People still meet the old-fashioned way. It was a startling realization, but sweet. Elliot-Anne smiled back at the boy across the café. She thought maybe he had been smiling at her earlier, but their masks had made it difficult to tell for certain. Now, though, seated many feet away, their mouths confirmed what their eyes suspected.
When she’d walked into Legend Espresso Bar, she could not have known that today, finally, they would talk. Of course, they were both regulars, both members of that small, over-caffeinated circle of customers known and named for their usual orders.
Elliot-Anne. Ginger Chai Latte. Writer of papers and poetry.
James. Americano and Blueberry Scone. Reader of Greek mythology.
Those were their full titles, bestowed upon them by the ever-friendly baristas of Legend, who quickly memorized their patrons’ orders and occupations. Today, Ellie-Anne de Chai Latte and James de Americano were called at once. James brought his book with him, perhaps out of habit or perhaps as a conversation piece.
“Good choices,” Ellie commented, nodding to both coffee and book. Her voice was muffled by her mask again, but her eyes were bright. “I read that translation in college.”
James lifted his mask slightly to take a sip as if sealing a pact. Ellie caught a glimpse of a smile as he replied, “Really?”
They chatted at the bar for a few minutes, eyes shining above their masks, mugs and saucers ratting precariously in their hands. At last, a book rather than an app had recommended a person. They talked over each other, often speaking in unison like a Greek chorus. Jinx. Neither minded, but instead grew more excited with each agreement. Jinx again. They lingered at the bar long after Ovid’s Metamorphosis ceased to be the main point of conversation.
At last, it became clear that James had to set down either book or scone or else suffer disaster, and he turned back to his table. Ellie returned to hers. They caught each other’s eyes once more as they peeled off their masks and attended to their respective drinks and projects. Not near or comfortable enough to join each other, they occasionally shouted across the café, like talkative children seated, to no avail, at opposite ends of a classroom.
In between these bursts of banter, they pretended to study their books as they really studied each other. He considered at her face as she worked, lips pursed in forced focus. She snuck glances at him in return—shyly, just as she sipped tentatively at her scalding chai—and mused at how at home he seemed in the ancient cosmos. In between these alternate looks, each worked with the determination of the watched, remaining long after the final dregs of their drinks had gone cold.
The other regulars began to pack up and wave their goodbyes to the staff. The preacher hard at work on a sermon and pour-over closed his concordance with a sigh. The blonde at the counter made one final pass at a dark-haired barista before abandoning her daily effort. Soon, Ellie and James were the only two left, sitting opposite each other and rationing their final, bitter sips.
Ellie penned a few more sentences. James read a few more verses. Both immediately forgot the words that ran through their minds. Both turned a page anyway. At last, a barista gently informed them that they would be closing soon. The two nodded, threw back their last unsatisfying droplets, and began to gather the books, portfolios, and pens with which they had transformed their tables into creative nests of words and ink. They did so methodically, as slowly as possible.
James stood to leave first. As he passed her table, Ellie knocked a pad of sticky notes to the floor. Not missing a beat, James knelt to retrieve them. She blushed behind her mask, but was pleased at the happy accident.
They met in the middle, forced into half bows by the fallen sticky notes. Another laugh, another hidden smile, another jinx as they both made the same witty comment.
People really do meet the old-fashioned way. Ellie-Anne was sure of it now as his hand brushed hers as he handed her the notes.
“Can I maybe get your number?”
She beamed. Even from behind her mask, that was clear. He plucked a pen from behind his ear just as she reached to draw one from behind hers. Jinx again. She accepted the pen and scribbled on a sticky note. With mock slyness, she slid the note across the table, face down.
James laughed and picked it up, hiding it in his hand as if it was a secret offer or correspondence. He read it. A flicker of concern crawled between his eyebrows.
“Oh,” he said.
“Oh?” Ellie frowned, still holding the pen.
“Well, you’re a One.”
“So am I.”
There was resignation in his voice. Ellie-Anne heard it in her own, too, as they bid each other a cordial farewell. Jinxed again.