Common Grounds

Emily Sedlacek

The overworked espresso machine whirred dangerously. Porcelain mugs clinked as they knocked against each other. A myriad of voices battled for dominance, barely covering up the smooth jazz playing overhead. Three baristas manned the counter, counting out change and making orders. A busboy scurried around the shop, black plastic tub under his arm as he cleaned tables, trying to keep up with the bell above the door. It just kept chiming, each tone signaling yet another customer entering the coffee shop.

Jude sat at the back of the shop, her novel and notebook open on the table. She wore her headphones in an attempt to drown out the gossip of the teen girls planted at the table across the aisle. They giggled loudly, and every time the busboy came by, they played with their hair and batted their eyes at him. Jude watched them for a bit before turning back to her book. They were too shiny, too new. She turned the thin page of her copy of Heart of Darkness.

Jude liked Common Grounds because it was quiet. At least it usually was. The baristas recognized her and knew her order by heart: medium black drip coffee with two sugars. She could come in and sit for hours, and no one would bother her. No one would look at her.

But today Common Grounds was offering a special on lattes—buy one, get one free. It was a promotional event for the first day of autumn. Plus, the place was trying to compete with the Starbucks that had just opened down the street. She should have known better than to come today. She should have known that a deal on lattes would attract every Ugg-clad teen and caffeine-starved college student in a twenty-mile radius. She’d been fighting off interlopers from her table for an hour now. The key was to keep your head down, not make eye contact, and think unapproachable thoughts.

She’d seen the guy come in. He was impossible to miss.

He looked like he’d been put into a taffy stretcher and pulled hard; long arms and legs swung like they were barely connected to his body. His head bobbed, like he was listening to music, but Jude couldn’t see headphones. He walked up to the counter and waited in line, smiling even before he got to the barista. Jude looked away and forgot about him almost as quickly as she had seen him. Until he started walking.

One.

Two.

Three laps around the coffee shop, balancing a scone in one hand and his coffee in the other.

Every table was was full, every chair occupied—except for the one across from Jude. She pretended she didn’t notice him circling, smiling at everyone he passed, his brown bookbag thumping against his back, but then she made a fatal mistake on his fourth lap. She looked up, right into a pair of dark eyes.

He stopped in front of her table. She looked down quickly, burning holes into the pages of her book. Don’t you dare, she thought.

“Do you mind?” He bobbed his head toward the chair across from her, empty except for her bookbag. “Everywhere else is full.”

He smiled. Waiting. Jude sighed, pushed her half-empty coffee mug to the side, stretched across the table, grabbed her bookbag, and placed it at the ground at her feet. She settled into her chair again, and looked back to her book.

He didn’t sit down.

She looked up, and up again, until she met his eyes. He just stood there, smiling. Jude raised one of her pale eyebrows.

“I feel weird just sitting down with a stranger,” he said.

“Then don’t.”

“So we should introduce ourselves.”

“Why?”

“That way we won’t be strangers anymore.”

“Are you high?”

He laughed, a barking thing that made the people at the nearby tables turn around. “Only on life.”

“Okay.”

“My name’s Luke Deluca.” He still grinned.

“That’s unfortunate.”

He grinned bigger; it took up his whole face.“It’s a family name.”

“I’m sorry your family doesn’t love you.”

Another bark of laughter, louder this time. Jude blushed furiously. “Alright, now you.”

“Me, what?”

“I told you my name, now you tell me yours.” Luke placed his coffee cup on the table, but didn’t sit. “That’s normally how introductions work.”

She hesitated. She could be Britney, or Kimberly, or Ashley. This guy wouldn’t know any different. “Jude.”

“Jude, like the saint.”

“The what?”

“You know, Saint Jude.”

“No.”

“Oh man,” he smiled some more. Don’t his cheeks hurt? “He’s my favorite. He’s the patron saint of impossible causes.”

“How do you know that?”

“I’m Catholic.” Of course he is, she thought. Everyone in Boston is.

Jude tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. “Well I’m not.” Why is he still standing?

“So not like the saint?”

“No.” Her parents thought they were getting a son. The name had been picked out and the nursery painted a pale shade of blue when the ultrasound technician congratulated her parents on their healthy baby girl. Jude was born six days later, a seven-pound, eight-ounce disappointment. No one ever said it, but some things you can just tell. “Like my grandpa.”

“Okay, cool.” Luke pulled out the chair, letting it scrape against the tile floor, and folded his long body into the comically small chair. She watched him as he set down his scone and pulled out his phone.

After all that. “That’s it?” He looked up from his phone screen, and smiled at her again. She stared back, brows furrowed, and tried to ignore the warmth that crawled through her stomach.

“Well, I know your name, and you know mine.” He ran a hand through his curly brown hair. “You know I’m Catholic, and I know you have a grandpa.” The curls stuck up in weird places and made him look like a little kid who just woke up from a nap. “We’re not strangers anymore.”

She looked away from his laughing eyes. “Alright.” She looked down at her book, trying to focus on the words in front of her eyes. She could feel his smile.

~ ~ ~

Her mom got over the shock of having a daughter quickly enough. Jude remembered sitting on the ground, drawing circles with her index finger in the soft beige carpet, as her mother sat behind her, pulling Jude’s white-blonde hair back into a tight braid. Her mom always hummed under her breath as she did it, lullabies or classic rock. The two “girls” in the family were close. Thick as thieves. Until they weren’t.

Jude’s dad never got over the disappointment of not getting a son, his own mini-me. Her fondest memory with her dad was hunting in the grass for crickets while he raked leaves in the yard. Every now and then, he looked over his shoulder and called out to Jude, reminding her to stay away from the road. Eventually she got too old for hunting bugs, and he hired a lawn care service.

It wasn’t a perfect life, but it wasn’t bad. Until it was. It started with slamming cabinets, and hushed voices that Jude could hear through the crack in her door when her parents thought she was asleep. Soon her dad was stumbling in late, smelling like sweat and something unfamiliar to a ten-year-old, and her mom was crying in the bedroom when Jude got home from school. Sometimes Jude would hear her mom call out to her as she walked past. Jude never went in.

Her dad finally left when she was twelve. He kissed her forehead, and she held her breath. She didn’t want to smell his. He promised her that they would still see each other and that this was best for everyone. Her mother hovered in the doorway to the kitchen, and Jude’s dad only nodded as he walked past her and out of the door.

They tried to see each other on weekends, and holidays. Jude would get into the passenger seat of their silver Accord, and her mom would drive her fifteen minutes across town to her dad’s apartment complex. It was a place for divorcees, drug addicts, and resigned bachelors. The furniture was stiff, there was never any food in the fridge, and the counters were always covered in something sticky. It wasn’t the type of place that someone lived.

At their scheduled time, Jude would be waiting on the curb outside of the complex. Her dad never walked her down. Her mom would turn down the drive to pick her up again. Sometimes they chatted about the weather or the traffic, but mostly they rode in silence. What was there to say?

It wasn’t comfortable, but it was what they all thought they were supposed to do. A year after the divorce was finalized her dad moved out to Nevada for a “great job opportunity.” She hadn’t seen him in the seven years since, and he didn’t offer.

~ ~ ~

She hadn’t expected to see him again, but when the door to Common Grounds chimed and she looked up, there Luke was—sauntering in, limbs too long and head bouncing to some beat that only he could hear. He looked around for a minute before his eyes met hers. He grinned and lifted a hand in greeting. She waved back.

She watched him order his coffee, stuff his change into the tip jar, and make his way across the shop towards her. He greeted her with a smile and a “hey” before sitting down. He pulled a textbook out of his bag; its cover was black and nondescript. He set it up on the table along with a slew of highlighters, one in every color, and started reading. She looked back to her own book.

They read in silence for a bit. The only noise was the sound of soft saxophones playing overhead and the door chime, signaling customers coming and going. It was peaceful, until Luke closed his book with a definitive thud.

She kept reading, but she felt him staring at her. Sighing, she looked up and into his grinning eyes.

“Yes?”

“What’s that?”

“What’s what?

He reached across the table and poked the cover of her book. “What are you reading?”

“A book.”

He laughed, and the barista looked up from where she was sorting change in the cash register. “You’re funny. I meant specifically.” He poked the cover again. “What are you reading?”

Orientalism by Edward Said.”

“What’s it about?”

“The West’s patronizing representations of The East.”

Luke’s brown eyes twinkled. She would have called them jolly if it didn’t make her think of Santa Claus. “And is this fascinating book for business or pleasure?”

“It’s for class.”

“And that class would be?”

“Understanding the Other: An Approach to Postcolonial Literature.” Jude liked the class a lot, but she constantly felt like she was trying to play catch up with the rest of her peers. They all had read so much.

“So you’re smart.”

She shrugged. “Not really.”

“I don’t believe you.” He leaned back in his chair and folded his hands across his flat stomach. “You’ve got that unapproachable bookish quality about you.”

“It’s because I’m holding a book.”

“Nope, that’s not it.” He smiled. “You’re an intellectual. I can tell.”

“Whatever.” She rolled her eyes, and got up, carrying her empty mug to the counter for a refill. When she came back he was still sitting there. Smiling at her. Waiting for her. “So what were you reading?”

“You know, I am so glad you asked.”

His book was about creating sustainable business practices. She didn’t understand most of what Luke talked about, but she liked the way that he had a conversation with his whole body. He leaned in close when he got excited, and hit his knee when he wanted to make sure she understood his point. He waved his arms as he talked about fair trade coffee, and she laughed when he almost whacked the busboy in the chest as he walked by.

~ ~ ~

She had learned how to love from romance novels. They were her mother’s last gift to her before she started working too much and stopped asking how Jude was after school each day. One day her mother walked in and dropped onto the kitchen table a stack of ripped-up Harlequins that she had saved from a thrift store.

“They were 10 cents a piece,” her mother said, untying her scarf and pulling off her winter cap. Her blond hair, Jude’s hair, was rumpled. “It was too good to pass up.”

~ ~ ~

What started as a few tattered books on her bedside table quickly needed a bookshelf, then two, then three, and soon they were piled precariously on every available surface in Jude’s room. Jude and her mom never talked about it, but every birthday and Christmas, there would be a gift card to the local bookshop or a new stack of books under the tree.

Jude didn’t tell her friends about it. She didn’t tell anyone about it. She hid the covers of brawny men and scantily-clad women whenever she read in public, and if anyone asked, she said her favorite book was Anna Karenina.

In comparison, the boys in her life were a disappointment. They weren’t monsters or anything, but they didn’t fly her away to exotic locales, or buy her sports cars, or give up their kingdoms all for the sake of true love. Most of them would barely hold open a door. Jude knew it was mostly her fault. She had poisoned her own watering hole. Even so, the first time she saw a boy with his shirt off she was fifteen, and she knew it was ridiculous, but a part of her expected the chiseled body of a pirate with a heart of gold who falls in love with a fair princess.

The boys in her life were constantly underwhelming. Until she met Damien.

He looked like death, smelled like American Spirit cigarettes, and he always walked like he had some place to be.

She was sitting in the Starbucks a few streets over from their school. The place was practically empty when he came up to her table and sat down without asking. She knew him, or rather she knew of him, but they weren’t friends.

“What are you reading?”

She held up the cover of her book, blushing. She hadn’t read a word of it since he came in the door a few minutes before.

He reached across the table and took the book from her hands, examining the cover. “Austen, huh? She’s something.” Jude winced as he cracked open the spine and flipped through the pages.

“Yeah.” Jude pulled the shiny book back from where Damien had taken it into his hands, and tucked it into her chest. “I have to read it for class.”

“What class?”

“AP Literature.”

“Who do you have?”

“Moxley.”

“Ah man.” Damien looked out at her from underneath his dark lashes and flashed a smirk. “I’ve had her. She failed me my freshman year. What a bitch.”

Mrs. Moxley was tough, but Jude liked her. She had given Jude a list of books to check out when she found out that Jude wanted to study literature in college. “Yeah, she’s pretty strict.”

“Also, she assigns the worst stuff.” Damien twisted the metal ring around his middle finger. “If you want to read something interesting you should really check out Vonnegut. I can lend you my copy.”

Jude tucked a piece of hair that had escaped her ponytail behind her ear. “You don’t have to do that.”

Damien planted his elbows on the table and leaned across the table towards her. “I insist.”

She was hooked.

They dated for a year and a half. They talked about life, literature, and the pursuit of quality weed. They went to see bands play that she had never heard of, and he always stood behind her, and the pressure of his hands on her waist made her feel like the most precious thing in the world. Until it didn’t.

Jude caught Damien in the back of his Corolla with a girl from marching band. She played the French horn and had her septum pierced. Jude cried, and Damien begged her to take him back, and eventually she did. Jude loved him, and the novels showed that sometimes love is supposed to hurt.

But the girl with the piercing wasn’t the problem. She was one of four. After finding out about the last one, Jude went home and and packed up all her Harlequins. A few weeks later, she saw an old lady reading from one at the bus stop. She hadn’t even taken off the 10 cent sticker.

Damien went to prom with Problem Number Two and Jude went with a boy from her history class. He was nice, but when he tried to kiss her, she turned it into a hug at the last second.

Jude cried herself to sleep for months, and her mom stopped buying her romance novels. Jude and her mom never talked about it.

~ ~ ~

“You weren’t here last week.” Luke wasn’t smiling, and Jude couldn’t meet his eye as she shed her coat and slid into the cold metal chair across from him.

“No,” The past couple of weeks, like clockwork Luke meandered in the door, smiled and planted himself at her table. He always asked first, but it’s not like she could say no. After about the fourth time she stopped wanting to. He made her laugh, and he never pushed. They worked on homework and talked, and soon, being with Luke was almost like being alone.. She hadn’t meant for this to become a routine. “I had a thing.” But she hadn’t meant to bail on him either. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay.” Luke took one of the two mugs sitting in front of him and pushed it across the table to her. “Here.”

Black coffee stared up at her from a porcelain mug, two sugar packets were placed on the saucer. “Is this for me?”

Luke shrugged and ran a hand through his dark curls. His hair was longer than when she first met him. It suited him better. “Yeah.”

“You didn’t have to do that.”

“I wanted to.”

She wrapped her hands around the mug and looked at him. “Thank you.”

Luke only nodded, but she saw a smile tug at the corner of his mouth. “What was your thing?”

“I had a meeting with my advisor.” Jude emptied the sugar packets in and stirred it. “I’m trying to figure out my thesis topic.”

Luke’s dark eyebrows raised. “How did it go?”

Jude shook her head. The meeting was supposed to last thirty minutes. Two hours later Jude had left her advisor’s office fighting back tears and trying to figure out if there was any possible way to replace her brain with that of someone smarter who could come up with more complex ideas. “Not well.” Jude took a sip of her coffee. She didn’t want to talk about it. “So what did you do when I wasn’t here?”

“Well, after I finished crying, I just studied for a bit. The yoga moms were here.”

Jude snorted. The yoga moms came in after their class at the studio across the street and sat and talked about kegel exercises for hours while they sipped their sugar-free-nonfat chai tea. “Oh god, I’m so sorry.”

“It wasn’t too bad.” Luke grinned, and leaned across the table, lowering his voice like they were co-conspirators in a crime film. “They practiced some stretches.”

“Stop.”

“All that lycra.”

Jude laughed, making the barista behind the counter look up from where she was counting her tips. “You are such a pervert.”

Luke threw up his hands defensively, “Hey, I wasn’t lurking outside their windows. I was just here innocently drinking my coffee.” He was grinning at her. “What was I supposed to do?”

~ ~ ~

“I think you’re making a mistake.” Her mom placed the dishes in the cabinet a little too forcefully.

Jude started to hand her glasses from the top wrack of the dishwasher. “Well, it’s not really your decision.”

Her mom took the glasses out of Jude’s hands. She wouldn’t look at her. “Reading books is not a viable career choice Jude.”

“Maybe I don’t want a career.”

“No career? Then what are you going to do?”

Jude shrugged and scratched at the waistband of her jeans. She had gotten a tattoo of a daisy a few days before and it still hurt more than she thought it would. “Who knows. Maybe I’ll just ride the rails. Live the vagrant life.” She hadn’t told her mom about it. “Get a boat and sail the Mississippi with a buddy. I’ll have options, Mom.” She was eighteen. She didn’t have to.

“Dammit Jude!” Her mom slammed the cabinet door and Jude tried not to jump. “This isn’t a joke. This is your life. Can’t you understand that?”

“Exactly!” Jude’s voice was high pitched, frantic. “It’s my life.”

“You can’t keep running away.” Her mom smacked her hand on the countertop and the window above the sink rattled. “You can’t just mess up your life because of some boy!”

Jude sucked in a breath. “Oh, so that’s what this is about!” Jude slammed the dishwasher shut, and spun to face her mother.

“Well, what else could it be about?” Sweaty tendrils fell in her mom’s face. She had just gotten off her shift. Jude had been in charge of fixing dinner that night.

“God!” Jude ran her hands through her hair, roughly tugging it back from her face. “You don’t know anything!”

“Then tell me!”

“When?” Jude was shouting now. “You’re never around!”

“Do not raise your voice at me, young lady.” Her mom wagged her finger in her face. Jude wanted to reach out and grab it. “I’m just trying to understand. I’m just trying to understand you.

“No, you’re just trying to control me!”

“I want what’s best for you.”

“How would you know?” Jude waved her hands wildly. “You’ve never asked me! You’re just trying to control me because you can’t control your own life!”

“How dare—”

The tears poured down Jude’s face, “You’re trying to control me because you couldn’t control dad!”

Her mom stepped back like she had slapped her. Jude regretted the words as soon as they left her mouth.

“Mom, I—”

Her mom held up a hand, stopping her. “Jude, I think you need to go to your room.”

“Mom, I’m so—”

“Jude,” her mom’s voice was barely above a whisper. “I mean it. Now. You win.” Her mom turned her back to Jude, but she still caught her mother’s words. “Mess up your life, but don’t come crying to me about it.”

Jude left for Boston six months later. She took out student loans to cover what her scholarship wouldn’t, it was a good thing the scholarship covered a lot. One of her friends from high school drove her to the airport. Her mom had to work.

~ ~ ~

Jude hadn’t wanted come to the party. She hated crowds, the music was too loud, the beer was always cheap, and she was going to have flashbacks for the next week of her feet sticking to the floor. Jude pulled at the hem of her top and ran her hands through her hair, matted to the back of her neck in a sweaty clump. Rachel had made her come. Rachel was worried that Jude was turning into a hermit who only left the house to go to class.

Jude reminded her that she went to Common Grounds every Friday.

Rachel said that the coffee shop less than a block away from their apartment didn’t count.

She agreed to go to the party to get Rachel off of her back, and made her promise that she wasn’t going to abandon her all night to make out with some drunk guy in Alpha-Omega-whatever like last time. Rachel swore up and down that she would not leave Jude alone, that she’d be all up on her like “white on rice.” Now Jude was in a corner nursing a warm Miller Lite, and the last time Jude had seen Rachel she was heading up the stairs with some guy in a snapback.

Jude planted herself more firmly in the corner and watched as scantily clad girls danced up on each other to some rap song. Jude sipped her beer. It looked like it could be fun, but Jude couldn’t dance. She had two left feet and couldn’t keep a beat to save her life.

“Saint Jude!”

A familiar voice called her name from across the room and she watched as a tall, loose figure made its way through the writhing bodies and planted itself in front of her.

Oh no. “What are you doing here?”

Luke was smiling, holding a blue can in his hand.“No hi?”

“Hi.” Somebody bumped Luke from behind and he stepped closer to her. Caging her in. “What are you doing here?”

“I know Justin.”

“Justin?”

“You know. Justin. Everybody knows Justin.” Luke gestured with his beer can to the room packed wall to wall with people. “This is his house.”

“Oh right.” Jude shifted her drink from one hand to the other. “Yeah, I just came with a friend.”

“Like a male friend?” Luke was teasing, smiling, but the smile didn’t quite reach his eyes.

“Like, my roommate friend.” Jude looked up at him. He was tall, but she never really noticed how much he towered over her; normally they were sitting.

Jude sipped her beer, fighting a grimace as the warm liquid crawled down her throat. Luke opened his mouth to say something as the song shifted to something distinctly pop, and a group of girls shrieked, “This is my jam!”

Luke leaned down and practically had to shout in her ear to be heard. “Do you wanna go outside or something?” His breath was warm against her cheek, and Jude felt a heat crawl up her neck.

“Yeah, sure.”

They fought their way through the mass of bodies in the living room and out the back door in the kitchen. Luke leaned against the railing of the back porch like the archetypical cool guy leaning, and Jude bounced from foot to foot to keep warm. The night was brisk, but not quite cold. Still, she wished she had brought a jacket.

Luke set his beer down on the railing beside him. “I’m glad you’re here.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, you’re a hard person to track down. You’re like a ghost or something.” Luke smiled at her and nudged her shin with his foot. “I was starting to think you didn’t exist outside of the coffee shop.”

“Yeah, I don’t really go out much.” Jude fiddled with the gold charm bracelet around her wrist.

“Why?”

“I’m just not a huge fan of crowds and stuff.” Jude shrugged. “I spend a lot of time at the library.”

Luke smiled and nudged her with his foot again. “And Common Grounds.”

“Yeah,” Jude took her own foot and nudged him back, “and Common Grounds.”

“So do you think you’d be more willing to go out if there weren’t large groups of party goers?”

Jude laughed and moved over so that she was leaning on the porch railing beside him. The aged wood gave a little as she came in contact. “Yeah, probably.”

Luke ran his fingers through his hair. “So, would you wanna go out sometime?” She was starting to notice that it was a nervous tick. “Like, for dinner or something.” Luke turned so that his long body faced hers. His eyes were dark and earnest, cast in shadow by the floodlight overhead. He wasn’t smiling. “Not that I don’t love our coffee rendezvous, because I do. They are truly the highlight of my week.” He reached up to touch his curls again. “And I mean, technically we’re hanging out right now, but I’d like to see you sometime. Somewhere where we can actually hear each other talk and there’s not puke on the bathroom floor.”

“Somebody puked on the bathroom floor?”

“Yeah, it was everywhere. I wouldn’t go in there if I were you.”

“Justin’s going to be pissed.”

Luke shrugged. “He knew what he was in for.”

They stood there in silence for a moment. The only sound was the music from inside and the sound of cars passing by on the road on the other side of the house.

“So,” Luke shifted from one foot to another, not quite meeting her eyes. “What do you say?”

Jude hadn’t meant to like him. She hadn’t meant to let him in. She was a girl who learned to love from romance novels, whose heart had been shattered, probably beyond repair. Jude looked at Luke. He stood in front of her with his eyes cast down, like a little boy in the principal’s office awaiting his fate—innocent at his core, but nervous all the same.

Jude tugged at a strand of her blond hair. She could destroy him.

Luke ran his hand through his curls, and Jude fought back a smile.

Or he could change her mind.

“Yeah.” She smiled. “Yeah, I’d like that.”

After their first meeting Jude had gone home, and googled Saint Jude, her accidental namesake. Luke had been right. She would learn that he was right about a lot of things. Jude was the saint of impossible causes, but he was also the patron saint of hope.