It’s remarkable how many directions a person’s mind can go.
It’s irritating too.
My fingers dig furiously into my scalp, tousling my loose hair. Wavy strands fall into my face and I don’t bother shoving them away. Sick and tired of sitting at my desk all the time, I’ve opted for a seat on the floor between my couch and coffee table. My laptop sits open, the cursor blinking on and off like some evil reminder of my head fog.
This isn’t working, I tell myself. I don’t know which way to go.
As it turns out, having too many thoughts can be just as bad as not having any. Another month and a half of constant typing, developing my story idea, and suddenly, I’ve hit the brakes again. This time, however, it’s not because I can’t formulate any new plots, characters, or scenarios. It’s quite the opposite, in fact.
Now I have way too many!
Every time I think I’ve found the story’s structure, it winds up changing on me. Before me sits not a laptop with a story, but a puzzle with jumbled pieces.
I tap my fingers against the coffee table’s surface. There’s got to be a way to figure this out. With a sigh, I drop my head back against the couch cushions and stare up at my ceiling. The seconds tick like drops of water off melting ice.
Sometimes, I’d almost rather be at work than alone with my own thoughts……..which is scary.
I shake myself, slam my laptop shut, and head towards my bedroom. I’ve got to move around. Got to get my brain juices going. As I change out of my pajamas—I’d neglected getting dressed for the first few hours of the morning—I double check my phone for any messages.
Angie: Hey, girl! Sorry, but I won’t be able to stop by tonight. I work a double shift today. 🙁
That’s right, I remember. A coworker of hers quit over the weekend. She’d be the only one to pick up the slack today.
Me: Totally cool. I’ll see you later this week!
I toss my phone onto the bed, wondering what I should do now. In moments like this, I usually take a quick breather by walking outside and inhaling fresh air. At least, that’s what’s helped with my writer’s block so far.
But is this writer’s block? I stuff my phone into my purse and put on a pair of white sunglasses with pink lenses. They’re a bit flashier than what I generally go for, but I haven’t worn them for a while. I hit the sidewalk outside the bookstore. I give another friendly wave to the owner, who smiles and waves back.
I walk into the antique store a few minutes down the road, greeting the gray-haired man behind the counter. “Hey, Ron.”
He’s a local of the area, known for how friendly and generous he is. He gives me the biggest smile. “Hello there, hon. How are you doing this fine Monday?”
“I’m doing alright. And yourself?”
He shrugs. “Hanging in there. A little slow today, but that’s usual. Looking for anything in particular?”
I shake my head. “No, just thought I’d browse a little.”
He waves his hand in a grand gesture. “By all means, my dear. By all means.”
I grin and head down the nearest aisle. A glass case to my right shows off antique jewelry ranging from rings and necklaces, to pins and buttons. On my left, a cubby of shelves stacked with old stuffed animals, blocks, puzzles and aged board games.
I move along.
The next aisle has clothes from ages past, making me briefly wonder how old these items actually are, and who once owned them? I come across a vintage wedding dress, complete with pearl buttons and long, elegant sleeves. My imagination runs wild, creating an image of the woman who wore it first, standing beautiful, proud with a bouquet of white flowers.
Next, I find a small section of cookware. I study the pots and pans—blackened with use and age. A copper tea kettle catches my eye, making me think of another one I’ve seen before.
I frown. Nearly a month and a half since my last visit, and not once has it been open since then. At times, I really can’t help but wonder if I imagined the whole thing. The barista, C.C., the menus, the drinks, even the man reading in the corner. Was any of it real?
I eyeball the copper kettle. It’s definitely something I’d see there. C.C. strikes me as one who likes things such as this.
I’ve never owned a kettle before. I go to walk by, when something else draws my attention: an old cookbook.
The cover is worn, and the pages are tanned with age, but I recognize it immediately. My babysitter had this book.
As a child, my parents worked a lot. Since they were often gone, they needed someone to watch me when I was too young to go to school. Her face is still so stark inside my mind. An older woman with kind features and a loving nature. She always came around, even after I started kindergarten. She became a member of our family.
I remember her walking around the kitchen, making food from memory, though she occasionally looked to this specific cookbook for ideas. Her food was always so good.
My eyes burn at the memory of her. She’s gone now, but I feel her absence so strongly. A part of me debates buying it, simply for nostalgic reasons. But….I’m not much of a cook. I decide against it, moving right along the shop until I reach the end.
“Find anything?” Ron asks.
“No,” I lie. “Not today.”
“Well,” he says with a smile. “There’s always another day.”
“I’m sure I’ll be back.”
“You’d better,” he chides. “You’re one of my friendliest customers.”
I roll my eyes as his words. By how much people around here know and like him, I doubt anyone is ever unfriendly. “I’ll see you next time,” I say over my shoulder.
“Have a good day,” he calls back.
The door closes behind me, and I stand in contemplation for a few moments.
Where to next?
I scan the streets, studying the shops, cafes, and bakeries I know so well. My gaze settles on the archway across the street and holds.
People pass me as I stand and stare. I don’t see their faces or the colors of their clothes. The archway has my undivided attention.
It’s not open, I tell myself. It’s never open when you want it to be.
And yet, even as I think this, my legs begin to move, carrying me across the road of their own accord. Despite how many times my inner voice reasons it won’t be open, I’m being pulled as though by string. I stop along the side of the archway’s entrance, once again finding pause.
I’ll just take a peek. If it’s not open, it’s not open. What’s the harm?
I step into the archway, bracing myself for disappointment. Except…….except it is open!
A black chalkboard sign sits before the open, gated doorway.
Come On In! The sign reads. This time, a green mug emits steam below the lettering.
I quickly climb the stairs to music box twinkles and violin music. A different song than the last two times, but the same instruments. I come to the top landing, where the double doors beckon with open arms.
The café’s interior never ceases to amaze me. The contrast of dark walls and light floors, mixed with dark blues and buttery, golden lights always make me feel calm the moment I walk in. There are a few differences this time around, though.
First, the older man from last time is sitting in the corner armchair again. He’s reading a different novel, but this one keeps his attention just as well as the last one.
Second, there’s another person here as well. This one is a woman typing at her laptop. Her hair is cropped short, and she wears a purple scarf over a gray, long sleeve shirt. A large pair of headphones block the noises of the world.
Is she a writer too? I briefly wonder.
Third, and most shocking yet of all, is the sight of C.C. behind the counter. Unlike my last two visits, she’s standing where one might expect her. However, her eyes are downcast towards the counter, where I see a sheet of paper, an array of ingredients, and rose gold measuring spoons.
I draw closer, curious to see what she’s doing.
She glances up, pauses for a second, then grins with excitement.
“Well hello there,” she greets, scooching her things aside. “Welcome back.”
Her genuine excitement makes me smile. “Thanks. Good to be back.”
“I was beginning to wonder when you’d show up again.” She extends an expectant hand. “Where’s your stuff? I’ve waited too long to read it.”
I almost smack myself. “Um, about that…”
Her eyes go wide and her jaw drops. “What? You didn’t bring it again?”
Her voice is so loud I hold up both hands for peace. To my surprise, the other two people inside aren’t glancing our way. They appear to be caught up in their own worlds. It’s almost eerie.
C.C.’s lips cinch together as she glares at me.
“Sorry,” I say. “I honestly didn’t think you’d be open.”
“Why wouldn’t I be open?” She frowns. “I’m always open.”
I bite back the accusatory response of “No, you’re not.” We’ve disagreed on this in the past already. No need to disagree on it again, since I already know what she’ll say. “Bad timing,” I say instead.
She nods her head in confirmation. “Very bad timing. Well, I’ll let it go this time,” she pins me with an accusatory finger. “But next time you’d better have it.”
I can’t suppress a chuckle at her firm expression. She reminds me of my mother when she’s trying to be strict. “Alright,” I surrender. “I’ll be sure to carry something around with me.”
Craving a change in subject, I point towards the materials on the counter. “What’re you up to?”
“Hm?” She glances towards the paper and measuring spoons, as though she’d forgotten they were there. “Ah,” she beams. “I’m trying a new recipe.”
“A recipe?” Confusion draws the corners of my mouth down. “What kind of recipe?”
“A new drink recipe.” She scooches the paper over. “Believe it or not, I’ve never made any drink with matcha before. I know it’s really popular these days, so I thought I’d give it a try.”
Yes, matcha. I myself don’t usually drink it, but Angie loves the stuff. Any time we’ve visited cafés in the past, it’s the first thing she looks for. And every time she orders it, she demands I give it a taste…..which I politely avoid. Maybe it’s the green. Or maybe I’m too picky.
I don’t realize I’ve wrinkled my nose in distaste, until C.C.’s teeth flash with humor. “What? You don’t like it?”
How do I explain it to her?
“Well, it’s not that I don’t like it, I’ve never tasted it if I’m being honest.”
“Then how do you know you don’t like it?”
Wasn’t that the million-dollar question? I shrug in response. “I don’t know. I’ve never felt the urge to, and the sight of it doesn’t exactly tickle my taste buds.”
“That settles it,” she cries, both hands reaching towards the air. “I’m making this drink, you’re going to try it, and you’re going to love it. My new goal has just been born.”
My neck swivels my head back and forth in an obvious denial of my desire to drink it. A denial she chooses to ignore.
As she moves about measuring out matcha powder, milk, and sweetener, she asks over her shoulder. “How’s the writing coming along, anyway? Get over your writer’s block from last time?”
I slide onto one of the stools along the side, watching her work. I nod. “Yes, but I find myself having another problem.”
“Uh oh,” she answers with a grimace. “What’s wrong?”
My mind jumbles as I try to formulate a clear explanation. Finally, I give up. “I don’t know. I mean, I have an idea as to what I want to happen, and who some of the characters are, but I find myself struggling with the storyline and making it all fit together.” I sigh, utterly exasperated. “My brain has so many open doors, I don’t know which to walk through.”
C.C. pauses in her work and walks towards me. Her elbows meet the counter while her chin rests atop her knuckles. “That does sound like a problem. My head hurts just imagining it.”
I rub the back of my neck, lightly massaging the tight muscles. “Yeah, it kind of sucks. And I don’t know what to do about it.”
C.C. grows quiet. Her eyes squint as though she is lost in thought. “I think I know someone who can help.”
Before I can ask her anything, she waves me over as she rounds the counter. For the first time since I’ve been here, I see her in her entirety. Curious, I scooch off the stool and follow her as she approaches the nearest table. I pause when I realize she’s bringing me to the woman on her laptop.
Hanging back, I watch as C.C. taps her on the shoulder. The woman’s eyes blink, and she peers up to see who is demanding her attention.
Her face breaks into a large smile upon seeing who it is. “C.C.,” she greets, sliding her headphones off. “What’s up?”
“Sorry to bother you, Jan. But I was wondering if we could talk to you for a few minutes.”
“Oh, sure.” Jan says, shifting in her seat. “It’s no bother at all. First, what can I do for you? And second, who’s ‘we’?”
C.C. waves a hand in my direction. “Jan, this is a friend of mine. She’s a writer like you and Al.” She nods in the older man’s direction. “She’s having a bit of a struggle right now. Do you think you can help her out?”
Jan waves towards the chair opposite her. “I’ll surely do my best. Have a seat, please?”
When I hesitate, C.C. grabs my arm and drags me to my seat, giving a polite push until I sit down. “You guys talk, and I’ll be over with that drink.”
“Take your time,” Jan says with a smile. “We won’t run off on you.”
“You’d better not,” C.C. counters. “I’ll chase you down.”
Jan laughs and shakes her head as C.C. saunters off. “That girl is something else.”
I nod in agreement. “She’s definitely an interesting person.”
Jan lifts her mug of coffee. “Aren’t we all?”
I chuckle and fall silent. She’s not wrong.
“So, what’s your struggle, my dear?”
I drum my knuckles on the table. “I can’t get my thoughts to settle. I’ve recently started typing up this book idea. And I’ve got my main character—or at least a basic idea of her—down. I think I know what’s going to happen. But every time I write it down, every time I think I’ve got it all figured out, something changes. Another character pops up, a possible story plot shifts or forms and I’m left absolutely confused.” Admitting the issue eases a weight I hadn’t known I was carrying, prompting a bubble of air from my chest that morphs into a heavy sigh.
Jan listens through my entire rant with a patience I can only contribute to years of experience. She lifts her coffee mug again and takes a sip. “I’ve had that problem before. Because you don’t have a single direction to go, you wind up going in too many at once.”
“Exactly!” I rub the creases from my brow. “What do you think I should do?”
“Have you tried outlining?”
The question, simple though it is, has me ducking my head in obvious avoidance. Outlining. Yes, I’ve tried it….and failed miserably.
Before I graduated, many of my writing professors taught us the art of outlining. Many of my fellow students had loved it. I, on the other hand, had not. “Ummmm…welllll….” I sigh. “Yes. It doesn’t really work for me, I guess.”
She nods in understanding. “You’re a pantser.”
I wrinkle my nose at the word. “I’d rather the ‘gardener’ term. In any case, yes, I am.” That was something else I remember too. A pantser vs an outliner. A gardener vs a construction worker. All names for the two types of story writers. A person who literally writes with no blueprint or real plans. And a person who maps the whole freaking thing out.
Frustratingly, I’m the former. The thought of outlining is confining to me. No matter how many times I’ve tried it, it doesn’t give my creative juices a helpful shove. In fact, it chains them down.
“I can sympathize,” Jan states. “I used to have the same problem. Just know, outlining doesn’t have to be so set in stone. You can play with it a bit too.”
“Play? How do I do that?”
She opens her mouth to respond, but the setting of a green mug with green and white foam halts the entire conversation. We both glance up to see C.C.’s victorious expression. “Wallah,” she spreads her hands wide. “A matcha latte, just for you.”
I eyeball it skeptically. Maybe it is the color. “I don’t know….”
“Oh, give it a try,” C.C. urges. “If you don’t like it, you don’t like it.”
She has a point. I have no real reason not to. “Fine,” I exhale, lifting the mug from its saucer. I inhale the steam, smelling a very earthy scent. Come on, are you going to let a cup of fancy looking green….something stop you?
I bring the cup to my lips, take a small sip, and…….
My eyes go wide as my tongue is met, not with a bitter, green flavor, but a sweet, milky one. “Wow,” my brows arch. “That’s actually pretty good.”
“Ha!” C.C. raises a triumphant fist. “I win.”
“Okay, okay,” I set the cup down in defeat. “I admit, I like it.”
“You followed a recipe for that?” Jan asks.
C.C. drops into another chair, crossing her legs. “Yes, but I tweaked it a little.”
I sip again, wondering what ingredients she changed, or measurements she altered.
“So,” she huffs. “How’s it going over here? Did you guys discuss a possible solution?”
“I did offer one,” Jan answers. “I’m not sure it’s helpful, though.”
“Oh, no,” I quickly add, both hands waving. She’d been generous enough to offer advice. I don’t want her to think I’m not grateful. “It was helpful. I just…. don’t know how to go about it.”
At C.C.’s frown, Jan offers an explanation. “I told her to try outlining her story. It helps with structure and can even prompt new ideas. However, she’s admitted to being more of a pantser, than a planner.”
C.C. nods in understanding. “I see.” I suppose, despite her not being a writer, she knows since a lot of her friends apparently are.
“It feels confining to me, you know?”
Jan leans back in her chair. “I did say you could mess around with it a little too.”
C.C. perks in her chair. “Like a recipe, right?”
My brow cinches in the center. “A recipe?”
She looks between the two of us, and when I peek at Jan, she also sits expectantly. “Yes, please explain further,” the other woman prompts.
C.C. sits quietly, appearing to think it over. “Well, recipes are basically outlines, right? For some, it’s helpful. They follow it to a T. For others,” she rests a hand against her chest, clearly indicating herself to be one of the “others.” “It can feel confining. Rather than follow it step for step, word for word, we mess around with it a bit. Adding extra steps here, omitting steps there. Sometimes we add ingredients or take them away too. In the end, recipes are simply guidelines. You can change them or alter them if you want.”
I sit in stunned silence for several seconds. By the Lord, she’d done it again. She’d managed to compare something writer based to her own environment. In all my life, I would never have thought to look at outlining like it was a recipe.
I bring my cup to my lips, whispering over the rim, “You never cease to surprise me.”
She flashes a prideful grin.
From there we simply talk. Discussing projects of varying kinds. Jan, apparently, has a blog about writing. It tells of her adventures in the industry and offers advice to new, up and coming writers such as myself. I pocket the scrap of paper she slides my way, the site written out in blue ink.
Al, who joins the conversation at C.C.’s prompting, tells of the books he’s been reading and how they’ve affected his own work.
“To write, you must read,” he insists.
Suddenly, a message from Angie rings my phone.
Angie: On lunch. Been a boring day. Entertain me for the next fifteen minutes!
I smirk, type out a quick response, then check the time. It’s almost noon. I’ve been here for three hours?
I stand, looping my satchel purse over my shoulder.
“You leaving?” C.C. asks, looking disappointed.
“Yeah, I need to get home. You guys have really helped me out and I better go do some more work.”
“That’s the spirit,” Jan smacks a hand against the tabletop. She waves me on. “Go, be free, birdie. And good luck.”
I smile, a sense of comradery blooming inside my chest. I think I’ve made a few friends. I grab the saucer with my empty cup, but at C.C.’s insistence, leave it where it is.
“I’ll get it,” she assures. “You go and get more writing done. But,” she adds, before I walk away. “Remember what I said earlier. You better bring something for me to read the next time you stop by.”
I roll my eyes. “Alright, I will. Even if I have to carry my laptop everywhere I go. I’ll bring you something.”
She claps her hands with palpable glee. “Okay then.”
I reach into my purse, extract a five-dollar bill. “Here,” I say. “For the latte.”
C.C. holds up a hand. “No charge.”
“Oh, come ON! How many free drinks are you going to give me?”
“As many as I want to. Now, off with you.” When I hesitate, she gives a small smile. “Keep it, you never know what you can get with that.”
I may not know C.C. too well, but I know to avoid arguing with her. Instead I pull out a couple extra dollars, scurry to the counter, and slip them into her tip jar.
“You guys have a good rest of your days,” I call, heading for the door.
Their responses echo oddly in my ears, and when I glance back at the door, I see both Al and Jan. Jan’s headphones are back over her ears, her eyes trained on the screen of her laptop. Al has returned to his book.
C.C., on the other hand, is nowhere in sight. My empty cup, oddly, has vanished too. The atmosphere of the place is calm, quiet. It almost feels like the conversation we’d had before never even happened. I don’t stay to explore this feeling. It’s odd, maybe a little eerie, but I don’t feel anything negative about it, like being scared or freaked out.
I climb down the stairs, peering at the relocated chalk sign and its familiar message. Come Again Soon!
I walk to the end of the stone pathway, pausing at the arch. I count to ten, take a deep breath, and sneak a peek over my shoulder.
The chalk sign is gone. The gated door is closed. And I don’t hear any music trickling off the stones. It should make me uneasy, should make me feel shocked or something.
It doesn’t though.
Instead, I smile and give a little wave, as though the café and its quirky barista can see me.
I head home, crossing the street and thinking of everything C.C., Jan, and Al told me today. My tennis shoes hit the sidewalk opposite the archway, and I pause at the antique store’s door. My mind flashes back to the cookbook I saw earlier, making me think of C.C.’s words on recipes.
“In the end, recipes are simply guidelines. You can change them or alter them if you want.”
I push through the door, giving Ron a quick smile as I hurry for my intended target. I reach the aisle in a matter of seconds, grab the cookbook, and march towards the counter.
Ron grins when he sees what I’ve brought. “I knew you had your eye on something earlier. It was this cookbook, huh?”
I nod. “The woman who used to babysit me had one like this. It made me think of her.”
He smiles and begins ringing me up. “It was a popular one a while back. Even seasoned cooks would have one. I’m sure she was very good at making food.”
He presses a few buttons on his old cash register. “That’ll be five dollars.”
My fingers pause on the zipper of my bag. “Five dollars?”
He nods. “Yep. You got it?”
“Yeah,” I say, my own voice sounding distant in my ears. “Yeah, I got it.” I quickly extract the five dollars I almost gave C.C. earlier.
He accepts the cash, and gently sets the book into a handled, brown paper bag. “There you go, hon. Anything else for you today?”
I shake my head. “No, thanks Ron.”
The sun hits my face outside, but it barely registers with me. I walk the rest of the way home in a daze, reaching my door so quickly, I almost walk right past it. I punch my code into the little keypad, climb the stairs, and push into my apartment.
I reach into the paper bag, pulling the book out and setting it on my coffee table. I study the title and flip the pages. C.C.’s knowing smile returns to my brain. “Keep it, you never know what you can buy with that.”
There’s no way she could have known……right?
I shake myself. You’re losing your head again. You have other things to do right now, anyway. Stop thinking about it.
I plop back onto the carpet, positioning myself between the coffee table and couch. Rather than open my laptop, however, I grab the notebook I’d left lying next to it earlier. I scavenge a pen from my purse, and flip to a blank page.
Okay, I think. Let’s get give this a try.