The first day of Thanksgiving break, I crammed as much practicing and composing into the morning as I could, then rode to the café. I flung open the door and dropped my bag on the floor.
“I’m here for the rest of the day!”
“Hurray!” Ema cried and ran to me. I picked her up and tickled her. Emily came out from the kitchen dusting her hands off on her apron.
“We’re so glad you can spend more time here,” she said.
“As am I. But you have to put me to work while I’m here. I may be on break but I can’t sit around all afternoon doing nothing.”
And so we sat down and made a plan. She was going to test new recipes and I was going to taste them. I was going to do some work of my own in the café every day, bouncing ideas off of the two Jackson ladies. But we had an even bigger plan, one that would bring a lot more business to the café. And so after mornings locked up in a practice room at school, I joined them at the café. Soon I began to meet the others who came to the café, and my lonely, hermit self began to come out of its shell. Suddenly I didn’t care so much about getting to know people more at school. Here were plenty of people I could spend time with away from college stereotypes and music building drama. Still, I wondered if I could pull some of them into the café. Especially Clara.
The first night I was cleaning a window when a tall, African-American man entered the café. His skin was smooth and very dark, but his short, curly hair was greying.
“Good evening, Jerome!” Emily called.
“Hello, Emily,” he said. His voice was deep and rich, and everything about him seemed comforting.
“The usual?” she asked.
“Of course.” As Jerome waited, he turned and looked at me. “And who might you be?”
“Walter,” I said, tucking my rag into my back pocket.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Walter.”
We shook hands and then he sat down at a table as I returned to my window.
“How are things here?” Jerome asked when Emily brought him his food.
“Picking up speed. It’s so exciting to watch everything come together.”
Jerome laughed a deep, melodic laugh that I wished I could capture in music. “The start of new things is always exciting. It was that way when I started my business.”
“What’s your business?” Emily asked.
“I help people manage their finances. When I was in school I met so many people who were deep in debt and had no idea how to get out. But I was raised in a poor family, so I knew how to save and work and earn and decided I could pass that on to others,” Jerome said. He patted Emily’s hand. “If you ever have any questions, feel free to ask me. I’ll be happy to help you if I can.”
“Thank you so much. It’s hard to tell what the future will hold since we’re just getting started, but I am glad to know you just in case.”
Jerome nodded. “And tell me more about this window-washing whippersnapper you’ve picked up!”
I laughed and so did Emily.
“Well, Walter – you’ve got to tell us about yourself. I hardly know you except for the help you’ve offered.”
I joined them at the table. “I’m in my Junior year of studying music composition at Julliard.”
“Julliard?” Jerome said. “That’s no small feat.”
“I had lots of help. I moved to New York just for school, but didn’t start liking it till the last few months. There were too many people wanting to make you not alone but not understanding how really to do it.” I shook my head. “That probably doesn’t make any sense, but I was just thinking that the other day.”
Emily nodded. “It makes perfect sense.”
I looked at her and she nodded again. I could tell she wanted to let Jerome in on our secret, but we weren’t ready for it quite yet.
“I should probably close up,” Emily said after a while of conversation. “It’s time Ema was in bed.”
Jerome left, and I packed up my belongings.
“Do you want me to walk you home?” I asked.
Emily shook her head. “No. It’s not far.”
“But these streets aren’t safe –”
“By ‘not far,' I mean we live in the back room of the café. Just makes things easier.”
“Oh. I-I’ll see you tomorrow, then.”
The next morning I did most of my work at the café, with Ema sitting nearby watching my every move, whether I was inputting notes into the computer, conducting the air, or humming phrases to myself.
“Are you sure you’ll be ready?” Emily asked me when I packed my books and computer away.
“Yes – and I’ve found a good piano – but we’ll need Jerome’s truck to move it here. Are you sure you have the funds for this?”
Emily nodded. “It was in the plans all along. Javi wanted it, so when we made our budget it was in there.”
I grinned. “We’ll have to start making it public, then.”
By the middle of my break, I had met not only Jerome but also a handful of other people – a high-school aged couple, a mother of five, a middle-aged man and his wife, and a lawyer who stopped by every day on his way into work. He never stayed long, but everyone else had time for at least a short chat, if not a longer conversation. And Emily and I never stopped talking.
“What did you do before the café?” I asked.
“Not much outside of school. But I danced for a long time. All kinds of dancing, but ballet was always my favorite.”
“Do you still do it?”
She shook her head. “There’s nobody to watch Ema and it doesn’t usually pay bills, just makes more.”
“I’ll write you a song sometime, and you can dance to it,” I said. “Do you know any ballroom?”
“Teach me?” I asked.
So I learned how to waltz and polka and all sorts of other things. Emily was very gracious with my two left feet, and when I was feeling shy I could always practice with Ema. Some nights we danced, other nights we talked, and other nights I sat at the piano and played quiet music while Ema slept and Emily sat by the window with a cup of tea. Sometimes I thought I heard her dancing but didn’t want to let her know I was listening, not wanting to ruin what I guessed were precious moments and memories for her. As we talked, I realized that dance was to her what music was to me – an outlet for stress, a way to express every single emotion, and a way of holding those emotions and other memories close again. Some of the music I had written was private because of that, and I didn’t want to intrude on that for Emily.
On the last night of break Emily made a cup of tea and came to sit with me.
“How long do you have tonight?”
“As long as you want, though I do need to be in bed before midnight.”
She nodded. “I want to tell you now. When you asked who ‘we’ was - it didn’t refer to Ema and me. It refers to Ema’s father and me.”
I looked more closely at Emily. I had always suspected it, but was never certain, and it brought up more questions than answers.
“You’ve probably guessed his name was Javi. We met when I was walking home from a ballet rehearsal one night. I slipped on the ice – dancers are always clumsy out of class – and dropped everything I was carrying. He stopped to help, then claimed I shouldn’t be walking home in New York City by myself, and stayed with me till I got home. Every day after that he walked me home, and we talked.” She looked down. “I guess we fell in love and decided that was an excuse to do what we shouldn’t have done, and I got pregnant. My parents loved Javi as much as I did, and were glad that I had someone to walk me home from dance class, but when they found out I was pregnant, they wanted nothing to do with us unless we got an abortion. We may have done one thing wrong, but I wasn’t going to do a second thing wrong to cover up the first.”
Her voice trembled.
“You don’t have to go on,” I said, “if you don’t want to.”
“No – I want you to know. I was eighteen and had just graduated from high school and he was twenty-one and a great cook. So we decided to get married and start a café in the city. We had a little stand in Central Park for a while, and he taught me how to cook. We tried to make things right with my parents, but nothing worked. And then-” She stopped.
I sat quietly, not sure if I should press her to go on or just wait for her to be ready to continue.
“And then, just before Ema was born, Javi was out late picking up supplies for what we had to bake the next day, and a drunk driver didn’t stop at a red light.” A tear rolled down Emily’s cheek. “The hospital called, but it was already too late.”
Neither of us spoke for a long time. What is someone supposed to say after a story like that? But it wasn’t a story, it was her life. And I knew I wanted to help her make it better if I could.
“I wonder still if it’s God’s way of telling us we were wrong,” Emily said. “But Javi wouldn’t have liked me thinking like that.”
“I don’t know much about God,” I said, “but from what I do know, I know He doesn’t usually punish us like that, especially not when we’re sorry.”
She wiped the tears from her cheeks. “No, I don’t think so either. But that’s my brain talking, not my heart.”
“How much does Ema understand?”
“Not much yet. She doesn’t have many friends to know they have a daddy and she doesn’t. She never knew Javi, so she can’t really miss him. But I know she’ll find out one day. And when I realized that, I decided we had to have more than the stand; I had to start the café, even without Javi. We need friends because we had none when Javi died. I was alone, and then I was a single mother with a newborn and no one to help me.”
“As long as I’m here, I mean to be that kind of friend to you,” I said. “I promise.”
Be sure to go read the edited part one first!