We hadn’t seen each other in two years, hadn’t spoken or even texted since then, until she liked my post about moving to the city and asked, in a comment, if she could show me the best coffee in Chicago. And I, having no friends and a roommate I’d just met and didn’t care for, said yes.
She called me twenty minutes before we were supposed to meet. Her name flashed across my phone and I was momentarily confused. I hadn’t heard from her since our conversation in the Facebook comments, and had convinced myself we weren’t still meeting. After all, college acquaintances say all the time that they want to meet for lunch or coffee. They rarely mean it.
I answered the phone and pitched my hello so high that she laughed. “Still on for today?” she asked, and I laughed too, because she sounded the same as always, and because it was a question that anyone else would have asked hours ago. She didn’t apologize for the late call. I told her yes, and she said she would put on shoes.
It turned out that she lived above the coffee shop, not directly above, because that would be too cute, but above and slightly to the left. When I arrived, she was leaning against the wall, talking to a woman, and not looking for me. Though it was only February, she wore a long, flowing floral skirt and short boots, no jacket. Her hair was longer now, dyed a slightly darker brown, but aside from that she looked the same as I remembered: a summer day in the middle of winter.
When she finally saw me, I lifted my hand in a small wave, suddenly uncertain of what I was doing here. We’d been classmates only twice despite majoring in the same subject. The two classes we shared together were the worst I took in all four years of college.
We worked together on projects a few times, and she would grin at me across the room when our professor said something obnoxious. Once, we got lunch together, on a day when class was moved to 11 AM and got out at noon. I recalled her trailing me to the dining hall and sitting down at my table, without asking if she could.
I walked towards her, suddenly very aware of my arms and legs, and trying to figure out what I was supposed to do with them when I was close enough. She solved that for me by pulling me into a hug. I stiffened, then relaxed as she pulled away and said how good it was to see me. I said it was good to see her too.
And it was, in the way that it’s always good to see someone you haven’t seen in a while, like a reminder that you’re still alive, and there are people who know you even when you don’t see them and you never think of each other. A reminder that even in a sea of strangers, there are faces that you recognize and people who know strange little facts about you, such as where you put your pencil in proximity to your notebook when your professor is on a particularly rambling lecture. I felt anchored to the streets of Chicago for the first time since I’d arrived, no longer adrift in an unfamiliar sea. It wasn’t just her; it could have been anyone, and I would have felt the same way. Even if it was someone I hated.
It was much nicer to feel anchored by someone I didn’t hate, though.
When she released me, she waved me towards the door. "Shouldn't you say goodbye to your friend?" I asked, gesturing towards the woman.
Her eyes crinkled and she said, "Her? I've never met her before today."
We went inside, and my eyes drifted around, taking in the abundance of houseplants on the tables and counters and framed watercolors on the walls. She saw me looking and pointed, saying, “That one’s mine.” Somehow, I already knew this, even though I hadn't known she was an artist. The painting depicted a landscape, all hills and squat buildings bathed in early morning light, a dreamier version of our college campus.
“It’s really good,” I said, because I wasn’t in the business of complimenting art or girls.
She pointed again, this time to a chalkboard menu. “Tell me what you want to order, and then I’ll tell you if it’s a good idea.”
I squinted to read the tiny print and said, “Maybe just a latte?”
“Wrong,” she said.
The line was getting shorter.
“Wrong again,” she said, but her voice was teasing, not rude.
“Do you want to just tell me what to get?”
“Nope,” she said, “This is a teaching moment. Also, a learning moment. ‘Just a latte,’ really?”
There was only one person in front of us. I frantically read the specials.
“Honey lavender matcha latte?” I tried.
She grinned. “Good choice. What kind of milk?”
“I have to pick the milk?” It was our turn. She ordered for both of us, a honey lavender matcha latte with oat milk for me, and a black coffee for her. I waited until she had paid to say, “Really? Black coffee?”
She laughed out loud, and it sounded even better than it had on the phone. I just shook my head, at a loss for words.
We sat at a high table carved from wood. Her feet dangled from the stool and she swung them back and forth a little, making her skirt flutter. “Welcome to Chicago,” she said. “Why on earth are you here?”
“Here with you, or here in general?”
“Here in general, of course,” she said, casting a raised eyebrow at me. “I know why you’re here with me—you lack for fascinating company.”
I told her, then, that I was going to grad school at UChicago in the fall but decided to move early. It wasn’t that exciting of a story on its own, but she nodded politely.
The barista called our order then, and she got up to retrieve it. She placed the black coffee in front of me and winked. I thanked her, relieved, and got up to stir in sugar and milk.
When I sat back down, she was sipping her matcha and looking at me with a curious expression. “I don’t think you’re being honest,” she said, and I didn’t have to ask what she meant.
I started talking then, being honest. I told her that I had to get out of my parents’ house, and that my anxiety was getting worse, and that I’d hoped moving would help. I told her that I wasn’t sure why I was going to grad school, but that it seemed like the only logical next step. I told her those things and more, and the whole time she
just sat there, sipping her drink.
I felt compelled to tell her my secrets, as if bewitched. And maybe I was bewitched, in a way, but not because she was trying.
After that day, I didn’t expect to hear from her, and I didn’t. The hour we’d spent in that coffee shop didn’t feel entirely real, and I held onto it as a sweet memory and nothing more. My time was occupied with unpacking, and learning my way around the city,
and taking care of administrative tasks like opening new bank accounts, then figuring out how to use the ATM at my new bank. Grocery shopping, buying stamps. New adult, unglamorous things.
And then it was March, and just as I felt settled, everything fell apart.
Two months into the shutdown, when being stuck inside no longer felt like a fun challenge, I had given up any hope of it being temporary, and was beginning to contemplate cutting my own hair, my phone buzzed with a FaceTime notification while I was watching TV. It was so rare for anyone to call me that I jumped, and my confusion only grew when I saw her name. I answered, assuming it was a mistake, and expected her to hang up immediately.
But there she was, wearing glasses, hair pulled back in a braid, sitting in a bedroom with the walls painted a deep purple, and she didn’t hang up when she saw me. “Hello!” she chirped. “How is the apocalypse treating you?”
Dumbstruck, I started to say Oh, you know, holding up. That’s what I told everyone else. I knew it was what I should say. But one rogue brain cell struck out on its own and I said instead, “Honestly? Awful.” The words started to spill out then: “I feel awful all the time, and I wish I hadn’t moved here, and I hate that I feel awful because I’m just sitting in my apartment playing video games and watching TV, and people are dying or working in hospitals, and, and—”
“Hey,” she said, her voice gentle. “It’s okay.”
“Sorry, I’m rambling.”
“No, it’s fine,” she said as she shifted to lay down, feet kicked up behind her. “Do you want to talk about it more, or do you want to be distracted from it?”
I thought for a moment. “Distracted,” I finally said, and she pushed her glasses up on her nose, as if preparing for a complicated assignment. It was a move I’d seen in class before, a gesture she did when she had an idea, always before she raised her hand.
“Okay,” she said. “As you can probably tell from the hideous paint, I had to abandon the city and run home to the suburbs. So I’m sorry I didn’t call sooner, but it’s been kind of crazy. I take a lot of long walks around cul de sacs these days.” She rolled her eyes, but there was a small grin on her face, suggesting she enjoyed those walks more than she wanted to admit.
“Anyway. Time for a tour of my childhood bedroom!” She stood, and the video shook a little as she readjusted her phone and walked over to a closet. “This is a choose-your-own-adventure tour,” she said, and turned the camera so that I could see into the closet. I held my phone closer to my face, as if I were peering into it with her. “Pick a box. Any box.”
“The one with the green lid.”
“Diaries, notebooks, and old report cards,” she announced as she pried off the lid. “You got the jackpot on your first try.”
For the next hour, she read to me from her journals, which were embarrassing, as expected, showed me her notes from high school classes, and disputed her teachers’ comments on her report cards.
When I went to sleep that night, the only thing I could think of was a surprisingly poignant line from her seventh grade diary: I just want someone to acknowledge that I’m here, and I’m me, and they’re happy about it.
She called me again the next night and told me that it was my turn. I reminded her that I had just moved in and didn’t have any exciting childhood memorabilia.
“So? I didn’t say you had to do the same thing. I just said that it was your turn.”
She was right, so I gave her a tour of my kitchen and made her guess which items belonged to me, and which to my roommate. She guessed correctly on almost every single one.
Every night was like this. She would call me and have some new idea of how we could make our unchanging environments exciting. I assumed that eventually, it would fade away. She’d forget one night, and then another, and that would be that. I also assumed that she was calling a lot of other people, keeping herself busy, always the socialite, but when I told her that, sometime in the first week of June, she gaped at me.
“You think I have the energy to be on FaceTime all day?” she asked. I shrugged. “I don’t even like FaceTime! I hate holding my phone up!”
It was my turn to be surprised. “Wait, what? Why haven’t you told me? I hate FaceTime too. It’s the worst.”
We both dissolved into giggles then, occasionally choking out something about how dumb we were, and after that I stopped assuming it would end. And we stopped using FaceTime and finally switched to Zoom, like everyone else.
One day in July, she called me and when I answered, she was wearing a party hat and blowing up a balloon. She held the balloon between her fingers, keeping the air trapped inside while she announced, “It’s our fiftieth phone call!”
It wasn’t until a week later, just before phone call 57, that I understood what was happening. I’d like to say it was gradual, but it wasn’t: basically, one day, I woke up and realized I loved her. I didn’t even feel dumb, like I should have known sooner. I didn’t
feel nervous either. It was odd. I didn’t call her right away. I waited until our regular time, and for the first time ever, I was the one to call.
She gasped dramatically when she answered and mimed a swoon. “To what do I owe the honor?”
“I love you,” I said, and she laughed, and that only made me love her more.