The sky was dead. The deathly gray spread across acridly. Clouds were just forming pure white blotches over the pessimistic view, and the wind slowly lifted leaves and tufts of paper flitting across the Chicago streets. Steel plumes of smoke rose from the many chimneys all over the city, blending into the caustic gray.
Leslie gazed up at the sickening sky. With a subtle grimace she turned away, focusing her attention on something less trivial. The wind, though soft, bit at her exposed face as she struggled to get her hood over her long-fallen-out ponytail. Her thick black locks still wisped at her face mercilessly, the nylon fabric not providing enough shielding. Trudging along, she searched for the old coffee shop she had planned to visit once more. Squinting to lessen the chill of the wind, she soon found her old cozy retreat just around the corner.
She walked in with a sigh of relief as she shrugged off her jacket in the doorway. The shrill ring of the welcome bell resounded across the espresso-scented room.
Immediately, a head shot up at the sound and Leslie, grinning, made her way over to Russ.
His delicate sea-green eyes caressed over her face as she approached, a smile beginning to form over his own. A hand combed through his wiry red hair as he stood up at her advance, almost abashedly. “Well, so we meet here again,” he chuckled in his all-too-immature voice, causing them both to grin and stare down at their shoes in unease.
This had been the fifth time they’d met at this very same coffee shop over the past three weeks. It had been pure coincidence all five. Apparently, for some reason, both of them adored this tiny old place and used it as an escape. Leslie rarely came here, but as soon as she met Russ, her visits had been a bit more frequent each week. Not every time she came did she meet Russ here, but the majority of it, completely unplanned. She had found out last time that this was Russ’s usual retreat. The espresso and quiet was hard to resist. She had to admit that she had considered making this her own retreat after lagging or pessimistic days like this.
“Yes, I guess so” she muttered, partly as a response, but mostly a continuation of her thoughts. Her eyes traveled up to gaze into Russ’s before he swiftly pulled out one of the squeaking chairs for her. In an act of chivalry, he swept his arm gaudily toward the chair, urging her to sit. As soon as she hung her jacket over the back and took her seat, he scooted her chair into the table and scrambled to take his. Instantly, he transformed from chivalrous fool to witty old Russ.
“So how are you?” he asked childishly, folding his hands and setting his chin there. He gazed at her with a clever grin sliding over his face, lopsided and inane.
As Leslie removed her useless scarf and folded it in her lap, she thought through this. So many answers swept through her mind, but only one seemed quite to emerge. “I’m good,” she replied dully, focusing her attention on drawing 8s with her finger under the table.
“Aw, c’mon! There’s more to life than that. Tell me something exciting! Be verbose, superb --- give me an autobiography!” he exclaimed dramatically, throwing his hands into the air in some amorous motion.
Leslie had to try her hardest to suppress a giggle. Leave it to Russ to want her whole days’ worth of breath in explaining just how she felt at the moment. “I’m...fine?” she tried again, giving him the most effervescent of looks.
“More like it,” he commended slightly. “Now put more effort into it. You’re marvelous! You’re enthralled! You’re on cloud nine! Let me know your emotion!” His voice seemed to change from dramatic speech to intense song all in one sentence. One of the waitresses passing by eyed him condescendingly and soon passed on. Leslie sunk in her chair abashedly. A grin seemed to light up his eyes and he returned to normal. “See, now you’re fine.”
Immediately afterwards, he pulled a waiter over and ordered their coffees, constantly glancing over at Leslie to make sure his order was right. Slowly, she returned to her upright position in the chair when the waiter left. Her finger left the bottom of the table and its frantic scribbling.
Small talk was the theme as they waited for their much-needed caffeinated beverages, jumping sporadically from one conversation to another and back. They still hadn’t made the transition to real talk yet, and Leslie didn’t believe it would come anytime soon (or that they’d meet enough in order for it to). Soon enough, their cappuccino arrived and the table was quiet, talk buzzing around them. Leslie busied herself with her surroundings, glancing around but soaking nothing in. Leslie was used to quiet (it wasn’t awkward at all to her) but Russ seemed to fidget about and sip loudly at his drink.
Deeper and deeper their acquaintanceship grew, but soon it became late and time for them to leave. As Leslie slowly rose and donned her scarf and jacket, Russ halted her. "I don’t know your whole name.” He smiled. “Or your number... What if we never meet again?”
Russ had a valid point, his smile was irresistible, and his eyes followed her. Ah, what was there to lose?
“Um, Franklin. Leslie Franklin,” she supplied diffidently. Leslie quickly and nervously rattled off each digit of her number, Russ scribbling them with lightning speed on his napkin. Before she could even ask, he ripped off half and handed it to her, still donning his ever-longing grin. Folding it into her hand without looking, Leslie said her goodbye and rushed toward the door. A complete stranger! With her number! With her name! It was extraordinary. This was a new step: a new brick to add onto the stairs she had been gradually ascending to candor.
With one swift movement outside, she opened up the delicately folded napkin piece and carefully scanned its contents: his name in a stunning hand with the number vigilantly printed under it.
Years went by. Week after week their meetings became more frequent, these planned and arranged with the utmost care. Each time, they would reveal more and more about themselves, from the most insignificant habits, to irrational fears, to deepest secrets. Each meeting they grew closer, their friendship fully intact now, their bond swelling stronger and stronger. Russell Drake changed in appearance: his face grew thinner, more streamlined; his expression philosophical; his limbs fuller and more muscular. But his hair stayed the same wiry red, and each time he saw Leslie that hand still combed through the thin strands. And those eyes still stayed the same, although bright, deeper, with each day. Their sea-green glistened like the impetuous waves of a storm, swirling just as ominously. His wit grew more in depth, more flirtatious; and his voice gruffer, losing its immaturity.
Every meeting was fantastic. And more and more, Leslie began to love this old coffee shop. She would frequent there, even if Russ did not. But the times that she did, it felt empty without his voice filling her ears. She’d sit and drink her coffee, immediately leaving afterward by some unknown impulse. Life grew longer. Their visits grew less often. They’d go weeks without stepping foot into the coffee shop together. Yet, Leslie would still visit --- the welcome bell like music, the espresso scent nirvana. There was something magical about this coffee shop, yet the spark didn’t ignite quite as well without Russ there.
Soon enough, months went by without a visit to the coffee shop, with or without Russell. Life grew dull, and many times she was urged to frequent its threshold once more, yet each time something held her back.
Slowly, gradually, Russ seeped into her dreams each day she didn’t see him. Some nights they were memories, and other nights they were only dreams, but eventually he was a constant in all of them. And, inevitably, her memory went back a few years --- back when times weren’t as awkward or as frequent, back when he never graced her mind for more than a second. Life grew lonely. He was a friend, a deep friend, and Leslie found every chore slow and tiresome without contact with him. And yet, Leslie found herself pondering what he really was. A deep friend, she convinced herself; a deep friend, over and over again. But she couldn’t keep herself from choking back tears when she finally heard that voice over the phone. It had been five months.
The walk took every muscle in her body to make. She was frozen with shock. Five months. Five months of silence. The thrill shook her body along with nervousness. Would things be different? Why had his calls, his meetings, suddenly faded away? Why did he want to see her again after so long a quiet? All these questions and more came pouring over her brain, each harder to answer than the one before. Suddenly she found herself at the threshold. It felt good to be standing her again, after so many times she’d stood here in her head --- only stood, never stepping inside. Her eyes focused on the rug under her dirty boots. “Welcome,” it read in faded white letters. And it was a welcome indeed. This old coffee shop had become a retreat, a home even, to her: even more than the building called her house.
Somehow, by impulse, she was called to look up, and there his eyes locked with hers. They were searching eyes. They were soft eyes. They were her eyes. And as they caressed over her face once more, like always, she finally stepped through the glass door.
The welcome bell sounded off proudly: music to her ears. The espresso scent wafted to her nose: the essence of nirvana. Her legs automatically led her to Russ’s table --- the table always open, the table at which they always sat, the table where he was.
Habitually, she shrugged off her jacket and hung it over the back of her chair. She sat down, with no gallantry to assist her, and folded her still-useless scarf in her lap. (It was always cold. It would always be cold.) And when she looked up to meet his gaze, vision suddenly seemed different to her. His wiry hair was beautiful, and she could just see the tiny rays of sun glinting off of the red strands, causing them to turn pure gold. His eyes were magnifying, exploring her face -- her mind, her very soul, it seemed! His smile was intoxicating: she was drunk with some strange feeling at just the sight of it. She felt weak.
“Hey,” Russ uttered softly, even with his gruff voice, and immediately the feeling reappeared. Even the sound of his voice sent a twinge of the strange feeling through her body. “It’s been awhile, hasn’t it?”
“Ha, yeah,” Leslie choked out, her eyes straying to her hands folded up in her lap. She couldn’t look up. She might get the strange feeling again. Her hands writhed around, not being able to stay in one specific place. Their conversation was strange. She was quieter than usual and he was more excited and witty. He did most of the talking, and Leslie couldn’t meet his eyes again. Soon enough, before they had even received their coffee, Leslie abruptly stood up, threw on her scarf, snatched up her jacket and mechanically headed for the door. There was no chair scooting out behind her, or scramble to get in front of her, and no yell or interrogation, only a soft “Leslie?”
Her heart burned. She couldn’t stand it anymore. She pushed through the doors and seconds later was around the corner heading to her house. The confusing thoughts still swirled through her head. Her paced quickened. Only a block or so more to go. She had heard footsteps behind her as soon as she pushed through the door, but they no longer sounded from the sidewalk. Silence.
Leslie had no idea why she was running. She had no idea what this feeling was, and she had no idea what to do. She just knew she felt, even with no idea what that feeling was. A twinge of something deeper than she’d ever felt before; the beginning of something special.
She halted. It couldn’t be. Years -- It had been years! -- and yet, she never knew it. This was what it was. This was what she resented so much. And suddenly the world was clear; it faded to a black and white film and Russ was the only color in this world. Her feet automatically turned around to face the way to the coffee shop.
She was falling for him.
Quickly, ever so quickly, her feet swept her to the retreat they shared. It was just around the corner. So close. So close! And there it appeared, before her eyes -- the embodiment of her life. There at their table Russ sat, staring off with an empty look on his face. He had waited. And it clicked.
She had never known what it was about this old coffee shop that she had loved so much. Now that the world made so much more sense in her sudden bout of clarity, she couldn't believe she had never seen it. All of the while, with every visit Leslie had made by herself to this magical retreat, the spark she'd been missing was him.