Esther woke up, just like always, on the day which marked the start of the sixth month without Chris. She put on the same, black uniform, made herself the same breakfast. She booted up the computer, just as she had done every other day, and checked her emails. Nothing. Nothing for nearly a month now. She'd received seven emails from Chris in the last five months, none above a paragraph or two long. The phrase 'distance makes the heart grow fonder' didn't seem to be ringing true.
She shut the computer down again, then got in the same car and drove to the same cafe, where she used the same coffee grinder to make the same coffees for the same customers. Five months and nothing had changed, except that Chris had drifted further and further away, as the emails slowly sounded more and more distant and disinterested. As Esther started work for the day she wondered how often, if ever, Chris thought about her. Judging by the infrequency of the emails, about once every couple of weeks. Making espresso for the caffeine addicts, who constituted a large proportion of the city's population, suddenly seemed so pointless. Esther wanted to go back home, back to bed.
One foot after the other, one day at a time. You'll get there, darling, you can do it.
That's what Chris had always said to her, when she wanted to give up on things. Esther wasn't proud of it, but she'd wanted to give up on a lot of things: her uni course, redecorating her flat, talking to her parents. Chris had always made her keep on going. Chris didn't believe in giving up, and that mentality seemed to have infected Esther; she kept on working, did her job, then had a melt-down on her break.
Luke found her sitting out the back, crying silently into her hands. He stood there, awkwardly, while she dried her face and forced a half-smile.
“Hey, Esther.” He tried to look her in the eye but she turned away. “Are you okay?”
She nodded. “Yeah, sorry, I'm fine.”
“Are you sure? I mean, if you need to talk about anything,” he checked his watch, “you have another five minutes of break time to do it.”
Esther laughed and shook her head. “No, I'm okay. It's nothing really, I was just thinking about Chris.”
Luke grimaced. “This is embarrassing – I know you've talked about a Chris before, but I can't remember who he is.”
“Oh, no that's fine.” She sighed, working out her phrasing. “She, is my girlfriend. Chris is short for Christina”
Luke clicked his fingers. “That's right! God, I'm sorry I forgot. Chris is your army girl, right?”
“She's in the air-force.”
“Yes, that's it, of course.” He thought for a moment. “So, how long has she been gone now?”
“Five months today.” Esther took a deep breath and blinked back the fresh flow of tears.
“Wow, that's a long time to be away from each other. You poor thing.” He looked genuinely concerned and Esther felt the weight on her chest lift a little.
“Well, she's got the worst of it, I'll be alright. And we're keeping in contact as much as we can.” Esther faltered, wondering how true that was. “I...I should hear from her soon. Probably tonight or tomorrow; as soon as she gets a chance to send something.”
“So, you're sure that you're alright?”
“Then back to work! Those coffees aren't going to make themselves!”
“Yes sir!” Esther laughed and headed back to the machine, sinking herself into the Arabica scented monotony. The rhythmic complaints of the grinder. The frothing and bubbling of the milk steamer as it screamed and hissed like an angry goose. The spluttering flow of coffee, coughing and spraying erratically, bouncing out of the cup and onto her hands and her clothes until she was permeated by its rich, heady aroma. And don’t forget to nod and smile, nod and smile to the customers. Welcome them, take their order, 'enjoy your coffee', nod, smile, repeat.
As last Stacy arrived to relieve her and Esther's shift was over. As she took off her apron and hung it up Stacey said, “Oh, by the way, I'm having a party tonight. Just a casual little thing with some friends. You should come.”
“I'm not sure if I can. I was planning to...” Esther trailed off. What was she planning to do? Go home and check her email every five minutes? She wasn't in the mood for doing Uni work, or for watching TV by herself. So the only option left was sitting around and moping.
“Well, if you've got plans don't worry.” Stacy told her. “It'd be great to see you there though. I'll introduce you to some of my friends – I'm sure you'll fit right in.”
“Thanks. I'll come by if I can.”
Esther drove home. She checked her email; still nothing. She turned on the TV, then turned it off. She took out some books and tried to study. She turned on the TV again and watched the news, then turned it off. She thought “screw this” and started looking through her closet for something to wear to the party.
Esther was a little nervous, arriving at Stacey's place. She only knew Stacey from work, so she didn't know any of her friends. Stacey herself wasn't even a close friend and Esther wasn't entirely sure why she'd been invited. She decided to just get inside, find herself a drink, and sink into a corner, but she hadn't even made it inside before she was confronted by a girl she'd never seen before. The girl was, in the true sense of the word, stunning. Esther usually tried not to notice other girls when she was with someone; she liked to maintain a 'don't window shop if you're not going to buy anything' policy, but with Chris so far away it didn't seem to matter quite so much.
The girl wasn't stunning in an obvious, conventional way. Her hair was only two or three inches long, and a brilliant, unnatural red. She was a little less than average height, but while most girls that short would have worn heels, she was barefoot. Her legs were also bare, her only clothing being a little black dress which, while being basically shapeless, showed her to best advantage in all the important particulars; it was just low-cut enough to be intriguing, the shape of the sleeves left her neck and shoulders exposed, and the sides clung gently to her slender waist.
“Hi!” The girl said enthusiastically. “Are you Esther?”
Esther nodded and smiled. “Yes. How did you know?”
“Stacey saw you coming up the driveway. She said I should come and say 'hi'.”
“Ah. And you are . . . ?”
“My name's Anna. I've known Stacey since primary school.” Anna spoke quickly, and seemed to expect some kind of response to the revelation of her identity.
Esther tried, “I haven't known Stacey for that long – we met at work.”
Anna looked disappointed, as though this wasn't the reply she'd been looking for. “Yes,” she said, “I know.
She's told me a bit about you.”
Not knowing what to say to that, Esther suggested that they go inside.
She had wanted to say hello to Stacey, but couldn't see her anywhere in the living-room. Anna said not to worry, she could say hello later, and lead her over to the drinks table. Esther selected a beer and Anna followed suit, then they found a vacant couch and sat awkwardly side by side, watching the people around then and sipping from their drinks.
Eventually Anna spoke, her words cascading haphazardly out of her mouth. “I've been looking forward to this party. I haven't gotten out much lately and Stacey's been planning this for a while. A little quieter than I thought it would be, although there's more people in the yard, I suppose. It’s still really nice.”
Esther nodded. “Yeah, I prefer quieter parties.” (“me too”, Anna hurriedly interjected) “I didn't hear about it until this afternoon. Stacey sort of just invited me out of the blue. I'm not really sure why she did, actually. We don't talk that much or anything.”
Anna sighed. “She, ah...she invited you because of me, Esther. She was trying to set us up together. I thought she'd told you too, but I guess she didn't in the end.”
“Oh.” Esther stared; Anna had taken her completely by surprise. “I, ah...no. That is, she didn't tell me.”
“Have I just embarrassed myself completely?” Anna asked, looking down at her bare feet. “I mean, you're not with someone already are you? Or, well, just not interested?”
Esther paused for a moment before replying. Was she with someone? Does someone count when they barely speak to you; when you haven't heard from them for nearly a month? Hardly. Was she interested? Absolutely.
She smiled at Anna and took another sip from her beer. “Of course you haven't embarrassed yourself, Anna. I'm at a bit of a disadvantage now though, since Stacey's told you about me already.” She leaned back on the couch and made herself comfortable. “Why don't you tell me about yourself?”