"Morning Coffee" by Kristine Brown

 

I clasped a black tumbler as the small of my back hit the metal grid of a poorly painted bench. I blinked, eyes dry that clear morning, a lash adding static to this lopsided television, my view of a dying neighborhood.

 

He lingered by the gas stations, navy tank top bleached by the edges of crushed rock. He would nod as I walked out of each local convenience store, creases of my elbows earnest hooks for milk and peanut butter apt to burst from dark plastic bags. I always preferred my peanut butter smooth, like his glistening tongue that kissed his own lips each time his chin pointed my way.

 

Ambling towards the bench, he released his hands from khaki pockets, their emptiness lightly unsettled like beer bottles spinning on the concrete ground. We were the only players, and already, I thought of the Chapstick forgotten on my bathroom counter, that it would serve as an accepted excuse.

 

He lowered himself, tongues of his sneakers unrolling like some red felt carpet used as a last resort at some Oscar-themed party held by the ladies who donated books to the library cellar. His arm reached, knuckles grazing my knit shoulder, fingers feebly callusing their tips across my peeling neck. The summer brought discomfort.

 

My limbs were too occupied, calves squeezing while my toes wriggled within secondhand heels, my arms weighed down by groceries and a messenger bag of research briefs due by the end of the day. His arm settled itself while I swallowed my thickening spit.

 

"Do you need a roommate?" He looked to the ground, then at the line spread wide across my sweating face. Scarlet filled the creases of my rag doll nose that never grew into the square friends used to spot me in roaring crowds. That day, I knew no friends, and lived with no one I remotely knew. But I continued my days quietly, cringing at the squelch of Kraft Easy Mac microwaved each night.

 

The small of my back pressed harder into the bench so bent at each corner. It held the weight of us both, though I knew another bag or even a seventh grader skipping school would bring the hot metal to an awkward wobble.

 

"No, I think I'm fine." I glanced at the man, keeping my eyes still, unrolling, though blinking like a flash flood warning found on the side of abandoned highways, amidst the brush in which I feared someone might find me asleep.

 

"You're too pretty to work, you know? Someone will pick you up." He squeezed the shoulder opposite the one he originally touched, his tongue failing to emulate a four-leaf clover.

 

"I'm saving up for law school. I'm going to leave the state." This was a mantra now, an answer provided to strangers who could truly care less and a reminder for me to swallow my Ambien at a proper dose instead of storing it for days that I only thought were bad.

 

"You didn't graduate from college." He leaned back, arm still around me as he examined the kneecaps my pencil skirt didn't conceal. "And who wears pantyhose this time of year?"

 

The small of my back parted with the grooves of the burdened bench, the barely sturdy, rusted landmark that signaled our bus would always arrive fifty-five minutes late. Even at seven in the morning, when the instant coffee splashing within the walls of my cheap tumbler stayed hot, branding my tongue. I shifted away, rejecting the man's clammy grip on my sharp-edged shoulder.

 

"What the hell's wrong with you?" He raised his eyebrows, lips curling.

 

"There's nothing I can explain to you." We continued to sit, several inches apart.

 

"You're such a pretty girl. And one day, you won't have to work. I promise." I saw him each day, by the trees shading the gas stations, packing back and forth between rival convenience stores that shared the same potholed street.

 

"I need to get to work. The bus isn't coming." I slung both my messenger bag and bundle of groceries over both of my shoulders, right hand firmly clasping the tumbler. Walking for thirty minutes suggested greater punctuality.

 

"I was just trying to be nice." He still lounged on the bench, legs spread to form an obtuse angle. Spots of white powdered everything he wore. "No need to act like some emancipated bitch."

 

I swallowed my spit again, turning the lid of my tumbler.

 

"No need to act like a presumptuous asshole." My knees shook as he whimpered, fingers pressed against his face ripened to peel from a second-degree burn.