bean. If you like really weak coffee, I’d suggest the Lake Shore Beach Blonde, if you like it really dark then I’d suggest the Scarface Al Capone, if you…”
I held up my hand and shook my head. “Where’s Ceciel? He knows what I like.”
The boy, who was obviously older than twelve, whistled. “Well. Ceciel. Um, he went nuts.” He pointed back at the broken mirror over the sink. “He grabbed a customer from in front of the counter and threw him into that mirror.”
I felt the blood drain out of my face. “Ceciel? Are you sure? I’ve been coming here for five years and he’s never been anything except nice to everyone who came in here. Even the lady last week who threw her hot coffee across the counter, he treated with nothing but kindness.”
His head bobbed. “Yeah, that’s what everyone says. You never know with some people. So, what kind of coffee do you like?”
I scratched the side of my neck. “Umm. I like it somewhere in between. I’ll take whatever the middle of the road coffee is. Are you sure we're talking about Ceceil?”
He nodded his head, then turned around and grabbed three very small paper cups, revealing a pink butterfly tattoo on the back of his neck. He filled the three cups from one of the three carafes sitting on the counter. One of the two men behind me laughed in hysteria. I turned to look at them and the fat man had his hand on his forehead shaking his head back and forth.
I turned back around to see the boy behind the counter holding one of the cups toward me. His sleeve pulled back and revealed a tattoo of a black tank. “This one is the weakest of the ‘middle of the road’ as you called it. It’s our Buckingham Fountain Swim.”
I took the coffee from his hand. “What’s your name?”
“Nancy.” He, I mean she smiled.
I sipped the coffee, unsure if it was strong tea or dirty water from the Chicago River, then placed the cup back on the counter. “Is this coffee or did you steal this from the Buckingham Fountain?”
She pursed her lips at me and then spread them in a forced grin. “I’m going to skip the Cloud Gate Bean Roast.” She put down the cup in her hand and picked up the last one. Try this one.” She shoved the little cup at me.
I took the coffee and instantly knew the drink I’d become so familiar with. It was the perfect amount of flavor without being so thick that I felt like I was drinking coffee made from old engine oil.
“This is the one.”
“That’s our Comiskey Home Run. It’s our best seller.” She turned around, filled up the largest cup they had and handed it to me. “Don’t worry about paying for it. I’m sorry about your friend Ceceil.”
I raised my eyebrow at her, then pulled a five dollar bill out of my purse and put it in her tip jar. We both said, “Thanks.”
The door to the coffeehouse swung shut behind the two men as they exited the establishment. I was glad to occupy the table they had left, since I could watch the city start to come alive as I enjoyed my coffee.
I stood from the table, tossed my now empty cup into the trash, and opened the door to the noise and smells of the city. Inside the coffeehouse had been an escape from the chaos, but I was happy to hear the cabby down the road honk his horn. It was so familiar to me that it brought a certain amount of comfort. He shoved his hand out the window and stuck up his finger at the four gang bangers ambling in front of his cab. “Next time I’ll run ya aver.”
The tallest member of the quad returned the gesture. “Tryit cabbie ‘n imma pop a cap in ya face.”
I continued south passed them and listened to the streets as they became louder and more frenzied. The early morning hours were passing into late morning.
At the library, the large brass doors gave the impression that I was living in 1920s Chicago. I pulled them open as the train outside screeched and creaked. Once the library doors shut behind me, the anger of the city streets was hidden from me once again. Arriving at the elevators I reached out to press the call button just as a masculine arm reached in front of me and pressed it. His arm brushed mine.
His strong square jaw moved from the gum he was chewing. “I’m sorry, that was rude of me.” The elevator doors slid open at the same instance and he held his hand to indicate for me to get on. Then he followed me in and turned toward the control panel. “What floor?”
My heart fluttered, betraying my oath to be done with men. “Seventh please.”
The doors slid closed and the elevator ascended toward the seventh floor. My heart pounded in my chest as I tried to build up the courage to talk to the man with hypnotic blue eyes. At the sixth floor, the elevator stopped and the doors opened. The stranger exited the elevator without as much as a glance back and the doors shut him out of my life. I knew it was for the best. I consoled myself with the fact that I had sworn off men for the foreseeable future. Before I realized what happened, the doors opened again, on the ninth floor, and the jovial conversation of five high school students solicited my ears’ attention.
A short blonde girl blathered. “It’s a stupid assignment. The civil war was like a thousand years ago.”
I pressed the button for the seventh floor nine times and the crowded elevator doors closed again. An average looking boy with wire rimmed glasses retorted with a voice that cracked. “Actually, it was barely…”
The short brunette rolled her eyes. “Shut up Stanley. It’s a figure of speech.”
The elevator doors opened again and I made sure to get out as fast as I could. I had no intention of missing out on my escape from the berating the boy was getting from girls he was hoping to impress but were only using him to get a good grade. I despised being reminded of my selfish days of high school. The fourth girl’s gentle voice was shut out by the closing doors. “He’s just trying to help us, there’s no reason…”
The sudden quietness of the seventh floor didn’t prepare me for the man wearing the redder than a roaring fire shirt and blinding yellow pants; which seemed to cast more illumination than the overhead lights. His head turned in my direction and his shrill voice drowned out the tranquility of the library. “Sherry? Oh my gosh. I cannot believe it. What are the chances that we’d run into each other here?”
I muttered to myself, “I’m Shelly… And considering we both live in the city and we’re in Chicago’s…”
Although I had never struggled with indigestion, my chest burned as if I did. I put on the fakest smile I could muster. “Oh. William. It’s you. My name is Shelly.”
He strode toward me and held open his arms. I extended my arm and shook his hand to prevent him from drawing me in. “How’s Melody?”
His face dropped and his smile faded. “I’m so sorry Sherry…”
I sighed. “It’s Shelly”
His eyes twitched back and forth. “Sorry, I meant Shelly. I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
“Hurt me? Hurt me?” My face burned with anger. “You cheated on me with not one but two of my friends. In the same week. And you can’t even remember my name.”
“I am so sorry, what I did is unforgiveable, but I love you and wish you’d give me another chance. I’ve changed. I’ll never forgive myself for losing you.” His smile crept back into his face, betraying the regret he was trying to convince me he felt.
I crossed my arms over my chest. “Well, I’m certainly glad I found out who you are before things got serious.”
William’s face drew taut again. “Please forgive me. You were the best thing to ever happen in my life. If there’s anything I can do to win back your heart, I will do it. I mean literally anything.”
I rolled my eyes. “When I say literally, and I do quite mean literally, there’s literally nothing you can do. That ship sunk the day Melody told me she was pregnant.”
He seemed to grow small and his face held no more hint of anything remotely related to a smile. “I’m still sorry.”
I turned and walked away.
He called after, “You sure we can’t get together for lunch some time Sherry?”
I ducked down the closest aisle of books, walked past tall, short, fat, narrow, hardcover, and softcover books. Reaching the end of that aisle of books, I looked back and was relieved that he hadn’t followed. The sign at the end of the aisle read, “Mk-Mu.” My brother Jaquin told me about a series of books by Monique Monty, which is what I had planned to go upstairs to read. Almost to the end of the aisle, there sat a dozen books by Monty, which I grabbed all of. With my arms full of books, I headed toward the escalators, not wanting to run back into William.
The slow rumbling of the old escalator wasn’t fast enough, so I walked to put as much space between William and myself. At the pinnacle of the second escalator, I was finally where I had spent so much time trying to get to. Blue skies peaked from time to time between the clouds that were passing above the glass ceiling of the beautiful top floor. Staring at the sky, I was brought out of my revering when my foot struck a thick book which had been skidding across the floor.
The books flew from my arms and across the floor and the man with hypnotic blue eyes caught me in his arms. “I’m really sorry. I dropped my book.”
I stared up into his eyes and was dumbstruck.
He stood me upright onto my feet. “Are you alright?”
I smoothed out my black summer dress and nodded, while he picked up the books I had dropped. I picked up the book I had stumbled upon and held it out for the man who dropped it to take back. His arms were full of my large stack of books.
He laughed silently. “Hey, I’m Jim. I was going over there.” He pointed with his elbow toward the least used section of the library, where a tree grew from a planter. Its green leaves were in stark contrast to the white walls of the library. “You wanna join me? You can carry my book and I’ll carry yours.”
A shiver ran up my spine at the thought of having a second chance to get to know him, but my brain yelled at me to run the other way. I had enough heartbreak to last a lifetime and I needed a long break. So, naturally, I said, “Sure, I’d love to.”
His face lit up. “Great. What’s your name?”
“Oh, yeah. Uh, Shelly.”
He smirked. “You sure?”
I nodded my head and my smile felt like it was going to break my face. “Yeah, I'm pretty sure I'm Shelly.”
We lay our books on the table and sat together as the sky turned from blue to grey. We discussed what university we graduated from, the struggles we’ve faced in life, what we were doing with our lives, and whatever came to mind. The books we each picked out lay untouched on the table before us. Lightning lit up the sky for an instant, then three seconds later thunder rumbled through the room. Distinct tinkling of the beginning of a rain storm pattered on the glass ceiling above our heads. I held two fingers to my forehead and closed my eyes. “Oh my gosh. I parked a mile away, it’s raining, and I left my umbrella at home.”
A grin spread across his face. “Why would you do that? There’s plenty of parking much closer?”
My cheeks radiated with warmth and I turned my eyes toward the floor. “It’s dumb…”
He placed his hand on mine and traced his thumb up and down. “It’s okay, we all have things.”
I looked into his eyes. “I’m afraid to park on the south side. I know a mile away isn’t really any different than here and walking a mile to here is actually less safe than parking less than a block away, but it’s just the idea. I try to convince myself of the absurdity of the whole thing, but emotionally I can’t make that jump. I excuse it by reminding myself that I like walking. It’s dumb, I know.”
“Like I said, we all have our things. I parked less than a block away. I can take you to your car if you want.”
I turned my hand over, interlocked my fingers with his, and smiled. Electricity ran up and down my arm. “That would be great.”
We left the library, hand in hand, until the rain splattered against our heads. Then we separated to run toward his 80‘s faded white Ferrari and ducked out of the rain. The rain spattering on the car seemed to match the beating of my heart. We discussed my past failed relationships as he hung onto every word. He was a great listener. Driving into the parking garage, where I had parked, we sat together for hours before I returned to my car. We exchanged phone numbers and made lunch plans for Sunday. Everything about the way he spoke to me and the fact that he never even tried to kiss me made me believe that he was going to be different from any man I’d had feelings for before.