What the flat-white hell?

Many years ago I worked in a cafe in a busy, business district. We worked hard and churned out coffee after coffee. We were proud of how quickly we made good coffee; of how well we remembered our regulars and their orders; of how many commendations we received; of how hard we partied while at work; with how much money we made; with how much money we quietly stole.

We had many regulars. The cafe was staffed only by young women, attractive, bubbly, helpful. We had as many female regulars as male, but yes, the men seemed most happy when they returned. We were invited to Friday night drinks, to parties, to lunch, on holidays.

One guy was quiet but he came at 11 o’clock everyday. He didn’t say much but always ordered a flat white. We chatted sometimes. For me he was a challenge because he didn’t say much and I was outgoing and irritating so I made him talk. He started coming twice a day. Once at 11 and then at 3. He still didn’t say much but in a strange kind of slow way we began getting to know each other. He was cute but I had a boyfriend and he was no cuter than the many of other guys who traipsed through regularly. And they were more fun to flirt with.

One afternoon as the cafe was closing, I walked outside to pack up the table and chairs. He was sitting on his own at one of the tables. The sun was low in the sky and people were hurrying past to the train station. I was obviously surprised and he was obviously awkward and we really didn’t know what to say to each other. He asked me out for coffee. I laughed, ‘flat white?’ He said (without laughter), ‘No, when you finish work. We could go to the beach.’

I’m not smart in these situations. I never have been. I said yes. I was happy to but I knew it wasn’t sending the right messages and I also knew I simply wasn’t that keen. We went. It was fine but slightly strained. He talked more and I laughed too much. He dropped me home. My boyfriend was in the lounge room with my flat mate. They’d been wondering where I was. I said I needed a shower.

This guy then started coming on real, real strong. He visited the cafe a lot. He wanted more walks, more trips to the beach. I was uncomfortable but pretended not to be and at no stage did I say I had a boyfriend.

Easter was coming up. Easter always means days off and drinking and hangovers and chocolate. He asked me whether I wanted to go away with him and his friends to a place he had on the coast. I said I couldn’t, I was going away with my mum. He was disappointed. Sad and kind of frustrated, like he’d been working up to asking me and all the adrenalin was now making him ansty.

I left work early on the Thursday before Easter. I wasn’t going away with my mum. My boyfriend and I had planned a camping trip to the beach. We wanted to get away early Friday morning so I bunkered off Thursday to pack. And buy a tent. I forgot about a sleeping bag.

My coffee guy came into the cafe after I’d left on the Thursday and spoke to my co-worker, who also happened to be my flat mate, who by this stage had guessed something weird was going on. He asked where I was, she told him, innocently, of my camping trip away with Matt. Coffee guy lost it. Yelled at her. In front of customers. Derided me and cursed my lack of candour.

I was at home. I lived close by in a soul less house positioned too close to the corporate world to be homely. I’d bought my tent. I was listening to Indigo Girls and dying my hair. There was a knock on the front door. He stood there fuming. “How’s your mum?” he said. “I thought you two would have left by now.” “She can’t leave until tomorrow,’ I lied. “We’re catching our flight first thing in the morning.” “Bullshit.” Crap. How the hell? “I spoke to Carla at the cafe. Seems you’re off camping. This is bullshit. Total bullshit. You’re a f**ing liar.” I shut the door. He knocked again. And again. And again. Finally he stopped. Then my phone rang. “If you were happy with this guy, you wouldn’t have been hanging around with me.” “I’m sorry. I really am. I’m sorry if I gave mixed messages. We never spoke about it. I didn’t know what you wanted.” “Crap. You knew exactly how I felt.” He was really mad. Strangely mad.

I went away with Matt. We had an OK time. The relationship was unravelling. I hadn’t said that to coffee guy. Too complicated to try and explain. Anyway, it would have just confused things for him.

Coffee guy didn’t come back to the cafe. He must have been embarrassed. But he kept ringing and he came round the house a couple of times. It was the same conversation each time. We were perfect for each other. I must be unhappy with my dude. What was I doing? Once Matt answered the phone both of us knowing it was going to be him. Coffee guy tried to convince Matt that he and I were perfect for each other and that we both needed to face up to that.

Then the calls stopped at my urgent and pretty upset request.

2 years later I bumped into coffee guy again. We became friends. He invited me to a party. I talked to his friends. One guy told me coffee guy was looking happy for the first time in three months. “Why? What happened?” I asked. “He just broke up with his girlfriend of 7 years. They weren’t working but he’s been pretty upset. He can’t stop talking about you though.”

What the hell? the dude had had a girlfriend. The whole time. When he visited the cafe. When we went to the beach. When we talked on the phone. When he implored me that we were made for each other. When he told my boyfriend the same. He had a girlfriend.

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May 2009

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