"A Long Time Coming"
a short story
Gary Baker, April 2013
The door to Cafe Gruyer opened fluidly as Xander Belmont stepped into air-conditioning and out of the stifling summer heat. Once inside, the tang of effervescent coffee grinds coveted the newcomer, and he felt a wave of relaxation come over him.
This was his realm, this was where he could feel most at home after recent events at work where, despite all he had done, despite all precautions to guard against it, Xander had still fallen for one of his photographic subjects. Jealousy had grown and soon nothing but the self-preservation of his own willpower had been able to keep him from growling at the girl's partners each and every time they met in hallways and stage rooms.
But all that was in the past and, as he usually forced himself to do, when he entered Gruyer he chose to leave life at the door. This was a time for the moments of rejuvenating tea and thoughtful silence that would be enabled.
“Hey! If it isn't the Xander Belmont!” came the barritone voice of the barrista on duty. “Long time no see, stranger!”
Xander looked up to find his old childhood friend, Joss, working the espresso machines with coffee stains as dark as his skin streaking across the elbows of his white button-up. “Joss!” A smile lit his face despite his maddeningly sour mood, “good to see you – how've you been?”
Joss grinned with resplendently pearlescent teeth, looking much like the Cheshire cat in human form, and nodded. “Been good, been real good.” He motioned over his shoulder as though indicating something on the back wall, “I went travelling across Europe not too long ago.”
“Oh?” Xander placed his palms on the brown marble counter with pleasure, “And how'd that go?”
“Better than you can believe, my man.” The barrista quickly tamped the espresso and locked it into the machine, hit a release valve to start the percolation process, then poured a half-glass of whole milk and the rest with half-and-half into a silver pitcher before continuing as he steamed the mixture. “I went on the Camino de Santiago de Compostella...”
Xander waited for an explanation, and when none came he scowled with impatience. “Which is...?”
Joss laughed. “It's a walk through most of Spain eventually ending up along the west coast near the Galician corner in the northwest.” He shook his head with a slight sigh. “But that's not the best part, neither.” The machine made a loud beep telling that the percolation had finished, so Joss took the ceramic gray mug in hand and slowly tipped the milk foam over and in, to create a perfectly displayed latte with a tiny swirled heart in the tan and white foam. “One half-n-half latte, ready to go!”
He then turned to Xander and wiped his hands on a sanitation cloth beside the register as a businessman came over and took the latte. “What can I getcha, by the way?”
Xander paused, looked across the ever-familiar beverage menu, and decided upon a basic spiced chai with half-and-half. “But seriously,” he pressed, “what's the best part?”
“Get this,” the dark-skinned man snapped his hand to his arm to pull up his left sleeve and revealed a stout shell tattoo inlaid in stark white ink. “When I got to the end I found myself in a spiritual upheaval, man. I was dead to the world before going, an I mean like 'full-on Hollywood style zombie' sort of dead.” He turned to the machines and began formulating Xander's drink. “I hated life, y'know? I wanted out. My dad died from cancer a year before, my mom committed suicide the month after he died, and my sis wouldn't talk to me claimin it was all my fault.”
Xander stared, wide eyed. “...and how is this 'better than I could believe'? I mean, shit man, that's rough!”
Joss held up a halting hand, “jus wait, I aint finished yet.” He spun a container of whipped cream in his palm like a master bartender with a bottle of vodka, then sprayed a small corner onto a plate which he then proffered for Xander. “Taste this: the boss's home-made recipe.”
Xander raised an eyebrow inquisitively. “Dude, come on. Where's the good part of all this?”
Joss sighed. “Alright, fine – no beating around the bush with you is there? Then again there never was.” He finished letting the tea bag steep, and began pouring in the dairy mixture while stirring slightly. “So I went to my cousin's shrink back east, cuz I'd heard that for a psychiatrist he was one damn good guy, too. Anyhow I tried to tell him I wanted to find a place that'd help me end it. I couldn't do it myself, and I didn't want my baby sis to find out for fear she'd follow the new family habit of dyin before our time.”
He shook himself as though trying to clear bad memories, then looked up to Xander again. “He told me to take a walk – which I thought was stupid – until he told me about this famous path that hundred of thousands of people take every day for similar purposes as I would be. Said this would help me decide, that if I still wanted to end it after I finished the walk he'd do everything he could to help me.”
“So what happened?”
“At the end I got a tattoo of the symbol of the great San Santiago – a small clam shell of some kind, don't ask me why – and the tattoo artist asked to hear my story about the journey I took. Said he wanted to hear how Saintiago changed me enough to want the permanence of his embodiment on me.” Joss grinned suddenly, “when I told him, he invited me in to talk to someone he lived with... turns out the man had a soft spot for me, and that his daughter was yet to be married.”
Xander gaped. “You mean you married his daughter? Am I to believe you wed some girl you'd never even met before, and all because her dad liked your sob story?”
Taken aback, Joss scowled. “When you put it that way it sounds horrible--” he topped off Xander's chai and passed it over, “but hear me out, man. When she came out we caught eyes – and I mean we lost track of time jus starin at each other. In that split second time musta stopped for an hour, it felt like. She was perfect, man, her dark hair jus a little wavy in the light of the settin sun...” the barrista tapered off, then sighed cheerily and looked to Xander with a quirky grin. “The best part was that when her crazy dad left us alone I took her to get some grub, where I found out she felt the same damn way about me. Like we were made for each other, or somethin.” Leaning on the counter toward his childhood friend, Joss let his eyes glaze over, lost in his memories. “If the walk hadn't already made a devoutly religious man outta me by that point, Xander, her smile woulda done the trick for sure.”
There was no question about how changed Joss was since the last time Xander had seen him. He used to be quiet, pensive, bored during classes and too much to handle out on the town. Now he smiled as often as breathing. A glimmer in his eye had set in and brought about lines surrounding his nose and lips that Xander would have done anything to capture.
With a start, Xander found himself taking mental photographs as though he had a camera in hand. It disgusted him that he'd left it at his apartment on the backside of town, where the filth gave common dirt a clean nature.
“Anyways,” Joss suddenly piped in, “how you been? Still doin that... well, you know... that gig you had back when?”
Eyebrows raised, Xander looked over the rim of his glass while taking the first sip. “You mean my photography?”
The big man smirked. “Yeah, if that's what you call it.” He glanced around at the various customers in their places at tables throughout the room. “Give me an idea: how many men here would recognize your work if they saw it?”
Xander turned to face them, leaning his elbows on the marble behind him. It was a tough call, really. Some men were obvious regulars to websites like those he sold his work to: disheveled hair, deep bags beneath the eyes... not homeless, that was obvious, but not in good standing relationship-wise either. Others were less easily deciphered: businessmen with expensive suits, a man with a new lightweight laptop meant for travel, and the occasional packet of papers open to reveal work documents being revised.
“I dunno,” Xander perked his lips to the side in thought, “maybe half?”
Joss exhaled in shock. “Half the men here? Or jus half the creeps who visit those places?”
Turning to his friend, Xander laughed. “One in the same, if you ask me.” He paused and let his eyes drop to the ceramic mug on the counter. “But I'm done with that life now.”
Joss waited for a moment, as though expecting his friend to explain. “You mean forever? Or that you're just between gigs right now?”
“I'm done, Joss.” Xander shrugged, “I resigned yesterday afternoon.”
The barrista whistled through his teeth, “man if I got paid that much per shot I took, I'd never quit in my life.”
“Well you aren't me, now are you?”
A long moment of silence erupted as Xander realized how harsh his words had been, how badly he'd just snapped at someone he still – even after all these years – connected with on the slightest conversation topic.
“Look. Joss,” Xander shook his head vehemently.
“No need, man.” He waved his hands to fend off more from his old friend, “Say no more. I ain't gotta know if you dont wanna tell.”
Xander gave his friend a serious glare. “It's about a girl, Joss.”
The barrista shrugged. “Always is, man. What else is new?”
With a loud groan Xander thrust his hands in his pockets. “Just hear me out, alright?” He looked around to be sure no one else had arrived to order. With none there he looked back to Joss and withheld a long, demeaning sigh. “She was the girl of my dreams, Joss. We met when I was hired for a new gig – an old regular of theirs paying her way through college with an impeccable set of assets.
“At first I played it cool. It was the first time I actually felt like I was a part of the photo shoot, like I was influencing her... well her reactions. As time went on, though, I found myself growing irritated at those who came near her, I played the angles to her and often ended up getting shots without her partners at all – and trust me, that's hard as hell to do.”
He let his eyes drift to the counter in shame. “I came to the point where I began treating each of her solo shoots as my own time with her, no one else was there anyways besides the director, so really it was... but when she was with others, particularly men, I felt stabs of guilt – like I had done something wrong.” Xander let out a long sigh at last, feeling like he'd been holding his breath. “When I finally noticed what I was doing, I chose to end my career. After her, no one else would look nearly as good in my lens; I'll never again feel accomplished with the shots I get... so I resigned.”
Joss was silent for a long time.
The clock on the side wall ticked, tocked, ticked, tocked, and finally Joss grimaced. “I, uh, I dunno what to say, man.”
“Then dont.” Xander lifted his mug and saluted as though tipping his hat, “It's my own stupid problem, not yours.”
Still exasperated by what Xander assumed was the moment of distinct surrealism brought on by the different paths their lives had taken, Joss shook his head side to side slowly. When he finally stopped, Joss lost himself watching his friend try to bring himself back to the moment, to fend of the demons within.
“Hey... Xander,” he said at last, “if you ever need to... you know... get away or somethin just let me know. As soon as Silvia's brother gets back from Russia, we plan on moving me over there... you're welcome to come if you'll do the honor of taking our wedding photos.” A moments pause made way before Joss went on. “You wouldn even have to stay with us for long. Use us as a stepping stone, if you will. Jus... you know, go for a walk.”
A slight smile lit Xanders face, “and no nudes?”
Joss barked a laugh. “Hell no, man! Well... okay, some. Just not for you to see nor take, at least.”