Sade's Sweetest Taboo playing softly in the background, the rich smell of coffee in the air, animated conversations, a laugh here, a cough there, baristas calling out orders in their chirpy voices. Starbucks on a Saturday morning. Standing in the long line of 'bucksheads, as she'd come to think of her fellow coffee addicts, Manka'ah felt completely relaxed. This was a familiar sight for her. She made the trip to the coffee shop almost every morning, having developed a taste for the chain's over brewed beverage during her nursing school years when cups of coffee jacked up with shots of espresso were the main way she had managed to juggle taking classes during the day and working as a C.N.A at night. Back then, she'd always stuck out like a sore thumb from the Starbucks crowd with her disheveled, poorly sewn in weaves, saggy, faded scrubs purchased from the thrift store which hung ungracefully from her slightly pudgy body, old sneakers and above all her tired face marred by stress pimples. She always stood completely at odds with the lean, clean, quietly expensively dressed, glowing golden beauty of the shop's regular patrons. Ellicott City, Maryland was predominantly white and located in one of the wealthiest counties in the US.
Today, however, apart from not being white, she would have fit right in. Her skin was a healthy mahogany brown and her face pimple free after thousands of dollars spent on dermatologists and high end cosmetics. She kept her hair natural these days, having given up on weaves or any sort of hair processing. It was currently caught a puffy afro-bun and she'd noticed several of the Starbucks patrons staring at it, the expressions in their eyes ranging from admiring to puzzled. The attention no longer bothered her as it used to. She was fit and lean from running and wore a red sundress with yellow and white flowers. It was short in anticipation of the heat the weather report had promised for that Saturday afternoon. On her feet dainty brown sandals which showcased her pedicured toenails.She took a step forward as the line moved forward.
Manka'ah felt happy. It felt good to have gotten to a point in her life when she could afford to actually live without having to worry about rents or bills. The grueling years spent working and studying had paid off. She loved her job as a surgical nurse at Howard County General and they paid her well. She loved the circle of friends she'd developed and enjoyed being part of the Maryland Cameroonian community with their never ending drama. She chuckled. The story had broken recently of a Cameroonian man arrested for trying to kill his ex-wife. The idiot had tried to hire a hit man, not knowing he was talking to a police officer. Too much action film. She thought. The line moved again and she took two steps forward.
What would make a man hate a woman so much he would actively seek to kill her? A woman he'd once been married to, a woman he must have loved at some point. What could change the dynamics of a relationship so drastically? She could understand divorce. Her own parent's marriage had fallen apart two years ago, after her mother had gotten tired of her father's philandering and the seemingly never ending parade of illegitimate children who constantly showed up at their doorstep. Her youngest half sister was barely a year old. The end of his 35 year marriage had not been enough to stop Henry Neba from going after anything with a skirt. But would his bitterness at her mother's departure or the many arguments they'd had since ever make him seek to kill her mother? He'd been angry. He felt her mother owed him unconditional loyalty. He, after all had taken her from their village, Bafut and sponsored her through school. His connections in the Bamenda hierarchy had her landed her the job she had. Rose Neba had become one of the most prominent nurses at the Bamenda Regional Hospital, eventually rising to become Nurse in Charge of the Labor Room. As far as Henry Neba was concerned, he had created the woman Rose Neba had become and she owed everything to him. Their divorce had been a scandal in Bamenda. Ironically, people had been more scandalized over her mother's departure than over the fact that in 35 years, her father had managed to father six children with five different women out side of his marriage. This was in addition to her and her three siblings.
Stories like this made Manka'ah extremely wary of marriage or any kind of commitment altogether. They also made her extremely grateful for the fact that she owed none of her successes in life to any man. She had no idea what she would do if she was in a position where she felt like she owed her education and her professional success, her most precious possessions, to a man who would betray her the way her father had betrayed her mother, repeatedly. And then to hate her so much to want her dead?
It was her turn at the counter she stepped forward and placed her order. Venti coffee frappucino with a shot of espresso. The iced drink was a concession to the heat. She was meeting Sarah, one of her college friends, in a few minutes for them to drive to D.C. They planned to make a day out of seeing the sights of the U.S. capital. They were both immigrants. Sarah had come from Paraguay a couple of years before on the DV lottery, the same lottery that had helped Manka'ah come to the US. They had attended nursing school at the University of Maryland together and formed a deep friendship over their shared immigrant experience. Sarah was a charge nurse at Howard County General. This Saturday was the first they'd both had off in almost 3 months.
The barista took her order quickly.
"Name please?" she asked, running Manka'ah's card.
She used her English name when she placed orders. Manka'ah wasn't exactly a standard name Starbucks baristas were used to hearing. She'd learned that lesson the hard way during her first months in America.
" Would you like your receipt?"
"No, thank you." Manka'ah took back her card.
"Coming right up!" The barista said, all chirp and cheer.
Manka'ah stepped off to the side to wait. It would be another ten minutes at least before her order came through, going by the number of people who had placed their order before her and now stood waiting. She let her eyes roam the crowd. It was a typical Saturday morning crowd. People just done with their morning run or bike ride, still dressed in their brightly colored exercise clothes. Others just like her, dressed in more casual clothes, out for a morning coffee before continuing on to whatever activity they had planned for their Saturday. Individuals, couples and families all of them gleaming with health and well being, totally absorbed in their lives and plans in the way inhabitants of an upper middle class neighborhood in America could be. Manka'ah wondered if any of the women present had husbands who hated them so much they would pay money to have them killed. Or if any of the children present had ever woken up to the sound of their parents arguing while a baby screamed in the background. If they had been informed later that day that they had a new sister. A sister whose mother, a young girl in the neighborhood, had abandoned at their gate in the wee hours of a chilly Wednesday morning, before taking off for parts unknown. Did any of the men cheat on their wives? Manka'ah snorted with laughter. Like that was even a question worth asking. Did any of the women cheat on their husbands? Would they also arrange to have their husbands killed if they could? Probably.
Her eyes had been roaming the crowd, not focusing on anyone in particular, as she asked herself these questions, so the fact that he was staring intently at her did not register at first, when her eyes swept past him. But the momentary glimpse of slate gray eyes set in a ruggedly handsome face which looked oddly familiar had her swinging her gaze back to the man sitting in a corner of the shop. His gaze no longer rested on her so she let her gaze run over him. He had what looked like a writing pad in front of him. He was focused on it, his hand moving in carefully measured precision. Not writing, his movements were too fluid for them to be those of a person writing. Drawing, perhaps. Her gaze moved up from his fingers wrapped around his pen. He wore a faded denim shirt, sleeves rolled back to reveal lean muscled arms. The shirt lay easily on his fit body. Khaki pants, hems rolled back and blue canvasses completed his outfit. His head of dark brown hair was tousled, like he'd simply run his fingers through it, not bothering with a comb. She examined his facial features, the broad forehead wrinkled in concentration, thick eyebrows, the aquiline nose, strong jaw. Why did he look familiar? Then it hit her. He could easily pass for Christian Bale.
As she watched, his eyes lifted from his pad and focused on her, but not on her face this time. His gaze rested in the general area of her midriff and then meandered it's way down her body, slow and leisurely, almost like a caress. His hand didn't stop moving as he looked. His gaze shifted momentarily to the pad then back to her, still not reaching up to her face. He's drawing me! The realization dawned on Manka'ah suddenly, leaving her slightly discomfited. The man's attention had taken on a eerie edge. What did he see when he looked at her? What about her had captured his attention enough to inspire him to want to draw her? What was going through his mind as he drew? Did he find her attractive? Who was he anyway? And why did he think he could just sit there and draw her without her permission? What would he do with the picture he drew? Manka'ah felt a frisson of unease stronger than the earlier discomfiture she'd felt. What was the etiquette in situations like this? Did she go over and ask him to stop? Demand that he give her whatever he had drawn? Was this a violation of her privacy? It was after all a public space. She had spent many a Saturday herself, sitting in this Starbucks, watching people.
"Venti coffee frappucino, shot of espresso for Judy!"
Manka'ah's attention snapped from the man to the barista who had just called out her order. The amusement she would have felt over the fact that they had taken her order under the name Judy instead of Judith, was overshadowed by her thoughts of the stranger. She took her coffee and made for the door, looking at the man one last time as she walked. He was no longer drawing. He held his coffee cup, having just taken a sip or maybe about to. He was looking directly at her, grey eyes calm and serious. When their gazes locked, he lifted the cup, toasting her, lips curving in a smile. She narrowed her eyes at him in displeasure, trying to communicate her disapproval of his actions. He seemed to understand exactly what she was trying to say because as the cup moved towards his lips, a small frown creased his forehead.
Manka'ah walked out of the Starbucks.
The sun's intensity had increased in the time she'd been in the coffee shop but it was still cool with a slight breeze rustling the air. She looked at her watch as she made for her car, she'd been inside for about 25 minutes, longer than planned. It would take her 10 minutes to get to Sarah's apartment but they would still make it to D.C in good time.
"Excuse me." The voice was masculine, deep.
She ignored the voice at first, certain the request for attention wasn't directed at her.
"Excuse me... Judith?"
Her head whipped around at the sound of her name. It was him. She pivoted to face him directly, automatically gripping her coffee cup and purse tighter, body poised to run if he made any suspicious moves. It was 9:30 a.m and she was in a busy parking lot, but Manka'ah made no assumptions. He noticed her actions and held up his hands to show he meant her no harm. There was a piece of paper in one hand
"I'm sorry to bother you." He said quickly. "I just thought I should give you this." He held out the hand with the paper. She reached out and took it from him but didn't look at it. It was the drawing he'd made of her, obviously. He'd picked up on her discomfort and cared enough to ease her fears.
"I'm sorry I made you uncomfortable." He said with a shy smile. He then turned around and walked back into the coffee shop.
Heart racing slightly from the small adrenaline rush her fear had induced, Manka'ah walked quickly to her car, got in and locked the doors before looking at the drawing.
It was exquisite. He'd captured everything about her from her button nose, full lips, almond shaped eyes and puffy afro to the slight tilt she tended to have to her head when she was thinking deeply. He'd drawn her body faithfully, realistically, capturing her musculature but also managing to capture the curves that sat atop her muscles. He'd even noticed her butt. Noticed that it was just a little too big for her slim frame. She giggled in pleasure as her eyes took in the lines of his artistry. He'd made the other patrons in the shop into faint shadowy figures but had drawn her in such sharp detail such that it gave the overall impression that she was the only person worth noticing.
She laughed, suddenly no longer angry at the man. His attention had been a little creepy but he seemed like a nice and polite enough person to have noticed and taken steps to assuage her fears. She put the drawing on her purse which was on the front passenger seat and started her car. Sarah would be waiting for her. The drive took less than ten minutes. Traffic wasn't heavy. She pulled into an open space and reached for her purse. She needed to text Sarah to let her know she had arrived. She'd placed the drawing facing down so this was the first glimpse she had of what was on the back. He'd written something. Brow creased into a bemused frown she picked up the paper again and read what he'd written.
You are the most breathtakingly beautiful woman I have ever laid my eyes on. I apologize again for making you uncomfortable. Can I buy you lunch sometime?
It was signed Aaron B. Gallagher. His number was scribbled next to his name.