Sherrie Flick is author of the novel Reconsidering Happiness, the flash fiction chapbook I Call This Flirting, and the forthcoming short story collection Whiskey, Etc. (Queen’s Ferry Press, 2016). She lives in Pittsburgh.
The coffee shop is full, or full enough. I hide in the back, wait. My maybe-date doesn’t show. “The alarm clock didn’t go off,” he says to me when he calls. To get to the coffee shop on time, I sprinted through my morning brushing of teeth like a comedy routine, throwing on clothes, making hasty decisions, pissing off the dog and the cat and my neighbor, Jim. But still. I’m polite on the phone, as he talks about late nights and the need for a new, better alarm clock.
I do doubt the problem is the clock, but I encourage him to, yes, buy a new one. I say it’s okay, because it seems he will not stop apologizing until I do. I hate that I’m bullied into forgiving him, and when he calls to reschedule I pretend like I’ve accidentally deleted his message. There’s a kind of joy in fooling yourself and then lying about a mundane detail.
“Oh, I didn’t get that message.”
And I take joy where I can; these tiny moments add up. As I’m walking my dog I think about all the missed opportunities, all the rushing. What if you got that back—like a time refund?
And today there’s my near-date, in fact, sitting in a different cafe on a different day talking to a different woman as I walk by. I turn, walk by again. I turn, walk to the plate glass and tap. Tap-tap. Wave. He looks up, touches the woman’s hand to stop her mid-sentence, nods to me and then heads out into the cold without a coat. I’m bundled tight and ready to wait this out. The dog sits, sensing this will be a long one, deciding to be a good boy because perhaps he remembers that this particular cafe has doggy treats inside by the register.
“Hey,” the almost-date says. “I tried to call you to hook up again.”
“Oh, hey,” I say. “I didn’t get that message. Weird.”
“Weird,” he says. We both look at the dog, who looks across the street, his main focus being sitting like a good boy. Shoulders back. Ears up. “So,” he says. “Let’s reschedule?”
I look inside the cafe at the woman with her back to me, sipping on a cup of tea, fiddling with the paper flag attached to its string. Her fingers are fine and beautiful. Her hair looks nice from the back, auburn and wavy and lush. I wonder how many people he has in his life. I know I don’t have very many to meet up with these days. I feel homesick for something. I suddenly feel so much at once.
“I just can’t bear to be stood up again,” I say. “So let’s just call it that, okay? It was a date and now it’s run its course without even starting up. Efficient.”
He looks inside the cafe, perhaps thinks the woman’s hands are beautiful too. Maybe this is the moment that he falls in love with her? In a few years they will marry, this man and the woman with the tea. They’ll walk arm in arm around the neighborhood and smile at me in the dwindling light. They’ll get a dog of their own. A beagle who eagerly sniffs my dog’s ass.
For now, my own dog has decided his good dog time is up. He whines a little and then lifts off his haunches and pulls gently on the leash. “Okay,” the man says. “I didn’t know you were so sensitive.”
“Not sensitive, really. Just pragmatic,” I say. “Plus, you don’t know me at all.”
He sighs then, looks across the street at the rows of houses lined up and quiet in the mid-afternoon city street their window boxes stuffed with dying flowers. He says, “I’ve seen you around this neighborhood for months. I always thought it was beautiful, the way you stepped carefully with your dog. I loved watching you walk and walk around the blocks around here. I loved that you smiled at me. Just wanted to let you know that.” He shifted his weight from one foot to the other, touched my arm. “I also know,” he says quietly, “that sometimes I can be an ass.”
I nod. I say, “Thank you.” The dog pulls steadily now and barks once. I smile at the man. “Thanks.”
I think about all of this later, of course. After he’s married. I think about time stretching and bending and moving in other ways instead of this one. I imagine him showing up at the coffee shop. I imagine ordering tea, playing with the tea bag while he talks to a woman for too long on a cold fall day, outside the cafe, my back turned to him and her, but feeling the heat of their conversation through the window. I imagine waiting patiently while conversations inside murmur all around me. I imagine turning to look out the window, as this beautiful woman does just now, and seeing him with her, touching her hand then hugging.
I wonder which woman I want to be.