The neon lights bathe the 24-hour café’s dingy storefront in toxic rainbow shades. The tables have a shudder-inducing sticky sheen on their surfaces, and the food I serve is subpar at best, a health code violation at worst. The café should have shuttered ten years ago, when the pipes froze and burst the first winter we opened; it should have shuttered five years ago, when the new highway cut right through our neighborhood without stopping and halved the number of our begrudging customers; it should have shuttered last year, when my parents died in the car on the way here and the only person left was me.
Squeezed—like someone insistently slipping between the closing doors of a departing subway train, the conductor yelping to no avail—between a bedraggled auto repair shop and a strip club, the café is as surly-looking as the neighborhood in which it is located. Few venture this south in the city without being forced to; while crime isn’t higher here than elsewhere, the long, deep shadows the buildings cast boast the ability to tacitly persuade people to think that they can be jumped, that they can be mugged. And thus the café does not attract many newcomers. Those that do come are usually lost or desperate.
The café’s peak hours are from midnight to four in the morning. During that four-hour window, people converge. Not families or friend groups, as is the custom in other cafés, but loners: The Businessman, The Stripper, The Writer, The Out-of-Towner.
I have little interest in speaking to them—from midnight to four in the morning, no one has any interest in speaking to anybody. And they don’t come for the rubbery, burnt eggs or the watered-down coffee. They come because they have nowhere else to go.
The Businessman is in his early fifties with a full head of hair that swoops over his pale forehead like a bolded comma—black, just beginning to turn gray in a charming way. He dresses solely in dark, neutral colors—navy, black, gray—as though one of the built-in clauses in the contract to become a businessman is to leech color out of yourself.
His order is the same every time: a black coffee with one large Belgian waffle. The Businessman always emphasizes the word “Belgian,” though he and I both know there is nothing Belgian about the sticky, dented waffle iron in the back of the kitchen that produces suspiciously squishy waffles.
He eats slowly and never looks at his phone, which lays beside his hand in a dead sleep.
There is a difference between The Businessman outside the café and the Businessman inside the café. The Businessman outside the café often pauses before coming in, scrutinizing the sign above the door that no longer lights up, warily assessing the cracked glass door, scrolling on his phone as if to find a more suitable establishment for people of his socioeconomic class. But invariably he sighs, sticks his phone back into his pocket, and comes in. He exhales defeat in every breath.
The Businessman never speaks to me other than to order his food, and I don’t want to speak to him either. So I create my own stories of why he’s here in my café instead of patronizing a Michelin-star restaurant where he can schmooze his way to the top over a plate of Wagyu beef.
In my mind, he is a stock broker. He comes from a rich family and so he learns to love money before he learns how to speak and eventually, he goes to school—maybe Wharton, maybe Columbia—to pursue his first love. He spends his twenties making so much money he can use it as kindling, but he likes the finer things in life, too. When I feel particularly charitable, I say he spent his fortune on donations to underfunded city schools in exchange for gold plaques bearing his name. When I feel a little bitterer, I say he spent his fortune on cocaine and prostitutes.
But that period of lavish spending ends in his late twenties or early thirties, or perhaps it ceases so quietly he doesn’t realize he isn’t in love with money anymore until his old friends from high school are getting married and having kids and he has no one and nothing except the doorman and his high rise. But, mired in the life of a stock broker, he has nowhere to go. Nowhere to go except here, to a café that overcharges him for waffles and coffee at midnight.
The truth is, The Businessman is not a stock broker. He is a pharmaceutical marketing executive, and has been for the past ten years. He had grown up poor, not rich, but I am right about the love of money—being poor will lead to that, too. The Businessman has a wife and a daughter who is a senior in college, and they are the reason for his midnight visits downtown, straying from his uptown apartment.
A year ago, his wife asked him for a divorce. She had met someone else, someone who actually wanted to spend time with her instead of sequestering himself in the office. The Businessman had begged, wept, shouted—but she had left anyway. I imagine that at that age, second-chance love feels particularly fragile; there are only so many seconds to burn until the end.
The Businessman’s daughter blames him for the divorce. She had watched her mother desperately try to hold her father’s attention with home-cooked meals and sweet outfits that reminded them of their puppy love, to no avail. The Businessman’s daughter likes her new stepfather more, knows him better than her actual father.
The Businessman produces advertisements for miracle drugs—I see them on TV, the ones that transport the viewer to beautiful outdoor concerts and mimosa brunches and Wimbledon games so long as they just take this panacea! He knows how to manufacture happiness, how to prey on people’s desire to be saved. He knows everything there is to know about happily-ever-afters except his own. If a miracle drug could turn back time and fix everything, he might actually star in his own ad for it. But there is no miracle drug, and he knows that better than anyone else.
And so, rather than returning to his empty apartment, the Businessman comes downtown. To my café, where he stares at the wall and thinks about who he had been thirty years ago, before he had realized there is still more story to go after the happily-ever-after.
The Stripper is my favorite customer.
She comes in around one in the morning, every morning, a little faded from her performance. “Hi there,” she always says, conjuring up a bright smile to mask her fatigue. “Can I get a latte and a slice of lemon pound cake, please?” Impeccable manners.
I know the type of men that frequent her strip club, and sometimes I worry for her safety. I open my mouth a few times to warn her, but no sound ever comes out. There is something deeply feeble about warning her about a problem that is no doubt intrinsic to her profession.
The Stripper looks anywhere from nineteen to thirty-five, an ageless sort of beauty I envy. She is short but clearly muscular and the few times she extends her arm to take change from me, I notice a daisy tattoo on the inside of her wrist. Unlike the Businessman, she checks her phone often and eats quickly. She is only ever in the café for half an hour at most before she jumps up, returns the chipped porcelain coffee mug to the counter, throws away the lemon pound cake wrapper, and sails out the door with a cheery “take it easy, hon!”
In my mind, the Stripper doesn’t strip of her own volition. She has student loans to pay, or maybe she is currently putting herself through college. I’d been in her shoes once: staring down two paths at a crossroads, caught between taking out massive student loans or just biting the bullet and taking over the café. In the end, the choice had been made for me.
The Stripper deals with leering men every night, and wishes she had an alternative career lined up, but stripping pays well enough that she can deal with the smirks and the groping and the pointed references to the back rooms. But that is all I can imagine for the Stripper. Everything links back to her career and her friendly smile. And I keep wondering how someone as sweet as her could work at a place like the strip club next door.
The truth is, the Stripper dances because she loves it. Liked it, rather.
Some things are true: she is 28, deals with leering men every night, and is paying off student loans. But she also enjoys performing, enjoys the thrill that comes with knowing that people find her desirable.
After four years, the enjoyment is still there, but it is running out. Last week one of the other girls died from an overdose. None of her family had bothered to claim her body. Drugs are all over the girls’ dressing room—the Stripper had snorted cocaine once herself—but the girl’s death last week brings the issue into sharp focus. The Stripper had lost count of how many times she had fixed the girl’s hair while the girl had shot heroin. Should the Stripper have stopped her? But the other girl had seemed so carefree, so young, so untouchable by death. The Stripper tries to put the incident out of her mind. The other girls have, already.
And then there are the men. Leering, advancing, making her life difficult and thrilling at the same time. The neighborhood that the club is in does not attract the suits that work uptown; the majority of the Stripper’s clientele is men who have only a few dollars to spare before they go back to their cubicle grunt work. But the Stripper harbors no illusions about poor men and rich men: they are all the same when it comes to her. All can leer, all can shout profanities, all can try to tempt her into activities she doesn’t want to do. She has no problems with performing privately, but with the new club manager firing almost half of the security force, she feels less and less safe. She goes into work most nights wondering if this will be the night, the night something happens.
And yet, there are some clients whom she genuinely loves. Like Owen, the shy 21-year-old pre-med major who keeps her updated on the status of his MCAT. Or Michael, a brash 34-year-old game developer who routinely asks her opinion on his storylines. Or Paul, a 60-year-old retiree who had lost his wife two years ago and now converses with her during most shifts. Many of her clients are in search of companionship—an excitement of a more unconventional sort.
But no one knows that the Stripper has enough money to pay off her student loans in one lump sum. She has for the past year. But paying off her loans means making a conscious decision. If she doesn’t have to strip anymore, will she go back to her accounting degree? Or will she have to put down her foot and say yes, I want to dance until my legs fall off?
The Stripper doesn’t know how to answer either question. And so she comes into the café each night and mulls it over—always returning to the club in the end.
Every city has its share of young artists. Young kooks, as my parents liked to say. I love them, though. They’re the only ones who are willing to venture anywhere and pay anything, if only to use their experience as a stepping stone to their next artistic venture.
The Writer is our in-house kook. Her clothing is a mix of Little House on the Prairie and Gossip Girl. It isn’t unusual to see her walk in at three in the morning wearing a lace-collared sequined cocktail dress with a faux brown leather backpack slung over her shoulder. She oscillates between two orders, though sometimes she’ll stand up at the counter reading the menu and pretending to want to try something new. In the end, though, she’ll order either a large hot chocolate with a club sandwich or a large iced black coffee with a generous amount of cream and a chocolate chip muffin. I can usually tell her intentions by which order she goes with. The first order means she’s content to just sit in the café and scribble notes in her battered marble notebook. The second order means she’ll pull out a laptop with a cracked screen and begin typing furiously until the sun comes up.
Of all the customers, she is the youngest and therefore closest to me in age. And of all the customers, she is the hardest one to create a story for. A writer herself, I can’t help but feel that every time I narrow my eyes and try to carefully peel back the layers of her identity, she laughs at me and more successfully reciprocates the investigation.
In the end, all I come up with is that she is a young writer, probably from out-of-state, who dropped out of college and has a family who happily bankrolls her peregrine life. It is my most generic story, and I resent her a little for it.
The truth is, the Writer can’t get in touch with her parents even if she wanted to. They are probably still living in their Bible Belt manor, rubbing elbows with wrinkled, gout-ridden political donors, but if they catch sight of her in the driveway, they are liable to run her over, blood on the tires be damned. She hasn’t seen them since the night they’d found her in bed with her girlfriend.
Her father is a ten-term U.S. representative-turned-senator who gleefully makes it his entire platform to oppose LGBTQ rights and votes against anti-discrimination bills on a daily basis. Her mother, the southern belle daughter of a wealthy televangelist, chairs almost every social club in the county.
The Writer’s best friend growing up, Esmé, had been one of the few local children that had grown up outside of the church. She’d mesmerized the Writer, not just because she didn’t have to conform to the same religious rules the Writer did, but also because everything seemed so simple to her.
When the Writer gave Esmé the first story she ever wrote, Esmé had simply replied, “Publish it.”
When the Writer told Esmé she wanted to be a writer but her parents wanted her to go to college and then marry, Esmé had simply replied, “Then be a writer.”
And when, in the darkness of the Writer’s childhood bedroom, a worn copy of the Bible open on her desk, the Writer had peered into Esmé’s eyes and found, for the first time, something complicated there, the Writer decided it was her turn to behave simply and lean into the kiss. Esmé’s hands were on the Writer’s bare hips before the Writer’s parents burst into the room.
And just like that, everything had dissipated: the Writer’s college career, which had been paid for by her parents; the Writer’s life in the south; and Esmé, who had been lost in the Writer’s frenzy to leave home.
Sometimes the Writer dreams of seeing Esmé again, of hugging her parents again—after all, making up fantastical stories is her job. But the next day she sees her father on C-Span denouncing the president’s support of gay rights and the whole illusion shatters at her toes. That life in her dreams does not exist; only this life does, the one in which she lives paycheck-to-paycheck on magazine entries and late-night bartending.
When her shift at the bar ends, she comes to the café and wonders when writing had lost its charm.
The Out-of-Towner is the chattiest of the customers, and I piece together a semi-decent backstory for him. He is the newest customer, but in his short eight weeks here, he orders almost everything off the menu. I have to clean the blender for the first time in six months after he orders a strawberry milkshake. “Very good. Very tasty,” he proclaims in accented English.
After two weeks of serving him, I finally ask him (hoping it’s finally appropriate), “Where are you from? I noticed you have an accent.”
“I’m from out-of-town,” he replies, smiling. And that is all he says. Every morning I ask him where he’s from, and every morning he replies, “I’m from out-of-town.”
When the second week of our rigamarole rolls around—his fourth week in total at the café—he finally tells me the truth. “I am from Taiwan,” he says.
“Oh. So you’re an international student?”
He gives me a smile I’ve learned to associate with his evasiveness. “Yes. I am studying biochemical engineering.”
“If you’ve traveled all this way, why stop at this café? Why not go somewhere . . . better?”
The Out-of-Towner shrugs. “You have a big menu,” he says, as though that answers everything.
As the weeks drag by, he tells me more about his life. During week seven, I learn he is 22 years old and a student at the local university uptown.
During week eight, I learn he grew up in Taipei. He frequently and longingly recounts memories of the city to me. The night markets, he says, are always teeming with people—“People are Taiwan’s best tourist attraction,” he says; I don’t know what he means by it—and food stalls as far as the eye could see. You can spend 100 Taiwanese dollars at the night markets—the equivalent of $3 in America—and eat a full dinner with some food to spare.
But most curiously, the Out-of-Towner said he misses two things above all: the Taipei subway and the Taipei 7-Elevens. “The subway in Taipei is—” he pauses, looking for the right word. “It is clean. It is so clean. Not like here.” His nose wrinkles. I don’t blame him. I’ve lived in the city my whole life and I still hate taking the dingy, dirty subway to work every morning. “And the 7-Elevens! Oh, they have everything you can possibly imagine.”
“So do the 7-Elevens here,” I say lamely, just for the sake of it. I am no 7-Eleven slurpee fanatic, though some of my friends swear by the radioactive blue, red, and green drinks.
“No, no!” The Out-of-Towner waves his arms wildly, briefly attracting the attention of the Writer, who dozes in the corner on a patchwork fur bag. “The 7-Elevens in Taiwan, they are amazing. They have noodles and walls of milk tea and dry snacks and tea eggs and toothbrushes and magazines and—” he would have continued had he not run out of breath.
“It sounds amazing. You’ll have to take me there if I ever visit Taiwan.”
At the mention of visiting Taiwan, the Out-of-Towner’s expression collapses, and I wonder if I’ve done something wrong. But his smile re-forms quickly and he nods. “Of course. I will take you to ride the subway, too.”
The truth—though in this case there is no fiction to dispel, only the unsaid to expose—is that soon the Out-of-Towner will leave the café for good, the jingling bell above the door the only sign he’d ever been here. His student visa is set to expire in a week and he has found no employer to sponsor him through the process of applying for another visa.
In a way, the Out-of-Towner is eager to return to Taiwan. All he says is true: he misses Taipei, he misses night markets, and he misses the subway. But he had also left Taiwan for a reason, and now he returns with his head hung down, failure simmering inside him.
He is the black sheep of his family. While his older cousins had been admitted to the best universities in the country, he had struggled with basic schoolwork. His parents, both college professors, jabbered disapprovingly at him every time he brought home a poor grade. The Out-of-Towner had been shunted to the side in favor of his younger brother, a stellar student.
Bitterness is a tea he knows well, and, on a late afternoon impulse, he applies to university in America. No one in his family has ever been to America, so he will be the first one. No one in his family can even say they’d applied to university in America, so that is his and his alone, too.
It is a shock when he is accepted. For the first time in his life, his parents are speechless. He lords it over his younger brother and practically shoves his acceptance letter in his cousins’ faces.
When he arrives in the airport on his first day in America, he is determined not to make the same mistakes he had made in Taiwan. He studies harder and longer. He eschews parties and friendship in favor of the library. He never tastes a single drop of alcohol.
And he is being kicked out all the same.
When he finally accepts it—as much as he can—he feels a monstrous craving to do all the things he had told himself he couldn’t. He had lost himself somewhere in the American immigrant monolith, being in America without actually being American. And so, on a late afternoon impulse like the one that had dictated his arrival, he roams the city by foot and steps inside the first café he finds.
And he makes a promise to himself. He will try every single item on this American
café’s menu before he leaves.
The Businessman comes in with a shiny new wedding band and orders his Belgian waffle for the last time.
The Stripper comes in dressed in a blouse and a pencil skirt, nervously bunching the fabric in her hands, and orders her lemon pound cake for the last time.
The Writer comes in holding hands and laughing with another girl; the Writer orders a hot chocolate and the other girl orders a large iced black coffee. That is the last time I see them.
The Out-of-Towner never comes in, but I find a note weighted under an empty Earl Grey mug—the last item on the menu. When you come to Taipei, meet me at 7-Eleven.
They’ve all left, but I’m still here. And I will be, for the foreseeable future. So if you ever have a hankering for overpriced, watery coffee in a sketchy neighborhood, don’t forget to stop by—between midnight and four in the morning would be best.
Kathryn Lee is an incoming freshman at Binghamton University. Her work has been previously published in Binsey Poplar Press and is forthcoming in Paper Crane Journal. Along with writing fiction, she also runs her own book review blog, le livre en rose.
© 2021, Kathryn Lee