What’s in a Name by Destiny E.
Predictably, first days could be classified as falling into one of three categories: Fantastic, terrible, or neither. Payton spent the majority of her own first day of work trying to decide which one hers would turn out to be. When she had to grin and bear it during an altercation with one particularly annoying costumer who apparently thought the phrase, Enjoy your coffee, meant, Pretty please yell at me because your Splenda tastes too pencil-y, she feared her day was in a steep descent toward the terrible end of the scale. She became only more convinced of this when her day took a turn from bad to worse. It wasn’t even entirely her fault: A simple smoothie order ending in a mess of juice and pureed fruit all over the front of her blouse. It had taken half a roll of paper towels to clean everything, but luckily, Payton bounced back quickly. Being a barista was no cake walk—an unfortunate fact she’d been all-too aware of even before accepting the job. She’d already expected at least one disaster to come of her first day, like a rite of passage of sorts. What she hadn’t expected, however, was Them. She hadn’t heard it when the bell at the front door chimed, nor had she realized there was a new customer before her until she heard, “You have a strawberry in your hair.” Payton startled, glancing up from the tip jar she’d been wiping down. “I have—? Oh.” She reached up and felt around her hair, fingers finding and pulling out the strawberry she hadn’t realized had stowed away in her ponytail. “Thanks for the tip,” she said. “I kind of had a tiny accident with the blender earlier, hence the runaway fruit.” After tossing the strawberry into the trash, she got a good look at the customer for the first time. They were short, their hair a deep auburn. They wore a Mothman t-shirt and jeans. What looked like pastel caked their fingernails, like they’d just dug their hand into a painting and pulled out the colors. Overall, they were admittedly attractive. And, judging by their smirk, they were holding back laughter. “I wish I had gotten here earlier to see that,” they said. “Sounds like a riot.” Payton snorted. “In my defense, that blender was out to get me from the start. I didn’t even know smoothies were part of the job description before I got here.” At the customer’s questioning look, she clarified, “It’s my first day.” They nodded, like that explained everything. “That makes s “What do you mean Payton asked.
“Well, I’m pretty sure if I’d ever seen someone like you in here before, I definitely would have remembered that,” they said.
“Like I said, it makes sense.” Payton blinked. Her mind blanked all of a sudden, as though it were short-circuiting. But she reminded herself she was still on the clock and shook her head, forcing herself back into the business mindset.
“Anyway, what can I get you?” she asked, pushing the almost-compliment from her mind. “We’re having a special on two-for-one cinnamon scones right now.” The person looked only slightly disappointed that the banter had ended, but they shook it off. They ordered a simple latte to go with, “as much whipped cream as you can possibly fit in the cup, and then some.” Charming. While Payton prepared the order, mentally ticking off each step as she went, they made small talk.
“I take it you come here a lot?” Payton guessed as she worked the machine. The customer had an elbow propped against the counter, watching her. “How could you tell?” Payton shrugged, hiding her small smile. “Lucky guess.” “Very lucky. I come here every morning before class. It’s easier than buying a coffee maker for myself and way better than the stuff they sell at the school cafeteria.” “School?” Odd, considering it was summer.
“Art school,” they replied. “I’m taking one of their summer programs.” Huh, so they were an artist. Color her intrigued. Payton pressed a lid to the to-go cup, then picked up a Sharpie and held it over the side in preparation. “So, apparent art student I just met, can I get a name?” Okay, so maybe it wasn’t completely necessary to ask for their name, since there were only three other people in the shop at the moment—two of whom were employees—and no chance of confusing the order. Still, she was curious. Sue her. After a second of deliberation, a crooked smile works its way to their mouth. “Mmm…I think I’ll go with Darth Vader today,” they said, smile growing when Payton arched an eyebrow. “Darth Vader, huh?” They nodded. Fair enough. Payton wrote the name neatly on the side. “I take it I haven’t gotten to name-knowing status, yet?” They shrugged. “Maybe if I see you again tomorrow, I’ll give you another shot at it.” With a wry smile, they swiped their coffee and walked off out of the shop, the bell at the door chiming after them. Payton stared at the closed glass door, her heart thumping at the promise. Yup, she thought. Definitely a good day. _________________________________________________________________________ It’s shocking how quickly something can become routine, easily slotting itself into one’s life right under their nose. So subtle that at first it goes unnoticed, then becomes blatantly obvious. It had been nearly two months since They started coming to the café, and, like on that first day that felt like a dream whenever Payton thought about it, each interaction went much the same way. Every morning They would come in at 7:15 on the dot, some days wearing a skirt and bracelets that clinked when they walked, other days a charming button-down coupled with a tie and matching fedora, and everything else in between. They gave Payton whiplash daily from the variety of their clothing alone. Sometimes they’d change up their coffee order, asking for Payton’s opinion on what they should choose. “Life’s more fun when you take risks,” they had said when they’d first suggested it. The pair came up with a game of sorts: Payton would come up with some outlandish order not officially on the menu, and they would have to drink it no matter how unusual it may have been. Those were Payton’s favorite days. Days of playful banter, of laughing at their exaggerated reactions and critiques when they tried Payton’s experiments. Payton couldn’t deny the delight that washed over her every time they entered the café like her own personal savior. They made the mornings bearable, which was quite the feat, considering how incredibly boring she had quickly discovered her job to be. For a small fraction of her morning, Payton could relax, and it made the whole rest of her day easier, knowing she would get to see them all over again the next day in one wondrous cycle. They had somehow become the high point of Payton’s day, which surprised her. Something about their quirky nature intrigued her in a way she couldn’t describe. They would both ignore the fact that it didn’t take twenty minutes to prepare a simple drink order, and stand at the counter talking about anything and everything. From their projects in art school, to Payton’s annoying coworker Mark, to their frustration with that morning’s crossword puzzle. (It was clairvoyance, by the way.) And another thing—possibly the best thing—that took place without fail during their fleeting moments together. The part from which stemmed the both nagging irritation and fantastical amusement at the detail Payton had yet to learn. Their name. Honestly, did they plan out their responses the night before, or did they just come up with them on the spot? One day they were Jessica Cruz. The next they were Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. After that, they were Leonardo da Vinci. No patterns, no repeats, no clue. As much as she tried to suppress it, Payton’s curiosity grew like an uncovered flame with each encounter. She needed something to call them. Something solid. Something to cement their existence and give her some indication that they were real and not just some beautiful fever dream. One morning, as Payton watched Meryl Streep’s back retreat, coffee in hand, she made up her mind. They weren’t going to disclose their name? That was fine by her. Payton was going to the matters into her own hands with a new game. The next day they returned as always, turquoise beret nestled on their head and deep purple lipstick adding some charm to the smirk Payton was becoming sure was a natural part of their facial structure. “Morning,” they greeted, same as always. “What am I ordering today?” Payton nudged over a travel cup. “Actually,” she said, “I already have one ready for you.” They eyed her innocent smile suspiciously. “Unexpected, but okay.” Payton chuckled to herself and rotated the cup a degree, revealing the name, Jamie? printed on the side. They seemed to realize what she was doing and laughed. “Guessing now, are we?” “That depends. Am I right?” Taking their time, they lifted the cup and took a long sip, looking thoughtful. Finally they swallowed. “Sorry, Payton. Not even close. A noble effort, though.”
Payton frowned. “Darn,” she muttered. She’d been so sure about that one. “Do I at least get a hint, then? It’s kind of hard to narrow it down when there are literally thousands of names in the world. Plus, this isn’t very fair to begin with and you know it. You got to know my name instantly.” She tapped the name tag pinned over her collar. “This would all be a whole lot easier if you just told me.”
They wagged their index finger, tutting. “Now, where’s the fun in that?” They took another sip, then checked their phone when it buzzed. Payton didn’t miss the disappointment that crossed their face. “What’s wrong?” She watched as they pocketed their phone before she could see what on the screen had caused their mood to shift so drastically. They sighed. “Sadly, milady, I can’t stay long today. I need to get to class early to hang up art show flyers. It’s tonight and I’m one of the main organizers, so it’s kind of important that I help out. It’s too bad, though—I was considering maybe giving you that hint about my name you wanted.” They shrugged, feigning regret. “Oh well, I guess.” Though they looked anything but disappointed. Payton’s impatience was clearly entertaining to watch. At the mention of the art show, hope flickered in Payton’s chest before she extinguished it. Of course they would never ask her to go, and she chastised herself for entertaining the idea, however brief. Still, when they gave no indication they planned on asking, she tried not to dwell on it. Instead she pouted, propping her chin on her hand.
“You’re driving me crazy, you know,” she grumbled. They winked. “Glad to hear it.” They laughed when Payton’s cheeks flushed, and lingered for one last moment before making their departure. Halfway through the door, however, they paused, one foot outside the café and one in. They took a moment to deliberate before seeming to make up their mind. They looked back over their shoulder at Payton and called, their voice just loud enough to carry: “Try one that starts with a B tomorrow. Maybe you’ll get lucky again.” By the time Payton’s eyes lit up as the information sank in, they were gone. That night, Payton stayed up late reading any baby name books she could get her hands on, going through the B sections and jotting down anything that seemed like it could fit her friend. Person. Whatever. Each morning she tested out a new one, writing it on their cup and waiting for the verdict. Brian, Barbara, Benjamin, Bex, Bucky. In spite of her efforts, none were right. With each head-shake, Payton found herself growing disheartened. From an outside perspective, it really shouldn’t have meant so much to her to know their name, but for some reason that Payton couldn’t define, it did. She needed a permanent label for them, despite telling herself over and over again that a label shouldn’t matter in the first place. Name, no name. Boy, girl, nonbinary. Labels had never been something that fazed Payton in the slightest, yet here she was, grasping desperately for any label she could hold onto. She needed something to stick. She needed something to solidify their place in her life, even if it was a feature as ultimately meaningless as a name. But she continuously found herself asking, Why? Why did she need a label? Why did she so badly yearn to know the name of this specific customer, this one out of the dozens she served every day? Why them? It was late Saturday night when the epiphany struck Payton like a ton of bricks. The warmth that flooded her body every time she saw them, stemming from her heart and warming her down to her toes, that had a name. So did the giddy laughter that bubbled out of her whenever they made a dumb joke. So did the butterflies that fluttered vigorously every time they so much as touched her arm. That feeling had a name, and so did They; the answers went hand-in-hand. Payton finally knew the name she’d been dodging around all that time, and the sudden truth of it sent lightning crackling in her every nerve. She came in extra early the next Monday, fidgety after a long weekend of warring with herself. She kept wiping her sweaty palms on her jeans as she scanned the windows, waiting for that familiar figure to come strolling in. Waiting to reveal her latest guess, and—more importantly—waiting to hear their long-awaited answer. When they finally came, 7:15 as always, Payton could hear her pulse pounding in her ears. For a split second, she considering ducking under the counter and making a break for it before they saw her. No, the told herself. No chickening out. They came up to the counter, tapping their blunt fingernails on the glass like a piano. “I finally got around to watching that movie you recommended,” they said. Payton noted the undeniable likeness of their outfit to that of a certain Mean Girls character she’d given a whole speech about the week before on why they were her favorite, and that alone gave Payton the jolt of courage she needed to go on with her plan. Their grin faltered when they took in Payton’s anxiety. “Hey, are you okay? You look like you’re going to be sick.” Payton, nervous enough as it was, ignored the question and instead brought out a to-go cup from under the counter. She’d already had it prepared and written on, all ready for her reveal. “I have a new guess today,” she said. She paid no attention to the fact that she could feel her heart beating at a rabbit’s pace and carried on. “You know, just in case you were interested in proving me right or anything.” Their lips twitched. Their worry faded to make way for curiosity. “All right, then, let’s see what you came up with this time,” they said, inquisitive. Biting her lip, Payton silently slid the cup across the counter. No turning back now. They took it, turning it in their hands until the name inscribed on the side became visible. As they read it, Payton watched their expression shift from confused, to dawning, to unreadable. They looked back up at Payton, eyes searching her own. They must have liked what they found, because their lips slowly curled into a smile. Payton sincerely hoped it was a good smile, and not just excitement at the chance to shoot her down. She met their eyes, biting her thumbnail. “Well?” The suspense was killing her. It took all of her self-control just to keep from running. Unable to drop the smile, they turned the cup this way and that, examining it like a diamond and not some cheap Styrofoam coffee cup. They were drawing out the moment on purpose, Payton knew it. The words on the side became visible to Payton once again when they rotated it, the scrawledout, My date-mate? facing her almost tauntingly. Finally, they broke the silence that threatened to choke Payton alive. “I have to admit, I never saw that coming,” they said, which cleared up absolutely nothing. Payton’s heart went clunk. “Is…Is that a no?” They jerked back in surprise, as if she’d spoken another language. “What? No, of course not.” Payton’s breath hitched. “O-oh. Then what—” They laughed, short and lively. “I just can’t believe you actually got it right for once.”