Vanilla cappuccino, extra vanilla.
Not regular coffee, never. Vanilla cappuccino was what she always ordered, nearly every night, and I’d been making it for her nearly every night for god knows how long. I don’t really have any true sense of time as far as she’s concerned, other than my two defaults: Without Anja and With Anja.
Before her is just...before. What I did to get to her. Time spent surviving till the moment she walked into my pub and glanced right through me as if I wasn’t there.
She had a boyfriend, a fiance, and he wasn't me.
As luck had it I was friends with him, and as such merited a seat at one of my own tables with her and him and our other mutual friends...we knew each other through other people, and that was the extent of us.
I knew she thought I was the bartender. Nobody ever thought I owned the place until someone told them, and nobody ever bothered to tell her. Me included. She wasn’t quite the type to be impressed by someone being the boss...she exuded this very capable air of being the boss herself, strolling into the pub after work in her office clothes, almost always a suit - the kind with the short-ish little skirt, sexy though it wasn't meant to be - and high heeled leather pumps. I could always smell the leather, sometimes before she was even through the door. It made my mouth water.
Sometimes she came in alone or with her friend Kady - holy fuck the two of them turned heads when they made their entrance. Kady played it up, flirtatious little bitch, cute on her own but I think she knew she was cashing in on Anja's ability to draw attention and she was fine with taking what that got her. But not Anja...Anja just walked in, oblivious to the fact that every guy and usually more than one or two girls looked up when she came through the door. She either didn’t notice or she didn’t care, and always went straight to the table in the back or stopped off at the bar for a second to place her coffee order with whoever was tending that night. What I don't think she ever realized was that I always had it ready before she ever even asked for it, so that it would be cooled just enough by the time it got to her table. My little way of looking after her, long before I had any right or reason to do so. Nobody else made her coffee, ever, except me.
She was a pretty thing. Not conventionally pretty and not model pretty, but somewhere in that in-between place where the most innocently beautiful girls hide. Cherry red hair and big blue eyes. China doll skin. Tiny little body with curves that could make the pope drop to his knees and sing Sir Mix-A-Lot’s entire music catalog in a falsetto.
No, she wasn’t beautiful. She was fucking gorgeous.
But she sure as hell didn’t like me.
Our first true meeting of eyes was inauspicious at best. She walked past where I was pretending to wipe down the bar, hesitating for a second as she decided whether she was going to tell me what she wanted or sit down and wait for me to come to her. Honest as fuck, I wanted to crawl to her on my knees. But that wasn’t one of the options she was considering, and in the end she turned and put her little hand on the bar. My eyes went straight to the diamond on her ring finger. Small and unpretentious, just like her. Sam sidled up behind her and grinned at me as I slung my towel over my shoulder and leaned forward on the bar, feeding her assumption that I was the hired help as I asked what I could get her.
She looked up at me and I swear to god, she frowned at me like I was Boris Karloff.
“Do you make cappuccino?”
I nodded and turned away to make it, and while my back was turned she made her way to the far side of the room with Sam to the table that would, for the next eight years, be our meeting place. She just never realized we were meeting.
For the next six years, I watched from the bar or the other side of the table as she sat next to Sam, his arm draped around her shoulders while he talked to me and our other friends, and she talked to Kady or whoever else wandered in. We didn’t really associate with each other directly so much as through the other people around us, but when we did, it was never very friendly. I stupidly said something about the color of her hair one night near closing, during that uncertain frame of time when the beer is kicking in and the bone tiredness already has, when nothing comes out right and lifelong enemies are made over a stammering slip of the tongue. The look she shot me, followed by the round of whoaaaaa’s from the rest of the table when they saw the optical deathblow she was dealing me left me with one pure and perfect truth.
If I thought this girl hated me before, there was no doubt about it now.
But to her credit, she tolerated my minor and inconsequential presence in her life, unthreateningly and unobtrusively on the outer fringe where she could just barely see me. I brought her her coffee or sent it to her table with Ewan or Chris, and when we entered each other’s realm of existence for a few brief seconds in passing, we made love verbally with ridiculous insults. At least that was how I saw it, in all my standing-behind-the-bar stalkery. Every crude epithet hurled at me from her sweet little mouth was music and melody, and we began smiling at each other as we belittled one another’s mothers, hairstyles, and life choices. It became something of a game that we both perversely enjoyed, and though she never went out of her way to find me, her little smirk and the mischievous sparkle in her bright eyes when I crossed her line of vision clued me that bringing me down to size was a high point of her day. And the girl was good at it.
She didn’t hate me anymore, but it still wasn’t love. Tolerance tempered with a touch of playful animosity, perhaps. I knew I was beneath her, she was obviously at least two social classes above me but it wasn’t how she acted, it was just how she was, what she exuded. That and the scent of Madagascan vanilla, and the heady combination of the two never failed to give me an unwelcome boner when she rolled her eyes and turned to walk away, her perfume carrying back to me on the boozy air as I watched her shapely ass move in that prim and proper skirt.
But I minded my manners and kept my hands to myself. My eyes too, as much as was feasible, though I probably could have done a better job of it. But my thoughts ran however they pleased, and it was usually toward her. I felt guilty about having dirty thoughts aimed at a friend’s woman, and the way Sam looked at her, with so much love and devotion nakedly exposed in his face, such trust and something like disbelief, and I knew he felt like I did. She was better than us both. The difference between us was that he got lucky and slept with her every night, and I had to be content to make her coffee, just the way she liked it.
The next year Sam died in a car crash, and Anja spent two weeks wandering around in a blank haze, the delicious fight gone out of her.
As friends go, our little group was a good one. Everyone checked on her, took food to her, kept tabs on her through each other while we sat around the back table, nursing our beers with a subdued melancholy, raising the occasional toast to our fallen comrade’s empty chair. Sam had been a good guy.
At first she stayed home, wrapped up in a gigantic sweater that I assumed was his.
She still talked, functioned, did what she had to do, but it was like looking at a person from the lifeguard’s chair while they’re at the bottom of the pool. You can see them, but they’re hazy, just an uncertain outline of themselves, and you sit there wondering if you should be jumping in to save them or if they’re going to surface soon on their own. I went with Ben and Sophie to check on her one afternoon but stayed away from her, too confused about my own feelings to dare try to help her with hers. I’d never had an easy time with the nuances of deep emotion, I tended to set fire to it and dance around it while it burned or wadded it up into a tight little ball and threw it in the trash. Seeing her puffy red face and swollen eyes stirred a rage in me that I couldn’t deal with and I walked out, leaving them there without a word. I couldn't see her like that and not pull her in against my chest and hold her, kissing the top of her head, promising her it would be alright. She wasn't mine to do that for.
I sent Ewan over with lunch every day, with a big cup of cappuccino, just the way she liked it. In a fit of wanting to cheer her up I started adding more cream, more vanilla, more sugar, till finally it was more like liquid candy than coffee. A pinch of cayenne, the way she liked it, the unlikely result of a mean trick I’d played on her that backfired. I snapped the lid on the cup and handed it to Ewan, shaking my head the way I always did before he even got the chance to ask if I was sure I didn’t want to deliver it myself.
The truth was, I wanted to. Worse than just about anything. But the poor girl didn’t need her arch nemesis hanging around while she tried to pull her life back together, so I sent my lackey instead, as always.
Two days later she came up from the bottom of the pool. It was a quick breaching of the surface, but there she was, walking into my pub with the sunlight coming in behind her, like she owned it and it followed her everywhere she went, an obedient and worshipful pet. It set her hair alight with golden fire and I just stood there like a fool, staring at her.
She glanced around, obviously uncertain if she should be here, but just as obviously determined that she needed to be. It was mid afternoon so none of our group was around, and it was the first time I’d ever seen her without Sam or Kady or any of our other dozen or so buddies. It was just me and her and a few leftover stragglers from the lunch crowd, and suddenly I wasn’t even aware of how to speak to her. She seemed so tiny and forsaken, standing there all alone, the collar of her coat pulled up to hide the lower half of her face. When she finally turned to look at me, a half smile brought a bit of light to her eyes, almost like she was relieved to see a familiar face...even if it was just mine.
I smiled at her, one of those carefully manufactured smiles that people use when they want so badly to say It’s okay, I know, you’re going to be alright I promise but they’re too scared or too stupid to open their mouths and actually speak it. She came to the bar and laid her hands on it, her eyes down, and mine followed. The ring was gone, leaving her finger empty and her hand looking strangely abandoned. A nearly overwhelming urge to reach out and put mine over it to keep it warm overcame me and I resorted to stuffing both my hands into my pockets to keep them from doing anything stupid. She looked up a bit, and I realized she was staring at my now full pockets as if she wished she could be in there herself, like it would be a safe place to hide. I wanted to tell her it would be, but instead forced my reticent tongue to form a few words.
“How are you, girl?”
As if suddenly surprised to see me standing there, her eyes came up to my face and something in them went soft. She wasn’t wearing any makeup and her hair was messy as if she’d just climbed out of bed, but her loveliness staggered me.
“The coffee,” she said quietly, haltingly, like words didn’t come naturally anymore. Perhaps she hadn’t spoken to anyone in days. Her voice was a bit raspy, like when you’ve been screaming, and she winced like the sound of it grated on her frayed nerves. “Thank you for the coffee. It’s...perfect.” She nodded while she spoke and the way her brow furrowed gave me the unsettling feeling that she was about to cry.
“My pleasure sweetheart,” was all I could make myself say.
For the next two years we continued skirting around each other with insults and cheap shots at each other’s parentage, but the sharp cutting edge to our interactions dulled down and eventually became smooth, so that instead of drawing blood it became almost affectionate. I made words up to call her as she walked in each night, keeping the ones she responded to the most, recycling the others into bastardizations that made her shake her head and roll her eyes at me. If her good natured animosity was the best I could hope to ever get from her, I was more than willing to take it and say thank you. It was better than nothing, and certainly better than a lot of what I’d had. I loved her quietly from across the room, waiting patiently for those moments when she accidentally looked at me while glancing around for a friend, or when she stood making exasperated faces behind Kady while the silly girl flirted mercilessly with me. I made halfhearted attempts to catch her interest from time to time, usually mouthing off with some perverted comment that made her scrunch her face up in mortified distaste before she told me to fuck off. It made me happy, and she seemed to like it.
That was us.
Until the night one of our mutuals got drunk and punched her in the face outside the pub, blacking her eye and giving me the perfect opportunity to step in through the door that I hadn’t realized had been open since Sam died. As I picked her up and carried her in through the back entrance in the alley, feeling her trembling in my arms as I took one glance back at the moaning asshole laying on the pavement with my bootprints in his ribs, all I could think was See me, Anja. Please see me.
A week later and almost two years to the day after Sam was buried, I walked her home in the dark and then walked myself home in the light the next morning.
She was finally my mate. I’d known it since almost the first moment I laid eyes on her, eight years before when she had walked in and brought the sunshine with her. I knew it then, and apparently the universe knew it too. Sometimes you have to wait a very long time for things that are meant to be, while the universe gets its shit together around you.
And let me tell you...there is nothing, nothing, that tastes as sweet as Bitch Pudding.