The city was always cold, that kind of bone-chilling cold that can only be experienced in San Francisco. Many a cliché has been written about the city by the bay, but none more resonant than, “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.” Laney knew it to be true. She also knew the quote’s reported origins to be false. Laney Burch had a fierce love for Mark Twain that surpassed her love for fresh-baked sourdough bread.
Young by the baby boomer’s standards and old by generation y’s youthful snobbery, Laney Burch had found herself wedged in the middle. She was too old to blame youthful ignorance for her current predicament and too young to just stop caring; though she was very close to it. One more heartbreak and she was going to give up for good. Personal relationships weren’t worth the hassle.
That was one thing Laney Burch and David Mackey had in common: an aversion to other people. It wasn’t that either one of them was suffering from a social disorder of some kind, it was simply that people were a hassle. They always wanted something or caused some sort of trouble.
David Mackey had just finished a double shift at the independent coffee shop he worked at six days a week, at the top of Nob Hill, bordering Little Italy. His muscles ached from his neck down to his toes, and no matter how many times he stretched he couldn’t shake the tightness that was the result of standing on his feet for the last fourteen hours straight. It was a good thing he loved his job because it was exhausting and paid little, barely affording him a modest lifestyle in such an expensive city. But if there was one thing David liked more than his job, it was the cranky girl who worked at the tiny, Chinese-owned luggage shop on the edge of the neighborhood.
He didn’t know her name—all her name badge had was a capital “L”—but he knew the things that really mattered. He knew that her favorite book was Huckleberry Finn because he’d often catch her reading it when he took a detour on the way back to his studio apartment in the Tenderloin. Her copy was old and ragged. It was obviously well loved. The only time he ever saw her genuinely smile was when she had that book open.
This woman, L, as he called her, was shapely with barely tanned skin, and straight, pitch-black shoulder-length hair. She didn’t seem to be anything. She just was, and what a relief that was to David. In a city with so many people claiming to be themselves while trying to be something else, he admired L for her ability to just be.
It had been four months of passing by the luggage store window and David had yet to gather the courage to talk to his mystery girl. It wasn’t so much that she always looked irritated, because in his months of watching her, she often smiled when she was alone, it was that he was afraid. In his mind, this woman could move mountains and assemble protests with the flick of her wrist. Yes, he had built her up to an unrealistic level. And as much as he had fallen in love with the woman in his mind, he was desperate to meet her. He didn’t even care if she didn’t possess superpowers, he just wanted to know her—especially the her who smiled at a ragged, old book.
As David turned the corner next to the luggage shop, he took a deep breath. Somewhere around the fourth hour on shift he’d told himself he should talk to L today. A few hours later he’d talked himself out of it. Then in hour nine, when a customer had him remake his latte three times, David had decided that if he could withstand making triple shot, half milk, half water, nonfat, dry lattes day after day, he could certainly gather enough courage to say a simple “hello.” She was a woman, he reasoned, not a shark. While he wasn’t entirely sure that now was the best time to talk to L, he was delirious with exhaustion and hadn’t the capability to talk himself out of it.
L stood at the counter, hunched over a newspaper, and he signature scowl on her face. David stood in the doorway, deep breath after deep breath, willing himself to step inside. Just when he was going to back out and retreat, she looked up. She’d never looked at him before. He didn’t know what he expected—sparks maybe, a buzz of electricity perhaps—but none of that happened. He felt a little twinge of anxiety in the pit of his stomach, followed by a stupid smile on his face.
“Can I help you?” she asked. Before David could censor his response, words came flying out of his mouth.
“Go out with me,” he said.
Laney had been minding her own business, reading the lifestyle section of the newspaper. She didn’t know anybody written about there, she just enjoyed passing the time with other people’s comings and goings. It was Laney’s way of being social. Halfway through the Bowers- Manson wedding feature, a man entered the shop. He was tall and lean with sandy blond hair and tattoos that peeked out from underneath his rolled-up button-up. Laney could admit that he was attractive, though his personality somewhat off-putting by the first words out of his mouth.
She stumbled over her words until they came out in a rushed, “no.” Who was he and why would he say that? Laney diverted his gaze, it was intense and uncomfortable at best, and went back to the lifestyle section of the paper. The man didn’t move.
“Look,” the man said, “Just have coffee with me—or something—I don’t really care.” Laney’s head popped up, a stubborn scowl appearing on her forehead.
“Why?” she asked, though it sounded much more like an accusation.
David was falling all over himself as he stood in front of L. But he couldn’t go back now. He had to get her to spend time with him. He felt stronger than before that he wanted to know this girl. He wanted to know her fears and her strengths. He just wanted her to let him get to know her—that was all. But that day, Laney wouldn’t budge.
Weeks passed and David stopped in the luggage shop every day that L was working. He was nothing if not determined. The day after their first meeting he stopped inside to ask her for her name, which she wouldn’t give him. He stopped in again the day after and while she denied his request again, this time she had a smile on her face as he left. It was looking like an uphill battle, so he prepared for the long haul. By day four he’d devised a plan—to tell L one silly fact each day. By day ten, she smiled at him. It was then that he felt that flip-floppy thing in his stomach, and it was then that he knew he was in trouble. David Mackey who didn’t like relationships and was only amused by the cranky girl who peddled luggage, had somehow fallen for her, cranky scowls and secret smiles and all.
After weeks had passed and he’d learned her favorite color, favorite song, and even her favorite line from Huckleberry Finn, he’d learned her name: it was Laney. She looked like a Laney to him—quirky and offbeat, but cute and feminine. He’d figured out in the time he;d watched her and in the time she’d spoken to him that she was even more of a loner than he. She seemed to reject the human connection he was intent on forming while he craved it—needed it—but in time she seemed to grow to tolerate him.
Laney didn’t just tolerate the strange man, she secretly loved his persistence. Their short conversations were the most social interaction she had some days. Weeks after he’d interrupted her lifestyle musings she’d asked him his name. Two of a kind, Laney thought, because he wouldn’t give his name just as she wouldn’t give hers. And even when she did give him her name, he still kept his a secret.
It was sweltering outside in the mid-August heat, but the biting cold dictated that it was still light sweater weather. Laney had gotten off work early and headed to the coffee shop where the mystery man had told her he worked. When she walked into the dark wooden shop, she noted it was empty. Only the man she’d come to think of as a very good friend stood behind the counter. He didn’t wear a nametag.
“You should really tell me your name,” she said confidently, a smirk on her lips. The man smiled back with just as much confidence.
“Tell me your greatest fear,” he asked. This was a normal question for him. He’d asked her many personal, deep things over the weeks. At some point she’d found herself answering them. Without thought, she let the truth spill from her lips.
“I’m afraid you’ll break my heart.” The weight of her admission rang in David’s ears as he stood still. Then the flip-flop appeared and he smiled shyly.
“My name is David.”