The coffee shop is warm and inviting, one of those little boutique places with comfortable chairs and even a fireplace. White lights are strung throughout, and the aroma of pumpkin spice washes over me. I settle in a leather wingback chair not too far from the crackling fire, clutching a peppermint mocha, to wait for my guests. I’m a little early, but that’s okay; this way I can observe them together in the split second before they notice me.
A few chocolatey sips later, and the door swings open to admit two men, obviously the ones I’m waiting for. One of them is very tall, his navy-blue peacoat doing nothing to disguise his muscular frame. He has dark hair, and a lean scruffy jaw I find very appealing. His companion is a few inches shorter, blond, with bright green eyes that scan the room and fall on me. They immediately light up with a delightful enthusiasm, and he approaches me with his hand out. I stand to take it.
“Mrs. Hansen?” he asks, his voice deep and pleasant. I squeeze his hand warmly and smile.
“Yes, but please call me Melanie, or even Mel. All my friends do.” That makes his eyes crinkle even more, and he pulls me into an impulsive hug. I’m startled, but since I’m a hugger too, I return it.
“You can never have too many friends, right?” he says, and before I can reply, goes on, “You said you’d be wearing a really colorful scarf, and that’s the first thing I noticed. It’s beautiful. The colors are woven together so nicely, and I love the way it goes with your red hair. Who would have thought purple would—“
“El.” The taller man touches him on the shoulder, breaking into his speech. “You didn’t even tell her your name.” His voice is gently teasing, and the blond man’s eyes widen before he shoots me a grin so beautiful it hurts.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” he says cheerfully. “I’m Eliot Devlin, and this is my partner, Loren Smith.”
“Ma’am,” Loren murmurs, shaking my hand as well.
“Mel,” I correct him, and then sit back down in my chair, watching as they both remove their coats and drape them with care over the back of the loveseat opposite me.
Eliot perches on the cushions for a moment and then jumps back up. “You want some coffee, honey?” he asks Loren. “I’ll get myself an herbal tea.” Without waiting for an answer he heads off to the counter.
Loren watches him go, then stretches his hands out toward the fire, quirking his lips at me. “I’m always surprised by how cold it gets in Phoenix this time of year. Hard to believe a few short months ago we were burning in hell.”
“I know, right?” I reply, returning his rueful look. “And we’ll complain about the cold like we complain about the heat. Arizonans are never happy.”
We share another grin before a loud shout of laughter captures our attention. I glance toward Eliot, who’s talking with the barista in an overly animated tone, waving his hands. She looks a little overwhelmed, but seems to be going along with the conversation gamely.
“He’s been a tad elevated this past month or so,” Loren remarks, watching me watching Eliot, as if looking for signs of judgment. “But he’s okay.”
I give him a reassuring smile. “It’s nothing I haven’t seen before. My cousin was bipolar.”
Loren’s face shows surprise. “Oh. I didn’t know. When you said you wanted to write our story, I honestly wondered why you’d take on such a challenge. It’s not an easy story to tell.”
I shrug, unable to meet his eyes. “My cousin—she used to say how she’d never find anyone to love her. She had a hard time seeing that she was loved. So much. She was brilliant, accomplished, beautiful…”
“Was?” Loren asked, his voice soft. I suddenly find myself blinking back tears.
“She’s—she’s at peace now.” My voice is a whisper. “But I miss her. I guess in writing your story I’m trying to show her that no matter what she thought, she was worthy of love. Everyone is, no matter their challenges. She never believed it.”
Loren reaches out to touch my knee. “I’m sorry.”
I take another determined sip of my mocha, sitting up straighter. “But tonight isn’t about that, it’s about finally meeting you and Eliot in person. I’ve waited so long for this.”
All of a sudden Eliot’s voice gets even louder, and a few profanities drift to our ears. Loren doesn’t get up, but he calls out, “El!” When Eliot looks at him, Loren pinches the bridge of his nose as if staving off a sneeze.
Eliot nods, taking the drinks from the clearly relieved barista before heading back over to Loren and me.
Loren sips the coffee Eliot hands him, then grimaces. “I think I’ll add a little sweetener,” he murmurs, getting up and walking over to the creamer table.
Eliot puts his tea down untouched and leans toward me. “So Mel,” he exclaims, “how’s it hanging?”
“Fine,” I say with a smile. “How are you?”
“Great!” He launches into a detailed explanation of the decorating he and Loren have done on their home so far, and it sounds enchanting. I tell him so.
“It is really fucking beautiful, Mel, just fucking awesome!”
I’m married to a sailor so I’m not fazed in the least by the F-bombs, but there are a couple of families with small children around us who shoot us dirty looks. Loren catches Eliot’s eye as he returns to the couch and pinches the bridge of his nose again, and I realize it’s some kind of signal between them.
I ask Eliot about it, and he gives me a little smile. “Busted. If I’m getting too loud or profane, Loren will do that to remind me to tone it down. A lot of times when I’m hypomanic, like I am now, I don’t even realize I’m doing it.”
“I never want him to feel as if I’m reprimanding him,” Loren explains, putting his hand on Eliot’s leg, which is jiggling wildly up and down. “So we decided on a way for me to alert him to what’s going on, and once he’s aware of it, he can usually correct it.”
I nod, and Loren continues, “We want to lead the most normal lives possible. Hiding out at home isn’t an option for us, and we’ve developed our own ways of coping when things get…interesting.”
“Mentally interesting, that’s me,” Eliot chimes in, and Loren bends down to give him a gentle kiss.
“The most interesting guy I know.”
They nuzzle their noses together for a moment, the affection between them palpable. I sip my mocha and gaze into the fire to give them some privacy, until Loren sits back again, his hand still resting on Eliot’s leg. Eliot reaches down and twines their fingers together.
“All we can do is take things one day at a time,” Loren says quietly, his eyes haunted.
“This past year has been a little…rough.” Eliot squeezes Loren’s hand, his thumb caressing the back of it.
I wince, knowing the word ‘rough’ is the understatement of the century. I can’t deny they’ve been through hell.
Our conversation turns to future plans, then Loren and Eliot’s upcoming trip to Hawaii as guests of a friend of theirs.
Eliot grins at me. “I can’t wait!” he exclaims, his leg jiggling faster. “As kids, Loren and I used to dream about going, and it’s finally going to happen.”
“I know you’ll love it.” We talk briefly about my experiences living there, and with each passing moment I dare to relax a little more. I’ve been so worried about them…
Eliot seems to be having trouble reigning in his pressured speech again, so I stand up to leave, not wanting to keep them.
“Is that all, Mel?” Eliot looks up at me, his beautiful green eyes enquiring.
“It is,” I tell him.
“You can ask us anything, you know.”
“I know. But I don’t need to. Seeing you together like this is enough. That’s all I really wanted anyway.”
They both stand for hugs and kisses on the cheek, and then they walk me out. I watch as they head off down the street arm in arm, blond head and dark head bent close together.
At the end of the block, Loren roars with laughter at something Eliot says, and he wraps him up in a hug so tight he lifts Eliot clear off his feet.
“I love you, Eliot Devlin,” echoes back to me on the crisp night air.
I think about all they’ve been through already, about how the future stretches before them in all its uncertainty, and I know Loren’s right…
One day at a time.