Authors: Colleen Hoover
I’m pulling my truck into the alley behind the bar when I notice the nail polish still on the fingernails of my right hand.
I forgot I played dress-up with a four-year-old last night.
At least the purple matches my work shirt.
Roman is tossing bags of trash into the dumpster when I exit the truck. He sees the gift sack in my hand and knows it’s for him, so he reaches for it. “Let me guess. Coffee mug?” He peeks inside.
It’s a coffee mug. It always is.
He doesn’t say thank you. He never does.
We don’t acknowledge the sobriety these mugs symbolize, but I buy him one every Friday. This is the ninety-sixth mug I’ve bought him.
I should probably stop because his apartment is full of coffee mugs, but I’m too far in to give up now. He’s almost at one hundred weeks sober, and I’ve been holding on to that one-hundredth-milestone mug for a while now. It’s a Denver Broncos mug. His least favorite team.
Roman gestures toward the back door of the bar. “There’s a couple inside harassing other customers. You might want to keep an eye on them.”
That’s odd. We don’t normally have to deal with unruly people this early in the evening. It isn’t even six o’clock yet. “Where are they sitting?”
“Next to the jukebox.” His eyes fall to my hand. “Nice nails, man.”
“Right?” I hold up my hand and wiggle my fingers. “She did pretty good for a four-year-old.”
I open the back door of the bar and am met with the grating sound of my favorite song being slaughtered by Ugly Kid Joe through the loudspeakers.
I walk through the kitchen and into the bar and immediately spot them. They’re hunched over the jukebox. I quietly make my way over to them and see she’s punching in the same four numbers again and again. I look over their shoulders at the screen while they giggle like mischievous children. “Cat’s in the Cradle” is set to play thirty-six times in a row.
I clear my throat. “You think this is funny? Forcing me to listen to the same song for the next six hours?”
My father spins around when he hears my voice. “Ledger!” He pulls me in for a hug. He smells like beer and motor oil. And limes, maybe?
Are they drunk?
My mother backs away from the jukebox. “We were trying to fix it. We didn’t do this.”
“Sure, you didn’t.” I pull her in for a hug.
They never announce when they’re going to show up. They just appear and stay a day or two or three and then head out in their RV again.
Their showing up drunk is new, though. I glance over my shoulder, and Roman is behind the bar now. I point to my parents. “Did you do this to them, or did they show up this way?”
Roman shrugs. “A little of both.”
“It’s our anniversary,” my mother says. “We’re celebrating.”
“I hope you guys didn’t drive here.”
“We didn’t,” my father says. “Our car is with the RV in the shop getting routine maintenance, so we took a Lyft.” He pats my cheek.
“Wanted to see you, but we’ve been here two hours waiting for you to show up, and now we’re leaving because we’re hungry.”
“This is why you should warn me before you drop into town. I have a life.”
“Did you remember our anniversary?” my father asks.
“Slipped my mind. Sorry.”
“Told you,” he says to my mother. “Pay up, Robin.”
My mother reaches into her pocket and hands him a ten-dollar bill.
They bet on almost everything. My love life. Which holidays I’ll remember. Every football game I’ve ever played. But I’m almost positive they’ve just been passing the same ten-dollar bill back and forth for several years.
My father holds up his empty glass and shakes it. “Get us a refill, bartender.”
I take his glass. “How about an ice water?” I leave them at the jukebox and make my way behind the bar.
I’m pouring two glasses of water when a girl walks into the bar looking somewhat lost. She glances around the room like she’s never been here before, and then when she notices an empty corner at the opposite end of the bar, she makes a beeline for it.
I stare at her the entire time she’s walking through the bar. I stare at her so hard I accidentally overfill the glasses and water goes everywhere. I grab a towel and wipe up my mess. When I look at my mother, she’s looking at the girl. Then at me. Then at the girl.
The last thing I need is for her to try to set me up with a customer. She tries to play matchmaker plenty when she’s sober, so I can’t imagine how bad the tendency might be after a few drinks. I need to get them out of here.
I take the waters to them and then hand my mother my credit card. “You guys should go down to Jake’s Steakhouse and have dinner on me. Walk there so you can sober up on the way.”
“You are so nice.” She clutches at her chest dramatically and looks at my father. “Benji, we did so well with him. Let’s go celebrate our parenting with his credit card.”
“We did do well with him,” my father says in agreement. “We should have more kids.”
“Menopause, honey. Remember when I hated you for an entire year?” My mother grabs her purse, and they take the glasses of water with them as they go.
“We should get rib eye since he’s paying,” my father mutters as they walk away.
I release a sigh of relief and then make my way back to the bar. The girl is tucked quietly into the corner, writing in a notebook. Roman isn’t behind the bar right now, so I’m assuming no one has taken her order yet.
I gladly volunteer as tribute.
“What can I get you?” I ask her.
“Water and a Diet Coke, please.” She doesn’t look up at me, so I back away to fulfill her order. She’s still writing in her notebook when I return with her drinks. I try to get a glimpse of what she’s writing, but she closes her notebook and lifts her eyes. “Thank . . .” She pauses in the middle of what I think is her attempt at saying
. She mutters the word
and sticks the straw in her mouth.
She seems flustered.
I want to ask her questions, like what her name is and where she’s from, but I’ve learned over the years of owning this place that asking questions of lonely people in a bar can quickly turn into conversations I have to maul my way out of.
But most of the people who come in here don’t capture my attention like she has. I gesture toward her two drinks and say, “Are you waiting for someone else?”
She pulls both drinks closer. “Nope. Just thirsty.” She breaks eye contact with me and leans back in her chair, pulling her notebook with her and giving it all her attention.
I can take a hint. I walk to the other end of the bar to give her privacy.
Roman returns from the kitchen and nudges his head in her direction. “Who’s she?”
“I don’t know, but she isn’t wearing a wedding ring, so she’s not your type.”
They turned the old bookstore into a bar. Can you believe that shit?
I wonder what they did with the sofa we used to sit on every Sunday.
I swear, it’s like this whole town is one huge Monopoly board, and after you died, someone came along and picked up the board and scrambled all the pieces around.
Nothing is the same. Everything seems unfamiliar. I’ve been walking around downtown taking it all in for the last couple of hours. I was on my way to the grocery store when I got sidetracked by the bench we used to eat ice cream on. I sat down and people watched for a while.
Everyone seems so carefree in this town. The people here just wander around like their worlds are right-side-up—like they aren’t about to fall off the pavement and land in the sky. They just move from
one moment to the next, not even aware of the mothers walking around without their daughters.
I probably shouldn’t be in a bar, especially my first night back. Not that I have an issue with alcohol. That one horrible night was an exception. But the last thing I need your parents to find out is that I stopped by a bar before I stopped by their house.
But I thought this place was still the bookstore, and bookstores usually have coffee. I was so disappointed when I walked inside because it’s been a long day of traveling here on a bus and then the cab. I was hoping for more caffeine than a diet soda can provide.
Maybe the bar has coffee. I haven’t asked yet.
I probably shouldn’t tell you this, and I promise it’ll make sense before I finish this letter, but I kissed a prison guard once.
We got caught and he got transferred to a different unit and I felt guilty that our kiss got him in trouble. But he talked to me like I was a person and not a number, and even though I wasn’t attracted to him, I knew he was attracted to me, so when he leaned in to kiss me, I kissed him back. It was my way of saying thank you, and I think he knew that, and he was okay with it. It had been two years since I had been touched by you, so when he pressed me against the wall and gripped my waist, I thought I’d feel more.
I was sad that I didn’t.
I’m telling you this because he tasted like coffee, but a better kind of coffee than the prison coffee they served to the prisoners. He tasted like expensive eight-dollar coffee from Starbucks, with caramel and whipped cream and a cherry. It’s why I kept kissing
him. Not because I enjoyed the kiss, or him, or his hand on my waist, but because I missed expensive flavored coffee.
And you. I miss expensive coffee and you.
“You want a refill?” the bartender asks. He has tattoos that slide all the way into his shirtsleeves. His shirt is deep purple, a color you don’t see in prison very often.
I never thought about that until I was there, but prison is really drab and colorless, and after a while, you start to forget what the trees look like in the fall.
“Do you have coffee?” I ask.
“Sure. Cream and sugar?”
“Do you have caramel? And whipped cream?”
He tosses a rag onto his shoulder. “You bet. Soy, skim, almond, or whole milk?”
The bartender laughs. “I was kidding. This is a bar; I have a four-hour-old pot of coffee and your choice of cream or sugar or both or none.”
The color of his shirt and the way it complements his skin tone are no longer impressive.
“Just give me whatever,” I mutter.
The bartender backs away to retrieve my basic prison coffee. I watch as he lifts the pot out of the holder and brings it close to his nose to sniff it. He makes a face, then dumps it out in the sink. He flicks the water on while refilling a guy’s beer while starting a new pot of coffee while closing out someone else’s tab while smiling just enough but not too much.
I’ve never seen someone move so fluidly, like he has seven arms and three brains and they’re all going at once. It’s mesmerizing watching someone who’s good at what they do.
I don’t know what I’m good at. I don’t know that there is anything in this world I could make look effortless.
There are things I
to be good at. I want to be a good mother. To my future kids, but mostly to the daughter I already brought into this world. I want to have a yard that I can plant stuff in. Stuff that will flourish and not die. I want to learn how to talk to people without wishing I could retract every word I said. I want to be good at feeling things when a guy touches my waist. I want to be good at life. I want to make it look effortless, but up until this point, I’ve made every aspect of life appear entirely too difficult to navigate.
The bartender glides back to me when the coffee is ready. As he’s filling the mug, I look at him and actually absorb what I’m seeing this time. He’s good looking in a way that a girl who is trying to get custody of her daughter should want to stay away from. He’s got eyes that have seen a thing or two, and hands that have probably hit a man or two.
His hair is fluid like his movements. Long, dark strands that hang in his eyes and move in whatever direction he moves. He doesn’t touch his hair; he hasn’t since I’ve been sitting here. He just lets it get in his way, but then he’ll flick his head every now and then, the slightest little movement, and his hair goes where he needs it to. It’s thick hair, agreeable hair, want-my-hands-in-his-hair hair.
My mug is full of coffee now, but he lifts a finger and says, “One sec.” He swivels and opens a minifridge and then pulls out whole milk. He pours some into the mug. He puts the milk back, opens another fridge—
, whipped cream. He reaches behind him, and when his hand reappears, he’s holding a single cherry that he places carefully on top of my drink. He slides it closer to me and spreads out his arms like he just created magic.
“No caramel,” he says. “Best I could do for not-a-coffee-shop.”
He probably thinks he just made a bougie drink for a spoiled girl who’s used to having eight-dollar coffee every day. He has no idea how long it’s been since I’ve had a decent cup of coffee. Even in the months I spent in transitional housing, they served prison coffee to the prison girls with prison pasts.
I could cry.
As soon as he gives his attention to someone at the other end of the bar, I take a drink of my coffee and close my eyes and cry because life can be so fucking cruel and hard, and I’ve wanted to quit living it so many times, but then moments like these remind me that happiness isn’t some permanent thing we’re all trying to achieve in life, it’s merely a thing that shows up every now and then, sometimes in tiny doses that are just substantial enough to keep us going.