They always started quietly, at adjacent tables, fronted by University Avenue. It was dawn. In the mesh side pocket of her backpack she kept a bar of chocolate, cigarettes, and an inhaler. She had dyed red hair, and tiny hearing aids. She leaned in when he spoke, at least until he got going.
“Europe calling again,” he said, turning the computer to show her. She was supposed to notice the email, but all she saw were his nails, cracked but clean. “In Hungary they know me as an art dealer.”
He kept his computer in a gleaming new messenger bag, like the hipsters biking around town, even though he lived in the van parked outside the café. His laptop was old and noisy and constantly beeping, like a hospital machine.
“Don’t talk to me about Europe,” she laughed. “I’ve never been east of Odwalla.” She gave him a package of crackers under the table, stolen from the clinic. He held it aloft, and she blushed. His skin was the color of saltines, and when he smashed the crackers between his back teeth it sounded like the world was ending. When the student with the earplugs swiveled toward them the couple began to laugh, refusing to stop until the crackers were gone and the breakfast crowd began to flood in.
Dan’s essays and fiction have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, and McSweeneys, and he is writing a book about the intersection of creativity and community in the wake of Covid-19. He is the winner of the Wilner Award for Short Fiction from San Francisco State University. Twitter: @danschifrin