Technically, I didn’t have permission but I couldn’t let that stop me. Not this time. With the scrape of metal on metal, I slid the key into the ignition. After several tries, the car vroomed to life and my heart raced to keep up. Because I was actually doing this.
I idled loudly in the otherwise quiet parking lot in front of the old apartment building. It was late enough that most of our neighbors had left for the day. Only a few cars remained and Mom’s wasn’t one of them. She’d probably spent the night at her friend Cindy’s or something.
I wrapped my fingers around the cracked steering wheel and fought the urge to hyperventilate. My backpack slumped on the passenger seat like this was no big deal. But I was sitting in my car. My. Own. Car. About to drive myself to school for the first time ever. There was no time left to turn back. So, without any over-thinking of the situation what-so-ever, I pushed the clutch to the floor and pulled the gear into reverse. And I sped past the bus stop without even looking at it. There would be no more getting up at the butt crack of dawn to wait in the freezing cold for that thing ever again.
The drive through morning traffic took longer than I’d thought it would but, eventually, I was pulling up to the school like a regular student. In my own car, just like everyone else did every day. Except that everyone else didn’t have to drive all the way across town. And they had probably left earlier, without debating with themselves all morning. Because everyone else had gotten there before me and had taken all of the parking spots.
I circled around the lots and finally found the single last free space all way in the back. Success. And with exactly two minutes to spare before the first bell. I gave my car–that was slightly bent and a little rusted, but completely mine–a pat and one last glance before booking it to the nearest door, my backpack thumping behind me.
But there were no groups of loiterers between the cars. And no minglers near the doors. I’d never been that late to school before. I guess the one good thing about following a bus schedule all your life was it forced you to be punctual.
I ran through the halls that were completely empty and stopped abruptly in front of my classroom. The muffled sounds of an already started lecture came through the already closed door. Late. I was definitely late. For any other class, maybe not a big deal. But History with Mr. Williams? Madison had come in way after the bell on the first day and he had called on her relentlessly. Worked her name into the lecture. Humiliated her. She’d dropped the class and no one could blame her.
Aside from his strange hang up on tardiness, Williams, with his sweater vests and nerdy puns, was easily the least unlikeable of all my teachers. And maybe he had been just making an example of her or something. Maybe he wouldn’t do that again, to anyone else. But maybe I didn’t want to be the first person to test that theory.
I wilted against the wall as I gathered my nerve to open the door, and caught the eye of a cheery octopus grinning from a large poster hung across from me. It was one of thousands plastered across the school, rallying for the upcoming sweetheart dance. As if, if there were enough of them around, they’d convince everyone to go–more money for the school. And, from what I’d heard, it was working. Everyone was going. Except me.
Bri, beautiful and social as she was, could never understand why I refused to go to these things. But my best friend was like every non-awkward-one-else who saw dances and socializing and dancing and dresses as not terrible things. For some reason. And I’d only ever given her the simplified explanation for me not going: that dances were dumb. Especially underwater themed dances. What did under the sea have to do with Valentine’s Day?
The poster said, “Faye’s to be Under the Sea! Feb 14th at 7 pm.” Weird. Because were they inviting students one by one now or what? I stepped closer to my personalized poster to see that it was in fact, not personalized. The poster clearly read, “Dare to be Under the Sea! Feb 14th at 7 pm.” Which made more sense because why would the poster have my name on it? And anyway, even if it had, I still wouldn’t have wanted to go to the dance just like I didn’t want to go into that classroom and be humiliated. But I was still standing in that hallway, stalling, and the longer I stalled the later I’d be and the more likely that Williams would turn that day into the worst day of my life.
It was not supposed to be the worst day of my life. It was supposed to be my day. My ‘fresh start’ day. It had started off so good. I squeezed my car keys and the metal dug into my palms. If only I could do something else. Something that was not going in there. If only I could leave and be somewhere else instead. Like the coffee shop that I loved so much that was really not very far from school and could be reached very quickly if someone were to have their own transportation.
I couldn’t ditch class. But I felt a wicked ditching-kind-of grin take over my face and it simply wouldn’t be ignored. Before I could talk myself out of it, I was back at my car and off. Taking back my day.
Bells chimed as I entered Buzzworthy, the best coffee shop ever. I unraveled the scarf from my neck as warmth and the sweet smell of coffee came to greet me like old friends. Being there had everything to do with hot coffee and not the hot coffee shop guy that sometimes worked there… who I’d had a crush on since I’d discovered the place, but had never actually spoken to. Nothing to do with him at all.
I tripped on the nothing on the way to the counter when I saw him standing behind it. Then regained my composure as best I could, but what was he doing behind the register? Hot Coffee Shop Guy was the one that made the hot coffee. Not took the orders. It was all wrong.
Luckily, he’d been looking away and seemed to have missed my graceful entrance. I stepped forward and then only the counter was between us.
“What can I get for you?” he asked, speaking to me for the first time, and sparks flew all around us. Then he threw his towel over his shoulder and looked at me with brilliantly baby blue eyes that I was sure to get lost in and never find my way out of again. And that was going to be okay with me. Except that he was waiting for me to say something because he’d asked me a question.
“Uh,” I said, responding in the most classy of ways. And then I stared at the menu that was mounted high on the wall behind him. I stared like it was the most interesting and confusing thing I’d ever seen. Like I’d never before ordered a beverage in all of my life and was pressed to figure it out like it was a complex equation that would somehow save the world from certain destruction. Armageddon. It was like Armageddon. Because he was staring at me. And waiting. But I wasn’t thinking about how he was staring at me and waiting. I was too busy focusing on the menu and on not blushing and only being successful at one of those things. There was an answer that I was supposed to be giving right then. A correct answer. A beverage answer. And today, it couldn’t be the same old boring thing I got all the time. It had to be something more interesting, like a macchiato–that was different and new and I was even pretty sure I knew how to pronounce it but he was smiling. Or smirking. Why was he smiling or smirking at me? Did he think this was funny? Was I being funny? Was I taking a long time to order? I was taking a long time to order. I was taking the longest time to order in all of time. I had to come up with an answer. Right then. Before any more time passed so I said, “Caramel macchiato?” and it came out like a question.
He nodded as if letting me know that it was, in fact, the right answer. Thank goodness. “What size?” he asked, asking me another question that I would have to answer.
Size? What size? “Small?” I asked him and I didn’t mean it to be a question. It was supposed to be my choice. My order. Not a question. But was small a good size for a caramel macchiato? What the heck was a macchiato anyway?
“You got it,” he said.
And so, I had chosen correctly again. Then we were smiling at each other and it started to feel like it might not be the end of the world. And that was a nice feeling to have while I fished money out of my pocket and handed it to him. Our fingers touched and more sparks flew. Many sparks. Then he turned away so he could make my drink and so that I could breathe.
As I leaned casually against the counter in a casual way, Hot Coffee Shop Guy steamed and stirred and poured, making my macchiato like nobody’s business.
It may not have taken as long as I’d thought to order. And my cheeks may have been red, but maybe he thought it was from the cold outside. It was cold outside. Things may have been even better than not that bad. Things may have been okay and maybe even good.
Until some girl’s voice jutted in, calling “Lucan?” and a pretty blond girl with pigtails came sashaying in from the backroom.
“Huh?” said not just ‘Hot Coffee Shop Guy’, said Lucan. Because Hot Coffee Shop Guy had a name and I finally knew what it was. And it was Lucan. And it was the best name I had ever heard.
Blond Girl leaned against the counter next to him and crossed her arms, looking his way and biting her thumbnail. I was thankful to her for revealing the name that I’d wondered about for so long. But her work was done and she was now free to leave. And should. But wasn’t. “Do you want to go to that party tonight?” she asked him. “At Becca’s?”
“No. You know what I want to do?” said Hot Coffee Shop Lucan, “Dance.” And then, he turned to me. And he asked me another question. “Whipped cream?” he asked. His voice was low and husky as he looked at me and not at the other girl.
And then I got it. It clicked.
I said “Yes,” and it was an answer. A real answer and not a question at all. Because there was another question–a more important question–at the tip of my tongue. There was a reason I’d ended up in that coffee shop that morning. A reason I was there and not in class. A reason I’d mistaken my name on that poster.
He held my fancy drink out and as I took it, our hands met again. Sparks and more sparks.
“Thank you,” I said, my voice firm and calm and clear. Because that day, my 17th birthday, was not just my day. Not just a day for a fresh start and for new things. It was a day for a new me. A brave me. It was a day for a question that I never thought I’d ask–that I didn’t, until that very moment, even know that I wanted to ask.
“Lucan,” I said, “there’s a dance at my school. You want to go?” And then I looked right into those baby blue eyes of his and added, bravely, “With me?”
And then there was an answer. It had been the best day until that answer. Because the answer was laughter.