The first morning that Therese Belivet works at the 4th Street Go & Get It Coffee Shop & Cafe is also when she first meets Harge Aird. Therese is standing behind the register, distracted by the messy touchscreen interface, when Glen, a senior philosophy major at NYU who’s worked at Go & Get It for three years, touches her shoulder and leans in to say, “The man who just walked in is a regular. Always gets two large black coffees to go, pays six dollars, doesn’t wait for change. Don’t try to chat, dude’s mean as hell.”
Therese looks up. Glen has to be talking about the black-haired man wearing a long dark coat who’s striding straight towards her. She turns to thank Glen, but he’s already gone. Harge buys the two large coffees and gives her six dollars and leaves.
He comes in every weekday morning for Therese’s entire first month and never says a word to her.
The first Monday in December, Harge doesn’t come in. Therese barely notices. She spaces out at work. Sometimes she gets home and puts her purse down and realizes she doesn’t remember most of her shift or any of the subway ride home. She’ll get in the shower and stand under the hot water until she doesn’t smell like coffee anymore, then a little bit longer.
In the midmorning sliver of time between the morning rush and the lunch rush, ten minutes before Therese is scheduled to take her break, the door jingles. Therese looks up from the display screen. And it’s like everything in the world stops for a moment.
There’s a woman standing in the doorway, looking around with cold curiosity. As her gaze crosses from the far wall to Therese, she pushes a lock of blond hair behind one ear. Her eyes are pale. The way she walks reminds Therese of a cat. Something prowling. “So this is where my husband gets that dreadful coffee,” she says, coming up to the counter, head angled to read the menu on the blackboard. Her voice is low and quiet, like she’s talking to herself.
“We also have tea,” Therese says. “And pastries.”
The woman looks down at Therese. Her eyebrows arch a little, and then she laughs to herself. “I’m sorry,” she says. “It’s nothing personal. You see, it’s just…” She pauses to tug off her gloves. She sets them down on the counter with the sort of control that always hides anger. “My husband always brings me coffee in the mornings, and I hate coffee.”
“Oh,” Therese says. Something clicks inside her head. “Oh,” she says again, this time in recognition, and hides her mouth behind her first, feeling her expression betray her. Harge, she thinks, the angry man who always pays with six dollars.
The woman hums in impersonal acknowledgement, attention turned back to the menu.
“If you don’t like coffee, ma’am, I could recommend the white chocolate peppermint latte,” Therese says.
“Is that so?” the woman replies, distracted.
“It’s very sweet,” Therese says.
That gets the woman’s attention. She looks down her nose at Therese like a queen deciding whether to grant mercy to a pleading subject. She almost smiles. Her eyes tighten at the edges. “Well,” she says. There’s warmth in her rich voice for the first time. It makes Therese dizzy. “I’ll take two, large, to go.”
The woman pays with card. Therese tries not to look, but her name is on the receipt the woman leaves behind: Carol Aird.
It’s not until Glen wanders out of the back, apologizing for losing track of time, telling her it’s time for her break, that Therese notices the gloves on the counter. She grabs them before Glen can notice and shoves them into the front pocket of her apron. “It’s fine,” she says hurriedly. “It’s fine.”
During her break, she searches ‘Carol Aird’ on her phone. The first result is an NYU faculty page. She clicks it. There’s a picture of Carol that might be from a few years ago, but it’s her alright: blond hair a little longer, pale eyes a little less lined by worry. She’s a professor of English literature. Her email is listed. Therese nearly clicks it, but suddenly she feels embarrassed.
She wonders if Carol has a mailbox on campus. Probably. But Therese would need to be a student to get to it. She bites her lower lip hard. After her ten minutes of respite behind the building, she comes back in. Glen is tidying the pastry case.
She curls her fingernails into her palms and focuses on the dull pain. She says, “I have a favor to ask.”
Glen gets to swipe his card at the door and stroll in, but Therese has to sign into a ledger and wear a sticker on her blouse. The minute they pass the double-doors into the English building, she adjusts her jacket to hide it. Glen says nothing.
She’s nervous as they walk through the hallways, but nobody looks at them twice, and there’s no familiar silhouettes. Glen helps her find Carol’s mailbox, and she slips the gloves on top of a few papers sitting there.
They leave. Therese throws away the sticker identifying her as a guest. Glen claps her on the shoulder. “You’re so weird,” he says fondly.
Tuesday morning, Harge icily asks for one large black coffee and pays with three dollar bills.
Carol comes in on Wednesday at the same time she did on Monday. She’s wearing her gloves. “I have a feeling I have you to thank for returning these,” she says, slipping them off, stroking the back of one of them with her thumb. Her fingernails are short and unpolished.
“It wasn’t any trouble,” Therese says.
“Well, you clearly figured out my name,” Carol says. The way she says it, it’s like she knows something that Therese doesn’t. “Who do I have to thank?”
“Um,” Therese says. She points at her name tag. “Therese Belivet.”
Carol buys a green tea and comes in again on Friday for the same.
Friday afternoon, just before their shift replacements arrive, when the seating area is full of regulars with their headphones in, Glen says, “So are you gay or what?”
Therese had been leaning into her hands with her elbows propped on the counter. She slips, then turns towards Glen to glare at him. She can’t think of anything to say.
He shrugs. “Sorry, just curious.”
“I don’t know why you’d ask that,” she says.
“I mean, I am. Gay, I mean.”
“Well,” she says, face flushing, “I knew that.”
Glen just winks at her and goes back to texting from behind the espresso machine.
The first ice storm of the year comes late. Therese wakes up early so she can walk through Washington Square Park with her camera before her shift starts.
It is too cold outside to think. The surface of the shutter button feels slippery. Therese thinks about Carol’s gloves as she frames her shots. The trees and tall grasses all look like they've been made out of glass. Some of the young saplings are bowed over, frozen in sharp arcs towards the earth. Others still stand straight toward the white sky. Therese thinks if she were a sapling, she'd be one of the ones frozen into a curve.
"Come with me to this party tonight," Glen says the next Friday.
"Maybe," Therese says. The damp cloth they keep under the counter to wipe up crumbs and spills makes her fingers feel tacky. She imagines what the party will be like: rich boys and girls her own age, talking about their majors with the same lingering care that lovers use to touch each other. She’s so caught up in her bitterness that she barely hears Glen listing all the reasons she should.
“It’ll be fun,” he concludes.
“So you’ll go with me? It won’t suck, I promise. You can ditch if it does.”
“Sure,” she says.
She meets Glen at the Fulton Street station, and then they walk together.
“She’s a little old for you,” Glen says.
“Shut up,” Therese says.
“Maybe you’ll meet someone here closer to your age, I’m just saying.”
“I’m regretting this already,” Therese says. It comes out more venomously than she’d intended.
“Sorry, sorry.” He’s silent for a few blocks. He’s taller than Therese, but he walks slowly so she can keep up. “It is a Lambda party,” he says, once they’re slowing to a stop outside a nicer apartment building than the one Therese lives in.
She digs her chin further into her scarf.
The party is too loud. There’s a lot of people with dyed hair. Therese thinks of what her parents would think, if they could see her here. The sink is full of ice and tall cans of PBR. The music is terrible. Glen looks right at home.
After twenty minutes of her awkwardly following him around, Glen introduces her to a girl with purple hair named Aurelie and then abandons her.
"So, um," Therese says. The beer feels heavy in her hand. "What are you studying?"
"Art," Aurelie says. She tucks a long strand of hair behind her ear. She ducks her gaze and shrugs. "But I’m doing some interdisciplinary work right now, reading Renaissance literature and using it as inspiration for portraits. What about you?"
Therese feels the can bend under her fingertips. "Oh, literature. Do you know Professor Aird?"
Aurelie's face lights up. Therese takes a sip of her drink. It's starting to go warm. "Dr. Aird! Yes, I have her for Art History of Eastern Europe; what'd you take her for?"
"Oh, I don't -- I'm not an art student," Therese says. "I just -- I just know her."
“Oh,” Aurelie says. “Cool, cool.”
She’s waiting for Therese to say what she’s studying, how she knows Carol. Therese finishes her drink. “I have to go,” she says.
“Isn’t she married?” Glen asks one Monday after Carol leaves.
Therese shrugs. Harge doesn’t come in anymore. That feels like answer enough to her, at least.
Glen calls in sick on Wednesday. Donny covers for him -- Donny is nice but inattentive and spends a lot of time tidying the back room.
She’s alone when Carol comes in. When Carol pays, Therese says, “I get off at five.”
“Do you,” Carol says.
Therese feels her face go hot as she passes Carol’s drink across the counter. “Just in case you were wondering,” she says.
“Five it is,” Carol says, and winks as she turns to leave.
The bar Carol takes her to offers wine more expensive than Therese’s water bill. Therese says as much, and Carol tips her head back to laugh. Carol’s throat is lovely.
Carol orders a bottle of Riesling. They split it. It’s so sweet that Therese drinks it slowly. Lets Carol drink most of the bottle. It’s just now sinking in that Carol’s nervous, too.
In the taxi, Carol reaches out to touch Therese’s jaw. Therese closes her eyes and breathes in shallowly through her nose and leans into Carol’s hand, and it’s Therese who has to close the distance between them, but Carol who clings.
Therese thinks she will wait to tell Glen about all this.