Her fancy latte sat opposite his Americano, untouched, and cooling by the second.
Texting him her order wasn’t just presumptuous, it was time consuming. How did she remember such a complicated drink? Should he wait for her to arrive before starting his own?
This should be a perfect reminder of what he no longer had to endure. The high maintenance demands. The endless waiting and excuses. The anticipation sinking in his stomach like a sugar cube dropped into the bottomless abyss of his black coffee.
The coffee shop door swung open and his heart jumped into his throat. It wasn’t her. He sat back down in his chair and tried to breathe away the butterflies.
He hated waiting like this, being at her beck and call. This wasn’t his life anymore. This realisation should fill him with some kind of relief but his fists remain clenched. How could she still have this much power over him? His mind wandered to why she could be late. Perhaps he missed being that reason.
He had done his best to erase her from his life completely, hiding her self-centered social media updates, and the endless memes she insisted on tagging her friends in. They were not even her real friends. All they did was complain about each other to anyone who would listen. He had warned her about this too often, perhaps that was one of the reasons she left. Even when she had messaged him he had not recognised the number, yet here he is, watching her skinny mocha decaf latte go cold once again.
Would she want to go back to his place? It was a probability. He only lived on the next street, in the house that they once owned together. He convinces himself he wouldn’t invite her back if she happened to be single now, but he had also changed his bed sheets before leaving the house.
The door swings open again to reveal a familiar face. She flushes pink when she sees him and it gives his ego a boost. Her hair, windswept across her forehead, and her tailored jacket covered in golden leaves. To him, she looks like she has walked straight off a movie set. She holds the door open politely for an elderly man before making her way over to his table.
“Hi James, so sorry I’m late, have you been waiting long?” asked Alison.
“Well, everyone’s concept of long differs, doesn’t it?”
“Oh, don’t start, James. You look really well!”
“Yes, it’s all this relaxing waiting I’ve been doing…” replied James, fighting the urge to roll his eyes.
“Hilarious, James. So how’s the design agency going?”
He was suddenly feeling very tired of the small talk. “What is it that you want, Alison?”
She takes a long sip of her latte, foam gathering on her top lip. It’s mesmerising.
“Well I don’t know, I thought we could catch up a bit? I don’t see many updates on your Facebook these days.”
“Yes, I’ve favoured the mysterious route. You should try it some time,” added James, but the look of sadness that swept over Alison’s face made him try a different tact. “So, what’s new with you? Still seeing the same guy you cheated on me with? Ben, was it?” Ah well, he tried.
“Actually, that’s what I wanted to talk to you about,” replied Alison. She took another long sip of her coffee to delay the difficult topic that she was about to raise. Her glass was already half empty, she was probably trying to drink it before her heart turned it to ice.
James tried to disguise that his interest was piqued by her reaction to the question about Ben, he had spent many drunken nights cursing Ben’s topless Instagram pictures. He hoped Ben had stamped all over her heart after a leg day at the gym, or at the very least that Alison had dumped him after discovering he had recurring erectile dysfunction.
“Ben and I are thinking of going travelling for a while. You know, Bali, Thailand, perhaps? Chase some better weather over the winter.”
“What? But you hate air travel?” he pointed out.
James’ mind flashed back to the moment he sprayed aftershave into his boxer shorts before leaving the house today. So many regrets.
“I know but, with Ben it’s different. He makes travelling sound exciting and he’s in a position to support me, financially, you know? All my flights will be covered. We’re only young once!”
“Great. Well, send me a postcard.”
Alison stared at her hands and lowered her voice a little. “James. I have a huge favour to ask of you.”
“Here it comes.”
“Don’t be like that. I think this could be a great opportunity for you!”
James had a feeling this would happen, that Alison wouldn’t only reject his kind nature for the second time, but would take complete advantage of it. He found it difficult to look her in the eye. What could he possibly have to offer her that Ben couldn’t?
“I don’t know if you’ve seen, but Ben and I rescued a puppy over the summer, a gorgeous Jack Russell called Laney? Ben’s dad rescued her from a skip behind his office and they didn’t have the space to keep her,” Alison took another long sip of coffee and James fought hard not to stare at her lips. “She absolutely loves running around our garden, but Ben works full time and we’ve just put the house on the market. It’s all getting a bit much.”
“Alison, no. Are you going to leave her behind while you go travelling?” James felt genuine disappointment towards her.
“I know, I know. The timing is terrible. And I feel so guilty.”
“Makes a change…”
“But she’s still so young and long flights wouldn’t suit her nature. That’s why I want to leave her with somebody who will have some real time to spend with her. Ideally somebody who works from home. From their own studio, maybe?”
“Yes?” she replied, grinning hopefully, in that persuasive way she often did.
“You can’t be serious.”
“Oh come on, James. You always said how much you loved your family dog growing up. I think Laney would really get along so well with you.”
James smiled at the Seinfeld reference, he used to call Alison ‘Laney’ in the beginning, when she would buzz up to his first apartment. “Cute name,” he chimed, hoping she would get the reference. “But honestly, no. I do have a life you know?”
“But imagine all the women you’ll attract at the park?” Alison winked, failing at making her offer flirtatious.
James swallowed the last mouthful of coffee from his cup and thought about how nice it would be to have some company at his office. Especially some company that would remind him of Alison.
“Is she toilet trained?”
“That’s a ‘no’. Does she sleep throughout the night?”
“Does she know the basic commands?”
He raised an eyebrow at the long pause before her answer. “James, I’m not a dog trainer you know, we stepped in when someone else dumped her in a bin!”
James sighed, knowing instantly that Alison would talk him into just about anything and could talk herself out of just about anything.
“Can I at least bring her round to meet you? She’ll convince you far better than I can!”
“Urgh. Fine. I’ll meet her, but I’m not making any promises.”
“Oh James, thank you so much. Honestly. I hope this can be something positive for you, as well as for me.”
James wasn’t convinced. “Yeah. Sure. Thanks.”
“I’ll drop her around to your place in a few hours?”
“Any idea of an exact time?” James asked, before thinking better of it. “You know what, never mind, that wouldn’t help. I’ll be there.”
“Thanks so much, James,” said Alison as she stood and fastened her coat. “And thank you for the coffee.”
“No problem. Give my love to Ben won’t you.” Sometimes James even made himself smile.
“Oh, you! See you later!”
James watched as Alison rushed to leave him behind again, speechless and gawking, like all the other men who had lost her before. He picked up her empty latte glass and smudged the lipstick stain with his thumb. He missed the old days, when he got to hold doors open for her and hold her hand in public. The jealous glances he would get were second to none.
Ben had won this round, giving her a life that James never could.
He tried to imagine life with a dog. He had never really been able to open up his heart to anyone or anything other than Alison. In fact, he had never really forged any true human friendships. James went to the cinema alone, he ate meals alone, he did practically everything alone. Maybe that’s why he was surprised to feel a twinge of excitement in his stomach when he visualised a puppy welcoming him home, looking up at him with big eyes and oversized feet. In a way, he guessed a puppy would have a lot in common with Alison, slowly destroying his house and emptying his wallet, all the while being too easy to forgive.
Maybe this could be a good thing. Maybe Alison was right. He put down her glass with a new found energy, an accidental force that made the lady behind him jump in her seat.
“Oops, sorry,” he mumbled, as he stood to grab his coat. Maybe he’d stop by the pet shop on his way home.