written on May 21, 2020 /
On Ellis Avery’s 26th birthday, she woke up to a grey window glittered with rain. This sight was a great relief, as she had hoped to spend the day inside but was afraid of the pressure to go out on a “beautiful” day. It was nine thirty now and Ellis had slept for seven hours.
In the kitchen, Tom was making eggs and toast. Jazz played against the green tiles while the tea kettle began to scream. Ellis rubbed her eyes as she walked through the hall to see what the noise was about. For a moment, she watched Tom sprinkle salt over the eggs and hum along with the strings. “Is there enough hot water to share?” she asked. She suddenly realized that Tom had no idea she was in the room.
“Shit!” he yelled, dropping the salt shaker onto the counter with a crash. “I thought you wouldn’t be out of bed until eleven!” He was trying to catch his breath.
“Normally, yeah,” she laughed. “But it’s my birthday and it’s raining and I wanted some tea.” She grabbed a mug from the cabinet and Tom returned to his eggs. As Ellis poured hot water over the earl grey tea bag, toast sprung up out of the toaster.
“Would you like some?” Tom asked, gesturing to the slices of nearly-burnt bread. Ellis buttered the toast and carried it out to the balcony with her tea. She studied the mug in her hands, following royal blue lines through white clay. Tom joined her with his breakfast.
“Happy Birthday,” he said. “Cheers!” He held out a piece of toast toward her. She picked up one of her slices and tapped it against his.
“Cheers,” she smiled. She laughed to herself.
“What is it?” Tom asked.
“A literal toast.”
Tom met Ellis when she was in her fourth year of college. She worked at the bookstore across the street from the office he worked in downtown. The two of them saw each other often, but rarely spoke. Tom would occasionally come in during lunch breaks to wander through aisles and flip through a few books. The first time he and Ellis ever spoke, he explained that his girlfriend, Penny, was in a book club with her friends and that he enjoyed picking up books for her every couple of weeks. When Ellis asked him what type of books he liked, he joked that he didn’t have time to read much other than design journals but he liked to look at covers and admire the artwork.
Tom brought Penny into the shop on occasion. She usually knew exactly what she was looking for, and she would walk up to the counter, smile at Ellis, and ask where she could find it. Ellis noted that Penny was attractive, and around the third month of the couple coming around, Ellis began to develop a jealousy toward Penny, both for her looks and attractiveness to Tom. But Penny was kind, so Ellis decided not to let her emotions get in the way of showing Penny her warmest hospitality.
A couple months later, when Ellis was back in school after Christmas vacation, she noticed how infrequently Tom came in to search the shelves. He came in on a Friday afternoon, looking for a book called “Why Fonts Matter.”
“We don’t have it here, but I can order it for you. It’ll be here in a week,” Ellis explained. Tom looked down at the counter as if trying to contemplate whether or not that would be acceptable.
“That’s fine. Thanks,” he said. Ellis could see that he looked more tired than usual. His hair was growing out and he was wearing a large sweatshirt with black jeans which were contrary to his business casual ensembles. Ellis typed in the order information and gave him a contact card to fill out. While he scribbled his name on the card, she decided whether or not it would be appropriate for her to ask if he was alright.
“Are you okay?” she asked. “You don’t have to answer if you don’t—”
“Penny and I aren’t together anymore,” he said, not looking up from the card. His bluntness surprised her.
“Oh, I’m sorry.” He handed the card back to her. She didn’t turn away from him, but she waited until he continued.
“No, it’s okay. Um, she wanted to move closer to her family in Minnesota but I wanted to stay here. Neither one of us does well with distance so it was mostly mutual.” He scratched his head and looked up at Ellis.
“Oh,” she said. “I guess it’s for the best then.”
When his book arrived, Tom received a call from the bookstore. He picked it up on Saturday when he knew Ellis would be there. She was stocking shelves in the children’s section when he arrived. Book in hand, he walked up to her. She seemed extremely focused, as if she had nothing on her mind besides alphabetical organization.
“Hey,” he said. She jumped, almost dropping the Curious George book in her hands. “Sorry! I didn’t mean to scare you.”
“Nope. It’s not your fault,” she sighed and smiled. “I forget where I am sometimes.” She noticed his brown-paper-wrapped accessory. “I see you’ve got your font book.”
“Yeah, I just picked it up.”
“Good! Can I help you find anything else?” she asked, looking back to the stack of books on the floor.
“No, actually,” he said. He asked her if she was available to get coffee that evening.
“For a date?” she asked. She stood up straighter and smiled at him. At first, he seemed surprised by her question but he quickly confirmed that he was thinking in that direction. “I’m off at five.”
They met at Choice Market at seven, ordered drinks, and wandered around the city. Ellis talked about her work at the bookstore and her photojournalism aspirations. She learned that Tom had graduated two years before and had been working across from the bookstore since the previous summer. Tom asked about her sister and Ellis asked him how he and Penny met. They talked about their favorite movies, pet preferences, and whether or not they would leave Brooklyn in the next year. In all areas, they playfully opposed each other. However, they could agree that Prospect Park was best in the fall. Tom kissed her goodnight and called her the next day to set up another meeting.
They ate dinners and drank coffee together for three weeks. Halfway through a walk in the park, Ellis stopped and told Tom that she liked spending time with him but she thought they should just be friends. Tom smiled back at her and agreed. Apparently, they had been feeling a forcefulness around their relationship as romantic interests, and dispelling that expectation allowed the two of them to become close friends. Ellis was the first person Tom wanted to call when he got a new job at a smaller design company. When Ellis decided to stay in Brooklyn after school was finished, she called Tom who told her that they should move in together. After listing many pros and cons, she decided to give it a try. They bought a couch together and figured out how they would split the cost of toilet paper. Ellis wasn’t fond of the way Tom left all of his sweatshirts hanging on the living room chair and Tom was annoyingly finding strands of Ellis’ hair all over the apartment. But now it was November, and the two of them had learned to live with each other. Tom made dinners for them to share every Friday night and Ellis took his clothes to the laundromat whenever she went with hers.
On Ellis Avery’s 26th birthday, her best friend, Tom, helped her make a cinnamon coffee cake. They stuck three candles in it and Ellis requested that they not sing the happy birthday song. They each took an hour to sit and read, not disturbing the other until the hour was up and they would summarize what they had just taken in. Tom gave her a present wrapped in gold paper. She was surprised to see the green drinking glasses she had admired in a shop window a few weeks before, and she thanked him for the thoughtful gift. In the evening, when they ate coffee cake and watched a movie, Ellis laid her head against Tom’s shoulder. Both of them fell asleep before the movie had finished.
When the credits started rolling, Tom woke up and rubbed the sleep from his eyes. His movement woke Ellis, who had forgotten what they were watching. Without a word, they started toward their rooms, their bodies slow and heavy with exhaustion from the slow day.
“Thank you for the glasses and a good birthday,” she mumbled.
“You’re welcome,” he smiled. He hugged her. She wondered, for a moment, what would have happened if Penny never moved away or if Tom hadn’t wanted to read a book about fonts. She tightened her grip around his torso. He started humming the happy birthday song over her head.
“No! Stop!” she protested weakly. She felt him smile.
“Goodnight. Happy Birthday,” he said.