It’s bitterly cold at 4:15 in the morning. James is shivering, even though he’s bundled up with a hoodie beneath his coat and even though he’d jogged a bit on his walk to work, because, as usual, he’s just this side of on time.
As he rounds the corner, he’s careful not to slip on the icy slush. It’s only mid-November, but winter’s already got its grip on Pittsburgh; they saw their first snowfall a couple nights ago.
He’s not trusted with the keys to Dan’s Coffeehouse, but he never has to wait very long. Geno’s already there, standing outside the shop, key ring in hand.
“Hurry up, G,” James says. “I’m freezing here.”
“Maybe if you wear hat,” Geno says in response, making a big, slow show of carefully fitting the key into the deadbolt and painstakingly turning it.
James shifts his weight from foot to foot. “Come on, come on.”
“You cold? That sad. Embarrass Canada.”
“Of course I’m cold. It’s freezing! Speaking of embarrassing your country, you’re wearing a hat, and you’re Russian, Zhenya!”
James butchers the nickname just like he did when they first met, when Geno’d introduced himself as “Evgeni” and James hadn’t come close and then had tried “Zhenya?” and James’ attempt had actually been worse. They’d settled on “Geno,” the man himself sighing in resignation. Glancing back at him now, Geno looks physically pained again, though he must know James is doing it on purpose.
He doesn’t comment on “Zhenya,” though, just says, “Yes, Russia cold. Colder than Pittsburgh. But Russians not stupid. Because cold, we wear hat.”
“I can’t, though. I’d undo all my hard work! I don’t just wake up looking like this, you know.”
“How is it,” comes a voice from behind both of them; James doesn’t have to turn around to know it’s Beau (he’s always got the weekday morning shift with them; who else would be on Butler Street at this hour?), “that you get up early enough to style your hair, but still have to come dashing up the block?”
“Did you just call me dashing?” James asks, looking over his shoulder so Beau gets the full effect of his smirk.
“Anyway, I’m earlier than you, aren’t I?”
Beau waves his hand dismissively. “Today.”
For the record, James has only clocked in actually late once in the time he’s been working here. Of course, when James started, he worked second shift, and it’s much easier to arrive on time when your day begins at noon. He’s been on morning shift for about six weeks, after the person who traditionally worked it, Alex, up and moved to Dallas and James was deemed “ready.” (James wasn’t really ready, but he’s figuring it out.)
Geno finally gets the door open, and they step into a shop that’s not much warmer than outside. Geno turns on the lights and beelines for the thermostat. He makes an adjustment and then heads behind the counter. He’ll turn the machines on and get them warmed up and then check the cash in each register with the bill scale to compare to last night’s final shift’s records.
Geno isn’t a manager, but he’s an assistant, so in addition to being responsible for the money, he pulls rank over both James and Beau and can technically tell them what to do. He turns to Beau first: “Shovel snow, Sunshine!”
Beau’s been “Sunshine” since he’d rattled off, without faltering, the complicated drink that one of their regulars always orders and she, delighted, had said, “You’re like a little ray of sunshine, aren’t you? That’s exactly what I want!” It had stuck because Geno is equal parts evil and ridiculous and – aside from his own – loves nicknames, and because it works on multiple levels: Beau’s originally from California, only in Pittsburgh for the past five years, since he’d moved when his dad got a new job. He’d started working at Dan’s his senior year in high school but was moved to the early shift because he’s taking a gap year to “decompress.” (James is pretty sure no one not from California would ever say things like “decompress.”) He spends his breaks filling out college applications by hand at one of the little tables because the deal with his parents is apparently that it really will only be a gap year.
“You do know what snow is, right?” James asks him; it’s weak, but in his defense, it’s really early.
“Fuck off,” Beau replies, flipping him off over his shoulder as he disappears down the steps to the basement to find the snow shovel.
“That’s not very Sunshine of you!” James calls.
Beau doesn’t bother to respond.
Geno rolls his eyes. “Lazy, you on display case duty.” He points at James, who takes a moment, as he does every time he hears his own nickname, to regret admitting to Geno that he’d fallen asleep during the two-week barista training he’d been forced to undergo. It had only been one time, during the really boring “history of coffee” part, specifically the bit about international bean-harvesting techniques. Seriously, why would he ever need to know that? It’s not like he’s gonna get quizzed on it, not like customers come in asking what was done to their beans before they were ground into the coffee they’re enjoying or whatever. What matters is, he paid attention to the Learn the Menu part of training. Or, at least, he’d stayed awake. He’s got the names of the drinks and the differences between them down pat. Totally. Mostly. There’s a laminated cheat-sheet behind the counter he refers to sometimes, but it’s not like it was created just for him.
Beau heads out, shovel slung over his shoulder and a huge bag of Safe-T-Salt tucked under the other arm. The sidewalk’s actually not that bad, just a bit slick with ice and some lingering slush. It won’t take too much effort with the shovel, and then Beau will just have to salt it down. It’s still the worse job between the two of them, which James takes to mean that Geno likes him better than Beau. No surprise there, of course.
Their overnight delivery is waiting for him on large wooden pallets; they don’t bake in-house and have everything delivered from the La Gourmandine, the French bakery down the street; Dan’s Coffeehouse likes to support other local businesses, which James personally appreciates, because when he stops in to La Gourmandine, if he takes a cup of black coffee for Marc-André, the pastry chef will give him a few French macarons.
James arranges the baked goods on long trays before sliding them into the refrigerated case while he listens to Geno mumbling as he counts the money. He’s speaking Russian, so James has no idea what he’s actually saying, but Geno has a soothing voice, rumbling and deep. Geno’s actually from Russia, displaced to western Pennsylvania after accepting a swimming scholarship to Indiana University of Pennsylvania (“was very confusing,” he told James, “say Indiana and Pennsylvania, and I think two different places, lot of travel? but swim team is so good, so I accept”). He’d worked at the coffee shop on IUP’s campus, so once he moved down to Pittsburgh to get his Master’s in Slavic Languages and Literature at Pitt, it was a natural transition to work at Dan’s. (“Me three years Commonplace Coffee Shop,” is how he explains his accelerated path to assistant manager…not that he needs to explain it: Geno’s good at everything he tries.)
James hurries around to the other side of the counter to review his handiwork then has to go back to rearrange. He put the lemon squares behind the sign for pumpkin bread and the pumpkin bread behind the sign for blueberry muffins. He’s gotten the six types of bagels correct, though. He’s pretty sure, at least. Egg and plain look a lot alike.
Beau comes back in and goes back down to the basement to put away the shovel and salt and bring back up gallons of milk and bottles of flavored syrup, plus two stacks of cups and three of lids. His balancing act is actually pretty impressive.
James takes the gallon jugs from him and sets up the condiment bar – pouring the milks into separate chilled silver containers, sorting the packets of sugar, setting out the bear-shaped plastic squeeze bottle of honey. He stacks the cardboard sleeves and the straws and the stirrers and the drink-stoppers. Beau decants four cups of coffee, one for each of them plus one for Deryk, who doesn’t have to be there to open but arrives for the early shift to help them serve. Beau uses the Ethiopian beans, the favorite among them all by far. James adds two sugars but no cream to his, and the coffee smells amazing and tastes even better.
Once the caffeine’s in his system, James does a quick walkthrough to survey the shop and make sure nothing’s out of place. Everything is perfect, as it always is in the stillness of 5:30 in the morning, before the madness starts when they open for business at quarter to six.
Geno tucks in his shirt, and they all get their black aprons on and tied. Deryk turns on the Sirius Radio, the speakers wired throughout the shop. They usually leave it on the station actually called “The Coffee House” because it’s only logical, and the songs are all mellow and inoffensive; they can never agree on anything else anyway, everything someone suggests getting shot down with “uh, that’s actually worse” before the volume is cranked on the, like, fucking Mountain Goats.
Dan’s is only a few blocks from Children’s Hospital, so their earliest customers are always the doctors and nurses in scrubs who stop by before the sun has risen and whose requests are nearly always “extra-large, extra shot, extra hot.”
The day stays typically busy and stays freezing, which they are very unfortunately reminded every time the door opens and people enter as though physically pushed by a gust of wind. They are all bundled up head-to-toe, and James wishes he could keep his coat on or at least wear a pair of those fuzzy boots or something.
During a brief lull, he says as much to Beau. “You know what, Uggs look so comfortable.” His voice is whiny; he can’t help it. His toes are cold. The shoes he wears are comfortable (they have to be, since he spends hours on his feet), but they are not warm in the least. “And cozy. Why can’t men wear Uggs?”
“They could. They do. They make them,” Beau says earnestly. “They’re called – ” (he pauses, presumably for dramatic effect) “ – Uggs for men.”
“No one wears them.”
“Tom Brady does.”
“Okay, first of all, he’s just in the advertisements. He’s paid to wear Uggs for men. Secondly, he’s already married to a supermodel, so he doesn’t need to impress chicks.”
“Not say chick,” Geno admonishes from behind the espresso machine.
“Um,” Beau says. “You don’t want to impress women, either.”
“No,” James agrees. “But I want to impress gay men, and that’s even more difficult.”
“So I don’t know how you do it,” Beau says, throwing a wadded-up napkin at him. “Honestly, how did you get Neil to give you a second look?”
It’s not a real question, James knows; all his friends have heard the story by this point. James used to hate telling it so much, because it sounded like something out of a movie his sister, Becky, would like. He and his ex had gone to college together and at the end of freshman year, they’d both attended an athletic fundraising function. Someone had called out “Neal!” (or, possibly, “Neil!”), and they’d both turned toward the voice and then toward each other. They’d smiled and introduced themselves and they never did find out who had actually been the one being summoned. There hadn’t needed to be a second look.
It became very serious very quickly. Despite being advised by the Athletic Director to keep their relationship under wraps, they didn’t hide on campus. It wasn’t like either of them was destined for a life in the public eye. James wasn’t well-known, not yet, a third-liner on a team with talented upperclassmen. Neil played baseball – second base, occasionally catcher – and was the face of the team, a star in their college town, but the school was small, and he was nowhere near good enough to play professionally.
They’d stayed together throughout college, through James’ career-ending knee injury junior year and the four subsequent surgeries, through how mean and resentful he’d been. Neil had driven him to doctor appointments and to rehab and Neil had changed his number to 18, for James, and Neil hadn’t left him like probably anyone else would have. James had thought that Neil was it for him, forever, that he’d had to sacrifice something to get to have Neil, and that something had been hockey. When they’d graduated, only Neil had had concrete plans; he’d always known he was going to return home, to Pittsburgh, to work in the family business. James’ only plans were to not be far away from Neil if he could help it, and he could help it. He moved to Pittsburgh, too. They moved in together, and everything changed (no matter how long they’d been together, no matter how much time they’d spent together in college, this was totally different) and the deterioration of their relationship had been swift, like falling off a cliff. Like losing a blade edge and colliding with another player and then the boards.
Neil had moved back to his parents’ house, and James had finished out the lease on their place before moving out himself. He could have gone back to Whitby, and his parents and Becky and his brothers had told him he should, but he hadn’t wanted to, hadn’t wanted to go anywhere new, either. He didn’t have hockey and he didn’t have Neil, but he had Pittsburgh. He loves Pittsburgh. It's not home but it doesn't have to be.
He’d still had his work visa and had landed an internship that had luckily been paid but had unluckily not let to a full-time job, and then he’d worked for a temp agency for a while, but bouncing from office to office on short-term assignments just wasn’t his cup of tea. So he’d moved on to cups of coffee instead. (James likes to make that joke to anyone with whom he discusses his past and how he ended up here.) He’s still looking for more permanent work, but he likes Dan’s, loves his coworkers and even doesn’t mind the new, pre-dawn hours.
During the last hour of James’ shift, there’s a late-morning crush, as people are either trying to stave off midday exhaustion or are getting their first cup of the day because they’re lucky bastards who get to sleep in. There’s a line, five people deep, half of whom are on their phones, staring at the screens (texting or googling or god-knows-what) instead of the menu board so that when it’s their turn to order they won’t have a clue what they want, like they haven’t just had five minutes of waiting to decide.
He’s working register and also needs to take a new container of skim milk to the condiment bar. When he’d checked, the half-and-half and full-fat milks were each about a third full, but the skim’s nearly empty, so as soon as he has a second, after these customers order, he’s going to run over there and replace it. He doesn’t have a second now, not even half a second, so the container’s sitting next to the register.
When the door opens yet again with its cheerful jingle, James looks up out of habit.
A guy comes through the door, bundled up against the cold, wearing a dark grey pea coat, scarf tucked in at his throat, black toque pulled down over his ears. James feels like his gaze is stuck, he can’t tear his eyes away, and he’s not sure why. The guy pulls off his hat and shakes his head, reddish hair all ruffled, and then unwinds the scarf; it’s very long, knit with a complicated-looking pattern in dull gold and black. It looks soft, which is a very bizarre thought for James to have. The guy is carrying a leather bag, strap crossed over his chest, and the scarf gets caught for a moment before he deftly untangles it.
James hasn’t seen him before, which isn’t exactly unusual, though Dan’s does have a lot of regulars. James never remembers their orders or anything (not like Sunshine), but he’s pretty good at remembering faces. And this guy…this guy’s face is one James would remember. He knows this for sure.
“James to Earth!” Geno chides from over James’ shoulder, and James actually has to force his eyes to look at something other than the guy, who’s taken his place at the end of the line. He feels his cheeks heat as he literally shakes his head to clear his thoughts.
“I’m sorry,” he says, smiling as winningly as he can to the next person in line. “How are you doing today?”
“Hi, can I have a triple-long extra-pump white mocha, please?”
James forces his smile to stay in place. It doesn’t seem significant, but he hates when people don’t actually respond to the question he asked. “Sure thing!” he says sunnily. “We’ll get that started for you!”
James takes the next few orders quickly and efficiently, scribbling names and the shorthand for drinks and milks and syrups that took a while to get the hang of, and then the guy steps up to the register.
“Hi, welcome to Dan’s. How are you?”
“I’m doing well, thanks,” the guy says, which James takes a moment to appreciate. “How are you?” James smiles, genuinely; he likes even more when customers ask him the question in return.
“I’m going pretty great,” he says, and in that moment, he absolutely means it.
The guy lifts up his bag, pulling the strap over his head and off, and asks, “Mind?” He lets his bag hover over the counter, waiting for James’ permission, a level of politeness James finds unusual, even for Pittsburgh.
“Not at all.”
The guy sets the bag down. “It’s just…really heavy,” the guy says. “Had to pick up a couple books at the library.”
James is vaguely aware they’re relatively close to a branch of the Carnegie Library. He nods, though, very seriously, like he understands the burden of heavy tomes. “So what can we get started for you?”
“Can I please have a medium cappuccino, with a double shot?”
“Sure thing. The name for the cup?”
“It’s Paul.” He says with a smile. The smile is…really great.
James writes his name with Sharpie near the top of the cup, then passes it to Geno, who’s on drink duty with Deryk. “It’s a capp – double shot,” he says, then looks down to the cash register; James knows some of his coworkers have the buttons memorized and don’t have to look, but he’s not there yet. He punches in the proper order and hits the button to total. “That will be four thirty-nine.”
The guy – Paul, apparently – extends his arm to pay, a five-dollar bill in his hand. He’s not wearing gloves, which James thinks is strange for how cold it is. His wrist is…delicate, almost, pale and slim, in direct contrast with his large, strong-looking hands, and there’s a small scattering of freckles on the knobby part of his wrist bone and…and who notices stuff like that? James does, apparently, and he’s so focused on these freckles that as he reaches out to accept the money, his elbow bumps the silver milk container, which is supposed to be bottom-heavy and supposed to be twisted closed but apparently isn’t, because he knocks it over and sends milk pooling over the counter.
“Dammit.” He grabs a stack of napkins from behind the counter and plops them into the mess, trying to pull the quickly spreading liquid toward him and away from the guy. “Now don’t start crying,” he adds, feeling stupid immediately. Paul, to his credit, offers a small smile, but he’s clearly distracted, looking around…for more napkins, of course. Because the milk has spilled on his bag, so James grabs another, entirely too large, handful and gives half of them to Paul, because he think it’s a bit presumptuous to actually touch a stranger’s belongings, even to clean them.
“Sorry, sorry,” he says, “I’m so sorry.”
James sops up most of the milk, and then takes one of the damp rags they keep all over the place behind the counter, always within an arm’s reach, to deal with cleaning up the inevitable stickiness of coffee and its mix-ins. He wipes down the counter.
“No harm done, really,” Paul says. “Suppose I shouldn’t have put my bag down, it’s half my fault.”
“Not your fault at all.” James is quick to correct. “I’m obviously a klutz who shouldn’t be trusted around tip-able objects.”
“At least thirty-three percent my fault,” Paul says, shrugging. “There’d be nothing to spill on if I didn’t have my bag out on the counter. But it doesn’t matter, wiped right off.”
Paul just reaches out again and – oh. The money. James takes the bill and punches in the right amount, taking out his change.
His fingers brush Paul’s palm as the drops the coins into his hand, but James doesn’t notice that at all.
“You’re welcome,” James says. “And I’m sorry again.”
Paul waves his hand. “Honestly, no worries.”
He moves to the end of the counter, waiting to pick up his drink. No one had come in after Paul, so James wipes down the counter again, sneaking glances out of the corner of his eye.
Paul smiles when he accepts his drink; he bypasses the condiment stand, just raises his cup to James like a toast just before he pushes the door open.
“You know him?” Beau asks.
“I…no,” James says. “I don’t.”
“Lazy!” Geno barks. “Milk all over counter, still need milk in container over at condiment bar!”
James salutes. “Sir, yes, sir!” Geno sounds scary (and, okay, looks the part, too), but James has sat through a twenty-photo iPhone Camera Roll slideshow of pictures of Geno and his giant dog, Jeffrey, so he’s not daunted. He does, however, immediately attend to the task at hand, but that is entirely unrelated to Geno.
The condiment bar is near the entrance, before one of the huge picture windows, and James looks out to busy Butler, glancing left and right, but he doesn’t see a grey pea coat…not that he was looking for one.
“Lazy!” Geno shouts again, and James is broken out of his reverie.
“Sir, yes, sir!” he says again.
During his next few days at work, James pays special attention to everyone who walks in the door. There are a lot of pea coats, mostly black and navy, some in super bright colors – red and yellow and Kelly green – and some camel-colored and a few grey ones, too. But none of them are paired with the gold and black scarf or the heavy bag. And none of the people wearing them have freckled wrists or a really, really great smile.
James is kind of let down.
He does see his favorite regular twice in a week, though, the second time with a little girl who looks so much like him she’s obviously his daughter.
They speak to each other in soft French (this is why he’s James’ favorite: the French accent when he orders), and finally he nods at her, saying “Oui, Maeva, merci beaucoup.”
She approaches the counter and James smiles at her. “What can I get for you? You look like someone with sophisticated coffee tastes!”
She rolls her eyes (“Maeva,” her father says, chastising) and says, “Sorry. But that’s silly! It’s not coffee for me. It’s for Papa. He is old enough to have coffee, and I’m not. I can only sometimes have hot chocolate?” She allows her voice to lilt up like a question and turns to her father, blinking big eyes innocently.
He laughs. “Not today; you won’t have time to finish it.”
Maeva doesn’t argue. “Then I would like an espresso con panna.” She pronounces everything flawlessly, peeking back over her shoulder again at her dad, who grins and nods his proud approval.
She’s in charge of the money, too, handing over a twenty and careful to wrap her fingers around the bills and coins James returns to her, holding tight before giving the bundle to her father.
“Here you are, sweetheart,” Beau says when he slides the drink over the pick-up counter to her.
She positively beams, just radiates adorableness in his direction. She wipes her hands on her green plaid school uniform skirt before taking the cup – double-sleeved as an extra precaution – in both hands. “Thank you.”
“C’mon Maeva,” her dad says. He takes the coffee from her in one hand and affectionately squeezes the back of her neck with the other. “You’re going to be late for school.” The bell jingles as he opens the door. “Thank you!” he calls over his shoulder as they leave.
“So…are you disappointed that guy’s a dad?” Beau asks.
“What? No. That’s not even a legitimate question. Why would I be disappointed? It’s not like there was anything…it’s not like he’s available.” It’s the first time he’s come in with his kid, but it’s not like James had missed the wedding ring all the other times.
“I’m just saying. He’s, you know, he’s a good-looking human being, I thought maybe you would notice and, ipso facto, want to go out on a date with him.”
“Beau, you’re talking crazy. Speaking-in-foreign-languages crazy. I’m-actually-worried-about-you crazy. What are you talking about?”
“I’m trying to get you to talk about fellas! You’re going through a dry spell.”
“It’s not a dry spell; it’s a recovery period after a breakup.” His and Neil’s breakup hadn’t been a complete explosion, but it hadn’t been totally amicable, either.
“Haven’t you been single for, like, a year?”
“Nine months,” James says.
“Nine months is a long time.”
“Not after you dated someone for almost four years. Neil and I got together when I was eighteen. You were, what, five years old then? Think about being with someone since you were five and then…not being with them anymore. How long would it be before you could date again?”
“Probably about nine months,” Beau says, just to be difficult.
James takes the high road and ignores that. “Besides, I’m not…anti-dating. I was, for a while, but…I don’t know. There just…hasn’t been anyone I’ve wanted to…date.”
(James definitely doesn’t think of wrists and scarves and a leather bag on the counter.)
“Except you’d totally jump if that guy would ask you on a date.”
For a moment, James forgets who Beau’s talking about.
“No. Well, I mean, yeah, if he were single, but he’s not. I’m not blind and he’s really good-looking.” James remembers the guy’s super-hot tattoos from the summer, when he’d show up in short sleeves, and his eyelashes are crazy-long, like, ‘insane in the fucking membrane,’ as Beau would say. “But I’m not gonna waste my time or, like, have any expectations.”
(James tries not to ever have too many expectations anymore. After all, he’d spent the majority of his adult life expecting to be with Neil forever and look how that worked out for him.)
“Don’t worry about me,” he continues. “Worry about your girlfriend finding a better dude than you at Ohio State.”
“Low blow, man.”
And it really was, so James says, “I’m sorry. Grace isn’t finding a better dude than you, especially not in Ohio. But you are weirdly invested in my love life, Sunshine.”
“I am not weirdly invested your love life. I am weirdly invested in your happiness, that’s all. And that’s not weird, actually. That’s bros.”
“I’m not unhappy.”
“But you could be happier.”
James shrugs. “Who couldn’t?” He certainly isn’t thinking about someone he only saw for ten minutes five days ago. And he especially certainly isn’t wondering if he’ll ever see him again. “But I’m fine. The more pressing matter, anyway, is as follows: Did you actually use the word ‘fellas’ earlier?”
Three days later, James glances up from the industrial French press and just barely manages to keep pouring the hot water over the grounds and not, instead, over his fingers, the skin of which he knows, unfortunately first-hand, is very sensitive.
The guy is back.
“So we bought, like, twenty, just decimated the pillow department of Target and – ” Beau cuts off suddenly – he must realize that James isn’t listening – and follows James’ line of sight. “Oh. Oh, hey, didn't you spill something on that guy last time he was in here?" (Fuck Beau and his impeccable memory. James hopes he gets accepted to a college really far away, like in…Denver or something.)
“No. I just tipped the milk container over on the counter...and it didn't even really get everywhere, just a little bit on his bag, and he wiped it up right away."
"Still. Maybe he's here to lodge a complaint. Like when you gave the lady the hot drink instead of the iced?”
“It was minus-twenty with the wind chill! Who the hell orders an iced drink when it’s that cold?! Besides, wouldn't he have done that the day it actually happened? Asked for a manager or something?" The manager on call now is Vero, who is fair but takes no shit and has no patience for employee missteps that lead to dissatisfied customers, and she would definitely not take kindly to being asked to come in to handle a complaint. And now that Beau has put the idea in his head and he’s thinking about it, James is kind of worried, even though the guy had been really nice about the whole thing. Like. Weirdly nice. He does look like the type of person who writes formal letters perfectly expressing indignation (with words like "heretofore" and "inexplicable" properly used) to large companies he feels have wronged him. But the guy just unwinds his scarf – the same scarf from the other day – from around his neck and looks over at the counter. At James. And he smiles. At James.
James feels like turning around to check and make sure no one's behind him, but he refrains. There's really no mistaking it. Their eyes are locked, and the guy is smiling. So clearly the guy is smiling at him. James hesitantly smiles back.
“You want register?” Beau asks, sly look in his eyes, which James doesn’t even have time to decipher, but he does, indeed, want register, so they switch. James flails his arms a little, because he’s suddenly unaware of what he normally does with his hands when customers approach. Hands are so weird, he thinks, so awkward when they’re not occupied actually doing something. Beau is laughing at him, but James chooses to ignore it.
“Hi,” James says.
“Hi.” The guy (James thinks he remembers his name’s Paul) says. “How are you? How’s work today?”
“I’m good, work’s good. What about you? Um, not that you’re…at work now. But you could be going to work. If you work. Or um. Anyway. I’m good. How are you, and what can we get started for you?”
Beau is still laughing from where he’s finishing up the drink.
Paul is not laughing, but the corners of his mouth are twitching like he’s fighting very hard not to be. “I’d like a café au lait, please.”
James hesitates over whether remembering that the guy’s name is Paul is too creepy, and then he hesitates over whether his name actually is Paul, and then he hesitates over whether he’ll look stupid if it’s not, so he just asks, “Name?”
James writes it on the cup and rings Paul up, then walks back over to the machines, cup in hand. “I’ll make it, too,” he says quietly.
“Of course you will,” Beau says, very much not quietly.
“It doesn’t matter,” James says. And it really doesn’t – when it’s slow enough, they aren’t relegated to specific roles like they are during rushes. And it’s so slow right now that Geno’s actually in the basement taking inventory – they hardly ever have time for inventory during morning shift.
Beau re-takes over the register; a couple customers have walked in after Paul, and he greets them with a big grin.
James makes Paul’s coffee and hands it to him over the counter. Paul thanks him and doesn’t even pause before taking a sip. He makes a weird face.
“Is there…milk in this?”
“Of course, because it’s a – wait.” James pauses as he mentally retraces his steps. “Wait. I...no. There’s not. I forgot it.”
“So the last time,” Paul says, “there was too much milk” (fuck, of course he remembers, why wouldn’t he remember, people don’t forget things like the person at the coffee shop spilling milk all over the counter) “and this time, not nearly enough.”
Beau’s full-on cackling, and Paul’s given up the ghost that he’s not laughing. (And it turns out his laugh is better than his smile, and who knew that was even possible?) Laughing is preferable to yelling, at least.
“I’m sorry,” James says. “I’m so sorry.”
“The coffee’s not bad,” Paul says. “It’s just not…what I ordered.”
“I’ll make another, of course, just give me a minute.”
“Thanks,” Paul says. “I appreciate that. And don’t worry about it, these things happen.”
James makes another, careful and deliberate about each of the steps, and when he hands it to Paul, he apologizes again.
Paul takes a sip. “Perfect,” he says. “Thank you.”
James does a weird half-wave and knows he’ll probably agonize over that one for a while (and then probably agonize over agonizing) and watches Paul walk out the door.
Beau appears over his shoulder, and James absolutely does not startle. “So now I know why you’re not disappointed that Hot French Dad is, indeed, a dad.”
“Does Grace know you think dudes are hot?”
Beau waves his hand. “Excellent try at changing the subject, but I’m not falling for it. To answer your question, though, Grace knows I have eyes and objective opinions, yes.”
James rolls his eyes at both statements. “I’m not disappointed because I didn’t ever actually think – ”
“You’re not disappointed,” Beau interrupts, “because there’s another non-French, possibly-probably-non-dad, at-the-very-least-non-wedding-ringed guy who – ”
“Does Grace know you look at dudes’ wedding ring fingers?”
“James – ” Beau can’t continue his thought, though, because the woman he’d just served is calling for his attention. “Excuse me?” she says. “I just want you to confirm: this is decaf, right?”
Beau smiles at her, but there’s an edge to it; his canine teeth are very pointy, and if he weren’t so…Beau, he’d look dangerous. He hates when his competence is called into question. “You asked for decaf, ma’am,” he says, “so I promise I’ve given you decaf.”
When Beau turns back to him, James braces himself for more hyphenated adjectives, but Beau just looks at him speculatively like he’s waiting for James to say something.
James cracks within seconds. “He’s probably never coming back anyway.”
“You don’t know that,” Beau says. “He came back after the first debacle, right?”
“He…did.” And he’d smiled. He hadn’t complained and he’d come back and he’d smiled.
“So you never know.” James waits another heart-to-heart about happiness and fellas, but Beau just says, “Hey, you did grow up in Canada, right?”
“Yes…” James says slowly, not sure where Beau could possibly be going with this out-of-left-field question.
“I mean, and French is the second language there? So you do know that ‘lait’ means ‘milk’?”
“Fuck off.” James groans.
Paul does come in again, during one of their busiest times, when they’re each relegated to one station, with two on drink-making duty. Today it’s James with Geno, which he likes the best, he thinks, working elbow-to-elbow with Geno. They have a good working relationship, almost symbiotic. They move around each other, from the machines to the milks to the syrups to the ice to the pour-over station without ever even needing to speak.
Geno’s probably his closest friend, at least here in Pittsburgh. He hasn’t been in the city that much longer than James, but he loves it fiercely, and he loves to share that love with everyone around him. Geno kind of took James under his wing a bit, almost manhandling James into friendship, taking him to restaurants for lunch after their shifts ended, inviting him out for drinks when they both had nights off, showing him museums and parks and Lawrenceville shops. Once they even went to a Steelers game together; James is pretty sure Geno only managed to get tickets because the team’s not having the greatest year, but it was still really cool.
Geno helps him out when they work together, too. He’s never obvious about it, never arrogant or condescending. But he’ll point out when James is about to go a little astray, and James is able to course-correct. His coffee’s better when he’s working with Geno. Geno’s just that good. When James takes his breaks, he always wheedles Geno into being the one to make him his cup. Beau’s coffee is good, but Geno’s is…great.
He’d never forget the lait in a café au lait. Geno’s the one to make Paul’s drink, and that’s probably for the best. He slides it down before starting on the next drink in queue. James pushes it across the pick-up counter – “Paul!” – but he does it hastily, mostly to get it out of the way of the row of syrup bottles.
Paul says thank you when he picks up his cup. James doesn’t always have time to respond, too busy muttering things like “white chocolate mocha with peppermint syrup, two pumps, sixteen ounces…white chocolate mocha with peppermint syrup, two pumps, sixteen ounces…” over and over, but he always notices when someone says thanks and offers up a hasty, distracted smile.
“Have a good day,” Paul continues, and this time James does look over from what he’s doing, blindly reaching out to the flavor bottles and pushing down on one of the pumps.
As if James had forgotten, his smile is still really great, and his eyes are bright, and from this close, James can see he has a bit of a goatee growing. It’s a pale red, almost strawberry blonde, but it works for him, James thinks. He pumps down two long flavor shots. “Thanks,” he says. “You do the same.”
James calls out the next customer’s name – “Skylar!” – and pushes her coffee over to her. He turns back to the machines and starts a latte.
“Um,” he hears behind him. “Excuse me?” He turns; it’s Skylar. “Um, I think you might have added hazelnut?” The girl is holding her cup, squinting a bit like she’s embarrassed to have to point this out to him. “And maybe, like, way too much of it?”
James looks over at the bottles, tries to think back and remember which one he selected. It was the second-to-the-end on the right and…fuck. Fuck. He totally did, he added the wrong syrup. “I am so sorry,” he says. “We just…we switched the placement of the two bottles.” (Someone has alphabetized them – probably Sidney, the manager who prefers a particular order to things, which is fine, whatever, but it’s totally different from where the bottles had all been just yesterday.) “And I was going by memory. I’m so – ”
“It’s not a huge deal,” she says, offering a small smile. “But I’d like a new one.”
“Of course. Of course I’ll make you another, I hope you’re not in a rush or – ”
“No, I can wait.”
“I fix,” Geno booms from over James’ shoulder.
“G, you don’t have to – ”
“I fix, and Beau switch, make next drink, latte, and Deryk work register, and you, Lazy…you go check bathrooms.”
James doesn’t even bother protesting.
“You not like with hazelnut?” James hears as he snags both keys off their hooks.
“Well, actually…it’s…not that bad,” Skylar admits. “It’s just…peppermint is my favorite, so…I still want a new drink.”
“Of course! Of course, was not suggesting! I just say…you keep,” Geno says. “You keep this, and I make correct, with peppermint, and you have that too. You keep hazelnut. And also I give you card for free coffee next visit.”
“Okay,” she says. “Thank you.”
“I just think you should try new things. Everyone, try new things, it good to, even on accident. Sometimes it work.”
Anyone else who said that would have come across as an asshole, but not Geno. Never Geno. Geno gets the pretty girl to giggle.
As he heads toward the bathroom, James notices that Paul hasn’t left and is standing by the shelving unit that takes up almost the entirety of one of the walls that holds the mugs and to-go cups and bags of coffee they sell. He’s not perusing the items, though, he’s holding the Post-Gazette in the hand that doesn’t have his coffee and reading something below the fold on the front page.
James should probably play it cool and walk on by, but instead he initiates conversation. “You can take it with you, if you want,” he says. (Paul actually can’t take it with him; James doesn’t know why he’s offering.)
“Hm?” Paul looks up. “Oh, no, it’s okay. Just wanted to read this really quick. The headline caught my eye and I figured I’d forget to look it up later.”
“Oh, well, if you do want to, though,” James says, moving his hand awkwardly in a gesture stemming from nervousness. Jesus Christ, he’s an adult, and Paul makes him feel actual, honest-to-God nervous.
Paul looks at him again, gaze steady and indecipherable. “Thanks.”
“Have a – have a good day.” James says and makes a hasty retreat. He refuses to look back over his shoulder.
They’re not super-busy – there’re only two people in line, and James has just finished handing the first customer her change – the next time he sees Paul. James’ stomach absolutely does not do anything weird and flip-y. Not even a little bit.
Of course, James should know better than to think things like not super busy because the next person in line is ordering for his entire office or something, and he has eight special requests. James recruits Deryk to help him write names and specifications on the cups, and then Deryk doubles back to help Beau make the drinks. Geno’s cleaning up the café, but he can be pulled behind the counter if necessary.
He’s a little flustered, but Paul’s friendly like he has been the other times, saying hi and asking how James’ day is going before James has pulled himself together enough to get out the standard greeting. He looks like he’s genuinely interested in what James has to say, like he wants a real answer to how James is doing, and James isn’t sure what to do with that. James does, at least, smile, and ask what they can start making before apologizing that it might be a little bit of a wait. Paul says it’s fine, he’s not in a big hurry, and he orders a triple-espresso cappuccino, and then says, “The name’s Paul.”
James nods, resists the urge to say “I know,” and scribbles it down as quickly as possible. He puts the cup down on the counter and turns to see if Beau and Deryk want his help.
James looks up. “Huh?” Pal? He’s literally never been called ‘pal’ before except by his baseball coach the one year he played Little League.
Paul is looking down at his cup on the counter, amused smile on his face. He reaches out and spins the cup so James can see what he’s looking at – the name James had just written there. It’s very distinctively PAL.
“My name is Paul.”
“Yes, of course, I just – ”
“Have bad handwriting? Are a terrible speller?”
“ – was in a hurry. I’m really sorry.”
“Oh, no, I’m not. I didn’t mean. I just…it made me laugh. ‘Pal.’” He chuckles. “It’s like you’re dating my mom and you want to ingratiate yourself to me.”
James isn’t a hundred percent sure what ingratiate means, but it sounds kind of dirty. It flusters him even more, because Paul is…well. Whatever it means, James totally wants to ingratiate himself to Paul.
Something must show on his face, because Paul hurriedly adds, “I’m sorry. I don’t know you well enough to joke with you. I guess I just got used to mocking as a form of communication after so many years in a locker room.”
“Locker room? You…play sports?” He looks too old to be talking about the collegiate level, and he doesn’t look familiar to James at all, and James’ll watch the Bucs and Steelers and Pens when he can; he’s pretty familiar with their rosters. Plus no one’s come up to talk to Paul, and Pittsburghers are pretty sports-crazy; James has seen a couple pro athletes get asked – albeit very politely and apologetically – to sign a cardboard cup sleeve.
“I used to,” Paul says. “Hockey. Golden Gopher for four years.”
He played hockey. James, almost helplessly, imagines Paul in pads and a sweater, sees him on skates with a stick, pictures him across a sheet of ice, eyes glaring beneath a helmet, behind a visor. It’s…a nice thing to think about. He swallows, mouth suddenly dry, but manages to ask, “You went to Minnesota?”
Paul looks impressed, maybe that James knows what a Golden Gopher is, which, like. James can spell Bemidji State – let alone can tell you where it’s located, let alone is aware it even exists – because of hockey, so of course he knows Minnesota’s mascot. Besides, it’s pretty distinctive – not a lot of gophers, golden or otherwise, running around the NCAA.
“Yeah,” Paul says. “I had a scholarship, which was…pretty much the only way I was going to college, so.”
“And what do you do now?”
“I’m still in college, actually. I’m one of those perpetual students…the wrong side of thirty and still in school.” (James does some quick mental math; their college years hadn’t had any overlap, not that they’d been in the same conference.) “I’m a grad student, getting my Ph.D. in philosophy of statistics at CMU. Not playing anymore, of course. I’m too old and have no free time, anyway. I’ve got my dissertation and then on top of that…well, I avoided teaching with a fellowship for most of my time at Rutgers – that’s where I got my Master’s – but I’ve got an intro-level class this year and – I’m sorry.”
“I’m talking your ear off here, you’ve got work to do, and – ”
James had been quite content, actually. He’s willing to bet that Paul’s from Minnesota originally, too, and he could listen to those Midwestern vowels all day, watch Paul’s lips as he forms those vowels.
But yeah, he probably should help make drinks. “I really should go help…so you aren’t waiting any longer than you have to be.”
“Oh,” Paul says, “I really don’t mind.” There’s that great smile again. “I should probably be thankful one of them is making my drink, you might hit me with a shot of raspberry syrup out of nowhere.”
James’ mouth drops open.
“That poor girl and her hazelnut,” Paul continues.
“You remember that disaster? You…even saw that disaster?”
“I remember all your disasters.” Paul shrugs, smirk twitching beneath a goatee more fully realized than last time. (It’s very flattering – both the smirk and the facial hair.) “I was just happy it wasn’t my drink that time.”
James lets that go. “Second of all, you thought a five-minute conversation meant that now we’re up to locker room-levels of chirping?”
“Looks that way, huh?”
James lets that go, too. “You want to know something? That girl ordered her white chocolate mocha with hazelnut the next time she came in.” (It’s true, too, of course. Fuck you, Geno.)
Paul laughs, bright and sudden and startled. “No.”
Geno comes back behind the counter. “Lazy!” he says as he passes right behind James. “You live up to name!”
“Sorry, G,” James calls.
“Come help. Please. I give you easiest. Sorry, Lazy friend,” Geno adds, presumably to Paul.
Paul holds up both hands, acquiescing. “I was keeping him, my apologies.”
Geno looks at James and deftly raises just one eyebrow. James holds his breath, but Geno, uncharacteristically, doesn’t say anything else.
James turns to Paul. “I’ll make sure Geno’s the one who makes your drink. He’s the best.”
“Sid best,” Geno corrects.
“Second-best, I guess, then, but not if you ask me.”
Geno moves to the machines to give instructions to Deryk and Beau, and James turns back to Paul.
“Thanks…” Paul trails off. “I’m going to guess your name isn’t actually ‘Lazy.’”
James laughs. “No. It’s James.”
“Thanks, James.” Paul smiles. “It’s nice to formally meet you, anyway…it was strange, not knowing your name, when you knew mine. Usually you all have – ”
James reaches up to his chest, where he’s supposed to have his nametag pinned to his apron. He’d lost that on day two and had never bothered getting a replacement.
“Yeah, I. It’s James.” God, he’s lame.
James hurries over. “Sorry, sorry. Tell me what you need me to do.”
“Need you not be distract.”
“I won’t,” James promises. “I…” He glances over at Paul. “I’ll try.”
Geno pats his back, harder than he probably realizes. “You good, James?” Geno hardly ever calls him James; it’s usually only when he’s trying to show he truly cares.
“I…yeah,” James says. “I’m good. I’m sorry, I won’t screw up again.”
“You will,” Geno says easily. “But that okay. Customer always right, so just always make it right in the end.”
“Wow,” Deryk says. “That’s deep, right there. We should get that framed, hang it right up there on the wall. Deep thoughts with Geno.”
Geno turns and acts like he’s going to cuff Deryk on the back of the head, and as James takes one of the cups to start a drink, he’s just happy that the attention’s off him.
The weather warms up a touch in early December. James spots Paul through the giant picture windows before he even comes in through the door, mostly because he’s not wearing a hat.
James is in the middle of a nonfat cappuccino with six sugars (honestly, six! – he feels like he should send this across with a bonus insulin shot) but he abandons the process halfway through when Paul approaches.
Geno, who is wiping fingerprints from the front of the pastry display case, heaves one of his long-suffering sighs, tosses his rag over his shoulder and makes his way over to the cappuccino machine to take over. Geno will probably make a better cappuccino than James could ever hope to anyway, so this is for the best.
James digs a not-so-subtle elbow into Beau’s side as he walks over to the register.
“Time for your break, right? I’ll take over the register.”
“You know I just took my break – ” Beau starts to say.
“Take another; your last one wasn’t long enough.” James has no authority whatsoever to give Beau another break, so Beau just laughs at him, though he hold his hands up as though he’s surrendering and steps away from the register. “I’ll go get some more cup sleeves.” He walks past Geno to get to the steps to the basement.
“Can I help you?” James turns to Paul, who’s waiting with a small smile.
“Um, yeah,” Paul says, biting his lip in thought. It’s a real struggle to keep his focus off Paul’s mouth. “An espresso macchiato. Large, please. Hot. Extra-hot, actually. I prefer when it’s really hot.”
James swallows. “Really hot,” he repeats.
“Mmhm,” Paul says, and James looks at the shape of his mouth, which might actually be perfect.
James holds up his Sharpie. “Paul,” he says, “with a U and everything.”
Paul looks bemused. “Yes. The ever-important U.”
Paul pays, and Geno makes his drink while James waits on the next customer, a woman who’s just walked in, and sneaks looks over at Paul, who’s waiting by the pickup station, hand resting flat against the smooth countertop, long, elegant-looking fingers splayed.
There’s no one behind the woman who’d been after Paul, so James hustles back to his original role and takes the drink just as Geno’s finished it. Geno holds both hands up a placating gesture, like, fine, take it from here, weirdo.
James hands it over. “Don’t drink it yet,” he says. “It’s hot. Uh. Like you asked.”
“I’m sure it’s great. Thank you.” Paul walks toward the door, stopping at the condiment bar and removing the lid to stir the foam throughout his drink. He looks back once. James knows this, because he’s looking, too.
The door jingles when Paul leaves. James watches him through the window as he walks down the street.
Beau’s back from the basement, and he and Geno are looking at each other amusedly.
“What?” James asks, when the woman has left with her drink. He picks up a white rag from the counter to wipe down the (already spotless) machine.
“So I was reading the dictionary the other day,” Beau says, and this is going nowhere good, “and I looked up smitten and its definition was just a picture of you with the look on your face when that guy walks in the door.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“You literally knocked me to the ground in your haste to wait on him.”
“I did not literally do that,” James says loftily. “I was treating the customer like he was the most important person in the room, just like the Employee Handbook instructs us to.”
“You read the Employee Handbook?”
“Yes.” James says. “Well, you know. The first page, at least. But that’s where all the extra-important stuff is.”
He’s saved from further comment by the three college-aged girls who come in, talking about an all-nighter, and order double espresso shots from Beau.
James is almost too impatient to wait the necessary time to pull the perfect espresso shot. Geno tells him it takes between 18 and 22 seconds, in addition to the grounds being packed to the right firmness and the proper amount of water at a precise temperature being filtered through, which is apparently also in the Employee Handbook, but James doesn’t remember that part. He hums “happy birthday” twice for each, and that’s usually long enough.
“Smitten,” Beau says when they’ve left. “Infatuated. Enamored. Besotted.”
“Okay, I’m sure you’re proud of your vocabulary since you just took your SATs and everything, but could you stop – ”
“Hey, Beau, what’d you get on your SATs anyway?” Deryk asks.
Beau practically puffs up, he’s so proud. “Nineteen-fifty.”
“Um, dude. That’s not even possible,” Deryk says, “considering they’re out of sixteen hundred and all.”
“No, that’s just how old you are,” Beau says. “They’ve been out of twenty-four hundred for, like, years now. They added a whole writing section and, you know, not to brag or anything, but I’m pretty good at the persuasive written word and – ”
As Beau babbles, sufficiently distracted, James steals a quick look at Deryk and hopes his gaze conveys how grateful he is. James could just kiss him. (Very much not literally.)
“My greatest lament about living here,” Beau says, “it’s that there is no In N Out. The ‘Burgh is really missing out with that one.”
James looks over from behind the pastry case, which he’s already rearranging; there’d been an unusually high demand for the lemon poppy seed muffins this morning. Before he can ask, “How are you even thinking about burgers at nine o’clock in the morning?” he hears the exact question come from over by the machines where Borts is currently working on a caramel macchiato. Borts, who’s Beau’s roommate, had been recruited after Simon accepted a full-time Google internship in Bakery Square. Borts usually works weekends, but he’s covering for Deryk this morning.
“How are you not thinking about burgers?” Beau asks. “That just proves you’ve never had In N Out. If you had, you’d be thinking about burgers…they’d be on your mind twenty-four-seven…I should bring some back next time I visit my grandparents.”
“They wouldn’t last the plane ride,” James says.
“Probably not,” Beau agrees. “Mostly because I’d eat them all.”
The door jingles, and James looks up. The sun has broken through what’s so far been a cloudy morning, and there’s a glare from the windshields of the passing cars, and all the people coming in are backlit and look like shadows. His eyes taking a moment to focus, and when they do, he almost drops the entire tray of cinnamon rolls. (It wouldn’t be the first time.)
It’s Paul, and Paul is wearing glasses. Glasses. Glasses with thick, black square frames. They…they are very flattering, and the way Paul looks wearing them is vastly and epically unfair.
Paul orders a small flat white from Beau and requests a ceramic mug. “I’m going to stay and do some work.”
“Of course.” Beau says. James moves to take one of them from the rack. “Shove over, Borts.”
Borts is hunched over the counter right in front of the mugs. He’s excellent at foam art, and he always makes sure his skills are on full display; it’s usually not a huge deal because he works when he has more time to show off and fewer customers to get impatient. Luckily the woman whose caramel macchiato he’s designing looks more amused than anything and doesn’t appear to be in a great rush.
Borts stops for a moment, leaning aside so James can grab a mug, but then goes right back to it. “Foam art is very important,” he says seriously, dragging his toothpick through the foam in tiny, jerky movements. “When my design stays in the milk, it means the consistency is good and I pulled a good shot.” There’s another small swipe with his toothpick. “Plus, look at this little guy, he’s so cute.”
Beau comes over and bumps his shoulder (not, of course, the one drawing in the foam) and says, “When your design stays in the milk, it means you have way too much time on your hands.” He peeks over Borts’ shoulder. “That is a damn good penguin, though.”
That’s Borts’ specific specialty: a so cute, damn good penguin. Sometimes he puts them on ice skates because they’re in Pittsburgh and he thinks that’s clever.
He hands the woman her drink, saying, “Enjoy!” with a flourish of his hand.
She makes the appropriate appreciative noises and says, “It’s very nice, thank you.”
“I wish I could do foam letters,” Borts says, turning to Beau and James, who’s making Paul’s drink with the exact same amount of care he always displays…and, okay, if he’s maybe a little more cautious it’s only because he’s screwed up before. “I’d have a whole coffee comic for the regulars; they’d get the next installment in each cup.”
“A coffee comic…about penguins?” Beau asks.
“What would you have the penguins say, though?”
Borts considers. “Probably, like, ‘Fuck, I can’t actually skate!’”
“You’re such a loser,” Beau says. “Why do I hang out with you?”
“Uh, probably because I’m the only one who would wear a couple’s Playboy Bunny costume with you for Halloween.”
If James hadn’t actually met Grace, he would very seriously start doubting her existence. “You guys were what for Halloween?”
“Oh man,” Beau says, “you should’ve seen us!”
“Yeah,” Borts says dryly. “You should have seen – oh no.” Collectively, they watch the woman stop at the condiment bar. She dumps in a packet of sugar and then picks up a stirrer. “No,” Borts whispers. “Don’t…do…it!” But it’s no use: They watch as she dunks the stick into her drink and stirs. “My penguin!”
“Now he really can’t skate,” Beau says.
James laughs, a quiet snort, and he’s pretty sure he hears Paul laugh, too.
He’s finished the drink, so he slides over the heavy mug. “Here you go.”
“What about me, what have I got in my foam?”
“Oh, I uh. I can’t really get the hang of foam art,” James says.
Paul looks down into his mug. “Actually, it kind of looks like you can’t quite get the hang of foam.”
James feels his face flush. “Yeah, well – ”
“It’s good, it’s good,” Paul says. “Thank you.”
He avoids the huge squishy armchairs and selects the smallest table in the room, in the corner by the windows, setting his bag on one of the two hardback chairs and taking off his coat. He’s wearing a CMU sweatshirt underneath, and James is surprised. He’d thought Paul would be wearing a collared shirt and tie or something. Maybe it’s the pea coat; they make everyone look fancier. Maybe it’s the fact he mentioned teaching a class; he could work that hot professor look, especially with the glasses. Maybe it’s just that Paul seems like a cultured adult who can do business casual like a magazine ad. He looks good, of course, James is just surprised.
Paul stays for a while, sleeves pushed halfway up his forearms. He keeps his laptop open in front of him, behind it a stack of books he’ll consult, one or two at a time, left hand pressing them flat and flipping through pages, right hand typing quickly but awkwardly.
He keeps coming up and commenting on something insignificant and looking like he has something else to say before just ordering the same drink. James’ foam gets better. He even attempts a leaf. It’s weak but recognizable.
James keeps looking at Paul, sneaking peeks when it’s busy and veering dangerously toward all-out staring when it’s not. He’d known Paul was attractive – as evidenced by the fact that James is very, very attracted to him – but the sweatshirt with the worn collar and faded letters, the glasses that keep sliding down his nose, the hair mussed from running his fingers through it…it’s all…it’s all just really working for him.
James’ final task before his shift ends is always to go through the café and clear up – throwing away garbage left behind and wiping down tables, checking the condiment bar and seeing if the floor needs a midday sweep.
“Are you…did something happen to your leg?” Paul asks when James crouches to retrieve something under the table next to Paul’s.
James is startled. “What?” Because of his surgeries, he still walks with a limp sometimes, but it’s so slight that unless someone’s looking for it, they can’t tell.
“Oh, God, I’m so sorry. That was…totally rude.”
“No, it’s…okay. I just…yeah. Yeah, something happened to it, but it was a long time ago. I had a few surgeries. It doesn’t hurt much anymore, just gets a little sore at the end of a long shift, so I try to keep my weight off it. I didn’t think it was obvious.”
“It’s not. Not really,” Paul says. “I just…I noticed you were favoring your right leg a little. Why’d you need surgery? I mean, of course…if you don’t mind me asking.”
“Oh, I. No, I…don’t mind,” he says, though normally he doesn’t like to talk about it, doesn’t like thinking about that time in his life. He’d been so horrible after it happened, in so much pain and angry at the whole, entire universe for allowing that to happen to him. “It was my knee. I ruined it a few years back…a bad collision on the ice. My leg got caught in a rut, and I didn’t move. I, uh. I played hockey, too, in college.” He sees Paul’s eyes light with interest. “Well, I mean, I did until I couldn’t anymore.” He gestures down at his leg.
Paul’s eyes are dark with sympathy. “I’m sorry. What…what did you play?”
Paul waves his hand jokingly dismissively. “Oh, a forward.”
“I take it you were a defenseman, then?”
“And you were good.” James doesn’t really intend for it to be a question – he has no doubt Paul was good – but Paul replies anyway.
“I was…pretty good. I mean…I was Mr. Hockey,” Paul says after a moment’s hesitation, as though he’s reluctant to admit it.
“Sounds like more than pretty good.”
“I guess I peaked in high school.”
“See, now, I doubt that. You were good enough for Minnesota. And I’ll bet there was speculation about where you’d go to college, that people were waiting for you to declare.”
Paul actually flushes, his face and neck and ears turning red. “There were…a few newspaper articles written about it.”
It’s going to take a lot of willpower not to google.
“There were, eh?” James says, and he wants to say something else but he glances at his watch and realizes he has to clock out. “My shift’s over, I have to – ”
“Oh. Right, yeah. Sorry I kept you.”
“No, you weren’t. I’d rather…it’s just, for our timesheets, I have to clock out within five minutes of the hour.”
“Well, it was nice talking to you,” Paul says, and James’ palms feel itchy.
“Yeah,” he says. “Good talking to you, too.”
James clocks out and grabs his coat and his wallet and keys from the break room. Impulsively, he stops at Paul’s table again, and when Paul looks up, James says, “So how many articles are we talking about here?”
He feels immediately ridiculous; Paul had just been making idle conversation earlier; he wasn’t inviting James to interrupt his work.
But Paul smiles. “More than two,” he says, “but fewer than ten.” He lowers the lid of his laptop.
“So you were a little bit more than ‘pretty good,’” James says again, giving in to another impulse and sitting down. Paul smiles wider. James doesn’t think he’ll ever tire of seeing it. “Why’d you stop playing?” Paul hesitates, and James hastens to add, “I mean, if you don’t mind me asking.”
“Too many injuries,” Paul says. “Never anything serious…I mean, it wasn’t just one thing that…ended it.” He winces sympathetically at James, and James swallows past a lump in his throat but manages to shrug. He’s mostly over what happened…but only mostly. “But there were a lot of them. A broken arm and a fractured wrist. A broken tibia in the middle of one of my best seasons. It just all…added up. Rehabbing took longer each time, and…” He shrugs. “I don’t know. I was taking some advanced math courses by then, and I…I really loved it. So I threw my focus into that. I still played – I finished out my senior season – but it wasn’t. It wasn’t everything for me anymore. I found what I actually wanted to do with my life.”
Paul looks pleased, presumably that he remembers. “Yes. Statistics.”
“Math makes you happy,” James says. “Math.”
“Happier than hockey.”
“And you couldn’t be happier?”
Paul looks at him with an expression James can’t quite decode. “Could I be happier?”
It’s almost the same question, just a slight rephrase, but it feels different, it feels like James is missing something; he just doesn’t know what, and he isn’t sure what he’s supposed to say. “Could you?”
Paul shrugs. “Who couldn’t?” A charge passes between them, and then Paul shrugs and the moment has broken. “I’d be happier if I’d already finished my notes for next week’s lecture.”
“Sorry, I’ll…leave you to it, then.”
Paul seems as though he wants to say something, but he just focuses on his still-closed computer for a moment before looking back up at James. “Have a good afternoon, I’ll…see you around.”
“Thanks, Paul. You…you, too. Good luck.”
“What’m I starting for you today, Paulie?” James says, the name rolling off his tongue like they’ve been friends – or teammates, maybe – for years.
Paul doesn’t even flinch. James doesn’t know if he even noticed or if he just isn’t bothered by it.
“Just an Americano pour-over…medium,” Paul says. “Keepin’ it simple today.”
James has only done pour-overs a couple of times; it’s a relatively new practice at the coffee shop. But it can’t be that difficult. They were trained on it, of course, and it’s literally named for the actions they take to make it: pour hot water over freshly ground beans. It’s not, you know, rocket science; James is pretty sure he’s got this.
He takes an overflowing scoop from the beans that were ground within the hour and does a sixteen-ounce pour-over.
When he hands it to Paul, Paul gives it a critical look; it does look kind of pale, but they’re featuring one of the lighter roasts, a blonde. (Poor six-foot-two Beau has had to deal with more than one order of "the biggest blonde you have" followed by a leer. “Sunshine irresistible,” Geno tells him. “Girls love.”) James just figures that’s how it’s supposed to be.
Paul adds a bit of cream and half a packet of regular sugar and after a few stirs, takes a cautious sip. James knows immediately something’s wrong.
“No good?” he calls.
Paul comes back over to the counter. “I might actually be able to make a stronger cup with my Keurig.”
James gasps comically. “You have a Keurig?” He’s only half-joking with his horror. Keurigs are an abomination.
“I do. I have a Keurig at home.”
“No.” James gasps, clutching comically at his chest.
“Well. It’s all I need. One cup. I mean…there’s only me. I only make coffee for myself.” Curiously, Paul pauses here, deliberately waits until James meets his eyes. “What am I supposed to do?”
“You’re supposed to drink more than one cup!”
Paul laughs his better-than-his-smile laugh. “But are all your pour-overs this weak?”
“Maybe it’s the roast I used?” James references the chart; light and dark roasts each get different amounts of coffee grounds. He spots his mistake immediately: sixteen-ounce pour-overs are supposed to use four scoops of grounds, and he used one.
“I, um. I’m gonna have to re-do this.”
“So that answer’s no, then? Your pour-overs are not all this weak?”
“I guess only if I’m the one making them.”
Paul hands over his cup, and James pours it down the drain and starts afresh. His second attempt, using quadruple the beans, is much more successful.
Paul adds the same half-packet of sugar and splash of cream. The look on his face after the sip of this coffee is infinitely better. James gives him a thumbs-up, feeling immediately like a doofus, but Paul just gives him a thumbs-up in return.
James feels so…fucking fond right now, and he turns away before Paul can get a look at his face; he’s sure it would give everything away.
Paul looks…determined. That’s what James thinks when he sees Paul’s face as he walks in the door. It’s nearly the end of James’ shift, and it’s the quietest it’s been all day. There are a couple people working at tables, but no one in line. Beau is restocking the condiment bar, Geno’s checking timesheets in the break room, and Deryk is cleaning out the espresso machine, which had gotten clogged – a pretty big catastrophe, certainly not caused by James – that morning.
There’s a sudden hitch in Paul’s stride as though he wants to stop, but then he appears to steel himself and approaches the counter.
“Do you know why I came to Dan’s the first time?” Paul asks; it’s the first time he hasn’t started with hello.
“I…no?” James says. “I just…I figured you’d just moved here. To the neighborhood, I mean. We get a lot of regulars, kind of a small neighborhood, kind of a small coffee shop. Plus there’s the Starbucks three blocks over; most people who don’t live here would stop there instead.”
“You’re closer to the library,” Paul says. “The Lawrenceville branch, I mean. They had a book I needed. One copy in the whole Carnegie system, and it was there. Usually I just have stuff sent through intra-library loan to the main branch in Oakland, but I didn’t want to wait. So I came to pick it up. And I wanted some coffee, and my phone told me you were point-three miles closer than the Starbucks. So I stopped by before going home.”
James feels like he’s missing a script or something. “Well, we…appreciate your business.”
“I didn’t move here. I don’t live anywhere near here, really. It’s actually not all that convenient for me to come here.”
“I’m…sorry?” James tries. It seems like the right response to a statement like that.
“I do keep coming back, though,” Paul says, and he leans across the counter a little bit, elbows resting on the edge.
“I’ve…” James trails off. He wants to say I’ve noticed, but is that creepy? No creepier than Paul leaning all up into his personal space, he decides, so he presses on: “I’ve noticed.”
Paul smiles and leans even more forward, like he wants to tell James a secret, and maybe he does, maybe he is, because when he continues speaking, it’s low. “It’s not the coffee. Or the service. Or the scenery. Well,” he pauses, looks at James meaningfully, “it’s not the scenery outside.”
It’s cheesy but James can’t deny it’s what he was hoping to hear. “Yeah?”
He can’t stop the grin that spreads across his face; it’s dopey, he guesses, because it probably looks like Paul’s, and Paul’s grin is super dopey.
“Yeah,” Paul says. “I’m terrible at dropping hints, I guess. So no more hints. I just want to be clear: I kept coming back to this coffee shop, which is at least twenty minutes out of my way, always, no matter where I’m going or where I’m coming from…because I want to see you.”
“Well, if we’re going for clarity: Once I literally knocked Beau over in my haste to wait on you.”
“Okay, not literally. But I just want you to know it’s mutual.” James isn’t a hundred percent sure this is really happening, but if he’s dreaming, he’s getting everything he wants, so he adds, “My shift is almost over, and I’m free the rest of the afternoon, if you are. We could go out. Grab a cup – ” James pauses, flushes.
“Were you just about to ask me out for coffee?”
“You make…yes. I was. I wasn’t thinking, it just. I’m not sure you appreciate the power of your face. It’s…it’s a good face.”
“We can get coffee,” Paul says. “If that’s what you want. You have power, too, you know; I’m going to say yes to whatever you ask me.”
“I don’t care what we do,” James says. “Do you want to go out with me?”
Later…much later, actually, after Paul kisses him in the front seat of his car after their date – they did not, for the record, go for coffee, but instead got drinks and dinner; after James learns how much he likes the feel of Paul’s beard scratching against his cheeks and jaw and the sensitive skin of his neck; after he invites Paul up to his apartment and after Paul fucks him on the couch because they couldn’t even make it to James’ bed; after Paul drags his fingers through James’ hair and James lets him…after all that, but just before James is about to fall asleep, Paul says, like a revelation, “Did you screw up all those times so I would have to stay longer so I would talk to you?”
“Sure,” James says. “Yes. Let’s go with that.”