Joel drove up to the coffee shop despite the horrid conditions outside. He listened to the torrential downpour while he sent Elaine a text message. It simply read “I’m here.”
Her reply was even more simple: “here.”
He exited his car and ran as fast as he could to limit how drenched he would become. Any other evening would have been much preferred for this rendezvous, but duty calls.
Joel could not even observe the building through the rain. The drops fell in thick white sheets and he tried to limit his exposure to them by pulling his sweater over his head. The lights of other buildings and the street lamps made it clear just how hard it was raining, as the precipitation created a halo in their glow.
Elaine met him outside the building under an overhang. She was damp, but she had obviously been covered long enough to mostly dry off.
“It’s a mess out there: I almost crashed a million times.” Elaine confessed. She said this absent minded while she drained more water from her ponytail. She smiled at Joel. Joel thought her smile to be one of the most beautiful things ever. “How did you find driving over?” she asked earnestly.
Joel strained as much water from his clothing as he could.
“It doesn’t matter.” He said with a smile.
That smile quickly faded.
“What’s up?” he asked her with a serious tone. He was annoyed by her demand to come out, but he would do almost anything for her.
Correction: he would do anything for her. She is his best friend and most important person in his life.
“I just missed you. It’s been two years. I know things have changed, but I still care so much about you.” she responded and gestured that she would hold his sweater.
“I got it, thank you.” he responded. Joel wipes his hands over the sleeves to pretend to get the water off. The action was fruitless.
He chose to leave the time reference alone.
“Anyway, how do you take your coffee now?”
“Just black, thanks. You inspired that.” she replied while opening the door to the coffee shop. It was very busy in spite of the weather. Almost every table had a patron, most of patrons had a warm drink.
Joel walked up to the counter to order two black coffees while Elaine found a place to sit. This order made his life easy: no need to remember orders, or worry about giving someone who ordered black the cup of someone who ordered just sugar.
The clerk was an old woman who had obviously been doing this very job for far too long. Her hair was grey and disheveled. It was Joel’s assumption that she was at the end of a very long shift.
“What do you want?” she asked, as if Joel was disturbing her. He chose to ignore her brash tone to avoid an issue.
“Two black, no sugar.” He replied quickly in a matter of fact tone to avoid additional questions. He did not enjoy confrontation, and he rarely felt like dealing with brash expressions of self-righteousness. He, over the years, learned to keep distance from such situations. He knows he would just say the wrong thing if he “poked-the-bear.”
He stood at the counter while the old woman turned and started pouring the black-gold into paper cups. Joel had been to this provider of warm beverages a few times, and the coffee was decent. In fact, he would argue that it is the best the city has to offer. That, unfortunately, was not saying great things about the city.
Of course, that appraisal does not include the coffee he could make. It was the best ever. This was a fact that was never proven, but Joel knew it true. He assumed no one would argue him if he said that, seeing as he drank literally dozens of cups a day.
The woman placed the paper cups on the counter. Joel picked up the cups and marched over to the booth where Elaine was sitting. It was closer to the counter than he would have liked, but there was no reason to sit by the window.
“How have you been, really? The hospital stay freaked me out. I’m sorry I didn’t come to visit. You know: Mother Life.” Elaine launched into conversation right away, talking quickly while effortlessly avoiding stuttering and slurring. Joel was thoroughly impressed. He could barely say his name without screwing something up, and he thinks that he speaks well.
Joel waited for her to pause before he jumped in.
“I’ve been good, all things considered. I have made a couple of friends out where I moved, and they took care of me when I needed them to. My house is ‘not-bad’, even though parts are rotting away where I stand. The TV is terrible, though. I still need to do something about that. How have you been? How’s the little one?”
“Good!” Elaine replied excitedly.
She ended that thought very quickly. The two of them sat in silence and filled the awkward tension by sipping at their coffee.
“So…” Joel broke the silence after a minute or two. He was starting to feel mildly used.
“I think I love you.” Elaine burst out the revelation. “I have for a long time. Known: that is. I know I have a child. I know things have changed. I also know you still have the same morbid sense of humour and the same bleak outlook.” Her eyes glazed over and she started to look almost behind Joel, as if looking at his face would make everything harder: make everything more real.
“I miss those things. My ex was very ‘PC’ in most ways. It was the next best thing to impossible to go a few days without him making me feel horrible for saying something I thought was hilarious when, in all actuality, I was just trying to find an excuse to laugh. I missed having you to call. I missed having you around the metaphorical corner. I missed our time together. Over time, it developed to just missing everything about you.”
Joel was not expecting the explosion of feelings. He was silent for a while after the confession and just stared at the not-wood table between them. Elaine was afraid she said too much. It was clear by the panic in her eyes that she was afraid that Joel did not feel the same.
Joel took a long sip of his coffee, cleared his throat, and tried his best remain calm. His response started in a very quiet, almost whisper. He never took his eyes away from the surface between them.
“Do you know how long I loved you? Did you know that when we were driving down country roads together, blasting music we enjoyed back in high school, I wanted to hold your hand?”
Joel struggled to stay calm and his voice became frantic and his volume increased slightly. He finally lifted his eyes and stared straight into Elaine’s.
“Did you know that I found you the most beautiful girl I had ever seen? You vanished. You ran away. I spent literal years going over and over conversations we had in my head to see if I could find what I said to make you no longer want to come around.”
“That’s really not fair!” Elaine shouted as a sullen look fell over her face. “I loved you then. I have done the same thing: tried to find out what went wrong. What was said. What I did.”
They both looked at each other with mortified expressions. Their eyes were both tearing up with a combination of relief and anger.
“You know I’m sick, right?” Joel’s voice dropped back to a whisper, yet his eyes never came off of hers. “You know that I will never be the person that you deserve?”
Elaine’s eyes dropped again, and Joel felt very awkward but thought he was keeping his composure very well.
Joel spoke after a moment of silence. His voice was calm, but he sounded as if he could start screaming at any moment. “I can never be sure of what is real and what is not. I am assuming this is all reality: I am assuming this is the way that I see it.”
“Joel: you’re passed out.” Elaine responded, suddenly very calm. “This has never and will never happen. You just want it so badly. In ten minutes, you won’t even remember this. Fuck, you know that you might never see me again.”
Just then, the room suddenly vanished and all the people went with it. Joel and Elaine were just suspended in black, illuminated by an unknown pale green source.
“Why?” Joel pleaded, half at Elaine and half to the world. “I just want my friend back. I just want to talk to someone from my past.”
It was no use. As soon as Joel realized that it was all in his head, Elaine froze in time. Her beautiful eyes went cold and lifeless, and Joel could feel tears rolling down his face as she slowly disappeared into obscurity. He was left alone with his thoughts again. He wanted out. He wanted something. He was confused, upset, and lonely.
“WHAT’S WRONG WITH ME?”
Joel screamed into the abyss as the tears continued down his face. He had started to sob uncontrollably.
“Even in my dreams I am FUCKING PATHETIC!”
The black space around him seemed to absorb the echo of his confessions.
Elaine slowly dissolved into the background starting from her face.
Joel was alone.
He lay down onto the not-ground. There may not have been a floor, but something cushioned his body. His face was pillowed by his arms.
No one came to his aid.
There was no sound.
Only a deafening silence.
In a city, somewhere, a heart monitor lets out a piercing squeal.
In a city, not far from where you are now, a girl’s heart breaks.
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