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The Ghost and his mistress pt. 2
Part 2— The Hollow Men’s coffee
1 year ago, December
The coffee shop was quaint, with tile floors and random odds and ends chairs—la-z-boys to stiff orchestra chairs to old whicker ones. The scattered designs didn’t stop at the chairs; the walls were lined with random pictures and signs from license plates to copies of Picasso.
Yet, everything had a place and seemed to work for the little shop. I sat down in a plush chair, surprised as I began to sink into its cushion. It was only noon and the sun streamed in shafts into the small place. Directly across from me right past the door the tile abruptly ended, leading onto carpet and an imposing stand alone shelf filled with books. A wall abruptly cut off my view but I assumed that was the book area.
I was curious. This place was nothing like the sleek, modern-tinged cafés I had always gone to during my college days. I wanted to look around in this strange little world.
Sliding out of my chair, I walk through the shop, hearing the click of my heels on the floor become muffled by the carpet. I pass the door, my bag brushing the sign; Ivory Coffee and Bookshop.
The wall that had divided the coffee and book sections had limited my view, but I could see now as the book shop curves and stretches behind the coffee shop—a hidden treasure. This place is less decorated, unless books themselves count.
In the matter of books, there was no lack thereof. Books filled the large stand alone shelves, lined the wall shelves, and piled the skimpy tables, chairs and window sills. And as far as I could tell, there was no space left open. Each shelf had a simple wooden sign hanging by it listing the genre. Non-fiction, Biographies, Reference, historical fiction…I passed them all—they were not what I sought. Finally I came to a stop—two shelves from the end.
How long had it been? My fingers pressed the spines of the books as I inhaled the aroma of withered paper. I scanned the names, smiling at the familiar friends—but they were not what I had in mind. I rolled past Dickinson and Poe, finally landing on it. I took the book out, my fingers stroking its spine. I glanced at the cover, smiling at the indented author’s name.
It had been 4 years since I’d read his work. I pressed my lips to the name, sighing as memories came back to me.
“T.S Elliot, huh? That’s a nice choice”
I spin around, startled.
Leaning on the bookshelf casually, was a young boy. He looked like a college kid, and from his shirt he probably went to NYU. Other than that, his clothes were simple; a pair of jeans and sneakers with a simple green sweatshirt. It seemed very low-key until you reached his face.
He was handsome. His tanned face had strong features but it was his eyes that were the strangest. They were round, blue quarters. As he looked at me I unconsciously shivered and turned away.
“Thank you” I say back, shoving the book behind me.
“Sorry to interrupt, I’m Grant” He says. His voice is soft and playful. He’s got a tiny smirk on his face, a corner of my smile twisting upwards to make his look like he was up to something. I didn’t like the feeling of a kid making me feel so uncomfortable, especially after he caught me in my moment.
“I’m Avery” I say automatically. “How did you know it was T.S Elliot?”
He flashes another devilish grin. “I know almost all the books in this place. But I know that one in particular—it’s one of my favorites”
I arch an eyebrow. I can tell, just from his build and posture, that this was not an unpopular guy. “You don’t see many boys liking poetry these days”
“Well you don’t see many modern, career women liking it either” He said to me, pushing a book back on its shelf.
I blushed. How could I be so rude? “I guess it’s more of a guilty pleasure” I said, shuffling.
“Well, I was born into it” He says. “My aunt owns this place and even before I started working for her I’ve been coming here” He pauses to look at me again, his face showing no signs of holding a grudge. “But you are the first new customer I’ve seen. Except for regulars, no one comes here. It’s kind of a hard place to find”
I winced internally. “I can understand that”
He’s still looking at me with curiously as I say this. “Then again, you probably didn’t purposefully come to find this place, did you?”
I clutch my book tighter and turn my head to stare at a shelf. From my reaction, he got his answer. After an uncomfortable silence, he speaks.
“Listen, as a new customer, do you want a cup of coffee? On the house”
I really wanted to get away from this boy, Grant, as fast as possible. I hadn’t spent more than a couple of minutes with him and I was feeling about the same as one of my poor defendants after an hour of scrutiny. “That’s nice of you, but I really don’t need it…”
“Hey, the Ivory Coffee Shop has some of the best coffee around. You won’t believe me until you try it” He says grinning. He’s walking backwards now, towards the aisle. I follow him, having no other exit, still holding my book. We walked out of the bookshop onto the linoleum.
We stopped and stared at each other. I was reading him, my job instincts kicking in, looking at his young face and his old eyes. He was definitely in shape and screamed jock, but the books tucked in his arm contradicted the all-American kid he looked like. A quick glance at the titles told me this kid knew his materials. Although his position was relaxed, he was leaning against the wall slightly, his jaw was set. I guess I had no choice.
“That sounds great” I said, walking over to a chair by a window seat.
He smiles widely, as if this was an unexpected surprise. “Great! I’ll get you something else to eat since you’re probably hungry too! Just take a seat.”
I sit down, trying to push away the nagging feeling that I wasn’t staying because I “had” to, and only after he came back with a steaming mug and plate did I wonder how he had known I hadn’t eaten yet.
When I asked him after he sat down next to me, he replied “It’s pretty simple. It’s a Saturday, at lunchtime, and you are in a desolate little bookshop in the warehouse district”
I watch him take his cup and take a long gulp. It was true. Business districts are pretty deserted during this time of the day.
I said, “You’re pretty good. Are you aiming to be a detective?”
He laughed at that. “Hardly. I’m getting my teaching license at NYU”
I took a look at him as the sun hit his face. He would be one popular teacher that was for sure.
“Did something happen?” He asks.
I look up from my sandwich, startled. “Excuse me?”
He looked unabashed and moved his face closer. “No…it’s just that when you came in you looked really…tired. It’s kind of a strange look for someone to have in the middle of a Saturday afternoon.”
I winced. This boy really was sharp. “I am fine”
“You are lying”
I clench my teeth. Why was this boy so persistent? “It’s none of your business” I snap. Gasping, I bring my hand to my mouth. I hadn’t meant to slip like that.
Grant nodded as if he expected that reaction. He poked at his own sandwich and said, “That may be true, but isn’t that a good reason to tell me?”
I frowned. He didn’t make sense. “What do you mean?”
He bit his lip thoughtfully. “Well…I have no relations with you, right? I don’t see you normally, I don’t know anyone in your life—who will I tell? If you wanted, you would never have to see me again. It could be a way to…get some things off your chest”
“That’s an absurd idea” I say flatly. I bite into my sandwich. Kids these days were really strange. He chuckled.
After another two bites of my sandwich, I said. “He calls me after I get to the restaurant saying he can’t come” I laugh, popping a piece of bread in my mouth. “Couldn’t get out of some meeting, or something”
I sigh, leaning back. My mind is going back now, to the shiny new restaurant smells and sights that I was surrounded by when he called me to cancel.
“I mean,” I say “it would be the last time I’d see him in person for two months…you think your husband would show up for that. But it’s his work and I really shouldn’t complain like a child”
My laughs died out and suddenly I felt embarrassed. I turn away, running my hand through my hair. Why would this kid care about any of this?
“I think you’re wrong” He says. “You aren’t a child. There’s nothing wrong with being selfish once in a while”
I am staring at him. How could he say these things? He was a stranger; someone I didn’t even know. Yet he seemed to so easily read through me. Somehow, though, his words brought a strange reassurance, and my chest suddenly felt lighter.
I watch as steam rises off my coffee cup, blending the air around it and suddenly feel silly. Why was I whining to some kid about my problems? This is what a therapist is for.
I get up, and grab my bag. As I reach for the book, his hand stops me. He snatches the book out of my grasp and looks at the cover. “What’s your favorite work by this guy?”
“Huh?” I ask, bewildered at the sudden change in conversation. He jerks his head slightly towards the empty seat and hesitantly I sit back down.
“Come on, Miss Elliot. He is obviously a favorite, considering you didn’t even bother perusing the rest of the books on the shelves and went straight for him.” He said, playfully.
I frowned at the nickname—wasn’t this boy a little too friendly?
“Probably…Hollow Men” I smile, remembering clearly the first time I read it, sitting wide-eyed in the corner of my family’s attic—one of the few precious memories I had of that house. “I can still recite my favorite verse:
“Is it like this
In death's other kingdom
At the hour when we are
Trembling with tenderness
Lips that would kiss
Form prayers to broken stone”
“It’s a very…somber poem” He said.
I nodded. That was true, of course it seemed so.
“But it’s beautiful” He says. “As if there’s hope past death”
My breath hitched as I was overcome with emotion.
“Yes. That’s exactly what I think, too”
And that was my first visit, where I met Grant, but I met the owner of Ivory bookshop on my second visit only three days later, when I was suddenly struck with the urge not to eat alone again. As I reflect upon it, it wasn’t so much as a meeting as an ambush.
“So you are the Elliot girl?”
I jump and look up from my cup to a large shadow looming above me. An older lady is standing above me. As she takes a step back, I get a better look at her appearance. She looks to be in her late fifties, with tiny flecks of grey scattered in her light brown hair. She’s wearing a strange outfit—a pair of cowboy boots with loose flannel pants and a tie dye t-shirt. She wore a bandana over her choppy hair and a peace sign necklace around her neck. Her face was wrinkled slightly, with many gathers around her mouth showing she smiled a lot.
“Nice to meet you, I’m the owner of Ivory. My name’s Emily Walstrom” She says to me.
So the infamous owner of Ivory was a hippie. I look around at the strange arrays of furniture and glance at her outfit. Yes, it made complete sense.
“Hello…I’m Avery Anderson” I say, emphasizing my name. I really didn’t want to be known as the Elliot girl; it sounded like a rappers.
She sat down in the chair next to me. “Yes, Grant told me all about you. From what I gathered, he must have scared you a bit, right?”
I nodded. After I’d said my poem I’d finally gotten back to my senses and left. I hadn’t come back here earlier because I was frightened.
That boy could almost make me forget about my worries. That was a dangerous gift.
She continued. “I apologize for him. Even when he was a kid, he had no tact.”
My eyebrows rose. “Is he your…?”
She shook her head. “No, he is my sister’s child. I’m letting him board while he goes to college. He works to pay the rent off.” She paused. “We don’t get many people around here, so I never get to ask: how do you like the place?”
I pause and sweep my gaze over messy bookshelves and piles of knick-knacks with its erratic choices in accessories. This cluttered but cozy world was so different from my own.
“It’s wonderful” I say. And even though I am a liar by profession, I meant it.
Some people have houses, libraries, parks or attics. My sanctuary became a tiny book and coffee shop located in the middle of a seaside warehouse district. Far from people, or the ones that mattered, I unconsciously became drawn to the strange place—and to its occupants.
With Darren gone, I spent time alone in my house—something I had not done for six years. When the silence of my apartment became too much, I came to this little store.
I loved the place. If someone asked me why, I could never give them an answer; I didn’t know myself. It was as if this place welcomed me with open arms, taking me without prejudice. It didn’t see my clothes, my wallet, or my face—it saw me.
I began a routine, coming around three times a week. My visits increased, and with that I learned about the two residents of Ivory.
Emily was headstrong and point blank in every subject. In the classic style of hippies, she had strong opinions about subjects; from politics to movies. Her ideas even lured me into battles over subjects I thought I had put to rest long ago. She was completely open about her life and late husband, Mark. From what I garnered from her and Grant, he was a quiet, low-key guy—the perfect man to handle Emily’s fickleness.
I was amazed at Emily, amazed at the opportunity to observe an entirely new species to me. She did everything without thinking, was scatter-brained, and was quite old, but she wore all of her faults like awards. I used to think there was never anything she couldn’t do. Although intricate wrinkles decorated her face, she always seemed so young.
While Emily seemed young, her nephew was the opposite.
Outwardly, Grant played the all-American guy part perfectly—good looking, smart, funny and the natural look to go with it. But that’s where it ended. He was mischievous; always rearranging the book I was reading before I came in or spiking my coffee with a spicy surprise. When he acted like this, he really looked his age. Yet at times he seemed older than me. At strange moments, he would pick apart my words, finding inner emotions that I believed to be buried deep. It was unnerving; those eyes of his could search within my soul to find things I wanted hidden. It was supposed to be my job to make others subjugate to my will, not the other way around.
Gradually, my wariness waned. The two of us grew comfortable in each other’s presence. There was no way to stay mad at him for long. His relaxed manner always seemed to calm me too. As Grant learned me and I learned him, we saw the boundaries that we’d drawn for each other, and we didn’t question them.
Strangely enough, I was happy. I thought that this world could be untouched, unpolluted from the other, stained one—and I was naïve enough to believe that wouldn’t change.
“Mrs. Anderson!” My assistant’s voice filtered in, finally reaching my thoughts. I look up from my computer screen. My assistant sighs with relief at finally being able to get my attention.
“Are you ready for me to print your opening statement yet?” She asks, motioning towards my computer screen. I glance at the blank document for a second and nod.
“Yes, almost. Is there something you wanted to tell me?”
“That’s right! The results have been delivered; I thought you’d want to give it to him yourself”
I smiled and took the manila envelope from her. She left and I got up, striding out of my office. I shuffled through the papers, pleased with my work. Turning the corner, I walked into the only other office on the floor. Without knocking I entered and placed the envelope into Kingsley Douglas’s outstretched hand.
He looked up at me from his screen. “What’s this?”
“A favor for you”
He opens it, sifting through the papers with a blank expression on his face. Kingsley was the only person who I would think of as a competitor in my firm. He was only a year older than me, but was already guaranteed a spot as major partner of the firm. The two of us were similar people, and in that way we formed a sort of loose friendship. Only my pride in competition made me rise in the ranks of the firm against Kingsley.
He finishes reading, his eyebrows lifting. “Thanks. So what do you want for helping me with this case?”
I smiled innocently. “Why do you say it like that? I might have done it out of my good will”
He snorted, placing the file on his desk. “Sure”
I shrugged. “Well, if there’s anything, I’ll let you know” I turned to leave, happy at getting a favor from Kingsley under my belt.
“Actually…there is something you might want to see”
I frowned. I was giving up the favor already? I turned around, surprised to see Kingsley’s relaxed face turned serious. He was only like this in court. I got an uneasy feeling. He spoke again.
“Avery, you know a month ago when you went out of town for a case? Well, I was at a bar with a couple of friends and I saw someone you might know”
He paused, opening a couple of drawers in his desk. Finally he found the paper he had been looking for and handed it to me. I looked up questioningly. He swallowed.
“You and I…we are a lot alike. So I figured, if it was me, I’d want to know”
He finished awkwardly and not knowing what else to do, I left the room. In the hallway, I unfolded the piece of paper and stared at the contents for a long time. Then I went to my office and picked up my coat and purse, stuffing the paper into it.
I rushed out of the office and called the cab. There was no place in this world for me to let this out. I would have to go to the other one.
The aroma of coffee is a strong impact, loosening me from my inner turmoil as I step onto the linoleum.
“Oh Avery, you’re early. Emily’s not here tonight, she’s gone for some convention in New Jersey. She says it’s on books but I’m betting she’s actually—” Grant abruptly broke off when he saw my face.
“Is something wrong?” He says; his voice changing tone.
Not yet. I can’t think about it yet. Clutching my purse, I sit in a stiff wooden chair.
“Coffee” I say.
Without a question, Grant silently gets me a cup. Once I’ve taken a sip I let out a deep breath, inhaling the sharp scent of reality. I know he is waiting for me to speak, but as usual he gives me time. I order another three cups and he settles down with a book. He opens his book and flips three pages before I say,
“It seems I’ve become the spokesperson for cliché marriages”
“Not a dream job, I assume”
“Not in the least”
“How’d you score it?”
I smile bitterly at his casual language. “The best way possible” I pause. “He cheated on me, Grant. My husband has lied to me”
I close my eyes, still seeing the picture in the folder of my husband with his arms wrapped around a young girl; with their lips mashed together so close I can’t distinguish between them. Her dress barely covers her legs—younger than mine—and he is wearing his Armani suit. The one I gave him for Christmas.
I glance down at the ring on my finger. Once, it was a sign of envy; I had what every girl dreamt of. Now, it was a sign of betrayal.
A soft touch startles me and I look up surprised at not being alone. His hand is on mine and the feel of his fingers is surprisingly comforting to the tense army of goose bumps lining my arm. He is staring at me, tilting his head to the side. I feel a large pressure on my body, but it doesn’t come from his hands. It comes from his eyes.
“How do you feel?” He asks. He doesn’t say he is sorry, and I thought it was because he knew sympathy wouldn’t make me feel better.
“Hollow” I didn’t know if it was because of the picture or my sixth cup of coffee, but a strange sense of calm had come over me. I remembered the poem I’d recited to him only a little while ago and smirked at the irony.
The world pulsed around me in a rhythmic drumbeat. “I should be sad, shouldn’t I? I should be crying my heart out, but I’m not. I only have one feeling right now”
“What is it?”
“Well…I’m disappointed in Darren, for breaking the promise he made our wedding night” I pause. “But also myself…I thought that although I lived the life of a typical New York City girl, I would never let myself become so commonplace.”
“You can’t blame yourself”
“But I do! Something is clearly wrong with yourself if your husband kisses another girl! I am becoming one of my pathetic divorce cases—why do I have to suffer?” I cry, bursting out. The drumbeat inside my heat began to spread out, and I could feel my breathing becoming attuned to the rhythm.
“Then…why don’t you get revenge?”
I blinked, my moment of passion deflating like a balloon at the strange question. “Excuse me?” Did I hear him right? The sound of the drumbeats was becoming too loud for me to hear right…
He smiled, happy at getting my attention. “Why don’t you get revenge by cheating on him?” He gets up from his seat, coming around until he was standing in front of me. I look up at his face, but it is hidden in shadows. “Make him feel how you do?”
The pulse has made my world morph into unimaginable shapes and I laugh as my reality begins to blur. “And who do you suggest I cheat with?” Grant was really being silly now. I giggle and empty the seventh cup. When where is no answer, I look up at him, questioningly. Was he going to stop the game already?
He leans forward, close enough for me to smell the scent of oranges that he always seems to be wearing. I barely have time to react when he says,
And he kisses me.
It was the softest kiss I’d ever had in my life, but I would feel the sensation for hours after. For a moment there is silence as our lips explored each others’ dark caves. We break away and stare at each other, his breath blowing clouds of hot air onto my face.
We look at each other for a long time, not talking, not thinking. He waits, warily, seeing how I will react.
Slowly, I slide the gold band off my ring finger and set it on the table.