Ward had been lying there, awake. From his hotel room, he could see the clouds getting lighter behind the Cathedral of St. Mary of The Assumption up on Gough and he felt he finally had permission to get out of bed. He was here to have a break from the problems that seemed to be the air he breathed back home. So far, that only worked during the day. During his waking hours, he should say. Ward’s sleep was still being interrupted by repetitive, persistent dreams about his ex and his children and his new, almost completely empty house, which he rented from a lovely, possibly single, former colleague. He hated clichés like, “Wherever you go, there you are,” but there it was and that was probably the best way to explain what was going on.
He got dressed, a sweater for San Francisco’s summer chill, new blue jeans that fit fashionably, if somewhat uncomfortably. His thighs hurt from walking something like—what was it Google Maps said? 20 km? He’d seen the Mission District, Dolores Park, Haight Street, Amoeba Music, Golden Gate Park, the Pacific Ocean. Ward had worn new shoes, not wanting to walk around this cool city in his sensible sneakers. His desperately red high-top Chuck Taylors were likely amongst the worst possible shoes for epic strolls. Not that he had actually intended to walk so far when he’d set out. Still, he had known he would be walking.
Ward sat on the bed and put on his walking shoes. If feet could sigh relief, could sigh at all, they would have let out a long exhale, maybe even choked back some tears, as they were embraced by their old, uncool friends.
He threw his copy of David Simon’s Homicide, a notebook and a pen into his World Famous canvas shoulder bag. He’d found it at the bottom of a box with an old rotary phone, some drawing pens, a Gumby figurine and various other old shit when he was moving out.
In front of the mirror, Ward stopped. He adjusted his shoulder bag. He looked at himself and tried see himself as handsome. He needed a haircut.
The hotel was nice enough, but it wasn’t a place Ward could really make his own, a place anyone could make their own, he didn’t imagine. It was in the Japanese neighbourhood and its décor was “Japanese”—like an ink drawing of a horse instead of the standard issue hotel flower painting—and the tub in Ward’s en suite was exotically deep. Perfectly cool, perfectly ventilated, nearly scentless, clean, the hotel was to a home like a mannequin was to a person. Even dressed up like a bedroom or a bathroom, even a Japanese bedroom or bathroom, a hotel room maintained a mannequin’s stiff flatness. That dramatic uprightness.
The hallway reminded Ward of his ex—behind each door was one of the lives without him he had dreamed about over the last months. On the carpet, there was a room-service tray. Finger- and lip-smudged champagne flutes stood awkwardly beside a stainless steel ice bucket and an open, presumably empty bottle. The elevator was free of people, but in the lobby, some of the housekeeping staff had started their work. They all wished Ward a good morning and he thanked them or wished them a good morning or nodded.
Outside, the cold air startled him back into his body. His legs ached properly, like fit, healthy legs that had walked a long way. His feet felt okay. Ward blew his nose into his handkerchief. It was one his ex bought him before they’d had kids, a Japanese wave pattern, actually. Ward put it back in his pocket and breathed a deep lungful of July in San Francisco.
When he turned north on Fillmore, Ward starting singing Pavement’s “Fillmore Jive” to himself. Ward looked at himself in a store window. When Stephen Malkmus wrote the song he was years younger than Ward was that morning. Ward walked on, and even though something at the heart of “Fillmore Jive” was heavy it warmed his vocal chords and soothed his hurts.
It was his second morning at the coffee shop, his second morning being greeted by the brash synthesized chimes triggered by the door. He checked the time on his phone. Yesterday he had been an hour later and showered when he arrived. The girl was working again, though. Her dark hair and tan skin offset her light green eyes in that way, like the National Geographic cover girl. This girl, the one in the coffee shop, wasn’t a girl. Maybe she was the daughter of the man whom because of his work ethic and impatience Ward assumed owned the shop, and whom because of the small red and white flag with the cedar tree protruding from behind the flat screen TV mounted in the corner of the room Ward assumed was Lebanese.
“Americano, please?” Ward asked the woman.
“What?” she said. She looked confused.
“Um, an Americano. You have espresso drinks, right?”
She waved her palm at Ward and turned. She pressed her fingers against her ear. “Yes? I’m sorry,” she said, facing away. Ward noticed the white, kinked wire interrupting her jaw line, brushing against an exposed bit of collarbone and disappearing into the valley between her breasts.
The man who might be the owner came over and said, “Yes.” He was clearly annoyed, but obviously not with Ward.
The woman disappeared into the back through an open doorway.
Ward ordered his Americano again.
The screaming synthesizer’s attempt at chimes, made the man look towards the door. The man smiled. “Hello.”
Walking up to the counter with an ease that seemed both subconscious and studied was a slender black man in grey slacks and a blue shirt with an open collar. He smiled and nodded. “Adnan.”
Ward mouthed the word “Hi,” and nodded when the black man made eye contact.
Adnan, the probable owner, called “Haifa,” and in a few seconds another, equally lovely woman, this one younger, maybe young enough to be called a girl still, came out from the open doorway, sticking a pencil into a hasty bun at the back of her head. “Yes?”
“Americano for this gentleman,” Adnan told her.
“I’ll have one, too,” the black man said.
“Hi Richard,” Haifa said to the black man.
“Good morning, Haifa.”
“You’re early today,” she said.
“Yeah. Got some paper work I need to finish up.”
Ward ignored the conversation. He let himself fall in love with the ease with which Haifa worked the hissing and groaning espresso machine, with the way the stray hairs bounced around the pencil’s well-worn eraser, with the indents of her underthings in her soft flesh.
“Yes, excuse me, sir,” Adnan said.
Ward felt a tap at his elbow. It was Richard. He pointed towards Adnan.
“That will be two fifty.”
“Oh sure, of course.”
By the time Ward had paid, Haifa had his order up and he no longer had an excuse to stand at the counter and watch her work.
Ward’s Amerciano was in a disposable cup with a paper sleeve. He’d forgotten to tell Adnan that he was going to be drinking his coffee here. Ward felt hurt. The disposable cup seemed to be suggesting that he leave. Looking at all the free seats, looking at the table he sat at yesterday, Ward considered turning around and asking for a ceramic cup or just walking out the door and into the morning cold.
He sat down, pulled out his notebook and his pen and set them beside his coffee on the table.
Ward grabbed his phone. He checked the weather, then, force of habit, went to Instagram. He had some small data allowance here, had paid his service provider for it, but was wary of overusing so he looked up at the counter. Adnan had disappeared and Haifa was standing, holding a large remote control up towards the TV, trying to find the angle that would make its signal effective.
“Excuse me,” Ward said a little louder than he would have liked.
Haifa stuck the tip of her tongue out between her teeth as she aimed the remote again.
Ward stood up and took a few steps towards her, holding his phone out. “Excuse me. Haifa?”
She turned, surprised to hear her name.
“I heard that other customer, Richard, and your, well, the man who works here, they both called you Haifa.”
She nearly laughed and it wasn’t mocking, it was kind and open and shining. Toothpaste commercial sparking.
Ward shook his head to remind himself that he had a purpose. “Do you,” he held up his phone, “do you have wi-fi I could use? Wi-fi for customers?”
“KM Café Guest.”
“Our wi-fi is called ‘KM Café Guest.’”
“Oh. Right. Thanks. Thank you.”
Ward sat back down and started scrolling through Instagram, his mind empting to make room for pictures of the books his friends were reading, dog and cat pictures, articles by his friends, articles about his friends, the places his friends were if it was away from home, selfies. He paused at a picture of a young woman he used to work with holding a clear, empty liquor bottle against her bare breasts. When Adnan called Haifa, Ward scrolled past the breast picture, wondered how long he’d stared at it. A few pictures down his feed was an image of his wife, his ex, sunglasses he’d never seen sitting on a sun brightened white tablecloth, her hands crossed and a very particular smile on her face that he recognized, but hadn’t seen in years.
It had been her idea that they each take a trip. She’d been the first to go. Ten days to Greece. Ward’s ex-mother-in-law had taken the kids for a night at the beginning of the trip and a night at the end, but the seven days he’d single-parented, planned and executed meals, made sure Alex and Liz were clean and dressed and at school on time or in bed or wherever they needed to be had made him realize that whatever it was that had chased Laura from their marriage had to be substantial enough, deep enough, propped up by enough conviction that she chose to live like this, the exclusive caregiver for two powerfully needy humans, all week each week except for a few hours on Wednesday nights and every other weekend.
Laura had told him where she was going, but not that she was going with anyone and he hadn’t asked. Who was taking the picture? Ward knew Laura’s girlfriends and unless something had changed drastically between her and one of them, this was not a smile for a girlfriend, Laura’s eyes too narrow, too encroached on by facially manifested joy, joy, joy. Good God.
Ward dropped his phone like it was hot. Not Snoop Dogg and Pharrell “Drop It Like It’s Hot,” though. More like X-files. Like some alien spirit had zapped into and nearly melted his cellular device, some alien spirit that could create a present in which Ward doesn’t exist or maybe never existed. He felt sick.
He felt like Laura was getting laid and he wasn’t.
Despite his shaking hands, Ward sipped his coffee. He was walking down that hotel hallway of possible futures and one of the doors had opened a crack. It wasn’t the door that led to the kiss-and-make-up future Ward realized he was holding out for. He focused on his breath, his eyes closed. Deep inhale. No, deeper. Ward’s ribs seemed to be hugging him, but he just wanted air, as much air as he could get.
Fuck it, fuck it. Meditating wasn’t supposed to make you feel claustrophobic, suffocating.
Coffee was the answer. He took another sip. Maybe he should stop. Could his heart handle it? He let some breath out and that made a difference. Had he been holding his breath? No. No way. Impossible.
He opened his notebook to a blank page. Picked up the pen. Took the cap off, put the cap back on.
Write, but write what?
Maybe his coffee could tell him. Ward took another sip and when he set the cup down the paper sleeve slipped. A red organic shape cut with wrinkles caught his eye. He lifted the cup out of the sleeve and saw the lip print in its entirety. Behind the counter, Haifa was checking something on her phone. Maybe sensing Ward’s gaze, she turned towards him. Haifa raised her eyebrows, opened her eyes wide. She was wearing lipstick. It was red. Was it the same colour as what was on his cup?
Could there be another explanation?
So, Ward would find out when Haifa finished work today. If she had no plans maybe she would show him her favourite neighbourhood places? They would grab a lunch or a late lunch or a dinner of tacos or sushi or burgers or Indian food or falafel. Maybe she had a cousin or something who had a falafel place. But falafels at her cousin’s shop would be later, a few days from now, after they had kissed on the sloping grass of some hillside park overlooking a playground and the Bay, after they had made love in his hotel room. Today she wouldn’t be sure about her father and sister knowing, would want it to be a secret, would want to keep Ward for herself.
But how would he go up and talk to her? What would he say?
Take the cup up. Hold it out. Smile. She was alone now. If he waited, Adnan might be there and she might be embarrassed.
How old was she? What were the laws here?
Ward picked up his phone and unlocked it. Instagram was still open on the picture of his wife, but this cup with this lipstick print, with Haifa’s lipstick print, had shielded him from the full force of Laura’s photo. He hit the home icon and Instagram raced to the top of his feed where he saw someone’s photograph of raindrops on a flower.
What would he search for? Legal age California.
He looked at Haifa. She raised her jade eyes to the TV screen then back to her phone without looking at him.
She was in her early twenties, Ward figured. Home from a year at University. College, people called it in the U.S. Or Caw-lidge. Would she tell him about her studies? Medicine or Women’s Studies. Semiotics. Literature. Law. International Development. Would they have better things to talk about?
Would they laugh? Of course. But about what? Ward’s try-hard red Converse. Ward’s long walk yesterday. Ward’s kids? Would that scare her?
He closed his notebook and drained the last sips of coffee.
He looked at the cup for a few beats, then back up at Haifa. She still wasn’t looking at him.
Ward stood up, threw his notebook and pen and novel back into his World Famous bag and lifted the cup to his lips like there was still coffee in it, just for the extra seconds it bought him. Why was he standing? Maybe just to be a tall presence in the space that Haifa couldn’t ignore? Could ignore. Was ignoring.
The screaming synth chimes announced Haifa’s next customer, a man, a young man in a trench coat with pronounced facial bones, skin that looked parchment-thin and thick lips. He reminded Ward of the son from one of those New Yorker back cover watch ads that sells the timepiece as a legacy for future generations. Haifa stared at her phone for a beat, then up at the news program. Adnan worried out of the back of the store and greeted the young model man.
Ward sat back down, clutching his empty cup with the kiss print. He took another empty sip.
The model man ordered a latte, which Ward figured made some sort of sense. While Adnan took model man’s money, Haifa went to the espresso machine and started it whirring and hissing and groaning. To be friendly, Adnan made some comment about the weather and the model man looked at the floor, said, “Yep,” and pulled the trench coat back so he could jam his fingertips up to the big knuckles into the pockets of his black skinny jeans. Haifa glanced at the model man, her cheeks and mouth barely containing her laugh, as if model man’s rudeness was just the cleverist.
Adnan thanked model man then disappeared into the back again.
“How are you today?” model man asked Haifa.
She said she was fine, thank you, and asked how he was.
“I’m very fine.”
Haifa set his latte on the counter without a sleeve, lipstick mark facing out.
“Well,” model man said, tilting his head to make a show of noticing the lipstick mark. “Thank you,” he said.
Ward looked at his own cup. The print was different, but only slightly.
“It’s on all the cups,” Haifa said, picking up her phone.
“Oh,” the model man said.
“Welcome to the Kiss Me Café.”
“That’s—” model man laughed. “I like that.”
“You don’t spend hours a week kissing cups.”
“Do you?” model man asked. “Do you do that?”
“Me and my sister.”
Ward sat for a minute more, feeling the gentle weight of his books against his side, feeling his back and buttocks pressing into the seat. Tired. He was tired. For years he had imagined opportunities with women other than Laura, but it had been more than fifteen years since they had been opportunities he could act on, and this fact was how he explained to himself the feeling of relief that soaked his organs and muscles and bones, relief that Haifa, the lovely, too-young stranger who made his Americano, had not made an advance.
Ward knew that if he could stand up, walk out of here, get back to his hotel and wander down that generic hallway without imposing any figurative meaning on it that he would be able to crawl back into bed and despite the coffee get back to sleep, even if only for an hour or two.
Toronto, June 2016
Emoji Sequence: Fiona Laviolette
Story: Lee Sheppard