Giselle is happy.
Well. Giselle is nearly always happy, or tries to be. But today she is especially happy, because she and Enchante are finally open for business.
It has been a long time coming, she thinks, remembering the days haunting Home Depot and Restaurant City and nights poring over loan documents. The wee early hours petting the beautiful espresso machine crowding out her kitchen table, only to turn and pour filtered water and measure freshly-ground beans into her Mr. Coffee machine on the counter, promises to herself writ in the steam rising from her cup.
The space she’s let for the business is perfect for her purposes. It’s a little on the small side, but it’s on a busy street across from several office buildings, and once she’d arranged the furniture and installed some homemade curtains, it looked downright cozy. A nice warm place for good people to gather, listen to tales of each others' lives, and share a cup or two.
She hums a little under her breath as she flips the sign from Closed to Open! Come on in! and unlocks the door.
The first person to poke his head in receives her most beatific smile. "Hello there!" she calls. "Won't you come in?"
He looks a little harried, but he is otherwise quite handsome. He returns her smile warily and approaches the counter, eyes searching above and behind her for a menu. There isn’t one, and before he can begin to look sheepish she smiles at him and says so. "I couldn't decide what to put on it," she explains. "But I find that most people seem to know what they want anyway. What is your name?"
The man looks blank. "But - how will I know how much to pay?"
Giselle's smile only grows. "Oh, I am sure you'll think of something fair," she says, with a wave of her hand, and doesn’t mention that she’s confident she’ll make the numbers. Those all-nighters weren’t for nothing, after all. "I am Giselle, by the way." She extends her hand across the counter to him.
He appears a little nonplussed, but seems to remember himself with a little shake. "Robert," he says, and he shakes her hand briefly. "And, well, you probably want my order too. Can I just get a coffee?"
"Of course!" She moves to the coffee station and pours him a cup in her favorite mug - a nice round one with a smiling panda face, and little round panda ears that stick out from the sides. He eyes it rather distrustfully. "Go on," she teases, "he won't bite!"
"It's just - I need it to go," he says, still staring at the smiling panda. "And how much do I owe you?"
"Try it first," she replies.
He does, hesitantly. Giselle supposes he probably feels a bit silly drinking from a smiling panda, but in her experience, people in this city need a bit more silly in their lives. They get all wrapped up in their Big Serious Issues and could use a frequent reminder that there is hope and happiness in the world too.
His face says that he enjoys it, and Giselle feels something like pride course through her as his eyes close in a slow blink.
"Do you like it?" she asks, after she feels he's had his moment.
"It's pretty good," he admits. He pulls out two dollar bills and pushes them across the counter at her. "Seems like what I pay everywhere else anyway," he offers with a shrug. He's started to turn away before he realizes he still has the panda mug.
"I really do need it to go," he says, and this time his voice sounds a little apologetic.
"Oh, I am sorry! Are you in a very big hurry?" she asks. This is another thing people do: hurry, hurry, this way and that, even if it doesn’t actually matter what time they arrive. Giselle often thinks that they’d be much less frazzled if they’d just slow down once in a while.
"It's work stuff, I've got a conference call in forty minutes and I've still got to get to the office," he explains. His nose wrinkles, and Giselle thinks it is a rather adorable wrinkle. He holds out the mug to her, but she shakes her head.
"Oh, no, Robert," she says. "If you are in that big of a hurry, you may borrow Pan-pan and bring him back tomorrow. Rinsed, if you please," she adds, because she knows that sometimes people get so busy they do not even have time to rinse their dishes properly, and she would rather not see Pan-pan returned to her with day-old coffee stains and chapstick-prints.
Giselle smiles again. "Yes! I have had him since my aunt left the city. She wanted to give away many of her collections so that she could start fresh in her new home, and Pan-pan had been my favourite growing up. He came from the zoo." Her smile turns fonder. "She lives in San Francisco, now. So far away. I miss her terribly."
Robert's face flickers. Giselle thinks it might be sympathy, but she also knows better than to pry. This is why she is pleasantly surprised when he nods and murmurs something about it being difficult, the business of missing people who've gone and left you. He sips from Pan-pan thoughtfully, and the moment settles around them.
Before it can become too intimate, he asks, "Are you sure you don't mind? I'd be fine with a paper cup."
She nods. "I am positive. Besides, I am sure you will take good care of him."
He appears indecisive for a moment longer, and Giselle all but holds her breath. She is pleased when he finally nods at her. "Of course," he says, and "Thank you," as he pushes his way out into the world again.
"Have a wonderful day!" she calls to his back, and watches him, smiling, as he passes the window, panda mug in hand.
Robert is back the next morning. Giselle spots him immediately and gives him a cheerful wave when his eyes find hers. "Welcome back!" she sings out over the hum of the grinder and the persistent whisper of milk frothing, and some of her other customers look around to see the object of her attention.
He ignores them. "Where should I put – this?" he asks, and she knows he is talking about Pan-pan even though he is only holding a paper bag.
She dips her head and waves her hand in the general direction of the counter and pays closer attention to the espresso she's pulling. Twenty seconds, twenty-three, twenty-five, and there, the colour change that indicates it's time to stop the shot and she does, and as the crema settles into the body of the espresso she marvels all over at the beauty of the thing. The little demitasse cup with the dancing armadillos goes to Jean; her friends Bilius and James get frothy cappuccinos in matching cups featuring mice in absurd hats.
"Jean, your espresso!" she calls, and beams happily as Jean appears and gathers all three drinks for her friends. "Promise you'll let me know how you like them!"
Jean promises, and trots off, and after finishing a handful more drinks Giselle is finally free to wipe her hands carefully on her apron and present Robert with his coffee. His lips quirk up at the sight of the cup (cats chasing floating hearts). "Do you even stock paper cups?" he asks as he lifts it to his lips and drinks.
Giselle shakes her head. "My aunt had a rather sizeable collection of coffee cups," she explains. She takes Pan-pan from the paper bag and is happy to see he's been carefully cleaned. She smiles fondly, and then her face brightens. "Oh! I had something to show you. I'll just be a moment!"
Before he can ask questions, she darts through the doors that separate the back of house from the front. The box is just where she left it on her desk, and she brings it back out to him with a flourish. "Scones with currants," she confides as she peels back the lid. "I was hoping you'd try them and let me know what you think."
She tilts her head a little to catch his eye, which has wandered into the box of scones. "Of course," she says. "Consider it one of the perks of being my first customer.”
And if Robert thinks that is a little odd - which he clearly does, given the expression still peeking out from behind his eyes - he doesn't say so. Instead, he breaks off a bit of scone and puts it in his mouth, and chews thoughtfully. Giselle watches the way his eyes warm and smiles. He really is handsome.
"They're good," he says, and clears his throat. "But, look - you don't really want just my opinion, right? I mean, this is your place. You should have a business plan, or a model, or something. One that includes paper cups, and set prices on a set menu."
Giselle just smiles. "You're very kind, to worry about those things for me," she says. "Everything will work out, though. You'll see."
"You can't know that," he points out.
"No," she agrees, "I cannot."
His face falls a little, as though he had been set to continue the argument and been thrown off by her agreement. He even opens his mouth a little, but then he closes it again. Something works its way through his face and he hides it in his coffee cup, taking long draught after long draught.
Were she the interfering type, Giselle thinks that now might be an appropriate time to pry. It is obvious that he is working his way up to saying something, and can't quite manage it; a grand pronouncement or terribly sympathetic gesture ought to do the trick. But she is not, after all, the interfering type, and so she turns and gives him the space he seems to want, if not need, and polishes the countertop with a washcloth.
In another moment, he sets down his cup - empty, now - and puts two more singles on the counter. "I've got to be going," he says by way of explanation, and heads toward the door.
"Have a wonderful day!" she calls, and attends to the next customer.
He does not come in the next day, and he does not come in the day after that. Giselle busies herself with her other customers, listening to stories of their lives with an eager, hungry ear while fixing their coffees just so. She likes to think that some of them are well on their way to becoming regulars, and encourages them as best she can. When people visit, she wants them to feel as though they’ve stepped into the home of a very good friend, and so she takes care to remember names and faces and drink orders and the tiny trivial details that make up so many lives. "Your triple espresso Americano today, Tiffany? How is your sculpture coming?" and "Corey, your soy caramel latte is ready," just as he walks through the door, one o’ clock on the dot like always.
She places her scones on a beautiful crystal cake stand and labels them with a little sign that reads "Scones are for Sharing!" in a flourished script. She smiles when they sell in pairs, and when Jean asks her for three forks.
He makes it in on the third day, a Saturday, with a little mouse of a girl following at his coattails. Robert introduces her as his daughter, Morgan, and on a whim Giselle drops into a very tidy curtsey for her. "I'm very pleased to make your acquaintance," she says, and Morgan giggles and offers a clumsy curtsey in return.
"What do I say back?" she asks Robert, but he shrugs: he is unfamiliar with the form of these niceties.
"Well, if you were being very proper, you might say, 'The pleasure is all mine,'" Giselle offers. Then she winks, and Morgan giggles again and repeats "The pleasure is all mine" proudly.
Robert gets his usual coffee, and Giselle whips up a hot chocolate with a tower of whipped cream and chocolate curls for Morgan. She also arranges a scone on a plate with two forks, and serves it to them at the little table in front of the window where Morgan wants to sit. Morgan squeals in delight when she sees her hot chocolate; Robert rolls his eyes, but gives his daughter a fond smile nonetheless, and introduces her to Pan-pan.
From the counter she can hear Morgan telling Robert eagerly about a mouse who is on a quest for a magic sword, and speculating at length about the kinds of dangers he faces and how he will overcome them. Robert attends to her, and half-heartedly attempts to steer the conversation back toward "real" mice and "real" snakes, but Morgan wants none of that; and eventually there are crayons and paper produced from Robert's briefcase, and then Morgan is running up to the counter and showing off a child's picture of a mouse with a sword fighting a snake.
"Oh, Morgan, that's lovely," she says, and she means it. "Tell me about this mouse. What's his name?" And Morgan pulls up a stool and does just that, and when Robert rises from his chair to collect her Giselle waves him away. She likes hearing Morgan's story, and Morgan looks happy about having a captive audience, even if she does sometimes have to shout over the grinder. Robert goes back to his coffee and pulls a laptop from his briefcase, leading Morgan to comment that her daddy works too hard. Giselle agrees.
A handful of hours later, Giselle and Morgan are out of ideas for the brave little mouse's quest, and Robert is closing his laptop and motioning Morgan back to their table. He approaches Giselle quietly with their empty cups. "Thank you," he says. "She likes stories like that, you know, the fairy tales and happy endings. I try-" His voice wavers, steadies. "I try not to encourage her, too much anyway. I don't want her to be disappointed when she finds out it's all pretend."
Giselle touches his arm, gently, as he collects himself. "It isn't all make-believe," she says. "There's magic in the world, yet, if you know where to look."
They both glance up at Morgan, who is showing her drawings to another customer – Tom, Giselle thinks, or maybe Joseph; the twins are still difficult for her to tell apart – and she just looks so bright and happy that it breaks Giselle's heart a little. "Things will turn out well for her. And for you," she adds quietly. Tom-or-Joseph helps Morgan put the pictures on the wall with staples pulled from a newsletter binding, and the girl's smile at seeing her work so displayed is blinding.
Robert sighs. "I hope so," he says just as quietly, and goes to collect his daughter.
The days turn into weeks, the weeks become months. Summer flows into autumn and Giselle happily decorates Enchante to reflect the changing seasons. She makes pumpkin scones and gingersnaps and begins stocking eggnog. Robert complains to her it’s still months until Christmas, but she just smiles because he drinks it anyway.
He comes in at least three times a week, and brings Morgan with him at least once a week. She tells Giselle that she makes him take her because “your scones are the best, and plus I’m running out of room on the refrigerator.” More drawings go up on the walls: princesses on dragonback, witches on broomsticks, and jack o’ lanterns with their tongues sticking out.
Robert looks at them proudly, but keeps asking if Giselle’s “really sure” she wants them up on the walls. She does, and she tells him so, and tries not to feel sad when he looks so lost.
He starts to tell her about himself, in little bits and pieces, and the more she hears the more she wants to know. He works for a big legal firm a few streets down, and has been working overtime for a particularly tricky case; his wife left him a little over a year ago and he worries about how Morgan is adjusting (this said to her in tones of determined stoicism, on a day when Morgan is not with him); someone at the office is having a baby shower and he does not know what to bring, since they do not know whether it is a boy or a girl (Giselle points out that babies care more for warmth and softness than pink or blue).
He stops asking for paper cups, and once, apologetically asks if he can use Pan-pan because “Morgan misses him.” Giselle makes sure she saves Pan-pan just for him, after.
On Halloween, he comes trick-or-treating with Morgan. There are other parents and children with him, all bundled up against the unexpected cold snap: pirates with eye patches and thick woolen mittens, a butterfly princess with wings and mismatched legwarmers. Morgan is wearing a silver cardboard box with drawn-on dials and glued-on knobs, and speaks in monosyllables. “I-am-a-ro-bot,” she intones, and Giselle nods solemnly and tips extra chocolates into her open pillowcase.
There is a single day in early November when Giselle is so full of aches and glumness that she cannot bring herself to open the shop. Instead she stays at home with an endless cup of hot noodles and an army of blankets, and watches reruns of Top Chef: Just Desserts until she feels better. When she goes in the next day, there is a packet of instant soup mix taped to the door, with a note in permanent marker that says “I hear this helps. Take care – R.”
The holidays have come and gone in a blur of lights and snow and knitted hats, and Giselle has not seen Robert in at least three weeks. She considers that he may have simply been busy with family – as most seem to be, around this time of year; she thinks she remembers him having mentioned going to visit his parents in Missouri – and hopes that Morgan got the set of fancy markers she wanted so badly. There are more pictures on the walls, now: Morgan’s trend taken flight, as customers leave little bits of themselves and their journeys behind on the walls, doodles and snapshots and paintings and scribbles. Giselle smiles at the stick figures proposing to one another that went up last week, and reminds herself to congratulate Jean when she sees the other woman next.
She is wiping down the house at the end of the day, dancing between the tables to the jazzy piano coming from the speakers she recently installed at Mark’s recommendation, when a little hand catches and tugs at her skirt. She turns to find Morgan standing behind her, grinning, both hands behind her back.
Giselle smiles broadly, and Morgan’s whole face erupts in a grin, as she brings her hands around with a pretty little box clasped between them. “I picked it out!” she tells Giselle proudly, and runs happily into Giselle’s offered hug. “I hope you like it,” she adds shyly, and tugs at a curl.
“I am very sure I will,” she promises.
She raises her eyes then, and sure enough, Robert is standing silhouetted against the door. There might even be a smile on his face.
“It’s nothing much,” he says. “But since we’ve been away – and I see you’ve been decorating…”
“Do you like it?” she asks, giving Morgan a conspirator’s wink. “I have you to thank for this, Morgan. Everyone loved your drawings, and you inspired them to add their own.”
“Really?” Her eyes are wide.
“Cool!” Morgan looks them over, pleased, but is not distracted for long. Her eyes come right back to the present still cradled in Giselle’s hands. “Well? Are you gonna open it?”
“Morgan,” Robert says warningly. “Manners.”
Giselle smiles fondly. She almost hates to tear into the wrapping, which is gaily covered in dancing pandas wearing santa hats. Inside the wrapping is a tidy white box, and inside the box is a beautiful scarf. She pulls it out slowly, enjoying the texture of it against her fingers and the jeweled colors that sparkle with the sheen of iridescence. “This is wonderful,” she says, and drapes it carefully around her neck and shoulders. “Thank you!”
Morgan wraps another hug around her knees.
Robert approaches them in carefully measured steps, and stops at an equally careful distance. He holds out a hand. She smiles, and takes it with an affectionate clasp. “Thank you,” she says again. “It really is beautiful.”
He tries to be nonchalant. “Like I said, it’s nothing,” he starts to say.
Morgan interrupts him. “Da-ad,” she says. “You’re apposed to say ‘you’re welcome.’”
Robert smiles and thanks her for the reminder. Giselle just smiles. “You’re welcome,” he says quietly, warmly, to Giselle.
She feels it all the way in her toes.
He looks around at the signs of her closing-up, and takes a deep breath. “I know this might be kind of awkward – I normally ask about coffee first, you see,” he says, and Giselle thinks she might, even if he does not make much sense. “But I was thinking that dinner might be nice. We could go to Tony’s, if you like Italian.”
Giselle looks from Robert, who is all but scuffing his shoes shyly into her floor, to Morgan, who is wide-eyed and excited. She looks at Robert again, and takes in the upward quirk of his lips and the crinkles at the corners of his eyes.
That decides her. “Well,” she says, slowly, “I do like Italian.”
His smile – full, and genuine, and hopeful – is worth it.