There was something about the man who came into the Dunkin Donuts every morning at 6:35am and ordered a medium black with two equal that made Danni’s palms slick and her tongue forget how to speak. She had his every movement memorized: from the time he stepped foot out of his black Honda civic in the second parking space from the door, to when he walked inside with his leather briefcase and ordered his coffee even though he had to know she knew his order, and then he’d sit at the small two-person table next to the trash receptacle and read the morning’s paper.
He was older, probably around her dad’s age. He even sort of looked like her dad, with his brown hair beginning to bald in the front, large, beefy fingers and slightly protruding stomach tucked inside a pair of Wrangler jeans and nice polo shirt. When he’d first walked in almost two months ago, he’d greeted her by her name, pinned jauntily onto her mustard yellow polo, and asked how her morning was.
A blush had risen up over her cheeks and her stomach had clenched almost painfully when he’d looked at her, her name rolling off his lips like silk. She could feel his eyes rake up and down her as she stared at her toes and mumbled she was well, how was he?
Much better now, he’d answered, and then ordered the first of many medium sized coffees. He’d come in, sit down, and then his eyes would rove between the newspaper and her. Danni could feel him watching her while she cleaned the donut cases, having to crouch down awkwardly for that bottom shelf where the munchkins and long johns were, or when she brought the bottom of her shirt up to wipe the sweat from her face and revealing her stomach for just a few seconds. She liked the odd flutter in her stomach when she’d catch him watching her before quickly glancing back at his paper, amused smile on his face. She loved knowing she had been the one to put that smile there. Anything she could do to make him happy made her happy.
He was nothing like any of the boys she went to high school with, who were all immature and only seemed to care about how many girls they could score in a year. The few decent ones were of course taken and even Danni thought herself above the creepy looking ones who seemed as though they’d date calculators for the rest of their lives. She may call herself an “art geek” and really have no friends outside of her marching band oboe sectional, but she had real aspirations to do great things.
She would become a world-famous painter, just like her idol Renoir, and paint beautiful landscapes full of blush-pink sunsets and hazy morning glows, create sun-dappled tree patterns over the naked bodies of two lovers lying in a field of small yellow buttercups.
She’d be able to look back at all of her classmates, who laughed and ignored her like she was worth nothing, and show them all that she didn’t need them and their stupid parties and popularity. She didn’t need the attention or the praise or anything anyone at that pathetic school could offer her. She had all she needed in her portfolio case and gigantic art toolbox.
And yet… Danni glanced up from where she was pre-boxing munchkins without the powder or cinnamon to look at the man. He would thank her when she handed him his coffee and always ask how she was doing. He smiled at her and looked at her in ways that no one ever had before. She’d intently noticed that there was no ring adorning his left hand after studying it for a few days. He never received phone calls from anyone other than what sounded like a work associate, she’d gleaned from inching towards him whenever his phone rang. He never mentioned another woman or kids or a family. He only asked about her, only talked to her, and only ordered from her. That meant something to Danni. It meant everything.
She put the last box together and looked at the clock on the register. Just about 7:30, so he’d be leaving any minute. Straightening up, she pretended to be busy cleaning the counter in front of the coffee station. Joe, one of the other employees, was always making a mess so it wasn’t that difficult. Out of the corner of her eye she saw him stand and fold up the newspaper with deliberate and deft strokes and tuck it back inside his briefcase. The now empty coffee cup was tossed in the trash and he started for the door as he normally did. But then, he stopped and approached the front counter.
Danni put down the dishrag and shyly made her way to the register, wondering what this change in routine meant. He’d never once doubled back. “What can I get for you?” she asked, peering up at him from beneath her visor, pretending it was a large sunhat with ribbons that he’d ever so gently remove and place on the flower-strewn ground beneath them.
He smiled and reached a hand across the counter, lightly fingering one of the braids that rested on her shoulders. “Your hair looks cute, Danni. You should wear it like that more often.”
She felt her cheeks heat up and she ducked her head. “Thank you.”
He chuckled. “See you tomorrow.”
“Bye,” she said, barely audible to even herself. Once she saw him drive off in his little car she raised her hand and touched the braid he’d put his hand on, feeling a giddy smile start to fill up her face. He liked her hair! He thought it was cute. Did it mean he liked her too? Did she have a chance with him? Her hands twitched on the end of the braid, the strands of clumped hair just like her bristle brush and welcome beneath her fingers. She had the urge to paint again, to continue her masterpiece.
Her shift couldn’t end soon enough. But once the clock finally struck noon, Danni tore out of the store, yanking off her visor and disgusting coffee-smelling shirt as she went and revealing the pale pink tank top beneath it. Home was only a few blocks away and Danni practically skipped down the stretch of sidewalk, swinging her arms wide and resisting the urge to giggle uncontrollably.
She danced up the cobblestone walkway to her home, being cautious not to step on the tulips that were just beginning to sprout from the ground. Her mother would kill her if anything happened to her precious flower garden. Digging the house key out of her front pants pocket, Danni entered the front door and shouted, “I’m home!”
No one answered. She really hadn’t been expecting anyone to: her father was probably out golfing on his free Sunday and her mother had said something about going out with their neighbor Barb, who made excellent fudge, to get their nails done and go for lunch.
After kicking off her shoes, she went to the kitchen to raid the fridge. Her mom was always telling her off for eating the donuts and sweets at the Dunkin Donuts. “The last thing you need is to gain anymore weight,” she would always say, poking Danni’s stomach or arm and watching the small bit of skin jiggle. Danni really didn’t care what her mom thought; her eating habits didn’t change his opinion of her.
Snatching an apple, the leftovers from their steak dinner two nights before, and a pudding snack Danni headed upstairs to her room and her painting studio, humming beneath her breath. She pushed open her door and placed the food on her cluttered desk next to the unfinished paper due tomorrow for her history class. She didn’t really care if she got a good grade on it anymore. There were only two months of school left and she’d already been accepted to MCAD, her dream college, so nothing else really mattered.
She headed straight for the large bay window where her easel was set up with piles of blank and half-painted canvases propped up and stacked along the wall. An array of paint was neatly placed on the small folding table and an assortment of brushes were cleaned and bound next to them. Several paintings were nearly done – a still-life of a pile of fruit, the large oak tree right outside her window, and a close-up on a bed of crocuses – but Danni ignored all of them, her attention focused on the one canvas that was hidden in the corner.
This was her favorite painting, the one she’d been working on for almost two months ever since he came into her life. With a large grin she propped it up on the easel, giving it a critical look. She hadn’t touched it in almost a week.
Two nude figures, one female and one male, were beneath a large tree, a field of yellow buttercups and pink carnations stretching as far as the eye could see. The people were curled up in one another’s embrace, the woman resting her head comfortably on the man’s large arm while he kept a hand around her waist. The girl’s dark brown hair was loose and wavy, spilling down her back and over a bare shoulder. Danni frowned; she needed to fix that since he liked her braids. The man though was perfect. He looked just like him.
Danni picked up her palette and squirted globs of brown, orange, white, and a tiny dab of black. Tongue sticking out of the corner of her mouth and eyes slightly squinted she began to paint. A little while later a braid draped over the woman’s shoulder while another one went down her back. Danni smiled. Now it was perfect. But it still wasn’t done.
She was always adding in more flowers, more details. A discarded bonnet now lay next to the elegant blue and white summer dress, a fancy teapot with a small picnic was starting to form a little to the left and behind the man. She didn’t want to finish it, didn’t want to label it ‘done’ and put it aside. Somehow it just seemed wrong.
Letting the acrylics dry, Danni headed back to her desk to eat her lunch and maybe try to do some homework. It wasn’t like she had any other plans for her Sunday afternoon.
It was only when she heard the front door slam shut and her mother’s laughter, most likely she was talking on her phone, that Danni realized the sky had started to grow dusty pink and the moon was faintly showing.
“Danni,” her mom called a few seconds later, “come help with dinner.”
Danni sighed and headed down to the kitchen where her mom, still in a floral skirt and silk blouse, was puttering around and pulling down ingredients for tonight’s meal. Spaghetti and garlic bread by the looks of it.
“Your nails look nice,” Danni commented politely, placing herself in charge of the garlic bread and began cutting and buttering the loaf of Italian bread. She couldn’t understand how her mom would spend so much on something that would be chipped and worn down in a few days – it was a waste.
“Thanks, dear,” her mom said, setting the water to a boil, French-tipped nails flashing. “We’ll have to go get yours done soon too, won’t we?”
Danni winced. Senior prom was approaching and her mother was all over it, deciding Danni would have a beautiful dress and hair and nails and a wonderful boy to take her along. Danni just didn’t care for any of it, especially all of her mom’s questions on her date. The only person she wanted to take was over two times her age and whose name she didn’t even know.
She looked sadly down at the garlic bread, feeling the familiar twinge in her stomach when she thought about him. She knew her parents would never approve, she doubted anyone would. Even she sometimes asked herself why, why him? It wasn’t like he was absolutely gorgeous or rich. He was just the older man who got a cup of coffee, read the paper and smiled at her. So why did she like his attentions, however small, and why did she crave for him to look at her and ask how she was?
“Are you done with that garlic bread yet?” her mom asked, tapping her on the shoulder as she swept past, a bag of lettuce leaves and several tomatoes in hand. “You can start on the salad if you are.”
Danni looked down at the half-buttered bread, flushed, and proceeded to lather the second piece and dump a hefty amount of garlic powder over it. Picking up the baking sheet she placed it next to the stove and headed towards the sink to wash the pile of vegetables.
She forced herself to relax to the steady motion of chopping tomatoes and wringing lettuce through the salad spinner, concentrating so hard on the task at hand that she nearly jumped when her mother tapped her on the shoulder, reaching for a large serving bowl in the cabinet above Danni’s head. “I was thinking we could go dress shopping on Friday,” she said, grabbing the bowl and heading back to the stove.
A soft sigh escaped Danni’s lips as she looked guiltily at the lettuce going round and round in the spinner. She knew her mom had wanted a daughter to do “girl” things with and have that coveted mother-daughter relationship, but she failed at it. That just wasn’t who she was or who she wanted to be. Still though, would it really hurt to just pretend to enjoy the shopping experience and make her mom happy?
“Sure,” she said, giving her mom an overly bright smile.
Her mom was enthusiastic and despite Danni’s absolute dread she felt the tiniest bit pleased that her mom was so happy because of her. It was a nice, if unfamiliar, feeling.
The rest of the evening passed quickly by with the quiet dinner punctuated only by her mother’s remarks about her shopping trip and asking her father about his day. Danni was quick to excuse herself and retreat back to her room where she attempted to clean it before the week officially started.
She laid out a set of clothes for school tomorrow and a set of Dunkin Donuts khaki pants and a red polo to wear in the morning. Since she had late arrival to school every day, she’d work from 5am to 8:30am on Monday, Tuesday, and Fridays and then come home, get dressed for school, and walk the few blocks to that place that dared to call itself a school.
Snuggling beneath the covers of her full-sized bed Danni clutched her spare pillow to her chest and smiled. She couldn’t wait to see him tomorrow.
The next morning Danni was standing behind the counter, fingering the braids she’d once more put her hair in. He was going to be arriving any minute… would he say anything to her other than his order? Would he do anything?
“Danni,” called her manager. “Can you go help with the delivery? I need the drive-thru coolers restocked.”
Danni cast an anxious eye at the parking lot. He still hadn’t arrived, so she could leave for a little bit. “Sure,” she said, heading back past the sandwich station and to the walk-in fridge where bottles of orange juice, lemonade, soda, and milk were waiting. She halted at the large back table to grab a quick sip of her own iced tea, flavored with three splenda and a touch of raspberry syrup. Her co-workers teased her about disliking coffee since she worked at a coffee shop, but Danni just laughed it off.
Just as she was finishing placing the chocolate milk in the mini-fridge, the front door opened and the man walked in. She jumped up, closed the fridge with her foot and tried to pretend she wasn’t that excited to see him. “Good morning,” she said as always, hands already grabbing a medium cup and preparing his coffee just so.
“Good morning, Danni,” he said back. “How’s your morning going?”
“Great,” she smiled, pouring in the two equal and placing the lid on top, seeing it as a dainty teacup to which she was presenting him with underneath their tree. “And yours?”
“Excellent. Might I also trouble you for a chocolate long john today? I’m in the mood for something sweet.” He looked at her pointedly as he stressed the last word and Danni once more felt her face rival a cherry’s.
“Of, of course.”
She crouched down with the tissue paper in hand, feeling his eyes trace up the small bit of bare skin her shirt revealed. The wash just kept shrinking it. “Here you are,” she said, feeling breathless as she handed him the bag and he passed her some bills. His hands were always so nice and warm, she mused, as she gave his change back to him, not missing at all the way his thumb made a slow circle over her knuckles and her heart started to beat like a timpani drum.
He thanked her and moved to his seat by the window, slowly devouring the donut and sipping his coffee. She watched him as long as she was able to as she served other customers, looking at that little bit of frosting that clung to his chin and the way his hands closed so gently over the flimsy pastry.
All too soon he got up to leave, shot her a cheery smile and headed out the door. Danni hummed as she cleaned up the front counter, mind lost to bonnets and sundresses and sun-kissed flowers. By the time her shift ended she was skipping and twirling down the sidewalk, even the thought of school unable to dampen her mood. He did like her! She knew it, she just knew it.
The school day passed by in a hazy blur, Danni’s mind set firmly on the painting waiting for her at home. Maybe she’d add a flower into the girl’s hair or a bit of chocolate to the man’s chin or perhaps a plate of pastries to sit next to the tea set. When the last school bell finally rang, Danni headed straight home, hands hooked in her backpack straps and her mind set firmly on her painting.
When she got stuck by the one red light to her house she groaned, pressing the “walk” button and knowing she’d have to wait nearly two minutes for the crossing signal. She glanced idly around at the cars also stuck waiting, eyes widening as she saw a familiar black Honda civic parked on the opposite side of the road. The window was rolled down and she could clearly see the man, one arm resting on the edge and draping down over the side of the car. She moved to wave and shout a greeting.
But then she saw his passenger. The figure was a bit difficult to make out at first, being on the far side of the car and significantly shorter than her man. Straining her eyes though, Danni could make out the pixie-like face of a fair-skinned woman, curly black hair piled high on her head and one of her hands resting over her largely protruding stomach. Her other hand was hidden down below, as was the man’s.
She said something to him, painted lips moving until he pressed his own against them. Danni gasped, feeling suddenly very, very cold. How? When? Her stomach clenched. Why? When the walk signal finally came on she made her way numbly across the line of traffic, watching his car move forward through the intersection out of the corner of her eye.
He didn’t notice her at all.
She kept walking, four blocks, three blocks, two blocks, until she reached her house, inserted the key into the lock, and padded silently upstairs to her room, eyes still dry. She dropped her backpack to the floor, closed her door, and mechanically made her way to the painting she had so long considered her masterpiece.
Danni yanked it down from the easel and smashed it with all the force she could muster on the table, tubes of paint and brushes rolling everywhere. She stared down at the painting, hands clenching the sides of the frame and making the canvas pucker slightly. The two figures looked so happy, so content, in their field of buttercups and dappled trees. A furious tear splashed onto the painting, not harming it in the slightest. More tears fell, creating their own watery pattern over the figures, who still continued to smile away.
Why, why, why? She was so certain he had no one else in his life, so certain that she was the only one that mattered. He talked to her like she was special. He made her feel like her painting could become real. And now he was with someone? Had he been leading her on this entire time? Laughing at her and her pathetic crush? Playing her like the naïve fool she now realized she was?
A small scream tore at the back of her throat and her hands fumbled for the first tube of paint she could grab and a large brush. Crimson Red, Number 421, Danni noted briefly, before unleashing a torrent of paint all over the canvas right on top of the two figures. One hand dug almost painfully into her leg and the other held the brush in a death-grip she smeared the paint everywhere. It looked like streaks of blood.
She painted over everything, crying and whimpering until only one last, little, golden buttercup remained untouched by the sea of red. And with a final sob Danni painted over it too.