The sun is blinking across the curved rooftops, I can barely see it from my balcony. A soft breeze is brushing through my open hair, messy from another restless night. I close my eyes and listen to the seagulls’ cries in the distance. If I focus, I can smell the faint, fresh salt in the air, hear the distant whispering of waves caressing a white beach.
The air is still chilly and I pull the blanket a little tighter around my shoulders, a cup of lemon tea in my hand that is still too hot to drink. I lean back in my chair and blow on the liquid, eyes fixed on that inch of the horizon that I can see in between two houses across the street. The sky is still a dull grey, muddy orange bleeding into it in long, torn strips. I haven’t been a morning person before I came here, now I sit here every morning. It’s not only for the sun.
I cast a glance through my balcony door into the mess of a flat, where cardboard boxes are piled ontop of each other, forming a narrow corridor from the door to my writing desk to the balcony. It’s a mess but it’s my mess and the thought leaves a smile on my face.
A soft ringing catches my ears and I look down, my heart doing a silly little jump. I don’t need to look to know that the sound came from the bakery right across the street and I don’t need to look to know who caused it. He opens the shop every day, Monday to Friday. Not that I’ve been keeping track of that. Not at all.
He pushes the door open and places a chalkboard sign outside on the cobblestones announcing coffee and fresh strawberry cakes. The sign has little strawberries in the corners and I know he drew them himself. He does it every morning. Not that I’m paying much attention to him.
I try to look away but I don’t, as he brushes his hands over his apron, leaving white dusty stains. His brown curls fall over his forehead and he blows them to the side. He looks up and I flinch, hands gripping my cup a bit too hard and I spill a few drops of tea onto the tiles of my balcony.
He waves at me, a small, polite lift of the hand, like you greet a stranger that you happen to be in the same room with. And that’s really all we are. I don’t even know his name.
I wave back, awkwardly, while my face feels as hot as the cup in my hands, and try to make the self conscious tucking-a-loose-strand-behind-my-ear seem natural. He’s already turned around again and I sink a little deeper into my chair, wondering why I come here every morning when I know he’ll be there and I’ll make a fool out of myself.
Well, I don’t do it for the sun.
I listen to him arranging the tables and chairs on the sidewalk while I’m watching the sky turn from grey to orange to purple and we aren’t the only ones awake anymore. He doesn’t look up again and I only look down a couple of times, by accident mostly. Not at all because I’m trying to decipher the print on his shirt, half hidden by the apron, and wonder about the kind of music he might like.
I go back inside eventually, when my cup is half-empty, the rest of the tea cold and the sun fully risen above the rooftops. I make it past the boxes to the small kitchen built into the far corner, not more than an oven, an old fridge and a couple of scraped cupboards filled with spices and old dishes that I found in second hand stores. I make myself a new cup of tea and settle down at my writing desk, my body still not fully awake despite the cold that’s grown into a mild breeze, and I spend a few minutes sleepily blinking out of the window, listening to the bird’s songs, before I open my laptop and get to work.
A week later, the morning air is soft, light, the cold nothing but a memory. The man from the weather forecast proudly announced the start of the hot season yesterday and for the first time in years I share the anticipation. I was always a bit nervous about hot weather, the prospect of short dresses, sun lotion, large hats and lots of skin, but this time I don’t mind that at all. Sometimes I feel like I started over from zero, when I’m stuck on a project and feel like the flat is too small after all, the mess a sign for everything in my life that I haven’t been able to fix, the hurried move nothing but a mistake. But other times, when the weight of the memories lifts, I feel like I’ve finally arrived.
There is no need for a blanket now, the salty air barely cools down at night, and I put my hot cup down on an old, wobbly table and place my hands on the cold metal of the railing instead.
He is here again, in front of the bakery, winding down the awning over the chairs and tables against the morning sun, barely risen and already too warm. I catch myself looking at him and quickly look away, but he already noticed. We share another of those awkward half-waves and I feel like his eyes linger on me for a second.
Maybe I should talk to him. I still don’t know his name. I’ve been to the bakery before but I always ended up going on Saturday when I know he’s not there. I’ve never been one of the brave kind. But the chocolate buns are good.
I look down again but he already went inside and I know he won’t come outside for a while. I take my cup and go to my writing desk, getting ready for work while a soft breeze ruffles through the papers on my desk.
I’m doing it, finally. It’s Thursday and it took me a couple of days to realise that I can’t keep sneaking in glances forever. I need to up my game, take the next step. I can’t believe I still want to play it safe.
It takes me half an hour to pick a dress - a simple white one with flowers in red and blue - and when I brush through my hair one last time the sun is already above the rooftops. Another person wouldn’t have wasted half the morning in front of the mirror, another person would have never waited this long. But turns out even after the move, I’m still me. Despite everything I planned, I can’t just shrug off the parts of me that I don’t like and leave them behind like the coat I left because it didn’t fit the person I wanted to be so badly.
I brush over my dress and smile at myself, encouraging, but I can see that I’m scared. When I reach the bottom of the stairs and step out into the dusty street, the thin fabric is clinging to my back already. I miss the cool mornings just a few weeks ago when I was longing for warmer weather.
I cross the street, the shadows still long, but above me the window shutters are being opened and I can hear people starting their morning routines. I straighten a little as I step into the shadow underneath the awning that barely helps against the hot, dry air that reminds me of my oven when I open the door. The scent of fresh bread and coffee greets me as I enter the shop and I remember that I haven’t eaten yet.
He looks up from a basket with little brown rolls and smiles. I’ve never seen him smile before and the sight makes my brain stop for a second, and I forget why I came here in the first place. “Hi.” He puts down the basket, wipes his hands on his apron and I know his friendliness is mere professionalism.
His eyes narrow for a heartbeat, then his smile widens. “Aren’t you the one from the balcony?” He points at something outside the shop window, the vague direction of my apartment, and I nod.
“Yeah, that’s me.”
Maybe this is the time to say it. Ask him what I have been wanting to ask for weeks. I plough through my brain, looking for the sentences I have prepared, the snippets of conversation I have practiced over and over in my head, but my heart is racing too fast and my hands are holding onto each other for dear life.
I’m still me, after all.
I buy a piece of strawberry cake, trying to hide the fact that I’m watching his every movement, looking for a way to turn this conversation into what I actually came down for, but I don’t. In the end, I have nothing but a piece of cake in a soggy paper bag, and the name on his name tag.
I only noticed it just before I left, when he handed me the bag, and the image has engraved itself into my memory.
I failed, gloriously, but my steps are a little lighter as I go back up the stairs to my messy, crammed, new apartment.
The cake tastes sweet and a little sour, reminding me of the one my grandma used to make when I was a child in patched dungarees and spent the summer holidays in her cottage in the countryside. Hers always had a blotch of whipped cream on top and the dough was a little crisper, but it’s close. I try to tell myself that my efforts haven’t been completely in vain. I’ve taken another step, not much, not as much as I had wanted to do, but I did it. And I guess that counts for something.
A week later, I wake up to a heated flat and cloudless skies. When I open the window the air outside is as suffocating as inside. Maybe I should go down to the beach, spend the hours of unbearable heat hip deep in lukewarm water. The sun is casting orange rays over the rooftops, barely risen yet, but I don’t feel like sitting on the balcony today. The heat is almost tangible and my clothes are already clammy. I even skip the tea.
I could go down to the bakery, give it another try. I don’t want to, the heavy knot that is my stomach reminds me of my recent failure, but I can’t push the thought aside. Maybe this isn’t the best time, maybe I should wait for a cooler day, a shadier day, a day that is still a comfortable distance away, so I can pretend I have a plan when really I’m just procrastinating on what’s scaring me.
The next thing I know is I’m stepping out into the street, wearing a light dress the colour of the morning sky, my head filled with worries. This is a bad idea. What if he turns me down?
I straighten my shoulders and brush a loose strand of hair behind my ear, push through the doubts. When I step over the threshold and into the still, thick air of the bakery, I almost feel something close to self confidence but one look at him and that feeling vanishes.
His hair is falling over his forehead in wild, brown curls, his cheeks and the bridge of his nose a little reddened, from the sun or the heat, I don’t know. His smile is a little crooked, a little different from the one I remember and I don’t know if that’s a good sign. Maybe he can read my intentions on my forehead, in the way my smile shakes, or how my fingers are wrapped around the hem of my dress, as if holding on could keep this from going disastrously wrong.
I smile. “Hi.”
“Cake?” He gestures to the display in front of him, the rows of deep red strawberries on a white bed, cut into wobbly squares, and I want to nod but stop myself at the last second. This isn’t why I’m here.
But of course everything I’ve prepared goes out the window. I can’t remember what I meant to say so I say whatever comes first into my mind. “Would you like to go to the beach with me?”
He blinks and I know he’ll say no. Maybe even laugh. He doesn’t seem like a cruel person but maybe my intuition isn’t as good as I think it is.
His smile widens and the brown of his eyes seems a little golden. I think I can see his cheeks flush, the red darken, but maybe I’m wrong. “How about Saturday?”
My heart stumbles. He didn’t say no. I nod and realise that I never actually prepared what I would say if he didn’t turn me down. I’m looking for words, something witty, funny maybe, so that he doesn’t regret his decision right away, but all I can say is: “Sounds good. Saturday then.”
“I’ll pick you up at ten.” There is a moment of silence and I shift my weight from one foot to the other. Maybe I should have left before it got awkward.
“I do want cake,” I finally say and a few minutes later I leave the shop with another paper bag and a stupid smile on my face. I will spend the day in my apartment, seeking shelter from the dry heat and thinking about Saturday. I will try not to worry too much, but it takes practice and I’m too good of an overthinker to just stop. Turns out I didn’t leave much behind after all. It’s not as simple as that. But all of a sudden, what lies ahead doesn’t seem so daunting anymore.