I know better than to dream—especially about the super sexy bearded hottie who sits with me on my break every Sunday night. Since Christmas, Tom has been increasingly flirty, and with Valentine’s Day coming up, I hope…
No, I can’t afford to hope, either.
What I can afford to do is keep working two jobs so I can eventually finish my nursing degree—and forget the way his intense, direct gaze makes me feel all lit up inside.
What happens when all a girl’s got is her dreams?
Release Date: February 13, 2016
He’s not coming.
Of course he’s not coming. It’s Valentine’s Day. There are teenagers and hearts and flowers everywhere. I’ve made more hot chocolate tonight than I did the week before Christmas. Apparently, young lovers prefer hot chocolate. With sprinkles on top.
At least there’s a lull in traffic. People walk in the door, see the tables crammed full, and walk back out. I should mourn my lack of tips, but it’s not like tips help a whole damn lot anyway.
The urge to check the time is strong, but I’m nowhere near the register, have no reason to be. I hate that we aren’t allowed to wear watches. As if time ceases to exist because we’re hap-hap-happily serving the masses.
I sneak a glance at the register on my way to restock the napkins.
Just because it’s Sunday night at 6:47 doesn’t mean he’s not coming.
But he always comes and sits down by 6:45, I remind myself. Always packs up and leaves at 9:45, a respectful fifteen minutes before closing time—though I often imagine what might happen if he stayed late.
The napkins need no more fluffing and I’ve mopped up an upended twenty-ounce hot chocolate that went every-freaking-where. On some girl’s leg and expensive handbag and I’m sure it’ll be all my fault when she emails in to get a complainer card.
I resist the urge to make sure there aren’t any dinosaur bumps in my ponytail. I’d get written up for fiddling with my hair, plus, I’m pretty sure the extra time I spent doing a fancy side-braid hours ago was a total waste.
6:53. He’s not coming.
My break is at seven. Except for the holidays, this might be the first Sunday in months I haven’t sat down at his table on my break. There will be no murmured, “so tell me about what you’ve been reading.” No stories about what shenanigans his students have been getting up to.
6:55. I’m just going to call it. He’s probably out to dinner with some gorgeous redhead. Or at home cuddling on the couch with said redhead, watching stupid movies and drinking hot chocolate with whipped cream and sprinkles.
I have no claim on him.
No claim other than fifteen minutes of my Sunday night. The best fifteen minutes of my week, if I’m honest. Though I kind of thought…
There was something happening last week. Something big. Or at least the promise of something big. It felt different. And he’d almost reached out as I was getting up to go back on shift to take my hand. I’d felt the specter of the touch that could have been all week long.
Goosebumps break out on my arms as I remember, and I pull my sleeves down over my hands.
“Will you be here next week?” His voice had been low, almost urgent. Any hint of teasing banter that had come before was gone.
He’d never asked before. Always said something benign like, see you next week. Or, if I was really lucky, something like, until next week. When he said that, I could dine all week on the old-fashioned gallantry. It was so easy to imagine him as some kind of historical hero come to life. All broad shoulders and long limbs and whisky-smooth voice that burned as it went down.
I’d hesitated a little. Wobbled a bit on my sensible rubber-soled shoes. In that moment, my feet didn’t hurt. There was no twinge in my lower back. And I would never be sleepy again.
“More reliable than the postal service,” I’d quipped before turning serious. “I’ll be here.”
He’d said something about finding that astonishing, and I’d read about a billion different meanings into it for the rest of the night. And for the rest of the week.
The prevailing meaning seemed to be that he found it astonishing I wouldn’t have other plans on Valentine’s Day.
Which meant he thought someone—some man—found me desirable. Which meant, when I remembered that almost-touch of his hand, he found me desirable.
Seven o’clock. Donna partially hip checks me to remind me it’s break time. I do everything I can to avoid looking her in the eye as I move to clock out. Can’t bear the sight of upraised eyebrows. Duh, like I don’t know Professor Hottie isn’t here.
There’s no way I’m going to take the time for Donna to fix me something to drink, so I grab for the first bottled juice in the cooler and pay. It tastes like ash.
And there are no empty tables for me to grab. No uncomfortable high barstools to sit on, either. It’s like finals time. But worse because everyone is so damn chipper and gooey-eyed. Two-by-two.
I almost go to the back and grab a pack of brownies, hide out in the storage room and forget that calories and sexy professors exist. But that way lies madness. I’ve got to get out of here.
The hollow clang of bottle hitting trash can startles me. At least it didn’t break, I think, though that won’t mean taking out the trash will be any less hellacious later on.
I end up holding the door open for a herd of teenagers; I’m a horrible person for not going back and helping Paulo and Donna out; but I just can’t cross that threshold.
The sun went down an hour ago. It’s cool outside, but not cold. The oppressive humidity of spring and summer will be here soon enough, and breathing in the fresh air would do me a world of good, but there’s nowhere to sit on the patio and pretend to scroll through my texts.
If I go sit in my car, I’ll be tempted to drive off. Drive away. Never come back to this coffee shop on the corner. With the table in the corner. To that chair that’s a little squeaky when you first sit down. The outlet that’s hidden which keeps the undergrads and highschoolers away from it. His table. I’d be a fool to think of it as our table.
And where would I even go if I drove off into the dark?
Tempting as it is, there’s my rent to consider and the nest egg I’m determined to build up. Bills. So many bills. And insurance on the Camry.
The word sounds weird in my brain, like something unrecognizable even though I’ve seen it a million times. What does the word even mean—Camry? It’s like some made-up word.
I’m cold. Getting really cold in my thin black hoodie and stupid green apron I forgot to take off before I walked out here, and I can’t keep standing on the patio like a moron. The weak beep on my rental-car white, mother-of-four sedan seems exceedingly loud to me. No siren call, that beep bloop. Camry. It probably means: well, shit you tried.
I get in the passenger seat. Shove some stuff in the floorboard so I have a place to sit. At least this way I can’t drive away.
Set the timer clipped to my apron. Twelve minutes. I have twelve minutes to sit here with my eyes closed in the dark of my car not even parked under a light. So many bad choices. I have twelve minutes to sit here with my eyes closed and pretend that lump in my throat just means I’m thirsty. Pretend I don’t hate everybody and everything and most of all myself.
Which isn’t even true. I don’t hate myself. I’m pretty fucking proud of everything I’ve accomplished. Even if it isn’t on a socially-approved timeline. Maybe that’s what makes it even sweeter—nobody else realizes just how much I’ve done to be here right now.
In the passenger seat of my no-frills sedan that I’m four months from paying off.
Maybe I should put in for a shift change.
That shakes me out of my pity party. No way am I complicating my life just because I got a little too big for my britches and let myself dream.
* * *
“Professor Hottie never showed tonight.”
Thank you, Donna.
“That’s too bad,” she continued when I just keep mopping. “I was kinda hoping for some kind of Richard Gere in a white limo moment.”
Donna is old school. Big braids and full of drama. It takes me a moment to place her reference. “Gee, I’ve always wanted to be compared to a prostitute.”
“Aw, you’re half way there, darlin. You already have a heart of gold.”
I guess if I took up sex work, I’d at least make good money.
The last guy I slept with told me I had dead-eyes when we fucked. Not exactly a ringing endorsement.
Cleanup is, mercifully, a quick endeavor this evening despite the huge crowds and the campers we have to politely remind to leave about half a million times. Donna and I work pretty well together if we ignore Paulo and just put our heads down. It would have been a whole lot easier if Kevin hadn’t “called in sick.” (We all know his girlfriend issued an ultimatum and he couldn’t find anybody to replace him tonight, but we’ll all stay silent on the matter.)
There’s a tap at the door I pretend to not hear. We’re very clearly closed—doors locked, chairs on tables, wet floors. But even so, I have an immediate and lush fantasy while I’m pushing the mop back and forth across the dark slate floors.
It’s Professor Hottie—Tom, I’ve known his name is Tom since the third Sunday he came in since we are required to befriend the regulars, but I can barely bring myself to call him that, even in my fantasies—tap-tap-tapping on the door. He’d knock, but his hands are full of flowers and a take-out bag with real food and amazing dessert. When I unlock the door and ask him what he’s doing here, he invites me to a picnic in the back of his truck (even though I know he drives one of those fancy electric cars).
Hey, it’s my fantasy, I can set the scene any way I want.
Donna shoos me out the door, breaking all the rules and promising to clock out for me. I toss my apron at her and take the flowers from Tom, charmed by the bright simplicity of the petals.
“Come on,” he calls, and I follow him into the dark.
There’s a pallet of blankets in the bed of his truck, and it’s cozy and sweet to snuggle up to him in the almost-deserted parking lot. (Real-me points out that’s kind of creepy, but fantasy-having-me shuts her up pretty quickly because he’s just put his arm around me.) I take in a deep breath. He smells like clean air and citrus spice and everything that’s gold and bright and nothing like the burnt-roast-brown that haunts my work hours.
He pours out wine from a plaid thermos, and we feast under the stars, heedless of the chill. We’re drunk on giddiness and warm with desire. And when he whispers, “Reina, please” my pulse stutters.
He touches my hand, my hair, and when he moves to kiss me, I feel all the stars in the sky take up residence in my pelvis.
The tapping continues, and I continue to ignore it until Donna takes pity on the poor woman outside and shout-mouths, “we’re closed. Sorry.”
But no matter how hard I try, the fantasy doesn’t pick up where I left it. And I want to get back to all of those twinkling balls of fire lighting me up from the inside, but it’s futile. Guess shoving a limp mop around isn’t really conducive to a rich and prurient fantasy life.
Donna and I lock up, say good riddance to Paulo. I head to my car, alone in the dull and dark lot. For half a second I expect there to be a note tucked under the wiper, but of course there’s not. That’s probably creepier than an imagined truckbed picnic.
My trusty Camry shuttles me home—reliable sorrow, that’s the second definition for the word, I’m sure—and I pull into my apartment complex. Some jerk is in my spot, forcing me to circle around and find a space out in the open. Maybe a freak storm will blow in and blow down the corrugated metal the reserved spots are under. But, of course, such malicious hopes would only harm me, too, since I’m now pulling into a lone spot under the big, bare pecan tree by the greenbelt.
Three flights of stairs after being on your feet all day is a punishment I wouldn’t wish on my dearest enemy. But right now I’m my dearest enemy. I’m too tired to even shower, and the regret for not washing off the burnt-coffee smell that sticks to my hair and embeds itself into my pores will be multiplied in the morning when I invariably oversleep.
If I sleep.
I do sleep. But it’s not a good sleep. No pretty fantasies of wine and cheesecake in truck beds and professors with lips that are firm and lush visit me. And Monday morning comes too early, as usual, when I start the early morning shift at the allergy clinic.
Four in the afternoon comes none too quickly. But the week somehow still manages to fly by. Never enough time to get everything done. Never enough time to simply sit and be.
It’s probably a good thing, I think the next Sunday afternoon when I pull into the parking lot, that Tom wasn’t there to sweep me off my feet last week. The last thing I have time for is human connection. There aren’t enough hours in the day for me, and what would I give up, anyway?
But that damned, gurgling hope makes the walk to the coffee shop on the corner an exercise in masochism.
7:03. He’s not coming.