How to Survive in a Coffee Shop With Your Ex by J. Brian Charles

Try not to get there early, because it looks urgent. Show up a little late, but not too late. She might leave. She might be putting on her coat just as you arrive and tell you she only has 10 minutes left to talk.

Arrive three minutes after 10 a.m. Orchestrate, plot. You always do. Why be anything but predictable? Go to another coffee shop down the street and check your phone every five minutes until you see it’s 10, and then walk over. Small strides. Look into storefront windows, get distracted. Light a cigarette and watch the heads pop into sight on the Metro station escalator across the street. Pull, blow, flick of the ash, pull, blow, flick. Decide you don’t really want to finish the cigarette and pinch it between your fingers. Stop yourself from flicking the whole cigarette into the street and then take another drag. Light the next cig with the lit end of the short. Smoke that one. Check your phone. It’s only 10:01.

Let spring blow past your face. Stare at the buds on the ends of the trees. The remnants of winter will lash your face every time the wind whips. A reminder, but without reminders what sense do we have of ourselves and where we have arrived.

Don’t plan what you have to say. Try to forget the perfect speech you practiced for weeks. The points you can make about how everything was so good.

You’ll want to remember that you used to make love in the morning and lay in bed talking politics and books until the sun was perched over the building so high that the shadows had retreated to the edge of her room.

You used to run your hands along her contours. You used to hold her at lunch, wedged between her back and the couch. She’d cut apples and spread them around a plate in a circle and leave a pool of honey in the middle. She set the plate on her black coffee table and slid the coffee table close to the couch. You two watched movies, promising each time to only watch half, and fuck some more and watch the other half. Those were your Sundays, perfect — but Sunday ends.

Fucking promises, you broke those, too. She would pause in the middle of the movie to email her job about working from home on Monday, so you both could mark another day in your sweatpants, wrapped together on her couch in a blanket.

But forget those.

Remember that she picked fights. Were her pants long enough before you two left for wine and dinner? Could you have stopped looking at your phone to check to see if you were going to be late? Could you have read she didn’t feel beautiful? Does it matter, now? Fix it, fix her. Adults don’t need fixing; they need ears, not mouths. Your big ideas, your insights. She heard them until she went deaf. Noise. Listen today. “Stop talking,” she would say in the car when your words would weave between a movie and how it relates to the waitress at Denny’s whom you hardly knew. Her plea sounds spot on now.

Toss your cigarette into the gutter. Strike up a conversation with the newspaper hawker. He’s old, black, wears gloves in the spring to keep the newsprint from staining his hands. He tells you his story, because intuition tells him you collect stories and people. He’s right. He sees the overstuffed yellow manila envelope in your hand. “68 years,” he tells you; 22 in Lorton federal prison (he won’t say why); 10 years on this same corner hawking papers. “Time to let that go,” he says pointing to the envelope. You drop your head and eyes to the envelope. Your hand wrapped around the package was moist. The sweat and your fingers marked the the yellow paper. “Understanding is better than love,” says the man handing out newspapers on the corner. Why did he say that? Does he know? He must. Who wouldn’t?

See her walking in, late from the train station at the opposite end of the block from the coffee shop. Check her dress out. It’s a beige pencil skirt, not a dress, you tell yourself. Watch her open the door.

Her calves are still slim. Her ankles thin. Her thighs round, hips wide. Has she lost weight? No, she hasn’t. She didn’t need to. She was never fat. She was curvy, but she would say curvy is just polite for fat. Objectify her. Isn’t that what you do? She told you once she felt like a sports car. You stayed silent. Said nothing. Showed nothing. Frozen. Nothing is an answer. Silence says a lot, even when it doesn’t mean consent.

Walk in, wearing a suit, slim fit. You didn’t wear those things before her, but now you have a closet full of them. Pocket square, bow tie, brogues. Fresh hair cut. Keep the beard. It’s all you have of your post-her life. Look confident. You’re not. But look it. Fake it. Breathe in the smell of fresh bread. She used to bake. She said it calmed her. You saw her run frantically around the kitchen and think this was the opposite of calm.

Wave to her. She’s sitting at the table. Gesture to the counter and then mimic drinking a cup of coffee. She points to her cup on the table. Grab your coffee. Drop in a spoonful of sugar. Walk over. Don’t make eye contact for too long as you walk over. Find another woman in the room, look but don’t stare at her either. Remember you moved on, try to remember that.

Speak. Say something about politics first. “My co-worker said impeachment of Trump is very unlikely. This is the guy who said he could shoot something and he wouldn’t drop in the polls. And I said, ‘Well, he did shoot someone and the polling didn’t change … Bowling Green.’”

Laugh at your own joke. Watch her laugh, not because that was funny, it wasn’t. She had the quick, dry wit, not you. She was funny, you were serious. But you still wanted to entertain, still do. But don’t fall flat with bad puns. Think about how you take that first sip. Fold your top lip over your bottom to make sure none of the coffee drips from your mouth. It did once. And you got it on your shirt. Don’t do that. Roll the black coffee in your mouth. It’s sweet, and smoky, burnt and saccharine.

“How are you?” she asks.

She’s looks genuine. You’re not. This is a show — a performance. Everything is an interview. It’s linear: A plus use the right words plus B plus make sure your body language says confidence equals she’ll love you. She already does. Plenty of people do. But “something doesn’t mean everything,” she says. She can love you and not be yours. Do you hear that? Not yet.

“I’m good. Things are good.” Lie, because you lie, it’s what you do. Stretch, bend, break the truth, say one thing mean, another mean three things. Accuse her of the same, if and when you see her next.

“I’ve been taking photography classes, trying to pick something new up. A new hobby, you know.” You bought a camera. It hasn’t come out of the box. Just sits next to the pack of cigarettes on your dresser.

“You?” Wait for her to tell you about the latest trip, the next guy. She won’t. She’s not petty. Or if she is, she won’t share because she still loves you and doesn’t want this to hurt. But you want the scab pulled off clean, smoothed back on your skin and ripped off again. Repeat, repeat, repeat. Remind yourself how much it hurts. Are you a masochist? No. A victim? You play one in life.

“What’s new?” you ask.

Let her be cagey. She should. Why should she trust you? You know no real boundaries, except the ones she sets, and you break.

“Nothing. Work is good. I’m happy. I’ve started studying piano. I always wanted to.”

Don’t remind how you were willing to pay for them. Don’t mansplain. You’re not the fixer. Never should have been. She broke up with you because she depended on you.

“I’m glad. I always thought you should take piano lessons,” you say.

She rolls her eyes back to her coffee.

“What I meant …”

“You’re fine.” Her fingers tap on the side of the coffee. She looks at her Fitbit to check the time.

Change topics. You say you’re thinking about moving.

“That’s exciting. Where?” Her eyes lift. Her lips curve to a smile.

Fuck her. Why is she excited? She won’t see you. Maybe she doesn’t want to see you. This is final, perhaps. No, it’s not perhaps, it is. You are the interloper now, like the unwelcome snow flurry in late March, when the world wants nothing but to see the leaves and has no patience for flakes blowing across the pavement.

“Not sure. I’m just feeling things out. I’m open to it.” Fuck your suspense, it won’t work.

“I just want you to be happy.” She reaches her hand out and her fingertips slide across the back of your palm. You feel your stomach churn. What is it? Is that love? Maybe the last of it. Perhaps the last beating from a thunderstorm before the rain stops and the clouds push past. “I want you to do what’s best for you.” She pulls her hand back.

Remember happy. It was brunch on New Year’s Day. Disco blared in the background. You got dressed. Black sweater, pulled over a salmon shirt, new jeans, loafers, decorative socks. Her girlfriend tagged along, and you would want to say “stole the day.” But this was their plan and you had no plans for New Year’s Day. They let you tag along.

You sat quiet. They gossiped about friends and cute boys. You ordered another pitcher of mimosas and told her girlfriend the gay man at the next table was checking her out. You’re a dick like that. She said it wouldn’t be the first time a man was checking her out. Her friend excused herself and waddled off to the bathroom. You laughed inside. Her hubris. And then you looked back at your lover across the table. Her hair was pulled back, her lips ruby and ready for an evening, but it was early afternoon.

The lipstick had stained half her glass, and the meal had long been cleared when you lost count of the pitchers. The conversation bent toward the last of her friends to get engaged. Her name was Sarah, or Thalia or Becca or something white. She had gotten engaged the night before and the wedding was set for the upcoming New Year’s Eve.

Before you could propose the same idea, she said you two were going to do the same thing in a year. She stroked her blue and yellow paisley scarf. “This is perfect; you are perfect; we are perfect.”

That’s not what you’re here for. This is when you give back the last things left in your house: her socks, two pairs; her books, two of them, and you read half of one, one-quarter of the other (but you’ll say you read all of both); some money you borrowed.

Slide the envelope across the table. “The rest is for your trouble.” You’re a fuck. And you know you’re a fuck, and you can’t help being a fuck. “Thank you,” she says. She isn’t a complete fuck. She’s gracious. “You didn’t need to. I mean, I’m fine. You shouldn’t, for you, I mean.”

But you want to. It’s a competition. Who’s right, who records being “the nice guy” matters. You’re down to scorekeeping. “Thank you.” You wait for the next word. There used to be a tagline. At one point she would toss in a “love you” or “you’re perfect” or “you’re the best.”

That’s gone.

Stare now. You’re going to gaze into her eyes and mine your heart for words. Don’t. Just get up now. Just push your heels and your toes in the tile floor, and rise from the chair. Walk out. Sell this, like you sold her once that this was carefree and you wouldn’t worry about how it ended, if it ended. She could take a chance without worrying about hurting you, that’s what you once said. Lie one more time.

“You know how I told you how black people can’t get sunburns,” her elbows rested on the table and her index and thumb on her left hand twisted with the ring her grandmother left her and she wore on her right hand. Her fingers were thin and the ring was a little big and moved easy.

“They can.” You give her a wry smile and crumple your forehead. She smiles back at your face. She’s always loved how your face bunched up when you laughed, the creases around your mouth and the ones that run across your forehead.

“Yeah, but let me tell you a story.”


You stay to hear one more story.

“I was in Belize. Our river guide. He was so black. Like not like you black, but real black.”

Let that sting.

“OK.” Move the story along. Not that she needed help moving along the story.

“Well, he explained to me that black people don’t get sunburn.”

“You told him he was wrong.”

“No. I went with it because I’m right.” She erupts with a short laugh.

Smile. Think of her listening to this story from the guy in Belize, his skin scarred from the sun lashing his back each day. She thought about an old conversation with you in her car. Think about yourself in her story. Indulge your ego for one moment. Because you do that.


“I gotta go.”

“‘K.” She pulls her phone from the table to check it.

Make the exit now. Make it final. Do it.

Remember she once sat on the edge of her bed, right next to you. You leaned back, your weight on your palms. The bed was cold, the way an empty bed is before bodies warm the blanket and sheets. She rubbed your leg. Her shoulders were hunched over. She didn’t want this. It wasn’t the time, yet. You shouldn’t wait, she told you. She wasn’t ready — more life to live. It was the season for false starts, abrupt ends without explanation, unanswered texts and ghosting. She was ready for those little pains that mark the boundary between green, unripe affection and cultivated love.

She still wanted to see you, she said.

She made a deal. She always made deals. “Friends with benefits.” She’d come stay with you once in awhile; you could do the same. Casual dates, a kiss, maybe sex. Hold her hand at the movie, be present, forget the future. She told you to be present and think about the now of things. You ever love someone too much for that, but not enough to release them, let them breathe?

Fuck her, right? She’s always been better at this. And now she just rubbing that little fact in your face. Spike the fucking football.

Don’t think about this as the last time. It is, but don’t think about that. Don’t mark time. Please forget where you met, that the sun was blocked in short periods by a passing cloud.

“Bye, sunshine.”

Say it one more time. You said it so much it started to not matter; it no longer resonated. But do it anyway. Be that dick, that lover, that perfect guy, and that asshole one last time.

Then dig your heels for real into the floor. Almost fall and grab the table. Smile. Watch her smile.

Hold the door, she’ll walk through and turn to you. Your nose will catch her perfume for the last time. You’ll smell it on other women, but it’s not the same. Don’t make the ending too long. What’s the point? Rip the scab off, don’t pick at it.

Watch her walk to the train. Turn and walk to next.


J. Brian Charles

J. Brian Charles is a writer and journalist. He has spent a decade chasing tips, writing stories and leading news projects. An associate editor at The Hill newspaper, his work in journalism has been recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publisher’s Association, Best of the West, and Digital First Media, a company where he spent a significant portion of his career, and he is a 2015 recipient of a John Jay College Center on Media, Crime and Justice fellowship. Charles earned a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Antioch University, Los Angeles, and pens short stories and essays. He is currently working on a book about the death of Freddie Gray at the hands of the Baltimore Police Department.