by Larissa Maia Reyes

The old coffee shop is an afterthought. The only reason I had been allowed to go out at all was to retrieve paperwork from my old school, and my mother made it specifically clear that I was to head home immediately afterward. The risk of catching the virus was far too great for her to let me roam around old haunts in good conscience, and had it not been for a sudden meeting with her superiors she would have been the one to get my files for me. 

Even at a distance, the red wooden doors stand out. Time has not been kind to it. It almost looks as worn out as the signage beside it, whose once bright white letters are now caked with dirt. See You Latte has always been a haven for me and my friends, and part of me longs to see it closer.

I suppose it is fortunate then, that the rain begins to fall. Even more fortunate that I have forgotten to bring my umbrella.

Holding the envelope close to my body, I begin to run towards the familiar doors of the coffee shop. I only stop when I reach the safety of its awning, instinctively sidestepping around a stool that is no longer there. The empty space gives me pause, but I shake it off as I fish my phone out of my jean pocket and dial my mother’s number. The conversation is quick⁠—her meeting was about to start, and there wasn’t anything we could do about the weather. Waiting for the rain to stop was the best option. Begrudgingly, she told me I could stay inside the coffee shop only if there were no other people. Unlikely, I thought to myself as I mindlessly agreed, but what she doesn’t know won’t hurt her. I don’t have a choice anyway.

A bell chimes when I push the door open, and I brace myself for a wave of nostalgia that never comes. 

For the most part, See You Latte looks unchanged. Same chalkboard menu over the counter and same pale yellow walls and same rugged furniture. It’s the little changes that hit the hardest. The condiment table is no longer right in front of the counter; it now stands by the hallway to the bathroom, its organizers left empty. The prices on the menu have gone up⁠—I expected as much, but the list of food is noticeably shorter than it used to be.

There’s already someone at the counter, and I stand a good distance away from them as I wait my turn. The longer I look around, the more the coffee shop grows unfamiliar to me. It’s disconcerting. I’d spent the past two years of my life dreaming of this place, longing for the day I’d come back to it. I used to think it would feel like coming home, but instead I am in a stranger’s body at a place that is no longer my home.

The person ahead of me steps aside, and I take their place numbly. I give my order on autopilot⁠—one cafe latte to go⁠—and hand over the payment. I’m about to step aside to where the stranger stands when they suddenly call out to me. 

“Holy shit, Joy?”

I blink once. Twice. It takes a moment for me to recognize the stranger but when I do—

It’s you.

I could’ve sworn you weren’t this tall the last time I saw you. Like this godforsaken coffee shop, the longer I look at you, the less I recognize you. I can only muster a half-hearted greeting as we both wait for our orders. You keep trying to get me to talk to you but trying to get words out feels like pulling teeth. Every joke I make falls flat, but you still laugh. I know you’re trying to make me feel comfortable, but all I can think of is how your laugh is just another thing that time has stolen from me. Has it always been this bright? This warm?

When your order arrives, you point at a car outside and bid me goodbye. You’re gone before I can say goodbye to you. I don’t blame you; I should have pulled you in for a hug, greeted you loudly and happily as we catch up over coffee. Instead, I watch your car drive away, taking with it the person that used to hold my heart.

When my order arrives, I mindlessly thank the guy who hands it to me and walk back outside. The rain has stopped. I’ll have to find something else to fill my fantasies.