It’s a cold morning and I have nowhere to go, so I leave. I haven’t been young in a while, so my joints sound like a bowl of freshly-poured rice cereal on the lonely walk to the bathroom, each stretch sounds like I broke something.
After attending to the roommate’s needs the icy touch of the leather seat in my Jeep makes my sore back stiffen through two layers of shirt and flannel. I haven’t shaved in two days and I haven’t had a good night’s sleep in years, my finger-combed hair makes the man in the rear view mirror look like someone who spent the night on a park bench.
It’s not budget-smart to go out for coffee, but I spend too much time in my tiny tomb as it is. $3 may be a lot for a cup of Joe, but it’s cheap for rent. The wind blows through the old Jeep cover as I drive toward a gray horizon and fog-shrouded hills.
Closer to civilization, I hit a light and a minivan pulls beside me. I look over and see her. Her hair is chestnut brown and mostly wrapped in a scarf; stray strands fall next to dark eyes framed by long lashes. She’s biting her lip, thinking troubled thoughts, looking back where I assume some toddler must be strapped in the back. Her fingers are long and delicate, nails sculpted at home with a cheap emory board and dollar-store polish, tapping her steering wheel impatiently. She’s in a hurry even though she has nowhere important to be. Sounds familiar. Just before the light turns green we lock eyes and her expression is unreadable, but I see her full mouth and high cheekbones and can sense her sadness. She’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. I begin to smile but she pulls ahead, the light now green and I didn’t even notice. The van makes a left a mile later and I keep going straight.
The smell of coffee and re-heated pastries hits me as I walk into the shop. The few people already there on a Saturday morning are business-types, yuppies and overachieving professionals. They chip away at spreadsheets or scribble on paperwork or read news on their smartphones, some catching up on work while some wait on appointments. An old man reads a newspaper in a corner and I feel kinship; he doesn’t want to talk to anyone but he doesn’t want to feel lonely, either.
She is waiting behind the counter, recognizing me. More than a decade my junior, her eyes are pools of green and her smiles can be seen in her eyes and I could hear them in her voice even if I were blind. For the first time this morning I feel warm. She is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. She knows my order, I’m a creature of habit. We make meaningless chit-chat for a moment before she gives me the coffee and muffin I never mentioned, and I give her the money she never asked for. I can only guess what she sees, probably a tall old man with a graying beard and huge hands, dark circles under his eyes. I thank her and walk away with my steaming reward.
No better than the yuppies, I pull out my aging laptop and peck away at an overdue project. It’s meaningless but it pays the bills, unlike the work I actually care about and no one else does. I glance over at her as she takes another order, her radiating smile exactly the same for everyone else. It makes me sad and somehow makes her even more beautiful.
The expensive coffee is only half-consumed when I leave, tossed in the trash as I exit and brush muffin-crumbs off my shirt and out of my beard. My brain is more awake and the stiffness in my body has eased, but my soul is still tired. Always tired.
The Jeep rattles as I pull next to the window at the bank, I look up and I see her. She’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. Her skin is a rich, dark brown and looks irresistibly smooth. Her eyes are huge and round and she smiles at me like we have a secret, but we don’t. I only know her name because it’s on a tag in front of the window and she only knows mine because it’s on the check I’ve given her. Bulletproof glass separates us and at least three cameras watch us. She asks me if I’m having a good morning and I tell her that I’m hanging in there, then she asks why I didn’t bring my roommate. Too many errands and I don’t want to leave her in the car. She loves a thoughtful and responsible man, she assures me, and I can’t tell if she’s being sweet or flirting with me. She sends a treat through the drawer along with my receipt. In six months I’ve never corrected how badly she butchers my Armenian last name, because the way she says it is music. I wish I could touch her hand or her arm, see if the ebony skin is as smooth as it looks. Only my imaginings let me guess the taste of the gloss on her plump lips.
I realize I’ve been staring too long. I smile tightly and push hard on the gas. She was wearing a ring.
Grocery store is next, where I purchase macaroni & cheese, microwave dinners, ramen noodles, cheap beer, a basket full of the clichés of a single man. I also get a bag of coffee, chiding myself on spending money I don’t have just so I can see the smile of a girl half my age.
In the parking lot I unload a week’s worth of loneliness into the passenger seat, then I see her on the walk to return the cart. She’s my age, laugh lines around her mouth and crow’s feet at her powder-blue eyes. Blonde hair spills long around her shoulders, highlighting the curve of very full breasts under a baggy sweatshirt. Her jeans hug rounded hips, and even her grocery store march is unconsciously sexy. I can only guess how it might feel to be inside her, to feel her kiss or even the barest touch. I offer her the cart, and she is grateful, her half-smile sending a jolt into my heart and her voice revealing a pack-a-day habit. She is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. My fingertips brush the side of her hand as we make the exchange and I can tell that unlike me she works hard for a living; I can see calluses.
Nothing on her finger. I want to stop her or walk with her or try to talk to her. Get her number or ask her name or do whatever people are supposed to do. I’m staring at her back and watching her hips sway and I think about all the ways I’d like to approach her while knowing I’ll just stand there like a mute idiot. What do I have to offer a woman that she would actually want?
I leave civilization and return to exile. The coffee has worked its magic, my mind awake and I wish it wasn’t. My roommate is waiting for me at the door, impatient for my return. I don’t even unload the Jeep, just sink into the old couch and she jumps into my lap, her big brown eyes staring into mine with pure adoration. I run my fingers through her fur and her hot breath blows through my beard before she wets my nose with kisses. At least with her I am home.
I am the most beautiful thing she has ever seen.