My New Friend
I sighed as a wave of exhaustion hit me. This past week had been trying. Between doing schoolwork, helping Mary and Nate, avoiding Jason, and generally heading to work and classes, I barely had time to think, let alone eat. I leaned against the table in the café in front of me for a second, wondering when I could sneak away to eat the granola bar I brought with me. With any luck, that would allay the lightheadedness I was feeling at least until I could get back to my apartment.
I stood up straighter and got back to work, wiping along the table. There were a few people in the café today working on various assignments during their lunch hours. I noticed a woman with black hair doing some work on a laptop when I stepped by to wipe up the table she was working at. I couldn’t see what she was doing, but she seemed really invested in it.
I’d seen this woman in the café a few times, although I didn’t get a good look at her face until she said, “Miss?”
Unused to being addressed by people unless they had a complaint for me, I looked at her cautiously, swallowing. Even if she planned on yelling at me, this woman took my breath away immediately. Her pitch-black hair that contrasted against her pale face was tied back in a bun behind her. She kept pushing a piece behind her ear. She had some Asian features, although if I had to guess, I’d say she was of mixed ethnicity, with a thin frame and a wonderful skill with eyeliner.
I cleared my throat. “Um, yes? I’m sorry, is there a problem?”
Her eyes widened. “Oh, no!” she said too quickly. “I was just, uh…” she paused, tapping her fingers against the table like most people would click pens. She picked up a to-go bag from the café and held it out. “You looked hungry. I thought you might like this.”
I blinked, confused. The woman was holding out the bag a little awkwardly. To save her from sitting there like that, I grabbed it slowly and opened it, like I was expecting it to explode.
“A muffin…?” I asked, looking down at one of the fancy flavored muffins I’d seen Dana sell tons of times. I bought them a few times myself, and like everything at this hotel, they were delicious.
The woman was tapping her fingers on the table again. “I hope this isn’t rude. But, uh, I’ve seen you here before, and I’ve never seen you take a break or anything.”
As far as I remembered, this woman always had her head buried in her laptop or with large headphones over her ears. I hadn’t even realized she’d noticed me. Most people didn’t.
“Oh no, it’s not rude,” I hurried to correct. “I wouldn’t want you to use your money on me though.”
The woman smiled. She had piercing eyes, but the smile softened her whole expression. She seemed to relax a little, leaning back in her chair. “Don’t worry about it. I didn’t know what you’d like though, so I just picked one. The woman there said this flavor was good.”
She looked over to Dana, who was watching us with a raised eyebrow. I flushed and looked back to the woman in front of me. “T-thank you. Pretty much everything here is delicious, so whatever you chose is fine.”
My heart warmed as I wrapped my hands around the little paper bag, unused to someone being so kind to me. My mother would tell me not to accept food from strangers, although I was pretty sure Dana would stop me from being poisoned.
The woman smiled widely at me. Even with the dark tee shirt and low hung cargo pants, something about her expression made her feel very approachable. “Yeah, I like the pastries here. You’ll have to let me know how that tastes, uh… Corey.” She’d squinted to read my nametag but was smiling again now.
“Sure,” I said quietly. “Oh, but I have to go back to work. I’ll see you later.”
I only realized that I didn’t ask for her name when I was rushing out of the café to get to the restaurant on time. I did eat the muffin on my break though, earning myself an interesting look from Marcus. “You bought yourself something finally?” he said as he reached up to get a few plates.
“Er, no. I didn’t buy it.” I broke the top off the muffin to eat the bottom first, before I ate the edges of the top and finally the center. It was an old habit.
Marcus raised his eyebrow. “Did you steal it?”
“I wouldn’t do that to Dana,” I said, affronted. “Actually, a customer bought it for me.”
“Oh ho,” Marcus said playfully, eyeing the way I was picking apart my muffin. It was actually my favorite: the orange flavored with brown sugar on top. “Instead of jewelry, our Corey gets fine gifts of pastries. It’s hard to compete with that.” I smiled and rolled my eyes at his antics. He only laughed. “I’ll remember that next time I need to get you a gift for something.”
“I want at least two muffins if it’s for a gift!” I called to him as he left the alcove laughing, running to pick up his next dish. I ended up smiling to myself all the way home, basking in the memory of one random act of kindness before my heart sank upon remembering that I hadn’t even gotten her name.
When I cleaned the café on my shift a day later, I was strangely conflicted to see that the woman who’d spoken to me wasn’t there. I usually avoided people like the plague, since well, it was a given that I’d say the wrong thing, so I was relieved when the woman wasn’t sitting at her table. On the other hand, she’d been so nice to me, and we’d had a nice conversation. I wanted to at least say thank you.
A conversation with that girl might have been a welcome distraction from my time spent with my group in the library that night. I’d been able to avoid Jason and his creepy messages as long as none of the other group members got together, but now I had no choice but to sit next to him in the small study room we commandeered.
I was the first to arrive of course, my hands sweating when I realized that Jason was the second. He shut the door behind him. It was a glass door, so people would see if he did anything odd, but it wasn’t like too many people were walking by.
“Hey Corey,” he said in a low voice, setting his bag down.
I let out a breath. Perhaps I was overreacting. I had no proof that Jason was would do anything, but I still couldn’t deny the supremely uncomfortable feeling he gave me.
“Hi Jason,” I responded, trying to look busy as I arranged my already perfectly pristine papers on the desk again, just to give myself something to do.
“Finally got out of work huh?” he said with a click of his tongue. “Man, your boss must be terrible to make you work so much.”
“My boss is great,” I said immediately, defending Kurosawa. If I asked, he’d give me more days off in a heartbeat. I never asked of course.
Jason hummed. “Well you can’t have much time to do anything like that though. No boyfriends or fuck buddies?”
I bristled at how casually he was speaking, as if we were a lot closer than we were. I almost told him that I was a lesbian to get him to stop bothering me, but I couldn’t. I was scared, but more than anything, I didn’t want this guy to be the first person who knew I liked women.
“No,” I said shortly, similarly unwilling to tell him that I’d never even been with anyone before.
“Come on, seriously? With a body like that?”
Maybe it was supposed to be a compliment, but I felt uncomfortable again as Jason took a step towards me. I took one back, trying to seem like I had casually dropped something. I still didn’t look up at him, nor did I respond to his statement.
Instead, I said, “Do you have your project materials? We should be ready for when the others come.”
It was a poor way to change the subject, but I was never known for being smooth. Apparently, Jason was though. He sidled up next to me to look at my papers instead. “You look like you’ve got everything together here. I can share yours.”
My skin crawled at how close Jason was to me. I could have kissed Mary when she opened the door and gave me an excuse to step away. I immediately moved to stand by her. “Hi, Mary,” I said softly.
“Corey,” she greeted kindly. Her eyes cut to Jason before she said, “Okay, so I brought my laptop to work on a few designs. We all have to do work on a different scientific innovation, so I can set all that up. Nate told me he was coming, but well, he’s a slow-moving kind of guy. Don’t worry; he’ll be here.”
It seemed Mary knew Nate a lot better than me, so I accepted her answer. I knew Ashley wouldn’t come, so I got started with Mary and Jason while we waited for Nate, making sure I sat next to Mary while Jason took the other side of the table.
It was easy to fall into the leadership role as Mary worked on creating our presentation and finding images, Jason did some research on his innovation, and I followed through with research of my own. Work was silent, but not uncomfortable. Even if Jason was a creep, he at least put some work in. To be honest though, I think I still would have wanted Ashley and her attitude rather than Jason and his lack of regard for my personal space.
Nate showed up around half an hour late, apologizing in the tired manner I’d grown used to seeing from him. He got to work silently, requiring no prompting or assistance.
Everything went along pretty well for the few hours we worked together. When it came time to go, I attached myself to Mary and Nate, unwilling to be around Jason without anyone else nearby. He tapped me on the shoulder though, forcing me to turn around as he ran a hand through his brown hair again.
I clutched my books to my chest nervously, immediately saying, “I’m sorry, but I have to go. I have to work the next few days.”
Without waiting for whatever he wanted to say, I left the room with Mary and Nate. When the cold night air hit me, I shivered. As soon as I was sure Jason wasn’t near us, I broke off with Mary and Nate, almost sprinting back to my apartment, to safety.
Or relative safety anyway. My two roommates were entertaining friends, which meant that the place was loud again. At least they barely paid me any attention as I shuffled through the kitchen and took refuge in my room.
Life was too exhausting sometimes, especially without anyone to talk to. I suddenly wished Dana was with me to give me the latest gossip or that I was around Marcus and his bright personality. Talking with them always made me forget my heavy thoughts if even for a moment.
As my fingers hovered over their numbers on my phone, I thought about texting one of them, but stopped. It felt too much like I was bothering them, or like my contacting them would be too out of the blue. They were both personable people; unlike me, they probably had friends they could hang out with even on a Thursday night. I was never good at replying to messages quickly anyway.
I let my phone stay silent on the bed, not looking at it at all for the rest of the evening. It wasn’t until the alarm chimed the next day that I touched my phone, grabbing it to take with me to class before I had to head to work.
My single Friday class took up only a little over an hour, giving me more than enough time to walk to work before beginning my shift. Using our locker room, I changed into my button up white shirt and black pants, adding my black apron and pulling my hair up into neat ponytail. Adjusting my nametag on my chest, I stored my backpack and stepped out to do some cleaning.
Most of my shifts began like this, with cleaning. I’d vacuum the lobby and most of the other hallways, clean up the first floor, and do any other menial tasks until Kurosawa inevitably found me to adjust my assignment. Not that I minded. My life was so scheduled ordinarily that not knowing what might come next was freeing somehow.
I’d just finished vacuuming when I noticed a familiar face. I blinked, recognizing the woman from the café the other day. She was sitting in one of the couches in the lobby with a croissant on a plate in front of her. It sat untouched as she messed with her computer, typing furiously before stopping and beginning again.
I wanted to say thanks to her for the kind gesture, but I didn’t want to bother her when she already looked frustrated with whatever was on her screen.
I was about to leave when Kurosawa’s voice interrupted me. “Corey,” he greeted stoically as usual. “Nice work down here. I wish I came bearing better news, but you’re needed for some more serious clean up.”
I could feel my shoulders slump. “Please not vomit again,” I murmured.
He seemed to hear me and shook his head. “Not anything bodily, but a food fight by a few of the guests’ children. The room will need a serious scrubbing. Room 416, Corey. Let me know when you’ve finished.”
“Yes, sir,” I said, thankful that while food fight meant a major mess, that it wasn’t vomit, urine, stool, or god forbid anything else. I’d cleaned up all of it before, and it never failed to activate my gag reflex.
Kurosawa nodded at my professionality. “Best of luck, Corey.”
He stepped away silently, leaving me to put my vacuum away before rushing out to 416 with a bucket, some scrubbing brushes, and a general array of cleaning supplies. Steeling myself, I pushed open the door.
Well, it was about as bad as I expected. Chocolate sauce on the walls and smudged into the carpet, various liquids spilt everywhere, food smashed into the sheets, carpet, and onto the furniture, and a smell that made me wonder if the kids had somehow gotten their hands on rotten eggs.
Crinkling my nose and pulling on my gloves, I got down on my hands and knees to start scrubbing. I had a few flashbacks of cleaning up after our family cat when the poor thing threw up, although at least when I was cleaning up after my cat, I knew what it was I was scrubbing. I had to resist the urge to gag at the smell of foods that should never be mixed hit my nose.
I tackled the carpets first, scrubbing before shampooing and vacuuming. Next, I wiped off the walls, making a face at the chocolate on the ceiling. I had to push the desk around the room to stand on it if I wanted to reach. By the time I was done with that, I was sweating bullets and had to keep pushing a strand of my hair behind my ear. My arms were shaking from the effort of cleaning up the beds, redoing the sheets, and wiping down the stray flecks of food that had somehow managed to land in the bathroom. By the time I was done, all I wanted to do was sleep, but Kurosawa had requested that I report back to him.
He gave me an appreciative look, telling me to take my break before the rest of my shift. I did so gratefully as I headed to the café to grab something sweet to eat. Preferably not something with chocolate today.
To my surprise, the girl with the computer was there now, sitting in a chair and leaning back with her arms crossed. She still appeared disgruntled, but she looked up when I stepped in. I must have been dragging my feet loudly enough for her to hear.
Her face instantly brightened and she straightened up. There was no way I could walk by her without it being obvious that I was avoiding her, so even though I was exhausted, I put on a tired smile and stepped over.
“You’re still here?” I asked jovially.
She nodded. “It’s nice to get out of the house sometimes instead of staying cooped up in my dungeon.” My eyes flicked to her computer. Even with my poor technical knowledge, I could tell that was a very high-end laptop. Maybe she had a computer-based job.
“But jeez, you look like you’ve been through hell. Not that you don’t look great still,” she commented with a teasing smile. “Care to take a seat?”
“Oh, uh, I shouldn’t. I don’t want to bother you,” I said politely.
“No, it’s alright. Here, I’ll treat you to something. Anything you’d prefer?” she asked, getting up.
I protested against her buying me something else, but she insisted. I was too tired to argue anyway. “Just not something with chocolate today,” I said, crinkling my nose.
“Got it,” the woman said, walking over to Dana to get a few pastries.
I closed my eyes for a second until I heard the clink of a plate hitting the table. I raised my eyebrows at the regular croissant and blueberry muffin. “Two things? I don’t know if I deserve both of these,” I joked.
“You just cleaned up whatever the hell was in that room. As a woman who has three idiot male friends that act like children, I can attest to the fact that whatever mess that was made was probably pretty bad.” She nodded to herself as I chuckled, picking up the croissant. “Plus, the woman there, uh, Dana I think, was the one who got the muffin for you,” she admitted bashfully.
I blinked in surprise, my eyes straying to Dana. She gave me a little smile before waving me off with her hand, silently telling me to just eat it. I rolled my eyes at her; she must have heard about my recent cleaning job.
I ignored Dana’s gaze and dug into my croissant. Like I always did, I ate the ends of the croissant first before pulling it apart from the edges and eating the inner part. I didn’t notice the woman was staring at me until I looked up, suddenly self-conscious.
The woman smiled warmly. “Oh, sorry for staring.”
“Don’t worry about it. I actually, uh, and yes I know it’s bad manners, but I eat a lot of things with my hands like this,” I said, trying to break the ice.
She chuckled. “I don’t think it’s bad manners. It’s endearing.”
“It doesn’t work for hot foods though,” I said knowledgably. “I was in a hotel room once with some microwave noodles and no forks. I burnt my fingers.”
That earned me a chuckle that made my heart swell with pride. Suddenly I felt braver. “I’ve done that. I drank the noodle juice before going for the noodles. Getting rid of the juice cools them down faster,” she said knowledgeably with another laugh, her eyes watching me as I broke the muffin in half to eat the bottom first.
We didn’t talk while I ate, and while I appreciated her letting me stay silent when I was so tired, I felt somewhat tense with the burden of conversation. I was never good at understanding social cues. Was I supposed to talk? Is this silence awkward? I decided not to think on it too much as I ate my food happily, listening to the quiet tapping of the woman’s fingers on her keyboard.
When I was almost done with the muffin, she finally said, “Oh, I never gave you my name. I’m Nikki.”
I blinked at the sudden admission, clearing my throat and hoping there weren’t any pieces of muffin stuck in my teeth. “Nice to meet you, Nikki. You, well, you know my name already, but I’m Corey.” I pointed to my nametag with a small smile.
“Corey… it fits you,” Nikki said with a smile. Her gaze was fond, although I couldn’t imagine why. We barely knew one another.
Still, it was nice that Nikki was being so kind to me. She let me eat in silence, smiling softly to herself without pressuring me to talk. After I finished, I said to her, “Thanks for the muffin the other day, Nikki. It was my favorite, actually.” I always felt odd using someone’s name for the first time, getting used to the novelty of the woman’s name on my tongue.
Nikki smiled widely. “Really? The orangey one? They do smell good,” she said with a chuckle. “How do you feel about actual oranges then?”
“I like oranges,” I said casually. “My cat is scared of them though.”
Conversation went smoothly for a few minutes as we chatted about nothing serious. It helped me keep my mind off of my own thoughts until I checked my phone to see that my break was over. I stood up tiredly, giving Nikki a smile. “I’ve got to get back to my boss. I’ll see you later then, Nikki.”
“Of course,” she said cheerfully.
“But maybe next time, let me treat you to something,” I said kindly, not wanting to abuse this woman’s kindness.
Nikki put her hands up in surrender. “I will accept it graciously.”
I rolled my eyes at her as I turned away. It didn’t escape my notice that Dana had stepped up to me, following me out of the café as she let one of our other coworkers watch the counter for a second. There was a happy smile on her face.
“Aw, did you make a friend?” she asked, beaming.
Knowing how awkward I was, I wasn’t even mad at her interest. “Maybe? I’m not sure.”
Dana rolled her eyes, patting my arm. “You totally did. She seems nice though.” Dana looked back at Nikki before turning to me. She looked like she wanted to say something else, but she held her tongue. “That girl looks familiar for some reason… maybe I’ve seen her somewhere?”
“She’s in here working a lot,” I offered, but Dana shook her head.
“No, it’s from somewhere else.” Dana took another second to consider it before she shrugged and looked back at me. “Anyway, have I convinced you to come out with me this week?” She was looking at me mischievously.
I offered her a smile, but declined the offer as usual. “I’m sorry, Dana,” I apologized good-naturedly.
She shook her head like it was no problem. “There’s always next week,” she said with a wink. “Try your best with Kurosawa now. I can only imagine what else he’ll have you do.”
“Hopefully just dishwashing,” I said tiredly, watching Dana smile and walk back to her counter.
When I looked back at Nikki, I could see her frowning to herself, but I didn’t have time to go back and ask her what was wrong. She was probably looking at something on her computer screen.
I ended up back in the restaurant that night, washing dishes while humming quietly to myself. When a few of the waiters started singing out loud as a joke, I joined in happily, laughing with them as Marcus twirled me before going back to get his dishes. I’d be worried that he’d drop them if he wasn’t far more coordinated than I was.
My heart felt light that evening, despite the fact that I’d been cleaning up a food fight not a few hours before. If I ended up smiling as I thought of my conversation with Nikki that night, then no one had to know.