Chapter One: A Shot of Caramel
Coffee Boys had always been one of downtown Seattle’s trendiest cafes, but it didn’t reach its current level of fame until a popular blogger named Betty Blond wrote a post about it. I’d never heard of her, but apparently she sat down one day and composed 500 words about our caramel-fudge macchiato, describing it as “an orgasmic experience of nipple-hardening whipped cream and chocolate, laced with ribbons of seductive caramel that would make even the most devoted of nuns renounce her vows.” The review got increasingly pornographic as it went on, and Klyde and I couldn’t read through it without crying from laughter. It brought a lot of new customers into the café, and my hours doubled.
My name is Theodore Brooks, and at the time this story takes place, I’d been working at Coffee Boys for about six months. Shockingly, this had not been my initial life plan. I went to college with dreams of becoming a botanist because bright-eyed, eighteen-year-old Theodore saw nothing problematic about sinking thousands of dollars into a career based on flowers. Shockingly, I had trouble finding work in my field after I graduated. I eventually had to consider the possibility that I had made a poor professional call. I used to go to Coffee Boys a lot when I was in between jobs right after graduation, and Klyde and I got to be pretty good friends. When I gave up on botany and was trying to figure out what to do with the rest of my life, he offered me a job in the meantime.
Klyde’s full name was Klaus-Leonardo Vincent DePaul. He was a scrawny beanpole of a man in his mid-forties, with arms and legs like spaghetti. He had a scraggly beard and thick brown hair that he insisted on wearing in a bun. I told him it made him look like a douche, but the only thing I got for my fair criticism was the finger. Questionable hairstyles aside, Klyde was like a brother to me, and deep down he was a decent guy. We were out to dinner at Mexican restaurant when I told him I was gay, and the only thing he had to say about it was, “Gays can pass the salt too, right? I’ve asked you thirty times already.”
So yeah. A good guy, when all was said and done.
There are only a few days in my life that I remember with absolute clarity.
July 18th, 12:00 P.M., out in the garden with Dad and learning about all the flowers that sparked my initial interest in botany. I still dreamed about the brilliant red lilies that bloomed near the fence. They were like a streak of fire in the grass.
September 9th, 10:01 A.M., in the hallway just after calculus, having my first kiss with a junior named Rick Seymour. It was wet and wholly unremarkable. But he smelled nice. Like citrus and clean linen.
August 24th, 12:32 P.M., inside a gym, the rain outside pounding a fierce staccato rhythm on the window panes. The day I got my Bachelor’s Degree.
And finally, October 18th, 11:34 A.M, inside Coffee Boys on a bright, cold day, when the trees outside the big front window were in full autumn colors, displaying caps of blood red and copper. When Dominic walked into the cafe.
It’s funny that this day in particular ended up being one of the most important days of my life, because it started out as a dumpster fire.
I can usually tell within ten seconds of meeting a person if they will be dead to me. I always introduce myself as Theodore, and if they come back with a chipper, “Nice to meet you, Theo,” I don’t waste time getting to know them. I have yet to discover why some people think it’s socially acceptable to change my name without my permission but are also the same kind of people who send their coffee back because I put one too many ice cubes in their iced mocha. Batshit crazy people, in other words.
Now, imagine having a room full of such people. That’s the kind of morning I was having.
“Hey, what can I get you?” I asked the pair of women sitting in a booth near the counter.
“Hello there,” one of them said with a sugary smile. She had red braids and a smudge of lipstick on her front tooth. She squinted at my nametag, which clearly read “Theodore.” Then she tossed her head and continued in a bright tone: “We’ll have a couple of black coffees, Theo.”
You can have my boot up your ass, lady.
“Sure thing, miss, I’ll put that in for you right away.”
I went and got them their coffee, resisting the urge to fart in their mugs. When I set them down on the table, the other woman---a blonde with a dented nose---puckered her lips and said:
“Could you bring me some cream when you get a chance?”
“Oh, they didn’t bring you the cream?” the redhead asked, frowning at her friend’s cup and then back up at me.
No, you passive aggressive shit stain. I did not bring you the fucking cream because you didn’t say you wanted fucking cream.
“Oh, I’m sorry, miss, I’ll grab that right away…”
“You’re a doll.”
You both deserve to be flung headfirst into a wall.
The old man I served after them wasn’t much better.
No, you fucking mouth breather.
“Yessir, what is it?”
“Are refills free?”
“They’re eighty-three cents.”
“Eighty-three cents? But all I want is coffee.”
No shit. You’re in a coffeehouse, who would’ve foreseen this wild turn of events?
“I understand that, sir, but all refills are eighty-three cents…”
“What if I didn’t get whipped cream this time?”
Am I fucking stuttering?
“It will still be eighty-three cents, sir.”
“Well, fine, I guess if I don’t gotta choice…throw in a vanilla shot too if you can.”
I went back to the counter to refill the guy’s coffee, resisting the urge to actively hawk a loogie into the mug. I squirted his flavor shot into the coffee and only noticed after I put the bottle down that the sticky residue on the plastic had transferred to my hands.
Great, why would anything here be clean after all, that’d make my life just a little bit easier…
I turned and washed my hands in the sink, scrubbing until the skin on my knuckles started flaking and my palms turned raw pink----twenty-one seconds, to be exact, not because I had any particular affinity for the number, but because that’s just how long it took for my hands to feel clean. Then I went and took the old fart his stupid vanilla coffee, making a mental note to wipe down all the flavor bottles before my lunch break.
By the time 11:30 came around, I was in a foul mood. Klyde sent me in the back room to take a few breaths, and when I came back out, he gave me an apologetic grin and said:
“Would you take care of the guy in the corner? He just walked in and I gotta whip up some other orders really quick.”
“Sure, because I haven’t fucking suffered enough today.”
“Poor baby. Why don’t you write a poem about it later?”
“Why don’t you take that whipped cream nozzle and---” I couldn’t finish the thought because a couple of girls walked up to the counter. Klyde turned towards them with an obsequious smile and said in a sing-song voice:
“Well hello, ladies. What can I get you on this fine day?”
I gave him a filthy look as I snatched up a pen and paper pad and strode over to the man sitting by himself in the corner. My first thought was that he looked like a college professor. He was tall, broad-shouldered, and slender but not skinny. Under his gray blazer was a snug black turtleneck, and I could see the muscular curves of a well-toned chest. He was wearing matching gray trousers and gleaming black shoes that looked like they cost more than my apartment.
Great, I bet this douchebag wants some complicated bro drink. Kill me now, sweet Jesus.
“Welcome to Coffee Boys. What can I get you?” I asked dully.
He’d been staring out the window, but he turned towards me with a little start, like he had forgotten he was in a public area and other people might talk at some point. He was wearing square, black-rimmed glasses, and his coal-black, windswept hair tumbled over his forehead and the tips of his ears. He absently ran a hand through it as he looked up at me---which only made it stick up more.
“Ah, yes, could I get a small coffee with two creams? No sugar.”
“Sure. Any flavor shots?”
He paused, staring at me for a moment
Is this guy high?
Then he smiled. He had lips like rosebuds. My gaze lingered on them for a fraction of a second longer than was socially appropriate. “Caramel would be nice.”
“You got it.”
I turned and went to the counter to make up his order. When I returned to his table, he didn’t seem as absent-minded. As I set his mug down in front of him, my cheeks burned from the intensity of his weird, unblinking gaze.
Does he expect me to break into song or something?
“Here you go, sir. Enjoy.”
“Thanks. And I’m terribly sorry to bother you again---”
Here it comes. Did I forget something you didn’t order in the first place? I swear to God I will flip this table. I will FLIP this table through the GODDAMNED window.
“Could I also get a slice of strawberry cheesecake?”
“Uh---yeah, I’m pretty sure we have a few slices left.”
“Thanks a bunch.”
He’s definitely high.
I went over to the counter once more, bent down, and checked out the available treats we had spread out in the display case. I felt the freaky professor’s eyes on the back of my head.
“Hey, is that guy bothering you?” Klyde muttered out of the corner of his mouth as he bent down next to me and selected a big brownie. “He looks intense.”
“I think he’s on something,” I hissed between my teeth. “Don’t make eye contact.”
“Just don’t get into a car with him, alright?”
“Oh, gee, do you think that would be a bad idea, Dad?” I said mockingly, straightening up with a plate of strawberry cheesecake.
“At least he’s got good taste,” Klyde said, puffing out his chest as he looked proudly at the dessert. He came in early to make it from scratch every morning. Personally, I couldn’t see why people liked it so much. It looked like something sneezed out by a cat.
“Or no taste buds at all,” I said, turning around and walking off. I heard Klyde mutter something under his breath that sounded a lot like “little shit.”
“Thank you, Theodore,” the professor said when I slid the cake next to his coffee mug.
Alright, points for you, freak, you can read.
“Sure thing. Can I get you anything else?”
He paused again, and once more gave me that strange stare. Then he shook his head. “I’m all set.”
I walked off to deal with the group of college girls who had just wandered in and sat down in a booth by the window. I glanced over at the professor a couple times as I bustled about the floor. He seemed very focused on that cheesecake--and when I say focused, I mean I actually witnessed him shoot a furtive look around before raising the plate to his lips and giving it a quick lick, lapping up the last of the strawberry drizzle. I didn’t know whether to feel amused or horrified. I think I was a little of both.
“I can take that for you,” I said as I passed by a few minutes later. He’d been sitting there for about thirty minutes now. I had a tray in my hands and was going around collecting cups from empty tables.
“Or I could stand here and block you from view if you want to get a bit more of the strawberry sauce.”
He stared at me for a moment, then laughed. It was a rich, joyful sound that I felt in the depths of my stomach. An embarrassed flush crept into his cheeks. He looked oddly boyish for a second.
“And here I was thinking I’d gotten away with it.”
As I gathered up his mug, I glanced inside and noticed a thick layer of caramel syrup congealed on the bottom. I held it up with a wry smile.
“Is it okay if I take this, or did you want a final moment with the caramel sauce as well?”
He laughed again and shook his head.
“Go ahead. I don’t really like it anyway. I just said caramel because it was the first thing I thought of.” He smiled up at me. “It’s the same color as your hair.”
Huh? Wait, did---my---what?
The professor rose to his feet, pushing back his chair. “I’ll see you around, Theodore. Thanks for the coffee.”
He strolled out of Coffee Boys with his hands in his pockets. The bell over the door tinkled, and a gust of cold autumn air swept into the cafe after him. I watched him walk away through the window. The sun shone brilliantly on his dark hair.
When he got to the end of the block, he paused and turned back. I couldn’t tell if he was looking at me, but I realized I couldn’t move a muscle until he had finally vanished from sight around the corner.