I walk down the street, putting my hands in my coat pockets.
The leaves fall all around me, some getting stuck in my hair.
As I slowly untangle them from my hair, I am once again struck by the beauty of this season.
The smells and sounds comfort me, the children running around me fill my heart with some joy.
But the pit in my stomach only increases at the prospect of seeing him.
He’s always there in Café Caffeine.
I sometimes think that he sleeps there.
We have lived in the same neighbourhood for the entirety of our life, but we’ve barely said a few words here and there.
Maybe a hi, a request for help with homework or just a nod while passing each other in the school hallway.
But I had been harbouring a crush on him for the past fifteen years.
Ever since he first moved to the house in front of mine.
Ever since he had smiled at five-year-old me toothily, and I had smiled back.
I always thought that we would end up together, someday or another.
That he would finally see past the totally unremarkable girl who just happened to live in the house across his.
And he would see me.
The real me.
And he would fall for me, just as hard as I fell for him.
The café now starts to appear in my field of vision.
It looks just like a normal coffee shop, but it isn’t.
Quite far from it, to be honest.
Café Caffeine has special significance to every single resident of this neighbourhood.
It boasts of being the place that makes every couple on a date fall in love.
My parents met there.
Of course, the café has been renovated and refurbished many a time over the decades, but the atmosphere still remains as homely and romantic as it was when my parents were kids.
Ma Maria had started the café half a century ago, and now she still sits there on her rickety wheelchair, instructing her grandchildren on how to make the drinks.
Sometimes we got lucky and were able to taste the infamous pumpkin spice latte, made by Ma herself.
The café is now a place for teenagers to do their homework, sit idly and stare out of the window, and for a lucky few to fall in love and find their soulmate.
I’m almost there.
I look through the dark windows, and I see him.
My heartbeat picks up speed, beating so hard I think that he can hear it.
But he hasn’t noticed me.
I enter the café, and the bells chime behind me and echo for a while.
Like the wedding bells in my heart.
I go over to the counter, and the guy shows me the menu I’ve seen my entire life, just as a formality.
“We’ve just introduced a line of autumn drinks, that include salted caramel mocha latte, honey bean latte, vegan caramel frappe and pumpkin spice latte, of course.”
“One pumpkin spice latte, please.”
His eyes widen.
“I-Iris, is that really you?”
“No, it’s my alien twin.”
“Of course, it’s me.”
“I don’t know if you remember me, but I’m Joshua. We went to high school together.”
Now it’s my turn for eye-widening.
The nerdy kid who sat in the back of the class, the one who always stared at me creepily, who clearly had a crush on me for the entirety of high school, the guy who I and my friends had always made fun of.
That pimply teenager was now almost… attractive.
He clears his throat, and I stop checking him out.
“So uh, how have you-how have you been, Iris? I haven’t seen you around in a while.”
“I’m actually in uni a flight away. So, it’s hard coming very often, compared to all of you who attend the local uni.”
He nods, actually interested in what I’m saying.
Then, he goes over to the coffeemaker and starts whipping up my latte.
I’ve completely forgotten the reason I came here!
I turn around, but Elijah’s gone.
Oh well, I’m here for a few more days, I’ll see him one day or another.
I reassure myself, trying to ignore my stinging heart.
Joshua gives me the pumpkin spice latte, and I pay him.
“Well then Iris, I hope to see you at the Halloween Bash at Café Caffe.”
I absentmindedly smile at his use of our affectionate short form of the café.
“I wouldn’t miss it for the world. See you around Josh.”
I pick up the bill and change, enjoying the sudden paleness of Joshua’s face.
I’d called him Josh.
And strangely, this time I wasn’t trying to tease him.
I flash him a smile and pick up the warm cup of coffee.
Going over to Ma’s wheelchair, I grin at her.
“Remember me Ma?”
Taking a lot of effort, she slowly smiles at me.
In her throaty voice, she says, “Of course I remember you querida. You’re Tim and Lila’s girl, yes?”
I give her a hug, and she slowly puts her hands around my body.
“I’m going to be here for a few more days, so I hope to drink some pumpkin spice made by your magical hands Ma.”
“I promise you querida, I will make for you the pumpkin spice.”
She looks so happy, yet so tired.
The years have worn her out.
With a promise to visit soon, I leave the café.
I walk back home, marvelling at the turn of events.
I went to see Elijah and came back with a mixture of confused feelings for the class nerd.
The effect of Café Caffe is rubbing off on me already.
I have only been here for a day.
I shake my head, unable to keep the smile off my face.
I am home.
All my classmates, my neighbours, everyone is there at the party today.
For this one time of the year, Café Caffe serves booze along with coffee.
And I have an incredibly strong resistance to alcohol.
So as my friends slowly descend into complete drunkenness, I just enjoy the stupidity that they proudly showcase whilst intoxicated.
I enjoy it too much that I don’t immediately notice the crowd that has gathered around Ma’s wheelchair.
“Cardiac arrest. She’s gained consciousness but won’t survive for much longer.”
I run into the hospital room with my parents, and see Joshua sitting there.
They exchange whispered words of affection, before Joshua lets go of her, and leaves the room.
I squeeze his hand as he passes by me.
He squeezes back.
My parents sit next to her bed and sob.
“No no no, no cry.”
Both of them give her a hug.
Ma has been this entire neighbourhood’s mother for our entire lives.
How are we supposed to move on without her?
As they talk quietly and hold Ma’s hands, I’m overcome by a sudden pang of sadness.
My parents leave, and now it’s my turn.
“Sorry? Why are you sorry Ma? It isn’t your fault.”
“No, I didn’t make the pumpkin spice for you.”
I start to laugh in between my tears.
“That’s fine Ma. I’m sure your grandson will make some for me.”
As I say this, I know I’m lying through my teeth.
Because it isn’t fine.
Ma’s pumpkin spice is not the same as regular pumpkin spice.
And I’ll never get to taste it again.
How is that fine?
“You’re lost somewhere, Iris.”
Silently, I move to embrace her.
She doesn’t need to know that I was lost in the world without her in it.
And it was awful.
“How about you stop working for a few minutes and take a walk with me?”
He drops the empty cup he was carrying.
“You’re kidding, right?”
“Far from it.”
Joshua looks at me and nods.
As he picks up the cup, by instinct, I look around the café to try and spot Elijah.
He isn’t there.
I hold my cup of salted caramel mocha latte, and gesture to Joshua to follow me.
We walk for a few minutes in companionable silence, waving at neighbours and friends, all smiling back with red-rimmed eyes.
Ma’s death is a gaping wound still.
We reach my house, and I sit on the front porch steps.
Joshua sits down next to me without a moment’s hesitation.
We share our memories of Ma, right from her spanking us as kids when she was up and about to her comforting us when we were having a bad day.
We end up crying and my head is on his shoulder.
“I was the only one who called her Nana. Even my cousins called her Ma. I felt so special calling her Nana. She always told me that I was her favourite out of all my cousins,” he says, sadly smiling.
I look up at him.
“She loved you, Josh. So much.”
He looks down and nods gratefully, trying not to cry again.
Josh had just lost his grandmother.
The entire neighbourhood was Ma’s family, but I couldn’t begin to fathom how much her real family was suffering.
We stay there for a long time, silently crying.
Today is the day I go back to uni.
As my parents help me get my bags into the car, I squint at the sidewalk, seeing someone walk towards me.
I run towards him.
“Iris, listen, I-I have been so in love with you ever since high school. It doesn’t matter if you feel the same way or not, I just- I just needed to tell you before it’s too late.”
The slow smile creeping on my face is hard to suppress.
“I love you too Joshua.”
Before he can react, I kiss him tenderly.
He sinks into the kiss, relaxing against my body.
I put my arms around him and pull him closer until there isn’t an inch of space left between us.
As we walk back to my car, I realise now why I would never end up with Elijah.
He was a childhood crush, a dream that would never become reality.
And I knew that he would never see the real me, no matter how hard I tried.
But Josh… Josh saw the real me from the very first moment.
I curse myself for wasting all those years chasing a guy I would never catch.
But it’s better late than never.
I hug my parents and Josh and get into the car.
“Bye, Iris! Call us when you reach!”
“Sure thing!” I shout.
I wave at them, wiping off the tears slowly starting to make an appearance.
I keep waving until the town is just a speck on the horizon.
I soon start up a conversation with the cab driver.
As we laugh and chat, I can’t wait to go back to my neighbourhood again during Christmas.
Especially since I now have one more person to look forward to seeing again.