all water from different rivers

February 8, 2012
I start my morning shift at 5AM with a biology review book tucked under my arm. The coffee shop sits snugly between the university's tech store and bookshop. This morning, a disheveled man greets me with a shiver and a bob of the head, smoke unfurling around him.

"Hello," I say and try hard to not make a face at his cigarette. "Wait long?"

"No, not really," he says. "A small cuppa cocoa if you can."

"Sure thing." I haven't heard someone say the words cuppa cocoa since I left my grandmother with her cooling cups of tea and a warm fleece blanket wrapped around her shoulders. This man has the same haunted hunch in his shoulders, and I turn away.

His eyes are wary and much too bloodshot at the edges, pupils shrinking as I place the cup of hot chocolate in front of him. "Thanks," he murmurs around the cigarette, voice gravelly with sleep. He pulls it away from his cracked lips and breathes out a rising haze of smoke. Outside, it is dark and quiet, and not even Joe, the stumbling drunkard with too much money in his pockets and too little control, is ambling down the street on his way home to his second wife. Hesitating for a moment with a cursory glance thrown over my shoulder, I slide into the booth across from him. A corner of his lip curls up. “This what you wanted to be when you were young?”

Startled, I lean away from his half-lidded eyes. "No," I say after studying his face, the bony ridges of his cheekbones and the skin stretched thin over them. "Happy."

"Happy," he snorts and warms his hands on the sides of the cup, playing with the cracked edges of his fingernails. "'S that supposed to mean?"

I keep my fingers folded, nails white with pressure. My grandmother once made me hot cocoa in chipped cups and asked me about my life when I was young. She used the same cups to make tea the day I left for college. "People like you asked me what I wanted to be when I grow up, sir. I said I just wanted to be happy."

He eyes the cup and fiddles with the cover. "'S good job. Being happy."

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