Contemporary Fiction Speculative

Every morning she went to the same café. It was crowded—not with people, although there were always quite a few customers enjoying their drinks at small tables and two or three baristas trying not to run into each other behind the counter. No, instead it was crowded with plants. House plants of all kinds, small and tall, were scattered around the café almost haphazardly. It made the café feel like a sort of jungle, albeit one that smelled of strong coffee, freshly baked banana bread, and, more often than not, rain.

By night she worked as a waitress at a bustling local Italian restaurant. She spent hours upon hours each evening cleaning, setting tables, taking orders, bringing out food, making polite small talk, and then putting everything away and cleaning all over again. All the while she was surrounded by the sounds of glasses clinking, wine corks popping, dishes stacking, cooks yelling in the back, and customers—diners, as her boss made them call the people who ate there—progressively speaking louder and louder as the night went on and the drinks were poured. Most nights she went back to her tiny studio apartment with a headache, temples throbbing as she showered and crawled into bed. Yet she always went to bed with an easy(ish) mind, knowing that the next morning she would spend hours doing what she loved most: writing.

Each morning she woke up to her alarm at 6:30 a.m., grabbed her tote bag, and headed to the same plant-filled café to work on her novel. She had been writing this novel for over a year now, and the ending finally felt like it was within her eager reach. It was a work of fiction, although largely based on her own experiences as a child growing up in a family with some decidedly dysfunctional dynamics. For years she'd dreamed of writing a novel and someday getting it published. She was twenty-four now, two years out of college with a philosophy degree from her father’s Ivy League alma mater, thousands of dollars in debt, and absolutely no idea what to do with her life—besides knowing that she wanted to write.

So she had given herself an ultimatum: upon waking up at age twenty-three feeling like she was living in a fishbowl with no motivation whatsoever, she decided that she would dedicate herself to fulfilling her writing dream until her twenty-fifth birthday. She’d get a second shift job in the evenings to cover her bills, she’d live in the cheapest apartment she could find in the city, and she’d spend each morning working on her novel. If her twenty-fifth birthday rolled around and she had made significant progress on her novel to the point where pursuing publication was a legitimate possibility, she would continue on. If, however, she had made little progress towards her goal, then she would give it up and seek out something more financially sustainable—at least for a little while.

At first she wrote at her two-feet by two-feet kitchen table, and then from her faded old loveseat. But after a month or so she began to loathe the same sight of her beige apartment walls every single day. So she decided to try writing in some local cafés. She went to a few in the area, until one day she happened upon the plant-filled café, and everything changed.

If she was honest with herself, she had to admit that the novel hadn't been going well up until that point. She had an idea, a sprawling idea, but was struggling to get words down on paper in a way that remotely resembled the voice she was trying to evoke. When she stumbled into the plant-filled café—partially because she’d never been there before, mostly to get out of the rain that suddenly began pouring down outside—she smiled. She loved the sense of brushing up against big green leaves no matter where you stepped, the aroma of strong dark coffee wafting through the air. It was almost as if the plants thrived on the smell, were fueled and energized by it. She ordered a cup of hot coffee and sat down at a small wooden table in the corner.

In the four hours that followed she wrote faster and better than she had in her entire life. It was like inspiration had finally reached her, like whatever murky fog that had blocked her view of the idea suddenly dissipated. She'd never felt such clarity before, such a fire in her fingers as they feverishly typed. She only stopped when her laptop ran out of battery; she’d forgotten her charger at home.

Waitressing that night felt like a dream, like she was in a daze. What had happened that morning? Was it the café? The coffee? It wasn’t particularly good coffee, in her opinion. While the scent was unlike any other coffee she had smelled—incredibly strong, almost overpoweringly so, but in a strangely pleasant way—but it seemed to have unlocked something within her. Not wanting to lose her momentum or jinx her newfound writing strength, she returned to the café the next morning. And the next morning. And the next.

The café became her new writing spot, and for months and months her writing ability only grew better. Eventually she theorized that this change indeed had something to do with the coffee itself. Each morning she woke up excited but groggy, motivated but exhausted from long nights of ferrying steaming pasta dishes to and fro across the restaurant. But as the first few sips of coffee worked their way through her she felt her thought process sharpen, her ideas for plot and characters and pacing come into focus. It was thrilling. Exhilarating. And for the first time, she actually believed she would reach her self-imposed deadline.

Her twenty-fourth birthday came and went, with it the halfway point of her novel. Still she clicked and clacked on each morning, the sound of her keyboard like music to her ears. She felt invigorated when she sat in that café drinking that coffee. She experienced an influx of ideas, not only about this novel but about several others that she could write someday, someday when her dreams actually came to fruition and this two-year experiment actually worked.

And then, one day, it all stopped.

It was a regular Tuesday, just like any other. She woke up, got dressed, grabbed her tote bag, and headed to the same plant-filled café that had become like her office for over a year now. She was physically exhausted from the previous night’s shift—a screaming baby had knocked over a full glass of red wine, and she was left to clean up the mess and sooth the woman who had received an inadvertent wine bath—but her mind buzzed. She was so close to finishing this draft.

As she entered the café, the usual sights and sounds and smells washed over her. Piano jazz music was playing from a speaker overhead. Two people sat chatting at a table over steaming cups of coffee. And, as always, the strong smell of bitter coffee was almost overwhelming. She walked up to the counter and ordered her usual cup of coffee—milk, no sugar—and then sat down at her usual table in the corner. She turned on her laptop, opened up the novel document, and took a long, expectant sip.

But nothing happened. There was no rush of energy or excitement, no sudden clarity or flood of ideas or boost of confidence. Instead, she felt like her normal, doubtful, tired self.

Her heart pounded in her ears. What was going on? Had the coffee lost its seemingly magic influence over her? Nervous, she took another sip, and then another. Nothing. Before she knew it she had chugged the entire cup, burning her tongue.

Frantic, she ordered another cup of coffee, hoping that the first one had just been a fluke. The barista looked at her strangely, and even a bit worriedly—it had been mere minutes she had had ordered the first cup—but completed the order nevertheless. She took a sip of this second cup and nearly cried when she received the same result. She felt the same.

She didn’t think her body could take any more caffeine that morning without turning into a jumpy mess, so she packed up her belongings and went back to her apartment. She spent the morning doing some long-neglected chores and tried (and failed) to not think about what had happened. As she put in a load of laundry, she told herself not to worry. She’d had an impressive streak of inspiration, but such good fortunate needs a break sometimes too. Surely the energy would be back again tomorrow.

And yet, tomorrow was no different. Nor the next day, or the next day. By the weekend she was convinced that the coffee from the plant-filled café had lost its magic, or maybe she had just become so used to it over the past year that it no longer worked on her.

Determined to find inspiration again, she began trying coffee from other cafés in the area. Morning after morning, she walked into a new café and eagerly took that first dispositive sip. But day after day she was disappointed. It seemed as though her coffee-fueled inspiration had finally run out for good.

She slipped into a period of sadness. She stopped waking up early, stopped going to cafés for coffee, and stopped writing. Months went by, with only her weekly shift schedules at the Italian restaurant to mark the passing of time.

Suddenly, almost without her realizing it, her last day of being twenty-four had arrived. She felt sad as she got headed out the door for her usual evening shift at the restaurant, but not as sad as she thought she would. In truth, she had given up on her goal long ago. Now she just felt empty.

That shift turned out to be particularly brutal. The place was packed, nothing was going right, and she ended up mixing up a few orders and even dropping a dish. She nearly burst into tears as it crashed to the ground, shattering in front of a room full of diners. Instead, she saved her tears for the precise moment she entered her apartment at eleven o’clock that night, exhausted and deeply, deeply sad.

She desperately missed the small flicker of hope that writing had brought to her life, that one slice of light that made even the most draining days feel better. But in just under an hour it would be her twenty-fifth birthday, and she hadn’t been able to meet her deadline. She felt, simply, very, very small. She cried, and cried. And then stopped.

There was just one kind of coffee she hadn’t tried yet. Her own.

She hadn’t made her own coffee in ages, not since taking final exams in college. Her hand-me-down coffee maker was dusty and in dire need of a good clean. After wiping it all down and washing the pot, she hunted in the back of her cupboards until she found a package of coffee grounds. She poured water into the machine and pressed start, feeling rather silly. After all, what did she think was going to happen? She tried her best to keep her expectations low—but deep down, she desperately hoped that this would work.

Finally, the coffee was ready. She poured it into a chipped yellow mug, added a splash of milk. Without even waiting for it to cool she brought it to her lips and took her first sip. And then another. And another.

She smiled, sat down at her small kitchen table, and opened her laptop. The clock turned to midnight. And she wrote.

September 02, 2022 11:49

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Diamond Keener
16:10 Sep 02, 2022

You really captured the struggle of being torn between a day job and a passion. Great job, and loved the coffee aspect as well!


Lane Bloom
13:44 Sep 03, 2022

Thank you so much!!


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