The ease into morning was slow, quiet, deliberate: intention backed every action, but nothing was calculated. Instead, every movement was a surprise, new, exciting, yet all somewhat familiar. The same type of newness and excitement that defined all yesterday: the familiarity of moving into a new home, meeting a new roommate, bidding a father adieu after he drove over 6 hours and 300 miles to transfer his daughter’s belongings from the Southern California to the north.
Despite it being the summer month of August, the heat was slow to descend upon the neighborhood; gray clouds clung to the air well past midmorning, but the morning had a feeling of safety woven into it: nothing bad would happen today. The tall, curly haired girl walked through the fog to Abe’s Café: her first destination on her first morning back up north. When the clouds finally parted, her head was buried deep in a book between the green walls the café. Yes, this café was her first choice of places to go, and Abe was her first choice of people to see, after her two months of adventuring in wonderland.
“Sevilla,” Abe sounded out the word on her chest, the T-shirt she had decided to splurge on despues encontrada paraíso el sabado pasado. “You went to Spain?”
“Sí,” she responded, “Pero vivé en Budapest para la major del verano.”
He was happy to see the girl with her curls, and she was glad he recognized her after a dozen weeks without a visit to him. She told him of her summer through smiles and laughter: the only way, really, to speak of such magic. He lamented that he was never able to take a true vacation, but still made it to Monterey one weekend, and Lake Tahoe another. A frequent summer customer of Abe’s, who was originally from Budapest, told Abe that the castles she saw when she visited Napa were nothing compared to the ones from where she was from. They were hardly real castles at all. Abe could only guess and try to imagine the pure wonder. The girl with the curls ordered tacos rancheros y un cappuccino.
Abe took her hand, holding it across the counter like he used two before the summer had started, happy to be talking to this girl with golden curls once again. And she held his hand too, just for a moment, delighted not only that he remembered her, but that their friendliness picked up just where it had left off. Their conversation lasted for several minutes, but soon she went to sit at the seat by the window to read a book she had owned for many years, but never opened, titled: By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept.
And she couldn’t help but be pulled into the ecstasy that the author wrote about, the genuine feeling of pure, unbridled, passionate love described with a married man during the 1940s. She admired ardently the author’s unapologetic use of extended metaphor after extended metaphor, and found herself underlining quotes which spoke to her, reminding her of a summer come and gone. Indeed, Elizabeth Smart’s book drew her into her own ecstasies of the summer: a destined-to-fail, two week romance she had the privilege of experiencing in a summer of studying mathematics abroad. Smart’s words brutally reminded her of the weeks and weeks of stares across the void of the unknown, such a buildup of desire and longing, the flood of chemicals once a sunrise kiss finally broke the vacuum-seal of the void, and ultimately, tired eyes pried open by desire on a last together morning.
But they met each other too soon to have something that was supposed to last forever. Their days were unforgivingly numbered, and just as Elizabeth Smart’s novel turned from pure and absolute bliss to a bottomless pit, a void of wanting and unfulfilled desire, so too did their eight weeks in the wonderland of Europe expire. The book was so very good, though, the curly haired girl couldn’t help but reread some sentences, some paragraphs, in the hope of making Smart’s short-lived bliss into her own.
A spider hung suspended in the window of Abe’s café: brown, striped, extending and curling up its legs, spreading out in the new sunlight of morning; sunlight that at first Holly did not welcome, but rather scowled at, the idea of the morning ending the last thing she wanted for this first, blissfully free first day back in Berkeley. Between oversized bites of her breakfast tacos, she just watched the spider, admiring it when her small book became too much of a reminder of lost bliss, and she needed to take a breath and recalibrate. Abe was engaged in a conversation with some other customer, and Holly felt interrupting would be rude; so, she tried her best to study this eight-legged creature, so carelessly taking in its new home, under the sun of the day.
Her attention leaned from one point of this triangle – Abe, the book, the spider – to another. The center of the triangle the dumb joy of recalling happy memories of him. But soon, the customer has finished what she had to say, Abe was free, and so Holly called out his name, “Abe,” and when his eyes fell on her, she looked up at the window, her finger pointing to the creature hanging on its beautiful, newly spun web.
“Oh gosh!” he exclaimed, and he approached Holly’s table with a white towel in his hand. In one swift motion, he enveloped the spider with the towel, then squeezed his hand into a fist, ensuring the arachnid was dead. Secretly, Holly worried Abe that didn’t actually catch the spider in his hand towel, that he only caused the eight-legged creature to fall on the floor. But, she didn’t voice her fear.
Instead, she smiled, saying a half-genuine “thank you.”
“Of course,” he replied, clearly a bit startled from the spider. He sat down across from her, perhaps to ease his nerves, and used her small book as a means of starting conversation: “Is your book in Spanish?”
As if Holly was not familiar with the cover of her novella, she glanced at the front cover, investigating, wondering why he thought that. “No, it’s not. Just a thin book.”
“You should read books in Spanish.”
“Yeah, to practice. I came here in 1996…”
“That’s the year I was born.”
His eyes widen. “Really? Wow. Well, yeah, 96 or 97 I came and went to Berkeley High, and I was in an ESL[i] class. Reading really helped.”
“You know what else helped? I’d read like ten pages in English then would write down – in English – what I remembered” he pantomimed writing.
Her smile filled her sun-kissed cheeks. “When I was in Spain, I had a tiny little notebook, like this one,” gesturing to the small notebook inside her bag, “that I filled up in a week. And I wrote some in Spanish. I actually surprised myself with how much Spanish I knew.”
Now Abe was smiling.
A new customer walked in, a tall white guy, Holly guessed he was both a grad student and a regular of Abe’s. She made this guess from confident, familiar way which he entered the café, and his expensive, yet relaxed style of clothing. Naturally, he tilted his head to look up at the menu overhead, and after a few moments, turned back, and touched Abe’s shoulder. Looking at Holly, the grad student told Abe to take his time.
Holly continued. “It was nice learning words. Sometimes when you don’t know the word you’re trying to use, you have to talk around a concept, so it was nice learning words I didn’t know. Like, I knew how to say I was looking for something, estoy buscando, and I finally learned how to say I found it. Encontré.”
Abe’s smile remained. He tells Holly he’ll bring her books to read, ones in Spanish, and then stands to help the customer. “Y solamente hablamos en español.” he commands.
“¡Sí!” She responded, delighted, the smile jumping back onto her face. She picked her book back up, and continued reading. The book was very small, just over 100 pages. And before she knew it, she was halfway through. Of course, she thought to myself, I’ll need to read this again after I finish it. Not as certain, Holly thought of sending this book over to Chicago so he could read it, but decided against this idea by the time she was done forming it in her head. Her mind jumped to the nearly obligatory reply he sent earlier that morning, seemingly devoid of any real interest. She saw the reply at probably 6am, before sleeping again for 45 minutes, dreaming vividly he came to visit, but the building they were in collapsed around them.
The book slowly crept from outstanding joy to the beginnings of longing, of loss in the forms of death, and in the form of distance; Abe approached Holly’s table again, after finishing up taking the grad student’s order. “You know what else might help you with your Spanish?” he asked, standing now, instead of sitting. “Listening to music.”
“Do you have any recommendations?”
“Oh yeah!” and he began to list a few Spanish artists he enjoyed. “Salsa music is fun to listen to. But it’s pretty fast music, not good for beginners.”
Holly pulled out her phone so he could write down the artists’ names he was spouting off quickly, and he took her phone, and lost himself in his thoughts trying to think of everyone he possibly could for to listen to.
“Of course, I listened to Despacito all summer.” Holly said, recalling happy memories.
This forced laughter from his cheeks, from the center of him. “You know, actually, I haven’t heard that song all the way through.”
“Oh, it was just playing everywhere I went this summer! Street performer-type musicians playing it on guitars in Madrid and on accordians in Toledo! People were always walking around in Hungary playing it on their speakers…”
Abe finished the list of recommendations and handed her red phone back to her. There were at least seven names listed, and Holly instantly thought of herself in the future downloading, and listening to the music on the very device he was handing over. “Thank you very much,” she said, “muchas gracias,” correcting herself.
“De nada,” was his response. [ii] He walked back behind the counter, and then disappeared into the back room. Holly heard him speaking in Spanish to his sisters, who he worked with, so she just continued to read, finishing up her breakfast tacos, sipping her cappuccino, which was nearly empty as this point. Yet, she didn’t quite want this midmorning excursion to be over. Not just yet. She decided drinking another cappuccino would allow just the right amount of time to pass before she exited the café, into the day, now sunny, and bright.
“Can I have another cappuccino?” she asked Abe when he appeared again, cleaning the espresso machine behind the counter.
“¿Doble o solá?” he asked, referring to the number of shots inside.
“Doble,” pause. “¿Cuanto cuesta?”
He reached in his mind for the price, gave up, and asserted, “it’s on the house.”
“¡Muchas gracias! Are you sure?”
“Oh yeah,” he said with a wink, and a nod.
Smiling, Holly looked back down at her book, and continued to read. He served her the hot beverage once he was done crafting it, with milk art on the top, and she sipped it slowly, not as eager to have her morning thirst quenched.
Elizabeth’s descent grows steeper – she is pregnant with his child, yet they no longer see each other. When they do, their interactions are tense; she grows envious of the chair he sits in to read the newspaper. When he calls her a cunt, Holly decided she needs a break. So, at page 80, she swallowed what was rest of her drink, placed her cup where the used dishes go, and left with an “¡Adios!”
Abe echoed the same response, and as Holly walked out into the afternoon, she put on her sunglasses, and allowed herself to enjoy the heat of the sun on her skin. The campus was busy with freshman and transfer student orientations, so she spent ten or fifteen minutes trying to find somewhere both sunny and secluded to finish the book. She found a spot beneath a large tree, and sat facing away from the sun, so her back absorbed all the heat.
[i] English as a second language
[ii] There is a very interesting phenomenon she noticed, having the ability to compare different languages and cultures all summer. If someone in English says ‘thank you’, not very often is the response a genuine ‘you’re welcome.’ Often, in her experience, it’s an ‘uh huh!” which does the job well enough, but isn’t really a formal response. Other languages and cultures all say their ‘you’re welcome’s’ Spanish: de nada, Hungarian: szívesen. German has its own, too, but she forgot it exactly. Holly feel like if someone said “you’re welcome” in English, there is a certain mood of arrogance behind the response.