In the In Between
The night was cold – or at least, about as cold as San Francisco ever got. It was one of those nights when the first hint of fog came rolling off the ocean, cutting through thick cashmere coats like only a west coast cold can.
It was quite a bummer, she couldn’t help but think. She had spent almost the equivalent of a month’s rent on the coat, and it still didn’t do the trick. And if overpriced Nordstrom coats couldn’t cut the cold, what could?
She shoved her hands deeper in her pockets. Lit only by uncommitted street lights, the neighborhood was a dingy, untouristy kind of place. When she had first come here, she had wanted to explore every nook and cranny of the city, even the less savory areas like these. But that was five years ago – had she really been out of college for that long? – and she couldn’t help but feel like some of the shine had worn off.
Of course, the shine had never left her favorite coffee place, seven blocks from her apartment. It was just a small enough distance for her not to feel like an idiot for saving some money and walking it. Sadly, it was enough to make the feeling seep out of her ears and nose.
The door to Eva’s Coffee swung open and shut again with a satisfying clink of bells and draught of cold air. As usual, the place was nearly full. Even more full than usual, actually. The only table free was one in the corner by the window, where she usually sat. Eva would have kept it free for her. One good thing about staying in the neighborhood – business patrons know your quirks. Al smiled as she sat down and slipped off her coat.
Al spun the coffee menu around in her thawing hands. Not much point to looking at the menu, really. All she ever ordered was the house brew with two creams: warm, organic, and cheap to boot. Ridiculously strong, too, which was always a plus.
Eva, an Italian lesbian blessed with the grace of an Indian belly dancer, sidled between clientele to Al with a cup of the house brew in her hands. “Came a little late. I was almost worried I’d saved the table for no reason.” Eva set the coffee on the table, taking care to show off the low cut of her shirt as she did so.
“You know I wouldn’t miss a Saturday night at Eva’s.”
“Mm, I’m beginning to think you wouldn’t miss any night at Eva’s. Don’t you ever go out anymore, girl?” Eva scooted into a chair as she spoke and rearranged the condiments at the edge of the table.
“I go out. Sometimes. On Tuesdays.” Al took a sip of her coffee. “It’s swing night, you know.” She took another sip. “Have I ever told you how good this is?”
“Numerous times. Sadly, I’ve given up on thinking it’s some kind of weird I’m-a-poet-so-I-can’t-speak-my-feelings pick-up line.” Eva tousled Al’s hair as she stood up. “Gimme a yell when you want another.”
Al smiled at Eva’s retreating figure as she flipped open her laptop. It was running on an operating system two editions too old, but the keyboard worked, the word processor didn’t crash frequently, and the speakers were still strong enough to pump out her favorite pirated music, so she wasn’t going to get picky. As long as the meager royalties kept eking in from her published work, she wouldn’t have to pawn it for food and cigarette money. Problem being that it was already beginning to look like that – a mugging the night before had left her going hungry and cold turkey for the week, and she could never be sure when the next check would arrive in her P.O box.
“Time to write for your tummy, Al,” she muttered, clicking open a document on her desktop. A page of poetry popped up to say hello. It would, Al fancied, be her masterpiece. If she ever got it finished. Mostly the writer and writing just stared at each other.
Al stared at the screen. “God I hate this.” She rubbed her hands through her hair. Her hands were still cold and her hair was greasy from lack of showering. The short strands didn’t like the lack of showering any more than their wearer did, but Al’s constantly inflating water bills didn’t allow for her and water to get too friendly these past few seasons.
“May I sit here?”
“Sorry, it’s just that everywhere else is full.” The gravelly baritone voice was coming out of rather sensuous lips, attached to a more sensuous face, which was …
Al blushed a little. “Oh, of course. Sure.” She moved her laptop so he would have a place to put his coffee.
“My name’s Eli. What’s yours?”
“Al. Well, Alyxandria. But I go by Al. Being called Alyxandria always makes me feel like I’m in trouble.”
“I know how that goes. That’s why I don’t go by Eliot.”
Al laughed. “So, uh, what are you doing at Eva’s? I don’t think I’ve seen you here before.”
“You haven’t. I’m working through the phonebook checking out new coffee houses.”
“This one is the best, I promise.”
“It certainly has the prettiest girls.” Eli held his coffee under his nose. His nostrils flared. He had, Al noticed, a rather large nose.
“Eliot – that’s a Jewish name, isn’t it?”
Eli gave her a look from under thick eyebrows. “Have you been taking a gander at my nose?” he asked with a smirk.
“I … well, yes … I mean, no. I just pay attention to names is all. I’m a writer. It goes along with having baby naming websites bookmarked.”
“I’m sure.” Eli grinned and set down his coffee. Al noticed that it was black. Did he take sugar, she wondered? “If you must know, I am. I haven’t practiced in a long time, though. Not really keeping up with the whole chosen people thing these days.”
“Mmm. I’ve never been much into religion myself. It’s all too complicated. I mean, I’ve dabbled in stuff, but nothing ever really stuck.” Al ducked her head down to take a sip of her coffee. “Sorry, I talk too much.”
“It’s fine. I don’t get out too much, so it’s nice to talk to someone.”
“You’ll have to tell Eva that I’m not the only homebody. She’s been nagging on me lately to go out on the town.”
“Eva, the owner? She’s pretty.”
“Not my type. And you’re not hers.”
“A girl who moved to San Francisco to fulfill its reputation?”
“Something like that.” Al sat back in her chair and ran her finger around the edge of her now-empty coffee cup. “Give me a good word to start a stanza with.”
“Coffee?” Eva had situated herself next to the table while Al had been thinking.
“That’s a good one,” Al considered.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, sweetheart, but I’m talking about your coffee cup. The ceramic is lonely without some liquid to fill it.”
“Oh!” Al looked up. “Yeah, that’d be great.” Eva headed off with Al’s cup.
“Coffee’s a good word. Perhaps a bit pretentious though. It just begs to be followed with something about skinny jeans and pea coats.”
“Nothing wrong with skinny jeans and pea coats.” Under the table, Al rubbed her skinny jean-clad legs together self consciously.
“Of course not. But if you’re the writer named Al that I know about – the one that writes for the high literature rags I like to read – you should realize that pretense doesn’t publish well.” Eli was now caressing his coffee cup in a manner that would have been very distracting had his words not been even more interesting.
“You’ve read my work?” Al bit her lip. She then realized that that was how she tried to entice boys in 11th grade, and that that would not work now and was not her intent. Not that she wouldn’t mind enticing Eli …
“I’m an avid fan.”
“Your coffee, sweetheart. Would you like anything, sir? You’ve been nursing that cup since you came in – perhaps you’d like to try something else? We’ve got teas, sodas, chai –”
“The coffee’s fine. I’m just distracted. I’m sure you understand how it is.” He gave Eva a smile. It had that toothpaste commercial brightness to it that Al had always longed to achieve.
“If you can crack that girl open, my hat’s off to you. I’ve been trying for years.” Eva set down Al’s new coffee, not bothering to flash some cleavage this time.
“So I distract you, huh?”
Eli grinned. “I hope the feeling’s mutual. I know I like being distracted.” Without waiting for Al to reply, he asked, “Would you like a smoke? I know it’s cold out –”
“I’d love one,” Al practically groaned. “A week without money for cigarettes feels like an eternity in purgatory, let me tell you.”
Eli grinned. “I can’t imagine it’s that bad.” He slid quickly out of his chair and moved to help Al put her coat back on.
“Why thank you. Has anyone ever told you you’re quite the gentleman?” Al flashed him a slightly yellow smile.
“Not for a while. But it’s always nice to hear.”