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Coffee and Cigarettes – A short story

Coffee and Cigarettes

A short story

By Alekhya T Kilambi

 Note: inspired by the film ‘Coffee and Cigarettes’ [2003]

 

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A man and a woman walk into a restaurant. It’s an outdoor café, with umbrellas casting a shade on each little table. She walks to a table and sits down, just as he is about to pull out the chair for her. His hands fall limply to his sides as she beats him to it. He lamely goes and sits across from her. He has a sheepish look on his face, which he tries to disguise as a casual smile.

“Why are you smiling like that?” she asks as she removes a pack of cigarettes from her pocket. He smiles even more casually, beginning to look a little silly “Oh, you know.”  He can’t quite think of a way to finish the sentence and he lets it go. She frowns at him. “No, not really.”

She sets the pack on the table, leans back and looks around, disinterestedly. “What do you get here?”

“Well…coffee, and other stuff like that. Sandwiches. Pastries. Nice place, isn’t it?” He smiles again. “The umbrellas…”

“Yeah, they’re a little pretentious. Like they’re trying to make us feel French or something.”

She sneers mildly and then glances at him and notices his face fall. She quickly adds “Nice place, otherwise, though…clean, isn’t it?”

“Clean, yeah, spic and span. Pleasant.”

“It reminds me of that place we used to go to back in college, the only fancy place we could afford. What was it called, The Cavern…or The Tavern, or something?”

He laughs happily, “The Caravan. Yeah, it is a bit like that, isn’t it.”

She nods and reaches for the pack and removes a cigarette. “So, coffee?”

“Yes, yes. Been a long, hard day. Need some caffeine!” He stretches leisurely in his chair and then looks around for a waiter, but he can’t spot anyone.

“He’s behind you.” She says drily, and signals to the waiter, “Excuse me? Yes, could we have two coffees please? One black, without sugar. The other with milk…and three spoons of sugar.” As an afterthought, she mutters “Thank you.”

She puts a cigarette in her mouth and digs in her pocket for a lighter. When she looks up, he has a flame ready. He’s reaching across the table waiting patiently to light her cigarette. She hesitates and then leans forward. The cigarette is lit. They both sit back.

“Thanks.”

He smiles obligingly. “So how was your day? Are you tired? Much work?”

She stares at him for a bit, expressionless.

“I woke up at one. Just in time for lunch. To find that there was no food at home. So I went to that takeaway place downstairs and got myself some noodles. Then I showered and watched some T.V. Then I came to meet you.” She grins. “Much work indeed.”

“But it’s a weekday. What the hell were you thinking?”

“I quit my job. So I wasn’t really thinking. Hah!”

“What?! Why? What happened?! Is everything ok?” He reaches out for her hand which is on the table. She pulls it away gently, just out of his reach. She takes a slow drag. “Will you calm down please, it’s not like I killed someone.”

“ Tell me what happened!”

“Oh, c’mon! I can’t be a receptionist all my life. It’s mentally draining. But then I don’t know what I can be all my life. I think I just need a break”

“But…but, you just sit there. I mean…I don’t mean it that way. But you don’t really, really have to do much, do you? I mean…you know.”

“What do you mean?” She laughs. “That’s precisely why it’s so exhausting. I’m so sick of doing just nothing.” She leans forward, elbows on the table. “I mean…you know” and laughs softly.

He looks mildly embarrassed. “Right, so what plans next then? Job interviews? How does your resume look?”

“Bare. But enough about me. I know you’re dying to tell me about your long, hard, tiring day’s ordeal.”

He laughs nervously. “Haha, you make it sound worse than it was. It wasn’t all that bad…I mean.” And he abruptly stops. She smiles, “Well tell me anyway, man.”

He sighs, leans back and launches into it. “You know, it was just a lot of meetings, a lot of clients, phonecalls, sealing deals etc. Had to go talk to the accountant. The amount of money coming in these days!” He laughs pompously, “It’s crazy how much people thrive on electronics. The more they have, the more they buy.”

She seems to be listening but her position slowly changes. Her chin rests on her hand as she nods absentmindedly everytime he pauses.

“The business, it’s very, you know, lucrative. It just never dies. Best way to get rich.” He pauses and then suddenly sits forward, “Which is of course not why I started working in that line. I mean, I was interested. Very much so. In electronics. And the way stuff works.” He finishes the outburst lamely, seeming disappointed with himself. His hands are very active as he speaks, gesturing to accompany every word.

She slides a little lower in her chair and looks around a few times. Then she looks back at him. He’s still talking.

“It’s both interesting and profitable,  is there a better job than that, now? You know…”

“I’m sorry, I really am, but, our coffees still haven’t come. I think I should go ask the waiter.”

“Oh, no, let me! I’ll go ask.” His voice is slightly high pitched with excitement. He smiles inanely and gets up and walks toward the counter.

When he comes back, she has her head in her hands. He prods her cautiously, almost as if she is an explosive that might burst if provoked too much. She starts out of her reverie, or as he thinks, sleep.

“It’ll be here in a minute, the guy said.” And he smiles brightly and sits down.

“It better be.” She mumbles to herself.

“Something wrong? Headache? Tired?”

She looks up sharply at him. “I’m not tired goddamnit! I haven’t done anything to be tired!”

He is a little taken aback by her tone, but accordingly chastised. “Of course, I’m sorry.”

She waves it away with her hand. “Nevermind. What was I saying?”

He straightens up. “Oh yes, I was saying. So, yes, the business is just blooming. And it’s an absolute pleasure to be in it! Oh and the people I meet, oh!”

The waiter brings their coffee. The black coffee for him and the milk coffee for her. They both reach for their cups.

“What about them?”

“Eh?”

“What about them, man? What about the people you meet?”

“Oh, you know, they’re all… not the most charming or flamboyant, or larger than life, or whatever…of course. All businessmen, you know. But they’re all, well, quite…engaging in their own way.”

She has her head in her hands again, but her eyes are looking up at him over her glasses.

“Do you sit at your desk and laugh at them after meetings?”

“Haha, you’re funny. Well I can’t really. They’re all distinguished, respectable men. All my colleagues.”

“No one’s looking at you. I don’t see why you can’t just have a quiet laugh to yourself.”

She’s now sitting up, straight and looking right at him.

He looks down, avoiding her eyes. Then suddenly he looks up at her.

“Well, you know why I don’t laugh at them? Because I don’t think they’re a goddamn joke!” And he falls silent as if that one brief outburst has sapped all his energy.

She sits back, smiling and takes a sip of her coffee. “Now that’s the first interesting thing you’ve said all evening.”

He looks confused, and slightly affronted. He folds his arms indignantly. “All right then, I’ll stop talking.” He thinks a moment. “For a bit.”

“That would be nice, thank you.” Suddenly, “Do you know what I want to do?”

“No, I’m not psychic.” He looks vaguely comical as he sulks. Like a little boy refused a toy.

“Ah, what wit. I’ve always admired your beautiful comebacks.” She winks at him good naturedly. “Anyway, what I want to do is, I want to come join your office, and attend meetings with you and then after the meetings, come sit in your cabin and snigger at all those phonies with you. Hah! What do you think?”

He smiles gently, completely forgetting his sulkiness and is silent for a minute. She watches him expectantly. He keeps looking at her.

“Do you really want to work with me?”

“Yes! I’m sure they could do with a better advertising agent than that Tina. I don’t even think that’s her real name.” She giggles softly.

He downs his remaining coffee in one gulp and stands up, grinning widely. “Well, let’s go work on your resume then. Bare as it is. I’ll just go pay the bill.”

“Right. I’ll come pay my half.”

“No, no. I mean I should pay. I mean…you know.”

“Oh, shutup!”

 

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