I haven't had a dream for a while, but this is one of my favorite stories that I have written.
The café - if that’s what you want to call it- is small. Nicely crammed, as Mary Martin’s Peter Pan would say. Its dark, probably too dark for readers to be comfortable. Just dark enough for people who wish they didn’t have to have light at all. The ceiling is low and the tables jammed together tightly, their mismatched chairs banging into each other when anyone gets up. I can overhear the chatter of the tables around me, if I wanted. Boys wooing girls with their "sensitivity". College students discussing classes and politics over lattes and coffee cake. Parents wishing their daughters would find a nice boy and their sons would bring up their English grades as they sip gourmet coffee wistfully.
There are no chimes on the door to sweetly announce the arrival of a new member of this society that prefers smoke filled, second rate, sardine-can shops to the trendy bustle of cafes a few streets away. There is no noise at all to indicate anything has changed, the conversations press on, the dishes still clatter and pages occasionally turn. There is only the shuffle of feet, the scrape of chairs and the sound of a novel dropping on the table to alert me of my company.
"This place is abysmal. How did you ever find it?"
I looked up to the voice. " Good to see you too. I found it walking around after that jerk you set me up with became too affectionate to handle. When was that? A few weeks ago, huh? Anyway. I dodged him by ducking into the alley. So, here we are."
"Sorry about all that. But why go in an alley? Its just not safe!"
" The difference between me and you. It doesn’t matter." I kicked out the chair across from me. " So are you sitting or what?" I watched over the tip of my lighter as she sat down. She shuffled to put her purse by her feet, her feet on the back of another person’s chair and her right arm on the table. I love they was she fidgets. I looked at my watch. The sun would set soon. You couldn’t tell. It was always dark here.
" Des, do you have to smoke?"
" Yeah. I do J. Want one?"
"I don’t smoke. It’s bad for you. You know that."
" So do you want one or not?"
" You know I do."
She grinned, I had a fleeting glimpse of her crooked teeth before her perfect lips closed over them. She leaned back to catch the pack I had thrown at her. Her arm brushed the head of the guy on her other side. He turned to say something and she tossed him a cigarette too before turning back and lighting her own.
" Know him?"
"Right. So where are you today?"
J’s boyfriend likes to know her every move. He’s one of the "nice boys" all mothers want for their little girls. He is the son of a preacher. His mother teaches kindergarten at their churches private school. He was studying to become a lawyer last I heard. Good grades, great looking. He also was a manipulative asshole who had to know each time she washed her hair, went to study or left the house. He didn’t like smoking, drinking, anything progressive and especially me. Apparently, I am a bad influence.
" I went for a drive to the lake so I can get in touch with God’s creation. I may stay all evening if the Lord leads me to," she looked up to the ceiling with the face of an angel and closed her eyes. " It’s a shame that the Glory of the Lord turns me away from carnal pleasures."
Did I mention he is a moron?
" Aren’t you pious. Hey, try this one. It tastes like those nasty cinnamon candies they used to throw at parades back home. It feels nice in your mouth. Especially if you’re smoking."
The nice thing about this place, one of them anyway, is that the owner must like tea better than coffee. They had about 200 flavors of tea. I think they only sell coffee because a "tea shop" would go under really fast in a college town where coffee houses were en vogue. Today’s blend was from India. It really did taste like those nasty candies I always tried to trade away to my brother and cousin. I guess I’ve grown into the taste. Or maybe its because I like how it made me feel like there was a fire in my mouth.
I looked at the clock on the wall. Back to her. She was swishing the tea around in her mouth like it as wine instead- another habit of hers that annoyed the hell out of her boyfriend that I thought was delightful. She swallowed and took a long drag from the cigarette that had lain forgotten in the ashtray, paused, and then took a long drink of her coffee. Her face was very red.
" My God," she said in a rush. " That’s nasty. I feel like my head is on fire."
" You look it too, with all that hair and your face all red." I laughed.
One of my favorite ironies about Jane was that she had possibly the plainest name on earth and fiery red hair like I had never seen on any human being without the assistance of a salon. She did look as if she were on fire- a phoenix bursting into flame before me- a poetic thought I savored for a moment and then tossed away like a badly written love note.
I settled back into my chair and lit another smoke as she sipped her drink. I watched her look around again, from the door with the tiny window in it to the light that fell through the yellowed industrial skylight, to the plants that hung off pots and planters artlessly attached to the walls.
"Those plant’s must be some special breed that live off of nicotine and coffee. I wonder if I could get some like that."
" You’d kill them as clean as your house is." She snorted from behind her cigarette and reached across to flick the ash into the hand potted mug that was meant to serve as an ashtray. She missed, instead flicking it onto the sandwich that laid untouched between us.
"Oops. Did you want that?" She snatched a chip up off the plate and popped it into her mouth.
"I can eat around it. I’ll order something else later. Do you want anything?" She shook her head and popped another chip in her mouth.
" Nah, but I do need more coffee. I’ll be back." She stood up and made for the coffee pots on the wall, startling three or four people who were lost in their coffee, books and conversations along the way. No one cared though.
The clock on the wall said that the sun was almost gone. I reached for a new pack of cigarettes while she settled in with the coffee, more tea for me and another bag of chips. The art on the wall glared at me as I exhaled. Abstracts, full of dark color and heavy texture. I suppose it’s a good thing. A portrait would have choked to death sitting next to us.
" So how do you explain the smoke on your clothes anyway? He’s got to notice."
She smiled. Her eyes got a faraway, misty look for a moment. " Remember when we used to smoke in high school? How we were always afraid my parents would catch us and never let us see each other again? How we would always change clothes before going home?"
" You don’t!" I giggled. "That’s so much trouble..."
" No, I don’t. But it inspired me. There’s a Laundromat a few blocks away from the apartment. I have an extra shirt in the back of my car. I put it on and toss my shirt and a few dryer sheets in one of the machines," she paused again."Its only a quarter. You’re worth a lot more than that."
She took a long, slow drag from the last of her cigarette and blew a ring up to the plants expertly. Crushing the butt into nothing with one hand, she reached for another with her free one and took another drag. This time, she blew the smoke just to the left on my face , exhaling slowly and thoughtfully.
"Des-de-mona," she pronounced slowly, switching her cigarette from one hand to the other, ashing it quickly along the way. " I forgot to ask, did you bring me anything?"
" Oh, yeah." I reached into my bag and pulled out a tiny flask. She reached for it and lazily put some of the contents into her coffee." and don’t call me that. I feel so tragic. I hate to feel like I am certain to have a miserable life because of my name."
" I like it. It makes me think of the falling rain."
" Why?" " It just does. You remind me of the falling rain. I love the rain, but it always seems so sad."
" I make you sad? That’s nice to know."
"No, I didn’t mean it that way. I just meant that...I can’t explain it. Just watch the rain next time it falls. Tell me it doesn’t seem like you."
" Sure," I said, just a bit sarcastically. " Can I call you sunshine?"
" Whatever," she smiled.
The tip of her cigarette glowed. The clock moved slowly towards the middle of prime time television. I heard the wind blow outside, sending leaves across the skylight. The room got a bit darker. I toyed with the lettuce hanging from my sandwich. I pulled off a bit and flicked my ashes on it. Nearby someone lit a clove cigarette. It’s smell drifted to us, mixed with the scent of a fresh pot of coffee. It smelled sweet. Like a pipe on a cool evening in the country.
"So, Sunny- how long before you dump Mr. Wonderful?"
" I don’t know. Its nice to have my parents off my back about settling down, you know?" More smoke spilt from her lips. "He hasn’t proposed yet. He believes in a ‘long courtship’. I suppose that he figures its in the bag. I guess its over when he proposes. Did I tell you his parents still think he’s a virgin?"
"Ha! They’re as clueless as he is. I don’t know how you put up with it."
"I know. I know. After this one, maybe I’ll settle down and all. Maybe." She shifted her legs as she glanced at her watch. Her chips crunched softly in her mouth. "What else would I do? I couldn’t very well live on my own. I hate being alone."
"You could stay in my loft," I offered hopefully. " You like it there. You could smoke all you want. Drink whisky with me. We’ll go to flea markets and buy tacky art and funny vases. I fill it full of plants that live off of nicotine and coffee. It would be great. You could make me breakfast in the mornings and I could grill steak on the roof. You could sleep on a hammock outside in the sunshine. And when it rains we could watch it fall onto the skylight over my bed."
"Yeah," she sighed. "It would be nice. I haven’t had steak in ages. He’s a vegan, you know. You’d come here all the time though. I know you do now. You’ve known about this place two weeks and the owners probably know your name already. I’d be lonely Des. Besides, what would my family think."
"Fuck them," I said through the cloud of smoke we had created. "They don’t know what’s good for you anyway. You’d come here with me anyway. You like it here. I can tell."
"I do." She looked to the roof again, and smiled. "I’ll have to come here more often. Especially now that I know you hide here. I bet its pretty dark, huh?"
"Yeah. Its raining too, I think. Paul will know you’re not at the lake now."
She stood up and brushed off her pants, which were now covered in ash and chip crumbs. "Walk me to the door."
I leaned over and poked the guy behind me. "Mine, okay?" I indicated the table. When he nodded, I stood up and headed to the hallway that led to the door outside.
She put her arm around me as she walked, her arm resting across my hips. She cracked the door and looked out at the rain. "
Yep. It’s still coming down." She turned and gave me a hug. "Promise me you’ll go home sometime today, huh? Don’t write all night long."
"Okay." I leaned in to hug her again. When she pulled back and started to leave I stopped her.
"Wait, what do you mean ‘its still coming down’ ?"
" Des, its been raining since noon."
The brick of the alley wall felt cold as I watched her step from under the overhang into the rain and head towards her car. I could see her hair falling flat, like the petals of a dewy rose, as the rain poured down on top of it. It made me smile to watch her jump in the puddles on purpose, soaking her jeans with water and mud. The wind chilled my face as it blew through the alley, causing the rain to spray my clothes softly as I opened the door. She turned to look if I was still there when she reached her car. With a half wave, I turned back into the building and lit a cigarette.