The Other Kind of Coffee
Cheryl sat in her car sucking down a stale menthol while watching the rain patter on the windshield. She’d quit smoking a year ago, but kept a reserve pack in her glove box just in case for moments like these. It was a dirty little secret of hers, one she didn’t want Dom to know.
The rain began on the drive to the office and she remembered halfway there that she didn’t have an umbrella anymore. Her last one had snapped in a gust of wind and she’d never thought to replace it. She eyed the distance between her and the front entrance, which wasn’t too far, but there was also the security turnstile to contend with, and sometimes the badge reader malfunctioned.
The parking lot was a minefield of potholes and puddles. This would be a challenge in normal circumstances, but Cheryl’s decision to wear high heels had upped the difficulty level to “treacherous.” She sighed and a curl of smoke escaped her lips in the shape of an ampersand. The time on the dashboard said it was quarter past the hour. She had forty-five minutes before the most important interview of her life.
The rain showed no sign of relenting. Taking one last drag, Cheryl then ground the remaining orange orb of the cigarette into the ashtray. A song caught her ear and she cranked it, tossing her well-coiffed hair about with reckless abandon like she was the star in her own vintage iPod commercial.
It felt damn good to let go for once. She couldn’t remember the last time that happened. In darker moments, she wondered if it was still her own soul buried beneath her skin. She knew what Dom would say. But he was the type of guy who saw sunshine even through the rain. But she knew that too much sun will blind you.
A quick triplet of taps on the window broke Cheryl’s rock n’ roll reverie. Janet stood outside with a wide umbrella in her hand. Cheryl rolled down the window a smidge and looked up in awe.
“Hey Jan. Y’awright?” she tried for a playful, irreverent tone.
“Oh good, you’re still alive.”
“Sorry?” Her eyebrows scrunched in confusion.
Janet gave a subtle rolling of the eyes. “I thought you were having a seizure.”
“Hah, oh, no,” Cheryl shook her head and blushed, a deep alizarin crimson to match the clothes she had chosen to wear. “Just listening to some music.” She reached for the knob and turned it down to a whisper.
Janet was decked out entirely in black, as usual. She had her trench cinched tight around her belly. Water cascaded down the sides of the umbrella, giving her an ethereal air. Cheryl saw her as the ideal personification of not giving a fuck what anyone thought.
“Heading in?” Janet’s head motioned towards the building Cheryl dreaded on this morning above all others. She’d heard all the rumors, of course, about Mr. Fleming and his — ahem — certain proclivities. She suspected the Queen Bitch of the Coffee Room might have more dirt on him than anyone. But she waffled on how to broach the subject, or if she should even do so at all.
“I was kinda hoping the storm would have passed by now.” A puff of air escaped her lips, somewhere between a sigh and a groan.
“Storm?” Janet held out a hand and rubbed her fingers together. “This is a mere drizzle, darling.” She peered down at Cheryl still sitting at the wheel. The cigarette smouldered in the ashtray.
Cheryl had the impression Janet was somehow able to look through her. What could she see?
“At any rate,” Janet continued, “it does no good to wait. You never know when something might come to end.” She paused. Her eyes were like twin moons, distant, but not unkind. “So are you coming or what? I need a coffee before I kill someone.”
Cheryl jumped into action. She rolled up the window, then turned off the car and grabbed her bag. Janet raised her umbrella a few inches and Cheryl stepped under its canopy of protection. Without another word, Janet spun suddenly in her four inch stilettos and began to march. Cheryl followed. It took some effort to match Janet’s long stride.
Once inside, both said good morning to Matthew, the receptionist. Normally at this point they’d go off in opposite directions to their respective offices, but Janet said, “Come with me.”
The break room looked the same as ever, save for a new espresso machine the company installed while Janet was away on medical leave.
“Tea?” Janet asked.
“Oh, um, I’ll try a coffee.”
“A risk taker. I like it.” She prepped the machine with two paper cups. “So,” she tapped her nails against the table, waiting for the liquid gold to pour, “You’re interviewing for account manager this morning, right?”
Cheryl knew better than to ask how she knew. “That’s right.”
Cheryl nodded. Janet handed her the steaming paper cup. Cheryl started to reach for the sugar caddy, then thought better of it.
“Small piece of advice, between you and I,” Janet stepped closer. She stirred her cup slowly, as if preparing to cast some powerful spell or incantation. “Ditch the lipstick. It won’t do you any favors.”
“Is Mr. — ?”
Janet held up a finger to her lips and shook her head. Heavy footsteps squeaked and squelched across the floor. Michael Whitlock appeared, completely soaked to the bone.
“Ladies,” he said, nodding with polite formality.
“Mr. Whitlock,” Cheryl replied, straightening.
“Michael, why — you look like a regular Gene Kelly in that suit!” Janet’s smile went briefly supernova before it broke apart into cackles of laughter.
“That’s so sweet of you to say, Jan,” Michael said, his deep voice dripping with sarcasm. “How was the seance?”
“Woke the neighbors, but not the dead, I’m afraid.”
“Alas. Well, if you two will excuse me,” he began to back away. “I need to go use the hand dryer for the next half hour or so.”
Janet blew him a mock kiss. Then she turned to Cheryl. “Your moment of reckoning has come, my dear.”
Cheryl took a sip of coffee and swallowed. The bitter heat rushed down her throat.
“You must have no fear. After all, we were not born from Adam’s rib; rather, we emerged from the muck.” Closer she came, to where they were almost dancing cheek to cheek. Her breath was both soft and heavy in Cheryl’s ear. “Don’t be like me and do what I did. Rise above.”
A moment later Janet was gone, leaving behind a perfumed aura in her wake. The echo of clacking heels tick-tocked down the hallway. Cheryl’s heart hammered in her chest and she took several deep breaths. After finishing her coffee she noticed the imprint of scarlet lipstick on the rim of the cup. The rest she removed with the back of her hand. The phone in her bag buzzed and she checked a message from Dom.
“Good luck!” he wrote with a smiley. She tossed the cup, and felt for the first time that perhaps she didn’t need it.