“Good morning. Coffee, please. Black.”
The same request every day, accompanied by a slow grin. My gaze never wavers from his beautiful face as his gray-blue eyes look down to count the correct change. He is meticulous about that. He pushes the right amount outward with his long fingers. Then he presses it into my hand. Whatever is leftover in his handful, he puts into the jar at the end of the counter to donate to the children’s ward at UC Davis where my mom works. Every morning, like clockwork, we do the same dance of shy smiles, brushing fingers, and stolen glances.
“Sure thing, Clinton.” I always try to use his name, now that I know what it is, whenever he comes in. I just like saying it and seeing his smile. “I’ll bring it out. I just put the grounds in.” His grin is lopsided and knee-buckling as he turns to sit at his table.
From fall to spring, we keep the hearth lit open to close because the college kids coming in from the rain and ice seem to gravitate toward it. He always does the same, finding a table off to the side, tucked against the bricks.
As I’m filling the milk containers, I spill and make myself take a deep breath. My fingers are a little shaky this morning. Not from too much caffeine, but I always get jittery around Clinton, and I’m sure my lack of sleep doesn’t help. After a bunch of guys were heckling my friends and me last night as we left a well-known gay bar, I couldn’t get to sleep. We’re in California, so there aren’t a whole lot of un-gay-friendly bars, but apparently these guys weren’t thrilled with anyone who was drinking there, straight or gay. I got no sleep and didn’t even need my alarm this morning to be up at dawn. The only bright spot to my morning was knowing Clinton would be here.
The day I asked his name so I could write it on his cup during a lunch rush, I practically melted into the kitchen floor.
“Clinton,” he stuttered out, and my heart lurched.
“Such a unique, totally Southern name. It fits you perfectly. I’m Markus.”
His eyes sparkled as he glanced down, then back up at me, fighting a smile. Everything about him seemed to fit: the accent, the name, his sandy hair, freckles across his nose, and the way the corner of his mouth drew up into an almost sly grin.
“Thank you for the coffee,” he drawls with the hint of a stutter. I find his saying you
adorable, and usually poor grammar drives me insane.
From the moment he first walked into the café, I knew he was every wet dream I had ever had rolled into one sweet man.
As I get the mugs ready, I have to force myself to keep from staring at him. We’re the only ones in the café this drizzly, cold morning, and I can’t help but peek at him as I work. He’s taken off his thick vintage woolen jacket and gloves and is mopping the rain from his hair. He looks tired and a little unkempt, and my mind drifts to thoughts of him with sleepy eyes, sluggishly climbing from my bed. He always looks like he’s just woken up and rolled out of bed in search of caffeine. He must have a girlfriend or boyfriend, or both, at home, curled in his recently vacated sheets. No one that kind and pretty—yes, pretty—is single. And from what I’ve seen since I’ve been out, rarely gay either.
He’s been coming in every morning at the same time all of senior year. I had noticed him before, in a few classes and here at the shop a few times our junior year, but I couldn’t muster the guts to talk to him. He has a very solid routine, which makes me happy since I’m as retentive and OCD as a twenty-two-year-old guy can get without being clinically diagnosed. Staring at Clinton now, I see he looks even more tired than usual, making him seem a little older. My coworker Ella and I started debating his story after he left one morning, and she caught me making “googly eyes” at him. Her words, not mine.
I’ve thought up scenarios about him in my mind; he’s a science nerd like me, taking advanced classes, or maybe a grad student working on his thesis. Ella thinks he’s a spy with a torrid background or a nuclear physicist in hiding from the Russian KGB. I’ve since asked her to stop reading so many Tom Clancy novels.
The heat from the fireplace is inviting and soothing. When we’re not busy, I love hanging out in front of the fire; it’s the best place to study during the cold, rainy days. The weather’s been so cold the last few days, but it will only get worse as winter moves forward. I also enjoy the hearth because Clinton sits there every morning.
As I get closer to his table, he smiles widely. I love his smile with his straight, bright teeth, how his whole face lights up. His warm eyes shine with hints of blue in the dim light of the café, and they make my heart thump a little harder. Every negative thought is erased as I move closer to him. Looking to the door, I pray no one steps foot inside until I can actually talk to him for longer than a sentence. When he speaks, his slight drawl peeks out on occasion, and it never ceases to make me grin like an idiot.
“Man, it’s cold,” I say like the complete moron I am. Blessedly he nods and takes the mug I offer him. His hand is icy as his fingers touch mine, and I’m so glad he’s out of the frigid wind and rain. If I’m honest, I’d love to hold his hand and warm him, but he’s so shy. I’m guessing he wouldn’t exactly appreciate that, especially since I don’t know if he has a boyfriend, or girlfriend, for that matter. I thought his smiles were bigger when I served him rather than on the occasion that Valerie or Ella worked, but maybe it was just wishful thinking.
Moving to the fire with my own mug, I put another log on. “It’s tough to go to class on days like this, eh?” I manage to say without stuttering by keeping my eyes on the fire.
“That it is.” His voice is deep, calming. I wish he’d speak more, but I’m having a hard time finding something to say that won’t make me sound like a complete stalker. I could mention Tennyson, since he was reading a book of his a few weeks ago, or I could mention seeing him at the library last week really late at night, or seeing him walking toward the union on Sunday. All of that sounds like I’m a creeper.
“How’s the coffee?” See? That isn’t so bad. I can be normal.
“It’s always good. You make the best coffee,” he says with a dip of his head.
I stare into his happy face and can see that he’s being completely honest. When he looks at me like that, with this quiet intensity that someone appreciates a painting with, I’m almost certain he likes me.
“I think you would know. Other than my roommates, you seem to be here as much as an employee.” I laugh.
His smile falters a little, and he covers by taking a long sip from his mug. After swallowing, he asks me, “Where has your redheaded slave driver been lately?”
I nearly spit my coffee out. The sentence might be the longest he’s ever said to me. And his description of Val is spot on. She has wild red hair and a mouth like a sailor; her bright, loud Scottish heritage is very evident in her looks and personality. She is the exact opposite of Jack Henry, her quiet, introverted history professor husband.
“She’s on maternity leave now.” Ella and I volunteered to alternate working the opening shift. I actually found that I like getting up before the sun, and I’m able to get so much more work done in my studies. And every morning, like clockwork, the shy blond comes in for his coffee minutes after the lights go on.
“Oh, did she have her baby girl?”
I’m surprised that he knows she’s having a girl. My face must show it because he clarifies, “She and the little brunette were discussing a very pink baby shower a few weeks ago.”
“Ah yes, the princess party that ate Tokyo.” I shake my head and sit across from him. “Not yet. Brynn’s still tucked safely inside. Val has preeclampsia, though, so she’s at home with her husband until Brynn comes in a few weeks.” Why am I telling him all this?
“Pre-what?” He seems interested as his nose scrunches up. I want to touch it. But I don’t.
“Preeclampsia? Hypertension. It can be dangerous if a woman’s blood pressure becomes too high during pregnancy. Sometimes they need to start early labor to avoid problems with the baby.” I’m rambling. His face turns concerned, so I quickly add, “She’s okay. My mom’s one of her doctors, and she runs the neonatal/pediatric ward at Davis.”
“The Simmons Children’s Wing at the medical center?” He motions to the tip cup that he puts his extra coins in every morning.
“That’s the one.” I smile with pride. My mom’s worked so very hard to build that state-of-the-art pediatric medical wing, and it’s doing well.
“You’re Markus Simmons
?” he asks, studying my face closely.
I nod, suddenly feeling awkward about who I am. “Uh, yeah?”
“You don’t look like your momma,” he states as his eyes scan my face. Then he points to the cup on the counter. Dr. Sue Simmons, my very Asian mother, is staring back with her NICU staff.
“Ah. So yes, that’s my mother. She’s Japanese. Dad’s obviously not. One of my roommates, Peter, calls me a cinnamon macchiato,” I laugh while gesturing to my darkly tanned arm. He’s staring at me in a way that causes goose bumps to rise along my arms. He looks intense, like he’s about to say something but worried about it. I know he’s Southern, but he doesn’t seem like someone who would have a problem dating a black guy, or half a black guy, as the case may be.
“Want another cup?” I ask, trying to get the focus off me and my family. Moving to take his mug, I see him pull at his sleeves uncomfortably.
“Yeah, but I should probably get going. It will be a long walk in the rain,” he says, nodding to the weather outside.
I curse Ella for not coming in until after nine, because I can’t offer him a ride.
“Where’s your class?” My mouth goes without me thinking.
“It’s in the eastern buildings on the other side of campus.”
“You must live nearby to want to come here. There’s a Starbucks less than a block from there.” I grin at him as I take his mug back to the counter to get his to-go cup ready as always.
“Yeah, close.” His reply is short, and I feel him retreating.
Putting his cup together, I do something that I taunt Ella about relentlessly when she meets someone cute while working the counter—I write my name and number on his to-go cup. When I hand it back to him, he doesn’t look at it. His gaze is on mine, the side of his lips quirked up on one side.
“See you at lunch?” I ask hopefully.
“Yep. Thank you again, Markus.” As he pushes out into the storm, I can’t help but feel lost, watching him walk away from me. I’m hoping he’ll get the hint when he looks down at his cup while in class.
After Clinton leaves, I’m rather sullen, but the crowd gathers once the sun is up, and I am more than thankful when Ella comes in all sunshine and bounces. She’s a definite annoying morning person—all fresh, glowy faced and perky, high brunette ponytail—and it all works in her favor. We are efficient, and we get all the cranky college kids out the door with their caffeine fixes. I have a hard time concentrating, wondering if Clinton has found my name and number on his cup. What if he’s offended or freaked out by it?
“Earth to Markus.” Ella snaps her fingers at me as I find myself staring at the fireplace from the counter.
“You’re being all mopey. Did Josh start calling again?”
I shudder to think about my ex from my freshman year. He didn’t like the good-bye at all, had an emotional meltdown when I broke up with him, but he was just not the one for me, no matter how drunk he dialed me some nights.
“No, I think Jesse scared him off for good the last time.” I laugh thinking about how my humongous football player roommate, Jesse, answered my phone and threatened Josh’s body. “I’m just thinking.”
“Well, think while you walk, or you’ll be late to class again.”
Looking at the wall clock, I jump up while trying to take my apron off and nearly fall on her.
“Careful, big guy. I’ll see you at noon.”
Making it into class barely on time, I try to pay attention to the lecture on contagious diseases of American history, but it’s difficult. Even Spanish Influenza doesn’t keep my mind from wandering to Clinton and his big, stormy eyes. I can’t help but think about what he does when he isn’t at the café, or if he’s seeing anyone. I guess if he doesn’t come back in, then he’s not interested.
By the time noon rolls around, I’m running back to the café. He’s usually in by one, so I make myself busy, mopping up the mud from the customers who’ve been deluged all day, and then cleaning the espresso machine. Ella refuses to do it, and I’ve tried teaching the other barista, Sean, how, but he has the attention span of a gnat, or a freshman in college, so it was a lesson in futility. I’d have to redo it when he was finished anyhow.
Practically crawling with nerves, I make myself work, and I’ve almost convinced myself Clinton won’t ever come back. I’m a pathetic mess when Valerie waddles in with her husband in tow.
“Hey!” I run over to give the adorable pregnant lady a hug and shake Jack’s hand. They are great bosses. I’ve known them pretty much my entire time at UC Davis, and they’re like a surrogate family. Jack is a professor of history who specializes in military strategy and civil affairs. I took one of his classes my freshman year, and that’s how he led me to the café. Jack brought me to the Higher Ground for a cup so we could discuss my final paper. He introduced me to his then-girlfriend, Valerie, who was going every which way because her barista had up and quit. I’ve worked here ever since, and I usually love it. At this moment, I don’t so much love it because I am desperate to see the blond with the slow smile again. Instead, I’m helping Jack and Val do inventory.
My shift is over at four, and it’s nearly that time when I hear his voice all the way in the back. Running through the small kitchen and into the deck where the coffee bar is, I slip on a wet spot under the blender machines and nearly bite it. Ella gives me a wary look like I’ve lost my mind, but when she turns back to Clinton and realizes I came running for him in particular, she calls me over with a devious smirk. “Markus, dear, can you help this nice man with his coffee? It’s time for my break,” she says, not even trying to be subtle. Clinton looks confused as I walk toward him, giving Ella a dirty look when she passes me.
“Hi.” I am so smooth. I realize he’s nearly soaked through from the early evening downpour, so I reach down and hand him a bar towel. “You’re soaked.” I am smooth and
observant. He does look delicious with the droplets of water trickling from his curly mop down his strong jawline.
“Thank you.” He takes the towel and brushes it over his hair, causing it to stick up in thick curls all over. I try hard not to drool. “I was just ordering another coffee when the little one ran off.” He chuckles, and I smile like a dope and think to myself that he looks younger when he laughs.
“Right, she does that.” I look over my shoulder to see Ella trying to look busy with a magazine. “Time for a refill. Do you have your cup from this morning?” I ask, hoping to hell he has it, and he’s seen it, and he’s ready to move in. No, not really. Well, kind of. I try to sound light, but my heart is a little sad that he didn’t care my name was on his cup.
He shakes his head in the negative and reaches into his pocket for change. “Sorry, no. With all the rain when I left…” He looks almost bashful, and I want to grab his hand as he’s wiping them off on the towel. “I slipped and dropped it on my way to class.”
“Oh, that sucks. Are you okay?” I ask, suddenly concerned he may have hurt himself. He nods, looking fairly embarrassed. He tries to hand me money, but I wave him off. “No worries, I know you were here earlier.” Not that I was staring…or drooling. “And it’s not like you won’t be here tomorrow.” I almost sound pathetic. Almost.
He looks down at my hands on the counter, and I realize I’m just standing in front of him.
“Yeah, hot coffee. Coming up.” I turn and grab a new cup, but I’m so twisted up inside that I fumble it and have to pick it up, then throw it away and grab another one off the stack. I chance a look at Ella, who’s grinning massively and drops her gaze back to her fashion rag.
“Have a seat, Clinton, and I’ll bring it out to you.” I don’t need Ella spouting off with him right there.
He dips his head, then says a quick, “Thank you.” He takes a seat near the fire again, and I go back to getting his coffee to-go.
“Oh. My. God.” Ella’s voice is low but enough for me to jump and look around.
“For a smart kid, you are so dumb. That boy was checking you out!” She slaps me and takes the towel from me, then slaps me with it and hands it back to me.
“He was not.” I look from her to Clinton, who is reading now, and back to her.
“He very much was. Ask Val.” Ella points behind me, and I look across the room to where Valerie is sipping her tea by the window and giving me a not-so-subtle thumbs-up. Ella and Valerie are always trying to find me someone to date, which can be flattering, but sometimes very awkward when their gaydar is off. Both of them have been badgering me to ask Clinton out for as long as he’s been coming in here, but I’ve always deflected them.
“Are you sure?” I try again. “I think he might be… I’m just not totally sure he’s gay or single. He’s so quiet…and what if he’s seeing someone?”
“Oh, sweet boy. No, he’s interested.” She pats my head. “He plays for your team. No one checks out another man’s ass like that unless he’s a star player.” She bounces with thumbs up. “Go ask him out.”
“No, I can’t do that. He’s so shy. I don’t want to scare him off.”
“Stop making excuses. Some other hot guy will come along and snap him up.” Her words startle me. “Try the number trick on his cup.”
“Tried. He lost the cup in the rain.”
“Ah, okay.” She sits back down and taps her chin. “Then just go ask him about classes. He’s reading a book on World War I. You’re a nerd… Why don’t you ask him about it?”
Ella smiles and hops off her stool, making her ponytail sway behind her. “Yes. Like I said, you’re a nerd. Go talk to him.” She shoves me a little. Even though I outweigh her, she’s still able to move me. “I’m closing tonight, so you go talk to him and see if he wants to get dinner or something, or offer him a ride to class, take him to the library…something.” She gives me a pointed, no-nonsense look. “He walks through the neighborhood to wherever he lives, so he probably lives nearby like you do.”
My gears are spinning in my head, and a little ray of hope opens up. Maybe I could ask him out…or to dinner…something.