Abigail had never been inside Cafe 36. But in order to maintain the self-conceived notion that she was an adventurous person, she decided that today was the day to try it out. Well, if her usual Costa Coffee on the corner was closed anyhow, it was worth a go.
The cafe was not what you would expect by its name—not quite posh, and very calming. In place of fashionably dim lighting and black table cloths were pastries on pastel dishes and a tip jar that read, “Afraid of change? Leave it here!” Benches and tables lined the walls, and, to Abigail’s relief, most of the seats were empty.
“How can I help you?” A friendly looking girl with a nose ring asked from behind the counter.
“I’m still deciding,” Abigail replied quickly. She looked up at the menu. Everything was written in loopy cursive. What was she supposed to order? Should she get a pastry? Was it rude to take a table with only a drink? She took another glance around the room. The only other person in the room was a man in a red sweater drinking something with foam on the top. He was reading, so she was free to look without danger of making eye contact. He wasn’t bad looking. His sweater was rather nice.
“I’ll have a, uh, latte,” she finally said. The girl behind the counter smiled and grabbed a white mug. Not knowing whether to sit or stand, Abigail stepped awkwardly to the side. Now she could see the profile of red sweater’s face. He had a little bit of unshaven scruff on his face, and he was in fact very good-looking.
“Dine in?” The barista asked.
“Oh, yes, please,” Abigail responded. Taking the hint, she selected a table with a good profile view of red sweater’s face. She pulled out her phone, but she had no new messages. She opened her news app to look busy while the barista steamed the milk.
Then, the bells on the door jingled. In walked a confident woman in all black—tight black pants, sleek black boots, and a tailored black raincoat with a silver zipper. Her hair was shoulder length and the color of dark chocolate. Her face was clean, made up neatly, and smiling. Abigail looked up more out of habit than interest. It took a moment for her to recognize the woman’s distinctively thin lips and Hepburn-style brown eyes. There was no one else in the cafe to blend in with; she might as well say something.
The woman looked over and smiled a full, genuine smile.
“Abigail! Hey! It is so good to see you!”
Abigail stood, hazarding a hug. She couldn’t think of how long it had been since they last saw each other. Emma accepted the hug. It felt formal, but warm. Each was trying to think of what last they had heard of what was going on in the other’s life, each assuming the other one remembered much more about them.
“How have you been?”
“Oh, well, and how about you?”
“Very well! It feels like forever since I last saw you!”
“I know! How long has it been?”
“Since our first year, I think!”
“Yes, you’re right. That was a long time ago! How have you been since?”
“Very well. I’ve been studying in Paris!”
“Oh how exciting!”
“Yes, it’s been wonderful!”
There was a pause. The barista saw the opportunity and announced the completion of the latte.
“That’s me,” Abigail said, self-consciously scooting towards the counter.
“Oh, right! Let me go ahead and order,” Emma said. “I’ll have an Americano, please.”
“Dine in?” The barista asked.
Emma looked at Abigail. “Do you mind if I sit with you for a while?”
Abigail was secretly and surprisingly overjoyed. As much as she hated these encounters, a kind of nostalgia had begun to creep over her.
“Please,” she said, trying to sound casual.
Emma sat down in the chair across from her and moved her black leather bag into her lap.
“So,” she said, “Tell me what you’ve been up to!”
Abigail hesitated. Where to begin? How much should she exaggerate? How much did she have to pretend?
“I graduated last May,” she started. “I’m still painting in a studio just a few blocks from here, but I’ve been busy working as a legal assistant over at Jenkins & Paul.”
“Nice!” Emma said with enthusiastic support. “What about that guy you were dating?”
“We broke up a while ago,” Abigail replied.
“Oh! I’m so sorry to hear that!”
“It was for the better. What’s been going on with you?”
“Well, my sophomore year I did a summer abroad, and I absolutely loved it. I’ve always loved to travel,” Emma said. “When I went back to school, I changed my major to French so I could do this post-grad scholarship program where you teach English as a foreign language in other countries. I just got placed in a primary school right on the edge of Paris, and start in two weeks!”
“Wow, that sounds really amazing,” Abigail said, beginning to feel slightly competitive.
“Yeah, it feels like a dream,” Emma said in a genuine way that made Abigail relax.
“You haven’t been back home much then?” Abigail asked.
“A little,” Emma said. “You know how my dad is. I like to see him.”
“Yeah, how are your parents?”
“They’re good! They’ve been getting along without me and Kate at home, and to tell the truth, I think they kind of like it!” Emma gave a deep, charming laugh. “How are your parents? And your brothers?”
“They’re good too! Harrison graduates this year,” Abigail said.
“That’s right! Well tell him congrats from me!” Emma paused, smiling. “Remember when he was just in third grade? He used to play with us all the time. I can’t believe he’s so grown up.”
“I know! I can barely believe it,” Abigail said. “Remember when we made five hundred paper airplanes and threw them down the stairs? God, Mom was so mad at us!”
“Well Harrison nearly slipped on the stairs trying to catch them!”
“I think we used that entire pack of paper! She was probably mad at us for wasting it all!”
“We got into so much trouble, didn’t we?”
“It never felt like we did.”
“Remember when you peed your pants in the kitchen?”
“During our dance party? Oh, God, I was so embarrassed! But it was so funny!”
“Don’t think I’ll ever forget about that one! I almost peed my pants laughing at you!”
They both laughed and felt relief in hearing the laugh of the other.
“Remember when—” Abigail was interrupted by the sound of Emma’s phone. Emma looked apologetically and glanced down.
“Oh!” She cried. “I have to go! I completely lost track of the time!”
It was so cliché, and Abigail felt broken.
“I’m really, really sorry Abbie,” Emma said. “It was so good to see you! Please, call me, let’s catch up for real!”
Abigail stood to meet her hug. It was quick, but tight, and Abigail felt herself deflating as Emma set her empty mug and some coins on the counter and glided out the door.
Abigail sat back down, and the weight of loneliness began to settle on her. She sighed and felt unquenchable sadness. After a few moments, she heard the man behind her stand up. She felt a light flush of air around her as he passed and walked out the door. The unusual silence in a public place was too much. Abigail stood, placed some money on her table, and left. She never saw any of them again.