“Not sure why you’re surprised. I promised you coffee if you passed with a B or higher.” Henry and I reached the glass café entry door. His hand slid down my arm, and found the handle, pushing the door open.
“I figured you didn’t expect me to get a high grade.” It amazed me how well Henry navigated the clumsy crowd gathered around the entryway, trying to shove past him.
“Nah, didn’t want to say C and make you doubt my teaching abilities. Is there an open table? Don’t think the barista spotted us.”
“Yeah, back wall. She’s clearing one.” Placing my hand on Henry’s forearm, I pulled him toward our table. “I appreciate your patience. Something is fundamentally wrong with my brain.”
Henry laughed, setting his phone and folded cane on the freshly wiped tabletop. He thanked the waitress by name, Erin. She touched him lightly on the shoulder before heading back to the kitchen.
A few people stared long enough to get a sense of Henry’s movements before turning away.
“Erin, the owner’s daughter,” Henry whispered across the small table.
“Ah, but how can you tell it’s her?” I whispered back.
“Her perfume is subtle but noticeable.” Henry leaned in close enough for me to smell his clean-smelling aftershave. A hint of clove lingered in the air. I wondered if I could pick him out of a crowd by smell alone.
“Al, can I ask you something, odd?”
“Sure. What’cha want to know?” I sat, arranging the items in the condiment tray by type and size.
“Do you have any unusual physical characteristics? I ask because four people gasped when we walked in the room.”
“Me? No, I’m painfully ordinary. Maybe it’s you?” I snickered, looking around at the growing crowd of patrons.
“No, there’s a quiet lull when I’m spotted. Am I dangerous? Am I crazy? When they realize I’m blind and harmless, they go back to their chatter.”
“That’s horrible,” I whispered, looking around the room. “I didn’t notice anything when we walked in.”
“Nah, basic human behavior. Twice now, people gasped when you entered the room.” Henry rested his chin on his hand and seemed to be waiting for me to explain.
“Too much perfume? Not enough perfume?” I smelled my hair and the shoulder strap on my dress.
“Nah, there’s a warm and sugary smell to your skin, like you showered in cake frosting.”
“Wow, you’re good, sugar plum body wash.”
“Hi, Henry, what can I get for you two?” The server approached Henry first, standing by his side, waiting for our order.
“Erin, just in time. A large iced coffee with heavy cream for me. My friend likes chai tea.”
“We use a great chai tea base. Hot with cream or iced, how do you like it?”
“Ooo, iced with heavy cream sounds great, and whip, please.” I tried to be as cheerful as possible without sounding like a mental case.
“Sure thing. Anything else, Henry? Cookies, biscotti, muffin?”
“Nah, we’re good.” Henry pushed a folded twenty-dollar bill toward Erin. “No change for me, thanks.”
Erin smiled in my direction before walking away. She found the tip amusing. Her tasteful diamond earrings and silver oversized watch caught my eye. Milk chocolate, culturally nondescript skin, tall boots, and a very short skirt—she was exactly the type of woman Leo liked to play with.
“You suggested the chai because I brought one last week?”
“And the week before,” Henry added, smoothing the side of his golden-brown hair. I imagined he styled the classic cut the same way each day out of necessity.
“At least I’m predictable.” Henry smiled, nodding while fiddling with his phone.
“Sorry, let me answer this text. My mother’s in rare form.” Henry put his phone to his ear and listened. “Yep, she officially lost her damn mind.”
“Can’t be worse than the crazy I navigate with mine.” I swiped a finger load of sugary foam into my mouth. “Just breathe.”
“Sincerely, I hope not. My aunt Linda is getting married in New York on Saturday. I planned on going, bringing my girlfriend. But I broke up with my girlfriend, and I don’t want to be the pitiful, blind nephew with no date.”
“Why did you break up?” I assumed Henry was spoken for when he first agreed to tutor me. His handshake didn’t linger, and our conversations never ventured far from math and weather. Plus, why would an intelligent man be interested in a mathematical idiot?
“A lot of insignificant things at first. She was so hardcore about everything. The environment, women’s rights, Black rights, gay rights—a constant tirade over something I could never fully understand.” Henry made air quotes and dropped his large hands on the table, rattling the condiment holder.
People at the table next to us looked at me, annoyed. I smiled and turned my attention back to Henry. “It seemed passionate at first, but good God, it was too much.”
Erin brought our drinks. She smirked at me and walked back to the bakery case.
“The woman started yelling at me for throwing away a plastic six-pack holder without cutting it up first. Claimed I was a marine murderer. I value my peace more than I valued hers.”
“I understand,” I offered, leaning closer. “Sanity and tranquility come first—dick is second. Plus, I steer clear of drama magnets.”
“My mother’s insisting I go to the wedding. Claims I owe it to the family to participate.” Henry mocked in a female voice, also attracting attention from nearby tables.
“Jesus, that’s stabby. I can accompany you if you want.”
Henry choked on a bit of whipped foam.
“Really, it’s the least I can do. You’re the reason I’m not on academic probation.” My logic seemed sound. I sipped my drink and fiddled with an unbleached paper napkin.
“You would go with me?” Henry asked with a bit more shock than I found appropriate. “Seriously, I’d love to get my mother off my back, but it’s such short notice. It’s a formal wedding.” Henry leaned on the table, turning his plastic coffee container round and round.
“A trip to the city for a fancy wedding, who wouldn’t want to go? Besides, I bet you look hot in a tuxedo.”
“You’re flirting with a blind man. You should feel awful.” Henry laughed, but the blood rushed to my cheeks. Maybe I overstepped the tutor-tutee boundary.
Over the past few weeks, something new started between us. I left all my friends behind when I moved to Milton for school. Leo was the only other person I shared more than non-conversation pleasantries with.
“For all you know, you’re taking a total circus freak to your aunt’s fancy-ass wedding.”
“Touché. My mother wants to know what you’ll eat and your dress size. The designer in Edison is sending dresses from my aunt’s collection. Jesus, this crazed snowball keeps getting bigger.”
I put my hand on Henry’s arm and squeezed lightly.
“It’s fine, relax.” I took a sip as I contemplated my answers. “Okay, tell her beef or chicken. I’m a ten top, six bottoms, size eight shoes. I’m fair-skinned with blond hair and greenish-brown eyes. I’m five-eight, no tattoos, and 128 pounds. Well, as long as I don’t eat between now and Saturday.”
“Circus freak for sure, no wonder people gasp in horror when you walk through the door. No tattoos and no ass. I’m five-eleven. We must look ridiculous, standing together.”
I laughed as Henry dictated a text to his mother. “Just the right amount of ass follows me, thank you very much.”
“Okay, hope you’re unusually tolerant of bullshit. It’s a done deal. My mother sent back a smiley face with two hearts.”
“Send her the winky face with a checkmark.”
“Phone: Send winky face emoji and eggplant emoji to mom’s cell.”
“Don’t send your mother the dick emoji,” I shrieked, plopping sugary froth on the table.
“If you think an eggplant looks like a dick, then I have something to show you. I’m pretty sure mine looks nothing like an eggplant.”
I laughed a bit too loudly, drawing attention from people seated near us again.
“My mother has three sons and my father to deal with. It’s eggplant twenty-four-seven for her.”
“Good God, no wonder she wants you at the wedding. She needs to get you hitched. Are your brothers married?”
“Bachelors all around. My younger brother Will is so opinionated he’ll never find anyone. He can’t shut the fuck up to save his life.”
“Maybe he needs a man,” I mused. “I’m sure something could be stuck in his mouth to quiet the chatter.”
“Sounds rather unpleasant, but maybe an Asian man. I’ve heard they are more compact.” Henry made a little pinch motion in the air.
People seated around us looked concerned.
“Oh, I wouldn’t know. I keep uncommonly strict dating standards. I may actually be a dating racist.”
“Jesus. You should tell me what you’re prejudiced against.” Henry sat back in his chair and folded his arms across his chest.
“Tasteful tattoos are fine, but no smokers, no vapers, no musicians, and absolutely no drug addicts. I can’t stand churchy or preachy either. And no fucking Democrats or socialists.”
“So, no Asians in your henhouse?” Henry asked with a fake serious tone.
“Nope, sorry, not a one.” There was an odd silence while we sipped our drinks. “You’re not a Democrat, are you?”
“Independent, and I don’t vape while playing the piano and freebasing cocaine. You keep that shit separate. I only read the Bible out loud if there is a socialist trying to recruit me. It’s a bad habit I’m trying to break.”
I laughed so hard I snorted chia through my nose and used all the napkins at our table to clean up the mess.
My phone vibrated after a text from Leo. Pizza place 30 min, heart emoji.
“Ugh, my dumb-ass friend needs me to meet him a few blocks from here.”
“I’m headed to the gym on Sixth if you’re going that way. The designer’s sending everything to my place tomorrow.” Henry shook his head slowly and fiddled with his phone.
The computer voice escaping the speaker was barely audible to me.
“Yeah, the pizza place on the corner of Seventh and something. It’s by the bright-pink donut shop.” As I said the words, I cringed.
“Good, I can walk you most of the way. It must be getting dark by now. I’ve smelled the donuts, but I’d need to be pretty loaded to smell the color of the paint.”
We both laughed. Henry stood up, grabbed his gear off the table, and headed toward the doorway.
“You belong to the private martial arts gym? What are you secretly, dare devil?” I took a large swig off my tea.
“I wish the guy has a sensory deprivation tank. Actually, I’m not interested in marinating in piss to escape some noise. Earplugs are cheap, and there’s no piss.”
I laughed and grabbed onto Henry’s arm to steady myself while I touched up my lipstick.
“Different smell?” Henry remarked, sniffing the air.
“Mac lipstick, it lasts a long time—probably made with eye of newt. I wore makeup tonight. My friend needs me to pose as his girlfriend, so the female stalker he picked up will leave him alone.”
“So, this friend attracts so many women he needs you to get rid of one?” Henry chuckled, pushing his dark glasses back into place.
“Either your friend is uncommonly good-looking, or he’s lying to get you to show up for another reason.” Henry’s usually smoky voice turned severe like he uncovered some devious plot.
“It’s the first reason. Believe me, Leo encourages these poor women with reckless flirting. It’s all his fault.”