Blacker Than Our Coffee

Danielle Decatur

It’s easy to make a Black woman feel invisible. Sit her in the corner of a café off Fifth Avenue, her back towards the wall; dress her modestly in a dark blue sweater–and give her the silent task of writing about birds. Notice how the men with faux-hawks still order their Americanos, lawyers litigate over lattes, and bearded men with babies strapped to their chests take espresso shots like tequila. Even the pair of police officers, who are supposed to be diligent about checking their surroundings, won’t notice her. They’ll stand in front of her table with their two-way radios cackling. No one seems to bother the woman underneath the shiplap sign, until Ryan shows up.

Leigh had met Ryan three days ago. It had been a while since she thought about a man longer than she’d contemplated the perfect sentence or John Audubon.

That first morning, she was editing an essay and Ryan was early for a business meeting. He asked to join her, and she found herself pleasantly surprised with the man on the other end of the question. He shuffled his papers and she became distracted, hoping he would drink slower, stay longer. When he came back the next day, he wasn’t as rushed. They said “good morning” to each other and commented on the weather. Soon enough they lived in that space after strangers and before friends.

Leigh didn’t know much about Ryan. He had dimples that could hold marbles and smiled easily, scrolling through his phone. This was a good thing, since she could vaguely remember her go-to joke about a rabbi, a priest, and a bar. He was tall with an athletic build. She suspected soccer or another sport that valued lean muscles, patience, and endurance. His outfits were well-tailored and the creases in his pants could never be confused for wrinkles–a trick he possibly learned from his father to ensure no one underestimated his worth. The others in the shop may have been too busy to acknowledge her but found reasons to glance from their newspapers and brush crumbs off their shirts when they saw him: a Black man was always noticed. He had his choice of coffee shops and women, but he picked Drip Café and Thursday morning to sit with Leigh again.

She took a sip of coffee, letting a few more moments pass, knowing he was trying to catch her attention.

“Do you see that guy over there?” Ryan nodded toward an unassuming man with a Henley shirt. His hair was styled in that wavy feathery finish popular among teenage boy bands.

Leigh brought her voice to a whisper, “Dustin?”

“You know him?”

“I like to name the regulars. He looks like a Dustin, doesn’t he?”

Ryan agreed. They were about halfway through their first cup of coffee.

“Every time I walk near him he checks for his wallet,” Ryan said.

“He’s a disgruntled old man.”

“Old? That man is in his forties,” Ryan said, and shook his head. “He probably thinks I’m trying to case the place or rob him.”

“Well, he’s in his forties with no job. He stays here for two hours every morning. Maybe he’s the one casing the place.”

“Right,” Ryan said, unconvinced.

Leigh felt obligated to defend Ryan as if they’d known each other for longer than this conversation. Her first impression was that he was easy to talk to–after she got over the idea that he was possibly too attractive for her.

“If you keep sitting at my table,” she said, attempting to lighten the mood, “they’ll think I’m in on it too.”

Ryan gave a half-smile. Perhaps he’d let the imaginary scenario play out in his head, knowing it would never matter how nice his shoes were.

Leigh grew up in the Heights with neighborhood blessings like tree lawns and ice cream trucks in the summer. Her mother had stayed home, never missing snack time or a school concert. Leigh was the miracle baby; the easiest title to grow up with and the hardest one to grow into. She shook her head when Ryan asked her if he knew the 24-hour gas station on the corner of MLK Blvd. She clamped down on her tongue to avoid saying that she wasn’t allowed over that way. Ryan mentioned the street of his parents’ house to help her place it better. Cleveland could do that to its people. Neighbors, as they were, sitting in a café on Fifth Avenue, and had lived worlds apart in ways that no longer seemed consequential.

He was going to be late, he said. He collected his things and said he would see her tomorrow. As Ryan walked out the door, “Dustin” patted his pockets and nodded when he confirmed his wallet was exactly where he left it.

“So, are you from New York?” Ryan lifted his chin, “Cleveland.”

“No kidding! Me too, I grew up there.”

His eyes traveled over her face, “Isn’t that something. What’s your favorite part about home?” “Casseroles.”

His laugh was higher pitched than she expected, heavy at first and then slowing to a chuckle.

“They are so good,” Leigh continued. “All your vegetables, meat, carbs in one.”

“My mama used to make tuna-noodle casserole,” Ryan said. “I don’t care what anyone says, it’s the most underrated casserole.”

Her work had stalled. It was difficult to focus on the migratory patterns of mourning doves when it was more pleasurable to think about Ryan. She had always imagined falling in love in private–in quiet rooms without the pressure and gaze of onlookers who would turn their love into something more like loyalty or ambition. She was 32 and could name a few men she’d liked very much. She dated men with one-syllable names: Tim, Ben, Todd. They were all nice enough, as her mother would say, but Ryan was the only two syllable man that made her wish they had more time together before she even knew his name.

“We had tuna-noodle during Lent, on Fridays.”

“Ah, a Catholic girl,” Ryan said, as if he now had an accurate guess of how many men she’d been with. “I might make that tonight.”

“He keeps coming back to you–it’s a good sign,” the owner, Betty, said from behind the counter. Betty had at least ten different cat shirts with various puns like, how do you like me-ow. With a long braid down her back, she had created an environment with no frills, but refills, staying true to the sign on the door.

“I’m not waiting for him,” she lied.

“I waited for my husband for six weeks,” Betty said, bringing over a pot of coffee. “He probably didn’t notice me until that last day. I finally said to him: either we go out on a date or you pick another bus stop.”

“Thanks,” she said, accepting the refill. “The only reason I’m here is to finish this draft in time for the deadline I’ve pushed back three times.”

“Is it really a deadline if you get to move it?”

Her mother had suggested Leigh come to this coffee shop, and now she understood why. It was near Bloomingdales, and she bet her mother had befriended this woman. They mothered the same way. “It will get you out the house,” her mother had said, “it’ll get you thinking of something else besides those birds.”

Her friends and close associates had wondered why she didn’t have a man. Her facial features were delicate and her curves feminine. She knew her hips would make childbirth easier, but they embarrassed her on the subway and short benches when they made two-seaters feel more like one. Her skin was a soft brown complexion that soaked in the sun. Every summer her mother would suggest vacations away from the beach, museums, galleries, and cities where Leigh could take cover. “They hired brown sugar, not molasses,” her mother would say. Leigh knew her mother was being protective. It was probably more traumatic to see her child come from a slumber party with black ink all over her face than it had been for Leigh, who believed her friends only wanted to see if she could disappear in the dark. She suspected now that the white women who came into Drip with their double almond milk lattes and their slender, pointy hips, were only slightly less harmful now that they were decades past being little girls with markers.

Even when Leigh and Ryan spent a few minutes in silence, the small, occupied two-seater shoved in a nook seemed open to anyone. Seated by the sugar, the location was the perfect excuse for women in the café to take a few minutes and linger. Some of those women probably presumed they were a couple. The others, she assumed, hoped the man in the tailored blazers had better taste than the woman in tattered sweaters. Leigh knew they fantasized about him. They seemed to lock their blue eyes on him, wordlessly begged him to look their way. He just sipped his coffee. After his passive denial, they usually focused on her, probably silently tallying all the ways they were better than the Black woman under the shiplap sign. With every flick of the hair and trick of the eyes, he chose her.

The next morning, Ryan arrived earlier than usual. He had his back to her as he ordered. Leigh fluffed her fro and pretended to read. She assumed Ryan liked women with hair that could pass the ‘pool test.’ Her mother didn’t know why her hair kinked up like that; everyone on the maternal side of the family had hair like curly fries. For as long as Leigh could remember her eyes watered when the comb plucked, snagged, and snarled its way through her hair. When she was younger she presented her mother with a very logical argument on why she should get a relaxer. “The creamy crack will fry up brain cells like lard in a hot skillet,” was her mother’s reply. When it came time to swim, she slipped her two thumbs in a rubber cap, held tightly, and nervously waited for her friend to let go with a snap over her thick hair. Leigh was in her twenties before she felt the coolness of the sea or chlorine flow through her scalp.

“The lady tells me you like blueberry muffins,” Ryan said, pointing to Betty. She ducked down and tried to appear busy, arranging half-moon pastries neatly in a glass display. “Is this all right?” He placed the dish in front of her.

“How nice of you,” she said, and gave Betty a quick half-hearted glare.

“I figured at this point, you should charge me for making you share this table.”

“It’s cool,” Leigh said. “Writing can be very lonely.” He sipped from his mug like he wasn’t shifting her universe. She watched him. “What do you have going on today?”

“The guy I’m meeting is a pretty big deal. I couldn’t sleep last night.”

He was presenting an idea for a new hospital technology. He started programming it the night his mother died. Leigh noticed he started to say “was killed” but switched to “died"she didn’t ask how.

“There’s this procurement guy, right? He’s got something weird about him. Always clearing his throat, but he’s not sick. Anyway, procurement. He has to approve this first.” Ryan went through four-step approval process. It was the first time she saw him like this. Then as his words stumbled over one another filling time as if that would bring him closer to hearing their decision–she realized he was very, very nervous.

“It’s not done,” she said.

“Some of the most beautiful things are works in progress,” he said.

“It’s bad luck.”

“No one reads what you write until it’s finished?”

“If I let someone who isn’t my editor read the work before it’s done,” she said, “it seems to come back to me all wrong and I have to start over.”

“What if it wasn’t right to begin with?”

“Do you always question how someone works?”

“Do you always know what’s right so quickly?”

Leigh wanted to say yes–and then she worried that it would make her seem pretentious. She was in the dark navy sweater that made her look particularly donnish, she pushed up her glasses and pulled out a red pen.

Ryan stood up to leave. “Well, I won’t take up anymore of your time. Sounds like you have some work to do.”

“Good luck,” she said.

“I’m sure it’s going to be great,” she said.

Ryan swirled the coffee in his cup like it was red wine.

“I’m not sure what I’ll do if they reject it,” he said.

“You’ll get up the next day.”

“I worked so hard on this,” he said, unable to keep eye contact with her. “It has to get approved.”

“If there’s anything I know it’s rejection,” she said and flinched at how desperate that sounded. “What I mean is, writers get rejected all the time. Especially when you write about birds. Failure isn’t an option for us. It’s either perfect or not worth the space on a coffee table.” Leigh tried to be cool and unbothered. She wasn’t helping.

Ryan tapped his fingers a few times and pointed to her stack of papers.

“Same to you.”

“Can I read what you have?”

He clearly didn’t understand her. It only took her decades to fully appreciate the idea that most men would never understand her. The men she met were mostly in the same line of work or sons from her mother’s Bible study group. The last time a man asked for Leigh’s number was in a bookstore. He politely asked if she was the woman from the university flyers, as she browsed the new releases. He asked her favorite question: did she prefer to call them turtle doves or mourning birds? This sent Leigh into a fit of passion at the erroneous mistake that had even permeated some textbooks. Of course, they aren’t the same birds, she said. Turns out, he used that question to test for a true enthusiast. Intrigued, Leigh was about to suggest a great bar for their first date, but was interrupted when he asked for an introduction to her mentor. She didn’t argue when both her therapist and her mother decided it was best she didn’t date in her field.

By the following Wednesday, she started trading stories with Ryan: her first time being published, the first software patent he sold, an unbelievable story of how he landed a two-bedroom apartment on Central Park. He was working as a doorman and one of the tenants, a charitable woman, asked if he needed an apartment while she lived in France for a few years. The woman couldn’t have known, but his sublet had come home earlier and if he didn’t find something soon, he would’ve been rooming with the pigeons in Central Park. He used the word serendipity. Leigh hadn’t had her moment where the universe opened up for her. Silently, she prayed this café and Ryan would be it.

Ryan placed his cup down. “My mother was killed in a drive-by shooting a few years ago.”

“The woman calls me every day. And once a month she makes me sit on the phone while she does her self-exam.”

Somehow, the image of Leigh’s mother making small circles around her good breast, pinching her nipple, and shouting about feeling nothing was as horrifying as death and enough for him. He had the nerve to say she was a good daughter.

Friday morning, Ryan walked into Drip with another woman. Nothing about her was real. She was the color of a chocolate gold coin, her weave crossed over the peaks of her ass near the creases of her knees. She asked if the chocolate sauce was low fat. She grabbed onto Ryan like a leech. A few strands of her wig were caught between her legs; she had to feel the tug. The woman popped her gum and ordered a small mocha with extra chocolate.

Leigh leaned forward: “In Cleveland?”

Leigh wished the woman’s thighs would rip off her own wig–wanting the woman bald and exposed too. She couldn’t believe that he would bring another woman here. She burned her tongue on the coffee, slammed the cup down on the table spilling a little. Ryan left without saying anything to her.

“Yeah, she was picking up a package from the front porch. Stray bullet.”

“I’m so sorry,” she said.

“Why do people say sorry when they hear someone died.”

“What would you rather people say?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “But sorry is never enough.”

“I was going to say I’m sorry again…”

“Don’t.”

“I won’t.” She thought carefully about what to say next. “My mother had breast cancer a couple of years ago. I can’t imagine not having her around. She moved to New York after they got rid of it all.”

“She beat cancer. Congratulations,” he said and checked his watch. It was clear the story she traded was not equal. Leigh was too eager to keep the conversation going.

Leigh was nothing like that woman. She couldn’t fathom how he was interested in them both. Sure, they had the same yellow undertone, although Leigh’s was not baked in a tanning bed. Yes, she had deep set brown eyes, except Leigh’s weren’t the color contact lens of the month from a swap meet. She snatched the papers next to her, getting ready to leave when a familiar cologne surrounded her. Ryan was back. He placed his leather bag on his chair and kissed her hand. Leigh held her breath to keep up appearances. She didn’t want him to think it was that easy. Ryan left a moist and perfect imprint where the veins on her hand made a small Y and went back to the counter for two more cups of coffee.

“Sorry about that,” Ryan said.

“About what?”

“I don’t normally do this,” he said placing the coffee in front of Leigh.

“Depends on what it is.”

“Don’t give up on me.”

“Have more than one cup?” “Something like that.”

She didn’t have a witty response. She held her breath and let her eyelids squeeze tight to hold back the rush of emotion. She wanted to say, never. She wanted to say don’t ever give up on me. She didn’t say any of this.

The spot on the back of her hand tingled uncontrollably. He came back. That meant this and maybe even she mattered to him too. “I guess you got the deal?” she said with her arms crossed.

“Yes. I went out and celebrated last night,” he said.

“Well, that’s certainly a big favor,” she said with a smile.

“I don’t deserve it.”

“You don’t.”

“I see.” She cocked her head to one side.

“How are you?” he said more sincerely, “write something you love?” “I’m not sure that I would know if I loved it.”

He leaned forward. If she hadn’t had her arms crossed he might have reached for her hands. “When I love something I’ve done, I see it all around. It’s different for me in tech. The solution comes to life, everywhere.”

“When I love something it’s normally a very small part. Like when I realize I’ve used the perfect punctuation. That small black curve on the bright white screen makes the work feel…I don’t know.”

“Seen?” “Yeah. As if that comma weren’t there the whole thing would fall apart,” she said.

Ryan finished what was in his cup. Her smile had started to creep on her face. She pursed her lips. Pressed them together. Anything to keep her face from showing how dreadfully flattered she was. He stood up to leave.

“One other thing,” he said. “I want you to know that I see you.”

“What do you mean?” “I see you. In some ways it’s like you’re the only one in this place.”

“I feel you. It probably would.”

“Yeah, but then I re-read the sentence and discover I was wrong, do away with the comma, change it, and just add a period,” she said.

“I feel like if one of us were the psychologist we’d analyze that whole replacing a pause with something finite,” he said.

It was another Monday. Ryan was later than most days. After their conversation on Friday she had a feeling today would be the day he would ask her to dinner, or maybe a drink. She didn’t mind that he was a few minutes late; she needed more time to collect herself. She thought of her doves. They were the romantics of the bird kingdom, selecting one mate for life. She loved that about them; they were certain when something was right. She felt this thing with Ryan was right.

“Sometimes you have to know when to end it.”

He tapped the tip of his coffee cup.

“Will you do me a favor?” he asked.

Maybe he wasn’t coming today. Perhaps, their morning routine had retained too much pressure. What had she known about this guy? And yet, in the beginning what more is there to go on than good looks and intuition? It was almost 10:00 a.m. and every time the door swung the opposite way, she conjured a reason to look up to see if it was him.

She couldn’t focus on her writing, not now.

She scrolled through the daily news on NY1 and landed on a soundless video.

The footage was blurry–and yet everything progressed exactly as she anticipated. The camera posted in the police car was a little too far to the left and the man in blue was obscured. The man behind the wheel wasn’t moving. No one was moving. The video looked frozen, but then all of a sudden…all of a sudden. There wasn’t the cinematic spray of liquid fire from the barrel that preceded the punctuating sound. All it needed was the closed caption, POW, FREEZE. She wasn’t sure of the order. She counted the number of times the man in blue recoiled his shoulders. He could’ve stopped after number two or even three.

It was no longer a human reflex, but a learned response.

He didn’t stop until number seven. Seven was supposed to be a holy number. The grainy small video played again, and she watched the end of this man’s life with a striking resemblance to those who were once strange fruit.

She pinched the screen. Was his mouth open wide? She wondered if his eyes were closed and then closed her own. Let everyone else be a witness and let his last moment be of peace, she prayed. She scrolled until another article about the shooting surfaced and there was the hashtag #justiceforRyan. She scrolled. Blood drained out the side of a car. She scrolled. These hands were too limp, too lifeless. She scrolled. A wrist with a handcuff wrapped around it like a noose; it seemed pointless to shackle him. She dropped her phone.


A low baritone ordered a large coffee.

Leigh jumped up, almost toppled over the table, to see around the line–it was one of the lawyers. She kept reading the news. The chatter around the shooting was still new. She cursed Ryan’s mother for naming him something so generic. She searched for a photo of the man. She wanted to believe her Ryan wasn’t at Drip because his meetings were over. She would even accept that he didn’t come to the coffee shop because she had scared him off. Her stomach sank.

Someone would post a photo and then she would know for sure.

The pair of cops walked in to grab coffee. They were illegally parked outside. Frank was the one without the Staten Island accent. She couldn’t tell you his order, but he had to wait for it–one of those specialty drinks. Leigh needed a distraction while the news rolled in and stood in line for another coffee behind Frank.

“Can I try…the medium latte…with vanilla?” Leigh said and Betty wrote her name on the cup.

Frank turned and said, “you’re ordering something different today.” He reached to dial down his radio.

Leigh raised her eyebrows. It was, she determined, the smallest reply she could give without ignoring him.

“I’m Frank.” He offered his hand.

“Leigh?” Betty announced, sliding her latte across the mahogany counter. Leigh grabbed the drink and thanked her a million times in one glance. She walked back to the table. Frank followed her to the table and stood behind Ryan’s chair.

Leigh holding her hand out over the chair said, “I’m waiting on someone.”

“I won’t be here long.” Frank said and sat down. He sighed heavily and sprawled his legs out and around her tiny two-seater. “You live around here?”

“No.”

“I see you a lot,” he said and licked his dry lips.

His presence shifted the gravity in the room after days of sitting with Ryan and feeling weightless.

She wanted Ryan in that chair, his black coffee a pair to hers. “I don’t normally do this,” Frank said, aware of his authority. “Bother women in coffee shops?” she said and snapped open her laptop.

“Something like that,” he said without any fault in his confidence. “I think you’re beautiful.”

As he said the words, she wished to hear them again–but next time from Ryan. Then again, maybe that would never happen for one reason or another.

The very thought of what could’ve been made her hand tingle and her eyes swell. She gathered her things and regretted believing in a world that could change in an instant, when it takes much longer to muster courage. She pushed in her chair and left with everything, including her coffee, unfinished.

Danielle Decatur was born in Dallas and raised in Shaker Heights, Ohio and carries her roots throughout her work. She graduated from the University of Virginia with a BA in English and Literature with a focus on black contemporary narrative. She has a Masters in Fine Arts with a concentration in fiction from Bennington College.