Short Story: Caffeine

“I think this place closes pretty soon.”

He looked up from his calloused palms to meet her equally-rough eyes. She smiled in a friendly way, stirred and shaken with a bit of sadness. Her shirt was wrinkled, hung loose from her shoulders, closer to a dirty sheet than any name-brand.

“Let ‘em kick us out,” he said. “We’ll just head down the street.”

“I think they’re closed, too. Do you realize how late it is?”

He shook his head, but there were no clocks around them. She whipped out her phone and checked the time.

“Quarter ‘til one.”

The sky outside reflected it. There was no hint of light, not even on the far horizon. An ocean setting stretched out from their window. Somewhere below them, down a hill of sand, sat a comfortably empty beach. He had frequented it on other nights, with other women. This one didn’t feel like a midnight-beach type of woman. In fact, she was barely a woman. Probably not even in her twenties.

“How was your coffee?” he asked, gesturing at the empty cup in front of her.

“Fine.” She tapped her fingertips on the table, some kind of nervous tic. “I prefer iced.”

Of course she did. Not sophisticated enough. She kept glancing at the front desk where their waitress had disappeared to. Was she worried about being kicked out? It wasn’t anything bad, not in his past experience anyways. Just a gentle shove out the door, and not even a physical one. A verbal nudge.

“Your eyes are a strange color,” he commented. “Sort of a… sanguine brown.”

“What’s that mean?” Above those eyes, her forehead wrinkled in thought.

“Doesn’t matter.” He pulled out a bill from his pocket and set it on the table. “This should pay for everything. I think I’ll be leaving now.” Without so much as a glance, he started to scoot his chair back.

“Wait!”

He faced her again and saw an intense desperation had taken her features captive. Her eyes were no longer optimistic and calm, but frigid and anxious. She reached out one hand, gently touching the top of his own. It felt like ice sliding against his skin.

Raising an eyebrow, he waited for her to speak.

“When… when can I meet you again?”

“Listen, Jane…”

She moved a thread of bright-blue hair behind her ear and peered intently at his features. “It was never about me, was it? Was all this just about the money? You… you wanted your share, and then you’d run off? Is that what it-?”

“Shhh!” He pulled her closer until they were leaning over the table, conversing in little more than gasps. “It’s… not like that.”

“Really?”

He shook his head, squeezing her hand. “You got it wrong. It’s not about the money; it’s about you. I just think we need some time apart to get things in order, figure out what to do with it all. I mean, you can’t just… We can’t just show up to our families with thousands and thousands… They would… You understand, right?”

Jane didn’t answer right away. Her eyes worked like fine-tuned drills, digging dangerously deep into his skull. She shook her head multiple times, trying to work something out in her own brain. The waitress would come any moment; he knew that much. It had to be one by now.

“You know what I’m doing with mine,” she said, her voice calm and composed. The tone didn’t match the faint tears running down her cheeks. “And I thought I knew what you’d do with yours.”

“You were wrong, then.” He cringed. It would come out eventually, might as well be now. “I don’t have a family, Jane. This isn’t for… for my wife and kids, anything like that. This is for me.”

“You’re leaving?”

He nodded. “I’m leaving.”

“And you… used me to get the money?”

“It’s not like that. Don’t say it like that.” He grimaced and let go of her hand. “I do love you, Jane. I do.”

“But not enough to stay here.”

“Exactly.” He stood from his chair, hands shoved deep into his pockets. “This isn’t about you, I promise. If it was up to me…”

She stood from her chair as well, not quite as tall. “It is up to you.”

“That’s not what I mean.”

They were ushered from the restaurant by a red-faced waitress who gave Jane’s blue hair a number of incredulous, offended looks. Without any argument or conversation, they left the restaurant and made their way into the parking lot. Jane walked ahead of him. Her footsteps echoed off the pavement, reminding him of the angry knocks on his front door that had announced her arrival earlier that day. And now it ended. With a bang.

“I’m really sorry about all of this,” he said.

She climbed into the passenger’s seat of his car without a word. Her face had turned bright red, almost like the waitress, and her tongue seemed glued to the top of her mouth.

His eyes wandered to her and to the form she encased so beautifully in those jeans and loose-fitting sheet. Shirt. If only he could stay here. If only he could choose.

“Jane?”

“Just forget it,” she grumbled. “Take me to my apartment.”

He pulled out of the parking lot, intense guilt building in his chest. “I’ll be here for the next week, if you wanna meet-”

“No.”

As they crossed the city, more like a ghost town at this stage of night, he saw her wipe tears away multiple times. When they were a few blocks away from her apartment, she asked him to pull over.

“But I can take you-”

“I’ll walk the rest of the way, thanks.”

He stopped the car and she left. It took her a minute to collect the duffel bag from his backseat, draping it carelessly over her shoulders. He rolled down the passenger’s window as she stepped away from the car.

“Don’t get caught with that,” he advised her. “Wouldn’t be good for you.”

She returned no smile, hands deep in her jean pockets. They made eye contact for a moment, until she finally pulled out one hand. On her palm, a few dollars and some change rested. It was nothing to him now. Just a small fraction.

“For gas,” she said.

Jane stepped towards his car, but slipped on the sidewalk and her money clattered the ground beside his car.

“You alright?” he called. She had disappeared from view. Must have been picking up her money.

“Hold on,” she said.

For another minute, she rummaged around on the ground. He thought about getting out to help, but it really didn’t matter. Just a fraction.

“Hey, you can leave the money, it’s really not-”

Her head emerged, a slight grin across her face. It was comforting to see. She already had resolved herself to fate. They could never be together. It wouldn’t have worked.

“Here’s the money.” She dumped it on the seat beside him. “See ya ‘round.”

“See ya, Jane.” He rolled up the passenger’s window and sped off.

Jane watched as his car blew through multiple red lights. At this time of night, he always went fast. Never thought to test his brakes. Never thought to avoid that particularly curvy road on the way to the bridge. Never imagined he might not make it home.

“Drive safe,” she mumbled, picking up her bag of cash and marching towards home. Money meant nothing, after all, if you had nobody to share it. She made a mental note to stop by the grocery store later and get her dog the best food possible.

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