No Cream or SugarA Story by Ken C.
An old acquaintance comes by to visit. This is like a one-inch picture frame of one man's life, focusing at the point that it crosses a woman's.
I was not ready for anybody to come over. My home was a mess; magazines, books, pens, and pieces of art that I hadn’t found a place for yet cluttered the living room. An empty coffee cup from the morning before was still out on a small table. In my defense, it was just barely morning. The sky was still dark, and the lights and cars of the residents of the neighborhood were still at rest. No one could expect a visitor at the hour that she arrived.
I was only awake to push the button on the coffee machine. I had full intentions of returning to Matthew in the bedroom until the sun could greet us properly at a more reasonable hour.
Just as I turned away from the coffee machine, though, I heard something at the front door. I stopped and looked toward the entryway. The wind? The paperboy, throwing the daily news at our door? We were not subscribed.
I rubbed my eyes. I started toward the bedroom when the noise happened again. It was footsteps. Someone was standing at the door, possibly pacing around on the porch. I peered through the peephole and saw a lady standing on the other side, positioned the ring the doorbell. She looked familiar… her face had a place deep in my old memories. She wore a large sweatshirt that had an orange stain on it and a pair of blue jeans that had a little rip in the side. I wondered if she bought them that way or if they were just nearly worn out.
I stood on the other side of the door and waited for her to ring the doorbell, but her finger just hovered over the button, as if trying to bring herself to do it. Finally she turned away. She began to walk, and that’s when I remembered who she was. I opened the door.
She stopped. I saw her body stiffen up. I imagined that she was weighing her options: to keep walking, or turn and talk to me. She turned.
“Hi, George.” Her eyes were bright green and large and wet.
I tired to find words that might be said, opening and closing my mouth over and over again, looking like an idiot. I cleared my throat and said, “Come in, Lilly. I haven’t seen you in years.”
If you asked her, she would say that we were friends that had lost touch a long time ago; if you ask me, however, I will say that we were only acquaintances whose interests had lead their lives in different directions. We did have a little something several years ago, I suppose. I’ll bet it was a decade back now, when I was still confused.
She quietly came inside and looked around. Her eyes flicked from painting to painting, from the fireplace to the small table with the coffee cup on it, from the television to the L-shaped couch.
“Sit,” I said.
Lily sat on the very edge of the couch as if she didn’t want to rest her feet. The coffee machine beeped three times.
“Coffee?” I hurried into the kitchen. I took down two cups and picked up the coffee pot. I hesitated by the doorway.
“Cream or sugar?” I called out.
“Oh. Uhhh….” Lilly said nothing for a while.
“Hm?” I said as loudly as I could.
“Uh, no. I guess not.”
I returned to the living room and began to pour the coffee.
“So,” I said, “how have you been, Lilly?”
“Well, alright, I suppose.” She took the cup I offered her. She held it with both hands. She brought the cup to her mouth and let the edge of the dark liquid touch her lips. “Oh, that’s very good coffee.”
I didn’t know what to say to that. “How is… oh, gosh, um… Michelle?”
“She’s fine, thank you. She’s going into the third grade here pretty soon. And it’s Martha.”
“Right, right, I’m sorry.”
Lilly shook her head. “It’s alright.”
We drank from our cups to make the silence less awkward.
“Please excuse this mess,” I said. I tried to smile.
She shook her head again. “It’s very nice.”
“Thank you. How has Kevin been?”
She swallowed her coffee. “Well, last time I saw him was when Martha was going into the second grade. He was doing okay, then.”
“Oh,” I said. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s alright. I’ve found someone else, actually.”
“Really? That’s good.”
“Yes. His name is Jake.”
“How is he? What does he do?”
“He’s doing okay. He’s looking for a job right now, but whenever he finds out that the place might test him, he doesn’t follow through.”
“Oh, I see. I suppose I can understand that.” I really didn’t, though.
“Yes. We might get married here in a few months.”
“Thank you,” she said. Her cheeks got pink.
I almost said to send me an invitation, but I really didn’t want her to, so I drank my coffee.
“And how have you been, Lilly? What have you been doing?”
“Oh, a few odd jobs here and there, you know.” I nodded. “I’ve been trying to put together a decent resume, but sometimes I think a blank page might look better, you know?” She laughed loudly.
I joined in as convincingly as I could manage.
“I think I’ll have to lie about a couple of things if I want to get a job,” Lilly said. “You know, references without phone numbers and things. Things they can’t check.”
I nodded with her. “The economy is pretty tough right now,” I said.
“Yes, that too.”
A door opened somewhere in the house. We both jumped a little, I think. Matthew walked out of the hallway and stopped, pretending to notice us suddenly. He wore his pajama bottoms and a t-shirt, same as I. I know that he was probably trying to listen for a while. His curiosity and desire for coffee probably overpowered him.
“Oh, hello,” he said.
“Hi,” said Lilly.
“Who is this, George?” Matthew went into the kitchen.
“This is… an old friend. Lilly.”
“Oh, well I’m pleased to meet you.” He emerged from the kitchen with a giant coffee mug. Matthew approached the coffee table, and Lilly stiffened a little, anticipating a handshake or something. He just picked up the pot and poured himself some coffee.
“I’m Matthew, by the way.”
Lilly nodded. None of us spoke.
“Well,” he said. “It was nice meeting you. I have to get ready for work, though, so excuse me.” He sidestepped into the hallway. It was his day off.
Lily and I waited for the bedroom door to close.
She took a deep breath. “Did I… I mean…”
I thought I knew what she was going to say, but I didn’t want to guess the wrong question.
“Did I make you like that?”
I didn’t answer for a moment. I watched her squirm in the silence. It probably felt like hours to her.
“No,” I said. “No, but you made me realize it.”
“I’m sorry I put you through all that, Lilly,” I said.
I never really felt bad about it before, and I still don’t, but in that moment, I really was sorry. I told her that I loved her, over and over again. Trying to convince myself more than anything, I suppose. And then one day I told her that she was not my type. I did not explain myself any further than that. I left her behind, confused and with a broken heart.
There was a long silence.
“She might be yours, George,” Lilly finally said.
“What? No, she’s not.”
Lilly looked at the floor. “She might be.”
“We never… did it, Lilly.”
Her face was red. She whispered, “She might be.”
A drop hung from her nose.
It fell onto her knee, where her jeans soaked it up. She folded her sleeves into her hands and used the arms to wipe her face. She sniffed once. She set down her coffee cup.
“It’s very good coffee, George. Thank you.” She stood up.
I stood up, too. I wanted to say something to keep her from leaving. Everything was on the tip of my tongue. I wanted to say something… anything. Something that might make her leaving… I don’t know. Less sad.
Matthew came out of the bedroom half an hour later.
“So… who was that?”
I didn’t know what to tell him.
© 2010 Ken C.