Chapter 3:

The Girl at the Café

Sweet like Honey

Thankfully, the girl didn’t pursue any more than that. I managed to stammer something along the lines, “I’m fine. Don’t worry and thanks.” She regarded me, and I had a sense that we were kindred spirits. A look of understanding passed between us and she turned away.

“This is the first time I’ve been to this café,” she said without looking back at me. She raised a hand. “I heard a lot of good things about it, and now I know why so many people like it. I’ll be back.”

“I’ll look forward to seeing you again,” I said and bowed automatically, delivering the same line as always. The lady chuckled and waved dismissively, probably knowing that I was just reciting from rote as opposed to being sincere. But I realized that I genuinely wanted to see her again.

Even so, I never expected to see her in the café again the very next morning.

“Hey, isn’t that the girl you spoke with yesterday?” Honey teased when she caught sight of the lady taking her place at the corner once more. She was wearing the same red cap, jacket, sunglasses and mask, though she appeared to be wearing a denim skirt and a black blouse underneath this time, instead of the white dress yesterday.

“Yeah.” Wow. I mean, I didn’t think she was lying, but I never anticipated that she would return so soon. I thought it would be a week or so.

“Go ahead and take her order.” Honey nudged me forward. I raised my eyebrow at that. Was she trying to set me up with a customer? That would be disastrous. Catching my look, the manageress shrugged. “Don’t worry about my husband. I’m sure he’ll approve. Besides, I trust you. You’re just taking her order, right? I’m not telling you to hit on her.”

“Uh, right.” I coughed and approached the lady. She looked up when I stopped at her table, my notepad in my hand. “Can I have your order, ma’am? And I apologize, but I don’t think I can give you another free slice of cake today. Maybe the honey flavored coffee will be on the house, but I’ll have to wrangle with the manager. Honey milk will be less of a problem, but I already served you that yesterday, and I think a change will do you a world of good, but coffee is a bit more expensive so I can’t just give it out for free.”

“That’s okay.” The girl giggled and shook her head. “I understand. You’re not running a charity here. I’m more than happy to pay for my drinks and food.”

“Speaking of which, what will you be having?”

“What do you recommend?”

“The honey coffee,” I said automatically. Then I contemplated for a second. “Since you already had the honey cheese cake yesterday, then I suggest the honey apple pie for today. It’s one of my favorites.”

“Then I’ll order that.” The girl lowered the menu and studied me before nodding in satisfaction. “You look better than yesterday. Your smile…it’s slightly more genuine.”

I feel more cheerful because I’m talking to you. However, I didn’t say that out loud because she would probably consider me a creep if I did. And I was reminded of Honey’s warning. Don’t hit on a customer.

“Yeah. How about you? Are you feeling better today?”

I noticed that she was no longer crying. She was a bit brighter, though still subdued. I wasn’t able to tell much because of how much of her features she had hidden under a mask.

A mask, huh?

I couldn’t help but laugh hollowly at that in my mind. I didn’t need a mask. My expression was a mask. The smile I carefully crafted to present as a façade to the customers…it was more of a disguise than any thin fabric designed more to keep germs out.

“Yes, thank you.” Even though I couldn’t see her smile, I could sense the buoyant tone behind her words. “The honey milk and cheese cake really helped lift my mood. I appreciate your treat.”

“That’s good to hear.” Despite my curiosity, I restrained myself from asking what was bothering her. I didn’t think it was a good idea to pry into her privacy. I had brought her here so that she could feel more comfortable, not be under scrutiny. Steeling my resolve, I grinned. “The coffee will be on the house, though.”

Even if Manager Chan disagreed, then I supposed I would just pay for her coffee out of my own pocket. There was just something about this girl…she was still hurting despite sounding more cheerful today, and my heart went out to her. I wanted her to cheer up.

To think she was also concerned about me when she was suffering from an ordeal herself…

It didn’t take long for me to bring her meal to her table, but I didn’t have much of a chance to speak to her because the morning crowd was beginning to pour into the café. It was unfortunate, but I had to push her to the back of my mind and focus on my job. It made for a good distraction, to be honest, and I found myself rushing back and forth between tables, balancing trays of plates and mugs precariously.

As usual, I simply tuned out the background noise and responded mechanically. A cappuccino, a mocha and a latte for table three, plus three slices of honey mango cake. An expresso for the elderly gentleman reading a newspaper at table four. Honey donuts for the office workers at the counter, to go. Cardboard takeaway tray for four large cups of honey coffee for a Door Dash purchase, the driver already having his bag open and ready.

I could understand why our coffee was popular. Unlike most cafes, we didn’t add sugar to our coffee. We added honey, which we promoted as an alternative natural sweetener. Apparently, it was a hit with health-conscious customers looking to avoid diabetes.

Fortunately, we managed to get over the peak hours, particularly as the office workers and laborers headed to work, gradually emptying our previously packed café. I could finally heave a sigh of relief and catch a break before the inevitable crush during lunchtime, but before I could take off the apron and head into the staffroom for a quick bite, I suddenly heard a commotion.

“Hey, miss!”

One of the customers was swaggering over to where the girl with the red cap was sitting quietly at a corner. A middle-aged man in his fifties, his tie was dangling untidily and his dark blue business jacket was unbuttoned. He peered at her with a leery grin.

“You mind giving me your number?”

The girl glanced at him from behind her sunglasses before turning away and pointedly ignoring him. The salaryman didn’t give up, though, placing his arm around her chair.

“C’mon, miss. I caught a glimpse of your face when you were drinking earlier. I can tell that you’re really beautiful. Why do you hide that pretty face behind a mask? You should be proud of your beauty.”

More awkward silence, but I could tell that the girl was tensing. Her fingers tightened their grip over the handle of her now empty mug.

Clearing my throat, I made my way over to her.

“Sir, if you don’t mind…I think you’re bothering the lady. She wishes to be left alone.”

“What?” The salaryman turned toward me with a scowl. “Mind your own business, four-eyed brat. I’m a paying customer, you know.”

Brat? Did he call me a brat? I was already on the wrong side of thirty, having wasted a good chunk of my life pursuing a PhD and failing. I was no brat.

However, I maintained that professional smile and persisted.

“So is the lady, and here at the Honey Café, we want all our customers to feel comfortable and at home. I apologize for being blunt, but you are making her uncomfortable. If you could be so kind as to leave?”

“Leave? Do you know how much I spent on your…?”

“Your coffee will be on the house today,” I said diplomatically, trying to remember what he ordered. The salaryman with the blue jacket…right, table six. A cup of coffee and a large honey pineapple pastry. “We won’t charge you for your coffee and pineapple pastry, so if you would please…”

The salaryman glared at me, and then he turned away with a huff.

“Fine. If you’re going this far, then I have nothing to say.”

He stole one last peek at the lady, who was fuming under her mask, cap and sunglasses. Fortunately, he didn’t have the temerity to taunt her, and he just left the café without another word. I breathed a sigh of relief.

“You didn’t have to do that.”

“Hmm?” I blinked and turned toward the girl. She was staring at me, her knuckles white as she clenched her fists.

“I could have handled that man myself. You didn’t have to step in.”

“Perhaps,” I allowed. “But if you did, then you might be…disturbing the other customers, and I can’t have that.”

The girl studied me for a moment before giggling.

“Of course. I apologize.” She then held out her mug. “Do you mind if I get another refill?”

“Not at all,” I responded with a smile.

Mario Nakano 64
John Lee H. Wu
Steward McOy