Chapter 1: 00; Culuikha - Prologue
It was around seven in the morning when Culuikha flipped the ‘closed’ signage and opened his café.
The faint scent of arabica filled the room. A hint of cinnamon and butter followed from the oven. He was baking some easy pastries for breakfast; a simple yet nutritious meal to start his day. Culuikha looked at the interior he designed himself, satisfied. He chose earthy colors and materials, vintage furniture but he relied on modern machines. Of course, he learned how to brew manually too, but some orders need to be done fast, and only those who treasured the story of coffee who asked him to do that using the V60 method. Had he mastered the art of the historical beverage, Culuikha decided to open this own business – with love.
The deli was small and compact, but unquestionably cozy. It was a two-story shophouse; Culuikha used the first floor as a retail and the upper one for domestic use. He found it easier to live at the same place where he earned money. The café area only served six, maximum ten, seats, including the bar area. Sofas and circle table, the dimmed lighting, walls finished by grey bricks – Culuikha hoped those who sipped his tea or coffee could enjoy their time being here. He provided a shelf fulfilled with books he used to read. Some of them were related to his major, architecture, some others were fiction, western comics, and poems.
He was cleaning the espresso machine and planning to write today’s menu on the small blackboard he placed in front of the café, but apparently his first customer was approaching. Culuikha quickly wiped his hands and prepared himself to greet his first guest. He was an excellent barista, but not a social person.
Why did he bother to run a café, though?
“Welcome,” his tenor was a bit cold, but he tried, nevertheless, “How can I serve you, Sir?”
“What would you recommend?”
Culuikha smiled. This was why – he might be a distant person but talking about coffee brightened him up. With excitement, he explained his special menu, the way he roasted and ground the beans, the journey behind every cup of warmness. Sometimes, the guest told him their background, and he listened carefully.
Coffee brought people together; including him, and so the story goes.
Chapter 2: 01; Awang - Long Black
“I don’t understand coffee.”
Culuikha glanced at the guy who was tuning his acoustic guitar. He was dead serious, and his face was all wrinkles. His thick, calloused index finger was on the fifth fret of the bottom E string. Ears listening very, very carefully as he didn’t have a tuner. Culuikha just finished wiping the coffee residue scattered around the coffee machine when his musician friend spoke. His name was Awang, two years older than Culuikha, who earned money from (freelance) performing. For the last two months, Awang played regularly on the weekend at Culuikha’s café – he found Awang’s playing style suited the whole mood he wanted the café to deliver.
Awang’s voice, on the other hand, was pure disaster. Culuikha never understood how a skillful classical guitarist like him couldn’t sing like, at all. Perhaps it was true that God was fair; Awang was living proof.
“I don’t understand guitar, either,” replied the barista, “Which part of coffee you don’t understand?”
“I don’t get it why you charge people like, thirty thousand for a cup, meanwhile I can get a two thousand outside,” he gestured the stall near the café, “They all are coffee, right?”
Culuikha snorted, “Say, how much is your dream guitar?”
“Fender,” Awang stopped tuning his guitar. Thumb brushed chin as he thought about it deeply, “I heard it’s about thirty million – but the one I’m saving money for is around ten million. Why are you asking?”
“But I think I’ve seen a guitar which costs only half a million?”
“Don’t you even think to compare those two,” said Awang in high tone, “Fender is a whole new level of guitar; it’s the quality meets design, they use ebony for the fret, and the tone is perfect! Also – why are you laughing?”
“It also applies to my coffee.”
Awang was about to object, but Culuikha gestured him not to. He approached the espresso machine, filled the reservoir with filtered water and pressed the ‘on’ button. Awang said nothing but he was curious, so he examined how Culuikha removed the portable filter, re-checked the right basket and finally added the coffee grounds to it. The blond grabbed a tamper – small device with a wooden handle – to compress the espresso for a strong-tasting shot. Culuikha locked the filter onto the head of the machine and put a glass container under the faucet. It took three minutes until the smell of freshly brewed coffee filled the room.
In another cup, Culuikha poured one hundred milliliters of hot water, then added the double shot on top.
“You can add sugar if you like,” the barista smirked as he handed his creation to Awang.
“…how much it will cost me, though?” Awang asked cautiously, fully aware of Culuikha’s slyness.
Culuikha rolled his eyes, “I won’t cut your payroll, I swear.”
The owner of this café couldn’t be trusted, Awang swore; but he accepted the offer eventually. The coffee looked innocent, black and thick, also smelled nice. He took the first sip without sugar – and amazed by the taste. Culuikha won just by seeing Awang’s change of facial expression, it was already a compliment.
“That’s my ‘Fender’, Wang,” Culuikha concluded, “It’s all about the personal touch.”
Awang didn’t say anything – but he solemnly vowed he would never drink instant coffee ever again.
Chapter 3: 02; Godam - Doppio
“Wel—” come. Culuikha couldn’t finish his greeting.
The man who just stepped in was too stunning he almost forgot basic manner; do not stare, he warned himself after three solid seconds of literary… staring. Culuikha inhaled deeply before revising his gestures and gave the customer his friendly smile. Or at least, he did try his best. The guest approached the counter,
“Hi,” his deep baritone replied, “I’d like a cup of strong black coffee, no sugar, no milk.”
Culuikha raised an eyebrow, “Black coffee,” he repeated while analyzing the guy who stood before him – ridiculously tall with muscles here and there. A black duffle bag hung on his left shoulder, body wrapped in short-sleeve compression shirt, short pants, running shoes. The barista could say that this man is a gym freak, but for a male to order such specific thing – uh, don’t be a sexist prick, Culuikha. He tilted his head, made sure about the order, “We have low-fat milk, or soymilk if you’d like. Also, non-calorie sweetener.”
“Still, they contain unwanted fat and glucose,” replied the sturdy guy, his smile was wider.
“You’re on a strict diet, I assume?” Culuikha guessed, fingers ready on the cashier machine.
“Living a healthy lifestyle suits me well,” he corrected, “I’m a personal trainer.”
“Oh—” that explained many things, “Hot? Iced?”
“Small, medium, large?”
“Small, I guess,” for a moment, he thought, “Too much liquid could cause bloating and I’ll be having a class in thirty minutes,” again, unwanted information, but Culuikha was listening carefully, nevertheless.
“In that case, may I suggest a cup of doppio?”
The customer squinted, obviously had no idea what doppio was.
Culuikha got that a lot, so he took his time explaining, “Doppio is double shot espresso, extracted from our finest milled grounds, resulting in sixty milliliters of drink,” he grabbed himself a small-sized cup, “This baby is strong, yet in minimum amount, so your stomach wouldn’t feel swollen – still, you don’t make fun of the caffeine,” Culuikha placed the porcelain mug and a paper cup in front of the fitness enthusiast.
“That’s interesting,” his tone showed Culuikha honesty.
“I read something about caffeine can shift muscles to burn fat more quickly,” Culuikha added.
“Also, it helps you to increase your heart rate, so your workout will be more efficient,” the black-haired nodded, his blue eyes twinkled in excitement, “I’ve never tried doppio, however, I bet it’s very bitter.”
“It really depends on the barista’s skill,” proudly, he chuckled, resulting in a small yet friendly giggle from his guest, “So, it’s confirmed? A cup of hot doppio,” Culuikha took a sticker after the man gestured him his agreement, “I’m going to need a name.”
“It’s Godam,” answered the sporty guy, “Golf, oscar, delta, alfa, mike.”
Culuikha glanced at Godam; what kind of person who spelled his name using NATO phonetic alphabet?
The process of brewing a cup of doppio was almost the same as espresso; just make it double. Two spouts portafilter, but only catching one of the streams, and voila. Culuikha didn’t even bother to receive the payment before serving the hot beverage. Godam hummed a simple ‘thanks’ before quietly sipping it.
His eyes widened; it wasn’t as bitter as he imagined.
Perhaps, the barista’s skill was beyond his comprehension – or it was something in the way Culuikha smiled at him.
Chapter 4: 03; Sancaka - Chai Latte
It was fifteen minutes to seven when the rain stopped falling completely.
Culuikha sighed. He grabbed extra floormat to prevent unwanted dirt from customer’s shoes entering his café. Also placing his favorite waist-tall container as a substitute for umbrella rack (he cried a little inside when he did it). The news had warned of extreme weather before the rainy season peak and lately, his café was almost empty. Fortunately, his loyal customer kept on ordering using the online delivery and Culuikha never felt this blessed for cooperating with a transportation service. He assumed the café wouldn’t be busy until noon, so he thought to roast some more beans. But a faint knock on the door surprised him.
“Have I flipped the signage?” he murmured. Well, in fact, he hadn’t. His business hours were seven to ten, and it made Culuikha glance at the old-fashioned clock on the table. Did I forget to pay for the billings? Or—
When Culuikha arrived at the entrance,
The man who stood in front of him was a tall, but quite lanky, guy, wearing a simple t-shirt with checkered flannel on top and washed jeans. His vintage sneakers were dirty with soil and mud, the bag in his embrace looked heavy, his hair was damp from rain and sweat – but it was his expression that captured Culuikha’s attention. As if, this man was running all his life. To describe him as simply ‘tired’ would be an insult.
Culuikha, after silently analyzing him for a solid minute, finally spoke.
“How… May I help you?”
“Can I have a cup of coffee?”
Culuikha blinked. Well, he did spare some free cups of coffee for the homeless, but this man seemed—
“Don’t get me wrong, I’ll pay,” the man quickly added, “I… I can pay, I…”
“Sir; are you okay?” seeing him stuttering made the barista suddenly cautious. He approached him and took the liberty to grab him by the shoulder. Culuikha gasped as he realized that this man was shaking. From this intimate distance, he also got the impression of fear from those gloomy eyes, “Come in, please.”
Without any word, Culuikha made him sit on the sofa and helped him to toss the bag on his side. He could catch the inaudible ‘thanks’ from those quivering lips right after. The barista deeply exhaled while kneeling beside his first customer, gently stared at him with empathy, wondering what had this man gone through.
“I’m sorry, I should’ve waited for you to open the café first,” he hummed, “I… I actually waited, outside.”
“And getting yourself soaked,” Culuikha unconsciously scolded him, “You should’ve come in.”
The man nodded, “Your opening hour is seven o’clock so…”
Culuikha rolled his eyes, “I’ll get you some water meanwhile you decide what to order, okay?”
“You’re very kind.”
The blond didn’t reply – it was weird to be called ‘kind’ for only doing his job, really. Culuikha grabbed a glass of infused water and the menu board then stood up next to the trembling man, “You need more sleep than coffee, if I may suggest,” he said in a warmer tone, “Sorry if I’m being too straightforward.”
He weakly chuckled, “I’d love to, but I have a deadline.”
“You didn’t sleep because you were working on it?”
“I…” he bit his bottom lip, “If I tell you the truth you might laugh at me.”
Culuikha raised an eyebrow, “Why would I laugh at my customer?”
“I can’t stand thunderstorm,” he answered with a bitter smile, “I wasn’t able to function at all last night, and I haven’t slept since… I don’t know, two days ago, perhaps,” and the heavy downpour washed the city for a week. Culuikha ‘oh’-ed and tapped the man’s shoulder, hoped the simple gesture soothed him.
“In that case, I won’t give you coffee, not even a single drop. Caffeine won’t even help in this state.”
He could see the defeated look from his guest, “But I need it so I can finish my task…”
“You need to relax,” Culuikha’s smirk turned into a gentle curve, “My special recipe will help you.”
Two more taps before the barista wore the apron and walked to the counter. His fingers skillfully brew hot water and crushed some herbs, then stirred the mixture on a steel container. Culuikha strained the beverage into a mug, decorated it with ground cinnamon and fresh star anise. When he placed the special drink on the table, the stranger stared at him, “You know – for a moment, you looked like a wizard.”
“Did I?” Culuikha laughed, “If so, my potion will make you stay active, protects your heart health and boost your immune system,” he gestured him to sip it while it was still warm, “It will reduce your headache too.”
“You are a wizard, then.”
“Can’t help it, I’m a novelist.”
Culuikha snorted, but he smiled, nevertheless.
The first sip gave the dull man some colors; his face brightened in surprise and his eyes wide opened. He stared at the light foam and brownish beverage before turned his attention to the barista, “What is this?”
“Spicy chai latte, one of my secret recipes,” he proudly answered, “Taste good, hm?”
“It almost feels like…” home, “It reminds me of my mom’s cooking, especially the fragrance – but in a mug, and it’s sweet, I don’t know if it even makes sense,” he spoke while kept on drinking, “In short, not only delicious, but this potion gives me strength to continue my writings.”
“Mom’s cooking, huh,” Culuikha shrugged, “Must be the cardamom, nutmeg, and cloves.”
“And love,” his word gave Culuikha a shiver; it was cheesy, but how the man’s eyes tenderly looked at the swirl in the mug silenced the barista himself, “You must really love your job, right?”
“Undoubtedly,” Culuikha decided to stay there a little bit longer, “So, you’re a novelist. What kind of genre you’re working on? Can I read some of it?” he glanced at the pile of printed documents on the table, some papers had red markings with ‘revised’ on top, with one of them with a name on it, “—Mr. Sancaka?”
Sancaka almost ignored the fact that it was raining, again, outside.