The day Frank missed his chance.
"Hey, Frank? Those tables over there need a fresh wipe. I see someone walking this way." Jake would yell from behind the counter as if I couldn't possibly hear him over the quiet music and java fumes.
I kept my eyes glued tightly to the table beneath my hand; the cracked varnish trapping drops of cleaner as they were swished around with the century-old rag. The shop's owner, Rob - an overweight, miserable man who never showed his face but once a week or when a termination was around the corner - flat out refused to buy new washcloths to work with. I swear to Christ, it's a wonder no one's contracted something from the murky-water residue.
The bell jingled, almost angrily, like it was just as sick of its own sound as we were. Footsteps, awkward, selective, would trail down the walkway and into the main area to be seated. My back was turned, I didn't want to see the customer. Didn't want to lock eyes with my first "for here" of the day. I walked briskly past their expectant gaze and into the back to grab my pad and slip the mandatory apron over my neck. Fuck the tie, fuck the no-slip shoes.
"Good morning, welcome to Your Favorite Cafe. What can I interest you in, today?" the fucking worst sentence ever conjured by man. Rhyming sells; it's a service to the customers. Everyone needs a pick-me-up. Well where's my pick-me-up? If I had my way, I'd drop acid in the coffee filter and watch the bystanders go wild with paranoia and fascination.
"Just a large cup, black." Male. Average voice, combat boots. I almost forgot the reassuring smile before I was to disappear into the back once again.
"Sure thi- thing." I said, stopping short of sputtering. The tiles beneath my feet became far from fascinating as I allowed myself to view the face of my party. A thin, translucent boy. Well, boy wouldn't be correct, really. Man. A pale, fair-skinned man. Dark, shaggy hair in need of a scrub. Or two. A small frame with a dangerously tight, plaid button-up hugging his torso. A rectangular box threatened to pop the seal of his shirt pocket. "I'll be right out." I mumbled instantly, my eyes retreating quickly as my feet began to walk. I thought of that face - of those eyes. Like a brownish green. Far from cloudy, but nowhere close to being clear. Thin lips, pink from the cold no doubt and as chapped as can be. A nose so small it hardly matched his features.
"You okay, dude?" Jake asked as I paced the sticky floor of the kitchen.
"What? Yeah, yeah I'm good. Just, tired." I decided on, knowing it was far easier to write my behavior off on exhaustion rather than infatuation. The smooth jazz overhead drove my thoughts back to order; I began to breathe. He's nothing special. Just another customer with an insatiable desire for the shittiest coffee in town.
"Here you are." I said somewhat shyly, my hand close to shaking as I sat the Styrofoam under his gaze. "Anything else I can get you?" I questioned softly, eyeing his chipped fingernails and then admiring my own, coated in black and in desperate need of a file.
"Nah, I'm good." he spoke, his voice even and un-bothered even as his eyes became distant. I nodded courteously before exiting once more.
"I'm going on break." I shouted to no one in particular, knowing full well that Jake couldn't hear me over his earphones anyway. As I went to the storage room to grab my coat and scarf, I could hear the distinct hum of an age-old song. Sinatra or someone - someone important at one time or another. I bobbed my head absently as I worked to tie off the fabric before leaving through the door. The air and flecks of invisi-snow slapped my face at full-force just the moment I stepped outside. I reached into my pocket for my cigarettes and fingered the corner of bunched-together fabric until I located a lighter. The first puff calmed me instantly, the nicotine gnawed at my lungs and forced out a euphoria I've never received from art or sex or even music. I leaned against the freezing crates - undoubtedly leaving water marks on the seat of my pants - and thought about those goddamn eyes, because they kept blinking away in the center of my mind. I watched inwardly for the swish of each lid as it snapped open and shut, and stared relentlessly at the batting of each lash. A smile crept across my face as I shook my head, squashing each dream before they were dreamt and banishing the notion completely. I checked my phone, five minutes before anyone would start to fuss about my absence. I noted that a trip to the bookstore would be in my best interest for moments like these when all I have to keep myself busy are the options to smoke another cancer stick and get high on dreams of a life beyond the restaurant industry.
I shoved my weight against the door, seeing as how it had started to stick because of the cold. After almost slipping on a solid sheet of ice, I managed to find my way back inside, shivering but generally happy with my decision to strike up a conversation with this mystery fellow - the large black, table four.
I made it to the open area, my eyes scanning like mad. "Hey Jake? Where's he?" I shouted back, my gaze never leaving the empty seat before me.
"Left about a minute ago, paid already. Why, what's up?" he said, happily whistling some god-awful tune.
"Nothing. Never mind." And so I waited. The next three days were dull, an average of seven customers per day, maybe an extra on Thursday morning. Then Friday came around, my last day before the weekend off. The bell rang, my dismay began, but out in the dining place was no other than Mr. Shaggy-head, himself. Clad in a hopelessly dark ensemble and sporting a pair of the most hideous thick-rimmed glasses to ever reside on our planet earth.
"Same as Monday?" I asked, taking a shot in the dark but hoping Mr. Shaggy was at least consistent. His eyes seemed to brighten, as if my remembering his existence was more than he could have ever asked for. He nodded shyly and turned to watch as I walked behind the counter to prepare his order. Upon my return, he'd at least managed to shrug out of his coat, revealing a similarly dark, long-sleeved undershirt.
"Is it too warm in here? I can turn the air up a bit." I offered, knowing full well that he would say the same thing they all do.
"No, it's fine." and a dazzling wince to boot.
I sat his coffee on the table and watched as he failed to stop and blow the steam away before taking his first gulp. A hot tongued, watery-eyed mystery guy with no name to his... name.
"So what do you go by?" I asked, desperate for a little excitement; something besides this cheesy Christmas shit playing on the radio above.
"Gerard." he said slowly, enunciating as if I needed the lesson. "And you?"
I stared, wondering whether I should simply point to the name tag or say it for friendliness sake.
"Frank. Or Frankie, if you prefer."
"Are you always so inquisitive with your customers, Frankie?" Gerard asked after downing nearly a third of his cup. I stood, shell-shocked and ready to disappear. "Relax, I'm joking. Sit down?" he was quick to say, sliding the seat across from him out with his foot. I took a look at Jake's end of the shop and saw as he met me with a wink. In my best effort not to roll my eyes, I managed to wipe my face nonchalantly with the back of my hand before planting myself across from shaggy-haired Gerard and his cup o' joe.
And so the weeks went on. Sure, I had plenty of chances to speed things up, but there was something about this fact-a-day bullshit that left me wanting more. So much more. He invaded my thoughts, he crept into my dreams, and before I would wake to the sound of my alarm clock, it was almost as if he could be found in the bed actually with me. I looked at him with new eyes every fucking day. And each time my mouth would form to say the dangerous line, I'd back out like a coward; like a little girl half-scared to ask the Senior football star out on a date.
Then one day... Gerard had a guest. A fuzzy-haired, stubble-covered face full of every fulfilled emotion I could never possess or even hope to obtain by way of romance or love or lust or even the thought of all of those things. I practically dared Gerard to introduce me as I walked to his... their table to take an order as I always had. Two large, black coffees. Fucking peas in a goddamn pod. A match made in heaven. And what did I get on their way out? A paper napkin, an I'm sorry Frank, but I couldn't wait any longer. scrawled sloppily with a borrowed pen. And two empty cups to drop into the trashcan.
I turned back to the front of the cafe as Jake looked away 'cause even he could tell how horribly I had failed.