Each time he came in, he dressed well and his cheeks were ruddy, glowing from a good shave. There was a cleft in his chin that made me wonder what it would be like to touch it.
He came to the counter and placed the hardback on the counter. I picked the book up and scanned the bar code.
‘Have you read The Handmaid’s Tale?’ I said.
The fight to keep my voice even came out as a draw.
This was my fifth conversation with him. Pensive, halting comments at first and wily, candid anecdotes to date.
His eyes lit up in recognition.
‘Yes. A friend gave me a copy, said it was science fiction. I don’t think it is, but I loved it.’
His voice was soft, a generous enthusiasm bubbled underneath. He had asked me for recommendations, and I gave him Colleen Hoover to test him. He had come back and raved about it, not in the studied way that other men had with me, but a genuine joy in the work. I had used my employee discount to give consideration to his recommendation of Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad and stayed up all night reading it through a film of tears.
‘Most science fiction isn’t about the future. It’s a way to talk about what you’re afraid of in the present.’ I said.
I glanced at his unadorned left hand where it rested on the counter. The queue had grown behind him, but I wanted to keep him talking, and to have him want to keep talking. I offered a bag, but he smiled and shook his head.
Recrimination flared in my chest as I handed over his receipt.
‘Thank you.’ he said.
He walked away. I took a quiet pleasure in his wide back and shoulders. He was polite without being cold. He turned back into the shop and looked over his shoulder at me. His eyes were light roasted coffee, languid and gentle to look into. He gave me a hopeful smile and moved to the new releases.
Nate came to cover me for my break. It was a cigarette and an energy drink before we had to check off delivery and cover the shop floor. The break could wait.
He had a copy of the new King in hardback. He scanned the synopsis on the back before he looked up at me.
‘We should stop meeting like this, people will talk.’
I giggled with nerves, sensitive and not wanting to embarrass myself.
‘Well, I was going on my break, and it’s quicker this way.’
He nodded and set the book down.
‘Well I should let get you on.’ he said.
My heart seized with disappointment. Was it the comment about Atwood?
‘No, our manager is out today, so we get a little levity on things like breaks.’ I said.
I willed him to hear the hook in that comment. He grinned and stared at me.
‘I’m going next door for a coffee. Does the levity cover that?’ he said.
Yes, I decided. It did.
He held the door open for me without comment or expression. The import of it sent a wry warmth through my stomach and I fought to keep the smile from my face.
I knew his surname from his card details. He knew my first name from my badge. Incidental details afloat an ocean of tastes. Different to mine, and he did not pander, nor did he refuse any of my recommendations. He had not liked everything, but he had read them.
We took our coffees back to the table. I had a caramel and coconut latte. He had his, black without sugar, with a dash of cinnamon.
‘How long have you worked there?’ he sad.
I blew across the surface of my coffee and watched the line in his forehead as he waited for my answer.
His hands were large and dark with clean short nails. I had picked up books he had touched, imagined trace of the warmth remained with a silly excitement.
I asked him what he did.
‘I work in public relations.’ he said.
He drank from his cup, eyes closed for a second of pleasure.
I smiled and leaned forward, eager to be playful with him.
‘Are you any good?’ I said.
He chuckled and shook his head.
‘I love it too much to care if I suck at it. I’m the same with people.’ he said.
I asked him what he meant when my phone hummed with a notification.
JO IS BACK
I spluttered and got to my feet. He frowned and asked what was wrong.
‘My boss is back I’ll get it in the neck for being on my break this long.’
He got up and smiled.
‘I have an idea.’
Jo believed him. He put on a slight air of amiable idiocy but he was gracious with it in a way that drew attention from me. A lost wallet. He cast me as the determined protagonist, the princess who saved the prince and I stood there, too relieved to enjoy it in the moment.
Jo smiled, thanked me in front of him and walked away.
‘Jesus.’ I said.
He wrote down his number on the receipt and handed it to me. I watched him leave the shop and saw the queue that had built up. I was light with promise, strong enough to get through today and from there, to see him again.