With Your Last Heartbeat
My eyes had been caught by something. As I looked at it, I felt absolute fulfillment, and a feeling of determination that had never come over me before. Maybe it was crazy, but in my head, I could only think about it. I knew that if I walked through that door, my life would be turned upside down. And yet... I took the plunge.
I remember riding home that day faster than ever, with my yellow bike again being pushed to the limit. What was left of the evening I used to put together a CV using a template I had found online. I filled it in with all my details and, when I could print it out, I went to sleep. And the next afternoon...
"Welcome. How can I help you," asked a girl tending bar as she heard the doorbell ring.
As I hesitated on how to speak to that blonde girl who was tending the cafeteria, she seemed to have remembered something clearly.
"Oh? You're the boy who was crying yesterday, aren't you," asked with some surprise.
"So she did remember", I realized. Anyway, that didn't matter. I was there for a simple reason.
"Who should I talk to about the job offer?"
After only a few minutes, I had already been ushered into the back of the store. The first thing I saw as I passed through the service door was a small break room, which connected to an also small office and another room that appeared to be a storage room. There I was, sitting at the desk, handing in my CV.
"Leonardo Soraire, huh," the manager, named Jairo, asked me.
"Yes," I answered confidently.
Jairo White, the owner and manager of Café Alba according to the ad, was an older man, in his seventies or so. He was dressed in a plaid shirt, plain black pants and a beret, which covered his silver-colored hair. He wore round glasses, similar to the ones Talos wore, but much smaller, and his manner of speaking was very slow and leisurely, not caring about time at all.
"Let's see... twenty years old, high school completed, college student... do you need to work to pay for your studies?"
"Huh? This... no... I just need the money..." I said with some embarrassment, unsure whether to reveal the real reason.
"It's okay, it's okay, I understand. The economic situation in the country is not good, believe me it's normal."
So he thought it was because of that... well, he's partly right anyway.
"Okay, I'll tell you. I need someone who can cover customer service and food preparation and inventory organization. It pays $350 a month to work four hours a day for five days a work week. And, truth be told, since you're the only one who responded so far...if you need it, you could start today"
Surprisingly, the manager was already offering me the job, just like that. Strange, considering the whole hiring process usually takes a lot longer. Clearly, I didn't hesitate.
"Sofia, can you come here for a moment?"
The manager ushered me out of the room we were in back into the main room, where the blonde girl was manning the cash register, at the other end of the bar.
"Yes!" she said before turning back to look at the customers she was serving, "Thank you, have a nice day"
After putting the money away and waving, Sofia walked over to where we were, in her usual state of curiosity and excitement.
"This is Leo. He's going to start working with us from today," he was saying as he passed his hand behind me, resting it on my right shoulder.
"Oh, I see. Nice to meet you, Leo. I'm Sofia"
Sofia leaned forward slightly as she spoke to me. She introduced herself to me with a big friendly smile, not changing her retailer expression in the slightest.
"Nice to meet you, too" I replied.
"Oh, right, my grandson also works here, but he won't be able to come today. He's studying to be a paramedic and had an internship today. But normally it would be the three of you," the manager continued to tell me.
"Well, I'll leave you. Best of luck on your first day, Leonardo."
Jairo retreated back to his office, leaving Sofia and me alone, in that room with some customers having breakfast. I noticed that, little by little, this girl was starting to approach me.
"So Leo, huh? What year are you in?"
She is wondering what high school year I was in. High school. Oh no, not again.
"This... I'm going to first grade of university," I said with a little embarrassment.
Sofia froze for a few seconds, not even moving a muscle.
"Come on, come on... you don't need to lie."
"But it's true, I'm twenty years old..."
I noticed how, after another few seconds of silence, Sofia tried to hold back a chuckle.
"Sorry, sorry. Come, I'll show you the main thing."
That girl's reaction from second one was already starting to worry me, but I tried to relax and keep up with her explanation.
"This is a cafeteria. Customers can come here to eat or take their food elsewhere. The idea is that there will be someone manning the cash register and charging customers, another taking orders at the tables and making sure they are clean, and another preparing the food. Generally, we'll be rotating positions, so we all have to do everything. got it?"
"Understood," I replied confidently.
"Good. I'll explain how to use the espresso machine."
For the next thirty minutes, Sofia explained everything to me, taking advantage of the fact that it was a time when not so many customers were coming in. She began to explain to me how to prepare coffees, how to operate the cash register and even how to take inventory. Then, as other customers began to arrive, I watched as Sofia took their orders. She seemed very confident in everything she was doing.
"Okay. So, can you make the coffees when I need them? I'll pass the orders on to you."
"Fine, leave everything to me," I said confidently and giving her a thumbs up.
Sometimes in popular culture they talk about the term 'jinx' to refer to saying something that is going to happen or that you say very confidently, that ends up happening badly. I think that term could apply to that moment.
"Leo, two cappuccinos," she was saying to me from the checkout counter.
Despite my shout, I was quite hesitant about how I should prepare it. Since I had never made it on my own, I had to experiment as I went along.
I handed Sofia two cappuccinos...or what were supposed to be two cappuccinos. In reality, the cups contained over 90 percent milk, and the rest was just some very sparse coffee and cinnamon.
"Uh... Leo..." she gave me a dead look from the register.
"I'm sorry! I miscalculated."
"That's okay, let me help you. Cover me at the register."
"Leo, make a black coffee"
"I'm on it."
Apparently, to brew a black coffee you had to fill the filter holder with ground coffee to the top... or was it half full? Possibly if I filled it all the way, it would overflow and could ruin the machine. Either way, what resulted... was watery coffee.
"It's okay, let me do it," he tried to cover for me again.
Amazingly, as if I had been on one of those TV shows where everything goes wrong, I had far, far more mistakes than hits. The coffee came out too concentrated, or had too much water, or had too much milk, or overflowed. I even remember.
"Leo, make a cappuccino as d-"
Sofia turned to see the espresso machine spinning out of control, spewing steam everywhere.
"Oh my God!"
"Leo, turn it off!"
My performance as a barista was pitiful. It was partly logical, due to the fact that I had never brewed anything on the espresso machine, but it was too bad all the same. I ended the day physically and mentally exhausted.
"Good job, Leo. I'll see you tomorrow, okay?"
It seemed that no matter what, that cheerful girl was never going to change her face. Not even if my ill-prepared coffees melted the cafeteria.
"...What did you think of my first day?"
By this point, Sofia tried to smile, but her nervousness prevented her from doing so properly. Her cozy side was cracking until she was able to conclude:
"God," I said thumping hard on the mattress of my bed.
Back at home that night, I had been overcome with uneasiness. In wanting to try something new, it had gone badly. I also felt that I had failed Jairo and Sofia, who had to cover for me all day. I knew I wasn't going to last much longer like this.
"Maybe they'll fire me after a few days..."
In the midst of my disappointment, as I lay on my stomach, I remembered the reason I was setting myself this challenge. I quickly opened my cell phone and went into the chat I had with Clara. I saw some pictures I had taken the day of the aquarium, mostly as a joke, and smiled a little. I also remembered that hug I had given her when she was feeling bad. I couldn't give up now.
"I promise I won't give up," I said as I hugged the phone.
The next day, however, the situation didn't get much better.
"Leo, I told you that you need to purge the machine before brewing another coffee."
"Leo, where are the new beans?"
Every now and then, Sofia would demand or ask me for something, getting less and less patient. In this case, that I carry a box with sugar sachets towards the counter.
"I'm coming, just a minut-ah!"
As I turned, I felt both the box and my body collide with something coming very fast. I fell to the floor almost instantly. As I tried to figure out what had happened, I saw that Sofia had also fallen, less than a meter away from where I was. In confusion, we both stood still, looking into each other's eyes, for a few minutes. I waited for her reaction, which was finally going to show a frown, showing her anger.
"Let me work here, can you go organize the products in the warehouse?"
Now I was really in trouble. Getting fed up with someone who had so much patience required a relentless dedication to getting things wrong.
"...Okay," I agreed resignedly.
I walked back in through the back door, disappearing from the living room after Sofia had finished picking up what had fallen, then leaned against the wall that the door itself was built on, and looked up at the ceiling.
"Huh... what am I doing?"
"Don't worry so much."
My moment of frustration was interrupted by a boy standing inside the break room. I had been completely unaware he was there upon entering. He appeared to be putting his things down in one of the lockers, while taking off his jacket.
"That you don't worry so much. She's always that meticulous about the work, and she needs everything to come out perfect. She can be a pain in the ass a lot of times."
"Oh, thank you very much...wait."
I remembered what Jairo had said the day before. Besides Sofia, him and me, there was someone else who was working at the café.
"Are you Jairo's grandson," I asked.
"Yes. I've worked here since before her, so I know very well what I'm telling you. She'll only be mad at you for a little while and then everything will be fine again. Oh, and my grandfather has a great paternal instinct towards everyone, so he won't hate you for having mistakes or anything like that. Just take it easy," he said in a flat, soothing tone.
I could feel his words healing my soul. I was really nervous about possibly blowing the only chance I was going to get to help Clara, so hearing this gave me a lot of reassurance. I felt like that guy over there was my savior at that moment.
"Thank you, really," I said with a small smile.
"You're welcome, Leo."
It seemed that Jairo had already told his grandson my name. However, the manager hadn't told me his yet.
"What's your name," I asked him before I started organizing some boxes.
I noticed that I had said it in a very low tone, almost unable to hear him. Despite that, I understood him perfectly, surprised by his answer.
"Hikaru... what's that name," I said smiling openly, feeling more jocular at what he said.
"Ah, gosh, that's why I didn't want to tell you. I always get told it's weird. I'm sorry, please forget it," he was telling me as he clutched his head pessimistically.
It seemed that his name embarrassed him. That was interesting to play some joke on him, just like I did with everyone I had some trust with... but of course it wasn't the time.
"It's not weird. It's a little unusual... but I like it, you know? I'm sure it has a nice meaning."
Hikaru seemed to look at me quizzical and relieved after I said that, though he didn't say anything else until I spoke to him again.
"Thank you for your support, Hikaru. I hope we can work well together," I told him with a thumbs up.
Only moments after telling him that, before he could say anything, someone was coming back in through the service door.
"What's going on here," Sofia was saying, a little nervously and in a bossy tone, "Hikaru, I need you to come quickly to prepare your coffees, there are a lot of people waiting."
"Sorry, I'm coming," he said as he hurried to put his things away.
"Oh, and Leo...
At the time, I simply expected him to tell me to hurry up with those boxes he was organizing, or something like that. But...
...I need you to wait on the tables and take the orders quickly. Let's go."
I noticed that Sofia, while giving her direct order, had softened her tone, at the same time blushing slightly. As if she was still angry...but at the same time she wasn't. Relating it to what Hikaru had told me, I felt quite a bit more confident.
"Come on, Hikaru. We have work to do."
I followed Sofia back to the main hall, after having taken a mini-break and feeling relieved, leaving what was before behind. At the same time, although I couldn't see it, Hikaru let out a small smile from inside the break room. A smile that, even though I couldn't see it, gave me a boost.
Days went by, and with each one I was getting even more accustomed to that small but cozy cafe. I began to become more confident in certain tasks, despite still being a little nervous.
"Hikaru! Sofia! Two black coffees and a latte, all medium, with two croissants, a slice of cheesecake and a chocolate muffin for table four," I told them approaching the counter as I worked as a waiter.
"I'll get them ready," shouted Hikaru as he acted as barista.
"Coming!" said Sofia while she set about preparing the ticket and placing the pastry.
"Hikaru! One latte and one cappuccino to go, please," I would say as I served two customers at the counter.
"Leo, Hikaru, table six ordered three black coffees and a tea with two croissants for each drink," Sofia would say to me, holding the metal tray as if she were hugging it.
"Preparing the coffees!"
"Huh? Table six-"
While Hikaru started preparing the infusions with her great skill in handling the coffee pot, I took a quick glance at table six, the one against the wall, with one side of it on a long bench. As if my thoughts were superimposed on reality, Clara and I appeared at that table, first crying in each other's arms and then smiling with a bouquet of flowers in between. It served to remind me of my motivation.
"Three coffees, one tea and eight croissants, coming up!" I said as I entered the data into the register.
Unbeknownst to me, Jairo was standing at the service door, watching everything we were doing. It was only when I bent down to get the croissants that, as I absentmindedly looked over, I saw him smiling at me, as if he were my own grandfather. I was very flattered, and I returned the gesture, quickly getting back to work. And so, after so many orders... I was going to finish the day.
"Ahhh, I'm exhausted," Sofia said as she leaned back in the chair.
"Good job, guys," I said as I sat down as well.
"Same here, it was a good day today. And, to tell you the truth, Leo is getting a lot better."
Hikaru's smile made both he and Sofia focus on me.
"Huh? You think so," I said a little blushing.
"Of course you are, Leo. You're very quick at serving people, and also at using the register," Sofia complimented me, something very rare, "Just... don't go near the coffee machine again."
"Haha, yeah I'm really bad at that, but, that's what Hikaru is for. He's really good at making coffee."
Hikaru was surprised by the sudden compliment, reacting somewhat sheepishly.
"W-well of course I am, I'm the grandson of a coffee shop owner. It's kind of obvious..." he said looking down.
"Sure, but it's still amazing. And you, Sofia, you can do anything. Nothing goes wrong for you, you're amazing."
If I'm not mistaken, I saw how she was surprised too, but she was trying to hide it while laughing.
"Of course, I do, after all it's me, haha... but it's true, we make a great team, let's keep it up forever," she said as she hugged Hikaru, much to his surprise.
That's when something resonated inside me... very strongly. I realized that I was having fun with them after all. I really enjoyed working there and felt a lot of joy at that moment... but at the same time I was distressed. And that was reflected in my look.
I snapped back to reality with that question. They were both looking at me from the front, noticing what was going on.
"Nothing...it's just...I don't know how long I'll be here."
"Huh?" they asked at the same time.
"You see... the reason I'm working is that I need money to help a certain person. She... is very sick, and she needs very expensive medicine. That's why... if she finally gets cured... or if something goes wrong..."
I reacted as I felt a tear fall on my hand. Before I knew it, my face was soaked.
"Oh, I'm sorry... really, I'm sorry..." I said as I tried to dry myself.
"Don't worry... everything is going to be fine," Sofia said as she stroked my arm, "I would never have guessed it was because of that... the person you love must be very lucky to have you."
"She's right. It's a really noble motive," Hikaru was saying, before crossing smiles with Sofia and nodding, "Can you stand up for a second?"
I stood up from my chair, and instantly Hikaru and Sofia jumped in to hug me from both sides, enveloping me completely. Wow... it really felt comforting.
"Hah... thank you guys," I said as I sunk my head into my arms, "... really thank you"
I said goodbye to both of them and set off on my return home. Hikaru was going to help his grandfather close up shop, and Sofia....
... she seemed to have followed me all the way down the block.
"I'm sorry... I'm sorry I got mad at you when things didn't work out correctly... I had no idea why you did it."
I sensed that Sofia was distressed inside. And just as they had comforted me, now I had to.
"Don't worry, it's not your fault. Just as I had my reasons for doing it, you surely have yours. It's nothing to be ashamed of. Rather, thank you for teaching me and taking care of me. Well, I'll see you tomorrow."
I turned to the opposite side and continued on my way. Behind me, Sofia had put on a goofy grin, also relieved.
"God...looks like we're going to get along just fine..." she kept saying to herself.
A sudden slam of the door interrupted the office where I was with Jairo. It had come from Sofia, who seemed quite agitated.
"I'm sorry, Jairo, can Leo come here for a second? It's urgent..." she said while breathing heavily.
"It's okay. We'll finish this later," Jairo was saying with bills in his hand.
I left the room as normal, but as I closed the door, Sofia quickly grabbed me by the apron and walked over to me. Hikaru, to all this, looked puzzled from his chair.
"You! You invited someone here, didn't you," she was saying to me in a threatening tone and with fury in her eyes.
"Huh? Y-yes, but-"
Hearing that, her grip tightened. She looked very upset, much more than I could have ever imagined her to be.
"Listen to me one thing...if you hurt my friend like that again, you're going to see me very angry, is that clear?"
"Huh? I have no idea what you're-"
I had separated from Sofia and was about to tell her off when I remembered who was coming. I ran to the door and, squinting through it, saw how Clara was there, sitting and looking anywhere, alone. I didn't understand anything Sofia had told me, but I had to do something for her.
"God, I'm so late. Sorry, I'd better get ready. Thank you-"
I was about to thank them and go out alone, but... I came up with a better idea. One that I knew Clara was going to love. I grabbed a freshly baked muffin I had prepared earlier, a candle I had bought, and spoke to both Hikaru, Sofia, and Jairo who had approached upon hearing the commotion.
"This... could you help me give her a very happy birthday, please? I'm sorry, but... she's the person I most want to make happy."
Everyone in the room seemed to be taken aback by what he had said. Especially Sofia, who no longer seemed annoyed, but surprised and enlightened, as if she had realized something. She was the last to do so, but finally... she smiled at me for it.
"Alright, Leo," Sofia told me sweetly.
"Come on, Leo," Hikaru encouraged me by raising his right arm.
"Hehe, this is going to be fun," laughed Jairo.
We approached the now closed door and prepared to leave. When I grabbed the doorknob, however, I hesitated, but quickly everyone rested their hands on mine. Those three people I was so happy to meet, and who were going to support me in accomplishing my goal.
"Let's go," Sofia said to me very softly.
After looking at them all wistfully, I focused my eyes straight ahead. I began to count determinedly.
After I started counting, they all chanted with me.
We all pushed the doorknob down. And that room, in a matter of minutes, was filled with joy again.