"Do you believe in anything..?"
I let myself in the back door, the kitchen door, her kitchen door. I always came in through her kitchen door, it seemed so, so elemental. Our first kiss was in her kitchen, in the dark, her hair filled with the smell of the damp January Pacific chill we had just wandered through after I met up with her at the end of her shift at the cafe downstairs. We could have just tripped up the back stairs, but we strolled all along the ocean side road, sipping cardboard coffee she poured for us as she nighty-nighted everyone in the kitchen while I watched through the back screen door. The steam from our brews curled up into the stillness of the night air and was multiplied by our blowing across our cups to cool it enough to drink, we must have looked like two dragons of yore, trolling for an errant knight to fry. No knights that night. They were all inside, warming their armor by the fire while we dared the damp Pacific chill to chase us from out of doors, but we wouldn't go. For only eleven at night, it was dead along our way. Southern Californians didn't seem to like the cold, but I, from the ocean on right side of the land, and she from the mountains that divided them, were used to worse than this. We were both used to the worst of everything. That's what drew us together, I now know. I mistook that first glance she returned over my coffee cup for affection, maybe even interest, but I think she saw in my eyes what i was seeing in her's. Neither one of us belonged here. I think she thought I was thinking she was as out of place as I was, sitting alone at the single by the cafe door, trying to read the future in the chips on the rim of my mug, while she flitted about between the tables and the service bar, carrying plates and ferrying mugs. Every sideways glance of hers was met by a smile I couldn't control, I remember shaking my head when she came over to see if I wanted anything else and, while what I wanted, really, really wanted, was a greasy grilled cheese sandwich and a plaid paper basket of greasy fries, I couldn't help it. It was some sort of nervous reaction to her attentions. Actually, what I really, really, really wanted was a name and phone number hastily scrawled on a napkin with her nubby waitress pencil, casually folded and dropped with some spy like motion on my table as she twirled by with empties and silverware and crumpled paper place mats. I wanted it to be mysterious, like she was promised to another, but was looking for one last clandestine fling. But no. After everyone had left, save me and some stoned looking couple that was hunkered down in the last booth by the kitchen door, she walked up, brushed a stray tangle of her famous black hair out of her face, stuck out her hand to me and said,
"Hi, I'm Karen. I get off at eleven, you going to be around?"
"Indeed. It's a pleasure to meet you."
"Likewise. And don't get the wrong idea, I'm not of the habit of throwing myself at strangers, especially strange looking strangers, but you seem safe enough..."
"You have no idea. I'm not from around here, I'm a refugee from New Jersey. And you're not from around here, either, are you? I'd say by that accent, you're from the Midwest somewhere, maybe not too far from Texas?"
"Close, but no cigar, rube. New Mexico. I won't tell any more than that, you'd probably laugh if you knew where in N'Mex I'm from."
"Gotta be Pie Town..."
"Lucky guess. I was out there last year, I bought some property about fifteen miles out of town and was checking it out. What are you doing out here, tips at the Daily Pie not good enough?"
"I don't like cowboys and being all worldly and such, I decided to try the left coast. Uh, I gotta go throw those two out, it's almost closing time. You really going to hang around? I need to talk to you."
"I'm yours. Of course, a coffee to go would be nice."
"Natch. Black, no sugar. Be right back."
So, she ushered out Raggedy Anne and Raggedier Andy, the stoners, locked the front door and vanished into the kitchen for five or ten minutes and came out and bade me follow her to the back door, where she shoved me outside where I watched her pour two cups of cardboard coffee into two cardboard cups and pause to do the bump with Jake, the owner and cook, to some scratchy Presley tune crawling out of his ancient transistor radio. She threw on an oversize red and black flannel shirt, grabbed our coffees and elbowed through the door, let it slam shut, thrust out a cup to me and, hooking her arm in mine, we walked. And walked. North, along the ocean road, until she decided that we'd been heading that direction long enough, she spun me to the South and we headed back toward Jake's Place, now dark and hollow and looking with a forlorn gaze out over the Pacific, like it wanted to be on the other side, serving up all that greasy and caffeinated to the Japanese...
"I thought you wanted to talk to me?"
"I am, or are you not as perceptive as I thought you were?"
"You'd be surprised."
"I think you're going to be full of surprises. Hey, I live over the shop, you want to come up for a nightcap? Uh, coffee, I mean. I mean, I didn't want to make you think, um, I mean, I didn't want you to expect something..."
"I never expect anything from anyone. That way no one ever gets hurt..."
So, we tripped up her back stairs and into her kitchen. That dark, strange kitchen. And after I held her and she held me and I smelled the damp January Pacific chill in her hair, I tipped her face up and, having gotten used to the dark, looked as deep into her dark brown eyes as I could. There were stories upon stories in those eyes, more that I'd ever be made party to, and that was OK. And she kissed me, quietly and softly. That surprised me and I started to laugh. She just shook her head and lay it back on my chest.
And now I'm in that kitchen, once again. I have a key. I can find my way around in the dark as good as she can. I'll just pull a chair up to the window here, look out at the dying lights of town and wait for her. I think they're having a special on fish and chips down stairs. I can always tell what they've been hawking on any given day by what her hair smells like when we hold each other close. Every once in a while I wish they'd run a special on damp January Pacific cold, with a side of cardboard coffee...