Start All Over Again
by Jenifer K. Leigh
“But do you think they are?” Bob asked, out of the corner of his mouth.
Gloria glanced over the baked goods counter at Leah and Erik, sitting at their usual corner table, silhouetted against the snow falling outside. “I don’t know,” Gloria said, sighing. “Half our friends think we are.”
“Yeah, but half our friends are morons,” Bob replied, rolling his eyes.
“If they aren’t,” Gloria said, “would you—”
“I’d be all over him in a second,” Bob said. “Less than that. And I’ve seen how you look at her, even if she hasn’t, so you don’t even have to tell me what you’d do.”
“Probably,” Gloria said, looking out the window at a cute young blond woman walking toward the door. “If someone else doesn’t come along.”
Close up, the woman looked even better. She had a dusting of freckles on her cheeks and a bright blue wool scarf that matched her eyes, so Gloria couldn’t help but lean toward her slightly, across the counter.
Bob pasted on a smile. “Welcome to Coffee Cantata. What can I get you?”
“Thanks,” she said, smiling. “I’ll have a skinny vanilla latte.”
Bob’s smile grew tighter. “Coming right up,” he said.
Gloria cursed her inability to remain attracted to people who had no taste, and wandered back into the kitchen.
They usually say, “culinary school,” because it’s more accurate. That’s where they became friends, where they built the foundation for their business partnership.
But Bob and Gloria actually met at a talk and book signing for Julia Child’s The Way To Cook, at the Scribner Book Store in Manhattan, in April 1989. They were both seniors in high school, eager to get on with the rest of their lives, and the only teenagers in the room. Or, really, Gloria was the only girl in the room that Bob thought he could chat up without being condescended to. He did manage to get her to risk her curfew and come with him to a cafe in Rockefeller Center, where they talked about food and cooking for so long that Gloria had to find a payphone to call her parents and let them know that she was fine, she was getting on the subway right now, Dad.
They didn’t keep in touch. College was coming up, New York was a big place, and anyway food was just a hobby. Bob was going to be a big-time lawyer, like on LA Law but in New York; Gloria was going to be the secretary to a wealthy man who’d marry her and then let her open a glamorous boutique like in Scruples.
So when Gloria saw Bob at orientation at the Institute of Culinary Education nearly twenty years later, she didn’t expect that he’d recognize her. But he made a beeline for her, gave her a hug, remembered how and where they’d met. It felt like fate, and Gloria hadn’t gotten where she was by screwing with fate.
Anyway, the blonde couldn’t compare to Leah, who even had better freckles.
“What’s the tart today?” she asked, smiling, pushing a lock of shiny dark brown hair behind one ear.
“Lemon meringue,” Gloria replied. “Gluten free, but not vegan.”
“Ooh, that sounds … really good,” Leah said. She paused for a moment. “Let’s do it.”
“That’s a girl,” Gloria said, grinning. She reached into the case to pull out the tart and put it on a plate, and then hesitated. “I’ll be right back,” she said, and brought the plate into the back.
She’d made kisses with the leftover egg whites, but hadn’t put them out because she felt meringue cookies were better with a day to think about themselves. They were the perfect size to top the tart, though, so she placed one in the center of the lemon curd filling, and brought it back out to Leah.
“Wow, thanks!” she said.
“Well, I do love a woman who eats,” Gloria said. “Obviously.”
“Your baking is worth the extra time on the treadmill,” Leah replied. “Not that I’m eating that much right now, with exams coming up.”
“Please,” Gloria said, waving her hand. “If Bob could make it through law school, you certainly can.”
“I heard that,” Bob said from behind the espresso machine, where he was making their beverages and talking to Erik.
“I don’t test well,” Leah said. “That’s how I met Erik; he was my LSAT tutor.”
“Totally unnecessary LSAT tutor,” Erik said. “You just needed some strategies and a calming word or two.”
Bob raised one eyebrow. “Oh, that’s what you’re good at?” he asked. “Being calm?”
“Look, you’ve only seen me when I’m either hopped up on your caffeine or jonesing for it,” Erik replied. “Don’t be that dealer who laughs at the junkies.”
“I’m going to ignore your drug metaphor for your own good,” Bob said, handing him the two cups.
Erik sniffed, then peered at Bob over the rim of his cup. “This is the Ethiopian you were talking about the other day?”
“Fair trade Sidama, yep,” Bob replied. “Roasted it on Saturday.”
Erik set Leah’s cup on the counter, and took a small sip from his own. “Oh,” he said, his eyes widening. “That is so, wait—” He put up a finger and took another sip, let it sit in his mouth for a moment before swallowing. “I take it back. You are not a dealer. You’re a magician. You’re like, the Snape of coffee.”
“I like to think I have better hair than that,” Bob replied.
“Definitely,” Erik said absently, then looked up, considered Bob’s dark blonde and carefully coiffed hair. “You actually have pretty fantastic hair, but I’m thinking you already know that.”
They held eye contact for a bit, silent, before Bob finally said, “I might. So you like the new roast?”
“Yeah, it’s—okay, I’m going to go get a book about coffee and then I’ll have the vocabulary to talk to you in an intelligent manner.”
“Please don’t. Those books are all full of crap and will have you talking like a goddamned hipster.” He paused and looked over Erik’s ensemble of vintage Violent Femmes t-shirt, distressed jeans, brightly colored Chuck Taylors and cardigan, and then said, “Oh, wait.”
“Yeah, you’re a Gen-Xer who left a cushy corporate job to open up a small business because you hated working for other people. Which one of us is the cliche?”
“Ooh,” Gloria said. “Can’t the answer be both?”
They turned to her with such matching scowls that both she and Leah burst into laughter.
“I think they’re teaming up against us,” Erik stage-whispered.
“We can’t allow that to happen,” Bob replied.
“You’re powerless against us,” Leah said. “Bob may roast the coffee but Gloria bakes the brownies.”
Erik’s eyes widened. “Tell me this is double fudge day.”
Gloria carefully did not make eye contact with Bob as she pulled a plate from behind the pile of coconut brownies in the bakery case. “It is for you,” she said.
“Awesome!” Erik said, giving Leah her latte and taking the brownie. “Hey, lemon, that’s your favorite.”
“Is it?” Gloria asked.
“And berries, right?” Erik said.
Leah smiled and nodded. “True.”
“Well, I have some raspberries in the back,” Gloria said.
As she walked away she could hear Erik saying, “What?” but she paid that no mind. In the fridge were a few flats of berries she’d received that morning that she was going to make into tarts for tomorrow, so she put a handful into a little bowl to pop onto Leah’s plate.
“You really didn’t have to,” Leah said when Gloria returned. She was standing alone now, as Erik had sat down and Bob was waiting on the customer who’d just walked in.
“I feed people for a living,” she replied. “It’s my pleasure.”
“Well, thank you,” Leah said, and went back to her table.
Gloria could sense Bob walking toward her and knew he had a bullshit grin on his face because she knew him, so she didn’t even look at him, just put a finger on his breastbone.
“Don’t say a word. Don’t even look at me.”
“You’re the one who saved him that brownie from yesterday.”
He sighed. “All right. We’re even.”
At the corner table, Leah and Erik were getting down to work, laptops open and books out. Erik reached over to casually steal a raspberry, and Leah, without looking, slapped his hand away.
Bob humped. “Do you think they’re—”
“I don’t know,” Gloria said. “Damnit.”
Coffee Cantata was up on 116th street, across Morningside Park from Columbia Law. Bob and Gloria had originally been thinking of Brooklyn or maybe Long Island City, but Bob had a friend who’d heard about the spot opening up and with what they’d saved from their previous lives and a small business loan they could just about afford to set up. Once they got going, there was a steady stream of traffic during the day between neighborhood types looking for a latte and a croissant to take into the park and workers and students getting their fix on their way from the subway to the university. They opened early and closed early, because Bob really didn’t envision the cafe being full of students in the evenings taking advantage of the Wi-Fi for the price of a coffee drink. A couple of college kids helped out at opening and closing, and the morning and afternoon caffeine rushes were enough to pay the rent.
Besides, Gloria had to be up before dawn to do the baking, Bob had to get the beans roasted, and sixteen hour days were long enough.
They’d been open about a year when Leah first to came in, back in September. She looked every inch the fresh-faced 1L, already harried and overworked in the second week of classes. Her long brown hair was in a messy bun with a pencil shoved through it; her laptop bag was from Coach but one of the folders sticking out of it had a tiny Sanrio character in the corner. She wore large, clunky glasses and a button-up herringbone vest in slate gray that contrasted with her warm brown skin.
Gloria was instantly charmed. “What can I get you?” she asked.
“A medium skim latte to go please,” Leah said.
“Nothing to eat?” Gloria asked. She always felt like some teenager asking if they wanted fries with that, but the technique actually worked enough of the time that she stuck to it, and besides, who better to upsell the pastries than their baker?
Leah glanced at the case with a slight scowl, and Gloria was ready for the no when suddenly she said, “Peach?”
“The turnovers?” Gloria asked. “Yep, and the crust is gluten free. Almond flour—almonds go so well with stone fruit, of course.”
“That sounds …”
“Amazing?” Bob asked.
“Yeah, actually,” she said, smiling. “I’ll take one.”
“Great!” Gloria said, bagging it up for her. “And if you care to stay sometime, we do have Wi-Fi.”
Leah glanced around the room: it was ten o’clock in the morning, so the few tables they had were only half full. “I’ll remember that. Thanks!”
As they watched her walk out, Bob said, “She’s cute.”
“She’s weird,” Gloria said. “I like her.”
“She was checking out your rack.”
“Everyone checks out my rack.”
“With interest, not envy,” Bob said.
“Oh, well, that’s different, then,” Gloria replied, grinning.
Leah brought Erik in with her less than a week later. While Leah was average height and slender in an elegant way, Erik was tall, pale, and downright scrawny. He was also blond, blue-eyed, and had a cocky little half-smile. Gloria could almost see Bob’s ears perk up, and his dark brown eyes were twinkling.
“Oh my god they have brownies,” Erik said. “Leah, you didn’t say they had brownies.”
“Different kind every day,” Bob said. “Gloria does all the baking on the premises. Today is double fudge.”
Erik moaned. “You are speaking the language of my people,” he said. “I’ll have one, and—” he glanced over the rest of the bakery case— “one of those raspberry bars and a medium skim latte for the lady, and a medium coffee for me. Black, no sugar.”
“Nothing but coffee in the cup?” Bob asked, because they didn’t usually hear that from baby-faced law students, and Bob could be judgmental about coffee orders. He just tried not to show it, because going on and on about how he roasted the beans himself at a little place out in Dumbo could turn people off. He settled for putting the house roast of the week up on the board, next to the brownie of the day. Today it read, “Guatemala Geisha.”
“If I wanted a milkshake I’d go to Starbucks,” Erik said, leaning against the counter. “What’s the matter, no confidence in your brew? Can’t believe anyone wants their coffee bitter and black, like their soul?”
Bob rolled his eyes. “Your soul isn’t black,” he said, pointing to the helmet that hung from Erik’s backpack. “Your means of transportation is a bicycle. You probably want to go into environmental law.”
“Public interest,” Leah said, and at Erik’s scowl, “Sorry.”
“You’re 1L,” Bob continued, pointing at the text in Erik’s hand. “You’re a puppy. I used to eat guys like you—”
“For lunch, yeah, yeah, I get it,” Erik said.
“Please, as a snack. You’re not filling enough for a meal.” He put the coffee down on the counter in front of Erik.
“And now, what, you’re atoning for your sins by opening a coffee place? Is this a TV show? Do you two solve crimes in your spare time?”
“If you drank the coffee,” Bob replied, “you’d know why we opened this place. I went to culinary school. I sous-vide duck legs in my spare time.”
Gloria grinned. “Mmm, with the za’atar apricot sauce? Let’s do that Saturday. I’ll bake some bread.”
“You hate baking bread,” Bob said.
“Special occasion,” Gloria replied.
In the meantime Erik had taken a sip of his coffee, and if his moan before had been sexual, this one was downright orgasmic. “Okay I take it all back,” he said. “Except that part about atoning for your sins, because if you can make coffee like this you clearly understand sin. The latte showed promise but—”
“You had a latte?” Bob asked.
“Leah gave me a sip of hers last week,” Erik replied. “I thought, if you could pass this test, this would be our new place.”
Bob rocked on his heels. “I’d like to say thank you on behalf of Gloria and myself and I hope we passed the audition,” he said, dryly.
“With flying colors, Ringo,” Erik replied.
“Name’s Bob, actually.”
“I’m Erik, and Leah and I will be back after class. We are going to sit at that table,” he said, pointing toward the corner, “and we are going to be your new regulars.”
“Well,” Bob said. “I’m looking forward to that.”
After their fall exams, Erik and Leah didn’t come in for a while. Not that Gloria and Bob were surprised. The term was over and Erik and Leah clearly didn’t live in the neighborhood, what with Erik commuting on his bicycle and Leah always coming from the direction of the subway station. (Never mind that they almost never came by on the weekends.) But the short, snowy days were a little less fun without them around.
Actually the cafe was nearly dead, as the working people at Columbia were also away. Gloria tried out recipes, including new tarts and the ever-elusive good-tasting blondie. Anything edible was given to the local soup kitchen like the rest of their daily leftovers, and they had plans to volunteer there for dinner service over Christmas week.
They did get one holiday card, though. Appropriately enough, it featured a cup of coffee and a slice of pie on the front, and was signed by Leah and Erik with best wishes for the holiday and many thanks for helping them do well on their exams.
“Thoughtful of them,” Gloria said.
“Yeah, but a joint card?” Bob said. “They’re definitely fucking.”
Gloria taped the card to the front of the bakery case. “Nice kids, though.”
“Yeah,” Bob said, scrubbing at the steamer and not looking up. “Yeah, they are.”
Gloria had really meant to be entirely over her stupid crush on Leah by the time spring term started. This plan fell apart, of course, as soon as Leah walked into the cafe wearing the most adorable knit hat in existence and a fierce pair of boots.
“How sweet,” she said. “You put our card up!”
“Oh!” Gloria said, looking. “Should have taken that down after Epiphany! But thanks, that was very thoughtful.”
“Of course,” she said, putting her books down on the counter. “We couldn’t wait to get back! It seemed strange not to be coming in here.”
“We’re glad you’re back,” Gloria said. “Harassment?” she asked, looking down at the books.
“Yeah, I’m thinking about going into employment law,” Leah said. “My dad’s a lawyer—he’s the black half, my mom’s the white half—and even in the eighties he saw a lot of unpleasant things going on, had to put up with a lot of jokes. He says women are treated better now, but I don’t think all of them are.”
“They aren’t,” Bob said, setting down the skim latte and black coffee that he’d started as soon as she walked in the door. “That’s why Gloria isn’t a high-powered executive assistant anymore.”
“Some men seem to think that if you wear your dresses a little low cut, it’s open season,” she said, waving a finger at her own cleavage. “Just because I like to give the girls some air doesn’t mean I’m available for fun times in the copy room.”
Leah’s eyes narrowed. “I hope you stuck it to them,” she said.
Gloria grinned. “How do you think I got the money for culinary school and to invest in this place?” she asked.
“Good for you,” Leah said, smiling back. “I knew there was a reason I liked you. I mean, other than that you keep feeding me.”
“We ladies have to stick together,” Gloria said.
“Absolutely! You know, the first thing that Erik ever said to me was, ‘Oh my god, you’re beautiful?’”
“What did you do?” Gloria asked.
“Told him if he did that again he’d be tutoring me for free,” she said. “Oh, damn, the time, gotta run or I’ll be late to class!” She flung the book into her bag, picked up the two cups and trotted to the door, shouting “Thanks!” over her shoulder.
“So that’s a vote for their not being together, right?” Bob asked.
“God, I hope so,” Gloria replied.
As the weeks passed the flirting reached astronomical levels—Gloria wondered that Leah and Erik got any work done at all—and yet, nothing happened.
“Seriously, a turntable?” Erik asked.
“You’ve been coming here for months and you just noticed that?” Bob asked. “Are you sure you have the observational skills to be a lawyer?”
“I didn’t realize you actually used it. I thought it was just for atmosphere, you know, like all the posters of musicians and how you only ever play jazz or blues.”
“What other music is there?” Bob asked.
“How do you flip the records when you’re busy?” Erik asked.
“We just put on the jazz station.”
“There’s a jazz station? This is 2013!”
“This is New York!” Bob replied.
“Actually, BGO comes out of Newark,” Leah said, and when Erik and Bob turned to look at her she said, “What? My father listens to it.”
Erik and Bob turned back to their conversation, shaking their heads, and Gloria asked, “Your father the lawyer, right? Is that why you’re in law school? Following in his footsteps?”
“Somewhat,” Leah said, nodding. “I still wanted to do it my own way. I spent some time as a paralegal while I was studying for the LSATs, which was not popular with Dad, but now I know what I’m getting into. And I’m here at Columbia, instead of at Harvard, where he went. I just wanted to hoe my own row, you know?” Then she giggled. “Sorry, that was a lot of rhyming. I’m kind of a dork, if you haven’t noticed.”
“Oh I noticed,” Gloria said, smiling. “But I get up at two o’clock every morning for the privilege of filling tart shells, so I’m not one to talk. I used to have good hair days but now I have good dough days and the hair goes up in a bun.”
“You still have good hair days,” Leah said.
“Thanks.” Gloria was still rather vain of her hair; it was long and red, with a slight wave, and when she wore it down it was sexy as hell. Actually, she was sexy as hell, full stop, when she put her mind to it. Nothing wrong with being hot and knowing it.
And she was just about to say something to Leah about how she looked out of the baker’s wear, how she could look on a Saturday night maybe, when an old mentor came through the door.
“Carol!” Bob called out. “Wow, it’s great to see you. What brings you up here?”
Carol was tall—taller than any of them in her heels—with sleek black hair, dark skin, and a regal bearing. She was one of the few women Gloria openly admired—and the only person she’d ever seen intimidate Bob.
“Gloria, Bob,” she said, nodding. “I wanted to see for myself how you were doing with your new little place. Bach reference in the name, how upscale of you.”
“I thought it was from the coffee place in Bullitt?” Erik asked, and when Carol looked at him he cleared his throat. “Or, not.”
“It’s both, actually,” Bob said. “Carol, this is Leah and Erik, two of our regulars; they’re 1L. Carol was one of our professors at culinary school.”
“Leah,” Carol said, ignoring Erik and focusing on her. “If I’m right you resemble your mother but I think I know—”
“My father, yes,” Leah said, nodding. “Many people do.”
“He did some work for the school a while back,” she said. “Big shoes to fill.”
Leah stiffened her spine. “I’m trying to make my own shoes,” she said.
“Smart,” Carol replied, then turned to Gloria and Bob. “Well, I wanted to talk to you both about coming in with us, if you have a minute?”
“Actually, why don’t you talk to Gloria,” he said. “I should man the counter, but I can just listen in, if you want to sit here?” He indicated the table closest to the counter, tucked in along the side near the record player.
“Well, we’ll leave you to it,” Leah said, pulling Erik away with her and back to their table in the far corner of the cafe.
As they sat down Carol said, “Sorry, didn’t mean to block you.”
“From what?” Gloria asked.
Carol nodded to Leah and Erik in the corner.
“Oh,” Gloria said. “Well, if it’s meant to happen, it’ll happen. Actually we’re not sure that they aren’t dating each other.”
“Really?” Carol said. “Interesting, since everyone at ICE thought you and Bob were together.”
“Except me, and thanks, because you won me a lot of bets.”
“Anything we can do for you, Carol, you know that.”
“Well,” she said, opening up a folder, “I hope you feel the same about the arrangement I’m proposing.”
Gloria leaned in closer. “Tell me more.”
“I think we should do it,” she said to Bob, later, when they were having dinner at her place after closing. “With the savings we might be able to hire a manager, eventually even have evening hours.”
“I’m not using inferior beans.”
“Here’s their supplier,” Gloria said, pulling the site up on her laptop. “Tell me what you want that they don’t have.”
Bob paged through the site while Gloria dished out quinoa and tomatoes to go with the chicken tagine they’d reheated. At last he said, “Not a thing.”
“Told you. And I bet if you can convince some of the other places, you can get better rates on the roaster—bigger footprint and all.”
He turned to her. “But do you really want to sell bagels?”
“You’re just saying that because you hate Ted.”
“I do hate Ted.”
“His bagels are spectacular.”
“Doesn’t mean I can’t hate him. Now he’s going to be wandering in and pawing all over you like he does.” Bob made a face.
“He doesn’t paw. He might fawn a little, but he’s harmless. And I’m certainly not making bagels.”
“I suppose not.” He sighed.
“People love bagels, Bob. And only I’d have to deal with him once, in the mornings, and that’s only if he’s making his own deliveries.”
“Oh he will to you,” Bob said. “Fine, we’ll do it. I can’t think of a single reason not to.”
“Good, because I already told Carol yes,” Gloria said, and ducked the napkin Bob threw at her head.
The ink was barely dry on their agreement to join the consortium when Ted wandered into Coffee Cantata. It was late February, and Leah and Erik had come in to have Gloria and Bob vet the suits they’d bought for their summer interviews. Bob looked like he was going to have an aneurysm, or at least, he kept pinching the bridge of his nose.
“Leah, you look amazing, but I’m not worried about you anyway, because you don’t actively piss people off without even trying.”
“Thanks?” Leah said.
“What is that supposed to mean?” Erik asked.
Bob ignored him. “Ask Gloria about accessories; she’s good at that. As for you, rookie, I don’t even know where to start. Cheap suits look cheap; you should buy the most expensive thing you can afford, and then use accessories to make it look even better. A skinny tie is no man’s friend.”
“I like this tie,” Erik said. “It’s early Mad Men.”
“More like early Elvis Costello,” Bob said. “The shirt is fine, if unremarkable, but I have better stuff than this in storage. I’ll get you something, we’ll have it altered.”
“You’d give me a suit?” Erik asked.
Bob shrugged. “I’m not wearing it,” he said. “And I can’t in good conscience let you walk into a summer assistantship interview looking like that.”
“Wow,” Erik said. “Thanks.”
“Gloria?” Bob asked.
She cocked her head. “He definitely needs a tie bar, once you get him a better tie. For Leah, a cuff possibly? Dark wood would look awfully nice against your skin.”
The bell rang with the door opening, and in bustled Ted. He was barrel-chested, with close-cropped hair and a big grin that tried to ingratiate, but nearly always failed. “Listen to her, young woman,” he said. “Gloria’s the most beautiful and stylish woman I’ve ever met.”
“Ted, hello!” Gloria said, covering over Bob’s groan. “Leah, Erik, this is Ted. He went to culinary school with us and he’s going to be bringing us bagels.”
“Yes, I’m The Bagel Baker,” he said, handing out a card that said the same. “Best bagels in the city, according to Yelp.”
“How do we know that wasn’t you leaving that five-star review?” Bob asked.
“I don’t have to; my work speaks for itself,” Ted replied. “Nice little place you have here. And I do mean little.”
“Thanks, Ted,” Bob replied. “Your approval means so much.”
“It should, now that you’re in with Carol. As soon as I heard you’d signed of course I had to come right up and see how you were doing.”
“Of course you did,” Bob said.
“Lovely bakery case,” Ted said, peering inside. “Nice to see you’re still making your famous brownies, Gloria, but where will my bagels go?”
“We’re putting baskets in for them, up here,” Gloria replied, gesturing above and behind the bakery case.
Ted nodded. “Good, good, good, right out on display. They really move themselves when people can see them.”
“I’m sure they will, Ted,” Bob said. “Anything else? Can I get you a coffee for the road?”
“Oh, thanks, Bob.” He glanced at the menu, then asked, “You do have soy milk, don’t you?” He smiled at Gloria. “I’m trying to avoid dairy.”
“Of course we do,” Gloria said.
“Actually,” Erik said, “it’s the ability to digest lactose as an adult that’s the mutation.”
“How not particularly interesting,” Ted said. “Well, then I’ll have a half-caf soy mochaccino, thanks.”
Bob didn’t bother to hide his slight scowl as he grabbed a cup. “You want a cappuccino with mocha in it?”
“I believe that’s what I just said.”
“Half decaf?” Bob asked slowly.
“Yes,” Ted said, impatiently. “Is this a challenge?” he asked.
Bob shrugged. “Our clientele is more concerned with the coffee itself than what gets added to it,” he replied.
“Really? That’s surprisingly unsophisticated,” Ted said, then turned to Leah. “I’ve always found a complicated order to be an excellent measure of any coffee house.”
“Is there any coffee in his order?” Erik asked, softly.
“Not really,” Bob muttered as he steamed the soy milk.
“How much will that be?” Ted asked.
“Please, on the house,” Bob said, setting the cup down. “Our pleasure.”
Ted looked at him, suspicious. “Did you do something to this?” he asked.
“Would you sacrifice one of your bagels for petty revenge?” Bob asked.
“I like to think I have pride in my work,” Ted said, puffing out his chest.
“Well, so do I. Take it in the spirit of partnership.”
Ted blinked. “Well, that’s very, um, neighborly of you, Bob. Gloria, always good to see you.”
“We’ll see you next month,” she said, waving.
As soon as he’d left, Bob huffed out a sigh. “God, I hate that guy.”
“So why did you sell to him?” Erik asked.
“Sell to him?” Bob asked back, scowling.
“Or really to your mentor, Carol?” Leah asked. “Isn’t that what she came to do, buy you out?”
“No?” Gloria said. “It’s a consortium of independent coffee places in the city. Makes it easier for us to compete with the chains.”
“Oh, good, good, that’s good,” Erik said. “It’s just, it’s always a shame when little family places like this have to sell.”
“Family place?” Bob asked, looking at Gloria.
“You think we’re brother and sister?” Gloria asked.
“No,” Leah said. “We thought you were married, or partners?”
Gloria shook her head. Then she took a breath and said, “But are you two?”
“No?” Erik said. “You mean, you thought we were—”
“Well, you thought we were,” Bob said.
“But you’re not,” Leah said.
“And you’re not,” Gloria said.
“Well,” Erik said, nodding and looking at Bob. “That certainly puts a different spin on things.”
“Yeah,” Bob replied. “It does.”
“We should change out of these clothes,” Leah said. “What time are you open until?”
“Five,” Gloria said. “We close at five.”
Leah and Erik were packing up. “We’ll be back,” she said.
“Okay?” Gloria said, watching them make their rapid exit.
“What just happened?” Bob asked.
“I have no idea,” Gloria replied.
When Gloria went to turn the sign around to “closed” she figured that despite what they’d said, Leah and Erik weren’t coming back. Maybe weren’t coming back ever; maybe had liked flirting with the coffee people when they were safe and married, but now it was too weird. Which, that was fine; now they knew. If they ever did come back, Gloria and Bob would treat them like anyone else, and soon enough they’d feel comfortable again. After all, they weren’t going to foist themselves where they weren’t wanted.
But forty-five minutes later, just after they’d sent their part-timer home, there was a knock on the door. It was Erik and Leah, now in jeans. Bob unlocked the door and Erik said, “We thought you might like some help, you know, closing. Cleaning up and whatever.”
Bob blinked at them. “Sure, come in, come in,” he said, locking the door again behind them. “We’re mostly done, actually. Gloria’s packing up the food for the soup kitchen, as you can see, and I was just about to check the store room.”
“I can help with that,” Erik said.
“Okay,” Bob said. “Come on back.”
And then they were gone, and it was just Leah and Gloria in the cafe. Leah pulled her coat off and put it over one of the tables. “So, what can I do to help?” she asked.
“Grab some gloves, and you can put the brownies into one of these boxes,” Gloria said, while she waited for her brain to catch up with the situation. “The soup kitchen cuts them up into smaller servings anyway, so we don’t need to wrap them. Just put a sheet of parchment between each layer.”
“All right,” Leah said, snapping on a glove, and honestly, Gloria handled food using gloves all the time. Seeing Leah put a glove on shouldn’t make her mind wander to other things. But then, it had been wandering there since Leah walked in.
Of course Leah caught her staring, and of course Gloria gasped and gaped, because her cool was well out of her reach. She dropped her eyes back down to her work, putting tarts into pie boxes four at a time, but she could feel her face flushing. She gritted her teeth, willing herself to get it together because she was not this girl.
“So what’s the next task when we’re finished here?” Leah asked.
“Making out up against the bakery case,” Gloria replied, as casually as she could. “At least, that’s what I was thinking. Pretty sure that’s what you were thinking, too.”
Leah laughed. “Yeah,” she replied. “I was. Good incentive to get working.”
“It is, but I wouldn’t use it on just anyone,” Gloria said.
“I would hope not,” Leah replied.
After that—well, after that it really was a test of Gloria’s cool to get the pastries put into boxes (not that there were that many; they sold pretty well) and then into the canvas carry bags they’d been lent by the soup kitchen. They put the bags by the back door, ready to take out when they left. The back kitchen was clean, and Bob had already started the dishwasher before Erik and Leah came by.
“That’s most of it,” Gloria said.
Leah smiled, warm and sexy. “I think you promised me something?” she asked, running her fingers along the strap of Gloria’s apron such that her knuckles grazed Gloria’s skin.
“That I did,” Gloria said, and pulled Leah into that kiss she’d been thinking about since September. Leah went easily, soft and pliant in Gloria’s arms, but that didn’t mean she was passive, just willing. Gloria had her up against the case, but it was Leah who pushed her leg between Gloria’s, whose hands were roaming quickly across Gloria’s back until one settled on her ass and the other pulled her ponytail loose.
After a bit, Gloria pulled back, wanting to see as well as feel what effect this was having on Leah. She blinked, looking a bit dazed, and Gloria was satisfied.
“Wow,” Leah said.
“You really do have great hair.”
“So do you,” Gloria replied, and they laughed.
Just then there was a thump coming from the store room. Gloria sighed. “Let’s just make sure they don’t destroy the place,” she said, and led Leah by the hand around the corner.
“Knocked over the toilet paper, I see,” she said, and indeed, the box of bathroom tissue had fallen over and individually wrapped rolls were scattered about the floor.
“Happens,” Bob said, shrugging, and his hair was noticeably mussed.
“Isn’t much left to do here,” Gloria said. “Maybe we can make our drop off and… go?”
“Going works for me,” Bob said. “Work for you, Erik?”
“I could go,” Erik said, nodding.
The two couples parted ways after the soup kitchen, and after some discussion, Leah and Gloria decided to walk back to Gloria’s apartment and get take out. It was a crisp evening, not too cold, but some soup and salad from the local diner sounded like just the thing.
“To be clear, I usually wait until the lady or gentleman in question has taken me to dinner a couple of times before going back to their apartment,” Leah said. “But you’ve been feeding me since September.”
“Very true,” Gloria said.
“So in a way, you could say that we’ve been dating for months. Kinda feels like it to me, anyway.”
Gloria looked at Leah, felt their hands clasped, how simple this was. “You know,” she said, “it kinda does.”
Over the summer Carol had a garden party out at her place in Connecticut for all the members of the her consortium. They closed Coffee Cantata and made a day of it, enjoying spending some time in a green space that wasn’t a park.
It was only a matter of time before they ran into Ted, a serious-looking blonde on his arm. Introductions were made—the blonde’s name was Colleen and she was an admissions director at a college—and then Ted looked at who was holding whose hand, and became confused.
“But Gloria, I thought you and Bob—and when I met Erik and Leah, I thought they—”
“Appearances aren’t everything,” Bob said, rolling his eyes.
“Sure,” Ted said, “but—”
“A man and a woman can be just friends, you know,” Leah said.
“Of course, of course,” Ted said. “Why I have—”
“Bisexuality is a real orientation,” Erik said.
“I absolutely did not mean to imply that—”
“Ted,” Gloria said, because the man was getting increasingly flustered.
He stopped talking and took a breath. “Gloria.”
She smiled at him. “Next time, don’t assume. Just ask.”