Good to Be Back

            Tasha’s cinnamon chai latte steamed comfortably warm in her hands and she felt all the cozier for the snowfall outside. Ahab's Coffee had long been a home for her. Sitting back in the overly-soft cafe chair, her gaze swept across the back of the bar, instinctively performing manager's calculus.

            It looked like the crew was on a four, which wasn't bad for post-lunch. All positions were covered, but they were still a little behind, recovering from the rush. A timer beeped to itself in the background, which meant the coffee was a few minutes older than fresh. It looked like pastries needed restocking soon, and the lobby's tables and chairs could certainly have stood a once-over.

            Tasha frowned and supposed that old habits die hard. She was on break, not from work, but school, having just finished her first semester at Doniphan College. As Doniphan was out of state, she had to quit her job at Ahab’s which she’d had all through high school. Though her world was now that of school and trying not to think too far beyond school, sitting in Ahab’s brought her back somehow. She mused over how much of her life was defined by this place.

            It was the place where she’d met Maddie, her best friend in the world. Maddie made working at Ahab's that much better. They had started at around the same time, and had made a concerted effort to ensure their schedules aligned as much as possible. Tasha had almost as many memories with Maddie as she had of Ahab's, so much so that the place might as well have been called Maddie's Coffee.

            Tasha sighed contentedly as she watched behind the bar, where Maddie had been working moments before. She had doubtless gone into the back to clock out. The pair hadn’t made a plan for the afternoon as such, but Tasha was sure they would find some trouble to get into. Memories ran together in a warm blur, of joking, venting, crying, and the workplace camaraderie that made the job possible. But above them all, there was this one time that was clear as crystal. Tasha sipped her drink and daydreamed about the first time she had kissed another girl.

            It was at the very end of Tasha’s last day. She was just clocking out for the last time, basking in the contentment of a thousand jobs well done and trying not to be nervous about what new things college would bring. Maddie, as usual, had come in a little early before her shift started. “Hey Tasha,” she smiled.

            Tasha smiled. “Hey Madz, clocking in?”

            “Eh, still got a few minutes. So, how’s it feel?” Her voice had an odd pointedness to it.

            “Being done?” Maddie didn’t reply. “Feels weird.”

            “Yeah?” Maddie seemed distracted by something.

            “Yeah, you know, kinda hollow. I’m really gonna miss this place.”

            “I’m really gonna miss you, too,” Maddie replied. “It’s gonna be so different.”

            “I guess, but like,” Tasha paused for a moment, unsure what Maddie was saying. Their eyes met, and Maddie’s expression suddenly focused directly in front of her. Without another word, she walked up and kissed Tasha square on the lips. It was quick and shallow, and lasted only a moment. "Maddie-" Tasha began, mind in a tailspin, but Maddie held up her finger to her mouth and winked.

            “I gotta clock in,” she said, walking out of the room, “see you.”

            Tasha had spent the entire semester reliving that moment. What did it mean? What was it for? Maddie had mostly messed around with boys throughout high school, but she had never been one for anything serious. Besides, Tasha hadn’t ever really thought of Maddie that way. Before, that is. Now she…she didn’t know what she thought, except that Maddie and the kiss had haunted her. Whenever she was talking to a cutie at school, or in quiet times by herself, she thought of Maddie, and her thought was tangled and impassible as a wall of vines. When Maddie had asked if she wanted to meet up over break, their first contact since the kiss, Tasha eagerly agreed. She would come to Ahab’s when Maddie got off work and the two would catch up. Just like friends do who haven’t seen each other in a while, she told herself.

            And a small voice inside wondered if Maddie was still single.

            At last Maddie emerged from the back with the buoyant step of the just-clocked-out. She grinned as she approached Tasha’s table. “You could’ve come back there, ya know,” she quipped.

            Tasha stood, sharing the grin. “Nah, you’d just rope me into doing dishes or something.”

            They both chuckled and embraced. “Good to see you,” one said. “Yeah, you too,” the other replied. The dear friends sat down and reconnected. They talked for hours. Catching up, reminiscing, gossiping. The new drinks for the winter were okay, but the ingredients had changed and some longtime customers were disappointed. But they still bought them religiously, because of course they did. For the customers, as for Tasha, the familiarity of Ahab’s was comforting.

            “So how’s college going?” Maddie asked impishly. “Go to any great parties?”

            Tasha reddened slightly. “Nah, I’m trying to be a good student. And they’re pretty strict about being a dry campus.” This was only half-true. Alcohol was permitted only in dorms where all residents were 21 and over, and the RAs watched underage students like hawks.

            “Ah, so you’re in high school?” Maddie smirked.

            “Feels like it sometimes,” Tasha sighed. “Lots of drama. ”

            Maddie’s eyes widened. “Oooooohhh! Like what like what?” And so Tasha regaled her with the highlights. From her very loud and extroverted roommate who always had at least two friends over whenever Tasha tried to study (“Try the library, or a smoke grenade” Maddie offered helpfully), to stressing over finals (“You ever gonna stop taking things so seriously?” Maddie asked playfully), to resisting pressure to rush for a sorority (“Good. They all sound boring anyway,” Maddie observed sagely), Tasha caught her friend up on her time away from home. Maddie for her part was a superb audience, taking in every detail with relish.

            As the afternoon wore on and conversation waned, Tasha found herself just looking at Maddie, just enjoying seeing her. She had hoped that seeing her dear friend again would clarify something, anything, like how she felt or how Maddie felt. But it didn’t. At length, Tasha cleared her throat, “Soooooo Madz,” she drew the word out, nervous to begin, pausing on the verge of the diving board and wondering if someone bothered to fill the pool. “There’s something I’ve been meaning to ask you.”

            Maddie’s eyes widened like a rabbit hearing a twig snap. “Actually, hey,” she interjected nervously, “you wanna get out of here?”

            Tasha blinked. “Go where?” She felt safe here, on familiar ground. Going somewhere else, she feared, would keep her from being as honest as she needed to be.

            Maddie shrugged. “The Park? Go for a little walk?” Her manner was easy, but she was unusually insistent, like she was politely insisting the next person in line ahead of her go on and use the bathroom.

            “Uh, sure, I-” Tasha began, falling silent as Maddie grabbed her hand.

            “Great!” Maddie smiled, squeezing Tasha’s hand tight and leading her out. The pair waved a quick farewell to the crew behind the bar and ventured out into the light but steady snowfall.

            The Park was a walking path that meandered on behind Ahab’s. It was a common place for employees to smoke or just chill on break. Maddie and Tasha had spent a lot of time on the bench a short distance away from Ahab’s, sometimes late into the night after closing. It was very much their place. Maddie lit a cigarette and offered one to Tasha, who declined. Shrugging, she took a drag. “So what’s up?”

            Tasha’s mouth was dry all of a sudden, disarmed by Maddie’s sudden directness. “Well, I wanted to ask you about-”

            “About the kiss, right? Uh-huh,” Maddie interjected. She wasn’t looking at Tasha.

            “Well, uh, yeah,” Tasha replied, her courage waning.

            Maddie took a deep pull. “What about it?” Her tone was a defiant challenge even as her eyes pointed directly away.

            Tasha was at a loss, panicking in spite of herself. “Well, why?”

            Maddie ashed her cigarette. “Dunno. Wanted to try it.” The answer came too quickly. It sounded rehearsed. “Did you like it?” she added, almost as an afterthought.

            “Hey, is something wrong?” Tasha asked.

            “Did, did you like it?” Maddie repeated, more firmly this time. She still avoided Tasha’s gaze.

            Tasha hesitated, unsure of how to proceed or of what was even happening right now. “I…maybe I did, yeah,” she floundered.

            “And let me guess,” Maddie turned to look at her, eyes flaring in defiance. “You made out with a bunch of girls while you were away at college, right?”

            Tasha was taken aback. “N-no, I haven’t.”

            “Well whatever then,” Maddie folded her arms. “Did you think about it?”

            “Maddie, chill. You’re being very weird.“ Tasha’s fluster was becoming annoyance. Her friend was rarely outright belligerent, even when dealing with difficult things.

            “You brought it up,” Maddie spat back.

            “Yeah I did,” Tasha retorted, finding conversational footing at last. “You kissed me, out of nowhere, right as I went away. And then you get mad at me when I want an explanation? Which I deserve, by the way. I mean, what the hell is wrong with you?”

            Maddie deflated. “You’re right,” she began, “I’m sorry.” She took a steadying drag on her cigarette. “It’s just that I…” Maddie struggled to find the right words. “I really like you, Tasha. And…and not just like friends like each other.”

            “Oh.” It was all Tasha could say. The wall of vines still loomed large, and she could feel it in her stomach.

            Flushing, Maddie stumbled onward like a kid running down a steep hill. “And I was really sad when you went away because I love being around you and you’re gone so far away and are gonna make a lot of new friends and probably forget all about me, and it’s like I don’t even know if you like me too or not but it was way too late to ask or like do anything about it and I’m sorry for putting all this on you but like, I just had to do something and now I’m just making a huge mess of our friendship and if you decide you like it you might find some other girl and-”

            “Maddie.” Tasha grabbed Maddie’s hand. “Breathe, Maddie.” Maddie breathed. The beginnings of tears were welling in her eyes. She sniffled, her cigarette forgotten in the snow beside them. “Hey,” Tasha said softly, brushing the tears away, “don’t cry, please.”

            “But I just ruined-” Maddie sobbed.

            “You haven’t ruined anything,” Tasha insisted. She took Maddie’s other hand and turned to face her fully.

            “But like, you don’t-”

            “I don’t know, is what I don’t.” Maddie’s face was trepidation itself. Tasha took a deep breath before continuing. “I was…surprised by the kiss. I wasn’t expecting it, and I hadn’t ever thought of you like that. But I did like it.” She smiled, and Maddie joined her. “And it did get me thinking.”

            Maddie smiled slightly in spite of herself. “Yeah?” she asked.

            “Yeah,” Tasha nodded. Only problem, it was too quick.”

            She moved closer to her friend of many years, only half-sure what she was doing. But half-sure was sure enough for right now, she decided. She leaned in and her lips found Maddie’s. Like a Spring flower blooming, Maddie was slight and still at first. But with a surprised intake of breath she came alive, quickening and reciprocating this sudden, beautiful feeling. The two quickly lost themselves in the connection, exploring the change that was happening in the space between them.

            Before, their closeness was that of friends, of sisters even. But something, Tasha wasn’t quite sure what, was different now, and she thought she liked it. After who knows how long, the two broke in mutual, unspoken agreement. Like all natural things, the kiss ended. Tasha couldn’t help but laugh. “Yeah, that’s better,” she grinned, forehead pressing into Maddie’s.

            Maddie giggled too. But a glint of wariness was still in her eyes. “So, what now?”

            Tasha considered a moment, not moving away. “Now I’m hungry. Wanna get something to eat?”

            Maddie refused the bait. “I mean, what about us? Is there an us?”

            Tasha smiled. “Look, this is new for me, okay? I need to go slow.”

            “Okay, sorry,” Maddie said hastily.

            “Don’t be sorry for your feelings,” Tasha said, squeezing her hand. “It was really brave, what you did.”

            Maddie grimaced a bit. “Bravery doesn’t get the girls nowadays,” she reflected quietly.

            Tasha twisted her hair around a finger. “Well, some of us like getting swept off our feet,” she said shyly. She rose. “C’mon, let’s get out of here. I want tacos.”

            Maddie didn’t move. “Please, just tell me,” she said quietly, “did I mess up?”

            A concerned smile twitched at the edge of Tasha’s mouth. “No, Madz, you didn’t.” She reached out her hand. After a beat, Maddie took it. “For right now,” Tasha said softly, “I want to go out to lunch with you. Like, as a date,” she added significantly. She pulled Maddie to her feet.

            “And from there?” Maddie asked hopefully.

            “Well, we’ll just have to see, won’t we?” Tasha looked at Maddie and that mess of feelings, too many and tangled to name, was still there, like anxious spaghetti. All she knew was that she wanted tacos, and she wanted to eat them with Maddie, and that having both tacos and Maddie right now would make her very happy.

            Hand in hand, the couple walked to Maddie’s car. The snow had stopped and the sky was an endless pastel blue. It was a beautiful day.