Welcome to Mel’s!

Patty met Rosanne at a coffee shop built on the bottom floor of an old mercantile store downtown.  Rosanne had discovered it on one of her many blind dates and had been trying to get Patty to go there for months.  The outside of the building was red brick with white stones interspersed throughout in a pattern.  The doorway was a large stone archway leading through a big red wooden door with a sign that read “Mel’s Coffee” in black unstructured capital letters.     

They’d walked in and immediately a tattooed girl with a completely shaved head had yelled from behind the counter “Welcome to Mel’s what can I get for ya?” in an incongruously well dictioned, clear and pleasant voice.  “Uh mocha no whip” Patty said looking up at the blackboard where the coffees were listed.  Rosanne ordered an herbal tea and they found seats at a table close to the fireplace and away from the only other people in the shop who looked like they might be having a lover’s quarrel.

As soon as they sat down with their drinks Patty excused herself from the table.  She walked down the dark hallway to the restrooms in the back of the coffeehouse.  Fluttering her fingers along the wall, Patty slowed as she came across a painting hung right above the chair rail.  It was his work, there was no doubt.

 Immediately Patty could feel a stirring that started in the tops of her thighs and worked their way up over her hips, across her stomach and up to her face, like warm ghostly hands.  Raising her head and closing her eyes she ran her fingers over the small painting, feeling the roughness of the acrylics.  A small shudder ran through her as she slowly let out the breath she had been holding, squaring her shoulders and rocking back on her right foot she pulled herself from her reverie and studied the painting.  The painting was of a woman lying across a blue-green chaise lounge that she herself had helped him choose.  She felt a pang when she wondered who the woman was with the red toenails and the long brown hair.  She had wide heavy hips and pale skin you could see peaking through the vibrant pink satin robe she was almost wearing.  The painting was evocative in what you could see and the suggestion of what you could not.  Her face had an expression on it she’d seen on her own face in the mirror many times.  She had the slumberous appearance of a woman who had been well attended to, a hint of fatigue around the eyes and a self satisfied smile on her swollen red parted lips.

 Patty let her hand fall and hurried back to the table without entering the ladies room, feeling a tremor in her knees as she walked.  Swiping the unexpected tears from her eyes she rounded the corner and headed resolutely back to her table.  Settling down into the seat with a tremulous smile, she let Rosanne’s chatter wash over her trying to distract herself from her own thoughts and emotions.

 Patty immediately felt her mind drifting as Rosanne prattled on from across the table.  It’s not that Patty wasn’t interested in what Rosanne had to say, quite the opposite actually because Rosanne told a great story but her heart just wasn’t in it today.  She surreptitiously glanced at the watch on her left wrist while ostensibly stretching.  “It’s not that I don’t appreciate a good glass of wine or anything…” Patty heard Rosanne ramble on as she attempted to re-focus on what was happening across the table.

Patty had always known that it would be a possibility.  Antonio was special and extraordinarily talented so even when they were in school she’d recognized that he would go far.  She had always expected to see his work somewhere, a sculpture in the paper with his picture and bio beside it maybe or an exhibition of his work in one of the small Chicago art galleries.  To see one of his pieces here in her hometown felt foreign and frightening, as though her worlds were colliding.  Where was he?  Why was that painting here?

“Uh Patty?” Rosanne called out plaintively “Where’d ya go?”  Shaking her head Patty smiled apologetically at Rosanne, reaching down to pull her satchel from under the table.  “Rosie I gotta go honey, I suddenly am not feeling so good” she lied as she pulled herself to her feet.  “Yeah Pattycake you don’t look so hot either,” Roseanne said as she too stood up and grabbed both of their ceramic cups to place them in the bus tub at the end of the black lacquer counter.

They walked out together into the sunshine and hugging and air kissing goodbye they left each other on the sidewalk to walk to their own cars.  Patty walked slowly back to her VW and sat in the driver’s seat staring into the street.  She turned the key in the ignition and turned the radio on to some soft music in an attempt to sooth her conflicting thoughts.

Patty had met Antonio when they were in college.  She was a freshman and he was a senior.  He had been sitting out in the quad sketching as she’d walked by.  Patty was an architecture student and was a pretty good artist herself so she could not resist circling behind him as he sat cross legged on the green grass to see what he was drawing.  The smudged charcoal drawing on the large sketch pad literally took her breath away.  The sketch was of the bench directly across from his vantage point and he was currently drawing the scenery surrounding the bench.  It was all incredibly well represented but what made her stop and stare was the drawing of the woman reposing on the bench, nude except for a graduation cap and an open robe falling from her shoulders and billowing around her long muscular limbs.  Her legs were crossed and her long slender feet were bare with her discarded heels lying on their sides beside the wrought iron bench she was perched upon.   

Antonio stopped drawing, wiping his blackened fingers on his slouchy gray t shirt and turned around to see who was standing behind him.  Patty’s mouth was still hanging open from observing the pure sexuality represented in his drawing and she’d snapped it shut as he’d turned to her with a self satisfied smirk on his long dark face.  He sat looking at her, laying his drawing on the grass in front of him and taking a pull from the cigarette that had appeared from nowhere in his right hand.  

“I’m not a carnival attraction and I will not draw your caricature little girl so run along and find your Mommy and Daddy because the grown ups are busy” the man said with a slightly British accent and a hint of humor in his voice.  Patty was nothing if not quick-witted and promptly responded in her most patrician polysyllabic manner.  He had sat unmoved by her attempt to dress him down, looking at her with a small smile.

She had left in high dudgeon that day, head held high hoping that he was watching her walk away.  Over the next few weeks she’d found reasons to walk through the quad whenever possible always looking for him.  They always greeted each other with a nod and a smile.  Finally after a few weeks of this game Antonio had asked her to sit on the grass next to him and she had.  They’d spent the afternoon talking about everything and nothing.   

Antonio was Nigerian and here on a student visa.  He was studying art in the United States and was in his last year.  He was certain he would be able to find a position at an art gallery or museum somewhere in the US before his student visa ran out.  He spoke in a smooth dulcet voice and his slightly slanted amber eyes were mesmerizing as they observed her and the world around them with a sardonic light.  The palms of his hands were scarred, calloused and dirty with charcoal and acrylic paints.  His fingers were long and the nails were short and ragged.  Patty had loved the look of his hands, which he’d used expressively as they’d spoken of their lives up to then.  He’d asked her if he could sketch her long before they began meeting in his off campus apartment. 

Their relationship had moved quickly and Patty had fallen in love.  She never knew if Antonio had reciprocated those feelings but she hadn’t cared.  As he’d graduated and his visa ran out, Antonio had looked everywhere for a position, however menial, in art galleries all over the country.  Up to the day of his departure back to Nigeria they had held out hope that he would find something to keep him here.  She had seen him off to the airport with tears in her eyes and a lump in her throat telling him that they would see each other soon.  That had been the last time she had seen or heard from Antonio, seventeen years earlier.

 Patty had moved on and she assumed Antonio had as well.  She had been very sad when she hadn’t heard from him but not surprised.  He wasn’t a good communicator and he very much lived for the moment he was in so she would not have been surprised if he had forgotten her the second he hit the plane seat on his way back to Nigeria.  She had met and married Chuck a year after she’d graduated college and they were very happy together for ten years.  Five years earlier Chuck had lost his job and over the next eighteen months their relationship had unraveled to the breaking point.  He had found a job finally but their marriage had ended. 

 Patty came out of her reverie and pulling her keys from the ignition she grabbed her bag and hustled back into Mel’s before she could lose her nerve.  She moved to the counter where the bald girl had been earlier and rang a small bell she saw duct taped to the wooden podium they were using as a cash station.  Rehearsing in her head “I would like to know more about that painting of the woman on your wall” she anxiously shifted from foot to foot while looking behind the counter and back toward what she assumed must be the kitchen. 

 She knew it was him even before he had come into the light.  She recognized his silhouette and what she used to call his “warrior swagger” as he came through from the back to the counter.  His amber eyes were still just as beautiful and his skin was even more black and shiny than it had been when they knew each other last.  As he approached the counter she watched his face for any recognition.  He stepped to the podium and smiling his beautiful red gummed and white toothed smile opened his mouth to ask her what she would like.  Then, it was there, the glimmer of something familiar in his eyes.  His smile faded while he stood there quietly looking at Patty.  She was also quiet and unbelievably to her she could feel the warmth of tears running down her cheeks and dripping onto her satchel which she held protectively under her chin and tightly against her chest. 

 “Patricia at last” Antonio said in a baritone that stole her breath away.  “I knew we would meet again someday” he said as he walked around the counter and reached out, gently taking the satchel from her and enveloping her in a passionate hug.  His strong sinewy arms pulling her to him and held her tightly as she lowered her head to his chest.  She could feel his calloused hands catching on her satin blouse as he moved them up and down her back whispering to her in his native Yoruba.  Patty lifted her own arms for the first time and held him back, breathing in his essence, a mixture of coffee, body heat, herbs and clove cigarettes.  After a moment in the embrace they both pulled back and looked into each other’s faces.  Patty had no words, she just stood and looked, longing to lift her hand which had fallen to her side and stroke his cheek.  Antonio ran his tongue over his bottom lip nervously and then asked “Where have you been?  I have been searching for you for nearly eight months” as he turned to lead her by the hand to the small loveseat in a quiet corner of the shop.    

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