Corner of Hennepin and 13th, across from the Subway I visit for $5 meatball subs, white bread, hold the cheese.
I’m at Café Espresso Royale. It’s a quaint and surprising place; quaint for comfy couches, surprising for patron diversity. Here I’ve seen effeminate boys with glossy red lips wait for coffee beside homeless people who’ve collected enough money for a drink.
Business is slow this afternoon. I share the café with a handsome man reading from a personal finance book, Super-Smart Investments or The Super Investor or something “super,” and a girl his age—24, 25—chewing on her hoodie’s pull strings and reading from a textbook. They sit one table apart and he glances over at her occasionally. I can’t tell if she’s noticed or not. And then—
“I was just reading that book,” he says. His delivery is painful; the joke is forced and way too loud. He swallows hard and moves from a reclining position to a shaky one leaning across the table. He’s so nervous that I’m nervous.
I’m somewhat and selfishly sorry to see this. I sat at a bar-height table so I could look at him without him noticing and still be within earshot, ready for him to get my attention to strike up a conversation and one day marry me. Not her.
His accidentally harsh delivery startles the girl. She jumps and her wobbly table jerks, sending her coffee mug to its edge.
“Sorry,” he says. “Didn’t mean to scare you.” His ears are red.
“No, no,” she says and brushes hair out of her face. She’s pretty in a sweet way: curly bed-head brunette hair, pale-skinned, and makeup-free. “No worries at all. What was that?”
“A joke. Sorry.” He’s wearing thick-rimmed eyeglasses and is clean-shaven. His jawline is ridiculously sharp; his body is worthy of Adonis.
“Oh,” she says and fake laughs. “Yeah, I guess you wouldn’t read a textbook on a whim.”
The scene is terrifically awkward. She looks down at her textbook but isn’t reading any more. What to say…What to say…
She clears her throat and finally, “Yeah, yours too. I read that, too.” It’s an embarrassing attempt at a comeback and comes far too late. The guy laughs, as do I, because she’s so adorable.
“What are you reading?” he asks.
Her response is again delayed, as if she processes every word before reacting. She rushes to close her textbook and shows him the cover. A book on women in Africa.
“Ah, very nice.” The guy sounds more confident now; the upper-hand is his—she’s the nervous one. He holds up his book for her to see and says, “Me, I’m trying to make my money the super way.”
They strike up a conversation and I can’t help but eavesdrop. They talk about Yoplait Light, ice fishing, and British accents. Their talk is flirtatious and witty, until—
A tall man in a plaid button-down walks into the café and interrupts the mood. The girl suddenly looks like she’s in trouble; she’s quick to stand and greets him with a kiss. He shows no affection.
“Let’s go,” the man says. She hurries to pack up her things and—poof—she’s gone. Not so much as a goodbye.
The Super Investor. His face. It’s frozen. Paralyzed. Shocked. On the verge of heartbreak. His face tells me that he married the girl as quickly as I’d married him when I picked my bar-height seat.
He stares into the floor without blinking, into what romantics face when we’re presented with the unrequited: an irrational absence, a gap once filled by something we never had.
The Super Investor packs his things and leaves the Café Espresso Royale.
An hour passes and I get “serious” about writing. Other patrons trickle in and out: a family here, a cyclist there, students from a neighboring community college, business people, and artistic-looking retirees.
I’m ready to leave when another disheveled girl runs in. She snaps up a table, unpacks a computer from a Gophers tote, and begins typing frantically, almost angrily. Like the girl before her, she has messy hair and is makeup-free. I stay so I can study her from my perch. She’s clearly a student, younger than the bags under her eyes suggest.
Soon after she sits, a man talking on his cell phone enters the café. He takes a table only one away from hers, but he doesn’t seem to notice…
Funny what you’ll find when you’re looking for it.
The sub of the day is meatball.