The young couple position their seasonal Joey Java cups high above their heads. “Have you ever seen a Christmas Tree print in herringbone? It’s sublime. Turn the label towards the camera, Quinn. We have to “tag” Joey. Perfect shot! You ready to get out of here?" The couple hastily abandon their Joey Java cups on the nearest table and stroll outside, eyes magnetized to their phone, enchanted by the memory they captured.
Coffee newbs? Tourists, maybe? People have the liberty to express themselves in any behavior they deem entertaining, but I’m not getting caught dead snapping lame-brain photos. Why has the world become so embryonic minded, Ronnie thought as he watches the young couple disappear back into the world.
Ronnie is not a coffee advocate. He loves energy drinks, high-octane, brain stimulating energy drinks, specifically one by the name of MK Ultra. MK Ultra’s ingredients certainly blur the line of legality but transform your mind like nothing else on the market. This is Ronnie’s version of an endorsement not the company's. Consequently, his wife Lana catches wind of his MK Ultra addiction and suggests Ronnie switch to straight black coffee for a few weeks, a more straightforward, healthy alternative to his caffeine compulsion. “Medical studies have proven the benefits, Ronnie. Please give it a try.”
The café continues to fill with patrons, all happy to blend in with the mundane. To mirror each other’s fading sense of individuality. The crème to life’s indoctrinated cappuccino.
Ronnie angles his way around the café’s guests. $7.50 for a cup of joe? Better invest in a home coffee maker. I’m being exploited.
“Ronnie? Café Noir for Ronnie?”. Ronnie jeers as he grabs the steaming cup from the barista. Why the silly name? What's wrong with the "black coffee" moniker? One more week of this nonsense, then back to the powers of MK Ultra.
Ronnie walks toward the exit and notices Joe’s weekly promotion scribbled in red, white and green bubble letters on the chalkboard. “Mistletoe flavored espresso. Limited time.” Isn’t that stuff toxic? Or is that poinsettia? Corporations will experiment with anything to make a profit.
Ronnie shakes his head in distaste, reaches for the café door handle and turns to notice his brother-in-law, Michael, sitting at the opposite end of the coffee shop. Sitting with another woman…another woman who was NOT his wife Nicole.
That’s odd. Michael is a Marketing Professor across town and I’m sure school is out for holiday break. This woman looks YOUNG. Like she’s been legally purchasing alcohol for a month young. Michael is almost 50. This is bad.
Ronnie hesitates to reach for the door contemplating whether he should confront his brother-in-law or not before deciding it best to slip out of the café undetected. A day for working on his new novel now becomes a burden filled conundrum, a day where the plot now controls him.
The phone in Ronnie‘s jean pockets begins to take on the weight of a disgraced priest’s confessional. Lana and Ronnie tell each other everything and this is certainly not an exception. Lana will transform into Mrs. Hyde if she knows Michael is betraying her sister. There is past evidence of this...betraying Lana’s sister could be fatal.
Ronnie thinks back to a time, some years ago when he and his wife were helping her sister Marie and brother-in-law Max move apartments. To expedite the move, Max and Marie invited Michael and his wife Nicole to come along and help.
Moving day was scorching, the sun radiating proudly, making every attempt to transform the cement into liquid. The furniture and Max and Marie's personal items all seemed to be made of concrete. "Do you two own anything that's not heavy?", Ronnie joked. The couples showed up at Max and Marie’s new place to unload. Once the current haul made it off the truck, everyone decided to cool down for a minute. Ronnie, being an MK Ultra induced psychopath decided to use the spare time to hook up television cables in Max and Marie’s main bedroom. When he got to the room he saw Lana, Nicole and Marie huddled in an insidiously shaped semi-circle, the girls’ heads leaning in towards each other as if they were scheming a narcotics raid.
Marie glanced up from the girls’ assemblage and directed an unwelcoming scowl at Ronnie, a precise replication of the universal gesture, “get your ass out of here”. Uncharacteristic of Marie’s typically affable self, Ronnie felt it best to abort the cable connecting mission and go find Max and Michael.
Ronnie stared at the apartment floor as he made his way back to the living room. His unease inundated his mind. In the living room, Max and Michael were discussing when the first party would be thrown. “Does management let you grill here? How big is your patio? My buddy can get us a military discount at the liquor store.”
As welcoming as a get-together sounded, something still felt awry. The girls were acting inexplicably out of character. Either Marie passed gas (which she had been rumored to do from time to time) and embarrassed herself or something inauspicious triggered the three sisters.
Before Ronnie made it to the couch, he could sense his wife, Nicole and Marie briskly approaching the living room. As the three women assembled at the front of the room, Ronnie contemplated whether their shoulder-to-shoulder formation was an intimidation tactic, but their coalition was making him teem with consternation.
“WHAT are these?”, Marie said pointing to a clump of damp napkin, an opening slightly wide enough that a black cloth showed through.
“What is that? “, Michael, Max and Ronnie replied in unison.
“You tell us! It looks like women’s underwear wrapped up in a paper towel! We found them by the sink in the guest bathroom”, Marie said.
“Well, they’re obviously not ours. We would never wear clothing like that.”, Michael said. Michael had a unique brand of humor and always exhibited it at the most inopportune moments. And this was as inopportune moment…Death was closing in, thought Ronnie.
“Where did these come from? They are not ours.”, Marie said as she pried the napkin open, hesitant to touch whatever rested inside.
The brothers-in-law looked at each other with blank expressions, each one hoping the other would shed some light on the mystery.
With the girls stares thickening the tension in the room, , Michael said “Let me see the napkin." in a Hail Mary attempt to save his brother-in-law’s lives.
“Here.” Marie handed the enigmatic paper towel in Michael’s direction. “You three better have an explanation for this.”
Michael peeks into the napkin with a child’s inquisition. This must be a set up, he thought. The girls couldn’t possibly think we’d have time to be with an estranged woman in the middle of a move or be capable of anything this horrendous, period. The couples did everything together. Some of them were godparents of one another’s children. Even the in-laws communicated daily. Where were these accusations coming from?
As soon as Michael opened the napkin, a grin quickly illuminated his face. “Mystery solved, fellas. This is my bandana from earlier. I rinsed it out in the bathroom because it was smelly and soaked with sweat. I completely forgot about it.”
Marie, Nicole and Lana turned to each other in dismay. The girls’ heads sunk into their shoulders, laughter beginning to overcome their embarrassment.
“You three are some lucky bastards; Marie was going to grab the shotgun and Nicole had a buck knife. We were getting ready to blast you guys”, Lana said with a chuckle.
“Seriously?”, Ronnie said. “Over a bandana?”.
“Lana found the “underwear” and initially thought Marie had left them laying around, but Marie said they weren’t hers. Naturally, you guys became suspects. We were getting ready to take your lives”, Nicole said with a subtle smirk forming on her face.
“What the…What type of girl wears black, paisley print underwear? A motorcycle riding stripper?”, Michael said. Everyone burst into laughter.
Ronnie remembers this day vividly. Partly for the humor of it, but also for the unity the sisters displayed. They bonded together when needed. After today’s events, one of them might need some bonding, a bail bondsman.
Ronnie has no choice but to share his café revelation with Lana. As close as the sisters are, Ronnie and Lana are even closer. They tell each other everything, good and bad, mundane and revelatory. Transparency is the foundation for their marriage.
Ronnie stares absently at the phone in his non-coffee wielding hand while trying to quasi-enjoy his overpriced wake-up brew. Make the call. Now. Lana would want to know, but understand, this revelation changes everything. Marriages. Families. Friends. This discovery, this infidelity is likely the ungluing of our family.
Ronnie reluctantly presses the button, “My Beautiful Wife, Lana”.
“Love, are you busy?” Ronnie says. “I’m just leaving the café.”
“Just getting to the office. How are you?”, Lana says.
“Eh, slow start to the day. Just getting some caffeine in my veins.”
“Steering clear of the MK Ultra, I hope?”
“Of course, Love, but I ran across something worse…I saw Michael when I was grabbing coffee this morning.”
“Oh yeah, how is he?”
“I didn’t speak to him. He was there with another woman. A MUCH younger woman.”
“Another woman? What do you mean? Nicole wasn’t with him?”
“No, just him and the lady. I have never seen her before.”
Ronnie can hear a muffled voice on the other end of the phone saying, “Can you excuse me one moment. I have a family emergency.”
“Sorry, you there, Ron? That son of a bitch! Michael must be having an affair with one of his students. I am going to kill him. He doesn’t deserve to be a part of this family if he is going to disrespect Nicole.”.
“So…what do we do? I had to tell you, but I don’t want to interfere with their marriage.”
“I must tell her, but…we can’t do it now. Christmas is this weekend and it’s their first one with the baby. It’s going to destroy Nicole. It’s going to destroy Christmas for everyone. God damn that guy.”
“My lips are zipped if yours are. Are we sure what I saw wasn’t platonic? Maybe a professor-student consultation?”
“How would I know, Ronnie? YOU saw them. What did it look like to you?”
“It had a peculiar feeling to it…something was amiss. I just want to be sure.”
“Nicole had mentioned awhile back Michael seemed distant recently, but I told her he probably has a lot of pressure on him at the university. He has been pushing to become a “Full Professor”. I know that is important to him. I never thought he would do something like this to her.”
“Me either, Love. I know how tough this is going to be. I know how much you love your little sister…It looks like we have a horrible holiday secret to hide.”
“Yes, we do. We don’t tell Nicole until after the holidays. Agree?”
“Like I said, my lips are sealed. I am headed to the park to work on my story. Call me if you need anything. I’m so sorry. I love you”.
“I love you, Ron. Talk to you later.”