1- the midnight cafe

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everything is different at night. if you leave your house after the sun set, it's as if you're in another dimension. and everything feels strange and different, because you start acting different. as if you turn off a switch in your head, you start to percieve the world differently.

i believe there's two sides of a human being.

there's the day side - the side you show to others. you know, like smiling and talking about things that you care about, but not really. you're focusing on what's in front of you. your work, your peers, your current objectives and goals, whatever. that's what fills your mind during the day.

but then it's night time and you're at home and tired and finally alone. the sun's gone and so are the people and things that buzz in your brain all day. then it's just you and your own thoughts. when you listen to yourself think, everything looks and feels different. it's quiet. you can finally hear yourself and notice the small things that would normally get drowned out of your attention during the day. you can finally hear yourself and you become your night self. who you are in your in head.

that's why i work at the midnight cafe. of course, it's more of a 24/7 cafe and i happen to work the night shift, but it's called the midnight cafe. you know. to sound cool.

there are things you can observe about people at night that you won't during the day. you see them at their most vulnerable. there's no noise of the day time hustle to hide behind. it's just them.

it's not a very busy night tonight. there are a few people scattered at the tables, but no large parties. it is a weeknight after all.

i hear the door open and close and i straighten my back a little behind the counter that i had been leaning against.

i look up to see just one guy with a messenger bag. he's obviously tired and dazed and his shoulders are slouched, resembling my posture. his hair is light blonde, but it looks dull under the dim cafe lights. he's tall and lanky but he's slouching as if trying to make himself smaller.

he must be a student from the nearby university. we get a lot of them here. all of them sleep deprived, coffee drinking, and soulless. he was no exception.

"what can i get for you?" i ask. he looks up at me. his eyes are noticably blue, even in the dimness of the cafe.

"just a medium black coffee."

"anything else? or is that all?" no milk, creamer, foam, syrup- anything? people assume i drink coffee black "like my soul" but even i have enough soul to admit that black coffee tastes like burnt regret.

"no. that's it." his voice sounds dull and hollow. people always tell me my voice sounds that way. is this what it sounds like?

i punch the order in and take his name, even though there was no one else here.

"will." he says, his lips curving into the tiniest smile.

will.

i like having names to attach to faces. if i don't know a person or if they're a stranger, i'll make up a name for them in my head. so when their stories unravel as i study their order, their movements, their words, their stories, i'll have a name to connect it all to. i guess that's another reason i like being a barista here. it always gives me an excuse to ask for a name.

will. yeah, i think he looks like a william. freckles speckle his nose and cheeks. he really looks like a will when he's smiling like that.

"i'll get that right for you."

out of the corner of my eye, i see him sitting down at the bar facing the wall and opening a laptop. definitely a university student.

instead of calling his name, i stalk over and place the cup on the counter beside his laptop. he stops typing and looks up, snapping out if his daze.

"what? oh. thank you, uh," he looks at me expectantly, waiting for me to tell him my name.

"nico,"

"nico. thanks, nico." it's been a while since i've heard my own name said aloud and it's strange to hear it in an unfamiliar voice. he smiles a little at me.

avoiding eye contact, i look away. "no problem."

i take a peek at his laptop screen before returning to the register. it's a paper about medicine. he's a fucking medical student. i feel a pang of sympathy. poor guy. medical school must be kicking his ass right now looking at the state of his blood shot eyes.

i return and start wiping down the counters so i'd have something to do. i steal glances at him from the corner of my vision. he's typing furiously, not pausing to look at me. he stops to drink the coffee. his fingers are thin and gentle.

like with every customer, i wonder what life he lives. where does he want to go? what does he do in his free time? why does he do the things he does? what is it that he wishes to do with his life?

that's the big question, isn't it? what's the purpose of our lives, and more importantly, what will i make the purpose of my life?

i ask these questions every time i see someone new walk through the doors at night. and it's always clearer at night when people are in a state of rest. that's when these questions emerge in their heads. that's what makes my shift so unique.

time passes and the silence in the shop is heavy. the quiet jazz music hums. suddenly, i hear a large sigh of relief and the shutting of the laptop. he must have finally finished his paper. he slumps over the table and relaxes his shoulders finally. he breathes deeply. the café is warm and the piano jazz music hums like a lullaby. he had immediately fallen asleep.

an hour or two passes and i begin to clean up, readying to end my shift. i glance over and he's still asleep. he's turned his head and i see his eyelids draped delicately over his eyes. his hair falls into his face.

i'd better wake him. the sun is rising over new york city and soon the café will be full of busy, bustling new yorkers. another reason i'd never give up the night shift. the morning coffee drinkers are the loudest and yet somehow, none of the noise that comes out of their mouths ever mean anything. plus, he may have an early class that he shouldn't be late for. it's a waste though. he seems to be sleeping so soundly and peacefully.

i'm scared to touch him.

"hey. hey, get up."

he doesn't stir.

"hey." i touch his shoulder. it's warm. it strikes me that i haven't touched another human in a while. i forgot what it felt like. it was... alive. nothing at all like the ceramic mugs or the rags i use to clean counters. he's living and breathing and fleshy and... warm.

i shake the thoughts about fleshy humans and how warm he is out of my head. i shake him a little. "wake up. hey, wake up." it's not working. "will,"

he seems to respond to his own name. he groans and his eyes flutter open.

"urrgh- wh, am i dead?" he groans in groggy confusion.

"yeah, welcome to the underworld. we serve lattes to sad college students and harbor the tortured souls of the dead." i answer sarcastically but as it falls out of my mouth, i realize that it's kind of a true statement. also, possibly insensitive.

but he seems to find it funny as his lips tug into a smile. he rubs his eyes and stretches, making a big show of it. "thanks for waking me up."

"no problem," i mumble. my voice sounds unnatural and low. my vocal chords are accustomed to silence.

he gathers his belongings and stands up to leave. he looks at me and waves at me. i nod. the door closes behind him.

i'm alone in the café in the grey area between night and day. the sun has yet to touch the darkened sky, but it is starting to light up into a steel blue color.

he was kind of cute.

i didn't even give him my number.

oh well.

i mean, what is this? a shitty teen romance? even if it was, i wouldn't be the main character. people like me don't get to be the protagonist.

i clock out and go home. i lay in bed, staring at the ceiling as the rest of the world is just stirring and bustling outside to their daily commute. it's so loud. the sun is waking up and gently touching the sky with its warm rays.

i hardly sleep.

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