Who could she be? Hal pictured her clearly as he played with the earring’s dangling silver shards; he saw her walking into his cafe with a look of conscious poise that only barely betrayed her distress. He was hypnotized by the swirl of her solitary earring. He cursed as the double soy latte he was preparing overflowed. He wanted nothing more in the world at this moment than to find this mystery woman—the one whose earring he held. Hal knew the customers didn’t understand; to them, the earring was nothing more than a feeble swipe at society dangling from his ear. He relished their discomfort; he hesitated before handing back their change, watching as they inevitably looked again, they couldn’t help it. He flashed a corporate smile and they ran, caffeine in hand. The morning rush was over and Hal leaned against the back counter, sinking into his elbows. He let himself unmoor
She looked everywhere. The office, the car, the lobby. She asked her secretary, she asked her officemates. She called home and asked her dog on the answering machine. It was nowhere to be found. She felt the odd looks as she briskly moved along the sidewalk against the lunch-hour rush, but she could not be fazed. The looks continued as she surged into the cafe, filled with frustration and the desperate hope that this place was The place; it didn’t help that she wore only one earring, its silver petals sprinkling the morning rays across her neck. What does it mean to be good enough? To make people proud. To rise above ones circumstance; A good poker player can win with any hand of cards—they don’t even have to look. Why was she in law school? It paid well, sure, or it would—eventually. Wouldn’t it be incredible to see her name in lights… ”Young Upstart Litigator Upsets Dominant Paradigm, Successfully Drafts 167th Legal Brief!“ Her headache was back; it was only 12:15. She stared absently down at her salad. She hated salad. Her feet were finally returning to their natural shape, the torturous pumps sat innocently under her chair. She stared at the leaves, and her fingers wandered to her left ear and twirled the air. Then she noticed her earring wasn’t there. She was sure she had worn it, she remembered putting it on, checking herself in the mirror during the morning traffic. Her stomach sank further, removing any notion of food from her mind. It had been taken from her. Even her appetite was gone; she felt violated. She wedged back into her heels and rose to leave. Her feet took her through town, past the bus stops, through back alleys, across bridges. She walked for what seemed like hours, maybe days. At last she stopped; she stood in front of a small coffee shop.
Then Hal was not alone. The mists of his daydream receded; he brought the world back into focus just as the door swung open, and a hot summer wind swirled the newspapers up off the tables, filling Hal’s mouth with the acrid taste of raw emotion. Hal was nondescript. He embodied it, he looked and lived it, but worst of all he felt it. Mediocre. Average. A number. A statistic. He could taste it—it was a bad taste—it lived in his lungs, in his heart. He had tried once to drink it away, but that only changed his category; piled on one more cliche. Sometimes, Hal made himself sick. He lived alone, and Hal was lonely but didn’t know it. He had a cat whose company sustained him, and brought him what he thought at least resembled happiness. His parents called, and the phone rang, and rang, and rang. They meant well, really they did. But sometimes they just didn’t have a clue. There was nothing they could do. The beep, then the voice piping out from the kitchen alcove where the answering machine faithfully recorded every word.
Hal wiped hands across his green apron. He admired the stitching. How much time would there be? Each line of fabric exactly the same as the next, perfectly even. Could he run? Faded stains from distractions past. Maybe he could hide. Every breath, each pull of his lungs it burrowed further, like a vicious cancer it spread, eating him alive. It spread to his eyes; the world had lost its glow. There was now only gray. The lush brown beans the artist in him once admired were now a lush flat gray. They smelled of wet cement, and tasted it for that matter. The sun no longer filtered through him, freeing him from his pains; now it just made him sweat. He did his job well—he could make any of the 64,513 possible beverage combinations, and most in under 2:00 flat. Corporate had timed him once. In they came with their suits and folios, radio-phones. They took his photo; put it in some bulletin to make the investors proud. They liked him. He knew how to do a job right. The stockbrokers who came on their way to the floor had told him he made a mean latte. It gave them something to look forward to every morning. He ground brewed, poured, steamed, mixed, served, smiled. Repeat.
The staring man behind the counter. He had dark eyes and a dark complexion; he had the eyes of more than a barista. Then she saw it. Her earring dangling from his left ear. Her heart jumped, and for the first time since high school she had no idea what to do next. She was completely vulnerable, exposed, completely at the mercy of the cafe, its customers, the barista. Her heart stopped beating. Those eyes, she felt them pierce her armor, peering into the depths of her soul– into the places she had left buried so long she had forgotten they even existed.
She breathed out as the train slowed to a stop, and the doors squeaked open. The passengers tumble-streamed out of the train-cars, and scurried off to their destinations. She shook her hair back, trying to shrug off the dizzy claustrophobic heat. The small bits of metal flew free, and sailed onto the tracks beside her. She hated late April, it was already too humid for her blood, and the haze of the city was slowly beginning to form.
He didn’t notice her at first. She stood before the counter, her right shoulder slung with an expensive handbag, hair flipped to one side. He had the vague sinking rolling stomach feeling that he had blown it already; he slowly realized just how absurd he must look wearing her earring. What if she had ear disease? What if he did?! He didn’t think either of these was likely, but still, you can’t take chances with things like this; heart leaping frantically from his ribcage as if to escape across the street. The room had filled with a brilliant light, but Hal did nothing. He made an attempt to shield his eyes from the inferno. The hook of the earring grew hot in his ear. He wanted to take it off and hand it back, return it to its proper owner. His nostrils flared with the scent of his searing flesh; and yet he was still.
They stood; the counter dividing them. Hal thought his legs might be shaking, though he couldn’t say for sure. His neck was stiff, and his eyes glued to the shine of her matching earring. They each stared at the others’; he didn’t know if she had already said anything. The rolling and rumbling grew more violent, and he felt the impulse to melt, though he wasn’t sure if it was his choice to make. The heat in his ear had reached new heights and he was surprised the earring hadn’t just burned through and fallen out. His thoughts danced through his mind as he watched the light play off her neck, the tiny silver petals of her earring not yet settled from their journey.
He realized suddenly that he could not move. She looked at him quizzically, as if she didn’t know quite what to make of the situation. She wasn’t mad, he knew, but he could not make more than that. She seemed to understand his situation and his silence and lack of movement was less troubling to her than he had anticipated. She thought fiercely for a few moments, running calculations by contorting her face this way and that until at last her features relaxed. She reached her hand slowly across the counter, hovering above his own, which had clamped onto the near edge and was snugly attached. She paused again, but only briefly, before continuing towards his frozen grasp, while his eyes stayed frozen on her neck, the dance of lights plucking the strings of his being, in the arbitrary way that such beautiful things tend to; then there was an explosion. The current surged through the first layers of skin and screamed along his various ducts and canals and wires and circuits into his brain, into his chest, into his feet. The force took his breath away, and left his hair standing on end. The earring floated out from his ear at a 90 degree angle, the petals swirling around themselves in space. He could not feel the floor beneath his feet, nor the air on his face. Only the series of shockwaves propagating through his body, hitting the end and rippling back. The crossing waves produced a symphony of harmonics that filled his head, growing to a deafening roar. Each of his senses was quickly overwhelmed, and he was left only with the image of dancing stars on her pale skin.