My 200th post. Enjoy this latest bit of fiction from The Muse and I.

~Tom

Neil and Jack arrived simultaneously this time.

As they approached the counter, Clara was emptying and cleaning a recently used portafilter. Her movements were smooth, fluid; polished. Watching her, Jack assumed she was probably one of the more veteran baristas here. After a few hundred servings the process is a product of rote memory, yet, there is a nuance to those baristas who go beyond merely rote execution. There is an extra degree of thoughtful attention, an understanding of the “why” in the process, combining the A,B,C’s with a mix of art and science, producing exceptionally well made espresso. That is what differentiates a “good enough to get your through” kind of coffee one may have to stomach down at an airport and the kind of coffee that makes you pause, close your eyes and smile, even in the most hectic of days because, damn that’s good.

Clara carried herself with an air of ownership, she may have been a manager or a long time employee, but there was an attention to detail beyond the coffee making which Jack had noticed. Clara glanced back briefly, recognizing Jack.

“Hey, you’re back.” She said with a welcoming smile.

“Well, I thought I’d see if you could duplicate that drink again. See if it was just a fluke or if it was something truly special.”

“Psh… I’m the best there is, Jack!” She said as she secured two properly filled and tamped portafilters onto the espresso machine and turned to face him.

“That’s a bold claim…” Cocking an eyebrow playfully. “And look at that,” Jack said looking back to Neil with a cheeky smile. “She remembered my name.”

“Oh, is that your name?” She said with a wink, firing back, trying to take him down a rung or two. Jack laughed appreciatively, he could here Neil chuckle slightly.

“Look at you firing back, well done.”

“Gotta keep the customers in line! And yeah, it’s bold…only if you can’t back it up!” She said with a proud smile.”So, you had the medium iced cold brew last time.” It wasn’t a question.

“Correct.”

“Same syrups as before? Sugar-free, no cream.” She looked over Jack’s shoulder at Neil and smiled. “I’ll be right with you, sir.”

“Yeah, no problem.” Neil said, then quickly added. “Thank you.”

Jack looked back at Neil again, Oh look at that – he thought to himself – a ‘thank you’ this time.

“That’s correct, thank you, Clara.” Jack said as he turned back around. They exchanged the formalities of payment, Jack paying with his debit card and putting some cash in the tip jar. Jack moved to the side to wait for his drink and let Neil order.

“Oh, I’ll bring it out to you.” Clara said.

“You sure? I’ll start expecting that every time.” He teased.

“Oh, just go sit down!”

Jack held his hands up in surrender. “Ok, ok… I’m going.”

The same small table was available so Jack took off his jacket, placing it on a nearby chair and sat down. Clara was nice to Neil but there was a difference in how Clara acted. She didn’t remember him, not even a blip on the radar. She was customer service nice. The same warm, yet polished, customer service she’d given to many strangers. Neil struggled to make conversation. Jack gave him credit for at least trying. Neil indicated he’d be sitting with Jack and walked over.

“How do you do it?”

“What?”

“What you did back there.”

“I’m just talking, Neil. Really. But, this does help segue into something I wanted to talk to you about. Last week you said that Clara was ‘smokin’ and said she was out of your league. What did you mean by that, exactly?” At that moment, Clara came up, placing the drinks down, standing closer to Jack than Neil. “Ah, speak of the devil, perfect timing! You really didn’t have to bring the drinks over.”

“Oh, it’s nothing, really. You know, I told your joke to so many people, they all thought it was great!”

“Well, I’m glad I could help make you and your friends day.”

“You guys need anything else?”

“I think we’re good. Neil?”

Neil shook his head. “Nah, I’m good, thanks.”

“Ok.” Clara turned her head to look at Jack, her right hand touching his shoulder, she continued. “Just let me know if you need anything else.”

Jack didn’t even flinch, a smile on his lips. “Thanks again, Clara, you’re too kind.”

As she turned to walk away, Jack interrupted. “Oh, wait!” Clara turned around just as quick. “I can’t let you leave without giving you my first impression of the coffee! After all, you said you could back it up.”

Clara looked over the shop, double checking to make sure nobody else had walked in.”Very well. Let’s see if your palate is refined enough to recognize good coffee.” She challenged, teasingly.

“Check out this one!” Jack chuckled to Neil

“Well, I’m waiting.” Clara, feigning impatience.

“Oh, we can’t have that now, can we?” Jack teased as he took the straw and lid off the cup and began mimicking a wine taster. Sniffing the cold brew coffee, raising the cup to the light, acting as pretentious as he could be. He slurped at the coffee and began swishing it around his mouth. Clara rolled her eyes and surpressed a laugh.

“Uhg, would you just get over yourself already!”

Jack swallowed and let out a dramatic, “Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhh.”

“Well!?” Clara insisted.

“Meh, it was good enough.” Jack said with a shrug.

“Oh!” Clara said and smacked his shoulder, laughing.

Jack laughed.”In all seriousness I didn’t get that much coffee, but from what I tasted, it was good. Here, let me take a real drink this time.”

And so he did. Holding the brew in his mouth just a little to lett the flavors roll over his tongue before swallowing.

“Oh, that is good! This is some damn good coffee.”

I know.” Clara had a playful ‘I told you so’ tone as she did an about-face and briskly walked away, a little bounce in her step. Jack chuckled as he put the lid and straw back on the drink. He took another pull and looked at Neil. Neil shook his head and stole a glance at Clara as she walked away.

“Just human interaction, my friend, kicked up to where it should be.”

“What’s with the touching?”

“Hm?”

“The touching. Last week when you supposedly told her that joke, I watched you touch her. And just now, she looked at you practically the whole time barely glancing over when she addressed me and then she touched your shoulder. You guys are practically strangers and she playfully smacks your shoulder? Seriously, what’s up with that?”

“Oh… you’re not ready for all of that, my friend.”

“Stop calling me your friend. I’m not your friend.”

“Fair enough. Touching is a… delicate subject. It’s nothing taboo. Girls do it all the time. Just watch them and you’ll see. It can be for comfort, or a basic way to communicate, it can be rapport building, when they want to emphasize something. It’s a natural way they communicate and sometimes, I’d say most times, they aren’t thinking about it because it comes so natural. It can be all of those things, as well as an indicator of their interest in someone.”

Jack took a pull from his drink.

“Damn… she does make a good brew! Seriously though, don’t start touching people in your interactions. You’re not there yet and you could find yourself in an embarassing situation or two. Just watch them. Look at how they do it and why. Pay attention to when they don’t as well.”

Neil nodded thoughtfully. “So, you said last time that she isn’t even on your radar?”

“Yes, I did. We’ll get to that. Let’s go back to my question though.” Jack leaned in. “What did you mean when you said she wasn’t in your league?”

“Come on, man, you know what I meant.” Neil took a sip of his coffee.

“Pretend I don’t. I can assume all day. I think I know… but clarify for me. I could be wrong.”

“Well look at her!”

“I have. So?”

“She’s gotta be a 10, if not a 9.5.”

“And…?”

“Look at me! I’m like a 5.”

“And…? Jack emphasized, taking another pull.

“And? And she likes you and there’s no way she’d date me!” An unusual tension, a strain, now present in his tone. Neil wondered for a second why he revealed that to him.

“I see…” Jack took another trademark pause.

He discovered the power of the pause long ago working in sales. It worked in so well for a variety of things. Arguments, negotiations, regular conversation, almost any verbal interaction, the pause was golden. It gave the observer the feeling that whatever was said or presented was being considered thoughtfully, which was true most of the time. It could also prompt more information. In sales, for example, pausing and going silent at the end of a close technique would create tension, compelling the customer to speak more, add extra details, etc. In this case, creating tension and letting Neil feel the undercurrent of his own thoughts and insecurities.

Jack had been stalking Neil’s insecurities. Like a deer whose vitals were visible enough for the seasoned shooter, the shot Jack was about to take would need to hit with surgical precision. He would use this uncomfortable parallel between Clara’s supposed interest in Jack and Neil’s ex wife’s interest in him.

“And what about her? Was she in your league?” Jack watched the look on Neil’s face change with that question. After all this time, the wounds and insecurities were still there, still fresh. Neil felt like Jack could see right through him. Maybe, Neil thought, he truly had been in his position. Neil took a long breath.

“She was never in my league…” 

Jack considered the direction he wanted to go thoughtfully. Letting the silence hang in the air. Pain would be a constant in this process with Neil, he understood that all too well. Neil sipped at his drink and shook it off, albeit temporarily.

“Neil, listen to me. You are a ‘5’ because you are a ‘5’ from the inside out. Mind, heart and soul you believe this and you won’t let yourself rise higher than that.”

Neil wasn’t sue how to process that. “What about you? You said Clara wasn’t on your radar.”

“I did. But even if she was…” He looked over at Clara, busy busing a table, happily humming a tune playing on the radio, turning back to Neil he continued. “I’m not sure if I’d be interested enough.”

Neil scoffed.

“Like I said, she’s not necessarily my type. I do like her spunk though, but what else?” 

Neil just looked at him in shock, such arrogance. “Are you kidding me?”

“No”

“You’re telling me you’d turn down a chance with her? How can you not see she’s into you?” Neil thought for a second that maybe he could reverse the pressure, tempt Jack to approach Clara, to reveal who Neil thought he truly was, just a womanizer.

Jack just looked at Neil with a faint, amused smile. “I know, cocky right? The nerve! How arrogant! How could I not see it?! I may never get this chance again!” Jack took another pull from his drink.

“Here’s the thing though…” Jack leaned in, his voice lower, like he was revealing a secret to Neil. Neil leaned in slightly. “It’s not all about a pretty face, a pair of nice tits and a tight ass, Neil. Those things are nice and preferred, but they only last so long anyways. It’s not about her wanting me. It’s not about my “chance”. That comment just reveals your scarcity mindset. And it’s definitely not about finding ‘the one’, that doesn’t even exist.”

“What?”

“Neil, when you face your insecurities and deal with the darkness inside. When you start to actually give a fuck about yourself and your mission in life. When you realize that ‘leagues’ are meant to keep the guys who think like you on the bench while the rest of us get to play ball. When you realize ‘the one’ doesn’t exist. When you realize that there truly are ‘more fish in the sea’…”

“Yeah?”

“You’ll have the power to choose, Neil.”

“Choose what?”

Neil smiled, leaned back and took a sip of his coffee.