It was my second year in Bartlett's School for Business, and I was doing a great job of drinking my way out of the boredom I had with the subject. It wasn't that I didn't have a head for business. I had a great head for business. My mom knew I had a great head for business, and my mom wanted me to get a degree. So I thought: 'Well, Hal, why the hell not.' Back then, a degree in Finance could really get you places.
The school was located someplace in the wilds of New Jersey, in a mid-sized town built around four really steep hills and a campus that tried its best to look like Oxford. It was built during that period when all colleges wanted to look like Oxford. I didn't know if they'd gotten it right or not, but I hated it. I hated its big arches and its stone walls. I hated the way the ivy crawled in through the windows in the school library. Most of all, I hated the 200 steps it took to get to campus. The 100 more steps it took to get to the library. And the 50 extra it took to get to the administration building, which was what had kept me from changing my major: even a year in, after I'd failed my Corp Law course, signed up to do it again in the fall, and spent my first night back at school hanging out over my windowsill staring a little too pointedly at the sidewalk below. Only one floor up; but what if I landed the wrong way?
The next morning I poured out the rest of the vodka, tossed the cherry Kool-Aid, and told myself I was going to march up to the admin building, change my major, and keep my windows locked for the rest of the quarter. What I did was go to the café in the center of town. As far as university towns went, Bartlett's had a decent enough life to it. It was located in the arm pit of the hills and, protected from the harsher conditions that beset the wilds of New Jersey, some district admin had put some work into it. It had a town green, and a row of restaurants priced conveniently towards 18-year-olds who carried their parents' wallets. If you walked two streets down from that, you came to a row of imported cherry trees and rattier restaurants. These ones were priced conveniently towards the rest of the people who lived in a university town. Stelle's Café was located on the corner of Grove and Fifth, the last of this auspicious row.
Stelle's was a mediocre café that wished it was the Starbucks on the green. Maybe, in another life, it had been the Starbucks on the green. It boasted teas with lots of flavored syrup in them, and muffins with lots of fruit. The year I started it had just begun selling salads with nuts. They were over-priced at six bucks a pop, but they were still a dollar cheaper than at Starbucks, and the place had free Wi-Fi, so the Lit majors loved it. It was September and the second week of classes. I slunk in on a Sunday morning, ten o'clock. The place was empty, and I was hungover. I ordered a strong coffee that tasted like socks and settled myself in a corner.
Stelle's had two levels. At least, it claimed it had two levels. What it really had was five or six steps that led up to the counter and a big old fashioned oak rail that separated a row of top seating from the rest of the floor. I'd located myself directly under the rail, wedged up against a brick wall decorated with the bright, strange prints that'd come from the IKEA in the next town over. I opened my laptop and stared at its empty, shiny screen. The place was empty, save for me, a couple of the just-arriving baristas, a Women's Studies major snoring in another corner, and the girl that walked in the door five minutes after I arrived. I wouldn't have looked up if she hadn't been whistling. I hated people who whistled. I hated morning people. I hated morning people who whistled. I wanted her to know that I hated her, that I hated the bands she liked, that me and my laptop had a lot of important nothing to be doing, and that she should be ashamed.
I had the bad luck to catch her eye the moment I looked up. "Morning," she said, smiling. I grunted and looked down again.
The first look I got at her pissed me off. It was the second week of September and she was still dressed for summer. Not just any summer either, she was dressed for a hipster summer. A crop top she'd sewn herself hung over a set of tight, tight jeans with flower applique sewn onto the butt. Not that I was staring at her butt, but she made sure it was hard to miss as she leaned over the counter to make her order. She was short, and she put her elbows on the counter, and dangled off of it. Her hair was piled on her head in a series of braids that she'd tied off at the top with four very bright ribbons. Poetry major, if I had to guess. Never kept a summer job. Named her cats things like 'Mr. Rogers'.
There were twenty-eight chairs at Stelle's. Sixteen on the bottom and twelve on the top. The sun was shining through the windows, which would've made the view of the town bright and not so bad. In a more hopeful mood I would have taken a window seat. The Hipster Summer walked down the steps and sat in the seat next to me. I turned my laptop away from her and pretended I was working.
"Dark chocolate espresso Pomone with ice," she said.
"What?" I said. It sounded like some kind of perfume.
She put the drink on the edge of my table. "Here," she said, with a matter of fact-ness that didn't match the purple and pink flowers that dangled from her ears. "You look like you could use it. Well, okay, no. That's a lie. You look like you could use a drink drink, but that's the probably the last thing you want to think about right now. I never believed in that phrase. What was it? 'Hair of the Dog...'"
"I don't drink," I said, staring at her over the top of my laptop. I'd hunched behind it hoping she wouldn't see me.
She raised one eyebrow at me. It was a strong, dark eyebrow. "You don't say."
"As of today, I don't drink," I said.
The corner of her lip turned up. "That sounds more like it. No one these days can really hold it. You look like death warmed over."
"I feel it," I said.
"Really?" she said with great interest.
"You can keep your drink," I said. "I'm seeing someone."
Technically I hadn't broken up with Caroline back home, although we hadn't talked in months and I knew she was seeing Rob. Hipster Summer's second eyebrow came up to join the first. She wasn't my type. She probably read a lot of Kurt Vonnegut. When she'd walked in, I'd pegged her for a freshman, but now if I had to guess? Sophomore.
"Oh, hey, so am I," she said, sitting across from me. She slid the drink against my hand. It was cold, and I jerked back from it. "Funny how that works. Don't flatter yourself. Just you're a little young to be joining the walking dead. Drink it. It'll perk you up."
"Y'don't take food in the underworld," I said.
I don't know why I said it. It annoyed me, the fact she'd call me 'young' when she couldn't have been older than a junior. It reminded me of my mother, and I wasn't looking forward to calling her. Her face did a weird thing then. She stared at me for a moment, head cocked to one side as though she hadn't heard me right. Then, slowly the crooked smile on her face became one big grin. Her eyes lit up, she hooked one arm around the back of her chair, and she laughed.
"So they do teach you people some things in those classes," she said. "What are you, a Classics major?"
"Finance," I said. I called up a file on my laptop and began to type. I hoped that would put her off.
But she just shook out her braids and peered at me. "Finance in Hellenistic studies?"
"I took an elective. God." I put my hands on the table and stared. "Look. I'm kind of busy. Do I know you? Did I like, meet you last night or something? Because I'll tell you something: I was. Drunk. Off. My. Goddamn. Ass. So if we somehow became best friends in the two seconds I was in the common area and you were visiting with whichever one of my roommates invited you, I'll tell you what: I have no idea who the hell you are, so if you'd like to refresh me, that'd be a big help. If you'd let me do my work, that'd be a bigger help."
She rested her chin on her knuckles. "Your work looks an awful lot like the Windows shut down screen."
I looked back. My hand had come down on the keyboard. "Shit," I said, as my elbow bumped my own coffee. It went over in a steaming mess, all over my seat and my lap. "Shit!" I said again, grabbing at the napkins. She pushed more at me, as I scooped the laptop out of harm's way bent over, trying my best to save the one clean pair of khaki's I had left.
She watched me dab at my seat. "Need any help?"
"No," I snapped, banging my head on the table as I reached for more napkins. "Ow. I. I'm fine. I'm just fine." I stayed there, for a minute or two. After a minute, I heard the other chair squeak.
"If you say so," she said. "You can call me Stephanie, by the way. And no, we haven't met. I just thought you could use some company."
"No thanks," I said. I didn't look up.
"Everyone could use some company," she said.
I hauled myself up over the table at that. I wanted to tell her she was crazy, and that I'd call the campus cops if she got all weird on me. But she'd walked out by the time I'd figured out how to get my head back over the table. The only evidence she'd ever been there was the weird fruity monstrosity she'd left for me, and the bottom half of one of her winking earrings. It must have come off while she'd been helping me mop the table. I picked it up and stared at it. I felt more annoyed than ever before, and I'd lost my coffee to boot. So I sat nursing an espresso Pomone, whatever the heck that was, and considered walking the 350 steps it would take to get to the admin building, to tell them I was wouldn't be coming back after the Fall session.
Instead I asked the barista what the heck an espresso Pomone even was.
"It's this weird chocolate caffeine pomegranate drink," she said. "Sorry, but we don't serve that. You can get it at the grocery though. They sell them in these little round bottles. They're really cute."
I spent the rest of the morning reading about the undead on various wiki sites. No real reason, it was just on the brain. The next morning I slept through my alarm. I woke up ten minutes before my next class and threw on my clothes, but by the time I got out of my apartment and stared up the 200 winding stairs that led to my assigned lecture hall, I changed my mind. I went back to Stelle's Café I hadn't gotten attached to the place: the coffee had been crap for what it was, but I wondered if it would be busier on a Monday morning. It wasn't. At 9:15 in the morning the people who had morning classes were in their classes, the people who had work were at work, and the people who had neither were asleep. One or two men and women in button ups and pressed pants were getting armfuls of coffee and muffins. I got my coffee and peered over the rail.
She sat in my old corner, with her feet up on the table. She had a strange, hourglass shaped bottle resting next to her as she read from a battered looking Penguin's Classic she balanced on one of her bent knees. I came up and stuck my hand out.
"You dropped this."
She looked up and saw the remains of her earring. She wore different earrings today. These ones were made of beads that looked like little red and yellow maple leaves. They jangled as she turned her head.
"Oh," she said. "I'd wondered where that went. Thank you. Glad you're still with us."
"Why wouldn't I be?"
"You didn't seem long for this world," she said.
That annoyed me. "I can handle a hangover," I said. She hadn't taken the earring back. I held it out again.
"You want it?"
"You can keep it," she said. "I've got a million like it. My mother gives them to me every birthday. They're nice, but I can't wear them all."
"What am I going to do with this?"
She thought about it for a second and took the piece out of my hand. Her nails were painted pink, with little daisies on them. They didn't go with her new earrings at all. "You think I'm crazy," she said. "Or you think I'm interested in going out with you. I can promise you it's not the second, and I think the first's very objective, don't you? I mean, you didn't look too good yourself yesterday. All half-dressed and filthy."
"...Do my laundry," I said. I don't know why I felt like I had to argue with her.
"And looking like you were about to jump in front of traffic. I'm sorry, but you did." She pocketed the earring and held the book out to me, "It struck me that would have been a real waste. Especially for someone who actually takes a class in Classical Literature as an elective. There aren't many of you left in this world. Especially around here. I thought I ought to make sure one of them stuck around. Call it a vanity thing."
I eyed the book. "Ovid's Roman."
She smiled. When I didn't move towards it she rested it back on her knee. "And you know that just from the back cover."
"You're talking like you saved my life somehow."
"Probably not," she admitted.
"And they don't make those Pomone things here," I added.
"Really? They always have it when I order," she lied. I was sure she lied. I was sure she was crazy as day, but there was something so calm about the way she leaned back in the chair I'd been sitting in the other day I couldn't help but return the favor by sitting across from her and pushing my coffee at her.
"This one's yours," I said. She must have been a senior. I'd never seen her before, so that meant she probably frequented the humanities buildings. "You're a Lit major, right?"
"Not a bad guess," she said. "I would have been, if I'd been a student here. I graduated a while back."
That surprised me. I'd guessed she was older than she looked, but I'd figured maybe one or two years ahead of me. I'd figured she was one of my roommate Josh's stoner friends, trying to screw with me. Josh was pissed I'd asked him to change rooms that night. His window had a fire escape.
"You live here?"
She laughed at the idea. "No. I'm just here for the spring."
"It's September," I said.
"I know," she said. "I stayed awhile. Family, you know? All sorts of obligations."
I thought about my mom and all my student loans, and I didn't say anything more about that. "Well, enjoy your coffee," I said.
I didn't go back to Stelle's for about a week. In that week, I started going back to classes, but I kept my windows locked and stayed in the common room for as long as I could before bed. My roommates started to complain that I was sleeping on the couch in the common room, when they wanted to watch TV. One of them kicked me awake on Saturday morning, so I thought 'what the hell, if I'm going to deal with lunatics, at least a manic pixie dream girl chick's not going to kick me in the ribs'. I wasn't one hundred percent on that, but I wanted to see if she really was a crazy regular.
She wasn't there. But a whole lot of other people were. Stelle's, it looked like, got really busy on Saturdays. People were ordering teas, and biscuits, and those weird salads with the dried cranberries in them. I waited for three 'Cranberry and Crumbs Crunch's and two 'Great Pumpkin Latte with a Twist's before they got to me.
"Dark chocolate espresso Pomone with ice," I said.
"What?" asked the barista.
"Small coffee," I said.
There was no room to sit inside, even in my dark corner, so I left. Outside it was a grey day on Grove and Fifth, and it looked even greyer in the green. It was cold enough that people were wearing their coats and old ladies had dressed their little dogs. It was the end of September and the trees were starting to show their colors, but even they looked grey under the overcast skies and the four hills of Bartlett. People said the view of the town from the hills was charming. I thought it all looked uglier from the second floor.
"I hate this school," I said. It was the first time I'd had the guts to say it out loud, where it was safe, and windy, and no one could hear.
"Then leave," said Stephanie, "or at least change your major."
It didn't surprise me to see her there. She was sitting on the park bench, wearing the same homemade blouse, or something similar. She had one knee up against her chest and her arms wrapped around it. She wore a blazer jacket wrapped around her shoulders. It didn't look like the rest of what she wore. It looked like something that came from a department store.
I sat down next to her. I was resigned, at that point, to being stalked by a crazy lady. Never mind that she could have picked any one of the empty benches on the north side of the green, and she had to have come the other way. "Easier said than done," I said. "I'm not here 'cause I want to be."
"I know how that is," she said, looking up at the trees.
"I didn't really want to do anything," I said. "Just. I don't know. If I have to do something, I may as well do something I'm good at."
"You're a business major," she said. I stared at her. "I don't suppose you'd believe me if I said it's a lucky guess? No? Well, that's fine. I know people like you. I've seen a lot of people like you. You're under a lot of pressure to be a success and you're only doing it to get other people off your back. My husband works with people like you. They get really far in a short amount of time and then they just burn out because deep down all of them really did want something, they just didn't think hard enough to figure out what it was. So they thought: I might as well do what other people want, and a little part of themselves die, every day after that, until. Well."
"They burn out and quit their jobs?"
"Or they toss themselves out a window," she said. I dug my hands into my jeans. I didn't want her to know I'd stopped breathing, but I didn't have much to worry about. She wasn't looking.
"You're married?" I asked instead. I found it hard to believe. My older sister Jess was engaged, but the wedding was scheduled in six months and I hadn't seen Jess since the last summer break. And she was more than six years older than me.
Stephanie tipped her head over the back of the bench and smiled. "Yes," she said, and her eyes were brighter than the whole rest of the green, suddenly.
"What's he do?"
"Crunches numbers," she said. "Moves money. Moves the world. He can't say much about it."
"Government?" I guessed.
"Something like that," she said. "That's part of why I'm here. My mom can't stand him. She hates what he does. She hates that I help him do what he does. And she always needs help in the spring, when her job gets busy. I was part of a family business, you see. Before I got married. After I left I couldn't do it full-time anymore."
"Because your mom hates the guy you married?"
"That's part of it," she shrugged. "It's complicated. I didn't know what I wanted for a long time either, so I did what my mother wanted. You know how that is."
"Not a bit," I said, and stood up. I didn't want to talk about this anymore. I didn't need her life story, and I wasn't going to give her mine. Still, I looked over at her as I picked up my bags. "You're not cold?"
She seemed confused by the question, until she looked down at herself. "Oh," she said, pulling her blazer over her shoulders. Far from uncomfortable, she seemed pleased at the reminder, flicking the collar fondly.
"Yes, I guess it is getting cold. I don't think about it around this time. I guess it will be winter soon. Do you like winter?"
"Snow's nice, I guess," I said. And then, because I felt like someone should say it, I said: "That's fucked up, you know, living away from the guy you're with just because your mom doesn't like him. Your mom's asking too much."
"She used to ask for more," said Stephanie, with a tired, fond look in her eyes. "It works, what I have these days. I come see her because I love her. And I go back to my husband because I want to. Anyway it's kinda fucked up, making yourself a zombie over something that'll only make someone else happy, isn't it?"
"I'm just doing what I gotta," I said.
"Right," she said, but she didn't sound convinced at all. "Don't take food from the dead. Unless you know exactly what it is. Unless you're taking it because you really wanna live."
That was it for me. I was weirded out, and not in a good way. Especially the way she kept looking at me.
"That doesn't make sense."
"No," she laughed, standing. "I guess not. Look, if you're not completely scared of me at this point, mind telling me your name? I mean, you don't have to. But I'd like to know."
"Hal," I said, because I wanted her off my back.
"Hal," she said. I gave an awkward wave and I left. She didn't move to follow me. She just re-crossed her legs and stared up at the changing leaves. I didn't look back as I crossed the green. I didn't want to know if she'd still be there, looking up at the leaves. I knew she would be. And that shouldn't have bothered me so much, but somehow it did.
The second week of October I went back to Stelle's. I'd stayed clear for a while. I stuck to my room. I went to classes. I wrote essays. I called my mom. She asked a lot about classes, how I was doing, what my grades were like. I told her I was doing better this term, that I was back on track, and that I was doing great. I'd moved my dresser in front of my window, something that my roommates kept telling me would get us failed out of our next fire inspection, but I hadn't had the heart to move it back. A few days after I turned in my second paper for my second time doing Corp Law I went back to Stelle's. It was different: the fall menu was up, and they'd changed all the prints. They were black and orange, and red and gold. Fall colors. Halloween colors. They didn't know which to go with. It was a really weird, dumpy place.
But it was busy when I walked in. It made good business, catering to the people who didn't want to be in Starbucks and the people who didn't want to see their classmates. It was early enough that some of the working people were still in. A tall man in a suit was just ordering a large, black coffee. The woman behind him, a slick, sharp thing in a suit, leaned over as he stepped aside. She combed a lock of her shiny, flat hair over her ear and smiled at the barista.
"Dark chocolate espresso Pomone with ice," she said.
I froze. The barista gave her a strange look. "Uh, Miss," he said, because she looked important and he ought to be polite. "We don't carry anything like that."
"Yes you do," said the man next to her. He had a deep, resonant voice, one that sent the rest of the line into a hush. Even the coffee machines went quiet for him. "It's there on the menu. After your Fall special."
The barista looked over his shoulder, and blinked. "Oh. Huh. Guess that must be new. Sorry about that," he said to the woman. He swiped her card. She put a few bills into the tip jar. He slid her drink to her. She turned in the line.
"Here," she said to me, and I didn't say anything right away. It was Stephanie. There was no doubt about it. The voice — and the drink order — was the same, but everything else was different. She wore a dark pantsuit with a white button up shirt. She'd cut out her braids, and wore her hair in a sleek bob around a face that was no less round but somehow infinitely more cool and controlled. "I think you need this more than I do."
"Stephanie?" I said.
"Hello Hal," she said. Her voice had changed too, I realized. It sounded fuller, and more distant. Beside her, the man with the black coffee came to stand just over her shoulder. He was tall, at least a head taller than her, but somehow when they'd stood in line together, I'd thought they were the same height.
"Hadrian?" That wasn't what she actually called him, but my brain didn't want to process what she'd actually called him. He was as much a Hadrian as she was a Stephanie. She tilted her head in my general direction, with a slashing motion of her hand, the kind that wouldn't have looked out of place at a company presentation. "This is Hal. I told you about him."
"You did," rumbled her husband. I wish I could say more about how he looked, but all I can remember is that he wore a very expensive suit and I did not want to look him in the eye. He held out his hand. I shook it. His hands were icy to the touch. I told myself it was the drink he was holding, but he had that in his left hand, and anyway it was hot. "It is a pleasure to meet you, Hal. My wife has told me a great deal about you. I wish you well for your future. We will see each other again, I imagine. I'll be curious to see how soon."
"Same," I managed, and that was when Stephanie took my hand from him. I was relieved. It was so cold, I didn't think I could do it on my own.
Her eyes were bright, and sharp, and probably crazy. I felt relieved by them. It really was her. "It really was nice to speak with you," she said. "It's not often I get to be so honest with people. You'll take care of yourself, won't you?"
"I'll... try," I said. I really didn't know whether I should be making promises. "You'll be around next summer, right?"
"Spring," corrected Stephanie. "And I'll be around, but maybe not here. It's all very relative, where I wind up. Tell me, Hal. You said you like it when it snows. Did you mean that?"
"Yeah," I said. It was a weird question, but I had a feeling I wouldn't be seeing her again, and anyway her husband was really tall. "I do."
"Good," she said. "I do too."
And at this she hooked her arm very elegantly around her husband's, gave a small wave like the Queen of England, and left so quietly the bell didn't even ring. I stood there for a while holding my drink. Behind me people bought coffees and muffins and salads and Great Pumpkin Lattes (with a twist). I drank my Pomone Espresso. It tasted sour and bitter at the same time, and it jolted me right down to my stomach, and hit me in all those places I'd been trying not to think about since my first night back.
"Pomegranate," I said. If anyone thought I was crazy, I didn't care.
That was the day I walked 350 steps to change my major. A degree in Classical Literature wasn't going to pay any bills, but I figured, why not. If I was going to be sticking around, I might as well be doing something a little more interesting than the average guy.
The next day was the first snow of the season. It blanked the green and all the apartments in Bartlett. It was early, and unseasonable, and half of the classes were cancelled because of the roads, but I didn't really mind that much. It had its good points, after all.