I can hear them laugh quietly to themselves after they hand me my order – medium coffee, milk, no sugar, a dollar sixty tax included – and a part of me feels like laughing with them.
But I don’t. I smile politely and take my cup back to the table in the front corner of the restaurant. From there, the windows can see out past the parking lot and the glowing sign to the roads where the occasional passerby cuts through the still night. Every set of taillights is a reminder of people that always have places to be.
I don’t spend too much time looking outside, though. Usually I bring a novel, or a notebook in which to scribble something to read on the next night. Once I thought about starting a conversation with the people behind the counter, but I thought better of it.
We have a perfectly functional relationship, after all. I give them something to talk about in these muted hours of the night, and they give me a place to be awake. The exchange requires less than a dozen words from both parties. It is simple, efficient, even elegant.
Sometimes I imagine what they’re saying about me, one of them leaning against the coffee machine and the other running a stained rag back and forth across the counter. I can hear them talking but can’t distinguish the words. It’s one of the reasons I choose this seat.
Why do they think I come here, I wonder? Surely I could get coffee elsewhere, and read whatever book holds my interest in the comfort of a familiar armchair instead of these metal-backed strangers. Plenty of bars are still open at this time, though perhaps some have begun to turn out their lights.
There’s just as much reason to question why anyone comes here this late. I’ve only seen a handful of others, and none of them ever stay. They come in and order something to carry them through and leave, without exception. Always somewhere to be. Another set of taillights to watch.
It makes me sad that nobody stays and sits in some other corner. There are plenty of seats available, plenty of tables, even plenty of windows. This is a nice place; it is clean and well-lit. The people behind the counter are pleasant. The walls and floor are sturdy and stable. It is enough.
I lift the cup to my lips and find it empty. A glance at the clock above the coffee machine reveals that I’ve already been here for close to an hour.
I pull a handful of coins out of my pocket and bring them up to the counter, where one of the servers comes to meet me. This time no words are needed as I slide a few of the coins across to her. She takes them silently, counts them into the register, and walks away as I return the remainder to my pocket.
While she lifts the coffee pot, the other girl just looks at me, making no attempt to hide her stare. For a second I meet her eyes, but it’s too much. I look down at the countertop.
The first girl returns with my second coffee, and I smile again as she hands it to me. There is no laughing this time as I walk back to my seat. I wish there was.
I know that I can’t stay forever. I always run out of coffee, and then I run out of coins. If not, the pages of my book can only last so long, and I can never just sit there.
Once, I sat and read long enough to see the first shades of dawn brightening the horizon out beyond the parking lot and the sign and even the road. I knew then that it was past time for me to go, so I stood up, nodded to the people behind the counter, and stepped through the door into what was left of the night.
I still have some time tonight and some pages left in my book. The coins in my pocket are enough for one more coffee if I want it.
I close my eyes and lean back in the metal chair. I can distantly hear them talking in voices that are almost whispers. The hushed tones provide a sense of tentative connection that no real conversation ever could, particularly as a note of anticipation creeps in. They know that I’ll be leaving soon enough.
I open my eyes, take another sip of coffee, and turn to the next page. Outside, on the road, the cars are like little drops of light moving across the sleeping void. For now, I am not like them. I have a place to be awake.