15 Sept. 1974
Her espresso is piping hot when it arrives.
With lilting eyes, she catches the handsome man’s gaze from across the café over the frames of her lilac teashades, smirking softly into her cup. His paper is freshly pressed, one crease through the centre, as always.
Every morning for the past month and a half, she’s watched him with a curious fascination.
His order never changes; a hot tea, but she can never tell what kind. Sometimes the steam will swell towards her if the café is busy and he has to sit closer to her, his usual table occupied by another stocky businessman or a husband and wife enjoying their first outing without their children for the week, but it’s usually an unrecognisable scent.
Sometimes, her mind wanders, and she’s under the impression that he orders something different every time, as if he’s sensed her intentions of uncovering every dirty detail about him, and to throw her off track. Although, they don’t catch each other’s eyes often enough for that fantasy to be plausible. They share this space every morning, but have never had any introductions. She enjoys it, though. The intrigue of it all.
There’s something about him that is familiar, almost like an old friend from home. He has the same haircut as the boy who worked in her local fish and chip shop a few years ago: longer, curled around the nape of his neck and ears, slicked back off his forehead. It’s blonde, but not golden. A bit darker in the shade of the café, but she always makes sure to watch him as he leaves, watch the way the sunlight outside will hit him as he enters the street.
From this distance, she can never tell what colour his eyes are. They seem dark, though. Like a brown, or a hazel. Perhaps even a midnight blue. But, in the fleeting moments where she does catch his eye, she’s noticing other things. The way he shifts in his seat, the drumming of his fingers on the tabletop, always in perfect rhythm with whatever slinky jazz music is making its way through the café. Maybe he’s a drummer, she thinks. Or some kind of a musician. He has a rockstar air to him, despite the double-breasted suit and leather briefcase perched beside his feet.
The steady tap tap tap of the tip of her fountain pen on the oak table beneath her pulls her out of her internal musings. Her eyes flit down to her notebook, the pages flooded with inky blue and black tendrils from the many times her pens have fallen apart in her hand. Hard as a rock but light as a feather, the cream pages stuck together from various coffee and red wine spills, the leather spine worn down to its bare threads. On the front page is a drunken scribble from her mother that says Happy Birthday, I love you forever baby. Her fingertips graze the parchment, softly smiling.
Tucked in the back of the journal is a postcard decorated with a faded cartoon of an uncannily large mime hanging off the Eiffel Tower; stereotypical trash she knows her mother will adore. The message is sweet and brief: Loving Paris, missing you more. Will write again soon x. The postcard she received all the way from Australia a week ago is also hidden between the pages of her notebook, her mother’s loopy handwriting filling up the entire space, detailing gossip from neighbours back home, the weather, and the current mental state of her Aunty Mavis.
Although her mother’s rambling can get tiresome, she’s missing it now more than ever. Paris is a crowded hole; so many people crammed into one space, but faces turned, always back to back. Perhaps this is what draws her to the stranger sitting opposite her – a stranger that feels more familiar than her own conscience.
She catches his eye fleetingly before his gaze returns to the newspaper in front of him. For a moment, she thinks she spots a whiff of a smile being thrown at her.
The front page is covered in large text, the same sentence that has been decorating every news stand for the past two days: French Embassy Under Siege. The business section is untouched, his eagerness to skip straight to Sports contradictory to the nine to five he works every day at the Berdugo Metoudi firm downtown. Or she assumes, at least. The brown leather briefcase and company pen he uses to circle expensive car advertisements in the back of his daily Ouest-France give her the impression that she’s right, of course. Her impressions haven’t been wrong, so far.
Her coffee is potent, and the soft swell of classic jazz slinking its way through the café brings her more peace than she’s felt in days. In between studying for her mandatory French language class, and avoiding her new roommate Julienne like the plague (she bathes at most once a week and refuses to change her cats litter box, so their flat consistently smells like mouldy armpit and decay), her brain has felt like a live wire, seconds from sparking. She’s pretty sure the nerves of her teeth are exposed due to how much she’s been grinding them, and the bags under her eyes make her look like she’s been left alone in the ring with George Foreman.
But what she’s written on the postcard to her mother – which she reminds herself to deliver as soon as she finishes her coffee – is truthful. She is loving Paris. The music, the food, the culture. It feels like home in a way that isn’t tangible; like it’s in the air, loosening her lungs and wrapping itself through her hair, fluttering the leaves on the linden trees as if shaking them awake from a century-long sleep. It’s in the sound of her boots on the cobblestoned streets, in the hum of the traffic in the morning, in the pulse under her skin.
“You have a mark on your face.” She looks up, large eyes peering over her sunglasses, the rim of her espresso cup pressed lightly to her lip. She locks her gaze with the handsome man’s from across the small café, unsure whether this is fantasy or reality. “Pardon?”
Her French still isn’t very good, yet she attempts to navigate her way around his thick accent.
“You- you have pen. Ink, on your cheek.” He gestures to his own face, a soft smile toying at his lips. He’s speaking in English, as if he can tell simply by the way she looks that she doesn’t truly belong here.
She looks down, finding blue smudged all along her palm. Her heart hammers for a moment while heat rushes to her cheeks. With slightly shaken hands she reaches for the folded white cloth resting underneath her cup and rubs at her cheek until it feels like sandpaper against her raw skin.
Her eyes meet his again. “Thank you.”
“I- I’ve seen you here before, yes?” The stranger doesn’t fold his paper, but all of his attention is on her. She can tell by the way he leans closer, as if the two empty tables separating them don’t exist – as if the humming and buzzing of the other patrons is just background noise, and they are the centrepiece.
“I come here every morning.” She’s fully abandoned the French, opting for her harsh Australian dialect in the hopes that he may find it charming enough to scoot his own chair over and join her.
“You order the same thing everyday.” He smiles, shaking his head.
“You noticed?” On the outside, she’s cool. On the outside, she’s used to getting attention from handsome strangers. On the inside, she’s screaming.
“One glass of sparkling water, followed by two espressos, which you down like a parched man in the desert.” His laugh mingles with the other sounds around them like a single violin in a symphony.
“You never order the same thing.” She rests her head in her hands, elbows digging uncomfortably into the table.
“Why would I do that? I like to experience everything.”
She shakes her head in disbelief. “You don’t have a favourite?”
“They’re all so lovely, why choose?”
“Familiarity,” she states, raising her brows. “Comfort?”
“I’ve never been one too keen on comfort, if I must say.”
“Yet you’re here every morning.” Her teeth grind on her bottom lip, fighting a grin. “Is that not a comfort?”
“That’s a habit,” he says, leaning as close to her as he can manage without moving his chair.
“That’s not a terrible habit.”
“I can only live outside of my means by so much.” He shrugs, sipping his mystery tea. “If I could choose, I’d be drinking tea in Marseille, or Naples, even.”
“I think the drink of choice in Naples is Taurasi.” She squints her eyes playfully. “You want to travel?”
“Doesn’t everyone?” He asks. “That’s why you’re here.”
“I’m here for work,” she says, “not pleasure.”
“Work can be pleasurable.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever met someone with such an… existential, philosophical mindset.” Her espresso has long gone cold now, the crema layered on top practically dissolving before her eyes. “I’m going to assume you read a lot?”
“Not as often as I should,” he says, leaning back in his chair. It almost feels like a divide, an instant barrier between them. They were sharing secrets, their deepest dreams and wildest thoughts. Now, there’s distance. The sounds of the bustling café return, the honking of cars in the street filter through the air.
“I’d ask you what’s your favourite, but I could probably guess the answer,” she sighs, picking up her pen. It’s still bleeding, a puddle of blue ink resting on the page. “For someone so hard to read, you ooze predictability.”
“I’m not sure whether I should take that as a compliment or an insult,” he chuckles.
“Whichever is most uncomfortable for you.” Her pen draws swirls mindlessly on the page in front of her, between the half-written poems and the random doodles.
For a moment, she thinks he’s going to ignore her. Instead, he adjusts himself in his chair and leans in again, instantly grasping her attention. She almost drops her pen.
“What’s your name?” His eyes narrow, curious.
She bites her lip, setting her bleeding pen down before answering. “Constance.”
“Constance,” he whispers. Her name sounds much prettier in his accent.
“Will you tell me yours?” She questions boldly.
He grins, dimples appearing in his cheeks that she hasn’t noticed until now. “I’m Davide.”
“It’s been a pleasure meeting you, Davide,” she says.
“And you, Constance.” He stands, folding his newspaper and placing it inside his briefcase. “Shall we say, tomorrow morning? Same place?”
“Am I that predictable?” She asks.
“Insanely so,” Davide smirks. Reaching into his pocket, he drops a few coins onto the small table. He doesn’t look at her until his hand reaches for the door. Just a quick glance, unassuming to passers-by. Strangers making innocent eye contact in a crowded Parisian café. His eyes, she’s figured out, are blue. As deep and dark as a storm at sea.
As Davide’s hand presses against the door, the sun hits his combed hair, morning light syphoning colours of red and gold and blinding white. Her eyebrows raise in acknowledgement as the bell above the door jingles softly with his exit, and she turns her attention back to her notebook.
“Un autre, Madame?” The waitress hovers over her, a cup of fresh espresso in her hands. She nods, thanking the woman. On the page in front of her is a story; short, albeit, a few lines at best. About a handsome man, sitting alone, sipping a mysterious tea and reading the sports section of the newspaper.
Her espresso is still steaming when the grenade is thrown through the door and the café collapses in a wave around her. Shards of porcelain rip through the morning air, slicing the spot of blue still visible on her cheek, knocking her lilac teashades from their perch on the bridge of her nose. Her body falls, the hardwood floor cool on her skin.
Her notebook, a collection of memories, rests in ashes beside her.
Hi there! I’m an English Literature student at UON, with a passion for creative writing. I started writing for OPUS to originally get feedback for my work, but now I just want to write as much as possible. I aim to have my work traditionally published, so maybe you’ll see some of my stuff out there in the world one day!