by Nijiiro Sumi (虹色墨)
illustrated by Neru Momochimuchi (百千鞭練)
“I’m telling you, it’s just because you’ve never had good coffee.”
“All right, all right, I said I’d try it…”
I pasted a smile on my face as the next two customers stepped up to the counter. One: white, taller, curvy, long red hair tied back in a ponytail, one eyebrow piercing and one lip piercing, leather jacket. The other: shorter, Asian, short hair, horn-rimmed glasses, plaid shirt.
Conclusion: lesbian couple, possibly hipsters. Not that I could really stereotype, being a pink-haired lady-who-likes-ladies myself. I used to have enough metal in my face to set off the airport alarms, but I got bored with those and went for tattoos instead. I kept the fleshies in my ears, though; can’t let all that stretching go to waste.
“What can I get you ladies?” I asked.
“I’ll have the El Paraiso,” said the redhead.
“Something for people who don’t usually like coffee,” suggested the redhead. “No milk, though; she’s lactose-intolerant.”
“I can use soy,” I offered.
“Yeah, but I want her to taste the coffee, not the sugar in the milk! Something black that a non-coffee-drinker might like.”
So not only was her coffee request mildly impossible, she didn’t let her girlfriend even order for herself. Great. I turned to address the girlfriend, who seemed used to this behavior. “What is it that you don’t like about coffee? It’s bitter?” At the expected nod, I went on with my standard so-you-don’t-like-coffee-but-you-want-to-t
A job well done, even if her girlfriend was a bit of a douchebag. Well, whatever; none of my business. I’d never see them again.
Actually, I saw Kim the next day, although her girlfriend wasn’t with her. “Hi,” she said, smiling shyly at me. “Can I have the, um, Yellow Bourbon?”
“Coming right up,” I said, picking up a paper cup. “Kim, right?”
“Yes! Oh, wow, you remembered.”
I shrugged, trying to play it cool. “Well, you were just here yesterday. So you liked it, huh?”
“Yeah! It wasn’t bitter at all.”
I handed the cup off to Kyle to start brewing and gave Kim a sunny smile. I wanted to chat, tell her about how American coffee is often bitter because it’s over-roasted and thus the beans are burned, how our small-batch roaster made sure the beans roasted more evenly without burning, but there was a line behind her and also, she probably didn’t care. “That’s great; maybe we’ll get you up to the dark roast eventually. Can I help who’s next?”
Kim moved off to the side to wait for her coffee, clutching her messenger bag against her stomach. God, she was pretty cute. Too bad she was taken by a jerk.
I had the next day off, but I didn’t see Kim when I came back, either. I shrugged my shoulders and went on with my life…for three days, when Kim showed up again, this time with Angela in tow. I sighed and picked up a cup. “The usual, Kim?”
Kim looked surprised, then giggled. “Actually, I thought I’d try something different today. The, um, the dark roast?”
“Jumping in the deep end, huh?” I scribbled on Kim’s cup. “What about you?” I asked Angela.
Angela’s eyes darted in between us. Uh-oh; jealous girlfriend on the horizon? I’d better reel it in. “Espresso.”
“Coming right up.” I passed the cups off to Josh and punched buttons on the register. “That’ll be $5.50.”
“Oh, we’re paying separately,” said Angela, who already had her card out. Kim was still fishing around in her bag.
Hmmm; trouble in paradise? “Sorry.” I canceled out the transaction. “That’s $2.50 for the espresso, then, and $3.00 for the dark roast.”
Angela paid with card, while Kim fished three crumpled one-dollar bills out of her bag. “What’s your name?” she blurted out. When I made eye contact with her, surprised, she looked like she was about to pass out. “Um, I mean, you know my name, but I don’t know yours, it seems kinda weird…”
“Sorry,” I said. “My name’s Nikki.”
“Pleased to meet you, Nikki.” And Kim gave me such a brilliant smile that I felt like I might pass out, myself.
Kim came in alone the next day–they must’ve lived somewhere in the neighborhood–but I was making coffee that day, not behind the register. I managed to make eye contact with Kim, who waved; I smiled back. She ordered the dark roast again. Coffee must be growing on her, or maybe it was just that the dark roast was significantly cheaper than the Yellow Bourbon.
“Kim!” I called out when her coffee was ready. She bounced up from her seat to take it, and I saw that she had a sketchbook open on the table. We handed our coffees over the high wall behind the machine, Starbucks-style, so I pushed her coffee over but left my hands up top, so that I could peer over the counter. “Oh, are you an artist?”
“Yeah.” She turned shy again. “I thought maybe I’d start working here. Get out of the house, you know?”
“Cool,” I said, wishing I had something clever to say in rejoinder. Like, hey, I’m an artist too! (A total lie.) Or, oh, I like to draw. (Also a lie. Well, maybe I liked to draw, but that didn’t mean I was any good at it. My stick figures always looked drunk and deformed.) Asking to see her art seemed kind of intrusive. Artists didn’t always like to show off, and besides, I was just a barista.
Kim went back to her table. She pulled an iPhone out of her bag, put her earbuds in, and occupied herself with picking her playlist, or whatever. I silenced the impulse to ask her what kind of music she liked to listen to and went back to work, though I spent the next hour wanting to dump a hot cup of coffee over my own head.
It went on like that for a few weeks, maybe over a month; you know how it is, the days just blur together and the next thing you know, you have no idea where February went. It was like that. Kim came in a lot, just to order a cup of coffee and then sit at a table in the corner, drawing, sometimes in her sketchbook and sometimes on an iPad. Angela came with her occasionally, and then they’d order coffees and maybe a pastry and sit together, talking about laughing about something. But most of the time it was Kim by herself, and she’d stay the whole afternoon. Probably she lived nearby and was a student or made a living off of her art or her parents paid her rent for her, who knew. Angela must work during the day.
My suspicions were actually confirmed by Angela herself. One day I was clearing cups from the table behind them when I heard Angela say, “Have you been working here every day?”
“Yeah,” Kim replied. “It’s convenient. It’s close to home.”
I was dying to know where Kim lived, but it really wasn’t any of my business. It would’ve looked weird if I asked if Kim lived in the neighborhood–well, no, I knew she lived in the neighborhood now, and now I actually wanted to know specifically where she lived, which would be…weird, and kinda creepy. Creepier if I were a guy.
Angela made an affirming noise and took a sip of her coffee. She always came in and ordered the drip of the day, black. She glanced up at me, then back at Kim. Dismissive. “Any vacancies in your building yet? I wanna get out of my place. I hate my roommates.”
They didn’t live together? Well, that was a surprise.
“If there are, I haven’t heard of any. It’d be so awesome if we lived in the same building! We’d be like one of those crazy sitcoms, always over at each other’s places, knocking on each other’s doors in the middle of the night, driving the neighbors crazy!” Kim laughed. It made me smile despite myself. She laughed with her mouth open and her eyes squinched up.
Okay, that was it. I paused by their table, empty plates in hand, and asked: “Sorry, I couldn’t help overhearing. Do you live in the neighborhood? ‘Cause I do, too.”
Kim’s eyes widened, and she resumed that hunched-shoulder, shy little pose that she usually used. She opened up more around Angela. It made my stomach dance a little. “Oh, um, yeah! Just, just down the street, you know the big green building? The Thomson?”
“Shut. Up.” I set the plate down on their table before I dropped it. “I live there too!”
“Seriously?” asked Kim.
“No!” exclaimed Angela. “Which unit?”
The Thomson was actually two buildings joined by a center courtyard. I lived in the A building, in a two-bedroom I shared with another person, while Kim lived in one of the studios in the B building, which explained why we never saw each other. Each building had separate laundry rooms, so it wasn’t like we would’ve run into each other there.
“I’m a homebody, anyway,” Kim mumbled, with a nervous, sheepish little giggle. “I mean, I mostly just stay cooped up, drawing…even when I go out I’m always drawing…”
Angela reached over and ruffled Kim’s hair, which Kim bore with a sort of dignified humor. She wrinkled her nose at Angela afterward; Angela just laughed.
“We could totally hang out sometime,” Angela suggested, sitting back in her chair and sticking her legs straight out under the table. She had really long legs. Suddenly, she gave Kim a little kick. Not sharp serious, more like a tap with the toe of her boot to Kim’s ankle. “Hey, we should have tea at your place. You have that kickass tea from China. You’re always talking about how you need more people over to drink it.”
For some reason Kim looked really distraught by this idea. “Oh…um…” She looked pleadingly up at me.
“I love tea,” I lied. Actually, I don’t get tea at all. It tastes like flavored water. I mean, it is flavored water–so is coffee, for that matter–but it should taste more like flavor than water, you know? And it’s not even really good flavor.
“Awesome. It’s a date.” Angela grinned at Kim, fierce and white. I was totally missing some nuance here. “Tea at Kim’s place…when’s your next day off?”
“Thursday,” I said.
“Great. Thursday at…4pm? That’s traditional tea time, right?” Angela’s grin was relentless.
Kim shook off her shocked stupor long enough to glare at Angela. “If you’re British.”
I laughed and took the plate away to the kitchen.
Angela gave me both their numbers, so I texted Kim on the morning of to make sure we were still on for 4pm. of course! she texted back, and then that afternoon I realized I didn’t actually know which unit she lived in. So I had to text her about that, and then she didn’t text me until 4:10 (probably checking her phone wondering where I was). So I was late.
“Is Angela running late too?” I asked, toeing my shoes off at the door in response to the pile of shoes I saw tossed carelessly into a plastic blue milk crate.
The studio was tiny, which was how I was reasonably certain that Angela wasn’t there, unless she was hiding in the darkened bathroom with the door open. The “kitchen” was one corner of the studio with a single counter, along with the tiniest stove I’d ever seen (I didn’t even know they came that small) and an office fridge. The bed was a murphy bed that pulled down from the wall, and that took up half of the remaining space. The rest of it was just enough room for a battered loveseat and a scratched, weathered folding end table. The floor was tile, which Kim walked around on in her socked feet.
“She’s, um, she’s coming later.” Kim was at the kitchen sink, filling an electric kettle and setting it to boil. A white porcelain teapot sat on the counter. “She, uh, something held her up at work.”
“Oh.” I sat in the loveseat, which was the only available seating in the room, other than the bed. But sitting on the bed seemed kind of presumptuous. It was a rumpled mess of sheets and duvet right now, with a Macbook perched on top of it like an monarch surveying its kingdom. “So, tell me about this tea.”
“Well, uh, it’s an oolong tea from the Fujian province of China where my dad lives.” Kim cleared her throat. “They’re famous for a type of oolong there that they call 鐵觀音. That’s, um, that translates to ‘Iron Guanyin.’ Guanyin’s this goddess, or something. So, uh, the thing about oolong teas is that they actually taste better after successive pours. So a little bit before four, I actually boiled the water and filled the teapot, and then poured it out. I guess that also cleans the tea leaves, or something? I dunno, I’m just getting rid of the first pour so that we can get to the better pours faster. If I were myself I’d drink it, just so I’m not wasting it, but for guests it’s different.” She shut her mouth with an audible snap of her jaw. “Sorry. I’m talking too much.”
“No, no, it’s really interesting,” I blurted into the resulting silence. “So you’re really into tea, huh?”
“Not really.” Kim stared down at the counter. She was dressed in a red t-shirt with a red heart on the front and little white shorts. Her legs somehow managed to be eight miles long despite Kim herself being barely over five feet tall. “I mean, my dad is, I guess. He’s the one who told me all this stuff.”
“I’ve never had a tea ritual performed for me before,” I admitted. I crossed one of my legs over the other and laced my fingers together over my knee. “I’ve only ever had tea in bags.”
Kim made a little derisive noise at that, like an ugh. “I mean, that can be okay…if I drink black tea I drink it from a teabag because I don’t really care about black tea…but when it comes to the Asian teas, I guess I care more. Because I’m Asian.” She gave a high, nervous little giggle that made me smile.
The kettle was starting to roar. Kim reached over and forced the kettle to click with her finger–even though it clearly hadn’t reached a rolling boil yet–and poured the water into the teapot. She took down two mismatched mugs from the cupboard above, then just stood there for maybe half a minute, tapping her fingers on the counter and obviously counting under her breath. When the time was up, she poured out two mugs and brought them over to the couch, setting them on the rickety little end table.
“Careful, it’s still hot,” she murmured; the cups were steaming, even though the water hadn’t been boiling when she poured it.
I took the closer mug gingerly; the side of the mug had a snowman on it. I blew on the surface of the tea. The next breath I took, I could smell the tea: it was amazingly fragrant, and it had a floral quality without actually smelling like flowers. Like, it didn’t smell like jasmine tea or anything. “Wow, it smells really good.”
“The smell is one of my favorite parts.” Kim blew a little bit on her tea too, but then she just held it in both her hands on her lap.
I couldn’t wait. I took a careful sip, trying to get only the surface of the tea. It was hot all right, scalding my tongue a little, but I could taste it. It was a very underwhelming sort of flavor, which was the reason I didn’t really like tea. I’m a coffee kinda girl, and it’s because I like also like curry and Mexican food, you know? Tea’s for prissy people who can’t handle a lot of caffeine and a little bit of darkness. “It’s nice.”
She smiled at me, which kinda took my breath away a little. “The next pour will be better.”
Okay, the third pour was better, but the fourth pour was fucking amazing. I noticed that they were really short steep times, too, not the 3-5 minutes that they recommended on Bigelow teabags but these 30-second brews. And yet the flavor that came out of those tiny brews was green and fragrant, blooming across the tongue in a way that I didn’t know tongue could do. It wasn’t bold, not in the same way that Indian food is bold, and it still tasted like flavored water, but like really good flavored water. And I didn’t feel buzzed in the same way that I did after a cup of coffee, but I did definitely feel…alert. Awake. We’d been talking about nothing in particular: our favorite flavors of donuts (mine was old-fashioned; hers was any donut with sprinkles); good places to buy red velvet cupcakes (we both liked Cupcake Cove); different coffee roasts and what that meant (me explaining terms to her); seasonal fruits (how coffee beans also have growing seasons, and that segued into mango season and strawberry season and apple season); our favorite authors (it’s always hard to choose just one).
“Hey,” I said, realizing it was almost 5:30. “Is Angela coming or what?”
Kim froze at that and placed the teapot back down, even though her cup was only half full. She took a deep breath and sat up straight, her hands on her knees. “Actually, she’s not coming,” she said without looking at me.
“Huh?” I cradled my cup in my hands. “What, like, she’s bailing?”
Kim bit her lip and still didn’t look at me. I became very still. I wondered if I should put my cup down in case I ended up spilling something, but I also didn’t want to move in case that broke whatever surface tension was holding this tableau together.
“Actually, Angela set this up.” Kim’s ears, I saw, were turning bright red. I watched in fascination. “She, um, sh-she knows that I, I, I, um, I have a crush on you. And so she. Set this up.”
I was watching that red spread from her ears down to the rest of her face and almost missed the content of the actual words. “Wait, you–what?”
Kim didn’t answer, possibly because she was trying not to bolt from the room. I went on, hastily, putting my cup down because spillage did seem imminent. “You have a cr–but I thought you and Angela–aren’t you together?”
That spurred Kim into action. She whipped her head around to stare at me, saucer-eyed, like a cat that’s just been startled by a loud noise and now all the fur on its neck is standing on end. “Angela and–no! God, no! We’re friends, we’ve known each other since we were eleven years old!”
I stared at Kim for a few seconds before I felt the corners of my mouth tremble and I broke into helpless giggles. “Oh my God, that explains–I thought–you were so close, and she was so–I just assumed!”
Kim belted out a laugh, too. “Oh my–okay, I can totally see where you got that idea, hahaha, oh my God, I can’t believe–” She let out an undignified snort, which just caused me to laugh harder, and that created a feedback loop where we both giggled until tears leaked out of the corners of our eyes.
I swiped my fingers across my eyes and sniffled. “Oh. Whew. Okay. So, you have a crush on me, huh?”
“Yup.” Kim avoided my gaze again. I smiled. This I knew how to handle, and it started with taking off her glasses. She started and gave me a huge-eyed owl look, backed up against the arm of the loveseat, and I just kept pressing forward until our noses were just inches apart.
“I’m gonna kiss you, okay?” I said.
Kim swallowed. “Okay,” she said, her lips soundlessly moving, and I kissed her.
Not gonna lie, it was super awkward, in the way that kisses often start out super awkward, when two people are still trying to figure out how they fit together. But I kept at it, because I’ve learned that it doesn’t pay to get discouraged with kisses too quickly, and sure enough, it turned out she just needed some warming up. Then it was nice, tentative and a little bit clumsy, like kissing in high school and college, and then I decided to try putting my hand up her shirt.
Kim yipped. I backed off. “Sorry, sorry, was that not–”
“No, it’s okay,” she said, sounding a little out of breath. “I was just surprised.”
So I put my hands against her skin, which was soft and smooth underneath her shirt, making my touches firm in case she was ticklish. She had a little belly, which I loved to cup. I undid her bra with a level of skill that I’m sure’s the envy of many a teenage boy, and slipped my hand in there to touch her breasts. They were small and pert and adorable, just barely palmfuls, and I decided I wanted her shirt off so I could see them properly.
She had hardly any tan line: unsurprising for an artist who spent most of her daylight hours cooped up either in her apartment or in a coffeeshop, drawing. I just wanted to run my hands all over her, but she was tugging at my shirt now, muttering something like “no fair” or “now you,” so I had to stop and pull my shirt off, and then she spent way too long undoing my bra. I had to laugh at her a little, and she stopped and ducked her head, clearly flushing all the way up to her roots. “Sorry, sorry,” I said, “here let me turn around.”
“No, I got it,” she muttered, and sure enough, she did, once she’d calmed down enough to concentrate, and we dropped both our bras and shirts on the floor.
Kim spent a lot of time dwelling over my tattoos, which went up both arms and stopped at the shoulder. No chest or back tattoos for me, not yet, anyway. The one on the left arm was a phoenix, its long red tailfeathers swirling down my forearm; the one on the right arm was that famous wave by Hokusai that turned into a cascade of cherry blossoms that rained down to my wrist. “Did they hurt?” she asked.
“Like a bitch,” I answered. “Worth it, though.”
“They’re beautiful,” she murmured, and she leaned down and kissed the phoenix right on its beak, shyly. It made me pause and catch my breath. Then I held it as she trailed her lips down between my breasts, which were significantly bigger than hers, and then down to my belly, which was also significantly bigger than hers. She put her hands at the waistband of my jeans and just left them there. “Uh, actually, can you do this? I’m afraid it’s gonna turn out like the bra…”
I laughed, but in the nicest way I knew how, and we pulled apart for a few moments to kick off our respective jeans. She had the cutest panties, white with little strawberries on them, I don’t even know where she found those. I just had on boring boyshorts from Old Navy, with the blue stripes. If I’d known I was getting laid, I would’ve worn something cuter. Kim didn’t seem to care, though–it’s not like anyone cares about how cute your underwear is, when they’re in the process of taking it off–and she pulled off her own panties, so I took that as my cue and took mine off, too.
Then we were both naked, which is always awkward when it’s still light outside. It was a little cold, so we pressed up against each other and kissed some more, running our hands all over each other. It’d been a long time, and I’d almost forgotten how nice it was to have someone touching me with their hands and their mouth, exploring all the crevices of my body that I’d almost forgotten about, like the undersides of my arms and the small of my back and the dimples underneath my knees. I was getting nice and wet, which made me a little self-conscious about being on her couch, but I didn’t want to break the mood by suggesting we move to the bed.
“Um.” Kim pulled away a bit. “Do you want to move to the bed.”
“Oh, thank God you suggested it,” I breathed.
There was more room on the bed, too–once Kim cleared off the books and the Macbook–to really spread out and go over each other. Kim was wet, too, it turned out, and I got it all over my fingers as Kim squirmed. I circled her clit, smirking at her as she squealed and wriggled, and then I slid down and went down on her, making sure to make it good and sloppy. Her clit seemed to be really sensitive, possibly too sensitive, so I made sure to circle more than I touched the clit itself. I spread her open and licked inside, too, as far as I could go, which made her sigh and her breath hitch, and finally when I got tired I propped myself up on my elbows and used my fingers. “Do you have any toys?” I asked. “Like, a vibe or anything?”
She nodded, though it seemed to take her a minute to process my question. Testament to my talents, of course. “C-cabinet.” She flopped her her hand up and to the left. The murphy bed came out of a wardrobe, and I opened up the cupboard to the left and found a vibrator just sitting on the shelf, along with a pile of condoms. I tore one open, rolled it over the vibrator, and went back to the task at hand, which was getting Kim the fuck off.
It didn’t take long with the vibe, and I felt really smug as I watched her back arch and her breath catch in her throat. I turned off the vibe as soon as she was down to erratic twitching. The condom was covered in slick that hadn’t been there before, and I pulled it off and tried to aim it into the trash can. I missed, and winced.
“Oh God.” Kim scrubbed both her hands over her face. “Oh my God.”
“I know.” I leaned over Kim to get another condom out of the cabinet and flashed her a devilish grin. “The next one’ll be better.”