It was a relatively busy Thursday at Cara’s Café. The eyes on her felt as egregious as ever. It was hard for her getting dressed every morning, wondering what difference of effect on her day it would have. She knew she looked unhappy. Such was the weight she still bore for dropping out of high school, trapped in a routine that sometimes struck her as odious. It wasn’t an easy job. Each day brought both novel and familiar stresses. This day a new one walked in the door: namely her friend, Tyler Burrell.
She saw him come in the door, and there was something in his bearing that told her he was trying to make a statement. She hadn’t seen or heard from him since the night at the New Parrish, about two weeks earlier. When he saw her a serious look came to his face. It was one of intention, but also misery. It loves company, after all, as she’d heard he himself say. Apparently drawn to her as a moth to a dangerous flame. But it had been she who’d touched his face. Not to have pursued such an entreaty would have been a lapse in courage. Now here he was.
“Hey Tyler,” she said, approaching him. “You want a seat? We’ve got space at the counter.”
“That sounds good, Laura. I’d like you to serve me if that’s possible.”
“I can serve you at the counter. It’s my section.”
“Lead on, girl.”
She tried on a smile. It felt somewhat genuine.
She motioned him to follow her and she showed him to the counter, where he would sit next to what looked a white businessman on one side and a black couple on the other.
“Anything to drink?”
“Just coffee. I take it black.”
“Black it shall be.”
She got a mug and poured it, placed it in front of him.
“How are you doing?” she asked. “I haven’t heard from you in a little while.”
“I don’t know, I guess I’m okay.”
“Are you looking for work or anything?”
“I haven’t started yet. I bought myself a laptop a couple weeks ago. I have no idea how to use it.”
“That’s something, anyway,” she said. “It’s pretty intimidating, isn’t it?”
Laura shrugged. “I don’t know. Don’t read too much into it.”
Tyler dropped his eyes. He picked up his mug of coffee and took a sip. She lingered a moment, unsure of what to do next.
“You need a menu too, don’t you?” she said. “I’m busy. I’ll be back to get your order.”
“I love talking to you,” he said without rejoinder, causing her at once to feel a thrill and recoil. As she’d suspected at seeing him arrive, he might have concrete ulterior motives.
“Take your time,” she said, then walked away. What his approach lacked in originality, coming to her workplace, it made up for in earnestness. She knew Jim would be none too happy to find this interaction taking place. What was she to do with it?
She had several orders to drop in the kitchen. The cooks were busy and surly as ever. She dropped two slices of sourdough in the toaster and went back onto the floor, navigating past a busboy on her way to the water and coffee, a pitcher of each of which she took and patrolled her section with. Tyler was still looking at the menu. If she could read his facial expression it looked as if he were near tears. He wanted something from her. That was why he was here. But, obviously, he was at a far remove, in battle with his personal demons. It was as if this was something she had asked for.
A few minutes later she arrived in front of him with her ticket book.
“What can I get you?” she asked.
“Corn beef hash,” he said.
“A substantial choice,” she answered as she scribbled.
“I also wanted to see you,” he pushed.
“This isn’t the time or place, Tyler. You should have called me.”
“I can do that. You want me to?”
“I want to drop your order. Just sit there and let the restaurant do its work.”
She walked away from him and dropped his order in the kitchen. She found herself peeved. She could do nothing for him today. But, she supposed, from his perspective coming in here to force his attention on her wasn’t a terrible idea. It made her feel something between a waitress, therapist, and prostitute, as he was paying for it. These thoughts circled in her mind as she continued on her work. The formal presentation of Tyler as Jim’s competition was the development of note. When she brought his food to him some ten minutes later he thanked her with a lot of emotion in his voice. Yeah, it was charming in its own way.
She watched him from a distance when she got the chance. He ate mechanically, his eyes on his food. He made no attempt to engage his neighbors in conversation. He had a refill of coffee. She turned the corner from the back room just in time to see him produce his wallet. She approached.
“You’re ready to pay?” she asked with irritation.
“I’m ready. I’m sorry, I don’t mean to bother you, I just wanted to let you know I’ve been thinking about you.”
“Then you need something else to think about. You’re not even looking for work?”
“I have no experience.”
“Learn how to use your laptop. Do that then come looking for me. I think you need direction. You should find some first before you start looking for trouble.”
“That’s what you think I’m looking for?”
“I don’t know, but it’s what you’ll find here. Proceed with caution.”
“You’re such a funny girl, Laura.”
“I do my best. Leave me a tip. I’ll see you again. Try not to be so unhappy next time.”
“Man, look who’s talking.”
Laura recoiled a little. She’d known him a long time. He must remember what she used to look like before the last few years happened. She took his dishes and put them in the bus tray, then left him. She didn’t see him leave the restaurant. When she went back to his place she found he’d left her a 20% tip. For some reason she appreciated this.
Present mood be damned. It was, however, encouraging to note that so far she and Jim had been good to each other.
Her break came up about half an hour later. She had grits and a fruit bowl and ate in the little manager’s office. She sent Jim a text: “Do you want to come to my place tonight?” she asked. It would be the first time such a happenstance had occurred. He texted back while she was still on break: “Sure. Send me the address. How’s work?”
“Work’s fine, busy. 1461 Alice St. Use the intercom: Room 508.”
“See you around 6:00 then. Good to hear from you babe.”
She already thought she liked him more than Allen, who, as it turned out, hadn’t put up a fight at all. As a parting volley he’d even mentioned that he’d been cheating on her. It hadn’t surprised her especially, though it did intrude on her attention for longer than she would have liked. Maybe she’d take Jim to his bar. That would show him.
Soon her half hour was up and she went back to work. A couple hours later the day was complete and she went to her car and drove home. She’d made good tips, but, as per usual, she was glad to leave. It had gotten harder and harder, over the years, to be herself there, and the excess of male intrusiveness sometimes threatened to become worse than typically irritating.
She checked her mail and took the elevator to her floor. She usually took a cat nap after work. Today was no exception. When she woke up it was a little after 5:00. She would make Jim macaroni and cheese, as she wasn’t a terrible cook. In the mean time she would look forward to his arrival.
She turned on the local news and sat on her couch. Before she knew it she heard her intercom. She answered it:
“That you, Jim?” she asked.
“In the flesh.”
“Come on up.”
She pressed the button and buzzed him in. He was knocking on her door a couple minutes later and, after looking at herself a moment in the mirror, brushing back a bit of hair, went and opened it. He was smiling slightly. She could tell such a tangible difference in him pre- and post-getting-laid. Now it was like he was relaxed, but always ready to get in trouble.
“I like your building,” he said as she closed the door behind him.
“It’s called the Raymond.”
“Any particular reason?”
“None that I know of. But it’s full of young kids just like us. And a bunch of dogs. They allow dogs here, so there are a bunch of them.”
“But not here, I see.”
“No, not here. I’m more of a cat person.”
“But you don’t have one of those either.”
“Hey, the night is young.”
He put his hand on the back of her head and kissed her.
“Good to see you,” he said.
“Come on in. I was just watching the news. You want a beer or something?”
They walked into her living room. Jim surveyed his surroundings: the couch, the TV across from it, the little table in the kitchenette. He thought the apartment clean and functional. There was an Irish flag on the wall, as well as a print of a painting he didn’t recognize, but he placed as Impressionistic.
He walked into the doorway to the adjoining room and saw a small desk with a laptop, and a queen-sized bed. Then there was a bathroom, but he supposed he didn’t need to see that.
“It’s nice,” he said. “Utilitarian.”
“I’m just a little walking bundle of practicality.”
“At least you don’t have roommates. They can be pains in the ass.”
“You’ve got more space in your house. Me I’ve got more privacy.”
He pulled a chair out from the little table, which only had room for two. He watched Laura take an opener to a bottle of Heineken and offer it to him. He took it.
She sat down across from him, and for a moment he found her considering him as if she’d never seen him before.
“What?” he asked, a bit self-consciously.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t think I’ve ever really looked at you before.”
“Um, I hope you like what you see.”
“It’s just strange, how things happen unexpectedly.”
“I know. It’s what I wanted. I’m pretty pleased with myself.”
“If I was more of a catch you should be. I wish I had something to offer more than a waitress’ salary at a job I hate.”
“A job you hate is better than no job at all.”
“At least you have a degree.”
“Wish me luck putting it to use.”
Now there was an element of mischief in her eyes. Jim took a pull off the bottle of Heineken and looked away, taking in her apartment again.
“Sorry, I don’t mean to be creepy,” she said, “I just like thinking about it.”
“How you got me. I’m usually a tougher sell than I let on with you.”
“You’re saying I got you? I’m glad I got you. I’ve been walking on air the last ten days.”
She put her hand over her mouth, holding in a little giggle.
“I can tell that’s how you’ve felt,” she said.
“Does it matter?” he asked.
“Sure. I wasn’t enough to make Allen happy. I like the idea of making someone happy.”
“That’s your last boyfriend?”
“Uh-huh. He’s better off without me.”
Jim put one of his hands on the table and leaned back: “Now that’s impossible,” he said.
Laura kept smiling, silently now. Jim looked away again, then she stood up and got a glass from the cupboard and filled it with tap water. She took it to her couch and sat down to pay attention to the news again. She found the remote and turned the volume up.
Jim turned to look over the chair at her. Now she wasn’t looking at him at all. There was an ottoman that she’d put her feet up on. She looked so graceful. He’d always been afraid she was smarter than him. It was like it was all according to some plan he wasn’t privy to. She said she’d liked the idea of making someone happy. Was it possible that someone was he and he alone? He didn’t know it but she was thinking along similar lines. For some reason she’d suddenly believed herself powerful.
He stood up and came over to the couch and sat down, with about a foot of space between them. He kept drinking his beer and watching the television, waiting for a signal though none was forthcoming. For a while there was silence between them.
“Do you want to watch a movie or something?” Laura asked.
“Sure, what have you got?”
“A crate of DVDs.”
She pushed the ottoman away and got up, then went to the corner of the room and pulled out a milk crate.
“Come on. Pick something out.”
He came to where she was. They were very near each other. He grazed her hand with his while reaching for the DVDs and she did not withdraw. He got on his knees and looked at what she had.
“Oh, Mad Men,” he said.
“I’ve heard good things about it.”
“Then Mad Men it shall be.”
She walked to her DVD player and Jim went back to the couch. He found himself looking at her. She had a good body. He thought about touching her.
When she’d put in the DVD she turned around and saw how he was regarding her. A little smile brightened her face and she dropped her eyes. She came back to the couch and sat just next to him. He put his arm around her shoulders, and she eased in towards him.
His breath quickened. It seemed something inevitable was about to happen.
The credits rolled on episode one.
Jim turned his head to her and saw her eyes were bright with what might have been expectation, but she was looking at the television and not at him, and still with that smirk.
He leaned towards her and kissed her on the side of the mouth, then her cheek. She turned her face to meet his and their mouths met, meanwhile Jim’s hand that wasn’t around her shoulders came to her upper thigh, then up her shirt to her stomach.
They met each other this way for a while as the television show played obsequiously in the background. Soon they were taking their clothes off.
“You want to do it here?” Laura whispered into his ear.
“Yes, I do,” Jim said, but he probably would have agree to just about anything.
“I mean instead of the bed.”
“This is fine.”
It lasted about fifteen minutes. When it was done Jim removed himself and wiped the sweat off his forehead. Laura kicked him in the side and pushed herself back and sat up. She took the braid out of her hair and let it fall down her shoulders.
“That was nice,” she said.
“Worked for me,” Jim responded.
“We’re missing the show.”
“You want to start it over?”
“Yeah. It’s good to know what’s going on. If we do that again I’ll have to tell you what you missed.”
Jim was grinning. He moved towards her again and kissed her on the mouth then sat back and pulled up his boxers and pants, then started watching the show. He couldn’t think of a better way to pass the time. For a little while his everyday existence in all its stultifying monotony was far away, like a moon orbiting a thriving planet, visible but distant. He hoped she felt the same way. Indeed, while he watched her, she seemed to be shining.
She caught his eyes with hers and laughed.
“Hit the spot, didn’t it?” she said.
“You got me.”
“Come on, it’s one of the best shows on TV.”
He took her hand and they watched. Jim wondered what she was thinking about, but for some reason he was afraid to ask. There was a chance, after all, that it wasn’t only about him. How easily this feeling could be taken away from him. He would have to try to enjoy the rest of his life too, just to make balance. For now though he had something like a girlfriend, and something always to look forward to. Mad Men, also, turned out to be an interesting show.
He stayed over that night. In the morning they did it again, then Laura kicked him out so she could get ready for work. She thought she’d done well with him. Anyways his company helped to relieve her of some kind of pressure. Where it would go from here was anybody’s guess — anybody but Allen, that is.
She was afraid, already, that Jim loved her. It was too early for her to say the same of him. It was kind of a terrifying prospect. But what better mystery, after all, was there to live for? At least the male eyes on her at the restaurant didn’t bother her as much. In this way she felt protected. They wouldn’t see each other for a few days. Next time she went to his house. Soon, however, the Fantastic Four might reconvene. Laura felt a bit guilty to look forward to this.