I wrapped my fingers tightly around a mug of deep black coffee, staring at my quivering reflection in the dark liquid. With each exhalation my features became distorted, hurriedly rearranging themselves as the drink stilled.
I didn’t like coffee.
I sipped the bitter drink regardless, my right eye twitching in distaste. I set down the worn mug once again and breathed a deep sigh, alike one which a person may often produce as a result of a feeling of exasperation or defeat.
I, myself, felt neither. I found myself, unusually, unable to feel much at all, and despite the chipped mug my fingers remained in the category of ‘much’. A bitter wind sliced at passers by, who stole fleeting glances through the steamy coffee shop windows.
I was intrigued by watching. Watching people go by, each with a story to tell, not one of them bearing an exact resemblance. I liked to create lives within my head for these people, who never knew me and I never knew them. The slight girl wrapped in a woollen shawl with a phone pressed to her ear, the old man with the ashen face, the tall boy with the yellow hair. So many beings who passed me every day, each at the centre of their own universes, whose minds I will never know how it feels to live within. We only ever exist within ourselves and the complexity of such a simple idea never failed to astound me.
Each of us so unique, yet each of us so similar. Our minds wired the same way but not one of them working quite the same.
I wondered if the passers-by who I observed pondered the same mysteries, I wondered if they saw the pasty young girl in the coffee shop with the straggly pigtails and large brown eyes, the scalding mug of coffee and bitter look of distaste on her lips. Or perhaps they were each simply too preoccupied by their own minds to consider another’s.
A lanky boy in a dark jacket stumbled through the door of the shop, shaking his head so his tawny hair sent rainwater flying, a motion that I couldn’t help but associate with a wet dog. I studied his face carefully, the dark circles under his tired eyes, his pale complexion. Espresso.
“Cappucc-no sorry, an espresso, please.” I smiled.
The barista, Chrissy, a bubbly girl with a head of big red hair, nodded in acknowledgement and went to prepare the drink.
“You’re on your own?” the boy, namely my elder brother Stian, approached my table, a slight stumble in his step flawing his sweet attempt at arrogance.
“Are you judging me?”
“Never. You don’t like coffee?”
“I don’t like many things that I’m forced to endure.” Stian dramatically rolled his eyes and threw his head back, returning to pay the barista.
“Drop the pretence, Maud.”
“Needed the caffeine.” I admitted as he lowered himself into the seat opposite me. I carefully pushed my mug away, as though too harsh of a movement would cause the china to shatter into a million grubby pieces, and he smiled, a tinge of sympathy or fond bemusement or some form of affectionate elder brotherly emotion flickering in his eyes. He slurped his drink, despite the fact that it was still scalding hot.
“Bit disgusting really, isn’t it?” He replied in a hushed tone. I smirked.
“I guess it’s just fun to feel as though I work in an office and have some name like Karen every now and then.”
“More of a David, myself.” Stian retorted, blowing on his drink pensively. “Yeah, David. He has this leather briefcase, right, and this hideous tie…but he can pull it off, because David has everything under control. He has a diary and everything that he actually uses and he writes in it in this fancy, expensive fountain pen. And he has this perfect family, like these kids that-”
“I don’t like David.” I cut him short, and he cocked an eyebrow at me.
“And why is that?”
“I just don’t.” I tapped the bridge of my nose knowingly, and Stian rolled his eyes again. “And yes, ‘I just don’t’ is perfectly valid reasoning. I have a kind of sixth sense for these things, trust me.”
“Sure thing. So basically you’re just incredibly judgemental?”
“It was the fountain pen; you know I have a thing about fountain pens.”
“Absolutely.” Stian put his head in his hands and laughed into his palms, muttering something along the lines of ‘strange girl’. I debated reminding him that this was coming from the boy who just seconds ago had described the life of a non-existent office worker in great detail, but I hadn’t the energy for that argument. Instead, grimacing, I downed the last of my drink and hurriedly collected my thoughts, scattered carelessly around me like toys discarded from a pram by a tantrum-induced child. There was so much to think about, yet it was easier to think about nothing at all. Everyone remained fixed in their own little bubbles: the comfortable little worlds we create for ourselves, opening them to only a select few. Safer, safer that way. Yet with safety came the unknown, the could-have-beens, and those scared me far more than anything else.
“What’s with all the commotion?” I nodded in the direction of the crowd, my eyes straining to see through the several layers of dust and grime on the window panes. Stian turned in his seat, assessed the situation, and responded with a dismissive shrug. I sighed in exasperation, agitatedly dropping my chin into my palms, and he threw his arms up in fake surrender.
“Probably just shoppers, Maud.”
I observed the already deep, permanent frown lines engraved in his forehead, the ever so slight reddish tint to his eyes that was a result of too many hours spent awake. The raw, bitten-down nails that gripped his mug, and the unkempt stubble that sprouted from his chin. Stian was strong, too strong for his own good: his refusal to allow any person to read into his emotions was a well-practiced method of protecting those he loved. How this practice was not slowly breaking him inside was beyond me – yet perhaps it was.
I wondered if he saw me, if he saw the sore, gnawed skin on my fingers that was a result of a nervous habit that I had long attempted to rid myself of, if he saw my scruffy pigtails that were now approaching three days old. I wondered if he saw the pallor of my skin, and if he saw the darkening circles under my eyes. For so many people look, yet so few see.
The incessant rain fell faster and heavier, creeping through a crack in the ceiling and dripping into the small puddle forming beside my feet. The air that seeped through was sharp and invigorating, the refreshing kind that always accompanied a storm after a long summer.
“Funny day to go shopping, don’t you think?”
“What’s your point?” I shrugged, swinging my feet restlessly under the table.
“You’re too curious.” My nose scrunched in an expression of dissent, despite the knowledge that it wasn’t as though my curiosity hadn’t landed me in unfavourable situations prior to now. I liked to pry, and asking too many questions of people, it appeared, wasn’t always to their greatest satisfaction. As much as I wanted to understand, not everyone wanted to be understood.
“I wouldn’t say I’m too curious. I like to think I’m rather adequately so.”
“And I like to think that I actually enjoy the taste of coffee, but it appears we’re all just lying to ourselves.” My feeble attempt at a scowl was shattered as a child-like countenance of pride at his own statement flooded his face.
“Speak for yourself. We can leave, then?” Stian smiled and nodded, standing a little too hurriedly. I turned to thank Chrissy, but the girl was nowhere to be seen. Thinking nothing of it, I followed Stian to the door, immediately struck by the biting wind. The sky was a bleak, endless grey, smothering the land like some dense blanket for as far as my eyes could see. The icy rain slid down the nape of my neck, sending shivers along my spine. People appeared panicked, heads down, striding with an intense determination towards their various destinations. I looked to Stian, who, also, appeared exasperated at the weather but unphased by much else. Too curious.