When you want to distance yourself from a man, the last thing you do is go to his place of business, right? That would be the reasonable, the sensible course of action. So, of course, I didn’t take it.
I caught my reflection in the glass in front of Jake’s Coffee Shop before going in. The shop used to be a convenience store that had been there since I was a child, buying bubblegum for a quarter. The faded red sign out front stated it was a grocery, but advertised why folks really shopped there—beer, wine, and lotto. The burglar bars on the windows were gone now. Jake’s logo (a steaming coffee cup and Jake’s in cursive) was superimposed over my face. Candy canes hovering above the cup added as a nod to the season hit right above my head which wasn’t hard to do considering I was short. But it did look like a crown of sorts. Jake had probably paid a college kid to add the illustration for the holidays which was typical.
My reflection was a reminder of how ridiculous this situation was. My plain round face looked like a Sunday school teacher’s or, an accountant which is what I told people I was if they asked. Besides the gray knitted hat that covered my short hair, I was able to get away with just wearing an all-weather coat. It didn’t start getting really cold in Atlanta until January. Growing up, I could remember wearing shorts on some Christmases.
All in all, my reflection portrayed the woman I wanted to be seen as—middle-aged, chunky, respectable. I wasn’t the woman who received grand, romantic gestures. I was the type to attend zoning board meetings or volunteer as a poll worker.
I’d learned early to play to my strengths and been rewarded for it. As an actuary, I calculated risk. As the daughter of a single mom, I made sure I was going to be financially secure. After finishing college, instead of heading to Buckhead like the typical young Atlanta professional, I stayed in the West End where I’d grown up and bought my first home intending to fix it up and turn it into a rental—a yellow house with burnt orange accents. My childhood friend Shay, who was just as ambitious as I was, moved in with me. Back then, no one cared about the West End. The proximity to downtown and the MARTA station were negatives.
But I kept an eye on my neighborhood and kept track of where the money was going…and the money was going to the West End. When I was a kid, our landlord Miss Mary gave us a break on rent. I didn’t know that at the time. It was something my mom told me later on and it stuck with me. While I had materialistic dreams like anyone else. Bougie dreams of going on trips to places I’d read about in cast off National Geographic magazines at the Goodwill. Dreams of clinking glasses filled with mimosas with friends over brunch. Dreams like making sure that my nieces and nephews could go to any school they wanted. I had rich auntie dreams and I’d achieved them.
But my real dream? My real dream was to buy the block I grew up on. Miss Mary dreams because the only thing that people listen to in this life is money. At forty-five I hadn’t bought up the entire block, but I made some inroads. I still lived in that yellow house with burnt orange accents though Shay had gotten married and moved out. And I still kept an eye on the neighborhood. Gentrification was inevitable once the beltline project was announced—green space and development. This all meant tax breaks for developers, higher taxes for homeowners and pricing out current renters. Now the West End had been rechristened as West Midtown. The neighborhood reflected the transition. Over on Joseph E. Lowery, a shiny brew pub sat next to a Jamaican bakery.
So, when Jake’s Coffee Shop opened up, I took a walk there to see what was going on. Jake’s was dark and cozy. The plain tile floors I’d roamed as a kid looking at candy had been replaced with tiled, octagon floors like an old ice cream shop. The big shiny silver machine that made the magic happen sat behind a long granite bar. Bags of coffee were shelved next to the machine with beans named after Black Women historical figures—Ida, Araminta, Celia. There was one long high table for the college kids from the Atlanta University Center that came in to study and the rest of the space was filled with small, cozy tables fit for two.
One taste of a proper cappuccino made at just the right temperature to release the milk and sugar and I was hooked. As I spent more time there, I developed an unfortunate crush on the owner. It wasn’t that he was attractive. He was that, don’t get me wrong. But he was kind and appeared to have a heart for the community. At least I knew it was a crush and how ridiculous it was. Still, my afternoon tea was a habit, a place where I researched and brainstormed ideas for my latest project. This project just happened to be dating.
The wind slapping against my cheeks reminded me to get a move on. A bell jingled as I walked in and the warmth surrounded me. I took off my coat and headed to my table in the back. I wanted to get started a bit before putting in my order for tea. The table was made by local artists. The same with the art on the walls. When I brainstormed, I liked reading hard copies and getting all my ideas out first with pen and paper. After staring at a screen for eight hours, it made sense.
I opened my binder irritated that at forty-five years old I was even making a plan. No matter how comfortable my current life was, in order to make room for a new one, I had to let something go. That was the lesson. Knowing Jake these past months made me realize I wanted warmth. I wanted companionship. Was it too late? Numbers made sense. People? Not so much. But I could figure it out. I’d done so in the past.
“Ready for a top off?”
The question and the voice attached to it warmed my heart. I looked up and there was Jake. He was about my age, bald, and he worked out enough that he had to like it. Morris Chestnut brown, he liked wearing black T-shirts a size too small with the coffee shop’s name in cursive over, not his heart, mind you, but more like his pec. Right now he was holding a golden-brown personal tea service on a tray. The teapot looked like it was made of maple leaves. Perfect for Thanksgiving even though we were headed to Christmas. I loved the tea set, though. Thanksgiving was the overlooked holiday compared to showy Christmas. I liked it so much I bought a duplicate tea set to keep at home. Two scones were set off to the side.
I closed my binder out of embarrassment though I hadn’t written anything in it yet or started playing around with possible schedules.
He set the tea service on the table next to mine and took a seat. Somehow, he knew the perfect time I was ready for my tea and he’d sit down to talk. It was quiet between five p.m. and seven. The college kids had started to go home for the holidays, making it emptier than normal.
He looked over my setup. “That’s different.”
It was. Newspapers were typically strewn across the round dark wood table. He would notice. I was a regular. It was good for business to notice. I wasn’t the only one good at recognizing patterns.
“Different project,” I admitted.
He laughed, a throaty one. “You. On a different project.”
“I know. Strange, right? But it has come to my attention that I need to make some changes in my life.”
He poured a cup of tea and pushed it toward me. “What kind of changes?” He was well aware I bought the ’hood when no one else cared which, after twenty years, made me a wealthy woman. Any changes I made, could be a cause for concern for him financially. I couldn’t bring myself to look him in the eyes. Jake saw too much, and it was embarrassing.
It couldn’t hurt to tell him what I was going after, what I wanted. Supposedly people connected people who wanted to date. Supposedly. That had never happened for me. Folks usually only want to offer you help when you don’t need it. Still. There was no downside to dropping hints.
I opened the binder. He wouldn’t be offended. According to my preliminary research, since we were the same age, I was too old for him to date me. “I’ve decided to start dating.”
He turned his head. “You’ve decided?”
“Decided. I mean dating just doesn’t happen to me. I have to make plans and find a way to fit it into my schedule, and I guess try out different strategies to see what works.”
“Why not just wait for something to happen?”
“Waiting for something to happen is how I got to be this age and single. I realized my life is designed to give me exactly what I have. I don’t like what I have, then it’s time to change. If I want a different output, I need to change the input.”
“That’s a technical way of looking at the situation.”
“I mean, it’s like any goal. For example, your goal here is to turn a profit.”
“This is true.”
“If you weren’t meeting your goal, wouldn’t you change your strategy?”
“I would if I hadn’t let it have enough time to build. Like, let’s say if I was going to have an event. I would need to advertise.”
I took a sip of the tea. Perfectly brewed. I liked my tea strong, and he knew it. “So, you understand what I’m saying.”
“And I would advertise in the neighborhood first.” He reached for one scone from the tray using it to punctuate his language. “You can have an event but if you don’t have an open sign, then how will people know you’re open for business?”
I nibbled on my scone. It had a touch of lemon, my favorite. “Hmm,” I said. Wonderful. “This recipe is definitely a keeper. Maybe add a little raspberry jam on the side?”
“You’re changing the subject.’
“I got distracted. Baked goods are my weakness.” I swallowed another bite. “If you serve these at your hypothetical event, you wouldn’t have any trouble keeping the doors open. You have an excellent product.”
“That and the location and advertisement. Everything working in concert.”
I slipped the rest of the scone in my mouth, that burst of lemon again. I sank into the booth. This was just so comfortable, warm. Sitting here with lemon scones and tea. Jake sitting next to me smelling clean like no single man deserved to do and it was quiet. Things slowed down at this time of day, which is the reason I liked coming here. I liked the quiet. I liked comfortable. Both things I would have to get out of if I wanted my life to change.
He must have noticed my frown. “Is the scone bad?”
“Hush. The scone is perfect and you know it. Just thinking about how nice it is here. How comfortable. How you have to turn into someone else to get something different.”
“Maybe you don’t have to be. I think you’re fine just the way you are.”
I’d heard that before. Men weren’t the only ones who could be friend-zoned. I would not let my mind go there. I wanted this, this comfort but with someone who wanted me, too. Someone who cared enough to pay attention to me. If Jake was interested in me, he would have given an indication. He hadn’t and we were both adults. The last time I made an effort to date, I read all the books and a suggestion was to ask men out. And I did. I tried that strategy. While it worked for some women, it didn’t for me. I was met with either outright rejection or the men expected me to chase them. I discovered I wasn’t a chaser.
I gave him that slight smile that said I like you but don’t be terrified I might be interested in you romantically. “Thank you for saying that.”
I tapped my pen on the blank schedule page. “I need to schedule more time in target-rich environments.”
“Why do you think that’s necessary? Maybe you’ll meet someone here.”
“I’ve been coming here for five months, Jake. You don’t get enough foot traffic this time of day. I mean, I chose this time of day to come here for that reason. It worked for me in the beginning and now it doesn’t.”
“You just need one guy.”
“Yes,” I said. “I just need one. Maybe he would be dressed in a button-down shirt and khakis. You know, preppy. Maybe he’ll ask to go somewhere else because we would have talked until closing.”
A yawn escaped my mouth. I covered my mouth with the back of my hand. “Sorry about that. The chamomile tea must be doing its job.” I stuffed my papers in my black leather work bag. “See you tomorrow.”
“So, we’re still part of your schedule?”
“I’ll always find time for you. I mean for Jake’s.” I shrugged. “We’re well into cuffing season, too close to Christmas. I’m making these plans to implement in the new year.” I slid out the chair and remembered I hadn’t paid. “Oh, I haven’t paid.”
I started digging into my bag when he stilled my hand. “Don’t worry about it, Geshonda. I’ll put it on your tab.”
The next day, me and my plans showed up as usual, except Jake wasn’t there behind the counter. It was Cicely, Georgia State hospitality major. Strange.
I ordered a cappuccino since I didn’t trust Cicely’s tea. Alas. There would be no scones tonight. “Jake isn’t sick, is he?”
She shook her head. “No, ma’am.” Ma’am. “He just wanted to take the night off.”
“Well. Okay.” It made sense. I handed over my card then headed to my table. The conversation was nice last night, but it didn’t help me get to where I wanted to go. And this place was a comfort, but it wasn’t helping me move forward. I had to be ruthless. It either helped me reach my goal, or it had to go.
I spread out my binder with blank schedule pages, a notebook for brainstorming and printed research materials on my regular table, pink highlighter in hand because everybody used yellow. I took a sip. Cicely was good. I’d pay for drinking caffeine this late in the day, but it would be worth it. I smiled. Shaking me had waited for the caffeinated jolt, enjoying the warmth seeping through my hands.
There was another smell, though, that caught my attention. Clean. And a presence. I opened my eyes. There was Jake, not in a ridiculous tight shirt, but in a button-down and khakis and glasses. I didn’t know he wore glasses.
“Is this seat taken?” He pointed to the same chair he sat in yesterday, that he’d sat in every evening. Why in the world was he there dressed like that? Asking me that question? But for once I kept my mouth shut. This was a break in the pattern and those usually meant something.
“No,” I said. “It’s not taken.”
“Is the coffee good here?”
I laughed, wondering what he was about. “Yes. It’s hard to find a place around here that the temperature is just right so it’s not too hot.”
“So, the owner must know his stuff.”
Was this…flirting? Along with how to pose, I missed those classes, but I suppose I needed to lean in. “The owner must know his stuff. I would say so.”
“I hear he’s handsome, too.”
“Modest though he does tend to wear tight T-shirts.”
“If you noticed, it must have done the job.”
“Must have,” I said, taking another sip.
“That must mean you must come here a lot.”
I shrugged “I like it. It’s cozy. Good company. Nice…view.” That was flirty, right?
“It does seem kind of uptight, though, wouldn’t you think?”
“As opposed to…”
“There’s this spot down the way. They have the best beignets and they’re open late since this place is about to close.”
“Jake’s is open for another hour.”
“I can assure you, Geshonda, Jake’s is closing early tonight. We could talk more there. You might even find out my name.”
“I think that would be lovely.” I started putting my papers back in their slots in my notebook. Large brown hands helped me.
“There,” he said. “All organized.” He stood up and reached out a hand.
It was real. People. Lawd. People who did not fit into neat patterns.
“It’s a glass of wine, Geshonda.”
And everything is scary the first time. Patterns were comfortable, but then you didn’t find out what else there was. Maybe I was a woman who inspired grand gestures, after all. I took his hand. “Let’s go.”