Strangers in a Café

Hannah James

A swirl of steam rises past Clarisse’s collarbones. Dark auburn liquid sits in the porcelain mug, almost matching the shade of her hair. Sierra has the urge to disrupt the silence and ask her when she started ordering an americano, but she doesn’t. It used to be a flat white with almond milk, sometimes a dash of skim milk if she wanted to treat herself. It doesn’t surprise her that she remembers how Clarisse grew into her coffee preference. She contemplates if there’s a space in her mind allocated just to hold all the memories of her, even the tiny details that should fade with time. Sierra often feels like her mind is a bedroom with a side table in the corner that has always remained undisturbed. That table holds all those years in a messy pile. No matter how cluttered the room becomes, everything else will be thrown away or pushed underneath the bed while the table accumulates dust. Maybe the table space always slips the occupant’s mind, or perhaps they cannot bear to approach it and sort through those things.

Clarisse has always preferred her coffee rich and bitter. As though she delights in the distaste, the protest of her tastebuds, the subtle tang of punishment in every sip. Clarisse’s eyes glance at the light brown foamy creation in the cup on the other side of the table, then to the person in the chair across from her.

Sierra grasps the cup with her right hand and uses her left hand to brush the foam from the corner of her mouth. She embraces Clarisse’s eye contact, unwilling to succumb to her stare by looking away.

‘You still don’t like the taste of coffee,’ Clarisse says.

She isn’t sure if it’s a question or some transient judgement. No clues lie in Clarisse’s fixed expression. Sierra slowly places her cup down and leans back into the head of the wooden chair.

She smiles as she responds, ‘Neither do you.’

Clarisse doesn’t bother to constrain her smile, nor the flutter of her eyelashes, as if she is closing her eyes for a moment. And then she laughs. The unexpected sound rings through Sierra’s body like an old song laced with nostalgia. She feels relief and an indiscernible ache. They’re both laughing, and eventually their laughter stills to smiles. They start talking as if nothing had changed, catching each other up on the last few years of their lives with a tone of unimportance. Sierra loses herself in Clarisse’s hazel eyes for a moment and finds herself somewhere else.

 

The dormitory room was stuffy that day. The July heat made Sierra’s legs stick to the purple covers of her bed as she lay down. A boombox in the corner played the Red Hot Chilli Peppers cassette that belonged to her roommate, Farrah. Farrah always played them obnoxiously loud on the weekend, with all the windows open to let the sound travel. She’d sit by the windowsill, staring at the green lawn below. Sierra speculated that this was done on purpose, in the hopes that the fraternity hall adjacent couldn’t help but hear and compliment Farrah’s music taste. The popular boys always bragged about their love for west coast rock bands.

‘Farrah,’ a foreign voice yelled. Somebody knocked on the door. ‘FARRAH.’ The knocking turned to pounding.

Farrah turned down the music and strutted across the room.

‘What?’ Farrah demanded as she opened the door.

Sierra carefully leaned forward to see who was there. She expected one of the annoying Kappa Delta girls that lived downstairs. The stranger had long black hair that fell past her chest. Her eyes were brown at first glance, but then looked green; Sierra didn’t have much time to discern, especially when the eyes flickered to her with a gaze of cruelty.

Sierra whipped her head back. She fumbled through her magazine and tried to ignore the girls. She didn’t pay attention to their conversation, but she caught bits and pieces: something about Farrah borrowing money on a night out. The stranger lit a cigarette for herself and Farrah. They both smoked.

After what felt like ages, it appeared the stranger was leaving.

‘Thank you,’ she said, as Farrah put the cash in her hand. She grabbed the door handle and turned away for a second.

The stranger stopped to look over her shoulder and said ‘And turn this shit off. The girls downstairs are going to come and kill you in your sleep.’ With a smirk, she finally left.

Sierra exhaled a breath she didn’t realise she was holding. She put down the magazine and turned to Farrah, ‘See! I’m begging you. Please play anything else. Just not these bands with monotone voices. All their songs sound the same. And nothing happens in them. Every song is making me feel like I’m wasting 3 to 5 minutes of my life.’

Farrah opened her mouth to retaliate when the door flung open. The stranger walked across the room to grab the box of camel cigarettes she’d left on the windowsill.

Before leaving, she stared directly at Sierra.

‘That’s a controversial take. Also, sorry I forgot to offer you a cigarette before.’ The breeze from the window lightly whipped her dark hair as she handed one out to her.

‘What’s your name?’ There was power in the way she spoke. It made Sierra forget what her name was for a moment.

‘Sierra.’

The stranger’s eyes darted to the cigarette and back to her to emphasise the offer.

‘Um, we’re not allowed to smoke in dorms.’ Sierra felt lame for saying it, and she didn’t even know why she did. Maybe she wanted a way out.

‘Let’s go outside then, Sierra.’ She smiled and led her into the corridor. ‘I’m Clarisse by the way.’

Sierra didn’t spend much time in her dorm room after that day.

They got into a habit of wandering around campus complaining about how much they hated college; the people in it, the professors and how it wasn’t what they hoped it would be. They went out early in the mornings to buy coffee they couldn’t afford and watch people stagger home in drunken hazes. When everyone else was asleep, the two sat on benches and stared at the historic buildings under the illumination of the street lanterns. The shadows that fell over the buildings gave them wrinkled, scowling faces. It creeped them out, but in a way they enjoyed. The older lights cast a bright blue glow over the girls, making everything look surreal and dreamlike. Everything felt too good to be true. There was a natural intimacy between them that they never understood or addressed. Clarisse told people that they were best friends. But Sierra knew best friends didn’t kiss each other.

 

The whistling of baristas steaming milk startles Sierra as she focuses back on Clarisse.

‘I’m sorry.’ She shakes her head. ‘I spaced out for a second.’

‘It’s okay. I asked you what you were drinking.’ Clarisse says with a relaxed smile.

‘Oh. A caramel oat milk latte.’ Sierra laughs a little. ‘Don’t look at me like that. It looked fun on the menu.’

‘It’s just that. Coffee isn’t meant to be so sweet. That’s not the way it was intended.’ Clarisse folds her arms.

‘Maybe not.’ Sierra shrugs her shoulders. ‘But it isn’t unnatural. Just different. There’s nothing wrong with craving something sweet.’

Clarisse looks at her with confusion for a moment as she shifts in her chair. Eventually the expression fades away and melts into a smile that doesn’t quite meet her eyes. She changes the subject.

‘I think I’m going to take Simon to the Christmas markets. You know the ones in Cambria, near the sea. Gotta plan all these special things as it’s his first Christmas you know? And Jacob will be busy with his new job so.’

Sierra does know the markets Clarisse is talking about. They were meant to go to them sophomore year of college. Sierra planned a lot of things for them to do, but none of them ever ended up happening after that December. Sometime after that December, all the precious things that she once held onto so tightly became clutter on that table in the bedroom of her mind.

She remembers driving hours to Clarisse’s house to surprise her for Christmas. She remembers knocking on the door. She remembers a tall blonde man opening the door. Jacob. She remembers having to stop several times on the drive home because her vision was too blurred with tears to focus on the road. She’d always heard heartbreak was painful, but she thought it was exaggerated to make songs and movies more dramatic. She remembers realising she was wrong.

But on that New Year’s Eve, when she declined all invitations to sit in the living room and watch the fireplace crackle alone, the doorbell rang and there Clarisse was. Mascara was smudged around her eyes, and she wore a long, frilly dress that she normally wouldn’t be caught dead wearing. She was struggling to speak.

‘They don’t… My family, they don- I’m sorry. I can’t do this,’ Clarisse said.

Something clicked within Sierra. She always thought Clarisse was the most fearless person she had ever met. But it struck her then that Clarisse was afraid of people, much more than Sierra was. Although Sierra’s heart hurt more than before, she pulled her tightly into an embrace.

‘I understand, it’s okay,’ she whispered until the muffled sobbing faded. But it didn’t feel okay at all. She couldn’t shake the picture of them in a few years that cascaded into her head.

All they would ever be is two strangers in a café.

Hannah is a Creative Writing and Law student at QUT. She enjoys unravelling the human experience in all its wonderful and frustrating complexity through fiction and poetry.

SaBelle Pobjoy-Sherriff is a third year visual arts student minoring in film. Her art practice has an in depth focus on ideas of narrative and mythology, and tends to border on the obscure. She utilises illustration and sculpture to create vibrant worlds and creatures. You can find more on her Instagram @SaBelleeee.