Emily wiped down the counter one final time. This thousand square foot space leased by her ten years ago was like a second home, even though the time spent here far outweighed that in her studio apartment uptown. The charming cafe was filled with delectable pastries, muffins, and gourmet cupcakes. The complimentary sights and scents occupied every last drop of available space in the most delicious way. Each time the door was pushed open a small piece of the love poured into her craft floated out on to the sidewalk, took hold of an unsuspecting passerby, and lured them into her savory world. Her skills with flour, eggs, butter, and milk were only matched by her magnetic personality that transformed ordinary members of the public into new patrons, and usually new friends.
As the sun was beginning to set on this Friday afternoon, traffic on the street was beginning to escalate which signified the beginning of another weekend. To Emily, Friday was no different from any other day of the week. Each day found her following the same familiar routine, commuting back and forth between her apartment and cafe on the Route #7 city transit bus. She noticed the same people each morning on that bus. With a little game she devised to amuse her, Emily gave each of these regulars a name, even though they were complete strangers.
There was Snarky, the tall man, always wearing an overcoat, hair slicked back, attaché firmly in his right hand, always his right hand. Then there was Clueless, the petite redhead, ear buds permanently embedded it seems, eyes aimed at the cell phone in her hands, never looking up. Finally, there was Bambi, a peculiar name for a member of the male species, but it fit well nonetheless. Like a deer caught in headlights, this young man’s appearance, disheveled at best was not as unsettling as his eyes. The blank and empty stare, like a deer in headlights, was unnerving when their glances met for the first time. Emily had become accustomed to the creepiness since that initial encounter.
She felt sorry for all these individuals. Emily saw a look of resignation in each of them, as if they were simply going through the motions, following the directions on a medication prescribed by society for their ailing souls. Either the dosage was not correct, or the medication was wrong. She suspected the latter. As she pulled the front door closed on her cafe and turned the key, she caught a reflection of herself in the pane of glass. Amore, the name of her second home etched in the glass on the door complimented her reflection well. Sure, she worked day and night. And although she was exhausted at the end of each day, she simultaneously felt energized in a paradoxical way. Her chosen life was a labor of love.
Tempers were already escalating in the world outside. The yellow cabs darted to and fro like mice chasing an elusive piece of cheese. With their horns blaring, the animated facial gestures behind each windshield uttered slanderous remarks that could not be heard, but understood nonetheless. She could have afforded to take a taxi back and forth each day. Emily, however, tried to insulate herself from the inherent stress of a bustling city. The bus had a much more relaxed and less hurried atmosphere. Besides, she was always on the lookout for new regulars. She had a whole lineup of new names on hand when the matching individual appeared.
As she stepped next to the sign with the number seven printed inside the transit system symbol, Emily glanced at the watch on her left wrist. The familiar parasol on its face, Mary Poppins floating over the London skyline, was a constant reminder of her past, equally encouraging and upsetting depending upon the day of the week, the month of the year. The rotating hands on the face indicated the bus should be arriving shortly. As if looking at her watch could magically summon her ride, she glanced up and saw #7 Uptown on the display marquee of the approaching bus. As the hazard lights flashed, the squealing brakes decelerated the bus to a full stop. Retrieving the transit card from her purse, she waited for the driver to open the doors. As she prepared to board the bus, Emily was frozen in her tracks when she recognized the man getting off of it.
He was ten years her elder, she knew that. What she didn’t know is what he was doing here in this city. She had intentionally moved to a location on the map as far away from his last known residence to insure that an encounter such as this was unlikely to occur. Emily felt this man had a severe impact on the quality of her younger years, not for what he did, but rather for what he failed to do. The person stepping down the steps of the city bus had not yet noticed her, but Emily could not mistake the blonde hair, blue eyes, and charismatic smile he tossed at the female driver. And if that wasn’t proof enough, the armband tattoo sealed his identity. It was without a doubt Josh, her older brother.
It is believed by some that a near death experience causes the most poignant memories from a person’s past to flash before their eyes. In this fraction of a second between the recognition of her brother and what would come next, the roller coaster ride of emotions began for Emily.
The memories closest to her, both physically and mentally, arrived first. The Mary Poppins watch created a flashback to the cave she had fashioned in her childhood bedroom. Complete with a body size bean bag chair, a small clip-on desk lamp mounted in the corner, and a combination video tape and television unit on a makeshift table, this was Emily’s sanctuary as an eight year old. This is where she snuck when she heard the screen door slam. This is the place she retreated when she heard the voices, escalating in volume, and the slurs of alcoholic influence evident in every attempted syllable. Unfortunately, the volume on that little portable television could not be turned up loud enough to drown out the misery from down below. Emily instead tried to focus on the visual image of Mary Poppins, hoping and wishing for a magic nanny to drop out of the sky and rescue her from this dismal situation.
Josh had taken a different route than Emily in dealing with this chaos. Instead of cowering in submission, hiding from the effects, Josh reacted with rebellion. He and his friends had formed their own band, Academic Mishap, a fitting moniker given that the cumulative high school grade point average of its three other members didn’t reach that of Josh’s alone. When Josh heard the same indicators of imminent jeopardy, he instinctively headed out the door, hopped on his bike, guitar slung across his back, and disappeared into the evening. He rarely returned until after school the following day and usually didn’t stick around for long as the pattern repeated itself.
In a moment of uncharacteristic courage during this distressing time in her life, Emily decided on a different course of action when the yelling and screaming commenced one evening. Tiptoeing down the wooden staircase, hand delicately poised on the banister to support her weight, she knew just where to step to avoid any creaking, the human wolves continuing to howl in the room at the foot of the stairs.
Sneaking out the side door, she arrived at Josh’s bike a few second before him. “Let me come with you. Please,” Emily urged. Josh and Emily both ran away from their problems. Josh, however, preferred to do it alone. “You better get back in side Em. If mom and dad catch you out here … well, you just better get back inside.”
Emily retorted with tenacity that she didn’t realize she had inside her, “Josh, I can’t take this anymore. I need to get away from them, if only for a little bit. Please, let me come with you.” Perhaps it was the grit in her voice or the bleakness in her facial expression, most likely a combination of the two, Josh succumbed to her plea, “Get your bike, quick.”
That evening proved to be one filled with the most inner calm in Emily’s young life, even though it consisted of music that was not to her taste, underage drinking, and distasteful jokes. There was a release of tension. A floodgate opened that allowed Emily to just be her eight year old self. It was a state of being that she wanted to revisit again and again, except Josh would not oblige. In fact, it was even worse than that.
One afternoon, before the recurrent nightly chaos began anew, Josh knocked on Emily’s bedroom door which she always kept closed and locked. It was a way to insulate her from the malignant aura that pervaded the rest of the house. They had a secret knock so that Emily knew when it was Josh. Unlocking the door and swinging it open for Josh, she could see in his eyes that he did not have news that she would accept well. He didn’t provide any idle chit chat. He got right to the point.
“Hey Em, I’m dropping out of high school. Me and the guys found a manager that wants to hire us for a nightly gig at a bar downtown. This could be our big shot.” Josh left a moment of silence with a pleading look in his eyes for acceptance from Emily. He often forgot that Emily was eight years old. She was mature beyond her years. She needed to be in order to survive in this place. But, in the end, she was still eight, and the tear that formed in the corner of her eye and rolled down her cheek showed just that. Josh sensed this and continued on, “I know this is rough for you to understand, but this is my one shot to make something of myself, my golden ticket out of this life.”
Emily was frustrated, distraught, sad, and livid all at the same time. She had a million nasty retorts racing through her young mind. The only words that emerged from her lips, however, to accompany the multiple tears running down her face, “Please, don’t leave me.” Despite their complicated and dysfunctional lifestyle, Josh always had a soft spot for Emily. He was her big brother after all. At this point in his immature life, however, this was not enough to keep him around. “Sorry Em, I need to do this. I’m leaving tonight.” And with that statement and decision, another chapter had been closed in her life. Another person to help navigate these tumultuous seas had jumped ship. She was left alone, physically and mentally, to weather the storm. Struggling to keep herself afloat, she knew that drowning was an unavoidable consequence in these unforgiving waters.
For ten years, Emily had scraped together a piecemeal existence, relying on fairy tales in books and movies to bolster her hope for a chance to live. And she had succeeded, treading water and avoiding the sharks until she graduated from high school and moved east. Her parents probably never knew that she left, most likely because they treated her like she was never there in the first place. The resentment held against Josh and his decision to leave grew with Emily during those formative teenage years. And despite her bitterness towards Josh, there was always a small corner of her heart that understood his dilemma and his decision. Given the same opportunity, she could not be sure that she wouldn’t have done the exact same thing. Regardless of the troubled past and experiences that plagued their relationship, she was still his little sister, and he was still her big brother.
As the flashback rolled through its final scene, Emily felt the departure of a life, a death of sorts. But, this turned out to be a passing that was welcome and long overdue. Seeing Josh as he stepped off the last step on that bus, her only desire was to put the negativity of the past to rest and focus on possibilities for the future. It’s what she had always lived for in her personal life. Why not do the same for her own brother?
As his eyes transferred focus from the steps of the bus to navigating through the crowd of people, his eyes landed upon Emily. As his jaw dropped in disbelief, Josh inquisitively uttered, “Em?” Half question, half statement, he did what came natural to him, as unnatural as it was for his own parents. He wrapped his arms around Emily and squeezed tight. For what seemed like minutes, but was seconds in reality, they hugged. And in that embrace, all prior transgressions, all feelings of discontent, and all the grudges that may have been held between the two of them melted away.
As she stepped back at arm’s length, still touching his shoulders, Emily looked at Josh and smiled, “What are you doing here?” Josh, still in a dumbfounded state, replied, “I could ask you the same thing. Our band broke up out on the west coast. That kind of thing tends to happen when your lead vocalist gets arrested for dealing drugs.” In a slightly more coherent tone now, Josh continued, “I got accepted to the university in the city. I have finally decided to get a degree in music even if it is a few years later than most. What about you? What are you doing here?”
Emily went on to explain the synopsis of her last ten years over a three minute span. When the immediate necessities had been shared between them, it had only led both of them to crave more details about the other’s life since their childhood days. “Hey, I’m starving,” said Josh, “Do you want to go get a bite to eat somewhere?” Emily, eager to share some of her recent history firsthand shared, “Why don’t we head across the street? I can’t offer you a gourmet meal, but I can provide some fresh coffee and the best banana nut muffin this side of the Mississippi.”
As she pulled the keychain from her purse once again and unlocked the door, the impressed look on Josh’s face could not be hidden. “Amore. That means love in some foreign language, right?”
With the coffee brewing and two muffins placed on plates, Emily flipped on the spotlight in the corner seating area. There was no bean bag chair. There was no television. But, there was also no screaming from outside this personal sanctuary. There was only Emily and her big brother. The alluring scents and delicious tastes of Amore, an infusion of Emily’s love, had served to provide her with a swarm of new customers. She was quickly coming to the realization, however, that the latest one sitting across from her at this very moment was undoubtedly her most important one.