This week’s Wordy Wednesday is a short story called “Coffee House” that I wrote around this time last year, and it’s one of the very few non-YA pieces I’ve written. Because, as a YA, I generally try not to write about stages of life I haven’t personally lived through yet. But whatever. I like this story.
She paused in the doorway as she came into the room, bringing flurries of snow after her and sweeping a dim ray of moonlight across the coffee counter. She squinted through the darkness that greeted her, loosening her scarf, and searched the hazelnut-scented room for a seat. A girl of about nineteen sat on a stool at the far end of the building, the low stage making her just visible above the heads of the other customers. The girl picked at a guitar and sang a sweet melody that was lost among the voices and chaos of the restaurant.
Unbuttoning her coat and letting the door close behind her, the woman moved further into the room, still searching for an empty chair. The tables were small, cluttered, and situated close together – she bumped into several people, whispering, “Sorry, sorry…” as a blush crept over her cheeks, before finally finding a smooth wooden chair, set close to the stage. With a sigh of relief, she fell into it and draped her thick woolen coat over the curved back. She shivered in the damp warmth of the coffee shop and breathed in deeply, closing her eyes. The girl with the guitar finished her song and those around her applauded.
“Excuse me, Miss, but do I know you?”
With a jolt, the woman awoke from her state of dreamlike bliss and turned to view the man seated across from her at the table. In the dim lighting, it was hard to tell whether she recognized him or not, but something about him did indeed strike her as familiar.
“Possibly,” she mused. “My name’s Hailey Reede.”
“Hailey Reede, Reede… yes, I definitely know you.” The dapple-haired man took a sip of his drink and tapped his fingertips along the edge of the narrow maple table, as if the drumming would reawaken some long forgotten memory.
Amused, the woman asked, “And what’s your name, then?”
If the woman had had a drink, she would have choked. As it was, she suddenly found the air far too thick to breathe, and she loosened her scarf some more.
“Aiden Smith, you say? Did you graduate from Pearington High School?”
“Yes, yes!” His eyes lit up and he waved a finger before her face. “That’s it, that’s exactly it! You were in my class!”
“Gosh, I can’t believe how long it’s been…” The woman fell back in her chair and was glad of the darkness to hide the red spreading across her face. “Did you know I had the biggest crush on you back then? It was terrible!”
“Really?” the man laughed, taking another sip of his steaming coffee. “I liked you, too! That’s nuts!”
“Wow… it is, isn’t it?” the woman managed to say. She couldn’t help but beam, and quickly changed the subject lest he take back what he’d said. “So what are you doing here?”
“Open mic night.” He indicated to the stage, where a teenage boy dressed in a polo shirt and pressed khaki pants stood reciting poetry. “You?”
“Same.” The woman stared at the stage, her smile fading slightly. “You know, you had all those dreams of becoming a rock star… what ever happened to them?”
Instead of answering, the man took a rather long drink from his mug.
“Be careful, or you’ll drown yourself.” She smirked. “Even fish have to breathe, you know.”
He snorted into the coffee and came up scowling. “Well, what about you? You wanted to be a country singer, didn’t you?”
“Oh, yeah. About that.” The woman looked away, blushing again.
“What happened?” he asked, this time a little more gently.
“Life changes. Some dreams become more important than others.” She shrugged. Her short, light hair fell into her face and she brushed it back with her fingers. He glanced toward her left hand, resting idly on the table, but she quickly pulled it away into her lap.
“Married?” he asked, squinting to see her more clearly.
“No.” She shrugged again, but it was sadder, heavier; like a great weight rested on her narrow shoulders. “You?”
He held his ring to the light, letting the oranges and reds of the nearby lamp dance off the polished gold surface. “Yeah…”
“Dog,” he laughed, “and a couple fish.”
“I see.” She gave him a crooked smile.
“So what are you doing with your life?” the man asked, leaning forward in an interested sort of way and resting his head on his hands. The ring disappeared below his chin, where it wasn’t visible, and for a moment the woman could pretend she didn’t know. She looked at his face, now worn with lines but still so reminiscent of the rambunctious boy she once knew.
“I’m writing now,” she said, for the first time sounding truly happy, without a trace of sorrow.
“Yeah, I actually have a novel on the bestsellers list at the moment, called Charlotte. Isn’t it crazy?”
“Yes, completely,” he chuckled, in awe. “But you deserve it. I remember you were always writing in school…”
“Except back then it was songs,” she reminded him. “Do you remember that one time Mrs. Wallace got mad at me for writing during biology, and then –”
“And then I stood up for you.” He smiled at the memory, and a candid fluttering came to life in the pit of the woman’s stomach. “I told her to lay-off and stop being such a jerk.”
“Only not exactly in those words,” she teased him. “I remember we both had detention for a week!”
“I thought of it as just another excuse to be with you,” he admitted before realizing quite what he was saying, and then dropped off.
“Oh.” The woman looked down at her hands and played with her watch. After a moment of quiet at the table, during which the voice of the teenage poet reached them—although so muddled the effect of the words was lost on the man and woman—she worked up the nerve to ask, “If you always liked me so much, why didn’t you ever take me out to dinner or to a school dance?”
He didn’t reply at first, and she thought she would have to repeat herself, but then his voice came softly, like a child confessing to his mother. “You know, I would have asked you, but you never went on any dates with anyone, so I thought it was hopeless…” he trailed off and gave her an apprehensive smile, still slightly ashamed.
The sadness was back about the woman as she smiled pensively and said, “That’s because you were the only boy in the world I would have said yes to.”
The man played with his wedding ring, fingers fumbling and searching for something to hold on to, and the woman looked quickly away—up at the poet, back at the counter, anywhere but at the man’s face.
“After all these years…” the man trailed off again.
“I know.” She closed her eyes, sighed, and with a great effort stood. She gathered her belongings, pulling the coat back on and buttoning it against the chill that was sure to greet her beyond the door. “You came here to watch the next generation’s dreams, and instead you were reminded of your own.”
“I would have asked you, Hailey,” he said, as if it was a revelation many years in the making. He spun the ring faster.
“And I would have said yes.” She smiled again—sweetly, sadly—and then brushed past the table and away from the stage, and the man, and the fragrance of roasting coffee. The walk back out seemed twice as long as the walk in, and she had to remind herself that the past was the past for a reason, no matter how tempting it was to return to it.
She found herself practically running, then, pushing through the crowd and the thick air. It was with a sudden spurt of energy that she burst forth from the coffee house and into the night. She slid to the snowy pavement, resting against the rough brick building with her arms wrapped around her, and let the cold seep into her bones, let it slow her pounding heart. She felt childish and confused—and, for the first time in a long time, very much alive.
All those years she’d spent pining for him… It was time to let him go.
She looked up, studying the icy parking lot, the cars and strangers, and then further up at the dark sky. Fluffy flakes of snow caught in her lashes in a way that would have delighted a child, and she opened her mouth, hoping to find solace in catching one on her tongue. A snowflake landed in her eye and she blinked it away, turning her face downward. When she glanced back up again, a slight smile crossed her face. Through a break in the swirling, dancing snow, she saw dazzling stars.
Have an opinion on kids writing for adults? Please leave it in the comments, because I’d love to hear it!
PS. To whoever set off the dorm fire alarm TWICE while I was writing this post this morning–I will find you. And I will kill you.