I don’t know why I brought the bottle of beer into the cafe, I don’t know why I do anything anymore. I mean, in my mind the concept made sense but these days the damned thing can’t be trusted. Too often these days my mind drifts down dark pathways.
Yesterday was my seven year wedding anniversary. Hip hip hooray for me and my beloved. She’s in Spain, of course, for work. Her job takes her all over the world, often for weeks at a time. But I’d made my peace with her travel schedule ages ago. It’s just that…
…she said the gig was in Madrid but her credit card booked a hotel in New York. Same hotel as last month. And the month before. I’m sure there’s a reasonable explanation. Let’s get some fucking breakfast.
“Morning,” the waitress said. Her greeting was genuine.
“Morning,” I replied. Mine was on autopilot.
“I’m Roxy, I’ll be your server today. Table for one?”
“Yes please. Do you have french toast?”
“Ah, a man that knows what he wants. As a matter of fact, we do have french toast and it’s so good it’s a sin!”
She put a little extra spin on the “sin” and I looked at her, this time without the cataracts of fog I’d come in with. She smiled, knowing she’d grabbed my attention. Her smile was lovely. More of a smirk, though. She knew what she was doing. I flushed a bit.
“Sorry. Roxy? It’s just- nevermind. That sounds amazing. I’ll have the french toast, please. And a coffee.”
She showed me my table then went to inform the cook. I sat down and took in my surroundings. The Crabapple Cafe was a highly regarded local haunt with a small but well curated tap list (not that I’d be needing it) and delicious food. It was Thursday morning so I didn’t expect too much traffic. Sure enough, two separate couples sat in secluded ceremony on opposite corners of the cafe. Roxy came and poured my coffee (less smirk, more smile) then attended the other patrons. I poured half the small jug of cream into my my cup and stirred absently.
New York. I fucking hate New York. Don’t I? Do I? Do I even care anymore? We had some good years. Not seven, obviously, but some. I unzipped the top of my Dakine pack and rummaged it’s contents. Camera? Check. 650ml Bottle of Coal Harbour’s Limited Release? Check. Two items accounted for. I do hate New York. I gave my head a shake (spilling some of my over-creamed coffee) and closed my eyes as the fog rolled back in.
But not for long. This time it wasn’t a smile but a smell that pulled me from my funereal mood. Vanilla, maple syrup, cinnamon, and… apple? I opened my eyes and confirmed my suspicions. A caramelized apple & pecan sauce! Systems beyond my control ratcheted up the output of my salivary glands and I realized, not for the first time, what a base creature I was; so easily distracted by carnal appetites. It was going to be difficult not wolfing down breakfast before I got the shot.
“This smells delicious, thank you.”
“You’re welcome. Just let me know if you need anything else.”
She headed back to the bar as I hastily removed the condiments from the table. I centred the plate then took the bottle out of my pack. Roxy must’ve sensed something out of the ordinary. Or perhaps I clamoured a little louder than the average eater, because she stopped midway and turned to face me. I didn’t notice as I was bent over, removing my camera from its case.
“Sir! You can’t-” Roxy paused, grasping for words to describe what she thought was going on.
She settled on, “You can’t bring your own alcohol in here.”
And then, “You can’t drink outside alcohol in the restaurant.”
And finished with, “It’s ten o’clock, for Christ’s sake!”
“Oh God,” I said. “I’m so sorry! It’s not what you think.” I rummaged for one of the business cards lining the bottom of my pack. I quickly handed one to her and Roxy read it before she was really ready to process the information.
“It’s okay,” I said. “I’m a professional.”
“Professional what? Alcoholic?”
“Beer blogger,” I said.
She read my business card again and I looked behind me to assess the damage. The two couples quickly (if falsely) resumed their clandestine conversations: the show may not be over but they were far too polite to gawk openly.
“I’m sorry, I should have told you what I was doing ahead of time. I just wanted to take a photo of the beer alongside some french toast. I wasn’t going to open it. I’m not an alcoholic. At least, I don’t think I am. Hell, maybe I am. This is weird. I’m so sorry.”
“Shove a bum,” she said. And before I could say ‘what?’ she sat beside me and skooched me over with her hip. I tried to think of something witty to say.
“Did you like my It’s okay, I’m a professional line?”
“I did not,” she replied. But her tone changed. Less incredulous more curious. “Does that ever work for you?”
“To be honest, I’ve never really used it before. I just thought it would be a funny thing to say.”
“Do you still think that?” Her smirk returned.
I played the chastened child and bowed my head. “No.” I said.
She playfully bumped me with her shoulder. “I’m the one who should apologize,” she said. “Perhaps I overreacted, Malcolm”
“How do you know my name?” I asked.
“You gave me your card,” she said. “You’re not that bright, are you?”
Chastened child pose. “Nope.”
“Well take your pictures then eat your breakfast. It really is the best french toast you’re gonna find.”
Roxy rose. She grabbed the carafe from the counter and headed for the other patrons, who’d lost interest in me as soon as it was clear I wasn’t being kicked out. I removed the lens cap and started sheepishly snapping pics.
Once the business was done I put my camera away and got down to business. True to Roxy’s proclamation, the french toast was incredible. The whipped cream had begun to melt but its fading constitution did nothing to diminish the meal and I heartily dug in.
After awhile, Roxy came and sat across from me. Aware that I was in no position to protest (how could I? My mouth was full) she plucked the beer from table and began examining the bottle. I swallowed the food that I chewed.
“Imperial Stout?” she asked.
“Stout is the style,” I replied. “Dark and roasty. ‘Imperial’ means that it’s a strong stout. That one’s 9% alcohol by volume.”
She read the label aloud. “Bourbon barrel blend aged on maple and vanilla brewed with lactose, Demerara sugar and cinnamon.” She looked at me earnestly, “I didn’t know they made beer like this.”
“Not many breweries do. But Coal Harbour’s got some game and pleasantly push the envelope.”
“You have a nice turn of phrase,” she said. “How are you at photography?”
“Not great,” I said. “Maybe it’s a little on the nose but- you can see why I wanted to photograph this beer, with all its french-toasty goodness, beside some actual french toast. Hopefully one of the twenty-odd shots I took will turn out.”
“So are you?” she said.
“What?” I said
“A professional?” she said. “I mean, anybody can have a bunch of business cards printed up.”
I smiled. Roxy had moxy and she wore it well. “I’m a professional electrician. Beer-blogging is my side-hustle. I get paid for the odd article, and every now and then some beer finds its way into my fridge, but mostly I do it because it’s fun.”
“Plus there’s the side benefit of meeting women in cafe’s,” she said, smiling and returning her attention to the bottle.
“That too,” I said. It was so nice talking to someone of the opposite sex who wasn’t my cheating wife. Wait, I don’t know that for sure. Yes, I do. Damn.
“Seven year anniversary,” she said.
My jaw dropped and a half-chewed piece of bread fell to the table. What the hell is going on, I thought. I swallowed and stammered, “How the hell do you know that?” It came out louder than it should have, but what the actual fuck was going on here?!? Is she a bloody mind-reader?
Roxy recoiled. “The beer! It says right here: 7th Anniversary. Coal Harbour Brewing. What the hell is wrong with you?”
She made to place the beer back on the table and get up but my hand met hers, our fingers accidentally touching as mine wrapped around the bottle.
“I am SO sorry,” I said. “I’m not myself today. I-” I wasn’t sure how to proceed. “I thought you meant my seven year anniversary.”
“How the hell would I know that?” she said.
“There’s no reason why you would. Only, it was yesterday. My seven year anniversary, that is. And I’m 85 percent certain my wife’s having an affair. And I’m 95 percent certain our marriage has run its course. And I’m one hundred percent certain I’ve made a complete ass of myself this morning. I’m so sorry, Roxy, truly I am. Let me pay for my meal so I can go home and figure out what the fuck I’m supposed to do next.”
Roxy only looked at me. Her hand still on the bottle, her fingers still touching mine.
“The seven year itch,” she said
“What?” I said.
“The Seven Year Itch,” she said again. “It’s an old movie starring Marilyn Monroe but it’s based on a psychological term that suggests happiness wanes around year seven of a marriage.”
“You-” I started.
“Minored in Psychology,” she finished. “But it’s not that esoteric a term. I’m surprised you haven’t heard it before, mister blogger guy.
I looked at her thru tear-blurred lenses. That lovely smirk. I took a breath in through my nose, noisily banishing back the mucus.
“I write about beer not hypothetical psychological declines in relationships.” That sounded stupid as soon as it came out of my mouth. Roxy’s hand left the bottle, but not unkindly.
She rose from the table and whispered, “Get your shit together, Malcolm.” Then she went to the till, presumably to get my bill. I placed the bottle back in my pack then took out my wallet, slowly twirling it in my hands as I willed the waterworks away.
When she returned my eyes were dry and I’d composed myself. For the most part. I handed her my credit card and said, “I got my shit together.”
She handed me the bill and the point-of-sale machine and leaned in. “No you haven’t. Not yet. But when you do, give me a call.”
I punched in my PIN then looked up, processing her words as the machine processed my card. Roxy saved me the trouble.
“I’d like to try that beer,” she said.
I smiled and the expression felt like the return of an old friend. I saw no ulterior motive in her smile, only curiosity and compassion. There were things I had to do. Messy, difficult things. And I wasn’t going to complicate them with a tryst because that wasn’t this. I handed her back the machine, minus my card.
“Roxy this Coal Harbour 7th Anniversary Stout-”
“Imperial Stout,” she corrected.
“Imperial Stout,” I continued. “Bourbon barrel blend aged on maple and vanilla, brewed with lactose-”
“Lactose?” Her question didn’t interrupt my flow so much as compliment it.
“Lactose. Milk sugar. Lends a sweet, silky mouthfeel to the beer. But don’t forget the Demerara sugar or the cinnamon!”
“How could I?” she deadpanned.
I continued. “Roxy this bottle has Roxy written all over it. One day, in the not too distant future, we’ll share this beer. You may not like it, but it’ll be an experience. And you may not like me,”
Her eyes sparkled. “But it’ll be an experience,” she said.
“That it will.”
There didn’t seem to be anything more to say, so I slung my pack over my shoulder and left. I’d be coming back to the Crabapple Cafe but not for a while. For now? For now I had an itch to take care of.
Author’s Note: as I stated in the title, this short story is a fiction. While I admit, the damned thing’s more than a little ‘meta’ (being that I, Malcolm Yates, am the protagonist) in real life I’ve been happily married to the love of my life for over a decade. There ain’t no itch to scratch here.