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Two months ago I met you at the barista counter at Starbucks. You spun around too fast, your cup in your hand, its lid only halfway on. You seemed surprised as the liquid sloshed over the edges and onto my shirt, but you caught on quickly, reaching out for some napkins. Then you bought me a chocolate croissant and we sat outside and you told me about your pet turtle Peety.
He inspires your music, that’s what you told me that day, and then you asked me to come with you to open mic night at the coffee house down the street that weekend. “I don’t worship the cult of Starbucks,” you joked, smiling, assuring me that you were free to frolic at other coffee-selling locales.
And so I said yes, and tonight here I am again. The room is crowded, people everywhere, but I’m alone, as you’re nowhere to be seen. One of the baristas spots me and waves – I’m a regular now – but I’m just as lonely as ever.
You go on third, always third, but you like to get here early to mingle. You know the baristas and the cashiers and all the poets that read every week. But tonight the hands on the homey grandfather clock strike eight and I still don’t spot your scruffy-haired head in the crowd. The MC steps up to the mic, coughs a few times as he feels all modest MCs should, and brings up the first performer.
This first poet is new, a first-timer, and his hands are shaking as he balances himself on the stool and shuffles his papers in his lap. His voice is meek as he begins, but he catches the rhythm of his poem and his voice quickly rises over the crowd.
But even as this shaky first timer is captivating the room with his tale of hunted handmaidens and daring princes on horseback, I find myself losing track of his words. I’m only conscious of me and the absence of you, here in this place that holds only memories of you. You, who is never late – I think that, and suddenly my mind begins to spin with what-ifs.
My hand is on the zipper of my purse, ready to reach for my phone and tap out a text to you, when suddenly the room is filled with a chorus of light snaps. I join in, watching the first-timer smile and blush before stepping down.
The MC calls up the next reader, a woman in her twenties who clears her throat gently before telling us that her short story is called “crouchingpouncingtigerjumps.”
As the woman begins to describe the jungle where the tiger, the hero of her story, lives, I glance down at the glass in my hand. It’s empty – funny, I don’t remember drinking it – and I consider buying another one, but this thought is only enough to distract me momentarily before my mind drifts back to you. I remember now that first night, the first night I came here, when you insisted to me that you had found the next Great Performance Artist.
That night, I waited an hour and a half for your Great Find to take the stage, and when he did, he winked at you before performing a series of animal noises. After the show, you introduced me to as your brother and fellow band mate.
I let my eyes drift across the darkened room now, and I don’t see him either. Then I think, car accident, dead relative, appendicitis.
That first night your brother told me you’d paid him to perform those little tricks for my entertainment specifically. The girl my idiot brother spilled coffee on, he called me that night, laughing as you waved from across the room.
And that night, you walked me home and walked me to the door and turned around and walked home yourself. Our relationship remains undefined, but this, these mic nights, those are constant. Absentmindedly, I stir my straw around in my empty cup, and wonder if I should reach for my cell phone again.
The tiger woman’s story hits the climax, all the eyes in the room glued to her. Everyone is so engrossed – the tiger is leaping through the air, nearing its prey – that they do not notice the front door open. But I do, I hear the soft jingling of the bells that hang from the handle, and I look over and there you are, hair muffled and guitar slung over your shoulder.
You don’t look for me though, don’t wave at any of your other friends around the room. You just lean against the wall in your oh-so-casual way and latch yourself onto tiger woman’s reading.
But then she’s done, and the room is suddenly filled with the sound of snapping and then it’s full of movement as people move to refill their cups, chat with old friends, duck into the restroom. I lose you in the shuffle; you’ve abandoned your wall, caught up in the bustle, but a second later I see you again.
You’re standing behind the MC, who is clearing his throat and introducing you, as you unpack your guitar. Then the MC leaves the stage and you’re alone. You adjust your guitar across your chest and adjust yourself on the stool, placing one foot solidly on the flor, and then you pluck a chord, a high note, and it bounces across the room, calling all eyes to you.
But you’re not speaking, not playing yet. I watch your face as you look around, briefly taking in everyone looking up at you. And then your eyes find mine and you smile, green eyes shining under the spotlight, and I smile back.
“Got a new one for you guys tonight,” you say. “This one’s called ‘Coffee Girl.’”