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Partners in Crime
What’s your name?” The question caught me off guard. I almost just automatically responded ‘Taylor Anderson’ but then I remembered the extensive coverage of Liam’s death: the magazines, the newspapers, the new channels I had tried so hard to avoid. They most likely all mentioned his grieving, jobless wife – they most likely all mentioned me. I didn’t want him to recognize my name – to think that I was socially inferior to him, a lowly, clumsy cafe owner. Come on Taylor, think on your feet. “I’m Isabella Wolfe.” A dry smile flashed across his face, his eyes still fixed ahead of him.
“What?” I asked sharply, irritated by his disrespectful reaction.
“Nothing.” He shook his head and that infuriating smile returned as if he was suggesting that I wouldn’t understand his ‘intellectual’ thoughts.
“Tell me!” I ordered, even more irritated by his refusal to respond.
“It’s just you all have those hibrow names.”
“‘You all’! What’s that supposed to mean!?”
“You know, you rich people.” My mouth dropped open. Tell me he did not just go there. He talked to me in such a demeaning manner, as if I was the vilest scum of the city. As we walked, I scrutinized his face trying to interpret his emotions, trying to find any trace of guilt in his expression. But he continued to stare blankly ahead, completely unabashed at his rude statement. How dare he, a pathetic low-class cafe owner, consider himself superior to us ‘rich people’?
“So what’s your name, Mr. Perfect?”
“Hunter Ford.” He ignored my derision. Before I could respond, he stopped in front of a small bakery, opened the door for me and followed me in.
The sweet smell of coffee and baked goods suddenly surrounded me. On the far side of the shop was a selection of cinnamon rolls, tarts, muffins and sweet breads underneath a plexi-glass covering. The tarts were brightly decorated with quaint flowers, the cinnamon rolls were tucked perfectly into cute spirals and the muffins looked like they had been taken out of a cookbook. A red top counter lined by a row of high chairs bordered the right side of the room. Coffee machines, cups, ceramic plates and utensils were placed neatly on the shelves behind the counter. To the left, small round tables each surrounded by three cedar chairs were carefully arranged in rows. As much as I hated to admit it, his shop was absolutely adorable and had an irresistible homey feel that made me feel like I was five years old again standing in my grandmother’s kitchen. But surprisingly there was no evidence of customers. That’s when I noticed the photographs lining the walls. They were a strange kind of beautiful. Each one was different but they all embodied a clash of eerie peace and wild passion. They were all black and white but each had a little piece of vibrant color. The remains of a wrecked boat littered a pristine beach; all black and white except for a blood red cloth hanging from a piece of upright timber that had been stabbed into the sand. A forest of gnarled trees smothered the sunlight; the only color, the bright yellow and red leaves that covered the black ground. Clouds cast a dark shadow over an enormous view of rolling evergreen mountains; all black and white except for the vibrant green heads of a flock of mallard ducks swooping down into the valley.
“What are looking at? Is my café too common for your highness?” His offensive remark wrenched me back to reality. You can always count on the jerk to ruin a perfectly good moment.
“I hate you.” I muttered under my breath. He pretended not to hear me.
“Here’s something to clean up with.” He reached over the counter and grabbed a paper towel from the shelf. I glared at him as I dramatically ripped it from his hand. “So why were you in such a rush this morning anyways?”
“I have a job.” I responded sharply
“Oh, you do? Does that explain why you didn’t have time to apologize to me for spilling my coffee?”
I looked away angrily to hide the tears that had begun to well in my eyes (I have an embarrassing, yet sometimes useful, tendency to tear up when I don’t get my way and that last discourteous remark had pushed me over the edge). Based on the awkward silence that followed our bitter conversation, I assumed that he had noticed the water glistening on my cheeks. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him dangle a napkin in front of my lap. I refused to take it.
“Hey look, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have acted so rude.” Preparing to fire back another sarcastic comment, I twisted my head back in his direction. He looked at me apologetically and held out the napkin again as if offering a truce. There was something about his expression, something so familiar and sincere that kept me from saying anything. I took the napkin slowly, my eyes still fixed on his countenance, trying to ascertain what it was in his expression that had softened my anger but I couldn’t put my finger on it. Suddenly, he spun around and headed towards the back of the shop. “Wait, let me get you something else.” He disappeared into a door tucked between the back of the counter and the far right corner of the room. A few seconds later, he returned with a bright smile and a Carolina blue sweatshirt. At first, I couldn’t take the offering dangling in his outstretched hand. I was completely disoriented by the sudden change in his demeanor. I had already accepted him as an unpleasant jerk because of his initially obnoxious behavior and his abrupt friendly air threw me for a loop. “It’s yours. Come on, take it.” I cautiously obeyed.
“Thanks” I mumbled.
“One more thing.” His bright smile reappeared as he rested his elbows on the counter and leaned forward. “Let me make it up to you with a free cup of coffee.” Still dumbstruck by his sudden shift of emotions, I dumbly nodded and walked out of the cafe.
The full implications of my actions didn’t hit me until I had walked a full fifty meters down the sidewalk. What the heck was I doing? I just agreed to have coffee with the man who ruined my cashmere sweater with his cheap coffee and then instead of correctly apologizing immediately, treated me as if I was some horrible disease. I just agreed to spend more time with the man I absolutely despise. But even in my state of uncontrollable anger, I couldn’t deny the excitement bubbling underneath my hate. It was disgusting. I wanted to throw up.
Work was worse than its usual awfulness. I was late. Really late. And exactly as I had predicted, Judy ripped me apart for the second time that week. But the yelling didn’t seem to bother me as much today. There was the initial shock of walking through the doors and running head first into my boss’s welcoming shower of profanities but after the first few seconds, her voice faded into an unintelligible lull. I could feel my eyes glazing over and sincerely hoped she was too angry to notice.
The following morning before work, I went back to the coffee shop. As much as I tried to repress it, I was looking forward to seeing the infuriating man again. Not that I liked him (I still hated his offensive sense of humor and obnoxious air of superiority) but for the first time in months there was something different in my life. There was a change in my monotonous work, eat, sleep routine. And being as desperate as I was, a change was something to look forward to.
The same intoxicating smells and intense feelings of the previous day flooded my senses as I walked into the cafe. I noticed that only two customers, sitting at a table in the far left corner, occupied the room. Still mesmerized by the shop’s beauty, I guessed that the shop’s lack of business must be merely a temporary issue caused by some uncontrollable factor. I didn’t see Hunter anywhere so I nonchalantly took a seat at the counter. Shortly afterwards, I heard rustling in the back room followed by the quick beat of feet walking in my direction. Feigning an angry expression, I dramatically looked the other direction.
“Hey!” His obnoxiously happy voice brought back a rush of rage. I turned back to the forward position. He flashed a provocative bright smile. I scowled.
“Oh. It’s you.” I remarked coldly.
“Well I do work here.” He said as his irritating grin grew more pronounced. I felt hot blood rush to my face. Who does he think he is talking back to me like that?
“Is this your definition of an apology?” His smile faded. “I’m not going to waste my time anymore.” I dramatically pushed away the empty coffee cup he had placed in front of me, stood up and began to head towards the exit. Before I moved even three feet away from my chair, I felt a hand grasp my arm.
“Look I’m sorry.” I turned around, preparing to slap him across the face as a concise but perfectly summed up response to his flimsy apology but the surprising sincerity in his ocean deep eyes glued my hand to my side. “I know. I’m being a jerk. It’s just that this last year has been pretty hard for me.” There was something about the way he said it – the way a distant gaze replaced his apologetic expression, the way his lips pursed into a slight contemplative frown, the way he seemed to be thinking about something far away from where we were, far away from his quaint shop on the streets of New York City – that stopped me from heading for the door. It looked like he really meant it; not just like he was creating an excuse to mend his mistake. I could see the pain smoldering in the dark blue of his eyes. But I didn’t ask. I understood. It deeply bothered me that we had anything in common, but I knew what it felt like to have a secret, a secret about some cruel twist in life, a secret I didn’t want to share. His distant gaze dissipated and his eyes once again focused back on me as if he perceived the conscious decision I had just made to spare him from further questioning. I could almost discern appreciation in his gaze.
He offered his hand with a tentative smile. “Truce?” I mutely shook his hand and nodded my head. “So, what convinced you to come back? My coffee that’s putting me out of business or my winning good looks?” He flashed a grin and cheerfully returned to his place behind the counter. At that moment, I knew everything between us was going to be okay.
I went to the coffee shop every day that week…and the next week…and the week after that one – the cafe’s daily emptiness became a regular part of my life. Weeks turned into months and before I knew it, Hunter and I were good friends. Early morning talks in his shop grew into walks in central park and lunch at nearby cheap restaurants. But he was so different than anyone I had ever spent time with. While we waited for our dinner at the counter in an informal diner one night, he began to sing along to “Don’t Stop Believing” which was playing on the chef’s radio. Moments later we both had climbed onto the counter and were yelling out the lyrics with the rest of the customers. A few weeks later, when a play we had planned on seeing ended up being sold out, he convinced me to check out a fancy country club in Queens. We pretended we were a couple interested in applying for membership and every time the club promoter showed us one of the available facilities Hunter replied “very nice, very nice” in a ridiculous accent. When the promoter showed us the pool, Hunter suddenly ripped off his shirt and sprinted cannon-ball-style into the water. After recovering from shock, I grinned and followed his lead. Our sides shook with laughter as the guards dragged us off the club premises. He had this care-free spirit that made me feel as if I was a fifteen-year-old again, enjoying the sweet summer freedom with my best friend. We were partners in crime – a phrase that would later twist into a horribly ironic reminder of the invisible, seemingly impassible canyon between us.