Kerri had cancelled her own wedding six weeks before; had walked into this very coffee shop, hiding red-rimmed eyes behind Jackie-O sunglasses, desperately seeking solace. She discovered instead that she could simply disappear; sink into this cozy leather armchair with a book and a warm mug and vanish into the background. Or so she had believed anyway. Now she wondered if someone had surmised her current state of affairs.
Impossible, she chided herself. She shook the thought from her head. Kerri was a stranger here, even to herself now. She had moved here for Luke, who had been her life until she surprised him at work one Thursday afternoon and discovered the paralegal hiding under his desk.
So much for her life.
She peeled up the square of paper and examined it closely. The careful block letters were printed in blue ballpoint pen – no loops and flourishes to give the writer away. She peered around to study the faces of other patrons, watching for a blush, a sidelong glance or possibly a smile, but the room only confirmed her obscurity. Women in tennis skirts laughed and chirped over iced teas. New moms chugged coffee and commiserated as they bounced infants on their knees and rummaged through diaper bags in search of binkies and keys. An elderly man sat reclined and cross-legged in the corner taking leisurely sips of espresso as he read his paper. And then there was “Crazy Eyes” who showed up each day with his drawing pad and his disheveled black hair. Today he scribbled madly, his Charles Manson stare fixed on the tennis ladies. Kerri looked away and hoped to God it wasn’t him.
As she completed her scan of the room, Kerri’s favorite barista caught her eye. An uncooperative cowlick bounced above his left brow as he hummed along to “My Sharona”. She bit her lip to stifle a giggle – there was something so irresistible about the uninhibited. He glanced up as he finished placing a dollop of steamed milk on a cappuccino and flashed her a disarming smile. Kerri looked away, flushed and flustered. He’d caught her staring.
This was crazy. She laughed at herself for even wondering. They’d barely spoken. And what was he, 28 at the most? But still. He had discovered her unusual method of coffee selection, the way she used each opportunity to taste some beautiful part of the world that she longed to see. Today he’d even recommended the Brazil Peabody.
She stuck the note to the arm of her chair and tried to redirect her focus on all things bohemian. She reminded herself that she’d checked the book out of the library nearly a week ago; a failed attempt to revive the woman she once was. The note probably wasn’t even for her. She had caught a glimpse into a luckier life and it was time to return to her own.
But someone had anticipated her skepticism and another message awaited her on page 189.
This page had no words at all. It was a watercolor illustration of a man standing at an easel painting a nude woman. Oh shit, she thought to herself as she glanced apprehensively at “Crazy Eyes”. He appeared to take no notice of her, but she didn’t trust his oversight. Too many things had not been what they had seemed to her lately.
She clapped the book closed and collected her things. Clearly, she’d been spending too much time here if she had to worry about the possibility of attracting potential serial killers. It was time to take a walk and clear her head.
On her way out, the barista shined that winsome grin as he asked her how she liked Brazil.
“Brazil was delicious,” she smiled.
He winked at her. “See? I know what you like.”
Her voice caught in her throat and she could only nod and smile as she waved good-bye. She remembered flirting. And that felt like flirting. Cute coffee guy was back on the suspect list.
Strolling through town, anonymous once more, Kerri smiled to herself. Someone thought she was beautiful. Maybe someone she didn’t even know. It could be a scary guy who drew portraits of strangers, or a man, a boy really, who carefully selected coffee just for her. And maybe it didn’t matter. Even if it was the old guy in the corner, someone had noticed something beautiful about her. And whether this person knew it or not, the compliment had come just when she had needed it most.
Since the split, Kerri couldn’t stop creating the story of her demise. In her mind, it had started with the 8 pounds she had put on since she’d moved to Chatham and the pathetic way she’d be there waiting for Luke with a beautifully prepared meal at the end of the day. Of course he strayed. She’d reduced herself to a matronly cling-on before they’d even picked a caterer. Not that she hadn’t tried to create a life of her own: she had initiated conversations after yoga classes, had even joined a book club, but nothing had clicked. So she spent her days alone. She ran out of things to say. And she shrank back into herself until she’d effectively disappeared.
But now, finally, someone had seen her and found something worthwhile.
As she walked, Kerri noticed her painted toenails framed by her favorite strappy sandals. She liked her slim ankles. Her ankles and her clavicles had always come through for her. They were proof of her daintiness, 8 pounds be damned. It was time to stop staring down at her feet. She straightened her spine and held her head up a little higher, the serene line of her mouth curling almost imperceptibly.
A middle-aged man huffed a smiling hello as he jogged past her on Orchard Street. Two blocks later, a pair of women engaged deep in curbside, dog-walking conversation, stopped to compliment the embroidered green silk blouse that she’d worn dozens of times before. Kerri began to glow. Something warm and vaguely familiar surged through her. It felt something like…her. Kerri Welch before she was Luke’s girlfriend. A girl who prompted smiles. Or at least a girl who noticed them.
Something had returned to her. Kerri felt her spark again. Electric. Magnetic, even.
She did an about face and headed back to the coffee shop. There was a bounce in her step now and she felt almost giddy. A passing driver tapped his horn and gave her an enthusiastic catcall out his window as he went by. I’ve still got it, she told to herself. I am beautiful.
The door jingled as she followed the aromas of Brazil, Guatemala, Hawaii and Tanzania to the counter where her suspect wiped a pitcher dry. His face brightened as she approached. “Back for more?”
Kerri took in a quick breath and strengthened her resolve. “You’re the friendliest person I’ve met here so far and I could use a friend,” she began, watching his face for signs of horrified panic. But there was only the softening of his expression. She continued, “I was wondering if you could join me for lunch one day? Or maybe catch a movie?”
She could see he was taken aback. His jaw had slackened, his eyebrows raised. It was clear to her now. It hadn’t been him. He was just a friendly guy making the bests of his days at the local coffee house. Kerri’s face began to feel hot. She lowered her eyes, afraid to look.
“Sure, Kerri. That would be great!”
Her head snapped up. He knew her name. “Really?”
“Definitely,” he grinned. “I would have asked first, but you always seem so, I don’t know, preoccupied.”
She nodded. “I guess I have been kind of absent,” she conceded. “But I’m back now.”
“Good. So, how about Friday?”
She scribbled her number on a napkin and handed it to him. “Friday, then.”
Outside the store, she pumped her fist triumphantly. Her unhappy ending had just changed course and rerouted her into endless possibility. So little had changed and yet she felt entirely different.
She headed next to the library. She no longer needed The Bohemian Manifesto to remind her of who she was. She’d trade it in for some good beach reading.
As Kerri approached the counter and slid her book through the return slot, she noticed a young boy sitting beside the librarian, working diligently on whatever job he had before him. He looked to be about 10 years old, but with the soul of someone much older and wiser. It was unusual to see a boy his age so engaged in his work. Kerri watched as he placed a book on top of a small stack to his left and reached for another from a formidable pile on his right. She released a quick gasp as she watched him let the book fall open and placed a yellow Post-it on the page.
The librarian looked up at her. “Are you ok?”
Kerri nodded, still watching this very old, very young boy. “What is he doing?”
The librarian followed her gaze. “Oh, that’s David. He’s my library angel.”
“My library angel,” she repeated, “He likes to leave notes for unsuspecting readers.”
“That’s very sweet,” she acknowledged, letting go of her foolish fantasy.
“Yes, he really is. He and his grandmother used to leave notes for the folks in her nursing home and they really loved finding them. After she passed, he asked if he could do it here.”
Kerri smiled to herself as the woman picked up the book she’d just returned. She flipped through the pages until she came across the yellow slip of paper.
“You are beautiful,” the woman recited.
Kerri’s lip began to tremble. She blinked back tears, surprised to find how the words, spoken aloud, moved her. It had been a long time since she’d heard them.
“Yes. You.” she asserted, placing a hand over Kerri’s. “Angels don’t make mistakes.”
Ann Tomoko Rosen is Co-Founder of the Center for Acupuncture and Herbal Medicine in Westfield, NJ, and an enthusiastic proponent of positive self-talk and random acts of kindness.