The afternoon has taken on the viscous, indolent texture that puts one in mind of clear, warm honey. Sporadic, quasi-melodic notes rise from the barista’s workstations; hesitant, unhurried clinking, muffled sighs of new coffee bags being coaxed open, and strident snarls from the blender.
Light filters in from the shuttered windows, unapologetically sprawling over Stella’s table. It reclines on the pages of her open book, which is new, and smells like an unbroken heart. She downs her espresso as if she were in the company of caviar-guzzling Mafiyas, surrounded by crates of vodka in a dingy bar in the snow-encrusted underbelly of Moscow. She has been reading a spy thriller. Without a trace of self-consciousness, she lifts her feet out of her shoes and tucks them neatly under her knees. This earns her a glacial look from the leathery, time-weathered man enjoying his newspaper with a slice of blueberry pie. He does not think that young ladies should sit barefoot and cross-legged in public.
She notes his attention and meets it with her own, defiantly raising an eyebrow, daring him to voice his obvious displeasure. His righteous disapproval withers under her clear, fearless gaze, and he finds himself interested in his newspaper once again. Unsatisfied with this outcome, Stella waits for the old man to glance at her, and gives him an exaggerated wink, with a mirthless, sharkish grin. The luckless man takes refuge in the crime section, timidly wishing that young people would conduct themselves with more decorum. He does not dare look at her again until he shuffles out of the café, and even then, it is the most cursory of glances. To Stella’s delight, he wears a distinctly sheepish expression as he makes his final retreat.
Stella is one of those girls for whom the word ‘girl’ seems to have been created. An impish, omniscient smile, breathtaking in its clarity of purpose, seems to hover perpetually at the edges of her mouth, which is an impossibly perfect bow, symmetrical despite the happy chaos it contains.
Stella orders a cappuccino. She knows that the sugar it contains is bad for her and that her body hates the milk in it; a malevolent, toxic cocktail of hormones, antibiotics, and highly suspect cattle feed. Today, she does not care. The afternoon’s luxurious lack of purpose has made her lazily reckless.
The male barista insists that his name is Mickey, although Stella could have sworn she heard Lorelei addressing him as ‘Jackson’ last Tuesday. Lorelei is the other barista, the youngest in the café, and easily the most valuable employee. She could have organized an amiable coup months ago, but she prefers to rule her caffeine-drenched kingdom on the ground, right next to the purring espresso machines. Until Stella walked into her café, Lorelei was content. Now she wants a queen, and none other than Stella will do.
Stella, blissfully unaware of her impending title as (co) heir apparent to Lorelei’s microempire, is pleased. Her cappuccino has arrived in a squat, white cup as large as her palm.
She stares at it. For once, Stella is surprised. The cappuccino bears a wordless missive for her; a latte heart, called into being by Lorelei’s deft fingers and her trusty toothpick. It must have been Lorelei’s work, she reasons; ‘Mickey’ hasn’t been anywhere near the counter for the past ten minutes.
Stella is still surprised, though not unpleasantly. She had never guessed that Lorelei prefers women, and she is flattered that she is the type of woman that Lorelei prefers. Though she has not been with a woman before, she is again surprised to find that she is not averse to the idea, as she tosses it around in her head like a wrapped gift. She watches with mild interest as a tiny Japanese woman in pink leggings and a deliciously garish lime-green tank top folds a napkin into a miniature accordion. She watches with growing fascination; the accordion is now being turned into a chef’s hat, now flattened again, and finally, it finds its eventual vocation as a slightly crumpled cube. Its maker regards it with a degree of solemn, semi-religious intensity that lures a laugh from Stella. She catches Lorelei’s eye, reflexively, and is pleased to see that Lorelei is smiling too, in her dark, sardonic way.
Stella holds Lorelei’s gaze for years, centuries, millennia. She is brave, for this is not an easy task. To know Lorelei is to know desire itself. She does not ensnare her admirers with fey charm, as Stella does. Her charm is a darker thing, an entirely different creature altogether. Instead of wanting to love her, you inevitably want Lorelei to love you, once you have had the privilege of more than casual eye contact with her. Her coldly regal manner invites you, dares you to try, just once, to breach her icy shields and make her love you. Stella is doubly under her spell, then: from the overwhelming force of her own curiousity and the heady enigma that is Lorelei.
Stella holds her gaze, holds it as if it were a newborn kitten. The sun tires of their games and retreats to the other side of the world.
Stella stays until closing time.
The chairs are up. Lorelei has dusted, wiped, and locked everything that is hers to take care of. There is only Stella left, in the blue kiss of light that bridges night and day.
Wordlessly, Stella offers her hand to Lorelei. The impish half-smile still lingers on her lips, but her eyes are filled with a warm certainty that makes Lorelei smile. They walk hand in hand in a dim alley, ready to conquer new lands in each other’s hearts. Lorelei smiles again, her teeth white and pure in the new night. All is well in her kingdom, and her queen is at her side.