Steep

I lay my forehead atop the cool wood of my desk. The clock sitting on the corner ticks away the wasting seconds. With an exasperated sigh, I roll my head from side to side, hoping—by some miracle—it’ll smooth out the creases of my jumbled thoughts.  

It’s been almost a month since I took the café barista’s advice, dedicating at least ten minutes a day to writing whatever ideas come to mind. Some days are easy. Some days are hard. Yet, lo and behold, after an initial flow of randomness, an actual story began to develop. 

Today is a hard day, though.  

I peek up at my open laptop, feeling disappointment when I see no extra words magically appear.  

Why is this so hard?  

For the last two weeks, I’ve dedicated my free time to flushing it out. My progress, however, has been halted by the proverbial wall all writers eventually run into: Writer’s Block. 

True to its horrifying nature, it’s cut off every door leading to a possible new idea. The frustration alone is enough to make me scream! 

I gently bang my head against the desktop, thinking it might be enough to knock the impenetrable fortress down.  

No luck.  

My phone alerts my right ear to a message. I lift my head, blowing strands of my brown hair when they escape my loose ponytail. I glance towards the digital screen.  

Angie: Hey, girl! Haven’t messaged for a bit! How’s the writing coming along? 

I grind my teeth together, contemplating whether to answer honestly or not. In the end, I decide the truth is always better.  

Me: Hey!! It was going good for a while there. But I think I’ve encountered the dreaded writer’s block. 🙁  

Angie:  Oh noooooooooo!!! I’m sorry to hear that! What’re you going to do? 

Me: I don’t know….. 

Angie: Well, maybe you just need to clear your head a little. Why not try taking a walk? I’m sure you could use some fresh air.  

Me: At this point, I’m willing to try anything.  

Angie: Go for that walk and see if it helps.  

Angie: BTW, is it alright if I come over after work? I want to read what you’ve got so far! 

Me: Wellllll…..I don’t know. I don’t think it’s ready yet… 

Angie: OH COME ON!!! I’ve not pestered you once this entire time! And it might be awhile before you classify it as “ready.” I KNOW you!!!! Just let me read what you have. PLEASE?! 

I hesitate. While the prospect of letting her take a look is tempting, I feel nervous about it too. What if it isn’t any good?  

My phone goes off again.  

Angie: Please!!! 

Angie: Please, please, please, please, please!!!! 

Angie: Please!!!! 

My eyes roll towards the ceiling as my phone dings over and over again. Angie is nothing, if not persistent.   

Me: ALRIGHT!!!!! Alright already! 

Angie: 😊  

Angie: See you after five!!! 

Me: Yeah, see you then. 

I let my screen go black, then toss it back onto the desk. I love the girl, but man could she be a pest sometimes.  

The clock in the corner reads three o’clock. I have another two hours before Angie comes. Maybe I should take a walk. The sun piercing through the window gives the impression of a pretty day. The weather app on my phone confirms it. Seventy-five degrees.  

Might as well.   

I close my laptop, giving it a well-deserved rest, then quickly change out my yoga pants for a decent pair of jeans. I retie my hair, pulling it up into a tighter tail.  

I loop my satchel purse around my shoulders, slide my phone inside, then lock my apartment door behind me.  

The single staircase leads me down to a windowed doorway. I push through, falling behind a group of people leaving the bookstore I live above. I give a friendly wave to the owner as I pass. The older woman smiles and returns the gesture from behind the counter in the back.  

She’d given me the apartment upstairs for a good price since I was a college student at the time. I’d told her I could pay her more for rent due to my higher paying job, but she’d shook her head.  

“That’s not necessary,” she’d said. “The store’s revenue and your current, monthly payments are more than enough for now.  

It’s a small, one-bedroom apartment. But it’s the perfect size for me. Not to mention, there are perks to living right at the edge of downtown. Within a couple of minutes, I’m right in the throw of things.  

Despite it being a Monday, plenty of people walk between the shops and restaurants. Good weather does that, I suppose.  

As I walk down the sidewalk, my brain wanders back to the story sitting on my computer. I know my main character’s name, and I have a suspicion as to what kind of person she is. I also know the whole thing is happening inside a completely fictional world of my own making. However, there are still so many details left to uncover.  

I glimpse my own reflection in the window of the local antique store, when something else it reflects catches my attention.  

The curved archway.  

I spin just as a young couple walks out of it. They’re deep in a conversation, smiling as they discuss whatever matters they whisper about. They turn down the sidewalk, but I don’t pay any attention as to where they’re going. The archway holds my eyes. 

Over the last few weeks, I’d passed through that archway countless times. And every single time, the iron gate remains closed. Locked.  

I’ve grown so used to it, part of me wonders if I imagined or dreamed the interior of that café. Was it even real?  

It’ll probably be closed. So, there’s really no point in looking. Yet, even as I think it, my legs move of their own accord, carrying me across the street towards the familiar archway and cobble-stone path. A few people walk out as I draw closer, and I pause along one side of the entrance.   

For some reason, one which I can’t explain, I pause before stepping through. A part of me already expects to find nothing, but the other part honestly hopes I’m wrong. I take a deep breath in, slowly letting it out. I straighten my shoulders, take a step, and peer down to the other side.  

My heartrate jumps into my throat, due one part in surprise, and the other part in excitement. A small, chalkboard sign is sitting outside the open gated door.  

I rush towards it, coming to a halt as the lettering come into view.  

Come On In!  

A red, steaming cup on a matching saucer has been drawn beneath the multicolored letters. A small string and tag of a tea bag dangles over the cup’s side. Upbeat music trickles down the concrete stairs, the same mixture of music box twinkles and violin.  

I don’t really need or want coffee at this point, but I can’t help myself. I begin the slow climb, drawn by an invisible thread.  

Why is it open today? I ask myself. After so many weeks of it being closed. Why’s this Monday different? 

I reach the top of the stairs, turning towards the same open, double doors, and walk into a familiar sight. Dark gray walls and light, cement floors. Golden globes glow above tables surrounded by midnight blue chairs.   

I approach the exact same counter I sat at nearly a month ago. Behind it, the same menus showcase a number of different drinks. Below them, another counter is decorated with an array of steaming kettles, pots, and percolators.  

The place looks almost exactly the same, with one very important difference.  

In the far corner, lounging in a burgundy armchair, an older man reads a paperback novel. I angle my head and squint my eyes, attempting to read the title. But he’s sitting too far away, and I don’t want to look creepy.  

I straighten, turning my attention back to the copper framed menus. I glance from one side of the counter, then the other.  

No sign of her. 

Remembering what happened last time, I attempt to lean over the top, just to check if she’s hiding somewhere behind it.  

Only the concrete floor is on the other side. I open my mouth to call out, and quickly recall there’s another person aside from me in here. With little else to do, I opt to wait, and slide onto one of the stools along the counter.  

The minutes tick away as I sit. Every now and again, I glance back towards the man, who silently flips the pages of his book. Despite being in the same space as me, he never looks my way. It’s as if he’s in a separate world of his own.  

Just when I start to reconsider my calling out option, the same, rose-gold haired barista comes whisking out from the doorway on the right. In her hands, she carries three large canisters of dry tea leaves.  

She lays them on the back counter. “Sorry for the wait,” she says, turning. “I was just getting–” She stops, her eyes widening and her mouth splitting into a large grin. “Hey!” She rushes in my direction, surprising me. “Hey, it’s you!” 

I blink, momentarily stunned. “You remember me?” 

“Of course, I remember you. I never forget a face.” She leans an elbow on the counter, regarding me with a knowing smile. “If I recall correctly, you’re supposed to be writing, right?” She holds out a hand. “Where is it?” 

I blanch. She remembers? “I didn’t bring any with me.” 

Her smile turns into an exaggerated frown. “What? How could you not bring it? I said I wanted to read it.” 

My nose wrinkles at the prospect of her seeing what I currently have. “It’s not that good.” 

She frowns again, though this one seems genuine. “How could you say that? Do you have so little confidence in your work?” 

I sigh, rubbing the creases from my forehead. “I don’t know. It was going well for a couple of weeks. But I’ve hit a serious case of writer’s block. Not to mention the story I’m working on has so many details I need to figure out.” I shake my head, the thought of everything left to do leaving me exhausted. “It’s just not in a good space yet.” 

The Barista taps her fingers against the countertop. “Well,” she says, after a moment. “I’m not a writer like you.” She perks suddenly. “But I know someone who is.” She gestures towards the man in the corner. “That’s Al. He’s a writer too. Hey, Al!” She calls, waving a hand. The man looks up from his book, the first move I’ve seen him make aside from flipping pages. 

He grins at her. “Yes?” 

The Barista points towards me. “Someone needs some advice. You’re a writer, you’ve had writer’s block, right?” 

Sympathy flashes in his eyes and he nods. “Yes, ma’am I have.” 

“Can I ask how you got through it?” She asks.  

Al uses his finger to hold his page, then pinches his chin. “Hmmmm, well, it’s not something you can force away. It does take some time to let your mind make sense of what the storyline is doing. There are multiple ways to combat it, but what’s helped me most in the past is giving it time. You’ll see yourself progress,” he assures.  

The Barista smiles. “Thanks, Al. Sorry to interrupt your reading.” 

He raises a hand. “It’s no trouble. I’m happy to help,” he says, and returns to his book.   

I glance between him and her. “Wait, so just wait? That’s going to get rid of it?” 

The sight of my confusion seems to prompt a sympathetic expression from her. “I think I can make it clearer.” She holds up a finger, then spins towards the back counter. She pulls the wooden lid off a couple of her tea jars.  

I sit and watch as she sprinkles a combination of leaves into her palm. She reaches into a cabinet below, extracting a round, glass teapot from inside. She dumps the leaves into a metal strainer beneath the lid.  

After they’re all in, she lifts the copper kettle I recognize from last time. A steaming stream of water fills the pot.  

Once the lid is replaced, she brings the teapot over and sets it on a cork potholder.  

“Watch it closely,” she whispers, leaning a bit closer.  

I mimic her posture, watching the water as it slowly darkens.  

“I love steeping tea,” she says. “It’s one of my favorite things to do.” 

While it was interesting to watch the teas add flavor to the water, I can’t imagine it being that interesting. “Why?” I ask. 

She grows quiet, as though formulating the best answer. Finally, she smiles and explains. “Think of it like this. The plain water is like an empty page. It’s flavorless and kind of boring. But!” She holds up a finger. “The leaves,” she points to the floating greenery. “Are like your creative ideas.  

“When you first start writing, they seem jumbled and confusing. However,” she strides towards the lower cabinet again, this time pulling a red mug and saucer from its belly. “With a little time, and plenty of patience, they’ll meld together.” The barista places the mug and saucer in front of me, pouring the tea until it fills the cup. “A book is like the perfect cup of tea. You have to give it plenty of time to develop.” 

She pushes it closer. “Give it a try.” 

Gently, I lift the mug from its saucer, breathing in the scented steam. “It smells like roses.” 

She nods. “Roses are one of my favorite things to add to tea.”  

I peek at the floating teas inside the pot, noticing the hints of red amongst the rest. Curious now, I lift the cup to my lips, taking an easy sip to avoid burning my tongue. 

The taste of simple white tea and rose sooth my taste buds. I close my eyes and release a content sigh, feeling relaxed by the flavor.  

When my lids lift again, the Barista stands proud across from me. “Well?” She prompts.  

“Okay,” I acquiesce. “It’s pretty fantastic.” 

She claps her hands together with triumph. “I knew you’d like it.” 

“It’s an interesting analogy,” I say, setting the cup back into its saucer. “I would’ve never thought to compare a book’s plot with tea.” 

She lifts her hands, palms up. “What can I say? I’m a genius.” 

I chuckle at her proclamation. “You really are.” I take another sip, then another. The taste, the warmth, everything about it urges me to relax.  

A story is like tea leaves.  

“Let the ideas steep,” I mumble to myself.  

“Hm?” She inquires, her brows arching.  

I shake my head. I’ve a terrible habit of speaking out loud sometimes without realizing it. “Nothing.” I down the rest of the drink. “Thank you for the tea.” I zip the top of my bag open, fishing for my wallet. “What do I owe you for it?” 

“Bah,” she waves the act away. “No need for that.” 

“Uh-huh,” I protest. “I can’t take another free drink from you. I didn’t pay last time.” 

“Why would I charge you? You taste-tested it for me.” 

What kind of reasoning is that? “That makes no sense,” I argue.  

“It makes plenty of sense,” she counters with a smile. “I made it, you tried it and gave it the thumbs up. How could I charge someone who enjoys my drinks so much?”  

I open my mouth to argue more, but she holds up a silencing hand. “You’re not going to change my mind.” 

God, this woman is like a brick wall. My head moves from side to side. “Alright,” I surrender. “Fine. But you are getting some of this.” I shove a five-dollar bill into her tip jar.  

Her hands come up for peace. “Okay, okay.” She plants a fist onto her hip. “You’re stubborn.” 

“Oh, am?” I laugh.  

She grins, rummaging for something beneath the counter.  

As I make to ask what she’s doing, my phone goes off in my purse. I frown and pull it out to see who messaged.  

Angie: Hey girl! I got off early since it’s super slow today. Thought I’d stop off at that tasty wing place and grab us some dinner. Sound good? 

She was getting wings from Bernie’s Wing Shop. And she had the audacity to ask if it sounds good? 

Me: Is that even a question? Of course it sounds great! 

Angie: LOL. Knew you’d like it. Give me about a half hour and I’ll be at your place. See you soon! 

Me: See you soon! 

I slip my phone back into my purse. When I look up, I find a covered, disposable cup on the counter before me. 

Startled, I look up. “What’s this?” 

“A to-go cup.”  

I roll my eyes. “I can see that. But what’s it doing there?” 

The barista takes my mug. “Drink that while you write. It’ll help.” 

I lift the cup with both hands, warmth seeping through the thick siding. I don’t know what to say. “Thank you.” 

She nods. “You’re welcome.” 

I slide from the stool. “I’d better get going. My friend’s coming over for dinner tonight.” 

“Oh? What’s on the menu?” 

“Bernie’s wings.” 

The Barista’s jaw drops. “Oh, I love that place. Their food is so good.” 

“I know, right? I should get back before she gets there.” I head for the door, stopping halfway. “By the way,” I say, turning back. “I never got your name.” 

“Oh,” she says, rolling her eyes. “How could I forget? It’s C.C.” 

C.C. That’s a pretty name. Part of me is tempted to ask what it’s short for, while the other part was anxious to get going. I’ll ask her next time.  

“It’s nice to meet you C.C.” 

“Nice to meet you.” 

I lift my to-go cup. “I’ll see you next time.” 

She smiles. “See you next time.” 

I walk towards the door and—on impulse—glance back once I reach it. Somehow, I’m surprised, yet not surprised, to find her gone. The man sitting in the corner, still reading his book, is the only one I see.  

I bite my lower lip, then head down the stairs. The music still flows down the concrete steps, and when I hit the outside, I pause.  

The chalkboard has been moved. When I came in earlier, it stood on the right side of the door. Now it sat on the left, revealing the other side.  

In bright chalk it read, Come Again Soon! 

I glance from side to side, wondering when it might have gotten changed.  

My phone going off snaps me from my thoughts.  

Angie: At Bernie’s! Already gave our order and I’ll be there soon! 

Me: Awesome! See you in a bit! 

I click the screen to black, slip it back into my bag, and begin the trek home. I follow my path from earlier, crossing the street, then walking the opposite direction I came. Every now and again, I peek back in the café’s direction, realizing a little too late that I’ve forgotten two things.  

One, though the barista gave me her name, I’ve failed to provide my own.  

Two, I’ve yet to learn the café’s name. Having been there twice, I feel as though I should know it by now. Thinking back on it, the chalkboard sign and none of the interior décor indicated the establishment’s title.  

So, what is it called? 

I stop in my tracks, feeling an unusual compulsion to go back. I turn, rushing in the direction I just left. Though I already know what to expect, I can’t stop the shock I feel when I get there.  

I stand at the archway’s entrance, peering down the stone path. I inhale deep, releasing it slow as I will my heartrate to ease its racing.  

There is no chalkboard sign. The gated doorway is locked.  

The café, it seems, is closed again.  

I spin on my heels, my brain working a hundred miles an hour as I hurry home. I think of the café, the barista, and the old man reading in the corner. Then I remember the sign and its many-colored letters.  

Come Again Soon! 

Angie arrives at my place nearly twenty minutes later. I open the door and she shakes the plastic bags with their to-go containers.  

“Dinner,” she sings excitedly. 

The tangy smell of barbecue sauce melds with sweet and spicy as we climb the stairs. My mouth waters for the food.  

We make quick work of the wings and their accompanying fries, while cold soda quenches our thirst. Take-out dishes and used napkins litter my coffee table.  

“How was work?” I ask, shifting my legs more comfortably beneath me.  

Angie throws her black blazer onto the couch. Her hands smooth her black pencil skirt and she rolls her eyes. “Boring, as usual. But what can you do? It’s Monday, after all.” 

I nod.  

“What about you?” She returns. “What were you doing before I got here?” 

I fold my lips together, the café and its quirky coffee maker so stark inside my head. Should I tell her about it? It’s a strange thing to keep secret, but I can’t help the urge to remain quiet…..for now, anyway.  

I shrug. “Nothing, really. Just went for a walk like you suggested.” 

“Ah!” Angie slams her hands on my coffee table, and I almost drop my drink in surprise. “Speaking of which, where’s your laptop?” I wrinkle my nose, but she goes undeterred. Her arms reach out, her fingers wiggling in anticipation. “Gimme!” 

An amused laugh bubbles up my chest at her childish behavior. “Okay, okay.”  

She taps her fingers together in excitement as I retrieve my laptop from my desk. I let it power up, then open my personal files to find the right piece.  

Before I turn it over to her, I pause, preparing myself for her reaction.  

What if she thinks it’s bad? My head is filled with so many of these thoughts, I almost chicken out. My fingers itch to close the laptop and refuse to hand it over.  

“A book is like the perfect cup of tea. You have to give it plenty of time to develop.” 

C.C.’s words stop me from jumping ship. My book is in its most adolescent form. I can’t expect it to be perfect just yet. And my friend looks more than excited to give it a read. Whatever she thinks of it, good or bad, I can still develop it. Fix it up and make it better.  

I just need to give it some time.  

My lips tug on either side as a sense of reassurance courses my veins.  

“Well?” Angie prompts. “Am I getting to read it or not?” 

I shake my head at her impatience. “You’ll get to read it. But,” I add, holding up my pointer finger. “It’s still in its beginning stage. So, keep that in mind.” 

“Bah,” she waves my warning away. “I know this, girl. Besides,” she quickly adds. “I’m just taste-testing it. After I’m done, we can discuss it. Maybe that’ll help with your writer’s block too.”  

She grabs the laptop, spinning it towards her and pulling it closer. She rubs her hands together. “Ready?” She asks. 

For the first time since I’d begun this little journey, I found my answer incredibly easy to give. My head bobs, ease settling over my shoulders. “Ready.” 

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