Australian fiction, poetry, essays, book reviews
  • Time to read 11 minutes

She had good days and bad days, and from the moment she opened her eyes that morning she knew it was going to be a struggle. She was tired, as always, but there was something deeper, a heavy feeling in her stomach, a whisper of some indescribable sense that she recognised as the cloud returning. Her vision was narrow, and no matter how slow and deep she inhaled, she couldn’t seem to get enough air. Her mind ran an inventory of all the things she had to do by the end of the day, and as she listed them an overwhelming sense of dread filled her chest. But before she let it overtake her, she forced herself to lift a finger, then two, then raised her hand, her entire arm. Using the momentum, she swung her body into a sitting position. Then, she was up, and that meant ticking off the first item on her mental list.

It took her two hours to get dressed and force herself to walk the few blocks to the cafe, but once she stepped outside her door it was easier. Now that she had started, if she stopped it was wasted effort. But when she sat down at one of the only booths free in the bustling brunch spot, coffee in hand, and opened her laptop, she suddenly felt exhausted. As she re-read the words typed neatly across the document screen she felt all motivation abandon her. She watched the cursor blink on and off as it waited on a white screen, taunting her.

She could practically feel her creativity flee from her body.

Her eyes traced the existing sentence, the ‘prompt’ the class had been given. It was a stupid opening line and it was draining her energy as she read it: ‘Coffee and papers flew into a mess as the two strangers collided on their hurried paths, unaware their destinies were now intertwined.’ She could practically feel her creativity flee from her body.

There was a particularly loud laugh from the table next to her and she couldn't resist glancing over at the couple, who were chatting in Spanish. The girl was boisterous, her speech punctuated by talking hands, the boy sitting low in his seat, his voice just on the husk of deepening. She wondered if they were siblings; he looked much too young to be her boyfriend. Beside them, an elderly woman was reading a newspaper, legs crossed and back upright against the sofa. Her hands fluttered over the page like a delicate butterfly waiting to land. In front of her, a group of teenagers sat silently staring at their phones – they had barely said a word to each other since she arrived. The clatter of coffee cups being stacked was constant behind the counter, joined by the sound of frothing milk and beans grinding every so often.

Behind that, there was a jazz track playing over the speakers, a soothing tone with a lazy saxophone thread. She tried to tap into the smoothness of the track. Keep going or it’s wasted effort, she told herself. Taking a sip of her drink, she straightened against the sofa, found her headphones and started up her ‘study playlist’ in an attempt to reduce distractions. Then, she focused again on the laptop screen, blinking at the flashing cursor once again.

Of course, the fact that she didn’t like writing romances wasn’t helping. Although she was usually a prolific writer, she always struggled with love stories. She hated plugging into the clichés, especially the drama of the break-up-get-back-together plot that had seemed to dominate rom coms since anyone could remember. She sighed, tapping the spacebar on the keyboard a few times, watching as the cursor moved in response. The blank space was mocking her.

She took a deep breath and straightened again, realising she had already begun slouching, and cracked her neck by rolling it to the left, then the right. Time to get serious.

She re-read the sentence and her eyes caught on the final word: intertwined. It made her think of a ball of yarn, impossibly tangled and knotted and frayed in places as the strands looped, around and around, back in and through, in too many directions to keep track of. Like an elastic band – no end and no beginning.

That was how feelings worked, though, really. They became tangled and snagged, so caught up in each other that there was no way to unravel them. Maybe that was why it was so hard to write romances – they always seemed so superficial, just about love trumping every other possible situation, winning over every warring emotion. Dismissing sadness, or loss. Sometimes, love meant loss. That’s what the majority of those romances missed.

For a third time, her eyes traced over that opening line. She growled in frustration so loudly that the woman reading the paper glanced in her direction. Taking another swig of coffee, now lukewarm, she debated whether she should buy a new one, or just leave. She knew it had been a waste of time, getting up this morning.

There was a blur of movement from the corner of her eye, and she looked up, startled, as it settled into her line of vision. A man was sitting down in the seat opposite her, at her table. She blinked a few times at his smiling face; brown eyes, clean shaven, brown hair cropped closely around his ears but with a slightly mussed fringe that lay just short of his eyebrows. He looked vaguely familiar but she couldn’t quite place it.

‘Amelia, right?’ he said, eyes tracing her beaten-up laptop. It was covered with mismatched dog stickers, red and white roses and quotes in a graffiti-style font.

She frowned at him, taking out her headphones. She had heard him clearly - the music wasn’t doing anything to cancel out the surrounding noises - but she hoped the action would make him realise how rude he was being. Who sat down at a stranger’s table without asking?

‘Um, hi…’ she trailed off. His grin widened.

‘You don’t remember me, do you?’ he asked, laughing. She shook her head, glancing to the door. He pointed to his chest, where a gold cross hung against a chequered flannel shirt.

‘Andrew Bailey.’ When she didn’t respond, his voice lowered and his mirth disappeared. ‘I was friends with Angie in high school.’

The air left her lungs in a rush, and there was a faint ringing in her ears as she fell back against the cushions. Her face must have changed, because the man shifted, leaning closer.

‘I guess you were a kid then,’ he said quietly. ‘I shouldn’t be surprised you don’t remember. Sorry.’

The sounds around her had faded now; she could barely hear the coffee grinder, the jazz track, the laughing Spanish girl. There was only the high-pitched ringing that seemed to reverberate through her, from her ears to her brain to the ends of her limbs. She looked at the stranger with fresh eyes, saw the ghost of his younger self. More hair, fewer laugh lines.

...she could barely hear the coffee grinder, the jazz track, the laughing Spanish girl

‘How have you been?’ the man asked, his voice filtering through the echo. ‘It’s been a long time.’

His voice was low and she could hear the sympathy behind the words; it was enough to kick her out of her daze. She straightened and cleared her throat, making a good imitation of the relaxed, friendly version of herself.

‘Yeah, I’ve been good,’ she dismissed his question. ‘But it’s been ages. How did you even recognise me?’

He shrugged.

‘You look older, but you’re the same,’ he said. ‘I remember when you used to sneak up onto the top stair and eavesdrop outside Angie’s door.’

He paused, glancing to the side for a moment. He was smiling again as he continued: ‘We’d listen to the creak of the stair as you sat on it. She’d laugh and whisper ‘Amelia,’ like it was the funniest thing in the world.’

She smiled at the thought of her younger self, just about to start high school and aching to be cool, listening at the door when Angie had her friends over in a desperate attempt to acquaint herself with what high school was like. She knew Angie knew, just like Angie knew Amelia would never tell their parents about the group smoking cigarettes under the tree at lunchtime, or the late-night vandalism trips they went on, tagging street corners with poorly-drawn cuss words. It was unspoken, but it was there, in their bond.

The ringing in her ears started up again, faint but humming.

‘Then we’d start talking really loudly about smoking pot and stealing food from the store and skinny dipping in rivers and all this stupid stuff,’ Andrew was still talking, and now he started laughing. ‘It was absolute bull, of course, but we thought it was hilarious.’

She frowned, suddenly cleared of the clouds descending on her, and shook her head.

‘Some of it was true, though,’ she protested. ‘I used to hear her leave the house at night, and I saw the spray cans.’

He shrugged again.

‘Oh, yeah, some of it, but most of it was made up for your benefit,’ he said. He fell silent, looking at the table. ‘Your sister was pretty fun.’

There it was, the use of past tense. Her stomach dropped. Her breaths were loud in her ears, reverberating in her chest. She didn’t want to continue this conversation.

They were quiet and Andrew’s eyes flitted over her laptop, no doubt tracing the quote she had stuck in the middle of the cover, surrounded by the cute dogs and flowers. ‘The ones that love us never really leave us,’ it read. She cleared her throat and he shifted in his seat, leaning back on the sofa.

‘So did you go to university?’ he asked. She took a sip of her coffee, now significantly colder, and avoided his gaze.

‘Yeah, I studied communications, finished last year,’ she replied, then drained her cup, shuddering at the taste. ‘Now I’ve picked up some extra writing courses. You?’

He pointed to her empty up, rising slightly from his seat.

‘I haven’t ordered mine yet, did you want a refill?’

She looked from his earnest face to the cup and wondered how long was too long to reply. Finally, she shrugged. Nothing like social discomfort to revitalise you, she thought. She suddenly knew she would keep trying with the stupid romance story. It was, after all, deadline day. If pressure was needed to force her into starting, she had plenty of it.

‘Sure, if you don’t mind,’ she said. His face broke into a smile and his shoulders relaxed as he nodded.

‘No worries.’ He rose from the table and paused next to her. ‘Flat white? Cappuccino?’ She nodded at the second option and he moved to the counter where a few people were waiting for takeaways, playing on their phones. The staff were busy making drinks and preparing cake, so he waited a few minutes without any impatience. She watched his back, taking in his relaxed posture as he leaned casually against the counter, and was suddenly hit with an urgent need to leave. She knew that she didn’t want to talk to him – she could feel the anxiousness bubble in the pit of her stomach, the fear that he would cause her carefully-built composure to collapse.

She stared at her blank computer screen; it was asleep now due to her inactivity, and her reflection stared back at her. No, she told herself, blinking back at herself with a clenched, determined jaw. No, you’re fine.

She fiddled with the cord of her headphones and glanced around at the tables. The Spanish couple was gone, she realised with a jolt of surprise. The silent teenagers had graduated to drinking milkshakes and drip coffee while showing each other their phone screens. The newspaper-reading woman had also disappeared, and a man with a briefcase had taken her place, already drinking what looked like an espresso. He had a half-eaten cheesecake in front of him.

‘Here you are,’ Andrew said as he slid back into the opposite seat with two takeaway cups. He looked at them apologetically. ‘The lady didn’t ask, just assumed takeaway.’

Amelia shrugged but was relieved at the early getaway.

‘It’s okay, I have to leave soon anyway,’ she lied. ‘I have dinner plans.’ Andrew wiggled his eyebrows.

‘Boyfriend?’ he asked with a suggestive smirk. She narrowed her eyes. She didn’t want personal, she wanted small talk.


He laughed.

‘On again, off again, is it?’ She crossed her arms.

‘What about you?’ She deflected. ‘Married? Kids?’ He held up his hands in a ‘stop’ gesture.

‘Woah, back up there,” he said. “Do I look like I’m in the middle of my mid-life crisis?’ She shrugged.

‘Maybe,’ she said, her mouth twitching. ‘I can see the wrinkles all the way from over here.’ He laughed.

‘Those are stress lines.’

‘What do you have to be stressed about?’ she asked, surprised at her accusatory tone. He shrugged, taking a swig of his drink.

‘Work, money, family stuff. Life, I guess.’ He was back to being serious and was running his fingers along the grooves in his plastic cup. ‘My mum hasn’t been too well lately, so it hasn’t been a fun time.’

She nodded, not trusting herself to say anything sympathetic. He was looking at his hands, studying the way they clutched the cup.

‘Where do you work?’ she asked, to change the subject. Small talk.

‘At a pharmaceutical company,’ he said. ‘You?’

The ringing was back with a force; with it came the urge to run, far away. She blinked at him, his face seeming to loom in front of her eyes. She wondered if she should take her coffee and bolt. She would never see him again, so did it matter?

‘I mostly babysit,’ she replied finally. She cleared her throat and took another sip, savouring the coffee’s heat on her tongue. She wondered what her face looked like when she panicked. Was she as good at hiding it as she thought she was?

She would never see him again, so did it matter?

‘The job market is pretty shitty right now,’ he agreed. ‘Babysitting is cash payment, right? That’s a bonus.’

She stared at him, and he stared back. They didn’t smile, but there seemed to be a world of knowledge in that gaze. She knew, in that moment, that he could see her struggles. She also knew – somehow, she didn’t know how – that he understood. It was unspoken, but it was there. She nodded, after a moment, and now he did smile at her. He nodded back, and they drank their coffee in silence.

‘Listen, I have to go,’ he said after a minute, checking his watch. ‘Sorry to run out on you, but I actually only came in for a takeaway.’

She blinked at him.

‘Oh, no worries,’ she said, even though she could tell he didn’t have anywhere to go. He was giving her an early out, by leaving first. He looked apologetic, but underneath that, his eyes were gentle. Not sympathetic, or pitying. Just soft. Understanding.

She smiled.

‘Thanks for the coffee, and the chat.’

He nodded, draining his cup and leaving it on the table opposite her.

‘We should catch up again,’ he suggested. He fumbled in his wallet, drawing out a business card, and placed it beneath the empty cup. ‘Give me a call, or just text.’

She nodded, even though she knew – and he did too, most likely – that it would never happen.

He waved, and turned to leave, but hesitated. Turning back, he pointed at her laptop.

‘I like that sticker,’ he said. ‘I believe it’s absolutely true.’ He walked out without looking back.

Amelia studied the sticker, tracing the words with her fingertip. ‘The ones that love us never really leave us.’

Don’t they?

Feeling the gnawing in her stomach begin to surface, she jammed her earphones back in her ears and touched the mousepad, watching as her laptop’s screen sprung back to life, revealing the first line. She pushed play on the soft soothing music and settled down against the booth.

‘Coffee and papers flew into a mess as the two strangers collided on their hurried paths, unaware their destinies were intertwined.’

The cursor continued to blink next to the period, and she kept staring at it. She glanced around at the tables beside her, now mostly empty. Her eyes were drawn once again to her laptop sticker. She shook her head. No, it’s time to think romantically, she told herself. Destiny, intertwined, all that.

But a few moments later she was staring again, not seeing the words or the keypad or the screen, her head full of Angie and that chance meeting with her sister’s old friend. I knew today would be a bad day.

With a sigh, she ripped out her earphones and threw them into her backpack, along with her purse, sunglasses and finally her laptop. She grabbed her coffee cup, now only half-full, and pulled open the door to the café, fumbling with one of the straps of her backpack. She was determined to get home as fast as she could. She had just shut the door behind her when she was bumped in the shoulder, hard, by someone heading in. Her cup went flying, the lid bouncing off her red knitted sweater as the coffee exploded down her front and soaked into the waistband of her jeans. She swore as the warm liquid dripped through her bra.

‘Shit, sorry!’ a voice said. She looked up to see a tall stranger, wearing a light blue collared shirt and holding a stack of papers, crinkled in places where he was clenching them tightly. He was frantically searching his pockets. ‘I’m sorry, I’ve got a tissue somewhere – did it burn you?’

She shook her head, wincing as the coffee continued to slide along her stomach. The man made a triumphant noise as a tissue emerged from deep in one of his pockets, and he made to start dabbing her shirt but stopped just shy of touching her.

‘Ah – do you want me - ’

She snatched the tissue from his hands and began wiping at the specks that had landed across her cheek and temple.

‘I’m so sorry, really I –‘

‘This shit is not romantic!’ she snapped.

He stopped, taken aback as she dropped her backpack on the sidewalk and took out her laptop, right on the street as people passed and the stranger watched. Crouching next to the door, she waited for the screen to load, then highlighted her first line and pushed the delete key.

With the man trying to peer over the back of the laptop, and the noises of the street around her, she typed: The ones that love us never really leave us.

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About the author:

Sam James

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Sam James is a former journalist, editor and content writer who loves travel, creative fiction and dogs.