The shop is only a small jump away from the apartment we were all at. Down the stairs, stopping only to push the red ‘EXIT’ button that releases the magnetized door to the complex, and around corner. Across High Street, and I was basically there. Shae was as hungry as I was, our stomachs sounding reminiscent of a pleasured kitten’s purr clashing with an old elementary school’s out-of-repair water boiler’s blubs and gurgles. She didn’t drink, however, having had a problem that spiraled out of control. She was a year into sobriety, which looking back was a startling dichotomy to the Hemmingway-like state I was stumbling in.
Chairs were erectly posted outside like sentries, alone and abandoned long ago by any occupants, left to remain empty until decent individuals broke their sleep and adventured to find a caffeine fix. We stepped into Travonna Coffee House sometime slightly after four in the morning; instantly the aromas of brewing grounds pricked at my nostrils. I took a moment at the door to finish off the last drag on a cigarette. Red glow illuminated my hand as the embers flew to life; they scattered like tiny fireflies as the butt hit the ground.
Shae was already inside, yelling and shouting in the haphazardly manic manner that marks her like tattooed ink. A cursory glance around the shop indicated what the lonely cathedras posted on the patio suggested: it was much too late in the night to be gallivanting off on quests for nourishment. The only souls in view were the two women chatting at the counter and a familiar face lying sprawled out, eyes closed on one of the sofas.
One of the women at the counter left with a merry laugh, the sound of good humour tinkling in the air as she clicked her heels on the floor - tap tap tap! - and made way for the door. The other was the barista behind the bar and ennui enveloped her visage as soon as her compatriot left. I placed my order as soon as the woman’s click-clacks had departed the scene.
Brown water spewed into the ceramic mug. It was clear, and weak, but that was nothing less than what I expected when I set my foot inside the door. Bland food, uncomfortable chairs, couches that were filled up if there was anyone present to have claimed them. It was also open twenty four hours a day.
Shae got a glance as she ran to the board games, and I stumbled over to sit by the familiar form of a friend sprawled out on the coffee shop couch. I shouted her name. I called again, bouncing down on the springy brown cushion next to her. I shouted again, kicking the side of the couch. Erin looked up. ‘Erin’ was definitively not Erin. To my chagrin, Shae started yelling from across the room, accusing me of being a stalker and creeper.. I replied with a startled confusion. A sudden sharp sound of a metallic lion’s roar broke through as beans were given their final rights and sent to execution at the espresso stand. There was a frigid silence. Finally Not-Erin spoke up in defense of her true identity, sarcasm leaking through her tone.
An exclamation, a loud curse, came from Shae’s direction as she burst into ridiculously taunting laughter again, falling over into the couch.
Not-Erin wasn’t young, but she wasn’t old. Mid-twenties, with a sleeve of bright ink up one arm and the dark chestnut hair that the woman I mistook her for also possessed. Red eyes, shot with blood from a strenuous night of coffee and staring at books and computer screens left her looking as dishevelled as that mahogany hair sticking out akimbo from the tail she’d endeavoured to stick it in. She looked as if she could have been born, raised, and never left this large room. A fitting denizen of the dungeon that never closes its doors to the tired straggler caught unawares on High Street and lured in by the promise of cheap caffeine.
Shae made her way over to plop down on the couch next to me, earlier admonitions and warnings about proximity forgotten in the excitement of a new individual. I was cold, face flushed with alcohol and embarrasment, yet Shae was brushing her raven hair out of her face and leaning in with an effervescent smile that reached from ear to ear as she asked the girl what she was doing in the room so scented of roasting coffee beans that were soon to be mixed with too much water.
The door jingled. The barista was a mixed young girl who looked stuffed into her garishly pink shirt that belonged more on a neon sign in Vegas than on an article of clothing. She had black hair and squared-off glasses and she was looking at the door when another acquaintance of mine walked in.
I’ve never quaffed coffee and eaten pizza at the same time. Not in my memory, at least, and yet now both scents pricked at my nostrils sharply and a grin split my face as a I left Shae to chat with the poor girl we’d woken up from her slumber.
Chris was just getting off work at a pizza shop I’d helped open on north campus. This being the Short North, he’d had a heavy bike ride and sweat mingled with the odours of tomato and vinegar, cheese and basil when I approached him. We chatted a moment before he placed his own order; I still hadn’t received my food, and the young girl behind the counter blinked owlishly as if she knew something I did not. A moment later, a meek apology and she rolled off to start my salad wrap with the intensity of the untrained.
Chris and I exchanged looks. She was new, and working the graveyard shift at a coffee shop already known for iffy service. I stepped back outside to chatter with my friend at the same time as Shae arrived with her new companion.
A cacophony of words smashed into one another, breaking the silence of the night into a thousand pieces as cigarette smoke filled the small patio we stood on. It was one of those conversations that had many tails, pieces, knots, and loops. One of those conversations where you found it effortless to follow every bit and piece without fearing your train of thought will go careening off the tracks.
More chatter. Relentless cross-examinations from all corners of the square we formed, huddling away from the frigid air of the night. The vapours of our breath mixed like dragon smoke with the cigarette’s burning.
With a flick of three cigarettes, it all ended as quickly as it began. We filtered back inside. Chris grabbed his food and left, the bakery scents departing with him. Not-Erin went back to the couch to partake in what Shae was convinced was drug-induced slumber. And I picked up my Caesar wrap, poking it open to see luscious greens peeking out from within a reddish-white tortilla.
Only once we ended up back across the street did I notice that my vegetarian-friendly wrap, so verdant and drizzled in a blanket of Italian dressing (something I hardly indulge in), had been taken over by bits of chicken. Tiny little soldiers of poultry corpse invaded the delicious jungle that I had been so close to masticating. It was, I realized, an ordinary trip to the same coffee shop that I would both cherish and be disappointed by the next day.