So nearly every night, she'd come to the same cafe and sit on the same corner stool and sip the same dark roast under the same track lighting. The heat from the halogen bulbs made her feel like she was on stage. Like someone was looking at her. Like she had a halo. She'd lift her cup to her lips and let it whisper her its secrets and they'd trickle down her throat in drops.
Whenever someone would walk in, she'd peek up from whatever art book she was thumbing through and test them to see if they'd make eye contact.
Men often did, but only for a split second, and if their eyes lingered, it was usually an unpleasant experience, the way that fourteen-year-old boys look at the fourteen-year-old girl who had grown breasts before their own voices had lowered from mezzo-soprano. A strange blend of lust and jealousy. But she couldn't guess what they could possibly be jealous of. Her boldness at going out in public unaccompanied? Her refusal to apply more than a few swipes of mascara to the face that she thought was pretty enough, thank you? She never could tell.
Women, with few exceptions, always made eye contact. They'd look her up (hair), down (shoes), and inbetween (figure). Tonight was a ponytail, black suede flats, and an extra five pounds she had been trying to exorcise for months, although her mom told her she was already too thin. Somehow, this combination of a simply-maintained hair style, sensible footwear, and a slender figure made women crinkle their foreheads and squint just enough for her to get blurry.
"Always make eye contact with people," her mom had told her. "It shows you're actually seeing them." But these people, these comers and goers and passersby that haunted this cafe like a parade, they just affixed their eyes to hers for just long enough to know that they wanted to look away and continue on.
She was tired of just being looked at. She wanted to be seen.
Just as she had decided she'd had enough, a guy she pegged at about 25 years old, just about her age, opened the cafe's glass door and stepped inside, brown boots smacking finished hardwood like a metronome. He had a noon-the-next-day shadow on his face and approached the barista's counter, sliding strong-looking hands into back pockets. He ordered, paid, tipped, and said something that made the cashier laugh. Clomp clomp clomp as he walked to a table.
Her peripherals saw him crossing his right leg over his left knee and slumping down in his chair like he was about to take an afternoon nap. His hands drummed on his elevated calf and she was impressed with his rhythm. Pat pat pat pat pat pat. She could feel his eyes graze over her and, to her own surprise, she looked up to match him.
Without stopping the drumming, he smiled. They regarded each other for a few moments, but their mutual viewing was broken by the cashier, who stepped out from behind the counter to hand-deliver a tall cup and a warm cookie that she loudly told him is "on the house." He thanked her politely, rose to his feet, and said goodbye.
He begins his walk to the exit, but his steps are lighter and less percussive. His approach sent her embarrassed eyes down to the book she was still pretending (and failing) to read, and she hoped he'd just tread past her because she doesn't think she can handle being looked at that closely by someone with eyes like that and big boots and coffee to go and oh no he slowed down as he gets near her and what the hell is he going to say.
"Excuse me," he said, pointing a straight finger at her feet. "I like your shoes." He smiled again and showed a single dimple just outside of the left corner of his mouth. "Have a good day." He walked out.
She could feel the soles of her feet heating up. Her toes were blushing.