“I have all these bags,” she says. “From all these places.”
We are sitting in the courtyard outside the Zenlight Coffee Shop, enjoying the morning sun and sipping our coffee drinks. Mine is an Americano, hot water and espresso. Hers is fancier, flavored syrup with espresso and lots of swirly whipped cream on top. The courtyard is set back from the street, bordered by planters filled with the burgeoning foliage that our subtropical climate nurtures everywhere. Through the open metal work of the round table top, I can see a small lizard clinging to one of the curved legs.
“Hello, little one,” I say politely.
“What?” Ellen looks confused until I point. “Oh. Cute. Anyway, these bags. It’s like a collection. You know how some people collect stuff from their travels. So with me it’s bags. One, at least one, from every place I’ve ever been.”
“That sounds interesting.” I’m not really sure it does but since this is only our second date, I’m willing to go with the flow. Especially with Ellen.
Ellen works at The Bookworm, a small bookstore owned by my good friend Dar. I’m in there quite often, partly because I like to visit with Dar and partly because I do read a lot and prefer to give her my business. Anyway, I walked through the door one day and headed back to the fiction section where I found Ellen stocking the shelves with new arrivals. I’ll admit it. I stood for a second to admire the view. Don’t know what it is but I’m a sucker for the shape of a woman’s back. Ellen’s was particularly nice, slender with the lovely curve of her spine accentuated by the snug fit of her shirt. Chill, I thought as I cleared my throat. She turned to look at me.
“Can I help you?” she asked.
“No, just browsing. I’m Joyce. You must be Dar’s new hire.”
“Yeah.” She smiled and held out her hand. “Started working here yesterday. I’m Ellen.”
That smile. May I simply say appealing? Her eyes were quite blue. Her hair, dark and shaggy, was also streaked with blue. She wore a fitted gray tee with a black cat and a gold moon on the front, slim cut jeans with high top blue athletic shoes. Long feathery earrings dangled from her ears. A small floral tattoo decorated her left wrist. I was smitten. I took her hand, smiled back, muttered something that sounded unintelligible to my own ears. She went back to work. I went looking for Dar at the front register.
“She seems nice.” I said, tilting my head in Ellen’s direction. I was going for nonchalant, though my inner vibration felt like it must surely be audible.
Dar laughed and rolled her eyes. She can, if you’ll forgive the expression, read me like a book. Sometimes I think she knows me too well. “Okay. She’s 32, single and I have no idea what her dating preferences might be. But really, I’m not sure she’s your type anyway. Not that I think my opinion will deter you.”
“Your opinion always matters to me, wise one.” I grinned. She was right though. It didn’t slow me down in the least. Some things you have to find out for yourself.
I courted Ellen for several weeks. Or what passes for courting these days — dropping into the store more often, chatting her up. At first I tried to talk about books. Seemed like a no-brainer when spending time in a bookstore. Turns out she really doesn’t read much and what she does read falls more into the popular romance genre with an occasional vampire thrown in. She does like music though most of her favorites were as unfamiliar to me as mine were to her. We found common ground in dogs and food. Rescue dogs good. Mexican food good. Enough to go on with. I asked her out for dinner and a movie. She said yes.
The movie date was two nights ago. Her choice? X-Men. Okay. Could have been worse and she made me hum. I haven’t felt that way in a long time. I figured I could live with a little action and adventure after dinner. I dressed in my favorite vest, dress shirt and black jeans. She came to the door of her apartment looking fabulous in a short floral print dress with a flouncy skirt. Under her arm was a little Chihuahua mix named Dane who tried to eat my finger before she put him back inside, making me think we’d better go to my place later if we wanted more time together after the movie. As it turned out, we didn’t. Dinner was good, our conversation flowed well enough and the movie was tolerable but we decided to call it a night as we left the theater. Something felt a little flat for both of us I guess.
Once I was home though I couldn’t get her out of my mind. I thought about how cool she had looked, about her great legs and that oh-so-appealing smile. I thought about how cool we had looked together as we were out on the town. Why hadn’t I at least kissed her goodnight? I wished I had. Funny thing about desire. It always trumps lackluster. Hands down. I wanted to see her again in a date-like-but-no-pressure context. I texted her to see if she’d like to meet for coffee some morning before her work shift. So here we are sipping espresso drinks and talking about bags.
“What kind of bags?” I ask.
“Well, I save ones that have the name of a shop or something like that. Ones that remind me of where I was and what I was doing. It’s like when I look at them, I can remember all that stuff. Remember it exactly. I keep them so I don’t forget.”
“Do you think anyone’s memories are ever exact? I mean, memory has always struck me as being pretty fluid. Time passes and things get fuzzy. I’ve always felt that’s the way it should be. Memory gets reshaped by the context of our experience and I think what remains is the essence of what matters most to us about any given experience. If that makes sense at all.” I laugh a little, charmingly I hope.
“Uh, maybe… See here’s the thing though. Like I bought these earrings that I’m wearing at a little gallery in St. Augustine called The Treasure Loft. I kept the bag. I’m not sure I’d remember exactly where I got them without the bag. I’d hate to forget that. You know?”
She takes a sip of her drink, her blue eyes happy in the bright morning light. We stare at each other for a long moment until I disconnect, looking down at my phone to check the time.
“Oh, hey.” I say too loudly. “Time for you to be heading to work. Can you wait for one second while I run back inside real quick?”
“Sure,” she says. “I’m in no hurry.”
Once inside, I walk up to the coffee counter and get the attention of one of the baristas. “Do you have a bag?” I ask. “One with the Zenlight name and logo on it? I’d like to have one if you do.”
“Yeah, sure.” She rummages under the counter and comes up holding a small brown bag with handles and Zenlight printed on it in black script. “How’s this?”
“Perfect!” I head back outside and walk over to where Ellen is waiting.
She is standing by the archway leading out to the street, wearing the same outfit she’d been wearing the first time I saw her. I wonder if that choice was deliberate, decide it doesn’t matter. I move in close and slowly pull her into one short, passionate kiss. Her lips are very soft. She tastes like chocolate and coffee.
“That was nice,” I say as I release her. I hand her the bag. “Here’s something to remember us by.”
“Oh, that’s so sweet, Joyce. Thank you.” She touches my arm in a friendly way and with that, she leaves me.
I watch her stride down the sidewalk in the direction of the bookstore. How will she remember us, I wonder? Will she look at the bag one day and say to herself, “Oh yes, that’s where Joyce and I met for coffee. I had a Cafe Mocha with extra whipped cream. She had an Americano. We talked about my bags. She kissed me.” Will she remember us that same way every time?
I watch until she turns the corner and disappears from view. Then walk slowly down the street myself, constructing a memory where passion and I set out to find a new way home.
© 2016 Karen Kleis – All Rights Reserved
You are free to reblog or share a link to this story. You are not free to copy or otherwise reprint this story without my explicit permission. Thank you.