“Believe me,” I tell him, “you don’t want my life.”
WE WALK TWO LONG BLOCKS west toward Ninth Ave and pass no fewer than three coffee shops. Two of them are from the same national coffee chain (have you ever seen anyone actually dunk a donut?). I choose the non-chain, independent one because we mom-and-pop places gotta stick together.
The place is all mahogany and dark wood furniture and smells just like you’d think it would. It’s also just slightly over-the-top. And by slightly, I mean there are several oil paintings of single coffee beans hanging on the wall. Who knew coffee-bean portraiture was a thing? Who knew they could look so forlorn?
There’s barely anyone else here, and the three baristas behind the counter look pretty bored. I try to spice up their lives by ordering an overly elaborate drink involving half shots, milks of varying fat content, and caramel, as well as vanilla syrup.
They still look bored.
Natasha orders black coffee with no sugar. It’s hard not to read her personality into her coffee order. I almost say something, but then I realize she might think I’m making a race-related joke, which would be a very poor (on a scale from Poor to Extremely Poor—the full scale is Poor, Somewhat Poor, Moderately Poor, Very Poor, and Extremely Poor) way to start off this relationship.
She insists on paying, saying it’s the least she can do. My drink is $6.38 and I let her know that the cost of saving a life is at least two elaborate coffee drinks. She doesn’t even smile.
I choose a table in back as far away from the non-action as possible. As soon as we sit, she pulls out her phone to check the time. It’s still working, despite the cracks on the screen. She runs her thumb along them and sighs.
“Have to be somewhere?” I ask.
“Yes,” she says, and turns the phone off.
I wait for her to continue, but she’s definitely not going to. Her face dares me to ask her more, but I’ve reached my quota of daring things (1 = following cute girl, 2 = yelling at ex-boyfriend of cute girl, 3 = saving life of cute girl, 4 = asking out cute girl) for the day.
We sit in a not-at-all-comfortable silence for thirty-three seconds. I fall into that super-self-conscious state you get into when you’re with someone new and you really want them to like you.
I see all my movements through her eyes. Does this hand gesture make me seem like a jerk? Are my eyebrows crawling off my face? Is this a sexy half smile or do I look like I’m having a stroke?
I’m nervous, so I exaggerate all my movements. I BLOW on my coffee, SIP it, STIR it, playing the part of an actual human teenage boy having an actual beverage called coffee.
I blow too hard on my drink and a little foam flies up. I could not be any cooler. I would totally date me (not really). It’s hard to say, but she may have smiled ever so slightly at the foam flight.
“Still happy you saved my life?” she asks.
I take too big a sip and burn not only my tongue but a path all the way down my throat. Jesus Christ. Maybe this is a sign I should just give up. I am clearly not meant to impress this girl.
“Should I regret it?” I ask.
“Well, I’m not exactly being nice to you.”
She’s pretty direct, so I decide to be direct too. “That’s true, but I don’t have a time machine to go back and undo it.” I say it with a straight face.
“Would you?” she asks, frowning slightly.
“Of course not,” I say. What kind of jerk does she think I am?
She excuses herself to go to the bathroom. So that I don’t just sit there looking uninteresting when she gets back, I pull out my notebook to fiddle with my poem. I’m still writing when she gets back.
“Oh no,” she groans as she sits back down.
“What?” I ask.
She gestures to my notebook. “You’re not a poet, are you?”
Her eyes are smiling, but still, I close it quickly and slip it back into my jacket.
Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea. What am I thinking with my déjà-vu-in-reverse nonsense? I’m just putting off the future. Like my parents want, I’ll marry a lovely Korean American girl. Unlike Charles, I don’t have anything against Korean girls. He says they’re not his type, but I don’t really get the concept of having a type. My type is girls. All of them. Why would I limit my dating pool?
I’ll be a great doctor with excellent bedside skills.
I’ll be perfectly happy.
But something about Natasha makes me think my life could be extraordinary.
It’s better for her to be mean and for us go on separate paths. I can think of exactly no ways that my parents (mostly my dad) would be okay with me dating a black girl.
Still, I give it one last try. “What would you do with a time machine if you had one?”
For the first time since we sat down, she doesn’t seem irritated or bored. She furrows her brow and leans forward.
“Can it travel into the past?”
“Of course. It’s a time machine,” I say.
She gives me a look that says there’s so much I don’t know. “Time travel to the past is a complicated business.”
“Say we’ve gotten past the complications. What would you do?”
She puts down her coffee, folds her arms across her chest. Her eyes are brighter.
“And we’re ignoring the grandfather paradox?” she asks.
“Completely,” I say, pretending I have a clue what she’s talking about, but she calls me out.
“You don’t know the grandfather paradox?” Her voice is incredulous, like I’ve missed some basic information about the world (like how babies are made). Is she a sci-fi nerd?