Stories, Telling Tales
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Signs and Second Chances

Because I didn’t want to break my recent blogging streak (and because I haven’t posted any of my fiction stuff in a while), here’s a short story I wrote for my creative writing class two years ago. It’s loosely based on my NaNoWriMo 2012 novel–which I haven’t finished to this day, LOL.

This was actually my initial draft, but I preferred it over the final work I submitted. The photo was taken during our stopover in Heidelberg back in 2009. We only stayed for a few hours, but I fell in love with the picturesque German city all the same.

*Disclaimer: This is completely a work of fiction.

* * *

An hour from now, she’d think it had been serendipity that brought her there. But in that exact moment, it was the sign that called to her.

Rather, it was the inscription on the sign. Six letters in the old German typeface painstakingly carved into a slab of weathered wood. Kaffee.

The sign hung from a simple wrought iron rod protruding from the shop front, as did those of other establishments crowding the cobblestone street. In between newly painted shops with canvas awnings and crawling, flowering vines, the café’s peeling green paint and bleary glass windows seemed all the more decrepit.

There she stood, a sprite of a girl clad in black leggings, calf-length boots and a peach poplin shell topped with a chocolate brown peacoat. Strands of her long black hair whipped across her face as she stared up at the sign in front of her.

“Art can be anything that captivates you and makes you feel.”

Her mother’s words rang clearly in her ears even after thirteen years. It had been she who had introduced Matty to the world of art and design. Too bad she didn’t see it as an appropriate career path for her only daughter.

Suddenly, the solid oak door burst open, revealing a ruddy-cheeked, middle-aged man with a brown grocery bag tucked under one arm. He shot her a questioning look, then obligingly held the door open for her.

Danke schön,” Matty said as she slipped inside the café. Up until that moment, she hadn’t decided if she needed another cup of coffee in addition to the two she’d already had earlier that day. But then, she was greeted by a rush of warm air carrying her favorite scent of strong, bittersweet coffee beans, and all thoughts of resisting flew out the door.

Her feet automatically brought her to the small wooden counter. She took a minute to admire the handwritten menu on the blackboards lining the brick wall before placing her order. One milchkaffee with whip, plus their pastry specialty—a jam-filled, sugar-topped doughnut.

If her mother had been there, she would’ve reminded her to watch her sugar intake.

It was moments like those that reminded her that, for the first time in her life, she was completely alone. And free. She could board a train to a city she’d randomly picked off the departures list. She could sit by the lake and while the hours away, watching athletes power their rowboats across the placid water as students sunbathed in between study sessions. She could—but.

Behind the counter, the barista watched the play of emotions on the petite girl’s face. The impish smile that had lighted up those almond-shaped eyes collapsed and was chased away by knitted brows.

“Your change, miss.”

Danke.”  

It wasn’t until Matty had finished counting out her change that she looked around her. The café’s interior was surprisingly modern. Save for the one brick wall, all the walls were painted in a rusty red that complemented the terracotta tiles and wooden shelves. Framed black and white portraits and retro posters mingled with antique sculptures to give the café an artsy feel.

She’d chosen well. Only, so had a lot of other people. Students and professionals occupied the many outdoor-style chairs, and their companion books, laptops and cups sat comfortably on the round, mosaic-topped tables. Bar seating was available in front of the café’s glass windows, but she always found bar chairs too uncomfortable to sit in and too complicated to get down from.

Just as she was resigning herself to perching her five-foot-one person onto a dubious-looking stool, a tingling sensation settled in the back of her neck. She scanned the room for the source and immediately zeroed in on an off-white shirt silk screened with one of Paris’ most iconic works of art. It clung to the strong, broad shoulders of a lone man sitting at a table near the bar. Her eyes climbed along his neck, past the stubble lining his jaw, up his sensuous mouth and aquiline nose to meet dark, hooded eyes that stared back at her as if in recognition.

There you are. Finally. 

Frenetic energy burst within her like splatters of colors on a Pollock canvas. Suddenly, she was eleven again and instinctively drawn to something that was new yet somehow so familiar. She was nearly at the stranger’s table when she stumbled over a stray bag strap, bringing her back to her senses. Before she could turn back, he had already stood up and was hurrying toward her.

“You ‘right, there?”

Matty looked up at him…and up and up. “Man, you’re tall.”

He burst into laughter, a heavy, rolling sound that settled low in her belly. Heat bloomed across her cheeks.

“I guess that answers my question. Need a seat?”

He was already leading the way back to the table. Pulling the spare chair out for her, he looked back at her expectantly.

“Don’t worry. I’m not going to go all ‘Taken’ on you.” His face was alive with silent laughter as he hit some buttons on his laptop and folded it.

She shrugged out of her peacoat and unwound her paisley scarf before sitting opposite him.

Curious. She had an ear for accents and though he had a distinct Aussie drawl, his caramel skin, dark hair and patrician features spoke of strong Latino blood.

Her gaze drifted up and found him studying her in obvious amusement.

You look better than I dreamed of. 

“Did you know that that logo on your shirt is one of the best examples of Art Nouveau?” She blurted out. “It was designed by Hector—“

“Hector Guimard, the architect of Paris’s Métropolitain entrances and signs.”

“You know Guimard.”

“Well, I didn’t buy this shirt just ‘cause I liked the design.” He grinned, revealing a dimple just beside the right corner of his mouth.

A waitress appeared at their table with her coffee and doughnut. Matty thanked her, and looked on in amazement as her companion conversed with the woman in fluent German. There was something about the way he smiled at the waitress before she left that tugged at her memories.

“You speak German?” she asked after the woman had left.

“I know enough to get by. Been here a couple of times now. Is this your first time here?”

“No, I visited some parts of Germany when I was younger. It’s my first time in Heidelberg, though.” She cradled her coffee cup in both hands, luxuriating in its warmth.

“What brought you to this café? It’s popular with the locals, but it isn’t exactly in the main tourist area.”

“Well.” Blowing on her latte, she mulled over the best way to answer. “Honestly, it was the sign.”

His eyebrows drew together. “The sign…?”

“You know, the ‘kaffee’ sign in blackletter up front. Fraktur, to be exact. You can distinguish it by its broken up, angular lines. The k is particularly unique—it looks more like an f.” She put down her cup and used a finger to draw the letter in the air. “Did you know that it used to be the main typeface for German texts right up until it was banned? This is the first time I’ve seen Fraktur in person. It’s beautiful.” She paused to take a breath. “Sorry. I get fanatical about these things.”

“No worries. So, you’re a graphic artist?” A smile tugged at his lips.

Her eyes dropped to her abandoned food. “Ah, no.”

“I just assumed – you were so keen on my shirt and the sign and—yeah, now I feel like an ass.”

Matty started at the touch of his hand. It was a bit calloused yet remained gentle on hers. She felt his warmth spreading from her fingertips down to her toes.

“It’s okay. It’s what I want to be, anyway.”

As if he sensed her discomfort, he casually let go of her and grabbed his glass of water for a drink. “When did you know that you wanted to be an artist?”

“I’ve been exposed to art for as long as I can remember. Even when I was just a kid, my mom kept dragging me from one museum to another. It was like a blur of dull fruits and faded old people.” She wrinkled her nose, drawing a chuckle from her companion.

“When I was eleven, she brought me to the MoMA in New York. There was a special exhibit on Andy Warhol, and I remember asking Mom why stuff like canned soup counted as art. She said it made people stop and think about how they viewed everyday things. I found it so fascinating that I started reading up on Pop Art, then modern art in general.”

“Finally caught your interest, eh?”

She smiled. “Yeah, you could say that. A couple of years later, I found a reproduction of that Campbell’s Soup painting in a flea shop along Portobello Road. The shopkeeper didn’t even know what it was! She was selling it for a hundred pounds, but there was this guy who helped me haggle over the price. We got her to bring it down to seventy-five.”

“You knew the bloke?”

“Nah, he just popped up out of the blue. It was like fate, you know? Everything just clicked together.”

No better way to describe it. 

“So what happened? Why aren’t you out there painting or working with Photoshop?”

“Well, in my family, art’s all fine and good—for a hobby. Not a career.” Especially not for the only daughter of a Filipino-Chinese tycoon. “We have obligations. I was lucky enough to have postponed the inevitable as much I had. After this trip, I’m off to pay my dues.” Lowering her voice, she reached for her coffee. “Anyway, I don’t want to talk about it.”

She took a long sip and replaced the cup on its saucer with a sharp clink.

The silence at their table was a tangible thing. Matty looked anywhere other than at the man in front of her. She saw a young couple giggling together as the girl tried to get as close to her boyfriend without actually sitting on his lap. A middle-aged man in a suit stood near the counter, his impatience evident in the way he tapped one foot and kept glancing at his watch. At a table near shelves crammed with mugs and packed coffee beans, a young girl with crooked pigtails drew intently as her mother smoothed her hair in gentle strokes.

Funny. She could almost see her father in place of the businessman, but she couldn’t imagine her mother as the casually dressed, naturally affectionate woman with her child. Neither could she imagine herself as the little girl, blithely swinging her legs under the table and chewing on the end of a crayon.

“You want to know the story behind my shirt?”

His sudden question yanked her from her thoughts. “Sure,” she said, studying his serious expression.

“After high school, my mates and I did the whole backpacking thing around Europe. It was my first time to travel out of Oz. We started off with Paris. I reckoned I was in a whole different world. I’d grown up in a country more known for the nature and outdoors gig than fancy stuff like architecture.”

He smiled. “I took one look at the entrance to Abbesses station and was bugged out of my mind. Nothing like seeing a generic, everyday place in a completely different way to jolt you to your senses.”

“That’s kind of how I felt when I first saw the Campbell Soup painting!”

“Yeah, like you said, it just clicked. That night, I borrowed my host’s guidebook and boned up on Art Nouveau. Even now that I’ve seen different architectural styles, Nouveau’s my favorite. I love the concept of breaking free of restrictions and expressing art in organic, fluid ways,” he cut his eyes at her. “Got me into considering a non-traditional lifestyle.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’ve never worked a nine-to-five. I realized I wanted to see more of the world, so I took some computer programming, web design and photography classes and started up my own little business. It won’t make me rich, but I get to travel as much as I want and take my work with me.”

“God, you’re living the life.” She sighed and chewed on her bottom lip wistfully.

“It’s not for everyone, but it’s what I chose.” He shrugged. “I’m happy.”

“I’m jealous.”

“Knowing what you want is the hardest part. Then it’s just a matter of balancing the scales between what you want and what you need.”

Matty’s eyes narrowed. “Are you trying to tell me something?”

He laughed. “I’m just telling you why I ended up buying this shirt.”

“Sure you are,” she said dryly. “That’s a pretty serious story to share with a stranger over coffee.”

His eyes twinkled at her with mischief, doing funny things to her stomach. “Is there a better time to talk about random things?” His phone started ringing, and he picked it up, breaking their eye contact. “That’s my alarm. I’ve got to get going, have to grab my bags before I catch the train.”

“Who are you?”

Chuckling, he shook his head. “I was waiting for you to ask. The name’s Ty. Andrea, right?”

Her brows slammed together. “How the hell…?”

“I remember your mom calling you that. She kept rushing you to pay the shopkeeper because your dad was waiting.”

Her jaw dropped in a silent o.

Ty grinned at her. “Didn’t I tell you I did that Euro trip after grad? London was one of my favorite stops. I never forgot that teenage girl in a bright red jumper who was so stuck on a painting.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” she said slowly.

Digging into his pocket, he drew out a pen and a crumpled receipt. He wrote something at the back. “Here’s my email. I’d ask for yours but you probably think I’m a whacker so I’ll just leave the ball in your court.”

“This is unreal.”

“I gotta run.” He tucked away his laptop and stood up.

Before Matty could blink, he’d bent down and pressed a quick kiss on her cheek. Fire sparked under her skin.

“I promised myself I’d do that if I ever saw you again. Guess sometimes you do get second chances.” From his considerable height, he gazed down at her with a little quirk of a smile. “It was great to finally meet you, Andrea.”

Dumbfounded, she did nothing but look after him as he walked toward the doors. Just as he reached for the knob, she called out, “Ty!”

He glanced back at her.

“Call me Matty.”

 

Three months later, in Makati, Philippines

 

Ty: Are you in your office yet?

Matty: No, I dropped by Starbucks for coffee.

Ty: You’re an addict. Get going. You’ll be late

Matty: Calm down, mother. I still have ten minutes.

Ty: Let me know when you get there.

 

Matty shook her head after reading Ty’s reply on WhatsApp. In the three months that they’d been chatting online, she’d gotten to know him better and found out about his quirks. Still, this was strange even for him.

Walking into the office, she nodded hello to the people she passed along the way to her room. She paused at the door and studied the silver plaque.

Graphic Arts Division.

It still gave her a thrill to remember the talk she’d had with her parents and their agreement to place her in the marketing department under a new division. She didn’t care that she had to start it up on her own. It was her place and it felt right.

On her desk, there was a package wrapped in plain brown paper. A postcard of London was taped in front.

Matty—

To second chances and new beginnings. Happy 25th birthday!

Ty

P.S. See you next month. 😉

With shaking fingers, she ripped through the packaging. Inside, she found an envelope-sized piece of weathered wood. Painstakingly carved in the old German typeface were six letters.

She smiled.

 

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1 Comment

  1. Pingback: Suitcase Souvenirs: A bazaar for travelers by travelers | wander write now

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