I stood outside the tiny mom and pop coffee shop counting my change. Althought I was still pretty new at this, I’d worn out my welcome at the bigger chains. Maybe if I had almost enough they might let me have a cup. The hand lettered sign in the window announced a small for seventy five cents. Forty five…fifty…fifty one…two…three. Worth a try.
The bottle-blonde at the counter watched me plop coins on the polished wood.
“Fifty two, fifty three…” I made a show of rummaging through my pockets. “Not quite there. I could fill the cup three quarters.”
“We don’t do that.” The waitress pushed the coins back, pointing a neon green nail toward the sign on the till. “No purchase. No table. Your kind aren’t welcome here.”
I slumped back. Is this who I am now?
“I’ve got it.” The strong male voice hovered near my ear. Several bills slapped the counter. “A large for the lady and the usual for me.”
Lady. I turned to smile my thanks and couldn’t restrain the gasp when I saw the scar. It slashed from his eye, across his cheek, mouth and chin. It wasn’t new, but it hadn’t healed well, jagged, puckered, grayish-pink. With those eyes he must have been good-looking once.
I blushed, forcing myself to look away. “Thanks.”
With a nod, I grabbed my cup and hid in a corner table, forgoing my customary cream and sugar.
Sipping at the bitter stuff, I did not allow myself to glance up when I heard him leave a few minutes later. As an engine roared to life, I peered through the smudged window at the police car backing away. The man wore the blue uniform and shiny badge of his breed, but I’d only seen the scar.
I showed up at the coffee shop the same time the following morning to buy him a cup. Although I wasn’t fond of cops, the guilt over my reaction to his scar had gnawed at me all night as I’d huddled in my cot at the warming center. A big guy in a camo jacket gave me a trash bag of soda cans I turned in for nickels. Maybe I could treat him today. To show him I wasn’t that kind of person.
The cold air pricked my skin, but I waited outside until he arrived.
“Oh, hi.” I tried a casual act but my heart pounded like giants stomped in my chest. “Can I return the favor…from yesterday?”
He stared at me, clearly searching his memory. “Yeah. Yesterday. I mean it was a gift, no returns needed.”
“I’d really like to-”
About to refuse again, he paused. Maybe he saw the last vestiges of pride in my eyes. “Okay.” He pulled open the door and gestured me through.
The same waitress scowled. “Got a dime for a thimbleful today?”
“A large for me and the usual for him.” I felt just a little like my old self as I laid out three crisp ones.
“Five seventy five.” Little round eyes drowning in mascera slid up and down. “You’re short.”
I sucked in air to chase away the invading dizziness.
“I got it.” He topped my ones with a five. “Keep the change.”
“Sorry.” I readied to bolt.
His big fingers wrapped around my wrist. “Wait. Your coffee.”
A wave of shame washed over me, but I held my ground as the police car parked in the same spot. I canned all day yesterday so I could do this. I couldn’t chicken out now. Someone lent me a dress and I’d found a scarf to belt it so it didn’t hang. I snatched a look in the coffee shop window. I’d once been called beautiful and that was in the bones, so it couldn’t all be gone. And skinny was in, wasn’t it?
I grinned as he strode up. “I can treat you today. I have the money.”
He returned the smile with one side of his mouth, the other side stretched into a grimace of sorts. “You don’t need to do this.”
“But you bought me coffee and I want to buy coffee for you.” I displayed the money in my hand.
“This isn’t a date, you know.” His voice roughened.
It had probably been ages since a woman had shown interest in him. I knew he didn’t mean to be hard. I gazed into his blue-blue eyes. “I really don’t mind the scars.”
“What?” He stared at me as if I’d sprouted Medusa snakes. “Are you feeling sorry for me?”
I watched my fingers pull at the scarf, afraid to affirm or deny. Pity could be part of what I felt, but there was more.
“Try to be nice-” He grabbed my wrist, fingers not gentle as they were the day before. I saw a glimmer of who I had become in his eyes.
Bills scattered in the wind, coins clattered on the sidewalk. I gathered that precious pride about me and walked away.