The quest for human companionship may be ages old, but in all that time, has it been perfected? Hardly.
Nelse lists in the leather bucket seat and sets aside the commuter mug of his usual, a café latte doppio that steams. He takes a cell phone and punches numbers for Espresso'd, the coffee bar he just left.
What's closer to a ten on the start of a day than this? Top-down weather and across fifteen feet of pedestrian walkway from the parked Alfa, behind the glass sheet fronting Espresso'd, something in the form of woman moves with a hypnotic liquidity that's escaped every sculptor who ever lived. She's brushing crumbs, picking up napkins--all that--from tables and counters inside.
Any other morning, Nelse would have already been cubicle-bound to Cirrus Labs. Today, however, one of the other woman employees called her by name: CaraJo.
The revelation snagged him. Why not? Where there's a technology, there's a way.
Nelse wordlessly thanks the gods for this technological gift that now summons CaraJo away from the window. Not that he didn't enjoy the front and side views of CaraJo at her cleaning chores; he simply also appreciates a mathematical aesthetic as she turns away. Her sacral concavity reverse-curves flawlessly to the muscular convexity of her bum as, with divine motion, she goes for the phone on the back wall.
CaraJo comes on the phone with an incredibly up voice. In profile, hand on hip, leaning on the wall, she says she doesn't know any Nelse and doesn't understand why he'd be watching her.
"I'm over here. The Alfa out front. See me?" Nelse straightens up in the bucket seat, certain that taller must be better with CaraJo.
She swivels her shoulders against the wall and looks right at him, squinting. A bit of a pause. Nelse decides her cheekbones are up there with Lauren Hutton. Finally, she asks, "What's with the sunglasses?" She takes forefinger away from chin. "Are you some albino with red eyes?"
Nelse pulls off the Serengetis. "That better?" CaraJo smiles nonstop and a novel warm glow surprises Nelse, thrills his back.
CaraJo tilts her head up, the cheekbones wondrous in sharper relief, and says she doesn't know that she likes this, talking on the phone to someone who's watching her. She thinks it's kind of voyeuristic. Nelse loves the up voice, its athletic breathiness. He's got an easy guess on what it might predict for her overall physical appetites.
"I have to talk with you," he says. "Tell me, can you stand another friend in your life?" She plays with errant blonde hair wisping into her eyes. Nelse beams.
A long pause. CaraJo's eyes level at his, then she gazes away. Sotto voce (Nelse is sure this woman is a seductress par excellence), she asks how she would know him from an artist's sketch on America's Most Wanted. She toes one shoe on the floor.
"You're getting the wrong idea," Nelse says, head forward with the cell phone. "I'm an okay guy. Stop by every morning for a skinny latte before work. I'm a computer programmer and I'm lonely. Have mercy, CaraJo."
How did he get her name, she fires back, suggesting she's not easy and might be as quick as a fighter pilot in blasting guys out of the sky.
"You looked like a CaraJo." Nelse swings the Serengetis by an open stem.
Another pause. CaraJo smooths blonde locks with her free hand and says in rushed words that she'd like to talk more, but it's busy and she needs to get to work.
"Same here," he says. "Be by tomorrow." CaraJo hangs up.
Next morning, early, Nelse is back. It's before 6:30 and the lights in Espresso'd aren't even on; the place is not open for business, a fact that doesn't faze him. He shifts on the firm bolster of the bucket seat, catching glimpses of CaraJo's blondeness. Gracefully, she darts about, readying things behind the dusky store glass in silence. He could be watching a bright tropical fish circumnavigate an aquarium. On his side of the glass, a handful of coffee addicts artfully ignore each other while keeping their places by the locked door. Nelse can wait on the coffee.
He cradles the cell phone in his left hand, speed-dialing the number he'd just programmed. A quick chat with CaraJo. Who knows? Maybe an advance order.
The impressively slim cell phone stutters out beeps and Nelse yields to maxed-out anticipation: She's gotta move, pick up the phone on the back wall.
A female voice, synthesized, comes online: "I'm sorry. The number you reached is not accepting calls from--" A ripe pause and then, "5-5-5-0-9-3-1," which Nelse, shocked, must accept as his number. The other side of the glass, CaraJo floats about her chores, does not miss a beat.
"Please hang up your receiver and feel free to contact our offices during normal business hours for more information. Thank you."
Geez, Louise. Why'd she block my number? He folds the cell phone in two clicks and belt-clips it. She moves now in a fluorescent-lit interior.
Minutes dissolve as he gathers clues. Does she start the shift pulling barista duty or working the till? The register's his bet as she--he takes a deep breath--comes to the front door and gives the lock a determined twist. No complete laggard for caffeine shots, he's out of the Alfa, his Pier 1 bag in hand.
Soon enough he's at the register, sliding a skinny latte doppio on the counter. Hands over a five-dollar bill, drops the change--two dollars, some coins--in the tip jar.
"Got something, gonna make your life a lot easier."
"Okay," she replies with forbearance, skepticism.
"You clean up tables--use this. One, two swipes, all it takes." A natural sponge, he explains, from the waters off Madagascar. "Forget those cheesy sponges they make you use here."
"Anything else?" Poised and undeflected, CaraJo glances at the customer to Nelse's right.
"Yeah, when do we get together?"
"Our talk, you know, yesterday. Give it any more thought?"
"Listen, this is work, I'll talk to you in a min." Her fingers dance at the register, ready to rack up the next sale.
Nelse sits down, sips. He has to tell her he wants to bring his camera, photograph her, get that glamour on film. She didn't say no. He feels good, optimistic.
He's right. A few minutes later, CaraJo hurriedly sits beside him saying, "Gotta tell you, first time out with a guy, I only do lunch."
This is no auditory hallucination. These are true words. At this moment, he wouldn't think of leaving the table for anyone less than say, Elle MacPherson. "Just a short, quick lunch for me, huh?" He wants to act like his pride is wounded, but he fails. He chuckles at how everything has worked out just as he planned.
"Don't laugh. You're lucky. I used to keep it to coffee breaks, but that, that was too much like work."
This latter admission Nelse takes as proof of her irrepressible humor. And with her looks, what more could he want in a woman? He remembers the camera, the quest to photograph her perfection. "Yeah, a coffee break should be a coffee break. Say, I'll bring my camera, document it all, this lunch will live in my memory forever--"
CaraJo is out of the chair, her eyes agitated at new customers coming in. "Take pictures, do whatever. Remember, I can only fit lunch in my schedule."
Like that, she's back working the till, and Nelse, with no small contentment, turns his coffee cup in small increments and mentally flashes on a scene.
He's drinking in CaraJo's beauty, the two of them outdoors at a round, enamelled metal table, which sprouts a sun umbrella, the Espresso'd logo writ large in white on each of its six dark-olive canvas panels. Both are savoring the delicacies he brought: warm baguette and Brie and salmon paté and caviar--lots of choices--and finishing with in-season strawberry shortcake washed down with Espresso'd coffee, the latter, natch, to claim the table. And Evian water--it would all fit in the wicker basket, china and silverware too.
He gets up, walks over to CaraJo. "Tomorrow," he says.
"Sure, make it one-ish, after the noon-hour rush," she says with a hint of... is it enthusiasm?
His thumb and forefinger meet in the rabbit-eared "O" of an okay sign and he is outbound, commuter mug of skinny latte in hand, sure he's a Nick for the Nineties who's finally found his Nora.
Next day, he's at Espresso'd, prompt as an electric bill. CaraJo assures him they're on for lunch. She's got the edge of excitement in her voice and Nelse feels at that moment he's the luckiest guy ever born.
Hours later, he's back in the passion-stirring aromas of the store and not seeing CaraJo, he inquires of another woman who cleans tables, an angular woman with a crew cut he finds attractive for some reason lost on him: "CaraJo around?"
"Sure, wait a minute. Oh, there she is--"
CaraJo emerges, really emerges, looking for all the world like a caterpillar seconds post-cocoon. She's got on a billowy, orange-white striped clown suit that's hiding--somehow--the irresistible bod that was CaraJo. Nelse gapes in disbelief.
"Recognize me?" she says, smiling with these outsized red lips on a white face with a red rubber ball of a nose stuck in the middle of it. Nelse is all the more stunned that this oddest person in the room is actually speaking to him. He wants to leave right now, chalk it up as a bad dream, come back tomorrow. Did he have the wrong day?
And worst of all, she asks this in a loud voice, chewing gum the whole time. Nelse stands there like the lamest of lame dates, holding a picnic basket--from which they're sharing lunch? He might as well break bread with a yak for all the companionship potential he sees here.
"Yeah, your nose gave you away," he says, trying to act nonchalant about CaraJo's shocking sartorial feat.
"It's Friday afternoon. I take off early for my public service project at St. John's. Visit kids in the cancer ward. They're in love with me." She says this, jaws flapping away with a real wad of gum. Nelse would bet anything she's lying about the kids with cancer, but would she go and rent a costume just to make him out as a fool? He doesn't really know.
"That's commendable," he says. "Just commendable."
He suggests they sit outside at one of the umbrellaed tables. He wants to see CaraJo the way she used to be. He decides if he's going to take pictures, she'd look better without that ridiculous red nose on her face. "Wanna do me a favor?" he asks.
"Give that nose a rest while we eat. I wanna see the real you, not some bank-robber disguise--"
"Forget it. If this is good enough for my kids, it's good enough for you."
The next few minutes at the table are awkward. He has to open the wicker picnic basket that now seems a bit out of place with CaraJo the Clown, who looks more like she wants to eat something from McDonald's, not the herbed pasta salad that he's putting out on faux china plates.
"You went to so much trouble," CaraJo says, following with a run of fast chews on her wad of gum like she's about to pull its salivaed pinkness from her mouth and stick it on the plate, which she does. He's almost lost his appetite as he opens and hands her an Evian, an inverted plastic cup hanging on the bottle neck.
Then his PalmPilot starts beeping in his shirt pocket, which he extracts to read, Ask CaraJo if she wants to go to Art Museum Sunday afternoon, a reminder he could do without if she's taken to wearing this sexless habit of parachute clothes.
It's really that red bulbous nose that destroys all the beauty he saw in CaraJo. It mocks his attraction to her. He must focus on getting food on the table. She slivers off some of the resilient Brie, attaching it to a cracker. "You did too much. I feel like I'm in Masterpiece Theatre, china plates and all."
Nelse wants to say, "Why did I bother?" and instead keeps mum, slathering the pinkish salmon pate--which CaraJo ignores--on a baguette slice, then bites, chews, and swallows with a new dryness in his throat.
Again, Nelse remembers the camera he stuffed in the wicker basket. "Hey, I wanna take your picture." He does a quick checkout of his point-and-shoot.
"Sure. Me eating or not?"
"Doesn't matter," he says, framing CaraJo in the viewfinder, unable to ignore the something in the picture that's really wrong. "Now, one thing, the nose--" His free hand motions, withdrawing a cupped-finger mask from his face, emphatically swiveling his wrist down, and planting his phantom nose flat on the table.
"Try living with it." Her smirk is nearly lost in all the makeup.
"No, I gotta recognize you as you." It's bad enough that she has white smeared all over her face, black matting out those delicate eyebrows, and red burlesquing what he remembered as sexy lips. That plumber's helper of a nose has got to go.
"Sorry. You're gonna have to remember me this way. Take your silly picture."
Nelse's arms feel heavy as if he can't bear holding the camera anymore, can't push the button and take the first picture. Besides, any shot he'd take would only be a prickly reminder that CaraJo was making a joke of his desire for her. She'd be forever ready to leave and tell her fellow workers every last detail of how he reacted when she took out that wad of gum and stuck it to the plate he'd so carefully handed her. For her it's a game where she can break the rules and beat him every time only because he follows the rules like religion.
His PalmPilot starts beeping again. He can't take it out--he's holding the camera and his arms are still sluggish. It keeps beeping. Okay, it'll quit in a minute, anyway.
"Can't you shut that off? It drives me carayzy," she says, laughing.
"Doesn't bother me," he says without apology.
"Here, you need help--" CaraJo reaches toward him, toward his pocket and the electronic marvel that he mail-ordered for $399, no tax to Oregon buyers. She touches it, she'll drop it, drop it on the ground.
Then suddenly, his arms alive, the camera on the table, his hand at her face, a deeply satisfying wrench, and the rubber bulb, separate from her nose, bounces on the cement.
Her face is nothing but a shock of disbelief and a naked nose lost in makeup.
He picks up his camera because the CaraJo he dreamt about the last few days is recognizable, sorta. He needs these pictures.
Her face is no-mercies-offered, no-prisoners-taken resolve. She picks up her cup of coffee and flings liquid content, a fact he sees coming through the viewfinder.
The camera lens goes watery, his face stings from the burning liquid, and for humiliation in good measure, he doesn't get off a shot. His white shirt is now splotchy brown, reeks of coffee, and is wet.
CaraJo stands abruptly in her clown suit--before he can even say an angry word--knocks the plastic chair over, wads her napkin, throws it violently at the table, and walks away, leaving no more target than her billowy, striped back slipping inside the glass door for him to hurl an epithet. It's no use. She's inside Espresso'd so quickly, she wouldn't hear him anyway. Wouldn't hear him utter the word "bitch" that stays frozen in his throat.
He stands there, camera in hand, wiping his face dry with his shirt sleeve that's also wet, not sure what to think; there is so much to think about. Like the fishy aftertaste in his mouth. He drinks what's left of the Evian water in his glass that amazingly was not spilled in the commotion.
He's not sure what to do next. He gives the table one drill of a stare. The circular metal tabletop is a big wasteland of defeat and there is no way he's going to bother with CaraJo anymore. He only wanted a few pictures. Apparently, that was enough to send her over the edge.
Can he help it if she's not comfortable with her looks? Great exterior, but inside... nutso. Away from the table, on the sidewalk, lies the silly rubber nose. He would laugh, except he's afraid tears lurk in his eyes. And there is the question of this mess.
He picks up the plate she'd been using, to put it away in the wicker basket and sees her inside sponging off a table, not using the large sponge he gave her. Which is fine. She can do it the hard way and learn.
She studiously avoids looking his way, giving the table a vigorous rubbing. Of course, she'll have to clean off the sidewalk tables soon. That's routine. Even clean off this table. It's not good for business to let messes like this sit around.
He doesn't put the plate in the wicker basket, just feels its heft. He straightens up, stands a bit taller; his shoulders shift back. He takes a relaxed breath and--intuitive click--knows how to make the best of a bad situation.
Most everything on the table is just food to be thrown away. And the wicker basket, the two plates that look like china but are not, the flatware, the linen napkins--all less than forty dollars at Pier 1. He decides to consider it an expense, an expense he'd spend anyway on his next date with CaraJo, which will never happen now. Why not be rid of it? With its baggage of nutso CaraJo reminders, it's all unclean. Yeah.
He rattles car keys in his pocket.
He walks away from the table, clutching his camera, leaving the mess for babe CaraJo to pick up.
He thinks to sit in his Alfa and, with patient satisfaction, wait for her to clean up the table. Then take a picture of the babe in her clown suit.
She, with her piddling sponge, first having to fill half a trash can with the table leavings. Then perhaps retrieving and reattaching that silly rubber ball.
He, from a safe distance, would snap off shots without comment, circling and kneeling to shoot her from all angles. And the darkroom joy of selecting the best picture. Maybe he'd blow it up and give it a caption: First Date Aftermath.
He fires up the Alfa, deciding against that idea. He's no sadist. Besides, he doesn't have time for waiting games.
He pauses at parking lot's edge, scans with readiness the oncoming traffic for the merge possibilities, and feels oddly giddy at how well he quit his Espresso'd habit.
He makes his move into traffic, the car picks up speed smartly, and the rush of strong Italian horses eases him against the leather bucket seat. He has only one question on his mind as he drives back to his place to get a clean, dry shirt: Where is he going for coffee tomorrow?
Charlie Dickinson (firstname.lastname@example.org) lives in Portland, Oregon, where he has a writer-compatible job reshelving books for the Multnomah County Library. His work appears on the Web at Afternoon, Blue Moon Review, Eclectica, and Savoy Magazine, where he serves as a regular contributor.
InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 8, Number 4 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1998 Charlie Dickinson.