In the morning

 

Jeff's alarm rings after his mother has already opened his door. He doesn’t want to respond to any of it. His head is numb to the warmth of the summer morning that drifts in the window. He can’t move. But his alarm rings again and he does. Move.

On the floor he sees the flashlight that he used the night before when he was supposed to be sleeping. It’s yellow, like his skin, though his mother said that he wasn’t always that color. “When you were younger and rosier,” she would often say.

He could hear her downstairs, sweeping and gathering the things she needed to start her day. Three level scoops of coffee into the French press, if she used four his father would work himself into a frenzy while getting dressed for work. He could picture him unable to find his keys, searching frantically for his dog collars, asking his mother where the box of canned tuna was that he bought on clearance as a treat for the cats. He would try to be in his car to leave for the shelter at 7:45 but wouldn’t get there until 7:49. If the coffee had four scoops, 7:51.

Jeff closed his eyes and huddled back into the covers, where there was still some warmth. When his siblings lived there, there was more noise. But they had been gone for years. It was just him now, in the morning.

***

 

The door to the café is heavy and tries to close itself. Isabel lets go. It pushes her in.

Her feet stumble forward. Her eyes strain to focus the letters on the chalkboard behind the counter. She scans the tea list and tries not to let others see her reading the drinks that she will not order. She clutches the silver pendant hollowing into her chest. She stumbles forward.

Behind the counter a barista is busy. He doesn’t pause until she is there, in front of the register. Standing. Three, four, five minutes.

“I’ll have a tea.” Her voice is low, clear.

He greets the other customer who just walked in, “Hey Jeff, How’s it going?”

She bites her hangnail, embarrassed by her own voice. If she pretends she hasn’t said anything yet, he won’t know he didn’t hear. She listens as he talks about hiking, describes the new trail he found while driving down Coddington Road, part of the Finger Lakes system. He recognized it by its white sign and pulled over. He hadn’t brought long pants with him, but went anyway, unafraid of ticks and ivy.

“Nice,” says Jeff, rubbing his whiskers, still deciding what to order. He stays behind her in line. His silence seems to remind the barista that she is there, waiting.

“Can I help you?”

“I’ll have a tea.”  Low, clear.

“Pick one out.” He hands her a mug of hot water and gestures to the tea wall. It’s lined with a rainbow of white, green, herbal and black. She wants the black but shouldn’t have more caffeine; she already drank three cups for breakfast. She moves closer to read the herbal varieties and he sets a steaming cup on the counter. She turns around to grab it, and they lock eyes.

Though just for a moment, they're there, together.